give me your tips for living a winter without running water!
August 25, 2015 4:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be spending the foreseeable future living in a bare bones lakeside camp in Maine. I won't be working but I will be going to school 3-5 days a week. I will have electricity, but water will be shut off this fall before the pipes freeze. Give me tips for living and not dying under these conditions.

1. The camp is heated with a woodstove. We have plenty of wood for the winter.
2. I grew up in a house that was heated with wood so am familiar and fine with all that entails. I grew up in a similar climate and am not worried about the cold.
3. My boyfriend will be there part of the time but due to his work, I will be alone at the camp four nights a week.

My main concerns are eating healthfully and doing dishes. Should I cook once a week and heat in the microwave throughout the week so I don't need to do dishes every night?

The water plan is to keep a hole in the ice through the winter and keep water on the woodstove most of the day, then take what I need for dishes and washing when necessary.

The toilet plan is a bucket in the bathroom with sawdust or water.

The shower plan is to join planet fitness in town.

My boyfriend has lived there in the winter for years but is a very low maintenance person who has no problem eating frozen meals every day.

I'm looking for practical tips on daily life without running water. I don't want to eat all my meals of paper plates but I also can't wrap my head around doing dishes in a single basin stink with no running water.
posted by pintapicasso to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think a quick-heat electric kettle and a hotplate will serve you well within the limitations you're describing. Do you have a big plastic drum or other covered container to store water in the cabin? You can ladle the water out using a small saucepan. That way you can cut down on the daily schlep of hauling water.

Use a rubbermaid or similar plastic bin and put a small amount of water in it (cold is fine) and some dish soap in it. Place dishes in it throughout day, top up with hot kettle or stove water at end of day and wash all. Just rinse-reuse utensils and glassware throughout the day rather than reaching for a new one. Alternately, if you're cooking a lot one day, start with hot water and just wash/top up as you go. Don't sweat "rinsing" the dishes, this is a weird hangup that seems to have afflicted Americans and Canadians.

You can also bathe standing in a largish plastic pan or container with some hot water in it. Use dry shampoo between showers at the gym.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 5:14 PM on August 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Get a couple 30 gallon trash cans to hold H2O? Might be handy. That fire stove will eat those paper plates I suspect
posted by Freedomboy at 5:15 PM on August 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Do you know how the Dutch wash dishes? They wash in hot soapy water, and then they do not rinse-- they dry right away (the drying removes the soap residue). It freaks me out, but it seems to work without anyone dying, and it reduces the necessary water.
posted by frumiousb at 5:15 PM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

If you do some googling for "Alaska dry cabin" you'll be able to find plenty of blogs by people who live like this year round and should have some good tips, like this one.
posted by MsMolly at 5:24 PM on August 25, 2015 [9 favorites]

Unless the place is actually uninsulated, you should be able to keep unfrozen water inside the house once you get it. Cold enough to freeze pipes is a different situation than cold enough to keep water in a mostly-heated cabin. Why are they turning the water off if you are there to keep the pipes from freezing? If there is electricity you can keep a small heater on in an area where there will be water. I assume money is a concern but you should be balancing whatever your money situation is with the absolute hassle of some of this stuff. If you can run a microwave, you can microwave ice for water, for example. Boil anything straight from the lake unless you are sure about pathogens.

Invest in a camp toilet of some level (depending on your cashflow). Even a little toilet seat stand with kitty litter is going to be a ton better than a bucket. Hobo baths with warmed water in between showers. Wear your hair up or get it cut short.
posted by jessamyn at 5:27 PM on August 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Some woodstoves of a particular era have a relatively large water reservoir built into them.

Get a portable toilet, like a Camco Portable 2.6 gallon. The bottom is detachable, and you can empty it into unsuspecting toilets in town.

Buy or borrow a copy of One Man's Wilderness. He describes in great detail things that you are going to be dealing with, like keeping holes in ice open, and housekeeping with varmints.
posted by the Real Dan at 5:29 PM on August 25, 2015

Freeze-dried meals might be a good thing to have on hand. Just add boiling water and eat it right out of the bag; all you have to clean is your cutlery. Stuff like Tasty Bite with boil-in-bag rice is a good combination of convenience and flavor.

Another good tip I saw online to minimize dishwashing (albeit for camping, not long-term living) was to line your plate or bowl with Press'n Seal, so all you need to do is peel off the plastic and discard it when you're done eating.

Unless you have a local waste disposal plan, I'm not sure a bucket with sawdust in it is going to be adequate in terms of sanitation. If you get something like this or this, you can just seal up the bags and put them in the trash when you go into town.

You'll also need to do laundry, unless you're going to bring that into town as well. This site has tips on how to do powerless, minimal-water washing.

Keep a store of potable water and/or a no-boil purifier/filter -- maybe one of these and one of these? -- so you don't have to go without drinking water if the ice freezes.
posted by divined by radio at 5:39 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Usually on camping trips we've had two rubbermaids for washing dishes - the first was filled with water and detergent, the second was filled with water and some kind of food safe antibacterial rinse. The water in the first bucket would get dirty pretty quickly, so it was nice to be able to rinse off the dishes. I'm not sure what that rinse was exactly, but I feel like you could use white vinegar for the same effect.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 5:45 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had to smile reading your post.
I've done this many times , and not in a cabin with electricity.( Luxury, luxury)

At the simplest use a hole in the ice and use metal pails
Place metal pail on wood stove and you not only have available warm water,
you have an humidifier for the dry cold winter months.

