Six months deep into our experimental year living in the mountains of North Carolina, we’ve discovered the glory of an outdoor wood-fired bathtub. You can set this bath up in any season, but it was particularly welcome when we found ourselves snowed in for five days in this shady dark cove.
The snow lingers here long after it’s melted away on the sunny road above us, making it very risky to drive on the steep dirt road that winds its way down here. But if you’ve prepared by parking at the top and stocked up with food and wood, it might be time to light up a wood-fired bath!
Here’s what to do:
1. You need a cast iron tub, the old claw foot kind. You can imagine what would happen if you lit a fire under the newer plastic ones…
2. Choose a site. Make it private, unless you like being on display, and near a water source- a creek, a hose, a rain barrel…You might even site it upslope from your garden, each bath sending cooled nutrient filled water into your soil when you pull the plug.
3. You need a way to build a small fire under the center of your tub once you set it up. You could raise the tub up 12″ or more on stones, bricks, etc. You could dig out a fire pit, maybe 2’x 2′ square and 12″ or more deep under the middle of the proposed footprint of your tub. We did a little of both. Here’s the drawbacks to each method: the higher you raise the tub on stacked found objects like stones, the more tendency toward instability. This is no joke, as you don’t want the tub to tip you into hot coals when you get in, even if it would be also dousing them with bathwater. On the other hand, unless you’re setting up under an open roofed structure, too deep a fire pit means that in wet climates, like Appalachia, rain will drain into it. It stays soggy and dark under there, making it hard to light a hot fire. As I said, we propped the tub off the ground maybe 8″ and dug a fire pit under it 4-5″ deep, which works fine for us.
4. Whatever your arrangement, make sure your tub is stable. You don’t want to be able to rock it back and forth. Level it from side to side, and slightly off level front to back. Meaning the end with the drain should be slightly lower than the end you lay back on so that it easily empties when you’re done.
5. Find some kind of preferrably non- flamable lid for the tub to hold in heat while you’re warming it up. It’ll save a lot of time and firewood. We use a piece of sheet metal roofing. Obviously, you remove it when you’re ready to get in.
6. The trick to this working is to NEVER LIGHT A FIRE UNDER YOUR TUB WITHOUT IT BEING AT LEAST MOSTLY FULL OF WATER. Otherwise, you’ll shatter the enamel. Use a rubber plug and fill your tub with water to almost the maximim level you want. This allows you to pour in a little cold water in the end if you need to adjust the temperature.
We have a fairly inefficient system of hauling water from the creek in a cooler, though buckets would no doubt be easier. If this were our more permanent residence I’d site a rain barrel upslope from the tub and fill it the easy way. Though there’s a kind of soul-feeding simplicity to trekking together with Emily down to the nearby creek, bending over our swirling reflections in the cool water and carrying it back up over the stones to our waiting bathtub.
7. Get your fire going under the tub. You’ll tire yourself with blowing on coals and waiting for the water to get hot if you don’t start with an inferno. So don’t fool around with substandard firewood. We’ve had the best luck with burning pine and hardwood shipping pallets. Look for the “HT” symbol on them, which means “heat treated”. Meaning they’re safe to burn. Cut them up with a circular saw and get the fire raging with chunks of them. Then you can move on to red oak and/or locust. With a fire like this we’ve found the bath is burn-your-butt-off-ready in a half hour or a little more.
8. It’s surprisingly easy to go too far. It often seems like we’re getting nowhere with heating the water, then suddenly it begins to get hotter and hotter until it’s in the early stages of boiling. Here’s where you add some cold water and/or scatter the fire to weaken it’s heat. You may want to remove any burning wood with tongs (don’t leave it where you’re getting in and out of the bath!) and just bathe over a bed of coals. Needless to say, plan ahead so you don’t stumble into the coals or something. Arrange a spot at the end (not the sides) of the tub to get in and out so that you’re never stepping anywhere near the fire. It’s up under the tub, so it’s hard to accidentally run into it anyway.
9. Now you just need a seat so you don’t sit directly on the bottom of the tub. Later on as the bath cools a little you can, but to start it’s a good idea to be up off of the actual enamel. We use a bamboo serving tray.
Voila! Luxury in the wilderness! Or your back yard or whatever…
What we discovered bathing in the snow is that it’s never been easier to adjust the temperature if the bath is too hot. Just reach over the side of the tub, grab a big handful of snow and cool your bath down. It’s also mezmerizing to watch the little floating icebergs dwindle away in the heat. The other thing we discovered is that when you’re bathing over a fire that’s maybe 800 degrees instead of in a conventional indoor bathtub in the ambient heat of a living space, any day above the lower 30s is a bath day! Of course you’re not bathing directly in those 800 or more degrees, but the coals burning safely below while you sit in a steaming bath amounts to a very cozy microclimate. You’re in an envelope of steam.
During the last bath we made I lay back and watched an evening sun gild winter branches above. I looked to the side and studied the way blue shadows crept across wooded snow drifts. I listened to the rattling music of a creek and heard somewhere my children’s laughter as they played in the southern novelty of almost a foot of snow. I didn’t lay down money for any of these. Nature hands over these wonders for free. Yet does any millionaire live so well as this?