Press "Enter" to skip to content

Dirt-Cheap Survival Retreat (a book review)

Dirt-Cheap Survival Retreat: One Man’s Solution
By M.D. Creekmore
Available from Paladin Press
Available from
$12.00, 79 pages, 2011

While many would-be survivalists were waiting to win the lottery or planning to discreetly bump off a rich uncle to build their Ultimate Survival Retreat in Idaho (complete with underground bunkers, escape tunnels, a decade’s supply of dried lentils, and customized Super Whizz-Whacker 3000 rifles at every lead-shuttered portal) … a handful of authors have been telling us how to do it another way: cheap.

First came Brian Kelling with his Travel-Trailer Homesteading Under $5,000

Then along came Phil Garlington with his witty, irreverent, charming, and surprisingly practical Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead

This year they’re joined by one of the blogosphere’s most noted survival writers M.D. Creekmore of

Kelling and Creekmore both talk about travel-trailer living. Garlington leans more toward primitive structures. All three offer voice-of-experience advice suitable for both low-budget emergency retreats and year-round living. All three bring their own varieties of sage advice: Kelling gives the Cadillac plan (albeit a used Cadillac that’s probably been up on blocks for years), with details on how to create an in-ground homemade septic system and convert a travel trailer to wood heat. Garlington’s lifestyle and advice is for the real don’t-give-a-damn desert rat who loves to scrounge and improvise and doesn’t pay much heed to civilized amenities.

Kelling and Garlington’s books were published by the late, great Loompanics Unlimited and to the best of my knowledge are both out of print (though they’re available via the Amazon links above). So Creekmore is your #1 contemporary option for this sort of book.

And that’s good because his advice comes from a nice, comfortable spot in between his predecessors.


When Creekmore bought a couple acres of junk land and a travel trailer, he never intended to live there full time. He intended the place to be only a campsite and weekend getaway. But a layoff, a divorce, and increasing financial desperation drove him to the country. So he set about adapting his place as a permanent retreat.

He starts off by making one hugely important point about why a cheap retreat might be the way to go: If you don’t own your place outright, then you risk having a bank take it away from you just when you need it most. (Score one for M.D. Creekmore.)

He then goes on to give brief how-tos on:

  • Acquiring inexpensive off-grid land
  • Selecting and buying a trailer
  • Building a simple solar power system
  • Getting water and dealing with waste
  • Establishing security
  • Stockpiling water, food, guns, and other supplies

His writing style is clear. He definitely knows what he’s talking about (I, too, have lived in a travel-trailer on off-grid land and would spot any bogus advice). The slender book contains enough good information that you could slip it into your back pocket and consult it as you carried out your plans.

The subtitle is “One Man’s Solution” — and that it is. The book tells what Creekmore did and most of the detail he gives relates to his own experience. For instance, he talks at length (and shows photos) of his own solar power setup but merely mentions wind power in passing since he has little experience with it. That may be a drawback, but in a way it’s also a strength, since you can be sure that Creekmore knows what he’s talking about.

Some of his systems are simpler than what you might want. For instance, he tried Kelling’s homemade septic system, then found that it didn’t work for him because of local soil conditions. So he switched to a portable toilet and a labor-intensive “humanure” composting system. (His garden probably appreciates the change.)

Yet (with only a minor exception) he remains on track when it comes to guiding his readers toward their own goals. IMHO, the most useful thing about Dirt-Cheap Survival Retreat is that it lays out a pretty comprehensive outline of everything you need to consider in building a retreat. Your solutions might (and probably will) be slightly different than his. But he gives you a framework — a guideline to follow from start to finish.

He delivers some excellent reality checks: you will be chilly in cold weather; you will steam inside your tin-can refuge in the summer. You can mitigate these problems, but you won’t eliminate them.

