Camper van shower options (if you need one)

Do you need a van shower? Indoor or outdoor shower? And how do you get hot water for the shower? What about dumping shower greywater. We cover it all!
small showerhead spraying water

Most folks tend to shower on a semi-regular basis, even folks who live in a van. Still, you don’t need a van shower to stay clean on road. However, some people opt for an indoor or outdoor shower. But with showering comes great responsibility – disposing of the greywater properly.

Contents

Do you need a van shower?

There are a few reasons you might want a shower inside or outside your van. One, you plan to do dirtbag activities and always want the option to shower at the end of the day. Two, you’re one of those people who must shower on a regular basis. Nothing wrong with that! Three, you want your van setup completely self-sufficient. However, a van shower isn’t a necessity to stay clean. Below, we’ll discuss a couple alternatives.

Outdoor bathing

jeremy and christina by a lake
Jeremy and I are big fans of outdoor bathing.

The “outdoor bathing” I’m talking about now doesn’t include using an actual outdoor shower. We’ll get to that later. What I’m talking about is bathing near a natural water source. Notice I didn’t say in a natural water source (remember, LNT!). This is a great alternative for folks who plan to spend a lot of time boondocking. I did an entire post on outdoor bathing, so check it out to see if it’s a viable option for you.

Gym membership

Another popular alternative to a van shower is showering at a gym. And you can get a workout in before showering! Anytime Fitness and Planet Fitness have locations nationwide (and Anytime is global). Also, many YMCAs participate in the YMCA nationwide program. This gives you access to locations all over country with one membership. However, some folks don’t want to pay the monthly membership fee. But that’s why you’ve got options!

Gym showers were a super reliable option until COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Many van lifers who depended on gym showers found themselves SOL as gyms closed. But with any luck whatsoever pandemics won’t become a regular thing. So, gym showers should still be a good post-COVID option.

Outdoor van shower

outdoor van shower
This is a fine example of a private outdoor van shower setup. Image courtesy of @crater.life.

An outdoor van shower is one space saving solution for those who want a shower. The rear of the van is a popular place for outdoor setups. This allows you to use the back doors you can use for privacy. If you have two swing open doors it’s easy to hang a sheet, shower curtain, tarp, etc. between the doors. Even if you have a swing up door, it’s possible to hang something to cover all three sides to create a shower stall.

A non-back-door privacy option is a popup shower tent. Additionally, I’ve also seen folks put a shower curtain on a hula hoop (think Karate Kid). They hang the hula hoop wherever they feel like showering (even inside their van, but we’re about to get into that). Or you can go the more risqué route and shower out in the open!

Although using some sort of shower curtain is a plus when it comes to privacy, it has one downfall. To prevent mold, mildew, and funky smells, it’s best to let it dry before stowing.

Indoor van shower

If you don’t have a high-top van, and indoor shower is likely out of the question. But it’s not impossible if you’re willing to kneel or sit down. An indoor shower has a couple advantages over an outdoor shower. One, privacy is much easier to come by. Two, the temperature inside your van is more controllable than the outdoors. But it also has disadvantages. However, these disadvantages are more specific to the type of indoor shower.

Stowable shower

indoor stowable van shower
A stowable shower like this one from Live Like Pete is a great way to save space in your van and still have an indoor shower.

This is a great way to have the benefits on an indoor shower without taking away floor space in your van layout. Remember earlier when I talked about a hula hoop shower curtain? You can use that inside the van too! Hang it up, use a basin to stand in, and you have an indoor van shower. You do need to spend the time to set up and break down a stowable shower, but it’s a small price to pay for the extra floor space. But make sure to everything is dry before storing to avoid the nasties!

Here are two fine examples of stowable indoor van showers:

Installed shower

This is the most convenient indoor van shower because you don’t have to do anything when it comes time to shower. It’s already setup and ready to go whenever you are. But an installed shower makes plumbing more complicated. Additionally, it takes up precious space in your van layout. One way to make the shower space multiuse is to put a toilet in there as well.

