Not too big, not too small, a small cabin can strike just the right balance between tiny home living and an oversized escape. And a smaller footprint doesn’t mean innovative, modern, and sustainably-minded design needs to be sacrificed.
With cabin living and downsizing on the rise, the increase in popularity of these small structures is a sign of the times and there are plenty of creative designs to choose from. On the hunt for your own small cabin in a dreamy location? Here’s the Field Mag guide to buying, choosing, and building the small cabin you’ve always wanted.
Getting Started And Buying A Small Cabin
From a rustic log cabin to a small, serene cottage or even a modern tiny home, there is a wide variety of small cabins to choose from that would suit most any design lover’s style. Since there are no hard and fast rules that dictate what a small cabin is or is not, there is plenty of flexibility to either customize your cabin or go for a classic design. At the end of the day, your wants, needs, budget, and skill set will be the driving forces behind choosing a small cabin that’s right for you and help cut through the noise to select the perfect space that gets you closer to the outdoors and feeling at home wherever you are.
Whether this is a vacation home or your primary dwelling, it all starts with getting small cabin savvy and learning about the different kinds of options and possibilities. In this section, we’ll cover the types of cabins, cabin kits, and plans that go far beyond the traditional log cabin or hunting cabin of yore, for a glimpse into the modernized cabins to fulfill your escapist daydreams.
The Different Types Of Small Cabins
A small cabin can be as extravagant or pared back as you want but first, you’ll have to decide how to build the space that will eventually be replete with amenities, a cozy wood stove or mid-century mod fireplace (or go big and add a hot tub!) and whatever else you want to add for that personal touch that makes it feel like home.
There are three ways to do this: purchase small cabin floor plans, buy a prefab cabin kit from a manufacturer, or build your cabin house from the ground up. Unless you have the skills, experience, a licensed architect, general contractor, and construction crew to build the small cabin, a better way forward would be to purchase cabin plans or a prefab cabin kit instead.
The difference between small cabin plans and a prefab cabin kit is that a prefab — short for “prefabricated” — refers to a structure that has been designed and manufactured off site at a factory, which then gets delivered to the building site. It’s a broad term that covers everything from log cabin kits to cottages, to a modular cabin that is easily scalable if you need to add more bedrooms or increase the floor plan of a smaller cabin (think: adding a covered porch or loft area). Alternatively, a house plan gives you only the blueprint and detailed instructions for how to build a small cabin, but you’ll have to source the materials and hire workers yourself.
Just how small are these cabins?
It can vary from something as compact as a tiny home, which can be range from 100 to 400 square feet or less, to a not-so-tiny cabin that is 1100-1600 square feet, or even up to 2,000, according to some. Ultimately, a small cabin is smaller than the average 2500 square-foot home. The exact footprint is up to you.
Within all of this are many different types of small cabin styles for ease of customization. Don’t feel limited by starting with small cabin plans because there are plenty of ways to expand and add on more space to create your perfect cabin. In fact, beginning with a small and cozy cabin can be a great jumping-off point for new cabin owners who want to gain experience then expand the floor plan beyond the basics and make this a dream getaway. Keep your small cabin plans flexible and you can potentially include a spacious great room, additional bedrooms, and bathrooms or totally change up your cabin design.
Additionally, making use of your exterior livable space by incorporating a wraparound porch, a fire pit, or guest house on the property can maximize space and make it more enjoyable regardless of modifications.
How Much Does It Cost To Build A Small Cabin?
This depends on many factors. Buying cabin plans or a small cabin kit cuts out the preliminary work and costs of hiring an architect and may or may not reduce the amount you spend on building supplies and materials. However, a prefab home is typically 10-20% cheaper than new construction, depending on the square footage. Prices can range from as low as a couple thousand to well over $200,000 USD for a fully-assembled kit home. Many are designed to be affordable, but there are still plenty of expenses and the total can add up quickly.
When setting your budget, it’s essential to factor in the cost of land and site prep. This may include engineering fees for a site survey and soil perc testing to confirm septic compatibility, substantial costs for septic installation and well drilling, or hookup fees if connecting to municipal utilities like water, electricity, sewer, and cable. Researching each cost (which can easily add $25k) is necessary for accurate budgeting.
In general, always round up when estimating costs. It's better to be prepared to pay more and be pleasantly surprised when a service or material is cheaper than find yourself scrambling to cover unexpected costs. Talk to your cabin kit manufacturer about the possibility of financing and insuring your small cabin. In some cases, a factory built home can qualify for a Home Construction Loan if it meets the lender’s requirements, so you don’t have to pay the total cost upfront.
How Does One Build A Small Cabin?
