How to Take a Shower When You Live in a Van

This was one of the bigger issues for me because I am used to showering every day and I knew from the outset that I would be going days at a time without a shower. It is usually hard for me to go to sleep unless I take a shower, and there have been nights where I have laid in bed for 45 minutes trying to go to sleep and then I finally buckled and took a shower because I was so uncomforable. I’m not sure why I am like this because one of my younger brothers regularly goes days without showering and thinks nothing of it.

The first time I took a shower I paid ten bucks at a trucker rest stop. These are pretty easy to find on I95 and I assume any other major interstate highway. If you have internet you can use that to find a nearby stop that has a shower but if you don’t you can buy a map at a flying J rest stop for 3 bucks and that will show you all the locations. They also had a big map up in the rest stop I was at so I just took a picture of that….though I never ended up actually using it. You will notice that all the Flying Js have a certain very tall sign with the regular and diesel gas prices and they all look the same. You can see them easily from a mile away when youre approaching their exit. I don’t have a picture for you but once you see one you will be able to identify any future ones.

The showers there are very clean and the hot water comes on fast. They give you unlimited time as well as a towel and wash cloth, both of which are pretty rough and slightly uncomfortable. They also have free “premium” foam soap that comes out of a dispenser in the shower that you can use but I brought my own shampoo. If you were with a friend you could probably get away with splitting a shower and save some money. Just make sure you go there at an off hour so you arent waiting in in line. I go there around 3pm and I still had to wait for half an hour. It might have been a fluke but you better not go there at night because you will be waiting for at least an hour.

The next shower I took was at a state park in florida that had a campground. Not all campground have this but this campground had a shower and bathroom facility. There was one shower in the public bathroom, and then there was a handicapped bathroom that had its own locking door and sink and toilet. Thats what I used. The shower took a while to heat up but that is probably because there were not many people there since it’s winter down here. Anyways the shower was clean and time is unlimited though I wouldn’t try to take a long shower at night when people are waiting, especially if you aren’t trying to draw attention to yourself. The campground actually cost 20 dollars a night but I just wanted to shower so I pad the 4 dollar entrance fee to the park and then parked my van in front of the shower/bathroom facility and packed my stuff in my backpack and went in to use the shower. I would suggest when doing something like this you go in first to check everything out and check the water before you spend the time putting everything in your backpack. Getting everything ready and then finding out that there is no hot water sucks.

These first two showers were not as good as home but reminded me of what it was like showering at college for the first time. If you are willing to pay money these options are fine but often there will not be a park in the area or the park will only have a nasty smelling zero-gallons-of-water-using-eco-toilet in a shed and you will not be able to take a shower there. Another option that I haven’t tried on this trip but I have done many times in the past is dipping into a freshwater pond or creek to wash off. Still, this is usually very cold and you wouldnt enjoy doing it in the winter (the coldest water I’ve ever been in is when I went skinny dipping at night with a girl at walden pond in the middle of december and we almost froze our toes off. I also slipped on a moss cover rock that was under the surface of the water while carrying her in and almost hit my head on a sharp rock. We didn’t plan it out and since we didn’t have towels we had to air dry which just made it worse. (also, a note on air drying. Maybe its just me but I always forget to bring my towel. Ive gotten kind of used to air drying but is really not pleasant to stand naked shivvering in a public bathroom for 10 minutes while your skin slowly dries and goosebumps form.)

I also went into the Atlantic when I first arrived in florida on a deserted beach at around 2 in the morning. The water was very cold and I ended up not even feeling that great once I had dried because it was saltwater not freshwater. So if you want to go au natural your best bet is to find fresh water ponds or creeks.

The real experience though was showering without a shower. I had been putting this off but after a night sleeping at a rest stop between Daytona Beach and the Keys, I finally bit the bullet. I filled up my backpack with clothes, a towel, and shampoo and headed into the rest stop bathroom complex. I was looking for an individual bathroom sort of like the one I used at the campground earlier but without a shower. I found one to the right of the entrance to the main mens bathroom and went in. I locked the door and made sure the door locked properly and took in my surroundings. There was a sink, a hot air hand dryer, a toilet with handrails and a baby changer. the baby changer came in handy as a place for me to put my backpack and all my clothes and shower supplies.

I glanced at the door again and then took off all my clothes. Since they were dirty I put them on the floor right underneath the fold out baby changer table. For some reason it felt very weird being naked in the public bathroom and it was also a little cold. But it didnt smell bad.

I brought with me a large spray bottle which I had filled with warm water that I had heated up on my coleman stove beforehand. I was nice having warm water but it felt cooler when I actually sprayed it on my body. The sprayer mechanism was also messed up and would not always spray properly which got annoying after a while. I started by spraying my hair and then went down my arms, torso, and legs. Speed is of the essense because if you wet your body and head at the same time and then spend 10 minutes shampooing yourself the water on your body will dry so you will have to re wet yourself before you wash your body. I was keeping track of my time thought because I wanted to see how fast I could get in and out.

