The trailer by the numbers: living in the Mothership

I was introduced to “tiny living” when I worked for an Americorps trail crew in Vermont. We lived in tents at a remote campsite where we had to canoe in with all our gear. Personal belongings were limited to what could fit in 2 backpacks, and sleeping space was a 3 person tent shared with a co-worker and her gear. We all cooked and ate communally, and most evenings were spent sitting around a campfire. Definitely a different arrangement than living alone in a trailer, but it introduced me to living on less, in a small space, with the trees as my walls and the stars as my roof. I had to be more conscious about water use, and washing, and not leaving leftovers when I ate-among many other things. In some ways it was harder to live on less, but in other ways it was very freeing: not constantly worrying about paying bills and rent (and having great hiking and swimming less than 50 feet from where I slept) made up for bug bites and occasional wet feet. I’ve decided to take that philosophy a step further and live in my own more permanent dwelling, a 6×12” cargo trailer converted into a living space.



The Mothership is a completely self-contained, off-grid tiny house built in a converted 6×12 cargo trailer. That’s the short answer. The long answer is-it’s been a long, crazy adventure of almost  4 months, an  extensive construction project, and a journey of self-discovery and learning.




Off-Grid: The Mothership needs no utility hookups. Light is provided by solar-powered LED lanterns and natural daylight, water can be filtered on-site, and heat is provided by a tiny stove that burns scrap wood and small branches. I’m also planning to install solar panels for another source of electricity.

Reused materials: An estimated 25-40% of solid waste generated in the US comes from construction debris; much of this can be re-used. About 80% of the materials in the Mothership are scrap or reclaimed. I’ve sourced materials from barns, attics, secondhand stores, junkyards, dumpsters and abandoned buildings. I also tried to plan the construction based on the materials at hand, rather than making a rigid plan and buying materials to fit that. This construction method minimized the amount of waste/scrap material the project generated.  

Small Size: the house’s tiny dimensions mean it’s less resource-intensive even without trying! It takes less wood to heat, less electricity to light, less water for cleaning and other tasks…

Can be parked anywhere with a decent view (or not!): No need to clear land to build a house; the tiny footprint of the trailer means it can fit in just about any corner of the world, and it’s fully mobile. That also means I can park it somewhere that will minimize my commute to work, friends’ houses, stores, etc.

Less Stuff: The lack of space in the house means I have to be very conscious about owning and acquiring possessions, and not own any more than the minimum of what I need.



Any flat area with enough room for a 6×12’ trailer, truck, and room to turn the truck around. Preferably somewhere with sunlight, as the solar water heater needs it to make hot water for showers.



Water: I don’t anticipate using more than 10 gallons of water on any given day. The solar water heater has a capacity of 7.5 gallons, and daily cooking, cleaning, washing and drinking needs shouldn’t exceed 2.5-3 gallons. The sink has a water storage tank with a 5-gallon capacity and a grey water storage tank with the same capacity, so unless I’m showering a lot, I shouldn’t have to get water a lot, so it’s OK if I’m not immediately next to a water source. My grey water should be safe to dump in a sump hole or even use to water plants, as I plan to use only nontoxic and biodegradable cleaners and not dump anything down my sink like paint, glues, solvents, etc.

Electricity: I don’t need an electric hookup; my lighting is provided by natural daylight and solar-powered LED lights. Eventually I plan to install a rooftop solar array with battery storage for other electricity needs, which will be minimal-maybe a power source for my laptop and a small fan for ventilation. I don’t have refrigeration, and any foods I need to keep cool will be stored in a small cooler with ice. However I’ve found it’s surprisingly easy to live without refrigeration if you are careful about food preparation and consumption. Eating mostly vegetarian food helps. Produce can be stored at room temperature for 5-7 days, eggs and cultured dairy products for 3-4 days, and butter and many condiments for even longer.

Laundry: I plan to use whatever local laundromat is closest, and I’ll try to air-dry my clothes when weather and space allow. 

Toilet and shower facilities: I have a solar water heater on top of the camper with a shower attachment; the black plastic pipe soaks up heat from the sun, warms the water, and gives me a way to enjoy a nice warm low-flow gravity fed shower outdoors (so it would probably be best that I parked a little out of the way…) If the weather gets cold, I can also use the shower at the gym where  I’m a member. As for toilet facilities, I didn’t have room to put a composting toilet in the trailer, so I figured I would just use the bathroom at work or any other nearby facility, and in an emergency, I’d resort to the old strategy of peeing behind an out-of-the-way tree.

