Editor’s Introductory Note: This article (in shorter draft form) was originally posted in 2016 at Survivalistboards.com, and is posted with the author’s permission. (He retained his copyright.)
Author’s Introductory Caveat: Some government authorities may not allow living like this. It worked for us in Montana but then we chose to not seek permission from them.
Our first Montana winter was spent in an 8′ x 10′ shelter. We survived. And yes, we are still married.
This article is directed toward folks who:
- Live far from where they would like to establish a bug-out, and
- May want to eventually move to theirBug Out Location (BOL) and begin building their future homestead.
This article suggests buying land for a future homestead. Initially a CONEX shipping container can be placed on the property. It can immediately serve as a reasonably secure, pre-positioned, pre-provisioned Bugout shelter. It can be used for camping vacations. These can be great opportunities to get to know neighbors, find local resources, get a head start on site improvement such as clearing, access improvements, installation of electric (grid or solar) etc.
If the SHTF, folks basically just need to get themselves to their BOL. When the time comes to permanently relocate, the shelter can serve as temporary housing and construction office. After moving into their homestead, they will haves a valuable BO shelter set up on the property and immediately available for use by loved ones.
We are retirees (husband an engineer, wife a math teacher) who chose to move to the American Redoubt (Montana) largely based on the recommendations of James Wesley, Rawles and Joel Skousen. We owe a debt of gratitude to both gentlemen.
Initially we rented in town while taking our time to get to know the area, meet like-minded people and search for property. The search took a year. We finally found a very rural 10 acre wood lot in Montana. It is located on a long dead-end private road. It has two precious springs running through it. The only signs of man on the property was a very old but well-built stone-lined outhouse. While the location is fairly remote, electric and telephone were available at our lot. The area has many families living off-grid and/or homeschooling their children. Both are strong indicators that you have found a good BOL. The Icing on the cake was that our nearest neighbors were good friends from church.
Initially we cleared for the future building site and driveway. We purchased a 20 ft. CONEX shipping container affectionately to be known as ‘The Cabin’ and located it in a wooded area near our future homestead.
For several years we used our Cabin for camping, practicing bug-out and testing our preps in real world conditions.
By the summer of 2014 we got serious and prepared to move to The Cabin before winter set in. We graveled the driveway and installed underground electric to the future building site.
On December 1st we moved from our in-town apartment to The Cabin. What a winter! What a great feeling to be hunkered down! We survived. And yes, we are still happily married! Okay, I must admit that my wife is a trooper.
Winter was tough but made easier by not having to travel except for hot showers at a local RV campground. We managed to build a 12 ft. x 16 ft. wood shed and fill it with firewood worked up from logs cleared from the site. We paced ourselves (since I was well into my 70s) but at the end of each day we knew we would be warm, dry and well fed back in our cozy little ‘Cabin’. By spring we were ready to begin construction of our homestead. Halleluiah!
Looking back, we honestly have fond memories of that first Montana winter in our cozy little ‘Cabin’. And now it gives us comfort knowing that if the SHTF, our little ‘Cabin’ is right out back, ready and able to provide shelter for loved ones. Of course the grandkids take it over when they come to visit.
We left the rear half open for cold storage and partitioned (2x4s walls and ceiling with R-13 fiberglas insulation and 6-mil poly vapor barrier on warm side) the front half for living space. That’s only 80 sq. ft. but it was warm, dry and cozy. The floor was insulated with 1” Dow Styrofoam R5 rigid insulation (aka ‘blue board’). Surprisingly, it held up to the foot traffic reasonably well. (see ‘Things We Would Do Differently’). Light was important so we placed a storm door with lots of glass for our exterior door. It was single-pane glass. Yes, it frosted up and we occasionally had to chip ice so that it would close properly. No big deal. The interior door to the cold ‘back room’ was just an el-cheapo interior door. We added a ‘sweep’ to the bottom, making it quite draft-free. Rigid insulation attached to the cold side kept the door warm and eliminated any frosting problem. From inside The Cabin, both doors swung ‘out’ so as to not interfere with the 1” blue board on the floor.
We initially used a Mr. Heater Buddy Portable 4,000–9,000 BTU propane heater for camping but it was too big. Then we switched to a Coleman SportCat PerfecTemp Catalytic Heater which put out 1,500 BTU and ran 12 hours on a 16.4 oz. propane cylinder. It worked fine for outdoor temps down to 35F. Both used small 16.4 oz. cylinders. We refilled these from a 20 lb. propane tank using a Mr. Heater F276172 Propane Tank Refill Adapter ($15). Tank costs dropped to about $1.00 per 16.4 oz. cylinder.
The biggest problem using the non-electric propane heater was ‘stratification’ of heat. Translation: ‘hot air rises’. The floor area was very cool while the ceiling area was very warm. Having to keep the window slightly open for ventilation compounded the effect. By Christmas we finished the 20 amp feed to The Cabin. Wow, what a difference! We plugged in a small fan-forced 1500 watt portable electric heater. It had 3 heat settings: 500, 1,000 and 1,500 watts. Temps plunged to 18F below zero on the coldest night. We were toasty warm with the heater set to medium 1,000 watts. The fan also solved the temperature ‘stratification’ problem.
