Van Life: Where to Go to the Bathroom

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED May 19, 2021

Van Life: Where to Go to the Bathroom
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It’s no secret that many people don’t like using public toilets, especially if they need to use them to poop.

We’ve all been desperate to go to a bathroom until we’ve gone into those gas station toilets that look like they belong to some horror movie, upon which most of us would decide that we could actually hold it in until we got home.

The problem is, this is one luxury that you can’t afford when you spend most of your time in a camper van on the road. Today we will cover the best van life toilets out there and how to properly dispose of waste.

Van Lifers

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 for “dropping the kids off at the pool.”

When you’re on the road, you can’t always be parked adjacent to a public toilet, and you can’t even be sure that you’ll be able to reach a restroom by the time you decide to stop for the night.

You might be able to get away with relieving yourself in nature as long as you clean up after yourself and leave no trace of what you’ve done at the crime scene, but that’s not always possible.

Sometimes, you’re likely to need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night while you’re camping in a city, at which point the DIY nature toilet isn’t an option.

This means that you’ll need to figure out the van life toilets situation before you hit the road.

Now, if you’ve already done a bit of van conversion and have added a toilet to your van build in anticipation of this issue, then you’re pretty much all set.

Additionally, if you have a fully equipped mobile home, then 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 pre-installed, you’ll need to make some modifications.

Waste Disposal

Before we get into the campervan toilet options that you have at your disposal, we should probably mention the biggest issue you’ll have with almost every type of toilet that you can put into your van - 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’re going to have to do it by hand.

That was probably a bad choice of words since all we mean is that you’ll have to take the removable waste tank that a lot of these toilets have and simply dispose of the waste.

This can be done at any standard public bathroom or even at a chemical toilet that you might find at the side of the road.

If the portable toilet that you’ve gone for uses waste bags instead of a holding tank, then you won’t be able to use public bathrooms to flush the evidence, but you can still get rid of them at a designated dumping station.

Most of these dumping stations will be located near camping grounds or close to the occasional gas station.

The best option for locating these places is to simply use your phone to search out the closest waste disposal unit.

We should also mention the unfortunate truth that a lot of people simply get rid of their waste by dumping it in a trash can or by the side of the road.

We can’t stop you from doing this, but it’s unsanitary, gross, and very illegal, so we would strongly advise against this option.

Best Portable Toilet Options

As you might have assumed, you can’t just go to Home Depot and get the standard toilet with the water tank in the back.

You don’t have a water source in your van for starters, and the less we say about the lack of plumbing, the better.

However, there are still plenty of options at your disposal when it comes to van life toilets.

We’ll do our best to list off all of the different portable camping toilet options that you have at your disposal, and we’ll also list off some choices that we believe are worth your consideration.

Any Water Bottle

Van life - bottle toilet

The old road trip trick still works even if you’re a van lifer and you need to use the facilities, but there’s no place where you can go to relieve yourself.

Now, there are two glaring issues with this method.

Number one, this is only suitable for a code yellow and can’t really be used for a code brown.

Number two, regardless of how good your aim is, most women (and some men for that matter) will have difficulty not making a mess, which is not a pleasant idea since you intend to use this trick in the same cramped van space where you live.

We can’t do anything about the first issue, but there are a few solutions for the second problem.

One option is to simply buy a biodegradable bottle with a larger cap for a bit of added leeway on your aim.

Another, and much simpler option, is to get yourself a portable toilet urinal for men and women.

The wider bottle can be any drink or water bottle, and it can easily be drained in a public toilet and disposed of in the trash can.

This makes it a cheap option that doesn’t require cleaning and is even eco-friendly (as long as you get biodegradable bottles).

On the other hand, portable urinals are much easier to use and can easily be emptied in any type of toilet that you can find in a gas station restroom.

It’s obviously more expensive than a standard bottle, and it’ll require cleaning with something like Mrs. Meyer's Cleaner Spray, but the extra effort is well worth it, in our opinion.

Bucket Toilet

Van life bucket toilet

The bucket toilet is exactly what it sounds like - a bucket with a toilet seat at the top.

