Composting toilets are fantastic solutions for those who like to camp in the places found on the road less traveled. They are perfect for the tiny houses and the off-grid cabins. They are wonderful for those who live in places where water is scarce or for those who just want to be less wasteful of our planet’s finite resources, one of which is water.
One of the most commonly overlooked and under-appreciated issues that come with camping in situations, such as tent camping, is that you have nowhere to legally or ethically dump your raw sewage. For those who are participating in glamping, it’s far from the experience they’re looking for.
Human waste, in raw form, isn’t safe and is considered a biohazard. Dumping it on the ground can lead to groundwater contamination and it can also lead to you getting a pretty hefty fine.
There are better ways to handle your toileting needs and conserve your water supply. Let’s help you get your sh*t straight!
Restrictions On Dumping Compost and Why They Exist
Human waste is a hazard which is why you are required to have a septic system installed for your home unless you are on a city-wide septic system.
Human waste poses very specific contamination issues and it also contaminates groundwater runoff that could ultimately find its way into someone’s garden or well.
Guest glamping tents like ours, present special challenges. It leaves guests needing a way to safely be able to use a toilet without compromising their comfort or the environment.
Glamping means ‘glamorous camping’ which is completely defeated if one has to endure the stench of a toilet that is run onto the ground where it creates a contaminated environment for everyone involved.
Specific Issues With Plumbed Toilets
A plumbed toilet relies on water to flush. This adds to total waste in your water supply. This won’t work in a glamping situation at all without sewer hook-ups and running water.
You may have a well on-site but if you don’t need to haul water into the tent area, then you don’t want to waste more of it than necessary. Dry toilets are a much better solution. These are known as composting toilets.
They can be the remedy that not only works but can fit into your tent glamping in style. For the site owner, they have no need for plumbing of any kind and many of them do not require any electrical hook-ups either. This leaves you open to get creative.
Composting Toilets Offer Solutions
Many people are put off by the thought of a composting toilet but people have been using them in off-grid situations for many years. In fact, the original composting toilet is a bucket with a lid and is still used in many hunt camps to accommodate those using hunting tents.
Composting toilets are designed to dry fecal matter quickly and efficiently, separate urine from the solid waste, and reduce it down to compost.
The compost gets hot. A compost pile will get as hot as 120 to 170-degrees. The process starts inside your composting toilet and can be finished outdoors when emptied.
When compost maintains a high temperature, which occurs naturally from the breakdown of the waste when combined with a type of material that is conducive to composting, it kills the microorganisms that can be bad for the environment. They can’t survive the temperature.
In a matter of days, composting toilets can turn your waste into the start of soil. The microbes that would otherwise be harmful have been killed off and it can be safely discarded after being in a composting toilet.
Do Composting Toilets Smell?
A properly functioning composting toilet has no smell. One of the ways that this works is by separating the urine from the fecal matter. It’s the liquid that holds the smell.
Composting toilets are designed with a little funnel at the front that is called a separett. This little gadget moves the urine to a separate chamber. You can simply pull that out and dump it anywhere.
Don’t worry, urine doesn’t hurt the environment at all. In fact, urine is so full of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that it makes the best fertilizers for a garden.. You’re actually giving back to nature.
It’s advisable that you don’t do it in front of complete strangers as they may not have a clear understanding and take offense. But it is fine, ask any little boy who grew up peeing behind his grandpa’s barn. In fact, you really can dump it in your garden.
With the urine removed, all that is left behind is relatively dry matter. Think about it like this -- if you’ve ever had a dog and had to pick up the yard after them, only the fresh poop stink. The dried-up ones don’t smell at all. Why? Because the moisture is what keeps it stinky. By removing the urine from your toilet, the stink factor is greatly reduced.
With the introduction of a substrate to your toilet, you are providing two things: 1) Oxygen circulation room within the compost because oxygen is necessary to the microorganisms that feed on the matter and break it down, and 2) the substrate helps to absorb any moisture from the fecal matter that would potentially cause it to smell.
Air is vital. Most composting toilets are designed with an exhaust pipe that leads to the outside. The few odors that might be present in a fresh deposit are whisked away and outside. Within minutes, the substrate is already working on drying this and within hours, the microbes are already dying from heat as the little microorganisms are doing their job.
Some composting toilets are equipped with a small 12-volt fan that can be run for a few hours each day to help the airflow to the outdoors. Some toilets do not have this component and there doesn’t’ seem to be any issues in not having it for most people, as long as the exhaust line is in place.
How To Maintain a Composting Toilet?
The toilet is set-up so that there is a separate chamber that houses the fecal matter as it falls in. Each time you use the toilet, you need to add a scoop or two of the substrate over the top. This immediately resolves smells and begins working to dry the deposited waste.
Each time you empty the toilet, you should add a few scoops of a substrate to the bottom so that you’ve got a few inches to start off your new composting. Empty your toilet when just over half full for the best results indoors.
True, this seems like a gross endeavor at first, but so was emptying your RV holding tanks the first few times. The composting toilet does not smell anywhere nearly as foul as your RV septic tank. Compost is far easier to handle and less stinky. Honest.
Peat moss for your substrate will be the lightest option. Some people have good luck with coconut husks, sold as coco coir in bricks that you break-up. It’s also very light. Some people even use their fall leaves. Any good, lightweight, organic matter will work.
Try to empty the container first thing in the morning after it has been at least 4 hours since the last fecal deposit. This will ensure that it is light and that last little bit has had time to get broken down partially. One person can use the toilet anywhere from 30 times to 60 times before it has to be emptied because it actually loses volume as it dries out and composts.
