The best backcountry shower systems

The best shower of my life was 100 miles from the nearest aqueduct. I had ridden a mountain bike on the White Rim Trail through Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and in the evening my skin was covered in sunscreen, salt, and sand. Sliding a sleeping bag over this mess would only add to the ick. But Holiday River Expeditions, the outfitter who assisted my ride with meals and sag wagons, had brought a solar-heated shower system to upstate Utah. When the warm water and Castilian lavender soap washed off my salt crust, I felt better than clean. I felt born again.

“The showers make these trips,” laughs Tim Gaylord, director of operations at Holiday River. He designed the company’s shower system after discovering that bubble showers routinely burst after just a trip or two. “The terrain we’re driving on is bumpy and all that sloshing around would break the bubbles,” says Gaylord. So he gathered up some sturdy plastic canisters, fitted them with hoses and shower jets, and painted them black to increase the heat of the sun. You’re driving on the roof of the van so gravity provides the pressure needed to shower. Gaylord even packs a small bamboo bath mat that I stood on to keep my feet out of the mud.

Since then, I’ve been on a mission to perfect my own road trip shower system. I checked out the roof-mounted showers that some DIY-style vagabonds make out of PVC pipes and some fixtures for hardware stores. Yakima also makes a ready-made version called the RoadShower ($ 450), a pressure system that can emit a really dirty jet of water.

But my adventure rig, a four-wheel drive pop-up truck camper, doesn’t easily accept rooftop accessories. So it seemed like a big undertaking to me. I just wanted to.

Hence, my search has focused on a range of portable shower options that do not require a vehicle mount. I tested them on cool November days, when a warm flush felt as relaxing as a hot tub, and on gusty spring trips when the wind carried away my splashing water. Group campsites provided an opportunity to get friends’ opinions on the various systems. Packing on rough four-wheel drive routes tested their durability.

Here are the test-winning products.

The best showers

(Photo: Courtesy of Hydrapak)

Best permanent shower
Hydrapak Expedition 8L ($ 60)

This sturdy, collapsible water tank is made of TPU film laminate with HF welds and survived an entire season on uneven roads. On desert trips where water is scarce, I usually fill it up before leaving home. Despite the sloshing and abrasion it has suffered, it has yet to leak.

The wide neck cap is compatible with many water filters, making it a handy storage jug for overland trips and even backcountry hikes (it weighs 9 ounces). Or you can equip it with Hydrapak’s Plug-N-Play cap kit ($ 18), which includes hoses, a shower head, and an on / off valve. Hang the jar over your head like this and it will act as a low flow shower (followers of body soaked sunflower shower heads will find it missing). Leave it in the sun to warm up or just take a cold shower. When empty, roll the bladder and shower hose into a neat eight-inch rod.

Best ultra light shower

Sea-to-summit shower_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Sea to Summit)

Sea to Summit pocket shower ($ 35)

Weighing in at just 4.3 ounces, this 10 liter bladder is similar to Sea to Summit’s ultra-light dry bags. The roll-top opening makes it easy to fill virtually any water source, and the plastic buckle and two D-rings make hanging a breeze. In addition, the roll-top is equipped with a 20-foot nylon cord that you can use to adjust the hanging height. That is very easy.

However, I am not sure that I can transport water in this bladder. Despite being made of abrasion-resistant 70 denier nylon, the bag’s roll top closure and delicate shower attachment were sometimes popped open during transit around the warehouse, so I didn’t trust it to remain leak-free during the prolonged sloshing and jostling overland travel. I prefer to fill it (that means cold shower) just before using it. The spray nozzle screws open and close, providing just enough flow to wash your hair (Sea to Summit claims a shower time of seven minutes). This is also the most compact and packable option I’ve tested. It fits in a storage bag that is as small as a deck of cards.

Most versatile shower

nemo-Druckdusche_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy of Nemo)

NEMO Helio pressure shower ($ 100)

This clever system doesn’t need to be hung overhead to ensure a satisfying shower. You can pressurize the 11 liter water chamber with a foot pump. With the water tank resting on the floor, I can just lift the shower hose over my head and enjoy a body cleansing stream. This came in handy when I camped on a treeless desert plain that had no overhead shower system mounts. I also used it to wash dishes (the shower nozzle looks just like a sprayer) and to shoot my roommates with my “water pistol”.

