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Off-The-Grid Bathroom Solutions

Waste disposal when living outside of the mainstream can be easy with the proper preparation. There are several sanitary and practical approaches to human waste management off the grid. It becomes second nature it is once set up and maintained.

Toilet paper wasn’t commonly available in the U.S. until the late 1800s.  Splinter-free toilet paper didn’t come out until the 1940s. Yes, splinter free—the early process of production often left tiny pieces of wood. So think about what people over thousands of years did without modern toilets and splinter-free toilet paper.

Makeshift Toilets

A five-gallon bucket with a heavy-duty bag in it will work in a pinch. Double or triple-line the bags, and replace a new bag each time it gets used about three to five times; also, use an unopened bag over the top and under the lid to seal in the smells until you are ready to use the toilet each time.  Toilet seat tops exist and aren’t particularly expensive, which may make an excellent second “bathroom” or one for indoor usage. Remember to use caution when burying the contents of the bags/bags.

The Outhouse

The most common plan is to build an old-fashioned outhouse. With a little planning, you don’t have to worry about wild animals or nesting birds. There are a few considerations to decide before grabbing a shovel and digging.

  • Consider that you will be visiting this place day and night, in good weather and bad. It shouldn’t be so close to the sleeping quarters as to allow odors to permeate the cabin, but not so far away that you might get lost on a dark night. Down wind is probably a good choice.
  • After a rain, bacteria can travel underground. Your privy needs to be at least 150 feet away from any water source or well with no connecting water potential (i.e. flooding, etc.).
  • The hole will need to be six to eight feet deep. There is no absolute, but the shallower it is, the faster and more often it will need to be moved and the hole remade. If possible, select a location without a lot of rock.
  • Consider choice of materials. What creates persistent odor is the excrement saturating wood over time. Any other available material that can be used may be able to be cleaned better and smell less and is generally preferable. If possible pour a concrete floor around the hole or use block, shale, or other stone. For the seat, there’s no reason not to use plastic (if available) or metal sheeting. If not, try to line a wooden seat with something that can be scrubbed.
  • An outhouse needs fresh air, so try not to build a tightly closed box.
  • Some light source will be necessary. Plan for a skylight or some permanent battery-operated lamp.
  • Keep out of the direct sun unless you find that odor appealing.

A traditional outhouse is about four feet square and seven feet tall. An “A”-frame construction is easy and visually appealing. In early American times, outhouses often boasted a “two-seater.” This wasn’t because they liked company, but because diarrhea was not uncommon. If the entire family all got sick…. well, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

When digging the hole, be sure to protect the sides from caving in, and protect yourself while digging. Old boards or tree branches lined around the side will work. If using boards, leave space between them for liquids to escape.

The cleaner you can keep the area, the fewer odors will stick around. Insects are also a problem at times. If you can make a cover for the seats, this will help. Spreading lime around the seats and down the hole will also cut the smell. Nobody plans to spend any longer than they have to here, but it doesn’t have to be awful. Keep fresh pine branches hung on the wall and on the floor, or use any other fragrant plant that grows around.

After the hole is filled enough that it’s time to move, fill in the remaining space with dirt to near the top. If you have used cement for the floor, fill in the space with cement to cover. If not, try to place a large stone or other obvious hard cover to prevent an accidental find later on when someone’s trying to start to dig up a new garden. It will also prevent digging by your animal neighbors or dog.

Composting Outhouse

An alternative to the “ditch” approach is to collect the waste materials and dump them into a crate built especially for this purpose. Mix with mulch and sawdust, leftover food remains, and anything else organic you want to recycle. In a short time, you will have the most amazing fertilizer compost imaginable. (Although for health concerns, you should not use this to fertilize anything humans will eat. Stick to using it on crops reserved for animal consumption.)

Create holes in the bottom of the container so that liquid flows through ensuring proper breakdown. It is possible to create a pool to collect this run off and make a path or pipe way directly to the garden area. This liquid is rich in nutrients. Otherwise it is lost to ground absorption. This container can be and should be some distance away from the general living vicinity.


For those of you not caught off-guard by the water company shutdown or the emergency situation or who plan on using a real toilet while living off the grid, consider a composting toilet setup, which doesn’t require much maintenance, and while expensive, could certainly make a reasonable argument for one of the luxuries to consider in such a situation.

Composting toilets can run anywhere from $750 to $4500, depending on how far you want to go, but you can conceivably put a good system in place for under $2000 with another $2000 worth of maintenance and paper goods. This would keep you using a regular toilet for at least four years for a family of four, assuming you have the storage space.

Keeping Clean

So what did people use before toilet paper? There are surprisingly a lot of different techniques. Even if you are prepared with cartons of the rolled stuff, chances are you will run out sometime. And storage for all that is cumbersome. It is better to have an idea of what to do than have to figure it out at the last minute, which could be too late. It may not be necessary or desirable to use rolled disposable paper anyway, as it will certainly fill up your outhouse hole a lot faster.

