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Outdoor Shower: Challenge Accepted!

Just a husband alone in the woods with his DIY project
By Mike Wilkus
Published: July 26, 2013
outdoor shower DIY project
A TOUCH OF LUXURY – An outdoor shower doesn’t have to be so rustic. This one has hot-and-cold running water and a rain-style showerhead.
Photo by Mike Wilkus
Northern Minnesota's average summer temperature is around 60°F. So it was only natural that my wife of 34 years, Barb, would ask: “Why would anyone want an outdoor shower?” So the challenge begins …

Two years ago during a family reunion at our cabin on Bluewater Lake, a discussion developed around the pros and cons of an outdoor shower. The men could think of many positive aspects and benefits of an outdoor shower. Most of the women – not so much. And Barb – not at all.

Here are the opposing viewpoints:

THE PROS
From my standpoint, the positive attributes of an outdoor cabin shower include:

  • You do not have to clean the shower or squeegee the glass.
  • You never fog up the bathroom. If there is a mirror, it would be clear.
  • The bathroom is free for other important uses. With 10–15 weekend users at the cabin, there are a lot of demands to meet!
  • The view is fantastic, and you can wave to boaters who know where to look!
  • You can hear the loons and see the birds. (It seems they are always looking at you.)
  • Hot steamy water on a cool morning is truly a great experience.

THE CONS

And for Barb, the negative aspects of an outdoor shower at the cabin start with:
  • It is cold outside.
  • Lots of mosquitoes, spiders and ticks!
  • Wind blowing on wet skin is not a pleasant experience.
  • Total exposure. (Oh come on; not really.)
  • Walking to the shower on a bark-chip path.
  • And, last but certainly not least: “I am just stubborn – because you want one!” (Did I mention Barb and I have been married 34 years?)
outdoor shower DIY project
A SHOWER WITH A VIEW – The shower is sited on a hill near the cabin with great views of the lake below.
Photo by Mike Wilkus
THE SCHEMATIC DESIGN PHASE
A few years back, Cabin Life magazine featured the concept of outdoor showers and provided several enticing photos of the perfect setting. During the family reunion, many of us felt inspired and decided to start sketching and developing concepts for my outdoor shower. With three architects in the family (father, son and nephew), an engineer, seven Eagle Scouts, and other true outdoors people, we gathered around the kitchen table and came up with some dramatic solutions.

During this master planning session, there was frequent feedback from the “peanut gallery” – aka Barb. Looking over our shoulders, she offered commentary like: “No way will I use the shower if you do that,” “You better include mosquito screens,” “I do not see room for a heater,” and “Will there be a changing room attached to it?”

Undeterred, the planning continued. And it produced design options that included:
  • A contemporary design consisting of a series of large one-way mirror panels arranged in a way that would reflect the surrounding landscape. (Way cool, but way too expensive for my needs!)
  • One was simply a hose with a spray handle connected to a tall 6x6-inch post and a single screen wall for privacy from those in the cabin. (Not for the modest, this design would allow for maximum exposure on three sides!)
  • A towering pine log with a gigantic cascading waterfall. (Well, a guy can dream!)
  • I opted for the economy of scale (and my personal hope that Barb might someday enjoy the benefits of an outdoor shower surrounded by the natural landscape) – and chose a simple design dictated partially by the materials on hand, along with my level of carpentry and plumbing skills.
outdoor shower DIY project
NOT SO EXPOSED – While the shower stall is open in the back, privacy is not a concern for the author because this side of the shower faces deep woods, with no neighboring cabin on that side.
Photo by Mike Wilkus
SITE SELECTION
Our cabin is located on the western shore of the lake and our land is approximately 4 acres in size. The site choices for the outdoor shower were almost boundless, but the evaluation criteria helped limit the locations. The site had to have views of the lake. The site had to be close enough to connect to the cabin water supply, and the site had to have some modicum of privacy.

I chose a site approximately 25 feet from the cabin, 150 feet back from the lake, and in a location that was elevated with expansive views of the lake. In addition to the views, the selected site, on the top of a ridge, provided great drainage.