Cooking: I have a 2-burner camp stove to do my cooking on, and a small sink with gravity-fed running water from a tank. Grey water storage is below the sink.

Trash, recycle, and compost: I compost food scraps, and would be happy to contribute my compost to any gardening going on wherever I park, especially if it’s something like pumpkins, which love compost. I have 2 bins for recycles (plastic/metal and paper/cardboard) and would not produce more than a few pounds of each type of recycle per week; I also generate very little trash (due to re-using plastic bags and avoiding packaged food or any item with lots of packaging). My total output of trash and recycles would be about 5 lbs/week, probably less. Compost might be a little more due to high water content.

Heating: For heat, I’m installing a small tent stove designed to heat an 80 square foot space with minimal insulation. This stove is made by the Three Dog Stove company and is a clean-burn, airtight stove. It can burn wood from downed trees, brush, or unfinished, untreated scrap wood. I don’t think it would get cold enough in summer to need it, but I would want access to a supply of scrap wood/firewood just in case.

Storage: Everything I own is going in the trailer, no exceptions! (except maybe a lawn chair and a couple potted plants.)


A Lone Woman Wandering In The Woods

Where’s all the other mountain mamas?

Seriously. In a survey of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, only 23% were female. When I worked on a trail crew in Vermont, there was only two other women besides me on my 9-person crew (one was the awesome crew leader…) and I noticed a similar imbalance on the other crews from the conservation corps. When I tagged along on a class backpacking trip from my former high school as a chaperone, I noticed an even more dramatic gender distribution: I was the only woman on the trip! And earlier this year, I was talking with my aunt about my interest in taking some classes at a primitive skills school, only to be startled when she told me that the instructors have a reputation for trying to put the moves on any young, attractive female students that come their way. Great-that’s really comforting.

So where’s all the other women exploring the great outdoors? I know there’s more of us out there, but we’re few and far between, or so it seems. It’s not as if we can’t do it. Before the walling off of the world and the rise of civilization, as humanity spread to all corners of the earth, women survived in the same harsh conditions and endured the same dangers that men did-and sometimes carrying a baby on their back or in their belly, too. Many mystical traditions see nature as female, and women by extension as having some sort of mysterious connection with nature. As women are so closely associated and involved with the creation and nurturing of life (even for those of you who can’t have children or don’t want to-there’s some ancient deep part of your consciousness that knows) we also have a deeper concept of our mortality and the fragility of life. Nature is very cyclical and death and life are closely intertwined. Because of its ability to create, destroy, then re-create in cycles, nature is associated with female-ness. I could agree with this; I feel pulled along by the mysterious cycles and currents of the natural world.  Yes, Nature is a mother, but she can be one mean mama.

Partly I think it’s because our view of nature has changed. In a way, even perceiving nature as something separate and removed from us is a great change from when it was simply…home, mother, whatever-an entity that could both give and take, create and destroy. Now nature is seen as an adversary, something to be conquered rather than feared, respected, thanked for our daily existence. And conquering is not thought of as something women do. There’s also a pervasive stereotype of the lone wolf isolated badass woodsman type. I seem to see this a lot in the backpacking/nomadic/bushcraft community. Guys just want to play caveman and grow a beard and get some nature-related tattoos and stomp around in the woods feeling all badass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. But for those of us with neither the capacity for beard-growing or lone wolfiness can feel a little put off and feel like we don’t have what it takes to survive in the great outdoors. Also, on the whole solitude thing: humans are not solitary animals. In fact, in modern studies of hunter-gatherer groups living in remote areas, people tended to value companionship and cooperation, and formed close social bonds with their small group. There’s many reasons for this, not the least of which is that an extra set of eyes and ears helps alert you to dangers you might not otherwise notice, and a second pair of hands helps deal with danger when it arises. And human contact and human voices are essential for the health of the mind and emotions, just as good clean food and water are essential for the health of the body. In fact, it’s good to take your friends and family into the wild with you; you will develop a closer connection sharing space and time and conversation with them uninterrupted by the noise of industrial civilization (which is good for many things, like the invention of antibiotics and hot showers, but not conducive to deep social bonding.)

