Pros, Cons & Would I Do It Again? – Bearfoot Theory

I get a ton of questions about my first Sprinter Van bathroom, and a lot of people have said they want to copy the exact layout of my first converted Sprinter Van. Before you go doing that, I wanted to write a blog post about the pros and cons of a Sprinter Van bathroom. Yes, it’s nice to have access to a shower, but it comes at a cost, in terms of space, price, and maintenance.

In this post, I share my thoughts on my previous Sprinter Van bathroom (my current van without a bathroom is here) and answer the question, if I could start all over, would I still build a shower in my van and would I do it the same way?

UPDATE: For a more comprehensive overview of van conversion toilet and shower options, see this detailed blog post and watch the video that are part of my free online course, the Van Life Roadmap. 

Why I decided to put a bathroom in my Sprinter Van

A couple years back, I traveled in a small camper van in New Zealand for three months. That van didn’t have a shower, and as a result I found myself searching for a shower every 3 or 4 days. I’d either pay for a campground that had showers or I’d find a gym I could shower at. All in all, it wasn’t that big of deal…but I preferred camping at more off-the-grid spots.

What was annoying, however, was getting up in the middle of the night to go pee. Now for you guys out there, it’s not such a big deal. All you have to do is slide the door open with your eyes half-shut, wave it in the wind, and then fall back in bed. Easy peezy. On the other hand, for us ladies, peeing in the middle of the night when you sleep in a van means getting dressed, putting on shoes, and popping a squat, or walking to the nearest bathroom if you’re in an established campground. It’s pretty disrupting to your sleep schedule.

At the same time I was in New Zealand, I was in the middle of designing my first Sprinter Van with my builder back home, and it got me thinking…maybe I should put a bathroom in my Sprinter Van. It sure would be nice to not have to go outside in the middle of the night to pee, especially when I was traveling alone and didn’t want everyone to know it, or to search for a shower every few days like I was in New Zealand. Staying at KOA campgrounds was not how I envisioned traveling in the states, and besides the bathroom, I was self-contained and self-powered and would have no need for KOA-type services.

Ok, so a shower started to seem like a good idea. What about an outdoor shower? An outdoor shower would have been a great option, but I wanted to be in my van year-round, and an outdoor shower would only work in the summer.

On a phone call with my builder, he said he could build me a full bathroom with shower for an added cost. “No big deal,” he said. Even though he had never built a shower in a Sprinter Van before, I trusted him (mistakenly), and we incorporated a bathroom into my Sprinter Van design.

My Sprinter Van Bathroom Set-Up

Bathroom Basics

My first Sprinter Van bathroom was built in the back corner along the passenger side, and it’s completely enclosed with permanent walls and a plexiglass door. The dimensions of my bathroom are shown in the image below.

If you are thinking about building a bathroom in your Sprinter this first! Here's my thoughts on the pros and cons of building a shower in your camper van with 6 months of van life under my belt.
Sprinter Van bathroom dimensions

I’m not exactly sure what the walls were made of, but the rest of the walls in my van are made of powder-coated aluminum. The walls in the bathroom had a slightly different texture, but that may be due to a water-proofing membrane that was used to coat the walls.

The floor was made of teak and was removable, and underneath the teak was a drain that goes to the gray water tank.

My Sprinter Van Toilet

*Update: I recently wrote a post sharing some of the most popular campervan toilets for van life and the pros and cons of each

The toilet I had in my first Sprinter Van was a Thetford portable-potti. That means there is no plumbing associated with it, and the entire toilet is self-contained. You fill up the toilet’s clean water tank which you use for flushing, and then the toilet has its own built-in black water holding tank. You put a little deodorizer in the holding tank which keeps the smells under control.

There’s an indicator that tells you when it’s time to dump it. If I was by myself and using it exclusively at night and occasionally during the day, it could hold a weeks worth of pee, no problem. When it was time to dump it, you take out the entire toilet, separate the bowl from the holding tank, and pour the contents down the drain at an RV dump. I only used it for #1, but the whole process was not as bad as I expected it to be.

Sprinter Van toilet porta-potti

The porta-potty was inexpensive and at the time I thought leaving space for a porta-potti was one of the smartest decisions I made in my Sprinter Van build. I was so happy I don’t have to go outside in the middle of the night (I’ve since learned that even for females, a pee bottle is a much smaller, easy alternative to a porta-potty.

My only complaint was that my long legs, combined with the small dimensions of my Sprinter Van bathroom, made it pretty hard to shut the bathroom doors when sitting on the toilet. So I would usually go with the bathroom doors open. This wasn’t a big deal, but you gotta be pretty comfortable with anyone who you might be traveling with.

Learn about the best campervan toilet options for your Sprinter Van!

My Sprinter Van Shower: Pros and Cons

What I didn’t think about is how much more complicated a shower makes your plumbing system. All of a sudden you need hot water and a lot more of it. With only a sink, you can get away with 10-12 gallons and be off the grid for 4-5 days, maybe even more if you conserve. Introduce a shower, and you need more like 25 gallons, especially if there’s two of you.

See…complicated much?

Plumbing in a Sprinter Van

And then, you have to think, where are you going to store all of that water? If you live in a warm climate and don’t plan on using the van much in freezing temps, then you can store water outside the van. But what if spend time in cold places in winter such as Salt Lake City, like me? In harsh winter climates, any water tanks and lines you have outside the van with water in them will be frozen solid if the temps drop below freezing, including your gray water tank. Even pipes inside the van can freeze if it gets cold enough, and if the pipes burst inside your van, you are looking at some complicated repairs.

