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Dispersed camping in the National Forest

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Today was another gorgeous day in the Sierra National Forest. Cheri’s porta-potti was getting full so we needed to take a trip to an outhouse to dump it. There were some close to us in Shaver Lake, but we were also getting low on water so we decided to drive an extra 10 miles one-way up to the Dinkey Creek Ranger Station and dump the potti, get water and put our trash in their dumpster. Most of the time small tourist towns in either the desert or Forest have really poor water. It’s so processed to make it safe it usually has a strong chlorine, chemical or mineral taste. Shaver Lake is no exception; its water tastes mediocre at best. That was another incentive to drive further to the Ranger Station because it has truly outstanding water. It literally comes right from a spring. While we were there, how could we possibly pass up the great hamburgers at the Dinkey Creek Inn? Impossible! They were delicious and reasonably priced. Now that’s what I call “roughing it”
Boondocking (dispersed camping) in the National Forests is a wonderful life, but it does have some

Cheri’s High-Top Ford Cargo Van: She lovingly calls it “HULK”

problems. This story has a couple of lessons on how to solve them. First, where will you get water and dump your trash? A very good solution is to find dispersed camping near a Forest Service Ranger Station. Generally they will have fresh potable water, a dumpster for your trash and a toilet, all available for public use. That alone is worth the trip but they also have maps and information. That also goes for BLM stations, but because BLM desert land is so vast, there are many less stations, so it is hard to be close to one. Second, how will you go the bathroom? If you haven’t decided on a system for going to the bathroom, you should strongly consider using a Porta-Potti, they work great! Years ago I tried a hassock type Porta Potti, and I hated it. It literally was just like a wide 5 gallon bucket with a built-in seat and lid. You were supposed to put water and chemicals in it, use it till it was full, and then dump it. But it smelled awful and dumping it was a nightmare. It sloshed and spilled in transport and then dumping it down a toilet inevitably meant spilling it everywhere. It was horrible. Don’t buy one of those!!
But there is a second type of Porta Potti that solves all those problems. It has two parts, a top and a bottom, that separate. The top
section holds water that is used to flush after use (although that is optional, you can just give it a quick rinse with water from a spray bottle and use less water). The bottom section is the holding tank where your waste goes. Using it is simple, you just put in a small amount of water and deodorant (Wal Mart sells a Coleman brand that works very well) and then use it. There shouldn’t be any smell. When it is starting to get full (don’t let it get completely full, that makes carrying it harder) you separate the two parts and take the bottom part to any toilet. Then you screw a plastic hose into the outlet hole, turn it upside down, and dump it into the toilet. There are so many different brands that I can’t really go into details of how to use them, so this may make it sound hard to

Thetford Porta-Potti in two parts. Notice the tube that is used to dump it.

dump, or like it will be messy. Nothing could be further from the truth! The bottom line is it is very easy and totally mess-free. Personally, I still use a 5 gallon bucket to poop in, but I know that is unacceptable for a lot of people (especially women). If you are one of them, a Porta Potti may be perfect for you. If you would like more information about a highly rated Porta Potti, click here

A Thetford Porta-Potti like Cheri’s


The Dinkey Creek Ranger Station


  1. John Lamb

    Living the lifestyle out of a 6 x 12 cargo trailer converted to a camper has presented a few easily overcome challenges for me as well, and this issue was one of them!! Being a guy, we can go #1 most anywhere and in most anything….but #2 is sometimes not all that easy! I experimented with a Thetford pp, and had no problems with it. But have had equally good success with a 3 legged stool and a plastic bag and sawdust/sand/leaves—face it, when ya gotta go ya gotta go!
    Keep posting Bob, you’re doing good!

    • Bob

      Thanks for the kind words John! I’m with you on the KISS (Keep It Super Simple) principle. But It’s important to try to include everybody and their various needs. It would be a shame to let the “gross-out” factor of pooping in a bucket with leaves to keep someone from adopting our lifestyle when there are very good solutions available. Thanks again John!! Bob

  2. McBe

    Thanks for the primer on portable toilets. I always wondered how they worked.

