How Do Portable Camping Toilets Work?

Ever wonder how exactly a portable camping toilet works? Well, as odd as it is to have this knowledge, I’m here to help explain the types of portable camping toilets and explain how each style actually works when you are out camping. 

So, we get it, you are thinking about an upcoming camping trip and you are checking your packing list and start wondering about using the bathroom, getting a camping toilet, and then your mind veers off into wondering how these portable camping toilets even work in the first place.

After all, there are no sewer pipes in the great outdoors, no flushing, no running water, and essentially, none of the normal items found that operate your house toilet are found in the outdoors, so, how do they work? We will look through each type of camping toilet and explain how each type works below. 

Types Of Portable Camping Toilets and How Each Type Works

Who would have thought we have multiple types of portable camping toilets, but hey, here we are. Based on your budget, your storage space and your overall level of comfort, you have many choices when it comes to camping toilets.

Let’s explore each of these types of toilets and explain how each works. I’ll also throw in the pros and cons of each to give a better understanding. Additionally, I own most of these and have included pictures to better lay it out. 

Toilet Seat on a Bucket

Many common portable camping toilets are the basic plastic toilet seat that campers place over a 5-gallon bucket. These are unique in the way that they only come sold as the seat and the user can apply it to any standard 5-gallon bucket they likely already have in their garage. 

With these toilet seats and bucket combos, the portable camping toilet works by placing a toilet waste bag inside the 5-gallon bucket. These waste bags come engineered to fit the rim of a 5-gallon bucket making it easy to apply to the bucket. 

When it’s time to use the bathroom, the camper simply ensures a fresh waste bag is in place, sits on the toilet and fills the baggie with their waste along with any toilet paper used. These are a simple and effective design, but as you see below, do have their downsides. 

Pros: Slim design of the toilet seat makes it easy to pack in small places and is very lightweight. ISize and weight coupled with an inexpensive price point make this a common choice for many campers. 

Cons: Waste bags need to be sealed CAREFULLY and can become a mess when simply trying to remove the used bag from the bucket. It is not uncommon for people to quite literally spill waste when removing and sealing the bag. 

Folding Toilet Seat

Folding portable camping toilets may sound just like the first seat example, but these are a bit more robust, and easier to use. Folding camping toilets generally have built in body and legs to compliment the seat, meaning essentially that the folding toilet seat is essentially self contained with no need to find a 5-gallon bucket. 

Folding portable camping toilets work by the camper placing a waste baggie inside the folding toilet where there are pre-designed bag hooks to secure the bag in place. Once the camper uses the bathroom, the camper can then remove the bag, seal it up and dispose of the waste baggie in the appropriate manner. 

Pros: Folding portable camping toilets are popular because there is no need for a 5-gallon bucket to be brought along on the trip. Additionally, the folding camping toilet is still rather inexpensive and easy to fold up and place out of the way using very little storage space. 

Cons: Much like the original toilet seat and bucket combo, the biggest issue with these styles is the handling of the waste bag and the potential for spills.

Let’s be honest, no one wants to spill this stuff. Also, like the first design, the waste baggies require the user to find a trash-waste area to keep the waste baggie until you leave the camping area. After all, we can’t just toss the waste baggie in a trash can at the campground as it’s unsanitary and potentially very unhealthy for other campers. 

Self Contained Toilet With Internal Tank

This is where we get into some more “glamping” styled camping. With a self-contained camping toilet, the toilet, its body and an internal sewage tank are all built-in to one small, compact design. In-fact, many of the self contained portable camping toilets are able to flush waste thanks to a built in internal water tank.

These toilets are really well-done and make the entire process of using the restroom when camping much easier, but hey, you’re still pooping in the woods. 

Self contained portable camping toilets work by the user filling the water tank beforehand. Once the waste is in the toilet, the camper can flush the waste down into a sealed sewer waste bin that is built into the toilet and also acts as a base for the toilet. A very small sewer waste line connects the toilet seat to the sewer waste tank allowing the waste to flow from the toilet bowl down into the sewer tank (or black tank by common name). 

Pros: Self-contained portable camping toilets are popular as they do not spill and have very little odor associated with them, in fact, in most cases, there really is no odor at all. Factor in the ability to “flush” and have a true toilet experience, these really are about as close as you can get to using a home toilet when camping. 

Cons: The biggest downfall of a self-contained portable toilet is the fact that the internal sewage tank must be emptied once the camping trip is over. This may not seem like a big deal, but you are literally needing to dump the tank into a sewer line or dump station for RV’s.

When you dump the tanks, the smell will really reach out and introduce itself whether you want to meet or not. Also, one of the biggest cons of a self-contained camping toilet is the price. Often these camping toilets are around $75-$125 and due to this, people often don’t want to spend that much to use the restroom.

Do Portable Camping Toilets Smell?

Self-contained camping toilets do not have a foul odor that emits from the toilet. By design, the self-contained toilet is sealed from the toilet bowl down into the black tank, making the potential for odors to be restricted unless you damage the toilet or have a seal fail.

The only time a self-contained camping toilet will stink is generally when you are dumping the black tank because you need to break the seal and open the black tank for disposal.  

Toilet seat-styled portable camping toilets along with bucket-style camping toilets have a much greater potential for the smell.

First, you are putting waste into an open baggie and if that baggie is spilled or not sealed correctly, yes, they will smell, and smell bad! If I haven’t said it enough yet, you need to be VERY careful when removing and sealing the waste bags.

How To Keep Your Portable Camping Toilet Smelling Fresh

So, there’s no getting around it, a portable toilet is…well, a toilet! You are placing human waste into a baggie or black tank in weather that is most likely warm outside.

When heat and human waste come together, they make a foul smell. Fortunately, you can do a few things to reduce this. For the toilet seat and bag combo, you can use waste bags that have a deodorizing additive powder. 

This will reduce the smell and often “gel” the waste so it isn’t sloshing around in the bag when you are trying to work with it.

For the self-contained toilet, you won’t have much of a smell thanks to the sealed design, but if you do, you can add RV style toilet tank treatments that will have deodorizing properties to keep any unwanted smells out of your camp area until it’s time to dump the black tank. 

Other Camping Toilet Upgrades

Not a fan of pooping in front of friends and family? No worries, most people are in your corner (not while pooping of course) and there are ways to make this a bit more comfortable and private. On a recent trip to Valley of the Gods, we just placed the privacy tent about 10 feet from the sleeping area and everyone was able to use the bathroom when needed. 

The best part of a privacy tent is that you can just remove the toilet when needed and use the privacy tent for other things that require privacy like changing clothes or taking a quick camp shower, they are pretty versatile. The most common addition to a portable camping toilet is a pop-up privacy tent.

These are generally small enough to pack up and store without issue but still, give the camper a private area to do their duty. Aside from deodorizing powders and privacy tents, let’s be honest, you’re camping and pooping so don’t expect it to be the Ritz-Carlton. 


Hopefully, this was helpful in helping you figure out how you’re going to comfortably use the restroom while camping. At the end of the day, you’re out in the great outdoors and while it may not be fun to think about, at least you are preparing yourself with the right knowledge now to make it as comfortable and odor-free as it can be. 

If you really want more poop and camping content, REI has a great resource with some good tips, you can read that here.

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