Portahut RV – The Story Continues

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 7, 2011      

Loyal readers, sorry about the delay with covering our do-it-yourself hut RV on wheels. What caused the glitch is we had a couple of options for location. Our first and second choices were land near Marble, Colorado. We also have some friends who told us we could keep our trailer on their land as well, but their property was some distance from home. The purchase deal for first-choice got delayed but continued to look likely, and thus caused us to keep our other choices on hold. To keep all our property dealings as simple as possible, it seemed better to back off on writing about this project. So we got the roof on it, but didn’t complete the interior till recently. We closed on a land purchase this fall, so with that out of the way it’s appropriate to get going with our family portahut again.

More, the land parcel we ended up with is pretty cool as your basic undeveloped Colorado backcountry inholding, lacking in some recreational amenities and a bit “busy” due to summer tourist traffic and nearby mining, but excellent for hiking and of course backcountry skiing access. I’ll cover the land and associated issues more later, but for now, let’s concentrate on how we home-built a temporary wheeled and portable shelter for use in such situations.

Our 'portahut' is really the same thing as a shepherd trailer.

Our 'portahut' is really the same thing as a shepherd trailer. You see those all over the west.

First, the whole idea with this sort of thing is the need for a temporary shelter in situations where you have use of backcountry land, but no need or desire to go through the process of building a permanent structure attached to the ground. What’s important in terms of what most land use regulations want is that you don’t live in the unit, and that it is indeed truly portable, not attached to the ground. Essentially, you’re creating a situation where you are camping on the land with something no different than a conventional RV camp trailer, with more comfort than setting up a tent.

Typically these days, folks in this and nearby counties are doing the “temporary structure” thing with yurt tents, on large wooden platforms set on posts. We considered a yurt, but the cons of a yurt don’t appeal to us:
– Quite expensive once you create the platform and buy a yurt that’s large and can handle snowload.
– Still difficult to deal with snow load on roof and against walls.
– Rodent proofing is difficult.
– Curved walls look cool, but result in dead spaces behind beds and such.
– Good windows and insulation require effort.
– Not portable once installed on a large, solid wood platform, for winter use, compared to an RV trailer type rig. Yurt is even difficult to move around property, our trailer can be easily moved.
– “Tent like” feel unless you put work into interior finish.
– Uncertainty about building departments dealing with proliferation of “temporary” yurts that are basically rooted to the same spot for years.

The portahut concept is much different than a yurt. Super solid. Insulate a thick as you want. On wheels so you can have it moving in hours, or even minutes. Even as a temporary structure during home or cabin building, portahut is awesome because you can roll it around your property as you do site work. Later, it can become a storage shed or camper for guest bunking. Or just sell it to the next guy down the line. Main thing is it’s temporary and 100% portable — you’re just parking a camp trailer.

Downsides are of course the building process, and that constructing a trailer is expensive as it needs to be solid if you’ll be moving it even short distances.

I’ve erected one large yurt and stayed in many. Erecting a yurt, while still a bit involved, is something a non-carpenter could do in a day or two (excluding interior furnishing, and things like additional windows and doors). On the other hand, essentially making an RV from scratch requires chops in the carpentry department, not to mention electrical work, propane plumbing, and other things depending on how much you want to do in the way of mechanical systems.

Of course, you could simply buy a cheap used RV travel trailer and stick it on some property (done all the time, all over the country), but in snow climates such as high altitude Colorado, you’d have to rebuild the RV roof anyway for snow load, and the interior would not have that “cabin” feel you can get with how you optionally finish and furnish a yurt or home-built RV. (And don’t even think about building a post supported snow roof over the trailer, as that’s the first thing the building department asked me if I was doing, and related they’d decided that was ‘permanent’ and folks doing so needed a building permit.)

More, you can base your portahut design on how much it’ll be moved. In our case, I designed for the occasional and local move, not for pulling the thing around the country like a commercial RV. But you see “shepherd” trailers all the time that are small portahuts and could roll from here to Alaska and back if necessary. So building to that standard can be done as well. The fun for the do-it-yourselfer is you can take this to any level you want — you could even build your own luxury RV — or just do a plywood box like those hunters you see showing up here every fall with their funky trailer rigs.

Build a Home for $20 Grand…requires 14 tools, most of which you already own. Click here to find out how.

For our index of portahut RV posts, click here.


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15 Responses to “Portahut RV – The Story Continues”

  1. Easy E November 7th, 2011 10:56 am

    Interesting concept. I’ve been looking into doing something like this for a year or so. Lots of options out there. This site has plans for sale which are costly but the finished product looks very nice. http://www.tumbleweedhouses.com/

  2. Lou November 7th, 2011 11:18 am

    Easy, yeah, you can find a bunch of stuff on the web for mini-houses and that sort of thing. Quite fun and useful.

