Vanlife How to: Hygiene while living in a Van/Camper/RV/Car

vanlife hygiene

A common through that many people have when they learn of or consider vandwelling:

“How do you live without a bathroom? Where to you pee? Where do you poop? Oh my god –  Where do you take showers!?  People who live in vans must be filthy. I can’t do that!”

Ok, take a deep breath. Everything’s going to be ok. You’ll be able to poop and pee and keep yourself clean.

What I’ll cover

  • Where to pee. In cities, and out camping
  • Where and how to poop. In cities and out camping
  • How to clean your body. (You don’t need a shower. You need a way to clean your body. Forget about showers. They aren’t as special as you may think)
  • A few other small details

That’s it. This stuff is easy. Once you’ve been living in a van for a few weeks, you’ll be relieved at how simple and easy it can actually be. The things you worried about will be gone.

For women – sorry, I don’t have any specific advice on menstruation, peeing, or makeup. But don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll work out just fine.

vanlife hygiene

 

Super Brief Summary

Since this post is long, but the advice is simple, here it is very quickly for those who don’t want to read the entire post:

  • When in cities, pee and poop in toilets. Also, pee in a bottle and dump it outside
  • When outside of cities, pee on the ground. Each time you poop, dig hole 8 inches deep to poop in
  • Clean your body with a wet bandana. It works very well. Showers are for suckers.
vanlife hygiene
Hello. I’m clean, and I don’t smell bad at all!

 

Forget about bathrooms and showers.

You don’t need them.

Humans have existed for 200,000 years. Toilets have been in use for about 400 years. Indoor showers have been in regular use for about a hundred years. So that’s 199,600 years that humans have lived without toilets and 199,800 years without showers. And most of these humans were not walking around with poop all over them.  I expect most of them were quite clean. Some people or books may tell you that people used to be really stinky, but these are probably declarations made by people who think a shower is the only way to get clean. Once you experiment with simpler ways to clean yourself, stinky people will start to confound you in ways they never did before.

So. Let’s repeat it again. You don’t need showers. YOU DON’T NEED SHOWERS. And when you’re not in a city, you don’t need toilets, and in fact, it’s better for the world if you don’t use a toilet while you’re not in a city.

When it comes to hygiene while traveling, forget about trying to replicate all the things you currently do. Focus on what you need to achieve – being clean, comfortable, and healthy. You’ll find that you can accomplish those in much simpler ways than you’re used to. And you’ll probably find that it costs less, uses way less water, is better for the environment, and maybe is more fun.

PEEING – Where and How

OUTSIDE OF CITIES

Just pee on the ground. That’s it. Nothing more to it. Don’t pee in the exact same spot all the time. And walk a little ways away from your van.

IN CITIES

You generally have two options. Well, three.

1 – Pee in a bottle. Get yourself a pee bottle.  You just need some type of container that you’ve designated a pee bottle. It’s good to have one with a  wide mouth. I use a standard Nalgene 1 liter bottle that is opaque. It works very well except for those times when I really REALLY have to pee – because it’s more than 1 liter. That’s kind of fascinating to me. I used to wonder how much volume my bladder holds, and know I know.

Anyways, you just pee in the bottle, and then dump it out on the ground outside. Dump it on plants/rocks/dirt. You don’t need to worry much about people seeing you dump it out. They won’t expect that it’s pee, and even if they do, there’s not any problem with dumping out some pee.

You’ll need to clean this bottle periodically. You can put water in it, shake it up, and dump it out. You can use soap to clean it. You can just put a tiny bit of soap into it after each time you dump it out. If gets offensively smelly, you’re not cleaning it enough.

A pee bottle is a wonderful thing to have at night. It removes the need to go outside to pee, which is particularly nice when it’s really cold outside. It’s also a lot easier to just take one step out of bed and pee in a bottle than it is to walk outside.

