We scanned sites like Amazon, Bass Pro Shops, and REI to get a look at what’s out there, then also looked at this study by the Florida Solar Energy Center, which examined several factors that influence how quickly and how hot solar showers can get.
After 8 hours of research, we came to the conclusion that paying over $40 nets features that occasional weekend campers don’t need, but spending less than $20 isn’t a great idea either. It almost guarantees you’ll get equipment that smells like an old raincoat and feels like it’s made from the same flimsy stuff as a clown-shaped punching bag.
We selected six camp showers that offered different features, were made from different materials, promised strong water pressure, and appeared to be easy to carry when loaded to capacity. And then we used them in a variety of locations with different air temps and levels of sun exposure, including Canada, South Carolina, and Los Angeles.
We examined how easy they were to fill, how well-made they were, and how each one felt to carry while they were full of water. We also filled each one to capacity and timed how long they took to drain, while taking into consideration whether there was adequate water pressure for bathing. We paid close attention to how easy each shower was to turn on and off and how well extras like pockets and velcro worked.
We also paid attention to the size of the thing. A camp shower should have a large enough bladder to hose down without running out of water but still be light enough you don’t get a hernia hauling it up a tree on a rope or throwing it on top of your car to be heated in the sun.
Since one gallon of water weighs just over 8 pounds, a 5-gallon bladder (that’s 40 pounds of water) is a good compromise. Combined with a reasonably sized showerhead, the 5-gallon size should provide you with enough water that you have enough time to rinse off after soaping up.
We also tested to see how hot a solar shower can get. We did that by following manufacturer’s instructions, filling the bladders to capacity, and then laying them in direct sunlight on an 80-degree day in Los Angeles. We started with tap water that measured 77 degrees, using a ThermoWorks RT600c Pocket Thermometer, which is rated to work on both meat and liquids. All of the showers we tested, except the Coleman, have clear plastic on one side, and recommend facing the clear side toward the sun; the Coleman’s heating side is black, theoretically to gather more heat. With the exception of the Coleman, all of the showers came with built-in temperature gauges that provided rough accuracy at best.
Overall, our testing found that all of the showers heated similarly. (That’s thermodynamics for you.) A secondary conclusion was that the built-in thermometers were fairly useless if you expect them to give you an accurate water temp, though they worked well enough to give you a rough idea as to whether the water was warm enough.
Nearly all the showers performed equally, taking about three hours to reach a temperature most folks would classify as “warm” on a Southern California afternoon where the ambient temperature ranged between 80 and 85 degrees, and water temperature started at 77.
Our results were very similar to a more detailed outdoor shower test conducted in 2004 by the Florida Solar Energy Center. In a paper detailing their results—and you should read this paper, because it pretty much will turn you into a solar shower geek, which is the thing you need to be—the researchers found that no shower could reach 105 degrees within three hours, that (sensibly) cooler ambient temperature both slowed and limited heat gain, and that the “performance of each shower is similar, with the major differences being reliability and quality.”
One other thing you should be aware of: the showers lose heat quickly. All of the products we tested dropped by a minimum of five degrees after being placed in the shade for an hour. For folks who like a shower first thing in the morning, that’s a big deal. Your best bet while camping is to get the shower into the sun as soon as you can, and take your shower as soon as its water temperatures reach 100 degrees or so.
After these tests, we decided to recommend the Ivation Portable Outdoor Shower, which had the longest runtime of any of of the camp showers we tested. It also had an adjustable nozzle and a quick release handle that allows it to be emptied immediately. Unfortunately, the model has been discontinued and is unavailable on Amazon or the manufacturer’s website.
Of the other 5-gallon showers we looked at, the Stearns Sun Shower had potential, but once we filled it up with water, we noticed the PVC plastic around the handle was tearing under the weight. Its stream of water felt more powerful than the Ivation’s, but it ran dry in 5 minutes and 28 seconds. We’re happy to give up an iota of water pressure for the additional two minutes of runtime we got out of our pick. Coleman’s Sun Shower took close to twenty minutes for its bladder to drain because its water pressure was weak; worse, the product’s press-on cap kept popping open, leaking water everywhere (the other products we tested had a screw-on cap, which is much more secure). That’s too bad, because the Coleman’s black surface did mean it heated up a little more (and a little faster) than competing products. But the leaky cap is a dealbreaker.
The 2.5-gallon Advanced Elements shower heated up faster (smaller showers generally do, according to the Florida report) but also cooled down quicker; and the capacity, while acceptable for solo campers, won’t work for families (who’ll probably use about 2.5 gallons per person per shower). The 5-gallon Advanced Elements looked and performed almost exactly like the Ivation. Now that the Ivation has been discontinued, the 5-Gallon Advanced Elements is currently our main pick.