Sam Holstein

How to Use the Bathroom and Take a Shower When You Live in a Van

How to Use the Bathroom and Take a Shower When You Live in a Van

Living in a van is a lot like living in a house. You still have to go to work, you still have to pay your bills, and you still get to lie awake at night after breakups eating ice cream and watching Netflix.

There are a few differences, though. Like how the first thing people say when they find out you live in a van — the very first thing, always — is to ask you where you pee and poop.

“Look, I know we just met and all,” they say abashedly, aware that they are asking a complete stranger how they take a shit, “But, like, how do you use the bathroom in the van?”

My answer is always the same. “By sitting on the toilet. Just like everyone else.”

I’m being serious. From the outside, finding restroom facilities seems like one of the biggest problems of living in a van… but it’s not. If there’s one thing I truly love about America, it’s that there is always a bathroom available. Every corner store, gas station, tourist stop, and shopping center has at least one available. Even the public parks have porta-potties. Seriously, when you live in a camper in the states, finding a bathroom is the least of your concerns.

Allow me to drive the point home. I am diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a condition whose primary symptoms are unpredictable and uncontrollable bowel movements (you asked). Before living in a van, I was convinced I would be beset with all manner of bowel disasters. But in 14 months of living in a van, there were only two times I needed a bathroom and one wasn’t available. For those occasions, I had a trusty $30 Hassock portable toilet and waste disposal bags.

My mother once remarked that she wouldn’t be caught dead using such a primitive bathroom system. There are a lot of people who feel the same way as her. They buy either RV cassette toilets that can be several hundreds of dollars, or they go balls-deep and buy the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. Before I built my first van, I wanted the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. But now that I’m working on my second build, I’m just buying another $30 portable toilet. Here’s why:

  1. No matter what kind of toilet system you have, you are going to have to empty it. Because you want to avoid the process of emptying it, you are going to want to use public restrooms wherever possible. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of public restrooms in America, so you will barely ever be using your toilet system. The Nature’s Head Composting Toilet is pretty cool, but the Hassock portable toilet was also pretty cool, and it was $900 cheaper.
  2. Contrary to what it may seem, the Hassock portable toilet is not messy. It is not disgusting. Pooping in my Hassock in my van was a surprisingly peaceful and enjoyable experience. What’s more, it was easy to clean. I’ve never cleaned a Nature’s Head, but I’m willing to bet cleaning the Hassock is easier than cleaning the Nature’s Head.

In conclusion: Don’t worry about using the bathroom while living in your van. It’s literally a non-issue. Grab an emergency potty and don’t worry about it.

But what about showering?

The second thing people always said to me upon finding out I live in a van was “Well, if you ever need a place to crash, I’ve got a guest bedroom/futon/couch.”

My reply was polite. “I already have a bed, and it’s quite comfortable. Just like you, I prefer sleeping in the comfort of my own home. I could use a shower, though.”

Showers are more difficult to find than bathrooms. They are available at truck stops, at gyms, at friends houses, and that’s about it.

Most #vanlifers solve this problem by getting gym memberships. Back when you could go to the gym without wearing a facemask, I had a Black Card membership to Planet Fitness, which allowed me to use any of their thousand-or-so 24-hour locations. I could shower for as long as I liked, had endless hot water, and often went to Planet Fitness just to shower and use the massage chairs in the back.

Even though showers were more difficult to come by than bathrooms, though, I rarely felt like I was “going without” a shower. I showered either every day or every two days, which is about how often most people who live in homes shower anyway.

Some people get shower systems, ranging from camp showers they suspend on the back of the van to interior plumbed and tiled bathrooms with heated showers. I had none of these systems. I always went to the gym to shower, and I was always happy.

In fact, I preferred going to the gym to shower for this reason: I always went to the gym. It’s a lot harder to rationalize not going to the gym to exercise when you’re dependent on the gym for your shower.

This segues into a feature of van living that nobody realizes until you actually do it: There are many ways in which #vanlife is more convenient than house life. Sure, finding bathrooms and taking showers is inconvenient. But I could park and sleep at either Planet Fitness or Walmart in every city I visited, so a either a full grocery store with produce, resources, and anything else I may need or a gym with massage chairs, hot showers, and tanning booths was 50ft away every night. There were many nights I went to the gym or ate healthy fresh food simply because it was so accessible.

All this to say, don’t sweat showers on the road. Your van doesn’t need an interior bathroom with a shower or even a camp shower suspended on the rear doors. Your local gym should do just fine.

Of course, that was all before Coronavirus. I don’t know what the situation is now. My local LA Fitness is open to people who wear a mask and respect an occupancy limit, and most stores in the area have reduced hours. Are Planet Fitness locations 24 hours anymore? Are they even open? I have no idea. People setting off on local van adventures may not be able to rely on their gym memberships for showers anymore. You’ll have to look into gyms in your state and see which are open and which are not.

But of course, is it even ethical to travel in a van right now? You be the judge.