It’s lighter in construction than the HydraPak described above, but still sturdy enough to ride when full (think TPU and PU-coated polyester with sturdy welds). It is compressed to the size of a soccer ball when empty and weighs 1 pound 5 ounces. This won’t please the ultra-light crowd, but it is just right for RVs with limited cargo space and weight tolerance.

Most efficient shower

geyser-shower system_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy Geysir)

Hot Portable Shower from Geyser Systems ($ 325)

This innovative option is in a class of its own. For starters, it’s the only system I’ve tested that uses a built-in heating element to heat the water instead of passive solar energy. And it’s not a bubble: the hard three-liter water chamber is made of rigid ABS plastic and contains an electric water pump that must be connected to a power source so that the water can flow.

This requirement stumbled upon me at first. The preferred power source for the geyser is a 12 V DC power outlet on a moving vehicle. It seemed wasteful and noisy just idling my truck for showering. In addition, it was not practical to create a shelter in the open truck door. Eventually I found that I could run the pump without running my car’s engine at the same time, as long as I drove the truck every day to charge the battery.

On the other hand, using the water heating element definitely requires a moving vehicle or portable power plant (like the Goal Zero Yeti 200x). I tried connecting the device to my RV’s auxiliary battery, but the throughput wasn’t strong enough to produce hot water. After 60 minutes, the fluid changed from cold to not so cold (Geyser Systems reports a hot water time of 15 to 45 minutes when the device is operated with a running car engine). However, you can fill the geyser with hot water from your furnace instead of waiting for the built-in unit to work its magic. One liter of boiling water plus two liters of cold are just right.

But what’s really cool is that the geyser is by far the most water efficient system I’ve found. With a medium flow rate, three liters of water are rationed for a seven-minute body wash (the 10-liter pocket shower takes the same shower time). That’s because the geyser hose is attached to a body scrubbing sponge rather than a spray nozzle. You can remove the accessory to douse your hair, then put it back on to wash the body to save water.

The geyser also appears to be admirably sturdy and shock-resistant – more like Gaylord’s rigid canisters than like a bubble with possibly split seams. It is ideal for multi-day trips when water is scarce.

The best camping shower accessories

Advanced Elements Summer Shower Enclosure ($ 40)

Advanced-Element-Shower_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy of Advanced Elements)

This groundbreaking vinyl shelter solves the basic showering problem in camp: you can get undressed without exposing yourself to neighboring groups. Even if my “shower system” was as rudimentary as a water bottle and a towel, I often found it difficult to find a really private place to do my dishes in the hinterland. However, this enclosure allows for a variety of approaches to backcountry bathing.

With two crossed strings of fixed length at the top, you can hang the rig on a branch, a motorhome awning or any horizontal beam (like the roof supports of a shade pavilion). I like to hang it like a bear’s bag with a piece of nylon fabric with a metal S-hook.

Plastic fasteners along the corner opening keep it closed while you shower, and the puffing of air jets at the top and bottom gives the case enough structure to keep the plastic off your body unless it’s windy. In this case, you can stake out the four lower corners (stakes and guy line not included), which will stabilize the shower in a light breeze. In really windswept conditions – like the 40 mph gusts I experienced in Moab – body wipes (like Sea To Summit’s Wilderness Wipes) remain the best bet.

OXO Good Grips Large Silicone Bowl Drying Mat ($ 16)

oxo-drying-mat_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy of OXO)

There are several ways to keep your bare feet off the muddy floor while showering. They can stand in a plastic bowl to catch the drain and reuse to wash the dishes (assuming you cook it first!). My favorite bath pillow is the foldable NEMO Helio Clover Mat ($ 20), which is no longer sold. Various dish drying mats, such as the silicone mat from OXO, lift your feet off the floor and can be sufficiently packaged for easy transport. If your cargo space isn’t limited, you can even try using a wooden bath mat à la Holiday River Expeditions. With warm water and breathtaking views, it’s the ultimate in luxury.

Main Photo: Courtesy of Geysir

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