Getting the water warm and on your body

Consistent, instant hot water for showering is only possible with a water heater. The water heater pulls straight from your water tank. Therefore, if water is scarce, it’s important to monitor water usage. That is unless you set up a recirculating shower, but I’ll save that for another blog post!

Solar showers are another great option to get warm water. Because the water goes into a bag, you know exactly how much water you’re using. However, depending on your situation, water usage might not be a factor.

Portable water heater

Water heater, pump, faucet (not pictured), and showerhead all in one! Heads up! I struggled with finding a legal image to use, so I went with an Amazon Affiliate link just to get the picture, not because I personally recommend this product. That being said, I try to only use products with good reviews.

A portable water heater is self-contained, tankless unit designed for showering. In other words, it’s a water heater, water pump and showerhead all in one. Some even come with a faucet. They use propane as well 12 VDC or batteries for operation. A hose hooks up to your water tank, and you’ve got a hot shower! Most are also freestanding or come with a stand. You can use a portable water heater as both an indoor and outdoor van shower, but they’re typically used outside.

One downside to a portable water heater is most only raise the water temperature by a certain amount. Like 35-40°F. So, if your water is coming from a snow melt stream, it might not heat the water enough for a nice, hot shower. But there is a new kid on the block that is changing this. The Joolca HOTTAP portable water heater can raise the water temperature by 86°F! I bet there are others out there as well though. 

There’s another downside too. Let’s say your van already has a sink and water pump. It is not easy to connect a portable water heater to your existing setup because it already has a pump. That’s because portable water heaters are not designed to integrate into a water system. They’re designed as a standalone system. As a result, portable water heaters are great if you’re only looking for a hot shower. If you want a hot shower and hot sink water, go for a tankless water heater.

Tankless water heater

When I say tankless water heater, I’m not talking about the ones you’d find in house. Of course, a regular, household tankless water heater is always an option. But the ones I’m talking about are designed for camping-like purposes, such as van life. And they’re almost the same as a portable water heater. They use propane and either 12 VDC or batteries and come with a showerhead. Tankless water heaters are popular for both indoor and outdoor van showers.

The main difference between a tankless and portable is the tankless does not come with a built-in pump. As a result, it is a lot easier to set up a tankless water heater for both a shower and sink. Another difference is tankless water heaters aren’t freestanding. Because of this, they either come with a way to hang it, mount it or both. An advantage of tankless water heaters is they tend to have a higher BTU output. Therefore, they raise the water temperature more than a portable water heater.

Solar shower

Black water bladder that doubles as an outdoor shower
Yes, this looks more like a black water bladder than a solar shower, but I use it for both!

Solar showers are an affordable alternative to a propane water heater. The sun heats the water while you’re out doing your thing. Then when you’re done for the day, a hot shower awaits you! Depending on the solar shower, no sun doesn’t mean no hot water. There’s nothing wrong with heating water on the stove and adding it to the shower.

There are two ways to get the water on your body with a solar shower. First, good old gravity. This a cheap and failsafe option. I mean, when has gravity ever failed us here on Earth? But these aren’t the most practical if you want an indoor shower. Then you’d want to go with the second option, a pressurized solar shower. The added water pressure is nice, but it also means you might go through the water faster.

Leave No Trace

This is huge. Our cleanliness should not come at the expense of the environment. Ever. I covered the first two LNT topics in the outdoor bathing post under “environmentally responsible outdoor bathing.” But I’ll also cover dumping greywater. So, please don’t skip reading the rest of this post!

Biodegradable soap

dr bronners liquid castile soap
Dr. Bronner’s is my favorite biodegradable soap. You can use it for anything!

This is straight from the outdoor bathing post:

Some soaps contain phosphates, which promote algae growth. As a result, rapid algae growth causes algae blooms that use up large amounts of oxygen in the water. This leaves little to no oxygen for other plants or even fish. Algae blooms can “kill” a body of water. In short, your soap could kill the pond you plan to bathe in. Biodegradable soaps are more favorable because they don’t contain phosphates. But you still should never use them in the water.

