Road Trip Survival Guide – Managing Water

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

The Molecule We Take for Granted

Save for the air we breathe, there is no substance more critical to our survival than water. For those of us in the developed world, water reliably pours out of our faucets – on demand and seemingly without end – clean and cheap. Because of this luxury, we are barely conscious of how much water we consume each day.

waterBut on the road, you’re not connected to a local utility with an endless supply of water. Even if you have a camper with a sink, shower, and toilet, you are drawing and managing your water from tanks of finite capacity. With or without a managed water system, going on a road trip means carrying your water supply with you. It takes up valuable cargo space. It’s heavy. And it’s not as easy to replenish as you might think.

Managing a finite water supply forces you to contend with just how much water you actually consume. You will likely be motivated to find ways to conserve water.

But before we continue, please review the scopes and perspectives that I’ll be addressing each of the questions presented in the Road Trip Survival Guide.

Rationing Your Drinking Water

Throughout my life, I’ve watched as health experts have gradually increased the recommended amount of human water consumption. Back in the day, we were told to drink eight 8 oz. glasses of water each day (64 oz. or 1/2 gallon). Nowadays, that number has doubled to a full gallon (128 oz.).

If you’re trying to conserve water supplies, drinking water is not where you want to scale back. Especially when you’re on the road. Having water for your health is more important than having water for other purposes. And dehydration is a very real issue on the road. It can lead to headaches, impaired judgment, and ultimately lead to auto accidents. If you’re road tripping in the middle of summer or crossing the desert southwest, you’ll need to consume even more water.

Regardless of how or where you get your water from, it’s important that you reserve your cleanest water for drinking. Try to reserve water obtained through less-reputable sources for cleaning purposes.

Getting Free Water

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of paying for water. Like breathing air, it has always seemed absurd to me that we should pay for something so critical to survival. I’m aware of the massive costs involved with laying the infrastructure for waterworks, as well as the costs of treating water and pumping it to our homes. So when my quarterly water bill routinely came up to less than $100, I didn’t mind paying it. I was using about 50-65 gallons per day, which shakes out to about 2 cents a gallon. That seems reasonable.

A 20 oz. bottle of Dasani currently retails for $1.99. That’s $12.74 per gallon, or 637 times more expensive than tap water! Even a relatively cheap gallon of generic water (that I just priced at Wal-Mart at 88¢) is still 44 times more expensive than tap water. To put that into context, if I used Dasani for all of the water I use at home, my water bill would be almost $64,000 for 3 months! Using Wal-Mart water, my bill would be about $4,500 for 3 months.

Of course, nobody would buy Dasani to flush their toilet, take a shower, wash dishes, or do laundry with. But we don’t have two different types of tap water coming into our homes. It makes you wonder why some people are willing to pay such an outrageous markup to drink bottled water when tap water is just fine for both drinking and cleaning.

Before you lecture me about how unsafe or unhealthy tap water is, I’d just like to point out that I lived through the Cryptosporidium crisis in Milwaukee in 1993. Despite that scare, I have still never paid money for bottled water in my life. I always draw water from the tap.

Finding Drinking Water on the Road

If you’re a deranged lunatic willing to pay for bottled water, then there is no shortage of gas stations, convenience stores, or grocery stores along the highways where you can restock your water supplies. But you’re not a deranged lunatic. You’re here because you are a budget traveler and you want to know where to find drinking water for free.

Without a doubt, the most reliable sources of free drinking water are highway rest areas. I can’t think of a single one that didn’t at least have a water fountain. Most have an easy-to-find / low-to-the-ground water spigot specifically for refilling water bottles. The water didn’t always taste good. I recall a rest area – in northern California, I think – where the water tasted absolutely vile. But it was drinkable, free, and I wasn’t stealing from anybody.

You could probably go into most gas stations and refill a water bottle using their water fountains (or “bubblers”, depending on where you’re from). But for the amount of bottles I needed to refill, I was never comfortable leeching that much off of a private business. At least not with store clerks watching me!

Which isn’t to say that I would rule out stealing from a private home or business if I was desperate. Many people remove outdoor handles to prevent such theft, but for $10 you can get a sillcock key. Although I’ve never had to use it yet, I consider it a lifesaving tool and I would never go on a long-distance trip without one. It’s small, lightweight, and grants you access to almost any outdoor water spigot.


If you’re far removed from civilization – nowhere near rest areas, convenience stores, or even other homes to raid with a sillcock key – but close to natural bodies of water, then it’s a good idea to bring some water treatment options. I use these only as a last resort because they’re a consumable and not the least expensive gear in my bag. But they’re good to have in a pinch. There are any number of filtration products and purification tablets on the market that can treat pond water.

