Survival Sanitation: Poop Party Chit-Chat, an Essential Family Conversation

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Survival SanitationPooping…there’s nothing we like better as a society than sharing our defecation experiences.

OK, you got me. This is not a subject for “proper” conversation. While we all have to do the “Number 2” to survive, it remains a very private experience. Couples that don’t think twice about urinating in front of each other draw the line here.

Under normal circumstances, the details of elimination are pretty straightforward. Wipe, flush, and you’re done. But in a significant disaster, our options for “sanitation” are few and ignorance of proper disposal of waste can lead to discomfort, discord, and health hazards.

Having this survival sanitation discussion in advance with the whole family is an important step in normalizing this uncomfortable adjustment to our hygiene habits.

An emergency toilet in action

I have a story to illustrate how even highly trained emergency responders have trouble with this issue. I was the Team Leader of a 150-member federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, trained and equipped to set up a medical clinic with physicians, nurses, and paramedics in the midst of the worst disaster areas. Our team had a field exercise where we set up our field toilets, basically a 5-gallon bucket with a plastic seat and a “Wag-Bag,” a plastic liner with a gelling agent inside to capture waste and allow disposal in regular garbage.

All personnel were trained in how to use it, and yet at the end of the first day it was clear that some refused to follow the directions. Some Wag-Bags were left on the ground, some of the buckets were filled with waste, it was a mess. As a result, our new procedure was to assign a monitor to inspect each toilet after use so our health could be maintained.

Why planning for survival sanitation is so important

Let’s examine the problem. Potable water and working sewers are necessary for modern sewage systems to operate. In many areas, electrical power drives the pumps for potable water and sewage systems. Private well pumps also rely on electricity. So any disaster that affects the power grid will impact your sanitation strategy. Still, if you have the water available and an intact sewer or septic tank, pouring water into the toilet will allow normal flushing.

More complicated disasters such as floods can directly affect potable water and sewage systems by causing backflows and interfering with gravity-flow systems. In this case, sewer lines can become a direct threat to you unless you have a valve or plug to prevent backflow into your house.

Similar issues can develop with your septic system. Earthquakes can create a whole new level of havoc, breaking both potable and sewage water lines and causing cross-contamination. Depending upon what hazards are common to your area, you should plan for the worst case.

Options for emergency toilets

There are several options for waste disposal if the traditional toilet is not available. The closest thing to the normal toilet experience is the camping (chemical) toilet, available in the $40-$100 range. These units have a several-gallon waste tank, a small water tank and some kind of pump for flushing. The operation is similar to a regular toilet, and a chemical is used to deodorize the waste. For short-term use, this is a good solution; however in situations where water is at a premium, the water used for flushing is better used for drinking or washing.

For many families, the simplest plan will be using a 5-gallon bucket and sawdust or dirt. This is the “composting” method, where waste is allowed to naturally decompose into compost material. When someone does their business, they cover the waste with sawdust or dirt which helps control odors and introduces helpful bacteria into the pile. This method isn’t ideal, but in long-term situations it manages the solid waste in a hygienic manner. The “compost” needs to be mixed every few days to assure oxygen is getting to all parts of the mixture…and a lid must be kept on to keep pests out.

One problem with this method is that the compost should be moist but not damp to facilitate breakdown, so only limited urination can be accommodated. A separate bucket for urinating should be kept, this liquid can be disposed remote from living areas and can be used to water plants outside. The Wag Bag system I previously mentioned allows you to avoid the composting details, but they are an expensive alternative especially for large groups or long time periods.

The most basic sanitation method is the slit latrine, a narrow but deep and long hole in the ground over which you squat and do your thing. The idea is to start at one end and as each person poops, they stir their contribution into the dirt with a stick and cover it. Some provision of privacy is provided with hanging sheets or other barriers. As long as this trench is located away from ground water sources, this is fairly hygienic.

For an in-depth view of outdoor elimination, check out Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods.

About that Poop Party chit-chat…

But just having the equipment available doesn’t solve the problem, as my example above shows. You need to have the Talk. The Talk should include:

  • Acknowledging that the situation is uncomfortable
  • Noting that everybody has to do their business
  • This is the best compromise for everyone, whatever option works best for you.
  • The situation is only for a limited time.
  • Everyone’s privacy will be respected.

Our discomfort with the subject of sanitation doesn’t relieve us from planning for our needs in an emergency. Addressing the subject in advance, with a healthy dose of humor, with make this aspect of weathering a disaster a little less uncomfortable.


