Going to the Bathroom in Your Van, Car, Minivan, or SUV


Content warning: urine and feces, as well as mention of excretory anatomy

Once at the RTR, I said to Coyote Sue, Folks who can’t talk about pee and poop probably shouldn’t be here. The same can be said about this blog post. If you can’t stand reading about pee and poop, this is not the blog post for you. If, however, you currently live and travel in a vehicle that does not come equipped with toilet facilities (or plan to do so in the future), this may be the blog post you’ve been looking for.

The first thing I have to tell you is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for solving the problem of living in a rig with no bathroom. A lot of factors are going to determine what system is right for you. Some factors to consider include the following: the size of your rig, your size, your physical abilities and limitations, your squeamishness level, your budget, and your location when nature calls. In this post I will share what works for me and what other folks have told me works for them. You will have to decide for yourself what works for you. You may not come to that decision without some trial and error.

One option is a portable toilet such as the Bestgoods 20L Portable Camping Toilet Travel Potty, the Thetford 92860 Porta Potti 135, the Hike Crew Advanced Portable Outdoor Camping and Travel Toilet, and the JAXPETY 5.3 Gallon 20L Flush Porta Potti. These toilets range in price from about $50 to $110 before taxes and shipping fees. I have no personal experience with the models I just mentioned, so I’m not recommending any of them. I did a Google search for “camp potty,” and those are some of the results.

I’ve never tried a camp potty for a number of reasons. They take up quite a bit of room, and can be pricey if purchased new. (For most of the time I lived full time in my van, even $50 was a major expenditure for me.) However, the portable toilets do look more comfortable than do-it-yourself options, and if the model has a storage tank for waste, it won’t have to be emptied each time it’s used. One person I encountered in a Facebook van group shared her experiences with a portable toilet she used in her van. She loved it. When the waste tank was full, she emptied it in the ladies room at the nearest rest area. I’m not sure what she did if she didn’t encounter any rest areas when she needed to dump the toilet’s tank. Personally, I don’t know if I’m confident enough to carry a waste tank from a portable toilet into a restroom at a Wal-Mart or truck stop.

Another option are disposable human waste bags. As Sarah Laskow explains in her article “These Magic Bags Turn Pee to Goo And Make Poop Portable,”

Combining the principles of kitty litter and plastic bag-based poop-scooping…these bags rely on trade-secret combinations of gelling agents, enzymes and deodorizers to sequester human waste into a manageable package.

The gelling agents almost instantly transform urine into goo…The enzymes break down solid waste, enough that the bags can be disposed of in regular old garbage cans.

A generic term for these items is WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bag. Two companies that manufacture bags that can handle solid and liquid waste are Cleanwaste and RESTOP. There are many more companies that sell disposable urine bags. A search for “disposable urine bags” on Amazon yielded over a dozen choices.

Several years ago, I got a free sample of a disposable urine bag. (I can’t remember how I got the sample or the company it was from.) The bag was fairly easy to use, but did require squatting. The gel in the bag trapped odors, so my van didn’t smell like urine. The used bag was easy to dispose of discreetly with the rest of my trash.

However, I find the cost of these bags prohibitive. At 75 cents to $1 (or more!) per bag for the disposable urine bags and around $4 each for the bags that can handle solid waste too, I’d be spending a lot of money to use these things. If I used one of these bags for every elimination function, I could easily spend $8 a day. I’ll do the math so you don’t have to. At $8 a day, that’s $56 a week, $224 a month and whopping $2,688 a year! Even if I managed to use public restrooms to pee all day and make one solid waste deposit and only used one urine disposal bag each night, I could still spend $300 a year on these things! In my opinion, it’s better to leave the WAG bags to people who really need them like backpackers and mountain climbers.

