Alternative Housing: Tiny Houses, Campers, and the Road Less Traveled

For an increasing number of Americans, especially those under 30, the “American Dream” is an absolute joke. For those of us in our 30’s, like me, its still a joke, but a harsh one because lot of us got sucked into believing in this dream and buying houses and such just before things crashed down in 2008. Of course, the joke’s on us, I suppose. Even for college graduates (or those with graduate degrees) finding a way to make a decent living and support a family, much less buy a house or anything else, is a fantasy. Those in the trades that I talk to often also don’t have any work. Many friends of mine in their 20’s are still living at home because its too expensive to be on their own, the job opportunities aren’t there, or the bills are too much to consider moving out. Or, they are like Sage, who I described in a post about meaningful work last year–they work several jobs to pay the bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, having no free time or energy to do anything else. Two days ago a new article described most Americans as being one paycheck away from the street.  And some are already halfway there–I have numerous friends living in homes in Detroit without heating for the winter, running water, and more–because they can’t afford it. So…this begs the question–what can be done and who is doing it? This blog post explores just that.


From a sustainable perspective, American Dream, with its white picket fences and perfect sprawling lawns, is one of the most destructive ways of living that there is. Especially when that American dream resides in large, suburban homes far away from workplaces. Now, I got sucked into this too before I had my great sustainable/permie awakening and bought a much larger house than I needed (about 2600 square feet). I’ve since been working with what I have to make my impact as little as possible (the subject of many posts in this blog), given the present circumstances in which I find myself. I’ve made several serious attempts in the last two years to turn my large rural home on 3 acres into a kind of hippy commune/small sustainable community, with the idea that more people in a smaller space = less waste, more opportunity, lots of fun experiences, lots of veggies from the garden, but thus far, its not really been successful–hardworking hippies are surprisingly hard to find, especially long-term, and I’m rethinking the whole plan at present.  I even had a few friends living in a trailer behind my house for a while last summer. And I do think that model can work–provided you find the right people.

But today I’d like to explore another solution, one that a dear friend of mine has been working towards for the last six or so months. In less than a year, my friend went from renting, working two jobs and barely making ends meet to downsizing her life, owning her own residence, and supporting herself with what she loves the most–her art.  She has no mortgage, no property or school taxes, no nagging boss, no rigid schedule, and few of the other problems that life presents to most of us, even those of us like myself trying to live as sustainably as possible. And yet, despite her current status (homeowner, debt-free, mobile, self-supporting, with savings) nearly everyone that she knows thinks she’s crazy and has been trying to talk her out of her “insanity.”

What has my friend and her husband done? They have sold 90% of their possessions, purchased a van and a camper, quit their jobs, and have decided to live in their camper. Why do people think she’s crazy? Because she and her husband have decided, frankly, that they aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid anymore. They aren’t playing the game. The idea that you could just quit the rat race, that you could find more happiness and fulfillment by not working full time, by not taking on a big mortgage, and so on, isn’t an idea that can even be conceived of by most Americans.

My friend’s husband is keeping a vlog (check it out here) where he’s showing off their setup, describing sustainable projects (like the composting toilet) and documenting their journey. In a recent update, her husband (the Earth Bison on Youtube) describes working the insanity of retail over the holiday season and finally getting ready to head out on their adventure. Today marks my friends’ journey from Michigan (where it has gotten quite cold and their little camper has had some winterizing challenges) to warm and sunny Arizona for the remainder of the winter.  I am so proud of them for making such a choice.

I want to step back a bit and investigate some of the negative reactions to my friend and her husband’s choice:

If you want to be have to seek it (one of my paintings)
If you want to be free…you have to seek it (one of my paintings)

1. It comes down to stuff. A big part of it, I think, is that you can’t take all that stuff with you. But really how much stuff does one person need? I’ve given away about 25% of my stuff in 2014, and I intend on downsizing another 25% in 2015. Things can be hard to part with at first (and at first, I literally had to take the boxes into a room, mourn the loss of it, and then eventually after a few weeks, let it go). The more that I gave away, the better and lighter I felt. I found places to give my stuff away that mattered–expensive musical instruments I haven’t played in 10 years to an after-school program (a community partner for a course I teach), clothing and household goods to a place that gives them away for free to those in need, books to friends who are interested in them, art supplies to fellow artists, and so on.  I still have a lot of stuff to get rid of, but each time I do, I feel better, lighter. The stuff weighs on us, it really does, and we don’t realize it until we start giving it away. Its so easy in our culture to accumulate it–even if we don’t buy stuff, people buy and bring stuff for us, often without our consent.

