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From Van Life To Tiny House on 14 Acres in Vermont

Colby and Aria used to be vanlifers, but are now proud owners of more than 14 acres of woodlands in Vermont, as well as their very own DIY tiny home that’s entirely off-grid (they even get water from their stream).

Their 360 square foot home is heated by wood they cut themselves, and they have an awesome solar array that keeps their home powered. The interior of the THOW feels like a cozy log cabin, and they dedicated a whole 15 feet of the house for their living area.

Aria teaches and Colby is a wedding photographer (@anamericanroadstory), plus they rent space on their land for campers via Hipcamp. We got to interview Colby about the build, their choice to buy land, and what they love about tiny life. Check it out at the end of the post!

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Former Vanlifers Put Down Roots in Vermont Tiny House on Wheels

A porch is an awesome way to extend your living space.

Here’s the cordwood they cut themselves!

Now this is an awesome cozy interior!

I could definitely work-from-home here!

They have 15 feet of living room space.

This bay window features an awesome live-edge counter.

Their kitchen has all you need for cooking and cleaning.

Their secondary loft has room for instruments.

I love the closet space in their bedroom loft.

They chose the quite popular open shelving.

Here’s their solar shower.

And the composting toilet.

There’s pretty much nothing better than a wood-burning stove!

Interview with Colby: Building Your Own Off-Grid THOW

What are your name(s)?

Colby Thompson and Aria Zarnoski (Colby is answering the questions here!)

How many people (and animals) are living in your tiny house?

There are the two of us and our 4 month old cat named Raja.

Where do you live? How long have you lived tiny?

We live in the rural town of Vernon, Vermont, about 15 minutes outside of Brattleboro which is a relatively large town in our state.

What do you do for work? Or do you travel full-time?

Aria is a preschool teacher, and I am a wedding videographer. We are also entrepreneurs with our Hipcamp we started this Summer, the “Elsewhere Homestead.” For those who don’t know, Hipcamp is basically the Airbnb for camping, opening up more private land for people to camp around the world. The link to our hipcamp site is https://www.hipcamp.com/discover/vermont/elsewhere-homestead

Why did you decide to go tiny? What are you hoping to get out of living tiny?

Well, before we went tiny I had discovered Vanlife back in 2014. Inspired by the prospects of having a real adventure and traveling like Jack Kerouac, I bought a dysfunctional 1975 VW bus that I named Dharma, fixed her up, built her out and hit the road.

I’ve had two bouts of Vanlife, once with my buddy Anthony and his van “Sedona,” and a second time with my partner Aria in 2017 for six months. It was on the last trip that Aria and I began to talk about what we wanted to do after we got back home to New England. A large motivating factor was the financial aspect of “tiny living,” with rent being a constant drain on our income, we wanted a way to beat the system of debt in this country and actually have ownership over our time!

How did you first learn about tiny life?

That’s a good question. I think, because of my time in the vanlife community, I was opened up to alternative homes way back in 2014. At a certain point, when you’re looking at “homes on wheels,” the two communities start to intersect. But I know for certain that in 2015 I went to a tiny house festival in Brattleboro (long before I moved here,) and maybe that was the first time I had actually stepped foot into a true tiny house on wheels.

How did you acquire your tiny house? Are you comfortable sharing how much it cost? Have you done any renovations?

Our tiny house is a complete DIY build. I started construction with the purchase of our trailer in May of 2018, and in September of 2019 we officially moved it to the land we bought in Vermont! It’s still a work in progress, but I’m slowly but surely finishing it up. Actually, I do want to mention that 95% of the build was done by myself. Since I work freelance as a wedding videographer, I usually have Monday-Thursday off, if I’m not editing, so I was able to put around three to five days in a week on the house. My step dad would help me from time to time, especially when I was stuck on something, and that help was critical. But he’s a big believer in learning by doing, and even learning by figuring out something for yourself. And Aria would help when she could on weekends I wasn’t working and occasionally after work for an hour or so. Actually, she used an entire week of vacation time to work with me for seven days.

Also important for our story is that my Mom and step dad let us build the house in their driveway while we rented a tiny apartment 40 minutes away in Keene NH, so the drive to and from the house really started to wear me down. But still, without that parking spot to build I don’t know how we would have done it.

In the end the house and the solar setup cost us $47,000. Four years of rent will pay for our home.

What are bills/utilities like compared to before?

Our rent was $775 a month, with about $60 a month of heat/electric, and then $300 for parking for the year, so in total it was $10,320 per year for our apartment.

