Emergency Sanitation

Emergency Sanitation – Everything You Need To Know. by Tim Makay

Keeping yourself and your surroundings clean and free of germs is critical if you want to stay healthy. This is easy enough in kind times though it can be a struggle when far afield for extended forays. But where most people struggle to deal with keeping clean bodies and surroundings, including preppers, is during long or indefinite-term disasters. More than most factors it is the simple propagation of filth leading to an explosion of disease that can level most groups of people, especially people living in close quarters for a long period of time. Proper control of human waste, garbage and even the deceased are serious concerns that you must be prepared to deal with when society no longer takes care of these things for you. Forgoing dealing with these facts of life will have disastrous consequences. It might not be pretty, and it certainly isn’t fun to talk about, but it is important. In today’s article we will be telling you everything you need to know about emergency sanitation concerns and procedures for SHTF scenarios.

In This Article+

Sanitation is Essential for Survival

Typical Diseases Caused by Lack of Sanitation

Primary Sanitation Concerns

The Metrics of Human Waste

Improvised Facilities and Waste Storage

Toilet Solutions, Indoor

Toilet Solutions, Outdoor (Latrines)

Wash Your Hands!

Taking “Out” the Trash

What about Dead Bodies?


Sanitation is Essential for Survival There is no civilization, from the most advanced to the most primitive, that is not entirely reliant on good sanitation procedures for staving off disease. It is hard to believe that humble germs of all kinds have been responsible for the lion’s share of mass die-off events throughout human history. Throughout the world, a couple of billion people have been categorized as living in regions where sewage systems, toilets and other fixtures of sanitation that we take for granted are classified as “inadequate”. This inevitably results in a lack of cleanliness that makes outbreaks of diseases like dysentery, cholera and others more likely. Before you pat yourself on the back for our achievements, remind yourself that one bad day or a series of bad turns could result in us living in very much the same conditions through loss of public or private waste management services.

Now keeping clean, dealing with waste, trash and other vectors of pestilence is going to become a survival mandate. Getting it wrong could make for a terrible, grueling death for you and your group. But luckily, these skills are not particularly difficult to learn and a few simple, inexpensive preps can give you a major leg up on taking care of business. It will be best if you committed to learning these skills, and developing a sanitation plan now before you are forced to deal with the ugly truth later.

Typical Diseases Caused by Lack of Sanitation Diseases like influenza, hepatitis, cholera, typhus and plague have claimed millions upon millions of lives all total, and all are exacerbated and helped along by improper or absent sanitation. But when it comes to filth-related pathogens none are more infamous than dysentery. Even when seemingly greater threats are in abundance, such as open warfare, dysentery is often the Reaper’s tool of choice. Throughout our near, modern history, dysentery has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths even in the middle of active war zones. And what’s more, in the Spanish-American war it killed more people than actual combat. Think about that. It can do the same thing to you and yours when you’re trying to survive the aftermath of a major disaster.

Dysentery is a hideous disease, causing inflamed intestines. The symptoms are gruesome, and disgusting. Paralyzing abdominal cramping, high fever and never-ending, horrible diarrhea that is often bloody. As bad as this sounds it can easily get worse, with dehydration and electrolyte-related shock being all but certain. The resulting weakness and eventual incapacitation makes it extremely difficult to care for oneself and presents a severe test for caretakers; lying around in your own filth is a great way to spread fecal born germs to those people attempting to help you. Dysentery blazes a trail through any group of people who have to live in close proximity to one another, and that makes it a perennial threat in any survival situation where sanitation standards start to slip. In the remainder of this article you’ll find what info you need to equip yourself against such an eventuality.

Primary Sanitation Concerns When it comes to sanitation you have three primary material concerns that you’ll need to manage during a survival situation. So long as you can take care of these three things you will dramatically cut down on the amount of germs you will encounter and the other, attendant problems that result from that contact. They are, in order of priority:

Human Waste: Human waste will be your most pressing and constant concern when it comes to sanitation, with both liquid and (to a far greater extent) solid waste being major vectors for pathogens. Coming into contact with human waste will easily spread germs to your skin or contaminate anything else that it touches, and it is also highly attractive to mammalian and insect scavengers that then become secondary vectors of dangerous germs.

Trash: Second only to human waste in terms of quantity generated is trash, with biological matter being of particular concern. Food scraps and other kitchen waste can rot, go rancid, and otherwise decompose allowing germs to flourish and once again attracting critters looking for an easy meal. They’re fine dining experience could make for the beginnings of the next epidemic. Dealing with trash under the circumstances will be a chore but is comparatively easy in most situations.

