Camp Bathrooms And Showerhouses

I see thousands of parent evaluations of summer camps every year, so when I ask, “What’s the single biggest complaint you get?” I already know--the bathrooms. Calling them KYBOs (Keep Your Bowels Operating) or other cute names doesn’t give you any help with the fact that kids and parents aren’t satisfied, especially with cleanliness.

Why? Because if we can’t get something as simple as keeping bathrooms clean, how in the world can they expect us to do something so much more complicated, like keeping their child safe? And they’re right. Plus, it’s just gross.

Don’t even think about building a new showerhouse if you won’t spend the money and effort to keep it clean. Mud in a new building will look just as bad or worse. But if you have made the commitment to clean, there’s no question that a new bathroom/showerhouse may have the single biggest effect on camper (and parent) satisfaction than any other capital improvement.

First Decisions: Type Of Construction

I’ve never seen a camp showerhouse (or dining hall) that didn’t require two things:

1. Plumbing repairs because of leaks (in the North, most often because of freezing)

2. Expansion or other floor-plan changes (to enlarge, add more fixtures, be ADA-compliant, provide privacy, etc.).

If the interior walls of the showerhouse are built of concrete block (CMUs), it becomes a major headache, if not a real obstacle. But if the walls are framed in wood (with double 2 x 4 pressure-treated sill plates), it’s a relative walk in the park.

What about exterior walls? They have more to do with environment and seasonality. For low maintenance it’s hard to beat split-face (that’s the rough surface) or burnished (the smoother surface that shows the imbedded pebbles) colored concrete block. But insulating that wall can be inefficient and expensive, so it may be best for summer-only facilities, which leads back to wood framing as a good exterior option, too.

Floor construction can be trickier, and that’s because the only good choice for floor covering in wet areas is glazed ceramic tile (as opposed to un-glazed quarry tile). The issue here is that the only fool-proof surface to put tile on is a concrete slab. Though a contractor may say he can put tile over a wood floor, you’ll find the tile manufacturer requires over-sized floor joists (to prevent the floor from bouncing the slightest bit), extra-thick floor sheathing (3/4-inch tongue-and-groove plywood) and concrete backer-board tightly screwed on top. Skip those steps and not only will the tile and grout crack, but the wood underneath will rot.

There are a few rules of thumb you should include in the plan to prevent recurring headaches--and all have to do with plumbing. First, don’t put any plumbing (like sinks and toilets)on outside walls as it’s not possible to insulate enough to prevent freezing pipes. Second, try to put all plumbing along a common “plumbing chase,” typically a 32-inch-wide hallway between two bathrooms, with all sinks, toilets and showers backed up against it. All water pipes can then be left exposed in the “chase” so that repairs can be made without having to rip open a wall. Finally, sequence functions from the door like this: sinks, (urinals), toilets, then showers. No matter what, the shower area will have a wet floor, and you don’t want people walking through there to get to toilets or sinks--mud will be everywhere.

Floor Coverings

Glazed porcelain tile is used in most commercial construction today--it’s dense and strong, and there are many colors and textures; most importantly, there is the non-slip surface of a non-gloss glaze. No longer are you confined to 1-inch x 1-inch tiles for shower rooms. Six-inch or even 12-inch tiles work just fine. (The exception is floors of old shower stalls, where 1-inch tiles are easier to slope toward a floor drain.)

What color should you use? Take a dustpan and broom to one of the existing camp buildings. Sweep up the dirt and take the dustpan to a local home improvement center. Sprinkle the contents over the collection of floor tiles. Whichever hides the color of dirt and mud the best, that’s the one to buy.

My personal preference is to get tiles that look “rustic,” that fit into the theme of an old camp lodge. They look good with natural wood details (doors and trim) and rugged slate-like texture, and those colors fit the bill for non-slip and dirt-hiding. Look closely at the tiles to see how thick the glaze is. If the design looks like it’s been “printed on” (lots of dots like a newspaper photo), then it’s not durable enough for floors. It should look like it’s composed of tiny grains of sand (glaze, actually) that have been fused together in the furnace to make a color and eggshell coating that can stand up to wear.

“Yes, but I have a wood sub-floor.” Then the best choice is to go with “solid vinyl sheet goods,” with color that goes all the way through. (Here’s an example I’ve used successfully: ). It comes in 6-foot widths and is almost 1/8-inch thick, is sealed together at the edges when installed, has a slightly non-slip surface, and comes in colors similar to 12-inch x 12-inch “Excelon” vinyl composite tiles (VCTs, or what you’re used to seeing in schools, hospitals and Kmart).