Our utilities now are extremely small, about $150 for propane for the year. We cut our own cord wood for the wood stove, and we haul in water from a spring for the majority of our water. Occasionally we fill up our jugs at the local Co-Op for $2 for 5 gallons, so we might end up spending $200 on water for the year. I should mention we have an off-grid solar set up for our electricity and a composting toilet for our waste. Expensive to buy into the solar, but it supports our values in going green, and that alone is well worth the investment. All in all we’re saving around 10K a year from rent, and that makes us happy!

How did you find a place to put your tiny house?

Originally we thought we’d find a tiny home community, or maybe a progressively minded farmer who would let us do a work trade for a place to park it. But honestly I started to chafe at the idea of not having our own place. A lot of time is spent looking for a place to park when you live the vanlife, and a lot of the time it’s not legal. The more we thought about it the more it seemed that buying our own land would suit our needs better, and be a better financial investment in the long run too. We really hated the idea of paying rent to park the house, after all, cutting rent was the whole point of going tiny!

We knew we wanted to live in Vermont, it’s a state that has a lot of liberally minded people and progressive policies, mixed with a long history of “back to the land” hippies and long time farmers, a duality we really appreciate. Windham county in south eastern VT was where Aria worked, and was still close enough to the areas of New England that I shoot the majority of my weddings. From there it was all about finding affordable land with a zoning code that would permit our tiny house. Vernon had a forested bit of land up on the hills on the outskirts of town that was $65,000 for 14 and ½ acres. We loved the small mountainside it was up on, and the unusual contours of the land. The price and value was what sold us on it after about a dozen trips out there to explore. We talked the sellers down to $55K and made the deal.

Before going tiny, what was life like?

Interesting! As I mentioned before a lot of traveling around, living in different places. I lived in Los Angeles right out of school, hated that. Moved to Portland Maine, did vanlife a couple times. Bummed on a farm. Moved home to my folks place three times. A lot of searching before I got my feet under me, but I think that I’m a better person for it. And honestly, I think that’s just part of the journey of being a young person with a boat load of college loans out of school, I had about 75K to pay off. I’m almost finished with it, and a lot of that is due to living at home, or even the bus, and cutting down my expenses to super slim margins and spending almost the entirety of each paycheck on my loans, or later, on the house build.

Is there anything from your old life that you miss?

In some ways I miss vanlife, but that door can always reopen for me. I know Aria misses it too, so someday I think we’ll take to the road again. It’ll be nice knowing we have a home to come back to, and I believe that is a common sentiment among rubber tramps, “someday I want a little homestead, someplace I can rest from all the traveling, but where I can hit the road without a second thought.”

What benefits are you experiencing after going tiny?

Financial benefits are huge. It’s also opened the doors for us to start our camping business, as well as doing a ton of self sufficiency projects we’ve had in mind. Aria took up beekeeping when Covid hit, we started a big garden together, I’m slowly opening up a larger space for us to keep chickens and some milking goats when we’re ready to plant our roots a little deeper. If we were renting in town we wouldn’t be able to do all these things. I also really love being able to walk out my front door and walk into the forest in all of twenty seconds. Our land borders the state and town forests, so there are hundreds of acres of untouched woodlands at our doorstep.

What about some challenges?

The main challenge has been storing our gear. We have a “Shelter Logic” set up right now for anything that doesn’t fit in the house, but that’s just one of those tarp sheds, so unfortunately some of our instrument cases and sleeping bags and such are getting moldy. Aria is a musician who used to play professionally for a few years, and with my other business gear (I ran a photo booth out of my bus for events before Covid) there’s a lot of gear that really needs a serious shelter to be properly stored. But I’m slowly working on outbuildings, in due time they’ll have a proper home.

What makes your tiny home special?

We built it ourselves with nothing more than a couple rough sketches on paper!

What is your favorite part of your tiny home?

The big window next to the fireplace. We love sitting there on a cold winter day with the woodstove roaring and snow falling outside. We designated a large part of the house as our living room, so we have maybe 15 feet of the trailer totally open for our living room, a relatively rare thing for a tiny house.

What helpful advice would you give to others interested in going tiny?

I believe anyone can build one themselves. You’re not building a house, you’re figuring out and solving one part of the build at a time. The only thing I had built before the house was my van configuration. Take the time to read up on steps online, watch youtube videos, watch the videos you found helpful again and again and eventually the process will make sense to you. I really found Ana White’s tiny house build series on youtube SO helpful. Also, never dismiss the power of the F-it mentality. Everyone you ask how to build something will give you a different answer, and swear by their own process, it makes feeling certain about any step really hard. At the end of the day, people can live in mud huts with straw roofs, so take some comfort in that.

