My dogbowl. I LOVE my dogbowl, and I don't even have a dog.

Water Conservation in Your RV

lupineOne thing that will detract from your enjoyment of the wilderness is running out of water, especially when the nearest supply is far away. The camping location in the photo at left is perfect, except that the nearest source of drinking water is 25 miles down the mountain. Many novice RV users are dismayed to find out that their water only lasts two or three days because they’re using it like they did at home. As with many things RV, there are numerous tricks to making your water last longer so you can spend more time enjoying your chosen location, and less time driving back and forth for water and dumping.

My dogbowl. I LOVE my dogbowl, and I don't even have a dog.

My dogbowl. I LOVE my dogbowl, and I don’t even have a dog.

What we do is employ several strategies to get the washing of dishes and people done with minimal water use.

The first and most important rule is, never run water down the drain.

Don’t warm up the water by running it until the water is hot enough to use – catch the water that comes out and heat it on the stove, and THEN use it.

Don’t run water to rinse small dishes and utensils – use a container to dip them in.  Get a container that fits into your sink with a wide, flat bottom for use as a wash basin. Use this basin for soapy dishwater, rinse water, and other things. I found the perfect one by accident- it’s a dog bowl some day visitors used to give their dog some water at a park I was staying at, and left behind. Since they parked in my campsite, I felt I was entitled to some compensation, and this bowl is perfect. It’s stainless steel, so you can heat water in it directly on the propane burner instead of using a pot and pouring the hot water into the basin.

Second strategy – make sure the regular dish washer is the one who’s good at saving water. Sharon washed the dishes once, and used about half a tank to wash two plates, two cups, and some silverware. She has been relieved of duty, and no matter how much she begs, I’m not going to let her wash the dishes. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to pull a fast one on me, and… hey, wait a minute…

Here’s how I wash dishes – heat your water on the stove in your wash basin, put just enough soap in there to make it sudsy. Too much soap means extra rinsing. Wash the utensils, dishes and pots/pans, letting them drain in the sink next to the wash basin as you do the big items that won’t fit in the basin. The better they drain the less water you need to rinse them. Pitch the wash water, get some rinse water in the basin, and dip the small items in it before putting them on the drying rack. Only the big items that won’t fit in the basin get a trickle of water over them from the faucet.   You should be able to wash up dishes for a meal for two in about a gallon of water.

Shampooing is another task where a lot of water goes down the drain needlessly if you’re not careful. Sharon has her hair done by the famous stylist Mr. Campskunk, who cancels all his other clients when she’s in town and needs a shampoo and set in a hurry. We use a big plastic basin, since all we’re doing is catching the water to throw out, not washing anything in it. About a pint of hot water to wet your hair, then lather up over the basin until you’re ready to rinse. I pour a steady stream on the scalp starting at the back of the neck and working forward until it’s all rinsed – maybe a gallon to a gallon and a half total. This is a two person operation, so put your lazy significant other to work and save water.

Bathing? The only time we take regular long hot showers in the Roadtrek is when we’re onsite where the water and dump is. Sure, a gas station or water treatment plant isn’t an ideal location as far as esthetics go, but you have an opportunity to dump, fill up your fresh water, waste all you want, then dump again, fill up again, and you’re all clean and refreshed, and so are your tanks.  We sponge off in a basin for a day or three, then take a “navy shower”.  Wet yourself down, turn off the water, soap up and scrub, then turn the water back on to rinse.  Maybe two gallons if you’re sloppy, less if you’re diligent.   Heat the Roadtrek interior if the weather is such that you aren’t going to be comfortable standing there all wet. Use propane, not running hot water, to stay warm. We still hit campgrounds with facilities often enough enjoy long, hot daily showers while we’re there, and maintain acceptable levels of hygiene in between.

Coleman Solar Shower bag - five gallons when you need it.

Coleman Solar Shower bag – five gallons when you need it.

