Living off-grid has only in recent times become a “trend.” Up until about 100 or so years ago, it was just called living! Everyone—from the richest emperor to the poorest peasant—lived off-grid, lighting their way without electricity, using water from some sort of natural source, and cooking on a woodstove. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting waves of commercialization and industrialization, those innovations in living quickly went from luxury to “necessity.” Now we find ourselves in a technological wonderland, where anything you want can arrive at your door with the click of a button, you can climate-control your house with your phone, and the kitchen in your home can go weeks without being used.
There are some of us who consider that wonderland to be a nightmare, however. Uncomfortable with the fragile dependency that such a grid-dependent life requires, some folks have chosen a direct about-face and are living off-grid in the 21st century. The motivating forces behind such a counter-cultural decision are as diverse as the people who choose it, whether they want to be in control of their resources, be more sustainable, keep historical ways alive, or just want to be left alone in a remote location.
As a result, the manifestation of that self-sufficient desire is equally as personalized. For the intrepid experimenter who just wants to get started on their own journey, however, sometimes it can be intimidating to figure out where, exactly, to start. Particularly if you haven’t yet found your land or are butting heads with an HOA regarding your non-conventional approach to life, trying to learn off-grid skills can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge.
I know the feeling. My husband and I have been slowly but surely switching from city-service dependency to off-grid self-sufficiency. We started this lifestyle change years before we finally found our acreage—practicing skills, and gaining experience even though we were living in an inner-city house on a postage stamp of land. In doing so, we learned a lot about how to change our mindsets as much as we changed our habits. It’s important for those starting out to note that choosing to live off-grid is more than just a hobby: it’s a complete lifestyle change that is years in the making. So, here are a few ideas we used along the way that you can use to practice living off-grid wherever you are.
Evaluate Your Resources
One of the first steps of off-grid living is to identify The Grid itself and how it has been interwoven into your lifestyle. You’ll have to mindfully look at the way you live. As you do, you will start discovering all the invisible, out-of-your-control ties that link you to a power grid, city water systems, food transport, or waste management.
The desire to separate from these systems of support requires you to start becoming the captain of your own ship, so to speak. It is exhilarating to be able to break free from being at the mercy of power outages or water bills. In order to get to that point, however, a lot… and I mean, a LOT of work needs to go into your personal declaration of independence. Turn it into a self-directed study: educate yourself on how The Grid works, take the time to learn about the huge array of alternate solutions, and try not to get involved in too many debates online about what “Off-Grid” really means in the meantime. Everyone has their own “perfect” definition—the important thing is to decide and to commit to yours.
Once you start identifying where you are depending on the Grid, you can start severing the unnecessary ties that link you to it. Remember, all of worldwide humanity was able to exist for millennia without it—you can too! One of the easiest places to start is with your appliances. Switch out that electric coffee maker for a French press. Trade your bread machine for a good arm workout. Donate your microwave and make much better food without it. Try mowing the lawn with a push mower, or confuse the joggers when you step out in the early dawn with a scythe (my favorite method of plant management!). If there is a task that you are currently doing only by the power of a machine, try to see how you can do it manually… or even go without it! You may find that there is some quiet pleasure to be found in the simple task of just doing things for yourself, even if that’s just whisking the butter and sugar together for cookies rather than running the hand mixer.
Many old-fashioned manual tools can be found cheaply at antique stores or even at thrift stores, but you need to know what to look for to spot the treasure hidden among the plastic junk. EBay can also offer some incredible discoveries. Some modern stores, such as Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio, also specialize in manual tools, often carrying products—and advice about them—that just can’t be found elsewhere.
These changes are very small, admittedly, but they start the process. During the early stages of the off-grid transition, the mental adjustment is even more important than the physical changes. If you are ready to take on the challenge and literally put things back in your own hands, you’ll be able to approach the much more difficult challenges on the road ahead.
Laundry can be a huge way to start thinking and acting with an off-grid perspective. Washing machines and driers are—frankly—huge, wasteful machines that we have learned to “need,” but that we can do much better without. You will have cleaner clothes, more space in your house, a much lower electricity bill, and a much more can-do attitude, guaranteed.
First, sell your dryer and learn how to line-dry your clothes. If you have the space for it in your yard, a clothesline will both dry and sun-sanitize clothing year-round. There’s a learning curve to it, of course, and sometimes you will be at the mercy of the weather. But the more you do it, the more naturally it will come. If you don’t have a yard, you can still dry clothes with an indoor clothes-drying rack—there are many styles and shapes that can be easily folded away when not in use.
(And don’t accept any protests about “crunchy towels” like I’ve heard from many detractors to my clothesline. If a slightly stiff, sun-dried towel is too big a hurdle for you to accept, then the off-grid life just isn’t for you!)
Once you get your clothesline game going strong, it’s time to put the washing machine on your local Craigslist and learn to do some manual laundry. You may wonder how in the world the mountain of clothes a family generates could possibly be washed by hand, and I am here to personally tell you that it is possible, and I don’t spend every waking moment of my life washing clothes, either. There are many ways to approach this chore—here are two tips I would give anyone trying it out:
First, stop making so much laundry in the first place. A washing machine is a crutch that teaches you that a towel used to dry off after showering is “dirty” and needs to be cleaned. I guarantee, once you start washing by hand, you will be a lot more discerning about what goes in the hamper. Many items merely need to be dried—better yet, dried in the sun—and then are perfectly suited to keep on being used until they’re actually dirty. Don’t toss a shirt into the pile unless it actually smells. If the jeans you got muddy today are just going to get muddy tomorrow when you return to the same project, they don’t need to be washed that evening! You’ll figure out your own house rules to suit your lifestyle.
