We are creatures of habit and prefer privacy and cleanliness when using a restroom in public. The idea of using a pit toilet at a campground can lead to significant anxiety for many. Even for people that are okay using public restrooms, research shows they can experience anxiety when needing to confront unhygienic conditions. Other research shows that people often delay or avoid public restroom use based on its level of cleanliness. This can be unhealthy and uncomfortable.
But when we’re camping, or on a road trip, we often don’t have the luxury of searching for the perfect restroom. And often, a pit toilet is the only option available. Just the thought of needing to use a primitive restroom, like a pit toilet, can be enough to stress someone out.
Whenever I enter a campground restroom with a pit toilet, I never know what to expect. Some facilities are super clean, smell okay, and appear well-maintained. Others look like a bunch of raccoons decided to go on a nasty vacation!
One way to deal with the stress of having to use a pit toilet is to better understand how they work and why they are commonly found in campgrounds. It is also helpful to think through different scenarios that might happen so you’re prepared. Such as how to use a pit toilet with young children, or how to manage a foul smelling pit toilet!
In the post below I provide an overview of pit toilets and common questions you might have about using them to ease any stress you might have.
What is a pit toilet
Pit toilet vs. vault toilet? They’re the same thing. A pit toilet is a type of outdoor toilet commonly found in campgrounds and other recreational areas. They are usually made of a concrete or metal structure that houses a large pit, which serves as a holding tank for human waste.
How do pit toilets work? Waste from the toilet is deposited into the pit, where it is stored until it can be properly disposed of.
The pit is usually lined with a material such as concrete or plastic to prevent contamination of the surrounding soil and water sources. While nearly all pit toilets are regularly serviced to remove waste, if you’re at a very remote facility, they may not be serviced at all and the waste will naturally compost in the hole.
Pit toilets are used in outdoor settings where traditional plumbing and sewage systems are not available or feasible. They are a low-cost and low-maintenance solution for providing basic restroom facilities in remote or wilderness areas.
Are pit toilets gender-specific? Campground pit toilets may or may not be gender-specific. For single toilets, you can generally just use whichever stall is open as there is no real difference between the two. No one monitors pit toilets, so use whichever stall matches your gender identity. However, some larger pit toilets may have multiple stalls separated by partitions. These nearly always have specific genders assigned to them. In these larger facilities, partitions may or may not provide full privacy.
Are campground pit toilets handicap accessible? While it would be nice to live in a world where everything is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this is not always the case. When campgrounds are built or modified, under federal law they are required to make facilities, like restrooms, ADA compliant. But, this means older campground facilities may still not be be handicap accessible. If this is the case, check with the campground host to see how they can accommodate your abilities.
How to use a pit toilet
Using a pit toilet is not complicated. It’s literally a toilet over a pit in the ground to store waste. But there a few small differences that you should be aware of.
A pit toilet is for #1, #2, and toilet paper only. It may seem convenient to just throw trash, diapers, and hygiene products down the pit toilet. But this can make them really hard to clean out. Most pit toilets are cleaned by sanitation trucks that suck the waste into holding tanks for disposal elsewhere. When you throw trash into a pit toilet, it can cause the suction device on sewage trucks to clog! So please follow any signage and don’t place anything that doesn’t belong in a toilet down a pit toilet.
Most campgrounds also ask that you lower the seat after you’re done using the toilet. This might seem like a silly request, but it helps keep the restrooms from getting too stinky.
Most of the time, pit toilets will have a supply of toilet paper, especially if they’re at a large campground with a host. But at smaller or more remote facilities, you might need to bring your own. If you’re not a fan of single-ply toilet paper, you might want to bring your own for that reason too.
Lastly, the majority of pit toilets don’t have running water (hence the pit toilet). This means that there is likely not going to be a sink to wash at when you’re through. Some may have hand sanitizer stations, but I find that those tend to be empty more often than not. So you’ll also want to carry some hand sanitizer with you .
Common Problems and Solutions
Pit toilet smells horrible
Chances are, most pit toilets are not going to smell great, but they generally don’t smell too bad. Most are designed with a ventilation system to help keep odors at a minimum. That’s also why a lot of facilities will ask you to lower the seat before leaving, to help with odor control.
Even with vents, pit toilets can sometimes get really stink, especially on a hot summer day. As a wildlife biologist, I’m accustomed to working with really bad smelly things from time-to-time. One technique my colleagues and I use in those situations is to put a small amount of a Vix Vapor Rub on the inside of a mask (we all have plenty of these hanging around these days). It is really helpful for masking the odor and would work well for the short time you’ll be using the facility.
You could also spray some sort of air freshener. But given the size of most restrooms, and the source of odor, they will likely not work too well, or last long enough for you to do your important business.
Pit toilet is a complete mess
If you’re encountering a pit toilet at a popular campground, chances are there will be a full-time campground host present. Their job is to keep the campground running smoothly and to ensure the restrooms are clean and functioning. If you find a problem with the restroom, it’s probably best to let the campground host know and they will hopefully deal with the issue.
If you’re at a campground or facility without a host, then you’re probably on your own for dealing with the mess. Don’t try to clean it up yourself. You don’t want to deal with other people’s waste as it can spread disease and is gross.
It is probably helpful to carry some sanitizing wipes to clean the pit toilet seat. Especially if the previous user left some unwelcome “splatter”. If you do use sanitizing wipes, be sure not to throw them in the pit toilet after use, as they can clog the sewage trucks that occasionally empty the pit toilet. Just throw them in the trash. You may also want to carry a spare plastic grocery bag to throw your wipes in if there is no trash can.
If the mess is too bad, I’ll usually just look for another restroom in the campground. But sometimes that’s not available, so you’ll have to decide if you can clean to a minimum standard for yourself, or “hold it” for another facility down the road.
Pit toilet use with young kids
Getting young kids to use an unfamiliar toilet can always be a challenge. But trying to convince a young kid to hop on a pit toilet, with a deep, dark, poop-filled hole below them can be an almost impossible task.
My wife and I have both struggled with this with both of our kids. But somehow, we’ve always succeeded in getting them to use them. Some common approaches we take to make it less intimidating are:
- Hold them while they’re using the toilet so they’re reassured they won’t fall in.
- Don’t let them look down the hole before they use it. No one needs to see that!
- Buy a portable “potty seat” to use while camping. It will help boost their confidence that they won’t fall in and give them something familiar in a very unfamiliar place.
- Distract your kid by playing with the echoing sounds often found in restrooms. Sing songs, play with the sound of your voice, etc.
Essential Pit Toilet Items
It would be in your best interest to have the following items when using a pit toilet if you’re even the least bit anxious about using one. You never know what condition you’ll find a pit toilet in, so these items will help get you through your session:
- Hand sanitizer
- Sanitizing wipes
- Toilet paper
- Portable toilet seat (for young kids)
- A small plastic trash bag in case there is no trash can
- A mask with a small amount of Vix Vapor Rub applied on the inside (to overcome a bad smelling restroom)
Pit toilets are a convenient restroom at campgrounds and rest areas that can definitely help in a pinch. But given their primitiveness, their conditions can be less than desirable.
If the thought of using one causes you anxiety, hopefully this post will help ease some your concerns and provide you with practical ways to make the experience as good as possible.
Check out our article on other essential camping gear, especially in Alaska!