Building a House in the Woods – Read This First

In the aftermath of a long-term event If you’re extra-prepared, you’ll have already designed and constructed a defensible bug-out location where you can settle and sustain yourself until things calm down.

Regardless of the location you settle on, make sure you know as much about the area surrounding your house in the woods as you can.

cabin in the woods
a cabin in the woods

Choosing a Safe Location

Your first question when it comes to a construction project like this one may be this: is it safe to build a home in the woods post-SHTF? There is always a risk, particularly in crisis situations.

Study and research the area where you want to build your home before you start construction. You need to know what kind of insulation will work best, and what permits and/or permissions (i.e. a building permit) you’ll need.

You should also know how you’ll get your utilities working, and where to install the pipes for your plumbing and sewage/septic system. Ideally, you will have done this research before SHTF.

If not, information may be available from an abandoned library, if you can get inside or in local magazines that you might find. If the internet is still accessible, you can certainly look up information there.

It’s up to you to evaluate your circumstances and decide whether or not the risk is worth taking. Figure out how to minimize the risk wherever possible.

Weather and Other Factors

Determine when a fire last occurred in the area you’re planning on bugging out to. You need to know if this was a one-time event, or if fire happens frequently.

Are there regular lightning strikes or severe droughts likely in the area? Certain types of vegetation tend to burn more frequently than others.

Climate is also a factor. Climate change is a big deal – especially if you’re building a house in the woods. If your location is hot, dry and windy, the risk of forest fire is much higher. Research the area’s weather patterns, including amount of rain and sunlight as well as high and low temperatures for each season.

five large rainwater tanks
five large rainwater tanks

Evaluate your water supply. You’ll need a steady, clean water source nearby if you’re going to survive. Is there water available that is substantial and dependable. Can you access it quickly from where your home will be positioned?

Finally, remember that most people aren’t friendly in crisis times. There’s a risk of vandalism and theft, so don’t leave valuable items in your compound unless you create a cache and bury it.

Some people may even vandalize your home or burn it to the ground just to spite you. Camouflage your house with natural materials to keep it looking low-key.

How to Build a Cheap DIY Wooden House Step by Step | by @Borsch_TV

Managing Ignitibility

Minimizing your fire risk is best done during the construction period. However, it’s possible to reduce the ignitibility of an existing structure by keeping a few simple things in mind.

Start at The Top: The Roof.

Fire-proofing your roof is a critical step in cabin design to protecting your house from a fiery threat.

Use fire-resistant materials to repair or reinforce it; shake-shingle and wood roofs are very flammable, so these are typically banned by most county building departments. Opt for asphalt or metal shingles, clay or standard tiles, or possibly concrete or slate shingles.

Fireproofing a roof isn’t just about the materials it’s made of. The eaves extend outwards, jutting out beyond the external wall, and are likely to catch fire. As fire grows closer, the outside wall pushes warm air and combustible gasses up toward the eave.

The presence of dry leaves and pine needles causes intensified ignition. The house’s exterior walls will suffer most from the fire’s radiant heat and direct contact with the flames.

Decks are usually highly flammable, hot gasses can be trapped by the shape and may ignite prior to the fire getting to the house. Windows are weak spots, and typically buckle under the intensifying heat long before the house ignites.

This leaves gaping holes that provide a direct route for the unforgiving flames and floating embers to enter the house, quickening the fire’s destructive path.

log cabin deck area
Photo by J Beales

Burning embers from trees catching fire may be carried for over a mile before settling on horizontal surfaces and reigniting flames.

Flat surfaces like wood shingle roofs and conventional wooden decks are especially vulnerable to airborne embers. This means that ensuring these structures are protected against ignitability should be your first priority.

  • Construct the house from non-flammable material; such as cement or brick with metal or tile roofing.
  • Clear away flammable vegetation such as sagebrush, this is labor-intensive and time-consuming, so try to select a location with less dense vegetation.
  • Keep wildland grass trimmed to no more than 6 inches tall, and cut this highly combustible vegetation as far back as possible, a minimum of 30 ft. away from your living area.
  • Store all firewood piles, lumber offcuts, and other flammable material at least 30 feet from all structures in your compound.
  • Routinely clear rain gutters and roof tops of combustible materials such as dry leaves, small sticks, or pine needles, which make perfect fuel for a runaway fire.
  • Sweep porches and decks regularly and ensure that they’re clear of accumulating debris.
  • Cover all attic, soffit, roof, and foundation vents with 1/8-inch metal screening.

