DIY Portable Toilet (Emergency Use Bucket Toilet)
I wish our first experience with a DIY portable toilet had been somewhere fun like a camping trip, but unfortunately when we needed an “Emergency Relief System” (ERS), it really was an emergency. Our toilet would not flush and there was nowhere else to go.
I'll share how to build a simple DIY portable toilet, plus tips to get rid of the smell.
Our family was trapped at home during the 2015 South Carolina 1000 Year Flood. (See 20 Things I Wish I Had Before the Flood from a “1000 Year Storm” Survivor for more of that story.)
With very little notice, we received almost 2 feet of rain in less than 48 hours. To add insult to injury, we were already flooded from the recent Super Harvest Blood Moon.
We were prepared for:
- Food Supplies
- Water bottles filled
- Medicine on hand
- Boat gassed and ready
- Tool Box
- Electronic devices charged
Portable toilet and disposal area designated??? – NOPE!
- How to Make a DIY Portable Toilet (Portable Camping Toilet)
- Do Portable Toilets Smell?
- More Emergency Preparedness Posts
Where do you poop in an emergency?
Flood Waters = Flooded Septic. Within the first couple of hours of the flood, our septic system was useless.
Here was our situation; 5 family members (3 females and 2 males), flooding outside and torrential rain, no toilet, 3 Days. I honestly don’t think I can express the gravity of this predicament but it was as serious to us at the moment as any other emergency situation. Not only did we have to relieve ourselves, we had to do so in a manner that wouldn’t contaminate our surroundings and pollute the air.
With the advice from a friend (Laurie Neverman), access to the internet, we were able to make a safe, low mess bucket toilet. (We needed to use it for days after the storm due to high water levels.)
I highly suggest prefabbing your own DIY portable toilet for future emergency situations. They can be stored easily and cost almost nothing.
How to Make a DIY Portable Toilet (Portable Camping Toilet)
- Empty 5 Gallon Bucket with lid (90 mil thickness will support weight better)
- 10 or 13 Gallon garbage bags
- Several plastic grocery store trash bags
- Big trash can with a tight-fitting lid
- Absorption medium (biodegradable material to soak up the liquid waste): Saw dust, pine chips, peat moss, or newspaper torn into thin strips, dried used coffee grounds, cat litter
(If making an emergency toilet for future use, I suggest storing a big newspaper in the bucket)
- Pool Noodle or Pipe insulation (For pool noodle, use a utility knife to cut a slit through one side of the noodle all the way down. Pipe insulation comes with a slit in place.)
- Toilet paper
Portable Toilet Assembly Instructions:
- Place the 10 gallon trash bag in the 5 gallon bucket
- Put a small handful of absorption medium in the bottom
- Insert plastic grocery store bag and fold over the bucket's rim
- Slide pool noodle or pipe insulation over rim
- Add handful of absorption medium in bag
To Use Your Portable Toilet:
After each use, tie the small plastic bag closed and drop in bottom of 5 gallon bucket. When the bucket toilet system is full, transfer all contents to large trash can with lid. Sanitize 5-gallon bucket and repeat.
Note: The bucket will get heavy as it fills, so empty before it's full if needed to reduce weight.
If making an emergency toilet for future use, place all the supplies in the bucket and replace the lid. Mark on outside of bucket with a sharpie “E.R.S.” and store out of the way until needed. This makes a great DIY camping toilet too.
More Bucket Toilet Options
For a little more comfort and to keep things a little neater, you can also buy emergency toilet seats that are made to fit right on a 5 gallon bucket.
If you don't want to deal with assembling your own ERS, the Reliance Products Luggable Loo Portable 5 Gallon Toilet comes preassembled. Buyers have used it for folks up to 350 pounds, so it should hold most adults.
Editor's Note: Another variation of this system is the basic humanure composting toilet. Waste is gathered directly in the bucket (or compostable bags) and mixed with ample absorption medium, then composted in a hot compost pile. The bucket is well scrubbed after each use, but will pick up odors after extended use.
Some friends of our used this option while living in a very rustic remodeled barn. The only trouble they ran into was when one of the buckets was set outside during a snowstorm instead of being taken right to the compost, and it froze into a 5 gallon poopsicle. Check with local regulations on waste management before using.
Do Portable Toilets Smell?
