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5 Portable shower systems for camping and outdoor adventures [Guide]

My first experience with the portable shower...I was surfing recently at a beach just down the coast from where we stay. After my surf I came in, and as is always the case, my feet were covered in sand, and I was coated from head to toe in the all too familiar crust of dried salt from the sea water. Who's been there before?

I was getting ready to head on home and endure the 40 minute sticky, salty drive in a hot car before I could take a shower, when a friend invited me over to rinse off in his portable car shower.

I’d never heard of a portable car shower, so I was curious…

It was amazing. He'd made it himself using a simple pump that could connect to a battery, some garden hoses and a shower head.

As I stood under the steady stream of the portable car shower, I mulled over all the scenarios in which such a fine creation would come in handy.

  1. Freshening up after a long hike.
  2. Keeping clean at a campsite with no ablution facilities.
  3. Rinsing off muddy dogs, kids or equipment before piling into the car.
  4. A cooling blast on a hot day out.
  5. Spraying passers-by for fun!

The drive home was blissful compared to what I would have had to suffer through had I not rinsed off under the refreshing haze of my mate’s car shower.

Keeping clean on an adventure can really go a long way in making your time outdoors way more enjoyable (not to mention cutting down on that post-adventure equipment clean up at home)!

How would it feel if, after a long day of adventuring in the sun, you could come back to your car and step into a brand new, clean, fresh version of yourself?

You would be…

Less grumpy.

Less stinky.

Less repulsive.

More fun to be around.

Discovering the portable shower has been a revelation for us. We sure could have used something like this on our SA road trip. We've learned quite a lot about portable showers and done a fair amount of deep diving into the subject and in this article we're going to dissect the 5 different types of portable shower systems you can use to quench the stench on your next adventure.

You'll learn:

  1. The pros and cons of each system.
  2. How to choose a system that suits you best.
  3. Reviews on products.
  4. How to make your own rack-mounted car shower.
  5. How to expel the smell and be more fun to be around.

 

To make things easy, we've categorised each system into the following categories:

5 portable shower systems

Here's a summary video where I go into more detail on each of these systems and demo the system that we use:

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Gravity fed portable showers

These are systems that are raised off the ground and rely on gravity to do all the moving of water. Although, with some products, extra pressurization can be added from compressors, for the most part, it's the big G doing all the heavy lifting (or anti-lifting in this case).

1. Portable solar shower bags

portable solar shower bag

Sometimes referred to as camping shower bags, these systems are generally some kind pouch or water bladder that you fill up with water and then hang in a tree (or any other overhead support). Gravity pressurizes the bag so the higher you can lift it the greater the pressure. There are dozens of variations of this principle, including pocket showers, but it's a simple concept and quite cost-effective.

Pros:

  • Super low tech.
  • No electricity needed.
  • Packs down small so they can be carried.
  • Can be kept in the sun to get warm.
  • Easy to repair if punctured.

Cons:

  • You'll need overhead support - some environments don't allow for this.
  • The weight of the water (20lt = 20kg) you'll need a solid branch for that, plus it's on you to lift it.
  • Poor water stream compared to pressurized systems.

Example:

The Coleman 5-Gallon Solar Shower

System Reviews:

Overview:

Overall this is a nice, easy, cost-effective solution that is best suited for situations where you need something that can be packed into a backpack and carried on foot.

 

2. Rack-mounted travel showers

Rack-mounted travel shower

These make for great travel showers if you like to go adventuring in your car or van. Rack-mounted showers are semi-permanent features that you mount onto your car or van's roof racks. They are basically long water storage units that sit on the roof and can be accessed by a hose when you need to take a shower. There are all kinds of options to buy and you can even make your own DIY version. The simpler versions of these showers rely on gravity, however, most good quality products allow for extra pressure to be applied to the water container through air compressors and other such devices.

Pros:

  • Great as a semi permanent feature (no packing and unpacking).
  • Get hot with the sun's energy, although, this could be a con if you specifically want a cold shower.
  • They are low tech and very robust.
  • They make your car look cool.

Cons:

  • You need roof racks.
  • It's a pressurized, hot water bomb on the roof of your car (particularly if you made one on your own). However, there are ways around that, such as pressure-release valves and buying prefabricated products.
  • If the unit isn't secured properly, then next time you slam on breaks, you'll be launching a very hot and heavy missile at whatever is in front of you.
  • Can puddle up your campsite area if you have a short hose and are parked in one place for a long time.
  • Expensive.

Example:

The Road Shower 4

System Reviews:

Make your own DIY rack-mounted shower:

If you love getting your hands dirty and making things for yourself, then check out this great tutorial on how to make your own rack-mounted shower that is both effective and safe.

Overview:

The rack-mounted shower is great for adventurers who use their car or van as a base. What's better than coming in from a cold surf, or swim in the river and rinsing off in some ready-and-waiting warm water?

 

Pressurized compartment portable showers

While technically all of these systems rely on pressure, what qualifies a product to fit into this category is that the water chamber does not need to be raised, i.e. make use of gravity, nor is the water moved by using an electrical pump. All the force is created by pressurizing the water container until it literally shoots water out of the shower head.

3. Foot pump portable showers

Foot pump portable shower

This is one of the most exciting portable shower solutions we've come across. It has the water flow advantages of the portable shower pumps together with the collapsible portability of the shower bags. The system works by applying pressure to the water container by using a foot pump instead of gravity or an electrical pump. This means that it's a low-resource requiring solution and it doesn't need to be raised like a gravity fed system to work. It's a really versatile and cool option.

