“Vanlife is exchanging varying levels of comfort for freedom…and comfort is the thief of your destiny.”
*In this blog post, rather than using the phrase ‘fixed interior shower’ each time when referring to ‘a shower’, it can be inferred that I’m talking about a fixed traditional interior shower unless otherwise stated.
Camper vans are rather compact in comparison to the average American one-bedroom apartment. Coming from a house or apartment and knowing what you want or need can be difficult. Sure, there are tons of blogs and videos from experienced vanlifers now, but at the end of the day, everyone has different levels of convenience that they’re comfortable with. You need a place to sleep and you also need some storage, after that the rest is up to you. I’ve seen vans without kitchens and bathrooms. What you want to use that extra space for is subjective to what you feel is necessary for your new lifestyle. In this blog post, I’ll discuss what I chose to do on my first two vans vs. my third van and why I ultimately went with those decisions. You might be surprised by what I chose to do on my third van.
Before asking this question: “Should I get an interior shower or opt for no interior shower when building my van?”
The first question you should ask yourself is: “What level of inconvenience am I comfortable with?”
The second question you should ask yourself is: “What type of traveling do I plan to do in my van?”
Let’s discuss those two questions…
The first question is up to you. Most people coming from a nice house or apartment are probably not willing to give up too much convenience while someone who has backpacked or done some time “roughing it” might be more ‘comfortable with discomfort’. Ultimately you’ll need to decide that for yourself which is why I recommend renting a van without a shower for a week or two and seeing if it’s annoying to you.
The second question is more nuanced and based on who you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, and where you mostly plan on going. Are you a retiree who plans to visit national parks and stay in campgrounds? Are you a millennial trying to save on rent and will be staying mostly in the city? Are you a solo female? Are you ex-military? Are you an outdoor adventurist? Are you a grandmother looking for a fun way to visit all her grandchildren?
As you can see, there’s not one right answer to the question of interior shower or no shower.
The case FOR an interior shower
If you are brand new to vanlife and want to maximize your chances of enjoying the experience, then you might want to go with an interior shower. Many vanlifers who choose to not put in a shower find it incredibly annoying and end up quitting or building a second van with an interior shower.
The Cold Weather Argument
One major factor in opting for an interior shower is if you’re living in your van full-time in cold snowy climates where you plan on taking ski trips or partaking in outdoor sports for a good length of time. In this scenario, campgrounds are mostly closed, and showering outside in the cold is not really that nice. Also, having an interior shower doubles as a nice place to dry all your skiing or snowboarding gear. So if you’re a big winter sports person then, it might make sense to put in an interior shower. It might also make sense to install an integrated heater to keep you toasty inside the van when temperatures drop.
Another factor that might dictate the desire for a shower is if you need a closet. If you’re the type of person that a closet is a non-negotiable for then, your shower could double as a closet (the downside being that you’d have to remove everything each time you want to take a shower). The shower also doubles as a drying closet for all your skiing or snowboarding gear which really starts to make even more sense for the cold-weather traveler. If you do decide to include a shower inside your van. You’ll have to build the floor plan around it, and you’re sacrificing storage space that is already incredibly limited. Repurposing the shower as a closet is great when you aren’t using it, but now every time you go to shower, as we mentioned in the closet example, that stuff has to be pulled out and moved. If you’re ok with that you’ll have a closet in your van which can be pretty useful.
A Little Privacy Please
Another great reason to have an interior shower in your van is that you can put your toilet in your closet for additional ‘business privacy’ when traveling with someone else. If you’re traveling as a couple, or a family or simply plan on traveling a lot with friends, then having a private area for ‘business time’ might be a non-negotiable for you. The shower essentially like having a tiny room in your tiny van for a tiny bit of private time.
The case AGAINST an interior shower
I went with no interior on my first two vans. Ultimately, for the reasons explained below, it made a lot of sense for me not to put a shower in my first two vans. For my lifestyle and type of traveling at the time, it was something I was comfortable with. Remember those first two questions? But as you’ll read later…people, their lifestyles and their preferred comfort levels can change (even me).
Where are you gonna put all the gear?
Transitioning to vanlife means foregoing the lifestyle you’re accustomed to. You’re not waking up, showering, and going off to work anymore. Vans are typically less than 80 square feet of living space, which is why it is so important to make every inch of space matter. Not having a shower in your van allows you to dedicate that space to something you love. During my first five years in a van, I was in love with adventure (and still am). I had a lot of outdoor gear and I needed places to store that gear. I was single and didn’t mind going a day or two without showering if it meant being able to go on more adventures. But besides that, I was working out a lot so I was going to the gym several times a week (whenever I was in the city). I was also camping a lot so I was frequently near campgrounds with showers. Essentially I was a man on the go, looking for the next adventure. Having the gear to do those adventures was far more important to me than the convenience of taking a shower inside my van.