2. Space. Another issue–and a valid one–is space.  We are used to living big and luxurious…but again, if one doesn’t have all the stuff, does one need all the space? The space requires heating (usually inefficiently via fossil fuel), money and time to upkeep, time to clean, and so on.  I’ve been really challenged in this regard with my current living situation.  I do host big events (like our monthly permaculture meetings) in my huge great room, and do a lot of other good with the land, but I still feel like I’m taking up way to much space.  I do think, given my introverted ways, I might have difficulty living with a person in such a living situation–but I’ve done it before (dorms in my undergrad years) and seemed to be fine.

3. Convenience. I think convenience is another huge issue. Many of us are used to so many modern conveniences and living in a small space sustainably forces you to give up some of those (think about the work involved in a composting toilet, or in hauling your water each day).  To give some perspective, last weekend, I had some unexpected guests, including a number of small children, and they kept asking me why I did things “the old way.”  I didn’t really consciously think about what I did, but they were really intrigued by me and my old ways.  I made them popcorn on the stove with popcorn from my garden in olive oil.  I built them a fire to keep them warm (they all slept next to it).  They made art and watched the fire since I don’t have a TV (give away during last year’s great giveaway).  We played games on the floor (pick-up sticks, which they loved). We cooked on the stove since I don’t have a microwave (again, by choice, also given away in last year’s great giveaway). Since I’ve made shifts slowly away from modern conveniences slowly and integrated them into my life fully, I guess didn’t realize how different I now live than others.  But children have a way of pointing out things in ways adults won’t.  I think about my friends–they have made many more shifts than I have–living on solar power and limiting energy use, composting toilets, and greywater systems….these are shifts that I’m also planning, but I haven’t yet gotten there!

4. Fear. Ultimately, a lot of resistance to my friend’s plan came down to one thing–fear.  Fear of the unknown. And its a big risk, quitting one’s job, leaving a roof over your head, and going off into the great beyond. Others have done it, and many others plan to do it–and as they become the trailblazers for their generation and document their experiences, still others will muster up the courage.

But given the economic circumstances that so many of my generation and those younger than me face, I do think this path–tiny houses, campers, and other smaller spaces–is a really viable one. The choice and what it offer can be summed up in one word: freedom. I think many more of us, myself included, are thinking about how to escape at least some of this rat race, how to live sustainably and meaningfully, how do meaningful work in the world. The yurt living movement and tiny house movement is gaining steam rapidly–more and more people are seeking alternative living that is debt-free, sustainable, and fulfilling.  I’d love to hear from others who are considering the same choice or who are enacting it. I have some big life changes ahead for me as well–I might join them one day.  It certainly is a tempting proposition.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. I definitely know I want to get a tiny house and a small bit of land v-v that would be lovely

    1. It would be lovely :). Thanks for the comment!

  2. I absolutely love this idea, and yet am also quite challenged by it when I think about making such changes in my own case. What advice would you give people who live alone, with few friends, and are totally blind? Right now I am living in a green certified apartment and won’t be doing any uprooting until I finish my dissertation. But it has been on my mind in the future to either join an intentional community, or get a small house, and though I can’t live off grid (I need computers and electricity to read and write) I don’t need all the stuff I have. I just feel like upkeeping sustainably in what you called the older way, while commendable, is even more of a challenge when you have a disability and very few connections. Quitting a job might mean no longer having the money to pay for someone to help get groceries. Many places where you could live on large tracks of land have huge mobility challenges to stay connected with the greater society, or be able to visit family who are far away by yourself. I live in a city because of public transportation and it is that transportation which equals freedom. I don’t have to rely on my family because I can provide for myself. In other words, responsibility, freedom, and independence start to look different and more interconnected if you do not have all five senses or all your physical mobility. Resources, in many cases, equals independence. But resources also equals less sustainability. What would you recommend for a conscious person like myself who is blind, wants to do all I can, but who knows without independence freedom is impossible? Is it simply a sacrifice we will have to make as our world crumbles around us, or is there a way to incorporate the extra needs we have and our inability to do everything for ourselves into the wider picture of going back to the land and living within the means of the planet?

    1. Hi Ellis,
      Thanks so much for writing in. I have some experience with working with persons with blindness (in a professional setting) but I must admit, I don’t have much experience with this in thinking in terms of sustainability. But I’ll give it my best shot–and thank you so much for asking :). What are you doing your dissertation in?

