The real (unspoken) reasons people are afraid of camping is not because of weather, mosquitoes or animals; it is because they are fearful of having to use showers or toilets that might be unclean, or not allow for enough privacy. They often imagine ancient outhouses like the one in the photo*.
Most showers and toilets at campgrounds are well maintained and allow for privacy. Rarely, if ever, will you encounter a 100-year old outhouse. That said, a little planning goes a long way when using campground bathrooms and showers. Here is a quick overview of the facilities you might encounter at a typical national/state park campground, and some suggestions on how to stay clean and maintain your modesty.
Shower facilities are generally located at a central location. The showers can offer cold or hot water; having access to hot water usually requires a small fee and your time will be measured in minutes. A timer box will be located in the shower and you might need quarters or tokens. Most showers are cubicles and include a privacy curtain. As with any public shower, wear sandals or shower shoes to provide a barrier between your feet and the floor. Bring your own towel, soap, and shampoo. As a backup, have a personal washcloth and soap packed with your equipment so you can take a quick sponge bath in case the showers are out of order.
Many campgrounds will have lights in the showers and bathrooms. Electrical outlets are generally available at such locations. If you are staying in an older campground, or further away from the main facility, be prepared for basic lighting and no electrical outlets. If you are staying within a remote area you may not have any electricity.
Toilet facilities can vary. Here are some variations that you might find.
A rustic toilet is essentially an old-time wooden outhouse. This type of structure is rare in campgrounds today because of modern sanitation and accessibility laws, but in remote places, some can still exist. If you need to use a rustic facility remember that they may not be serviced on a regular schedule so bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Porta Potties derive their name from being portable. All waste is self-contained within these structures and chemicals are used to diminish odors. The waste is pumped out when serviced. They are usually owned by third-party businesses that have contracted with the campground to provide and service the units. Porta Potties are generally serviced on a set schedule, but if they need cleaning or are out of supplies they can remain so until the next scheduled servicing. Best to have some backup supplies in your daypack or car. Always have some extra toilet paper and hand sanitizer available.
Vault toilets are simple cement or fiberglass structures that are built over a large waste pit, these are common in National Forest campgrounds. A non-flush toilet is inside the structure. Vault toilets are often well ventilated but can have a strong odor if used by a lot of people. Campground staff generally maintains these facilities on a daily or multi-day basis. Keep extra toilet paper in the daypack/car and have hand sanitizer handy.
Flushers are modern toilets with running water. These facilities are frequently located near prominent Visitor Centers. Flushers are usually maintained several times a day by maintenance staff. These facilities can include sink, soap and paper towels. As a backup, it is good to have some emergency toilet paper in the car.
Being cautious about public bathrooms and showers is always a good thing, but don’t let fear keep you from enjoying your time camping. Avoid the surprise of arriving at a campground and discovering the bath or shower facilities are not up to your expectations. Do some research about the campground and if needed, call the park ranger to ask questions.
*Photo: This is an actual outhouse located within a California State Park, but it is not for public use – at least not in the past hundred years or so. This photo was taken at Bodie State Historic Park, a former mining town and now a ghost town. The park is located along the California and Nevada border.