How Camping Toilets Work

By: Sarah Winkler
camping toilet
It's better than squating over a hole in the ground. See more personal hygiene pictures.

You're camping in the middle of the wilderness on a beautiful summer day enjoying the beauty of nature … when nature calls. You've set up camp far away from restroom facilities, so you can't relieve yourself in a spot with indoor plumbing. You also don't want to leave human waste near your campsite because it's not only a land and water pollutant but also a health hazard. Additionally, human waste might attract wildlife like rodents, deer and even bears to your camping area. To avoid any of these less than desirable situations, you'll have to dispose of human waste in a way that minimizes both the potential to contaminate the area around you and the likelihood that it will attract unwanted critters to your campsite.

A good way to get rid of human waste is to bring a camping toilet along with you on your expedition. Camping toilets allow you to do your business and then collect it to dispose of later. When you carry or pack waste out by bagging and diposing of it once you're off the trail, you not only ensure that you're safe from unwanted wildlife but also that haven't left anything behind that might be harmful to the environment. Many U.S. parks even require campers to carry all waste out.


Camping toilets can range from intricate flushable systems to pretty basic "wag bags," a biodegradable double-bag system that you can use to tote away your business. Basically, there are three types of camping toilets: bucket, collapsible and flushable. Bucket toilets are the simplest type; a bucket toilet is just what it sounds like; and you can construct one on your own. A collapsible toilet folds up for easy transport and usually includes a seat and waste bag. A flushable toilet is the most elaborate type and includes a small plumbing system with a waste holding tank that helps to minimize odors.

Portable camping toilets are good choices when you're remote car camping, canoe or kayak camping or staying at any site that's far away from indoor plumbing. While you probably won't want to lug a portable toilet around during an arduous backpacking expedition, it's definitely a good option if you want to bring along a creature comfort while you're camping in one place for a while.

In this article, we'll take a look at the variety of camping toilets available and how they work. On the next page, you'll find out how to set up a camping toilet.


Setting Up Camping Toilets

When setting up your camping toilet, you'll want to make sure that your site is at least 150 to 200 feet (45.72 to 60.9 meters) away from trails or water sources. If your portable toilet system requires waste burial, you'll need to dig a hole at least 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) below the toilet. You also can set up a privacy screen or tent around the toilet using anything from a piece of tarp to a manufactured privacy tent. A privacy tent will give you an added sense of comfort even in the most remote of locations.

To make your own camping toilet, you'll need a sturdy re-sealable can and some heavy duty garbage bags that you'll fold over the rim. You can even place a seat on top of the can if you'd like. Before and after using your camping toilet, place powdered bleach, quicklime or holding tank deodorant in the bag to eliminate odor and slow the decomposition of the waste. You can place any toilet paper that you use in the bag as well. "Wag bags" often include "pooh powder," a solution that will help to eliminate odor and make the waste safe for disposal. You can also purchase "pooh powder" separately from camping toilet systems.


Most manufactured camping toilets are very easy to set up and disassemble. While some come in suitcaselike cases, others require digging holes for waste burial. Some require you to collect waste in bags to dispose of later. When transporting the bag, squeeze the air out and tie it off to close the bag or seal the bag if it's of the self-sealing variety. After your trip, dispose of the waste down a flush toilet or, if the bag is biodegradable and land fill approved, you can chuck the bag when you're leaving the campsite. Some campsites have waste disposal sites where you can also get rid of the waste.

Bucket and collapsible toilets are pretty basic and easy to set up. But what about more elaborate camping toilets that can actually flush? On the next page, we'll see how camping toilet plumbing works.


Camping Toilet Plumbing

camping toilet
If you don't have a privacy tent, then place your toilet near a bush to provide privacy.

While some camping toilets are the most basic bucket and bag systems, others are much more elaborate and contain a flushable plumbing system. These camping toilets are the Cadillacs of portable toilet options. They offer campers the convenience of something very similar to the toilet they have at home and give them the ability to flush waste into a tank that will help to minimize odors.

The plumbing of a flushable camping toilet works similarly to that of a camping trailer or RV toilet. It consists of a freshwater holding tank and a lower holding tank that stores waste. These toilets flush by pumping water via a piston or bellows pump to move the water through the tanks. Flushable camping toilets vary in size, and their size determines how frequently they need to be emptied. In general, portable flush toilets come in 5-gallon sizes. If you're going to be camping for a long time, you may want to invest in a larger 10-gallon toilet to cut down on the times you'll have to empty it.


The drawback of flushable toilets is that they require more cleaning and maintenance than the more do-it-yourself camping toilet models. They're also less compact and more expensive that other toilet options. On the other hand, the variety of size and height in which these toilets are available, as well as the convenience of flushing rather than emptying a tank or disposing of waste, might be worth it.

On the next page, we'll talk about how to keep your toilet as sanitary as possible.


Camping Toilet Sanitation

Camping toilets help you to remove human waste from the outdoors as safely and easily as possible. However, when packing out waste, it's important to be as sanitary as possible. Keep the following guidelines in mind when using a camping toilet:

  • Use a powder-coated gelling agent to neutralize solid waste and to convert liquid waste into an easy-to-manage gel. Most "wag bags" provide a substance such as "pooh powder" to achieve this effect. These bags are usually environmentally safe, biodegradable or land fill approved.
  • Deposit all waste directly into the bag or container. Don't urinate or defecate in one place and move it to the bag later.
  • Don't store toilet near food or food equipment. This will prevent cross contamination.
  • Use a disinfectant to kill germs on the toilet seat, especially if more than one person is using the camping toilet.
  • Use rubber gloves to set up, clean and disassemble the camping toilet.
  • Place soap or antibacterial lotion near the toilet. Always wash your hands after handling the toilet.
  • Always cover the lid of the toilet to discourage insects or other creatures from venturing near your campsite.
  • Store all toilet accessories, with the exception of the toilet brush, together. Put the toilet brush in a separate bag or container to prevent cross contamination.
  • To best empty the contents of your toilet, it's best to keep the waste in a semi-liquid state. You may need to add water to do this.
  • To accommodate all of the people on your campsite in a sanitary way, you'll want to be sure to have an adequate system for multiple uses. A general rule of thumb is that a container of 2,000 cubic inches can accommodate 50 uses.

For more information on camping and other outdoor activities, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Burgess, Seth. C. "How Does a Portable Toilet Work. Trails.
  • Thomas, Dean. "Buying a Camping Toilet. HubPages.\
  • "Camping Toilet." Camping Toilet Reviews.
  • "Camping Toilet." Camping Toilet Reviews.
  • "Camping Hygiene." Sonoma Outfitters.
  • "Camping Sanitation." Net Backpacking.
  • "Camping Tent Sanitation."
  • "Camping Toilet." Camping Toilet Reviews.
  • "The Camping Toilet." Outdoor Basecamp.
  • Camping Toilet Bags.
  • "Canyonlands National Park: Toilet Requirements." National Park Service.
  • Washable Toilet Systems.