Staying clean while camping in a van

We use our van to camp close to the trails we want to ride. That doesn’t mean we want the contents of those trails in our van. Keeping ourselves, our bikes, and the van clean takes some creativity.

Personal hygiene in a dirtbag van

Unscented baby wipes are a terrible, terrible product. They aren’t sustainable, They clog septic systems and even regular sewers. But if you store them in the fridge they feel awesome as a cool wipe-down after a dusty bike ride. We guiltily admit to using them. They provide a quick, easy way to freshen up without using our water supply.

We do actually shower, too. We found that Sea To Summit DryLite towels work really well for us while we’re on the road. They take a little getting used to because they don’t feel like a looped cotton towel. Instead, they kind of suck the water away from you. They also dry out really quickly, even in moist environments. We have two Extra Small and two Extra Large size ones.

Using the shower at the back of the van
Using the shower at the back of the van after a bike ride

There are times when you need more than just a baby wipe. For instance before doing food prep or after handling raw meat. We use alcohol based hand sanitizer.  We have a pump-action bottle of it that just hangs out in one of our hanging organizers. The other hand sanitizer stuff with triclosan or triclocarban is “kinder” to your skin but not to your internals or to general antibiotic tolerance, so we stick with the alcohol based one.

Clothes washing

Wear wool. So long as you stay (relatively) clean, it doesn’t take on body odors, so it can stay fresher longer. Merino wool t-shirts, underwear, socks and pullovers are comfier than cotton, help you regulate your temperature better, are warm when wet, and can be washed in a regular wash or hand washed. The only problem with wool is that it takes longer to air dry than synthetics do after you’ve washed it.

Talking of clothes washing, our bike stuff seems to end up getting stomped on like wine grapes when we shower, then rinsed and dried in the sun. The campsuds soap we use for dish washing is also great for clothes washing and works well even in cold water. We store our dirty clothes in a mesh bag so they don’t just fester, then head to a laundromat or a handy friend’s house when we have a full load.

Keeping the van clean

The best way to keep the van clean is to stop dirt getting in there in the first place. We put an electric step on the passenger side of the van. We’ve zip tied a piece of black astroturf style matting on to the step, which makes it easy to clean your feet before you step in. We can hose the mat off whenever we (infrequently) wash the van.

Shoe wiping mat attached to electric step
Shoe wiping mat attached to electric step

Inside, we added a bunch of dirt-absorbing mats on the floor. They’re especially useful with the dog, and for cyclocross season, but they’re also useful when we’re camping because it’s easy to pick each one up and shake it out. The one closest to the door step picks up most of the dirt. The others hardly ever need shaking out.

We thought that the compressed air tank would be great for blowing dirt and dust out of the van. Turns out, it just creates clouds of dust that subsequently settle everywhere in the van rather than just on the floor. A small sweeping brush works much better.

We designed the interior to be easy to clean. The wood surfaces are all coated in polyurethane varnish. The wall fabric is Olefin, which is incredibly stain resistant and wipes down well. The countertops are obviously also designed to be wiped down fast.

We’re not big fans of unsustainable products, but Clorox wipes are just too handy not to use. We could fill a squirt bottle with 10% bleach solution, but the wipes are strong and hygienic. One wipe will clean all the countertops and any other surfaces in the van that are looking dirty.

Exterior of the van

Filling up with diesel inevitably leaves your hands smelling like – well – diesel. That stink makes its way onto everything else you touch. We’ve taken to throwing a pile of nitrile exam gloves in the driver side door pocket. We throw one on when we go to fill up, and trash it after finishing with the fuel dispenser nozzle.

We also put a small spray-top bottle of Simple Green in that door pocket. The windscreen squeegies at gas stations never seem to have detergent in their buckets. Spraying the Simple Green on the windscreen first really helps get rid of bug guts. It’s also great for wiping up diesel spills from the plastic trim below the fuel filler cap.

The rest of the exterior doesn’t get much love when we’re out and about. Sometimes after driving down a long dirt road, we’ll get the sweeping brush out and brush the rear doors down before we open them, just to get the majority of the dust off. It’s not good for the paintwork to do that, but it helps with dirt control inside the van.

