Port-a-hut is Ready — Just Add Snow

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Over this summer we’ve done a ton of work to make WildSnow Field HQ (a ‘tiny house on wheels’ in central Colorado, near the town of Marble) better than ever. As an experiment, with the help of production assistant Joe we installed a 450 gallon water tank, half buried in the ground inside a temporary insulated enclosure. Works fine in summer of course, but will it freeze? Stay tuned. The land was choked with overgrown unhealthly forest when we bought it, and after a brutal amount of “defensible space” work it’s looking good thanks to lots of help from friends. Lisa even planted those apple trees she was blogging about a while ago!

Caleb and Jennie pitched in on the last of our big slash burning project.

Caleb and Jennie pitched in on the last of our big slash burning project. Other folks contributed as well. Thanks goes to all!

Chimney sweep

Job with a view -- yours truly sweeps the stove vent. We burn aspen wood for heat. Curious about how much creosote would build up from that. Really wasn't bad but a yearly cleaning is in order and perhaps once during winter with heavy use.

vacuum

Job with not such a great view--vacuuming creosote from wood stove after the brush knocks it down.

Kate and Jen put finishing touches on the water tank enclosure.

Kate and Jen put finishing touches on the water tank enclosure. If this thing works in winter during backcountry skiing days, it'll be fantastic. Plan is to get water from a freeze proof hose bib I installed exterior to the tank. That's where the freeze point might be. Critical thing is when it'll start to snow and insulate the ground. If we have a dry December we could have a problem.

Other improvements include fire resistant cushions on a bench near the wood stove, and some work on the solar system so we have more lighting options. The place is totally ready for snow so now we hope our ski burning (to be honest, our prayers) bring a good safe winter for all!

Build your dream. Attend a tiny house workshop!

Comments

35 Responses to “Port-a-hut is Ready — Just Add Snow”

  1. Tom Gos November 1st, 2012 10:42 am

    Lou, I have always heard aspen is pretty poor for heat (burns fast, lots of ash) and consequently I’ve always avoided it. Are you using aspen because it’s easily available at your location, or do you prefer it to spruce/fir/pine?

  2. Lou Dawson November 1st, 2012 10:47 am

    Tom, that diss on aspen for firewood is a myth. It’s terrific, I actually prefer it over conifer now that I’ve used it for a few seasons. Less tar and creosote, slightly less heat per pound but not a big deal. I think the key is to use it in a modern stove. It does burn fast when it’s dry so in the old stoves that might have been an issue. Even the smoke smells better, in my opinion (grin). And yes, we do have an abundance of aspen on our property. In fact, at current rate of use it’s growing way faster than we can burn it for heat. The trick with aspen is it has to be dry, and it takes a while to dry out. Conifer has flammable sap so it burns better when it’s not totally dry.

  3. aaron trowbridge November 1st, 2012 10:56 am

    Totally agree Lou, I and others I know have burnt aspen. Less messy bark, generally clearer wood for splitting, density is very similar to pine, abundant, faster regenerating…but let it dry for a full season (try to get a year ahead in the cycle).

  4. Tom Gos November 1st, 2012 11:14 am

    Good to know, thanks guys. My buddy’s cabin has a lot of conifer nearby, so we usually cut that, but there is also getting to be quite a bit of dead standing aspen from the blight/bug/whatever has been killing aspen over the last several years, so should give that a try.

  5. aaron trowbridge November 1st, 2012 11:24 am

    Aspen will rot faster than pine, I’d try to grab it in the 1st season of disease/pest. Pine will hold out a little longer but even there by the time pine has dropped needles it starts to get red rot which drops the btu fast.

    All still good campfire wood though :) .

  6. Glenn Sliva November 1st, 2012 5:32 pm

    I have burned Aspen for ten years with no problems. Aspen is so plentiful and the best thing about Aspen is it blows over easily. I select trees that have blown down on the road. I can drive right up to the tree and presto 20 minutes later I have a whole season’s worth of cellulose fuel. Wood grenade the cut logs in half + 3 beers + a hatchet to split the rest into stove ready pieces.