It took a few minutes of constant spraying to get my hair wet. I later realized I could have just used the sink but I was curious how long it would take with just the spray bottle. I have longer hair now and I realized that if I had shorter hair it would have made the whole process much easier. Anyways I finally got my hair completly wet and then sprayed down my body and then put shampoo in my hair. Once I got the shampoo all lathered up (I added more water at this point to mix the shampoo in better since it was kind of gelled up in my hair) and then spread the lather onto the rest of my body with my hands and rubbed it in. The whole time I was spreading around the shampoo I imagined the possible scenarios of someone coming in on me in teh bathroom. I imagined some old fat hairy janitor guy comeing in and asking “what are you doing” in a deadpan voice….or some middle aged mexican woman who spoke no english just staring blankly at me and then me trying to explain myself. All these thought in my head motivated me to work as fast and efficiently as possible.

Next I started spraying my hair to rinse the water out. I tried this for a couple minutes but progress was coming painfully slowly. Also I realized I probably did not have enough water in my bottle to spray my body down as well as completely rinse my hair out. I finally decided to use the sink and had my hair rinsed out in about 3 minutes. It involved cupping my hands and then bending my head over the sink so that when i lifted the water over my head it would drain with the shampoo off my head and into the sink. Some sinks are big enough to actually put your head under the facuet but this was not one of them. After that I sprayed down the rest of my body and the shampoo rinsed of easily. Then I grabbed my towel and dried off and got dressed and put my pool sandals on. I had made quite a mess in the bathroom but I noticed there was a large drain (since then ive seen these exact same drain in every bathroom ive been in, which makes me think they are required by building health codes) so I put my towel on the floor and dried the floor with the towel under my foot and pushed the water towards the drain. I wrapped my dirty dry clothes around my wet towel and then put the bundle in the backpack. Then I noticed there was a hot air dryer and I took the towel back out and tried drying it. It didnt work very well but if you spent long enough you could completly dry a shirt or towel with one of these things (it would take 20-30 minutes). Then I realized my hair was still wet so I crouched underneath the hand dryer and let my hair dry for a couple minutes. When I stood up I decided to do another experiment with my dirty shirt and i soaked it in water in the sink, wrung it out, and then started trying to dry it. It was only then that I realized the nozzle on the hand dryer was adjustable and I flipped it so it blew air up instead of down and started drying the shirt. This also took a long time and I only managed to do a 1×1 foot in area before I gave up. I also noticed the heater warmed up and got really hot after a while and dried faster, and would completly dry wet cloth at about 10 seconds per 3×3 in area.

I packed everything up in my backpack and brushed and flossed. I scanned the bathroom to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and then walked nonchanlantly out the door with my backpack slung over one shoulder and went back to the van.

For people who are actually doing this:

clean clothes
toothbrush and floss
washcloth (I didn’t use one)
a plastic bag for your dirty/wet clothes (optional)

Quick Notes:
-Dont expect warm water. heat your own and then pour it into your spray bottle in the van. hurry though because it will cool fast. just boil it and then it will be warm when you start. If you want you could even bring in a half gallon of water to rinse your hair with if you have longer hair or if the sink doesnt work or is too small
-stand right over the drain so that you make less of a mess. also dry off the floor after you are done drying yourself off so the next person doesnt slip and fall on the wet floor.
-bring small towels. You don’t need a huge bath towel and since you can only use a towel once before you bring it to a laundromat you should bring more small ones instead of 1 or 2 big ones.
-If you move fast and can quickly rinse your hair you can take a shower in 10 minutes. Also, if you want to take more frequent showers you could switch off not washing your hair or not shampooing it. If you are not exercising alot you could go without shampooing your hair for days and still feel and smell fine.
-put your towel under your feel when you put on your long pants or jeans and dry your feel before you put your pants on. the towel will keep the bottoms of your pants dry. I wear my sandals out of the bathroom and then put socks on in the car. it’s not worth making a misstep and then getting your socks wet.
-good places to find individual rest rooms are gas stations, town athletic fields, state and national parks, pools, colleges, restaurants, and department stores. the athletic fields are great if you want to go late at night when nobody will notice you because they are open 24/7 but if you are traveling you can’t be sure if the gas station bathroom will be open if it is late at night or in the morning if the station is closed. I’ve only spray bottle showered in a rest stop bathroom and an athletic field bathroom so far but I will probably try the others i suggested at some point. Almost any bathroom will work during the day you just have to decide what kind of place will have the cleanest, largest bathroom and you also dont want water leaking under the door.

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One Response to How to Take a Shower When You Live in a Van

  1. Jason Savage says:

    Yeah, from a veteran auto-camper here, truck stops have the most expensive shower options. Not particularly convenient if you are travelling blue roads either. I’ve done the state park day-pass method too. Campgrounds never have hot water. Other shower’s I’ve had over the years:

    –lakes, and rivers
    –a lawn sprinkler
    –a car wash
    –asking people as they are leaving a motel if they are done with the room

    But here are my three favorites, the old stand-bys:

    –wet-wipes (good for most days)
    –get a gym membership (genius really)
    –go home with girls This is really the best because of the rare and relished opportunity for a BATH (though sometimes chicks can get mad when they are really to get laid and you’re just soaking the her bathtub).

    Other than those, commiting to the lifestyle means you’ll just learn to love your protective layer of grime. :)

    Love life.


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