Backpacking and camping are all fun and sweat until the day’s end rolls around. You’ve picked your campground, pitched your tent, and eaten a good meal. Now that it’s time to consider winding down for bed, it’s time to shower. However, if you aren’t car camping at a location with public showers, you’ll have to get a little more creative than finding an open shower stall.
If you’re unfamiliar with the art of getting clean in the wild, showering while camping can seem tricky, even intimidating, for newcomers. However, centuries of wilderness explorers have distilled their knowledge into writings, and common practice over the ages, and new ideas and inventions are continuously introduced.
Here, we’ll discuss 3 methods to provide the options that suit your needs.
The best way to take a shower is simply to…take a shower.
However, when you’re going camping, “simply” just isn’t that simple. Taking a shower in the wild involves hauling around a lot more gear than a pot and a bar of soap. Additionally, there is a moderate amount of setup involved in taking a real “shower” shower, and there is a limit to the length of any shower. This limit is set by the amount of water your device can hold and how quickly you can heat your water (if you want it hot).
On the other hand, a camping hygiene device such as a backpacking shower or heated camp shower is the only way to enjoy hot, running water while camping or hiking. This makes the burden of lugging around extra equipment an alluring option for many people.
There are three basic types of showering devices available for campers, each with its use:
1. Battery Operated Camp Showers
Battery operated camp showers are a semi-portable option for those who want to feel like they’re in a bath at home. These models are necessarily a pump and hose attached to a showerhead, which functions by pulling water from a container and forcing it at pressure out of the nozzle.
Battery operated camp showers are typically lightweight, easy to carry, and simpler for those who don’t want to hang a bag over their heads.
However, battery-operated showers don’t heat your water, which means you’ll have to heat your water before use (or resign yourself to a cold shower). These are best for short hiking trips.
2. Propane Heated Camp Showers
Propane heated showers are used almost exclusively in car camping or on very short hikes, as most models are too cumbersome to carry long distances. These units work by using propane to heat the water and typically come with a hose and showerhead to take a proper, hot shower.
Both of these methods are viable for taking a shower while camping. For this article’s purposes, though, we are only going to introduce a step-by-step process for our third option: the sun shower. Battery operated and propane heated camp showers’ use may vary between models and among manufacturers while taking a bag shower is much more straightforward.
3.The Sun Shower / Backpacking Shower
The sun shower, also called the solar shower or backpacking shower, is the cheapest of these three options. Typically, a sun shower is a black PVC bag with a hose, although units may vary by company.
To heat your water in a sun shower, all you have to do is fill the bag with water, hang it from a tree, and let the sun work for you.
However, sun showers come with one significant disadvantage: total reliance on the sun to heat your water. This means that if you’re hiking long distances or just arriving at your campsite at the end of the day, you’ve missed your window to warm your shower water naturally. If you wish, it’s possible to heat your water over the stove and pour it into your sun shower device – just don’t burn yourself!
On the other hand, if you’re not bringing one of the other devices, a “bag” shower like this will be your most likely option. Bag showers are lightweight, compact, and easy to use in almost any condition (so long as you have a tree or overhang near your campsite).
To take a backpacking shower:
Step 1 (Optional): Prepare
If you want a hot shower the natural way, you’ll need to prepare in advance by at least three or four hours. It’s recommended to start in the morning so that your water will be hot early to midafternoon.
To set up your shower, fill the bag with water and set or hang it directly in the sun. If you have a dark-colored cloth or surface of some kind, adding a black backdrop will speed up the process. If this isn’t an option, any area with direct sunlight will work.
It’s important to note that you’ll need to check your shower water temperature with this method, as sun shower bags can get hot enough to burn.
Step 2: Hang the Bag
When your water is hot or prefers a nice, cold shower to wake you up, move several hundred feet from the nearest water source. Be sure to bring your soap, a loofah or washcloth, and your camping towel with you. Find a suitable location beneath a tree and hang the bag on the sturdiest branch you can reach.
If you’re camping in an area with low or no trees, look for a nearby outcrop that may work. If this isn’t an option, you may need to hold the bag over your head – all you need is a little height, as sun showers function solely on the principle of gravity. If you have a friend with you and you aren’t shy (or have a blindfold), you can also ask them to hold your shower for you.
Step 3: The Three Stages
Conserving water is the name of the game if you plan on a hot shower start to finish, so it’s
recommended to shower in stages.
Stage 1: Rinse your body with as little water as is possible. When you’re wet all over, cut the
Stage 2: Lather your body with soap using the soap bar or a wet washcloth until you’re
sufficiently sudsy. If you have an eco-friendly shampoo with you, now is the time for that, too.
