scotty vintage canned ham camper

To Pee or Not to Pee? A Camping Toilet Cautionary Tale

Before we became Vanagon campers, we owned a “canned ham” vintage trailer. It was the cutest, dumbest purchase I ever made. And it hinged on a camping toilet.

I’m a primitive camper at heart but had reached a point where I wanted to upgrade, with insomnia and joint stiffness creeping into my tent on an increasing basis. An RV would be too big; I wanted something nimble and stylish that would fit in our garage.

I fell hard for the charms of “pull-behind” vintage campers from the 50s and 60s, the golden age of automobiling.

With little Formica-topped kitchens, dinettes and couches that convert to beds, canned hams are camper eye candy. Some even have closets that can be made into primitive bathrooms with camping toilets.

Interior of our 1968 Serro Scotty “canned ham” camper

I had dreams of cozying up to play euchre around a laminated dining table in a thunderstorm, safely cocooned in a state park by a (flimsy) shell of aluminum and plywood.

And wouldn’t it be sweet if we didn’t have to traipse our way across the campground to use the bathroom? A place to potty topped my list of must-haves.

I found a 1968 Serro Scotty travel trailer with a “wardrobe” – a closet big enough to hold a camping toilet – and a truck driver to bring it from Arizona to Philadelphia.

I picked up my trailer in a Walmart parking lot. That’s my car on the left.

The day it arrived, I drove to a Walmart parking lot (the preferred meeting spot of truckers everywhere, I learned) in south Philly to pick it up.

The trucker said he received numerous offers to buy the Scotty right off his rig during the trip. He told me he was worried it might be stolen before he got to Philly. That’s how cute this thing was.

I was alone that day because Rich was in New York for work. I had never towed anything in my life, but there I was, sailing down I-76, the most clogged highway in Philly, with a 3,000-pound thrift-store find hitched to my tail.

I made it home and got to work gussying up the Scotty. I sewed curtains, stocked the kitchen and bought a portable toilet for the closet. Our first camping trip was to Knoebels.

I had never been so excited to use a bathroom in my life.

We turned this closet into a bathroom with a portable camping toilet.

And use the bathroom, we did. We had a blast at Knoebels. We were living the glamping dream of chilling out in style at a throwback campground, with the cutest lil’ camper in the park.

Then it was time to go home.

Not wanting to drive two and a half hours with a “full load,” we stopped at the dump station on the way out. We waited in line as we watched RV after RV attach hoses to their campers to siphon their stuff into underground holding tanks.

It was quite a sight to see. And smell.

Then it was our turn.

The porta potty we bought came with a hose for dumping. Amazon reviews extolled its ease of use. This was to be a minor inconvenience for the luxury of having camped with our own toilet.
Deep breath….we were ready to go.

We twisted the hose and turned the potty upside down. Out came the waste.

Except, not all of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the portable toilets on the market today do work. They come in different sizes and styles, but the basic setup is the same: a bucket with chemicals to neutralize odor and break down the waste. Those chemicals work amazingly well. Our toilet contained the smells in our little trailer.

The problem comes in when you have to dump it, clean it, and sleep near it.

We rinsed the toilet and did the best we could at the dump station. But it was difficult to reach all the nooks and crannies. Without the chemicals (that were dumped with the waste), the toilet smelled worse after we emptied it.

When we returned home, exhausted, we unhitched the trailer and hit the hay. We knew we had to clean the toilet more … later.

As we reminisced about the trip in the comfort of our home and posted pictures to Facebook, toilet thoughts quickly faded – only to resurface weeks later, several hours before our next camping trip.

We cleaned the portable potty again, this time scrubbing with brushes and the power washer attachment to our garden hose.

On our next camping trip, I couldn’t stop thinking about sleeping so close to the toilet and its contents. The potty was just a few feet from our heads. Ummm, ewww. The novelty had worn off.

The hassle of the toilet wasn’t the only reason we gave up the Scotty. Unlike the Vanagon, there is no mechanic for old trailers, no website that sells replacement parts. There was no one but us to fix the things that needed fixed. And we weren’t so good at fixing them.

Before we sold the trailer, we had fun incorporating it into our first ever tiki party We strung up lights and placed snacks and a speaker with a tiki playlist on auto-repeat inside. Guests peeped at the kitsch and kids used it as a hangout. Adorbs.

One of those kids peed in it, we discovered weeks later.

Uff da.

While the trailer didn’t end up working out, we learned an important lesson: We don’t like camping with waste in our midst.

If you’re thinking about buying a pop-up, trailer, or camper van, consider weighing the convenience of having a potty in your space against the inconvenience of disposing of, and dwelling with, the waste. Your decision might land in a different direction than ours. But I share this tale in hopes it may help some campers avoid costly mistakes.

The “pee tent” is the best $20 in camping gear we ever spent.

Now when we go camping, the first thing we do at our site is to unzip a flat, disc-shaped nylon bag.


Out pops a tent.

This tent is our portable bathroom: it holds a “foldable” toilet” and we use it to shower.

When we’re ready to leave, we pull out the stakes that anchor the tent to the ground and stuff it back in its case.

And smile as we pass the dump station on the way out of the campground.

2 thoughts on “To Pee or Not to Pee? A Camping Toilet Cautionary Tale”

  1. I am a primitive camper. A minivan has enough space for me. For food, fast food apps are great. I would purchase a few canned food from walmart If I determined I will be boondogging. Most have a pull top to open the can, otherwise a simple can opener would do. If I want warm food, a 2000 watt inverter generator and a 700 watt microware will do. For hygine, a black membership to planet fitness would work better than a RV bathroom. In remote places? Jump into a lake or a hotel swimming pool. My goal is a long road trip covering the most beautiful part of the US, away from the congested cities as cheap as possible. My pro cameras and laptop will give me and others the best memories I can have.

  2. There is the saying that KISS, keep it stupid simple so I can spend more time enjoying instead of setting up a camping location.

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