Van Life Tips: How To Shower Outdoors

van life outdoor solar shower

One of the most frequently asked questions that we get about van life is: How do you shower on the road?

While some people build a shower inside their campervan, it can cost quite a lot of money and take up that much-needed space.

We decided to opt for an outdoor shower instead. It has been working great for us, especially during the 15 months that we traveled down the Pan-American Highway.

If you’re thinking about getting an outdoor shower for your van, this post covers different shower options, tips, and other essentials that you might need.

Outdoor Van Life Shower Options

Here are some of the most popular outdoor showers for van life.

Solar Shower Bag

Having a solar shower bag is one of the best ways how to stay clean while living in a van. A solar shower bag is very cheap, easy to use, and doesn’t require any special set up. You just need to fill up the bag with water, leave it in the sun to heat up and it’s ready to use.

A solar shower works best in places that are sunny and hot. If you live somewhere that’s not sunny you might need to heat the water on a stove and slowly pour it into the bag before you shower. But if you boil the water too hot, you can melt the plastic and damage the bag.

Once the water is ready, you just need to find a tall tree with a branch to hang it on, and gravity will do the rest. The bag needs to be higher than you so the water can flow down as you shower.

This system is not ideal for very tall people because it can be difficult to find tall places to hang the shower on. Often you end up half crouching which is not too comfortable.

To use the solar shower, we installed a hook on the outside of the van. But the bigger and heavier the solar shower bag, the harder it is to hang it up.

Most solar bags come with a hose and some type of system that regulates the water flow. Some shower-heads need to be twisted open while others pop out.

Every solar bag that we have owned has also leaked making the process a bit of a mess. Plus the hose is often located in a place that doesn’t reach the last gallon of water so you end up not being able to use it all.

But besides these few quirks in design, a solar bag is still out go-to shower option when traveling in a van.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Easy To Use
  • Easy to empty and store away

Cons:

  • Need to hang higher than you
  • Can leak
  • Short lifespan

Pressure Solar Shower

A pressure solar shower is another popular outdoor shower option for van lifers and overlanders.

This NEMO Helio solar bag from REI comes with a foot pump that keeps the water pressurized for a long continuous flow. Instead of hanging the shower on a tree branch or a hook, you can place the solar bag on the ground. This system allows you to shower easily just about anywhere.

If you’re somewhere with rocky ground, make sure to place something underneath the bag, like a towel, so it doesn’t get punctured or damaged.

As you start showering and using the water, the pressure will deflate but give it a few more pumps, and it will pressurize back up.

The NEMO Helio LX pressure shower holds almost 6 gallons of water that is enough to take a 7-10 minute shower with continuous flow. This is more than enough for both of us to take a shower and wash our hair.

Pros:

  • Can be set on the ground
  • Easy to use
  • Easy to store away

Cons:

  • More expensive

Propane Shower

A propane shower is a great option if you’re going all out on your build and want to create a permanent heated shower in your van. However, a propane shower requires a permanent connection to water and gas sources and is the most complicated of all options to initially set up. Once you install a propane shower, you also can’t move it around.

A propane shower will heat up the water to a comfortable temperature so you can take a shower outdoors even in cooler conditions. But a propane shower does take a lot of propane to heat up the water so it’s not the most ideal option for long term travel especially outside of the US where propane is not easily available.

During our Pan-American road trip, we had issues finding enough propane just to cook our meals. But it is a great option to consider for short term local trips where it’s not a big issue if you run out of propane and can restock easily.

Pros:

  • Hot water on demand

Cons:

  • Requires set up
  • Can’t be moved around
  • Needs a lot of propane

Road Shower

A road shower is a long permanent solar shower that can be attached to the top of your van. Yakima makes these types of showers out of aluminum, but they are quite expensive selling for around $440.

This is a bit out of our budget so we made our own DIY version for our Honda Element SUV. We used black Home Depot PVC pipe that can store & heat the water inside, similar to a solar shower bag.

solar shower camper car

The downside of using such a large pipe system is that it’s heavy especially when filled up, but only on one side of the car.

It also makes it super obvious that you’re living and traveling in your vehicle – so not the best option if you’re trying to stealth camp.

camper car solar shower

Having a large road shower on our SUV did look pretty cool and we got a lot of compliments and questions about it. But while it made our vehicle look decked out, it had a few drawbacks.

Before taking a shower, we had a difficult time finding places where to fill up our road shower with water. Since it’s attached high on the roof, we always had to find long water hoses that could reach up.

Then, once you’re ready to take a shower, you have to position the car at an incline so the water flows to where the hose outlet is at the lowest point.

Needless to say, it was a bit of a hassle so when we decided to go on the Pan-American road trip, we traded our Honda Element for a Promaster campervan and switched from a road shower to a solar bag instead.

Pros:

  • Looks cool
  • Can store water for multiple showers

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Hard to fill up
  • Need to be at an incline for use

Shower Curtain

If you plan to take showers outdoors while living in a van, you might want to get a shower curtain for privacy.

We use a basic grey shower curtain that fits in between our van’s doors creating a small private showering space.

There are a couple of things to note while using a shower curtain. A shower curtain can certainly add privacy but it might not conceal everything.

