Camper trailers are designed for off-grid use and make the perfect low-budget housing option if you can find the right one. Many are already equipped with solar power and self-contained water systems.
Photo by Fotolia/Rafael Ben-Ari
Creating the Low-Budget Homestead (Paladin Press, 2011), by Steven D. Gregersen, provides practical advice for building the dream homestead. Living an off-grid, independent lifestyle takes a lot of planning, but with Gregersen’s help anyone can save time and money making their dreams come true. In the following excerpt from “Housing and Outbuildings,” see the variety of ways to go green with low-budget, or temporary, housing options.
Purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead.
Green, Low-Budget Housing
These include campers, tents, teepees, yurts, dugouts, and other low-budget, temporary, or “replaceable” housing options. I’m going to include mobile homes in this section, for reasons I’ll explain next.
First off, I have nothing against living in mobile homes. When it’s wet outside, they are dry inside and when it’s cold outside they are warm inside. That’s pretty much the basic requirements of any shelter, so there’s nothing wrong with living in one.
The reason I’ve put them here is that mobile homes are not designed for off-grid life. They are especially not designed for life without running water, if that’s what you’ll be doing. Their windows are small, so they are dependent on artificial light. They have long hallways and remote bedrooms, which make them difficult to heat without a forced air furnace. The small windows and metal sides make them difficult to cool naturally during hot summer days. Many are woefully lacking in insulation. Water pipes are run alongside heating ducts to keep them from freezing in the winter. This means that if you are using radiant wood heat, the water in the pipes is more likely to freeze in cold weather.
However, if you have a mobile home, there are things you can do to make it more efficient for off-grid life. You’ll need to open it up a bit for heat to circulate. You might also need to install more or larger windows for air circulation in summer. New windows are expensive, but we’ve purchased used windows from places like Habitat for Humanity and clearance sales at building supply stores, and by stopping where people are remodeling their homes and replacing their old windows. Sometimes they’ll even give them to you just to have you haul them off. In most cases, you can retrofit these housing windows into a mobile home. If it’s an older model with thinner walls, it may take extra work to accomplish, but it can be done.
You’ll probably want to move the bathroom next to the kitchen to keep all your plumbing near your heat source and be sure that the kitchen is near the heating stove. In a homesteading, off-grid lifestyle, you’re going to spend most of your time in the kitchen or living/family room, so you’ll want to locate the stove in this area.
I’ve seen good things done with different types of railroad cars. If you begin with one designed for passenger use, you’ll be ahead of the game because it takes less work to modify. Of course, you’ll have to purchase it and arrange for transportation, which could jack up the price quite a bit, but if you can find creative solutions to these problems, a railroad car might be a good option. I’ve seen some nice (but small) homes made out of old rail cars. The caboose can be remodeled in a number of different ways to make it into a unique yet functional home. I’ve seen old coaches fixed up nicely as well. The best thing about rail cars is that they’re constructed well and should last a lifetime.
You may be surprised that I’d rate mobile homes low on the list yet write favorably of camper trailers. The difference is that camper trailers are recreational vehicles and are designed for off-grid use. Of course, some models are more like mobile homes, so you’ll have to be a little careful here, but if you can find one that’s truly intended for camping rather than as a portable retirement home, you’ll do okay. Many already have solar power installed and are equipped with both 12-volt DC and 110-volt AC power through an inverter. Their water systems are self-contained and have sinks, toilets, and holding tanks. Most also have three-way refrigerators powered by 12-volt DC, 110-volt AC, or propane. If you’re going to use one in cold climates, you’ll need to install an alternate heat source (preferably wood heat). Their furnaces go through a lot of propane trying to keep them warm.
Paladin Press has an excellent book written by M. D. Creedmore titled Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat: One Man’s Solution. He uses a camper trailer for his survival retreat and has some great information. If you’re contemplating this option, read his book.
Tents, Teepees, and Yurts
While I’ve read great reviews on how roomy, comfy, and easy to heat these are, I don’t know anyone who uses them as permanent housing in cold climates. I know several people who’ve done it while they were building their house, but they all abandoned their tent dwellings as soon as the house was built. That’s why I class them as temporary shelters. That plus the fact that their shells need to be replaced every few years.
If you live in a warm or moderate climate, one of these might be a viable long-term option. Historically, these home types have been the choice of nomadic people. Those living in the same place year after year usually opt for more permanent structures.
Indigenous or Native Shelters
Do some research on what indigenous people in your area lived in. They lived at a time when heating and cooling options were limited. Their housing reflected the qualities that were most important to them. Was it protection from wind? Heat? Cold? Rain? Learn from them before building your own home.
Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing Low-Budget Housing
Remember, in hot climates you’re going to need ventilation, shade, and insulation. In cold climates you’re going to want insulation and protection from the wind. Any non-forced-air heating system needs open space to be efficient. Heat does not normally flow down long hallways and into distant rooms. Many old houses had multiple fireplaces or woodstoves. Use heavy drapes or curtains to keep heat in at night.
If you’re going off-grid, put in lots of windows to let in light. Keep interior colors bright to reflect light. Make use of passive solar energy wherever possible.
If you’re aiming for self-reliance, use heat sources that do not rely on electricity and that use fuel that’s local, low-tech, and plentiful.
If you’re generating your own electricity, the best way to save money is to not need electricity. The second best way is to need very little electricity!
Learn more about low-budget homesteading: Batteries for Solar Power
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from
Creating the Low-Budget Homestead by Steven D. Gregersen and published by Paladin Press, 2012. Purchase this book from our store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead