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The summer splendor of the outdoor shower on the Cape

Jul 01, 2023Jul 01, 2023

By Beth Treffeisen, The Boston Globe

DENNIS — For many Cape Codders, there is nothing as exhilarating as an outdoor shower after a long day at the beach getting sandy and salty.

Nearly every house on the Cape and the Islands has one. Locals chide those who don’t use them, and renters might reject a house outright if it lacks the seasonal amenity.

“To head outside and be able to look up at the sky — it’s gorgeous,” said Tracey Oringer, a realtor and Brewster resident who has an outdoor shower on her deck. She uses it rain or shine.

When the frost begins to fade, hard-core outdoor bathers turn on the water to begin the season. The routine might extend until Thanksgiving, if the weather cooperates and the pipes don’t freeze. The question of who can last the longest is a friendly competition among year-rounders.

The showers, once merely a mainstay to rinse off after a day at the beach, have become more creative, with each owner adding personal touches.

Outdoor showers range from a spigot on the side of the house to an elaborate outdoor oasis. Users might decorate their spaces with strings of lights, bring in a waterproof radio, install fancy showerheads, and make sure they have a ledge to place their beer or glass of wine after a long, hot summer day.

Marti Gruhn, a resident of Barnstable Village, got the inspiration for her shower while visiting the island of Bali in 1996 during a six-month trip around the world. To reach the bathroom in a cafe, she had to cross over steppingstones that led over a goldfish pond, “so that when you’re sitting on the toilet, you have this goldfish pond at your feet,” Gruhn said. “I thought that was insane.”

So after persuading her husband to help build her outdoor shower 12 years later, they installed a goldfish pond, adorned with tropical lily pads with three steppingstones to the outdoor shower. After a trip to Mexico, the couple also decided to install a waterfall feature.

Having an outdoor shower has been a way of life for Chris Lambton, chairperson of the Dennis Select Board and a host of HGTV’s “Going Yard.” He grew up in Dennis showering outdoors. (At first his family’s shower didn’t even have sides on it; his father eventually installed a frame.)

In high school, Lambton remembers taking an outdoor shower at 6:15 a.m., and his hair would freeze while he was walking inside.

“I didn’t care,” said Lambton, a professional landscaper. “I loved my outdoor showers.”

Now, the outdoor shower at his home has walls covered in hop vines, so when they bloom in late August it smells like an IPA.

On “Going Yard,” a show in which Lambton transforms a neglected backyard into an attractive outdoor family space, Lambton always tries to put in a “cool, fancy outdoor shower” because it is a conversation piece. For one taping of the show in Dennis, he created a circular design on an outdoor shower wall that resembled a nautilus shell.

Agnes Mittermayr, a marine ecologist and resident of Eastham, grew up in Austria and took her first outdoor shower when she moved to Truro eight years ago. It was at the back of the house and had no stall around it.

“It was weird, and it took some time to get over the fact that I’m just standing there,” said Mittermayr. “But there’s no one around. I mean, it’s North Truro, so nobody is there. And then it was a very freeing experience. But I was glad for the shower stall later.”

Sometimes Mittermayr would shower after coming home late at night; seeing the stars while taking a shower is “pretty fantastic,” she said.

“I was convinced from the first time I used it,” Mittermayr said.

Outdoor showers have always been a part of the Cape tradition, said Jason Patrick, a spokesperson for Cape Cod Shower Kits, which sells prefabricated outdoor shower stalls. Patrick said outdoor showers have become more popular around the country, but are still predominantly found in the Northeast.

Some customers who have used one for the first time claim it “changed my life,” Patrick said. “We chuckle, like, I don’t know if I would go that far.”

The question of whether outdoor showers are even permitted is hazy. Nothing in Title 5, a state law that regulates septic systems, explicitly addresses showers, so there is room for interpretation.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection says that residential outdoor showers that produce only greywater — relatively clean waste from baths, sinks, and washing machines — are allowed under the statute and can vary from town to town. A local town’s board of health or health officer approves outdoor showers.

Having one is a no-brainer for realtor Lisa D’Amato, a resident of West Dennis.

“I take an outdoor shower, not just to clean myself, but before I go to bed, I put the lights on and put music on, and I bring my wine out, and that’s what people do now,” D’Amato said. “It’s like an event. It’s turned into more than just a shower.”

However, her outdoor shower is unique. After her house became too crowded with visiting family members, she decided to install an environmentally friendly toilet outside, too.

“We call it the poop deck,” she said. “And my grandchildren use it all the time.”

When she shows off houses to sell, outdoor showers are always a part of the conversation. When the buyers aren’t from the Cape, she simply says, “Just take one [outdoor shower], one time, and then you’ll use it every single day until it’s so cold you can’t.”

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