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Handling Laundry while RVing / Camping

Living in an RV full time means LIVING in the RV. All the things that you would normally take care of in your day to day suburban lifestyle now must be handled in a (relatively) tiny space, the area of your campground space or boondocking area, and whatever resources your campground, park, or gateway community has.

A lot of families looking into the Full Time RVing lifestyle quickly ask: where do the kids' toys go? Where will the heirloom knicknacks be stored? I can't live without my large (and heavy) kitchen all-in-one stand mixer/food processor/espresso machine/etc! How do you store a week's amount of food in that tiny fridge and pantry?

These are all concerns we had, questions that family and friends asked as we started this lifestyle. But they were missing one. Soon, a more pressing concern comes up: laundry.

Camping is a dirty business. Dirt happens. You thought your kids knew how to find every inch of dirt and mud that exists in your suburban back yard? Wait until they're spending a very large portion of the day in or around nature. Real nature. Not a Home Depot ad quality back yard deck with a finely cared-for lawn.

When you're tent camping for the weekend, or even RVing for a week, you can just store up your dirties in a bag until you get home.

What if (ominous Haunted House voice) THERE IS NO GOING HOME FOR LAUNDRY?

Do motorhomes have washers / dryers?

“Wait, I saw a big motorhome on TV with a washer/dryer combo, so we'll just get one.”

Sure, there are really interesting options out there. RV-sized stackable washer/dryers, and even combo solo units where the washing drum actually turns into the drying drum (cool!). These seemed like wondrous magic when we first saw them during the daydreaming phase of our RV shopping trips.

However, while there is a LOT to be said for being able to wash your clothes in-unit, there are some really important – even deal-breaker – drawbacks of these.

  • Weight

Just because something fits in the RV, doesn't mean it can go in the RV. You already have a much-reduced amount of storage space compared to your sticks-and-bricks home, but you're not even allowed to use it all. Manufacturers do not give you the cargo weight capacity to fill those cupboards, closets and under-bed storage units with very much at all.

The total weight of the RV is the most vital concern you will have as a full time traveler. Being over-loaded will cause even worse MPG numbers, will increase braking distance, and wear your engine. Hitting a bump while over-limit can break suspensions on either the rig or towing vehicle. Going over either the rig's limit can cause catastrophic fish-tailing. Going over the rig's OR the tire's limits can lead to a blowout that will quickly escalate into a deadly crash. And if you can be shown to have been significantly over-limit, then good luck explaining that to your insurance company.

Weight matters. And those washers are really, really heavy. Like 165 pounds heavy, which is the same as driving around with 20 more gallons of water in the tank all the time!

  • Fresh Water use / Waste tank filling

RV washers, like their suburban big siblings, are surprisingly water efficient nowadays. However, any amount of water use reduces the amount of time you can camp somewhere without full hookups. Some of the most scenic spaces we've camped at have been water/electric only, with a single dump station on the way out. You certainly don't want to have the drain water of the washer cause a back-up of your gray water tank into your shower stall.

  • Electricity use

As a practical matter, you're not going to use an in-rig washer/dryer in a pure boondocking situation. Like air conditioning, a washer/dryer combo is going to be too much draw for a battery bank or most generators. RV washer/dryers use around 14 to 16 amps, similar to air conditioners. Therefore, even if you are in a full hook-up spot, your rig and the space's electrical must be wired for 50 amp service in order to not blow the circuit breakers on 30 amp service if lights, air conditioner, etc are also on.

  • Clothes volume

If you're a solo Rver, or a retiree couple, then the amount of clothes you can wash in an RV stackable or solo-drum washer isn't a big problem. They will handle about 12 pounds of clothes at the larger end. It's hard to visualize clothing in pounds, but 12 pounds is roughly two days of outfits for two people, in a warm-weather climate.

A little quick math in your head, and you can see that 12 pounds is laughably small if you're a family of four. You think you're “always doing laundry” for your family in your suburban life? Wait until you're doing laundry 12 pounds at a time.

That kind of constant use brings me to the next big downside....

  • Reliability / catastrophic failure risk

How reliable are these machines really? Many things made for the RV industry are built assuming weekend trips just a couple times a year. Have you ever had a washing machine leak catastrophically on you in a home or apartment? We have. Both growing up and as a married couple in our own home. The damage of a busted hose or overflowed tub will end your travels very quickly, and be extremely expensive to repair in your RV.

  • Cost

Also like many things made for the RV industry, cost varies enormously for washer / dryers. A quick search on Amazon shows units from $759 through $1,570. That's a lot of quarters for the laundromat machine.

There are as many ways to RV as there are RVers, we always like to say. Obviously enough people are buying these units to keep the companies in business. For you, maybe these downsides are outweighed by an extreme allergy to detergent residues left by other customers at laundromats. Or maybe your spouse refuses to entertain the RV lifestyle without some vestige of his or her suburban upbringing. And this is the hill he or she has chosen to die on if you're going to buy an RV and go. But as for us and our rolling home, the in-rig washer/dryer is a non-starter.

Alternatives to in-rig washers / dryers – Scrubba Wash Bag, BaseCamp Clothes Washer

So how ARE you going to do your laundry? Hopefully you'll run out of underwear eventually. (Although nudist colony campgrounds DO exist)

There are two interesting non-laundromat options for traveling / RVing laundry: BaseCamp clothes washer, and the Scrubba Bag. (The links to the products are affiliate links, so ya know)

BaseCamp Clothes Washer

We used one of these extensively while in a Tiny House at Gray Area Farm. Imagine a small top-loader clothes washer. But without the spin cycle or rinse cycle. That's the BaseCamp washer and its competitors. It's basically one step above throwing your clothes in the bathtub, sink or 5 gallon bucket. Put in your clothes, add water with a hose, add detergent, and let the BaseCamp agitate the clothes clean for you. Then drain the water, add fresh water and re-agitate to rinse, then drain and hang-dry your clothes.

This actually worked like a champ at the farm. I could put clothes in the BaseCamp, do my other farm tasks, and rotate it when the timer went off. In high altitude, windy and very arid Colorado, clothes would dry on the line even faster than in a dryer at sea level.

Downsides: storing the washer between uses, having to manually fill / drain twice per load, line drying, needs electricity and a water source at the site, still a little heavy if you’re up against your weight limits already (17 pounds).

Scrubba Bag

An ingenious bag into which water, clothes and detergent go. Once you've sealed it up, you knead / rub the bag for a while to agitate the clothes clean. Similar to the BaseCamp in that you have to drain and refill to rinse.

The Scrubba is marked more towards backpackers, tent campers, and short term travelers who have to pack very light. The volume of clothes washable with this method is laughably small. A very cool idea for extreme boondocking where you don't have shore power at all. And what’s not to like about “Tactical” in the title. Everything awesome in camping is labeled “tactical,” after all.

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Next option: campground or gateway community laundromat

If like us you are not interested in an in-unit washer/dryer, and you can’t line or rack dry in your situation, then the laundromat is going to be the answer. Most privately owned RV campgrounds of any size at all are going to have at least a couple washing machines and dryers for guest use. Most communities above a certain size will also have a laundromat or two. The cleanliness, cost, and quality of the campground and community laundries will vary WIDELY.

We have some tips and tricks about choosing and navigating laundromats, smoothing out your laundry workflow, and dirty clothes storage options in the next installment.