Adventure is great and all… but what about the inevitable stinkiness that comes with being cooped up in a vehicle or exploring nature?
A hot shower feels so wonderful and refreshing! But if you are on the road, especially if car camping in a vehicle not equipped with a full bathroom, you might wonder how to tackle staying clean much less a fantastic shower. Happily, there are lots of options available to wandering car campers from campgrounds to some really cool gear that you have to check out for yourself!
Best Places to Shower While Car Camping
Perhaps the simplest way to get a shower while car camping is by hitting up a place that actually has showers. Private campgrounds often have shower buildings. While these places will cost more than sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, they will also give you access to running hot water and sometimes even a laundromat.
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Besides public campgrounds, Army Corps of Engineer campgrounds also usually have a bathhouse. These campgrounds can be extremely reasonable, especially if you have a Golden or Access Pass, which will net you half off an already reasonable campsite fee.
If you really don’t want to stay the night in a campground, some campgrounds and camping resorts allow shower usage for a small fee without requiring an overnight campsite. Check-in at the office or lodge headquarters to pay the fee and get the access code to a dreamy hot shower. A big shoutout to Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone who has amazing showers for a small fee and made a need to wash off-road and hiking dust into a luxurious hour.
Outside of campgrounds and resorts, local gyms and chain gyms such as the YMCA, Planet Fitness, and many others offer relatively reasonable membership rates that also come with access to shower facilities. So, if you want to work on your abs, take a swim, and net a shower consider this option. Even better, many of the memberships allow you to bring a guest, so you won’t need a second membership to cover your travel partner.
If you happen to be on the coast, check for showers at local beaches that have changing rooms. Often there is a bathhouse as well. And if that doesn’t work, head over to the marina. Often marinas will have facilities for boaters that include showers. Check with the harbormaster or office for cost and access.
Tips for Showering at a Campground
If you do decide on a campground shower, there are a few things you should be prepared for. One of the biggest is that this a public bathroom and has been used by a lot of people over the years. It might not look as clean or be as maintained as your private bathroom at home. But don’t let a few chipped pieces of tile or some rough edges keep you from getting a needed scrub down.
Wearing a pair of flip flops into and while showering is often a good idea, especially in the roughest looking facilities. Select a shower stall by looking for cleanliness. After that, test the heat of the water and spray length (if the shower is a push-button type). Usually, there is at least one stall with the hottest, best pressure, and longest-lasting water.
Showerheads are often adjustable, so try to change it to get better pressure or spray patterns. A big tip that I learned the hard (and rather chilly way!), is if it is cold out, avoid showers under or next to vents or windows. You’ll find yourself feeling the cold very quickly and not enjoying the shower as much as you could.
Be mentally prepared for no warm showers. This has happened to me several times. The only showers available at the campground had water, but not hot water. These make for very quick showers.
While in the shower, keep an eye out for critters. No, I don’t mean mice. But tree frogs often like to lurk in bathrooms, not to mention insects from spiders to grasshoppers. Try to take them in stride and maybe give them a boost to a better habitat.
Lastly, consider the timing of your shower. Getting in a shower early in the evening is less crowded than mornings and might even net you an empty bathhouse. Plus, heading to the shower while there is still light out when you are walking back to your car or campsite is best for safety.
Different Types of Portable Camping Showers
If you’d rather be in charge of your showering options, there are a lot of portable showers on the market, and many will fit well into your vehicle. (Some will even work for any type of camping you want to do).
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can make a pretty decent shower out of a two-liter soda bottle. Clean it out, add warm water, put some holes in the cap with a small nail, and screw it back on. Then you just need to find a place to invert it and keep it steady for a nice, warm shower.
If you want an upgrade that is still reasonably cheap, pick up a solar shower. These classics haven’t changed much since they came out because they work. Fill the bag with water, stick it in the sun for a few hours, then find a place to suspend it and enjoy a warm shower.
The back window of a car makes a great place to stash a solar shower bag full of water to have it nice and toasty for a late afternoon shower. Or if you didn’t get a chance to heat the water in the sun, warm water on a stove and add it to the bag.
You can take a solar shower to remote places such as if you’re backpacking, as well–if cleanliness is very important to you.
Here’s a popular solar shower on Amazon that resembles the one we had growing up.
This is a more compact one from REI that would be easy to take with your backpacking.
Battery Operated Showers
There are also a lot of battery-operated pumps made as portable showers. Often designed as emergency power out kits, these function with a motor run off a couple of batteries that power a small pump, which you drop into a bucket or container of water.
The pump forces the water into a shower nozzle. If you use a collapsible bucket, the whole contraption will fit into a bag so small you’ll forget where you stashed it in your car.
