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Starting a Homestead: Our List

by Tyler

With a twinge of nervousness akin to the moment we purchased our tickets to Scotland, we've declared a moving date. On April 1st, 2013 (exactly four years after we began our round-the-world bicycle tour), we'll bid our friends and families in the Midwest farewell, setting course for our homestead-to-be in the tiny town of Arlington, Vermont. We can hardly wait to move to the woods!

In the meantime, besides working to pay off the land, we'll be getting more serious about planning our Vermont project. Below, we've compiled a short list of issues which we need to learn and make decisions about. I have no doubt that more will crop up as we get underway, but this seems like the bare minimum to get started.


Canvas Tent or Mini-Cabin

We're going to need some kind of shelter while we build our house. We could use a free, high-quality canvas tent from my brother-in-law, Paul, or we could try to build a small cabin with trees from our land. The tent would certainly be easier, but would we be able to survive a Vermont winter in it with wood stove heating?


If we go the tent route, we'll need to build a platform. We're thinking we might do this in the woods at my mother's place this spring, using the free tent from Paul. Tara wants a platform high enough to require stairs, enabling wood storage below.


We'll need something to keep the critters out. If we build a platform high enough, maybe a fence won't be necessary?

Northern Lao Homes

Keeping Warm:

Wood Stove

We'll need to keep warm in the fall and winter. As our temporary home will probably be less than 200 square feet, something small should suffice. Tara wants a Vermont Bun Baker, but it will put out far too much heat for our small tent space. Maybe something like this?


We need a chainsaw and associated tools for cutting wood on an ongoing basis. I'm thinking a STIHL MS 362 C-S would be a good choice. It's a pretty expensive piece of kit, and it might be overkill for our needs, but I'm not sure. There is an outdoor supply shop in town that has them in stock, so we are going to check that out relatively soon.

Sheltered Woodpile

We need to have a dry place to cure and store our wood. If we cut down trees next spring when we move will they be dry enough to use by winter? If not, will we have to go out early to do some work before our official move date?

Lao Woodpile

Keeping Clean / Sanitation


I did a lot of research about septic systems before we bought our land. This could potentially be a several thousand dollar project, assuming we decide to follow local regulations. I'm sort of pretending this problem doesn't exist until the land is paid for. In the meantime, we'll have to build an outhouse or rent a port-a-potty?


Tara thinks we'll be fine with water heated on the stove, a basin to stand in, a sponge, and a pitcher to pour water on our heads. Her rustic idea is probably a good one, but it might be worth trying to work out a once-a-week deal with a nearby motel?

Tara Under the Water Spigot

Transportation / Hauling


We'll need something to plow our driveway and haul wood/building supplies. I want something easy to fix that gets relatively good gas milage. Maybe an early '80s Toyota Hilux?

Vehicle Shelter

I'd like to have some sort of structure to put our car and truck in. Maybe a Garage-in-a-Box?

Green Truck

Food & Water


Our well is run by electricity, so we're not going to be completely off-grid initially. In order to get water, and to keep our laptops charged so I can work, we'll start out with a small agricultural electric pole. Hopefully our friends Mark and Sue can help with this (Mark is an electrician).

Propane Cook Stove

In the winter we'll be cooking on a woodstove, but in the summertime, we'll probably use a propane cook stove. It's not sustainable, but it's a start. We'll also be experimenting with cooking outside on campfire.

Camper Cooking

If past experience is any guide, we will be looking back and laughing at this list someday. It all seems serious now, but I have no doubt some of it will eventually look as ridiculous as making a list including things like "hit up an ATM" and "buy groceries" (as if we'd forget to eat or take out money if we didn't write it down). We've got to start somewhere, though!

10 Acres in Vermont

Land Payoff Status: 35%

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    A tent won't be warm enough.
    Consider mice and other pests that get into food, bedding etc during every planning decision.
    Books, textiles, electronics don't fare well with damp.

    All your projects will take at least 3.14x longer than planned.

    Find local folks for things that work.

    Good luck & have fun!

    Posted by et on March 19th, 2012 at 1:08 AM
    I would move the garage way down on the list of to-do's unless it will double as your own shelter. Just think of the millions of americans who have their garages too packed full they can't even park their cars inside and they still run. Plus with an old Helix you don't even have to worry about taking care of it (watch the UK Top Gear episodes where they try to kill it, very entertaining :) )
    Posted by Dustin on March 19th, 2012 at 12:08 PM
    re: truck

    I'm not sure the Hilux was ever actually sold in the US to the same spec as it was overseas. I would look at getting a mid 90's fullsize dodge diesel (with a manual trans, and a trubo). Can haul what ever you want, reasonable mpg, very reliable, easy to find parts for.