The one place he went astray made me laugh. On the penultimate page, in a list of otherwise very well thought-out miscellaneous items you might want for stocking your dirt-cheap retreat, he recommends “$1,000 worth (face value) of pre-1965, 90% silver U.S. dimes.”***

In your dreams, M.D. Creekmore! At the moment my review copy arrived from Paladin Press, $1,000 worth of pre-1965 U.S. coins was selling for close to $40,000. Even at the currently reduced “bargain” price of $37+ per ounce of silver, that bag of coins would set you back more than $27,000. Would it be a lovely, lovely asset to possess? You betcha. Will it become even a more blessed thing as the U.S. dollar tanks? Oh, indeed. But how it fits into a dirt-cheap plan — now, that’s another thing.

Try to budget for a $100 face bag of those coins. Or buy $10 face every time you get a little extra money in, or even $1 face. You’ll be glad you did. But don’t intimidate yourself by thinking that a “dirt-cheap” plan should include a small fortune in coins. With the lifestyle implied by a dirt-cheap budget, when the really hard times hit you’re more likely to scrounge, barter, make do, or do without than you are to whip out a fistful of silver dimes and impress your neighbors (and any burglars or tax-leeches who may be around) with your newfound wealth.

But that’s a nitpick. Creekmore has produced, and the good folk at Paladin have published, an inexpensive, useful guide to both budget-minded living and inexpensive retreat building.

Above all, as the author writes, don’t be afraid to live as he does or prepare a retreat as simply as he did — if the idea intrigues you:

Some people prefer a life of simplicity to a “normal” stressed existence. Others want to eliminate debt and the possibility of homelessness after an economic collapse or personal economic downturn.

Some people may be reluctant to embrace such a stripped-down lifestyle for fear of what others will think of them. …

To those who fear the hardships involved or doubt their ability to live off the grid, let me assure you: your fears are unfounded. Before making the move, I too had thoughts of ruination — yet I suffered no hardships to speak of. In fact, I’m actually content for the first time in my life.

*** ADDED: Be sure to read M.D. Creekmore’s comment below. And heaven save all us writers from awkward typos.


  1. M.D. Creekmore
    M.D. Creekmore May 27, 2011 2:56 pm


    Actually the “$1,000 worth (face value) of pre-1965, 90% silver U.S. dimes.” recommendation is a typo it was supposed to be $100. I’ve read over it several times and never noticed it thank you for pointing it out. I’ll contact Paladin and have it corrected for the next printing.

    Thank you for the review.

  2. Claire
    Claire May 27, 2011 3:08 pm

    Hey, M.D. Creekmore. That was fast! And you know, now that I think about it, the $100 recommendation does seem MUCH more like you.

    I’ll add a note to the review to make sure readers see your comment.

    And thanks for the book! I enjoyed it very much and I think you’ve created a seriously useful guide.

  3. Kyle MacLachlan
    Kyle MacLachlan May 27, 2011 4:16 pm

    Claire, you mentioned a “labor-intensive humanure composting system”. I don’t know the exact sysytem M. D. Creekmore is (has been) using, but I myself have used the one that is described in Mr. Jenkins “The Humanure Handbook” for the past four years and it is not labor-intensive at all. It takes only about ten minutes once a week to empty and rinse out the bucket (I live by myself and haven’t taught Powder [my black Lab] how to use it yet :-)). But it is indeed great for gardening since ( after the two year decomposing period) you have a more or less endless supply of rich, black topsoil-like dirt. And yes, you CAN use it on your vegetable garden (I have for the past three years) and you will still be alive to talk about it, contrary to some of my friend’s predictions. The book itself is well worth buying (or borrowing) since it has a wealth of related info and once you’ve read it , you’ll really know your #?*! ;-). There has also been a small article in BHM this year about the same toilet; it was in the March/April issue.

    P.S.: How are the dogs doing with their packs?

  4. Claire
    Claire May 27, 2011 4:31 pm

    Kyle MacLachlan — I believe that’s the same system mentioned in Creekmore’s book. The setup for it appears labor-intensive (as does the setup for much composting) and it obviously requires much more attention than a septic system. But “labor intensive” is of course in the eye of the beholder, and I know that some things are more complicated to describe than to do.

