The Oh Crap! Guide to Off Grid Sewage and Septic Systems

When you live off grid, you are also disconnecting yourself from the municipal sewage system.  Sewage is something that people don’t think much about but not something you can take for granted!

The same goes for when the grid goes down, such as it would during an EMP event. No more plumbing services would lead to an actual SHTF situation!

When you think about it, modern toilets are insane.  You poop and pee into a bowl that uses several gallons of perfectly good drinking water to flush the waste down a network of pipes.

When it finally reaches treatment plants, mass amounts of chemicals are used to sanitize the waste so it can be resent through the plumbing system.

Using an off-grid toilet doesn’t just free you from reliance on utilities but also frees you from this madness that is the municipal treatment system.

Whether you are interested in living off grid or want to prepare for emergencies, here is what you need to know about your 3 long-term off-grid toilet options.

Option 1: Pit Latrine

pit latrine outhouse

The easiest solution for dealing with sewage is to dig a pit latrine or “outhouse.” You dig a deep hole and put a floor slab over it with a hole for a squat or seat toilet.  Make a shelter around your latrine, and you are good to go.

Of course, some additional factors need to be considered to dig a latrine safely.

Firstly, you need to determine where to put your latrine.  It should always be downhill of your water source and never be built uphill of a well (including your neighbors’ wells).

This is especially important in areas with fissured rocks (think limestone) as the sewage can be readily carried through cracks in the rock into the water source.

While this is the easiest sewage disposal method, not everyone is thrilled about the idea of going outside to go to the bathroom.  It might be okay for a few days of camping, but visiting the latrine during cold winter nights isn’t very fun!  Latrines can also bring about problems with flies, and your property might be too small to dig a latrine safely.

Latrine Guidelines:

  • Never build latrines uphill from a water source
  • Latrine pits should be at least 2 yards above the water table
  • The latrine pit should be above flood level
  • The latrine needs to be a safe distance away from water sources (about 30 yards but varies depending on the type of ground)
  • The latrine should be closed off when not in use to prevent flies (listen to your wife when she tells you to put the toilet seat down!)
  • The pit should be at least 5 feet deep and 4 feet wide
  • When the latrine pit is filled to the top ½ meter, it should be covered with earth

Just a quick note on latrine safety…  

When human waste is breaking down, methane gas can buildup.  Never smoke in a latrine or drop matches down the latrine.  It could cause an explosion!

You also don’t want to pour any household chemicals like bleach into the latrine because the chemicals can react with the waste.  Instead, put some lime, peat moss, or hay into the latrine to control odor and flies.

Read more about latrines, including some advanced designs.

Option 2: Compost Toilet

A more modern off-grid toilet option is a compost toilet.  This is the option that I like the best because the waste gets turned into compost that you can use.

Yes, poop really does get turned into safe compost that you can use in your garden!

A simple compost toilet consists of a bucket which you do your business into.

For comfort, you put a specially-fitted toilet seat on top of the bucket. After each use, you put a bit of sawdust into the bucket.  When the bucket is full, you put the toilet seat on a new, clean bucket.  The bucket full of sawdust and waste goes in a composting heap.  Sprinkle some more sawdust over the waste, so it stays covered while composting further.

Because pee is sterile (except for some cases, such as if you have a kidney infection), many people prefer to use separate buckets for pee and poo.  The pee can be safely dumped in your yard.  Without pee in the poo bucket, the poo will dry out a lot faster.  There are special urine-diverting toilet seats you can get for composting toilets.

While the cheap DIY composting toilets are great, they do have their problems.  Some people have problems with flies.  If your region is very cold, then the waste might not be able to decompose.  And you’ll need a steady supply of sawdust or other carbon material to cover the waste after each use.

A more modern solution is to buy a composting toilet.  While modern composting toilets are quite pricey, they convert waste into compost much faster. They usually have vent hoses, so they are also odorless.

They will use a battery and/or hand crank to speed up composting.

Most importantly, you don’t have to haul buckets of human waste out to your compost heat.  So, while they are a lot pricier than the sawdust composting toilet option, it is no surprise that a lot of people living off grid choose to buy one.

This toilet by Natures Head is well-reviewed on Amazon.

natures head toilet
Click image to view on Amazon.

Option 3: DIY septic tank

A final solution to the sewage disposal issue is to make your off grid septic system.  I’m not going to detail this here because it requires much more effort and has a higher learning curve.  You’ll need to learn how to install the septic tank, lay out a leach field and maintain the septic tank.

Since these systems require water, it doesn’t seem to make much sense when you can get a composting toilet instead.

However, many people living off grid have built septic tanks and are quite happy with them.  Explore the options to see what is suitable for your property.

Are you living off grid? We’d love to hear about it!  

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  1. My “almost offgrid” solution in a tony house in Europe:
    – urine mixed with some white vinegar (for the odour and balancing acidity) and a bit of water for rinsing myself –> to the plants
    – solids: mixed with sawdust and dried –> into the trash. (We have those big wheeled public bins here that are tipped straight into the trucks so the people who are collecting the trash do not even have to touch the bags with your mess in it.)
    I could compost it but composting human waste takes a long time before it is safe to use, and if you’re on meds…it’s just not ok.

