Tuesday, January 22, 2008

My Survival Cabin - Building a Cabin

In response to a number of posts at other survival sites on land purchase and settlement I have decided to do a series on building and outfitting my cabin. Each week I will explore a difference aspect of the process covering what I went through and most importantly, mistakes I made.

The Land

In May of 2003, I purchased five acres of land in the foothills on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado. The land borders the eastern side of the San Luis Valley. The pinon and sage covered parcel runs up the North Slope and over the top of Bear Ridge at an altitude of roughly 8650 feet. The land offers stunning views of the Mysterious San Luis Valley, The San Juan Mountains to the west, Mount Blanca, Mount Lindsey, Mountain Home Reservoir and Chate Mesa. The night skies are filled with stars and the remote location guarantees virtually no light pollution.

A year earlier, I decided that I needed a place to get away. Living in Denver was great it is a wonderful city. But I have always had a need for solitude so I decided to buy some land in the mountains and build a small cabin. My needs were simple; I wanted a few acres with a mountain view, solitude and close to Denver at a reasonable price. Additionally, I wanted to design and build the cabin on my own. Reality set in after a few months when the realization came that you could not buy land anywhere in Central Colorado at a reasonable price. So, after broadening the search I found a place in Southern Colorado that meet my criteria.

Granted the land was three and a half hours south of Denver and there is a neighbor right down the road but the views are spectacular and the climate is great. The San Luis Valley is high desert valley; it is dry and moderately temperate most of the year. At first, the idea of having a neighbor so close was a bother, solitude was the goal. After a few weeks down there, it became a blessing. It is nice having someone down the road to watch over your place and be there if you need anything. The neighbors have never been a problem; in fact, we have become good friends.

The Small Cabin

Construction started on the first cabin within weeks of acquiring the land.The 8x10 foot cabin, built in the parking garage of an office over a long weekend, was broken-down and transported to the land. A period of intense surveying lead to selecting a small clearing on top of Bear Ridge for the cabin, chosen purely for the view.

Logistically the cabin site was a nightmare. From the roadside to the cabin site was roughly five hundred feet up a steep incline covered with waist high sagebrush and thick pinon trees. The cabin was completely hand carried up the hill. This was a huge mistake; you were so tired after carrying lumber to the site that reassembly was impossible. Water, coolers, sleeping bag and other supplies also needed transporting. The job would have been easier with a powerful ATV but the money tightened after buying the land. After the first summer, we abandoned the original cabin site for a more accessible cabin site lower on the ridge.

Let us talk about tools. Before you start any construction, get a good rechargeable tool set at least 18 volt. I bought, and still use, an inexpensive Ryobi set from Home Depot for about $150. It came with a drill, circular saw, reciprocating saw, shop vac and flashlight. Consider buying a couple of extra batteries, you will need them. Buying the tool set was one of the few good decisions made during that first year. In addition, you will need a chainsaw. Get a couple of good powerful flashlights and a durable kerosene lantern. I have a large 72 hour lantern that has allowed me to work and read through many stormy nights, I have two at the cabin and one at the house. If you get a kerosene lantern look into getting a small kerosene heater/cooker. They use the same fuel and really heat a small cabin well, plus you can cook on it.
The Small Cabin at Bear Ridge known as the Cub House is still not completely finished. Future plans include windows and reworking the roof to accommodate an observatory.

The Big Cabin

The biggest problem encounter the first summer was the inaccessibility of the building site. Over the course of winter 2003, the building plan changed and adapted to a small expandable cabin lower and closer to the road. Construction began in the garage on a small 10 x 12 foot cabin in January 2004. This small cabin consisted of wall and floor panels bolted together with a lightweight roof. It was a shed style cabin with the north 8 foot wall sloping to the 7 foot south wall. There were two 5 x 7 foot opening in the north wall with screened doors and the south wall contained two 3 x 3 foot windows. The design allowed the wall panels to be unbolted and moved this flexibility made modular expansion possible.