Water Conservation – Washing Dishes

You can avoid wasting water on dishes by not washing dishes at all and using disposable plates, cups, and plastic utensils. But this isn’t the most economical or even the most environmental approach. I recommend bringing a bare minimum of cookware and dinnerware, and getting in the habit of cleaning them after each use.

Buy some basic camp kitchen supplies. If you bring glass and ceramic dishes from home, you’ll likely break them, plus they’ll be bigger and heavier than they need to be. Camp kitchen supplies are usually made from a form of plastic or metal. Don’t waste space with duplicity – one item per person is sufficient. Get all-in-one utensils (spork on one end, knife on the other end), and instead of separate plates and bowls, satisfy both volume and surface area needs with a large bowl or a deep dish. If you have a water bottle, you don’t need to pack additional drinking containers.

A small camp stove and one or two small camp pots should be more than adequate to cook any meal you want. The more you bring, the more you’ll use, and the more you’ll have to clean.

When it comes time to clean, it takes very little water in a soapy sponge to work up a good lather to clean everything with. Where you waste the most water is in rinsing off the dishes. If the idea of using natural water sources (like a pond or stream) to rinse your dishes is repugnant to you, then place a small amount of drinking water into a squeezable bottle and a narrow mouth. (I use a re-purposed Gatorade EDGE bottle.) Use the pressure from the resulting jet to rinse your dishes, rather than volume.

If you trust the cleanliness of your cooler, you can also use melted ice for washing dishes. In my opinion, melted ice in a cooler is not clean enough for drinking, but clean enough for rinsing. It’s also a good way to stretch out the utility of the ice you’re buying.

Water Conservation – Washing (& Drying) Laundry

The most obvious solution to laundry is to find a laundromat. It’s not the cheapest option. Coin machines seem to ask for more quarters every time I visit one. And unless you want to lug around a bottle of laundry detergent with you, the individual packs get to be pretty expensive. Besides, you don’t need to read this blog to be told to go to a laundromat. You’re looking for other ideas.

In my opinion, American culture is more obsessed with cleanliness than it needs to be. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t do laundry. But we don’t have to wash clothes as often as we do. I know individual people who can produce several baskets of laundry in one week. The idea of wearing an article of clothing for more than a day (or even a few hours) is repugnant to them.

Not so. Under ordinary circumstances, most clothing can retain an acceptable level of freshness for several days. Or even weeks.

Socks and underwear have to be changed and replaced the most frequently. But the less direct contact an article of clothing has with your body, the longer it can last before needing to be cleaned. My usual outfit consists of a t-shirt underneath a sweatshirt. Most of my sweatshirts can be worn for several weeks before needing to be laundered.

If you’re doing a lot of hiking, jogging, climbing, scrambling, or any other activity that causes you to sweat, then you’ll need to wash clothes more often. If you’re mostly driving, walking around shops and museums, and enjoying views, your clothing can go a little longer without being cleaned.

But eventually, no matter how little you sweat, you’ll have to launder your clothes. I really see no reason why you can’t use a clean lake or creek to do this. You do not need drinking-quality water for laundry. You can probably get away without using soap, too. Most of the sweat, dirt, and grime that will end up on your clothing is water-soluble. You really only need soap if you get oil, grease, or sugary items on your clothing. I’ve also come to learn that you don’t need special laundry soap to wash clothes. Dish soap works just as well. In fact, I swear by simple Dawn for like 95% of my cleaning needs.

Besides… you don’t want to get too clean, do you? What kind of credibility will you have as a nomad if you always smell as fresh as a mountain spring?

If you’re not bothering with a laundromat to clean your clothes, you’ll need an efficient way to dry them. I recommend bringing a length of rope so you can rig up a quick clothesline for your laundry. You can tie the rope off between a pair of trees if you’re out in the wilderness. Or if you have enough space in the cab of your vehicle, you can run a line from one end to the other and dry your clothes indoors.

If you’re going to be parked for a while and you’re not surrounded by a bunch of other people, you can also lay your clothes out on the surface of your vehicle and let them bake in the sun. Or you can drape clothing over open windows. If you need to get back on the road before your clothes are dry, drape them over seats and other surfaces in your vehicle and open up the windows sufficiently to generate air flow to help dry your clothes faster.

Changing Clothes on the Road

This has nothing to do with managing your water supply. But since we’re discussing laundry, let’s also talk about discreetly changing clothes. You don’t want to get busted for indecent exposure. This isn’t incredibly difficult. But since you don’t have your own private room, it’s something you have to put some effort and thought into.

Putting on and taking off outer layers is easy. You probably won’t even raise any eyebrows if you do it in public. It gets trickier when you’re changing your underwear. Bathroom stalls are a great option if you’re in a populated area (any store or rest area restroom will do). If you’re in a remote wilderness area, you can get away with being naked for a few minutes without getting caught while exposed. Hell, you might get away with it for a lot longer!