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

Thanks to the portability of this type of travel toilet and the simple pop-up and use nature of it, you can choose to go in the back of your vehicle, or you can get something like the Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Tent and spare yourself from having to air out your van.

There is also a different variation on this toilet that’s a toilet seat that’s placed on top of a 4-legged plastic bag holder, like the Stansport Foldable Toilet.

The bucket toilet can easily be emptied out in any standard toilet, but the plastic will need to be properly disposed of in a waste dump, which is a bit more of a hassle.

However, the folding toilet only needs a new plastic bag to be placed at the bottom before you can use it again, while the bucket toilet will need to be manually cleaned.

Both types of toilets are convenient in their own way, and they’re both easy and quick to set up, so whichever you choose is up to you.

Porta-potty

Van life porta potty

Items like the Thetford Porta Potti are probably the best choice when it comes to easy-to-use and easy-to-clean portable toilets.

A porta potty is different from a van toilet by the fact that it doesn’t need to be installed into the van itself and can be placed virtually anywhere, making it much more portable.

There is also a distinction between cassette toilets and porta-potties, but the differences are so minute that going into them would just needlessly complicate things.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that both a porta-potty and a cassette toilet are divided into two sections - the upper half where the seat is placed 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, which is simply a term for when excrement is mixed with the chemicals in the tank after the toilet is flushed.

These types of 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 items that are called tank deodorizers, and they can come in liquid form, like the Aqua-KEM Deodorizer, or as drop-ins, like the Porta-Pak Deodorizer.

Their purpose is to neutralize the smell and process the waste so that you’ll be dealing with liquids rather than solid waste when the time comes to dispose of it.

After the tank has been filled up, all you have to do is use the toilet and simply press the hand pump to flush the remains into the holding tank.

To clean it out, you simply throw the leaver or switch that closes off the waste tank, remove the bottom section, and take it into any bathroom or waste dump.

You release the remains into the toilet, and then you fill the tank back up with fresh water and chemicals and rerelease it to clean it out more thoroughly.

If you don’t like Thetford, you can also give the Camco or the Dometic 301097606 toilets a try and see if they fit your preferences more.

Composting Toilet

Van life toilets - composting toilet

Composting toilets can be separated into 3 parts - the toilet seat section, the liquid container, and the compost container.

The toilet seat will have a handle somewhere along the side so that you can switch between the liquid and the compost container, depending on what you need to use the toilet for at that moment.

It will also have a ventilation hole where it’s recommended that you connect a hose that goes to the outside of your van; otherwise, the smells will be released into the van directly.

The liquid container is located at the front and can easily be removed and cleaned as often as possible.

The compost, or the poop container, will need to be prepared ahead of time and removed much less frequently.

You prep the container by filling it about halfway with peat moss and adding water to the point where it starts to resemble garden soil.

On the side of the container is a handle that turns the agitator inside. The agitator is meant to break up the poop into the peat and make the toilet reusable.

After you set the toilet to the compost tank, you simply get on with your business, close off the poop container, and give the handle a few turns.

The pee container can be emptied 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 say that the compost container doesn’t need to be emptied until the handle starts to become difficult to turn or you’ve used it around 60 or 80 times.

You can empty the container out as frequently as possible, and you won’t even need to clean it out since the bacteria isn’t considered to be harmful and is useful for composting purposes.

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

A Few Last Words

All of the van life toilet options that you have at your disposal are pretty useful in their own way, but they all have strengths and weaknesses.

The water bottles or the portable urinals are incredibly cheap and simple to use, but they’re only useful for 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 out, but they need to be cleaned immediately after use, or the inside of your van will smell worse than a kitty litter tray for weeks.

The porta-potties are small, have their own flushing feature, and can be emptied out at any public toilet, but you’ll need to spend a bit of money on the necessary cleaning chemicals.

The composting toilets don’t require any water, they produce virtually no unpleasant smells, the front section can easily be removed and cleaned, and the compost section can be used for weeks without the need for cleaning.

However, you’ll need to reserve a spot in your van where they can be bolted down so that they don’t move around, an exhaust port will need to be created for the vent, and they’re without a doubt the most expensive toilets on our list.

The 4 Best Portable Toilet Options: 

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