What One Couple Learned After a Year of Living Small

What One Couple Learned After a Year of Living Small

With a big project behind me and summer fast-approaching, I’m finally starting to get ready for my road trip. As part of my research, I’ve been devouring stories about other people who have lived on the road for an extended period of time, and came across the blog Tiny House, Tiny Footprint. I love Kathleen and Greg’s story because they don’t hide the fact that it’s not always easy to live small. You have to be intentional about everything, including trusting your gut about how much space you really do (or don’t) need. Kathleen agreed to share part of their story with us today. Enjoy, friends!

Two years ago, I was living with my boyfriend Greg and our dog Blaize in a two-bedroom apartment in Denver. I was drawn to city living—tall buildings that sparkled in the sun and the hustle and bustle of people moving constantly. But I also looked forward to the weekends—times when I could escape the city and think more clearly.

Every now and then, Greg and I would find someone in the mix of city dwellers who also dreamed of leaving it completely. We would talk in whispers about living more remotely and less attached to material things. We would plan a trip or two to be in the wilderness for a few days, but then the city life would grab us and suck us back in.

It’s easy to feel trapped when you think you’re supposed to be living one way but long for something different…

What One Couple Learned After a Year of Living Small

Greg had lived in a van in New Zealand a few years back and wondered what it would be like if he could return with me to a more minimalist lifestyle. I didn’t know anyone who lived small, so it was hard for me to picture anything different than the way I had been living.

But the more we discussed the idea of tiny living, it seemed to be only way we could live more freely, save money, be more environmentally conscious and connect with nature.

As I sat across from a friend in a coffee shop in the city, I asked her what she thought about the decision to test out tiny living. She agreed it sounded dreamy, but was it really sustainable? Could two people and a dog really cohabitate in a small space and still get along? Wasn’t it easier and more comfortable to live in a house or apartment?

With those questions in the back of my mind, I knew the only way to know for sure was to try it myself.

A few days later, we searched Craiglist for tiny homes and went to go look at a used camper trailer for sale. I had never been inside a camper before so I had no concept of what the interior would look like. Nestled in 140 square feet were a bunk bed, sitting area, kitchen, bathroom and two closets. We bought the camper from its owner for $1,800, the equivalent of two months rent in the city.

We parked the camper in a friend’s driveway while we went through the process of downsizing all the items we had accumulated from living in an apartment. I donated boxes of clothes and gave furniture to friends. We spent our weekends cleaning the camper, scrubbing off dirt and removing all the dust that had accumulated. We sealed interior holes in the roof and interior with spray foam insulation, and we covered pieces of Pylo Iso Insulation in radiant barrier that we fit like puzzle pieces into the windows.

As we finished up the home improvements, we still had a lurking concern we didn’t want to address. We didn’t want to live in a friend’s driveway, so where were we going to park our tiny home?

Due to strict city building and zoning codes, no one we asked was keen about having us park in their backyard. I was frustrated and began to lose my faith in tiny living. Our apartment lease was coming to an end and we didn’t have a place to live.

I turned to Airbnb and messaged people who were renting out their houses. I thought there might be a chance that someone would be open to renting land. After a few messages back and forth with curious landlords, we found a family that was open to us renting out their backyard for a year.

What One Couple Learned After a Year of Living Small

In October 2014, we parked the camper in its new location. Bordered by open space, the camper sat a few yards away from coyotes that howled at night and deer who stood out like silhouettes in the sunrise.

It quickly became winter and Greg hadn’t completely finished insulating our tiny space. We dressed in layers and sat in bed, covering our bodies with sleeping bags. I wasn’t used to the constant cold indoors and it froze me into wanting to do anything besides complain. I dreamed about hot showers and sitting next to a fireplace. As I escaped to friends’ houses after work to stay warm, Greg worked on adding more insulation. He shoveled snow and packed it around our camper to trap heat in. Even though he was working hard and the camper slowly became warmer, I still saw our tiny house as cold and uninviting. I thought about how much easier it would be to go back to living in an apartment.