Creating a Defensible Space

The defensible space is the square footage that surrounds your house or other buildings and is landscaped or otherwise altered with the specific goal of reducing fire hazard.

Within this area, anything that could serve as fuel both manufactured and organic are cleared, treated, or cut back in order to make it more difficult for fire to spread around your home.

A defensible space can also reduce the likelihood of a structural fire jumping to neighboring structures, or igniting the surrounding woodlands.

Create Defensible Space around Your Home

Your odds of survival dramatically increase when you create an effective defensive space around your structures.

Allocate a series of manageable zones, around the house and every structure (storage buildings, granaries, barns, stables, and detached garages) on your property, in which different methods of treatment are used. Consult your local state forester, fire department, or independent forester for advice.

In planning your defensible space, take the following variables into account:

  • the construction materials you have available to you
  • the area you want to use as your construction site
  • construction costs
  • the the dimensions (length and width) of the structure(s)
  • the slope and elevation of the earth, the surrounding topography of the terrain
  • the heights and categories of vegetation growing on your land

Defensible space acts as an important vantage point for firefighters and improves their safety. Because firefighters adhere to a principle called ‘structural triage’, they will only protect structures when they determine it is safe. The presence of defensible or cleared space makes it easier for them to manage the fire and to save your home from the heat.

Zone 1

Dependent on the total amount of land, Zone 1 is characterized as anything within 1530 feet immediately surrounding a building. Start by removing most of the flammable vegetation from this zone. You can leave a few ground-covering shrubs or fire-resistant plants to save you some time.

In areas running downhill from the structure, increase the distance by at least 5 feet. Measure this distance from the external edge of the eaves to any adjacent fixtures, such as wooden decks. Here’s how you should treat the zone:

  • Avoid landscaping with the popular but highly flammable ground junipers
  • Leave at least 5 feet of the structure and deck, bare from ground cover if applicable. Doing this will help to keep flames from being able to directly connect to your structure, especially if it is sided with logs or wood beams, that burn easily.
  • Non-combustible siding such as stucco, synthetic stucco, concrete, stone or brick is flame resistant and you may plant ground shrubs or fire-proof plants nearby. Take care not to plant directly beneath windows or near foundation vents where smoke could more quickly enter the home.
  • Opt for decorative rock, as it creates an attractive, low-maintenance and non-flammable ground cover option.
  • Materials that catch fire easily such as firewood, should not be kept in this zone, but should be stored a minimum of 30 feet or more from buildings.
  • If you can, Zone 1 should be cleared of trees that could be fire hazards. The fewer trees populating the zone, the less likely it is that fire will spread to your home.
  • Treat any trees remaining in the zone as a part of the building and expand the amount of defensible space as needed to take trees into account.
  • Cut back any tree branches or limbs that come close to or hang over the roof. Make sure that the 10-foot area surrounding the chimney is clear of any flammable objects or materials.

Zone 2

The main purpose of Zone 2 is to reduce and eliminate any fuel that can feed the fire as it moves toward your buildings. The area layout of this zone depends somewhat on the angle of the earth, but it should extend about 100 feet away from any buildings.

Work together with neighboring homeowners as needed to modify landscaping to form a barren area that will reduce the risk for all parties involved.

You can do the following things to reduce combustible materials around your buildings, make it safer for firefighters who are defending your home, and improve your property’s general safety and aesthetics.

Vegetation Thinning

  • Remove dead, diseased or stressed shrubs and trees from the zone.
  • Limit dead trees to less than two per acre and ensure that these cannot collapse onto your buildings or power-lines or obstruct driveways.
  • Measure crown separation from the outermost tree limb to the closest limb of the neighboring tree. Remove enough vegetation to create 10-foot spaces from crown to crown. If your structure is built on a steep slope, increase this distance.
  • Clear away any ladder fuels underneath the remaining trees and shrubs.
  • Trim tree limbs from the trunk up to the lesser of 10 foot or 1/3 up the tree.
  • For those with a drive more than 100 feet, there should be a 30-foot defensible space on each side from your home, down the drive to the main highway. Apply the 10-foot crown rule here, too.
  • Zone 2 can include some bunches of 2 or 3 trees as long as at least 30 feet exists between clusters and the nearby freestanding trees.