My Roadtrek has two tanks, 10 gallons in the back and 15 in the front. We fill the back tank last and use it first for weight distribution purposes. Normally, we can get about six days out of our 25 gallons, provided a long hot shower awaits us at the end of it.

Another trick I have used is to buy two of the Coleman Solar Shower bags – they’re less than $10 in Walmart and most other places with a camping supply aisle.  They hold five gallons and can be used both for their intended purpose – heating water to shower with outside – and also to carry extra water, provided that you have the weight carrying capacity – 10 gallons weighs 80 pounds. They’re marked “not for drinking water”, but all that means is that they didn’t bother to go through the drinking water certification process, not that they’re full of pathogens.

I take a new one and fill it with a dilute bleach solution, just like the tank sanitizing procedure, let it sit, and then rinse it out. We fill these at the pump or faucet, take the orange nozzle off the end of the hose, carry it with us on the floor of the Roadtrek to our campsite, and hold it aloft while the water runs into the Roadtrek tank. In places where there’s a hand pump but no dump, we keep our fresh water tanks full this way. We use the basin in the sink to catch all the wash water and throw it out the door onto the ground just like the tent campers do, and can go two weeks easily without a trip to town to dump. By the time the black water tank is full, we’re out of groceries anyway.


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26 comments

  1. Dave Miller

    Another great article Dr Campskunk! Our boat does not have a water heater so we got used to heating water in a 2 qt tea kettle for washing dishes and getting the solar shower water hot enough to enjoy. This practice carried right over to the camper. We only use the water heater for showers. My wife calls my shower rules “tight wad showers”. We keep a water jug in the fridge for instant cold water too.
    Thanks for all of your input, Bigfoot Dave

  2. Karsten Askeland

    Certainly some great water saving tips. And they are much appreciated. Since I travel alone I’ll offer two more. When I head out on a long trip I generally visit the barber and get my hair cut “right to the wood”. No more shampooing necessary. :)
    And since I do travel alone I use paper plates and bowls and plastic utensils. Some might say this is not the most environmentally friendly method … but hey I’m saving lots of water.

    • Campskunk
      Author

      thanks, kate! i’ll definitely check into that. this Pacific Northwest water is driving me nuts – it’s so soft i can’t get the soap off of things.

  3. Barry Barron

    I really like your suggestion of throwing the sink water outside. We usually use bottled water for drinking, so we generally fill up the gray tank before we run out of fresh water. Dumping the wash/rinse water makes a lot of sense. Thanks for the tips.

  4. Brad Phelps

    Thanks CS. as a new RVer, your articles are a great help. I read somewhere a suggestion of using a bucket to catch the cold water from the shower when waiting for it to get hot, and using it to flush the toilet. Would it be okay to use the rinse water to flush the toilet?

  5. Laura H Postema

    Another great article. I learned that I need to wash dishes like your Sharon does :)… We recently purchased a collapsible pan for dish washing purposes. I’ll try it out this weekend at the mini-‘Michigan rally. Showering, not sure about that one this weekend…hot and humid. Sometimes hygiene is not over rated, especially when with a group of people I rather like.
    Thanks again, Laura (waiting for your boom tour sites and dates)

  6. Pam Hicks

    Thanks, Campskunk – great ideas. Many years ago when I took my first & only backpacking trip in the White Mountains, I managed to wash my (short) hair & sponge bathe with a 20 ounce of bottled water. I was amazed that I could accomplish this & that I felt clean & refreshed! It was all about thinking ahead & doing things in the right order & reusing some water as necessary – just as you say. Just another example of less is more & keeping it simple :-)

  7. Darlene

    For those times when I need to wash dishes, I fill up a spray bottle with soapy water and spray everything, then take a wet sponge and wipe them down. Rinsing could be done with a pan of water or another spray bottle filled with plain water. Most of the time we use paper or plastic, but our boondocking days are not for several days. Another product I like is “No Rinse”. They have body wash & shampoo. You can find these on line or at some Walgreens. Hospitals and caretakers use these. The body wash is great and doesn’t leave you feeling dry or itchy, and you can use a very small amount of water or no water.

