An Essential Prep: The Outhouse, by KMH

A car I did not recognize drove up the long, bumpy, dirt driveway to the camper trailer that was our home. We had not been there a week yet, but we were gradually making things comfortable. My husband and I, with our four children and an old friend of ours, had decided to go off the grid. We bought five acres in rural Tennessee, purchased a camper trailer out of a farmer’s field for $100, and started living on our land.

We had set up a table made of pallets under a tarp-style pavilion and cooked our meals on a Coleman stove. Toilet facilities were a latrine in the edge of the woods, hidden behind a fallen log, complete with a roll of toilet paper hanging from a tree branch. This day, a man in a suit got out of the car and introduced himself. He was from the Department of Human Services. They had received a call notifying them that a family was living with young children under primitive conditions. (That would be us.)

“Do you have running water?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “We carry wash water from the creek, and we get drinking water from the store in town.”

“What do you do for toilet facilities?”

“We have a latrine up in the edge of the woods,” I explained. “However, that’s just temporary until we can build an outhouse. We’ve only been here a few days.”

I did not mean to whine, but the man in the suit made me nervous, and I was angrier than I could let on that one of our neighbors had ratted us out to the government. This time around, though, the government guy was on our side.

“Well, your children look healthy and happy,” he told me. “You need to get the outhouse built. I’ll check back in about six weeks to make sure you’re getting that done, but I don’t see any problem. Some people just don’t want to see other people trying to get ahead.”

In under a week, we had a functioning outhouse built on a grassy slope about 50 feet behind the camper. I never saw the government man again.

When people talk about surviving a major catastrophe, they discuss bugging out to a safe place off the grid, with no standard utilities or city services. They think of food storage, medicine, heat, and water, but they often neglect one of the most essential preps– toilet facilities.

If you plan to set up a bug-out location or if you intend to rough it in the woods when the SHTF, you need to plan on building a good outhouse– one capable of handling the amount of human waste your family or small group might produce.

When we built our first outhouse, we were rank amateurs. We just did what seemed logical. We dug a hole in a location where there seemed to be plenty of topsoil to dig into. We dug it about four feet deep, but knowing what I know now I probably would have made it six feet deep. A household of seven people quickly fills up an outhouse hole. We built a small building over the hole. The hole was about 2.5 feet wide, and the building constructed over it about four or five feet long on each side.

Laws regarding the construction and use of an outhouse, or “earth-pit privy”, vary from one state to another. If you intend to use the facility now, you might want to check into what your local laws are. After the SHTF, I doubt anyone will say anything about it.

The little building was made up primarily of wood scavenged from pallets and some scrap plywood. It had a tin roof with some overhang, a little longer overhang on the front, and it sloped from front to back, to allow runoff of rainfall. We built a door and hung it on hinges with a little handle and a hook closure on the inside.

The “stool” was a wood box that took up about half the space inside the building. The box had a hole cut in the top and a standard toilet seat tacked over that. We put in a wooden floor and a nail to hang the toilet paper on. The men built the stool to their specifications (about 2.5 feet high), which left the kids and me swinging our legs when we sat down! Two feet high would have been better for us.

I honestly don’t remember who “christened” the new facilities, but I do remember how we all hated being the first one to warm up the seat on the cold winter mornings that followed. Sometimes there was frost on the seat!

One time I was sitting there in the outhouse, looking out the crack in the door, when I saw a very large bird walking down the road on the other side of the bridge about 200 yards away. I could not tell from that distance what kind of bird it was, but there appeared to be smaller creatures following it. I finished up my business pretty quickly and hurried down the hill to take a closer look. It was a turkey hen, with a dozen young ones following her!

Not long after we built the outhouse, we bought a small herd of dairy goats. We fenced in the two cleared acres on our property, which included the place where the outhouse was. The goats and the Jersey calf we got later on were gentle and posed no problem to people going back and forth to the outhouse, and since the door swung shut, there was no danger of them getting inside the little building and tap-dancing on the seat.

However, we did run into a problem one time due to the amateur construction of our outhouse. We had a really strong thunderstorm one night, and when we got up in the morning the electric fence that separated the pasture from the woods was off. Thinking that a branch might have fallen across the fence wire, I started trudging up through the pasture, searching the fence line with my eyes. I pulled stray bits of grass and twigs off the wire, looking for that big branch that might have completely grounded it out. I was just a few feet from the outhouse, intent on examining the fence, when I looked up and realized the outhouse door had blown off and had fallen across the fence!

Over the course of three years, that outhouse served us well. Our toddler learned to “go potty” in an outhouse, never having a single “accident.” Having potty-trained three before him, I was amazed that he was the easiest to train.

With use, the outhouse hole began to fill up, and as it did we could see something moving down there! It turns out there were lots of grubs down there, composting everything that came their way. Recent research that I’ve done convinces me these were Black Soldier Fly larvae, which are highly valued by people that compost organic matter for their gardens. Apparently BSF larvae can turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer faster than common earthworms.

Whatever they were, the creatures down in the outhouse hole were a blessing, because our outhouse never had a bad smell.

