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The Outhouse
© 2006

Survival in the woods can be a dignified affair.

I don't want to talk about it either. As my daughter says, "It's nasty". But, it's a fact of life we cannot avoid. We have to use the bathroom sometimes, better indoors than outdoors.

The "privy" has a long and distinguished (?) history in America. In many parts of the world today the outhouse is still the one and only place to make #1 and #2. With no running water in the house, how can you have a bathroom? You can't. On your trip to your shelter area, you may have had to stop along the way for a rest stop. If you found a workable potty indoors, good for you. If you didn't...did you enjoy hiding behind that tree?

A well-build outhouse doesn't have to be a rotten place for 'critters to hide. It can be well made and safe to use. But first, as in everything you build, you have to pick the right spot to build it.

An outhouse covers a large hole in the ground. It has some sort of hole in the top so people can sit down to "do their business". But, you can't just dig a hole anywhere. You have to consider a few things first:

Consider This:

  1. The outhouse needs to be a long distance away from any wells you have dug, or plan to dig in the future. At least 150' to be safe. More if your soil is very sandy. You do NOT want the liquids from the outhouse seeping into your well. E. Coli bacteria can kill. It can also make you very, very sick. The outhouse should also be downhill from the well, if possible.

  2. The outhouse needs to be a convenient distance away from the shelter. You need to walk to and from it at all times of the night and day, good weather or foul. Speaking of foul, that is the smell from these things if you don't tend to them.

  3. The outhouse should be downwind of the average prevailing winds so the smell doesn't get to you inside your shelter.

  4. All outhouses need plenty of fresh air, a requirement which keeps them very cold in the wintertime. However, there is no reason that you cannot use the same toilet seats in an outhouse that you use on a toilet. Heat, however, is another problem altogether.


The charming interior of the outhouse on the left shows that the early pioneers liked company. A "two-holer" is handy for those times when diarrhea attacks the whole family at once. As I say, it ain't pretty, but you gotta' have it.

The best flooring for one of these is concrete. Concrete can be washed out with a hose and scrubbed clean. I think that most of the bad smell in most outhouses I've been in came from the wooden floor boards that have soaked up urine for 20 years or more. The sit-down design is totally up to you, but if you can make it out of metal, so much the better. Metal can be scrubbed clean and painted. The average outhouse was 3 feet to 4 feet square, and around 7 feet tall. Almost all were build of scrap lumber with no electrical lights at all. A small skylight could be added to let some sunlight in during the day, but at night, it was DARK, COLD and SCARY. I'd prefer at least one light bulb...but that's me.


Yes, it is. I mean, the outhouse has to sit on top of a large pit dug into the ground, usually by hand. The deeper it is, the longer time you can use the outhouse before it fills up. The sides of the pit have to be held in place so they don't collapse under you, or around you while you are digging. Using loose fitting boards, spaced with enough openings to let the liquids out, usually will suffice. Use scrap lumber, nails, or whatever, just be sure you are safe while digging the pit. Most outhouse pits are between 5' to 8' deep, but there are no "rules" on depth. If you strike water, you can call it a well, and find another spot for the outhouse 150' or more away. Once you're satisfied that the hole is deep enough and won't collapse, cover it with plywood with the pre-determined holes cut out for the toilets. If possible, line the inside of these holes with metal or plastic to prevent the liquids from soaking into the plywood...which will be the bottom of the form for pouring concrete. The concrete slab only has to be about 3" thick, since the building will be very small indeed. Use 2 x 4's as a frame, and pour in the concrete. When the outhouse pit has reached the point where it is no longer a "nice place to be" (meaning full), you need to fill it up with dirt to the bottom of the concrete. Fill the holes with concrete to seal it off. The concrete cap will prevent others from digging around in the yard and accidentally finding a "poop well" while digging a garden.


The more wood you use in the outhouse, the more its going to smell. If you can find some of those corrugated panels that roofs are made of, either fiberglass or metal, use those for the side walls. The roof can be made of anything. It needs a door for privacy. No water need be used in an outhouse, since the effluent goes directly into the ground. Water for flushing (in a "normal" home) is only needed to flush the solids down the plumbing pipes. You have no pipes here, so you don't need water. Insects can be a problem, so if you can cover the hole(s) when not in use, so much the better. Powdered lime and/or lye can be sprinkled down into the hole to keep down insects and the odor. Since the hole doesn't hold water, using the chemical additives that are used in mobile homes and travel trailers won't work.

We've come a long way, baby!

The quaint scene on the left has now been technologically changed to the modern marvel seen on the right. Solar heated and solar powered outhouses have been installed in some of our national parks where digging holes just isn't possible.