  • The ancient Greeks weren’t very inventive in this area. They used stones and pieces of hardened clay.
  • The ancient Romans used sea sponges soaked in a pail of salt water.
  • Ancient Americans used deer hide or animal pelts (hopefully not while they were still alive).
  • Ancient Middle Easterners used their left hand. It is still considered “unclean” to use the left hand socially in that culture. For nail biters, it’s likely this isn’t an option.
  • Early American pioneers used paper from newspapers or catalogues.  A reported favorite was the “Rears and Sorebutt” catalogue (please forgive the cheap Sears and Roebuck joke). Corncobs were also used. Yes, corncobs.

Perhaps with a little thought a few better ideas could be used.

  • Tearing strips from old clothing with a bucket of soapy water changed frequently would work (if temperature are above freezing and there are adequate water sources and disposal areas).
  • The yellow pages. Assuming you won’t be calling anyone, collect as many yellow page phone books as you can take. While you’re sitting, tear a page out and start crumpling it. By the time you’re done, the paper’s become soft and absorbent. Newspaper leaves black marks, so try to avoid it.
  • A makeshift bidet. Use a squirt bottle filled with water. Pat dry with a washable towel, and you’ll be as clean and fresh as, well, a freshly washed behind.
  • If you really want to rough it, moss grows in many places. Harvest it and cut into usable sized pieces. When you run out, go get some more.
  • Most bushes and leaves are just too abrasive and not user friendly. There is one, however, that works quite well. Green sagebrush has an oily quality. If stored in an airtight container, it softens up well, and the pleasant odor of sage is a plus.

There are many alternatives to conventional toilet paper. Once you figure out what works for you, it simply comes down to keeping track of your stock and resupplying. If your plan is to stockpile and store conventional toilet paper, determine how much you expect to use and double that amount.  Look for coupons often and try for two-for-one deals. Don’t be afraid to spend on the good stuff and then separate the multi-ply; or similarly, you can buy cheap, as you will likely be happy with a single ply in a survival or extended off-the-grid scenario.

In the upcoming part two of this article, look for other restroom considerations and hygiene.

©2011 Off the Grid News

© Copyright Off The Grid News


  1. We are fortunate to have a cesspool and plenty of water, but, in the event we are forced to flee and live elsewhere or the cesspool becomes unusable, this is a great article to have printed out to offer different solutions.

  2. You can also use the bottom 1/3 of a 55 gallon drum in lieu of building a privy. When full, just light it and let it burn. Too much rock in my area to try and dig an outhouse in.

    • Because of the amount and availabilty of fuel, not to mention the smoke and smell, burning is not a good long term solution. You do not just “let it burn” but has to be stirred.

      • Reminds me of Nam but that is what we had the new meat do. stir the poo and did they hate us for it LOL.. Thanks for the laugh and memories…

      • How Can I build a safe sewer system on my exclusive Island without polluting the water? Can some body please tell me….. Ps: The land is flat…

  3. Iron Butterfly is right. The Army, and probably other services, used this method in Viet Nam in the early days, before infrastructure was built up. We used diesel fuel to burn the stuff, which gives off much smoke and requires some stirring to burn well. It’s not a fun job, but does the trick.

    • There is no infrastructure in the field,trust me on that. There was on the bases but not fire-bases. We buried it sometimes ,but usually burned it off,yup, w/ diesel fuel…Fun times…

  4. Little thought of solution.

    Use your toilet as a collector then use a solar collector to pasturize it (kill the bacteria). Bag it! Bake it!

    It then can be used safely in the garden or compost pile.

    This link, BEYOND THE PIPES, has a lot of important informtion. I think you will find it interesting and its very low tech.

  5. “Audacity of Hope” would make good toilet paper as well as “It Takes A Village”

  6. Found a used port o let with a few repairs needed, for cheap. Made the repairs and cut out the tank from under it with a saw. Dug hole and shazam! I move it with a two wheel hand truck as needed! I love it! No more tracking dirt inside when gardening! Made myself an overhead shelf from an old piece of wire rack! Holds quite a stash of the old 2 ply! Made a lovely magazine rack from an old military ammo can ! One of the most pleasing and useful projects I have ever done! Life is still good!

  7. Can one have an outhouse wherever? Or do you have to have the blessings of the town/township? Just wondering.

  8. Outhouses are not acceptable in most counties now. Some people in remote areas can get by under the radar, so to speak. On the other hand, a few commercial ‘composting’ toilets are approved by many counties that prohibit outhouses. They are also referred to as ‘pit’ toilets, but codes vary on what is and what is not accepted (passes code). The problem with these commercial ones is their cost: usually over $2K. One example is the Envirolet:
    and Enviro-loo:

    We will be living off grid in the desert and plan to utilize a composting toilet in our single bathroom (in addition to an outhouse). Am searching for plans to construct one that incorporates the principles of the more expensive commercial ones.

