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Surviving a Vault Toilet When Camping

Aah, toilets!  Nobody wants to talk about them.  Then there’s this even dirtier term (especially when you’re camping)…a vault toilet.

With a name like that, it sounds like you might just fall down an endless hole. No wonder there’s a bit of misgivings surrounding them.

So, in the name of vault toilets, let’s talk about how to survive them on your next camping trip.

Rustic vault toilet bathrooms outdoors with one stall and handicap access

What is a Vault Toilet? 

A vault toilet is generally thought of as an outhouse. And while that may be the case, they are usually not quite as primitive as you may percieve.

Vault toilets are housed in permanent structures. They do not flush nor do they utilize water. They are also referred to as pit toilets due to the underground tank that holds the waste until a truck comes to pump it out and transport it to a water treatment facility. 

A typical vault toilet underground tank is usually between 750 to 13,000 gallons in size. Depending on how many people are using the vault toilet and the size, one might fill up faster than another.

Don’t worry, most vault toilets are manned by park services. If it does get full, it will usually be closed and locked until it is serviced. 

However, this is not always the case, and you will come across vault toilets that you may not even want to crack open the door, let alone sit on its toilet seat.

Where are Vault Toilets Used? 

Vault toilets are commonly found in public Parks, campgrounds, and trailheads. Most fit in well with the natural environment, looking similar to a small log cabin. 

They are permanent structures without water or electricity, and staying true to a cabin and its smokestack, they also consist of a large vent pipe extending from the roof. 

While you probably won’t feel cozy in a vault toilet, most of them will at least be clean enough to warrant a quick sit down when needed.

Pro Tip: Vault toilets are make-or-break with some of our past boondocking locations. One of our top 5 worst boondocking spots had a horror-story vault toilet!

5 Tips for Surviving a Vault Toilet Experience

Speaking of sitting down on a vault toilet, here are a few tips to make your experience a bit more pleasant, or at least bearable.

Check for Flies/Bees:

Take caution when opening the door of a vault toilet. There will be flies.  There might be bees. Also, quite often be spiders hanging in the corners on the floor and the ceiling. Just be aware.

It could be possible to get stung by a bee while seated or have a spider crawl up from the vault, however; that situation is quite rare. And the best way to prevent that, along with unwanted odors, is to simply close the toilet lid when done.

Bring your own TP

While park personnel do their best to keep toilet paper stocked in vault toilets, there rarely seems to be any in there. And when there is, it disappears quickly because many people are using the vault toilet.

Not only could you find yourself without TP, but if there is any existence of toilet paper, it will be hard to roll off the strangely shaped TP holders, and it will probably be the thinnest one-ply toilet paper on the market.

Do yourself a favor, bring your own TP.

Don’t Throw Trash in the Vault Toilet

Vault toilets are meant for human waste and toilet paper.

And that is it. 

It is not a trash can for all the micro-trash you so religiously picked up along your hike.  It is also not a place to discard tampons, pantyliners, wet wipes, or anything else.

The waste cannot be pumped out properly if trash becomes a part of the mixture, and ultimately, park services will simply shut it down.

Most vault toilets will not have a place for your trash, either.  This does not make it ok to leave it on the floor next to the vault toilet. 

Pack it in, pack it out.  If there are no trash services, your trash leaves with you.

Bring Hand Sanitizer

If you have any interest at cleaning your hands when done using the vault toilet, bring hand sanitizer. 

While there are some very nice vault toilets complete with two-ply TP and hand sanitizer pumps that actually have hand sanitizer in it, most will not have any of the above.

Secure Your Belongings

Keep your stuff with you. Yep, you get to bring your brand new backpack or purse into the vault toilet with you. 

Nope, there will probably not be a place to hang it up off the floor. 

Be sure to go back to rule number one before setting your things down, and realize your brand new things won’t always be brand new. 

You will come across vault toilets that don’t lock, so if you’re uncomfortable with that, or the smell, or the vault itself, or you’ve just watched too many horror stories involving toilets in the middle of nowhere, maybe it’s time to consider an alternative toilet.

Alternatives to Using a Vault Toilet for Campers

Camping Cassette Toilet:  A cassette toilet might be an alternative for you, as it offers a portable toilet within the privacy of your RV, van, tent, or wherever you call home and need a toilet. A toilet is installed over a small, removable waste tank.  When the tank becomes full, you remove the tank and empty the contents into a standard flushing toilet or a dump station. The waste tank then goes back onto the base of the toilet.

Go in the Woods: If you choose to utilize the woods for your toilet, you’ll get a much better view, but there are still rules to follow.  No TP left behind, don’t dispose of your waste in or near water sources and if you’re pooping in the woods, you need to dig a hole, cover it up, and pack your toilet paper out with you.  

Composting Toilet: Composting is a process that decomposes organic matter and can then be used as a fertilizer.  A composting toilet works generally the same. It is a dry toilet that uses peat moss or sawdust to compost human waste and can then turn that waste into a compost-like material.  This material can then be used similar to how you would use fertilizer. Just be sure to use it in flower gardens and not for gardens that will be producing foods for consumption. 

Camping and Vault Toilets go Hand-in-Hand

One way or another, you’ll be ridding yourself of waste.

And while a vault toilet may not sound like the best of options to do so, they are one of the easiest and most convenient ways of dealing with that dirty “toilet” word.

Without any clean up from you, except of your own backside, your waste will be down the vault, and you’ll be up the mountain in less time than that rabbit that led you down the hole in the first place.

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  1. MikeH says:

    Often the vault toilet is too filthy to sit on. Please do not try to use it without sitting as it will likely only get worse. Go back to your camper and get your own cleaning supplies. Clean it for yourself and other greatfull users.
    Be kind.

  2. mariahtkwok says:

    Great post Kyle and Olivia! I’ve been starting to camp more around my province (hello from Canada!) and I’m writing a review about a provincial park that I visited that uses vault toilets. I think this is a really informative post and I hope you don’t mind me linking this post to my upcoming article!

    Your images and descriptions are a super handy reference for first time park users who may not be prepared for these types of comfort stations.

    Thank you for a great post!

    Maria | SYDE Road

  3. David Beuke says:

    You are going to do your business. Not to eat lunch. Just finishing a camping trip to Brown County State In. The pit toilet’s are clean and nice.