Dead Bodies: The pathogenic threat posed by dead bodies is greatly overhyped by most people owing to a lack of knowledge about the processes at work. While distinctly unpleasant and potentially traumatizing to handle, most dead bodies do not represent a major source of disease unless the departed died of a contagious disease. Nonetheless, dead bodies must be dealt with to prevent substantial discomfort and trauma for survivors. Each of these concerns requires a slightly different approach to deal with it, with the one common factor being you must deal with them carefully in order to prevent the spread of germs, and then ensure you diligently wash up after handling any of them. We will go into details for all of them below.

The Metrics of Human Waste Okay, it is now time to get into the ugly part. Before you can prepare to deal with any problem, you must understand the scope of the problem. Concerning human waste, this means getting into some specifics that are not for the faint of heart. It might make your toes curl, but there is going to be some fecal-centric math in this section. You have been warned, so hold your nose, and let’s get to it!

The biggest part of the problem when it comes to dealing with human waste is that there will be so much to deal with, and so often. Said another way, humans generate a lot of poop day to day, generally. A normal adult will create around a whole pound of feces every single day, and generate two to three pints of urine, though output can fluctuate based on several factors. Thank God that this all goes into our toilets and disappears with the press of a lever! But what should happen when our toilets no longer work, or we don’t have any? Oh, boy. You now have over a pound of poop to deal with and a quart of pee. Remind yourself this is just for a single adult! How many people are in your group? Let’s just say you have a group of four adults to make things simple. That now means you are dealing with four entire pounds of feces, and over a gallon of urine. Good grief!

But we aren’t done yet. What if you could not leave your home or some other shelter in order to dispose of it? Where would you put it? How will you deal with the odor? What will you do when all kinds of animals and insects start homing in on it? Those animals will likely include your very own pet, dog or cat. I don’t need to explain how far and how wide these animals will spread the germs picked up off this human waste. Imagine them tracking that all over your shelter and all over your supplies… This is how outbreaks of disease crop up so rapidly in survival situations and then carve a virulent path of gruesome death and destruction through groups and even through entire populations. When sanitation breaks down pestilence is always close behind. And another thing, those pounds of poop and gallons of pee? That’s just for one day for a group of four adults. A single day! How bad will it be after a week? After two weeks? After a couple of months? Folks, you cannot afford to screw this up: Time to learn how to deal with it properly to spare your lives and your sanity.

Improvised Facilities and Waste Storage: You’ll deal with human waste in much the same way as you normally deal with it in usual, non-disastrous times. The only difference is you’ll have to put in more work to accomplish the same objectives! Whether or not you’re surviving predominantly indoors or out, the solution remains. Dealing with human waste involves two major components: disposal and storage.

Waste Disposal A process by which waste is eliminated or relegated to its final resting place. When properly disposed of, waste represents no or minimal danger of contagion, being completely covered or sealed or treated with chemicals that mitigate the threat of cross-contamination as it breaks down.

Waste Storage Waste storage is an intermediate or temporary step when getting rid of waste. While waste might be allowed to accumulate in a storage solution, it is not truly dealt with, and the storage solution must be emptied more or less often to dispose of the waste. Whereas a proper waste disposal site can be the first and final stop for human waste, a waste storage site is only ever temporary. We’ll talk more about both of these components below. Other concepts you’ll need to familiarize yourself with include sanitation supplies as well as indoor and outdoor options for disposal and storage. Concerning the supplies you’ll need to take care of business you should invest in the following, both for taking care of the aftermath and washing your hands:

TP: Toilet paper is one of those things you really don’t want to be forced to improvise in a survival situation. It is not that difficult to improvise, but the efficacy of anything you’ll be able to come up with pales in comparison, not to mention comfort, to the real thing. There is nothing for it: make sure you stock up on a bunch for your survival stash, and know some of the plants that grow in your area that can replace it.

Baby Wipes: Baby wipes are a close relative to toilet paper when it comes time to go number two, and will help keep you cleaner than you could be using toilet paper alone. They are also very handy for interim bathing, able to give you a touch up clean on troublesome parts of your body.

Improvised TP Through bad luck, lack of preparation, or just an extremely long-term survival scenario, you have run out of toilet paper and now you must improvise. There are all kinds of things you can use to wipe your behind with, including pages torn from books or newspapers, old (clean) rags or swatches of t-shirt cut for the purpose, and even leaves from plants, though you must be triple sure you are not wiping with anything that is irritating or poisonous.