Working up the technology chain, the device on the left is a sanitary PVC seat and pit cover for those locations where the pit is still used. It seals to the floor and can be scrubbed clean. Note that in that photo there is a toilet paper holder. You no longer have to take the sears catalog with you to use the potty.

SUN-MAR offers a whole line of Cottage Composting Toilets that are designed for week-enders, and have a larger line for bigger units. These composting toilets need to be installed where the temperatures stay above 55� F so the bacterial composting will continue. They also need a lot of exterior ventilation. To provide both, there are optional 115VAC electric heaters in the digesting tank, and 12VDC fans in the vent pipes. This can put extra drain on your off-grid electrical needs. These units, however, can be installed inside the shelter, and don't have to be outdoors.

This company has devised a great unit for more constant use than the occasional weekend vacationer. Installed in many parks (the one in the photo, upper right labeled "CTS", is in Organ Pipe National Monument, Ajo, AZ) these units are suitable for public needs, and really don't cost that much. CTS builds composting aerobic digesters that digest up to 90% of everything that goes in. Seen on the left, the upper building (a two-holer) is provided by you, the user, and the composting tank is installed under the floor. It has only 2 moving parts. The fan and the toilet seat. When the sealed toilet seat is opened for use, air is let into the tank and forces all the vapors from the tank out the vent stack. For proper operation, the toilet lids need to be kept down and sealed. Non-electric models with extra high capacity run about $1,200.00. Electric models are slightly higher at around $1,700.00. These models have no bad odors at all. They can be powered by solar panels (as seen above, right) or plugged into your off-grid systems. Venting is standard 8" PVC plumbing. On the right, you see the delivered unit ready to install in your own location. In fact, it can be used as you see it right now. However, it's a little too public for me. The access panel on the lower front end of the tank is to clean out the fertile organic humus, similar to garden soil, that is the end product of the digested waste. It has no objectionable odor and is easily removed.
NO METHANE GAS FROM THIS SYSTEM! This wins the "Turtle's Choice Award".


If you have small children, be sure you accompany them to the outhouse and help them use the facilities. Since the bottom opening in the potty is considerably larger than a home toilet, the urge to reach in and "play" may be too great for a toddler...with tragic results. Keeping a outside door latch mounted up high will prevent small children from straying inside while you're not looking. Like a swimming pool, it can be considered an "attractive nuisance".

In winter, run ropes to and from the shelter and the outhouse. That way, you won't get lost in the blowing snow when going to the bathroom. Out west, people have died going to potty.

Until you get your first deep pit dug, temporary potties can be made from 5 gallon buckets. The walls can be simple blankets or other coverings to make tent-like walls. Unless you are digging in frozen ground, a hole large enough to use right away can be dug in less than one day. Most military units I have been around use digging latrine holes as a method of punishment. It's considered a "crappy" job, if you get my drift. If you have an all male outfit, jut run a plank out, cut a few holes, and you are done. It's not a pretty sight for visitors. Most people prefer walls.

A word about toilet paper: Like ammunition, you can never have too much. I do not recommend you give everyone their own roll of paper, only replace the one in the outhouse when it runs out. Too many people with toilet paper means some gets lost or "borrowed" and I have seen fights break out over this stupid subject. (Remember, I work in a jail in Florida.) One hole, one roll.

If your family is like mine, you need some sort of inside latch so accidental "embarrassing moments" are kept to a minimum. Screaming teenage girls hurt my ears. Make sure the latch can be used by the youngest person in the group who will be using the place without assistance. I've seen youngsters accidentally get locked into bathrooms when they don't know how to unlock the door. It would be even more traumatic in a cold and drafty outhouse in the woods at night. Heck, that would scare me...I have a son named Jason, did you know that? He was born on Friday the 13th�.no kidding. I think he owns an axe.

Lighting in an outhouse at night is on a "bring your own" basis. Don't leave valuable lights laying around in the outhouse. First of all, they may fall into the hole never to be seen again. I'm sure not going after it. Second, someone will leave it on and it will be useless anyway. If I did mount one, the only light I would even consider is one of those "tap lights" advertised on TV. It seems to be about the easiest and cheapest to install. If you loose one of them, you haven't lost much. Everyone in your shelter should have their own personal flashlight at night anyway.

There are many humorous stories associated with the outhouse. Many people name their outhouses: "Moldy Manor", "Moon Room", etc. Name it after someone you hate: "Hitler House" would have been appropriate years ago. How about "Saddam's Palace"? "Thunder Dome"?

On a practical note, if you bag up all the dirt removed from the hole, you can berm-up the north side of the outhouse to keep the cold winter winds out. Then, when you are ready to cover the hole up, the dirt is right there ready for you. Just a thought. I don't like doing work twice.