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How to Go to the Bathroom in a Van! Part One

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Today we are taking the way-back machine to  the very basics of living in a van, How to Go to the Bathroom! I’ve fallen into the habit of taking the basics for granted and it’s been years since I’ve covered them… so it’s time! My good friend Al wrote a great post covering this in his blog so I asked him if I could copy it here. He graciously agreed, so here it is. After his post I’ll answer some Frequently Asked Questions. This will be a two part post and in the next post we’ll cover porta-potties, different kinds of seats, potty tents and even a composting toilet. 
People who live with the benefits of plumbing often ask me how I do without. The answer is a five-gallon bucket, trash bags and a nifty lid. I started with a Luggable Loo seat-lid combo that snaps onto a five-gallon bucket with a plastic bag inside. They’re popular. But I didn’t like that the cover just flopped over the seat. It didn’t seal. That meant either putting up with the odor or sealing up the plastic bag. One use per bag. Neither was a good solution.(There is toilet seat with rubber gasket that does seal at Amazon: Tote-able Toilet Seat with Lid and Rubber Gasket )
Luckily, there’s a lid for five-gallon buckets that does seal. Gamma Seal lids are designed to seal five-gallon buckets of paint, adhesive, food, whatever. It comes in two pieces. One is a threaded ring that fits on the lip of the bucket. You need to pound it on with a rubber mallet. The other is the lid. It has an O-ring gasket for sealing. The lid screws into the ring. They come in a variety of colors. Though the lid seals tightly, there’s enough of a gap in the threads that it can fit over trash bags. I double bag with 13-gallon trash bags. And I hold them in place with a bungee cord. The Gamma Seal lid is $9.99 and can be ordered from Amazon here: The Gamma Seal Lid, White

Another problem with the Luggable Loo is that the opening is too small for large guys. With my system I get almost the entire diameter of the bucket mouth. The ring and bags also provide enough cushion for my bony butt.
So, now you’re wondering, how do I dispose of the contents? As often as possible I pour it into an outhouse/vault toilet/regular toilet. I tie off the empty inner bag and then the outer bag and toss them in the trash. But… but…, there’s residue of, ew, human waste in the bag, you say. True. But it’s far less than in the typical disposable diaper, or a sack of dog poo, which we toss without a care.
Finally, whenever I wash and vacuum the Rolling Steel Tent I give the bucket and lid a good blasting.
The bucket will eventually wear out. You can’t really pry the ring off the bucket without damaging it, so I already have a spare Gamma lid for the new bucket. Maybe I’ll get it from Home Depot next time.
Thanks Al, for allowing me to use your blog post! Next I’ll answer some Frequently Asked Questions 
Some options for the toilet: 1. 3 pound coffe can, detergent bottle and used soda cups to pee in 2) wet wipes to clean up 3) spray bottle with vinegar and mouth wash to clean the pee container.

Some options for the toilet: 1) A 3 pound coffee can, detergent bottle and used soda cups to pee in 2) wet wipes to clean up 3) spray bottle with vinegar and mouth wash to clean the pee container. If you never rinse the pee container, it’ll get funky.

Frequently Asked Questions about 5 Gallon Bucket Toilets:

Q. Why not just use public toilets, after all they are on every corner? A. When I live in a city, that’s exactly what I did! they literally were on nearly every corner so I used them! But I always had a 5 gallon bucket as backup. Why? Because you never now when you are going to have an urgent need to go in the middle of the night! By the time you wake up, get out of bed, get dressed, drive around and find an open public restroom, get parked and go inside, it might be too late. Especially as you get older! It seems like the time between thinking I have to go, and having to go right NOW gets shorter and shorter with every passing year! I always have a 5 gallon bucket ready to go, even in the city.

Here is an example of using a toilet multiple times. She lines it with newspaper between every use and sprinkles A&H Deodorizer on it. This toilet seat has a rubber gasket so it never leaks odor.

Here is an example of using a toilet multiple times. She lines it with newspaper between every use and sprinkles A&H Deodorizer on it. This toilet seat has a rubber gasket (it’s the black ring on the seat) so it never leaks odor.

