Cleanliness is an essential trait to maintain good health, in good times and bad. Sanitation is the most important precept of cleanliness on a societal level. Poor or absence of sanitation is a major killer worldwide today, and has been throughout recorded history. Improper or absent sewage disposal and unclean drinking water are the two bubonic heralds throughout history, and are just as serious today.
Even when things are at their bleakest, you must be completely committed to maintain proper sanitation, else crippling or fatal disease will surely follow. In today’s article, we will be examining sanitation in the context of a SHTF-level event, as well as best procedures and practices after an event in case public services remain compromised. We will also take a look at the grim consequences of no or lacking sanitation.
So grab the bleach, don your rubber gloves and let’s begin.
Sanitation as a Universal Concern
Sanitation is and has always been of major importance the world over, no matter the circumstances. Even in wartime, a lack of sanitation and the resultant diseases are often greater killers than rockets, shells, bombs and bullets.
Consider the American Civil War: Dysentery, the great unclean scourge, killed more than 70,000 soldiers all by its lonesome. That same affliction killed more combatants than combat action in the Spanish-American War. That’s a seriously nasty way to go.
Dysentery is often inflicted through lack of sanitation like we are discussing here, and is an inflammation of the intestines. It always results in ghastly, life-changing diarrhea, wracking abdominal cramps and possibly fever. A bunch of poo-borne bugs can inflict it on you, including bacteria, viruses and parasites. Dysentery always causes serious fluid loss from constant watery bowel movements, and the resulting dehydration and electrolyte shock can produce severe complication s on their own.
Worldwide, more than 2 ½ billion, billion, people live without toilets or drains classified as “adequate.” This means they are all easy pickings for diseases that are practically unheard of or academic here in the more fortunate West. We may not stay that way, though, as it will only take one really bad turn to compromise or destroy our fragile infrastructure that ferries away sewage and furnished clean water.
Let that happen, and now suddenly coping with human waste will be very, very high on your survival to-do list. A lack or even interruption of basic waste service can rapidly result in an epidemic of disease ripping through an already tormented population of survivors.
Sadly, like so many other primal and necessary survival skills, modern life has bleached them right out of people thanks to technological prowess and an affluent culture. This mentality and disconnection from taking care of our “business” will come back to bite us in the rear eventually.
Taking Care of Business
Ok, the next section is not for the squeamish. In it, we are going to be talking about the dirty truth of dookie: numbers, specifics, the works. These are all things you need to know if you want to be planning with any kind of achievable goal in mind. Like anything else, you cannot prepare for what you do not know.
An average adult will generate anywhere from ¾ to 1 pound of feces a day, and two to three pints of urine. Now, assume you have a family of four and the toilets don’t work or you have no toilet. You now have 4 pounds of crap and over a gallon of wee to deal with. Nasty. Now imagine you cannot leave the confines of your house or shelter to do that. Oh. God.
Right. Stay with me. This is completely disgusting, smelly and intolerable, but the worst is yet to come. If this waste is not properly disposed of, flies and other animals will make tracks toward it and get into it, or eat it. This includes your family pets. Nasty, but true. Now that critter, whatever it is, is a vector for biohazardous pathogens. Everything they touch their filthy paws and disgusting mouths on will be contaminated: your bedding, that freshly opened food pouch, your cup, etc.
The resulting sicknesses are never anything less than devastating, and will compound both your suffering and the difficulty of your situation geometrically. Young and old are especially vulnerable to diseases of this type.
Now, the above payload is the result of just one day. Imagine 2, or 3. Imagine a week. It takes little imagination to see how bad things can get, and how fast. Lucky for you, you will have a multitude of plans for dealing with your leavings after you finish this article.
Field Expedient Toilets and Improvised Waste Storage
Your options for dealing with waste after the, well, shit has hit the fan (note: don’t deal with this issue using an actual fan) are many and varied and most need only a little thought, a few components and some work to make viable. Some are workable for outdoor use and others for indoor use.
Any solution will either be a disposal option or a storage option. The difference being the former is more or less the end of your worry over your movement, just like going on a normal day. The latter is a temporary solution that you will need to empty or dispose of periodically or perhaps at the end of the crisis.
I have separated the improvised toilets into two groups for ease of use, indoor and outdoor. Both have their own special considerations discussed in the relevant entries. For either of them, you ideally have a ready-stashed supply of TP and baby wipes for just such an occasion. Right? Right?!
If you don’t, you can consider some of the following options for wiping your butt that you can probably find close at hand.
- Old rags
- Pages torn from books
- Leaves (be 100% sure they are not an irritant)
Indoor Toilet Options
Your indoor bathroom options are fairly limited, but definitely workable, even if they are not sustainable without periodic disposal of your waste by other means.
Those hardware store 5 gallon buckets with the sealing lids have endless uses don’t they? This is another one. You can line one of these buckets with a pair of heavy duty can liners or bags (heavy as you can, you don’t want leaks) and use a purpose-made snap on toilet seat or improvised seat made from a couple of boards to add a little comfort when you sit, and voila: a new indoor toilet, just like the chamber pots of old!