It may be necessary to combine certain rules from local building codes for Zones 1 and Zone 3 and apply these to Zone 2. This is because Zone 2 is designed as a visual buffer, and, more importantly, acts as a transition space between zones.

If there is a tree growing in Zone 2 whose branches extend through to Zone 1, you can leave this tree if the recommended crown spacing is applied.

Shrub Thinning and Surface Fuels

  • Regularly prune shrubs to curb excessive growth and clear out dead shrub stems annually.
  • Remove common ground junipers immediately as they are highly flammable.
  • Keep Zone 2 shrubs if they are isolate as long as they are not located directly under trees.
  • Shrubs should be pruned back to at least 10 feet from the outside layer of tree branches.
  • Maintain a minimum spacing between shrub thickets of approximately 2.5 times the mature height of the plant.
  • Prune thickets to a maximum diameter of 2 times their mature height.
  • As with the crown spacing rule, all measurements should be made using the outermost edge of the shrub crowns as a reference point. For example, for 6-foot high shrubs, the space from crown to crown should be at least 15 feet. The diameter should not be more than 12 feet.
  • Trim wild grasses to no more than 6-inches, especially in the fall, when things are dry and more combustible.
  • Keep an eye out for any build-up of things such as logs, slash, dry branches, pine needles and wood chips. Clear these out immediately if they are more than 4 inches deep.
  • Firewood should be stored at a higher elevation than your buildings if at all possible. If land is flat, store firewood a minimum of 30 feet from your building.
  • Never stack woodpiles against your structures or under your deck. This rookie error has led to tragic consequences in the past.
  • Flammable vegetation should be cleared or trimmed back within 10 feet of your firewood stockpiles.
  • Propane tanks and natural gas meters should also be kept at least 30 feet away from your structure and on the same elevation plane.
  • Never store tanks below the structure. If it ignites, the flames are likely to travel uphill. If the tank is located at a higher altitude, a potential gas leak will flow downhill in the direction of your structure.
  • Any storage tanks or meters should be clear of vegetation for a distance of at least 10 feet.
  • Instead of screening tanks and meters with shrub thickets or flammable fencing, install 5 feet of non-flammable ground cover around them.

Zone 3

Zone 3 acts as a transition space that provides a gradual changeover from Zone 2 to far-reaching areas that extend beyond your property.

This extended zone may overlap with areas that fall under state forest management jurisdiction, so we recommend you contact your local forest service to help you with the implementation. This zone allows you to improve the forest’s health if it’s managed properly.

There are many ways to proactively manage your forest to reduce the risk of wildfire, boost the growth rate of the trees, increase survivability of trees during a fire, and protect the quality of your water supply.

A well-managed Zone 3 may even provide much-needed income, help protect vegetation against pests, and boost the value of your property.

It’s important to familiarize yourself with local forest management objectives for the areas surrounding your property so that you may align your efforts with these for the best possible outcome.

Typically, objectives may include improving recreational opportunities, enhancing aesthetic appeal, and improving flora health.

However, when SHTF, it’s more important to focus on ways to ensure that the forest provides barriers against dust, noise, wind, and other pollutants, to support firewood production and that forest management is sufficient to decrease the speed and energy of the fire.

When designing Zone 3, keep the following things in mind:

  • Diverse forests are healthier. Forests should include trees of varying ages, heights, and types, and should be managed so that there is enough room for trees to grow over time.
  • Ladder fuels pose a big risk. In a forest with a higher canopy, it is less likely that a ground fire will spread to the tops of the trees, especially if the zone has steep slopes.
  • In Zone 3, you may retain more snags – standing or fallen – to provide a habitat for wildlife. Snags should be at least 8 inches around and should not pose a threat to power lines or main access roads.
  • Tree pruning isn’t typically necessary in Zone 3, but it may be useful to trim vegetation along walking trails and firefighter access roads for your personal safety. This also helps to reduce ladder fuels, reducing the risk of crown fire.
  • There should be a readily-available onsite water source in Zone 3 for firefighters to use. Lakes, swimming pools, ponds and hot tubs are all acceptable. If there isn’t a water source readily available, consider the installation of a well or dry hydrant instead. Make sure it is easily identified.
  • If your primary water source requires electricity, have an off-the-grid option as a Plan B. During wildfires, especially post-SHTF, electricity may be cut off for an indefinite period of time.

