Saturday, September 20, 2014

Showering while camping

The second most frequent question I get asked about my van is 'Do you have a shower?'.

Not, 'where have you been?', 'What have you seen?', 'What would you recommend?'. In fact the winner for the most frequently asked question is (Drum-roll.) 'Where's the bathroom?' (I suspect that somewhere in our obsession with bathrooms is some sort of statement about our character. . . but I'm not going to try and figure that one out!)

The most frequent response to my shower answer (no) is 'Oh, I'd have to have a shower'.

Well I'm not entirely convinced those respondents have really thought this whole thing through.

I have, both thought and lived it through, and these are some of the points I came up with:

1)  A shower, the actual showering part, takes me 4 or 5 minutes, but let's be generous and say it takes 10. That comes out to less than 3/4s of one percent of the day (That's right, less than a penny's worth of a dollar!) that I would actually use a space inside my van dedicated to showering; yet even a marginally sized shower stall (You know, one with no room for elbow swing or bending to reach your feet.) would take up about 10% of the available 84 square feet 100% of the time. And that's before taking into account the space required for the supporting systems necessary for a functioning shower. Things like larger potable and waste water tanks, a water heater, and a propane system.

But let's go back a few sentences and revisit the shower-stall space issue. I could maximize the utilization of that space by keeping my portable toilet in the bottom of the shower and hanging my clothes above. Sounds good and yep, tried that before. It was a good attempt at giving better purpose to the otherwise underutilized space. But what happened in my case is that the hassle of moving everything out of the shower, (The clothes got tossed on the bed and/or counter because if there was anywhere else for them to go that's where they would have been in the first place!) then cleaning and drying the shower afterwards (I actually had to keep two towels handy in order to dry myself and the stall in one go.) so I could move everything back before I could see to dinner, (Which sometimes resulted in getting sweaty all over again in the process!) meant that I rarely used the shower as a shower, opting for my 'sink shower' or the campground's facilities instead.

2)  Using Sportsmobile's latest price sheets, adding a shower, larger tanks, water heater and propane system to the van would cost around $5000. ($6500 if I want to throw in a marine style flush toilet and black-water tank while I'm at it.) If I take 120 showers a year in my own personal van-board shower,(A reasonable number for me since I don't live in it full time at work anymore.) in 5 years I will have taken 600 showers at a cost of over $8 per shower. (And that's before adding in the operational costs such as propane for heating the water, fuel for carrying the extra weight of shower, water, water heater and propane system around, and maintenance costs to keep it all functioning.) If your gym charged you an extra $8 every time you wanted to take a shower would you pay for it? I wouldn't. (OK, I'm making an assumption here that I wouldn't since I've never 'had a gym' in my life, but really $8 for a shower???)

 3) Finally, taking care of my whole-body hygiene without an on-board shower is a lot simpler than a lot of people seem to think based on the comments I regularly hear.

When showers are not available, and sometimes when they are but are especially nasty or maybe just overcrowded, or if I just don't feel like going out again, I take care of my needs in the van's sink.

OK, what follows might be construed as TMI but it seems to me that some people out there are making too much of a big deal over 'showering' and maybe it's because no one ever offered tried and true alternatives. (Setting aside the fact that this first alternative was the norm not so very long ago. In some cases within our grandparent's time.)

My sink shower:

But first a side-bar:

This is my all-time favorite camp kettle. Wide at the base for stability, tapered for quicker water heating (Not sure if this is scientific fact but water sure does seem to heat faster in this shape than a straight cylinder.) and all metal  construction for plopping down in a bed of hot coals.

 But the key to making this my favorite is the little metal tab on the lid hinge that means I can operate the kettle with one hand, using my thumb to pop the lid up for filling and checking while the other hand is free for operating the water jug or hanging onto my s'more.

But as you can see, this kettle, after many many years of service, rusted through and started leaking water faster than I could heat it, so has been relegated to a new place of importance out in the garden.

This is my current kettle. It too has that little metal tab on the lid hinge, which is apparently very difficult or expensive to manufacture because, though I have been looking for quite some time now, all the traditional enameled camp kettles I can find no longer have this very important feature.