  8. paula anderson

    Coming from a backpacking background, I am wondering about gathering water from streams & lakes, then filtering for use… lite weight backpackers often carry simple gravity fed systems that I could see easily being hung up off the roadtrek and feed into the water sys… is there a reason I never hear about someone taking a collapseable bucket down to the river?

    • Karsten Askeland

      To be honest it would be a lot easier to fill from a hose and conserve as necessary. It would take a lot of buckets full of water and filtering to get the fresh water tank filled. :)

      • Paula

        I wouldn’t try to actually FILL the tank, but a couple buckets a day would mean you could stay at that great boondocking spot for a lot longer with less worry over your water situation.

        With a gravity system, you don’t even have to actually pump the filter – gravity does the work. you just pour the bucket in a bag – hang the bag up – stick the output hose in a container and walk away. Hiking on the AT, I saw many homemade in-line gravity systems; but there are some commercial ones available – like the bag system from Katadyn ( they also make the most commonly used hiker filter systems ).

        Backpacking, I never actually minded the time spent filtering water for my days use. It was enjoyable as water sources are generally nice areas to hang about for a few quiet minutes…. take a pack off break, off the feet and enjoy listening to the animal sounds. I tend to think of RV’s as a really large luxurious backpack I don’t have to carry and where its much more comfy than a thermarest ;-) Course, I can’t go all the places I can go on my feet – but I can get pretty close to many of them and walk from there in a great deal more comfort now that i’m older.

        Boondocking, to me, seems to be the perfect place to mix backpacking skillsets / tools with RV – so you can enjoy the location longer.

  9. Another RV Owner

    I would caution everyone to check gray water laws before “tossing water on the ground like the tent campers do”. Most states do not allow this.

    • Campskunk
      Author

      i avoid such states like the plague – i’m talking about national forest campsites, where there’s water, either gravity fed or pumped, or a hand pump, but no dump facilities. in such places, wash water is usually just thrown on the ground- the tent campers don’t have holding tanks like the RVers do. campgrounds back in the overpopulated eastern part of the country usually have water and a dump. i always use the wastewater dump when they have one – there’s no incentive to conserve grey water tank space when there’s a dump nearby.

  10. Mary Kay

    I already practice many of these water-saving tips, because we have a cabin in the Wisconsin northwoods with no running water inside during the wintermonths. I’ve learned what to do and it works!

  11. Nice tips on water conservation. Many of them in use by my wife & i in our van conversion as we boondock on all outings except an annual gathering in a state park with fellow enthusiasts.

    On personal bathing, my MacGirlver of a wife set up a nice system utilizing a 1 gallon battery operated garden sprayer easily purchased at your local garden store. We pour room temp water from a small 1qt tea kettle (3 times) into the sprayer, then pour 1qt of boiling water into sprayer and slosh it to mix water…for us this is about right (~105 degrees). The 4 “D” batteries last us about 8 showers, & we get two nice showers out of one sprayer-full. She prefers the stock sprayer as it sends out a nice water-conserving mist and dose the job well.

    On water use, here in the Pacific Northwest we will see a typical use of ~3 gallons of water for kitchen/misc cleaning, and 2 gallons for personal showers each week. We drink filtered (Berkey) water & also bottled water.

    • Campskunk
      Author

      new, close to $100,000, but i bought mine used for $40k and spent another $10k or so fixing it up. having been on the road for 40 months now without a mortgage payment or rent, i’m definitely getting my money’s worth.

  12. Scott Atkinson

    lol…I shaved in a bowl in my sink today…water has been frozen. My pump finally got prime late in the day so the water has thawed…

  13. Debra Lewis Wilson

    I use the basins that you get in a hospital for my sinks. Can’t heat in them but they collect all water to dump outside, preferably on a plant. In a drought people should do the same thing at home.