Anything I didn’t ask about that we should know?

If anyone is in the southern Vermont area, we’d love to host you at our Hipcamp! We have a couple different types of sites, and also offer workshops, one being a tour of our house and I’ll talk about all the systems and how I built it out, but I can tailor any class to people’s interests. Really, we just love sharing our space with other people who are into the tiny movement or other alternative living situations. If you’re a vanlifer and need a place to park it for the night, please reach out and we can give you some space for a couple nights.

Can you remind me of your Instagram handle?
It’s @anamericanroadstory, and our youtube channel is Living Elsewhere: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYlVEBzt8Gm-b2EHVs4p7kw

VIDEO: Introduction to Living Elsewhere

Learn More:

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Our big thanks to Colby for sharing! 🙏

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Natalie C. McKee

Natalie C. McKee is a contributor for Tiny House Talk and the Tiny House Newsletter. She's a wife, and mama of three little kids. She and her family are homesteaders with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and quail on their happy little acre.
{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Marsha Cowan
    October 29, 2020, 7:34 pm

    Really pretty. I love the closet upstairs.

  • Beth
    October 29, 2020, 8:40 pm

    I’m curious how you dealt with waste water system and potable water supply rules that vermont requires? This article doesn’t bode well for you advertising where you are located and the laws you are breaking? It’s a nice romanticized version of living off the grid in vermont with unrealistic costs.

    • James D.
      October 30, 2020, 8:10 pm

      Vermont is actually extremely friendly to off-grid living, you just have to meet certain minimum requirements and get the right permits. Off-grid living doesn’t mean they avoided that, so they probably already went through all that, have a septic system for their grey water use, etc… and can now just enjoy their off-grid life…

      While they already are doing Hipcamp, which means they are already dealing with the requirements for running a business on their property and having people staying on their property. So this article doesn’t really expose them to anything they aren’t already exposed to and you don’t have to break the law to live this way in Vermont…

      They also have their fair share of costs and debt to deal with, like the financing they had to do to purchase the land, etc. They just avoided any unnecessary spending, didn’t over extend their resources beyond what they could handle, and worked hard to get what they do have to reduce their costs enough to ensure they will eventually be debt free and still have the lifestyle they want… There are always trade offs but it is possible to do things differently as long as you’re willing to deal with consequences of those trade offs…

      • Sara
        October 30, 2020, 8:17 pm

        Ah, that’s a good point, didn’t mean to confuse the issues. I just assumed based on the article that they hadn’t put in a septic system (it’s expensive, and since they’re hauling water and using a composting toilet, I assumed they had avoided that expense).

        If they did put in a septic and get the state wastewater permit, then that’s all good (just unusual).

        Thanks for clarifying!

      • Beth
        October 30, 2020, 11:42 pm

        I just feel that spreading the idea that you can build your own tiny home, find some idyllic space in the woods, chop your own wood and live happily ever after is not conveying the whole truth.
        Vermont does have rules. You do need permits even for a composting toilet (to deal with your compost properly) in Vernon you need a permit for a driveway, driveways cost money permits cost money. And you need potable water! That cost money! Sometimes all of that cost more than the land and house itself. These two “hippies” as they like to call themselves in this almost ironic SNL skit capture a glimpse of there lives that I feel is unfair to the rest of us actually trying to take care of our vermont environment… take care of our waste… And take care of ourselves with basic things such as sanitary water..

        • James D.
          October 31, 2020, 1:35 am

          True, there’s hardly any place without some sort of rules. Even places without codes can still have rules to follow. But a lot of that should be common sense too, as minimal standards are required to ensure people can live safely and avoid unnecessary problems. So you should be implementing most of them even if they weren’t required…

          Though, we have gone to extremes with how our society has become obsessed with liability, creating ever increasing bureaucracy to handle it all that has also led to growing intolerance to diversity and change. So naturally some people want to reject all of that and go the opposite way but we really need balance for it to work… People can be more free but also need to be more responsible, which then allows them to be more self sufficient when they are capable of being so, then there doesn’t need to be as much regulations, etc., just guidelines and knowledge of how to do it properly, and then the world can become sane again…

          Otherwise, we continue with the insanity of extremes that only produces distrust, reasons to discriminate, and prevents us from moving towards any real solutions.

          Besides, most people’s lives are more complex than they ever show to other people. Just because they seem to be living a very carefree life doesn’t mean they actually are and didn’t have any issues they had to overcome and deal with, as we are only getting a very tiny glimpse into their lives.

