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!
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.