Living off the grid seems almost unbearably idyllic. You wake up in the morning to chill, clear air, step onto your porch with your coffee, and hear no other human beings — just the birds and the wildlife on your homestead. Your water basin, which has collected rain from the night before, is full. Your electricity comes from solar panels, so each time you flip a switch, you’ve harnessed the power of the sun to light your home. You feel closer to yourself, to the earth, to the food you eat, and to the water you drink.
That’s how I look at it. But maybe you imagine people in Alaska living in the depths of the wilderness, or folks living out of a van or sheltering up in anti-government compounds in the South West.
Simple, right? Not quite.
If you’re looking to live off the grid — like so many of us have been dreaming about as climate change ravages cities and the pandemic made us crave space — there are some things you may want to consider. Why do you want to do it? What kind of off-the-grid dweller do you want to be? Can you afford the hefty up-front costs? And do you have what you’ll need? Do you have what it takes?
Why would you want to do it?
Peace and quiet
After Allie Curtin and her husband graduated college, they moved to Florida and “did the whole corporate job thing.” But they hated it. Their apartment was too small, and the city too loud.
And they aren’t alone. People are leaving big cities to move to smaller towns all across the U.S. They aren’t all necessarily trying to live off the grid — some are saving money because they can work remotely now, others are trying to get more space, and some are just sick of city life. Starting a family or taking care of elderly relatives can be an expensive and difficult thing to do in a big city, and might make more sense in a smaller town, too. But for the Curtin’s, it was clear: City life was not for them, and living off the grid was. They wanted to be closer to their families, and both of their jobs were moved fully remote.”It just didn’t fit our lifestyle at all,” Curtin told Mashable. “Nothing that we valued was there.”
The couple, who had both grown up in rural spaces, decided to build a home on a 70-acre plot of land in Kentucky, and live off the grid with their two big dogs. They’ve been sharing their journey of living off the grid on TikTok and YouTube and said one of the biggest draws was the peaceful environment.
Curtin said she knew the lifestyle they wanted — being surrounded by nature, far away from other people — was attainable, but the real pushing force behind their decision to live off the grid was the sustainability aspect.
“Sustainability has always been a really big thing for me,” she told Mashable. “And knowing that like using solar power and rain catchment is just so doable, but no one does it because it’s not already put in place.”
A report out of the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information that rainwater harvesting is the “most traditional and sustainable method” of collecting water for human use. And, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, solar power is monumentally better for the environment than other options, like taking power from the power grid. It combats greenhouse gas emissions, reduces collective dependence on fossil fuels — which traditional electricity is sourced from — and eliminates some air and water pollution that is not only bad for the earth but is also bad for public health.
Unfortunately, you can’t collect rainwater in every city or state. While most states allow you to do what you want, some states have heavily regulated rain collection laws, like Colorado and Utah.
The types of living off of the grid
No modern technology at all
This is likely what you think of in the Hollywood version of living off the grid — a single person, usually a man, who has apparently not seen a mirror or owned a beard trimmer in decades — living in a small cottage in the middle of the wilderness. He cooks everything on a wood-burning stove. Maybe he has a dog, or if he is Nicolas Cage, a truffle pig.
This can, of course, be done. It works well if you don’t have any interest in seeing anyone ever, can hunt and gather for food, and don’t need, like, a refrigerator.
Off of the government’s water and electricity grid
This is the choice the Curtin’s made. It means, basically, that you’re in charge of your water and electricity supply. Subcategories of simply living off the government’s grid include people who do van life and travel around in a vehicle or folks who live in RV’s and some tiny homes. These all come with their own special issues, though, like dealing with sewage. You might want to invest in a septic tank, or a compostable toilet, or come around to using an outhouse a la Shrek’s swamp.
The minimum of what you’ll need
Your own land
This should seem obvious, but at the very least you’re going to need to own your own plot of land. It’s going to need to be a plot of land that’s off the grid on its own — of course, it’s nearly impossible to go off the grid when you live in a gated community.
You’ll want to own a few acres of land, preferably miles away from the grid system, far away from strict building codes and permitting regulations. Thankfully, land in those areas tends to be less expensive with lower taxes. And you want to make sure that the land you choose matches your lifestyle goals. Since it’s such an intense call, you want to choose land that is right for you — and land that is legal for this type of lifestyle.