  3. Dave November 7th, 2011 3:47 pm

    Cool post! My brother and his girlfriend built a small house on a trailer early this year. They are both architecture grads and documented the whole thing here: http://smallerhousing.com/

    Here is a timelapse of their build: http://vimeo.com/15089344

    I’m going to forward your article to him.

  4. Mark W November 7th, 2011 10:38 pm

    Really cool idea. Never thought about some of the finer points of such a project like rodent control, etc. The whole thing looks very enjoyable.

  5. Jim November 8th, 2011 6:36 am

    How much does that thing weigh? Did you use a standard tandem axle trailer with two 3,500lb axels?

  6. Lou November 8th, 2011 7:06 am

    Jim, yes, the trailer is a double axle car hauler I bought used. Look at the first post in the series. I figure the whole thing weighs about 7,000 lbs so I’m right there in terms of ability to haul. I didn’t mention that the box is assembled with screws (other than the 4 wall panels, which are glued and nailed). For example, a crew of three guys could have the whole roof and roof framing off in an easy day, tagged, ready to re-assemble. The interior finish is minimal and light weight, hence it’s not as heavy as, say, something fully drywalled. Like I said in post, I designed this to move within an hour radius or so of home, not for road trips…. it could of course be done much differently, all the way to the extent of doing a DIY RV of the sort that are quite common. Now that we are in full ownership of the property where we are storing the trailer, we’ll probably just move it around the property for a while as our needs change, and perhaps eventually sell it if we build something permanent. In the end, the portability is wonderful, that’s the main difference between this and just building a shed on skids or something like that.

  7. Crazy Horse November 8th, 2011 8:25 am

    Nice concept, Might I suggest an excellent location in the Bear Creek drainage above Telluride?

  8. Lou November 8th, 2011 8:49 am

    Hmmm, I might have to ask Ron about that. But I’d have to get Telski to let me haul it up the road… Or perhaps a heli drop?

  9. g November 8th, 2011 9:15 am

    I like it. This is of interest for me in that I have the same set-up, i.e. wyoming inholding at the base of good skiing. i have been making do for years with wall tent setups, however, I have been weighing all the options, including a yurt setup. i don’t disagree with all of the drawbacks lou discusses, as well as cost. My problem is owning property that I do not want to have to bulldoze to be able to bring a trailer into. As it stands, I have a very nice forest trail to my living space, and want to keep it that way. Do I build a wheel set up just to play the zoning game? And Lou, surely your structure is not sitting on wheels in that picture? Are you getting it in, taking the wheels off, and putting it on jacks? What is under that snow?

  10. Lou November 8th, 2011 9:26 am

    The wheels are on it and ready to go. It’s supported by the tongue jack and some treated lumber blocks so the tires don’t get damaged. I could have it rolling in 20 minutes. I’m not playing any games with this, it’s not a house by any stretch of the imagination, no one is living in it, and it really is an owner-built “shepherd trailer.” Full intent is to do what’s legal, not try to sneak something in as others do from time to time. I want to share it, not keep it secret! More, we fully intend to explore the possibility of building on our property, so this is an interim solution, of the sort that’s done all over the country by folks who stick campers and such on their property while they develop.

    G, in your situation, it sounds like a yurt might be the ticket since you can drag it in there by hand, and man-haul the platform materials. Also, even if you don’t have a road now, you could still get something in there and build on it, with the full intent of being able to move off property later when you build a road. Nothing wrong with that. The main thing I was told was to not live in it, and keep it portable and small, so it’s no different than parking a camper on the property.

    I should also mention that with time, ropes and help from friends, you can move a wheeled unit up and down or in and out of just about anywhere. Look at what they did with horses and wagons back in the day!


  11. Chris November 8th, 2011 9:43 am

    Lou – what about building one or more “sheds” that don’t trip the permitting rules? There’s a minimum square foot requirement for permits, right? Wouldn’t that eliminate the engineering demands of a portable structure?

    I’m asking because the missus and I are considering purchasing an inholding in Washington ourselves, but keeping the building(s) so small that we shouldn’t need a permit. Plus, we’re going to have to pack in all the material.