    An alternate more extreme option. Look at getting a army surplus see tractor. It's basically a unimog with removable front loader and back hoe attachments, which could come in handy. They're very easy to work on, but a bit harder to find parts for.
    Posted by sean on March 19th, 2012 at 12:49 PM
    Have you thought about using an old converted school bus or RV as shelter? They are common in logging communities given that they can be moved around from one location to the other. I don't know where you could buy one but those I've seen had a woodstove, a table and a few beds. My guess is that you could resell without incurring too much loss.

    I once slept in a canvas tent in the middle of winter in Canada. I guess it would be feasible to do it an entire season but it would also be painful. You'll constantly need to work on maintaining a comfortable temperature and humidity and dryness will be your constant enemy (humidity will condense on the canvas and whatever gets in and out while the stove will dry the air to uncomfortable levels - seems contradictory but it’s not). That said, I’m wondering why you would want to stay there in the winter without a proper shelter; there is not much to do once the snow covers everything aside from outdoor sports and cutting down a few trees.

    Some people build small structures when working on their house. These serve as basic shelter and workshop at first and can be converted in tool sheds, animal shelters and/or cottages for visitors once the house is done. It takes no time to build something small and if you design it so that it can be converted for future uses, you are also saving time and energy. You may want to find a way to keep your building material and tools dry too.

    I would not be too afraid of small animals. A few good plastic buckets should be all you need as long they are kept in a safe place. In the spring and fall, you may want to watch for black bears depending on where you’ll be staying in Vermont (they sleep in the winter and tend to have plenty of food in the forest during the summer months).

    Thanks for sharing your stories publicly. I truly enjoyed reading about your bike trip and can’t wait for the next chapter!
    Posted by Magictofu on March 19th, 2012 at 1:05 PM
    re: tent

    What about a semi permanent yurt? (http://www.yurts.com/)
    Posted by sean on March 19th, 2012 at 1:08 PM
    Take a look at some old homesteads in the Midwest before you go! I remember being at one in Wisconsin as a kid and the guide pointed out a little trick where the stairs were maybe 3-6 inches from the floor of the home/platform. They said it was to keep the mice out. I'm sure there's documentation on doing that somewhere if you can't make the trip to these "living museums."

    Best of luck!!
    Posted by Rachel on March 21st, 2012 at 9:36 AM
    Hey Guys! Been following your blog for a long time now; I'm sure this chapter of your life will be just as much fun to follow as the previous ones! My 2 cents: You need to get a good mean of accomodation while you build your house; an old caravan or mobile home will keep you warm and provide you with a stove, toilet and bath. Another possibility is to rent a room + mod coms at nearby farm/house/whatever. It's a really HUGE thing to have a nice clean home to relax when you're not struggling on the land - trust me. You'll have plenty of work to do, when you're building your house - you don't need the hassle with a damp tent, frozen water, chopping wood in sleet etc etc....
    Posted by Niels Lillevang Hansen on March 21st, 2012 at 5:04 PM
    Oh, and by the way regarding chainsaws; Stihl is a great saw! But, you really need to saws; a light and small saw (the one you'll end up using 90% of the time) like the Stihl MS170 http://www.stihlusa.com/chainsaws/MS170.html and then a bigger one for logging. I would not worry whether it was the pro versions or not - it will be years and years before you wear either one out. I have a small 15 year old (at least!) consumer model which have been doing 20-30 cubic meters of firewood each year and it still runs like crazy!

    Anyways the most important thing is this: http://www.stihlusa.com/apparel/summer-protective-pants.html
    Posted by Niels Lillevang Hansen on March 21st, 2012 at 5:20 PM
    Duh! Two saws! Not "to saws"... Sorry!
    Posted by Niels Lillevang Hansen on March 21st, 2012 at 5:23 PM
    Forgot to mention that a platform can be problematic in cold weather. Cold floor are never nice. If the place is small and you heat with radiant heat (e.g. woodstove) you should be ok with a good floor insulation... if you use forced air, that is a different story.
    Posted by Magictofu on March 21st, 2012 at 9:08 PM

    This winter was a 'dud' but they won't all be. Myself I'd probably freeze to death in a tent if I tried to overwinter in one... even a thick one. I get cold easily though. I imagine you'd be waking up to feed the wood stove a lot.

    Squirrels and chimpunks and mice get into EVERYTHING here, and I doubt an elevated platform will keep them out (though it would help). Even trapping them/killing them seems a lost cause, best is to keep everything sealed/clean. Also you could get a cat (not an option for us since my GF is allergic) as long as it is warm enough inside.

    I've heard ash wood can be good to burn pretty fast after cutting... I guess it depends on what sort of wood is on your land. I'd expect maple and oak to take longer, and burning softwood is generally not a good idea due to the soot buildups.

