Toilet Options for Van Living

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March, 2011

Modern humans have become so alienated from nature that we are ashamed to even admit that, like all animals, we eliminate waste. We want to pretend that the natural functions of the body don’t apply to us. One part of being a vandweller is getting in touch with that part of our lives again. Since some of us live in cars or vans that are smaller than the bathrooms we had when we lived in a house, we must relearn how to go to the bathroom. There are a number of ways to handle our waste, depending on where we live. Let’s take a look at them.

We have both liquid (urine) and solid (feces) waste to deal with. Liquid waste is easy to handle, depending on where you live. I live on public land nearly all the time, and to be honest I just go outside and pee, that’s what animals have been doing for millions of years and it works great. I don’t pee near my camp or near rivers or lakes. I also don’t keep peeing in one spot because eventually it will start to smell. If you live in a city, you can’t just go outside and pee anywhere you want, you have to be discrete. Most of the time you can use a public restroom but for times when you are in the van and you don’t want to have go out and find a bathroom, you need some kind of a chamber-pot or pee-pot to pee in. Probably the single most discrete choice is a yellow, quart Nalgene type bottle. Many people walk around with water bottles now so you won’t draw attention carrying one into a bathroom. It needs to be yellow so that no one will know it’s urine and not water. Once in a public bathroom, you can flush it down the toilet and rinse it out. The mouth is wide enough for men to use, but probably not for women.

Women can use a simple funnel or a product called Go Girl, which is anatomically correct to allow women to stand and urinate into the Nalgene bottle. Nalgene bottles are famous among backpackers for being nearly indestructible and sealing very tight so they never leak. Now let’s look at how to defecate. For vandwellers who live in cities the majority use public restrooms to defecate but you still need a way to poop in an emergency. So let’s look at all the options from easiest and cheapest to hardest.

Cat-holes: If you are camping in the outdoors, you can just dig cat-holes and poop in them. The hole needs to be at least 12 inches deep, otherwise the forest creatures will dig it up and scatter it around. Also you never want a cat-hole within 150 feet of water like a well, lake, creek or river. I’ve done this but it involves lots of digging, and pooping over a hole is very uncomfortable.

5-Gallon Bucket with Trash Liners: At first this sounds pretty gross, but it works surprisingly well. You get a 5 gallon bucket, line it with two trash bags, and then poop in it. Solids only, no liquids. After the job is done, you wrap it all up and throw it away in the trash. Some people put kitty litter in as well, but I don’t see the point so I don’ do it. If you keep reusing the same bag multiple times, then you might want to use kitty litter. The big complaint is that we don’t want poop in the landfill, but we don’t hesitate to put poopy baby diapers or dog poop that we pick up into the trash. It all ends up buried in the landfill where it decomposes with all the other trash. It isn’t ideal, but it’s acceptable to me; you’ll have to decide for yourself. It will cost you $3-$5 dollars a month for the trash bags. One thing you probably will want to do is put something on the edge of the bucket so it isn’t so uncomfortable. The cheapest thing is to buy a piece of pipe insulation and duct tape it on, or you can buy something called a Luggable Loo toilet seat that snaps on to the 5 gallon bucket and is very comfortable.

Five-gallon bucket with pipe insulation duct-taped to its lip for comfort.

Five-gallon bucket with pipe insulation duct-taped to its lip for comfort.

[5-gal-toilet] 5 gallon bucket with pipe insulation duct taped to its lip for comfort.

Porta-Potti: If pooping in a bucket is just too far outside your comfort zone, then a porta-potti may be for you. In every way it is like pooping on your toilet at home, but instead of going down the drain, it goes into a small holding tank attached to the toilet. When the tank is full, you take it and dump it down a public toilet or at an RV dump station. There are lots of variables, but most people should be able to go at least a week and probably two weeks before needing to dump it.

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It seems gross dealing this closely with our waste, but we need to get over that. Porta Potties come as two parts. The upper part holds fresh water, and the bottom part holds the feces. After each use you “flush” and some water washes the sides of the toilet. You will also want to put a deodorant in to reduce odors and help break down the feces (it’s the orange bottle). It seals so well that you should never smell any odors. When the tank is full, you separate the two parts and take the holding tank to either a public restroom or an RV dump station.

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In the picture above you see the holding tank section. Notice the white tube at the top-right of the tank. It spins around and you insert it into the toilet or opening of the dump station, open the valve and it dumps out. Afterwards you need to put water in and rinse it several times to get it cleaned out. The advantage of an RV dump station is it almost always has a hose there for that purpose.

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Toilet Cabana: One more thing you may want to consider is getting a cabana to use as a toilet and shower to use when camping on public land. These are just simple tents that are designed in the shape of an outhouse. It is much more comfortable to get out of your tent, car or van and be able to poop or shower while standing upright in privacy.

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This is the set-up we had at last year’s Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona. We had people in tents, cars, and low top vans and they all appreciated being able to use a more normal toilet. Because so many people were using it, we put kitty litter in it to keep down odors. It worked well; we used it for several days at a time with no odor problems.