5-Gal. Buckets Common hardware store 5-gallon paint buckets, the kind that features an equally sturdy, gasketed lid for sealing the contents are absolutely invaluable in a survival situation when used as an improvised toilet or waste storage container. These have the strength needed to hold up to repeated use and the lid will cut down on disastrous accidents when moving the contents around, not to mention help keep the smell at bay. Get several. Don’t forget the lids.

Can Liners Ultra-heavy duty can liners are useful for waste storage and compartmentalization. They can help keep an improvised toilet cleaner by allowing you to remove the interior and the waste in one fell swoop before neatly tying it off. Please listen to me when I implore you to buy the strongest, toughest can liners that you can afford; one rip, one hole and you’ll be dealing with a calamitous mess.

Absorbent Media Absorbent media is very helpful when improvising a waste disposal solution. Anything that will absorb moisture and help control odor or provide a barrier between you, and solid waste is a good idea. Standout recommendations are kitty litter, sawdust, granulated clay pellets, shredded newspaper and sand.

Bleach / Disinfectant You’ll be thoroughly sanitizing yourself, your equipment, and all nearby surfaces regularly during a time like this if you are wise. When it comes to sheer germ killing power, bleach is an excellent option, even if it is hell on your clothing! It also makes a good hand wash when thinned a little bit with water. Other disinfectants are fine, including hand sanitizer, though if you’re going to use anything else on your skin, make sure you double check it for potential health effects.

Soap It is hard to beat good, old fashioned soap when it is time to wash your hands. At least it is so long as you have access to plentiful water. You can use whatever kind of soap makes sense to you and your situation; just make sure you have some on hand.

Toilet Solutions, Indoor The situation outside might be dangerous or the weather just too freaking harsh to make doing your “business” outside plausible. Whatever the case, you’ll have to take care of things indoors like you normally do, only now the stakes will be somewhat higher. Good options are comparatively few compared to outdoor options, but are still reliable and adaptable. The key difference is that most of your indoor improvised toilet solutions will boil down to storage versus proper disposal.

“Jumpstart” Your Existing Toilet Now, if you have read this far it is so you can get the straight dope on innovative, improvised waste disposal solutions when it is time to do your business, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this nifty trick. As alluded to above, it is far from out of the question that your existing water and sewer service will be knocked offline during any major disaster scenario. However, it is also possible that your sewer or septic lines could still be intact and functional, but your toilet is just not receiving the water that it needs to flush. In this case, all you will need to do is manually charge the toilet with water from any source before going to the bathroom as normal, and then flush. So long as you have loaded the usual amount of water the toilet requires, it will flush with no problems.

Warning: you should be at least reasonably sure that your septic or local sewer pipes are not damaged or otherwise out of operation or you’ll be making a bad situation worse.

If you are able to make use of this technique that will obviously be a big comfort for everyone involved and also highly sanitary, but it does require access to great quantities of water, quantities that might not be endless or replaceable. Water might be better used for something else, so make sure you take careful stock of your access or existing water supply before employing this trick.

5 Gal. Bucket Toilet The bucket toilet is a well-known, sturdy and effective solution that will make management and disposal of solid and liquid waste far easier than using some other kind of container. The setup is simple. All you need to do is line the bucket, preferably, with a heavy duty can liner or thick plastic sheeting before sprinkling some absorbent media at the bottom. As mentioned above this could be anything from kitty litter or sawdust to wood ash, newspaper or even chemical toilet agent. To do your business, all you’ll need to do is fashion a seat. If you are lucky, this will be a purpose made snap-on toilet seat or one jury-rigged from an existing toilet seat. Lacking this, don’t worry, because you can use a couple of planks of wood carefully positioned to form a functional seat. Simply sit down and do your business as usual.

Once you have done the deed, all you need to do is spray a little bit of disinfectant on your leavings and then sprinkle more absorbent media on top. This will extend the time between bag changes. Speaking of bag changes, do not try to stretch your bag budget by allowing the container to become too full for comfort! As mentioned above, this is more of a storage solution that will need to be regularly disposed of or otherwise emptied. If you are fortunate enough to only experience a short-term scenario, you can throw out the bags with your normal garbage when it resumes.