You can add a little crumpled newspaper, sawdust, kitty litter, wood ash or store bought chemical toilet additive (like used on RV or camp toilets) for absorbency and you are all set. Seal the toilet carefully with the lid to keep odor down, and don’t be afraid to spray some cleaner or disinfectant behind when you are done. When the bag is getting a little to full for comfort or prudence, tie it off and remove it or dump it into a larger sealing trashcan (similarly lined) until it can be disposed of properly.
Keep a supply of strong bleach solution or other disinfectant and ash or quicklime near your disposal can if you are dumping your bucket’s contents directly in. Add some cleaner and then a layer of quicklime or ash to each addition to help control odor and pestilence from getting too overwhelming. Once the crisis is over, you can safely empty the contents into approved disposal sites or the sewer system.
Wait, what? The only reason we are going over this is because we don’t have access to our normal throne, right? Right, but there will be situations where your toilet will still be operational, but perhaps just won’t have water. This method will be dependent on two things: first, you’ll need to be sure that your locale sewer mains are unbroken and functional, else you’ll be contributing greatly to outbreaks of disease in your town. Second, you will need a supply of water to feed the toilet in order to flush it.
Simply pour a suitable amount of water in the bowl, do your business and then flush as normal. If for whatever reason the toilet is still non-operational, you can make use of it as the handy seat it is by duct taping a strong double-bag in the bowl and then doing your business normally. Once the bag is modestly full, untape it, tie off well and then put it in your disposal can as above.
Note: do not let the bag get too full. You will rue the day you had to tie off a small bag sloshing over with poop and pee.
Outdoor Toilet Options
With a shovel and a little sweat, you can produce an outdoor potty fit for a king. But you must know the water table in your area before using an in-ground toilet! Raw sewage will easily contaminate underground water supplies and wells, or above water supplies like rivers, lakes springs and creeks. If at all possible, you must locate any and all outdoor in-ground toilets well away from these water sources; consider 200 feet to be the absolute minimum safe distance. If that is not achievable, use the bucket method above and simply keep them outside.
Any outdoor toilet options will have two other major considerations for placement:
Depth – Any in-ground toilet should be at least 12 inches deep. This will be easier or harder depending on the hardness and type of soil in your area.
Drainage – This goes hand in hand with the contamination issue above. Any major rain or other source of water will saturate and then inundate your in-ground deposits, and the resulting sludge will travel with the flows and runnels to contaminate other water sources. Place your toilet with a strong eye toward minimizing harmful drainage.
Additionally, depending on the situation and proximity to other people and family members, you might want to set up an opaque tarp, screen, boards or something similar around any of the following toilets to increase privacy and ease the strain and stress of pooping and peeing in a strange place. A simple curtain rigged from cordage and a tarp or sheet can suffice in a pinch.
For the following options, as with our disposal container above, keep a supply of ash or quicklime near your toilet to cover the leavings. This will make it less attractive to pests of all kinds and help control odor.
Exactly what it says on the label. Dig a small round hole about 12 inches deep. This is enough for several bathroom visits. Squat over it, do your business, cover it and done. If you cannot stand to squat you can construct a seat or improves some type of chair over it to ease the strain.
This is a proper in-ground toilet that can support a family or multiple people. These take more effort to dig and create, but can go for a much longer time before you need a new one. Dig a trench about 12 to 16 inches deep, 4 feet long and a foot or foot and a half wide. Then squat and relieve yourself as above, no fuss, no mess.
A good tip for either of our outdoor models is to add a post or some kind of improvised assist handle or rope that will help you to maintain balance when you are squatting over it. This will improve both comfort and accuracy when doing the deed.
Just like everyday life, hand washing is a crucial part of maintaining health and preventing the spread of disease after you use the bathroom. Only now the stakes are so much higher should you take ill. There is no rocket science here: wash your palms, fingers, under your nails and wrists thoroughly with soap and water same as usual, then rinse with clean water.
If water is hard to come by or too precious to use on hand washing, you should keep a giant bottle of waterless hand sanitizer on hand for just such an event. Put a generous dollop of it on your hands the rub briskly all over just like you were washing. When it is dry you are done.
If you have neither water to spare for serious washing or hand sanitizer, you can make your own hand wash disinfectant tank with our favorite prepper standby, chlorine bleach! A 6 percent solution in a deep bucket or bowl will work for this task, but you need to measure carefully. One tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of water should do the trick, but the key is to make sure your bleach-water smells strongly of bleach. It evaporates into the air right out of the water and if you cannot smell the bleach you aren’t getting any disinfection.
Also make sure you change the solution regularly, don’t keep adding bleach to a cloudy, nasty bowl of water. Dip you hands in the bowl and rub briskly all over for at least thirty seconds, then shake hands dry.
People get very lazy about hygiene and sanitation when things get rough and modern life disappears. Don’t let that be you and make sure you stay on top of family and kids. Should you get lax on this you will all suffer mightily.
In any prolonged survival scenario, especially one where you are remaining in one place for any length of time, it is sanitation, not raiders, invaders or anything else that will be your most persistent health risk. Without clean water and proper sewage disposal, disease will light you up and rip through your group, weakening and incapacitating you, making you all vulnerable to death from a host of other concerns. Avoid this ignominious end by learning and practicing good sanitation procedures for tough times.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.