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Composting Toilet For Vanlife: A Simple Guide

The van life you see on social media posts is not what we all know and love in real life. It takes work! Sometimes, you have to deal with icky things and topics you never see online…like doing your business in a compact living situation.

Today, we’ll discuss what a composting toilet for vanlife is, how it works, and the highs and lows of using one in your van. By the end of this article, you’ll clearly understand what a composting toilet is and whether or not it’s suitable for your vanlife adventure.

Let us flush away all your composting toilet questions in the article below. Too much? Alright, we’ll leave out the toilet humor…

This post includes affiliate links, but rest assured that we only recommend items we would use ourselves. If you choose to make a purchase, we receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. There are no sponsorships; this is just the truth about our favorite finds.

Why Choose a Composting Toilet for Vanlife Over Other Toilets

Vanlife at night

Choosing the right toilet setup can make a big difference when it comes to life on the road. Let’s break down why a composting toilet for vanlife stands out compared to other options.

Portable Toilets with Wag Bags

Portable toilets using wag bags are a popular choice for their simplicity and convenience. But they come with their own set of challenges:

  • Convenience: They are easy to set up and use anywhere, making them a quick fix. They can fold down for easy storage, taking up minimal space when not in use.
  • Disposal: You must dispose of the bags properly, which can be tricky depending on where you are.
  • Smell: They can get pretty smelly if not sealed properly.

Cassette Toilets

Cassette toilets offer a built-in solution with a removable waste tank for easy dumping. They’re common in many camping RV setups but have their drawbacks:

  • Ease of Use: Easy to use with a built-in flush system, mimicking traditional toilets.
  • Maintenance: Requires regular emptying at designated dump stations, which can be a hassle.
  • Chemical Use: Often relies on chemicals to break down waste, which isn’t the most eco-friendly option.

No Toilet at All

Some vanlifers choose the no-toilet route, relying on public restrooms or nature. While it’s the ultimate minimalist approach, when you vanlife full time, it has clear downsides:

  • Accessibility: Finding restrooms or suitable outdoor spots can be challenging, especially in remote areas.
  • Hygiene: Lacks the convenience and hygiene of having an onboard toilet.
  • Privacy: Limited privacy when nature calls isn’t ideal in all situations.

Why Composting Toilets Are Better

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) tells us that a composting toilet breaks down waste 10-30% of its original volume, meaning it can be used more over a longer period of time. That’s a huge bonus for vanlifers!

In addition to minimizing waste, a composting toilet for vanlife also has these benefits:

  • Odor Control: Properly maintained composting toilets are virtually odorless, thanks to natural decomposition processes and ventilation systems.
  • Water-Free Operation: No need for water means you save a precious resource and eliminate the risk of leaks or frozen pipes in colder climates.
  • Eco-Friendly: Composting toilets turn human waste into compost, reducing your environmental footprint and avoiding harmful chemicals.
  • Off-Grid Capable: Composting toilets are ideal for wild, remote spots where traditional plumbing isn’t an option. They give you the freedom to camp off-grid without compromising on comfort.

Overall, we found that a composting toilet for vanlife was the best option. We bought the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet and have it installed behind our driver’s seat in its own compartment. We’ve never had an issue with it!

By the way, if you’re worried about making a mistake during your van build – don’t! We made plenty of mistakes and learned so much from them. You can read about our top 5 mistakes we made while building our van to be sure you avoid them!

How Composting Toilets Work

Nature's Head Composting Toilet

Going from a toilet you flush and forget about to one that requires maintenance can be a little intimidating. We’re here to guide you through how a portable composting toilet for vanlife works so you can be sure you’re investing in the right product for your van!

The Basic Mechanism

At its core, a composting toilet for vanlife is designed to turn human waste into usable compost through natural processes. Unlike traditional toilets, composting toilets often have separate compartments for liquid and solid waste, which helps manage odors and optimize composting.

  • Liquid Waste: Liquid waste (urine) is typically diverted into a separate container. Depending on usage, this compartment needs to be emptied more frequently, usually every few days.
  • Solid Waste: Solid waste falls into a different compartment where the composting magic happens. This chamber is typically lined with a carbon-rich material like peat moss or coconut coir, which aids in breaking down the waste.