    Thanks for asking about dog packing! I was just thinking yesterday that it may soon be time to write an update. The advice you gave, particularly about balancing the weight between the packs, was hugely helpful. Ava (the only dog packing, on orders from my vet) still isn’t sure what she thinks of her backpack. But she’s calmly carrying water bottles and library books between here and town.

  5. Jake MacGregor
    Jake MacGregor May 27, 2011 5:16 pm

    i’ll buy a print copy, but I have TBI (traumatic brain injury) as disabled Vet … any notion Claire or MD when this could be available in Kindle as many of us with TBI can read ‘on-screen’ but not so easily print

    thanks Claire for bringing this to our attention, and kudos on the book MD!

  6. Claire
    Claire May 27, 2011 6:37 pm

    Jake MacGregor — Damn, that’s bad about the TBI. I know from experience that it hasn’t affected your brain’s “kindness center” (wherever that may be located). But not to be comfortable reading books — ack!

    Well, thank heaven for Kindle, then. I’ll have to leave the answer to your question to M.D. Creekmore. He’d know more about plans for his own book. But the last I heard from Paladin Press, they were planning to release certain previously out-of-print books in e-versions (including my Think Free to Live Free and Kill the Job Culture books), but no current titles.

  7. M.D. Creekmore
    M.D. Creekmore May 27, 2011 8:15 pm

    Jake MacGregor,

    I’ll have to check with Paladin to be sure, but I’m not aware of any plans to do so at this time. Sorry to hear about your TBI – my father had the same type of injury from a logging accident.

  8. Jake MacGregor
    Jake MacGregor May 28, 2011 8:37 am

    kindness center – hah! if only my kids read that :>)

    many thanks to both of you for looking into this … i used to read 300 to 400 books a year and had a ‘photographic’ memory … now, i can’t remember what i had for breakfast! :>)

    i stumbled upon kindle for ipad because we had purchased an ipad for our son with down syndrome – an amazing device for those with special needs (which apparently i am now)

    it has been an amazing re-discovery of something i was so passionate about … i now ‘read’ 2 to 3 books a week via the ipad (when i can wrestle it away from my son) …

    reading again quite literally bringing tears to this old battered face

    i’d say, honestly, i am bed bound about 23 hours a day and to regain the gift that is reading, the portal to the world, well … it has been life giving

    so much so that i began to write again after a 6 year absence … i was a published non-fiction writer (best selling book under different name) and hundreds of articles … all came to a screeching halt 6 years ago … i have no pretense that my writing will be good again, but it does fill a hole in my soul

    so, please, when any of either of your works becomes available on any e-book platform, i would be very grateful

    and as fitting on memorial day weekend, semper fidelis

  9. Desertrat
    Desertrat May 28, 2011 6:39 pm

    “(I, too, have lived in a travel-trailer on off-grid land and would spot any bogus advice).” Claire, I never commented in the days when you were writing from the desert, but I just figured you’d picked the wrong desert community. Ours is far more supportive of such efforts.

    Humanure? The Koreans have been using that for how many thousand years? My nose discovered that endeavor some fifty-seven years ago. 🙂

  10. Ellendra
    Ellendra May 28, 2011 10:10 pm

    There’s a book I stumbled across called “The $50 or Less Underground House Book’ that might also be an option for some people. I know my land has no place flat enough to park a travel-trailer, but I could dig into the side of the hill and build that way.
    (Not quite ready to start digging yet, but working on the other obstacles as I’m able)

    Jake, in the last few years I’ve fought my way through some health problems which, while different in origin, had a similar effect. I think I can empathize.

  11. M.D. Creekmore
    M.D. Creekmore May 29, 2011 12:21 pm


    I don’t see a way to email you directly here – if you could email me privately that would be great. I have a suggestion for you…

  12. Claire
    Claire May 29, 2011 2:24 pm

    Ellendra — I know that book! I agree, it’s very good. Given inflation, I doubt that $50 would do the trick any more. (It never would have gotten you very far n the first place.) And I’m sure you know that building underground can present all manner of difficulties. But I’m with you. My ideal survival retreat would be earth-bermed, at the very least.

    M.D. Creekmore — I’ve emailed.

Leave a Reply