A person entering an outdoor restroom with a vault toilet at a park.

Vault Toilets Are Gross (Because People Don’t Use Them the Right Way)

Talking about toilets is never easy, yet it’s necessary, especially when traveling and camping. There’s always the unwanted mystery of what you might find behind a bathroom door.

And more often than not, what’s usually behind that door if you’re camping or stopping off for a quick break from driving, is a vault toilet. 

What Is a Vault Toilet?

A vault toilet is often thought of as an outhouse. While it may resemble that (it doesn’t flush), vault toilets usually aren’t quite as primitive as the rickety structures you might be picturing from an old Western. 

Vault toilets are in permanent structures similar to a small wood cabin. You’ll even find that they have a chimney-like structure, which is actually a large vent pipe.

Many of them are brown so as not to stand out too much within the natural areas they’re in, such as state parks, national forests, and trailheads.

How Does a Vault Toilet Work?

So, if vault toilets don’t flush nor use water, how do they work? Another name for a vault toilet is a pit toilet. And that might help to explain more on how they work.

The toilet structure itself is just that — a toilet with a seat and a lid. But the waste isn’t flushed away; it’s stored below in an underground tank.

A white vault toilet with the lid open in a bathroom.

When full, they can hold anywhere from 750 gallons to 13,000 gallons of waste. A specialty truck arrives to pump out the tank and transports it to a water treatment plant.

Vault toilets can fill up, but park rangers usually keep an eye on the cleanliness of the toilets. When they get full, the doors are locked until the truck arrives to pump out the tank. 

You won’t always find the doors locked when the tank is full, though, so be wary when using vault toilets. Most times, they are clean enough to use. However, there are instances where you may not even want to come within 50 feet of the place.

Why Can Vault Toilets Smell So Bad?

Vault toilets are not the most pleasant-smelling places. Think about it. Waste sits in a tank below ground with no water to dilute the smell. There are no air fresheners.

You might find hand sanitizer in some, but more often than not, it’s empty. You’ll also be lucky if there’s toilet paper.

So, yes, vault toilets smell bad, even with the metal pipe and small windows meant for ventilation.

How to Use a Vault Toilet the Right Way

Believe it or not, there are ways to create a not-so-harrowing experience while using a vault toilet. In fact, the more we take care of these structures, the more they might stick around. They may smell, but park operators may prohibit camping or hiking without them.

Yes, you can use nature as your toilet, but too many people aren’t following proper procedures, and human waste next to a campsite or a trailhead doesn’t make for a pleasant encounter. So, when using a vault toilet, close the lid, don’t use it as a trash can, and shut the door when you leave.

Close the Dang Lid

One of the easiest ways to diminish the smell from a vault toilet is to simply close the lid when done. It keeps the smell down below, along with the flies.

Yes, you’ll have to touch the lid to open and close it. Be wary of the flies that will inevitably arise from the open lid.

That is also why it’s good to have your own supply of hand sanitizer along with you. When you’re done using the facility and have to shut the lid, your hand sanitizer will help keep you clean. It may help the smell a bit, too.

Don’t Throw in Anything Except Toilet Paper

Vault toilets are for human waste, toilet paper, and nothing else. It is not a trash can, so don’t throw in tampons, pantyliners, and wet wipes. Whatever’s not toilet paper needs to go out with you because most vault toilets will not have a place for your trash. 

The waste won’t pump out properly if people continue to use vault toilets as trash cans. If that continues, park services will simply shutter the toilet and, ultimately, the area it serves. If there are no trash services, your trash leaves with you. 

A trash bin overflows with garbage outside of a restroom with vault toilets.

Shut the Door on Your Way Out

Another easy solution to keeping a vault toilet working as it should is to make sure you close the door when you leave. This helps keep the smell in, the bugs out, and, more importantly, the wildlife out.

If you wander into a vault toilet with a door left wide open, there’s no telling what else wandered aimlessly in before you. Unwanted wildlife encounters can be dangerous for both humans and animals.

Again, if we don’t take care of the vault toilets, the easiest solution is to close them down.

Vault Toilets Don’t Have to Be Gross

The more we care for our toilets, the more facilities to use. And no matter how bad they may smell, we all have to admit that having a vault toilet nearby is quite convenient. But having one full of trash and bugs is not a toilet we want to use. 

Vault toilets don’t have to be gross. They can actually be quite clean if we all take a moment to do our part by simply taking out our trash and closing the lid and the door. By doing those simple tasks, this is one unwanted mystery easily solved. 

What do you do when you encounter gross vault toilets?

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