  12. Lou November 8th, 2011 10:06 am

    Chris, you’re allowed two sheds in the county we’re in, as well as a pole barn. The sheds can’t be more than 120 square feet footprint (10 x 12). Some say you can’t build the sheds till you have a permitted structure under construction or completed. Not sure about that, would have to ask or study code. I built the trailer quite small as well, 16 feet long and 9-6 wide. Overhang over door, and small roof eaves. Like I mentioned, I could pull the whole roof off fairly quickly if that made it too difficult for a long distance transport. Could have used a 20 foot trailer but that seemed excessive and much more difficult to move around. One building official I spoke with said there was nothing wrong with camping in a shed, nor did any building department care about that unless someone was squatting. Again, their main thing was that you didn’t live in it, and that you didn’t build some kind of permanent elaborate “shed” that was really a fully equipped cabin. That seems to be their big concern. I’ve considered building a shed we could camp in, but I would be too tempted to make improvements. The trailer is much better as I can do what I want to it. It’s a trailer, not attached to the land.

    If we need a storage shed (I suspect we will) I’ll just use another trailer if necessary, just like a construction site.

    These issues are going on all over the country. All the “tiny house” websites have mega discussions about restrictive building codes and how to deal with them if you want to do a non-consumptive mini-home and actually live in it. The consensus seems to be that building and land use codes are not fine grained enough to deal with some of these issues, and definitely work against normal folks just wanting to use their land for low impact recreation or living.

    In our situation, I don’t have any wish to get involved in such issues, hence I went to extreme to keep things portable, and under occasional use. I’ve got other fish to fry, powder fish.

  13. g November 8th, 2011 10:14 am

    Chris: Many zoning regs are different in many counties. For example, California has so many rules you would probably be in violation of zoning regs if you walked on your property without it being permitted. Many county regs are adopting more uniform language, which was definitely not drafted by mountain dwellers, but rathger, city people and like minded city dwelling planning peopple and engineers. Problem is that alot of zoning regs are now defining a permittable structure [not by size] but with regard to whether you are disturbing land – i.e. foundation or footers. Many codes do not permit you to construct accessory structures without having a primary structure permitted first.

    With regard to Yurts: Does anyone have any thoughts or knowledge of Bears tearing into them. I definitely have black bears tramping through my property in spring and summer, and have even had them inside my wall tent, nicely rooting around for anything they could get their paws on. My last event, the bear was nice enough to simply swipe down and tear my hand ties off the door to the wall tent. I have heard very little of this risk – problem with yurts in mountain country, and have to suspect it is a risk. Any thoughts?

    Lou, if you don’t mind one more question: What are you doing for the commode? I am playing with some different ideas, including a raised outhouse with an easily removable barrell tank, so that I can simply remove and roll it away when necessary and dispose of otherwise. This would work for me since my family and friends do not “live” on the property either, and would not be creating the type of waste a residential family would. Perhaps you could talk about this in your next post?

  14. Lou November 8th, 2011 10:26 am

    I’ll talk more about amenities in other posts, but commode question is important as it involves legalities. Simple. Use a chemical toilet. Wet in summer, dry in winter with “wag bags” just like you use in backcountry such as Mount Hood. You can also incinerate human waste. Sounds gross but actually works well and is totally legal. I’ve lived in a bunch of cabins and teepees over the years. In one of them, the county health department had to come in a bury the outhouse due to another person in the area having Typhoid Fever. They wouldn’t let us build another outhouse, and this was in the 1970s before days of good chemical toilets and such. Solution, just burn it in the stove. The newspaper burrito, flame on!

    As you guys may be getting a sense of, this is not my first rodeo.

    The mine up the road uses chemical toilet that a truck pumps out once in a while. We could do that as well, if our “volume” increased (grin). In fact, as it is now, we could have just stuck a porta-pottie on the land for the winter and have it changed out in spring. I doubt we’d even come close to filling it up.

    Plenty of solutions.

    One thing to remember is that if you’re not living in a place, but just spending an occasional night or day trip, the amount of waste you produce is easily taken care of by the above means. If you’re living in a location, it’s a different story. Hence another reason building departments are so concerned about “permanent living” as opposed to occasional use. Our department told me they define that by a 14-day limit. Way past what we’ll ever want to do.

    We also carry out all our trash, of course. Not to mention being careful not to junk up the place and violate county junk ordinances, as seems to happen quite a lot around here in the backcountry. The idea is I want to be a good citizen and a good neighbor.

  15. Lou November 8th, 2011 10:32 am

    G, I should have mentioned the bear problem along with my point about rodents. All it would take is one problem bear, and goodby yurt. Cabins can get trashed by bears as well, but unless they’re habituated to breaking down doors and windows, they tend to not bust into cabins around here. Even so, when summer comes it’s best to keep the place really clean inside, and not store food.

    In previous posts you can see our rodent proofing. Whole underside is covered with 1/4 inch hardware mesh.

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