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Vault Toilets Exposed: The Gross and the Surprising

Many campers and adventurers have a fear of using vault toilets. The fear often comes from not knowing what’s waiting for them behind the door. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and when you have to go, you have to go.

Unfortunately, these toilets have a pretty bad reputation. While we understand they’re not an ideal place to answer nature’s call, things could be worse.

Today, we’re sharing some gross and surprising things you need to know about vault toilets. Let’s get started!

Long Drop Toilet Etiquette. Campground Toilet Best Practice.

What Are Vault Toilets?

Here on Mortons on the move we are not shy to talk about toilets. 😂 Well at least specialty RV toilets. While a vault toilet is not a portable toilet, campers find themselves using these toilets.

Vault toilets are standard toilets people use in campgrounds and other recreational areas. These toilets get their name from the large underground “vault” that stores the waste. Since these toilets do not require water, they’re popular in remote wilderness locations.

These types of restrooms can be highly convenient for outdoor enthusiasts. They have a low environmental impact and are typically very cost-effective options. However, the user experience can be hit or miss depending on the toilet.

Sign to public vault toilet
Many campgrounds and recreational areas will use vault toilets.

How Does a Vault Toilet Work?

Because vault toilets do not require water, they work differently than standard toilets. The waste is stored in a vault underneath the toilet, accumulating and breaking down through a natural microbial process. Some vault toilets will use chemicals to help mask odors, but a venting system also is required to help reduce the smells.

Some remote vault toilets will break down waste fast enough that they rarley need emptying. However, busy toilets will eventually reach capacity, requiring a visit from a pump truck. The truck operator uses a suction device to transfer the waste from the vault into a tank on the back of the vehicle. They then transport the waste to a sanitation center for proper disposal.

Pro Tip: A clogged RV toilet can truly be a nightmare! Use this guide on How to Unclog an RV Toilet or Tank to stay stink-free!

Is a Vault Toilet the Same as an Outhouse?

While outhouses and vault toilets appear similar, they are very different. Vault toilets utilize a metal or concrete container to store the waste. This container ensures that no waste leaks from the vault and creates contamination issues for the surrounding environment.

On the other hand, outhouses utilize a pit or trench beneath the toilet. The waste naturally decomposes over time and absorbs into the ground. Many view outhouses as a more rustic and primitive option, and they tend to be less sanitary and comfortable than a vault toilet.

Both toilets are typically excellent low-maintenance options for areas with limited access to modern plumbing. However, vault toilets usually have a reputation for being the most hygienic and environmentally-friendly option for campgrounds and parks.

Vault toilet in woods
Vault toilets don’t require water and instead stores waste in a vault.

The Surprising Benefits of Vault Toilets

While you may not prefer using a them, there are many reasons why parks install them. Let’s look at a few of the surprising benefits of these toilets.

Doesn’t Require Water

Some of the best places for exploring and enjoying nature are far from modern facilities. Running miles of water lines is neither economical nor good for the environment. Vault toilets can be helpful in these situations as they require no water and allow visitors to use the restroom.


Vault toilets use leak-proof containers to store waste and any other contents. This helps ensure that anything that goes down the toilet doesn’t release into the surrounding environment. Many of these toilets are in natural areas, including national and state parks, which focus on preserving and protecting the land.

As long as the toilets receive the necessary maintenance and attention, contaminating the land is generally not a significant concern. The waste goes to a treatment facility, where people dispose of it properly.

Less Impact on the Environment

Combining the fact that these toilets don’t require water and are self-contained systems makes them fantastic for the environment. A standard flush toilet uses more than a gallon of water for each flush. When you use them appropriately, vault toilets have less impact on the environment than most others.

While we may not be the biggest fans of using these toilets, it helps to know we’re doing our part to protect the environment. The less impact we can have on the environment and nature, the better.

Public toilet sign at RV park
Vault toilets require regular maintenance and can be quite smelly.

The Gross Disadvantages of Vault Toilets

However, these toilets are far from perfect, and there are some logical reasons why people don’t like using them. Let’s look at some of the gross disadvantages of them.

Require Regular Maintenance

While vault toilets may not have running water, they require regular maintenance. Establishments with these types of toilets will often hire a mobile sewer company to come with their equipment to empty the tanks regularly. Depending on the size of the vault and the usage of the facility, the time between dumpings will vary.

