One of the most common questions we get in The Backwards Van is about waste, or more specifically, human excretia, and how we deal with said waste when living longterm on the road. Frankly, we were beginning to think this paticular topic is over-thought, over examined and over-discussed (we’d much rather talk travel than toilets to be honest), but lately as the weather takes a turn for the good and lockdown is lifted, attention has turned to the volume of crap left behind in public places after a sunny day. Several posts and photographs circulating on social media seem to suggest motorhomers and campervans are abusing beauty spots and leaving piles of waste, human and otherwise, behind. While there are always exceptions to every rule, why would people in self contained vehicles with full kitchens and working toilets be the ones responsible for this carnage? Isn’t it more likely to be people with no access to a toilet that poo in sand dunes, or those with no kitchens that leave household waste and disposable barbeques strewn around the countryside? Seems absurd to blame vans when so many tent campers and day trippers use these spaces too. There appears to be much misinformation out there about the topic. How to deal with waste while on the road is no mystery, it might involve a little more planning but there are many facilities out there for us, we just have to find them.
Everything moves in cycles when you live in a van. Finding the middle ground between empty and full is an everchanging and often frustrating balancing act but it can result in rare, memorable moments when you settle in under the warm covers after a long exhausting day of van chores, smug in the knowledge that tonight, no matter what else, you have:
-Full diesel tank
-Empty laundry bag
-Full fresh water tank
-Full leisure battery
-Empty grey water tank
…usually that comes with an empty wallet too, but more on fuel and the usefulness of the garage forecourt later. For the record we only had reason for such smugness a handful of times in all our travels as we don’t use campsites much (which is where these activities can be easily achieved, at a price), preferring to sniff out our own facilities as we needed them.
On Fresh Water.
Fresh water tanks available for vans range from smaller countertop vessels designed for refilling daily to plastic containers attached to a sink or basin to large permanent tanks made of plastic or steel which are fixed in place and filled with a hose. Dixie has a large stainless steel tank which rests just above the cabin in the bulkhead. Does carrying water high up at the front of the vehicle affect our mpg, our maneoverability or decrease our speed in any way? Possibly it does, we will let you know if we ever choose to drive her fast or far when she’s full of water. Dixie is a front wheel drive and as we rarely travel with the fresh water tank full it has not been a problem thus far. The tank feeds the shower and the kitchen taps via the amazing concept of gravity, saving us time and energy and the gadgetry involved in pumping water around the house. Filling the tank is easy via an external spout just above the passenger door. We have no problems drinking from the tank and maybe shamefully don’t wash it out much. A gravity fed fresh water system works well in a van the size of Dixie and has only let us down once, when it was -17c and the contents of the kitchen taps froze solid. Or twice, when I turned the tap on one morning and realised we were dry, then we drove to find facilities without turning the tap back to off… 15 minutes filling up at the front while in the back water dripped into the grey water tank below, overflowed in the sink and flooded the little kitchenette, that sounds more like human error to me. Our tank has a little gauge to guestimate the remaining level, in winter we can see the line of condensation clearly on the cold steel. We find one tank lasts us about a week of cooking, washing, Irish amounts of tea and copious hot water bottles. Taps can be easily located at forrest parks, forecourts and marinas or using a tap app, in all our driving we have never struggled to top up our tank. Don’t take water from a cemetery as that water is almost guaranteed to be haunted and nobody wants to drink haunted water but fresh springs and non-haunted wells are great sources, you could ask the locals. Always carry an extra 5 litre bottle just in case. Don’t leave yourself short when heading off into the wilderness, there is nothing worse than enjoying no hot coffee with the sunrise or no hot water bottle at night.
Did I mention we installed a swing in The Backwards Van?! The hooks are bolted into the roof, leftover from the original bunkbeds and the seat cost €10. Without a doubt the best €10 we’ve ever spent on a vanmod for Dixie, it never fails to amuse us.
On Grey Water.
Grey Water is the term for water which has been used once, for example old dishwater or the soapy remains from your shower. Dixie has a large stainless steel tank underslung to collect this waste water and according to our rough calculations it holds about half the fresh tank does. Emptiable via a little external tap by the drivers door footwell, it tends to trickle out and really takes its time. It’s always wise to set aside more time to fill up and empty your van than expected, in case of any accidents, unforseen emergencies or medical mishaps… all of which have happened to us and if you are new to this, might just happen to you too. As we mostly use a basin to wash our dishes and ourselves, our grey water tank doesn’t fill up very quickly. A basin is easy to empty discreetly under a bush, in a flower bed or down a shore. Try not to be seen as passersby might jump to outrageous, unfounded conclusions. One great place to empty your grey water tank is right after you pay for diesel, ask permission to drive over the car wash, we’ve not been refused yet.