But the site I selected did not impress Barb. “Why should we walk 25 feet into the woods to take a shower when there’s already a perfectly good shower within 5 feet of both the kitchen and living room? And it’s in a bathroom, with a door, and window blinds?”

THE “GETTING REAL” DESIGN PHASE
The design of the actual shower was simple compared to the elaborate ideas presented in the design session at the family reunion. Important note: The original designers all departed after the reunion, so it was up to me to finalize the concept, round up or buy the materials, and construct the shower.

I kept the materials for the project simple by necessity. The 4x4-foot design was dictated in part by the method of transporting the materials. Our “cabin car” is a 1995 Buick LeSabre. It has four doors, a trunk, and no folding seats. The local lumber yard was very helpful in reducing 8-foot lumber into 4-foot pieces that mostly fit nicely into the trunk!

The final construction documents detailed a simple 4x4-foot base deck made with 2x4-inch decking, and framed with 2x6-foot treated joists.

The 5-foot-high “screen” walls on three sides consisted of 1x4-inch horizontal boards placed randomly for variety, yet strategically to provide privacy. The walls were attached to 5-foot-long 4x4-inch posts at each corner.
outdoor shower DIY project
THE PATH TO OUTDOOR BATHING BLISS – The outdoor shower is located about 25 feet off the cabin’s rear deck. Wood chips make for a cleaner pathway, and help keep vegetation from growing. Maintaining the outdoor shower includes replenishing the path with fresh wood chips each year.
Photo by Mike Wilkus
The shower was placed on four concrete deck footing blocks and directly over the top of some gravel needed for drainage.  

This shower is not a cold-water experience, or a painted 55-gallon drum suspended overhead with lukewarm water. Nope! It has hot-and-cold running water delivered by two garden hoses connected directly to the cabin’s water system.

This required the installation of two hose bibs at the exterior of the cabin, one for the cold water supply and one for the hot water supply.

I modified 50 feet of garden hose that runs to two valves at the shower. The water is delivered vertically alongside an extended pair of 2x4s, runs along a cantilevered overhead armature, and comes showering down on you via a fantastic overhead rain-style showerhead.

As I finalized the design, I sensed that Barb was slowly warming to the concept of an outdoor shower. Married to an architect for over three decades, Barb had a lot of experience reading drawings over my shoulder. She could see that privacy and hot water were actually key elements to my shower design.

ACCESS
After the site was established, a well-worn path developed during the construction process. This path started at the cabin deck, meandered up the hill into the adjacent woods, around a pine tree or two, and arrived at the shower’s rear-entry point.

This pathway later received a generous layer of bark chips to define the extent of the path and to minimize dirt accumulation on the trip to and from the shower.
CBN-D1013_25_web
Mike and Barb Wilkus enjoy nearly everything about the outdoors – including their outdoor shower.
SUCCESS!
The shower took me two weekends to construct with minimal trips to the hardware store, and was operational within weeks of the concept drawings.

Although Barb did not help with construction, she was a willling participant of the trips to the lumber yard and hardware store. My faithful wife was the one hanging onto the 5-foot-long posts that spanned from the back window ledge and through her window, resting on the passenger exterior mirror – with the hope that we wouldn’t have to stop fast or get out of her door. We joked about getting to sit next to each other on the front bench seat of the old Buick cabin car and how that never happens in our contemporary vehicles back home.

Once construction was finished, the outdoor shower was an instant success with family and friends. There was a constant waiting line for this new feature at the cabin. The indoor shower was only used by the less adventuresome and skeptics.

With large groups consisting of about a dozen or more family members and friends on any given weekend, I wondered how we ever got along without the outdoor shower.

Several modifications have evolved from the original shower design including the addition of clothes hooks, shelves for soap and shampoo, and a rod for a short curtain on the one open side (for the really modest user). The most recent addition to the shower includes two nautical-type swivel beverage holders attached within reach of the occupant. Who knew that you would get thirsty in the shower on a hot day?

I can proudly claim that last summer I used the shower every opportunity from April 15–September 30. And what do you know, Barb actually admits to having used it twice! Both times it was a perfectly hot day, with no wind or bugs, and we were the only two people at the cabin that weekend.

This project challenge was a success!

To obtain plans and a materials list for Mike Wilkus' outdoor shower, click here.
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