If you are in a camper, try using bags to line your bucket and simply pull them out, tie them off, and drop them in the closest trash can or dumpster or composting bin. That’s perfectly legal and it will not smell.
Where Did Composting Toilets Come From?
They are based on the same principles as outhouses. The outhouse was born from necessity and is still in use today, in some places. In fact, many off-grid people still use them in some states. This is essentially a hole dug deep with a structure placed over the top.
The urine will leech away into the ground, leaving behind a pile of solid matter. In some states, these are still an acceptable form of toileting. In states like Missouri, for example, you can place an outhouse on your property if you are outside of city limits.
Construct your own outhouse easily by erecting a small shed over the top of a hole you’ve dug out at least four feet deep. The best outhouses are on skids or portable so that you can pull it over to a new hole if the one you are using begins to get full of composted material.
Outhouses do not need to be without some warmth and decor. They can be every bit as nice as your bathroom indoors. Take a look at some of these simple solutions:
This outhouse made by Beckel Canvas is simple and effective, while not coming across as ‘yuck’ in any way whatsoever. Portable, inexpensive, and easy to set-up = perfect.
This more permanent solution at Cuyama Oaks Ranch is a bit of what might be called glamping. Take a look inside their outhouse to see just how cozy they can be. Nothing gross here!
Cuyama Oaks Ranch DIY OUthouse
Theirs is proof that you can set an outhouse up so that even your guests are comfortable. Make a mirror, vanity shelf with an extra supply of toilet paper handy, some spritzer, and a bowl and pitcher so that guests can wash their hands. Don’t forget the natural bar of soap!
Composting On Your Own Property
Composting your own waste has been the subject of much research and many books, including one that all off-gridders have likely read already. If not, you should. The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph C. Jenkins,made the art of creating composted manure from human waste a topic to be discussed openly.
He maintains that by holding your humanure in covered bins that have a layer of the substrate over the top, with a thermometer in them, you can safely dump this after 1 year. It’s based on science and real research.
Using this method, this author can state that the only traces left after three months of composting were of toilet paper that takes longer to break down than the organic matter. This has been remedied by tossing toilet paper into the trash instead of into the composting toilet. Highly recommended!
Types of Composting Toilets
There are a few variations in off-grid toilets and their features. Have a look at these for thoughts and ideas on how you can make one work for you.
The Loveable Loo
This is the simplest and least expensive form of composting toilet that you can acquire and is our top pick for an off-grid camp site.
You will find it simple to keep up with and very straightforward to use. This compost toilet doesn’t use any separation for urine, so it takes longer to compost but if you add enough substrate, you’ll still not have any smell. It’s recommended by the author of the Humanure Handbook as well.
If you want something you can easily set up and start using, this is it. Despite the fact that it doesn’t separate urine, it still works quite well and some would argue that the urine speeds the composting process once drying has occurred. More substrate is the only drawback. You’ll empty this one more frequently if you are expecting lots of guests at the same time.
Phoenix Composting Toilet System
Price: Starts at $6,000
Phoenix Composting system in use
This is a serious compost system for larger camps. It is unique in that it composts underneath a cabin or home floor. The tank is very large and is set in place and plumbed to a toilet that is inside. You can use an RV style toilet that closes off at the floor to ensure that no air flows back up if you like. You can install this holding tank with a masticator in place or using a traditional style toilet. There are several variations in the way it can be hooked up and you should visit their website for more information.
The tank is set in place and you add several inches of starter substrate (they recommend pine shavings). There is a rotation system in this tank that continuously stirs the compost so that you are able to get maximum aeration in the tank to break down fecal matter. This system does require power so doesn’t make a good off-grid solution unless you’ve got adequate solar power.
Nature’s Head Compost Toilet
Nature’s Head composting toilet
This is the primo version of the inside composting toilet. It looks very much like a toilet you are used to. It has a urine diverter and container and has all the bells and whistles that make composting your waste a snap.
The main drawback of this toilet is the cost. For many people, it is very cost prohibitive, which tends to lead them back to the Lovable Loo. Also, educating your guests on how to use this toilet may take a little bit of effort.
Create your own variation
Many people create their own toilets by starting with the Lovable Loo design and adding their own urine collector and separett. It’s very easy to do and this will help your solid waste bin last longer if you’re just completely sold on separating your urine for the garden now. It’s honestly a choice that is up to you and neither is right or wrong, it’s a matter of preference, but you can purchase the parts to add the separett on eBay or even Amazon, to create your personal preference if you so desire.
A Few Last Details
You’ve got the straight poop on the story now. You’ve got the information that you need to consider the choices that will be best for you. Consider and weigh your options. A lot is determined by where you would be installing the toilet. How many guests do you anticipate? Do you have a family of five or of one? This also plays a factor in which type of toilet will work best for you.
Another detail that wasn’t mentioned yet is that if you have a urine diverter style of toilet, men have to sit down to use the toilet and you’ll need to teach your little boys to do the same. It cannot work unless they sit down. For some, this is the reason to notuse a urine separation device. For women, this is a non-issue.
The main take-aways here should be that composting your waste is quite natural and there shouldn’t have to be anything disgusting about it. Composting toilets do not stink and you may need to let your neighbor inspect yours to see that this is the truth. In fact, you will likely have a lot of people who just want to have a look and check it out. If you camp, you’ll find a lot of people will have questions about your toilet. Just get used to it.
Whatever the reason for your interest in composting toilets, you can be assured that there is a model for you, and if you don’t see one, design one. Loads of people design their own from elaborate to freakishly simple. Installing one in your home could save you as much as 5,000 gallons of water per year, per person. Think about that the next time you pay a water bill.