Most van dwellers use a 5 gallon bucket for solid waste deposits and some sort of bottle or jar for liquid waste. (Most people are going to tell you to keep solid and liquid waste separated. I’ll share my thoughts on that topic later.)

if you’re a person with a penis, you probably know how to urinate into a bottle. (If you don’t, you probably need to get advice from another person with a penis or check out this WikiHow article.) I can offer a few tips for anyone who’s going to urinate into a container. Make sure to close the camp tightly when done and don’t confuse the bottle you drink out of with the bottle you pee in. If you’re going to dispose of a bottle of urine, throw it in a trash can, not out of your vehicle’s window and on the side of the road.

Urinating into a container might be a new experience for people with female anatomy. If you already have a stand-to-pee device such as a Pstyle, GoGirl, Shewee, or Tinkle Belle, it might be helpful when peeing into a container. (If you have no idea what the aforementioned devices are or if you need some help choosing which one to buy, check out Christina Cauterucci‘s article “You Should Be Using a Stand-to-Pee Device.”) Some women I’ve talked to use a regular funnel from the kitchen or automotive department as a less expensive urination deice option. If you don’t have any sort of urination device, you’ve going to have to kneel or squat over your container. Use a container that will held plenty of liquid and will not leak. Unless you know you will always be able to empty the container immediately after you fill it, be sure it has a tight fitting lid. Make sure the container’s opening is wide enough to accommodate your urine stream.

I use this coffee container as my urine receptacle in my minivan. I found the container on top of the trash in the dumpster where I live in the winter. It was clean, with a trace of coffee dust inside.

I like to use a 37 ounce plastic coffee container as my urine receptacle. I’ve used smaller containers, and they’ve worked, but I like to have plenty of room in my receptacle in the event I have to pee several times in the night. One woman I talked to prefers to urinate into a Pringles can held up against her body. Another urinates into a large container, then uses her funnel to pour urine into empty individual serving water bottles which she finds easy to dispose of. A large yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese container may meet your needs. I’ve often seen round plastic canisters with wide mouths and screw on lids at Dollar Tree, or perhaps you’ll find your perfect urine receptacle in the recycling bin. Different containers and systems work for different bodies, so be willing to experiment.

Any container that’s reused to hold urine can develop an odor, especially if the urine sits in the container for hours. After dumping the liquid wasted from my container (away from camp if I’m boondocking or in the toilet if I’m in civilization), I rinse it with a bit of water and let it air dry with the lid off if possible. A bit of dish soap added to the water and swished around can help cut the odor too. If an odor does develop, add a little bleach or vinegar to the container, swish it around, and let it sit for a while.

As I said before, most vandwellers and other nomads with rigs lacking toilet facilities use 5 gallon buckets for solid waste disposal. Five gallon buckets are most popular because they are easiest and cheapest to acquire.I lucked out and was given a smaller 2 (or maybe it’s 3) gallon bucket. I like it because it takes up less space in my minivan. Depending on your physical capabilities to get up from a low sitting position, a small bucket may not be for you. Another option may be a large plastic kitty litter container with a lid that snaps on securely.

You probably don’t want to balance your butt on the naked rim of a bucket. I know I sure don’t! There are a couple of ways to remedy this uncomfortable situation.

I splurged and bought a special toilet seat/lid combo designed to fit on a bucket. (The number of gallons a bucket holds does not determine if this seat will work with your bucket. The diameter of the bucket’s opening is what determines if the seat will fit. ) The seat snaps securely onto the bucket so it doesn’t slide around when in use.The lid does not seal, so odor can still escape, but it dos snap closed so it won’t flop open when moved. The seat typically costs under $15. (My bucket came with a tightly sealing lid, which I kept. If the contents of my bucket are ever particularly stinky, I can seal in the odor with the original lid.)

My two gallon bucket with removable plastic seat and lid.

The do-it-yourself approach to making a bucket more comfortable to sit on is to fasten part of a pool noodle or similar pipe insulation sleeves around the rim of a bucket. To see how this is done, watch Eugene Valkovsky‘s video “How to Make Portable Toilet Bucket.”