But this new kettle is a compromise. It's a straight-sided cylinder which I swear takes noticeably longer to heat water, and with that 'ergonomic' cushioned handle and plastic bubble-top it is not open-fire compatible.

I'm still on the hunt for a proper camp kettle (So if anybody out there has a source for the perfect 1.5 to 2 quart camp kettle, with thumb tab. . .) but for now, back to the shower thing. . .

My sink shower:

I heat about a quart of water in the kettle to almost boiling then pour a 1/4 inch into the bottom of the stoppered sink.

Some in the tiny-home community advocate installing the largest sink possible based on the theory that it makes washing dishes by hand easier. I disagree. I go for the smallest sink I can get my hands on because it will need a whole lot less water for the same functionality. If you have a large sink then you either use a lot of water or have to carry a small plastic dishpan, or, if you're not too squeamish about things like that, you could always use the frying pan that you're already carrying anyway; as long as it's not cast iron. (Which leaves me out. . .)

My tiny sink and disposable wipes.
I then swipe a bar of soap through the water three or four times. The intent here is to use the least amount of soap necessary to break the surface tension of the water so it can get up close and personal with my dirty skin. Contrary to what soap companies would like you to think, when it comes to cleaning skin, water, the universal solvent in chemist's speak, is what does the work, soap is basically just there to make the water 'wetter' so it gets down into all the nooks and crannies, and it only takes a touch of soap to do that.

Taking a wipe, one of those very sturdy adult-sized disposable wipes usually marketed as 'pre-moistened personal wash-cloths' that come 48 to a pack for just a few dollars, I swish it in the water, carefully at first because the sink hasn't had time to draw off some of the heat in the water, wring it slightly to minimize dripping, and, starting at the top, skipping the middle, working down to the bottom then coming back to the middle, wash myself.

Generally after every body part, head, arm, back, leg, etc., the cloth gets recharged with another swish and wring.

Finished with the initial wash-down, I drain the sink, the water now tinted varying shades of brownish depending on how dirty I was, and put in a fresh 1/4 inch from the still hot kettle, but no soap this time. (So it's not wasted, what remains in the kettle is just left there until next time I need to heat some water.) With a fresh wipe I repeat the process, swish-wring-scrub and repeat, until I'm at the bottom, or rather the middle, again.

Drain the sink, spritz it with a little distilled white vinegar from the small spray bottle always kept handy, (Cleans, sanitizes and deodorizes for very little cost.) wipe it down with that last washcloth, throw both washcloths away, (I know, not the greenest of practices but living small requires compromises sometimes.) and I'm done. In no more time than it would take to walk to the shower house and back I'm whole-body clean and refreshed. And no, I don't even have to dry off since I've evaporated by the time I finish.

My 'public' shower, the stuff:

On the other hand, there are often showers available in campgrounds that are there for the using. True, they're not your own personal shower, but come-on, how often do you really have one of those anyway? Even at home you're usually sharing a shower with at least one other person. Believe me, after spending my formative years following my kid brother into the bathroom - Ah, well, anyway - before I get myself into trouble here. . .

Yes, sometimes those showers are less than perfect, though I've been in plenty that are pretty dang nice too! (I was recently in one of those 'nice' ones and didn't notice until too late; OK, I was already naked; that it had a full length mirror placed very strategically. Believe me, that was a disturbing sight! Just when did I get so old and lumpy???) But lets face it, some of these showers can be cramped, wet, muddy, have no hooks and spurt tepid water that trickles rather than sprays, but I've picked up a few tricks over the years that help mitigate some of those issues.

First off, no matter how cold it is outside, I always wear the same thing to the shower.

A sleeveless, button-up shirt. Sleeveless because sleeves are just one more thing to flop around and get wet or muddy or both and button-up because trying to pull something over my head in a restricted space is just asking for disaster.

In the interest of protecting the general public from unnecessary exposure trauma, (Especially after that mirror incident!) I also wear a pair of shorts. Always shorts and never long pants because long pants are guaranteed to flap around and drag in the water and mud there on the floor. These are gym-shorts, the kind that fit loose, have an elastic waist band and dry quickly. While they, in their original form, could double for a bathing suit or just casual around-the-camp shorts, and I'm all for multitasking when it comes to the stuff I carry in my van, I modify my shower shorts by cutting the little liner out of them, pretty much making them a single-purpose garment. But the last thing I need when trying to balance on one foot while keeping the other dry, and not touching the sides of the stall, and not falling down, and keeping my shorts and towel up off the floor, all at the same time, is to get a foot tangled up in an elastic leg band!

