An outhouse is a small building, usually separate from the main house, that is used for privacy to cover a dry toilet (uses no water) or pit latrine. An outhouse is typically used in locations where water is limited, expensive, or even unavailable.
These are more common now in third world countries where the cost of sewage systems is prohibitive. Dry toilets are sometimes used when there is a desire to compost the waste and use it as fertilizer.
Dry toilets work without a sewer connection and without using flushing water. A dry toilet can be as simple as a bucket or more sophisticated like a composting toilet or (UDDT) urine diverting toilet.
There is also a toilet which is designed for making compost within the pit, called an Arborloo. Toilets such as the incinerating or freezing toilets are more expensive and involve more complex technology.
There is also a manufactured outhouse called a porta-potty which has a large holding tank beneath the drop hole rather than a pit in the ground. They are typically used at outdoor events where large crowds are expected, such as fairs, ball games, or festivals.
Other names for Outhouses
An outhouse can be referred to in many ways, here are just a few:
- Privy or Loo
- Going out to smell the lilacs (a term that comes from the fact outhouses were often shielded from view by lilacs)
- Porta potty
Types of Outhouses
A surface privy is basically a square box with no bottom and a hole cut into the top. A seat with a lid can be added to the hole if desired. The waste falls through the hole and onto the surface of the ground. Wood ash or other cover material is dumped through the hole onto the waster after each use.
Because the box is not anchored into the ground, it can be moved after a bit so that the waste can be raked over the ground or shoveled up and added to the compost pile. You can build your own surface privy fairly easily and can even get all the wood for free as demonstrated in this video:
Pit Style Outhouse
Dig a hole that is at least 2-foot square. Make sure the sides of your hole are even. Create a concrete or wood box (wrap in tar paper to keep moisture out) that goes into the hole that you dug. Level ground around the hole and build a foundation of treated wood around the perimeter of the hole.
Your outhouse floor and building will be set on the foundation you’ve built. Your floor will be made from either pressure treated wood or raw hemlock, which naturally resists decay. See the simple outhouse plans in this video for more on actual construction of the house.
- Before you consider an outhouse for your farm, homestead, or BOL, make sure you check your local zoning restrictions and regulations to make sure an outhouse is permitted. If you are in the city or part of an HOA or other association, you may find that outhouses are frowned upon.
- Make sure the location of the outhouse is such that it will not pollute any water supply, typically it should be on the downslope of the water supply and at least 100 feet from it.
- Your outhouse should be located away from the house and preferably in an area of the yard that is mostly shaded.
- If you build your outhouse so the door faces to the east, the user would be able to leave the door open in milder weather in order to take advantage of the warm morning sun.
- If you are building a surface privy where waste drops onto the ground and is raked or shoveled up for compost, you may want to locate it on a gentle slope to make clean out easier.
Your outhouse building will be about seven-foot tall and 4-foot deep by 5-foot wide for a dual seat outhouse. There are no absolute rules for size but you should make sure that you won’t bang your elbows on the wall or hit your head on the door if you have to bend over to pull up your pants.
Make sure you take into account how many people will be in the outhouse at one time. Parents may need to accompany younger children for safety and hygiene reasons. Also for larger families you may want to have dual or even triple stalls to prevent children doing the dance outside the door while mom or dad does their morning business.
No outhouse would be complete without its toilet paper or some way to wipe. Because an outhouse is outdoors and can be exposed to dampness and insects, it’s best to keep toilet paper up off the ground and in some kind of airtight, waterproof container. Many people use a Tupperware container or Ziploc bag to keep commercial toilet paper dry and bug free.
Paper materials such as phone book pages, newspapers, or magazine pages. It’s good practice to let newspaper ink dry fully before using and to repeatedly crumple any paper to soften it before using.
Natural materials include mullein, also known as cowboy’s toilet paper. It grows abundantly in full sunlight and can be picked on the way to the outhouse. Lamb’s ear is also a great natural material for this purpose. It has soft leaves, grows well in any environment and is easy to plant and maintain. If dried corncobs are available, these have also been used for wiping.
Other Accessories and Details
If your outhouse will only be used occasionally for short periods of time, you may not want to invest too much into it. But if your outhouse will be regularly used for the long-term, you will want to add some accessories and details to make time spent in there a little more comfortable.
