Every day at The Vansmith we receive multitudes of questions about vans + bathrooms. Of course, this makes a ton of sense. Besides eating, drinking, and sleeping, there are few absolute necessities that every human shares, unequivocally. What’s more, whether bathrooms are used for bathing or...well, the other stuff, unlike the other necessities, western bathrooms tend to be completely private places adorned with porcelain thrones and bathing receptacles. And, we don’t always know when the moment is going to strike that we need that throne or shower. So, when it comes to vans and vanlife, how do we deal with bathrooms?
Though there are myriad answers to this question, the key to the eternal vans + bathrooms debate is this follow-up question: how do you plan to use your van? Based on your answer to this, here’s our guidance, which has been formed from years of experience, traveling, living, working, and building hundreds of vans.
Weekend warriors: most of us, including most us Vansmithers, fall into this category. We own or rent homes and apartments where we live and work most of the time. On weekends and even longer holidays -- especially during long-running pandemics -- we take our vans out to remote areas that offer escape, solitude, adventure, and freedom. Our vans become amazingly comfortable basecamps and living spaces that require zero setup. This is the best part of camping without any of the spaces to clear or tents to pitch. And, just as bathrooms are so infrequently used during camping trips, and space is such a premium in van in the same way it is in a nice tent, it makes very little sense to carve out a space reserved exclusively for a bathroom in a van. Having said that, depending on your trip, the seasons you plan to use your van most, and your own needs, it might make sense to have a small portable toilet in the van that you slide out when you need it most (often at night or when it’s brutally cold outside). We’re fans of ones that fold up and can be stowed away in the van’s garage or cupboards, like the GO Anywhere Complete Portable Camping Toilet. Likewise, when you're dusty and sweaty with no body of water to jump into, it’s nice to rinse off before bed. Do you need an entire shower to do this? Absolutely not. The answer is a small portable shower that you can hang from your van or a tree that allows you to get clean while camping. If you do this, we find standing on a raised wooden bath mat helps to keep your feet clean as well! In other words, do not build a bathroom in a van if you’re not living in the van fulltime. It’s a total waste of money and space that can otherwise be used for comfort and freedom from the trappings of everyday life.
Full-time vanlifers: there are a few of us who opt to go completely off the grid and live in our vans fulltime. In this way, our vans are not just basecamps. They’re full-on tiny homes. In these cases, the answer to the bathroom question is similar to the above answer but is more nuanced. Here’s the gist: if you’re going to spend several waking hours every day working from your van in somewhat populated areas where peeing behind a tree is passé, it might make sense to carve out some dedicated space for a small bathroom (or at least a convenient convertible toilet cabinet). If this is the case, you’re definitely going to need the longer wheelbase vans, like the Ram Promaster 159 or the Mercedes Sprinter 170. If, however, you plan to use your van like some of our favorite climber friends, like Alex Honold and Tommy Caldwell, wherein you’re out in nature (and not in your van) most of the time, you probably can make do with nothing more than what nature and campsites provide. Again, this is about maximizing your comfort and space inside the van based on how you use it, not on how you use your house or apartment.
Though we’re not here to tell you how you’re going to use your van, what we can say is that for the very reason vans offer escape, solitude, adventure, and freedom, they shouldn’t be viewed as proxies for the defacto fixed living spaces found in our homes. They are unique and offer something that our homes do not. And, as The Vansmith crew has collectively lived in different vans (and tiny homes) for several years, we can honestly say that for most people, fixed bathrooms in vans make little sense as they use up valuable space while often significantly increase the price for building out a van.