Stage 3: Turn the water on for a thorough rinse.
After you’ve used all of your hot water, you can dry yourself off, take your shower bag down, and go about your day feeling refreshed and hygienic.
Taking a shower isn’t the only way to get clean at the end of the day, however. There are a couple of other options that require less equipment for (almost) as good a clean as a hot shower.
The Natural Bath
Okay, so, this isn’t a shower (unless you’re brave and camping near a waterfall), and you can’t use soap or chemicals to get clean, as everything goes directly into the water.
That being said, a natural bath, such as in a river, a lake, or in the ocean, can be a fun way to get clean at the end of a long day’s hike. If possible, choose a location with moving water or currents, as bathing in stagnant water will leave you smelling funky.
While this option may not get you bacteria-free, natural waterways are an excellent way to wash off the dust and muck that accumulates throughout the day.
Depending on where you are and how many people are around, you may get to strip down to your bare bottom and go it au naturale, or you may want to keep some light clothing on for modesty. A natural bath (colloquially called a “river bath”) can be an excellent way to feel deeply cleansed.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind when taking a natural bath:
- Using soap is a no-no
- This method is not ideal for cold, icy, or lightning-infested weather
- Bathing downstream is recommended for hygiene reasons
The Sponge Bath
Sponge baths are your workaround to a full-on camping shower while still getting clean. Some people enjoy a sponge bath after a dunk in the lake to scrub away the bulk of the dirt, while others prefer to skip swimming with the fishes altogether. It’s worth mentioning that your clean/hot water supply is limited while camping, so if you’re covered in mud, a river bath is recommended first.
In planning for a sponge bath, you’ll need water and a heating apparatus, such as a stove or camping, and your biodegradable soap. You may choose an actual sponge for your bath or a washcloth or towel. You will also need a large towel or camping towel to dry off with, and if you’re not alone, you may want to bring your clothes with you.
- Pre-sponge bath preparation:
- Relocate 200 or more feet from the nearest freshwater source
- Heat your water onsite or bring your preheated water with you to your shower location (unless you don’t mind a frigid shower)
- Decide if you prefer to strip down naked and get clean head to toe or target “problem areas (such as the groin and armpits)
- After you’ve got everything set up and you’re naked (or not), it’s time actually to shower. If you’re using hot water, remember that your supply is limited, so try to get clean in stages like with the sun shower.
Stage 1: Get your sponge or cloth wet and wipe your body down
Stage 2: Lather up with your soap (and shampoo, if applicable)
Stage 3: Rise off your sponge and wipe down your body with fresh water
Repeat these steps on each part of your body until you’re fresh and clean, and then you’re good to go! Towel down, put on fresh clothes and hang out your wet cloths to dry for the next day’s shower.
Leave No Trace
Showering while camping, as with all outdoor adventures, advises LNT: Leave No Trace practices. These are actions that all hikers and campers should take to minimize human impact on the environment. Whereas most individuals are familiar with advice such as staying on trails and refraining from feeding the wildlife, showering practices are less discussed.
Humans are the only species that shower with chemicals to get squeaky clean, and many of these compounds are harmful to wildlife in any amount. Therefore, it’s important to keep these chemicals as contained as possible at shower time.
There are two easy steps all campers can take to reduce their impact on wildlife:
Use biodegradable soap. Non-biodegradable soap is incredibly dangerous to the soil, terrestrial flora, fauna, and even aquatic organisms. Inevitably, your soap will leach from the soil into nearby groundwater and eventually run into waterways.
There, the chemicals in your soap will break down and spread much further than your splash zone, harming the plants and animals into with it comes into contact. Biodegradable soap minimizes the risks your shower time has on nature.
Bathe several hundred feet from the nearest water source. While carrying all of your camping supplies – especially sloshing water – can be a chore, it’s crucial to reduce your soapy impact on the wildlife. This is important whether or not you use biodegradable soap.
The common rule of thumb, as mentioned above, is to keep 200 feet from the nearest pond or river – about 70 adult paces. This gives your soap time to start breaking down before it hits the most adjacent waterways, which will further reduce your impact.
Camping is full of decisions, from what to eat to where to sleep to how to shower. Depending on where and how you’re camping, you have several options to clean yourself. Your choices range from a delightful, old-fashioned river bath to a sophisticated, battery-operated shower head. Most likely, though, you’ll find yourself looking up into the canopy of a tree to watch the water flow out of a warm, black bag.