I'm sure most of us have encountered the foul odor of a porta potty as some point in our lives. While a home portable toilet might not be as musty as the big boys, it doesn't smell like roses.
Here are a couple things you can do to ensure the air quality stays safe and your home remains pleasant-smelling.
EnviroKlenz Everyday Odor Eliminator
EnviroKlenz Everyday Odor Eliminator is commonly used for deodorizing carpets, but also works well on hard surfaces. You can use it to deodorize your bucket toilet, or keep a spray bottle on hand to spritz the waste before closing the bag to absorb odors.
DIY Air Freshener for your Portable Toilet
- Distilled Water
- 8 oz Spray Bottle
- Essential Oils
Add following into a spray bottle:
- 10 drops of lemon essential oil
- 10 drops of grapefruit essential oil
- 5 drops of thyme, sage, or tea tree essential oil
- 10 drops of Bergamot essential oil
Fill with distilled water and shake. Spray your DIY air freshener in the 5 gallon bucket before and after use. This also makes a wonderful whole house air freshener.
Air Purifier – Smudge Sticks
Smudging is burning a bundle of herbs that have been dried and tied together. Smudging has been used for over thousands of years. Recent research indicates that cleansing herbal smoke caused over 94% reduction of bacterial counts, and those counts stayed lower even after 30 days.
It's easy to use smudging to kill bacteria around your portable toilet. You can purchase ready-made smudge sticks or make your own.
How to Make a Smudge Stick
- Non-toxic Twine or String
- Bundle of herbs (see list below)
- Gather a large handful of herbs in any combination you desire, including stems.
- Clip herbs to similar length
- Bind the ends of the herbs altogether at one end and continue to tie the herb bundle like you would a roast.
- Once the bundle is bound, hang to dry in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks.
After your smudge stick is dry, it is ready for use.
Light end in a secure area and wait for the stick to smoke, gently blow on the end to create a nice smolder and cleanse the air. Place in a fireproof tray and stay with it until it is completely out.
The most popular herbs used in smudging are:
- White sage (Salvia apiana)
- Cedar (Thuja)
- Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata)
- Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
- Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
- Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus)
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Mint (Mentha)
- Bee Balm (Monarda)
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
I hope our flood experience helps others be better prepared. We never thought we'd be hit with a disaster like this, but now we know better. When flooding, hurricanes or other problems hit, everyone should have a safe and sanitary emergency bucket toilet.
More Emergency Preparedness Posts
- Emergency Cooking – 10 Ways to Have a Hot Meal When the Power Goes Out
- Emergency Heat During a Power Outage and other Winter Storm Preps
- How to Build a Burn Barrel – Burn Trash Safely
This post is by Amber Bradshaw of My Homestead Life. Amber and her family live off grid on forty-six acres in the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee.
Originally published in 2015, last updated in 2021.
Highly recommend the Humanure toilets. We use a couple of them almost exclusively now (still have the flush hopper, of course, just don’t use it)–in this old house, we now have an upstairs toilet! No problems in power outages, we use less water, and it composts beautifully–more for the fields.
Great article on such an important subject. Thank you. The “pool noodle” seat is a great idea. The DIY “ERS” you describe is indeed simple and relatively inexpensive to assemble. We, too, have a “Luggable Loo” and accessory materials, and as a backup I constructed a similar homemade bucket potty with an inexpensively purchased toilet seat/ lid combination made to fit the bucket.
Also really appreciate the extra information regarding odor-suppression/ masking/ mitigation, too. On that subject, do you think it might be a good idea to assemble in advance one or more small plastic bottles containing the 35 drops of essential oils you mention, and store it/ them for whatever length of time required — as a “preps” for such an emergency –to be combined in the spray bottle with distilled water only at such time as odor suppression is required?
Clearly, under any circumstances, having some kind of toilet to use is a much more hygienic and desirable option than not having one. An individual’s ability to maintain his or her personal hygiene at all times is essential to maintaining health not only for that individual, but for the family or other group to which that individual may belong. The use of an ERS/ emergency toilet facility such as you describe should go a long way in helping maintain a high level of individual and group personal hygiene, and, hopefully, health and well-being.
To take it a step further, I suggest the following: instead of making just the one ERS for the family’s/ group’s emergency use, make two — one reserved exclusively for solid human waste and toilet paper (no exceptions!), and the other exclusively for urine. Yes, this “two-bucket” method requires users to employ a “two-step” elimination process. But afterwards, it’s easier to safely, effectively, and regularly dispose of urine alone than it is to manage and eventually dispose of the bags of a mixture of solid waste AND urine.