I finish out my ensemble with the same water shoes I use for kayaking. I already have them along anyway, they slip on and off nearly as easily as the more common flip-flops, are equally as water-impervious and dry quickly if they do get wet, but, unlike said flip-flops, don't throw crap up the back of my leg or let grit sneak in and blacken the bottom of my just cleaned foot.

And then there's the rest of my shower equipment that has nothing to do with reducing exposure but everything to do with function.

Soap-on-a-rope because I'm not too keen on setting my soap down, even if a handy little tray or shelf is graciously provided, because I just never know what's been there before! I use the same type of little yellow soap-box that I grew up with, the kind with a white lanyard strung through the main box as well as the friction-fit lid so none of the pieces can get separated. If, for some reason, there's no suitable place to hang this in the shower, I just drape the lanyard around my neck.

For drying off afterwards I use a chamois about the size of a standard hand towel. The synthetic Sham-Wow type would work but I prefer the real thing. I think it just does the job a little better. This might seem a little weird at first, but in less than ideal situations a full sized terrycloth bath towel is a liability. One end of it is always dragging somewhere you don't want it to, getting soaked or dirty or both, it's big and bulky and difficult to find a safe place for while the shower is running, once it's wet it's useless, and it takes forever to dry.

That's not much stuff to carry to the shower-house, which is the whole point, but I do use a tote anyway. Mine isn't the usual gym-bag though but rather a bucket, a collapsible bucket that takes up very little storage space.

Why a bucket??  Because it not only holds my stuff but protects it as well. Worst case, there's no hooks and I have to set my tote down on the muddy floor with my shirt, shorts and chamois stuffed into it, in that order. The bucket is, by it's very nature, water proof, and being collapsible I can fold the top over to keep over-spray from the shower to a minimum. By placing my chamois in last, so it's right there on top when I'm ready to dry off, I get even more over-spray protection. In addition, when not being used as a shower tote or squashed down to practically nothing and stored away, the 2 gallon bucket can be used for all sorts of other buckety thing around the camp. Try that with a gym bag or one of those little mesh 'organizers'!

Oh, and one last thing before leaving 'shower stuff'; that's right, no shampoo. Since I cut my head nearly bald with bare-foot clippers every couple weeks there's nothing up there for shampoo or 'product' to work on, (Makes life on the road so much easier!!) but if there was I have plenty of room in my bucket for another bottle or two and a brush.

My 'public' shower, the process:

I am, by nature, drawn to routines. Routines are a lot like little checklists without the hassle of - well - a checklist. If you perform a function; getting up in the morning, getting ready to go out shopping, breaking camp etc.; the same way every time, there's less chance of forgetting something, like taking your pills or picking up the leveling blocks before you drive off. I'm the same way about camp showers and I can truthfully say I have yet to wander off and leave my soap-on-a-rope dangling from the shower-head. (But I'm not so cocky that I don't keep a spare in the van just in case. . .)

I start by changing into my shower outfit then shaking out the collapsed bucket, dropping the van key, soap and chamois into it. I don't normally lock the van to go take a shower but it would just ruin the day to come back all clean and refreshed only to discover the van was locked by some stray electronic transmission and both my key-fobs were inside!!

If it's cold out the walk to the shower-house will be pretty brisk since I'm not all that well insulated, (My doctor is trying to chime in here with some crap about plenty of insulation but I'm ignoring him.) but I use this time to practice the trick tracker Tom Brown was taught by Stalking Wolf. If you embrace the cold rather than fight it, relax and let it seep in, let it become part of you, it's somehow not so bad. Of course, from a scientific standpoint, it's not any less cold but somehow it doesn't seem to hurt and impair me as much and I can function and concentrate better, at least in the short term and that's all we're talking about here. If the shower house were any farther away than short, in that kind of weather I'd just do a sink shower instead.