Q. Do you both pee and poop in the bucket? A. Never! It just make disposing of it  so much more complicated if you have both in there, so I never mix them. If your bag has small hole, the solids aren’t getting out but the pee will and I don’t want the pee anywhere but in a container! A bag rolled up with my poop is very small and inconspicuous but if it has pee in it too, it’ll be larger and fragile. I don’t want that.
Q. What do you pee in? A. For men it’s easy, we can pee in anything, even a pop or beer can. But I like a quart yellow Nalgene bottle  best of all. You can take it into any public restroom to dump it and no one will be the wiser what you are doing. Some people use quart Gatorade bottles, but I prefer a larger opening. Detergent bottles also work well, but let’s face it, for a man anything will do as long as it has a lid. The larger the opening and the more discreet the better.
Q. What do women pee in? A. Their anatomy makes peeing a little more complicated for women than men so they need a container with a very large opening. Many women find a 3 pound coffee can to work perfectly for them, but anything with a large opening and a lid will do. I have a female friend who used a 2 gallon ice cream container very successfully, another found a mayonnaise jar was big enough. Some have found good luck with women’s urinals that are essentially funnels that are molded for a woman’s anatomy that they hold close to their privates and a tube leads to a jar. Amazon sells numerous models that you can see here: Women’s Urinals On Amazon  The Go Girl female urinal is well reviewed on Amazon: Go Girl Female Urination Device
Q. Do you use the bag one time or do you use the same bag multiple times?  A. There’s no right or wrong answer to that question and many people use them multiple times. To me it’s worth paying a few cents a day for the bag and just using it once. After I use it, I wrap it up and throw it in the trash. Hopefully I’ll soon be in town where I throw it into a dumpster. If not I take it out and set the whole trash sack on top of the van until I do. Very simple and odor free.
Q. If I use it multiple times, should I use kitty litter also? A. I can’t really answer since I only use it once, but many people do. One friend puts a section of newspaper between each use and also sprinkles Arm & Hammer Kitty Litter deodorizer on it. She never had an odor problem with it. You can buy it from Amazon for $3.98 here: ARM & Hammer Cat Litter Deodorizer Some people use different things to control odors, the most common is kitty litter but I’ve heard of people using sawdust and even peat moss. To me, I don’t see any reason to carry anything else around. I use it once per bag and I’m done.

A Poor Man’s Toilet. I got the bucket for free and the lid is pip-insulation I bought at Home Depot for $2.50. I’ve been using it for 6 years now! You ask, “Doesn’t it get germs?” No, remember it always has a double layer of trash bags in it so I never make direct contact with it. It’s very comfortable and warm!

Q. Is it legal or morale to throw poop  in the dumpster?  A. Here’s how I answer that; when I had kids and they pooped in their disposable diapers I never asked the question and neither did anyone else! That nasty stuff went right into the trash and to the landfill no questions asked! When I walk my dog in the city we all know we are supposed to carry a bag and pick up his poop, right? Where does all that stuff end up? In the landfill of course. I don’t feel bad about it at all! By living in a van I’m doing 100 times less damage to the environment than anyone living in a house does so if I do this one small thing wrong, the balance is still very much in my favor.
Q. Is it okay to dig a hole and poop in it. A. Yes! If you live on public land and dig a cat hole at least 6 inches deep it’s perfectly legal!  As long as the hole is at least 6 inches deep and you cover it up, it’s not only legal, it’s also by far the best thing you can do for the environment and society. I carry a shovel and when I dig a cat hole I want the hole to be at least the depth of the shovel blade below the ground.
This post got too long so it will be two parts. In the next post we’ll look at:

  1. Different toilet seats you can use.
  2. Potty Tents
  3. Porta Potties
  4. And a home-made composting toilet.


  1. k sun

    Question about digging a hole on public land… Would it be ok if I buried a biodegradeable trash bag with the poo? Could I dump kitty litter in the dirt hole with the poo to help reuse the bags if I can’t bury the biodegradeable bag? Thanks 🙂

