Complete DIY Camping Bathroom Setup

Alternative Title: Smells Like Family Spirit.

When we camped at Cades Cove in the Smokies last month, there were no showers. We knew this, and had budgeted $10/night for pay showers that were supposed to be available nearby, but the list that the rangers gave us of these alleged locations was completely outdated. It’s not their fault that businesses have changed their policy, but the fact remained that we couldn’t find a single place that actually offered showers!

This could have been a big problem.

We hiked, biked, and rode horses. We were staying for five nights. It was 80-some degrees and humid. All five of us slept in one tent one rainy night.

We have a teenage boy.

I’m not a hardcore type of camper; I like to wash the dirt, sweat, bugspray and sunscreen off before bed. We had sixteen nights booked at national park campgrounds coming up this summer, and I wasn’t taking any chances with basic hygiene!  I designed my own complete camp shower setup using components that fold flat when not in use!

The following may contain affiliate links:

The components are a pop up privacy tent, a Nemo Helio Pressure Shower*, a silicone funnel, a pop-up gardening bin, and a bucket.

Here’s how the shower looks when set up:

The blue thing is just a nylon tarp we had that we stand on afterward.

When you pack up camp, everything except the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower fits into the bag that the privacy tent came in, making a disc two-feet in diameter and four inches thick.

And here’s the procedure for taking a hot shower:

1) Fill the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower tank two-thirds full with water from the spigot or dishwashing sink (not river water, unless you filter it, otherwise it may clog).  It’ll warm up to the ambient temperature if given time; if not, no problem, it’ll just require hotter water in the next step.

2) Next, heat a pot of water.  Our large cook pot has a 1 gallon capacity, and I don’t quite fill it. It doesn’t need to boil, but should be too hot to touch.

3) Carefully pour the hot water into the pressure shower using the silicone funnel. (We wear our BBQ gloves from our camp kitchen box to avoid splash burns!)

4) Pressurize the Nemo Helio Pressure Shower using the foot pump until you feel a firm resistance.

5) Make sure your privacy tent is staked down… you definitely don’t want it to blow away while you’re in there.  Ask me how I know!

Just kidding.

6) Pop open the gardening bin and put it in the privacy tent.  Stand in the gardening bin, hang on to the showerhead (which is like a kitchen sprayer) and wash away the camping grime!

Sounds like a lot of work, right? My husband thought so, too, but when we couldn’t find a place to take a regular shower, he was happy we had this setup.  I was pretty pleased with myself.

All five of us can take a military-style shower with one fill of the tank (not counting washing my long hair… I mostly skipped that).

Don’t forget to pack a towel – here’s how we label them.

Here’s an extra tip: if it’s dark out, don’t hang a light inside the privacy tent, because it will cast anatomically accurate shadows on the walls for your neighbors’ entertainment.  Instead, put two lights or citronella candles on the outside of the tent, on opposite sides, and enjoy the soft glow.

After each family member showers, we transfer the dirty water to the yellow bucket, and dump it according to the campground regulations (typically, there is a dishwashing sink or graywater pit) and Leave No Trace ethics.

Speaking of LNT…  Looking around the campground, I noticed that everyone had a good grasp on the basics.  Food was stored properly, sites were kept tidy.

The bathrooms, though?  (It’s not the campground managers’ fault; they clean them, but by the middle of the weekend, they’re usually a mess.) I’ll spare you the description and leave it at this: The idea of my kids dropping their pajama pants to the ground while using the bathroom and then sleeping in them gives me hives. I repeat, I’m not hardcore! I just wish campers would Leave No Trace in the bathrooms!

So, I made another purchase to add to our DIY Camp Bathroom: a potty.  I bought both the Turbo Toilet (the blue one in pictures below) and Reliance Hassock, compared the two, took a bunch of pictures, and returned one (unused!).

When not in use, the Turbo Toilet packs down very small, and the Reliance Hassock does not, but is sturdy enough be used as a seat.

When deployed, the Turbo Toilet is much shorter than the Reliance Hassock.  The Turbo Toilet is just under 10″ tall.

As you can see, the shape is a little different.

The Reliance Hassock has an insert that goes on over the seat and under the lid that stores a roll of toilet paper.  Also, see how the Reliance has a seat over the black plastic bag?  The Turbo Toilet does not.

Both potties are to be used with a Double Doodie Bag or equivalent, as shown in the two photos above.  These are double-layer bags with gel powder in them that solidifies up to two quarts of liquids and supposedly breaks down solid waste, with no smell or spillage.  You throw the bags into the trash. I’m not sure how environmentally friendly these bags are, but we will be using them only when the other options are unsanitary or nonexistent.

In terms of cost, at the time I purchased them, the Reliance Hassock was priced lower than the Turbo Toilet.  The actual cost of the potties alone is almost exactly equal, because the Turbo Toilet comes with 12 gel bags, which you would have to buy separately for the Reliance Hassock.

You just read over a thousand words on camping showers and toilets. High five! So, do you think you’ll give my shower setup a try, or do you have something better? Which camping potty do you think I chose? Which one would YOU choose?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

Packing Strategies for a Family Vacation (Nerd Alert!)

This post may contain affiliate links.  

The other day, I received a text from a friend that made my heart beat a little faster.

“Are you familiar with packing cubes?  If my hunch is correct, you are.”

Girlfriend, come on over!  Let’s have a drink and chat for hours, I wanted to say.