Just as with everything, you can go cheap with the sub $100 shower (like this one on Amazon).
Or, there are more premium options available such as this one on REI (it has a built-in heater… talk about camping in style!).
Foot Pump Showers
If you want to skip the battery option, check out foot pump showers like the Nemo Shower System (see at REI). These things are a combination between a solar shower and a pump one, except that you are the pump. To operate these, you
- Fill the water reservoir with water
- Place it in the sun to heat
- When ready for a lovely shower, pump up the pressure in the water reservoir with the foot pump
- Then switch on the water nozzle
- Add a bit more air every so often as needed
The resulting shower from one of these pump-style showers is entirely worth the small amount of labor to keep it going. I would know as I have one!
A similar system that also doubles as a water purifier when not used as a shower are REIs dromedary bags. You can use these bags with gravity water filters to purify water, but also the bags are also usually black, so quickly heat the water inside, and have a hose attachment with a showerhead. For travelers who are space conscious, this is a great two-for-one option.
Outdoor Instant Hot Water Options
If you aren’t intimidated by components and gadgets, there are also some fantastic outdoor and portable shower options now using instant hot water makers. These will require propane and a battery, but if you have a propane stove and your car engine doesn’t frighten you, you can make your friends envious, or love you even more, when you set up an outdoor instant hot water heater.
Mr. Heater is a reputable brand that sells indoor-rated propane heaters. They also sell a gas-powered portable shower unit here (on Amazon). If you’re interested in heaters for a tent, I actually did a ton of safety tests for tent heaters and found one heater that rose above the rest. Make sure and check out my article for the best tent heaters if you’re interested.
Just make sure you read the requirements for water as some don’t have internal pumps and need a water supply that is pressurized or at least elevated to create pressure.
Installed Hot Water Car Kits
And if you are super techy and into long-term overland travel, check out the instant hot water car kits that install in your car and use the engine heat to create steaming hot water. They can be a bit pricey, but if you love hot showers and watching people’s jaws drop, you will adore these.
Roof Rack Options
And if you like simplicity but love the cool feature appeal, check out the road showers with water tubes that attach to your vehicle’s roof racks. Fill up the water reservoir before you start driving, let the sun do its work, and when you stop for the day attach the hose for a lovely hot shower, that is pressurized by the drop in height from your SUVs roof to the shower handle. Simple and oh-so slick! (although a bit pricy).
See one from Yakima on Amazon.
How to Use a Portable Shower While Camping
There may be lots of types of shower options, but there are a few things all of them have in common. The first is considering where you are going to shower, as in what you will be standing on.
If your shower system is attached to your vehicle, where you park will be important. Look for hard surfaces like asphalt or rock. Avoid dusty soil or sand that will turn to mud and coat your legs and feet. Otherwise, the whole point of the shower will be half undone.
Getting Privacy While Showering When You’re Camping
Here are some options for showering with some privacy.
- Wearing a swimsuit while showering out-of-doors is a reasonable option: This is a convenient way to shower without having to strip down 100%. Two questions arise–where are you going to get into your swimsuit? (dressing in a car is fun and all… but…) and then what if a swimsuit still attracts too much attention?
- Waiting until dark: If you hate the odd stare or two or really just have to shower in the buff, wait until dark … and make sure no one flashes a light your way. One downside to this is that the water in any solar shower may have cooled down a bit by then.
- Using a Privacy Shower Enclosure: These may not be the hardcore campers option, but if privacy is important for you, then the time spent setting one of these up may be worth it. Kelty makes one you can find here at REI. One side benefit to these shower/changing tents is that they sometimes have hooks you can hang your portable shower. I talk more about these, down below.
Where To Hang A Portable Shower
If you are using a shower system that needs to be suspended, you’ll also need to consider where and how to hang it. Vehicle hatchbacks can work if they can take the weight of the water without collapsing on your head while standing under it. Tall vehicles with roof racks work well. If you are in the forest, keep some rope handy and toss it over a tree branch before hoisting your shower bag.
Before you lather up, take a look at your soap too. If you are showering outside and the water isn’t going into a septic system, make sure your soap in biodegradable and environmentally safe. You don’t want to be poisoning those cute tree frogs! Campsuds is the goto biodegradable soap brand you can find at REI.
How To Shower With a Portable Shower Without Running Out Of Water
Besides that, you are going to find that showering at camp is a lot different than having endless hot water at home. You can’t leave the water running. Get wet, turn off the water to soap up, and then turn the water back on to rinse off. You should only need a gallon to a gallon and a half of water per person.