Get a plastic garbage can with lid, place inside, fill with water.

I've used a metal garbage can with an immersion heater hooked up to a small
generator to melt ice for fresh water.

Nowadays kids got it easy with their electricity and cabins. lol

Get a camping shower from REI. Uses a small propane cylinder. Not expensive.

People only got electricity a hundred years ago.
Municipal water about the same.
Be happy you have indoor plumbing. An outhouse is miserable in the middle of winter.

You don't have to move to paper plates only.
posted by yyz at 6:14 PM on August 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

The water issue is really not a big one. With a hole in the ice and a woodstove, you will have plenty of water for dishwashing, cooking, and drinking. If you are showering in town, you really don't have any troubles there at all.

Can you disconnect the drain underneath the kitchen sink and connect a short length of pipe? If the plumbing is relatively recent, this may be as easy as unscrewing the ring that attaches the sink to the drain. Otherwise, you can cut the pipe underneath the sink and replace with an easily removed rubber fitting in the spring. If you can do that and place a bucket underneath the,sink, then you can use it as you normally would and just empty the bucket as required. With a plastic water reservoir with a valve sitting on the counter hanging over the sink, you pretty much have running water and drains, with just a little extra effort required. This makes handwashing mush easier. Add hot water from the woodstove as required for dishes.
posted by ssg at 6:23 PM on August 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should be able to cook soups/ stews on the woodstove, and pancakes, bread, etc., are not out of the question. Be on the lookout for some gallon jugs; it's nice to be able to bring drinking water in. Keep a pan of water warming on the stove a lot of the time for washing dishes or yourself. You'll develop efficiencies as you go.

Food - Make a batch of soup, eat for 2 meals a day with crackers, bread, pasta, until it's gone then make some stew, etc. Polenta with cheese, rice & beans, lentils with butter, rice & wheat pilaf, there are lots of one pot meals.

Kitchen sink drainage may just work. Water in drain pipes doesn't sit still and is less likely to freeze up. This is not true of toilets; water stays in the looped area, and if it freezes, it cracks the porcelain. You need a real plan for human waste. You produce a fair amount, and it smells and it must be disposed of properly. There may be an area of woods where you can dispose of urine, which is generally not full of too much bacteria, and degrades pretty fast. You need a place to get rid of poop without contaminating your well or anybody else's.
posted by theora55 at 7:06 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

If there's a Planet Fitness in town, there's also a place you can buy 5+gal water bottles (probably with their own refill station, probably inside a grocery or convenience store) and get a gravity bubbler or a pump for potable water.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:21 PM on August 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

No need to join the gym just for showers -- bucket baths! You can bathe quite properly in one bucket of water and a mug. After a little practice, if you're not washing long hair, you can get it down to half a bucket. With an immersion rod heater, you can heat the water for winter too, and since it'll be so cold, you can cut down the bathing to every couple of days. Many a village bathes like this. :)
posted by Ragini at 8:14 PM on August 25, 2015

I will recommend you buy hand sanitizer and spray peroxide to help with keeping your hands clean without access to water.

If you keep your hair really short, that also makes life with limited water access easier.
posted by Michele in California at 10:52 AM on August 26, 2015

I would try to cook less often and use paper plates and burn them in the stove. Healthwise, supplement your soups and casseroles with fruit and veg that you don't have to cook, like apples, carrot sticks, celery, bananas, etc.

You definitely need a better toilet solution than a bucket with some sawdust and you need a hygienic solution for discarding of that waste. I would encourage you NOT to dump it in the garbage in town--dumps aren't set up to receive human waste. How are you going to wash/sanitize your hands? What does your boyfriend currently do to sanitize his hands? You don't want to end up sick in a cabin with no running water.

Do you have a plan for making the water from the lake potable? Again, you don't want to end up with an amoeba infection or something, in a cabin with no running water.

In addition to joining Planet Fitness, budget for trips to the laundromat, at least for things like bedding.
posted by purple_bird at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2015

For toilet use, you need two buckets, not just one.
Screw-top lids for both buckets are pricey but oh so worth it.
posted by wonton endangerment at 11:47 AM on August 26, 2015

Uh, I don't want to freak you out, but are you certain the lake water is potable?
My mom lives in a house on a lake in Maine, which used to have no well, just a pump from the lake. They got the water tested by the state, to see if they could drink it, and the conclusion was "absolutely not, not even if you boil it."

They used a water jug with a tap, kind of like this one, kept it on the counter filled with potable water at all times. They would fill it at friends' houses, or sometimes buy a couple of gallons of water at the grocery store and just pour it in.
posted by Adridne at 2:26 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I highly suggest you look into using a composting toilet. Or at the very least use the two bucket method. Otherwise.....blech.
posted by slime at 5:51 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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