The reason you don’t want VCTs in bathrooms and kitchens is they’re extremely high maintenance. If you don’t keep them waxed and buffed, they shrink over time, especially if they get wet (like under sinks and toilets). The cracks between tiles become larger and black, and then they finally pop up. The reason they are used in big stores and schools is their low cost and general durability (where they don’t get wet and can be waxed and buffed at least once a week.)

Don’t use the standard 12-foot wide vinyl kitchen flooring sold in home centers. It’s mostly pressed paper with a thin layer of vinyl and an even thinner clear layer on top. It’s fine for a residence, but will wear out quickly under commercial use.

And never paint bathroom floors--it will wear off fast (and often peel faster). Then it really looks bad. “How about epoxy paint and a fake surface?” When applied over clean concrete it’s a very durable choice, but half the time it’s installed with too much texture (ripping mops when you try to clean it) or too little. Although it costs just as much as ceramic tile, it still looks like a warehouse. So why buy it?

“Wait a minute. It’s just a kids’ camp. Why not leave the concrete bare?” When was the last time you stayed at a place with bare concrete floors in the bathroom? And what did your spouse think about that? Kids, like their parents, will find it gross because it always looks dirty, and usually is. Just do the tile. “What about colored concrete?” It will still be slippery and look like a garage. Ask your campers’ moms. Just put in the tile!

“But it’s too expensive.” Go to Lowes or Home Depot and learn how to do it. Use thinset mortar (not glue) and a colored grout, and you’ll be shocked at how easy it is. And you’ll love how people praise you for doing it. Do you have a really nasty showerhouse you can’t afford to replace? Power wash everything and install some 12-inch x 12-inch home center floor tiles for less than a dollar each. The positive comments will shock you.


Before covering the studs, remember that you will be hanging lots of “stuff” on bathroom walls--toilet partitions, grab bars, towel dispensers, towel hooks, mirrors and more. One technique is to carefully measure where each item will go and then mount 2-inch x 8-inch jacks between the studs to “catch” the screws. This works well unless you miscalculate or forget something. That’s why it’s become common to sheath the entire inside of bathrooms with half-inch plywood. Typically, that is then covered with half-inch “greenboard” (moisture-resistant drywall for fireproofing), and then the interior surface is affixed to that. Now you can screw anything anywhere and have a solid backing for screws or expanding wall anchors.

Now we come to a matter of taste, so you get to choose (after checking with users, I hope). Since fiberglass reinforced panels (FRP) were introduced 25 years ago (those crinkly-surfaced plastic panels, usually white and glossy), they have gained wide use because they’re nearly impervious to graffiti or water damage. I still like them in places that will take a lot of abuse or have little use by adults. They are commonly installed all the way to the ceiling, but produce an institutional look. And although they are indestructible and easy to clean, dark mildew will still grow in humid areas, usually near the ceiling.

Mario Hurtado, the brilliant property manager of YMCA Camp Jewell in Connecticut taught me this great application: use the FRP horizontally for the first 48 inches of the wall, creating a “wainscot.” Then finish and paint the drywall from that level up to and including the ceiling.

Here’s the magic: you can buy “mildewcide” at a paint or home store, and it will be mixed into the paint for no extra charge. It prevents mildew and mold from growing on the painted surface for years. And just as important,use a light-yellow semi-gloss paint. The bathrooms are positively cheery and look more like a bed and breakfast than a locker room!

“You mentioned I could make a choice?” If the FRP still looks too commercial, those same 12-inch floor tiles (in a contrasting color) will look great on the walls, too, and for not much more than the cost of the FRP, other than the extra installation time. It’s what you’ll see in most restaurant bathrooms now. But I still recommend not going higher than 5 feet, leaving 3 feet of painted drywall to the ceiling to keep it feeling light. But don’t take my word for it--find examples of all of these in your local restaurants (and bring your camera)!


If you have an architect design a showerhouse, there will be four options for sinks. If you say “inexpensive,” the architect will go with a long Formica countertop with oval sinks dropped into it. (The Formica will delaminate over time from the standing water, and the thick lip of the sinks sticking up above the counter makes it impossible to wipe water into the sinks.)

If you say inexpensive but durable, the architect will specify individual china “lavs” hung from the wall. (These are a pain to clean, look institutional, and have no place to set your toiletries.) If “it’s just a kids’ camp, that’s kind of like a prison,” the architect will give you one of those round, stainless-steel gang sinks that spray eight kids’ hands at once. Wow, that will save water and look good to parents. If you say “I want Corian,” the architect will be happy to give it to you, but it will cost thousands. (This is a great choice if you have thousands.) If you don’t, then cultured marble or stone (the one-piece vanity tops from the home center) can be ordered with as many sink bowls as needed. I’ve ordered as many as six in a 12-foot unit. They look great and are easy to clean.