Once you get your bucket outfitted for comfort, you’re ready to use it. Or are you? How will you prepare your bucket for the easiest disposal of waste? There area a few different methods.

The first thing you want to do is line your bucket with a plastic bag. You can use a disposable grocery store bag, but you want to be absolutely sure it has no holes in the bottom. Also, whether you’re using a plastic grocery store bag or a trash bag, you want the bag to be big enough to bring the open end of it over the rim of the bucket and fold it down against the outside of the bucket. This will (hopefully) keep the bag from falling down into the bucket when you make your first poop deposit. I find that the plastic seat snapping over the bucket’s opening does a good job holding the bag in place.

Some people defecate right into the plastic bag, deposit their used toilet paper in there, tie off the bag, and leave it all in the bucket until it can be thrown away. Some people take an extra step and add something absorbent (like kitty litter) to the bag before using it. The kitty litter crowd tends to add an initial layer of litter to the bottom of the bag before use. After each poop deposit, another layer of kitty litter (and possibly a sprinkle of baking soda to help control odors) is added. I’ve never tried this method, but it seems to me by the time the bag is full (or even half full) it’s going to be heavy and stinky. However, as I’ve said before folks have to decide for themselves what works best for them.

As I mentioned, many people say solid and liquid wasted must be kept separate. I don’t know if this is a difference between male and female bodies or just a unique quirk of mine, but (TMI coming right up!) I just can’t seem to produce solid waste without producing liquid waste too. I just can’t seem to poop without peeing. If I have to poop and try to pee first, well, let’s just say that doesn’t work either.

What I’ve found works for me (on the suggestion of a woman who shared at an RTR women’s meeting I attended) are puppy training pads. These are the pads you get when you’re house training a puppy. I buy them at WalMart for about 20 cents each (before tax). After I put a plastic bag in my bucket, I line it with a puppy pad. The pads are supposed to hold 2cups of liquid. The pad absorbs any liquid I deposit and offers a tiny bit of protection if the plastic bag has a hole in it or if it tears.

After I finish making my deposit, I drop my used toilet paper in to the bag, squeeze as mush air as possible out of the bag, and tie it off securely. I try to set up bag and puppy training pad combo (or several combos if I’m feeling particularly efficient) in advance so when nature calls, I don’t have to waste time setting up my supplies. I drop the securely tied used plastic bags back into the bucket until I can dispose of them. (I take them out before I use the toilet bucket again.)

A word of warning: Even when it’s entirely empty, a bucket that’s held feces is going to smell pretty bad. Turns out the smell of feces cannot be contained by a regular plastic bag, and the plastic bucket soaks up the scent. Airing out the bucket when you can (like when you’re boondocking) helps, as does baking soda, vinegar, and bleach (but not all together!), but the bucket will probably never be the same.

I understand that human waste can be difficult to discuss and difficult to deal with. I hope this information about the systems I and others use while van (or car, truck, minivan, or SUV) dwelling helps you decide how to deal with your own waste. For folks who have already spent time on the road in a rig without a built in restroom, how do you deal with your waste? Feel free to share your tips and suggestions in the comments.

I took the photos not credited to someone else.

11 Responses »

  1. No problem over here with pee & poop in several languages. ie: potty training. The question is, do you clap and shriek with delight every time you eliminate in a potty? love to all, Auntie M

    • Oh, you have been in the potty trenches! It’s been a long time since I clapped and shrieked upon using the potty, but I might start doing that again. Sounds like a delightful way to make my day happier.

      Thanks for your comments. I always enjoy them. Love you!