Cleaning and maintaining bikes

The compressed air is useful for cleaning the bikes off. Just remember never to use it on moving parts – if you ever grease it, never spray it. You’ll just end up pushing dust into the bearings, bushings and seals.

We also wear either nitrile gloves or sturdy mechanix gloves when we’re doing bike maintenance. Dirty bike grease is hard to remove with cold water, so it’s better not to get it on your skin in the first place. If you do though, use some of that alcohol based hand sanitizer as a degreaser, then the campsuds soap to finish things off.

Staying clean around camp

Flies and wasps are attracted to food scraps. Dish washing water contains plenty of those scraps. If you just pour it out around your camp site to “water the plants” you’re likely to attract more insects.

If you’re in a camp ground they may well have designated areas for pouring sink waste. If you’re not, then your fire pit is probably the best bet because the food scraps will get cooked to nothing next time you light a fire.

Campground water disposal
Let the flies congregate here, not near your van.

Some general tips:

  • Wash your dishes immediately after you’ve eaten so food doesn’t dry on. Campsuds soap works in cold water too.
  • Obviously washing dishes in hot water works much better than cold. You can heat water in the pan you used for cooking. We have a silicone spoon/spatula that works like a squeegee. We use it to make sure we’ve got all the food out of our pans so the water we heat isn’t immediately full of crap.
  • I really don’t know what is in toothpaste that makes it so white, but it hangs around for ever on the ground. Don’t just spit it in the bushes. The only thing is, it also makes a real mess in our sink. When possible, we spit in the fire pit.
  • We have a small trash can made from a plastic storage container with a hinged, sealed lid. When it’s closed up it’s airtight, so no smells escape. As an added benefit, the dog can’t get in to it, either.
  • We already wrote about our poop bucket. That obviously also entails toilet paper and (if you’re the sensitive sort) baby wipes too. Flies like the smell of poop, and they like the salt in pee, so we set up the bucket away from our immediate camping area.

Staying clean with minimal water isn’t as eco-friendly as we’d like

We’ve tried to minimize our eco-footprint overall (well, apart from driving a massive, diesel-burning van), but clean-up is one area where we appear to be real eco-vandals with our non-renewable baby wipes, Clorox wipes, and nitrile gloves.

The one thing we draw the line at is paper plates and plastic knifes and forks. Camp Suds soap means it’s possible to even wash dishes in cold water if you have to, and we carry enough water in the van to make it possible.

What we’re trying to do is stay clean, safe, and disease free and the alternative products either use too much water or create too much hassle so we wouldn’t use them anyway.

2 Replies to “Staying clean while camping in a van”

  1. You mention keeping the van clean in this post. What do you do with respect to waxing/washing the van and how has that worked for you? Dealers want to sell the “ResistAll” exterior/interior treatment/warranty at a fairly expensive price, but ResistAll seems to get mixed reviews on the Internet. Traditional waxing should be effective for exterior protection, but the van is big and there is a lot of surface area to cover, which makes waxing a big job. Any insights or experience you can provide?

    1. Mark, we wash the van with a very dilute Simple Green solution, which will probably make the purists wince, but it does a great job for us.

      We have used Wolfgang WG-5500 Deep Gloss Paint Sealant as a surface treatment. It was recommended on the Sprinter forum. It works really well. Water beads on the surface and bugs are easier to clean off the hood. One application lasts us about a year. Before we apply it, we use a clay bar on the paintwork to really get rid of any grime. If you’ve not used clay bars before, it’s quite a revelation. Stuck-on grit, tar, bird poop, and bug guts rub off easily.

      A 170 high roof van is a massive surface area. We ended up applying the Wolfgang product in two separate sessions, concentrating on one half of the van each time. It’s an easy product to use because it wipes on, dries, and then buffs off. As with any product like this, avoid the plastic trim (it’ll stain) and don’t get any on the windshield (water will bead and not clear properly).

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