If your vehicle is big enough to maneuver in, you can also change in your vehicle. But you might want to rig up curtains or makeshift blinds so children can’t see you through the window.

Let’s Talk About Poop

Finding a bathroom is not difficult, unless you’re deep in the wilderness. You can go into just about any gas station or retail store and use their facilities without even buying anything. Every highway rest area I’ve ever seen has had restrooms – though a few were just outhouses. (One thing about spending a lot of time on the road – if you’re squeamish about outhouses and Port-a-Pottys, you’ll get over that in a hurry.) Even deep in national parks and national forests, you’ll usually be able to find restrooms and outhouses. You have to get pretty remote to have a hard time finding a toilet.

For guys, the need to find a toilet only comes when it’s time to poop. Taking a piss is pretty easy for men – we can literally pull over to the side of the road and find a little shrubbery or fencing for privacy. I’m given to understand that isn’t as easy for the ladies. As a male (and a gay one, at that), I haven’t spent much time thinking about female plumbing. Nor do I want to. Suffice to say, I think we all poop the same, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.

In the wilderness, you should dig a hole before you poop, and then bury it when you’re done. Since there’s nothing to flush, there’s no need to spend any water on this activity. If you absolutely need something to sit on, I’ve seen some pretty novel makeshift toilets. All you need is a 5 gallon bucket with the bottom cut out. Then cut up a swimming pool noodle to make a cushion around the rim. You can line it with plastic if you’re worried about splattering a thing you’re carrying with you.

As for toilet paper, I personally believe it’s more important to use less material than to worry about how fast it will break down. I would rather use one or two sheets of paper towel than a giant wad of a rapidly-dissolving toilet paper. I don’t care how biodegradable the special toilet paper is, the paper towel is still going to break down pretty fast.

You can also avoid using water for washing your hands by using Clorox wipes, baby wipes, or hand sanitizer (the same stuff found in outhouses without running water). It’s more expensive than water, but since you’d be using soap either way, it makes more sense to just pay for the soap and use it in a form that doesn’t require water.

Bathing and Showers

As I said when discussing laundry, Americans are too obsessed with cleanliness. People are often subject to ridicule if they don’t take a shower every single day, despite the fact that there is evidence showing that too much bathing can actually harm our skin.

Again, I’m not suggesting that you never bathe. Just that you bathe less often. How often you bathe depends on how active you are and how much you’re sweating. But most people can go a few days, maybe even a week between showers, depending on the circumstances. And on the road, you’re going to want to scale back your bathing activities, because a shower consumes more water than any other activity we have discussed so far.

bathingThe fastest, cheapest, and probably most satisfying way to bathe is to take a swim in a lake or pond. This kills three birds with one stone. You clean your body, get some exercise, and get to enjoy nature.

As with laundry, soap is often unnecessary. Most of the sweat and dirt on your body is water-soluble. You only need soap to clean off oil and grease.

Of course, swimming in a lake isn’t always practical. You have to find a publicly-accessible body of water. It has to be relatively unpolluted, or you’ll emerge dirtier than you went in. And the water has to be warm enough that you don’t die of shock or hypothermia!

So from time to time, you are going to want a hot shower. Or at least to not end up in a freezing cold lake.

Truck stops that cater to professional truck drivers – notably Pilot Flying J stores – have all sorts of amenities for folks who spend their lives on the road, including showers. The showers are usually coin-operated. I’ve been inside a couple of these stores because they also sell gas and concessions to the general public. I’ve never actually asked to use one of their showers. One would think that they’d let anyone use them who is willing to pay. But I’ve heard stories that some stores restrict their usage to truckers. If you want to go this route, bring some change. Don’t count on being able to use the shower, but I imagine any sympathetic station clerk will let you use a shower, even if it’s “just this once”.

Another option is a “Black Card” membership with Planet Fitness. You can access any of their gyms across the country 24 hours a day for a fairly cheap (about $20/mo) membership fee. You can use their exercise equipment if you wish, or you can head straight into the locker room and get a free shower. Just remember to bring a towel with you, as they are not provided.

Another free option is to take a “navy shower” at a highway rest area. Late at night or early in the morning, the restrooms are usually pretty vacant. Go into the restroom with your bag. Do basic grooming like shaving, brushing your teeth, and combing your hair. Keep your clothes on. When the coast is clear, quickly run some baby wipes down your shirt and pants. Wipe your grimiest areas (crotch and armpits) for a quick clean. If the rest area is really dead and you want to push your luck, you can get a slightly more thorough cleansing by splashing water and soap over your body. Just work quickly and try not to make a huge mess in the process.

As I said before – don’t obsess about being too clean. A little grunge never hurt anyone, and it gives you some nomad cred.

Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? How do you find drinking water? How do you conserve water for cleaning? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

Leave a Reply