This very effective “two-bucket” method has been employed successfully for decades by river rafting outfitters taking groups of 20 or more down the Colorado River through the extremely environmentally sensitive Grand Canyon and other remote, environmentally sensitive river basins, where “pack it in, pack it out” is not just good advice, but also the law. Employing the “two-bucket” method is, however, a different toilet experience than most of us are used to; and it does require self-discipline to ensure success of the method. I would suggest that parents supervise their young children’s use of such a “two-bucket” ERS system until they are certain their kids understand what must happen where and when.
Finally, following every toilet experience, we should all remain mindful and vigilant always to wash and sanitize our hands as thoroughly as possible to prevent the initiation or spread of disease.
I very much appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important subject; and I welcome any comments, criticisms, questions, or suggestions regarding the “two-bucket” method mentioned above.
For pre-prep of the spray bottles, I’d use glass if possible instead of plastic if they are going to be stored for an extended time, because some of the EOs may start to break down the plastic.
I think the urine only bucket is a good idea for many circumstances, and is recommended in The Humanure Handbook. With heavy flooding, I don’t know that Amber would have had anywhere safe to dump it, at least for a few days when the rain was heaviest, but it would take a while to fill a bucket.
Glass it shall be! Thanks! I’m not experienced with EOs, and that addresses my concern exactly.
A side note on glass, dark glass is best as it will protect the integrity of the EO from the harm sunlight can do to it, must EOs you buy will already come in a small dark glass container with a plastic reducer cap which won’t get eaten by the product inside. A useful site if you are not a regular user of EOs, and so do not have handy little empty bottles floating around for homemade blends is http://www.aromatools.com They have glass containers in every conceivable shape size and color for the diy enthusiast who makes their own hygiene products with EOs, from spray bottles to wide mouth lotion jars to diffusers and of course the more typical sizes you find EOs in (5, 10 & 15 ml etc) me and my sister buy and sell DoTerra oils and these guys are their sister company.
I am currently using the 2 bucket method as well. Except I have in my poo bucket compostable bags, so when it’s full, I just dig a hole, and bury it. For just me, it usually last 1 to 2 weeks between digs. The urine bucket is emptied daily.
We have kept our urine and feces separate because of the odor and the increased weight of the bucket. Amber’s essential oil formula sounds nice, but I can be a little sensitive to some oils, so I just use household vinegar diluted one part to 4 or 5 parts water in a spray bottle. This neutralizes the odor left after wiping up any random splashes. We use individual urine bottles that we set into #10 cans for greater stability, with a couple layers of paper towel covered with a plastic dairy lid inverted so the bottles sit securely and are easier to clean up in case of a rough re-entry. We decant the urine into plastic vinegar jugs and keep a funnel in the jug we are filling, which breathes enough to prevent fermentation, but completely eliminates (or possibly dissipates?) the odor. We look for thick walled jugs with screw on caps and haul them at least 50 yards away from our living structures to be distributed among our trees year round. The thin walled water or milk jugs will wear out and leak after a few cycles of use. Our property is in a protected wetlands area that had been overbuilt with septic fields, so we were zoned for no plumbing or septic systems. With no running water we have found it very useful to keep spray bottles and drain buckets designated for bathroom use only. The same would work well in an emergency without water pressure. We tried a tip bucket over a drain bucket and found it to splashy for indoor use.
Kitty Litter! The pine kind really helps with odors, but so do some of the others. Easy to get & easy to use. (I have a septic tank, too – and this has been our solution although I didn’t make a seat for our bucket – will do so now!) Thanks for the tip!
I’ve waited a long time for something like this. Practical poo prepping is more important than what bugs can we eat, at least for most of us!
I just did.
We have a urine collector that fits in the toilet for collecting urine for testing (from when I donated a kidney). Super easy to sit once and keep separate – just haven’t tried it for size with a 5 gallon bucket. Probably available from any medical supplier on the cheap. I also have a couple of the female stand and pee funnels – available on Amazon. Either would help in the 2 bucket method. Urine could effectively be stored in 2 liter bottles for later disposal without odor. We also have kitty liter stored for #2….