  2. Canine

    Thumbs up for the Nalgene bottle. They aren’t expensive and are of extremely high quality. I’m a truck driver (for how long, we’ll have to see!) and holding it in is not good for the kidneys, so I pee in a 32 ounce Nalgene bottle with the larger opening. They have the same size with a smaller lid, too. It’s easier to pee into the larger opening, but mostly the larger lid allows the bottle to dry out faster. I dry it out all the way once a week. The less moisture that stays in there, the less opportunity for bacteria to grow and smell it up. It gets nasty fast if you don’t rinse it out at least once per day.
    Nalgene bottles don’t leak at all. Other bottles might. I tried a less expensive bottle and the lid blew off when I dropped it in the truck. A Nalgene won’t do that.
    Urine is highly water soluble (duh! lol) and rinses out extremely well; however, soaking the bottle for half an hour once a week with a teaspoon of Clorox helps keep it clean. I’ve rinsed with laundry soap, too, and that works just as well. I’ve been punishing the same bottle for over a year now and it holds very little odor.
    TIP: I ONLY drink out of bottles with small lids. I have two bottles in my lunch box. Yes, I keep my pee bottle next to my water bottle. Yes, it’s gross, but ya do what ya gotta do. At night it is dark and I can’t see which bottle is which, so I feel for the one with the smaller lid. Never had an accident drinking from the wrong bottle.
    Several years ago a few situations came together creating a perfect storm where I was peeing myself. That sucked! I couldn’t tell I was peeing until I felt it running down my leg or I was sitting a puddle of pee. Not so embarrassing for a kid, but for a young man, people look at you funny. To minimize uncontrollable piddling, I would pee often even if I didn’t feel the need. Having a bottle helped.
    Since we’re on the topic, one evening I made a pig of myself and ate most of a bag of chocolate covered raisins. Not until later that evening was I informed that they were sweetened with a sugar free sweetener which would give me diarrhea. The bag even had a warning to that effect. I thought, “Eh, no big deal. I’ll eat some cheese or something.” WRONG! That was soooo painful. The worst of it lasted for several hours and it wasn’t totally done until the next morning. Try going through an ordeal like that in a public restroom. Make no mistake- that was a true ordeal.
    You may never need immediate use of a toilet, but if it turns out that you do, you will be sooooo thankful for at the least having an emergency backup for IMMEDIATE use.

  3. Ming

    yes, funny how you have more need for a portable pee solution in the car as you get older! I find used gatorade bottles with the wide mouth to be useful, combined with various possibilities from the funnel aisle of the hardware store.

    • Bob

      All good ideas Ming!

  4. Robert

    Catheters are my recommendation. I am having one installed as soon as my vans ready.

    • Bob

      You;re a braver man than I am Robert! Let us know how that works out for you!

  5. Brian

    Great post. Most emergency/disaster sites stress keeping the solid and liquid waste separate. When urine reacts with solid waste thats when it really becomes toxic. Kept separate the disposal is much more environmentally friendly.

    • Bob

      Brian, agree totally! I never mix the two. Together, they are much worse than the sum of their parts.

  6. Man On Run

    Useful ideas as always Bob. Sameer’s recent post solved a problem I’ve been having a while now with a boiler on the fritz which was making the prospect of taking a shower painful. Suddenly I realized why I kept the gallon size glass jar with lid! Poked a few holes in the lid, warm water from the stove goes in and ‘shower in a bottle’ fully operational.

    • Bob

      That’s a very good idea man on the Run!

  7. wil

    I find the big plastic jug tCOM kitty litter comes I makes a great urinal for gals.

    • Bob

      Thanks for that tip wil!

  8. Richard Muller

    A note about “cat-hole” sanitation, from my days as a backpacker and wilderness traveller. The hole shouldn’t be too deep. 4-6 inches in arid or desert environment, 6-8 inches deep in other, moister, places. The bacteria which will decompose your poop live in the top few inches of soil, and if you dig it too deep they won’t be able to do their job.
    Take a look at which has it about right!
    PS: any pharmacy will have “male urinals” which are capacious, easy to empty, and shaped right. I sleep over the cab in my RV, and using one of these means I don’t have to clamber down the ladder to pee in the middle of the night.

    • Bob

      Good ideas Richard. Thanks!

  9. Al Christensen

    I’m staying at a state park now, with a vault toilet a short stroll away. I use it most of the time, but I have the bucket for those nights I don’t want go out. There’s also a dumpster next to the toilet, so I can empty the bucket and toss the bags in one easy trip.
    Also, a 5-gallon bucket slips perfectly into a milk crate for extra stability, if you need it.

    • Bob

      Thanks Al!

  10. Ming

    on a completely unrelated note: free stuff alert. Some amazon apps for android are free today – some photo retouching apps are featured.|B00701L6TQ|B00BIK3FAI|B00I9NTUEC|B00GSQJJ34|B00MNUB9IC|B00M2Y6VTG|B00KD97I80|B004IAA6TI|B009IA9OLE|B009Y7YC2M|B00OOYVBQ0|B00EOGZ42U|B005POK858|B004RJMUJO|B00HDA6EH8|B00FQVWGXC|B007N6EUHI|B00H9GA38C|B00LJU7Y8Q|B006VIQLXK|B0055OO4V2|B00JCE16Q2|B004Y1WCDE|B00G5AVM3S|B006R7TXOO|B004UHL9EK|B00KZ1X43O|B00LBWSYOU|B00M5OS22C|B00FI7XBIS|B00FHB7398|B00I3WTXCS|B009MCRHH6|B00KYMAOHS|B00F8LPH90|B008K8U13K|B0067VKQLE|B0052UZIFA&&tag=kinjadeals-20&ascsubtag=[type|link[postId|1652454809[authorId|5727177402741770316

    • Bob

      Cool! Thanks Ming.