While you can take longer showers and ignore this advice, just remember you will be the one securing and heating the water. Short showers will eventually become normal, and those times you can soak in hot water will feel like a luxury.
Once you decide on the portable shower you want to take with you; there are some great accessories that will feel more like essentials once you are out car camping.
There are many different enclosures you can purchase to give you the privacy that showering next to your car can lack. Keep in mind the type of shower equipment you have as you need to make sure it will support the weight of your water if it needs to go overhead, or at least has an opening for the shower head. (like the one I mentioned above from Kelty found here at REI)
Numerous pop-up tents will function as a single shower enclosure. They run from very cheap to ultra-expensive with places to stash your soap and washcloth. If you have a vehicle with a hatch, there are also shower curtains that will attach to convert the back of your car into a bathhouse.
Just make sure you aren’t getting your sleeping bag wet, and no one is peeking in from the front. And if you are crafty, you can make your own enclosure from a hoola hoop or PVC pipe and a shower curtain. Then you just need to figure out where to suspend it.
A floor mat of some sort is also a great way to give yourself more options on where to shower and will keep your feet clean. Rubber welcome mats, RV sand mats, or snap together foam or teak tiles all work to create a quick space to stand and stay out of the mud your shower will create.
Camp Towels and Soaps
A moisture-absorbing and quick-drying towel is a wonderful accessory for your kit. These camp towels come in a variety of sizes from large washcloths to full-sized beach towels and will not only get you dry quick, but they will also be ready to go when you take your next shower.
We use a microfiber towel like this one (on Amazon) when traveling, and although it’s not as soft and enjoyable as a standard bath towel, they dry SO fast which makes them invaluable for when you’re on the go.
Most camping and outdoor stores have several options. And while you are checking them out, head over to the outdoor soaps. Not only are they safe for the environment, there are numerous types from liquid to handy individual soap leaves.
How to Wash Long Hair While Camping
Long hair is so beautiful but can be a nightmare to take care of while camping. It doesn’t have to be. Make plans to give your hair some time, and you’ll find it looks dazzling no matter where you travel.
When showering, thoroughly soak your hair from roots to tip before turning off the water. Suds up with environmentally safe shampoo or conditioner, making sure you massage your scalp. After that, rinse thoroughly.
If you don’t have much water or only a small reservoir for your shower water, focus your hair wash showers on your hair and only take care of the essential areas on you for that session. And if you don’t have a shower at all but need to wash your hair, have a friend help by pouring water over your head.
Alternatives to Showering While Camping
If you don’t have access to a shower while car camping, there are still options for keeping clean.
Dr. Brommers is a natural soap that was initially designed not to need water to be rinsed off. Watch the YouTube video on how to use the soap sans water, which is mostly about rubbing it on and then rubbing it off with a towel. Just make sure you only use it on land, as it is harmful to many water creatures.
If it is warm and you are camping near water, just jump in. Take a washcloth with you, and enjoy a swim and bath. You’ll feel better, even if you aren’t quite as clean as a nice, hot shower. There are some concerns about any type of soap (even the bio-degradable kind) being unsafe for bodies of water. You can use sand though as a way to scrub your body–sand or dirt will scrub your body very clean, you just have to rinse it out, carefully.
There is a wide variety of pre-moistened towelettes out on the market that makes a great substitute to a full shower. Some are labeled for camping, though these can be expensive. Instead, look for pre-soaped rather than the alcohol wipes in the cosmetics aisle where they are sold as a make-up remover. Or check out the baby aisle for some other gentle options. This is by far my favorite option for getting clean while camping.
If you do have a camp stove and pot, heat up some water and pour a bit onto a pre-soaped washcloth and use it as you would the pre-moistened wipes. Once called “spit baths,” these quick shower options are the classic way of cleaning up without access to running water.
And if you have a big pot of warm water and a friend, a good dousing is always an option. I’m not saying you need to use a super soaker, though that could work and be fun at the same time, but having a bit of water poured over your head can work wonders to cleanliness and your psyche.
If you don’t have water or a way of heating it, freshen up in a gas station or fast-food restaurant restrooms. It isn’t ideal, but splashing some water on your face, hair, and even sneaking in a washcloth for a quick scrub down can get you feeling better as well as take off the dirt. Or check out a newish product called a “waterless washcloth.” This plastic washcloth is designed to rub your skin and remove dirt but feels a bit like you are using a scrubbing pad on yourself.
There are also waterless shampoos that can help spritz up your hair without water, but eventually, you’ll want to find a real shower to clean up. Or, if really desperate, check the radar and head toward the nearest torrential downpour. A good rainstorm is a traditional way to shower on a sailboat undertaking a long passage between freshwater stops, and it works for campers too!