How do you dry your hands? Most people hate electric hand dryers because they take so long; but paper towels really are a waste of resources. The extra cost of a “high-velocity” hand dryer can be made up in just a year or two in savings on paper towels and staff time.

Toilets give people fits, and everyone has an opinion. The fact that low-flow toilets clogged so easily when they first came out gave them a bad rap. They’ve been redesigned since, and most normal toilets work fine (if kids flush them). Do you want to make the kids really happy? Find the money to get self-flushing toilets.

“What about wall-hung toilets so they’re easier to clean around?” Let’s face it--if the bathrooms are dirty, it isn’t because the toilets are in the way. In my opinion, it’s a big expense for very little payoff.

What about urinals for boys? “Wouldn’t extra toilets be more versatile?” Sure, if you don’t mind wiping the pee off the toilet seat every time before you sit down, and I mean every time. Urinals are faster, use less water, and keep bathrooms smelling cleaner. This one’s an easy choice for me.

One of the most visible choices you’ll make is the stall partitions. Here--as much as anywhere--going for the cheapest (painted steel) will give you the most expensive headaches over time. They’ll rust, names will be scratched in them, and with a little abuse they’ll even bend. Stainless steel won’t rust, but once names get scratched into it, it will never look the same again. For the highest initial cost but the lowest cost over time, get solid plastic “Hiny Hiders” from Santana Plastics. You’ve seen them in all colors in lots of nice restrooms.

Architects tend to design institutional bathrooms like those from previous decades, and that goes for showers, too. Most often they’ll specify showers built of concrete block with an epoxy paint finish. Gross.

You’ve seen what that looks like after a few years. So you cover them with ceramic tile? You could, but why go to that expense for something that feels cold on your feet (and your bottom if you back into the wall)? Contractors would rather put in one-piece fiberglass shower units. They’re easy to clean, look great, and are warm to the touch, long-lasting and fast to install.

Besides the higher expectation of quality, the absolute need for privacy is the biggest change in bathroom design over the past 30 years. We can’t tell kids from the time they’re 3 years old to never let anyone see them naked, and then expect to change their mindset when they get to camp. I’ve seen kids and counselors go a whole summer showering wearing their bathing suits because there was no place to change except in the toilet stalls. Solid-plastic stall partitions work great for changing areas in front of showers, too. Just add another 3-foot x 3-foot space in front of each shower stall and one shower curtain at the shower and one for the changing area. Get some pretty ones with bright patterns.

Can’t afford Hiny Hiders? Consider buying only the raw panels and wall hardware, and use highly varnished 2 x 6 plywood hung from the ceiling to hold the front edge of each panel; run curtain rods between them. I’ve even seen some great changing stalls built from knotty-pine and five coats of varnish. I felt like I was in Sweden!


Of course, fluorescent lights are the most efficient, and you want a lot of light so the bathrooms look clean and stay clean. For shower rooms, the usual choice is a moisture-proof fixture for 4-foot tubes that has a rubber gasket to prevent corrosion inside. You can be more creative in other restrooms.

Electric outlets get special treatment for two reasons. The first is the risk of electrical shock. To reduce that risk, building codes require bathroom outlets to be protected by a Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI)--the outlets with the little “test” and “reset” buttons. (An electrician can protect every outlet, even the lights, with a GFI circuit breaker at the panel box, but many adult guests will think something’s wrong if they don’t see the GFI outlets they expect!)

The second reason has a clever solution. In most bathrooms, outlets are put by the sinks so people can use the mirrors for electric razors (before they were cordless) and hair dryers. So campers wanting to wash their hands or brush their teeth have to wait for the people drying their hair. Here’s the clever part: put some mirrors on a different wall (typically directly across from the sinks), and only put outlets there! Tell the electrician to count on one hair dryer for every outlet; that way you won’t blow any breakers, and that’s much easier than trying to tell guests it’s their fault if the lights go out.

The Difference Between Us And Animals

Animals just throw their stuff on the ground while people hang clothes and towels on hooks, and set toiletries on shelves. Which do you want to build your showerhouse for? Check out your current showers and see for whom they were built. (I must have accidentally stayed at too many zoos.)

You’ll love this story. I visited a camp and asked what the biggest complaint was from school group chaperones. “No way to keep the cabins clean,” they said. I asked why they didn’t have brooms, dustpans and simple cleaning supplies in the cabins. “Because when we had brooms and mops and sponges in the cabins, they kept wearing out, so we just stopped replacing them.” I’m not kidding.

