What Are Vault Toilets?

Tree leaf identification chartVault toilets are a type of restroom facility commonly found in remote recreational areas, parks, and campgrounds. They are designed to temporarily store human waste in an airtight underground container without the need for sewer lines or running water. These toilets are eco-friendly, cost-effective, and provide a basic level of sanitation and privacy for users.

Where Can You Find Vault Toilets?

Usually, vault toilets appear in trailheads, campgrounds, and public parks. They blend well with natural surroundings, resembling small log cabins. As permanent structures, they lack electricity and water.

Though you may not feel cozy using a vault toilet, many remain clean for those urgent calls of nature.

Suggestions For Using A Vault Toilet

To enhance your experience while using a vault toilet, follow these tips for a more pleasant, or at least tolerable, visit.

Beware Of Insects

Upon entering a vault toilet, exercise caution since flies and occasionally bees may be present. Spiders often lurk in the ceiling and floor corners. Although unlikely, spiders could crawl up from the vault or bees might sting. To minimize these risks and reduce unpleasant smells, remember to close the toilet lid after use.

Keep Extra Toilet Paper Handy

Park staff strives to maintain toilet paper supplies in vault toilets, but sometimes shortages occur. The high number of users can deplete available stock quickly.

Additionally, the supplied toilet paper may be difficult to unroll from oddly-shaped holders and is often thin, one-ply quality. To prevent inconvenience, always carry your own toilet paper.

Avoid Disposing Of Trash In Vault Toilets

Vault toilets serve two purposes: accommodating toilet paper and human waste.

They are not designated for disposing of miscellaneous trash collected during your hike or for discarding items like wet wipes, panty liners, or tampons. Such waste hinders proper pumping, and the park service may close the toilet vault as a result. Most vault toilets lack trash receptacles, but that doesn’t justify leaving garbage on the floor.

Carry your trash with you and be a responsible user!

Carry Your Personal Hand Sanitizer Supply

Remember Your Hand Sanitizer

Frequent hand cleaning after using the restroom is important, so don’t forget to bring hand sanitizer. Although a few exceptional vault toilets might offer hand sanitizer pumps and two-ply toilet paper, most lack these amenities.

Safeguard Your Possessions

Take your belongings with you, even during a brief visit to a vault toilet.

Most vault toilets lack hanging space for your items and may not have lock mechanisms. If this seems inconvenient, consider seeking an alternative restroom.

Understanding Vault Toilets

Vault toilets function by temporarily storing human waste in an airtight underground container without sewer lines or running water. Environmentally friendly, they are a popular choice for recreational parks and remote camping sites, offering privacy and low-cost maintenance.

The vault collects urine, excrement, and other organic waste, ensuring cleanliness since decomposition cannot occur without containment. Shower water also drains into the underground container.

Accessible roads enable sewage pumping trucks to service the vaults, while pit latrines or porta potties serve as alternatives in less accessible locations.

A typical vault toilet consists of two parts: the cabin-like upper section and the airtight underground vault. Unisex in design, they can be easily installed for events, with storage capacities ranging from 1,000 to 13,000 gallons.

During construction, a hole is dug to accommodate the vault, which is then buried and topped with a slab for stability.

Proper odor control relies on external factors. The vent must be taller than the booth’s roof, and the wind is necessary to carry away the smell, preventing accumulation around the toilet or nearby structures. Good ventilation is crucial.

Alternative Vault Toilet Venting Methods:

  1. Burning the foul-smelling fumes with a flame at the vent.
  2. Utilizing long underground pipes to transport waste far from the toilet, often for permanent vault toilets.
  3. Adding organic filler to transform hydrogen sulfide and ammonia odors into odorless nitrogen gas.
  4. Incorporating activated carbon to neutralize strong odors from toilet fumes.
  5. Employing heat on the vent at the roof to manage odors, with sunlight typically providing adequate warmth.

As hot air rises, heating the upper part of the vent helps expel unpleasant odors more effectively. Consequently, sewage gas smells may be more noticeable in colder seasons than in warmer ones.

