The complete guide to choosing a portable camping toilet for your tent
See also: Choosing the right gear
Thousands of campers will be flocking to Britain's campsites this summer to enjoy long-awaited tent holidays. But what do you do if the campsite you book onto doesn't have toilet and shower facilities open?
Government guidelines mean there are strict controls over the operation of shared campsite toilet and shower blocks, with some sites choosing not to open them at all when campsites reopened on 12 April. Even when they do, it is likely strict rules will be in place for hygiene and social distancing, initially at least. Last year, because of the difficulty in managing the necessary cleaning regime, some sites decided that their amenities had to stay closed – meaning campers needed to bring their own washing and toilet facilities.
While caravanners and motorhomers are used to having their own self-contained facilities, most tent campers rely on the on-site loos. So if you are planning a family holiday on a site where the amenity block will be shut – or if you are keen to go camping but are uncomfortable at the thought of using shared facilities – now is the time to think about buying a camping toilet and shower. And if 2020 is anything to go by, you'll need to be quick off the mark before they are all snapped up.
In fact, even in normal circumstances a portable loo is something worth considering. Getting up in the middle of the night and trekking across the campsite to the toilet block in the dark is never much fun, especially if it’s pouring with rain. Not only is it a pain to do, but it can be very annoying for your fellow campers.Of course, there are downsides to camping toilets, too. They are bulky, so will take up a lot of space in your car that could be better used for other stuff. And when it comes to actually using them, the lack of privacy puts many people off. This can be overcome if your tent has a side porch or annexe that can be zipped closed, or even a spare bedroom pod that could be used as an en suite. However, the best option might be to use an external toilet tent.
Another big problem is disposing of the waste. Camping toilets quickly fill up and need emptying regularly. Not only is it a hassle to carry a full – and heavy – toilet cartridge to the campsite’s chemical disposal point, it’s not exactly the most pleasant task, especially on a hot day. The ever-present danger of a nasty leakage definitely makes this the short-straw chore of the holiday!
It’s also worth checking if your campsite of choice will allow you to use your own facilities. Some smaller, tent-only sites might not have a chemical disposal point so there will be no way of getting rid of the waste. Shower tents are also banned by some sites due to the lack of drainage and the damage the waste water could do to the grass. Again, check in advance before booking, if that’s an important factor.
What type of camping toilet should I get?
Camp loos can literally range from a hole in the ground to a fully flushing toilet, but whichever option you go for, the most important factor to consider is how you dispose of the waste.
If you’re wild camping, basically all you need is a mini shovel and some loo roll, but for the vast majority, who will be camping on a site, there are a few different types of portable toilet to consider. They range from basic ‘bucket’ type models to loos with flushable tanks, more like what you are used to at home. The style you go for will depend on various factors, including budget, length of trips and how many campers will be using it.
The most basic approach is a bucket with some cat litter to absorb the smell. This is perhaps best suited as an emergency-only option, with a strict ‘no solids’ rule, as it will need regular emptying. Another alternative is the Bog-in-a-Bag, which is lightweight and disposable and a good choice for festivals.
Simple is often best and here we have the portable toilet at its most basic – essentially a bucket with a seat and lid. These are relatively lightweight and compact so are easier to transport in the car than the bulkier flushing models. They are also more affordable, usually coming in at under £20.
Prime with some water and toilet fluid and away you go. Stability can be an issue so take care when sitting down and keep it out of the way so there’s no danger of it being knocked over. Cleaning up the contents of a spilled toilet is no-one’s idea of fun. Emptying the heavy bucket can be fraught, too, but they are popular and certainly a good standby.
For longer trips, flushing portable toilets offer more in the way of comfort and convenience. The best known is probably the Porta Potti range from Thetford, but other manufacturers produce their own, including Outwell’s Portable Toilet.
Although they tend to be quite bulky, they are far more stable than the bucket-style, so there is less chance of unpleasant accidents. And the biggest plus with a flushing loo is that there should be no nasty whiffs. These toilets have a manual flush and detachable tank for emptying, and are used with special chemicals that break down the waste and mask the smell.
The new eco-friendly Blue Diamond Nature Calls toilet is the first portable composting toilet The separation of liquids and solids makes disposal of waste more environmentally sound, removing the need for water or chemicals. Coffee chaff or sawdust (supplied separately) dries out the solid waste and masks the smell. Solids can be added to any compost heap whereas liquids can just go straight down the drain.
Another environmentally-friendly option is the Popaloo, which uses a dry powder waste gelling system and biodegradable bags. The toilet itself folds flat into a carry case so is easy to transport.
What chemicals do I need to use?