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Jim Acosta

Jim has spent time as a volunteer firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, and wildland fire hand crew member. He is currently a Certified Emergency Manager. In 2011, Jim authored “I Can Overcome That: The Practical Guide to Surviving the Next Big California Earthquake.”

12 thoughts on “Survival Sanitation: Poop Party Chit-Chat, an Essential Family Conversation”

  1. There are many issues that have not been thought out in most articles on human sanitation. Urine is sterile when it comes out, but if left unattended will become a problem. Fecal matter is contaminated when it comes out, bacteria, viruses, parasite eggs, etc.. So to kill these items you must use heat as in sun for a period of time to make compost or to use a chemical to kill them. Humans can produce up to 5 gallons of urine and fecal matter a week. Now I can’t get past the idea of balancing my 86 year old mother over a trench to relieve herself or doing it during the winter. Since we are preppers than that means that we are prepared. Emergency Essentials has a 6 gallon bucket with seat and lid cover that has a rubber seal for app. $15. You need a product to break down the fecal matter and a product to sterilize it. Bleach has a short shelf life. So maybe Pool Shock. This can be thought out a lot farther and complete so that you are prepared for Bugging in or Bugging out. I have read that more people die or get seriously ill from contamination than from the natural disaster.

  2. Good information I didnt really want to think about. But glad I did. I know for certain we need to procure a ‘potty chair’….some of us have limited squat skills.

  3. Get your 86 a beside commode..easy for her to sit and balance..same emptying as bucket but much safer

  4. I am so glad this topic was covered! This is a real problem even when you are camping.
    This is a link to a solution we use as a family. When we go camping we always take the “Bathroom Box”, a small spade shovel, the privy tent, lime in a bucket, 5 gallon water jug, and the “Scotty Potty.”
    The “Bathroom Box” is a Tuperware type container that has the following items: hand towel, soap in a knee high nylon, toilet paper, paper bags (for used feminine hygiene items), and hand sanitizer. We find that if we leave everything in that box we always have the essentials for a “mom I gotta go #2 real bad” while on the road.
    We try to have two privy tents set up, one for #1 and one for #2. We dig a deep hole for the #2 privy and put the bucket with the lime, and the “Scotty Potty” in the privy. When a person uses the #2 privy they sprinkle the lime and a little dirt into the hole. When it gets about 3/4 full we cover it and dig another hole. This process could be adapted with the chemical composting of the fecal matter as well. We have found that if we keep the toilet paper in the “Bathroom Box” it does not collect the dew in the morning and stays well contained. Also we set up the 5 gallon jug with the soap in a nylon next to the privy to wash after the deed is done. This may not work for everyone but it has been great for our family.

  5. Stealth Spaniel

    Well, we all had questions, but were afraid to ask! I want to thank Marilee Hagee and Jayne for a good laugh. In my mother’s final years, an adult commode was very easy to use and easy to clean. If there is a “privacy fence” then that would be ideal for everyone.
    Angela L-what a fabulous idea for a “Bathroom Box”! How many times have each of us been on the road, trudged into a restroom with zero toilet paper, soap, or a place for used tampons? I’m going to make up one of those immediately!
    Thanks for handling a delicate subject with humor and good tips! 😉

  6. Sanitation if you get it wrong you are dead. In a disaster, separate the two. Do some research on uric acid it is gold us internet and research it “Natural uses for uric acid”. Use a 5 gallon buck with a funnel to separate the two and a jug. Cover the fecal mater with peat or dirt or sawdust. Dig a deep hole five feet deep and 12″ across and dump the stuff and leave the plastic bag empty on top cover with a wooden top till full then fill in hole and top with lye only on top 2″ and more soil. and a board to keep animals out.
    If you do not do it right you have a disease and you to will be sick and maybe more that that. Everyone needs to know what to do or disease is rampant and until sanitation is corrected you have sickness.
    check, Archives. Learn how to make personal wipes and what to do with them to be clean and safe. A family of 19 only uses these for wipes so do some research and keep the vulgar out of it. It is normal and necessary. Check feminine needs as well. Lots of good ideas and many thing to do. Uric acid is gold and do not forget that. Everyone will need to know how to use it in a disaster.

  7. Pingback: Last Phone Book Update | Troop 20/20 Blog

  8. Could you please comment on using phone book pages as toilet paper? I’ve had differing information, some say the ink will hurt you. Others say use the pages just like toilet paper, someone else said it could be bad for your pipes. Is there anything scientific to know about this?
    Thank you for any help you can give.

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