  11. Calvin R

    A coffee creamer bottle has served me well as a urinal.

    • Bob

      Great idea Calvin. Wide mouth and lid. Just right!

  12. Shawna

    A little tip for the ladies. If you are going to use a bottle to pee in I have found that a jug with a wide opening and with a handle on it works the very best. Some types of cat litter used to come in one of those types of jugs and it worked perfectly. I used to drive truck as part of a team and potty breaks were few and far between and yes, it is possible to relieve yourself inside a moving vehicle! LOL

    • Bob

      Shawna, that’s why Judy uses and I recommend a 3 pound coffee container. Huge opening, lid, and a handle molded into the side. Very handy!

    • Jfisherbear

      We get commercial mayo or salad dressing jugs,gallon, from restaurants.

  13. jonthebru

    In my observation the whole “black tank” and in this case portapotty discussion among RVers is interesting. In what other situation do you find people discussing anything close to this topic. Most “civilized” Humans around the world just want to flush the toilet and forget about it. So congratulations for taking the topic on positively and creatively.

    • Bob

      Jon, I’m not a fan of civilization so ignoring it’s norms is one of my main goals.

  14. Opa

    Are there any owners of BumperDumper or Depends besides me.

    • Bob

      Hi Opa, that’s the toilet that goes in the receiver hitch? If so, do you leave it in there all the time or take it out to drive? Tell us about how you use it and how you like it.

  15. joe

    sometimes i just aim my rear at the moon at night and fire away , just kidding u got it right a good ole fashion bucket will do the job one idea i like is the pipe wrap around the bucket i just do it with out the way i save costs on bags is when i go to the market i use self check out then put mt items in the bag then i grab a bit more of the bags off the rack and put them in the other bag i do it more than often that way i have plenty it beats buying them next time u check out check in with some more bags

    • Bob

      Joe, that’s a good idea. I don’t trust the grocery bags with my waste so I spend the money and use Glad bags. But when I get done wrapping that up I put it in a grocery bag to tie it off with. Works good for me.

  16. Tom

    Basics are good,,, and it doesn’t get much more basic then this. It’s important stuff, thanks Bob.

  17. Opa

    Bob I think like the BumperDumper. ( B-day present)It is better to be outside then inside! I use the Wag Bag Disposal System. I buy it from Amazon. I do use the BD as a table or just a place to sit down if not in use. I remove the toilet seat and bucket, put a cut piece of plywood an the BD and it becomes multifunctional.The BD is removed when I drive.
    BumperDumper has a website and it is cheaper than Amazon.
    I do like the Wag Bags because there is no smell and or flies even in 90degree+ weather. I also use Food grade plastic gloves like they use at Subway. They are very cheap 500 for $10.00

    • Bob

      Opa, how do you have your privacy when going outside like that? Do you just stay that remote?

  18. PamP

    Totally off subject – I’ve not had internet connection for several days. Just wanted to say I fell in love with that photo of Cody with “The Look”. My little terrier, Willy, had just that look when he was eyeing a mouse or whatever. Thanks for posting it.
    BTW: the current topic of how to “potty” is info we all need. Thanks

    • Bob

      Pam, I’ve owned a couple of Australian Shepherds and they all have that intensity and intelligence in their eyes. I just love seeing it!
      Willy sounds wonderful!