Composting Process

The real beauty of a composting toilet for vanlife lies in how it handles waste. Here’s a step-by-step look at the process:

  1. Carbon Addition: Before you use your composting toilet or after emptying it out, you will add a carbon-rich material like peat moss or coconut coir to the composting chamber. This helps break down the waste and controls odors by providing the right balance of nitrogen and carbon.
  2. Deposit: When you use the toilet, urine and feces are kept separate. Urine enters its holding tank, while feces drop into the composting chamber. Usually, some kind of handle or mechanism closes off the composting chamber when you only need to pee. So, ladies, don’t fret about needing to aim into a particular chamber!
  3. Aeration: Some composting toilets come with a hand crank or other means to stir the compost pile, ensuring adequate aeration. Oxygen is crucial for the aerobic bacteria that break down the waste.
  4. Decomposition: Over time, microorganisms break down the solid waste, turning it into compost. This process can take a few weeks to a few months, depending on conditions like temperature and moisture levels.

Speaking of how-to’s, you can read about how to start a campervan conversion here!

Maintenance and Care

Regular maintenance is vital to keeping your composting toilet for vanlife functioning efficiently. Here’s a simple breakdown of what you need to do:

Daily Tasks

Your composting toilet for vanlife requires little maintenance daily. You may have to empty the urine collection bottle depending on how often it is used. Also, check that the ventilation fan is working correctly at all times.

Weekly Tasks

You should empty the urine container a few times every week to prevent overflow and odors. Believe it or not, the odor from urine is far more potent than number two. In fact, I have never smelled an odor from our composting chamber!

It would be best to give the compost pile a good rotation at least once a week. This is usually done by turning a hand crank on the side of the toilet. This helps increase the oxygen content, which helps break down the waste into compost.

Another good idea is to clean once a week. Use Simple Green or another eco-friendly cleaner to wipe down the toilet seat, lid, and hand crank. This keeps things sanitary, which is essential in such a small living space.

Monthly Tasks

You should check the overall condition of the composting chamber monthly to ensure the decomposition process is going smoothly. If the chamber appears to be getting full, empty it in a proper location.

Inspect the seals and connections on your composting toilet to ensure there are no signs of wear or leaks. Since a composting toilet for vanlife doesn’t use any water and uses minimal electricity, these babies can last a long time when maintenance and care are given regularly.

Emptying Frequency

One of the common questions about composting toilets is how often they need to be emptied. Some toilets (like Nature’s Head) require you to basically uninstall the toilet to empty the composting chamber, which would be a pain if you had to do it frequently.

Here’s a general guideline of how often to empty your composting toilet for vanlife:

  • Urine Container: Depending on usage, it needs to be emptied every few days. This can be easily done by pouring it into a designated disposal area, such as a public toilet, outhouse, or greywater drain. Never empty it into a waterway or storm drain.
  • Solid Waste Chamber: Typically, a family of two can use a composting toilet for 3 to 6 weeks before the solid waste compartment needs emptying. This is if you use the composting toilet full-time. However, if you use it only occasionally, it will last much longer. Once it’s full, you’ll need to remove and dispose of the compost correctly or let it sit in a secondary compost bin to finish breaking down.

We use public restrooms or the outdoors whenever possible and only use our composting toilet when necessary. This allows us to go much longer between emptying the composting chamber – about every three months.

Different Types of Composting Toilets for Vanlife

Nature's head composting toilet for vanlife

When choosing a suitable composting toilet for vanlife, there are a few options to consider. Let’s break down the various types, their designs, sizes, and installation requirements to help you find the perfect fit for your campervan.

Self-Contained Composting Toilets

Self-contained composting toilets are all-in-one units that manage solid and liquid waste within the same device. They are popular for their simplicity and ease of use. Nature’s Head and the Cuddy Composting Toilet are examples of self-contained composting toilets.

  • Design and Size: They are typically compact, making them ideal for campervans with tight spaces. They often have a built-in fan for ventilation.
  • Installation: Relatively straightforward. You’ll need to secure the unit to the floor and ensure proper ventilation, usually through a vent pipe leading outside.
  • Best For: Vanlifers looking for an easy-to-install, self-sufficient system without separate external tanks.

Split-System Composting Toilets

Split-system or remote composting toilets separate the toilet bowl from the composting unit. The waste is transferred to a secondary composting chamber located elsewhere in the van.

An example of a split-system composting toilet would be the Villa 9215 AC/DC.