Another benefit of not having a shower in the van is your water consumption will go down greatly. The average shower in the United States uses 17 gallons of water. Obviously, you’re not going to be using that much water in a van shower (let’s hope not), but even half of that 8.5 gallons is a lot. If you’re consuming less water daily it means you could put in a smaller water tank (more gear storage), stay off grid longer, or need to fill your water up less frequently. It’s a great feeling not needing to worry about where you’re going to fill your tank and then actually having to fill your tank. One might argue that this is offset by the fact that you have to find places to shower, which can be equally annoying. For me, I was already going to the gym to work out whenever I was in the city, already around campgrounds when in the wild, and already passing truck stops when on the road…heck I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve even showered several times in a self-service car wash. My point is, that there’s almost always a place you can shower wherever you go, and in the rare chance there isn’t, you should always have an outdoor shower.
Not only will you need more freshwater storage for your van if you have an interior shower, but you’ll also need more greywater storage. Luckily, Vanlife Outfitters makes a 26-gallon Undermount Grey Water Tank for the Ram Promaster which limits the need to find a place for dumping that grey water far less often.
Outdoor Shower, No Problem
If you’re not going to put a shower inside your van, it’s almost a necessity to have a shower outside your van. Sometimes there isn’t a gym around and sometimes the campgrounds are closed, for these occurrences, an outdoor shower will ensure you stay squeaky clean and stink-free. Most people put the outdoor shower in the rear of the van and Vanlife Outfitters even created a privacy shower curtain that works with most van models by utilizing the rear doors in the design. On my first van, I had my kitchen faucet and sink in the sliding doorway so that my pull-out faucet doubled as a shower (something unique at the time that tons of people do now). One thing to keep in mind for outdoor showers is to make sure you’re using natural biodegradable soaps and shampoos.
A word on the ‘Purple Palace’ and Anytime Fitness…
If you’re frequently in or around cities with access to Planet Fitness, their $20 monthly membership for access to all locations is a sweet deal. First of all, most Planet Fitness locations are open 24/7 and 365 days a year. Their gyms and bathroom facilities are usually very clean and updated. You can take hot showers as long as you’d like, bring a guest anytime, and have access to their ‘black card’ amenities (tanning, beds, massage beds and lounge/co-working area). There’s almost always a Planet Fitness in most cities.
Anytime Fitness, also open 24/7 and 365, is a little more expensive but also a great option for a couple of other reasons. First, Anytime Fitness locations usually provide private locker rooms as opposed to the shared style at Planet Fitness. Anytime Fitness also has more locations in smaller cities (and in the usual big cities) which can be appealing for someone who likes to spend time in smaller towns. I couldn’t tell you how many times the closest Planet Fitness was 30-60 minutes away, but there was an Anytime Fitness around the corner.
Campsites, rec centers, truck stops and…car washes?
Other than that, campsites, RV Parks, and recreation centers commonly have free access to showers and sometimes for a small fee even if you aren’t staying there. I’ve never been refused by a camp host when I’ve asked to use the shower politely. Truck stops are also notorious for having clean, although sometimes expensive, showers. The cost of a truck stop shower usually costs between $10 to $15, which is expensive, but I’ve only needed to use one a handful of times.
So much more room for activities…
One of the most overlooked benefits of not having a shower in the van is that it opens the van up to so many more floor plan possibilities. When you have an interior shower, you’re going to need to plan your entire floor plan around your shower. Not only floor plan limitations, but it makes the van feel so much bigger when the view from the front of the van to the back of the van isn’t obstructed. With a shower inside, it tends to make the van feel cramped and claustrophobic.
The Sweet Spot (Conclusion)
As I’ve gotten older and less adventurous, I will admit I’ve been a little more flexible on my ‘no interior shower stance’. Traveling with a girlfriend has also made me more aware of the female perspective of things. I’ve also been more interested in Winter sports as well. Showering outside in below-freezing temperatures is not fun. Also, sometimes when you’re tired or sore and don’t plan on working out, the last thing you want to do is drive to the gym to take a shower (I sound like a crabby old man).
But all those things combined I would still not want a shower inside my van because as I mentioned before, it can make the van feel claustrophobic with a big shower blocking the views and jutting into the walk space. That was until I discovered an amazing new product called the Tetravan folding shower. The Tetravan folding shower (and other homemade convertible showers) allows you to fold the shower down to use it with a four-sided curtain. And you can tuck the shower and curtain away when you aren’t using it. This allows you to keep your van looking open and clean most of the time and the shower isn’t difficult to set up at all (takes about 1 minute).
I find that having a convertible interior shower, specifically the Tetravan folding shower, is the perfect solution for someone who wants to keep their gear storage and keep their open floor plan while also having the benefit of an interior shower. I still use my outdoor shower and I still shower at the gym, campsites, and the occasional self-service car wash, but it’s nice to have the option to shower inside when it didn’t exist for someone like me (unwilling to compromise) before.