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How To Deal With Human Waste In An Extended Emergency

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Bucket Toilet

When planning for emergencies most people tend to focus on food, shelter, and basic hygiene to last for a few days. But what happens when your emergency far exceeds 72 hours and your water supply is running low or worse, shut off? This could be a major problem as you and your family suddenly have no way to use the bathroom in a controlled and sanitary way. 

Dealing with human waste during an extended emergency is critical for maintaining a clean place to live as well as preventing the spread of disease. Human waste can be managed by packet latrines, bucket latrines, or trench latrines. Depending on where you are, the type of emergency, and the condition of the community, local governments and cities may also be equipped to set up and handle human waste on a larger scale.

It is very important to remember that these should be used only when absolutely necessary. Diseases and other nasty problems can arise if basic sanitation is not upheld sufficiently. Remember to also include soap, hand sanitizer, or another way to wash hands and stay clean with your makeshift toilets.

Packet Latrines

Packet Latrines

Packet latrines are plastic bags specifically made to contain and dispose of human waste. They can be used only once and then disposed of, which is similar to a working toilet. These bags are usually biodegradable so that they can be buried. Some are not though and will have to be properly disposed of. 

Disposal of these bags will be handled by your community as human waste should not be thrown out in the regular trash. Collect all packet latrine bags into one large, heavy-duty plastic bag and keep it a good distance from the house until it can be disposed of. 

Packet latrines are easy to set up. These bags can be used to line a regular toilet (without any water), placed in a bucket, or special seats made specifically for the bags can be purchased that include a seat. These are a great option as you can use them in the privacy of your choosing, they are one-time use, and there are no special considerations. 

Keep in mind the cost associated with packet latrines as each person will need at least a few bags per day. This could be a short-term solution before moving to pit latrines, or used in combination with other latrine options. Also, if you have small children, disabled people, or elderly individuals in your family, you may want to consider packet latrines for them as they can be more accessible and comfortable than other options. 

Bucket or Elevated Latrines

Toilets Small

Bucket latrines or elevated latrines are very similar to packet latrines or pit latrines but on a larger scale. Elevated latrines are what you would generally find at campsites where you have a little building with a small toilet seat and a tank underneath. They do not smell nice and can be hard to maintain with too many people, but they are a cost-effective option that can last a long time. 

To make a bucket latrine or elevated latrine, all you need is some type of large container such as a tank or large bucket. You can include a seat above it to add comfort, or you can dig a hole to lower the tank. Tanks or buckets can be lined with replaceable plastic bags to help maintain sanitation and for the disposal of human waste. Similar to the packet latrines, these will also need to be disposed of by your local, city services. 

I wrote a detailed article explaining exactly how to build one of these bucket toilets called “The Right Way to Make a Bucket Toilet“. If this is something you are considering building you will definitely want to check out that article. If you prefer to purchase one pre-made, here are a couple of good choices from Amazon: 1. Lee Fisher Sports and 2. Giantex Portable Travel Toilet. Here is an example of biodegradable bucket bags that can line bucket toilets available on Amazon.

Elevated latrines work well if you are in an area that does not work well for digging trenches or is too close to the water. It is also a good option if you have many people and do not have enough packet latrines for everyone or enough space for trench latrines. 

Pit / Trench Latrines

Pit Latrine

Pit or trench latrines are purposefully listed last because they are the worst option and should really only be considered in a last resort type of situation. Pit and trench latrines consist of digging small pits or long open trenches into the ground. These do not have to be particularly deep or wide, about a foot wide and 6 – 8 inches deep will do the trick. 

Once the pit or the trenches are dug, you should keep the removed soil right next to where you dug it up. Once you have completed your business in the pit or the trench, you then cover it with the soil. Be very conscious of your use of toilet paper in these situations. It either needs to be completely buried or placed in a plastic bag and discarded. 

Considerations for Pit Latrines

Pit latrines, also referred to as cat holes, work well when there are a few people and a lot of space. Each person should spread out and choose a different spot each time so as to not overload the area. Small sloping hills, large tree roots, or densely forested areas all make good locations that are out of the way and provide privacy. 

Also, depending on the area you are in, make sure to choose a spot that is not currently nor will be near water or any type of runoff. It is very important to avoid any type of water contamination, so be aware of where the water is around you, where the water would run in a rainstorm, and even how deep the water table is beneath you. 

Choosing a sunny spot will help with decomposition over time. Make sure to leave nature as you found it and cover any pit latrines well with soil and other items such as leaves, sticks, pine needles, or small stones. 

Considerations for Trench Latrines

Trench latrines are really the only option if you have a lot of people and not very much space. They are also a very quick solution to set up if needed immediately and then phased out once a more hygienic situation has been set up. 

To use trench latrines with numerous people, you should dig long trenches parallel to each other a few feet apart. You could set up a plastic screen or some type of privacy wall around the trenches as there will likely be a lot of people around also waiting to use the latrines. 

Trenches can be used one person at a time, each person taking care to cover their waste well before the next person comes in and uses the latrine further down the trench. This is obviously not the most fun or best-smelling option, but will work to manage human waste on a large scale in an extended emergency. 

Other things to consider

What Else Do I Need Besides A Latrine? 

Consider stocking up on anything and everything you regularly use in the restroom. Toilet paper, hand soap, hand sanitizer, and feminine products will all be very important to have in an emergency. 

If you are preparing to set up any type of outdoor toilet, consider some type of privacy shelter or protection from the elements. This could be as simple as plastic sheets, tarps, or even bed sheets stretched between poles or wood beams placed in the ground. Anything that will provide comfort and privacy to your outdoor toilets will be a welcome sight in an emergency.

Why Would My Toilets Stop Working In An Emergency? 

Technically, if all the toilets stopped working, that in and of itself would be an emergency! Toilets need water to work and if the water stops, so does the sewage system. A broken pipe, contaminated water, drought, or any other situation can stop the water from getting to your house and flushing your toilets. 

Shouldn’t My City or Community Be in Charge of Handling Waste Management? 

Eventually yes. But it is always better to be prepared as no one knows the timing of an emergency. Hopefully, they will have a plan in place but the time it takes your city management to organize, implement, open, and then maintain a system for human waste is probably going to take longer than you can wait. Especially if you have kids! So having your own personal system is highly recommended.  

What Are The Risks of Not Dealing With Human Waste Properly in an Emergency? 

Human waste that has not been dealt with properly can cause huge problems for both you and the environment. Diseases can spread quickly through water systems, physical contact, or insects. Sickness can spread quickly and, depending on the type of emergency already at hand, can overload any medical centers quickly. 

Water sources can become contaminated quickly and add to the severity of the emergency as there will be less usable water for drinking. Drinking contaminated water will add to the spread of diseases in both humans and animals. 
It is not going to be fun but as you can see, it is extremely important to deal with human waste properly in an extended emergency as it can quickly ease or intensify an already stressful situation.   

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Hi! I’m David. For most of my life I have been interested in emergency preparedness. Over the many years things have changed a great deal. From freeze dried food, to LED lanterns, preparing for an emergency has never been easier. The continual research I have done over the years has become the basis for this website. Now it is one of the most trusted sources to learn about emergency preparedness.