  2. If you’re wanting to have a compost toilet on your homestead will you have to also add a septic system installed on your property?

  3. Food Waste Water Treatment

    I have found NO ONE who has any solution to this issue. Any help greatly appreciated. This MUST be a big issue with anyone off-grid wanting to dot i’s and cross t’s.

    I am building in unincorporated Comal County, TX.

    I think I can figure out the composting toilet and ‘regular’ grey water issues that satisfy the county. But not food water waste. That is an exception that can not be treated as normal grew water. Any solution much appreciated before I need to sink $15K into a septic system to treat JUST my kitchen waste water.

    How do you get approval for treating kitchen waste water other than with a septic system? We are hoping to use composting toilets and grey water reuse for everything else, which is all fine for permits, but we are apparently only allowed to send kitchen water to to a septic system. Both systems are not in the budget (and seem like ridiculous overkill), so I am hoping there is an alternative someone has successfully received approvals for. Thanks in advance!

    • My county was of the same mindset on kitchen wastewater being black water disposal only but I found a video that uses biodegradable soap and worms to rectify the requirement. Although the dark grey system was set up in B.C. I thought it couldn’t hurt to see if my county would accept the same scenario. Keeping in mind that my county is very lenient on the permaculture/alternative building ideas as well as thinking they were trying to encourage people to move to the rural areas, I emailed the video to my county permits department, and they collaborated with the sewage department and agreed that I could set it up on my property as a trial. My off-grid home is a small, 2-person use set up so the county allowed us to use a 50gal drum for kitchen septic since we were using a 3-barrel composting system for restroom purposes. We have 2 water out pipes; one for grey water from the shower and bathroom sink and the other from the kitchen that ties into the same pipe leading from the house to the outdoors. For trial purposes, we had to show them that the kitchen drain had an in-line valve(using a 3-way T Port) to divert the kitchen water from going to the garden line and running to the septic if the worm bin garden watering idea(like the video) didn’t clean the water to their standards. We also tied a second line w/ a check valve into the garden line to allow for watering from rain harvest barrels if the worm bin wasn’t approved for dark grey water filtering. I hope this offers an idea to help…maybe present it to your county and see what they say? Best wishes 🙂

      • Most counties unfortunately have really strict rules and aren’t open to alternative solutions. It’s cool that your inspectors were so willing to work with you!

  4. Does Mojave county Arizona allow you to use a composting toilet or do you have to get a septic installed for off grid living? The difference in cost is substantial.

  5. I strongly suggest anybody interested in this topic get themselves a copy of the “Humanure Handbook” by Joe Jenkins

  6. For those who asked why just going in the woods is bad, it dates back to the days of tuberculosis, polio and severe flue epidemics before antibiotics. People were to be as “clean” as possible and after modern treatment plants for water supplies and laws on the books to regulate everything for public health popped up in the 1920s and 30s, things really did get better…fewer diseases and deaths from these diseases. People were also encouraged to use spittoons and to NOT spit all around town because it was a public health issue. I still remember an old teacher I had in 7th grade who freaked out when a boy spit on the playground. I didn’t get why then, but I do now. I can understand if you want to poop all over your own land away from water supplies, creeks , no where near ground water, etc, but to poop on public forested land is bad ( and so many people are now doing it ). Also, do you actually trust the average Joe to know whether or not he’s pooping near a water source or not?

  7. It’s simple. Human wastes can carry pathogens that can make other humans sick. Animal wastes typically do not contain pathogens dangerous to humans. If not disposed of properly, these pathogens can find their way into drinking water and other foods – like fresh fruits and vegetables contaminated by human feces.

  8. Wow, good for you! Idk either that’s kind of what I’ve been searching for online for a few hours now and it seems like everyone is just so fecal-phobic (ahaha funny word) that nobody even discusses it ONLINE. I’m living in an RV and went to drain my black tank for the first time today and wondered… wait why would human waste be worse than any animals waste why can’t we just go outside if we live in the forest? I get how you can’t if you’re amongst civilization lol but we’re way out here in the booneys and I’m about to build a compost toilet cuz I can’t find a freaking answer just a lot of mean hateful comments like “some people are really just that stupid” and “they must be animals too” scientific reasoning being its bad for aquatic life and breeds “dangerous” bacteria but I’m no where near water, it can’t seep into soil if there’s no water cuz there’s no toilet… and for Christ sake I’m not gunna go handling it when I’m done! Honestly tho, I’ve noticed most of the fear breeding statements are coming from black water removal services so I’d say that instilling a great fear of the natural phenomena and perpetuating shame of speaking about this stuff brings in $$$

    • Definitely a subject that doesn’t get much attention, that is why we have done a whole series of articles about it – you can find them here. Regards disposing of human waste, I would be very careful there – it is illegal in some states and not advisable under all but the worst case scenarios.

    • My dog poops in the yard all year round I mow over it makes my lawn greener lusher.
      Fish poop in the river too and birds etc etc . People are just pretentious , dig a hole a poop in it big deal! People just are so addicted to wasting water and electricity , I can’t wait until grid crashes and watch all their butholes pucker .