The urine collector is a good idea. It would make separating the two waste streams much easier. They have them on Amazon.com for around five bucks – Medline DYND36600H Specimen Collector Pans.
I checked the link and it is a little hard to tell how it is positioned in the bucket. Do you leave it attached to the bucket? How is it emptied between uses?
The linked product is a very basic collector that would most likely simply be set in the toilet just before use and dumped right after use. Given that it sounds like you are set up with your bucket system full time, two buckets that you swap out would probably be simpler.
We’ve been using the method that Joseph Jenkins describes in his “Humanure Handbook” for about four years now. His book is funny and smart. I was a little skeptical at first, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. You don’t waste gallons of good drinking water to get rid of a little waste, there is NO SMELL at all, and you end up with fabulous humanure! We originally used sawdust as cover material but have gone to peat moss. We found that the sawdust didn’t break down, even after years of composting. My husband built us a very nice toilet — the 5gallon bucket sits under a regular toilet seat and the bucket is enclosed in a wooden box. There are two of us in the household and a year of humanure fits in a 4′ x 4′ bin. We have 3 bins and fill a new one each year and use the humanure in the three year old one. This past year we went on a trip and camped in our tent trailer. We brought along a Port-A-Potti — which stinks to high heaven!!! I told my husband from now on we bring a sawdust toilet! I’m sold!!!
Thanks for sharing your story, Sheila.
I’ve also heard that if you get a 6 gallon bucket that you won’t need to “squat” down as far – it’s a couple of inches taller. May not be helpful if you have little ones, but beneficial for the older folk.
Good to note, although I’d be careful not to fill an entire 6 gallon bucket (humanure style) since it would be very heavy – but I’m not that brawny.
I have also heard for people unable to do the bucket thing, that they can flush water out of toilet till empty and line it with a couple of garbage bags and do the litter in the bottom, use then a little more litter and then the next day you can tie it up and put out for disposal and do it again, I am older and a little disabled so using my own toilet with my safety bars would work better for me. any thoughts
Sure, as long as you’re careful not to flush the litter, this would absolutely work. There are even products designed specifically for this, such as the Carebag Toilet Bowl Liner with Super Absorbent Pad. The bag is designed to fit the commode bowl, and the liner takes the place of the litter and is much less messy.
Side note about squatting, in general it is actually the position our bodies were meant to eliminate waste in, for those with bad knees I would recommend the addition of a squatty potty, basically a stool that slides out of the way under your toilet bowl when not in use… The commercial is friggin hilarious too, go check it out on YouTube. They are now available in a two pack from Costco
We have Squatty Pottys in all the bathrooms. I recommend them in the post “What’s a Healthy Bowel Movement?” (There’s a photo of ours by the toilet, too – but no action shots.)
I don’t know if you’re a Shark Tank fan, but I originally saw the Squatty Potty on Shark Tank. The video ads that Squatty Potty ended up with are even funnier knowing that they are so different from what was originally created on Shark Tank’s Beyond the Tank.
We are having a bunch of portable restrooms rented out for a community event we are holding. We wanted to be prepared to get rid of smells so that people will have great experiences with this event. This DIY Air Freshener seems like a pretty good idea, and it seems like a good investment for us. Thanks for sharing it!
Your customers will appreciate it.
I have a 5 gal bucket with scented trash bags and cat litter to use for emergencies.
My collection buckets have taken on a terrible odor, much worse than what’s going in them. I started with Home Depot buckets but have found that they pick up a bad odor no matter how much I scrub and wash them. I’m switching to a metal bucket in the hopes that metal will not hold that odor. I use 8 buckets and empty, wash and start over again once a month. Has anyone else had a problem with collection bucket odor?
Yes, plastic buckets are notorious for holding odors. I had a local friend with a family of 8 living off grid, using the bucket toilets. After a while, she retired the buckets, because the odor refused to wash out.
An option I think would be worth a try is EnviroKlenz Everyday Odor Eliminator (link). It’s recommended for getting the stink out of garbage cans, so the odds are good it could destink a poop bucket, too.
