It’s common to associate van life with being dirty and having poor hygiene. No question your cleaning routine may change once you’re on the road, but that doesn’t mean your van life hygiene has to suffer!
From showering, going to the bathroom, doing laundry or washing dishes, I’m going to share all of my best practices for staying clean on the road.
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We live in a society that’s a little too obsessed with staying clean. Showering everyday can lead to health problems such as dry, cracked skin, dull hair and even bacterial infections. When you’re constantly killing disease-fighting bacteria that lives on your skin, you increase chances of sickness. Nevermind the water waste!
But I’m not here to lecture. I’m just here to point out that letting your skin and hair absorb their natural oils and good bacteria for a few extra days can actually do wonders for your health. Your van life hygiene routine can be a step in a healthier direction.
But, you’ll still need to shower on a semi-regular basis. The best methods I’ve found for showering on the road are:
Nationwide gym chains give you access to 24/7 showers for a fraction of the cost compared to campground or truck stop showers. Check out my round-up of the top nationwide gym chains (Planet Fitness is my personal favorite for pricing and nationwide availability).
There are all sorts of easy-to-use rechargeable shower heads, portable showers, solar showers and shower bags to fit your preferred showering style. Here are my top portable shower choices.
Truck stop showers
If you happen to be on a road trip crossing state lines, truck stop chains such as Love’s and Pilot Flying J’s offer clean showering stalls with locked doors– even fresh towels. But they’re a little pricey–around $10-15 for a shower. Check out more details on truck stop showers here.
You can bank on most campgrounds around the country having hot showers–the question is, how long will your hot shower last?! Some campground showers are dirty and scary, others are clean and cozy and amazing. It’s always a bit of a gamble!
Rivers and lakes
If you’re off-grid, bathing in a river or lake is one of the most au-natural ways to shower. You might not have the warmest water, but you’ll probably have great views! Just make sure to use eco-friendly soaps (I prefer Dr. Bronner). Learn more about bathing in natural bodies of water here.
For the ultimate “DIY” shower, you can opt for baby wipes, lather-up wipes (just add water) or biodegradable body wipes for a quick “shower” fix. These are great options if privacy or time isn’t readily available. Since body wipes won’t clean hair, you can usually go a few extra days without washing it by using dry shampoo.
Public park bathrooms
I’ve run into numerous city park bathrooms on hot summer days to quickly rinse off. Not a full shower but a cool-down, they are free and convenient stops for getting some fresh water on your skin! Check out the top 100 largest city parks.
Public beach showers
Many ocean-side public beaches offer free outdoor showers. These showers are an excellent, convenient option if you happen to be on the coast and need a quick rinse. But of course, they’re only ideal in warm weather!
Going to the Bathroom
Probably the biggest van life hygiene question: when nature calls, what are your options? Some are certainly more appealing than others, but here are the methods that have worked for me when going to the bathroom in van life:
All you need is a good poop shovel, fairly soft ground and some privacy to really connect with nature. If you don’t want to squat, you can use a portable toilet such as the Vingli or Playberg to sit on. Just be sure to properly poop outside by following the Leave No Trace guidelines:
- Make sure you are 200 feet away from any natural water source
- Dig a cathole at least six inches deep
- Cover up your hole after doing business
- Take any used toilet paper with you or wipe with leaves
Trust me, going to the bathroom outside is not as bad as it may sound. If you’re worried about meeting up with other road travelers and struggling to find privacy or not “be obvious” about going to the bathroom in front of them, just remember–everyone poops!
For ultimate discreteness, you can opt for a very compact trowel as your poop shovel. You can even use regular dog poop bags with a small dispenser for carrying out your used toilet paper.
If you want a toilet in your campervan, there are lots of different types that manage waste differently. On the pricier end you have cassette toilets, compost and flushing toilets. These toilets can typically last about a week before needing to be emptied. You can dump them in porter potties, public restrooms or dump stations.
On the cheaper end, you have bucket or folding toilets that use baggies and zip ties to hold waste per use. These toilets are very compact and stay cleaner since they are emptied after each use. Read my full breakdown on portable camping toilets here.
Try visiting your local gym chains or public park bathrooms at midday, less popular times to increase your chances of having a little privacy. Another perk of having a membership to a nationwide gym chain is having access to their toilets! Grocery stores, gas stations, Walmarts, coffee shops–any customer-facing shop will have a public bathroom for you to use.
Van Life Laundry
Don’t over-wash clothes
You can easily wear the same outfit multiple times without washing if you aren’t excessively sweating or getting dirty. I often wear the same pair of sweatpants and tank top day after day when simply working on my laptop in the desert.
While you can use a fabric freshener if you’re really worried about smelling, you can also lay out clothes in the sunlight to help naturally kill stinky bacteria (and keep money in your pocket).
Have a “get dirty” outfit
This outfit is your designated outfit for, basically, beating the crap out of. I buy a cheap pair of foam sandals, cotton sweatpants and tank top from WalMart that serves as my “I don’t care what happens to these clothes” outfit. They get stained from cooking, dirty and dusty from wandering around the desert, and worn down from sun and activity.
But having an outfit like this is so relieving because you just don’t care what happens to it. It also means less mess in your van. No shuffling around clothes to find a new outfit everyday, and no piling up of new dirty clothes!