If you want a showerhouse to be kept clean, there are at least three prerequisites. We’ve covered the first one already--use materials that are easy to keep clean and don’t easily break or wear out. Next, share your expectations. I once stayed at the Nantahala Outdoor Center campground and saw this inspired little sign over the sink: “This is communal space. We keep it clean for each other. Thanks for your help.” (This is a little nicer than, “Your mother doesn’t live here; clean up after yourself!”)

A closet with a mop basin for filling and emptying a rolling mop and wringer bucket, broom and dustpan, paper products and a mild cleaner could be open to camp staff and guests to use when needed. Harsh cleaners, toilet brushes, light bulbs, etc. can be in a locked cabinet in the closet.

Last Wipes

A few diverse thoughts to finish with: At camps, separate bathrooms and showers for staff are a bad idea. Most insurance companies recommend against them because supervision in the campers’ showerhouse is reduced. The prevalence of camper-on-camper abuse is many times higher than staff-on-camper, so the effort is misplaced.

If camp is about making friends, then places to make friends are our most important tools. The camp showerhouse has great potential that we need to fulfill. For instance, kids are always waiting for their friends to get changed, to finish showering so they can go back to their group together. But at most camps there’s no place to wait--no benches or picnic tables or tetherball or four-square. Add just one of these, and it will act like a magnet to bring kids together and open deeper conversations (and result in fewer sticks and rocks tossed for entertainment).

Don’t forget places to sit inside. Those “zoo” showerhouses I visited didn’t have any hooks to hang my towel or clothes, or a little shelf for my stuff, or a place to sit so I could stack my clothes and put on my socks and shoes. It could be as simple as a $6 resin, stack chair in the changing cubicle, or a long bench as a “waiting” area on the wall opposite the showers. Do you want campers to take their shoes off before they go in the bathroom? Then give them a nice bench right outside the door. (If you’re really clever, you’ll make two benches facing each other!)

If you have a big camp, should you have one giant showerhouse or separate smaller ones? One thought is “the fewer buildings the better,” for construction expenses or supervision, or just because it’s easier. But consider these points: the more you put under one roof the bigger the building, and the bigger the building the higher the roof and the more out of scale it becomes to campers and a “camping” experience. It’s no longer kid-scaled cabins creating their own village, it becomes monolithic like … their school. Inside, the longer the hallways the more chance for horseplay and “gang” mentality. One shower room for all ages also exposes the youngest campers to the conversations of the oldest campers.

For free-standing showerhouses, I prefer one for each village. I divide them into two mirror-image sides with a connecting door. This gives you a lot of flexibility. If it’s all one sex of similar ages, keep that door open, and it makes for easy supervision and the ability for anyone to use any shower or toilet that’s available. If the village houses boys and girls, or one gender of a wide age range, then lock that door, and you have two separate showerhouses--one for each group.

How many toilets or showers should there be per camper? This is interesting. If you have a bathroom connected to a single cabin of 10 to 14 people (average-size groups), you have the worst-case scenario. This group usually does everything together, so the bathroom is either needed by everyone, or used by no one. Those camps that added a single shower to “winterize” a cabin have the worst problem. Can you imagine 12 people all in line to use one shower? So the absolute minimum is two, three if you want to keep the facilities from getting in the way of the program.

But if you have a central shower facility, either free-standing or “down the hall,” separate cabin groups are less likely to have identical schedules. It’s more likely for an individual to find a shower or toilet available at any one time, so you need fewer total fixtures. As a result, you can have the 1:10 or 1:15 ratio that often appears in camp accreditation or licensing documents. It turns out there are good financial and social-development reasons to have central showerhouses.

It’s too bad the moms of first-time campers are much more concerned about their child’s safety. How many times has a director heard, “You mean she has to walk through the dark at night to get to a bathroom?” Today’s common answer doesn’t add much reassurance: “Not by herself. She has to wake up her counselor and another camper, and the three of them all have to go together.” Mom can imagine her child staying in bed in misery, too embarrassed to wake all those people up. That’s why I strongly recommend bathrooms attached to the cabins for younger campers. At least provide a sink and a toilet to avoid that night-time scenario.

Just Poo It

For all those camps whose satisfaction surveys say, “The bathrooms are filthy,” I don’t think I would give them a donation toward new facilities if they asked me. If they can’t fix their biggest complaint without a new building, then maybe the campers aren’t getting all they should from camp. Their parents aren’t, either.

But once “clean” is no longer the issue then I have confidence that it is money well spent.

Gary Forster is the Camping Specialist for the YMCA of the USA. Previously he’s been a camp executive and camp property manger, where his degrees in architecture and business helped him work toward solving problems. He can be reached via e-mail at

Bryan BuchkoComment