Pros:

  • Low tech.
  • No electrical/rechargeable parts.
  • Packs down fairly compactly for packing in a car.
  • Can be kept in the sun to get warm.
  • Weight of the water is less of an issue as the unit is free standing and doesn’t need to be lifted.
  • Fairly good water stream.

Cons:

  • You're providing all the pressure - but suck it up.
  • Air-leaks.
  • Mid-price range compared to other solutions.

Example:

Nemo Helio Pressure Shower

System Reviews:

Overview:

The foot pump shower is the most versatile option that will suit almost any adventure situation. We love this idea a lot!

 

Electrical water pump portable showers

As the name suggests, these systems make use of electrical water pumps to move water from a container to the shower head and beyond. The electricity can come in the form of rechargeable batteries, 12v ports in your car, or even dedicated power supplies. In my experience, electrical things and the outdoors don't normally go well together, however, we've had some good success with some of these options.

4. Rechargeable battery water pump showers

Rechargeable battery pump shower

The battery-powered portable shower is a basic unit that submerges under water and uses a small water pump to feed water through a hose. What gives this system a nice edge is that it rolls up compactly and is 100% portable, unlike it's cabled cousin. It's great for any kind of outdoor activity, and as long as you've got a water supply and some batteries, you've got a refreshing shower waiting for you.

Pros:

  • Simple to use.
  • Completely portable.
  • USB charging means you can charge off of a power bank while outdoors.
  • Very cheap.
  • More versatile than the 12V variety.

Cons:

  • Must be charged before used.
  • Not as powerful as some of the 12v options.
  • You'll need an external water tank for use in a car.
  • Electrical things tend to break outside.

Example:

Ivation Battery Powered Portable Shower

System Reviews:

Overview:

The rechargeable battery system is great for use in a car where you can carry a water container along with you. It can also be used on hikes if you want to make use of rivers and lakes, but in those instances, it's probably just easier to swim.

 

5. 12v water pump showers

12v portable shower pumps

In this category of electric camp shower, there are two types you can look into:

  1. Submersible pumps
  2. Free standing pumps

Submersible pumps work exactly the same as the rechargeable battery systems, only, instead of batteries, you've got a little cable that connect the shower to a 12v power source (such as a cigarette lighter in your car).

The freestanding version is quite different. With this system the pump isn't placed in the water, but rather a hose feeds the water from a tank, through the pump and onward to the shower head. These systems require a bit more work than the others as you will need to fit hoses and clamps to the pump, but once assembled, this is one of the most robust systems you can get.

Pros:

  • No charging needed.
  • The freestanding pumps could form a more permanent feature in your car (great for road trips etc.)
  • Cheap.

Cons:

  • Electrical parts always seem to break when you need them the most.
  • You need to be near your car, or have a portable battery pack.
  • You can't carry them with you on a hike.

Example:

Ivation Portable 12V DC Powered Handheld Shower & Water Pump

System Reviews:

Overview:

The 12v systems are great for use in the car where you can carry a water container along with you. The freestanding pumps can be installed into the car to make a more permanent solution.

 

How To Choose The Best Portable Camping Shower

With all of these options available, the obvious question becomes, "Which one is best?"

Well, that will ultimately come down to your own specific needs, but here are a few questions to ask that might make choosing a little easier.

1. How easy is the system to set up and use?

If you're not into DIY and electrical things, then the freestanding 12v pumps might not be the way to go. Or if you're not interested in hauling 20kg of water above your head, then maybe the shower bags might prove a bit impractical. It's also worth noting here that the "shower" part of the system is only half the problem, you'll also need to consider how to set up the water container and get water to your system while you're out and about.

2. What is the water capacity of the system?

Water capacity essentially means 2 things: Weight and shower time. When using the 12v submersible water pump shower (which represents a system with a good steady stream) we found that 20 litres of water lasted between 5-6 minutes. Some systems, like the foot pumps and the shower bags, come with their own water containers, while the other systems will require a separate vessel (unless, of course, you're going to use a river or lake as your water source, in which case, you can shower as long as you like 🙂 ...but make sure the water is clear and particle-free).

3. How heavy will the system be once filled?

This question applies mainly to the portable shower bags as they will need to be lifted, as well as the rack-mounted car showers as this will have a bearing on the overall weighting of your car or van. An extra 40 kg on one side of the car makes a difference, plus your roof racks will need to be up to the task.

4. How durable is the system?

I generally find that the simplest solutions are always the most long-lasting. Electronic parts are going to break down at some point, while a shower bag is going to be around for a very long time. The systems here are all pretty durable, so in the end, it will come down to ensuring you buy reputable products from good brands.

5. What is my primary use for the portable shower?

This is the most important question to ask. It's no good deciding on a 12v electrical pump shower if you plan on using it on a hiking trip. The fully portable systems, like the shower bags, the foot pumps and the rechargeable battery water pumps (if you don't need an additional water container), are all great to use when you will be away from electrical points or your vehicle. The rack-mounted shower, and the 12v options are great if you want a camp shower, or you will be driving to your adventure destinations, such as surfing at the beach.

The world of portable showers has been a fascinating journey of discovery for us. We found ourselves gravitating towards the 12v submersible shower which we use in our car and take with us everywhere we go. It's made our drives home a lot more enjoyable.

Let us know which of these portable shower systems you choose and how you use them. And don't forget to join our mailing list to get our latest Adventure Guides, How Tos and Features right to your inbox.

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