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Let's say you're backpacking and you're staying at a super-cheap hostel. Either because you have a lot planned for the day or you're catching long distance bus / train, you've to get up really early in the morning. The showers either don't have hot water or it doesn't work. It's cold and you really don't want to stand under a stream of freezing cold water.

Not really a hypothetical scenario because I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt. So what's your travel tip for when you're travelling and find no place to shower?

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This happened to me on Ometepe in Nicaragua. Every place I stayed over a period of some days in sweaty tropical heat had ran out of water, had a broken shower, or some similar issue. My solution was to let the skank build up until I got back to the mainland and then have the world's longest shower. – hippietrail Jan 26 '12 at 9:29
Hey, and where is "OK we're all adults here" :) – VMAtm Jan 26 '12 at 9:48
I'm pretty sure you start to stink. – mindcorrosive Mar 16 '12 at 8:36
Shower in a can? (aka spray on deodorant) Personally I just shower in cold water. I find if you lather up with soap first then just dive under for a rinse off you can do your body (minus hair (I don't have much of that)) in about 1 min of exposure to cold water. – Stuart Mar 19 '12 at 16:33

9 Answers 9

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Well I can be evil and if people complain, I call them insensitive because I (genuinely) have no sense of smell ;)

However, logically you do have a few options:

  • hand-wash - a wash-cloth and some soap goes a long way, and for some reason even though the water is cold, it's never as bad as stepping under a cold shower.
  • deodorant, lots of it.
  • make sure you have clean (or your closest-to-clean) clothes on, minimising the risk of odour, and still helping you to feel fresh.
  • wet-wipes / baby wipes. It's slow, but hey, if it works...
  • do what our salt-flats tour group did in Uyuni - made a group pact to not shower, so that nobody had to deal with the ice-cold water(!)
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"You can evil"? Did you just verb "evil"? d-; – hippietrail Jan 26 '12 at 9:30
My dad is also anosmic. Never met another person with the condition but Dr Karl says it's common in surfers. – hippietrail Jan 26 '12 at 9:31
can be evil. Sigh. Too many late nights aurora hunting. Just got back from three hours driving. It's pouring with rain and is 1am. And I have work in the am. – Mark Mayo Jan 26 '12 at 12:01

The obvious thing to do would be to just wash yourself with 2 hands or a sponge and soap/shower gel; or am I missing something here?

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Washing yourself with hands is f...f...f...freezing! – Ankur Banerjee Jan 25 '12 at 23:30
indeed. Can get quite clean without a tub or shower, as anyone who's traveled in dry climates where water's best not wasted can attest to. – jwenting Jan 26 '12 at 7:15
If the water is freezing then you use the plug, let some cold water in and add some hot water from the kettle until the temperature is ok. Did you never go camping? – iHaveacomputer Jan 26 '12 at 22:30

In the shower, you stay aside and let some water in your open palms. Then sprinkle water over your body. Add more water gradually to let your body adapt. I think it's perilous to suddenly step into cold water.
You can do something similar over the sink.
I had to wash with cold water every day in the army and sometimes in student dormitories. I never liked it though others had no problem.

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Right. I wouldn't necessarily say perilous, if you're thinking of hypothermia risk, but it's definitely not fun for most people. – imagineerThis Jul 22 '13 at 0:06

If you really can't handle the cold shower, why not just heat some water in a pot or kettle? Then mix it the with freezing water (if needed) and sponge-bath like the others suggest. I did this a couple of times when the hot water-supply was off.

Easy if you carry a portable heating-element.

If you have a thermos flask (admittedly unlikely) you could even heat the water before you go to to bed the previous night, so no time wasted in the morning. Works when the electricity or water supplies are unreliable, or there's a morning rush in the kitchen/bathroom.

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I've done basically this at home once--busted water heater. – Loren Pechtel Nov 11 at 22:07

In some countries there are opportunities to shower or bathe that you might not expect.

  • In Thailand, there are "police boxes" (ป้อมตำรวจ), which are mini police stations located on highways at the edge of towns. It seems more than half have showers you can use. Some have signs saying you're welcome to use them. At others just try asking the police. I find them always friendly and happy to meet travellers. Many are open 24 hours or have a shower accessible even when the police are not there. Some might only have a bucket shower. The water is never hot but it's a warm country so the water is never freezing either.
    In the very south, the police boxes are not great. When they don't have a sign in English you can avoid them. But instead they have even better facilities at "highway police" stations in similar locations. These are painted orange and brown and are larger and more modern. They have large bilingual signs advertising what they offer, sometimes even somewhere for cyclists to sleep!