There’s also a message that women get fed from a very young age, whether unintentionally or intentionally: You are weak, you are especially vulnerable, you should not go out on your own somewhere. The world is out to get you and exploit your weaknesses, you should be very much afraid and ever vigilant because you’re a woman! Eventually your gender can start to feel like a liability or something. But don’t listen; channel the spirit of your ancient ancient ancestresses. Get outside. Have fun. If you’re really concerned, bring a friend, as mentioned before: an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands.


Fellow mountain mamas, I’ll see you on the other side of the hill!

Slash your Trash-the 2nd minimalist challenge

Humans produce way, way too much trash. and when I say humans, I’m definitely including myself. This really struck home when I opened the door of my new (OK,  used, 14 year old) Tacoma to find the cab cluttered with paper cups, receipts, and all manner of detritus. When I think about the enormous amount of energy that went into cutting and pulping the trees, making paper, pressing it into cups and  rolls, printing my receipts, drilling for the oil that became the plastic bottle holding my juice, etc. etc. it just boggles my mind. The amount of energy used today to make things that will be used once and thrown out is staggering. And there’s also the problem of things that won’t biodegrade, like most plastics. In fact, plastic items have an annoying tendency to blow away and end up in the ocean where they get eaten by all manner of critters, from sea turtles to shore birds-none of whom can digest plastic. In fact, by 2050, scientists predict there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, unless you have some kind of rare mutation that allows you to munch on a plastic water bottle like it’s a grilled cheese sandwich.  So you and I need to find ways to reduce our trash output.

Which leads to this: the Slash your Trash challenge, or, how to cut your trash output down to a minimum. I’m going to try to follow the steps in this challenge over the next month too, because I’m starting to notice a pile-up of trash in my life resulting from ‘trashy’ habits.


  1. Stop using disposable napkins, dishes and silverware (or plastic ware, I should say.) This is a huge problem for me, as someone with a spotty schedule, a commute that takes me far from home base, and a weakness for two-eggs-on-wheat and a monstrous morning coffee. You can reduce your to-go ware output by several methods. One is to cut back on takeout, probably the easiest way in theory. Buy food like dried fruit and nuts that’s easy to carry around in reusable containers for unexpected attacks of munchies. Or start packing your own lunch if that’s applicable. Another way is to eat more sit-down meals, but I understand that’s not practical for some (or, hey, let’s be honest, most of) us. Another strategy is to have a designated fork, travel mug, and cloth napkin that you can carry around in your car, bag or backpack. Then you can use your mug for to-go hot beverages and you won’t need to ask for napkins or forks when you get takeout.
  2. Implement strategies to reduce food waste. A staggering amount of food in the world gets wasted. If you’re an average American, almost almost a quarter of the food in your fridge will end up getting thrown out (curse you, slimy greens and overripe avocado!) If you’re into in cataloging and quantifying everything, there’s apps available to track your food purchases and remind you before they expire; some are mentioned in the linked article. Alternatively for a low-tech solution you could split your grocery shopping for perishable items into several smaller trips during the week, increasing the chance you’ll eat rather than forget your purchases. Sticking to a planned menu and buying ingredients specifically for it also helps. If you are a restaurant owner, the EPA has published a guide to reducing food waste in your business, including resources such as a food waste tracker.

3. Eat food with less packaging in general. You’ll notice this forces you to eat a lot healthier, unless you’re really into home baking…in which case, bake your heart out. Homemade cookies can be whipped up in 20 minutes and taste way better than the kind that come hermetically sealed in 6 layers of plastic. Also, consider bulk-buying options for ingredients like sugar and flour to reduce packaging even further.

4. Carry a reusable bag around with you so stores don’t constantly try to foist plastic scraps of crap on you. This company sells bags  that fold up tiny enough to fit in your pocket, and you can also order stuff from them customized with a logo/words. (Warning: cheesy, buzzword-packed website.)

5. Why the heck would you throw out your perfectly good lawn trimmings and buy garden mulch? I have occasionally wondered myself. According to the EPA, 13.5% of waste in landfills is…lawn trimmings! You can use these to mulch around plants in your garden, I’ve tried it on my kale and it seems to keep the weeds down and protects the soil from drying out. Grass clippings also generate heat while decaying, and you can use their heat to heat a mini greenhouse in spring. Put pots with germinating seeds on top of a good layer of grass clippings, and their heat will warm the soil. My mom does this at her flower farm.