Additionally, they require maintenance to help the vaults last as long as possible. This process includes cleaning them and inspecting for damaged or weakened areas where sewage could leak out and contaminate the environment.

Metal vaults have the potential for rust, and concrete vaults can crack and decay over time. To avoid any potential contamination, keeping up with regular maintenance is essential.

They’re Not Portable

An additional disadvantage of a vault toilet is that it’s not portable. Some parks and recreational areas use porta-potties instead of vault toilets for their portability. They can move them around the facility as needed. Since vault toilets utilize a more solid and permanent construction, moving them is not easy.

Odors Are Unavoidable

One of the worst things about vault toilets is the smell. While some fancier versions of these toilets have systems to help minimize odors, users often don’t use them appropriately. Many of these simple solutions require the user to close the lid. 

Closing the lid prevents the gasses and smells from the vault from filling the bathroom area. Instead of filling the bathroom, the odors escape through a vent that leads out and above the toilet.

Unfortunately, many users don’t realize this and leave the toilet seat up when they finish their business. The following user opens the door and gets a whiff of odors from the vault. It’s a pretty horrific experience and is worse than we can describe.

Pro Tip: Something unpleasant smelling coming out of your RV bathroom? These are 5 Reasons Why Your RV Toilet Stinks.

Entrance into vault toilet
Even if vault toilets aren’t your preferred bathroom choice, when you’ve got go, you’ve got to go.

Is a Vault Toilet The Same as a Composting Toilet?

No, a vault toilet is not a composting toilet. While much of the waste will break down in a vault toilet, the urine needs to be separated if it is to properly compost. Some vault toilet designs are composting toilets, but many just collect all the waste in the vault.

Composting toilets can be very large for heavy use and built into the ground or very small. We have been using a composting toilet in our RV for many years. Unlike vault toilets, the composting toilet does not smell because it separates the solids and liquids. Proper venting, mixing, and enzymes are needed for a composting toilet to work properly.

Learn More: We wrote an article all about 5 composting toilet myths you need to ignore!

Whats so great about RV composting Toilets? | What You Should Consider Before You Buy

Tips for Using Vault Toilets

If you are using a vault toilet, there are a few things you should always do. This will help you and others to have a better experience going to the bathroom in one.

Don’t Forget the TP and Hand Sanitizer

We strongly recommend that you bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer. You can’t count on either being available in a vault toilet. You don’t want to be in a predicament where you have nothing to clean up with or sanitize your hands.

We recommend keeping a roll of toilet paper in your vehicle. This way, you have some readily available if you’re heading out for a hike or need to use a non-modern facility. It’s better to have and not need it than to be without it.

Watch Your Stuff

You need to keep track of your stuff when using a vault toilet. Anything that drops into the toilet is likely a goner and not something you’ll want, even if you could rescue it. Remember valuables like cell phones, jewelry, or other expensive items. You don’t want to ruin your day by accidentally dropping them into the bottom of the toilet.

It’s Not a Trash Bin

One mistake many people make is treating this kind of toilet like a trash can. While the vault is for waste, it’s not for trash. By filling the vault with junk, you’re making it harder for the natural process to break down human waste. In addition, you complicate the company’s job, which will eventually come and empty the vault.

If you have trash, you must hold onto it until you find a place to dispose of it properly. Always practice leave no trace principles. This helps ensure that future generations can enjoy trails and natural areas.

The Dirty Truth About Vault Toilets

While vault toilets may not be your preferred restroom, they can be convenient and minimize the environmental impact. Please do your part and use them correctly by not putting trash down the toilet. You can also do the next guest a favor by closing the toilet lid and leaving it as clean as possible.

On a scale of one to ten, how much do you hate using vault toilets? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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Charles Land

Tuesday 19th of March 2024

The Forest Service has a vault toilet design the works pretty well. Sunshine on the vent pipe keeps odors out of the room IF the toilet lid is closed between uses. The vaults are deep enough that you usually do your business into a black hole rather than staring at the business of prior users. Trash, such as plastic water bottles, diapers, beer cans etc., make it much more difficult to pump them out.