How do camping toilets work? - The Camping and Caravanning Club
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Explaining the ins and outs of camping toilets

It may be something we avoid in polite conversation, but even on a campsite, you’ll need somewhere to ‘go’. The subject of toilets is enough to put some people off camping altogether – but that shouldn’t be the case.

Whether you’re new to camping or have been at it for a while and need a refresh, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know about camping toilets, from the most popular brands to safe waste disposals and more.

Types of portable camping toilets

The type of portable toilet you have can make or break your camping trip. On a broader level, there are three types of camping toilets:

  1. Bucket camping toilet:
  2. This portable loo is exactly how it sounds. It can be a DIY job that consists of a bucket and toilet seat.

  3. Collapsible camping toilet:
  4. This folds up for easy transport and usually includes a seat and waste bag.

  5. Flushable camping toilet:
  6. A flushable camping toilet is on the more luxurious end of portable toilets. The Thetford’s Porta Potti range has some great portable flushing camping toilets that consist of two parts. The upper section is a combined flush-water tank and toilet bowl with a detachable seat and cover, and the lower section is the waste holding tank. The two sections come apart easily, allowing you to empty the waste conveniently and hygienically.

man holding toilet paper

If you’re camping in a caravan or motorhome, you’ll find that many have an in-built toilet in the washroom. These toilets are generally made by one of two manufacturers, Thetford or Dometic.

The motorhome/campervan toilet has a cassette waste holding tank, and some larger tanks have wheels for easy transportation. You can typically remove the cassette from the outside of the caravan or motorhome, where it’s stored behind a locked panel.

Inside the washroom, the toilet may have a swivel bowl to make the most of a tight space, and the flush may be electrically powered from the unit’s leisure battery or using the site’s electric hook-up.

Whether you’re purchasing a portable camping toilet to take with you on your tent camping holiday or you’re selecting one for your motorhome or campervan, there a several factors to bare in mind. These include the type of vehicle you have, the volume of waste you are likely to collect and – at the top end – your access to a suitable electricity supply to flush your toilet.

Whichever toilet you choose, take time to read the instruction manual and make sure you understand how to use it effectively. This could make the difference between a pleasant holiday and a rather smellier one.

Top Tip: To give you an idea of the tank volume you may need - if a couple solely used a chemical toilet, never venturing to the campsite facilities, they’d probably fill a 20-litre tank in three days.

For more information on setting up your camping toilet and washing facility, check out our expert guide here, or watch the camping and caravanning team take you through it below.

Chemicals for portable camping toilets

When it comes to selecting the right chemicals for your camping toilet, you must do so carefully. Each chemical works in different ways and must be disposed of in a specific manner.

Most chemicals should kill bacteria, control odour, reduce gas build up and mask any foul smells with perfume. They should also break down wastage, making it easier to empty the cassette.

However, some chemicals may not be suitable for different disposal methods due to their toxicity, and some campsites only allow environmentally friendly chemicals. Therefore, you need to research beforehand which products are needed for your portable toilet and what your chosen campsite allows.

cleaning gloves and products

Types of chemicals for camping toilets and their usage

To ensure your camping toilet is running smoothly and well looked after, you’ll need to purchase specific chemicals. Although household cleaners can be used to clean the external surfaces of the camping toilet, they’re not to be used internally. The below chemicals are much more suited.

Pink chemicals:

The pink chemicals are for the clean water tank and flush. It has multiple functions, including removing grime, ensuring a smoother flush, cleaning the toilet and eliminating odour.

Blue/Green chemicals:

Blue and green chemicals are used for the waste tank and break down waste in the holding tank for easy removal. They also remove any bad smells and gas build-up.

Some chemicals used are more toxic than others and can contain formaldehyde. So if you’re disposing of water that has been treated with formaldehyde, then you must ensure it’s disposed of properly. Failure to do this can cause serious harm to the environment.

It’s worth noting, green chemicals are green because they don’t contain formaldehyde, so they’re safer and more environmentally friendly. Numerous campsites favour this chemical over blue.

To find a wide range of camping toilet chemicals, check out Go Outdoors products. Club members get an additional 10% off selected products.

What chemical dosage should you use for camping toilets?

In addition to the type of chemicals used in camping toilets, you must consider the amount used. If you’re using a small dosage, the chemicals may be less effective. Similarly, with overusing chemicals, you’ll be quite literally throwing money down the toilet and harming the environment.

To make sure you’re using the correct amount, check the packaging. There should be clear instructions on the product packaging regarding how much liquid to use and how to use it. You can even find that some bottles have the measurement dosage on the side. Another option would be to purchase solid tablets. They have a set dosage and are more convenient to carry but can be more expensive.

What can you flush down a camping toilet?

It probably goes without saying you should only put human waste down your toilet. Disposable nappies, wipes or any other similar items should never enter the system.

Toilet chemical suppliers generally recommend using ‘quick dissolve’ toilet paper with your unit. If your family uses a significant amount of paper, this might be a good idea, but in most cases, standard toilet paper will be fine and will almost certainly be cheaper.

For a deeper insight into what types of camping toilet rolls to use, check out our study.

Emptying your portable chemical toilet

The first rule of chemical toilets is that you must only empty them in a specifically designated place. Apart from the obvious hygiene issues, the chemicals should not go straight into the sewerage system.

On a campsite, this will probably be marked as a Chemical Disposal Point or CDP. On some sites, it might appear as an Elsan Point. If you can’t find an official emptying point, your only option will be to flush the contents of your toilet down a normal WC, which may mean taking it back home.

Under no circumstances should you empty black waste (as the contents of a toilet are sometimes called) at a standard grey water (often called a ‘waste water’) disposal point. And always keep it well away from any fresh water points.

Unless you’re using the most basic ‘bucket and chuck it’-style unit, the waste will be stored in a sealed cassette. The key to emptying this without spluttering is to press the air-valve button, allowing air to flow into the cassette while the waste flows smoothly out. Your unit’s instruction manual will show you how to locate this button.

motorhome toilet

Maintaining your camping toilet

To increase the longevity of your camping toilet and ensure you don’t have any unpleasant disposal experiences with it, our team have created a thorough YouTube video on how to maintain your cassette toilet.

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