Second, try to find a good, solid washing plunger. These are often hiding in the corners of antique malls. I have gone through numerous off-grid laundry devices, and they have all paled in comparison to this super-simple, sturdy tool. Paired with a 5-gallon bucket and a washing board, you will have clothes cleaner than any machine could ever do, and faster, too. On top of all that, you’ll be using hundreds of gallons of water LESS every month—excellent practice for when you get your water off-grid! If you want specifics on how I wash laundry with this system, let me know in the comments below and I’ll fill you in!
A woodstove isn’t merely a touch of primitive charm in the corner of a house. For many an off-grid home, it is the glowing, beating heart. Using a woodstove teaches you a huge array of lessons often necessary to the off-grid life. From chopping, seasoning, and storing wood, keeping the rhythm of tending a warm fire going all day, using it as a clothes-drier (just string a clothesline above it!), a hot water tank (many woodstoves can be adapted to warm shower water), or even cooking on it (our favorite dinner is a cooked-all-day beef stew, succulently simmered atop a blazing woodstove)—a woodstove is the perfect “gateway” lifestyle change that can really set you down a path of independence.
I have one word to the wise, however. If you are planning to move away from your current location to pursue the off-grid dream, installing a woodstove may make your current house a little harder to sell. This isn’t to say you should write off suburban woodstoves entirely—we had a woodstove in our inner-city house, and we loved it! It did take longer to find a buyer for our property who valued it as much as we did, though.
Though taking your water off-grid is often just not possible if you don’t have your own land, there are several changes to your routine that can get you ready for when that day comes.
First, learn to stop wasting water. Trust me, as someone who uses rain barrels and a manual pump for 100% of my family’s water, the idea of a hose running unattended, or a sink faucet running on full blast while doing dishes makes my eye start to twitch. The average American uses a staggering 80-100 gallons of water a day—a totally unsustainable amount for pretty much any off-grid system. The good news is, however, that humans need far, far less water to live comfortably and cleanly.
One way to use less water is to “cascade” your water use. I got this term from Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis From Greywater, and I use the philosophy daily. Basically, it means to use water multiple times for the progressively “dirtier” tasks that suit it. For example, if I used a pot of clean water to incubate yogurt, I can then heat that same water to wash dishes before I send it on its way. Or, the water used to wash hands can then be used to flush a toilet or to water the plants on the porch. The rinse-water from one load of manual laundry can become the wash water for the next load. The more you pay attention to your water use, the more you will innovate creative ways to use it well.
If you have a bit of land to work with, you can also install a rain barrel to take your gardening water or chicken-watering off the grid. There are many designs for this online, and it’s a project that can easily be completed in a weekend. We keep multiple rain barrels connected to the gutters of every animal shelter in our rain-catchment system—it makes getting them their daily H2O an absolute breeze!
Bonus Off-Grid Skill: Self-Employment
I list this one as the bonus because it probably sounds like an ambitious one. It is possible, however, to achieve freedom from the daily 9-5 grind no matter where you are. Being your own boss requires a ton of discipline, forethought, and hard work—all skills needed for the intrepid off-grid family. As a trade-off, however, you will be free from the much more psychological grid of a job that has you spending your time—your most precious asset—filling the coffers of a company, rather than with your family and land. Maintaining an off-grid lifestyle requires that time, whether you go for the high-tech version with solar panels and wind turbines or the humble, more rustic model of oil lamps and bucket-lugging. Being able to choose how to spend those irreplaceable hours is one of the biggest freedoms of all.
So even if you’re currently in a “normal” job, try experimenting with non-traditional ways to make money. Whether you can paint portraits, be a handyman, run your own lawn-care business, try out market gardening, sell carved wooden spoons, or write articles online, if you try hard enough and push past the inevitable initial failures, you can find your niche and make a living.
Obviously, this article isn’t enough information for mastery of any of these topics, but I hope it can be an encouragement and inspiration for the off-grid novice. If you want to get off-grid, the time to start is now—and maybe one of these points is just the challenge to get you rolling.
There’s much, much more to the full off-grid life than just these topics, of course—the more you learn, the more you’ll figure out how much more you need to learn. The pursuit is truly an adventure, though. As you reclaim more and more off-grid skills for yourself and your family, you will start to feel an indescribable feeling of freedom and self-sufficiency that only a few still know, even though these are skills that every human once owned until a few hundred years ago. Though it is a lot of work to uncover them—and trust me, I’m still learning more every season myself—I can personally vouch that it is worth it. I wouldn’t want to live any other life!
About the Author: First, Wren was an environmental educator and language teacher living in the city. Then, she and her husband decided to escape from the confines of city life and its dependence, and move their family to 12 acres in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, permaculture-based, off-grid homestead, one step at a time. She can be typically found armpit-deep in brush foraging, cooking on cast iron, talking to her ducks and chickens, pumping yet another bucket of water from the well, and, in quiet moments, sketching art around the homestead.