2 – Pee in Toilets. You just find a toilet and pee in it. That’s it. There are publicly accessible restrooms all over the place. I’ve made a list below of places where you can go use the bathroom. Generally, Starbucks and McDonalds are all over the place and they keep their bathrooms clean.

Places with toilets that you can use:

  • Fast food restaurants
  • Nicer fast food restaurants or sit-down restaurants (more likely to be clean)
  • Fancy restaurants. Don’t worry, just walk in there and walk straight to the bathroom. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.
  • Hotels (nearly all hotels have public restrooms on the first floor. If you’re on the hunt for a luxurious toilet, go to a luxurious hotel)
  • Libraries
  • Courthouses
  • Gas stations (but they are generally to be avoided)
  • Grocery stores
  • Book stores
  • Coffee Shops
  • Bars
  • Some parks
  • Box stores like Wal-Mart and Target
  • Buildings on college/university campuses

These are also where you’ll poop while in cities.

In most ports of most cities, you’re never more than a couple blocks from a bathroom you can use.

“What about when I have to poop in the middle of the night!?”

You won’t. When’s the last time you had to poop in the middle of the night?

Your body has a keen way of knowing what frequency of pooping is good or acceptable, and adjusting to it. When I lived in the city, I’d poop multiple times every day. Now while I’m out camping, I never have to poop more than once a day. Your body just understands and adjusts to make things easier.

3 – Extra Option – pee on the ground. While you’re in cities, it’s still an option to pee on the ground. Whether this is a good idea depends a lot on where you are and how many people are near you. You probably won’t want to do this often. Don’t get yourself in trouble for it.

POOPING – Where and How

IN CITIES

Use a toilet. The same kind of ones where you pee sometimes.

If some day the need arises to poop inside your rig, here’s a way to do it:

  • First, you pee. In your bottle or on the ground. Get all your pee out! Of course, if you really have to poop, this isn’t all that easy, but try hard, it’s worth it. You’ll find out why.
  • Get three or so plastic grocery bags or trash bags. Put them inside each other so you’ve got three layers of bag.
  • Put a bunch of paper towels down in the bottom of the bag. Don’t be stingy with them.
  • Squat and poop into the bag. If you do pee some, get it on the paper towels. That’s why you put a lot of them in there
  • Wipe and put your toilet paper in the bag. Tie it up, if there’s enough bag, double it around itself and tie it again.
  • Go put it in a public trash can. Quickly. Probably the kind that’s outside and that a person who’s walking their dog would put their dog’s poop in.

OUTSIDE OF CITIES

Poop is meant to go in or on the ground. Once you finally poop outside, and are comfortable with the process, you’re probably going to feel particularly good and accomplished after you poop. How often do you feel that when you poop in a toilet?

Here’s what you do:

In your van, set up a “poop hike bag”. In the bag, have a little shovel. I use a small gardening trowel, like this one. Also, have a roll of toilet paper.  If you have a bag that you can dedicate to this purpose, leave them in the bag, so when it’s time to go poop you don’t have to get out all three things, you can just grab the poop bag and you’re ready to go.

Wait until you really need to poop. Also, it’s ideal to time your urinating so that you will also pee a lot when you poop. It works much better that way. If you end up leaving to poop and you have just recently peed, it’s worth bringing along a some water. So:

  • Grab your poop bag. (If you just peed lately, bring at least half a liter of water)
  • Walk off away from the van and other people. Walk in a direction where you think there will not be many rocks, or where there will be at least some spots without a lot of rocks. You’ll get used to figuring out where these places are.
  • You might as well walk quite a ways and make it into a little hike.
  • Find a spot on the ground where it looks like you can dig a hole. Generally, you want a spot without a lot of plants growing (ideally, none), and without any rocks on the surface. A place that looks like it will be easy to dig. You also might as well do it in a spot that has a nice view. I tell you what: I’ve pooped with some amazing views. Sure beats looking at a wall, a magazine, or a phone screen.
  • Get out the shovel and start digging. Dig a hole least 8 inches deep and about 6 inches wide.
  • If you run into a lot of rocks, or some really big rocks right away, consider finding a different place to dig your hole.
  • Digging the hole can be hard work, and it can take a while. It’s most difficult where there is clay or where there are many rocks. It’s the easiest in a desert area where there aren’t many rocks. Don’t skimp on the depth. Get it at least 8″ deep. There’s no need to dig any deeper than 10″. But if you’re digging in a really sandy area, the deeper the better. As you’re digging the hole, put the dirt and rocks that you dig up into a pile about 1 foot away from the hole. Don’t just throw it wherever. You’ll need this to refill the hole.  If you feel like you can’t dig a hole, consider whether it would be easier to find a different spot to dig. If it’s just hard and it will be hard everywhere, take your time and keep at it. If it is physically very hard for you, well, then you’re getting some good exercise, and you’ll get stronger. There is technique to digging, and you will also improve your digging skill and get used to what type of digging motions work well for you and how to get large rocks out of there.
  • Once your hole is ready, find yourself a solid looking stick. Get one that’s 8″ or longer, and at least twice as thick as a pencil.
  • Now it’s time to poop. Get out your toilet paper, drop your pants, and squat over the hole. Focus on having the right body position so that both your pee and your poop go into the hole, and not any of it goes on your pants or shoes. I’m generally leaning back a bit while squatted, which gets my feet ahead of me and out of the way. I’ll usually have one hand behind me to support my body, and use the other to aim to make sure I pee into the hole. I’ve wondered if I should take off my pants so I can have my legs wider, but haven’t tried that yet.
  • If you’ve done like I recommended and waited until you really needed to poop, you’ll bee able to poop quickly. That works better because it gives your pee less time to soak in to the ground.
  • Then, wipe with your toilet paper and put it into the hole. (Generally, the official recommendations are to pack out your toilet paper. I’m pretty certain that if you follow my directions, you don’t need to bother packing it out).
  • Pull up your pants
  • (if you knew you wouldn’t have to pee and brought water, now is the time to dump it into the hole)
  • Pick up the stick. Put it down into your poop and pee and toilet paper and stir it all up. Focus on mixing the toilet paper and the poop together and breaking up the toilet paper. Keep stirring and mixing it until it appears homogenious – like mud – and until you can’t recognize any of the toilet paper. It should look like really we mud at this point. Push some of the dirt back into the hole and mix that with the poop. Do a few scoops . This will help the poop break down into soil faster. When you’re done stirring, break the stick about in half by pressing it down into the hole or against the side of it. Let the bottom end of the stick (the end that has poop on it) drop into the hole.
  • Refill the hole. As it’s getting full, keep track of where the hole was. Move all of the dirt/rocks that you dug out (and some extra) onto and above the hole. You’ll have a little mount/hill.
  • Stand up and step/stomp on that hill to compress the dirt. If you didn’t dig your hole deep enough, this is the point where you’ll learn about your mistake and maybe get a dirty shoe.
  • Put your shovel and toilet paper back in your bag.
  • Think about how great you feel, and how good the dirt right here is going to feel as it gets all the nutrients and such that you just gave it.
  • Walk back.
  • Wash your hands with whatever method you use. A simple method is to get a paper towel wet and wipe down your hands, and then use some hand sanitizer.

That was a lot of writing about a simple process. I’ve included a lot of detail to allay whatever concerns or confusion you had. If it seems like this is difficult or a lot of work, don’t worry, it’s not bad. I’ve found that it actually works out very nicely as it’s a way to assure I go out for a walk every day.

vanlife hygiene
Did I just spot a good place to poop?

 

Cleaning Your Body

A reminder first – the goal here is to get your body clean. It is NOT to re-create the same methods that we’ve used at bathrooms in houses or apartments.

