People often express disbelief that I've been fulltiming for three years when they see my rig. It just doesn't look like it's an orphan of the road – it usually has a bit of a sparkle to it. Not necessarily blindingly clean and shiny, but definitely presentable in almost all circumstances. There's no chase vehicle full of detailing elves following me: I do it myself with car detailing techniques I used back when I was land-based.
Having been in the car repair and maintenance business myself at one stage of my life, it bothers me to have a dirty car. I notice it when I look at my vehicle, and it makes me uncomfortable. It's the same feeling you have when you need a shower.
Normally, people clean their Roadtreks before or after a trip, and just let the dirt accumulate while they're on vacation, but my “trip” is entering its 38th month now, so I need an interim strategy. One thing that's different about fulltiming is you have no place to store all the large bulky items you can easily keep handy in a sticks and bricks house. You also have no source of running water. Here is my advice on how to keep your Roadtrek clean on the road.
My supplies consist of a long-handled soft bristle brush the previous owner left in the van when I bought it, my regular dishwashing liquid, a decommissioned cotton bath towel now dedicated to car use, a chamois, and some Rain-X window treatment and Turtle Wax paste wax, both available in most stores. That's it.
Although I don't have a hose and faucet handy, one thing I do have is internet, and I use it scan the weather radar, looking for rain headed my way. What I'm hoping for is intermittent showers. Once the surface of my Roadtrek is wet and there's a break in the rain, I spring into action.
Grabbing my long-handled soft brush, I wet it and put a couple of drops of dish detergent on it. You don't need much, just enough to break the surface tension and leave a slightly soapy film on the paint surface. Too much soap is a bad idea, especially if you aren't confident of the reliability of your rinse water supply. What you're doing is loosening the dirt on the surface and getting it suspended in the water. If the film breaks and the water starts beading up on the paint instead of sheeting, you're out of soap and need more. I can usually do the whole van with two or three reapplications of a couple more drops of dish detergent to the brush.
After I've loosened the dirt on the paint surface, I go back inside and let Mother Nature do the hard work. What I'm hoping for is steady rain to rinse the loose dirt off the vehicle. If the rain isn't immediately forthcoming and I didn't read the radar correctly, I sometimes have to go out and re-brush the surface before it dries. What you don't want to happen is for the soapy water to dry on the surface, re-attaching the dirt particles to the paint.
Once I get a good rinse and the rain has passed, I'll put a half gallon or so of water of my precious fresh water supply in my bucket and wet the chamois. Rinsing the chamois frequently, I dry the surface of the vehicle. This eliminates spots which form when water droplets dry on the paint surface and window glass. Any remaining dirt is picked up by the chamois and rinsed away. Now the paint surface is clean, dry, and ready to wax or just look pretty between waxings. I use the Rain-X every month or two to keep the water beading up on the windshield.
If I'm in a desert area with no rain in sight for weeks and the park ranger isn't looking, I'll wet the paint with the water at the fresh water fill and do a fast version of the wash. Again, the principle is the same: get it wet and use soap to break the surface tension and suspend the soil particles so the subsequent rinse will wash them away. I don't like wiping the surface with a chamois or towel unless I know the dirt is gone – the paint will get fewer surface scratches that way.