By Esther Emery
Some people think we’re crazy. Some think we’re the lucky ones. The wise know it’s both. For three winters now our family has been off-grid living in a yurt. The 20-foot yurt makes 314 square feet—for two adults and three little ones. We carry water, heat and cook with wood, and use four solar panels and two sealed 12-volt batteries to provide basic electricity. Winter yurt living was cozy our first year, when our kids were smaller. Our littlest was just a baby.
We Made DIY Yurt Living a Reality
But two years later, even as we’ve become more confident in the ways of our bare-bones life, we’re bursting right through our yurt fabric walls. We just don’t fit in this small space anymore. Every mom knows the bittersweet feeling of kids getting bigger right before their very eyes. I have that feeling double strength, as I watch our kids outgrow our yurt home the way they outgrow T-shirts. My husband is hard at work on our timber frame cabin, which has always been the plan for our permanent shelter.
Built from timbers cut and milled and joined right on our land, the cabin will be a better fit for the five of us. But projects of necessity have constantly come before the mountain dream home. And I’ve secretly been happy to slow down time in this strange moment, when we’re the crazy, lucky family who lives all tucked in together in our little round house. In case you’re wondering, it isn’t very quiet. Our big kids are good readers and can focus in on quiet things, but our littlest is three years old and gets into everything.
Winter Yurt Living Brings out the Smallness
There is a lot of running in circles around the table, because, when living in a yurt, that’s the only thing it’s possible to run around. There is a lot of jumping on the bed, because that’s really the only thing to jump on. There is a great deal of yelling, and some singing. There is barking and mewing, too. In the yurt with us we have a dog and a cat, and a bin full of worms. But the worms are pretty quiet. I only feel the smallness of the yurt in wintertime.
In spring, summer, and fall, the woods and garden are the other rooms of our house. Even in winter we go outside, every day, no matter the weather. But the dark brings us back in hours before we’re ready to sleep. The kids play endless games of “Who Am I?” (a version of Twenty Questions) and they have made literally a hundred paper airplanes. Sometimes I get hit in the side of the head with a zooming homemade aircraft, but mostly they miss.
Living in a Yurt Can Be Difficult, But Not Impossible
We’re not electronics-free. Although the wonders of Wi-Fi were a rare treat our first two years, this winter I finally have enough electricity and Internet access to put headphones on a kid and give them a podcast to listen to. I love headphones the way other women love dark chocolate. But also the big kids and I have learned how to separate ourselves from one another just by force of will. Turn your nose into a book, get yourself wrapped up in a blanket, look down.
These are skills in your own power to control your own environment, even when living in a yurt means you can’t walk into another room or close a door. Adult intimacy is a bit more difficult to come by—though not impossible—but then also you feel like three kids are plenty, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. And, anyway, it’s temporary. Next year this time we’ll be in our mountain dream home. The frame is already standing and dried in, though there is a daunting amount of work yet to be done. This home is my husband’s dream, and it is a large part of the reason that we chose this hard path. He wanted to take care of his family directly, with his own hands, and so take back that much of his own destiny.
Building Our Lives from Scratch
So here we are, building our lives from scratch, according to our own skills and values. And here we are, enduring the limitations of our handiwork. I can’t wait to have my own room again. I can’t wait to be a wall away from my kids without having to go out into the winter weather. I can’t wait to be able to have guests come to stay the night. (The guests can have the yurt!) But I will also be sad to leave our little round house. It is so full of firsts: Sadie’s first words, Stella’s first loose tooth, Milo’s first sleepover.
And living in a yurt has been full of firsts for the grown-ups, too. This temporary house is the place where we truly met our own limitations. It’s the place where we grew into a kind of personal responsibility we had never before experienced. It’s where we stretched right up to the very edges of what we were able to do—how fast, how big, how fancy we could make our life. We found ourselves confined to the 314 square feet of DIY shelter that we had built with our own hands, and we survived.
Esther Emery is a homestead wife, who lives on three acres of nearly wild mountainside with her family and assorted farm animals. She shares homesteading knowledge and stories of her family’s off-grid life on the YouTube channel Fouch Family Off Grid,” and in words at www.estheremery.com. Esther is also the youngest child of the homesteading pioneer Carla Emery, who authored The Encyclopedia of Country Living.
If you’d like to learn more about homesteading in challenging conditions, you won’t want to miss our article on homesteading in Alaska!