How to Keep Clean while Bicycle Touring

There are several things you can do about your shower. The obvious one is to just ignore it entirely and not have one at all. The problem is that once you do return to civilization you may be surprised at how wide a path you clear during your visit.

Taking a shower in the woods

No, not to worry, this page will not contain photos of me taking a shower in the woods. Rather it’s about a common concern people have when considering stealth camping during a bicycle touring adventure.

Many people who consider stealth camping ultimately decide against it because of the lack of a refreshingly warm shower at the end of a long day in the saddle. This page is here to point out some of the different items available that you can use to have your nice shower and your solitude too!

There are several things you can do about your shower. The obvious one is to just ignore it entirely and not have one at all. The problem is that once you do return to civilization you may be surprised at how wide a path you clear during your visit.

Another more reasonable alternative is to bring your showering gear with you. Two devices that I have are the MSR shower attachment kit for their water bladders and Coghlan’s Solar Heated Camp Shower. Both are shown in photos on this page.

Coghlan (left) and MSR (right) showerheads.
Coghlan (left) and MSR (right) showerheads.

MSR shower kit attachment

The MSR shower kit attachment is a great idea if you are already using MSR bladders for carrying water. When you reach your shower site you simply disconnect your normal water hose, fill up the bladder with warm water, attach the shower hose, and enjoy a nice warm shower.

Of course, unless the water bladder has been sitting in the hot sun all day it is unlikely that the shower will be more than a luke-warm shower unless you heat up some water using a stove beforehand. You need to use extreme care to check the temperature of the combined water before using it to avoid burning but typically about a third to half of the water hot with the remainder cool will likely give you a reasonably warm shower.

In addition to the lightweight aspect of this design since the only extra piece, you are carrying is the actual hose and shower head the other advantage is that it will work with whatever size MSR bladder you decide to carry. In the picture, I show the kit attached to a 2-litre water bladder but it could just as easily have been attached to a 10-litre bladder.

A picture of the MSR Shower kit attached to a bladder. CD is for sizing.
A picture of the MSR Shower kit attached to a bladder. CD is for sizing.

The MSR shower kit has a smaller hose head than the Coghlan Solar Heated Camp Shower. Water flow can be controlled using the white lever near the bladder attachment point.

Coghlan’s Solar Heated Camp Shower

This device is a ready-built shower. It holds 20 litres (5 gallons) of water and is designed to be left sitting in the sun. According to the instructions on the box, this device is not to be used to hold drinking water. The bag is black to help absorb heat from sunlight.

The instructions also say that it takes up to three hours in the sun before the water heats up and that the temperature of the water can reach over 48 degrees celsius (120 Fahrenheit).

A picture of the Coghlan Solar Heated Camp Shower kit. CD is for sizing.
A picture of the Coghlan Solar Heated Camp Shower kit. CD is for sizing.

The showerhead is much larger. Water flow is controlled by changing the setting on the white hose crimping device attached to the shower. The actual length of the shower hose is also shorter than the MSR shower kit attachment. Some rope is provided to help attach the device to a tree.

Alcohol wipes

An alternative for a very quick “sponge-like” shower is to use those handy dandy alcohol wipes that you can find at many fast-food restaurants. Alternatively, they can often be purchased at many drug stores.

Some alcohol wipes.
Some alcohol wipes.

I’ve also heard that there are larger shower-sized wipes available that are often used in hospitals by surgical staff to take a fast shower. Unfortunately, I haven’t tracked this alternative down yet.

Standing in the woods butt naked

One thing to keep in mind with either shower bag type device is that you are likely looking at taking a shower butt naked in the deep woods. If this is something that will bother you then you might want to consider it. Then again bicycle touring is about pushing your boundaries. Just how often do you let it all hang out in everyday life anyway? (grin).

Did this a few times on the last tour.

Mostly, for women and to keep some sort of decency, a swimsuit works pretty well. I did however shower without once when I felt like I would not be seen. Hiked uphill from the campsite, way up, till I found a tree that would take my camp shower.

I filled it with water when I first arrived at the site. As I set up my tent, I cooled off, from the climb up the pass. The water in the solar shower did not warm up any, and I drained some into my pot and heated it on my stove. Refilled it to my shower, and repeated it till I had warm water. Then the hike, and the shower.

Meanwhile, I had cooled off, and the cold wind while I was wet truly chilled me. I had to take in warm food, drink and spend some time in my sleeping bag before I warmed back up.

Note to oneself… don’t wet the WHOLE body when there is a cold wind.

