Everything You Need to Know About Staying Fresh on a Road Trip
Vanlifers share their secrets for fending off the stink (with or without finding a shower)
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It’s easy to romanticize the great American road trip as an epic drive across rolling hills and desert plains. But after days of journeying through scenic highways and backroads in a cramped car or RV, you might start to feel a little icky and sticky. If your adventure doesn’t include an overnight stay at a motel with a hot shower, you might be wondering how to keep clean on the road. Vanlifers, who live in tight quarters full-time, have mastered the “shower optional” lifestyle with inventive ways to stay fresh on the road. I asked five vanlifers for their best travel-hygiene advice. Here are their tips.
What to Pack if Showers Won’t Be Available:
Asheville, North Carolina–based photographer and writer Erin McGrady regularly heads to the great outdoors with her wife, Caroline Whatley, in their 2018 Dodge Ram Promaster City. While traveling, they’ve forgone showers for as long as two weeks, but there’s one thing they haven’t gone a day without: “a fresh pair of underwear,” McGrady says. “We won’t think twice about wearing a T-shirt or shorts a couple days in a row, but we draw the line at underwear.”
A Good Microfiber Towel
McGrady and Whatley also have a pre-bed routine that keeps them from feeling grody on showerless days: each traveler dampens a small towel, pats her face first, then works her way down her body. “Do this right before bed and it’ll help you sleep better, especially if you don’t have A/C like us,” McGrady says. “It’s not nearly as satisfying as a hot shower, but it’ll get the sweat and grime off of you and make climbing into bed feel a little less gross.” They recommend REI’s Multi Towel Deluxe (from $23), which is extra soft and usually able to dry in an hour or so.
Vanlifers Chase and Mariajosé Greene, who work and live on the road full-time, agree that good towels are indispensable—they use PackTowl microfiber towels (from $12). “They dry so fast, they don’t smell nasty after a few uses, and they pack down to the size of a folded pair of underwear,” says Chase.
Writer, adventurer, and photographer Noël Russell travels cross-country in a converted camper van named Francis Ford Campola. She recommends a few tried-and-true ways to extend the time between showers: “Using biodegradable face and body wipes has allowed me to clean up easily before heading to bed,” she says. On warmer days, a spritz of chilled rose water helps Russell feel fresher. She swears by Ursa Major’s Essential Face Wipes ($24 for a 20-pack).
“Dry shampoo is one of the greatest inventions, in my opinion,” says Mariajosé Greene. She is a big fan of Living Proof’s products (from $26). “They have one that makes your hair look freshly washed, and another one that makes it look like it was washed a day or two ago,” says her husband, Chase.
What to Do When You Really Need a Shower:
Customize Your Vehicle
When the Greenes downsized from an old Nashville Metro school bus to a Sprinter van, there were two things they weren’t willing to give up: a shower and a toilet. So they built them themselves. Their space-efficient lav features hexagonal tiles, a water-saving shower head, a self-cleaning retractable shower door, and a composting toilet. “It was built to be a wet bath, much like a boat,” says Chase. Water is at a premium, so the Greenes have to be economical. “We never open the faucet more than a third of the way and we cut the water off while we lather up or scrub, only turning it back on when we need to rinse off,” Chase says.
Make a DIY Portable Shower
If you don’t have the resources to add a full shower to your car or van, fear not. YouTuber Ahlexandria Tejas, a.k.a. Hobo Ahle, has been living in her vehicle for six years and has acquired a lot of strategies for staying clean. The most reliable is a DIY shower she made by attaching a kitchen-sink nozzle to a modified pressurized weed sprayer, with a plastic kiddie pool as the base to catch the water. She’s even used it to take a shower in the back of a Honda Civic, crouching in the pool, which she placed on her backseat. “I actually really enjoy this method because it keeps me very conscious of the amount of water I use for showers,” she says. While Tejas has a fancier pop-up outdoor shower tent, she prefers to use it when she’s with a friend. “I’d feel a tad too vulnerable safety-wise,” she says.
Find a Campsite or RV Park
When Noël Russell can’t go any longer without a shower, she visits an RV resort that offers pay showers to the public. “I’ve nearly perfected the art of blitz-bathing to save my coins,” she says.
While Tejas mostly relies on her portable shower, she will also gladly pay for a hot shower at a campground or a rest stop like Love’s, especially when there’s a special occasion like a friend’s wedding or a business meeting.
Go to a Gym
Jennelle Eliana made a splash on YouTube in 2019 with a series of videos on her life as a solo female traveler living in a van—including one on how she showers, which has garnered more than 18 million views. For Eliana, daily hot showers are a must. Pre-pandemic, she would frequent gyms and yoga studios (at the latter, the “showers are a lot nicer”). And when she visits climbing gyms, she will jump at the opportunity to soak in the luxury of the shower after a rigorous workout.
The Greenes also head to the gym when they’re craving a longer shower than they can take in their van. “We use Planet Fitness Black Card memberships because their gyms always have showers, and we gain access to every gym in their network.” But they have a rule: they will take a shower there only if they’ve worked out for an hour. “It keeps us in shape and then we can clean up there and save our water supply for other things.”
Jump in a Lake or River
Perhaps the best way to stay clean is the simplest: a dunk in a refreshing body of water. “Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find a good river or lake to bathe in,” Eliana says. But it’s important to leave no trace. “I want to make sure I’m not using any harsh chemicals.” Dr. Bronner’s ($19 for a 32-ounce bottle) is Eliana’s favorite biodegradable soap—and the favorite of most of the vanlifers I spoke to.