The Van Bathroom

[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these “how-to” posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]

Whenever people find out that I live fulltime in my camper van, their first question is always “how do you poop?” (It makes me feel something like an astronaut, who also always get asked that question.)

Yes, my van does have a bathroom, though it is a miniversion of one, and is based on functionality, not on aesthetics.

Many of the Class A motorhomes now come with built-in shower stalls. These use small heated water tanks which run through a shower head and drain into a waste tank underneath. Most Class B camper vans simply don’t have the space for one of these—though a few models do. Most often, these come with a little stool to sit on since there’s not enough room to stand up. I have seen homemade shower systems fitted into converted camper vans: they are based on adding a long hose to one of the hand-pumped water sprayers that are available at any garden shop. These can hold a gallon or so of water, and by pumping up the handle a few times, it pressurizes the system and allows you to spray a (rather low-powered) jet of water for a few minutes before the pressure gives out and you have to pump it again. By adding a long hose and a better spray nozzle (the ones used in kitchen sink hoses work just fine), you can rig up a “shower” that can reach far enough to spray you from head to toe. (And if you paint the sprayer black and sit it outside for a while, you can even get solar-heated water.) For better pressure, some people rig up an electric aquarium pump inside the water storage jug to pump water up a tube to the shower head. But this then requires that the pump be plugged into an outlet and run off your generator or solar panel.

Another option is the “camp shower” that you can find in a sporting goods store. These are plastic bags that are connected to a spray head. You fill the bag with water, let it warm in the sun, and hang it from a tree branch (or the roof of your van) and the water showers out the spray head. A much simpler version can be made with nothing more than a wide-mouthed plastic bottle with a series of holes drilled through the cap. This can either be hung from the roof, or held in the hand and used like a shower head.

For a shower stall, I’ve seen people use a plastic (or inflatable) kiddie pool or a large plastic storage basin to stand (or sit) in, and rig up a shower curtain to a hula hoop or PVC pipe frame hung from the ceiling. The curtain keeps the water in, and the tub prevents it from soaking the floor of your van. You’ll have to either dump the tub out when you’re done, or rig up a hose that you can open and drain out the door.

My van, alas, doesn’t have room for such a luxury. So if I want a nice long hot shower, I use my membership at Planet Fitness, which has branches all over the country and always has showers available 24/7 (and also provides an overnight parking spot if I need one in a pinch).

But mostly I just wash up in the sink. There are portable sinks commercially available for campers that have a storage tank on top which uses gravity to feed water down to the faucet, and the used wastewater then drains down into another storage tank on the floor. Anyone with some carpentry skills could probably make one of these.

My versions have been a bit more crude, but they hold water while I am washing up and drain afterwards, and that’s all they need to do. For my first sink, I used a large stainless steel mixing bowl. By cutting a hole in the bottom with a dremel tool and fitting a drain and rubber plug from the Home Depot, I converted this into a sink bowl with a drainpipe. Then I took a set of wooden shelves and cut a hole into the top, fit the sink bowl into this, and sealed it under the rim with plumber putty. To use the sink, I put in the rubber plug, pour in half a gallon of water, take my sink/sponge bath, then pop the plug and let the wastewater drain out into a five-gallon bucket underneath. The bucket then gets emptied outside in the grass. (I use biodegradable soap, but since this can still be toxic to aquatic life, this “greywater” should not be dumped anywhere in or near open water.)

Alas, a few months later, the sink frame somehow came loose from the wall of the van and fell over as I was driving, breaking one of the legs. As a temporary measure until I could fix the broken frame, I set the bucket directly on the floor (held to the wall with a bungee cord) and placed the metal sink bowl on top of it. That turned out to work just fine: it took up less room, and I didn’t need to try to stand up in the van to wash up in the sink. So I dispensed with the shelf frame entirely.

Then a few months later I found a nicer option: the plastic “fish-cleaning tables” that are available at sporting goods stores. These have counter space and a molded-in sink bowl with a drain that can be set up to run into a bucket underneath. So I replaced my mixing-bowl sink with that, and have used it ever since.