Transporting the floor panels to the site was done in April 2004. After clearing a driveway and small area for the cabin, all by hand, cinderblock footings were positioned and the floor deck installed. There are several problems here. First, hire someone with a bobcat to clear the driveway and cabin site. Clearing the sage brush was backbreaking work and took two days to complete compared to roughly 20 minutes on a bobcat. Second, do not use cinder blocks for footings. It is very easy but they crumble over time and are a pain to fix. Get cardboard tubes and a wheelbarrow and make concrete piers. The following weekend installation of the walls and roof completed the small cabin.

Late springs 2005 a set of 5 x 7 foot French doors and a 5 x 4 foot window replaced the two north screen doors. In May 2005 a 16 x 10 foot addition added to the west increased the living space and added a small bedroom. A 14 x 8 foot deck on the north side completed Mays construction. July 2005 an 8 x 16 foot addition added a kitchen and bathroom to the east side. In both cases, the existing walls moved to the new end of the room. Summer of 2005 saw useable space increase from 120 square feet to 408 square feet. Installation of kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures occurred throughout the fall of 2005.
Let us look at building supplies. Most of the lumber used in building the big cabin came from the local lumber yard, Home Depot or Lowe’s. The three and a half hour drive to the cabin passes three Home Depots and two Lowe’s so it was very convenient. Ethically local lumber yards need support and when possible that is where we should shop even through they sometime more expensive. Find and utilize your local used building supply store. All the cabinets, bathroom fixtures, doors and most windows came from a used hardware supply store. Habitat for Humanity runs a couple of local shops additionally there are a couple of businesses that strip old buildings and resell the fixtures. This is a very economical choice. The French doors used in the cabin came from an alley behind an old shoe store going through some remodeling so keep your eyes open.
Summer 2006 was a lazy time relocating the big north deck to the east side of the cabin was about it. The deck needed moving because a large 20 x 10 addition was to be added on the front side of the cabin. Completed in January 2007 the main living area was now 20 x 20 foot with a sleeping area to one side and the kitchen/bathroom on the other. Four 6 x 5 foot picture windows allow unobstructed views of the mountains and lake to the north. Additionally the first lockable door gave a great sense of accomplishment.

Summer 2007 saw a 28 x 10 foot sun room on the south side of the cabin and much needed roof and pier work. Future projects include expanding the kitchen to the east another 10 foot or so and adding another sleeping area.

Next week we will look at the various options I explored and mistakes I made in choosing a heating method for the cabin.


The Urban Survivalist said...

Thanks for that post. Did you have trouble getting the permits for everything? I've noticed that there are a LOT of small parcels down in that area. How are the covenants? I'm looking forward to more on this topic.

theotherryan said...

This post and the series that will follow are AWESOME. Far too much of what we survivalist bloggers do overlaps significantly with a bit of individual spin. I am not sure if a full live in retreat is ever going to be practical for me but a cabin on a small piece of land is probably realistic. This information is outstanding and will hopefully let me (if I go this route)avoid some of your mistakes though I am sure I will find some of my own to make.

Keep up the great work.

BigBear said...

Urban Survivalist,

The county that I have built in has a land use policy and requires permits...But the citizens of the county wisely did not grant the county any enforcement mechanisms.

So no I have not yet had any problems with permits. What they do is make you pay for all the county permits when you go to put in a septic system, which is a state mandated permit. They are very laid back for now anyway.

Down here there are several huge subdivisions full of 5 or 35 acre plots. All have very basic covenants dealing with set back and minimum house size (600 sq ft). The other large subdivision, with cheaper land, does not have a homeowners association so no one cares what you do.

I the bought this parcel for the view, trees and solitude but in retrospect a plot down on the valley floor would have made much more sense. Open land, lower water table, easier access, better solar ...ugly but practical land at about half the price. If you look you can get land on the floor for about $3000 to $4000 per 5 acres.

To do it over I probably would have gotten land down there and built an underground passive solar house with glass wall southern exposure. It would be hidden, easy to heat and very secure.

BigBear said...


The two things I needed was to keep the ongoing building cheap, no huge lump payouts, and be able to stay in the structure while building it. Building in stages let me do that. Lumber is relatively cheap so building a livable shell over time is very affordable. The big ticket items like solar power, septic, well and wood stove are what kills you.

