Van Life Toilets: Basic Tips & The Best Portable Options

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED May 19, 2021

Van Life: Where to Go to the Bathroom
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While the idea of traversing the globe by van may sound like an incredible lifestyle (and it is), the truth of the matter is not having access to a basic toilet for extended periods gets frustrating pretty quickly. 

I spent nearly four years living and traveling out of my 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred) before saving enough money for my DIY conversion van. So I can tell you from personal experience that you need to figure out the toilet situation before hitting the road as a full-time van lifer.

Otherwise, your living quarters will start to smell more like a gas station bathroom than a home. And this isn't ideal when van life toilets are in the same place you eat, sleep, and work.

Waste Disposal Tips & The Best Portable Van Life Toilets

Van parked in a field and little kids riding bikes

If you're like most people, then you'll need to use the bathroom at least half a dozen times a day, and at least one of those is going to be "dropping the kids off at the pool."

When traveling out of your van, you won't be able to rely on public restrooms all the time. Whether you're living off-grid, need to go number two in the middle of the night, or are simply tired of stinky public toilets with broken locks, van life toilets provide a reliable long-term solution.

Now, if you've already done a bit of van conversion and added a toilet to your van in anticipation of this issue, then you're pretty much all set. Just remember, you still need to know what to do when the tank is full, so be sure to read the waste disposal section in its entirety. 

Additionally, if you have a fully-equipped mobile home, you probably already have a functional off-grid toilet, and there's no need for any campervan conversion at all.

However, because standard vehicles like the sprinter vans and the VW campervans don't come with a regular toilet or water tank pre-installed, you'll need to make some modifications based on my suggestions for the best portable van life toilets.

You don't have a water source in your van, and the less I say about the lack of plumbing, the better. However, there are still plenty of affordable options for comfortable van life toilets, and they're pretty reasonable too. Here's a quick outline of the best portable toilets for van living:

  1. Portable Toilet Urinal
  2. Bucket Toilet
  3. Porta-Potty
  4. Composting Toilet 

If you haven't started your nomadic journey, take a moment to go back and read our beginner's guide to van life or our article on van life costs to understand the basics of this alternative lifestyle. After that, you'll have a solid frame of reference to grasp the advantages of the van life toilets and waste disposal methods outlined below. 

OptOutLiving has tons of other insightful travel blogs packed full of hacks, tips, and detailed guides about alternative lifestyles, including digital nomads, tiny homes, living off-grid, in addition to an entire van life category fully dedicated to experiencing the ultimate van dwelling lifestyle.

Waste Disposal Tips for Van Life Toilets

Before getting into the best campervan toilet options at your disposal, I should probably mention the most significant issue you'll have with most van life toilets - getting rid of the remains.

Unfortunately, standard vans and conversion vans don't have a dedicated RV dump like the standard RV toilets at many campsites, which means you'll need to do it manually.

Just remove the holding tank and dispose of the waste, which you may be able to do at any public bathroom, functional porta-potty, or roadside chemical toilet.

Some portable van life toilets require waste bags rather than holding tanks. In this, you can't use public bathrooms to flush the evidence. Instead, you'll need to get rid of them at a designated dumping station.

Most of these dumping stations are around camping grounds or the occasional gas station. The best option for finding nearby waste disposal units is to conduct a basic Google search on your phone or tablet. 

I should also mention the unfortunate truth that many people dispose of waste in a trash can or the side of the road. While nobody can't stop you from doing this, it's unsanitary, disgusting, and very illegal, so I strongly advise against this option.

Best Portable Options for Van Life Toilets

As you might have assumed, installing van life toilets is not as straightforward as buying one from Home Depot. 

I'll do my best to list all the types of portable camping toilets I used in the past and include several models I believe are worth consideration.

Large-cap container or unisex portable toilet urinal

Van life - bottle toilet

Going to the bathroom in a container (like a water bottle) is one of the most common ways to relieve yourself on the open road. 

Now, there are two glaring issues with this method.

First, water bottles are only suitable for a code yellow and don't help if you have a code brown. 

Second, regardless of how good your aim is, most women (and some men for that matter) will have difficulty not making a mess. If you intend to use this trick in your van, proceed with caution. 

I can't do anything about the first issue, but I have a few solutions for the second problem.

One option is to buy a biodegradable bottle with a larger cap to compensate for poor accuracy. Another straightforward option for van life toilets is to purchase a portable toilet urinal (unisex).

The container can be anything with a broad cap. Just be sure to drain the waste in a public toilet, rinse out the bottle, and dispose of it in the proper bin if it's not reusable. The water bottle method is cheap, convenient, and even eco-friendly (as long as you get biodegradable bottles).

On the other hand, portable urinals are much easier to use. You can empty them in any public toilet such as gas stations and rest stops. It's more expensive than a standard bottle, and it'll require cleaning, but it's well worth it. I suggest something like Mrs. Meyer's Cleaner Spray. This item is effective, cheap, and lasts several weeks to months.

