Three Letters Re: Your Retreat’s Privy

I just finished reading the article by Stephanie M. titled “Your Retreat’s Privy” and I’d like to add a couple of ideas. First off, let me start out by saying that I, along with my wife and 3 boys, live remote and off-grid here in Alaska. Our only form of a toilet is an outhouse, or as we call it here in Alaska, the Long Drop 🙂

The first suggestion I’d like to add to this article is if you live in colder climates, find yourself a piece of 1″ thick styrofoam and cut it out the same size as the toilet seat so that it makes a ring to put on the seat – it’s much more bearable in the winter to sit on styrofoam than the cold seat. In fact, if you have multiple people in your family, you can create a seat for each of them and keep them hung on the wall in the privy or in the cabin / house if it’s too cold outside. [JWR Adds: I’ve heard that dense blue styrofoam works best, for this purpose.]

Second, since we often see temps hovering around -20 degrees in the winter, we keep a long, stout stick handy to knock down the poopcicle that will form in any cold weather environment. I dug our hole about 8 feet deep so I don’t have to do this often but if your hole is only 3 to 5 feet – you need to watch this. I”m sure I don’t have to mention what would happen if you’re using the outhouse in the middle of the night and the poopcicle is hovering right about seat level.

Third, don’t make your outhouse too small. Since you’re going to the trouble of building a subfloor, walls and a roof, expand it out to a 8’x10′ building, insulate it if you want but buy some Visqueen (sheet plastic) and put a vapor barrier in the walls and ceiling. Once you have it dried-in, you can build or buy some cabinets with doors and store extra toilet paper, feminine products, etc., thereby saving space in the cabin for more perishable items. Besides, who doesn’t want as much toilet paper as possible in a grid-down scenario?

Finally, don’t forget to put the toilet seat down when you’re done. I heard that a guy down the trail from us went out to use the bathroom one night and got a cold nose on his backside. Apparently his dog had fallen through the seat and ended up down below – this guy pulled the toilet seat off the bench and jumped down to rescue the dog. I’m not sure I love my dogs that much but around here, he’s lucky it wasn’t a small bear cub with an angry mother lurking around the corner of the outhouse.

Thanks for the great article, Stephanie! Regards, – Trevor W.


Dear Mr. Rawles,
The article “Your Retreat’s Privy” was very informative. If you have pest problems, there are a couple extra items that can also assist you with flies and spiders. You can build a fly tight seat lid and you can use a 2 to 3% solution of Malathion sprayed on the roof corners and under the box lid to help control flies and in my part of the country spiders especially black widows. Borax can be also put in weekly to help prevent fly breeding. If you choose to have a ventilation gap under the roof overhang, it never hurts to have rat wire around to prevent birds nesting in this location. There will also be times when a pit privy will not work for your family as the author discusses in the article.  In my work, I generally have to replace pit privies not because they have failed but because as wise King Solomon knew “time and unforeseen occurrence” has befallen the resident. As part of your outhouse construction, remember to also provide the materials you will need to help your ill, very young or aged as the case may be. The verse cited in Deuteronomy provides for a basic approach to sanitation that can be an excellent backup. Good health to you, your readers and their families. – Elaine M. in Virginia


Concerning Stephanie M.’s article on building a privy for your retreat, there is an additional, and simpler, solution to having a privy.
For several decades now we have used porta-johns. This offers (IMHO) many advantages over home built johns. Every [modern] commercial porta-john I have ever seen is made of fiberglass, making them basically impervious to decay, and they have sky lights. They have rounded corners and edges, have no splinters or nails, are white on the inside and are fully sealed to wind and rain infiltration. During the day they are bright inside and at night easy to light with candle, lamp or flashlight. They are very easy to keep clean and are bug and spider free. –We simply spray them down with a hose or bucket of water every so often, making it “the cleanest room in our house”.
In order to make them chemical free, we simply cut out the bottom and postion them over a hole, as Stephanie suggests. Then after each use we toss in a cup of sawdust, lime or wood ash, whichever happens to be currently available (which totally controls flies and ‘fragrance’). 
The porta-johns I’ve seen all come on skids and are overall quite light, so they are easy for even one person to move to its next hole. Around here its possible to buy a new john from the companies that rent them, but an even better solution is to buy a much cheaper damaged john from the company, then make whatever minor repairs that are required (often just fixing a door hinge).
We ‘camouflaged’ our johns by painting all the exterior (excluding the sky light) the predominate color of the surrounding background landscape. Then we painted trees and bushes over the base coat, so that the out-houses blend in quite well with the landscape (and helps to keep them out of sight from any stray g-men who might happen along in the days before the coming nobamapocalypse). – Jim in Ohio