Staying clean when water is scarce

Living on the road, it takes some preparation to effectively wash clothes, dishes, and of course, your body. Waste disposal is also not as simple as flushing toilets and taking out the trash.

Waste elimination

Maintaining our daily elimination cycle is one of the more difficult parts of van dwelling. Using a public restroom is best whenever one is available. At a campground or secluded area, you can dig a hole and bury the deed. Sometimes there is no other choice but to go in the van, so you should prepare for this eventuality.

The most rudimentary toilet is just a bucket lined with a couple layers of plastic bags. You’ll want to seal up the bags and dispose of them as soon as possible to avoid gassing yourself. A more sanitary long-term choice would be a chemical camp toilet or RV toilet. Cat litter or wood chips will also absorb odors.


For personal hygiene, the most reliable way to find a shower is with a gym membership. Try to get a membership at a nationwide gym that has facilities near the places where you plan to travel. The monthly cost usually ranges from $10 to $50, or much higher for “elite” clubs. Shop around for the cheapest plan if you’re just looking for a place with hot, running water.

If you are careful to stay clean and avoid sweating, it’s possible to get by with a quick “sponge bath” around the body’s [cough] scent-producing areas. When the temperature is mild, solar-heated camping showers can get warm enough for a comfortable stream of water to clean up. Some people fashion a portable shower by drilling a hole in the bottom of a bucket and attaching a shower head with a valve to adjust the flow.

Washing dishes

The home-style approach to washing dishes is very wasteful of fresh water, which is a precious resource in a van dwelling. If you wipe down your dishes immediately after use and avoid especially sticky foods, you can use a much smaller amount of water to buff up your dishes before and after use.

Doing laundry

If you can afford it, the best option for laundry is just to use a laundromat. There is not much more to be said about laundromats, so let’s focus on other options.

First is to reduce the amount of laundry that you have to do. If you change your clothes once or twice a day and aren’t sweating a lot, you can usually wear the same clothes for several days before they develop an odor or wrinkles.

One of the simplest (but labor intensive!) methods of washing clothes is with a couple of buckets and a washboard.

The Scrubba is a water-tight bag with little nubs inside that play a similar role as a washboard but requiring less effort. After use, the bag folds down to take up much less space than a bucket. The product reportedly works well for what it does, but it may not hold up well under regular use.

On the topic of clothing, consider getting some nice clothes that would be considered “business casual”, even if that’s really not your style. People won’t look twice at a clean-cut office worker filling up a water bottle at a drinking fountain in the commons of an office building, while a stereotypical “dirty” person may find themselves escorted off the premises for the same activity. This makes acquiring clean drinking water much easier.