Did your friend give up the bucket toilet system all together? Or did she try another bucket? I’m interested because I’d like to know before I invest a small fortune in metal buckets. And will a deodorizer inhibit the compost process as it will transfer to my compost consentration bin? I’ve just purchased 3 buckets from Uline and I’m wondering if I’ve traded one problem for another, i.e. will the metal buckets begin to rust and by doing so begin to hold odor again. I wondering if the acidity of urine won’t promote rust in my new metal buckets. And I don’t need to tell anyone, buckets aren’t cheap. If the metal buckets are the answer I’d like to get back to my 8 buckets routine meaning only having to do the emptying and cleaning once a month. Thanks for the input and help
Eventually they moved out of the off grid place and into an old farmhouse, so they gave up the humanure system. While they were using it, they just switched plastic buckets. I’m not sure what happened to the buckets with the imbedded odor, but I’d guess they were tasked to outside chores where the odor wouldn’t matter so much.
I wouldn’t use metal. As you mentioned, it’s sure to rust over time. You may be able to find used plastic buckets cheaper somewhere locally. Many bakeries, for instance, get that gloopy fruit goo they put in baked goods in five gallon buckets, or premade frosting.
If you’re treating just the plastic with the odor remover, I’m certain it wouldn’t interfere with the composting. The product is mostly metal oxides, so I suspect just a light spritz on a regular basis into the bucket contents would impact composting less than say, a sprinkle of baking soda, which would raise the pH.
We have picked up many supermarket bakery buckets. Be alert for the appropriate size, since they are not all the size of paint or food storage buckets. We have picked up a few that reeked powerfully of artificial cherry vanilla and had to keep those for outdoor use.
I’ve been advocating a similar system for our homeless camps. 5-gallon bucket, lined with plastic trash bag (tall kitchen variety) inexpensive toilet seat attached to PVC pipe structure that is held to the bucket with bungee cords – put World’s Best Cat Litter (made from corn and yes, that’s the brand name) at bottom of bucket, add a scoop whenever necessary. It IS the best because it controls odor and is 100% biodegradable. Use the ni8tulti-cat formula. When sufficiently full, tie up the bag and toss into the trash the same way people do with cat box litter.
We’ve been using a biodegradable walnut based cat litter that is a little less expensive than the World’s Best Cat Litter. It also works well for odor control.
A few years ago, I received a pamphlet from a local sustainability organization regarding disaster preparedness. It suggested using two five gallon buckets, one for urine and one for feces. Healthy urine can easily be used as fertilizer, as long as your place isn’t flooded. It can be added to compost. It can also be easily poured into the toilet, once your facilities are usable again. The pamphlet stated that keeping the two separate results in less stink. Haven’t had to try it yet, but I’m planning on separating the two, if and when the time comes.
Keep in mind that while urine is sterile, it tends to be quickly populated by bacteria, so it doesn’t stay sterile for long. The ammonia odor can become quite pungent. If you have the space, there’s certainly nothing wrong with attempting to separate the two waste streams.
We have been decanting urine from our personal urine bottles into former one gallon vinegar jugs for years. We keep a large funnel in the one we are filling and none of our guests, have noticed any odor. The only tie there has been any odor is when a few drops splashed out into the large pot we place the jug into (in case of spills) or along the side of the jug. We regularly rinse out the pot. We have found that dilute household vinegar, about one part to 5 parts of water) sprayed where ever we might have wiped up a splash will totally eliminate odor. We discovered this formula after moving into a house where the cats had not be well managed, nor were the carpets successfully cleaned. If it can work on tomcat pee, it will work on pretty much any urine!
We have a 2 bucket system in which quickly realized we would be happier if we dump a bucket,wash it and let it dry thoroughly by taking cleaned bucket #2 into the house all clean and well dried for service. There has not been a problem with residual odor in the empty bucket since then. Not sure how this would work for your buckets if they are deeply odor-absorbed. We also put a two inch layer of chips in the bottom of the bucket which allows it to empty out very completely. and if an occasional elimination is particularly fragrant, we toss on another good handful of chips or so until we do not notice an odor.
I made one of these using a pool noodle for the seat. I can’t get the pool noodle to stay on the rim of the bucket. Any tricks to help with that/
If you want it to stay in place permanently, try some gorilla glue. If you want it to stay removeable for washing, you could try weighting it or clamping it down temporarily to see if it will take on the form of the bucket better.
You are my hero. Our electricity has been on the fritz, and I really didn’t want to have to “go ” outside. I’ve been meaning to make one of these, since we live in a rural area that lose power a good bit during storms. I was able to assemble this emergency toilet just in time 😬 thank you so much!