    This was the first year I swept my chimney with lots of ash but not much if any creosote. I burn those sweep logs early season to help with the buildup. Lowes in Glenwood sells them.

    Hmmm. What’s the backup plan if the water tank freezes solid? Wife of wildsnow will be unhappy?

  7. RDE November 2nd, 2012 8:29 am

    My friend Kurt Hughes attended the recent tiny house workshop in Seattle. He was rather frustrated by the lack of reception to his ideas about stress panels, energy efficiency, and space utilization. His point being that you can’t design a 200 sq ft house using the same outmoded techniques that have been used for 60 years on 4,000 sq ft houses. Of course he has been designing boats for most of his career that have to withstand the true test of open ocean sailing.

  8. John Gloor November 2nd, 2012 8:39 am

    My parents have some friends from Switzerland who have lived here a long time and have a cool stove which they had shipped from Europe. It has a small door and fire chamber, and the exhaust routes through ceramic blocks which form about a 6′x6′ cube. A small amount of wood heats this cube and it radiates heat all night on a very small amount of wood. The owner prefers aspen wood since it burns so cleanly, with hardly any creosote or tar left over. If you have it, burn it.

  9. Matt Kinney November 2nd, 2012 9:44 am

    If you peel the bark off while its green, it will dry much faster or 1/2 the time on hardwoods. Split it and you can burn it even sooner. Tightly packed wood piles don’t dry well, so I used the tepee-type piles which dries wood best IMO. I did this with birch, which rots quicker than it dries it seems. Do this after you limb long sections and before bucking up to stove lengths. Bark should come off as easy as a banana peel. I don’t worry about bark if I cut standing dry or leaners.

    Lived on off t/he grid for years on wood heat. I went to a Toyo stove eventually and got more ski time. Used to prowl the woods on my WT Polaris and AKsled looking for wood in mid winter. It’s a bunch of hard work that I really don’t miss anymore. Lots of romantics about it, but for those who depend on it to actually live, it’s serious “aging” labor. Try 10 chords in 3 days for a good preseason work-out. If I had to do it over again I would.

    Creating “defensible space” for wildfires allows you to save your home, not the govt once the fire is coming. Good on you, lou.

    I need snow.

  10. Lou Dawson November 2nd, 2012 9:48 am

    John, that sounds like what we call a “tile stove,” basically a big chunk of ceramic with a firebox inside. They’re fantastic. Some people even have beds built on top of the big ones. If we build another house or a larger cabin, it’ll have a huge tile stove in the middle of it.

    RDE, thanks for the feeback. One thing to remember about tiny houses is that with even minimal insulation they’ll stay warm from not much more than body heat and your computer. As for outmoded building techniques, some of the basic stick building ideas do quite well when making small structures such as storage sheds and tiny houses. On the other hand, as Kurt probably saw, there is always room for improvement, especially in the area of space utilization.

  11. Lou Dawson November 2nd, 2012 9:51 am

    Matt, what we’re finding in our dry climate is as long as the aspen is bucked up and covered, it dries out fast. We can actually burn it just fine after about 4 months, but a year of drying is better. Covering it and bucking it up are the keys. Our advantage with wood heat is we essentially have the cabin on an 8 acre wood lot with a bunch of trees that grow like crazy. Lou

  12. Gringo November 2nd, 2012 10:03 am

    As long as we are on the subject. If anyone is in the market, have a look at the goods from Norway. I grew up with these stoves in our homes and they rock.

    http://www.jotul.com/en-US/wwwjotulus/Main-menu/Products/Wood/Wood-stoves/Jotul-F-602-CB/

    By the way Lou, it seems we have been wating a while ( a few years) for some good ski cabin updates…. Glad to see it here if still in preperation.

  13. Lou Dawson November 2nd, 2012 10:44 am

    Gringo, wait, I have been doing ongoing updates. But yeah, not a huge amount. You might have missed some of them. See category.

    http://www.wildsnow.com/category/hut-trailer-wheels-rv/

    I can probably report on some specifics if you like, what are you interested in?