6. And since paper makes up another 27% of waste, it helps to be vigilant about recycling…and using both sides of the paper…and using the backs of one-sided printouts for scrap paper.

7. Finally, planned obsolescence is an actual conspiracy happening right under our noses, so buy things built to last if you can at all afford it.

And that concludes my trash challenge! I’ll try it myself and report back.

I bought a truck!

Holy shit! I am now the genuine lucky owner of a 2002 Toyota Tacoma with all the bells and whistles (V6 engine, 4-way electrical hookup for trailer lights, bed extender, extra back jump seats, 4-wheel drive, and airbags-a feature that was conspicuously absent in my 1990 Civic.) It’s obviously going to be a process getting used to driving this vehicle. For starters, it’s 12 years newer than my previous vehicle. Also, it’s as aerodynamic as a refrigerator and sits so high off the ground on its giant tires that I could slide under it and change the oil without having to put it on jackstands. But it will prove more than capable of pulling my trailer-at least that’s what the guy at the car dealership assured me. I went for a Toyota truck because they have an incredible reputation for reliability. I knew someone who had a ’92 Toyota truck with 220,000 miles on it that ran faithfully; he even slept in it for half a summer.

So I’m hoping this truck works out, especially since I paid cash for it and ended up dropping half my savings account on it. If anyone has experience towing stuff with a Toyota truck, I’d be happy to hear from you.

-Lia Pearl, Certified Truck-Driving Douchebag



(With temporary plates and everything.)

A Lousy Bed Post (haha!) With Almost No Pictures

I ended up making my bed high enough to double as a table, and to store a rolling shelf with clothes and books underneath. Building the bed was probably one of the most fun parts of building the trailer. I smashed my thumbs a lot making the mortise and tenon joints, because I’m a woodworking masochist. The only way I was going to be able to fit all the other crap in my trailer with the bed was to fit my bed across the width of the trailer, meaning I would barely have room to lie down (I’m 5’4″ tall, the trailer is 5’9″ wide inside.) I decided it would be more comfortable to make the bed extra wide so I could sleep diagonally. Honestly I probably could have built a basic bed frame by slapping some 2 x 4’s from Home Depot together with screws, but my weirdo woodworking compulsions weren’t going to let me off that easy. I decided I would make the bed  with 4 corner posts, the long sides joined by boards that fit into a mortise and tenon joint in the corner post. The short ends of the bed would be joined by diagonal braces lapped over the posts and over each other to form an “x” on each end. The frame would be braced in place with brackets attached to the wood floor. I would sleep on top of a 2″ foam mattress pad supported by a sheet of 1/2″ plywood nailed over slats that ran between the two sides of them bed.

The pieces of 2 x 3 maple I used for the corner posts were another find from my grandmother’s garage. I cut them each to 30″, about the standard height of a table. I planned to be able to use the bed as a table if I removed the bedding. I also measured 4″ down from the top of each, and placed a mark directly in the center of the pieces; this is where I started the mortises for the mortise and tenon joints. A tenon is supposed to be no less than 1/3 of the thickness of the stock it’s cut from, so I drilled holes centered on the marks I made with a 1″ spade bit-the perfect start for 1″ square mortises. I also marked off the 1 x 3s I was using for the side rails to make 1″ tenons on each end, each as long as the thickness of the corner posts. The tenon is a square peg, and the mortise is basically a square hole that the tenon slots neatly and snugly into-at least that’s the intention. (Don’t let anyone tell you woodworking can’t be sexy.) If done right, it’s one of the most stable and secure joints you can make, but it’s also challenging, and this was my first time making them.