I fought Greg on every aspect of tiny living. When something would go wrong, I would blame our decision. When I would go outside in the cold to retrieve food from a refrigerator in the shed, I wondered why we were choosing a lifestyle so uncomfortable and unconventional. Was this the reason people didn’t live this way?

Greg was worried about our pipes freezing, so gallon jugs became our primary water source. We refilled them weekly at local grocery stores, and showered at our respective gyms before work. We removed the RV toilet the camper came with and installed a composting toilet that we purchased from Nature’s Head. We made this decision because it aligned with our environmental focus and also eliminated a need for a wastewater tank. Instead of dumping our waste into a sewer system, we used our waste as compost in the garden.

We bought a radiant space heater that was filled with oil to keep our place toasty. Around the space heater, we stacked rocks and water jugs to create a supplemental thermal mass. When our space heater wasn’t enough, we turned on our gas furnace. During some winter days when the Colorado sun glowed, we were able to use passive solar from our big camper windows to keep warm.

We bought a 200-foot extension cord and powered our appliances from our landlord’s outdoor electrical box. But we ended up only using electricity sparingly and mostly for charging our phones, an electric heater, a coffee maker and a teakettle.

What One Couple Learned After a Year of Living Small

The first few months living small were challenging as I adapted to limiting my resources and finding space outside the one I was living in. I learned to use our backyard and local wilderness areas as places to find solo time and areas where I could spread out without worrying about bumping into Greg or Blaize.

To go from 1,000 to 140 square feet was quite a leap for me, and I found it quite difficult to live this lifestyle in one location. I think there’s a difference when you live on the road because each day is a new experience. While we were grateful to be parked in a backyard, we felt trapped from living freely as we feared someone might discover we were living there illegally and ask us to leave. We also were still paying rent, and wanted to put our money toward something that we could invest in.

As one year living small approached, Greg and I started to discuss our next options for tiny living. We sat down with our landlords and they said we could stay for a few months longer while we looked for another place to live. This gave us some time to explore what would be the best fit.

We searched websites for raw land in Colorado, but were disenchanted after learning that another tiny living couple had struggles living in their Airstream on their land. City building and zoning codes required them to have another structure and they had difficulty designing a house that met their minimalist ideas.

It seemed like we had three options: find someone else’s backyard again, buy raw land and build a structure on it, or buy land with a house already on it. After going back and forth, we decided the most economical and freeing decision was to buy a house on some land. That would allow us an area to park our camper, a place for a garden and house that was already built to code. For us, owning a house and land also meant an investment. It was a way for us to escape spending our money each month on rent. While we now have a mortgage to pay each month, we make that money back when we rent out whatever space we aren’t using to other nomads who are curious about tiny living or want a retreat.

While this decision might seem fairly clear, it still felt like we were betraying our tiny living community. We haven’t abandoned our tiny lifestyle by not living mobile full-time. Rather, we’ve opened all of our doors (both big and small) for others to step inside and feel something—whatever that may be.

After 14 months living in a camper on someone’s land, we are now splitting our time between a few forms of tiny living. We spend winters in a house, summers in a camper trailer and weekends living out of car or tent in the wilderness.

We dream of working remote jobs and living in a vehicle on the road, but for now, we have a homestead, a place to call ours and a place to return to whenever we please.

Kathleen Morton is the founder of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint, a website where she shares stories of her experiences living small, as well as others living alternative lifestyles. She is an activist in the tiny house movement, encouraging others to reduce their environmental footprint and connect with nature. You can also follow her on Instagram @tinyhousetinyfootprint.

  • Sounds like a really fun way to live part-time! I wouldn’t mind living in a tree-house or something but I’d definitely need to go the same route and buy an actual house with land anyways. My husband enjoys woodworking and collecting video games and DVDs – unfortunately you just can’t fit those things in a tiny house. :(

  • I love how led you to creativity and ingenuity as you found solutions to new and unexpected problems. And how you had to work through conflict. Thanks for sharing your experiment! We do love camping with our kids in warm weather–that’s as close as I’ve gotten to tiny living since dorm life!