Toilet Solutions, Outdoor (Latrines) You might say that using the “bathroom” outdoors has been the standard when it comes to doing the deed infinitely longer than indoor plumbing has even been a thing. The good thing about doing your business outside is that you can generally take care of disposal in one shot with no or minimal need for any follow-up activity. There are several important considerations though and you shouldn’t go pooping or peeing just wherever you feel like it- especially in the long term! Human waste is notorious for contaminating above and below ground water supplies due to runoff or ground saturation. Ponds, lakes, springs, rivers, creeks and aquifers can all be vulnerable to contamination from feces under the right circumstances. For this reason you must locate your outdoor toilet with care and due diligence, using guidelines provided below. But the good news is that, so long as the ground is workable, you can use a digging tool to easily produce a functional and mostly sanitary outdoor toilet using nothing more than a little effort. Consider the following factors when locating your outdoor toilet, and use extreme care if you are anywhere near a known water source:

Drainage. Remember that anything you put in the ground might not stay where it is, and any germs that it contains can be carried far from the site of its leaving by rainwater, flooding and other sources. This runoff can sometimes travel a considerable distance to contaminate otherwise safe or at least safer sources of water. For this reason, you must locate any outdoor toilet site with an eye for drainage, and minimizing the potential harm that could result.

Depth. You’re aiming for a depth of at least a foot for any outdoor toilet, and more is generally better especially when it comes time to bury it as you don’t want animals digging it up. Soil hardness and soil condition in your area will largely dictate what is achievable and how much effort this will require. With those concepts in mind we will move on to explore the two primary varieties of outdoor toilet.

Trench / Pit The trench or pit toilet is exactly what it sounds like: a large hole or trench in the ground that can accommodate a substantial amount of waste, suitable for a small to medium-sized group or a typical family. You’re going to have to work hard to dig a hole this size but it is definitely a project you should complete as quickly as possible, especially when you are facing down a long- or indefinite-term survival situation with no working sewer. These can also form the basis for a proper outhouse should it come down to it.

A typical pit or trench toilet will vary in size depending on the configuration, with pit toilets usually beginning at about a foot wide and a couple of feet deep whereas trench toilets, as you would expect, are longer and narrower, usually a foot to a foot and a half deep, and around three or four feet long. Using the trench or pit toilet is quite simple, as all you have to do is squat over the edge or straddle it, and relieve yourself, easy-peasy. But depending on the physical constitution of members of your group, you can improve comfort and ease of use by adding posts, rails or even a sturdy rope tied around a nearby tree in order to afford a better security, balance and, just as important, a cheap insurance policy against falling into a used trench!

Cat Hole AKA the “cat hole”, for its obvious resemblance to the crater dug by cats prior to their deeds. All you need to do is dig a small hole, about the diameter of a large orange or grapefruit and about a foot deep. This can accommodate an adult for several visits. Squat, deposit your leavings, cover it when you are done, finished. Despite its hasty nature note that you should take care to locate it according to the standards laid out above. This concludes the section on fashioning an improvised toilet when your typical porcelain toilet is down for the count. Now, how do you take care of your typical post visit routine in the aftermath of a major disaster?

Wash Your Hands! There are no great secrets or forbidden techniques that I’m going to share with you here about washing your hands. You’re just… washing your hands, just like every other day you have ever washed your hands. The only major difference is that it is likely to not be nearly as convenient as it is most days, and failing to do a good job of it could have lethal implications should you get sick. One of the biggest considerations that will impact your hand washing routine is what you have to wash your hands with. Water is precious in almost every survival scenario, especially pure water that is ideal for drinking. If you don’t have access to an extremely large source of water, or are otherwise able to make efficient use of what water you do have, you might not want to use the old soap-and-water washing routine unless you have no choice.

In situations like this, hand sanitizer is a lifesaver. Hand sanitizer is portable, long lasting, and thoroughly effective as long as you are diligent. You might also employ chlorine bleach as mentioned above, but you’ll need to dilute the bleach to a 6 to 7% solution for safety sake. Don’t worry, as this is still more than strong enough to nuke any germs that might be hiding on your skin. If you do rely on the bleach method, remember that if you cannot smell the bleach, the bleach isn’t working anymore. Then you’ll know it is time to refresh your solution!

Again, regarding procedures there are no surprises. You should wash from just above the wrists all the way down to and beneath your fingernails. Use the tips of your fingers to thoroughly scrub and rinse between each finger, in the creases of the palm and under your fingernails. Once you are done, rinse your hands with fresh water if you are able, or just towel off. If you use a reusable cloth or towel, make sure you clean or change it regularly to prevent cross-contamination!

