Written by Katie Larsen, in collaboration with Vanessa and Adam Hickey, Mary Ashley Krogh, Owen Chikazawa, and Brittany and Drew Neumann. Sponsored by 76®. Don’t forget to check out their First 30 Day series, all about diving into vanlife and life on the road!
Another frequently asked question revolving around vanlife is, “where do you go to the bathroom and shower?”
Most of us answer, “the same place you do when you’re on a road trip”. But honestly, everybody has their own way of doing this. If you prefer an internal bathroom, it is very possible to have an entirely functional bathroom, including both toilet and shower, in a van. For the stealthier, gym memberships are a must. For the outdoor campers, holes in the ground work as a toilet and running rivers offer a great rinse off (while practicing Leave No Trace principles, of course!) This section of vanlife really comes down to personal preference and how much of a dirtbag you’re truly willing to be.
If you’re looking to have some sort of toilet in your vehicle, there are three main options:
A cassette toilet is the smallest and cheapest option of the three.
Most are completely portable and can be picked up and moved around. Most also separate into two sections and require manual dumping from the bottom section. The top section can be filled with water and hand-pumped down as a flushing function. Consider adding a base layer of deodorizer after each time emptying this toilet, as it will help seal the smell. A cassette toilet also doesn’t require installation, so if you are limited on skills or time, this may be the best option for you.
Composting toilets can either be purchased from a manufacturer or replicated through a DIY system.
These toilets are usually stationary and completely built-in with the rest of a van build. Some people choose to build a small frame around their stationary toilet, with walls around the toilet, a removable top cover and opening doors in the front for entrance. Others install their composting toilet on heavy-weight rated slides and locks, allowing their toilet to be stored somewhere, such as under their bed, and pulled out as needed for use. For both of these options of composting toilets, liquids and solids are diverted for easier cleanup and dumping.
“If you decide to build a toilet for yourself you will need to look at a vent fan, a urine diverter, and a storage solution until dumping. It can be an affordable option and can be a very custom fit into your build.” – Vanessa and Adam
Purchasing a composting toilet is, by far, the most expensive option. It also takes up the most room out of any type of van toilet. However, it is also one of the cleanest and earth-friendly ways to have a bathroom in a van. This type of toilet has a vent to the outside to help with the smell, a mixer, and a urine diverter.
If your van is smaller or you’re not looking to prioritize a bathroom (which is okay, and quite common!) the gym membership and hole-in-the-ground options are sufficient alternatives. Remember that you will also likely be moving around constantly and are able to use public restrooms, just as we all do during road trips! Gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, and most public places have facilities that can be used.
Van showers can be broken down into two options: either you have one in, on, or around your van, or you get creative with finding a shower elsewhere. If you decide to include a shower inside your van, there are quite a few things to consider.
- You will have to sacrifice a large amount of living and storage space
- A shower will have extra costs: hot water heater, plumbing, tile work, etc.
- Your water storage capacity will need to increase
- Your water tank(s) will need to be filled more frequently
Even if you aren’t looking to install a tall, standup shower that will require an entire corner or a large amount of space, you can get creative with building a shower inside of your van!
A great example is Brittany and Drew’s latest van build, where they installed a shower in a drawer with a curtain that pops up and fastens to their ceiling around their ventilation fan. “The shower drawer slides are rated for 500 pounds and we custom cut a utility tub from Home Depot as the base.” With the water coming from a quick-connect hose, they are able to easily turn the water on and off using a lever with a handle, which allows them to save a fair amount of water, a common concern with indoor showers.
“Where do you shower?” is the most commonly asked question about our lifestyle. People in homes or apartments are used to the luxury of a hot shower any time they want. You don’t have to sacrifice that if you don’t want to. You can have a full shower with hot water in the van.” – Vanessa and Adam
If this option doesn’t sound as appealing to you, there are still other options. These still allow you to maintain more control of when and how you can shower.
A Road Shower, or some sort of homemade PVC pipe shower, can be installed externally on your van.
These are manually heated up by the sun but do not guarantee warm water for a shower. There are also many forms of portable shower options. These can simply be a small water carrier, a hose, and some sort of showerhead. There are also hot water shower options that can be built out the back of your van. These consist of using a small electric tank water heater or propane tankless system. Feeling creative? Consider making some sort of bag shower that you can hang and pressurize yourself! As long as you are willing to take showers outside, all of these are excellent shower options, especially when considering limited space and sticking to a budget.
“For showers, we’ve always carried a shower bag that we can fill when we need to take a shower. Typically we get water from public water sources. Then we shower when we find a quiet secluded place.” – MAK and Owen
If a shower in, on, or around your van is not an option, there are an abundance of other options.
The most common alternative is a gym membership. Not only do they provide an area for exercise, but they also provide a clean place for vanlifers to do their business and take a shower. Individual showers can also be purchased at most national parks, state parks, and truck stops. You may also be surprised by how many family and friends you visit along your travels! You may find yourself relying solely on friends, family, and the kindness of strangers. Prepare to be surprised at how generous people are! You can always share stories of your adventures to entertain your hosts.
Lastly, if pursuing nature is part of your recipe for vanlife, you will likely find yourself around lakes and rivers fairly frequently. Of course, remember to practice Leave No Trace principles but feel free to dive in and rinse off!
“Having a van shower, let alone one with HOT WATER, is the most luxurious thing, EVER. We used to take turns dumping a bottle of (usually cold) water over each other’s head. Then we graduated to a black-plastic, solar bag shower, which eventually broke. While in the US for year 1 of vanlife, we used our gym membership. Now we have an actual shower, inside AND outside. We both agree that it feels like we live in a luxury apartment on wheels!” – Brittany and Drew