Benefits of Vault Toilets

Explore these advantages of using a vault toilet:

Water Efficiency

Vault toilets don’t need running water, making them cost-effective and a preferred choice over flushing toilets in many areas.

Excellent Privacy

As single-user units, vault toilets provide exceptional privacy. They offer enough space for changing clothes or performing other tasks that require discretion.


Easily found at events or parks, vault toilets eliminate the need to search for restrooms away from your location.


Vault toilets can be enhanced with additional features, such as sanitizer dispensers or lights, for improved user experience.

Ease of Maintenance and Cost-effectiveness

Simple construction and minimal water usage make vault toilets easy to maintain and budget-friendly. Regular cleaning and waste draining are the primary maintenance tasks.

Highly PortablePlastic vault toilets offer exceptional portability, as they can be easily washed and relocated for reuse. This makes them ideal for public spaces and events.

Vault Toilet Disadvantages

Consider these potential downsides of using vault toilets:

Requires Adequate Heat

Inadequate heat at the vent, due to crowds, rain, cloudy weather, or shade, can hinder the air-cleaning process.

Ventilation Systems May Fail

Although rare, vault toilet ventilation systems can fail, resulting in unpleasant odors in the surrounding area.

Regular Cleaning Needed

Vault toilets require consistent cleaning due to their lack of flushing water, which can be challenging in locations with limited water supply.

Challenging Waste Management

Vault toilets may fill up quickly in high-traffic areas, making waste management difficult. Additionally, unclogging them may require disassembly, which can be costly.

Limited Portability for Some Models

While plastic vault toilets are known for their portability, other types may not be easily moved.

Vault Toilet Cleaning

Follow these steps for proper vault toilet cleaning:

  1. Collect and dispose of trash surrounding the vault in the appropriate manner.
  2. Clean the vent louvers to ensure fresh air circulation.
  3. In a double bucket, mix disinfectant, detergent, and deodorant on one side, and clear water on the other. Scrub walls with the mixture and an abrasive brush to remove stains, then rinse with water.
  4. Mop the floor regularly using a cleaning solution.
  5. Use a long-handled brush and a cleaning solution, such as 3D, to clean the inside of the toilet riser.
  6. Check the toilet paper supply and replenish it as needed.
  7. Avoid using chemical products to mask odors, as they can negatively affect the final sewage treatment process.

Vault Toilet Construction Costs

Building a vault toilet can cost between $500 and $5,000, which includes materials and labor for installation.

Vault Toilet Toilet Paper Supply

Toilet paper is typically provided in vault toilets, but due to high usage, it may run out quickly. Remember to bring your own toilet paper as a backup.

Vault Toilets vs. Pit Toilets

Vault toilets and pit toilets are not the same. The primary difference is that waste in a vault toilet is periodically pumped out, while waste in a pit latrine remains in place, with organic matter decomposing and liquids being absorbed by the ground.

Vault Toilets vs. Composting Toilets

Unlike composting toilets, vault toilets don’t produce a usable end product. Once the waste is pumped out, it is sent to a municipal sewage treatment facility.

Composting toilets come in two types: portable and permanent. Portable composting toilets can be used for RVs or as camping toilets.

Vault Toilets vs. Septic Tanks

While both septic tanks and vault toilets are built underground and watertight, they differ significantly. Septic tanks are constructed in areas with abundant water, while vault toilets are installed in locations without running water. Moreover, septic tanks are typically found on residential properties and do not have structures built on top of them.

Vault Toilet Depth

The depth of a vault toilet should not exceed five feet.

How To Construct A Vault Toilet

To build a vault toilet, follow these straightforward steps:

  1. Determine and establish your construction site.
  2. Mark out the vault and building areas separately.
  3. Begin excavating the vault.
  4. Assemble the footing form box to be placed beneath the vault, over-excavating under the vault to create space for the box.
  5. Compact the soil under the footing from the box and position the box.
  6. Grade the hole, compact the soil, and place the rebar.
  7. Set the tank so that it is level with the ground.

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