    • Bob

      You are very welcome McBe! I know sometimes I am reluctant to try new things until I learn more about them. Hearing a report from actual user is extremely helpful to me and I think most people. If you (or anyone else) has a review or suggestion about the vandwelling life, email me with it and I will post it here or on one of my other sites:

  3. Aunt Meg

    i was working on our other place last year and needed a potty (well and electric were off). so i took old plastic lawn chair, cut a hole in it with a dremmel tool, and sprayed a circle of that spray foam insulation in a bottle on it, in the shape of a potty. it dried quick and worked fine. used leaves in it. no smell. went in the compost bin when full. i used this for 3 months, dumped once a week, and there was no smell. this might be harder to improvise in a van? on my camp trip, i bought a small bucket and cheap trash bags. same as some of you. worked fine. didn’t want to walk to potty in middle of the night as i was parked in the far back of state site.

  4. Kitty

    Dear Friends,
    I used to be a girl Scout, and later a cook on a wooden boat. I have no problem being a bear in the woods. In my van my toilet solution is a 5 gallon bucket, lined with TWO plastic kitchen bags of at least .9 mils thick (that is each kitchen bag must be .9 [point nine] mils thick) a I then layer about 6 cups of pine pellet horse bedding(from a feed store) in the bottom of the plastic bags inside the bucket. I purchased a good camping toilet seat from an RV store. whenever I use the bucket I put in several scoops of pine shavings which I picked up at a supply store. so it’s Bucket-two plastic kitchen sized bags- 6″layer of pine pellets. Than after any use a few inches of pine shavings on top of the waste. The pine pellets soak up liquids, the pine shavings cover the solids. I keep the lid down at all times I am not using the bucket. I dump the bucket by tying both bags shut and lifting the bag and putting it into a dumpster. I have also gotten rid of it on a daily basis by using regular public garbage pails at parks and service stations. I store a sack of pellets and a sack of shavings in my short starboard closet next to the cargo doors.

    • tim huckabee

      Excellent solution and description. Thanks.

  5. Jana

    While trying to “build” a port-a-potty and thinking it was getting way too complicated, I sat down on an end table (that had been left by a previous tenant) and it hit me… this is perfect! I cut a nice hole in the top slide a bucket under it, put a trash bag in it… top that with a layer of cat litter… PERFECT! I joke now that my coffee table is my toilet (it isn’t but it is fun to see the reations) and… it really could be… small top with a table cloth. Really, who would know?!

    • Bob

      Very good idea Jana! It’s cheap, simple and easy, brilliant. I guess it is true that necessity is the mother of invention. Strange what makes the light bulb come on over the old noggin. Bob

  6. Lynn

    As a woman who has van camped for many weeks at a time, I have my own solution. My husband likes to pee into a empty laundry bottle. It never leaks. We dump it each morning, “water the trees” and never have a problem, even when city camping. I wanted to have a pee bottle but the opening is too small. Then I found that a large soda cup(think big gulp) is easy to pee into, just hold it firmly in place. Then pour it into your own empty laundry detergent bottle. I like the cup method so much that I never pee directly onto the ground when out hiking. With the cup you never get wet feet. With a loose skirt, you can almost do it in public! I keep a piece of paper towel in the cup to remind me not to drink from this cup, and use the paper towel as toilet paper. I keep a cup and paper towel in my car trunk, you never know when you will need it.
    For number two, we have a portly pottie. But we save it for poops only, and it sure lasts a long time.

    • Bob

      Lynn, I like the way you think!! Your husband is a very lucky man!! Bob

    • Martha

      I do a lot of tent camping, and keep one of those big red plastic disposable cups in the tent for when I have to pee during the night. I water the trees or bushes with it. Since I have to “go” several times a night this has worked very well for me.

      • Bob

        Martha, that’s a great idea! Cheap, easy and practical.

  7. LaMarr

    When the kids were small and car travel was always interupted with I need to potty. We kept a bedpan in the car. I passed my aunt in a parking lot and stopped to talk.
    She noticed the bedpan on the floor and exclaimed, “I’ve been using a coffee can all these years!”
    I still have a bedpan for emergencies but, it doesn’t have much vertical clearance for a sitting adult.

    • Bob

      You must have been a good boy scout, you were well prepared!

  8. Abc

    Hurrah, that’s what I was trying to get for, just what a stuff Presented at this blog!! Thanks admin of the site.

  9. Al

    I understand about the Porta Potty and also about the bucket with bags inside. But for those boondocking far away from a city dumpster or toilet, what does one do with the tied up used bags?