Once in the shower-house there's no secret trick to picking the cleanest, driest stall available. Though, surprisingly, just like public toilets, that's usually the first stall you come to. (This has actually been born out through scientific testing.)

Once in the stall I evaluate it. Is there decent separation between the shower side and the 'dry' side? Are there any hooks out in the dry side? (Yes, I've been in stalls with hooks in the shower side. What they're for I have no idea but there they were.) Is there a bench?

That done I hang the soap from the shower head or taps, if that doesn't work I drape it around my neck.

Assuming decent separation, next I reach in and turn the water on (Another reason for wearing a sleeveless shirt.) because sometimes it takes forever for something less than icy water to get all the way to the shower-head. If it's already warm I turn it back off, if it's cold I leave it running in the hopes that it will be warmer in the 60 seconds it takes me to get naked.

Hang my bucket from a suitable hook if available, if not set it on the bench, if no bench and the highly adaptable cloth handle won't hook securely enough over the corner of the door, leave it on the floor as far from the shower as possible.

Put my glasses in my shirt pocket, remove the shirt and hang it on the hook farthest from the shower or drop it into the bottom of the bucket. Kick my shoes off and set them safely up on the bench if available and they're not muddy, if not set them in the shower because they're going to get wet anyway and that way I know they will be clean and wet and not muddy and wet. Step out of my shorts, careful to keep direct foot contact to a minimum, and hang them on the same hook as the shirt or drop them into the bucket. Hang the chamois on the hook closest to the shower or drop it in on top of my clothes in the bucket. Unless the bucket is hanging up high and safe on the middle hook, fold the top over to help keep the inside dry.

In the shower I wet down, turn the water off, soap up, water on, rinse, then water off. Even at home I take this sort of 'Navy' shower; waste not want not and all that. . .

Keeping the rest of my dripping bits inside the shower stall, which, unlike the floor outside the stall, has been rinsed free of mud as I showered, I reach out and grab my chamois.

Drying off with a chamois is a little different than with a towel. I find it works best with more of a patting than scrubbing motion. Some sources will tell you a chamois needs to be dampened first before it will work but I find a good, broken-in chamois doesn't need this step. The beauty of a chamois, besides it's small size, light weight and quick drying time, is that it will dry and dry and dry no mater how much water we're talking about. If it gets loaded with water just wring it out and it's ready to go again. Try that with a terrycloth towel! But I usually find that even after drying all of me (And believe me, there's more of me than there should be!) there's still not enough water in the chamois to wring anything back out of it.

When drying I start at the top and work down, but leave my feet for last. Before drying my feet I make sure my shorts and shoes ready, then I balance on one leg and dry the other foot, secure an edge of the chamois in my teeth, grab my shorts with both hands for maximum openage, and step through them, landing my foot  on top of its corresponding shoe. With an arm clamped to my side to keep my shorts up, I repeat this with the other foot. (It helps if you have good balance and can keep you hands or other body parts off the shower walls. Practicing yoga a few times a week has had a noticeable impact on my balancing ability, something I'm hoping will help keep me from falling and breaking something important as I get older!)

With shorts safely on I slip my feet properly into my shoes and carefully lift my shirt from the bucket. (Remember, my glasses are in the pocket.) Being sleeveless and button-up it takes a minimum of arm waving and contortion to get properly settled into it.

Take the soap-on-a-rope and drop it into the bucket alongside the now lonely key-fob, and drape the chamois over the edge so it can start drying on the walk back to the van. Always in that order. That way if the bucket is too empty when I drape the chamois I know I've forgotten something.

Even though I know I have everything, take one last look around to make sure I have everything, including checking the bottom of the bucket for my key-fob.

And all done!

Might sound complicated but in reality it's not that much more difficult than showering at home once you get the routine down and, going back to my previous math, I just earned myself $8 in the process! If door to door takes me 20 minutes that's an hourly rate of $24. Not bad pay for an unemployed lay-about! (Oh, I mean respectable retired professional. . . )


  1. A great detailed answer to a question I have always had about showering with RV facilities. Great info.

    1. Works equally well with truck-stop showers too, but gone are the days when a fill-up was enough to get you a shower. Now days they're anywhere from $2 to $6 dollars so I haven't used one in quite a while.