Camping toilets, dry toilets, composting toilets, what's the difference?

Van driving through desert landscape
Table of Contents

Doing business off the grid

Everyone who starts with the dream of a camping adventure, is sooner or later confronted with one of the most annoying yet unspoken topics: Where and how to do your business? It doesn't matter whether you are a weekender and just travel for two nights or if you go on your four-week trip through several national parks. Everyone has to do "use the bathroom" and yet very few people spend a lot of time thinking and talking about it. Most of the larger RV models have integrated sanitation systems, so we don't 

We want to bring light into this mess and help you get a better understanding of the different options. What are the common options and why do people choose them? 

man holding shovel in forest

#1 The shovel is easy but where is the comfort?

The shovel is a very universal tool and something most people have ready at hand. Especially those that have very limited space prefer this option and just find a quiet place in nature to dig a small hole. Regardless of weather or daylight, the shovel crowd is leaving the vehicle to dig a hole and do their business in it. This solution is obviously quite straightforward but it leaves many issues untackled.

Advantages of using a shovel

  • Easy and cheap
  • Little space need

Disadvantages of using a shovel

  • Uncomfortable
  • Need suitable ground to dig a hole
  • Need privacy to squat down
  • Sometimes not legal to leave your belongings in nature


#2 The cassette camping toilet won't get you far

The typical cassette toilet is what you would find at Walmart under the "camping toilet" category or pre-built in many larger RVs. These toilets all function the same way: liquids and solids are collected in one single container and are mixed with a combination of water plus chemicals. These chemicals are used to prevent the decomposition of bacteria in urine and feces plus reduce the smell. Later on, the sewage tank has to be emptied in specific dumping stations, usually only found on designated camping grounds.

In larger vehicles (mostly RVs), instead of a separate tank under the toilet, there is a whole sewage system installed on board where you empty it through a hose connected to the RV. These toilets don't have a "cassette" and are normally called "RV toilets" but function the same way with chemicals.

Advantages of the cassette toilet

  • Cheap for the initial purchase
  • Available everywhere
  • Prevents most smells in the vehicle

Disadvantages of the cassette toilet

  • Can only be emptied at designated stations
  • Quite nasty to empty
  • Low comfort
  • A lot of chemicals needed --> bad for the environment
  • Waste of water for flushing


#3 The dry toilet a.k.a. the bucket has to be emptied too often

The  dry toilet is quite popular among many people that spend more time off-the-grid and don't want to rely on visiting dumping stations to empty their chemical soups (see above). Dry toilets are generally speaking glorified buckets with toilet seats where both liquids and solids land in the same bucket. 

As the name suggests, no water is used to or added while "operating" the toilet. Instead of water and chemicals, normally people use natural materials to cover their business after each use, such as fine wood shavings or small pet bedding. This material dries out the liquids/solids mix and reduces unpleasant smells. 

Since urine is mixed into the same bucket as the solids, it has to be emptied rather frequently.

Advantages of the dry toilet

  • Very cheap
  • Easy to use
  • Doesn't take up much space

Disadvantages of the cassette toilet

  • Can fill up quite quickly
  • A bit difficult and unpleasant to empty, especially with a lot of urine
  • Low comfort


#4 The composting / separating toilet convenience

The final option is also the newest one. Separating toilets (or composting toilets) do in short what the name suggests: The separate liquids from solids into two separate containers and thus the two can also be emptied individually. In general, it gives you a much higher flexibility during your travels. Separating the two things is an important reason why these toilets are much easier to handle and smell less. Be aware: You have to sit down and should not use this toilet while standing up.

separating toilet mechanism

The liquid container typically lasts for 10 - 20 uses, which means 2 - 4 days. It can easily be emptied down the drain in any public toilet or sewerage. Since urine by itself includes lots of useful nutrients for plants, you can even sprinkle it and use it as a fertilizer. 

trelino separating toilet mechanism

The solides container is lined with a (compostable) plastic bag and after each use, you would cover your business with a scoop or two of litter. Litter acts as a cover material to dry the solids quickly, as described in #3 above. Litter materials are easy to come by and can be picked up in most garden stores. Options include coconut coir bricks, fine wood shavings (e.g. Aspen Bedding),  or organic peat moss.

Emptying the solids is super easy. You just remove the bag, tie it up and dispose of it in regular garbage (though some cities don't allow it). Even though many people use the term "composting toilet", the solids rarely stay in the container long enough to be composted. 

small composting toilet in garden   trelino origin s interior forest

Advantages of the separating (composting) toilet

  • Very easy to use thanks to smart separation system
  • Convenient size, easily portable
  • More freedom & independence on the road
  • Smell prevention
  • No water or chemicals needed

Disadvantages of the separating (composting) toilet

  • A bit pricier than the other options above
  • Need to have litter material at hand

Interested in trying a separating toilet? Have a look at the wonderful Trelino products and how they will make your life easier.


camping in forest

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