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How to Build a Free Shelter

It is my impression that quality of life is not measured by how much money you make, but by how little money you spend. Some of the highest standards of living that I have observed are often in the most remote places of the planet, where the water is clean, the air is breathable, and [...]

It is my impression that quality of life is not measured by how much money you make, but by how little money you spend.

Some of the highest standards of living that I have observed are often in the most remote places of the planet, where the water is clean, the air is breathable, and the life is basic. Some of the people with highest standards of living on this planet are those without very much money, who take their fruit from trees, eat the chickens that run under their feet, and cultivate just enough food to eat.

This is not paltry romance, this is real.

I often find myself scrunching up my nose when I hear foreigners from far away lands – who work 8 hours a day, 270 days a year just to pay rent, cell phone, insurance, and a plethora of other bills – say that other people are “so poor” because they live in mud huts and don’t wear shoes.

A person only really needs shelter, food, and water to survive. As far as I am concerned, standard of living is based solely on how easily one can obtain these needs. I also know that these basic requirement can take on many simple forms that require very little money.

Unless you make a lot of money, in order to save money for travel, it is often necessary to cut down on all expenses. One way to do this is by constructing your own simple shelter in a friend or family member’s back yard or woods rather than paying rent.

How to build a free shelter —

Suggestions for a design.

How to build a free shelter

How to build a free shelter

This is an example of a shelter that can be made for very little money and lived in for free if set up in a suitable location. I made this shelter with a fellow worker on the farm for the pigs, but it could also be utilized by humans  without much adaption.

The design of this shelter was the work of El Salvadoreno, and we just constructed it on the fly with whatever junk we could find around the farm. This is just one suggestion for a free shelter design, so I recommend that anyone audacious enough to take these instructions to make use of whatever materials they have available, rather than sticking hard to this particular design.

The object of this is to save money, so buying materials falls contrary to these intentions. I say with assurance that if you look in enough garbage piles, back yards, and ask enough people, that you could easily come up with enough materials to build a free shelter.

Materials to build a hut

Materials to build a hut

Two men constructed the following shelter in only a few hours, using whatever materials they could find on an organic farm in Maine in the summer of 2009.

Measure out holes, dig them, and set in posts

Measure out holes, dig them, and set in posts

Step 1- After finding enough materials to build a shelter, take the roof (in this case the old pickup truck cab) and place it on the ground where you want the shelter to stand. Then mark the spots at its corners where you want the posts to go.

Step 2- Dig down post holes at the places where you marked the corners of the roof (the truck cab), and then stick in the posts.

Step 3- Place boards over and between the posts and try to make it as level as possible.

Nail or screw together frame, attach truck cab with screws

Nail or screw together frame, attach truck cab with screws

Step 4- Nail down the boards, and then lay the roof (truck cab) onto the frame. If it all looks OK, then screw down the cab with an electric screwdriver.

Nail planks to the frame

Nail planks to the frame

Step 5- Nail planks, spare boards – anything! – over the outside of the frame, so that the shelter is now completely enclosed.

Make a floor that is a little off the ground with nice planks of wood

Make a floor that is a little off the ground with nice planks of wood

Step 6- Construct a floor by running post down on the ground and nailing smooth, flush fitting boards over top of it. This step is important if you want to sleep in the shelter in the rain, as you must keep your sleeping surface off of the ground.

Nail a tarp tightly to the outside to make it rain resistant

Nail a tarp tightly to the outside to make it rain resistant

Step 7- Nail a good tarp over the entire shelter – walls included!!!! Make sure that the tarp is pulled tight and will prevent rain from seeping in. Another option would be to get a really large tarp and using it as a fly by tying it down to stakes so that it completely “roofs” in the structure.

Enjoy your free shelter

Enjoy your free shelter

Enjoy your free shelter.

If you are going to live outside in a small structure for a reasonable amount of time (over a month), I highly recommend constructing a shelter rather than continuously living in a tent. Conventional, modern tents are good because they are portable – you can break them down, transport them, and then set them back up at will. But if you are going to stay somewhere for a reasonable amount of time – if you are working somewhere to make money – then a tent is not the best option.

I have found from experience that if you keep a tent set up for a long time, that it will quickly begin succumbing to the elements. The full blast of continuous sunlight starts to break down the fibers, dirt, water, muck begins to built up on the inside of it, and it basically begin to crumble.

I have also found living in a tent night after night to not be the most comfortable option. Tents are stuffy, tend to act as furnaces in hot weather, and smell like plastic. It is also difficult to keep your gear and possessions organized in a tent long term.

If you are going to cut out rent to save money, I highly reccommend a simple shelter over a tent. A shelter like the one outlined above can be made in a day, and it will probably last for as long as you need it to.