I also “bathed” in rivers and creeks. Some of them were very cold. Bathing in rivers and creeks was always done wearing my riding clothes. They needed rinsing anyway ☺. Never forget once, after I got out, and was almost in my tiny vestibule almost nude, but not dried off yet when a car drove up. I ended up getting the inside of my tent wet when I dove in for cover. (Lots of laughs)

Moni Neville

A homebrew shower doesn’t just apply to stealth camping. You can also do it at (near) a designated campground that doesn’t have showers. The only difference is that you usually have to put more effort into finding a suitable shower spot. I try to get a campsite that is on the edge of the campground so I can easily go back into the woods to find a shower site that is out of sight from other campers. In a bushy forested area, I typically have to go only 15-30 meters away from my campsite. At a deserted campground, I sometimes shower right at my site, but it’s probably better environmental etiquette to shower away from the designated campsite, similar to the etiquette of peeing away from the campsite. (think of what the campsite would be like if lots of people peed and had soapy showers in the small area of the campsite)

Don’t shower insight of a trail. People, especially kids, have an annoying tendency to appear on a trail at the most inopportune time.

I have a 5 gallon “solar shower” and a shower attachment for my 2.5-gallon Coughlans water bladder. Both of them have the main water flow control by pulling/pushing on the showerhead (pull on, push off). The pinching device on the hose seems to be primarily to reduce the “on” flow if necessary. (never necessary for me)

Be wary of attaching your shower bag to a pine tree. You will probably get sap on the water bag and sap on the bottom of your feet. It’s very difficult to remove the sap.

Your feet will get muddy unless you wear flip-flops. Without flip flops, you must save enough water to rinse off one foot at a time and put on socks/shoes. This is easy if you have a place to sit while rinsing your feet. It’s more difficult if you have to stand on one foot while rinsing the other foot, drying it, and putting on a sock and shoe. If the campsite has a picnic table I usually walk with bare muddy feet back to the campsite and sit at the picnic table to rinse my feet.

If you get to your campsite late in the day, in many places it would be advisable to have your shower before making dinner. Later the temperature might be uncomfortably cold or mosquitoes might be swarming.

When using soap, always shower at least 150 feet (50m) from the nearest surface water (lake or river).

My bike tour shower setup is a Coughlans 2.5 gallon water sack with an add-on shower hose. The total weight is about 120g, much lighter than a similar-sized solar shower. But it’s also more fragile-you have to be very careful when walking with the full water sack to avoid bumping it into broken branches, cactus, etc. One advantage is that it’s intended for drinking water and is handy to haul water (for cooking, dishwashing, etc.) to a campsite when the nearest water source is inconveniently far away. Some designated campsites are a 5-minute walk from the nearest water faucet. In that situation, I use my water sack to give me a “faucet” at my site. Most stealth campsites are further than that from the nearest water faucet. 

Our route for our cross country was on and near the Southern Tier with warm, sometimes hot, Autumn temperatures. I kept an empty Gatorade bottle for water and more than a dozen times tried to guzzle down very warm water. I gave up on drinking the hot water switching to an all slushie tour but kept the Gatorade bottle and found that it was perfect for instant, hot showers whenever the spirit would hit. The secret is the heat that radiates from the road. Our Xtracycle panniers are less than a foot from the asphalt but you could also have instant hot water with bobs by attaching your bottle so that it collects the heat.

Hank Raines

Never underestimate the power of the baby wipe… utilizing the same chemistry from an earlier time that allowed your mom to get the dirt off your face with just spit and the corner of a kleenex… baby (diaper) wipes are approximately 6” x 8” and “juicy”. About 6 or 7 will clean up an average adult if you’re not too picky.
They pack small (buy them in the refill packages, then part them out into ziplock freezer bags about 3/4” thick pile will last a weekend) and fairly light. You’ll need to pack them out again as there are very few that are biodegradable/flush safe.
They tend to have lower alcohol content and won’t leave you with that dried/tight feeling on your skin.

Jamie Arlen

I will admit to being a bit surprised at the large number of quotes that this page generated. I suppose it shows the extent that cyclists enjoy a nice hot shower after a beautiful ride down the road!

Washing your hair, cleaning your clothes and doing the dishes on tour

It is possible to find a single soap that you can use to wash the dishes, clean your hair and laundry your clothes on tour. The same soap is also biodegradable and since the one soap replaces several other items it is actually lighter than the stuff it replaces.

CampSuds soap can help with your laundry and dishes and act like shampoo and soap for the shower.
CampSuds soap can help with your laundry and dishes and act like shampoo and soap for the shower.

I use a product called SoapSuds. This product works well for doing all of the things I mentioned above and it is indeed biodegradable.

A tip that several veteran bicycle tourists passed on to me was to take a large ziplock bag along on tour. Open the bag and mix a small amount of soap and water. Add a piece of clothing and seal the bag shut. Shake the bag for a few moments and presto you now have a portable washing machine.

Repeat the cycle until you have washed all of your dirty clothes. Remove the soap and water from the bag and replace them with fresh water and no soap. Rinse all of the recently washed clothing using the same method.

Once the rinse cycle is complete wring the clothing as much as possible to get rid of excess water. Hang the clothing up to dry on a clothing line or attach the clothing to the outside of your saddlebags for an air drying effect.

I’ve also used the CampSuds soap for washing the dishes and as a shampoo and soap in the shower. In all cases, the soap has worked well.

There are other similar products available from other companies that are likely only a quick web search away. I know that Campsuds makes at least one other version of this product with anti-bug properties.