Van life laundry | How to wash clothes living in a van

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So you want to get off the grid and see the world? We don’t blame you and living in a van is a perfect way to do it.

Life on the open road is exciting, rewarding and liberating. You can wake up to a new view every day if you want, or hideaway off grid for weeks on end. 

With the right set up in your camper van conversion, the choice is yours.

But what about the practical matters of van life? 

We’re often asked how we manage to cook in the van. Where do we shower and do we have a toilet in the campervan?

And how do we do our laundry?

It’s true there are a few challenges to keeping our clothes clean while living in a van full-time but we have a few tips and tricks to make van life laundry a breeze.

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Van life challenges of doing laundry

Washing clothes in a campervan has a few challenges:

  • Washing clothes uses a lot of water so relying on a campervan’s water system would deplete the fresh water supply rapidly
  • Space is precious in a campervan and unless you own a huge RV or overland truck, you probably don’t have space for a standard size washer. Even finding the storage space for your dirty clothes can be a challenge
  • We can no longer take for granted the convenience of doing a load of laundry whenever we want to
  • A camper van electrical supply is a precious commodity so options for electronic solutions need to be thought through carefully. Even with a few camper solar panels, you’re unlikely to have enough energy to power a washing machine 
  • Drying clothes isn’t as simple as throwing them in a tumble dryer when you live in a van – if only!
  • Avoiding condensation in a van is critical so drying anything wet indoors is best avoided
  • Wringing out enough water from clothes so they can dry quickly is a nightmare – and usually a 2 person job
  • Ironing clothes? Nope 
  • We aim to keep our van life costs to a minimum but using a laundromat or laundrette can add a big expense – depending on where you travel

Reducing how often we need to wash our clothes

Pegs hanging on a washing line

The best way to deal with van life laundry is to reduce how often you need to wash your clothes. 

And it’s way more environmentally friendly too. 

Before we lived in a van full-time, we’d change our clothes every day. 

When we were going out in the evening, we’d change again and the clothes we’d take off would go in the laundry. Even if they’d only been worn for a few hours.

If we carried on this way now we live in a van, we’d need a far bigger wardrobe, deeper pockets and be doing laundry more often too.

Instead, we wear our clothes until they’re no longer clean. You rarely see once worn t-shirts in our dirty laundry bag!

Underwear gets changed daily. Depending on the climate, we can get a couple of days or even 3 out of a t-shirt.

Sweaters can easily last 4 or 5 days before they’re past their freshest. 

Packing merino wool clothes helps too because it stays clean and fresh for much longer than cotton and other fabrics. It dries quicker too.

It’s useful to have a set of clothes for the dirty jobs too like working on the van. Make sure a pair of overalls is on your van life essentials packing list!

We find the best way to get our bedding clean is to use a laundromat. 2 sets of bed linen is a must so we don’t have to rely on a same day service.

The best way to store dirty laundry in a campervan

A basket of dirty laundry - campervan ventilation can help eliminate odours

Storing dirty laundry is often an after thought when designing campervan layouts. It was for us too!

Dirty laundry can create unwanted smells in the van if left too long or not stored correctly. 

There’s a few options for storing your dirty laundry:

  • A breathable fabric laundry bag – folds away to nothing when not in use, allows the dirty laundry to “breathe” so helps prevent it going stinky and can go in the laundry at the same time as the clothes
  • Sealed dry bag –  also folds away but because you can seal these, any smells won’t permeate the fresh air in your van
  • A pillowcase – we use one of the dirty pillowcases to put all our used bedding into, ready to drop off at the laundry

Top tip | Never put anything damp or wet into your dirty laundry bag or it will smell and go mouldy quickly, affecting everything else in the bag at the same time. 

How to wash your clothes when you live in a van

washing machines in a laundromat

Despite the challenges, there’s plenty of options for getting your van life laundry clean, dry and fresh. 

Here’s our top suggestions for where to do your laundry on the road.

Use a laundromat or laundrette

Doing laundry at a laundrette is our number 1 option when it comes to washing our clothes.

Most places have a laundromat of some sort. 

Pretty much all those we’ve found in South America aren’t self service but offer a full service wash, including detergent and drying. Most will even offer an ironing service for an extra fee.

These are great because you just drop off your laundry and pick it up after an agreed amount of time, all clean, fresh and folded ready for you to put back in your wardrobe. 

And at South American prices we don’t bust our budget either.

Most places tend to get the job done in less than 24 hours.

In Europe and North America, self service laundromats are common even in small towns. You can even find unattended laundromats at fuel stations. 