  • Design and Size: The toilet bowl is smaller. However, you’ll need additional space for the remote composting chamber, often installed under the van or in a storage area.
  • Installation: This is more complex than self-contained units. It requires plumbing to connect the toilet to the remote composting chamber and proper ventilation for both components.
  • Best For: Those with larger vans or willing to undergo a more involved installation process for greater capacity and less frequent emptying.

Urine-Diverting Dry Toilets (UDDT)

Urine-diverting dry toilets separate liquid and solid waste at the source, directing urine into one container and solids into another. The C-Head Basic is an example of a urine diverter dry toilet.

  • Design and Size: These toilets are often compact but require two separate waste containers. They generally don’t need water or chemicals.
  • Installation: Moderately easy. You’ll need to install both containers and ensure proper ventilation for the solid waste compartment.
  • Best For: Vanlifers who want a simple, water-free solution with effective odor control and easy maintenance.

Electric Composting Toilets

Electric composting toilets use electricity to enhance the composting process, typically through heating elements and fans. The Sun-Mar Mobile is an example of an electric composting toilet.

  • Design and Size: These are similar in size to self-contained units, but they require a power source and often have more advanced features, like temperature control.
  • Installation: This requires securing the unit, connecting it to a power source, and ensuring ventilation. It is a bit more technical due to electrical components.
  • Best For: Those with reliable electricity access and want a faster composting process with minimal manual intervention.

Selecting the Right Composting Toilet For Vanlife

When choosing a composting toilet for vanlife, consider the following:

  • Space Constraints: Measure your available space carefully. Self-contained and UDDTs are best for smaller vans, while split-system toilets suit larger setups.
  • Installation Complexity: If you prefer a straightforward setup, go with a self-contained unit. If you are okay with some DIY, split-systems offer greater capacity and less frequent emptying.
  • Power Availability: If you often camp off-grid without access to electricity, avoid electric composting toilets. Otherwise, they can be a fantastic, low-maintenance option.
  • Maintenance Preferences: Some toilets require more frequent emptying and maintenance. Consider how much effort you’re willing to put into upkeep.

Choosing the proper composting toilet for vanlife can make your adventures more comfortable and eco-friendly. Consider the above toilet types and choose one that fits your van style and living situation.

Managing Waste and Compost in a Campervan

Peat moss compost

Living the vanlife comes with challenges, and managing waste from a composting toilet is one of them. But don’t worry—it’s easier than you might think! A composting toilet for vanlife is designed to be compact, easy to use, and easy to manage.

Guidelines for Managing Waste and Compost

Efficient waste management is key in a compact living environment like a campervan. Here are some guidelines to help you stay on top of things:

  • Separate Liquids and Solids: Most composting toilets separate urine from feces. Empty the urine container every few days to prevent overflow and odors.
  • Use Carbon-Rich Materials: Adding materials like peat moss or coconut coir after each solid use helps with composting and odor control.
  • Adequate Ventilation: Ensure your toilet’s ventilation system is working correctly. A small fan can make a big difference in keeping smells at bay. It’s also recommended that the fan’s output be installed on the bottom of your van rather than on the side. When you’re flying down the highway at 70mph, the wind can backflow and emit unpleasant odors back into the van.

Proper Disposal Methods and Composting Procedures

When it comes to disposing of the compost from your toilet, it’s essential to follow proper procedures to ensure environmental safety and legality:

  • Designated Compost Sites: You can dispose of your compost at designated facilities or sites that accept humanure. Check local regulations to find suitable locations. However, this can be difficult to do when living on the road.
  • Trash/Dumpster: You can empty your compost into a regular kitchen trash bag and dispose of it in a dumpster or garbage can. At this point, your waste is basically compost, so even though it sounds gross, it’s much better for the environment than the plastic dog poop bags that get thrown in the trash!
  • Outside: Since your waste is compost, you can dispose of it outdoors. Make sure you are at least 200 feet from any water source. If you take certain medications, be aware that those can transfer into the manure, making it very unhealthy to be in the environment.

Places to Avoid Dumping Compost

For the health of the environment and your fellow travelers, here are some places where van lifers should never dump their compost:

  • Public Parks and Natural Reserves: These areas are protected to preserve wildlife and natural habitats. Dumping compost here can cause harm.
  • Water Bodies: Never dispose of waste in rivers, lakes, or oceans. It can contaminate water sources and harm aquatic life.
  • Private Property: Always respect private property and avoid dumping compost without explicit permission from the owner.