      • When it’s just your dog, it’s not a big deal. But there are many cases where large amounts of human or dog waste have led to contamination of water sources. For example, dog poop led to toxic algae blooms in many lakes (like this case Human and dog poop contains completely different microorganisms than those of wild animals, which is why disease can occur. Consider the hookworm propblem which is occuring due to illegal outhouses in Alabama. Thus, it’s important that outhouses are built properly, especially in areas where the water table is high.

    • I agree with the statement what is the difference between dog poo and human? I mean IF you live way out, dig a hole, do your business and thats that. Right? We pick up after our dogs, put it in a plastic bag and put in trash. What if we did this also? Human poo that is. Crap in a bag and throw it away. I don’t see the difference but maybe there is?

      • There is definitely a different between the bacteria in dog and human poop. And both are potentially hazardous. Again, if it is just one or two people pooping, then the risk of contaminating the environment or a water source is very small. The problem occurs when a lot of people don’t dispose of waste properly. As a backpacker, I can tell you how annoyed I get with all the dog poop I see on popular trails. Hikers think it’s okay to leave it there, but it actually stays there a LONG time and causes environmental problems. The same goes for humans who poop in nature without digging a hole. :/

        According to the EPA, the best way to dispose of dog poop is in the toilet so it also goes through the sewage treatment system. But, as with disposing of diapers, it is perfectly legal to throw dog poop in the trash. This is because (most) modern landfills are designed in a way to prevent contamination. There is definitely poop in landfills, but not enough to cause problems.

  9. I have a wooden chalet on my land which is a forest. When I decided for health reasons to build the chalet I considered many different options for the toilet.
    On a tempory basis I used an ordinary toilet seat fixed to a wooden frame of three legs and no sides. After each use I would simply move it to a different place,with a dozen rocks set in the ground to make it level in each place.
    To be honest I didn’t like this set up but I believed it to be the best I could do and it was only tempory.
    What happened is the beuty of nature.
    Some dung beatles from I don’t know where found a constent supply of food,they have now built there headquaters somewhere on my land in the area that I use as a toilet. I should think that they have increased condiderably in numbers because of the constant food supply. Two days after feeding them they have taken every last scrap. Although I still use a dozen diffent spots I could reduce the number without any problem.
    I can’t think of any reason to not continue like this,if I were to build 3 outide toilets for exemple they would allways be empty when I use them. As for impact on the environement, I cannot see where there is a problem.
    Is there something that I have over looked and should I use another method or can I continue living in harmony with a colony of dung beatles?

    • Gut answer: This doesn’t sound like a hygienic or sustainable solution.
      Honest answer: We don’t know for sure if this is a good or sustainable solution, we have some very knowledgeable readers so drop a comment here if you have any views on this.

    • Human excreta is only a problem because we live in dense areas and move it outdoor using water, high concentration for the area. Wild, foraging and pastured animals do what you are doing and are environmentally harmonious. Domestic animals in corrals create the same density problem, ever smell the dairy farms! Nature can handle the waste over time and space. We invent ways to speed up the process in the smallest space possible. You are truly off grid on this one.

  10. Option 4: GSAP Microflush Toilet (

    The GSAP Microflush Toilet uses only 1 cup of water (from the previous user’s handwash) to flush, so it’s stingy on water. To address concerns mentioned in the article and by previous commenterss:

    1) It doesn’t use urine diversion because the liquids (1 cup water flush and the urine) rapidly and naturally separate in the digester. The liquid flows into a gravel bed soak hole. The solids are digested by micro and macro organisms.

    2) The rich compost can be harvested after 2 to 3 years (by removing the back cover of the digester and used for fertilizer or simply emptied anywhere outdoors if it’s not needed.

    3) There are no flies and no odor because the small amount of water for flushing isolates the waste in the digester from the structure/restroom space.

    Steve M.

  11. Hi Michael, the honest answer is I don’t know! But we have very knowledgeable readers so if anyone knows the answer to this please leave a comment.

  12. Crazy idea? I have a camper that is off grid with a 50 gallon blackwater tank. I have it off grid. Where I have it composting is ok but not outhouse (no blackwater can go into the ground). I have purchased a plastic storage container – 4 x 4 x 3 feet that is lockable. I was wondering if you put the black water maybe like 20 gallons or so with a good amount of sawdust/ash in a 55 gallon contractor bag….if you put it in the container in a sealed bag would it turn to compost in a few years?

  13. I am interested in the composting toilet but I am not interested in the compost. Is there a disposal service that I can pay to come haul the waste away? Or, is there a way to have a tank that’s emptied?

    • This is a viable solution for a short term crisis. However poop is 75% water so burning results in a lot of wasted energy so not ideal as a long term solution.

  14. Hi,
    Just to expand on the reason why solids and liquids should be separated in a compost loo. When the two are combined the breakdown process become aerobic (without air) and this results in a strong smell. By keeping the solids together and covering them with sawdust and aerobic decomposition occurs which smell less and as you say happens much faster. Also urine can be poured onto a compost heap to help with decomposition. This is better than a direct application especially with female urine as it may contain oestrogen which can burn plants.


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