  2. I use kitty litter in the poop bag, push out all of the air, tie it off with an overhand knot and the put it in another 5 gallon bucket that has a Gamma Seal lid.
    This completely contains the odor so there is zero smell in my van for the several days to a week until I go to the local dump or transfer station. For that trip I put all the little bundles into a trash compactor bag (super thick and kitchen bag sized) so the trip to the dump isn’t too unpleasant and I don’t have to handle the whole process in front of other people.
    I just fling in my bag of devil’s donuts and go!
    The storage bucket is very smelly when opened but I do this at the back of my van with the door open, conditions permitting. If I must do it inside, I open the nearest window and tell my dog she’s awfully stinky. She never defends herself.

    • Thanks for sharing your method with us, Tracy. I think it’s helpful to know how several different people handle the situation differently.

      So do you travel in your van with two 5 gallon buckets? Where do you keep them?

  3. Pingback: Tips for the Road Trip or Nomad Newbie | Rubber Tramp Artist

  4. Thanks for a well written overview over different options. During the years I have tried some of them. But after some weeks I always turn back to the basic method of digging a hole and squatting over it. Luckily I mostly travel in areas where this is easy to accomplish. Walk away from the parking area, and water sources, behind some dense bushes, dig the hole, pull shorts down, squat and let go. When the hole is covered, there is no need for further waste treatment. The only concern may be the lack of privacy. But taking some care, even a mature woman feel it safe to squat with a bare bum without a door to lock.

    • Thanks for telling us your method, Mathilda. Not much privacy in the Southwest (where I mostly travel) with the lack of the right kind of plants to hide behind, but I’m glad it works for you where you are.

  5. I have really thought about going on a cross country lark, but what stops me from renting any kind of rig with a toilet is not just cost, it’s my driving ability. I am quite confortable driving my RAV, but never tried hauling a rig or even small trailer, let alone a regular RV or camper van–a SMALL van would be a great option, but then it might not have a toilet. I’d want some kind of toilet and/or AC unit and electrical capability over a stove or shower, not just because of lack of experience driving such things, but because I am comfortable cooking outdoors, whether on our camp stove, or when we’re able to have electrical and use a small skillet, rice cooker, or hot pot. I’ve even cooked over open fires either with tin toil or with a metal frame and pots. Same with cleaning up without a shower, I don’t need it, but as I get older I usually need to bathroom several times a night! At least I need to pee several times. So I am really glad to hear about small portable toilets with removable dump tanks and would probably go with that option. My other issue would be washing dishes, and washing up. i have never had an issue with no showers, or no running toilets but I have preferred campgrounds with at least pit toilets and a spigot at the campsite and dumpsters. So your advice is extremely helpful. Most campground except KOAs and your rare county campgrounds with pit toilets are usually the only ones open year round, or at least the bathrooms in others get locked, so I find this info extremely helpful. We’ve dry camped a couple of times and dug holes and used a drink dispenser for washing hands and brushing teeth, but that digging hole thing can’t be done everywhere and is not a nice thing to do if you camp in an undeveloped area with a lot of brush, high grass or other such foliage (I’m always expecting to get bit in the butt by some spider or snake or finding a bear or cougar or coyote right behind in the foliage and really CAN’T wait all night for morning!). I never even knew those portable toilets EXISTED! Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I did a quick Google search and found this:

      The Smallest RVs With Shower and Toilet We Could Find

      Airstream Interstate 19. Length: 19′ 5″ …
      Winnebago Revel. “Courtesy of Winnebago Industries, Inc. …
      Coachmen Nova. Length: 20′ 11″ …
      Pleasure Way Plateau TS. Length: 22′ 9″ …
      Thor Coach Gemini. Length: 23′ 6″ …
      Leisure Travel Wonder. Length: 24′ 9″

      Maybe you could rent one of those if they are actually motohomes and not pull-behind trailers. (I didn’t search each one to find out any details.) This list doesn’t mention Roadtrek vans, but a travel van like that might work too. I was going to suggest you rent a Juicy van, but it looks like that company is no longer operating in the USA.

      So glad you found the info about the portable camping toilets helpful. I hope you can get one and that it gives you the freedom to get out on the road and have some traveling fun.

I'd love to know what you think. Please leave a comment.