The Poop on Camp Toilets

After seven weeks on the road, we have seen a lot of toilets, those essential but under-appreciated devices that collect and dispose of our biological waste, without which we’d all live shorter and more brutish lives.

I have been a fan of toilets for a long time, even before living in Paraguay in the 1980s as a Peace Corps volunteer working in a rural water and sanitation program. A good toilet is a thing of beauty adapted to its local environment. Where water is plentiful, a flush toilet conveniently carries our waste to a septic tank or municipal sewage treatment plant–though I shudder at the thought of all the expense and energy used to deliver potable drinking water to our flush toilets. But there are also many good designs that are appropriate when water is not available or is in short supply. Some even compost. I have been excited to see composting toilets in arid parts of Mexico and Brazil, and I’ve heard they are common in parts of Asia.

High-use situations are particularly challenging and can be very unpleasant and give toilets a bad name. But the hardware is less likely to blame than how we use or maintain it. Working on education projects in Brazil in the late 1980s, I always stopped in the bathrooms when visiting a school for one indicator of the quality of the school’s administration. With over four million visitors each year at Zion National Park, think of the challenge facing the park’s maintenance staff to keep enough toilets clean and operating.

Toilets also reflect culture. In the United States, we prefer to sit on a throne, but others think a squatter both more hygienic and effective. What we use to clean ourselves after using the toilet also depends on where we live. While in the US, we generally want toilet paper, and a sink to wash our hands, others expect to use water instead of paper and prefer to take a full shower afterwards. Living in rural Paraguay in the 1980s and using a pit latrine, we used Newsweek magazine’s international edition, provided free to all Peace Corps volunteers, and washed our hands in a basin.

So back to our trip. Overall, we have found the toilets in the many campgrounds, trailheads and roadside rest areas we have visited–most in our national parks or forests–to be clean, capacious, and comfortable. Most campgrounds have had flush toilets and sinks even when they did not provide shower facilities. All showed evidence of having been professionally cleaned a few times each day.

A few campgrounds have had no water. In these, as well as at some trailheads and many roadside rest areas, there has generally been a vault toilet (which employs a lined pit open directly beneath the toilet) ventilated with a large diameter black pipe. All have been clean, well-stocked with toilet paper, and have provided handy hand gel. Helpful signs suggest closing the lid to reduce odors and politely entreat users not to throw in anything except toilet paper “because it is exceedingly difficult to remove.”

Incidentally, these vault toilets are a wonder to behold and a far sight better than the ventilated improved pit (“VIP”) latrine we promoted as Peace Corps volunteers in the 1980s. The structures are permanent, though un-lighted, and can be emptied much like a home septic tank by a crew with a specialized truck. Being a connoisseur of such things, I can never resist a peek down into the vault, and I’m happy to report that all those we visited have been emptied long before reaching capacity!

Just a few places only had a port-a-john, yet they were generally well-maintained and clean as well, and most provided hand gel. Only one, located down a road that required a 4WD vehicle with high clearance, was operating above recommended capacity. Thankfully, it was emptied shortly after we arrived in the campground.

Two final more primitive examples: In my June 16 post about canoeing in Labyrinth Canyon, I described the portable “groover,” enjoyed en plein air. That could be adapted for “dispersed camping” in our national forests or other public lands, but an even simpler DIY approach is more common, requiring only a trowel. Also well-suited for pro-squatting cultures.

Just a few more words about signs, some of which seem designed to instruct visitors from places with different cultural practices. A sign in one place (I forget where) indicated through pictures that the toilet is for sitting, not standing on the seat and squatting. A picture in the shower room at Mesa Verde National Park campground instructs campers not to squat and poop in the shower. Some signs are more informal, probably placed by a visitor rather than someone charged with keeping our bathrooms clean, like the note below that I saw on a urinal in a grocery store near Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I

So that’s the poop on camp toilets. Kudos and many thanks to the maintenance staff, unsung heroes all, in our heavily used national parks and forests!

“God’s simple plan of salvation: don’t pee on the floor!”


4 thoughts on “The Poop on Camp Toilets”

  1. I had just started thinking that it had been a while since I got a blog notification, when you announced the email notification system had been on the blink! That would explain it. Enjoyed catching up on your adventures, particularly the recommendations of parks to visit in Utah besides Bryce and Zion. I think people don’t know so much about the others because they haven’t been parks that long–weren’t they both converted from national monuments not too long ago? I’ve put them on my list for our next trip west!

    1. You’re right! But I wasn’t planning to do a blog about toilets, and I don’t normally take pictures of them along with the scenery. ?

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