It is my impression that living on someone elses land in a simple structure, with few possessions bequeaths a much higher standard of living than working 40 hours a week just to pay rent.

Though opinions be as they may, this is only my impression. This is only a suggestion: take a little something from it and use it, or just shrug your shoulders, turn your back, and walk on. As an astute reader once commented on a previous how-to-save-money-for-travel tip:

“I would rather make a lot of money.”

Though I know, and repeat everyday, the old addage:

“It is far easier to save $20 than it is to make $20.”

Build a Free Shelter

How to save money for travel project

Filed under: Accommodation, Budget Travel, Save Money for Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3473 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support Wade Shepard’s writing on this blog (please help):

Wade Shepard is currently in: Brooklyn, New York

17 comments… add one

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  • Bob L July 26, 2009, 4:23 pm

    Wade wrote: “A person only really needs shelter, food, and water to survive.”
    Not enough. To survive, past just continuing to breathe, one needs human contact in some form or another.

    To *thrive* one needs family and/or friends. It is my opinion that in the so-called poor areas, people are richer because they have much in the way of human contact, friends and family. In the so-called richer areas, people have less human contact, fewer close friends and are disconnected from their families. They search for ways to be more connected, with texting, twitter etc, but it is not as real.

    Bob L

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    • admin July 26, 2009, 5:38 pm

      Right on, Bob, you have the uncanny ability to wrap these entries up — to complete the idea, to walk a couple steps beyond where I stop. I suppose this is exactly what these comments are for.



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  • Caitlin July 28, 2009, 8:36 pm

    Wade I think you and I could get into a healthy debate about quality-of-life.

    I think too many people romanticize “how happy” the poor in developing countries are.

    Others, of course, imagine that anyone without a north america standard of living has got to be unhappy and horribly poor.

    I think the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes.

    But that’s just me.

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    • admin July 30, 2009, 9:10 pm

      Hello Caitlin,

      I measure quality of life by smiles on people’s faces, plump bellies, and roofs that do not leak. It is my impression that money has very little to do with quality of life. I do not think that the people of Japan necessarily have a better quality of life than those in the Peruvian Amazon . . . I do not think that the people of the wealthy sectors of the USA are really much better off than the mountain people in western China.

      The most unhappy and desperate places that I have ever been are those that have the carrot of “development” hanging in front of them.

      I too, think that we can get into a good debate about this.

      Sorry that your other comments got eaten.



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  • How To Make Money Saving The Planet August 5, 2009, 5:23 am

    I found your blog via Google while searching for how to make money saving the planet, thank you for posting Build a Free Shelter!

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  • Mike September 10, 2009, 3:24 am

    Hey this is a good idea. I personally have lived in an old military style tent about 10’x16′ for over a year. I built a small greenhouse on the side of it, built myself a wood burning stove from an old water heater,surrounded the stove (on which I cooked my meals) with 55 gallon drums filled with water (to store heat) and scrounged an old fan to blow the heat into the tent. I grew a very small but productive garden in the greenhouse as well. I agree with the author of this article. We in the USA frequently buy into the mindset that money can buy everything including happiness. I learned during my military service that this simply wasn’t true. Extended periods of living out of a backpack on recon patrols taught me that I really need very little to survive in reasonable comfort and that true friends brought much more joy to my life than a great many people in the civilized world experience with all their possessions and fineries. Yes, that low-cost lifestyle has its discomforts but anyone who has lived that way for an extended time can tell you that human ingenuity and a reconsideration of priorities can produce amazingly simple and yet quite real solutions to discomfort and indeed a sense of inner competence that can be gained in few other ways. Look at the civilized worlds fondness for “camping.”
    It’s just a short term simulation of what our more primitive fore-bearers took for day to day life. Remember, not that long ago people with a good cave considered themselves fortunate.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 10, 2009, 11:36 am


      Do you have a diagram or any photos of your shelter that you would like to share? What other suggestions do you have for people to be able to live cheaply through self sufficiency?



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  • kindle September 10, 2009, 12:14 pm

    “I really need very little to survive in reasonable comfort and that true friends brought much more joy to my life than a great many people in the civilized world experience with all their possessions and fineries.” —- That’s one of the truest statements I’ve read in a long time. Right on!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com September 11, 2009, 6:57 pm

      Thanks man!

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  • Ana July 4, 2011, 9:20 am

    I get tired, for example, of hearing “the UN reports that some people are so poor they make less than $1 a day.” Maybe that’s all they need to live well wherever they are. It drives me crazy that people from “developed” countries feel bad for people walking around half naked and barefoot in some tropical “underdeveloped” country – there are exceptions but going barefoot doesn’t automatically make anyone a case of starvation.