On Black Waste
Black Waste is the term for bodily waste, namely pee and poo. The things that we all do every single day. Most campervans have some sort of toilet installed because shit does happen, and if you plan on living in your van it really is an essential piece of kit. You wouldn’t live in a house without a toilet and your van is your house, it makes sense to be as comfortable as possible in there. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean it should be used all the time. If you are regular (understanding we can’t all predict our projections well enough to time these things) you might use an app like Find Public Toilet to locate the nearest bowl, or plan your route to park up beside one for the night and leave your daily deposit there. We have a saying in The Backwards Van, ‘if we don’t put it into the van, we won’t have to take it out of the van’ and this is especially true for poo. We have a plastic camping toilet with a cassette that is removed and emptied into what is called an elsan point, a dedicated facility mostly found at campsites, piers and marinas. Some people install what they refer to as composting toilets, a box with a liquid and solid waste seperater, some kind of medium like straw and introduced airflow to help begin the composting process. What happens to the waste when the box is full? In theory it should be moved to a stage 2 compost pile but where vanners would find one of these is a mystery to me, it seems the norm after asking around is to dig a hole and bury it. This seems so counter-intuitive and really gross, the waste will never fully compost in a hole in the ground, where exactly would a person dig this hole and who wants to be seen burying a box of shit in a hole anyway? Composting toilets work well in offgrid situations where all stages can be carried out onsite but I’m not sure why they would be any better than a camp toilet on the road. We seperate our waste to extend the toilet capacity, easier for men but not impossible for us either. No chemicals in our bowl, just water for flushing and we give it a good scrub everytime it is emptied. Marinas in Ireland provide toilet emptying facilities as do some aires, we gravitate to where the boats are for the majority of our services as our needs are so similar to theirs.
All over this fine country (and the landmass next door) you will notice some supermarkets have washing machines outside. These moderately priced facilities are perfect for vanners, usually in places with plenty of parking nearby. What’s better than waiting in your van with a cup of tea, watching through the windscreen while your smalls roll around in the rumbling wash? We’ve used laundrettes too, mostly in England. One top tip is to carry an extra bed sheet in case of bed emergencies and divide your laundry into three piles instead of two: clean, dirty and not-exactly-either. Rewearing the middle pile will keep your laundry bag emptier and extend the time between washes. It is possible to scrub your clothes in a river or lake but not using harsh washing powder and drying is impractical in a van, especially in our famous Irish weather!
Dixie has a large fibreglass shower cubicle which is great but seldom used, especially now we have a base house to come and go from. One shower takes up so much water, the gas canisters were expensive and hard to come by (and impossible to recycle) and we realised within a month on the road there are easier ways to wash ourselves. A basin bath is perfect, with a kettle of hot water and some suds. Showers can also be found at marinas, purchase a Waterways Ireland card and spend 2 units on a long hot wash, alternatively check the service stations on the nearest motorway. Many provide shower rooms which are free, spotless and unmanned. We often time a trip to a swimming pool to coincide with our routine, not free but we do enjoy a long luxurious shower before AND after our swim.
As you can probably tell, I’d much rather talk about van swings than van waste. But our actions as vanners matter, and other peoples perceptions of us vanners matter too. Unfortunately we do all get tarred with the same brush and assumptions are made quickly. People see water running off anywhere near a van and assume the absolute worst is happening. If you can, do a litter pick when you come across carpark rubbish near your chosen spot. Leave nothing but footprints they say. They are right.
Accumulating household waste in a van is easy, hiding it from yourself can be easy too. Until it starts to smell or the volume gets out of hand and you find yourself breaking out the big black bags. Domestic rubbish can be difficult to deal with when fulltiming and our best advice is to keep waste in small bags and dispose of it every single chance you get. Again the old mantra, if we don’t bring it in to the van we don’t have to take it out again. Vanlife makes us examine our waste and make positive changes too, like using cloth instead of paper towels and ditching babywipes which are fast becoming an ecological nightmare. We are the people who leave excess packaging behind in the supermarket, shedding cardboard sleeves and boxes and plastic trays. We are the people who make sure to empty our lunchbox rubbish into the bin provided before we leave the picnic spot. Keep a little bag in the cab and empty in the garage forecourt, you’re a paying customer after all, just don’t take the piss with a huge amount.
There will be times when seeking out facilities that things don’t go smoothly, especially in the beginning. Many lessons will be learned. Late one night we went over a slyly situated speed bump and the smell was so horrific, upon inspection the bowl was full of bowel backwash. Gross but we learned exactly how much the toilet can take that night! We have run out of water at midnight in mid winter, miles from nowhere. Sometimes we didn’t find an open swimming pool or a decent service station and once in the Kenttish town of Sandwich the gas ran out mid shower and I had to sleep with shampoo hair. Once at a truck stop we accidentally put screen wash into the fresh water tank, that took days to rectify although the whole van smelled delightfully sterile like a mobile hospital while we were stuck drinking from bottles. In a garage in Worthing we rigged up a little bungee cord to hold the tap in place which worked great right up until the bungee hook embedded itself deep into Williams thumb. The man behind us in the queue had come to move us along and changed his mind when he saw all the blood… a timely reminder here to keep your first aid box easily accessible!
There are so many dos and don’t dos when campervanning and most rules surrounding water and waste are just basic common sense. There is no code of conduct required. Don’t ever empty your toilet in any unofficial locations, ever, do clean up after yourself, don’t let your grey water drain in a carpark, do be discreet when emptying buckets, basins and other vessels. I don’t doubt there are some campervan and motorhome owners who disrespect the unwritten rules of vanning but we thankfully have not come across them yet. Some really inconsiderate parking jobs, yes, but that is another blog entirely 😉