Strawbale & Mud Plaster: My Warmest Winter Yet!

My winter digs. Notice the Teardrop in the background.

My winter digs. Notice the Teardrop parked in the background. That’s a solar oven in front, which obviously does not work when it snows.

The Teardrop is not for overwintering. It’s not so much the cold that would drive me crazy, but the limited daylight hours. Too many five-hour evenings in such a small space aren’t good for the soul. This year, I’m lucky enough to be spending my fourth winter in the backcountry near Cerrillos, New Mexico, a place that’s off the grid and off the map and as close to home as I’ve found in all my wanderings.

I’m staying in a little one room hut with a sleeping loft. It’s not fancy – the walls are literally made of straw and dirt – but it’s by far the warmest place I’ve ever wintered. Between the thick walls, big south-facing windows and a kick-ass woodstove, it’s often t-shirt weather in here, no matter what’s happening outside.

My place: when you're used to living in 50 square feet, 200 feels downright roomy!

My place: when you’re used to living in 50 square feet, 200 feels downright roomy! This place came with just enough furniture. I work at the stand up desk on the left, with a view of the Ortiz Mountains. 

My kick ass woodstove

My kick ass woodstove. That thing cooks!

My Trunk Library

Winter Altar

This place was built by my friends Amanda and Andy Bramble with their own hands. Together they run the Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center, where they live and teach the art of off grid living and sustainable building:

The Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center offers internships, classes and events, and retreats. We also share our experience through blogging and our website. We focus on Passive Solar Design, Greywater Recycling, Rain Catchment, Permaculture, Natural Building, Appropriate Technologies, and Land Restoration. We are dedicated to the land, to self-sufficiency, and to community. We do this because it brings us joy.  

I asked Amanda to write a few paragraphs explaining why my winter hut is so warm:

We built the strawbale cottage during the first summer on our property.  Four days a week we worked for money, and three days a week to make shelter for the winter.  We had never built with post and beam.  We had never built a strawbale structure.  But we figured it would be good enough to last a few years, and that it would be a good practice building to prepare us for our long term house.

Amanda's found objects altar outside my place

Amanda’s found objects altar outside my place

The reason why it’s so warm and cosy is partly because of the insulation.  Strawbales make serious walls.  All those little air holes in the stems of the grasses packed on top of eachother stop heat from moving through the wall.  The ceiling is insulated with straw and sawdust.  The south facing windows are roughly 25% of the floor space which is a good ratio for passive solar design in this area.  The insulated curtains that I made help seal the heat where you want it.  Lastly, the thermal mass holds the heat inside the cottage.  There are barrels of water that collect the winter sun during the day, and then release this heat at night.  It’s enough to take the edge off so you only need a small fire for the evening on a cold winter night.  Also all the mud plaster on the inside of the strawbales holds a stable temperature too.

A glimpse inside the straw walls

A glimpse inside the straw walls

Dirt is beautiful!

Dirt is beautiful!

We were still getting the mud plaster on when we got our first snow that first November.  Even so, it kept us toasty.  We lived in it for four and a half years.  It got small for two people after a while, especially once we started running our learning center and needing desk room.  It’s less than 200 square feet inside.  But our marriage survived, and our learning center has thrived with that little cottage as the foundation for our compound.  I still miss the east facing window that gives a good view of the sunrise from the sleeping loft.

Funny that Amanda mentions the sunrise window, because that’s one of my favorite features of this place! I wake up with the sun, climb down the ladder and tie up the insulating curtains to let in the sunshine and by the time I finish my morning yoga, the place is warm enough that I rarely have to light a fire. In the evenings, I close the curtains and light a fire just after sunset. I have to stop feeding the stove around 8, otherwise it’s too warm in the loft to sleep. I’ve been cutting most of my own firewood, so my heating costs this winter are almost zero.

Cutting my own firewood

Plenty of dead trees in this desert! Photo by my wood cutting pal, Mr. Fox.

I’ll be here through the end of March, then I’ll hitch up the Teardrop and hit the road again. In the meantime, I’m feeling as content as I’ve ever been. Here’s to my warmest winter yet!

Happy Mary

Happy Mary. This place also came with a yurt and a tipi!

Amanda and Andy are running an Indigogo campaign to raise money for flood damage repair and watershed restoration at their place. That big flood that hit Colorado so hard this past fall also hit this desert, washing out numerous roads and arroyos. Check out their pledge drive here.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, New Mexico, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Sustainable Living, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Strawbale & Mud Plaster: My Warmest Winter Yet!

  1. Hats off to your adventures 🙂 this is one superb post.

  2. Gunta says:

    It looks a bit similar to some cob house colony we have near here in SW Oregon.

  3. Zhen says:

    Hey I’m interested as to how the woodstove works? Do you put your food into it and it heats them up with some sort of oven? Or is there a stove top that you cook things on a pan?

  4. Hi Mary, Nice place to be holed up again, keep warm and dry. Diane and I are travelling around New Zealand – not quite the way you do it but in a Hertz rental and nice hotels but I thought you may like to read my attempt at an entertaining blog! I am at
    How do you get internet access when you’re off the grid? I find it hard enough in our hotel room!
    I have enjoyed your blog for probably 2 years or more, keep them coming…

  5. Lisa says:

    Looks cozy! Question: If the windows are south facing, how are you able to enjoy the sunrise, when the sun rises in the east?

  6. Tiffani says:

    Thanks for updating us and sharing. I have been wondering where and how you were lately. In Ohio we seem to be having a non-ending FREEZING winter, more so than normal. As always, enjoy your posts so much, and that place does look cozy. And I know New Mexico is beautiful.

  7. Chris Simon says:

    I have really enjoyed your blog. A true free spirit. I like your Teardrop. I wonder where and how you acquired it. New, used. If it’s not too much trouble can you give me some pointers on how I may acquire my own?

  8. furrygnome says:

    Thanks for filling us in; sounds like a cozy place. Hope you’re getting lots of writing done! We’re having an amazing winter, 3 feet of snow on the level and lots of skiing and snowshoeing. Passed a snow bank the other day as high as the telephone wires!

  9. Sunridge RV says:

    Hi there! Just wondered if it got lonely at all out there, but I see you have a dog with you! Looks cozy!

  10. pirateofgold says:

    Really enjoy your travels. Awating your next journey. When do you plan on “hitting the road” again?

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