Tips on finding & using laundromats

washing machines in a laundromat
  • Try to use a laundromat with recommendations from locals or other travellers, especially when getting a full-service. You want to make sure you’re going to get all your won clothes back and none of anyone else’s. Use iOverlander offline for recommendations from other travellers
  • In larger towns and cities, self service laundrettes open early in the morning and close late at night. The busiest times are at weekends and evenings. For the best chance of finding available machines when you arrive, try the middle of the day
  • Bring your own detergent – the stuff from the vending machines is mega expensive
  • Don’t overload the machines. An overloaded washing machine won’t clean the clothes as well. And if you cram all your clothes into one drier, it’ll take longer and cost more to get it all dry than using 2 separate machines
  • If using an unattended laundromat, check emergency contact details are available before you start. We once used a service station somewhere in the Netherlands. The washing was perfect but the tumble driers wouldn’t work, despite eating all our money. There was contact details but we had no time to call them out – we were about to board a cargo ship to South America!
  • Bring your Kindle or something to do while you wait – you’re going to be there for a while!

Hand washing laundry in a van

Women washing clothes in a river

The cheapest option for getting clean clothes is to do it yourself with a bit of elbow grease.

It’s not our favourite job but it’s easy when we stay on top of it. 

Smalls can easily be rinsed out when you’re in the shower, saving on water and detergent too.

For lighter clothes that aren’t heavily stained, we use our plastic storage boxes outside as makeshift sinks. 

We put 3 boxes alongside each other and have a little production line for washing, rinse cycle 1 and rinse cycle 2.

It works perfectly though can be a bit overwhelming if you have a lot. It’s not great for washing bedding or jeans though. 

And trying to get soap suds out of fleece sweaters takes more than 2 rinse cycles!

If you don’t have plastic storage boxes you can use for the job, these lightweight, collapsible camper sinks do just as well.

Campsites often have laundry sinks with a built in washboard, making cleaning more heavily soiled items easier.

For less scrubbing effort and to protect your hands from detergent, the Scrubba Wash Bag is a portable wash bag and quite popular. 

They have a built-in washboard so once you’ve added your laundry, detergent and water, seal up the bag, release excess air and shake it about.

Use a portable washing machine

Portable washing machines are relatively compact and provide inexpensive and convenient solution for van life laundry.

Manually powered, portable washing machines don’t draw energy from your 12v electrical system.

They’re ideal for small loads at a time so keeping on top of the laundry doesn’t feel like such a chore.

For bulky items like your bedding, they’re just not big enough so you’ll still need to find a laundrette.

While they’re relatively compact, they still take up some storage space so portable washing machines are better for a large camper van or RV. 

Creative ideas for van life laundry

When we had our Unimog camper, Mowgli and more storage space, we had a large bucket with a screw lid

We’d fill it with water, detergent and a few bits of laundry and strap it into the bathroom securely before driving.

By the time we reached our destinations, we had clean clothes ready to be rinsed.

How to dispose of laundry grey water

a trash bin discarded in grey dirty water

Disposing of grey water responsibly is important, even more so when wild camping and living off grid. 

A fitted grey water tank allows you to take used water away with you when you leave but with the greatest will in the world, it’s unlikely you fitted one large enough to cope with used laundry water.

If doing your laundry on a campsite, dispose of grey water in their facilities. 

When living off grid, the only likelihood of doing any laundry is if you have a freshwater source nearby. 

You won’t use your limited drinking water to wash your clothes.

We often did our laundry when travelling through Patagonia. With dozens of lakes and rivers, water was never in short supply.

Getting our hands on biodegradable detergent was always our biggest challenge though.

Empty the grey water more than 100 metres away from any water sources. Scatter the water rather than pouring, so it doesn’t pool or stream.

Read more about the leave no trace guidance on the Leave No Trace website.

How to dry your clothes on the road

laundry drying on a clothes in the sunshine

Unless using a laundromat, drying your clothes when you live in a van is the biggest challenge of van life laundry.

We don’t want to bring wet or even damp clothes inside the van because of the condensation it inevitably causes.

The first trick is squeezing out enough water from your clothes before hanging them out to dry.

Light items aren’t too difficult but bulkier things like pants and sweaters can be tough to get enough water out that they’re not dripping wet.

We find a 2 person effort wrings out loads more water. We grab one end of the item each and twist until we can’t wring anymore water out.

The best drying conditions are obviously on dry, windy days so try to time your laundry to coincide with good weather.

We use a simple washing line to hang our laundry but we do need a couple of trees around to attach it to.

We have an extendable tent pole to serve as a prop so the clothes don’t hang on the floor and can catch more of the breeze.

There are times though when there’s no trees around when a collapsible drying rack would be ideal.

clothes line

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