  • What a brave post. It is too bad that the rules have not allowed for this type of living yet. It must have been a challenging first year of living. I have to say that while I know I could not live like that I do embrace the less is more mentality. I live in a town house a lot of my family and friends think is a starter home. But with 2 of us and a cat we really don’t need much space to live so why buy a huge house just because it’s expected. We are also thinking of going down to 1 car from 2 to cut back on expenses. Yes it will be a challenge when we are used to being independent but I think those trade-offs are worth it when I think about the big picture.

  • Great story! I like the sincerity about living in such a small space without all of the amenities sometimes being a struggle.We have a trailer that we’ve lived in for weeks at a time and I could see it working for the two of us, but as our kids have become teenagers, they are more content being home, which has cut down on our camping time. Maybe we’ll try a year when the kids are out on their own!

  • You guys are awesome! I can only imagine what you learn about yourself and your partner in 140 feet. After that, you two can take on anything.
    It sounds like you’ve persevered through the legal red tape and made the best of ridiculous rules. Hopefully someday the laws will catch up and not demand that people use more space and resources than they want.

  • I like this post because it shows the good and the bad of tiny house living. After seeing the Minimalism documentary last week, my husband wants a tiny house now :)

  • I live in Florida and one thing that tiny house articles always forget is weather. We get hurricanes and sometimes tornadoes, as do some other states. Tiny house living on a trailer or in a camper would be downright risky. I would love to live in a small single-wide mobile home but will not for that very reason. Last month a couple were killed during a storm. So soon we will be selling our large 2000 sq. ft. house and going to a small condo. We will be taking up less room, have a smaller carbon footprint, but at least we will be on solid ground.

  • Wow, really interesting post! Changing your way of living must have been really difficult! If you don’t mind me sharing, this is a really interesting article about tiny homes that connects to your post.

  • Going to echo several other comments: the honesty is refreshing! I love the idea of having a tiny place but I think I need a 12 step approach.

  • Thanks for sharing this story! It is always great to hear how people make the transition to tiny living, and how things go for them. There are always the “happily-ever-after” tales that people tell in order to sell tiny living, but without hearing the real struggles, the logistics, the successes and the failures of someone’s journey, it is hard to learn or be inspired to really give it a try.

  • I love the honesty in this story. So many people who’ve drastically downsized talk about it like it’s all sunshine and roses (talk about confirmation bias in action!), when it’s bound to be at a minimum a big adjustment if nothing else. I think it’s awesome what a bold leap these guys took, and that they’ve found a way to adapt their tiny living vision to zoning realities. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love the honesty in this post. Kathleen shares the ups and downs of living in a tiny space. What its like in the real world and how its not for everyone. And how wonderfully simple it can be. You realize how much “stuff” you don’t need. I love watching all of the tiny house shows out there. I have been watching them for as long as they have been out. I know I could take what is really important to me and move into one; if I wanted too. LOL We camp in the summer in a 21 foot travel trailer and you find you don’t really need much. Just yourself and/or people you love. 😍

  • I’m so glad you figured out something that works for you! Personally, I got claustrophobic just reading this. (It probably doesn’t help that we’re both home all day. So we’d be in 140 sq ft all the time.) But I think it’s great when others can manage it.

  • Wow – what an amazing story! I love the adventurous spirit! This sounds like a great decision that meets many of your needs. You have experienced more than many will experience in a lifetime! Bravo!

  • Thanks for sharing this Cait! I could definitely see my future playing out along these lines, so this was very inspiring. Good luck on your own trip, I can’t wait to read all about it xo

  • So inspiring! I worked in Denver for awhile and am surprised you found a place with a large backyard in commuting distance! I’ve always been interested in buying some land off Breck and building a tiny home on it.

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