    • Bob

      Al, I just put them in my garbage bag and the next time I am in town or near a trash can I throw them away. If you stay out too long and the bags start to smell then you can store them in an odor-proof can until you can get them into a dumpster. A good one is a a small galvanized garbage can. You can get one at most hardware stores or even Walmart sometimes.
      Some people don’t use bags at all, they dig cat holes and poop in it and bury it. That is perfectly acceptable to both the National Forest Service and the BLM.

  10. Marsha Wallace

    Thanks for all the great ideas! I ended up using a 5gal bucket called a lugga Loo from our local Farm-n-Fleet. I use either doubled up walmart bags or the kitchen bags. I use cedar chips used for hamster beds. ha! They work great! I can use this for about 3 or 4 days and then in the dumpster it goes!
    Thanks again Bob!
    Cleanheart on the site!

    • Bob

      Marsha, that’s pretty much what I do except I just do a one-tie-use. Either way works great!

  11. LeeRevell

    Lot of good ideas here. I am converting my Ford E150 van (from my deceased Dad) into a campervan, and hygiene is of course a big item! I’ll likely use the PortaPotti and large-mouth bottle idea.
    Bob, your site here is great! I have some gear for the van, and your articles help decide on others.

    • Bob

      I’m really glad to be of some help Lee!! Don’t let anything stand in the way of your dreams!!

  12. J Koch

    Has anyone tried using any of the composting toilets, here? While they seem larger, the attraction of only needing to dump once every season seems a powerful advantage.

    • Bob

      J Koch, I do know someone in a small trailer with a composting toilet and he is very happy with it. I’m not a fan of dumping at all, and they are very epensive, so I will just stick with the 5 gallon bucket. But there is no one right way to do anything in vandwelling, it’s just whatever works for you.

  13. Jackie

    Hi Everyone,
    I found a site online regarding using the five gallon bucket method. I’m sorry I don’t remember the site. Basically a British couple converted the van they had to a camper. The toilet had a cushion, clued on to a light piece of wood. It fitted exactly over the toilet. So it provided extra seating, and covered up the bucket. Loved it!

    • Bob

      Jackie, that’s a great tip, thanks for sharing it.

  14. Beth

    Is it ecologically responsible to dump poo into a dumpster? Does separating the pee and adding wood chips or some other biodegradable roughage make it ok? If u use the composting toilet where is responsible place to dump it while on the road? Just trying to learn:). Thank u

    • Bob

      Beth, almost nothing we do today is ecologically responsible. I have solar panels so I don’t burn fossil fuel. But lots of carbon was burned to make the panels and transport them to me. They feed batteries which are going to fail and go to the landfill. But of the two choices, they are the best one for the environment. The only ecologically responsible choice is to do without electricity, but I’m not willing to do that.
      The only responsible way to deal with poo is use it as compost. After that it’s to dig a a hole and poop in it. I think what I’m doing is the next best choice and our current system of using huge amounts of water and flushing it is about the worst for the planet. Although to be fair, some cities are doing a pretty good job of handling it after treatment.
      I’m not real familiar with composting toilets so I can’t really help you there.

  15. Pamela

    Hello, Than you for all the good info….I personally have what I call a “grandma” toilet….I picked up a bucket type toilet at a medical supply store….It is the type you use when your older person cant move very well but still wants to have dignity about the bathroom
    issues……Cheap …comfortable because you can actually sit down and its easy to clean….using plastic bags and kitty litter…..not having any problems at all

    • Bob

      Pamela, I didn’t know what you mean so I looked it up and that looks like a good idea. I found this one on Amazon and it eve folds up so it wouldn’t wast space. Thanks for the tip, I’d never thought about that before!

  16. peter

    we are about to leave our home to live in a 32′ 5th wheel for good. We have camped extensively out of a van and used the plastic bag and folding camp stool for a number of years. We found cat food bags worked great to keep the poop smell contained. I havent tried the new plastic ones but the older paper ones were great. We intend to spend a lot of time boondocking in the 5-er so we will continue to use our version of the portapotty to save having to dump our blackwater tank. Also use a detergent bottle for overnight pee stops – works great and saves having to wake up and go outside to pee.

  17. Ruby

    Hello Bob, I am really enjoying this site.. I do have one question concerning using a bucket for bathroom use… Where or how do you dispose of the bags after use.. Do you save and put in regular dumpster.. Thank you

    • Bob

      Hi Ruby, yes, I just through them away in a dumpster. You could spend the money and buy bags that break down and bury them, but I think what I’m doing is no different than when I had babies in diapers or when I pick up after my dog and throw it in a dumpster.

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