The nuttiest thing we’ve ever done as a family was to move out of our house and into a one room trailer. A tiny house.
Two adults, a four year old, and two cats in a 120 square foot camper.
We hauled all of our own water, used a composting toilet, a solar shower, and we tried to exercise extreme patience with each other. For almost 6 years, we lived in the camper/trailer, set up in the back corner of a friends’ property, paying no more than $200 a month for rent. We did have a small tipi and access to storage in the pyramid visible in the picture. That’s our camper on the right.
The original intention was to save money and use less resources. We wanted to live simply and intentionally, and learn to live with less stuff. It was hard to do. Hard, but good. We had a lot to figure out at first.
Lights and water: We had one very very long extension cord to power our lights, which were 4 CFL bulbs and we had a tiny refrigerator and portable CD player, and we used a gas stovetop for cooking. Access to wash water was from a frost-free valve a few hundred feet away, and I hauled 5 gallon carboys of spring water for drinking.
Most camper and RV water systems are susceptible to freezing and then bursting, so I made a gravity-feed system out of a 5 gallon olive oil jug, with food-safe tubing and a nozzle for a hose. This system sat at the corner of our tiny loft, with the hose over the sink, and we filled it once a day. The gray-water drained out the back and not into the storage tank. If we had done that, as an RV does, then we would have had to find a place to empty it and clean it.
We missed having hot water in the winter, so we mooched showers off of friends when we could, did house-sitting jobs so we could use the tub, and we took sponge baths when we couldn’t. In the summer, we set out our camping solar shower on the grass, and by the afternoon, we’d have hot water. We could all shower with less than 4 gallons of water total, showering navy-style (get wet, turn off water, soap up, turn on water and rinse, turn off water, repeat for hair). An outdoor shower is very invigorating, but really not for the shy…
Heat: In the winter, I covered the door and windows with strips of wool blanket cut to fit, and we used an oil-filled electric radiator for heat. The gas heat that was built into the camper had an electric fan that ran on 12 volt power, but the battery would quickly go dead and the fan was so squeaky that we gave up on it. And, I wasn’t willing to risk a gas-burning stove in a tiny space with us. The heater was our biggest electrical draw, by far.
The thin walls of the camper lost heat quickly, and the floor was usually pretty cold, but by covering the roof with a tarp, and the windows with blankets, and by putting another rug or two on our floor, we managed to survive some severe winters in there. -15° type of severe. It was hard. But good.
Bathroom: Because the toilet normally empties into the storage tank as well, I took out the standard RV toilet and built a Humanure toilet – a stand for a 5 gallon bucket with a toilet seat on top. We used pine shavings and sawdust for cover material (to cover your business).
The materials for the humanure system were either cheap or free. Many institutional food services (schools, universities, hospitals) have a surplus of buckets and lids available for the taking, and a compost bin can be built for cheap. Animal bedding or pine shavings from a feed store works well, but even better is finely chopped leaf mulch or sawdust from a sawmill or wood shop, especially if it comes from raw lumber, not kiln dried wood.
For more potty talk, read 10 Reasons to Love a Sawdust Toilet
Composting: I used a roll of hardware cloth (mesh fencing) that I fastened end to end, making a circular heap. I staked the bottom to the ground to hold it still until it was part filled, and I only turned the pile after it had been full for a while. Between the bathroom and kitchen waste, we generated a large pile of finished compost every year. The only difficult times with the Humanure toilet were when we had sub-zero temperatures outside, and we had a full bucket, and someone really had to go. Spare buckets and lids are like gold on those days. We used a separate pee bucket (or went outside) so the toilet wouldn’t fill up with urine. Trust me, a solid bucket is way easier to handle than a sloshing bucket.
How did that work out?
Well, we saved paying a ton of money on rent, and our energy and water use went way down during those 6 years. We generally used less than 10 gallons a day of water, drinking and wash water together (2 adults and one child, then another baby for the last 2 years). Our four 20 watt light bulbs were in use for only several hours in the evening, and we used headlights and candles when we could.
One major issue for us was that we ran out of room for beds. Our oldest was crammed in the loft, and our youngest was outgrowing our bed.
A cell phone was a necessity for us, but we got a prepaid plan so that we didn’t have a contract, and we got by with just a basic boring phone (no camera, no pictures, no nothing). Having a tiny fridge with a freezer that didn’t really freeze solid was a challenge, and if we were smarter, we would have put a new fridge and heater in before moving in…
Eleven months ago, we moved into a real house, a “house”, paying full rent, and parked the camper in the driveway. We’ve been living it up with hot water, a bath tub for the kids, central heat, and rooms with actual doors. Our original plan was to sell the camper to someone else wanting to try out the tiny house experiment, thinking that we’d outgrown it, but I’m already tired of paying high rent. The trailer is looking tempting again.
Maybe we’ll put some time and money into fixing it up and overhauling it, adding a power component (PV panels and batteries) and making it more usable to travel in (we always kept it parked). We have a large wall tent/mountain man canvas tent, and with both of those as living spaces, we could probably make it work for us. Take the freak show on the road. Hmmm…