Managing waste and compost in a campervan may seem daunting at first, but with the right tools and knowledge, it’s entirely manageable. By following these guidelines and using eco-friendly products, you’ll keep your van fresh and clean, making your travels all the more enjoyable.

Tips for Maintaining Your Campervan Toilet

Cleaning supplies for composting toilet for vanlife

Keeping your composting toilet in tip-top shape is essential for a smooth vanlife experience. Here are some practical tips to increase the longevity of your toilet, ensure proper maintenance, and spot any potential issues before they become problems.

Increasing Longevity

A little care goes a long way in extending the life of your composting toilet. Make sure to regularly empty the liquid container to prevent buildup and odors. If you have the time and access to a water source, clean out the urine container to avoid everyday wear on the container.

Using suitable carbon materials in your composting chamber will increase the longevity of your toilet. Peat moss, wood shavings, and coconut coir are excellent choices and help control moisture levels and add carbon to the composting mix.

Ensure that your ventilation system is always working. Proper airflow is vital to an efficient composting process. Without oxygen, the composting process will not work or will be slowed down immensely!

Identifying and Addressing Problems

Even with the best maintenance, issues can still arise. Here’s what to look out for and how to fix common problems:

  • Unpleasant Odors: If you notice foul smells, it could be due to insufficient ventilation or an imbalance in the compost mix. Check the fan and ventilation system to make sure it’s working correctly. Add more bulking agents (carbon material) to balance moisture and carbon levels.
  • Liquid Overflow: An overflowing urine container can cause spills and unpleasant odors. Empty the liquid container more frequently to avoid this problem.
  • Slow Composting: If the solid waste isn’t breaking down as quickly as expected, it might be too dry or wet. Adust the amount of bulking agent. If it’s too dry, add some water. If it’s too wet, add more carbon material to absorb excess moisture.
  • Pests or Bugs: Occasionally, pests might find their way into the composting chamber. Ensure all seals are tight and there are no gaps where pests can enter. Install a screen on the ventilation that leads outside the van. If the problem persists, consider using natural pest deterrents like diatomaceous earth, mighty mint, or wondercide.

By following these tips and addressing any issues promptly, you’ll ensure your composting toilet for vanlife remains a reliable solution for your campervan adventures.

Addressing Common Concerns

Big red van at a trailhead parking lot

If you’re transitioning from life in a home to life in a van, you may have some questions. A composting toilet for vanlife may seem like a mystery at first, but we’re here to shed light on these bathroom thrones!

Q: Are composting toilets smelly? Nope! With proper maintenance, composting toilets are designed to effectively manage odors. Ventilation and using carbon-rich materials like sawdust or peat moss help keep smells at bay.

Q: Can you put toilet paper in a composting toilet? Yes. The best types of toilet paper to use in a composting toilet are those that break down quickly, such as septic-safe and biodegradable paper.

Q: Is maintaining a composting toilet challenging? It’s easier than you might think. Regularly adding bulking agents and emptying the compost when needed keeps things running smoothly. Most users find the routine straightforward and manageable.

Q: Do composting toilets attract pests? When correctly managed, composting toilets do not attract pests. Keeping the composting container secure and following recommended guidelines ensures a pest-free experience.

Q: Not sure you’re ready for vanlife? Check out our article on all you need to know about vanlife! We discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Wrapping Up Composting Toilets For Vanlife

Hopefully, by now, we’ve flushed away all your van toilet questions and enlightened you on all your toilet options for your van build. (Hey, I waited until the end to bring back the toilet humor).

Embracing a composting toilet for vanlife brings an array of benefits that make it a practical choice for the open road. These toilets offer a sustainable way to manage waste, utilizing natural processes to break down materials and reduce your environmental footprint.

Plus, it eliminates driving around to find a public restroom. And let’s be honest, public restrooms and port-a-johns can be even ickier than emptying your own compost!

We’d love to hear about the bathroom setup in your camper van! Share your experiences and tips in the comments below. Whether you’re a seasoned vanlifer or just starting out, your insights can help fellow travelers make their journeys even better.

For more tips on vanlife, check out our vanlife blog! Until next time, happy traveling!


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