When it comes to finding a good method to clean yourself while traveling, here are some of the important criteria:

  • How clean you get
  • How easy or difficult it is to do
  • How long it takes
  • How much enjoyment or discomfort it may cause
  • How much water it requires
  • How much equipment you need and how much it costs
  • If there’s a chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • If you’re getting things wet, how long they take to dry
  • Whether it’s possible to use this method inside your vehicle

If a method fails badly on any of these criteria, it’s not a very good method. The best method should do well on all of these criteria.

vanlife hygiene

 

Why showering is for suckers

Or – the inefficiency of trying to recreate showers on the road

A shower requires a lot of water. In a home bathroom, a shower puts out 2 to 5 gallons of water per minute. Take a 5 minute shower, and we’re talking 15 gallons. That’s 126 lbs of water. LOTS of water.

Now, consider what happens with the water when you take a shower. Your skin is mostly impermeable, which is nice because that means it’s waterproof. So, when the water comes out of the shower-head, some of it hits your body and some goes straight to the ground. That water that hits your body mostly bounces right off or runs down you onto the ground within a couple seconds. So you’re getting, on average, about 1 second of use out of almost all the water coming out of the shower head.

This is an incredibly wasteful way to use water. When you have a seemingly infinite supply of fresh water, and it is nearly free, that doesn’t seem to matter. But when you have to carry and drive your water around, that starts to matter a lot.

To expand on the numbers and make this even more clear: If you were going to go out camping for one week, and would take one shower each day, that would use about 100 gallons of water – which is over 800 lbs and would take up a lot of space. You’re not going to haul that much water around. So what can you do? You can use less water. That would help. Maybe you use 20% as much water. That’s still a lot to carry around. Maybe you use 10% as much, that’s still a lot. When most of the water you use is going to touch your body for 1 second and fall to the ground, you just can’t win.

See – showering is for suckers.

There are other problems with showers. It is equipment intensive. You need something to store all that water in. You probably need hoses and a showerhead or valve. You’ll probably need a way to heat the water. You’ll need to only take showers when you’re in a secluded place, or you’ll probably want some kind of curtain to set up around you.

Forget about all this. You don’t need a shower. You just need to clean your body.

vanlife hygiene

 

 

You Don’t Need Soap

Soap is also something that’s for suckers. Well, not entirely. But – soap is is overused like crazy. It has been consummerized to a ridiculous extent, and an insane amount of money, time, and materials are wasted on soap.

Let’s go back to the starting point here – we’re talking about cleaning your body. Again, your skin is generally impermeable. When dirt gets on you, most all of that dirt just sits on the outside of your skin. You can use water alone (and something like your hand or a washcloth) to remove 99.5% of the dirt. Using soap, you can remove 99.7% of the dirt.  Yeah, soap is for suckers.

Soap is more useful for cleaning materials that absorb dirt – like fabrics. Cotton and other materials can soak up moisture. When they get muddy, that dirt gets ~’inside’ the fabric much more than it can get inside your skin. Soap helps remove the dirt from the fabric. (Soap essentially works by adhering to dirt, and the soap is easier to rinse away than dirt, so when you rinse away the soap, it takes the dirt with it.) But on your skin, dirt is so easy to rinse away that soap becomes nearly useless.

Does this sound surprising? I dare you to do an experiment – go without soap for one week. If you’re hesitant, you could just start by not using shampoo. Continue taking your showers, and still clean yourself. You just get your hair and body wet in the shower and rub them with your hands. You should probably rub them a bit more than if you were using soap. But since you’re not using soap, the shower is simpler, and the time you had spent managing and using the soap is replaced by rubbing yourself more. You’ll still get nice and clean. See for yourself. (While you’re doing this experiment, I still recommend using soap on the few parts of your body that get the dirtiest – like your butt and maybe your armpits and feet. Eventually, you’ll realize you don’t really need soap for those, but let’s start small here).