  9. Unfortunately in Michigan they are illegal. If you have an exsisting outhouse, it is grandfathered for the time being. However, if you upgrade or remodel or remove it completely and plan to rebuild, it is forbidden.
    Back in the mid 1950’s my Grandparents built a cabin in the woods with an outhouse and by the later part of the 60’s they were forced to put a bathroom inside the cabin or officals were going to condem the property and force them to move. In the Upper Peninsula you will occasionally find one still in use until someone from zoning catches up with you. I was told by an officer that even the act of “going in the woods” in Michigan will get you an indecent exposure ticket if caught.

  10. I’ve had great success using a five gallon bucket with a hinged lid..starts with some sawdust at the bottom of the bucket and keeping it covered with sawdust kills enough odors that you can place these anywhere you might need ’em. I get almost no runoff after a year of piling up the waste on a suitable area..tho I may have to spread it to dry better, as I live in a very wet highland rain forest.(hardwood trees and ferns) can place these boxes or buckets anywhere…near a sicknbed, in a back entry if weather is a problem..sawdust is better than lime which turns to cement in a lava hole. You can look it up online..I just googled sawdust toilet and it came right up!! costs less then $100…

    • I have been reading up on this, as I will be buying some land in the US mainland in the next year or two. I have to say I am leaning toward the dry toilet method, composting the humanure as they call it. What I have found is, there is a lot more work involved than simply “tossing some sawdust” on top. The solid waste needs to be properly incorporated into a composting area that will keep it at an optimal temperature, and it has to stay that way for quite a long time.
      So if any of you are considering this method, I strongly urge you to research it thoroughly. The compost that results, if done properly, can be used in soil used for food.
      Also, if there are enough males in the family, a separate bucket for urine is recommended, as it can be immediately used in gardens by diluting with water, or if wood chips or sawdust is added, can also be immediately used on garden soil.

  11. Check out “The Lovable Loo.” There are free plans online to build something similar. The idea is to compost the waste, so the cost of a compost bin has to be figured in. Composting is not the same as an outhouse and shouldn’t have the same restrictions.

  12. We have a cabin in the mountains of Colorado that’s over 100 years old, and still has an outhouse. We have indoor plumbing now, but we used it when I was a child. My dad had a wooden box that just fit in the bottom of the outhouse (he had a door that flipped up in the back for easy removal). He would put down newspaper at the bottom, and periodically he would remove the box and bury the contents somewhere out in the woods. Seems like that makes more sense than digging pits and having to move your whole outhouse… Plus when you’re on bedrock, that’s impossible.
    Another useful tip – to keep down on the smell, we used wood ashes to cover any solid waste. Once my dad got rid of the cast iron stove in lieu of a propane heater (makes me sick to think of it!!!), we switched to using lime.

  13. All of rural Asia uses the hand-water-soap technique. Even in more modern facilities in Bangkok or Delhi you will find a hose with a spray fitting as we see in kitchen sinks in the West. Just spray, hand-wipe, rinse and wash with soap, then rinse again and towel dry. Kissing sweet!

    • All of rural Asia? And just where do you think “Asia” is? I lived and worked five years in mainland China, and I can assure you nobody is using their hands and water. And yes, I mean in the country. Everywhere are the ubiquitous squat toilets, usually a pale of water nearby, and a ladle. toilet paper? Bring it yourself, as even in the city in a shopping mall, the public toilets, which are nicer, but usually still squat style, have no paper. Every country Chinese you see going into a public toilet in rural areas will have a newspaper under their arm, wonder why?

  14. A cat tail slough is the best option because the cat tails use the excrement as fertiliser and there is hardly any smell at all. even for years and years . The slough should not run into any lake or if it does it should have to go through several cat tail swamps first. This is the best solution and could even be made to be a situation like that. The slough should be big enough that it can absorb years and years of deposit.

  15. Anyone considering living off the grid should consider the BoonJon and the BoonJon system. It is a composting or moldering toilet that you can use inside your house that emits no odor. It allows you to easily and cleanly removt the waste outside to a composting tower where it uses black soldier flies and earthworms to reduce the waste in conjunction with the composting process, and it allows you to put your waste to good use, particularly in a survival situation. Very inexpensive and simple but very effective.

  16. Hey There. I discovered your blog using msn. This is
    a very well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your helpful information.
    Thank you for the post. I will definitely return.

  17. I have a sewer system, but no running water. I would like to figure out how to use a flush toilet with a gravity fed 55 gal water tank. How does the toilet tank get refilled, besides refilling it by hand each time?

  18. I use a recycled, 5-gal., industrial pale and a recycled toilet seat. I bored screws under the seat so that it will not shift or wobble on top of the pale. Then I put RV toilet treatment inside the pale. Now, ready to use!

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