  19. TJ

    I know I’m dragging up a crazy old post but I have something too good to leave unsaid. I’m a cathole champion and I’m a big fan. The problem? I’m a bigger guy on two lousy knees and one bad hip. Squatting over a hole is just plain uncomfortable for me and something I can’t do anymore. My mind turned to bucket options and truly I had a problem with them: I like living on the shoe string, super cheap, minimal expense, going as low budget as I can. (This very minute I’m using free public wifi on a 3 year old laptop I traded an old rifle for.) Buying bags, buying deodorizer, it just smacked too much of the consumerist mind. Nthing wrong with that, it’s just not for me. Working cuts into my screwing around time, that’s all.
    I found one of the bucket lid toidy seats at a flea market but that left me with few options. I could go with baggies and that route or I could have a messy bucket to clean… Neither option ideal for my likings. So I had a moment of brilliance as often I do: I had a bucket that’d gotten a crack in the bottom and wouldn’t hold water anymore. I’d been meaning to patch it but I had a better idea. I sawed the bottom off a half inch above the bottom and made it my woods bucket. I dig myself a good deep hole, but I keep the sides of the hole sloped so things will collect toward the bottom. Then I place my bucket over the hole. The bucket has the toilet seat lid on it and it allows me the comfort of a seat with the ability to spend as little as possible on the frequent project. I have had a problem in wetter conditions with my weight pushing the open bottom of the bucket into the ground like a cookie cutter. I’m planning a plywood base that should increase the footprint and prevent that in future.
    I do confess, it was a little tricky to carry to the woods as the seat interfered with the bale which I had to remove. I could carry it by just holding the bottom of the bucket where I cut it off but there was something that just seemed a little unsanitary about that. I screwed a screen door handle onto the side of the bucket and that works quite well.
    If you ever see a scruffy lookin’ guy in his early thirties with a limp walking (hurriedly) toward the woods totin’ a yellow five gallon bucket like a big ol’ lunch box, and the top’s got a green seat lid, and the bottom aint got no bottom, and you can see a shorthandled shovel in the bucket… please don’t bother me right then, I’m probably on my way to an urgent business meeting that I don’t need to be late for.

    • Bob

      That sounds like a great idea TJ. I tried the cat-hole method and it didn’t work well for me. I’m pretty regular so I average 1 poop a day. That means digging 365 holes a year and I don’t want any chance of it being dug up so they were at least the depth of the shovel blade, 10-12 inches. In the forest I fought with roots, in the desert I fought with rocks–every single day. At my age the time between, “I need to go”, and “I need to go RIGHT NOW”! has gotten shorter and shorter. So as soon as I got to a camp I started digging holes, but inevitably I dug more than I needed or not enough. Hilarity ensued!
      Now I just use the bag method and it works great for me.

  20. Shelia

    Hi Bob! I am loving this discussion. I live in the country so opportunity abounds. However, I love camping, and prefer to be as remote as possible. As my knees and back have gotten older, I’ve found the bucket alone doesn’t quite work for me. I decided to use an outdoor camping chair. I removed the seat, added a toilet seat attached by a couple of 1x2s over my trusty bucket.I can remove the seat, fold up the chair and pack it up for the next trip. As I use this while camping, there is usually a camp fire. If you have access to wood ashes (cold) they work a million times better than kitty litter and really help in the decomposition process.

    • Bob

      That’s a great idea Sheila! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  21. Jerry blandford

    My solution was screwing an old toilet seat to one of those old single person camping chairs that folded up like a military cot. After a really big load of jalapenos my wife told me to use it outside of the camper. Three car loads of my friends drove by just as the wonderful invention left me falling with my beautiful bare butt landing in the warm and slippery. Guess what was the topic of conversation in the lounge for several weeks?

  22. C. Schulz

    I use a 5 gallon bucket lined with garbage bags. For the comfortable seat I use a raised handicap seat that fits perfectly into bucket, also taller.
    I made a seat lid out of fabric lined with heavy plastic that seals the top.
    It is attached to a skirt and Is floor length. It has a ruffle and bow because
    I like glamping for ladies. No one knows it is a toilet.
    Also for stability I turn a walker backwards and set behind bucket so it helps you get up and holds toilet paper covered by zip-lock Baggie. I also like the
    Plastic crate idea to set the bucket into. Trust me I cannot make it to the
    Campground toilet during the night. I am 74 yrs old.

  23. leon Smith

    Awesome post! very informative. I didn’t you know about digging a 6″ hole on public land. I agree with your recommendation on Gamma Seal Lid are the best. Thanks for sharing & keep up the good work Bob.

  24. Hilda

    LOL … well when it’s in the middle of the night & pouring buckets & waterfalls of rain, a big “slushy” plastic glass with it’s lid works wonders … LOL … as a woman, you learn to manuever yourself to being on your knees & find the perfect spot to put that glass & hope it doesn’t overflow from waiting so long to decide to use it … LOL … dump the next morning or dump it out the window & let the rain take care of it – the glass can be washed out or the next time you buy a slushy, rinse it out & save for the next time you might need one… LOL … lived in my car -> it was the best time I ever had… would do it again if I had one!

  25. Daniel

    Awesome Bob, thanks for sharing

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