    Thanks, Lou

  14. g November 2nd, 2012 1:16 pm

    I am interested in what you are using for the commode. I know that in past you were simply using bags. Have you graduated into something else. Just curious, as I have been looking at various things for my futyre yurt, temporary and more permanent, and am curious.

  15. EZE420 November 2nd, 2012 2:08 pm

    Hi G-

    In winter we ski (AT & tele), snowboard, snowshoe, go to huts, and even occasionally drive snowmobiles. But in summer…we go rafting! Check out this toilet system-required equipment on most permitted river runs around here. We call ‘em “groovers.”

    http://downriverequip.com/index.php/camping-cooking/toilet-systems/eco-safe-expedition-toilet-eco7742-expedition-toilet-system.html

    These take 2 rocket boxes (20mm ammo cans): one for the tank, one for the seat, TP, reading material, etc. Leave one at your yurt or hut, bring the tank back and forth.

    Tank is very easy to clean out at any RV dump station, your own septic tank, etc. All you need is a poop hole and garden hose. Rarely even much smell if you prep the tank with RV holding tank stuff.

    The only problem I could see in winter is the tank contents will freeze up…guess you’d want to thaw it out before dumping.

    Tank is good for about 50 uses…on trips with more people/days we just bring extra tanks. Hut or yurt with only a few users a tank ought to last a few good weekends at least.

    WAG bags…only use those for backpacking now.

    Later, EZ

  16. Rob S November 3rd, 2012 3:22 pm

    Lou, do I read this correctly that you are building your own “solar system”? Somehow that sounds very grandiose! Hope you’ve picked out some nice planets…I’d suggest moving the Earth-equivelant out to about 110 million miles to ensure colder winters and more assured snow. :-)

  17. Scott Nelson November 3rd, 2012 5:36 pm

    Thanks again for all the aspen you gave me last summer Lou. It really burns great albeit quickly. And glad to see the hut coming to fruition, you’ve definitely put in some hours up there. Now a nice, well deserved long winters ski break is in order!

  18. XXX_er November 4th, 2012 1:43 pm

    How does that roof stand up to big snow load, a couple of yrs ago we put a tin roof peak structure on top of an old donated 24′ travel trailer which may or may not get visited more than once a season, Chateau Belair (Belair travel trailer ) was slightly crushed by last yrs big snow fall which was I think 3 meters, so this year we put 6×6 posts/joists under that roof to make it into a snow shed

    We were told non- permanent structures are OK and so an old trailer fit the bill but left unattended it didn’t quite take the load

    http://northword.ca/october-2012/long-journey-to-a-small-spacemagazine
    A magazuine artical on a friends “small house”

  19. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 2:14 pm

    Hi X, the roof is a 45 degree “square” roof with 2×6 rafters, every other one doubled and sheathed with 5/8 ply. I engineered it myself from some span tables. It’ll hold any possible snow load it could get in the location it’s in, but for added peace of mind it does slide till the slide piles reach the eaves.

  20. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 3:00 pm

    P.S., I hear you about things needing to be temporary. We go to a lot of effort and expense to keep it all temporary. Small cabin on wheels, small deck that’s on skids and is not attached to the trailer. Basic wood sheds. Human waste done with wag bags or chem toilet… I spoke with the building department and they were adamant about things being temporary and not used for more than 14 days at a stretch. There are yurts and other “tiny house” type structures all over the place in the area where we are, very few being “lived in,” most are just weekend getaways. It really helps having something on wheels, but I’ve been told there is no law against “camping” in your storage shed, or for that matter an RV parked on your own property…

  21. Ed November 4th, 2012 3:11 pm

    Another thing to think about maybe is snow sliding off onto the side of the structure and taking out a window. Friends has this happen to a very small cabin last year with the huge dumps we got in the springtime in Alberta here. I’ve also seen it in Fernie, BC although these were proper homes with steep pitch sliding from a couple of stories up.
    Hate to get mice or other critter-like varmints going thru the place ’cause of broken windows. Wood shutters may be a fix. In Chammonix the chalets look like they use dimensional lumber for shutters – big two-leged varmintz?