After drilling the holes for the mortises, I used a straight edge to mark out where the edges of the square hole should be, but actually chiseling out the square holes was far easier said than done. Eventually I got extremely frustrated with my slow and splintery progress and switched to using a sabre saw, which worked only marginally better. The thin blade really didn’t like cutting through the hard maple, so I could only trim off little bits at a time. Eventually, it was easier to just chisel away and file down the tenons until they became small enough to fit through the mortises (with a little help from a few hammer taps on the bed post.) Before the final fitting of the mortises and tenons, I made the ends of the bed. I decided on diagonal bracing for the ends because I vaguely remembered hearing somewhere that diagonals offered extra strength and stability. Due to my shaky grasp of measurements and geometry (hey, it’s been a long time since I was dozing off in year 10 math) I had to lay out the end pieces in a pretty funky way. First I placed 2 posts on the ground 4 feet apart, mortises facing inward, using a straight edge and a square to make sure they were even. Then I measured 1″ down from each mortise and drew a line. I lined a board up with the top of the board just under the line and the bottom of the board just reaching the bottom corner of the opposite bedpost. I traced where the board overlapped the post with a pencil, then did the same for the opposite diagonal. I then cut half-lap joints in the posts, cutting along the diagonals I had traced and then making many small closely spaced kerfs between the pencil lines. I knocked out the scraps of wood between them and cleaned up the surface with a small chisel and hammer. The lap joints were cut to the same depth as the diagonal boards were thick, so once the boards were nailed in, the lap joints held them snugly in place and flush with the surface of the posts. I also had to lap the two diagonals over each other; I did a different kind of half-lap joint for this, cutting through half the thickness of each board. I eyeballed it more than I should have; if you could see my bed, you could see that on one end, the diagonals don’t overlap seamlessly.

The process of fitting the tenons on the side rails into the mortises on the posts was a huge pain in the ass, but also the most rewarding when I finally finished it. Like I said, if the halves of your mortise and tenon joint are experiencing second thoughts about joining together, encourage them by placing a block of scrap wood over the back of the mortise side, holding on the side behind the tenon, and tapping on the scrap block with a hammer until the tenon fits comfortably in the mortise. (p.s. you can also cut mortises with a router if you have one and aren’t a masochist like me.) If you’re like me and cutting out the mortise is a struggle, you can shave down the tenon bit by bit until it fits, using a rasp, file and sandpaper. Don’t make it too much less than 1/3 the width of the material or it won’t have sufficient strength. Finally, I got my bed frame assembled to check the fit of the pieces. Thankfully it was reasonably level. I mean, a marble would probably roll off it, but it’s not something I would notice when I come home from work at 10 PM and park my tired carcass on top of it.Then I had to disassemble it and haul the pieces upstairs to reassemble it in my trailer. As planned, I attached it to the wood floor with 4 large shelf brackets, 1 in each corner, which were subtle but offered good structural support. I nailed 6 slats across the bed between the side rails. For the slats, I just used random boards that were between 3/4″ and 1″ thick and cut them to 4′ long  so they spanned the distance between side rails. I figured with 6 slats, each slat would only have to support ~22 pounds of my weight, even less once the plywood distributed the weight further. Next came the plywood layer, which I caved in and bought at Home Depot rather than hoping for a dumpster/garage find. I bought a sheet of 1/2″ plywood that had to be cut in half to fit in the Civic. Unfortunately when I got home, I discovered that either my bed or the cut in the plywood (my pride will say it’s the plywood) was slightly off square, requiring another 20 minutes of shifting, measuring, cutting and fussing. After screwing down the plywood layer, I climbed on top of the bed and reflected. There had been someone in my past who had built himself a bed I greatly admired, so building my own definitely felt like a Serious Lifetime Accomplishment(tm). I know that’s kind of stupid, and I also knew from the way the bed wobbled that there was no was it would stand up to the kind of activities that took place on his bed. To make it look nicer, I decided to cover up where the side rail met the cross piece slats on the inside side of the bed. I used a piece of 1/2″ thick x 3″ wide maple that had been part of the same stash as the bed posts. I cut a couple swoops in the edge of it with the saber saw, then drilled out a decorative pattern of holes in it (you can see it here in my tiny house tour!) After coating it and the side rail with a couple coats of tung oil, it didn’t look half bad. Especially with bedding on it. I’ve been sleeping in it for almost a month, and it’s a pretty comfortable accommodation for a short person like me; a firmer surface is better for your back while sleeping. My only complaint is that I goofed up locating the window by where my feet go; every time I stretch on a warm morning, I risk putting my feet through the screen. 20160517_124156

(Good morning!)


P.S. if you’re a more experienced woodworker and you have any more suggestions on what I could have done to make the bed a little more stable, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.