  • In Thailand and Cambodia you can ask at a Buddhist temple/monastery/pagoda if you can use their bathing area. Some only have bucket showers. I may be wrong but this is probably only appropriate for men. Personally I try to find a layperson to ask since I don't know the proper procedures to respectfully ask the monks directly.
    This might be possible in Laos and Myanmar too but I haven't tried.

  • In Japan some internet cafes have showers. I assume some manga kissas and other similar places where people stay overnight in lieu of proper accommodation might also have showers. Some are free and some are coin operated.

  • In South Korea you can always find a jjimjilbang (찜질방) in any city or town. They will have saunas and hot baths as well. You must shower/bathe before using those other facilities. Note that once inside everybody will be naked but men and women will be in separate areas.

  • In Japan, sentōs (銭湯) seem to be getting less common compared to jjimjilbangs in Korea. Sentos are bath houses or saunas in urban areas. If you're in the country though, onsens are still popular and these are often outside in natural settings and quite beautiful. These are mostly sex-segregated but there are still a few traditional mixed ones hidden here and there but you're unlikely to stumble across one of those without looking for it.

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I struggled with this for a long time when I first started doing long-distance hitchhiking. I get really smelly if I don't do something. I take washcloth showers (which others have explained) but I believe that stopping odor before it starts is crucial!

Clothing material If you allow yourself one luxury, get thin merino wool socks and undies. They're magic. They effectively wick moisture away from your skin, starving odor-causing bacteria. In addition, (unlike most synthetics) merino is intrinsically inhospitable to odor- and rash-causing bacteria. You can wear a pair of undies for days before it smells, but I only do that when I go backcountry hiking. Also, they are unbelievably comfortable! After several ordeals getting foot funguses in Asia I always travel with these.1

Washing Like Wandering Earl, I travel ultralight, so I'm in the habit of scrubbing my shirt armpits, socks, and undies every day. I dry them in my backpack's outer breathable pouch. At midday, I swap them with the socks and undies I've been wearing.

Hair trimming I'm a hairy person, and hair traps odor. I travel with a trimmer and keep things manscaped. It makes a big difference!

(included for completeness) Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria spray Some people don't ever shower and use bacteria sprays that metabolize ammonia from sweat into building blocks which--supposedly-- promote healthy skin. At this time it's prohibitively expensive for me. The NYT has an article about it.

Note, that while @Ankur Banerjee's suggestion to use anti-bacterial soap is effective, be aware that this should not be done regularly! Strong antiseptics annihilate your natural skin flora, which plays a key role in skin health and immunity. Your freshly sterilized skin is then defenceless to potential skin-disease causing bacteria.

1 I am partial to Darn Tough socks (lifetime warranty) and Icebreaker undies. Merino shirts also exist, but they cost a fortune. I bided my time and collected stained or ripped-up shirts at REI garage sales and fixed them up.

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"I'm a hairy person... I travel with a trimmer and keep things manscaped." TMI alert!! – smci Nov 12 at 22:25
shrug not everyone knows that trimming armpit hair really helps reduces odor, I sure didn't when I began long-distance hitchhiking – Roving Richard Nov 12 at 22:41
manscaping does not generally refer to armpit hair, sir... – smci Nov 12 at 22:45
Why would that make things different? Maybe we have a different perspective because at work I'm surrounded by biologists and doctors, but I just don't get some people are grossed out by human anatomy. Especially why has there been a surge of body hair phobia in just the last 100 years in just one country: the USA. This is the body I was born with and we're having a conversation about how to maintain body hygiene. It's the year 2015, can we all agree to retire taboos and superstitions that damage each other's self-esteem for no reason? – Roving Richard Nov 13 at 6:46

Baby wipes. They don't call them "portable showers" for nothing.

Or go for a swim, either in a swimming pool or sea/lake/river.

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My solution is typically to use anti-bacterial handwash, the kind that dries up on its own and doesn't need any water at all. When the water supply is cold it's excellent to easily be able to wash up your face and and the bits of your body where you sweat the most.

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Pro-tip if you are a man and therefore don't carry anti-bacterial handwash around: Vodka has pretty much the same effect :) – iHaveacomputer Jan 26 '12 at 22:32
Vodka. That's what I use to wash my insides. – imagineerThis Jul 22 '13 at 0:07
I've downvoted this because it doesn't mention how unhealthy this is for your skin (see – Roving Richard Nov 11 at 3:53
I would not use this regularly, but for the odd emergency while traveling you do not do too much damage to your skin. Washing your hands where they have hot air dryers is also not good for your skin but everybody uses them. – Willeke Nov 11 at 16:43

Generally I'd go for the cold water - a cold shower is a great way to get a bit of a buzz.

If that doesn't appeal, the essential in your pack is wet wipes. With these you can at least sort out the places you most want to feel hygienic, helping to prevent body odour and irritation.

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