Bucket Toilet

Van life bucket toilet

The bucket toilet is just as the name implies - a bucket with a toilet seat at the top.

Due to the simplicity of design, you can choose between the Stansport Portable Camp Toilet or any 5-gallon bucket and affix a Luggable Loo toilet seat on the top.

Thanks to the portability of bucket toilets and their pop-up functionality, you can comfortably do your business in the back of your vehicle. The Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Tent also eliminates terrible odors in your small space. 

If none of those look good, check out the Stansport Foldable Toilet - a variation of the above models but with the toilet seat on top of a 4-legged plastic bag holder.

Bucket designs make for excellent van life toilets because you may empty the waste in any standard toilet as long as you properly dispose of the plastic. But to be honest, disposing of the plastic bag the right way is a bit of a hassle for me, which is why I prefer more permanently-placed van life toilets with full-sized tanks.

However, bucket and folding toilets are on this list because they are viable options for van life toilets. All you need to do is change the plastic bag on a folding model and clean out the bucket with some Eco-me Natural after each use. 

Both types of toilets are convenient in their way and quick and easy to set up. It's your job to explore each one and decide what's best.


Van life porta potty

Products like the Thetford Porta Potti are probably the best choice for van life toilets that are portable, easy-to-use, and convenient to clean.

A porta potty is different from other van toilets in that it's portable (hence the name), meaning you can put it anywhere. There is also a distinction between cassette toilets and porta-potties, but the differences are so minute that going into them would needlessly complicate things.

For the sake of simplicity, divide a porta-potty and a cassette toilet into two sections - the upper half and the holding tank.

If you go on Amazon, you might be confused because the lower section is sometimes called a black tank - this is because it holds black water, a term for when excrement is mixed with the chemicals in the tank after the toilet is flushed.

These toilets work by priming both the upper and the lower sections by filling them with a mixture of water and chemicals.

The chemicals in question are called tank deodorizers, and they can come in liquid forms, like the Aqua-KEM Deodorizer, or as drop-ins, like the Porta-Pak Deodorizer.

The purpose of tank deodorizers is to neutralize the smell and process the waste so that you deal with liquids rather than solid waste during disposal.

After refilling the tank, press the hand pump to flush the remains into the holding tank. To clean it out, throw the lever or switch that closes off the waste tank, remove the bottom section, and take it into any bathroom or waste dump. You may release the contents into the toilet and refill the tank with fresh water and chemicals. Empty the tank and repeat the process for a more thorough clean. 

If you don't like any of the above van life toilets, you can also check out the Camco or the Dometic 301097606 models and see if they better meet your needs.

Composting Toilet

Van life toilets - composting toilet

Composting toilets consist of the toilet seat section, the liquid container, and the compost container.

The toilet seat will have a handle somewhere along the side so you can switch between the liquid and the compost container, depending on your momentary needs.

Van life toilets of this variety also have a ventilation hole. It's essential to set up your ventilation correctly and direct the fumes outside your tiny home instead of directly inside the van dwelling. 

The liquid container is at the front. I suggest you clean it often. The compost, or the poo container, will need to be prepared ahead of time and removed much less frequently.

You prep the container by filling it halfway with peat moss and adding water to the point where it resembles garden soil. On the side of the container is a handle that turns the agitator inside. The agitator twists the poop into the peat, allowing you to reuse the toilet many times.

After you set the toilet to the compost tank, get on with your business, close off the poop container, and give the handle a few turns. Feel free to empty the pee container in any bathroom, but the poop container will need to be dislodged from the toilet and emptied into a plastic bag.

Fortunately, the resulting waste is considered biodegradable, so it can be thrown into a standard container or trash can, as long as you tie it off properly, of course.

Most people don't empty the compost container until the handle becomes difficult to turn or you've used it around 60 or 80 times. If you regularly unload the container, you won't need to clean it as often since the bacteria aren't considered harmful, not to mention helpful in composting purposes.

The most well-reputed toilet in this category will likely be the Nature's Head composting toilet.

Final thoughts about van life toilets

All van life toilets on this list are pretty valuable in their way, each with its a set of strengths and weaknesses. 

The large-cap containers and portable urinals are incredibly cheap and simple to use. Still, they're only helpful when peeing and are more of a temporary fix rather than a permanent solution.

The bucket toilets are portable and don't require much effort to empty, but they need to be cleaned immediately after use, or the inside of your van will smell worse than a kitty litter tray. 

Porta-potties are small, have a flushing feature, and you can conveniently empty the waste in a public toilet. Just make sure to budget for the necessary cleaning chemicals.

Composting toilets are excellent van life toilets because they don't require any water and produce virtually no unpleasant smells. The front section is removable for cleaning, while the compost section requires very little maintenance. 

However, you'll need to reserve a spot in your van to bolt them down so that they don't move around. You'll also want to install an exhaust port, and remember these are the most expensive van life toilets on the list.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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