    In general the small mobile home/trailer sounds like a great idea if you can stand to do it... a lot of people here go that route, it seems.

    I am not as knowledgeable about chainsaws as some, but definitely get a good one, you'd be using it a lot.

    You are probably pretty familiar with snow/mud driving already and this probably goes without saying but don't get a 2 wheel drive truck. They can be worse than a passenger car in a lot of cases with the light back end. I have a 4*4 Ford Ranger and it works great, I also weight the back down with tube sand during the snowy season. I am able to drive up stuff that makes the SUVs slide right off the road (though some of that is due to the people driving them sometimes being dumb). Most everyone living in rural VT has a beat up old truck of some sort. SUVs in the country are almost never seen, probably for reasons stated above.

    Apparently they are going to start making little stoves that burn wood and include a heat-powered fan that fans the fire and also generates enough electricity to charge a cell phone (or something similar) I can't find the website right now but I really want one. You probably already know about this as well.

    In general Vermonters are very nice people who have been through way more winters than a transplant like me, and will undoubtedly share way more info and help once you get there.

    Best of luck!

    Posted by Charlie Inyo on March 22nd, 2012 at 11:27 AM
    Wow, thanks for all the feedback everyone! We definitely have a lot to think about :)
    Posted by Tyler on March 23rd, 2012 at 10:04 AM
    Hey! How fitting since we've just returned from camping in a permanent tent!

    For the platform, it's important that it's somewhere that drains, especially if you plan to store wood underneath. It rained a lot where we were and we had a full on lake under and around our tent. Not cool! The giant tarp above the tent though was a great idea.

    An issue with platforms: no matter how high you put them, critters will be able to climb in. Racoons can climb anything, even posts wrapped in metal. If you store wood under your platform, you'll also attract snakes and mouses (and etc.). And of course, platforms can get pretty cold in the winter unless they get insulated.

    A camp (sun) shower could be an alternative washing option instead of a bucket. Our camp site also had a great shower that worked with a foot pump, but that would also be useless in the winter.

    When my dad first bought his land we lived in an old camper that had been used by lumberjacks. It was a good size with a full bedroom, washroom, kitchen and living room. Everything worked with gas: lights, heat, fridge and stove. It was warm and cozy in the winter just fine, but because the trailer was elevated we still couldn't have running water in the winter as the pipes would freeze. It wasn't a big deal for us as we only went there on weekends, but the point is that something heated with insulated walls still had some issues in the winter (so a tent could be much harder).

    I love yurts! Doesn't fix all the issues of a tent though...

    Good luck guys, this is exciting! We plan on getting our land in 2013 and we can't wait :)
    Posted by Magalie on March 25th, 2012 at 5:54 PM
    Hi, have also been following your blog for a while..so jealous of your cycling!
    Thought I'll send you an image of the typical platform-raised granaries from northern spain (horreos). Traditionally used for storing fruits and grain, ...anything really (some are now converted to bedrooms/small houses). The key thing for keeping mice/rats away is that they have (a) the stairs separated from the main body of the building and more ingeniously (b) a big flat stone on top of each leg - mice cant walk upside down!
    Some of the oldest still standing are +400 years old, and they used to be built without any nails! only stone, wood, and slate/hay for the roof!

    Anyway...I digress...Good luck !!!
    Posted by daniel on March 30th, 2012 at 12:18 PM
    Here are my humble suggestions:

    Shelter : Agree with Niels on renting a room or place from someone nearby. It's cheaper than buying a temporary mobile home or building a shelter and it can allow you to get down and dirty quickly with the priority building tasks. Plus, nowadays it wouldn't be hard to find someone who would appreciate a little extra income in exchange for a room/shared community areas and it might come with extra benefits, like making new contacts with people in the area who know the land and can give you a hand or expert advise as you move forward. Good way to get some local support instead of isolating yourselves on your land through the entire process.

    Keeping Warm: If you do decide on a temp shelter, check out the Little Cod we picked up (http://2cycle2gether.com/2010/08/wood-heat-and-hot-water/). It could work for your final home as well, as we found out it will actually be much more than we need for our 180 sq foot home. We also plan to cook on it and heat water with it. For the wood pile, you do need to let any wood dry out over a season, ideally, before using it. You can always buy a 1/2 or full cord of wood thought locally when you get there rather than going in a full season before to cut and store wood. Then, when you arrive in 2013, you can cut and store your wood from your land in prep for the next winter. For storage, a simple lean to can suffice to keep the wood dry (bought at local store or made yourself) or even, short term, a tarp works. In one of our last videos I showcase one that Kai built in a day that works great for us.

