Conserving Water when Boondocking

These days about half of new Airstreams are sold to people who have never owned any type of travel trailer or motorhome before. That means there are a lot of people who are just now trying to learn all the tricks and skills needed to optimize their travel experience.


Camping away from hookups in remote places is an aspiration of many, but to be able to do it well you’ve got to adapt and adjust your expectations. In this occasional series on boondocking we’ll explore specific techniques, starting with certain aspects of water conservation. Showers and dishes are the two things that consume most of the water used in an Airstream.


Saving water on dishwashing is easy.

You can switch to paper plates when you are boondocking, or use campground dish-washing facilities if they are available. If you must wash dishes in the Airstream, you’ll have to learn to use tiny amounts of water to rise rather than just opening the faucet fully and letting it run, as many people do at home. For über-conservationists, a spray bottle is helpful for minimal rinsing.

The shower is a trickier problem.

At home your shower might have a cascade of water and hot stinging needles if you want them, perhaps even to the point of flooding the tub because the drain can’t keep up. That’s the sort of shower that many people like, not so much because they get cleaner but because it feels like a “spa” experience.

Low-flow shower head

You don’t get pummeled by hot water much in an RV; the shower heads are generally low-flow types designed to release only 2.5 gallons of water per minute. If you had a shower head that inundated you with water, you’d find that the gray water tank (the tank that holds used water from the shower and sinks) fills up too quickly.

Avoid using water.

That’s always the first approach. Some people extend their time between showers by using body (or baby) wipes for quick cleanups. This works well—just remember you can’t flush those wipes down the toilet because they won’t biodegrade in the holding tank, and they’ll clog macerator-type toilets. Put the used wipes in the trash instead.

In a campground with no hookups,

you may have access to a campground shower. Some people use the campground shower religiously, because they don’t fit in the travel trailer shower, or because they just prefer the “home style” shower when it is available. Personally, I like my Airstream shower and I hate using the campground showers, so I’ll go to some effort to be able to shower in the trailer.

Singing Sands Boondocking

The essential “Navy shower”

It’s a simple technique: turn on the water, get wet, turn off the water. Then soap up everything, and rinse off quickly. Don’t wash your hair unless it really needs it. Get really good at this technique, and you’ll find you can take a complete shower in less than three gallons, or about 60 to 90 seconds of running the water. That makes you an Admiral in the Navy Shower Fleet.

Get it down to a flat two minutes (five gallons) and you’re a Lieutenant, or about 90 seconds (four gallons) for the Commander’s rank. Even an Able Seaman should be able to do it in less than six gallons (just over two minutes). These calculations assume you have a typical RV shower head that delivers 2.5 gallons per minute.

The Airstream has a built-in warning sign if you blow it.

The hot water tank is usually six gallons. If you start feeling cold water, you’ve used all six gallons plus a bit more (because the tank is constantly re-heating) and you’ll soon be walking the plank when the rest of the family finds out. Even in a full hookup campground where you don’t have to worry about running out of water or filling the gray tank, the six-gallon limit applies.

Know the size of your gray water holding tank.

Boondocking Central OregonYou can estimate how long it will last. The tank monitors are often misleading. For example, with a 39-gallon tank, three Admirals can take showers in a total of less than 10 gallons, yielding three showers each plus some tooth brushing and dishes, before running out of holding capacity.

It’s really not hard to learn the Navy shower technique. Camping without a full hookup does require some small sacrifices, but you can still have a satisfying shower. The loss of standing under a spray of hot water for ten minutes is nothing when you realize that small sacrifice enabled you to walk out your door into the landscape or a quiet beautiful place far from crowds.