    Having stuff doesn’t imply being happy and actually poor people are generally happier than rich people 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard July 4, 2011, 2:54 pm

      Right on!

      So much of this is NGO marketing, some of them are BIG BUSINESSES peddling human poverty and filling their own pockets with the cash of those who mean well. Poverty has become a commodity in and of itself, and the NGO sect won’t be happy until they rake in the cash for destroying every culture on the planet who has different living strategies than the people in the USA and Europe.

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  • Galen August 8, 2011, 4:30 am

    I’m definitely seeing poverty being romantisized (sic) here, but I’m guilty as well. I think it may be that grass is greener on the other side, and also a response to over commercialization, materialism, consumerism, etc. One could be happy or sad with lots or little amounts of stuff. Some people follow ideals, such as christian ideals, and that serves purpose. Advertisments sell myths of happiness. This is blatant at places like mcdonalds (well mcdonalds specifically) in ads showing happy people, smiles, love. they have an ad for a smoothie that made me laugh. it was something like: “want to be happy? buy a smoothie!” i think humans are resourceful, and refer to manipulative tactics when their “job” is to sell, losing bigger perspective on the matter. kind of a tangent, but then there are drug companies selling sadness as well. really good book “crazy like us” talking about the mental illness fads, how that stuff changes, i.e. hysteria and frayed nerves are no longer accepted mental illnesses, but when they were popular people had those symptoms! ok won’t go down that road, but contentment with life varies person to person. basic generalizations: morals, maybe some friends, community, though some people love their sollitude, food, water, safety, though some people get off on danger. anywho, I too am lovestruck by the poverty life style as seen in huck finn or nat. geo. in closing, a sharespeare quote about a hungry man being fed being happier than a king comes to mind, but…some hungry poor people (especially u.s.) are downright miserable. this is quite run on, but I think its a societal relative thing, what the mainstream is doing, and how you’re treated and esteemed by your fellow man. sireley a person in poverty ina third world country is garnered more respec than a homeless person in america. though poverty in a third world country, that person is probably contributing to society, whereas homeless tend to live off others. ok ok the end.

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    • Wade Shepard August 8, 2011, 8:20 am

      This is the life that I live. But, I suppose you are correct, this is an entire website dedicated to romanticizing my lifestyle haha. This is a tip about a way to make a free shelter as a way to be able to save travel funds. You construct a shelter like this hidden on public land or on the property of a sympathetic friend or family member, work as much as possible, and bank every cent possible to travel. Yes, I’ve lived in structures similar to this — or even worse. But mostly just opted for a standard tent, though I do believe that, in many ways, these simple shelters are better,

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  • Galen August 8, 2011, 11:36 am

    I think its cool, here’s my next question though (the less romantic part): if you found someone willing to let you build this on their property, say in exchange for minor labor or just cause they were nice, where do you do your business short of barging into their house? I’m all for crapping outside but the land “owners” might not appreciate this. Any suggestions? Trying to make the stay as least intrusive as possible. I’d say private land trumps public land for the comfort of not being bothered, and I bet a host would feel similarly.

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  • nancy today November 24, 2011, 8:30 am

    I built a huge shelter for free. It’s a tipi with windows from the dump. I cut down 15 trees, removed the branches and assembled them into a tipi, 20′ wide and 19′ tall. I screwed windows onto the poles from the outside, covering it. I insulated between the windows in the gaps with old clothes. It consists of 62+ windows. It’s furnished with furniture from the dump, heated with a campfire in the middle and reflects the campfire in the windows at night. It’s the perfect place for me to hang out.

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  • chris October 18, 2013, 12:43 pm

    You have no idea how much I wish I could simply walk away from everything, work odd jobs, travel, grow an enormous beard. but my family makes it hard to imagine these things. my mom would be heart broken to have me roaming America, not calling her every week. Its kind of like a hug that lasts way too long and you’re like “Okay you can let go now.” I would always feel guilty that my family didn’t approve or support me choosing poverty.

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    • Wade Shepard October 20, 2013, 1:27 am

      I guess you have a choice of feeling guilt or possible regret or eventually resentment. I’ve always went for option A, and, believe me, it eventually works out. Your parents will adjust. There is also no reason why you couldn’t call them everyday. I travel the world and whenever I want to call my mom I just pull my phone out of my pocket. It’s too easy now to keep in constant touch. I also don’t understand why you equate travel with poverty. Sure, you can travel poor, but I don’t know why you’d want to. There are plenty of opportunity out here for the skilled mobile sect. Really, just about everything work out at some point on the way, not from the beginning. That’s my take anyway. Wish you the best.

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