    Sanitation: We got a Nature's Head toilet and although we didn't use it before we left, we did a ton of research before laying down the dough for one. Apparently separating the urine from the poo makes all the difference and the way it is made makes for ultra-easy disposal. We plan to use a humanure composting method when we return. We'll bury six 60 gallon barrels (like the ones we made our rain barrels from) completely in the ground, then will fill them with the poo until each one is full. Technically speaking, for a cold climate, the poo in the first filled barrel needs to sit/compost for a full year before you can use it as compost in the yard or woods. So, when you fill the last barrel, you'd empty the first barrel and start filling all over again. Kai's going to be posting about urine diverting dehydration toilets very soon on our blog as problems with sanitation systems has become very apparent on our current travels, so keep an eye out for that info, coming soon. (Here's an older post with pictures of our Nature's Head: http://2cycle2gether.com/2010/08/natures-head-2/

    Bathing/Washing: When we were living in our tiny house, we used the Ortlieb 10 L water bag for everything from washing dishes to showering, and we actually ended up preferring it over conventional plumed/running water. The shower is divine when taken outside and you could easily set up something indoors to collect the water in if it's too cold to take one outside. (Again, in one of our later videos of building our house I briefly show the hanger Kai made to hang our bag on for showering outdoors). We would often heat up a little water and mix it with cold to create a warm to hot shower experience. The shower cap (purchased separately) was perfect, just like a low flow shower that you could twist on and off as needed. When indoors, we hung it off a nail over our Ortlieb bowl and used it for washing dishes as well or for quick sponge bathing.

    Cooking: Consider using pressure cookers to reduce water/fuel usage. Also, for long term use, maybe you'd want to use the stove we bought: http://2cycle2gether.com/2011/01/origo-6000/

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling comment. Hopefully it will give you some ideas. I'm sure everything will fall into place as you move every step closer to your move. Best of luck!!
    Posted by Sheila on March 31st, 2012 at 5:13 PM
    If there is a local swimming pool or fitness centre, that might be an option for showers, and might even include a sauna!
    Posted by Becky on March 31st, 2012 at 6:42 PM
    Tyler & Tara,

    Hi you two! Kai, here, arriving late to the discussion. Some thoughts...

    This range might be up your alley:


    Not cast iron but does have the added advantage of both an oven and hot water tank and I'm sure its much cheaper than the Bun Baker (and made in the USA). If cast iron is a must then the Bun Baker would be great - just make sure its not overkill relative to the size of your space. For the best of both worlds, you could get hold of a rough piece of ~2" thick soapstone and cut it to fit on the top of the Sheepherder (or Big Bear) to improve the stove's heat retention. Soapstone is very easy to work with - it cuts like butter with a diamond blade in a skilsaw and polishes beautifully with a belt sander and hand sanding. If you look around you might even be able to find an old piece of Vermont soapstone to use. Soapstone in use today comes from South America.

    Regarding alternative septic systems - I recently came across the following document while researching the topic of ecological sanitation & greywater systems in VT. It was prepared in 2008 by the VHCA (Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs). If you haven't already seen it, it might be worth a read:


    That said, we really need to push our municipalities to adopt approvals for low-energy/low input wastewater systems. For a super water efficient household that also utilizes a UDDT (urine diverting dehydration toilet) there is little reason to spend the kind of money and wreak the kind of environmental havoc necessary to install one of the currently approved systems. They are way overkill in my opinion.

    Great to read of your progress and can't wait to bump into you again!
    Posted by Kai Mikkel Forlie on May 17th, 2012 at 10:33 PM
    Hi there, I stumbled across your blog as I'm leaving for a 3 week cycle trip in Europe this summer - what a great adventure you've had. You write beautifully and your photos are stunning.

    I have an architectural degree and specialised in some of the stuff you are doing. Not sure if you have them over there, but in europe you can get mini sewage treatment plants - they're basically large surface area rotating disks in a tank seeded with bacteria that break down the effluent. The resulting outflow can be directly discharged into watercourses. Klargester is a brand name over here and they've been used for at least 30 years. Downside is you need a power source, but a small solar/mini wind turbine should do the trick. (Can't remember if they need continuous supply, if they do you'll have to look at options)
    Posted by Russ McGinn on June 21st, 2012 at 8:46 PM
    Hey everyone!

    We spent a bunch of time this weekend talking about our project, and we're really starting to hone in on a coherent plan of action for our arrival next year. We'll be posting about it eventually, but we wanted to write a quick note to thank ya'll again for the ideas and resources you've brought to our attention. It's so cool to know we can post just about anything and we'll get really useful, intelligent responses!

    Well, back to work over here :)

    T & T
    Posted by Going Slowly on June 25th, 2012 at 12:07 PM