Before moving forward with my Sprinter Van bathroom, these considerations weren’t something that my builder discussed with me, and I made the mistake of not educating myself on all this stuff. He ended up putting a 10 gallon water tank inside the van and a 15 gallon tank underneath the van. Seemed fine to me…thoughts about the pipes freezing didn’t even cross my mind. He lived in California, so I’m not sure it crossed his mind either.

When it was all said and done, in winter climates, the 15 gallon tank outside tank was useless, and I had to leave it empty so it did’t freeze. That left me with 10 gallons.  If I was traveling with another person, and we only had 10 gallons, a shower was VERY low on the priority list if we wanted to conserve water and be off the grid for more than 2 days at a time.

There are probably ways to insulate that exterior tank and lines. Most of what I read back then suggested 12v heating pads, but those consume a lot of precious battery power so it wasn’t a good option for me.

In the summer, I could carry a total 25 gallons with my inside AND outside tank in use, and that is enough for drinking and cooking for 5 or so days, and maybe a shower or two, if you turn the water off while you are soaping up.

Remember, I said the whole reason I wanted a shower was because I was planning on living in the van year round. Well with the way my water tanks and plumbing were set up, the shower was only practical in summer. Knowing that, I could have built some sort of outdoor solar shower setup off the rear doors instead (which is sort of what I ended up doing with my current Sprinter Van). That would have been ALOT cheaper and maybe a better use of the limited space inside my van.

Shower in Sprinter Van bathroom

With the the longer Sprinter – the 170” wheelbase and perhaps a different floor plan, I would have had room inside the van to store all of my water. In that case, I’m still not sure a full indoor bathroom with a shower it’s worth the hassle for the points I’ll discuss in the next section.

The other thing I’ll mention about my shower is that the water was leaking through the floor the day I left my original builder’s shop. They didn’t use a shower pan and failed to seal the floor properly underneath the teak. I fixed this myself by putting a thick layer of rubber flex-seal which filled in all of the holes, but having an actual shower pan would have been a much better option.

If you are thinking about building a bathroom in your Sprinter this first! Here's my thoughts on the pros and cons of building a shower in your camper van with 6 months of van life under my belt.

Sprinter Van Water Heater

The other thing to consider for a Sprinter Van bathroom is if you want hot water and how you are going to heat the water. Hot water requires additional plumbing lines plus the water heater itself. My builder installed hot water lines, but didn’t install the actual heater because he didn’t know how. I had to go somewhere else for that after my build was already completed.

While maybe obvious, that is definitely not the way to do it. If you are going to build a shower in your Sprinter Van, you should figure out what type of hot water heater you want and where you are going to put it before you build out the rest of the van.

With my build already completed and plumbing lines in, I had very limited space left in my van for a water heater. Even the tankless water heaters were too big. So I opted for the Webasto Dual Top EVO 6, which runs off diesel (plus a little battery power) and heats both the water and the air in the van. It’s not too compact, but it fits nicely in the spare tire area underneath the van.

The downside of the Webasto Dual Top EVO 6? The price. On top of what I had already spent on my build, I had to pay quite a bit for the part and full installation. Without the shower, I could have installed a normal air heater for 1/10th of the price (or less). I also could have saved a lot of money on the shower if the water heater had been incorporated into the floor plan from the get-go, since that would have opened up a lot of other options, like a tankless heater.

Also with the Webasto, any time the temps drop into the 30s and you have water in the lines and the boiler, you must have the unit on. So in cold climates, you might be running the unit 24 hours a day just to prevent water from freezing in the unit.

Webasto Dual Top EVO 6 in Sprinter Van

Installation was complicated because some of my water lines had to be rerouted and ended up costing me ALOT of money. If I had known just how much it was going to cost to have hot water in the van, I probably would have thought twice about the shower. It was a ton of money, but since the shower was already built, I felt I didn’t really have a choice but to install hot water. Otherwise, it was a complete waste of space. Also winter was approaching fast and I was desperate for a heating solution.

Sprinter Van Bathroom Components

If you are set on building a shower in your Sprinter Van, here’s a list of all of the components used in my previous bathroom and where you can find them. In the end, I was happy with all of these components. The shower head has an on/off switch which is very useful for turning off when you are soaping up, and the shower hose is 8 feet long so I can use it outside to hose off my feet or gear.

Would I build a Sprinter Van bathroom again?

Did I like my shower in the end? Sometimes. Would I do it again? Probably not. I once went 22 days without showering on the John Muir Trail, and I don’t mind being dirty. If I do have a shower in a future van, it will be quite different than the one in this van. It also certainly wouldn’t have tile (which adds so much unnecessary weight).

The complications that the shower (due to my specific setup) presented in cold climates caused me a lot of headaches, which I slowly figured out how to manage. In the winter, the shower mostly served as a very expensive storage area.

If you are thinking about building a bathroom in your Sprinter this first! Here's my thoughts on the pros and cons of building a shower in your camper van with 6 months of van life under my belt.

I also wonder if I had asked the right questions of my builder before hiring him, I would have ended up with a different builder or a different design. Now I wouldn’t hire someone to build a bathroom in a van who has zero bathroom experience.

With all this said, I know there are many people out there who would love having a full bathroom. I think it makes a lot more sense in the 170” wheelbase. If a shower is fitting for your lifestyle, then I’d highly suggest doing more upfront research than I did, so you can weigh all of your heating and plumbing options before your van build begins. That way you can figure out how to do it cost-effectively.

I hope this helps those Sprinter folks out there who are considering a shower whether or not it is a good use of van space and a good fit for your lifestyle.

Oh, and for those of you who want to know who built my first van….it was a small company in Santa Barbara, and unfortunately I cannot provide a recommendation for them. 

Do you want a full bathroom in your Sprinter Van? Why or why not? Share your questions, comments, and experiences below!

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