Even with the curtain, there will be areas that are exposed to people passing by, so I recommend wearing a bathing suit when showering outdoors, unless you’re somewhere that’s very remote.

Also, if you take a shower on very windy days, the shower curtain will get tossed around and not work too well.

As an alternative, you can also get a pop-up outdoor shower tent. These tents are easy to set up and are tall enough for you to stand in. Once you’re done showering, you can fold this portable tent into a small compact size for storage.

Water Containers

To store water in our campervan, we use two 7-gallon containers that we keep underneath the bed. We use one of these containers for drinking water and the second container for showering, cleaning the van, and doing our dishes.

Read Next: DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide – Part I

Biodegradable Soap

For showering I like to use Dr. Bronner’s soap. I have been a fan of this soap brand for a long time and in recent years it has become so popular that you can now find it at most stores from Target to local grocery stores.

Dr. Bronner’s soap is all-natural and made of biodegradable ingredients. This is something to consider because the water from outdoor showers usually ends up on the ground. Dr. Bronner’s soaps can also be used for many different tasks from showering to washing your hair, doing dishes, cleaning the van, and even doing laundry.

These soaps come in a variety of sizes, and you have the option to choose from a bottle or a soap bar. Dr. Bronner’s soaps come in a variety of scents, but my personal favorite is the peppermint bar soap that leaves your skin feeling cool and fresh.

Soap Container

If you plan to use a soap bar while showering in a van, we highly recommend getting a small container to store your soap.

A container helps prevent the soap from making a mess and from dropping on the ground while showering. From our experience, once a soap bar drops in the dirt, it gets stuck full of sand that is almost impossible to remove.

Shampoo & Conditioner

If you have long hair, the chances are that you won’t be washing it every time you take an outdoor shower. My hair is very long and dry so I usually wash it only every 5-7 days. But the days when I do wash it, now feel extra special.

Do note that the longer your hair is, the more water you will need to get for your outdoor shower. That’s part of the reason why I don’t wash it very often.

Instead of using traditional shampoo & conditioner I recently switched over to zero waste shampoo bars and conditioners. They save space, are plastic free and biodegradable. There are a couple of companies that offer them like these Ethique bars that I use and really like.

Dry Shampoo

For those days when washing your hair is not an option, dry shampoo is a great alternative. Dry shampoo is especially handy when stealth camping in cities or crowded places where it’s not so easy to take an outdoor shower.

Dry shampoo absorbs excess hair oils and odors that usually start becoming noticeable after a couple of days of not washing your hair.

Sandals & Towel

Whenever I’m taking an outdoor shower, I always wear a pair of sandals to keep my feet from getting dirty or stepping on something sharp.

Before taking a shower, I also set a towel next to me. I recommend going with a microfiber towel that will dry off the quickest. We also installed a couple of small hooks in our campervan to hang towels and wet clothes after showering.

Baby Wipes

Having a set of baby wipes is essential for van life. On the days that we stealth camp or feel too tired to shower after a full day of traveling, our go-to hygiene routine includes using baby wipes. I like to run a little bit of water over them so they don’t leave you feeling sticky.

But wipes don’t always do the trick and you can only go for a couple of days before you start craving a shower. At the end of the day, nothing beats taking a shower.

So where do you shower if you live in a van?

Now that we have covered all the van life essentials that you will need for an outdoor shower, the next question you might have is: So where do I take the shower?

We like to find secluded spots away from other people so that we can take a proper shower without feeling awkward.

Here are a couple of our favorite places for outdoor showers:

  • National Forests. National Forests are very van life-friendly, and you can camp just about anywhere within a National Forest. This also means that there are plenty of secluded random roads that you can pull into and take a shower.
  • BLM Lands. Similar to National Forests, you can park almost anywhere on BLM Lands and camp in your van. If you do, take advantage of the secluded locations and take a nice refreshing shower.
  • Random grass fields. We’ve taken plenty of showers in random side roads and grass fields when feeling extra gross and sticky. Just use a shower curtain and stay away from private lands or highly trafficked areas.
  • Campsites. When all else fails, try to find a campsite to take a shower at. Sometimes campsites offer paid showers, but we usually skip those to take a free solar shower instead.
  • Trailheads. We love to go hiking and often we’ll spend the night at a trailhead parking lot. If they are not too busy, we might even take a quick shower after a hike.
  • Public Beaches. Most public beaches have public showers that you can use to rinse off. If you are needing a “soap & shampoo” type of shower and don’t want to get odd looks from other people using public showers, just fill up your solar shower bag and do a quick rinse in a bathing suit by your van.

We hope this post has helped you brainstorm some van life outdoor shower ideas.

While using an outdoor shower is a great way to stay clean when living and traveling in a campervan, I do want to note that many van lifers also hold memberships to gyms like Planet Fitness that are located all over the US and offer complimentary showers. But this only works within the United States so if you plan to travel down the Pan-American Highway, one of the shower systems that we covered in this post will work well.

During our road trips, we also often rinse off in rivers, lakes, and hot springs. We just make sure to skip the soap and shampoo part.

When traveling in a van, you get used to not taking long hot showers (but when do, you appreciate them so much more).


Looking for more van life inspiration? Here are a few other resources and blog posts that you may like:

Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:

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