Taking “Out” the Trash Human waste is probably the nastiest thing you’ll have to deal with when taking care of your emergency sanitation concerns, but it is not the only thing. Food scraps, used hygiene products, dirty bandages and more are all significantly hazardous items you need to get rid of. These trash piles are another thing that is greatly beloved by pests, so you want to keep a lid on it, literally. And, though it sure would be nice if your trash service kept on running through thick and thin when the world was ending we definitely can’t count on something so fanciful. As you are probably thinking, there’s nothing to do but deal with it ourselves. Thankfully you have a couple of options, though which ones will be best for you are dependent upon the quantity of trash you are generating, what kind of trash and other cohabitation considerations like proximity to neighbors and so forth:

Dump It Yep, just dump it. Anywhere but here, am I right? Though open air dumps are mercifully (mostly) a thing of the past, you probably aren’t going to have much choice in the matter during a long-term survival situation unless you have access to operational heavy earth-moving equipment so you can landfill your garbage. Somewhere near where you live there is probably a site that is remote enough, isolated enough, and hopefully blocked well enough from casual observation where you can take your trash on a weekly or bi-weekly run. No, it is not the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of garbage, and it is definitely not aesthetically pleasing, but it might yet remain an absolute necessity.

Compost Pile One chronically overlooked method of waste disposal that actually provides a genuine return on your efforts is composting. This only works with organic trash, naturally, but for things like kitchen waste, leftovers and other biological matter you can simply add it to an existing compost pile before moistening it and turning it over a few times. Microorganisms and insects will hungrily break down this matter in a safe and minimally offensive manner, and the end result is glorious, rich compost that you can use to feed plants in your garden or field. Even if you aren’t the “green thumb” type, consider that quality compost might be useful trading fodder in a survival situation.

Burn It Burning garbage is probably the last thing you should do for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it is highly visible while burning, and it also generates a considerable amount of noxious, black smoke depending on what materials are aflame. That being said, for small quantities of certain types of garbage, burning does make a lot of sense, and has been used historically for a very long time as a method of garbage disposal. First, germs cannot survive high heat to say nothing of open, roaring flames, so if you are particularly worried about biohazards coming back to haunt you, light them up. Also, some kinds of trash, namely paper and cardboard products, scrap wood and so forth can be burned comparatively cleanly for heat in a pinch.

What about Dead Bodies? The topic of dealing with dead bodies is an uncomfortable and unpleasant one when it comes to survival situations. Unfortunately, it is greatly complicated by the strong opinions that are typically held on the matter, as well as a great deal of ignorance and misinformation. None of this will make a task that is grueling both physically and emotionally any easier. I will do my part to ease this burden and perhaps alleviate some mental strain in this section. First, bottom line upfront: Dead bodies are not the inevitable biohazard that most of us have been led to believe. Antiquated knowledge and personal custom on the matter informs most of these choices, not facts and reality.

While it is true that a decomposing body smells absolutely hideous and is emotionally damaging to look at they do not form a grave threat of disease by themselves or a vector for disease unless the person perished from disease or harbored a significant communicable disease already. What does this mean to us? It means that we need not go crazy if we are forced to handle dead bodies in order to dispose of them. Wearing gloves and a face mask will be more than adequate to protect you from any pathogens the body might be harboring.

Obviously, if a body is already substantially decomposing when we are forced to deal with it, additional protective measures to keep fluids and other substances off of our bodies and our clothing are worthwhile. For this reason it is often better to conduct what rites and burial rituals a group or family prefers in order to obtain closure and peace of mind versus taking any extraordinary measures that could be seen as disrespectful to the dead. Immolation and soaking with disinfectant are two commonly reported user-improvised solutions for dealing with dead bodies that are typically employed due to ignorance, ignorance that leads to fear of pestilence. Neither will make you safer nor improve the situation!

Conclusion Sanitation, or rather the lack thereof, is one of the statistically greatest threats to any group in a long-term survival situation. A lack of water suitable for personal hygiene combined with improper storage or disposal of human waste, garbage and dead bodies can result in an outbreak of disease that can level an otherwise well prepared group. Learning proper sanitation protocols is not nearly as pleasant or as fun as other skill sets endemic to prepping but they are likely to be far more important across a greater domain of possible situations. Hold your noses if you have to, but study up and get prepared for this eventuality!

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