For a flushing portable toilet, you’ll need two liquid chemicals. The first (pink) is a cleaner that goes into the flushing tank. It cleans the bowl when you flush and also protects against dirt marks and water deposits. If you are using a non-flushing toilet you obviously don’t need the pink liquid.
The second (blue) goes into the waste tank to break down solids and prevent odours. There is a green alternative to the blue liquid, which uses more natural methods to break down the waste. Some campsites will only accept this type of product, so make sure you check in advance or take both.
Toilet chemicals are available widely from camping and outdoor shops. Thetford provides an extensive range of pink, blue and green products, including sachets, which are a convenient alternative to bulky bottles of liquid. Kampa has also launched a new range of eco-friendly toilet liquid, which comes in the more pleasant fragrances of spearmint, pomegranate and pine.
How do I empty the toilet?
The majority of campsites – especially those that accept motorhomes and caravans – have chemical waste disposal points. These are the only place you should get rid of toilet waste. Never pour it down the general water disposal drains and definitely keep it well clear of fresh water.
The tanks in flushable toilets can get quite heavy, so it’s advisable to empty them every day. Stick on a pair of gloves, carefully remove the cassette from the toilet unit and carry it to the disposal area. Empty the tank, flush away the contents, then rinse it out using the hose provided. Back at the tent, make sure you fill it with chemicals again.
Can I use regular toilet paper?
You can use regular loo roll in your flushing camping toilet, but we’d advise against it, or at least keep its use to a minimum. Definitely avoid your favourite, luxury quilted variety. Wet toilet paper can form clumps and clog up the tank, making it difficult to empty and clean. It’s far better to use specially designed, fast-dissolving toilet paper such as Thetford’s Aqua Soft. Hopefully it should go without saying, but don’t put any other waste into the toilet – that means nappies, wipes and sanitary items.
Can I bring my own camping shower?
Camping on a site without facilities doesn’t mean a week of washing with wet wipes. Simple solar showers can produce plenty of warm water – even in our UK summers. The low price tag (they start at just £5.99) makes these black PVC bags a cheap source of hot water – 20 litres is more than ample for a nice shower. No electricity is needed, as they work off gravity, so you will need somewhere to hang them.
If you want a more powerful water flow, you’ll need an electric shower that works from a 12V power source, such as the Streetwize Porta Shower. The Collapz Power Shower can be recharged from a USB. With both of these you’ll need to provide your own hot water source. Quechua’s pressure-balanced solar shower will heat up the water and provide decent flow without electricity – the water is pressurised using the hand pump.
Set up your shower in a toilet tent with interlocking foam tiles on the ground to keep your feet out of a muddy mess – but make sure you keep the toilet roll dry!
What to think about
If you're considering getting a portable toilet for your tent, here are a few things to think about before hitting the shops
Flushing or non-flushing?
There are pros and cons to both so your decision will be based on how much you have to spend (a basic model is less than £20 while a flushing loo will set you back at least £65), the amount of space you have in your car and how much use it will get. If there’s only two of you on a weekend break then a bucket-style will be probably be fine, but a family of five on a two-week holiday will probably need something more substantial.
What size of tank do I need?
If you decide on a flushing toilet, you’ll need to consider what size of waste tank you need. For a small family a 10l tank will probably suffice, but for bigger groups a 20l capacity is recommended.
Where will it go?
If your tent has an enclosed side porch then that’s the perfect place to create a makeshift camping bathroom, especially if it has a zip door sealing it off from the main body of the tent. A spare bedroom in a large family tent is another option. If your tent is smaller or has a large single living/sleeping area (like a bell tent or a tipi) then you might have to be creative with your set-up to provide some privacy. Fashion a privacy screen using a blanket or throw draped over some furniture, perhaps. The simple solution is to buy a stand-alone, pop-up toilet tent. Olpro, Kampa and Quechua are among the brands that produce these simple tents, which can be used both as a toilet and a shower cubicle. Some campsites don’t allow them so check in advance, but in the current post-pandemic world, most should be sympathetic.
Is there a toilet disposal point?
Make sure the site you are planning to stay on has a chemical disposal point because it’s unlikely that your toilet tank will last a whole trip without needing emptying, and even if it does you probably won’t want to transport a full tank back home! Think about where you pitch, as you don’t want to have to lug a full 20l tank too far across the campsite.
Have you got the right chemicals?
Stock up on toilet chemicals before you go and make sure you have enough to last your full trip.
REMEMBER: Pink goes in the flush tank, blue goes into the waste tank and green is an eco-friendly alternative to blue.
Remember to check what treatments your campsite allows as some will only let you use the non-chemical green fluid.
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