Camping has more styles than a fashion magazine. There is glamping, primitive, backcountry, front-country, dispersed, and developed. Some options don’t have toilets; others provide them but are listed as pit, SST, drop, chemical, compost, and vault. The latter sounds like something to deposit jewels and not, well, you know.
If you’re wondering what a vault toilet is:
A vault toilet is a waterless system that stores waste in a tank rather than a dug-out pit. They also have a ventilation system to reduce odors, making them less smelly than a typical outhouse. Vault toilets come in a wide range; some are basic, while others have electric lights and handwashing.
People who enjoy camping fall into two general categories. The first love nature but has firm lines about how far they’ll rough it. They want plumbing or the best next thing. The second wants “the real” outdoor experience, which involves digging a hole and giving back to nature what you took. However, these desires can be hard on our beloved environment, hence the vault toilet.
What Is A Vault Toilet?
A vault toilet is a waterless waste system that protects the ground from contamination while reducing foul odor for its users. The basics for a vault toilet are:
- A “tank” that is sunk into the ground
- A toilet positioned over one of the tank’s openings
- Walls, roof, and a door
- A “chimney” that serves as ventilation for gas that builds up in the tank
The basic models are much like an outhouse but with potentially far fewer flies and are disability friendly. There won’t be lights or a place to wash your hands. However, some have electricity, multiple stalls, and will have a hand sanitizer station or sinks hooked up to running water.
What Are Vault Toilets’ Advantages?
Vault toilets come with many advantages, including the following:
- Made to ADA regulations (Americans with Disabilities Act)
- Can handle more waste than porta potties and compostable toilets
- Doesn’t leak into the ground
- Can dump private camp toilet waste into one (but not from an RV or camper)
- Inexpensive compared to many other systems
- Less likely to flood than a pit toilet when there have been heavy rains
What Are Vault Toilets’ Disadvantages
Vault toilets are not perfect. Some disadvantages are:
- It can smell if built wrong or not maintained properly
- Don’t always come with handwashing facilities
- Toilet paper has a habit of going missing
- It’s not easy, but technically you can fall in one
Why Do We Need Vault Toilets?
Vault toilets have become increasingly necessary as camping’s popularity has shot up. The uptick in human visitors has caused unprecedented stress on the environment. It was turning these gorgeous landscapes into one giant outdoor latrine. (Ick.)
The flush toilet needs plumbing, which isn’t easy to provide in remote areas. In addition, they use a substantial amount of water, making them an environmental stressor.
Even the dig-a-hole system is problematic. Dispersed camping has become so popular many of these areas are struggling to deal with the waste. After all, it takes time to biodegrade, and if people are adding faster than it can break down, you end up a load of “it.”
Furthermore, chemical toilets, porta-potties, and compost toilets are not designed to handle many visitors. The uptick in numbers meant they were being pushed beyond capacity, which creates as disgusting of a situation as you are imagining.
But vault toilets can handle as much as a pit toilet, but with the advantage of not needing to build a new one every time it fills up. Also, with pit toilets, soil and groundwater can be negatively impacted.
What Happens When The Vault Toilet Is Full?
The tank of a vault toilet typically ranges between 750 to 13,000 gallons. When they are ready to be “serviced,” a special truck visits them, removes the waste via a pump system, and then transports it to a sewage treatment facility to process it.
Do Vault Toilets Stink?
Vault toilets are not supposed to smell foul, but they will if poorly constructed. Also, high humidity with little to no breeze means things can get funky due to a lack of air circulation. Lastly, if the people responsible for emptying haven’t come by in a long time, that can lead to unfortunate situations.
What Is A Sweet Smelling Toilet (SST)?
An SST sounds like something you need to have an awkward chat with your doctor about, but it is actually a Sweet Smelling Toilet. These are a type of vault toilets that are being installed around the United States by national parks.
They were supposed to revolutionize vault toilets, and folks would even post videos like this one asking people if they thought they smelled nice. Instead, people thought they were, well, useable.
The truth is that Sweet Smelling Toilets are a success if conditions are right. However, they need air circulation like any other vault toilet to work. So less breeze, less air circulation, less sweet.
In addition, they are more successful in cooler climates or places that get dry heat. Hot and humid ups the odor problem, and if there isn’t even a hint of a breeze, it can become pretty ripe.
Can I Empty A Camp Toilet Into A Vault Toilet?
Emptying a camp toilet into a vault toilet is generally a no. Many modern camping toilets people place inside a shower tent use chemicals to prevent them from stinking. These chemicals are not compatible with the vault toilet system.
Instead, people who use small, portable camping toilets are supposed to empty them at the same waste stations used by RVs, campers, and some van conversions.
In addition, if you use a bag system with a camp toilet (like a giant doggie waste bag), or a liner, you can’t throw the bag or liner into the vault toilet.
In short, the only things that can be emptied from a camp toilet into a vault are:
You may not add:
- Kitty litter
- Baby diapers
- Sanitary items
- Paper products that are not 1-ply TP
Vault toilets are emptied through a suction system that will be clogged if it encounters the wrong stuff.
The following camp toilets could technically be emptied into a vault so long as you don’t dump the bag or add chemicals to the waste:
Camping is a pleasure, but our presence is hard on nature. Vault toilets lessen our negative impact, even if they sometimes have an aroma.