How Camping Showers Work

By: Rachel Oswald
man showering outdoors
Image Gallery: Personal Hygiene If all outdoor showers took place in this beautiful location in Costa Rica, they wouldn't be so bad. See more hygiene pictures.
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There's a reason camping in the great outdoors is so popular with so many people. The scenic views, glimpses of rare wildlife and good times around the campfire make any inconveniences worthwhile. But if there's one downside that a lot of us nature lovers could do without, it's the difficulty and hassle of trying to take a shower without the wonderful amenities of modern society.

If you're camping outside for more than a couple of days, you're going to wish for a good soak at some point as the grime builds up. There's always the shortcut of wet wipes, but sometimes that just doesn't cut it. A river or lake will suffice for a brisk, cold dip, but what about an actual shower?


Many public campsites have bathing facilities available for campers' showering use, but they're often short on hot water and occasionally unsanitary. Not good enough for you? A number of camping aficionados thought the same thing and designed camping shower systems to fight grime.

These camping showers vary greatly in cost, durability and ease of assembly, and remember that none of them will quite duplicate the experience of showering in the privacy of your own home. But that's part of the fun of camping.

So how do you keep clean in the wilderness with a camping shower of your very own? Keep reading to find out how they work.


Camping Shower Water Supplies

campground tent showers
When campground tent showers aren't available...

Camping shower setups range from your most basic watering can hung from a tree branch to the more complex vehicle-mounted, battery-operated showers. Most of these setups are going to have the following things in common: a showerhead, tubing and a water container. A lot of heated mobile camping showers will also include a small propane gas tank and a water pump.

Rigged watering cans are the easiest to set up -- simply fill a watering can from the nearest creek, find a convenient tree branch to hang it from, and then tip it to drip onto your head. (Solar showers are also really simple to set up, but we'll learn more about them later on in the article.)


If you'd like to upgrade from a watering can, you might consider a hot water camping shower. A popular model from the Zodi brand, for instance, comes with a multigallon water container, a water pump, a propane gas tank and a shower hose. The battery-operated pump can get you enough water to last for about a 10-minute shower, and the propane heats it up.

Going to be staying near your car during the trip? A vehicle-mounted shower system might work for you. A water pump submerged in a nearby body of water pushes the water through a heat exchanger that's connected to your running car's engine and out through the connecting water hose. And voila -- warm water!

Of course, some of these options are more practical than others, depending on what kind of camping trip you're taking. Propane gas showers and battery-operated, vehicle-mounted showers are durable and can heat up water quickly and provide good water pressure. The downside is that there's also a lot of gear required, which means extra weight to carry, and you'll also need to worry about replacement batteries and gas.

In addition to choosing which shower system works best for you, there's also the matter of privacy to consider. If you're someone who likes to shower away from prying eyes, continue reading to find out about shower shelters.


Camping Shower Shelters

Lace it up.

Don't like the idea of showering in the open for all to see? If you're camping with a large group of people, or if you're going to be outdoors at one location for an extended period of time, you might want to consider setting up a shelter around your showering system.

Camping shower shelters are available for purchase online and at most outdoor sports and camping supply stores. They range pretty widely in price, but they all look a bit like a tent. Most have four "walls" made of a fabric coated in polyurethane and fiberglass poles. Some have a ceiling, but they vary in terms of amenities. Handy features might include bars on the outside of the shelter for hanging towels and clothes, mesh pouches on the inside for holding your soap and other toiletries, waterproof pouches for your valuables and optional floors that are placed inside of the shelter to capture shower runoff.


You can also construct your own makeshift shower shelter with a large tarp that's folded in two, with its two open ends tied together with rope. You're also going to need several lengths of rope, some strong scissors or a knife for cutting the rope, and several long poles or sticks.

Here's how you can make your own shower shelter:

  • Lace a section of rope back and forth through one end of a tarp's two sides where they join together, the way that you might lace up your sneakers. (The tarp should have holes already provided in it, but if it doesn't, you can make your own with a knife.) Don't lace it up all the way -- you want to leave a large slit so you can actually get into it.
  • Stand up the tarp so that the open ends face the sky and the ground.
  • Cut two holes on either side of the top opening of the tarp. Hang a rope from a sturdy tree branch and put one end through each rope and secure with a knot.