Ok – so – showers are for suckers, and soap is for suckers.

You don’t need a lot of products

Here’s a picture of all the hygiene products I use:

vanlife hygiene

I probably should have also included bandana and paper towels. I also have a hair clipper and an electric shaver (I also have a double edge razor but in the van I just use the shaver as I don’t need to bother with water)I’ve shared this only as an example. You may wish to use many more products or much fewer. I could get rid of everything in the bottom row (except maybe lotion in really dry areas) and be fine  – or maybe even healthier because of it. I know for sure that my body doesn’t actually need baby powder on it.

I’ve went on and on about soap and showers and product to help clear your mind of those methods that are common in a big fancy house bathroom. So now let’s go back to the goal of cleaning yourself. I’ll start out by sharing a variety of methods that would work in varying degrees. Some of them will satisfy some of the criteria I listed above but fail on others. And then, I’ll share what I’ve found to be the best method in detail.

Methods for Cleaning Yourself

First, here’s a reminder of the important criteria of body cleaning methods:

  • How clean you get
  • How easy or difficult it is to do
  • How long it takes
  • How much enjoyment or discomfort it may cause
  • How much water it requires
  • How much equipment you need and how much it costs
  • If there’s a chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • If you’re getting things wet, how long they take to dry
  • Whether it’s possible to use this method inside your vehicle

Now, as you look through these cleaning methods, consider how well they accomplish the criteria above. Most of these have some major limitations and drawbacks.

  • Bucket of water and washcloth
  • Bathing in rivers, lakes, hot springs, and oceans
  • Using campground showers
  • Using Truck Stop showers
  • Showering at the homes of friends and family
  • Showering at a gym
  • Using wet wipes or a similar product
  • Using some type of mobile shower system
  • Wiping yourself with a wet rag

The best way to clean yourself

First, I’ll try to get you excited about it by sharing how well it accomplishes the important criteria of cleaning yourself:

  • You can get very clean. 99% as clean as a full on shower with soap. Clean enough that your picky girlfriend will never take issue.
  • It is very easy to do.
  • It takes only 5-10 minutes
  • It is not uncomfortable.
  • It uses only about three ounces of water. That’s it!  (maybe more if you have a lot of hair to wash)
  • It uses very little equipment. A week’s worth of bathing equipment takes up about the size of a 12oz can.
  • There is basically zero chance of making a mess in your vehicle or getting water where you don’t want it
  • When you’re done, your body is already more or less dry (you don’t ever need to dry yourself with a towel), and the bathing equipment is all dry in an hour or two.
  • You can do this method anywhere and everywhere. You can do it inside your van with a hundred people outside and they will never have any idea.

A “Rag Bath”

This method is essentially cleaning yourself with a washcloth. It has been used for many many thousands of years. It’s been so popular because it works so well. I’ve used other materials for the washcloth and I’ve settled on bandana. They are very thin and that’s why they work well. Because they are thin:

  • They get saturated with very little water
  • They dry very quickly
  • They take up very little storage space

They also work well because they are cheap. You can buy them for $1. They are durable and they last a long time. Forget about things that you have to take out of a package every time you bath – like wet wipes. Most of those are going to leave you feeling strangely sticky and chemically, and probably with a weird unnatural smell. You don’t need a product in a package every time you clean yourself.

The Bandana Ragbath Process

If it gets cold at night where you are, it’s generally better to do this while it’s near the warmest part of the day. If you exercise each day, do this after you’ve finished exercising and let your body cool down.

If it is quite cold where you are or when you want to bathe, and you want to make it more comfortable, warm up the water you’ll use first. When it’s really cold out, the water in your van will also get colder, and it will feel very cold on your body. If you heat up the water, it can feel kind of nice.