  22. XXX_er November 4th, 2012 4:28 pm

    We also used the “square” roof, it was pre-fabbed in a couple of 12′ sections, sheathed in tin, screwed to the top of chateau Belair after it had been towed in and placed on blocks .The roof was actualy OK but the whole trailer got squashed a little by the snow load on the roof which sprang cupboards and fixtures off the walls and put rips in the outer sheet metal, so last month we raised the roof 1″ off the flat top of the trailer, put doubled 2×8 headers held up by 3 posts under each side to hold the prefabbed roof off the trailer … what is localy called a pole shed

    The outhouse was prefabbed, trucked in by pickup, pit dug, this is way out there on a forestry road acessable by snowmobile only with nothing /nobody close by, no hassles in 2yrs so it must be temp enough

    an old wood stove in the trailer, for fire wood just burn whatever was growing close by and is standing dead

  23. Rhett B November 4th, 2012 5:22 pm

    I second Gringo’s comment on Jotul wood stoves. We burn 1-2 cords per winter for supplemental heat, and every year I pull out the stove to check the chimney. I haven’t needed to clean it once. There’s less than 1 mm of buildup in the chimney after 7 years. Clean and efficient. F3 model, burning a mix of well-dried birch, poplar/aspen, and spruce.

  24. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 5:25 pm

    X, aha, now I understand. Interestingly, the first thing the county building department asked me is if I was placing a pole supported roof over a mobile home. Doing so is verboten as a temp structure. About a year later, Pitkin county near here in Colorado (known for the fascist bulding regulations and enforcement, an unintended consequence of 40 years of institutionalized anti growth) actually made a poor shmoo remove his pole roof from his trailer. The key around here is don’t attach it to the ground! Glad it works out for you! Being remote at you are is probably a big help!

    But yeah, the walls have to support the intended snow load, or let the ground do it!

    County here is super touchy about human waste disposal, they now don’t even allow vault toilets (the kind you get pumped out)! They seem to have no problem with our “camping” method, though I did place a small sign on our privacy shelter stating it was _not_ a privy. In case they came snooping around.

  25. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 5:41 pm

    G, to get specific about the camping commode, we used the commercial bags for a long time, but they’re expensive. So I formulated a method that imitates the commercial bags. Basically, you use a black, heavy duty deodorant garbage bag lining a drywall bucket (under a bench seat with a toilet lid). Sprinkle some bacterial/enzyme sewage pipe cleaner in the bottom of the bag. It’s essentially the same $$$ stuff as the powder in the commercial bags. While using, sprinkle your leavings with deodorant absorptive kitty litter. When ready to transport, tie it up tight with a knot then double bag in a tear resistant smaller garbage bag. Works great and costs a fraction of the commercial bags. In winter cold, odor is not much of a problem. In summer, we use quite a bit more of the powders and seal up the bag more frequently.

    Above is easily less of an issue for the landfill than bulky child’s or adult diapers…

    We’re not at the cabin a whole lot, so we’ve not had any issues with “volume,” (grin). If so, the portable tank is a better solution: Small chemical toilet that you just dump in your toilet when you get home. Those work quite well also.

    Key with both methods is, just like using wag bags on Denali, learn to pee out in the woods before doing number 2 in the bag or tank. Also, if poo really bothers you these sorts of solutions can be annoying since you’ve got to handle sewage to one extent or another. Me, I was pumping out my parent’s holding tank when I was 15 years old, so a black bag of chit doesn’t bug me. Shoot, next thing you know I’ll go into the honey wagon business (grin)/

    Lou

  26. XXX_er November 4th, 2012 6:33 pm

    Must be a regional thing cuz a pole supported structure over a mobile trailer usually also covering extra storage / mud room is pretty much standard up here, once you get out of the town boundaries and into the regional district you see roof structures everywhere cuz they just make sense

  27. RDE November 4th, 2012 7:01 pm

    I spent a couple weeks cruising in the Bahamas on a very organic sailboat— electric motor and a composting toilet. The fact that it had a ingenious shower arrangement that allowed for 10 minute hot showers made up for a lot—-

    Back to the composting toilet—- there are at least two versions designed for boats.. fairly spendy at about a grand. Amazingly odor free in use due to a tiny DC fan, and the disposal procedure is likewise more pleasant than cleaning up after your pooch at the local park.