It’s helpful to have some interesting reading material available for those that use the outhouse for more than just a quick visit so they have something to occupy their mind while sitting on the throne. To keep the magazines up off the floor and at easy reach, install a shelf on one wall where the magazines can be stored when not being read.
Make sure the shelf is long enough to hold your toilet paper container or other wiping materials as well. A prominently displayed bottle of hand sanitizer on this shelf will encourage guests to clean their hands before leaving the outhouse.
Although most people realize that odor in the outhouse is inevitable, it never hurts to have some kind of fragrance to help mask things. This could be lilacs or other pungent flowers you replace frequently or potpourri, even a commercially purchased spray for guests to use.
For an outhouse to be functional, it really doesn’t need to be much more than a box for privacy with a bench and drop hole and some toilet paper. For any outhouse that will be used long-term though, it helps to add some little details to make things a little less creepy and more soothing. A fresh coat of paint or stain on the inside and outside will go a long way toward making your outhouse more inviting.
Make sure your outhouse has at least a small glass or Plexiglas window with a curtain hung. Don’t just cut the hole and leave it open as this invites the bugs into the outhouse. Many people also like to cut a moon shaped sliver into the outhouse somewhere for ventilation. Adequate ventilation is very important for your outhouse. Use the finest mesh screen you can find over this hole, again to keep uninvited insects out.
Other Tips for Your Outhouse
- Make sure each seat has a lid and keep it closed whenever not in use.
- A fine mesh screen door works for warmer climates but you need protection from elements in colder climates.
- Caulk any open cracks or holes to keep bugs out (mosquitos and flies are not only annoying but can breed on human waste.)
- Give your outhouse a lean-to-roof because it leaves fewer corners for mud daubers or wasps to build in
- Make sure door swings inward to avoid the door being caught by the wind and also so the user can kick it shut and keep it shut if another person or even a wayward bear approaches.
Cleaning and Controlling Outhouse Odor
Controlling the odor in your outhouse is a process that uses earth, air, and regular amounts of cover materials to regulate the bacteria and PH levels of the compost. If you’re outhouse is too wet, or has too much nitrogen, it will give off more odor. In order to absorb moisture and add carbon to help compost the waste, the use of cover material is needed, especially for a surface style privy.
There are a variety of cover materials that can be used and for the most part it is a matter of preference and availability. Many people feel that wood ashes sprinkled over the top after each use is the best way to prevent odors, although they admit coal and trash ashes will work in a pinch. The reason wood ashes are preferred is generally because they have a clean and pleasant earthy smell.
Superfine agricultural quicklime works well too, but some people say the lime smell is strong. Other organic materials that can be used include wood chips, leaves, sawdust, or peat moss. Basically any dry organic material which reduces the moisture and adds carbon to balance out the nitrogen laden feces can be used as cover material.
A surface privy should begin with a layer of organic material such as hay or sawdust. It then needs to be raked on a regular basis (once a month for family of four). When a pit outhouse hole is filled to within about 2 feet of the ground surface, fill the hole with clean dirt and move the house to a new hole.
They style and type of outhouse you choose will be largely dependent on your own individual circumstances and location. Whether you build your outhouse yourself from scavenged materials or have one custom built with all the fancy details is also a personal preference.
In most cases, the time and money you invest in your outhouse should reflect the amount of time you feel your family will spend in it. If it will be your full-time bathroom, then you will have a happier family if you go all out and make your outhouse a comforting and pleasant thing to use.
What do you think about outhouses? When was the last time you used one and how was the experience?
Born and raised in NE Ohio, with early memories that include grandpa teaching her to bait a hook and watching her mom, aunts, and grandmothers garden, sew, and can food, Megan is a true farm girl at heart.
For Megan, the 2003 blackout, the events of 911, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, spurred a desire to be more prepared for whatever may come along. Soon to be living off-grid, this mother of four and grandmother of nine grandsons and one granddaughter, is learning everything she can about preparedness, basic survival, and self-sufficient homesteading. She is passionate about sharing that knowledge so that others can be increasingly prepared to protect their families.