  • Get a normal bath towel or something similar. Lay it on the floor inside your vehicle.
  • Get out a clean bandana
  • Get a cup or some water container and put at least 4oz of water in it.
  • Take off your clothes and sit down on the towel
vanlife hygiene
All ready to go, with a towel to sit on, a bandana, and some water

 

  • Fold the bandana, get part of it folded over so it’s about 8 layers thick. (see picture below). hold that part in your hand and have your fingers out and up so that part of the bandana is sort of cupped. Pour some water onto that part of the bandana. Give it some time to soak in, so that most of the water you poured is absorbed.
vanlife hygiene
Letting water soak into the bandana
  • Wipe yourself with the wet bandana. Start with your face.
  • Pour more water on the bandana when needed to that the part of it you’ll use is saturated with water. Get it wet enough so there is water/wetness on your body while you’re cleaning, but that you don’t get totally soaked. Your skin should dry on it’s own within a minute or so. If you need to towel off a lot of your body at the end, you’re getting yourself more wet than you need to.
  • Start with your face. Then clean the other parts of your body that are the least dirty. Finish by cleaning the dirtiest parts of your body. Also, if there are some parts you want to make sure you get especially clean, do those early on.
  • As you go, refold and reverse the bandana so you’re using cleaner parts of it on yourself.
  • Clean your butt with a wet paper towel
  • The last parts of your body to clean with the bandana would normally be your armpits and feet.
  • Now you’re done. Put the bandana somewhere to dry. Depending on if/how wet the towel you’re sitting on got, either put that somewhere to dry, or put it away.
  • Rejoice. You’re very clean and you barely used any water. Isn’t mother nature (or physics) wonderful? You’re so clean now and you didn’t need to buy or use any products, and it barely took any water. This is SO EASY! Now you can relax and feel clean, go to sleep and feel cozy, go on a date, have sex, or whatever else you like to do while clean.

Rule #1 – Keep your Butt Clean

It’s quite late in the post to tell you this, but here it is. The #1 rule of Vanlife is to keep your butt clean.

There is a very good documentary called Surfwise, about a man and his family who lived in a mid size RV for decades. There’s a man and wife, and their NINE children. All in the one RV. The man is fascinating. He was a doctor, he was the first person to expose people in Isreal to surfing and he got famous for it, and many of his children became world-class surfers –  literally – world champions. The first half of this documentary is about how the man and wife came to meet, and how they lived in the RV. One specific line I remember from the movie: “Rule #1 of living in the RV is:  Keep Your Butt Clean”.

You may be able to find the documentary on Netflix or other streaming services. Or, if you really want, on Youtube.

He was right – it is important to keep your butt clean. That is, by far, the part of your body that gets the dirtiest. You may want to clean it a couple times a day.

Last point on bathing

Bathe yourself ever single day. Don’t skip days. If you bathe every day you’ll feel nice and clean. You won’t get stinky.

Don’t stink up your van with dirty laundry

  • Store it in a breathable container. A mesh laundry bag works well.
  • Don’t put it in that bag while it’s wet. Let it dry first.
  • You may like to put it in the sun first. The sun’s rays can kill a lot of bacteria and actually get fabrics quite clean (other than removing dirt). This is very effective for clothes that are stinky. Leave them in the sun for a few hours and they will stink much less, or not at all. Some folks will do a sort of dry sun laundry. They put the clothes in the sun for a few hours, maybe turn them around so both sides get the rays, and then consider them clean.

Signs you’re doing something wrong

  • If you smell bad
  • If your van smells bad
  • If you’re getting sick regularly. (though this could be from other reasons)

Don’t just endure these. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  You may not be able to stay exactly as clean while living in a vehicle as when you have a house with a shower and all that, but you can very easily stay 95% as clean. Don’t just assume you’ll be dirty. And don’t accept it (Unless you don’t mind being dirty. then, you know, whatever floats your boat, buddy.)

Conclusion

Have you tried out the bandana rag bath yet? Comment to tell me what you think of it. Or – what was it like the first few times you dug a hole and pooped outside?