Looking back and seeing what my neighbors did, a cheap trailer parked on the land would be a real nice way to go. If I would have done this the cabin would look completely different and probably would have cost more but who know what the best method is.

theotherryan said...

I had a thought this morning. If you kept records of costs (even approximate ones) that would be really useful. The trailer idea makes lots of sense. I have also seen many people start with an outbuilding and then work on the main structure.

Anonymous said...

To mirror Ryan's input, this series of articles is EXCELLENT. Getting a camper/trailer and putting it out there first would have be a way to go (Bisonsurvivalblog style), but nothing wrong with your approach, and I commend you on the pay-as-you-go incremental approach.

Colors of Creation said...

Sorry, this is a little old, but I have some relevent info as to covenents and associations from that area.

We were living in the Colorado Springs, Pueblo area, had 70 Acres. We purchased in one of those minimal covenant areas that the county left alone. That is why we picked that location!

After 5 years of slowly building the growth was tremendous in our development. All of a sudden all the East Coast, West Coast types started buying and putting in "instant homes". They took over the Assoc from the developer and we were living a nightmare.

Neighbor turning in neighbor, getting feed and fined for established homes, being told you had to tear down and build to completion within a year if you wanted to be allowed to reside on your own property.

We had a rammed earth home 90% finished and the county made us move out and live in a motel 1 1/2 hours away for over 3 months until we could buy a 30 yr old trailer to move back on OUR property. They felt this tied down unskirted tin can would be more safe that the home we had built. We lived in one of the most tornado prone areas in all of CO.

Being left alone one year, does not mean you will not be encroached on and stuck in a different environment in later years.

Sorry for the length.

BigBear said...

Colors of Creation,

Thanks for your input. I am seeing the exact same thing starting to happen in my area. A revived HOA filled with new implants who have nothing better to do than bug people.

chicken man said...

Hi, I was wondering what siding was used for the cabin?

BigBear said...

Nothing at the moment. It is painted painted OSB. When I can afford it I will be using metal siding...probably corrugated sheet metal. I like the fireproofing quality.

Anonymous said...

how is the snow removal situation in those subdivisions? do you or your neighbors plow or just use a big old truck to get through? what is the accumulation like? thanks for the good work

Anonymous said...

Hello Bigbear,
I was looking up cabins and Sangre de cristo ranches and came across your article.

I'm living in western NC Mountains at about 4000ft now and I recently got some land in sangre de Cristo at around 9000ft to stay part time, I really noticed the elevation change the first few weeks.
I Also and was planning to build a cabin myself out of the pines on the land. I thought I better do it in sections in order to get it to 600sqft at least, then connecting them at the end.

I was told to cut down the pine in the winter so the sap seeps to the bottom and leave the sappy stubs long and use the upper wood on the tree to prevent freezing sap problems in the wood later on . I really never built anything before except a two story large deck with my dad once and a few dog houses So small sections would be my safest bet especially doing it myself I have my girlfreind to help out a little bu she would be able to carry any heavy log with me .

So I don't have problems later form new people you mentioned at the HOA I figured to get a permit first ,thanks for the info on that!.

I looked all around Sangre De Cristo till I decided on a property, I think I might have passed by your cabin a couple times. I have no clue where though ,I was all over that place and it's huge , must have seen 40 properties in Sangre De Cristo alone.

I could really use some advice since I'm really inexperienced at building things especially cabins in you have the time E-mail me at Shnmks@aol.com.

hankmech99 said...

eliberewhat a great post keep up the good work and ill follow you have motivated me to get that land on the eastern shore of virgina thanks again

THUNDER said...

Survival is not a game , losing is not a option . Carry on mate carry on . SEMPER FI

Anonymous said...

This group may help some people.. here

desteele66 said...

WOW,can't believe it.Found other
people like me.I just bought land on indian creek rd.Any info on this
area would really help.Planning on
green power,and like to pan for a
hobby.I see ufo/bigfoot stuff on
this area all the time.Sounds like
an exciting place to put a home.My
bro,lives in Loveland.I saw the
Rockies and was hooked for life.
Besides tools,will bring blue steel,and Brass,ye-haaaa.

mr dixpoio said...

Survival Things Our Great-Grandfathers Built Or Did Around The House

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