          People also tend to focus on the positives, especially when dealing with people they don’t know, and they are trying to improve their lives and use their property to their advantage.

          So yes, it’s not the whole truth but in the same turn that’s usually a given… It’s one of the reasons I keep telling people there’s always trade offs because there always is, even if it’s never mentioned. Part of having the freedom to live your life involves knowing what’s realistic so you can make responsible decisions, which in turn helps develop respect for choices and moves us away from the reasons so many can be quick to judge and criticize others… Like in nature, we too must have balance to thrive…

  • Sara
    October 30, 2020, 4:35 pm

    Echoing the comment above – this is all very romantic and looks very cool, but as far as I know, it’s not legal to live without a VT wastewater permit (which is state-issued, and has nothing to do with Town zoning laws) unless it’s a seasonal property or grandfathered in, in some way. I’m building a small cabin in rural VT right now, and had to forego a composting toilet in favor of traditional septic, for this reason (to abide by the law).

    But wish you guys the best!

    • James D.
      October 30, 2020, 7:34 pm

      @Sara – I believe you’re confusing issues… You can be required to have a septic system even if you’re only producing grey water waste, as VT still considers that a pathogen risk, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use a composting toilet. There’s just separate requirements for using a composting toilet you have to meet but if you can then you can use one because they’re legal in VT… Look up §1-929 of the Wastewater System and Potable Water Supply Rules for VT… Having a septic doesn’t mean you have to use a Flush Toilet, only if you can’t meet the requirements for allowing a composting or incinerating toilet would that be the case…

      Otherwise, VT is considered extremely friendly to off-grid living and will even allow rain catchment for your water source… Meeting certain minimum requirements, like a septic system and needing permits, is a common issue across the country but it doesn’t necessarily have to conflict with or prevent off-grid living…

      • Beth
        October 31, 2020, 12:00 am

        I am aware of the I-929 wastewater, and many or all who have tried to live in vermont “off the grid” are as well. Heaven forbid there land is near A wetland, marsh or water table they are unaware of, or that they are contaminating there own water supply by not properly disposing of there waste. That’s why permits are required, to at least provide proof that you’ve done the research.,

        • James D.
          October 31, 2020, 2:02 am

          Yes, that goes to how we’ve become obsessed with liability and moved away from simple responsibility… There can be many hurdles to living off-grid but it’s still possible as long as you do it in a way that follows the rules and there’s nothing to prevent you from being able to follow the rules…

          Even a septic system isn’t allowed everywhere but more advance technology can make it still an option, for example, like using a pump system to send the waste to another location away from the restricted area or use a system designed for the area like there’s even a type of septic system that uses wetland called a constructed wetland system. While other options like incinerating toilets cremate the waste and thus leave nothing but ashes to dump… Other waterless options also include The Laveo Dry Flush that puts all the waste into sealed bags that you can then take to a disposal site that doesn’t have to be on the property or having a service that takes care of your waste and thus can work around even extreme local restrictions…

          Location will always be a factor but we are a species of tool users that innately also makes us a species of problem solvers that can adapt to almost any condition and situation, which is something that we shouldn’t forget as many problems can be solved, given enough time and energy to solve it… But there are always trade offs, like costs…

  • Theresa Perdue
    October 31, 2020, 2:12 pm

    Well aside from all the naysayers what really surprised me was how young they looked 😃! Today’s young seem to be really ahead of the game in a lot of ways. And the other thing that stood out was OMG!! I love that house 😍. It’s rustic and cozy beautifully lasted out. I think if I ever built one I would so copy it. Nice job guys👍

    • Natalie C. McKee
      November 2, 2020, 8:03 am

      Yes I have to think they’re late 20s, maybe early 30s?

  • Theresa Perdue
    October 31, 2020, 2:14 pm

    Beautifully layed out not lasted. Autocorrect is one good reason to go back to nature 🤣

  • Sophia
    January 7, 2021, 5:09 pm

    I love their house. I think they’ve accomplished a lot at their young age, and they are very cute! Nothing wrong with being idealistic when you’re young.

    • Natalie C. McKee
      January 11, 2021, 5:04 pm


  • Kurt
    February 25, 2021, 7:39 am

    I like the high gloss on the wood surfaces.

    • Natalie C. McKee
      February 27, 2021, 10:56 am

      It’s a cool look, for sure.

  • Randy
    April 17, 2022, 11:17 am

    The barrel sofa absolutely sets the tone for that cabin! Beautiful! And has such a comfortable feel to it.

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