Manually wash clothes
Manually washing clothes means smaller, more frequent loads of laundry. Unlike “laundry day” at a laundromat, this can be appealing for those who dread driving into town every week or so.
If you’re near a lake or river, you can use a splash of eco-friendly laundry detergent to scrub your clothes clean in the freshwater source. I use this collapsible laundry bucket (with drain) so I can let the clothes soak in the soapy water. The bucket is perfect for using to wash dishes, as well.
If you want to take some of the manual work out of hand-washing clothes, you can consider a hand wash bag plunger set–this thing looks pretty cool. I can’t vouch for it as I’ve never used it, but it has great reviews!
You can also mix baking soda with water to create a bacteria-killing, cheap method of washing your clothes. You may not get that “fresh laundry” smell, but what matters is killing the stinky bacteria. From there, I just let my clothes air-dry by hanging them off my van or camp chair!
I recommend washing EVERYTHING at the same time. This includes linen, rugs and clothing. Because when you live in such a small space, one dirty item ruins that “fresh clean” feeling even if everything else is freshly washed.
Many vanlifers have “laundry day” where they drive into town, wash and put away everything. Myself and friends like renting one of the huge, commercial-style washing machines that we can throw everything in at once. This way, we save time and money.
There are a couple of big pitfalls to laundromats, though. They tend to be very crowded on weekends and week nights. I recommend going during off-hours. The other pitfall is that many are either coin-operated or require you to buy a special “laundry card” that is unique to only their laundromat. This means you have to add money to the card before doing your laundry, and usually results in lost money every time you have to get a new card.
Check out this list of the biggest laundromat chains across the US so you can (ideally) stick to one laundromat, allowing you to use the same laundromat card at multiple locations.
Use truck stop laundromats
Some truck stop / travel plaza hybrids such as Love’s, Petro and Pilot Flying J’s offer laundry services (along with shower services). You can run your laundry and take a shower all at once!
You can expect to find laundromats at most Pilots and Petros. Unfortunately, not all Love’s locations have laundry services yet–check out a full list of ones that do. Of course, travel plazas are only found along freeways and highways, so this is an ideal option if you’re caravanning long distances.
Storing dirty laundry
Since I travel solo, I’m able to store my dirty laundry hamper underneath my passenger seat. I recommend a big, cotton or mesh laundry bag since you’ll probably be throwing a lot in it once laundry day arrives. Be sure to throw the laundry bag in with the rest of the wash.
Van life hygiene involves the “hygiene” of your van as well. Keeping your van organized and relatively dirt and dust-free can be exhausting. From my experience, it’s a lot easier to do smaller “mini” van cleans every week than one huge cleaning every month or so. Here are my tips for minimizing the workload.
Keep a simple brush/dust pan set on hand for everything from sweeping your van floors or dashboards to dusting off your outdoor equipment. I would use my little Dollar Store dustpan all of the time to help prevent tracking in more dust than I already was.
Wipe down regularly
While you can opt for a disinfectant spray, sometimes a good ‘ol water spritz and wipe-down is enough to clean your space. Wipe down your dashboard, table space, and any other spaces to prevent dirt build-up. You can also use vinegar or baking soda mixed with water as a natural disinfectant.
Designate storage space
Try to keep items stored in the same places in your van. For example, I store my camp chair and hiking shoes inside the back bench behind my driver’s side. Since those items are frequently used outside, I contain the dirt and dust to just their storage areas.
From clothing to dishes, the less you use, the less mess you’ll have! I recommend washing dishes as soon as possible after using them. This helps avoid a buildup of dirty dishes sitting in your van.
Have “outdoor” shoes
My cheap, foam sandals from WalMart were perfect for slipping on and off when exiting and entering the van. Here’s a similar pair for $9. These sandals were “forbidden” from entering the van throughout the day.
Depending on your sink setup, washing dishes in your van can be a breeze or really time-consuming. Here’s what has worked for me.
Wash Dishes ASAP
If I’m making a low-maintenance meal that doesn’t require many dishes, I’ll try to rinse them off immediately. It’s easier and–along with my van space–keeps my headspace clear from another chore to do later.
I have other van friends that simply use their water spritzer to quickly rinse dishes–sometimes without soap–so they can knock it off the chore list.
Sometimes I love making fancy meals that dirty a lot of dishes. In this case, I’ll heat up a pot of water until it’s boiling and pour it into my collapsible drain bucket. Then, I’ll toss all of the dirty dishes in and let soak until I’m ready to wash them.
Did you know that the heat from water kills more bacteria than soap? If you simply soak your dishes in hot water, let the hot water do the work for you! It also makes food particles slide right off items, rather than needing to scrub them and waste more water (and time).
Do Dishes Outside
Okay, this is personal preference because my van’s sink setup is pretty limited. But I don’t end up flinging soap or dirty water around the van when washing if I just take my wash bin outside. It’s also easy to just let my dishes air-dry at that point. Just make sure you use eco-friendly dish soap or baking soda!
Summing It Up
Does van life still sound worth it? Ha!
Like anything in life, transitions will take some time to adjust to but hopefully these van life hygiene hacks will help make your transition a little bit smoother!