Summer nights got uncomfortably warm. Even though we selected a light colored CONEX shipping container the metal ceiling got hot. (Yes, even in Montana). We painted the roof exterior with two coats of white Black Jack elastomeric reflective roof coating. This alone lowered the temperature highs by 10F. Installation of an exhaust fan also helped in summer cooling (see ‘Things We Would Do Differently’).
USE OF PROPANE
Ventilation is important but it is basically proportional to BTU output. Very little was required for a 9,000 BTU Mr. Heater. Quoting the owner’s manual, “This heater requires a vent area of 9 square inches (example 3” x 3” opening.)” We lost little heat providing the required ventilation.
The other manufacturer warning is that if you choose to use a 20 lb. propane tank for any device it must be located outdoors.
We installed both fire/smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in The Cabin. That was money well spent.
For several years we used a portable Honda 2000 inverter generator (very dependable, quiet and gas stingy) to run work tools. It could also power The Cabin which was wired conventionally for lights and receptacles. The entrance feed was a 12/2 W/G yellow extension cable through the outside plywood wall (see yellow cable in picture). We could simply plug the cable into the generator.
We were prepared to live off-grid but ‘The Game Changer’ came just before Christmas 2014. We had already moved into The Cabin for the winter. Suddenly we had 20 amps 24/7! We were living large!
An electric meter and very small circuit breaker box were mounted on a 6×6 pressure treated post 50 ft. from our future homestead. This box served only a double duplex receptacle at the post for construction tools and the 12/2 WG underground feed to The Cabin. (Ultimately a 200A circuit breaker panel was installed in our homestead.) The 12/2 W/G underground cable was terminated in a receptacle (labelled ‘Flathead Electric’ — referring to our local power co-op) mounted on the outside plywood wall. We left the yellow extension cable entrance feed as is and could simply plug it into the receptacle or the generator. ‘Simple’ is good! Everything was mounted on the outside plywood wall allowing the shipping container doors to be closed when not in use.
The springs were good for most water needs. For drinking water, we filled jugs at the local RV campground.
We had the existing outhouse and also a porta-pottie in the unheated ‘back room’. We used windshield wash (good to -20F) instead of water. Waste was emptied into the outhouse pit.
Gray water was piped into a bed of crushed rock below ground (see opening caveat). That said, our lifestyle was ‘greener’ than any conventional home today.
The local RV campground offered public showers for $5. That worked for us. They also offered free Wi-Fi so we could stay in touch with the outside world. ‘Free’ is right in the middle of our price range.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of an airtight poly vapor barrier on the inside walls. Still, some vapor will seep through, hit the frigid metal shipping container and B-I-N-G-O! you have frost. Frost in itself is no problem, that is, until outdoor temps rise above 32F. All unheated spaces must be vented to the outside. (See: ‘Things We Would Do Differently)
Moisture within the heated living area was no problem and easily controlled by window ventilation.
When in use, we chained the open door of the shipping container to a tree and locked the chain in place so that no one could lock us in. Our dog would have alerted us to any movement of the chain.
When not in use, the shipping container’s exterior doors can be closed and locked to make it as secure as originally built and appear no different than any other container.
In this area of the Pacific Northwest a like-new 20 ft. ‘one tripper’ (One made in China and with just one trip to a west coast port) costs about $4,100 including delivery/set up within a 20 mile radius). Converting ours to the Cabin added another $1,600.
The 40 ft. CONEX containers are not much more expensive. The downside to them is that there are many locations where you just don’t have the open space to maneuver them into place. Also they required much heavier equipment to move. Otherwise they are a great value.
THINGS WE WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY
Our biggest problem was ice and humidity build-up in the unheated rear half of the container. We ultimately solved the problem with two wall vents (approx. 144” sq. inches each) with insect screens connected to a Broan 784 80 CFM Exhaust Fan ($50) controlled by a Ventamatic XXDUOSTAT Adjustable Dual Thermostat/Humidistat Control for Power Attic Ventilators ($47). The exterior walls were surprisingly easy to cut using a 4-1/2 inch angle grinder.
In retrospect we would frame/insulate the whole interior of 20 ft. container. This would eliminate the interior door and drastically reduce the moisture escaping into unheated space. We would still install two wall vents (approx. 144” sq. inches each) at the rear of The Cabin. We would still install the exhaust fan controlled by a thermostat/humidistat. The equipment would be located between the framed walls/ceiling and metal container with an access panel inside The Cabin. The poly vapor barrier would still be absolutely critical. Make it as airtight as possible.
Lastly, rather than place 1” Dow Styrofoam (aka ‘blue board’) R5 insulation on the floor, spraying the underneath with a couple inches of closed cell urethane (R10) would make a professional job.
ABOUT CONEX CONTAINERS
CONEX shipping containers offer some unique benefits: Portability. Minimum maintenance. Some ballistic protection. Decent security. In upgrading to our Cabin we did nothing to adversely affect these benefits. When not in use The Cabin appeared like any other container. While we had no intention to move The Cabin it is comforting to know that in a couple hours it could be made ready to move to another location. You never know what tomorrow will bring.
Lastly, this engineer would be remiss to not plead with folks contemplating shipping containers: Please don’t try to bury them. ‘Nuff said.
We hope this gives some helpful ideas to folks. Carry on.
– Montana Guy, Annie Oakley, and Shotgun (Arf-arf!)