      I wonder if an intentional community setting might be the best solution? There are many intentional communities located within cities-that might address your need for public transportation and sustainable living (and bring you together with like-minded people?). That kind of living situation would give you access to sustainable living and sharing resources–and I think sharing resources is the key to sustainability :). Plus, there is room to grow, to share, to teach, and to learn!

    2. I’m so grateful that you shared this comment! My disabilities are different (ie not blindness) but I think a lot about this whenever I read inspiring articles like this one. I tend to just ponder quietly to myself but your comment produced an “aha moment” for me.

      I read a wonderful article years ago by a disabled journalist who had gone to Palestine to report on events. Despite his wheelchair and the near total lack of accessibility as far as doors, curb cuts, bathrooms etc he said he felt freer and less limited in Palestine than he had ever felt. This was because whenever he faced a barrier like a heavy door or a talk curb, insurmountable pile of rubble-multiple people would rush over to help.
      Apparently in less affluent societies we are not so separate or helpless without technology and costly adaptations because people are not all atomized and divided as we mostly are in wealthier countries.

      Humans have been caring for and helping one another for literally millions of years. Altruistic communal behavior is imho more natural to our species that the bizarre fixation on “total independence” so prevalent in American thought.
      In fact, independence is a complete myth not just for us who are disabled but for all humans and literally everything that exists. Physics and biology have conclusively proven that everything that exists does so in relationship with everything else. Ie the Universe is composed of systems within systems not independent individual actors floating through a dead background of inanimate matter.
      As the false matrix of societies created by colonization crumbles away we are not losing the independence that was an illusion to begin with, we are returning to our full awareness of reality and life.

      As an autistic/Asperger, my lack of social function has long concerned me both because of that larger need as a disabled person and because I strongly believe that the systems nature of reality means community and communal functioning are integral to healthy societies.

      I’m coming to realize over time that my differences don’t prevent it, this false society actually turns Asperger syndrome into a
      disability from an evolutionary benefit.
      In a natural world our perception of greater detail and more information from our environment makes us useful to others and better able to survive where in this constant noise,
      stimulation, chemical exposure, electromagnetic field exposure etc we are overwhelmed and dysfunctional.

      Due to poverty and my inability to propel it myself, my only wheelchair is the kind someone else has to push. So I can’t go anywhere without a friend. This has actually turned out to be a good thing despite the loss of independence being able to ride my bicycle and catch buses etc
      My life is improved by not only greater interaction and emotional rewards but also by the need to work on and fix any personality flaws that prevent comfortable interaction-imagine annoying someone and then being stranded.
      In your case I do believe that despite peak oil and all the other reasons we are going to evolve into a less technology dependent world, there will be alternative energy sources that will allow computers and other adaptations that allow better communication and learning. Not just for us who need them but because they are useful
      beyond the profit motive that drives so much of colonized society.
      Realgoods already offers solar laptop rechargers for instance so you could be off grid but still computer connected.

      Thank you Willowcrow for this thoughtful and thought provoking post!

      1. I have a few things to say in response–first, thank you for the thought-provoking comments! Your response made me think of E. M. Forrester’s “The Machine Stops” (well worth the tread).

        I think that the modern idea of “normalcy” causes much harm to persons who have disabilities and anyone else displaying any deviant behavior (and I use deviant in the most loving way; I embrace that term!) The idea of normalcy came out of the middle ages (replacing an earlier ideal of “arete” (the Ancient Greek concept) of being a “good man speaking well” (direct translation) or being physically strong and fit. In the case of the Greeks, it was about being the best you could be, your personal best. This is why heroes like Odysseus were so honored, and why the Parthenon was built (to showcase such strength). But once “normalcy” became privileged, nobody wanted to be different from anyone else, and everyone wanted to be an “average joe” (and part of this, was, in the middle ages you could get institutionalized, thrown in prison, tortured or burnt at the stake for deviance). Obviously, this idea still holds considerable power over many parts of Western society, including the US! So now, anyone who doesn’t fit the right body type, engage in the right kind of normal activities, has the right kind of normal thinking, practices the right kind of religion, and so on, is treated with ire or pity by everyone else. Its a sad state.

        Its a particularly sad state for persons who are in a wheelchair. It used to be that people needed each other, that communities helped each other (I learned a lot in my natural building classes–you DO need lots of friends and neighbors to put up a structure the old way: Before industrialized society, people needed each other for all sorts of things, all the time, and the bonds were strong. Now, we barely know each other and never could imagine asking our neighbors for anything…and we are all isolated in front of our TVs each night. I think the fact that you were able to build more community and interaction through your wheelchair is incredible!