Camping Shower Plumbing

Getting enough water for your camping shower can be a hassle if you haven't thought out your showering system beforehand. For the vehicle-mounted shower system, a submersible water pump is placed directly in an open body of water, so you'll be showering close to your car unless you brought a significant amount of hose with you. Keep in mind that the pump has to work extra hard to push water up an incline, so if you want good water pressure, don't park at the top of the slope.

Because they utilize a water pump, the propane gas shower and the vehicle-mounted shower have better water pressure than the solar shower, which relies on simple gravity. When purchasing a shower system, look for ones that include a showerhead with a large nozzle and thick tubing that isn't easily tangled up, as kinks in your shower hose are bad for water pressure.


If there isn't an open body of water near your campsite, you'll likely have to bring your showering and cooking water with you. If you're using water gathered from a lake or stream, you don't have to go through the same water-purification regimes that you would for preparing potable water.

However, you still have to make sure that your water is safe for showering by filtering it for obvious debris. This can be done by straining the water through a cotton shirt. Another one of the benefits of a hot water shower versus a cold water shower is that heat kills off microorganisms.

Now that we've considered how to protect ourselves from pollutants in water, we'll learn in the next section how to shield nature from the harmful chemicals in our own soapy water runoff.


Draining Camping Showers

man feet in the shower
When you're camping, those suds aren't so innocent.

When choosing a spot at your campsite to set up your shower, examine the grade of the land that you're on and pitch your shower downhill from the rest of your site. That way, water runoff is directed away from your other camping gear. Steer away from setting up your shower over plain dirt, as it will quickly turn to mud and defeat the whole purpose of washing up. Look for ground that's sandy or has some grass and leaves on it instead.

Your shower site should also be positioned so as to prevent drainage into open bodies of water, as the chemicals in your soap and shampoo can be very harmful to the ecosystem. Some campgrounds have rules for the proper disposal of water runoff, so you'll want to check the regulations for your site prior to your trip so you'll be adequately equipped. If you're at a site that requires total water runoff capture, you might consider purchasing a drain capture floor that you stand in while taking your shower.


These capture systems hold your shower runoff, also known as "gray water," until it can be emptied into a container and taken for disposal at a designated site on the campground. Even if you're at a campground that doesn't require 100 percent runoff capture, work to minimize the amount of harmful chemicals you're sending through shower runoff into open bodies of water. Pick up some biodegradable soap, too.

If water is very difficult to come by at your campsite, consider just rinsing off in the shower without washing with soap. That way, there are no chemical contaminants released into the wild and you can capture your shower water for reheating and reuse.

We'll learn about how to pick out a good spot to heat a solar camp shower in the next section.


Mechanics of Solar Camping Showers

Solar camp showers are the simplest of models. They turn energy from the sun into a heating source for your shower water. The water bags for solar camping showers are covered in a black of heat-absorbent material. To get that solar energy, you want to lay the bag on a rock, a table or the roof of your car -- the ground is too cool. If only one side of your water bag has the absorbent material, make sure that side is facing up.

The sun is at its hottest in the beginning of the afternoon, so your bag will heat the fastest during this time. Heating times vary depending on the outside temperature, but your water should be warm enough for showering in two to five hours. On really hot days, make sure it's not scalding -- a model with a built-in temperature strip is your best bet.


The pros of a solar camping shower are their low price, their lightness and the fact that they don't produce carbon dioxide emissions. But on the other side of the coin, it takes them a long time to heat up water, unlike a propane shower, and you're dependent on the fickle sun to show.

Not enough camping information for you? Click over to the next page for camping more articles to keep your wilderness-loving heart entertained.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

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  • Chambers, Bertha. "How to Use a Zodi Camp Shower." (accessed 12/3/2009)
  • Decker's Hot Camp Showers. "R & M Vehicle Mounted Hot Water Showers." (accessed 12/3/2009)
  • Decker's Hot Camp Showers. "Shower Tents & Privacy Shelters." (accessed 12/4/2009)
  • Decker's Hot Camp Showers. "Zodi Propane Showers & Water Heaters." (accessed 12/3/2009)
  • Doverspike, Louie. "How to Use a Sunshower." (accessed 12/4/2009)
  • Lorah, Katie. "How to Make a Camping Shower." (accessed 12/3/2009)
  • Marr, Ron. "What Is a Camping Shower?" Wise Geek. (accessed 12/3/2009)
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