If there’s already a small cabin or home built on it, that could save you some time, but you still want to make sure it lines up with all of the legal checks you’d be looking for on open acreage. For the Curtin’s, that meant building a small house on a 70-acre plot of land in Kentucky, complete with their own water and power source. For others, that might look like living in a camper or an RV on your land.
Credit: courtesy: allie curtin
Credit: courtesy allie curtin
A water system
If you have any interest in drinking water, showering, brushing your teeth, and cooking, you’ll need some sort of system to access and store a lot of water. The most common types of water systems are rainwater collection systems or wells — the former likely being the more common and simpler option. Rainwater collection systems range from simple rain barrels that collect rainwater as it comes down to more elaborate systems with pumps, tanks, and purifiers. Most collect rainwater as it trickles down the gutters on your roof and collects into a dug swale that pushes the water towards a holding area. Collecting rainwater isn’t specific to off-the-grid livers. It’s fairly simple and even regular, on-the-grid homeowners can collect rainwater from their gutters in most locations, to use for everything from watering plants to bathing.
You’ll want to think carefully about which system is best for you because there are dozens that work pretty well! Take into consideration how much water you need to use every day, and how often it rains in your area. For instance, if it rains nearly every day, you might want a solid collection system but not as massive of a water storage tank. But, if it only rains a few times a year, you’ll want a storage tank that can hold you through the dryer months.
If you really want to live off the grid, you can try to not have any water systems and walk over to a nearby body of water. That is far less sustainable or reasonable a long-term option, though.
A power system
Solar power is really the way to go here. Most folks who live off the grid also have a generator to use as a backup power source, but having a solar power system can store far more power and it’s great for the environment. This is especially important if you’ll be working online from home. Then, you’ll need the power to charge your phone and computer, but also the power to fuel your internet hotspot. But generators are noisy, need a lot of gas or propane to run, and don’t work great for everything you need, so this is most ideal to use as a backup in case of emergency.
A wind turbine is a great option for a backup for solar power if you live in a place that doesn’t have sun year-round. Consider a few 250 Watt solar panels and a solid 250 to 500 Watt wind turbine. And it’s a good idea to have a backup generator, too. You’ll also want a place to store all of that power of the sun in a solar battery.
All of these options — from wind turbines to solar batteries — can be very expensive, but it’s an investment. Spending a few thousand dollars on this kind of power can be tough up front, but you may end up saving in the long run as you won’t have to pay for anything monthly.
All of these can help power your internet, which you’ll probably need if you work from home like the Curtin’s do. There are a variety of ways to set up off-the-grid friendly internet access, including cell phone hotspots with boosters, fixed wireless broadband, and satellite internet. No matter what, though, you’ll need some sort of power to ensure that these solutions work, whether that’s to charge your phone and laptop or to power the satellite.
As far as power for heat and cooling goes, most people who live off the grid will heat their homes with fire in a wood stove and cool it with fans. It’s not that uncommon for many people who live *on* the grid to not have access to power heat and cooling, so this shouldn’t be too much of a worry.
This isn’t completely necessary if you think you can live without any kind of power in your home — that means no electricity, no lights, no refrigerator, no internet, no oven or electric stove, no way to charge a cell phone.
You don’t actually have to have an entirely self-sufficient garden system in order to live off the grid. If you have a car and live a reasonable amount of time away from a grocery store, you can go shopping just like everyone else. But, for many people who live off the grid, living off of your own land is an important part of the experience and lifestyle. You may want to grow your own food since it will likely be difficult to access grocery stores on a regular basis. A traditional garden with some raised beds or a greenhouse with fruits and vegetables could be helpful. Consider also investing in some farm animals, like chickens for eggs or cows for dairy. You can also produce meat on your homestead if you have it set up for livestock. Then, your trips to town can be used exclusively for the necessities.
Communities and resources
If solo-living isn’t for you, there are other ways to live off the grid, like in communities and communes. But no matter what, living off the grid doesn’t have to be signing yourself up for a life of solitude. There are plenty of communities and resources around to help you when you get stuck, from online resources to Facebook groups.
At what cost?
The upfront cost of living off the grid can be very high. You have to buy land, everything you need to build an entire house, whatever power and water system you’ll need, and more. But once the upfront costs are covered, the rest gets a bit simpler. There are no subscription-type charges, you don’t have to pay Con Edison every month, and your rent is covered.