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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

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