That first outhouse of ours served its purpose for the three years we lived on our five acres. Since then, our family has built two other outhouses, each time improving on the model, but if you don’t want to go the trial-and-error route like we did, there is help. The federal government includes Earth-Pit Privy specifications in their Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, to guide dairy farmers in building an outhouse:


The earth-pit privy offers the most suitable type of excreta disposal unit for the dairy farm where water carriage systems of disposal cannot be provided. While there are many different designs in use, the basic elements are the same in all cases.

  1. General: The earth pit should be of such capacity that it may be used for several years without requiring the privy to be moved. Excreta and toilet paper are deposited directly into the pit. Aerobic bacteria break down the complex organic material into more or less inert material. Insects, animals, and surface water must be prevented from entering the pit. It is essential that the privy be designed and constructed so that the pit can be kept fly tight.
  2. Location: The location of the privy shall take into account the need to prevent the contamination of water supplies. The criteria of Appendix D shall be applied. On sloping ground, it shall be located at a lower elevation than the water supply. On level ground, the area around both the privy and water supply should be mounded with earth. If the installation of an earth-pit privy will endanger the safety of the water supply, other methods of disposal must be used. The site should be accessible to all potential users. Consideration should be given to the direction of prevailing winds to reduce fly and odor nuisances. The privy pit should not encroach within two meters (six feet) of any building line or fence, in order to allow proper construction and maintenance.
  3. Pit, Sill, and Mound: A minimum pit capacity of 4.6 cubic meters (50 cubic feet) is recommended. The pit should be tightly sheathed for a meter or several feet below the earth surface, but openings in the sheathing are desirable below this depth. The sheathing should extend from 25-50 millimeters (1-2 inches) above the natural ground surface, to provide space between the sill and the upper portion of the sheathing, so that the floor and building will not rest on the sheathing. A reinforced concrete sill should be provided for support of the floor and superstructure. The sill should be placed on firm, undisturbed earth. An earth mound, at least equal in thickness to the concrete sill, should be constructed with a level area 46 millimeters (18 inches) away from the sill in all directions.
  4. Floor and Riser: Impervious materials, such as concrete, are believed to be most suitable for the floor and riser. Because privy units are commonly used as urinals, the use of impervious materials for risers is desirable in the interest of cleanliness. In cold climates, wood treated with a preservative, such as creosote, has been found to be durable and to reduce the problem of condensation. Therefore, in some sections of the country, wood may be used if approved by the Local or State Health Authority.
  5. Seat and Lid: Both seat and lid should be hinged to permit raising. Material used in construction should be light in weight, but durable. Seats should be comfortable. Lids shall be self-closing. Two (2) objections to self-closing seat lids are: Discomfort from the lid resting on the upper portion of the user’s back and contact of the oftentimes soiled or frost-covered bottom surface of the lid with the user’s clothing. A seat lid has been devised which overcomes these objections. This lid is raised to a vertical position by lifting it from the rear, so that the top surface of the lid is against the user, rather than the bottom surface that is normally exposed to the pit.
  6. Vent: Venting practices differ in many parts of the United States, because of differences in climatic conditions. In some States, particularly those in the South, vents have been omitted entirely and results from this practice appear to be satisfactory. Vents may pass vertically from either the pit or the riser, through the roof or directly through the wall near the floor. The vertical vent from pit or riser may lead to a horizontal vent passing through both walls or diagonally across a corner of the building. In all cases, vents are screened. Galvanized, steel-wire screens dipped in paint, copper screens, and bronze screens are used. Nearly all designs employ a screen with 6 (six) meshes to the centimeter (sixteen (16) meshes to the inch). Hardware cloth is used to cover the outside entrance to vents to prevent entrance of large objects that would clog the vent. It is stated by some authorities that venting serves no useful purpose and that vents should be eliminated from earth-pit privies. Satisfactory recommendations with respect to vents can be made only after certain technical problems have been solved. The most important of these is the moisture condensation problem due to the temperature difference between the pit and the superstructure. The use of a cold wall, to condense moisture within the pit, has been suggested. In view of the uncertain value of venting, no recommendations are offered.
  7. Superstructure: Privy structures are standardized to some extent. The majority are 1.2 meters by 1.2 meters (4 x 4 feet) in plan, with a height of 2 meters (6.5 feet) in front, and 1.8 meters (5.5 feet) at the rear. A roof with a 1-to-4 slope is commonly used. The building should be constructed of substantial material, painted for resistance to weather and fastened solidly to the floor slab. Proper roof overhang should be provided to dispatch rainwater from the roof away from the mound. The roof should be constructed of watertight materials, such as wood, composition shingles, or metal. Achieving ventilation of the building by omitting siding beneath the roof is common, except in cold climates, where the siding is usually perforated. Windows are sometimes used in the northern latitudes. Provision of coat hooks is desirable.
  8. Defects in Earth-Pit Privies: The following shall be considered defects in pit-toilet installations:
    1. Evidence of caving around the edges of the pit;
    2. Signs of overflow, or other evidence that the pit is full;
    3. Seat covers broken, open. or not self-closing;
    4. Broken, perforated, or unscreened vent pipe;
    5. Uncleanliness of any kind in the toilet building;
    6. Toilet room opening directly into milkhouse; and
    7. Evidence of light entering the pit, except through the seat when the seat cover is raised.