Although you likely won’t be showering in a body of water, the moral of the story is soap is bad for natural water sources. Even biodegradable soaps.

Showering outdoors

This is also straight from the outdoor bathing post (why rephrase what I already wrote so well?):

Best practice is to gather water and move 200 feet away from the water source before bathing. The ground is a natural filter. Therefore, it filters your biodegradable soap and nasties before the water returns to the source. Also, make sure you find a sturdy spot that won’t turn into a mud pit while you bathe. Nobody cares about you standing in mud while trying to get clean. The goal is to minimize your impact on that area.

wooden van shower platform
A wood shower platform is useful both outdoors and indoors. (image credit)

I know that just because you’re showering outside it doesn’t mean you are near a water source. But if you are, move at least 200 feet from the water source before showering. If your shower is attached to your van, there’s a good chance you’ll be showering in a sturdy spot. However, if this is not the case, use a shower platform to protect the ground. They’re easy to build, but if you’re feeling lazy, you can buy them as well.

Want to learn more? Check out, Princeton University Outdoor Action’s article on personal hygiene.

Properly disposing of greywater

Properly disposing of camper van greywater is hot topic. Some argue that dumping greywater on the ground is no different than showering outside. But in some locations and states it is illegal to dump greywater on the ground. So, if it’s illegal to dump on the ground – don’t do it! Find a place to dispose of the greywater properly.

Here are two websites to help you find a dump station:

But what if nobody is looking? I know, integrity means doing the right thing even when nobody’s looking. However, many of us bend the rules when we feel we’re doing no harm. I’ll admit it, I’m that kind of person. I hope you don’t think less of me. If you’re that kind of person too, keep reading to learn about my personal philosophy on greywater dumping. If you’re not that kind of person, please don’t hate me. Instead, keep reading and talk to me in the comments below. And I mean that. I’m not trying to pick a fight. On the contrary, I want you to educate me if I’m out in left field.

The grey area of greywater dumping

maine trail crew camp at rainbow lake
While this picture has more to do with the awesome trail crew folks relaxing after a hard day’s work than greywater, on the left edge of the picture you can see our dishwashing tubs. Our dishwater is the same as a camper van’s sink greywater.

In my opinion, there are two types of greywater. First, there’s the greywater from your sink. This likely contains food particles, grease, and other nasties. If your shower water goes into the same greywater tank as your sink, then it’s all sink greywater. Second, there’s the greywater from your shower. This should only contain water, soap, and your personal filth.

While volunteering on trail crews we often camped and worked at remote locations near a water source. Each night we cooked a communal meal and washed the dishes afterwards. We disposed of the dishwater in a hole dug in the ground (at least 200 feet from a water source). This kept the water from flowing all over the place while it slowly soaked into the ground. It also allowed us to bury the food scraps when we left camp. Camper van sink water is the same as trail crew dishwater. Therefore, I believe you can dispose of them in the same manner.

Indoor shower greywater is the same as showering outside. So, I believe you can dump it on the ground if you’re at least 200 feet from a water source. Now, regardless of the type of greywater, volume matters. I don’t think anyone should be dumping more than like five gallons of greywater on the ground, or even use more than that while showering outside. Large volumes take longer to soak into the ground. As a result, they have a better chance of spreading, thus impacting a larger area. Therefore, if you have A LOT of greywater, find a place to properly dispose of it.

Will your van have a shower?

Do you want the ease of an indoor van shower? Or does an outdoor shower work better for you? How will you heat the water for your shower? Let us know in the comments below!

Need help with your van layout? Check out our Camper Van Layout and Design guide!

*This post contains affiliate links. Only items we have personally used or extensively researched are linked. We do not link to items we don’t recommend. If you buy something using the links, the price is not marked up, we only get a small commission fee. You get the gear, and we get a little spending money. Win-win! Worried about your personal data? Check out our privacy policy.

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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