Staying Clean

Here is a pump-up garden sprayer painted black to get hot in the sun. Makes a great shower!

Here is a pump-up garden sprayer painted black to get hot in the sun. Makes a great shower!

One of the very first thing people ask when they hear about van/car/RV living is, “How do you stay clean?” If you are in an RV it’s pretty easy since you are fully self-contained with running hot and cold water and full bath facilities. It is quite a bit more difficult if you are in a car or van, but not insurmountable.

How do I shower?
That depends on what you mean by a shower. Do you mean standing in a shower under a stream of hot water, or do you mean getting your body clean? My wife has been a registered nurse for the last fifteen years, and one of her jobs is keeping her patients’ bodies clean without the use of a shower. Some people are bed-ridden for many years and if they are not kept clean they develop bedsores, and of course they cannot take a shower. So how do they do it? The same way people have been keeping clean for thousands of years. They put some clean water in a basin with a mild soap and wash every inch of their body with a wash cloth. Then they rinse their body with a clean, soap-free wash cloth. And it works, people get clean and don’t get bedsores. Much of what we are doing as van/car dwellers is going back to an older, more primitive time. I like to think of it as a “purer” and simpler time. Most problems of living in a van can be solved by asking ourselves, “How did they do this 500 years ago before modern conveniences?” Today, we may want to use anti-bacterial soap, and warm our water on a propane camping stove, but we are basically doing what they did way back then.

Here are some quick tips on staying clean:

  • Wash frequently. We are not depending on one big shower to get us clean so try to stay clean through the day.
  • Use public restrooms to wash. They are everywhere so make use of them (gas stations, grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, fast food places). Get in the habit of carrying a wash cloth in a ziploc bag and washing up as needed. Facial cleansing pads are mild and can be used frequently.
  • Carry portable diaper wipes as a last step after using the toilet.
  • The new alcohol anti-bacterial gels (like Purell) work extremely well and allow you to stay clean without any water. Always carry a small bottle with you and refill it from the big bottle you buy at a discount store.
  • For washing in the car/van use antibacterial  soap. Consider using Palmolive dish washing soap. It is mild enough for your skin but a very good cleaner. Just a few drops goes a longways.
  • Go to a thrift store and buy enough used washcloths or diapers to last between washings. I usually do my laundry every two weeks, so I have at least 14 wash cloths on hand. If I use one on my crotch, I won’t use it again until it has been laundered. While you are there find a large enough tub basin for spot cleaning.
  • An alternative to a tub basin is a spray bottle for those tough areas like your arm pits or crotch. Spray the area so it is really soaked. Put a drop of liquid soap in your palm and thoroughly lather and scrub. Reapply as needed. Rinse with fresh water.
  • solar water bag will give you free and easy warm water. They are just black water bags with a shower nozzle on the end. Place this in the sun through the day and you will have warm or even hot water. A small one can be left on the dashboard in the sun. If you have a roof rack, you can paint a water jug black and bungee it on the roof. In the winter you may want to use your propane stove to warm up some water.
  • Put  warm  water in a small basin, wet the washcloth and rub with bar soap. Scrub your neck and face. Then work your way to the rest of your body, rinsing in the water and reapply soap as needed. The armpits and crotch are always last and kept separate from the rest of my body.
  • Because of the risk of fungus, I wash my feet separately from the rest of my body. In fact I usually just use an anti-bacterial diaper wipe and use a spray bottle to rinse.
  • Washing your hair is easiest in a public washroom using their sink, but is not always possible. In the car or van, lean over a large basin and get your hair wet with your spray bottle. Apply the least amount of shampoo you can get away with and lather up (most people use too much, but people with oily hair may have no choice). Rinse out the shampoo with the spray bottle. It may help to keep down the splashing and mess factor to wash and rinse several times rather than  one big wash. If you have long  hair, consider cutting it short. It maybe worth the sacrifice for your new lifestyle, or maybe it isn’t, only you can decide. The spray bottle will rinse your hair but may take a while. You can always use a pan and pour water through your hair to rinse if you need to. It is usually a little messier. A garden sprayer works well to rinse your hair. Any garden center sells these. You just put in hot water, pump it a few times, and out comes warm pressurized water. Buy a new one so you are certain there were never any harmful chemicals in it.
Here is a cheap and easy way to get hot water. Take some plastic water bottles and spray paint them black. Take an aluminum windshield shade and wrap it in a half circle around the bottles. Leave it in the sun and for an hour or two you will have very hot water!

Here is a cheap and easy way to get hot water. Take some plastic water bottles and spray paint them black. Take an aluminum windshield shade and wrap it in a half circle around the bottles. Leave it in the sun and for an hour or two you will have very hot water!

If You Must Shower:
While you can stay clean using the above methods, it is a hassle. And for some people a shower is a psychological and emotional necessity. Here are some tips if you must shower:

It is not hard to rig up  a shower of your own. The problem is finding the room. If you are in a car, it is nearly impossible. It’s easy in a high top van (not so much a regular van) or any vehicle you can stand up in. You just find a way to hook your shower bag up near the roof, stand or kneel in a large tub, open up the spigot and take a shower. Conserving water is important since you have a limited amount of warm water. One option is to fill your spray bottles with warm water and use them to get yourself wet. Then use soap to scrub and only use the solar shower as a final rinse. A more elaborate shower is possible with a small 12 volt pump shower kit. Coleman makes one for about $25 that comes with a pump and a shower nozzle. Put your 5 gallon water jug (that you painted black and left in the sun all day) on the floor by your tub. Put the intake end of the pump into the jug and run the outlet end up so the shower nozzle is over your head. Turn on the pump and out comes the water. You can get these as elaborate as you want, including on-demand hot water and portable shower enclosures. Just do a Goggle search on “camping shower.”  If you are in the woods it’s easy to set one of these up outside.

This is a Stansport shower pump. The small box is the pump and you drop in in a bucket of hot water. It pumps it up and comes out in the shower head I'm holding. It works great and costs less than $30 on Amazon.com. It uses D cell batteries.

This is a Stansport shower pump. The small box is the pump and you drop in in a bucket of hot water. It pumps it up and comes out in the shower head I’m holding. It works great and costs less than $30 on Amazon.com. It uses D cell batteries.

An alternative shower can be had with a garden sprayer available at any garden center.  Fill it with warm water, pump it a few times, stand in your tub, and when you squeeze the nozzle warm pressurized water will come spraying out the nozzle. It isn’t the same as a real shower but it may be close enough.

Your rinse water can be dumped outside in some out-of-the-way place as long as you are using biodegradable soap. I once had a friend who lived full-time in a truck he converted to a camper. He put in a shower and just drilled a hole through the floor and let the rinse water run out on the ground. I think that’s fine and would probably do the same thing if I had the room for a shower.

Here are some ideas of where to shower if you can’t shower in your vehicle:

  • YMCA
  • College Campus
  • Truck stops
  • Local Gym (daily pass or membership)
  • Public pools or beaches
  • Laundromat with a shower
  • Spend the night at an RV park. While there you can shower, do your laundry, watch TV, and charge your batteries.

Living in your vehicle makes staying clean more difficult, but as we have seen, with just a few adjustments it can be done. The joy of freedom and travel make it well worth it to me and many others. You must decide for yourself if it is worth it to you.