How To Build A Survival Cabin The Missouri River Ranch Experience

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In June of 2011, my wife and I were desperate to get a place of our own. My long established business was fading, bankruptcy was being held off by nothing but a long stick and a lot of determination, and my sisters wanted us and our several cats out of Mom’s house ASAP.

We understood. Mom was 86 at the time. We were only there for a week, but that was more than long enough under the circumstances. Every day, I left my little redheaded honey to visit, watch soap operas, and nap while I searched for somewhere we could settle. The first place was on Fish Creek near Butte, and that story may be told in a future Hub. We THOUGHT it would be good at first. But soon, oh so soon, we were looking again.

That time, we bought a 20 acre parcel of land near Craig, Montana. For $500 down, we were in business, But what we had purchased was bare land, limited by covenants that mostly forbade goats and pigs while offering nothing in the way of shelter. We had very little cash to spare and no available credit. We did have creditors galore, but that’s hardly the same thing…although one certainly does lead to the other,.

Fortunately, we moved onto the land in midsummer, on July 12, so we could get by for a while in the tent I had purchased in Missoula, Montana, prior to moving to Fish Creek. Hm. Winter would be right along, but the money would not. Still, we knew what to do.

Pam had a plan.

Put A Tuff Shed On Skids, She Said

We Build A 12 X 16 Castle

Pam knew about Tuff Sheds from her many years in Arizona. There were covenants on our new property–no mobile homes permitted, for example–but rough-and-ready cabins “on the mountain” were more usual than not. She was quite ill already, but her knowledge remained intact. We planned on a 12 by 16 foot cabin, a palatial total of 192 square feet. On skids.

Looking around in a 200-mile radius for the best deal, we stumbled on a true treasure: A retired man named Al built sheds as a sideline. Our shed WOULD have cost around $2,200 from a commercial shed dealer, plus delivery charges. Al would build us one on site for $1,750 with a house type slider window at one end, plus two small holes cut into the sides (into which I would put window glass and screens.).

His part would be to erect the shell only. All finish work would be mine to do.

The day it was completed, Pam watched from a chair under a shade tree next to our tent, roughly 100 yards from the bench I’d selected as our homesite. Just at dusk, Al and his helper packed up their tools and headed out. I carried my lady from her seat to our new home. When we met, she had been homeless for 2 1/2 years. As I carried her over the threshhold into a secure, four-walled enclosure that was OURS, she looked up at the ceiling and exclaimed,

“It’s like a dream come true!”

Which it was, even though the work had just begun. Our living room couch came out of storage in Deer Lodge, hauled all the way to Craig in the back of our 1984 Chevy Citation with the hatchback up and ropes keeping it from bouncing out. That became Pam’s bed.

The county dump became a source of many treasures, including a three foot piece of counter top that flanked the toilet…which in turn was made up of a five gallon pail with Pine Sol water in the bottom and a perfectly fitting standard toilet seat snapped to the top.

We opted for R-11 insulation and cheap paneling to finish the interior. Friends we had met before even selecting our land parcel donated a four-burner propane stove top, and I built a stand for it out of 2 x 4 lumber. Similar wood produced two tables, one of them permanently resting next to Pam’s bed-couch for her things and to give her something to hold onto while getting out of bed.

Eventually, I got around to building a long table that stood along the same wall as Pam’s couch. Bingo! A bed-table, with my sleeping pads now up off the cold wooden floor. Our old 2 x 12 waterbed frame became skirting for the cabin. A coat of paint was applied.

And then the wildfire hit.

It would take too long to tell the entire “fire story” here. Maybe in another Hub, later. For now, suffice it to say we saved nearly everything, and did it with nothing but a single shovel and a whole lotta action. Neighbors and professional firefighters saved the rest of the mountain, but we saved our own residence single-handed. Okay, double-handed.

It came so close to “getting us” that the entire south wall of the cabin was bowed several inches out of line by the heat. But everything held.

Despite The Fire, We Stayed Within Our Budget

With all of the finish work inside, including the purchase of a used propane refrigerator for $75 and a used propane furnace for $25, the money did add up. Still, Pam had managed to save every piece of new lumber when the fire encircled our place. We each did our part and, unbelievably, lost nothing other than a few less-than-essential things that were still in the tent at the time.

That did encourage me to finally take down the tent and roll it up for storage, though.

Our super-special Moe Key Man cat joined us as a young kitten just a few weeks after the fire. He loved the cabin as much as we did. As long as Pam and I are within a few feet of each other in a small, somewhat enclosed space, he is one happy camper.

Oh, you want to know how we cleaned up? During that first summer, we rigged a high framework attacherd to the front of the cabin, used the four-foot door and a mountain ridge for privacy, and showered under a ten gallon solar bag of sun-heated water.

By winter, however, I’d found a way-too-large bathtub–awfully big for the size of the cabin, but on sale in Great Falls for $79. Then after cutting a hole in the floor, I got some help from a neighboring teenager to dig a hole just east of the cabin into which we planted an old (free!) 55-gallon drum with many holes drilled through the sides and bottom. A drain pipe ran from the tub though the floor, out through a trench (which was then filled in with dirt) and into the drum.

To complete the drain field, we then simply lugged a LOT of round river rocks, dropping them into the drum until it was full to the brim. Replace the lid, and bingo! Instant gray water disposal. From that time forward, we could heat water on the stovetop and either fill dishpans in the tub for washing dishes…or fill the tub itself for a hot soak.

For a shower, we hung a solar bag full of toasty water from the ceiling. No chilly wind that way, and a WHOILE lot more privacy.

Pam and I have grandiose dreams for the future: We intend to build on 35 acres of land we’re currently buying in southeastern Colorado, and we’d like to have around six thousand feet of workable space (counting garage and shop). But we lived in our 192 square foot cabin for three years, warm and cozy, with no complaints in heart or mind.

To wrap up, though: How did we do when it came to staying inside our original budget? In early July, before construction began, we had targeted a total of $3,000 and hoped we could have our new mountain cabin home all winter-ready for no more–or little more–than that. Despite the challenges of organizing paperwork in such a small space, we kept meticulous records.

We did more to the place as time went on and funds became available, but we were comfortable and ready to face cold weather by October 15. As of that date, our little cabin had cost us exactly $2,987.15. Thanks to several key treasures from area dumps and a few donations (like the stovetop) from new friends, we owned a survival cabin free and clear for under three thousand dollars.

Nor was it on skids by accident. Since it was not attached to the land, the developer who sold us the place could not claim it to be his when we left. Oh, he would have…except our neighbors on the next parcel helped me load our stuff out when the time came. In return, we gave them the cabin, which they promptly hooked up behind their pickup and towed over to their adjoining parcel.

Which made their survival cabin, obviously, an even better bargain than we had managed to obtain.

Thanks for reading,

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