    For those of you looking for a porta-hut for Rodgers Pass type snowfalls, read the engineering specifications for a hi profile (9’6″) shipping container. Those things are stacked ten high and sent across oceans in the middle of the winter. And they are rigid enough that attaching wheels and a tongue to make them technically mobile should be fairly easy.

  28. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 7:08 pm

    X, I think the thing against pole supported roofs is cultural and basically snobbery on the part of the anti-growth regulate everything faction. I’m sure glad to hear it’s still ok where you are. Very practical, a quick way to create affordable living space in cold snowy climates.

    To be fair, we do have a use-by-right to build a pole barn — only it can’t have anything to do with human living space, only livestock. Go figure that one out! Kind of telling, really… Lou

  29. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 7:14 pm

    RDE, the shipping container option is definitely viable.

    All, I wanted to mention one other low tech and cheap way to handle human solid waste. Just burn it. Almost too simple. I’ve been doing it for years when appropriate , ever since living in a cabin where it was the only option. I won’t go into details, but it’s easy to figure out methods that work just fine.

  30. Lou Dawson November 4th, 2012 7:18 pm

    Ed, I do watch the snow pile carefully, during the latter part of winter we throw a chunk of plywood against the vulnerable window when we’re away. Shutters are on the list, but they’re hard to make low maintenance and cheap. Best I’ve seen are just slabs of sheet steel, pricey and hard to work with…

  31. XXX_er November 4th, 2012 7:56 pm

    we are pretty far north eh but it sounds like you folks treat the animals > the people

    Switching over to poo A buddy of mine has an anaerobic digester at his ski lodge, the user just thro’s a handful of bark/chips chips from the woodpile down the hole after every poop, it doesn’t smell so bad like a regular outhouse and in the summer you just end up with soil coming out a trap door in the bottom of the building

    This is of course a permanent building and all but it sure makes a lot of sense compared to places where I have seen them flying barrels of poo out by chopper

  32. Ed November 4th, 2012 10:28 pm

    Regarding alpine waste management, there’s been a lot of study devoted to the problem and solutions for use in huts.
    For example see:
    http://www.americanalpineclub.org/uploads/mce_uploads/Files/PDF/ACC-Water-Energy-Notes.pdf
    and
    http://www.beeshive.org/wp-content/uploads/alpine-hut-report.pdf
    I think it was 2012 or so, the Canadian Alpine Journal had a great summary of some current research – no doubt this has been published in peer reviewed literature as well.

  33. Lou Dawson November 5th, 2012 5:45 am

    Lots of good solutions to the human waste issue, it surprises me more of them are not used.

  34. Bruno November 14th, 2012 10:58 am

    Just a little input on my experience with roof framing. If you want to lighten things up a bit I would say you certainly could. I once owned a home in Boulder County that was built in 1923, and many times I observed 4 feet of wet heavy snow load. It was framed with 2 x 4 rafters 24″ on center and plywood gussets. No ridge beam. Roof was as straight as you could measure; no sway at all.

  35. Lou Dawson November 14th, 2012 12:38 pm

    Bruno, yeah, thanks for the insight, when I used to do some renovation I encountered 2×4 roofs in Crested Butte. Here in Carbondale our own 100 year old house had them, but they’re bowed like crazy and I had to either sister or replace most of them… Plywood gussets help, but best is to take those 2x4s and make job-built trusses out of them with the correct spans. Those work great and are the lightest option, but don’t allow an open cathedral ceiling effect.

    One theory I’ve always had is that the 2×4 roofs worked much better when they were NOT insulated very well, that way the snow melts and evaporates enough to keep a huge load from building up.

    Lou

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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