But don’t worry, I played it cool.

“Very.  Why?” I replied.

“I’m liking this idea for our road trips.”

The conversation that ensued confirmed that this topic was worthy of a blog post.  In fact, packing for family trips has come up several times recently with friends.  I don’t need to look at a calendar to know it’s summer vacation time.

Remember when you could pack for a trip in one bag and less than fifteen minutes?  Me, neither!  I may have managed to do that once or twice, but that was in my life B.C.

Now, a whole process is required… It entails washing and folding loads of laundry before our departure, obsessively checking on the weather at our destination, thinking about the type of activities we have planned, selecting enough outfits, underwear, extra socks, pajamas, a pair of long pants, perhaps a “nice” outfit, a warm layer, rain jacket, swimsuit… Repeat four times… It can really add up, even for those of us who like to pack light!

And have you ever seen a kid dig through a packed bag for their favorite outfit?  It’s not pretty… so I stopped letting them do it.  But even when I’m the one digging through a bag, I make a mess.  I like being able to find everyone’s stuff at a glance, and keep our luggage to a minimum.  This is where packing cubes come in handy.  These soft-sided organizers are life-changing!

For most of our trips, each family member gets one “large” packing cube for their basic clothes.  For a trip of less than a week, everyone brings one outfit per day.  For longer trips, we bring five or six outfits and plan to do laundry along the way.  Everything fits in a large cube just fine, especially if we roll the clothes.  For the younger kids, a large cube is actually a little too big.


Everyone in our family has an assigned color.  This is especially important for the kids!  You’ll see tons of orange, red, and purple in our house.

I’ve been able to find packing cubes in everyone’s assigned color, so we can share one or two large duffel bags and easily find everyone’s clothes.

We also pack “communal” cubes for certain items, like pajamas, rain jackets, hoodies, swimwear, shower towels, and swim towels.  Chances are, we’ll all need those items at the same time, so why dig through five different bags for them?  Sometimes my minivan resembles a Minecraft world, since many of the communal cubes live in our vehicle.

I can ask my 13 year old son to grab the green cube (rain gear!) out of the back of the van, and there’s no possible way he can claim he can’t find it.  Amazing, right?

We take a slightly different approach to packing if we are going to be making one-night stops.  In that case, I’d pack a cube of everyone’s pajamas and one cube per day with a complete outfit for everyone.

We own some other brands of packing cubes, and they are all comparable in size and quality.  We chose them based on the colors available, in sets of four different sizes. The largest size is for our clothes, and the smaller cubes get used for things like electronics chargers, pillowcases, spices, beverages (Emergen-C, Natural Calm, tea), dish towels, shower supplies, etc.

Of course, there are cheap and free ways to pack like this, using large Ziploc-type bags or even just different colors of grocery bags, but they might tear after just a few uses.

Our packing cubes have held up well over the past several years, so I consider them to be a good purchase.  If you are in the market for some packing cubes, this set comes in many colors and looks like a great deal!

For those who are skilled with a sewing machine, here’s a tutorial on making your own packing cubes!

No matter what method you use to pack, I recommend keeping a record of what is packed where.  Worse-case scenario, like if your luggage gets lost or your car gets stolen, you can file an accurate claim.  We don’t often fly and that’s never happened to us, but I can assure you that keeping records helps the planner of the family (that’s me!) enjoy the trip instead of being asked “Where’s the…?” every five minutes.

Being the nerd that I am, I make a color-coded grid listing the contents of each cube.  I print three copies, and two get laminated. Those stay in the back of our vehicle and in our tent/camper/hotel room for constant consultation.  The non-laminated one stays in the back of our plastic trip planning portfolio.

Another indispensable color-coding tool we use is… drumroll, please… the diaper pin!

I came up with this classy idea in an effort to keep everyone’s towels straight while traveling.  We have ten microfiber towels, using bright colors for swim towels and silver for showers, and they are each labeled with a pin in our assigned colors.

Swim towels for travel vs. what we use at home - wow!

These microfiber towels conserve space, which is always at a premium when traveling.  You do have to pat yourself dry, rather than rub like you would with a regular towel, but they work well.  

The pin method worked so well for our travels that we have been using them for the kids’ towels at home the past few years, too.  I don’t know about you, but it grosses me out to think of drying my face on a towel someone else has used to dry their feet (or… worse).  Some of my kids are old enough to feel the same way and would toss questionable towels in the laundry – or, let’s be honest, let them pile up in the bathroom.  I hate having to do extra laundry just because people can’t tell which towel is theirs!  The pins totally eliminate that.


I always hope the kids keep the same towel all week until wash day, but if something happens where they need a different towel, they just take their pin off, put the dirty towel in the laundry, and put their pin on their new towel.  This also makes it very easy to know exactly whom to yell at for leaving their wet towel on the floor (grrr).

But I digress.  Back to color-coding our travel gear:

This is the brand of backpack we gave our kids, in which they pack whatever they want for long car rides, and double as their daypacks when we arrive (we dump their entertainment stuff into a tote when the backpacks are needed).  The 20L size is perfect for our us, and the backpacks have held up very well – especially considering how inexpensive they were!

This is how we color-code toothbrushes and keep them clean.  Here’s a set in a different color.

The items I recommended don’t take up much space, and most of them have stuffed Christmas stockings and Easter baskets over the past few years.

So, tell me, what’s YOUR strategy for packing?  I’m always looking for more ideas!

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.