Don’t do what we did and underestimate how much two grownups and two kids go to the bathroom and overestimate the kids’ ability to manage a complicated potty. File this one into the “Lessons Learned” category of our #vanlife experiences.
Our family is such that we need to both seat and sleep four in a 2008 Ford E-350 extended wagon. Granted, two of those four are smaller than full grown adults so it’s a bit more like we need to seat four and sleep three and a half. Either way you slice it our situation is more complex than two twenty-somethings living in a high top Sprinter van. That isn’t to say there isn’t some part of me that is envious of those childless couples living in a high roof van, but our needs are more complex and more cramped.
How we started:
Having kids for the last eight years, we’ve long had a portable emergency potty solution. It was something like this foldable travel potty and it worked great for a kid who has recently been potty trained and sometimes needed to go when there was no actual bathroom nearby. Set it up in the back of our little SUV and they took care of their business.
This foldable potty was our initial pee solution in the van for the middle of the night. We have used shopping bags with this potty and as you may know those are not always water tight. Therefore we used a pull-up diaper in the bags, since we had some,s and a tin baking tray underneath the bags to collect any small amounts that leak through the bags.
This is where we underestimated the amount of urine that comes our of little daughters during the night resulting in the need to clean the carpet.
We are a frugal family and thought we could come up with a better urine solution without paying anything. After considering a Gamma Lid on a 2-gallon bucket, a 5-gallon bucket was too big for us at that time, we found some empty pool chemical bucket that came with a lid. We thought this would be our solution as it’s bigger, water tight, and has a lid. We could also use the seat cover from the travel potty on top of the bucket.
This gave us tremendous confidence and worked great until our seven year old tried to pee while only barely awake and failed to remove the lid resting on top of the bucket before relieving herself all over the floor.
We cleaned the carpet multiple times after this one. Thankfully the carpet has a rubber back and I have the vapor barrier underneath that portion of the padding since it’s right next to the door.
After that experience we reach the next phase in improving a situation which is to accept that we have a problem that needs a more substantial solution.
My research has led me to conclude that portable potties come in three varieties:
Composting toilets are really separating toilets with a mixing apparatus to aid in composting should the user wish to do so. Composting toilets are a great option when circumstances allow. They can look and feel like a ‘real’ toilet and offer a surprisingly low mess and low odor solution to waste management.
Composting toilets require some prep and periodic cleaning. It is my opinion that this ‘prep’ work is what has limited their popularity among the American RV community. Americans don’t like to think, talk, or interface in any way with our excrement.
There aren’t a lot of these on Amazon, so if you’re like me you’ll have to branch out in your online shopping websites. Separett is a well reviewed brand. Expect a composting toilet to be around $1000.
One final note on composting toilets is that they need to be vented to the outside. This means that they aren’t super-portable and they aren’t super-compact either.
Cassette toilets seem to be the most common in American RVs because they offer a relatively hands-free experience both in setup and cleanup. They are generally both compact and sturdy enough to give the user confidence and are a good ‘middle of the road’ option.
Cassette toilets sit in-between the more permanent composting toilets and the very single-use bag based toilets. This is true of size, price, odor, and convenience (although that is debatable).
Cassette toilets are comprised of a bowl and a collector. The collector is a non-separating collector which just turns your waste into sludge. This sludge needs to be disposed of either at a dumping station, in a toilet (don’t spill), or in an appropriate buried location away from water sources and systems.
To me this is the least favorable as I am not interested in carrying around several days’ worth of excrement sludge to a dump station and then cleaning it out periodically.
Lastly, we have the bag system. This is the most primitive, the least permanent, and the cheapest. It’s intended as a single use per bag solution, especially when it comes to poop.
Bag systems can come in many sizes and configurations but the one we’ve settled on for now is the Reliance Products Hassock Portable Lightweight Self-Contained Toilet for its size and relative discretion.
Our approach has been to primarily use the van potty for pee and we then replace the bag after the morning voids. We have used it for poop and it works fine. Being a male I would like the seat to be a bit longer front to back, but it’s fine. Since it is meant to be single-use we simply replace the bag and it’s as easy as that. My one complaint about it is the seat material is rather flimsy and the lip into which it sits isn’t pronounced enough to prevent it from partially jumping out of the groove. It’s strong enough to support my 175lbs but could be made of a more rigid or sturdy material.
On our most recent trip we were in a relatively remote location where we had a tremendous view of the stars and my wife loved being able to take the hassock toilet out of the van and stargaze while she went pee. That is an advantage to either the bag or cassette toilets, you can enjoy nature while you answer the call of nature, all without stinking up the van.
Which do you choose?
If you are wanting and willing to have a more permanent solution, I think the composting toilet is a great way to go. That is, if you have the space for it. Otherwise, I have been content and even prefer the bag toilet for the ease of use and disposability. Plus peeing out in a field under the stairs is pretty awesome.
Just don’t underestimate your toilet needs and capabilities, especially with kids, or you’ll be doing more cleaning than you had planned on.