        You mentioned Aspergers. Two of my closest friends have aspergers, and they are both gifts to the world (and have given many gifts to the world, gifts that will last well beyond their lifetimes). They think differently and interact differently (as do we all) and I have learned much from hearing their stories and sharing in their lives.

  3. I think tiny homes are an amazing idea. I’ve watched numerous you tube videos on the subject and it is amazing how much stuff you can still have in a tiny home that fits on a trailer, for instance. If you can also drive it where you want, and have places to park for patches of time, then the world is your oyster, and picking up seasonal work to sustain the coffers for essentials is even better. Or if you can afford to buy a small patch of land to park on that means you can also grow some food, keep a few chickens, maybe, solar panels for heating and cooking etc etc, then it is great! I think I am a frustrated gypsy (maybe I was one in a previous life) and I find the idea of a home on wheels, or possibly a barge on the river, is a combination of idyllic, and immensely practical. 🙂

    Having said all that, I also love the idea of communal living in a sustainable way, and I’m sorry that hasn’t worked out for you, because that is an awesome alternative to the nomadic lifestyle. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen some of the newest tiny house builds–they are super inspirational. I’m also inspired by the natural building/cob/strawbale stuff…that’s my dream home, sculpted from straw, wood, and mud. And here, well, communal living may yet work out. I haven’t advertised it very broadly, and maybe in the upcoming year I’ll do so more seriously :P.

  4. I appreciate this post. Dream big of what you want to experience. I have a house, a lawn, and I wonder about creating community in the future. I intend to turn the lawn into an edible forest and perhaps build an outdoor oven. I will support chickens and mushrooms here. I want to host. There is abundant space. I welcome visitors passing through and always have plenty to share. There is balance, sustained, gracious beauty.

    1. Yvonne, this is a beautiful vision! You might check out WWOOF USA and also HelpX! They can help you with short term people to visit your beautiful land 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Spirit In Action and commented:
    As we transform ourselves and our communities, we must feel our way forward into the unknown. This thought provoking post inspires questioning the ways we stay stuck in unsustainable and frankly personally miserable societal structures. I’m so grateful for all the wonderful writers and blogs like The Druid’s Garden that inspire me daily to break out of hidebound old patterns of thinking and living!

    1. Thank you so much, Ohnwentsya! 🙂 What an awesome comment 🙂

  6. Tiny houses intrigue me. I think, with a little one and our cats (who are very much part of our family and not things to be given away as so many others seem to think), we still require a medium house. All the same, that would be much smaller than what most people live in these days! Land is important to me, though, so I’m afraid I’ll still have school taxes. I want at least enough for a small, family garden. I’m part of the generation you describe – graduated with an MA but very jaded due to so much debt. I’m one of the lucky ones who found a job in her field, but the student loans left me with a high debt-to-income ratio. I can’t qualify for a mortgage yet, even though I’m paying a ridiculous amount for rent… It feels like a vicious cycle, but the tiny house movement gives me real hope.

    1. Oh, the student loan debt is crushing so many. I was in school of 10 years, and I really understand. And its much worse now than in the 2000’s, when I was in school. The interest rates when I started were 2%, by the time I took out my last loans for my Ph.D. they were at 6.8%. I know they are higher still, now, around 8 or 9%. How any student can pay off a 9% loan is beyond me!

      I wonder for you if a natural house, yurt living, or the like might be the way to go? I think the tiny houses work for a certain kind of person, but not everyone, especially those with kids. But a home you build yourself (or a Yurt for under 20k) might be a reality.

      1. There are a couple families with off-grid homes constructed with recycled or natural materials. No mortgage. They inspire my husband and I. It’s something we’re starting to research. 🙂

  7. I think tiny houses are great for some people, but it is very important not to jump on the wrong tiny-house bandwagon – the one being championed by the globalist / agenda 21 folks. They do not want free individuals coming together with like-minded fellows to build sustainable small-house communities out in rural areas where they can become more independent from the matrix. What they want is a modernized repeat of the Enclosure movement where independent people are disempowered and herded off their rural lands and trapped in the big cities, crammed into tiny-house or even tinier apartment/cells, totally dependent on the matrix infrastructure, with no land or ability to sustain themselves.

    1. I totally agree–and unfortunately, its becoming more and more difficult just to form a community, live off the grid, and so on. That’s one of the areas I see a lot of strength in the tiny house movement!

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