Maintaining your Defensible Space

Any good prepper will know that the environment is ever-changing. Seasons come and go. Dry spells arrive as prolonged rainy periods dwindle.

Trees, shrubs and grasses continue to grow and die, even after a major global crisis has shattered human civilization. Your defensible space requires regular, continuous inspections and maintenance if it is to survive the ebb and flow of nature, and remain effective.

Here’s an essential checklist of must-dos for maintaining your defensible space:

Initial Phase

  • Thin and prune vegetation within Zones 1 and 2 and dispose of slash.
  • Screen roof, eaves, attic and foundations vents and check these regularly to ensure that they stay in good condition.
  • Screens should be 1/8-inch-thick, or, ideally, smaller metal mesh at 1/16 inches.
  • Your last name and house number should be clearly posted, on fireproof signs near the end of your drive by the main road. Make sure signs can be easily seen by emergency responders by making them reflective.
  • Fire trucks should be able to enter and exit your driveway easily. Clear excess tree and branches to make way for emergency equipment if needed.
  • Once your defensible space is complete, document it by taking photographs for comparison of forest growth over time.

Annual Requirements

  • Clean off the deck and the roof, including leaves, and gutters, of any combustible materials.
  • Clear debris away from the foundations and underneath decks.
  • Check chimney screens to ensure they’re secure and in good condition.
  • Cut away branches that brush the roof and chimney.
  • Keep grass cut short and remove weeds or trim down to 6 inches or less.
  • Ensure that your defensible space is clear of any and all debris and materials that are flammable.
  • Check that fire extinguishers haven’t expired and are in good working condition.
  • Review the photos of your original defensible space to check tree regrowth. Then, thin and prune the vegetation in Zones 1 and 2 accordingly.

Update Security Measures

Most home break-ins are opportunistic crimes. Thieves will look for easy targets, so it is critical that you safeguard your property against these opportunists. It’s a good idea to hold a family meeting and make a list of improvements that can be made to increase security on your property.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Install automatic timers on indoor lights to deter thieves who may be doing a drive-by to check who’s home.
  • Keeping your home illuminated at night so it’s easier for neighbors to notice suspicious activity.
  • Outdoor motion sensor lights may also help to keep more cautious intruders at bay.
  • Avoid leaving valuable equipment in plain sight, this advertises your property as ripe for pillaging. Even if you’re going out momentarily, take care to store gear, preps and other valuables in a safe, discreet place.
  • Make sure that expensive electronic equipment such as computers and flat-screens are not easily noticed by curious observers who decide to peek through your windows.
  • Small boats, canoes, and personal water craft should not be left unattended on the shore. Store these further up the bank and if possible inside a building where they cannot be seen.
  • Ladders and outdoor furniture should be stored inside when not in use.
  • Keep your home maintained, even when you’re not there most of the time. Long grass, fallen trees and shoreline garbage are obvious indicators that no one has been by for a while, and this makes your home a more attractive target for criminals.
  • A gate at the start of the driveway may also deter thieves, as they want to get in and out as quickly and quietly as possible.
  • An alarm system may be less effective when installed at a remote location separate from your forest home, but remains a deterrent for thieves.
  • Board up your windows and secure sliding doors with a piece of wood wedged in the track so they cannot be forcibly opened.
  • Install a hasp with a padlock on your door. It’s a low-cost and effective way of stalling intruders and is cheap security that makes kicking in the door much more difficult.
  • Engrave or paint your name onto your belongings. This makes it easier for someone to return items if you happen to lose them, or to help the police recover them if they’re stolen.
  • If you trust your neighbors enough, keep them informed of period when your home will be vacant and provide them with contact information in case they need to report any suspicious activity while you’re not there.
  • Have someone drop by and check on the property regularly. You can even request that the local state police do a routine property check free of charge.

Building the ultimate survival compound and equipping it properly is a labor of love. It requires painstaking attention to detail, meticulous planning and a whole bunch of elbow grease.

If you get it right, you’ll have a secure, well-managed property that you can retreat to when things go south. Happy building!

What are your best tips for building and maintaining a survival-friendly house in woods that can withstand wildfires, thieves and Mother Nature? Share them below.

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