The simplest “sink” of all, of course, would be a plain ole plastic dishpan on a shelf or countertop, which is filled with water and then dumped out when done.

To get hot water, I can heat up a potful on my stove. But on warm days I also have a few black plastic quart water bottles that I can nestle atop the van’s dashboard, where they are heated by the sun and produce hot water in just a few hours.

As an old backpacker, I always use biodegradable liquid soaps. This works on both skin and hair; since “shampoo” is itself nothing but liquid soap with some perfumes added, there is no need for both. Some people like to wash their hair with a baking soda solution, made by dissolving a few tablespoons of sodium bicarbonate into water. In areas where water is scarce, or in winter when one does not want to go outside with wet hair, some people use the “waterless shampoos” that are available in camping supply stores. These are usually sprays based on alcohol or powders based on cornstarch. You just spray or rub it into your hair and comb it out. I also keep a supply of baby wipes and a pump-bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer on hand for quick waterless cleanups.

Well, what about the other part of the “bathroom”? How do I poop…?

If you are boondocking alone out in the countryside, your simplest option is the backpacker’s “cathole”. This is simply a hole dug into the dirt, about 10-12 inches deep. You deposit your poop in here, then cover it back up, and natural soil bacteria will break it down in a short time. To prevent contamination, you do not want to do this within 50 yards of any water source. Catholes also are not suited for desert environments, since there are not enough bacteria present to cause decay, and your poop might be preserved for many years.

Many commercial Class B vans now come with built-in chemical toilets. You can also buy these as separate units for your converted campervan. Most of them, originally designed for boats, have an upper chamber and a lower; wastes drop into the lower chamber with some disinfecting and deodorizing chemicals. The upper chamber then detaches from the lower, allowing it to be dumped into a bag for disposal.

There are also portable “composting” toilets available. These store your poop inside an odor-proof chamber, where bacteria work on it and convert it over time into a dry powdery compost fertilizer, which is completely odorless. When the chamber is full, you can either dispose of the compost in a dumpster or spread it on some flowers.

Some Class B RV vans (and all Class A motorhomes) hook their toilet up to drain directly into a “blackwater” storage tank. This must then be periodically emptied through a hose into disposal tanks found at RV parks, specially made for this purpose.

Mostly, though, as an urban camper I can pee and poop during the day wherever I happen to be. And since the Walmart is open 24/7, I always have a place to pee or poop at night when I get home, before I go to sleep.

For those middle-of-the-night emergencies when I don’t want to leave my nice warm bed and go into the cold outside (and I also don’t want to go into the Walmart at two in the morning and announce that I am sleeping in their parking lot), I have facilities inside the van.

For peeing, I use an old backpacker’s trick called a “pee bottle”, which is just what it sounds like—an empty plastic bottle with a tight-fitting lid. I like large Gatorade bottles with the wide mouth; some people prefer to use opaque nalgene water bottles so nobody can see what’s inside it. In the middle of the night, without even leaving my sleeping bag, I can open the bottle, pee inside, close it tightly, and empty it out on the grass in the morning. A dash of chlorine bleach inside takes care of any sanitary problems. Of course this is best-suited for guys, though I have seen female backpackers make ingenious use of a funnel for this. (There is, believe it or not, actually a commercially-available device, called the “She-Wee”, that is available for female backpackers to allow them to pee into a bottle while standing up.)

For emergency pooping, I have a backwoods toilet, known to campers as a “Lady Jane”, which is basically just a bucket with a hole in the lid, lined with a plastic trash bag and some cat litter or peat moss. (There are also commercially-available plastic toilet seats which are specifically sized to snap onto a five-gallon bucket.) The poop gets tied up tightly inside the trash bag and then gets disposed of in a garbage can or dumpster in the morning, just like a used baby diaper or doggy doo-doo.

And that takes care of the bathroom business.




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