Everyone’s process is different and it might be harder to build a small cabin for some than it is for others. A lot depends on what you’re looking for (family-friendly complete with a bunk bed, sleeping loft, and screened porch?) and where your build site is located (a remote lake house with a hand-built stone fireplace?), as well as transportation of materials and supplies. The building and prepping process can be complicated, but doing the proper prep, research, and legwork in advance can help everything run smoothly. Before you begin to build, check these tasks off your list:
Prepare your build site - Level the ground, pour a concrete foundation big enough for your cabin—or install ground screws or another foundation—make sure there is easy access to the area. Have a professional crew ready to help unload the kit on delivery day.
Get a permit - Check with your local municipality to find out if you need a permit to build your small cabin kit. This will depend on the size, location, codes, and regulations of each jurisdiction. Most local governments require a permit if the square footage exceeds 150, but plan in advance to find out.
Plan for delivery and assembly - If you’re using a kit ask the manufacturer what to expect for delivery day. Ask about transportation: do they need a two-lane road for a semi-truck to drive to your site or heavy machinery like a forklift to receive and assemble the prefab cabin? Are they providing builders or are you in charge of hiring a crew? Even if it can be completed during a long weekend with as few as 2-3 people, like the 10' x 10' micro cabin by DEN, assembling a kit will very likely require the assistance of skilled professionals who can operate heavy machinery. If it’s not a kit, you will need to be well-prepared with all of the supplies, tools, materials, and an experienced crew to build.
Detailed instructions and plans- If using a kit or a small cabin plan, these are the most vital resources to have on assembly day. These should be provided by the manufacturer at the time of purchase, well ahead of delivery, and will give you the most detailed information on how to construct your cabin. Reach out to them ahead of time to have everything ready.
Tools and supplies - Each small cabin build is unique, however, you’ll want to have the following materials on-hand and ready for construction: tarps and shelter to protect materials from moisture or weather, ladders, hammers, tape measure, high speed, and electric drill, wire cutter, pipe clamps, caulk gun, drill bit, screw gun and utility knives, and other carpentry tools.
Off-Grid Small Cabins
If you decide to level up your rustic cabin and go off-grid, then you have to find solutions for power, water, and septic.
Heating, cooling, and powering your cabin can be done with renewable energy like solar panels, which require ample sunlight, proper roofing, installation, and a steep upfront cost for this worthy investment. Lucky for the A-Frame obsessed, A-Frame cabins are easier to take off-grid because their triangular build is naturally energy-efficient, as are well-built small log cabins that have tight seams for great insulation. Both of these iconic builds can be made sustainable, whether you’re going with an A-Frame or rustic log home kit for your cozy retreat or even a reliable rental cabin.
Instead of connecting to the local water supply, you’ll have to find easy access to a nearby water source that is safe enough to use for drinking, cooking, and cleaning, like a well or spring.
Finally, an off-grid solution for managing your septic is to build a privy. It’s low cost and low maintenance but does require additional construction and of course, willing users. Alternatively, you can install a composting toilet.
The Best Small Cabin Kits
We’ve scoured the internet to find some of the best small cabin manufacturers designing the dreamiest modern cabins, that run the gamut in price, style, and design. Accessible for first-timers and seasoned small cabin owners, many of these prefab cabin kits and small cabin plans have a naturally modern aesthetic, sustainable features, and innovative designs.
MANTA NORTH - Starting at $169,000, this innovative small prefab cabin can be purchased in just a few clicks with solar options and other add ons. The differentiating factor is that it can be delivered to your door and set-up in a single day, so you can move right into your very own small cabin.
NOLLA ZERO - The Nolla Zero prefab cabin is renewable-energy powered and minimalism driven, cutting a striking image into its surroundings while leaving little impact on the earth at just 97 square feet.
AUX BOX - Created by a Canadian design studio, these plug-and-play modular bonus rooms provide extra space for an art studio, working from home, overnight guests for cabin rentals—with no permit needed. The largest cabin maxes out at just 220-square-feet and a cost of $58,000 USD/$80,000 CAD.
DEN- The New York-based design studio offers many cabin plans and makes one of our favorite full DIY A-Frame micro cabin kits, shipping flat packed with everything needed for your kit assembly, for just $21,000 USD. These beautiful designs could even make a great guest house for a modern twist on a country cozy cottage.
BACKCOUNTRY HUTS - Canada-based Backcountry Hut Company is owned and operated by an architect and lifelong outdoorsman. A leader in design (but not necessarily price), the experienced and trusted brand offers three modular cabin designs—plus a sauna—that go far beyond the classic chalet or mountain cabin style—Systems 00, 01, and 02—each capable of being shipped pre-cut, flat-pack, and assembled almost anywhere in North America, with a focus on delivering and installing in remote locations. You could basically start up your own modern campground. Though be warned, the cost of these kits is for the shell alone—you will still need to design and construct the interior on your own.