The cicadas are rasping out a mid-summer melody. The air is still, the heat on the road wavering the image of distant grass in a mirage-like undulation of color. The dogs are spread on the bare dirt beside the porch, tongues lolling out and sides heaving. And in the house and in the fields of the off-grid homestead, the people are living much as all of humanity did—staying cool without air conditioning.
On a homestead like ours, that’s perfectly okay. Years after moving from the city, we have learned many ways to work outside and to live reasonably comfortably in a house without air-conditioning. There are lots of hacks and tricks you can find online to mimic the effects of an air conditioner, but we prefer to view living in the raw conditions as a lifestyle choice, and we embrace it wholeheartedly. Maybe these tips for staying cool without air conditioning from our homestead can make life more enjoyable on yours.
Change Your Perceptions
Of all the tips I have to offer, this is the most crucial. In the modern age, we have made a business and a lifestyle of manipulating our environment to best suit our desires and avoid discomfort—nowhere, in my opinion, is this more evident than indoors in the summer. Though the sun may be blazing outdoors, all stores, restaurants, and the majority of homes are refrigerated in an arctic flurry of artificially cooled air. I’ve seen the buildings at a university somehow kept at a frigid 63 degrees Fahrenheit on 90+ degree days. Every time I visited, I’d have to do the odd task of packing a sweater so that I could go indoors. I can’t even imagine the amount of energy it takes to maintain that temperature over thousands and thousands of square feet. Environmental and economic concerns (of which there are plenty) aside, I want to know what toll it takes on the human body to be whip-lashed through such engineered changes in temperature!
We act as if human beings are so fragile that we can’t possibly be exposed to the discomfort of the outdoors for longer than the trip from our Freon-frozen cars to the blizzard-blasted buildings that we hide in. The reality is, healthy human beings are a whole lot tougher than that. We were able to exist and thrive for thousands of years before air conditioning!
So if you’re looking for ways to stay cool off-grid, or at least without air conditioning, I offer this all-important tip: change your perceptions. Expect to feel hot in the summer. Expect to sweat. Expect high humidity. Expect that you may feel discomfort (gasp!). Embrace reality, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist in an artificially frozen house.
The first season you accept that Summer Is Hot, you may be uncomfortable. Your shirts will be sweaty, and while the house can offer shade, it sometimes does little to change how the heat feels. Sleeping may be a bit rough during the nights when the humidity is high and the temperatures stay in the 70’s. But hang in there! All of humanity, no matter what latitude, used to live in this reality! You will get tougher. Eventually, your body will adapt to the seasons, just like the animals do, and you may be surprised to find that you can tolerate the heat just fine. Of course, there are smart changes you can make to your lifestyle and living space that can help you manage the temperature (such as the points below), but none of them will work unless you are willing to see yourself as a real, adaptable person living in a real, variable environment, rather than merely a sweaty victim of an air-conditionerless abode.
Become Your Own Weatherman
People who live and work on their own land know that talking about and thinking about the weather is far more than a conversation topic for uninspired people. Our days are colored and flavored by the sun, rain, wind, and heat, and we work in it all. And if you also live off-grid, the temperature and humidity are even more a presence in daily life, as both your indoor living space and outdoor workspace are directly affected by it.
If you are equipped with a little bit of weather knowledge, you can use the changes in weather to naturally cool your home with some careful displacement of air. I highly recommend that you install some sort of weather monitor in your home—one that records temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, at the least. With these three readings of your surroundings, you will be able to respond to the opportunities the weather gives you to cool off your home.
In all but the hottest parts of the summer, the early morning air is much cooler than the stale air trapped inside the house overnight. If you open the windows and doors in the morning—and you’ll need to open more than one, so that the air can both flow in and out—you can swap out your muggy house air for some fresh morning air. Once the house has cooled, close the windows and doors again as the sun rises and begins to heat up the world for the day.
In the afternoon, when the sun’s at its worst, check the humidity levels both inside and outside the house. The temperature doesn’t really matter—if the humidity outside is lower than the humidity inside, get those windows and doors open again until the humidity inside the house lowers again. You will feel relief from the heat immediately as the air rushes through.
If desired, close the doors and windows once the humidity levels regulate. If you decide to leave the windows and doors open for the rest of the evening and night, be aware that as the sun goes down, the humidity often rises again, and that can put a lot of moisture back into the house. It may be so hot, however, that you don’t really care.
Another opportunity for a quick air-swap in the house is when a storm front is coming through. Watch the barometric pressure—if it has a sudden drop, as it often does when a pop-up summer thunderstorm is looming, get those windows and doors open as the cool rush of pre-storm air blows through. Instant cooling!
This may sound complicated, but if you start to live in tune with the outdoors and the weather, it can become second nature. You may even start to appreciate living so connected and in tune with the reality of the world around you!
Watch The Animals to Know When to Work
If you keep animals for any length of time, you may notice that they have a certain schedule every season. In the summer, the mornings are full of activity—searching for food and water, hunting, crowing, and so on. But once midday hits, the homestead falls strangely silent. The cat is tucked away in the shadowy corner of the porch. The chickens lie low, preening. All the ducks are asleep under the truck. The goats chew their cud beneath the favorite tree. Do you notice a trend? Once the sun is at its most direct and damaging, the animals take cover and wait until the later afternoon offers some relief.
If you homestead full-time and work from home like many of us do, you have the opportunity and gift of creating your own schedule. And though homesteaders have really demanding physical tasks as part of day-to-day life, there’s no boss out there demanding that you do it all between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm. This means that you can adjust with the seasons, as all other living things do (what a nice return to a natural rhythm!). And if you notice that every creature in view is lying low under the blazing midday sun, perhaps you should think twice about going back out to do hard work after lunch. Maybe it’s time to take a siesta. Once the sun is well past its zenith and the world begins to move around again in the late afternoon, it’s a much safer and more natural time to pick up hard physical work around the homestead again.
Here’s a summer work schedule to consider if you live in an area with hot, humid summers:
5 or 6 am: Wake up, cook and eat breakfast in the cool of the morning, open the windows and doors to let the cool morning air into the house.
7:30-11 am: Do chores; work on hard physical tasks.
11-2 pm: Cook and eat lunch, rest and digest, write, read, and stay out of the sun.
2-4 pm: Work on not-as-physically-demanding tasks in the shade or inside.
4-6 pm: Cook and eat dinner.
6-9 pm: Evening chores; go back to hard physical tasks until the sun goes down.
The warm, inviting smells of food cooking in the oven is one of the best things to greet you on a cold winter’s afternoon. But in the summer, particularly if you live off-grid, the kitchen can become a torture chamber. Meals need to be cooked every day, of course, but when you’re battling humidity and rising temperatures to moderate the indoor temperature, the idea of turning on an oven and boiling water is somewhat equal to shooting yourself in the foot.
Once you’ve mastered the art of balancing morning and afternoon humidity, that pot of cooking noodles becomes an enemy. The casserole that needs an hour and a half at 425 F will make it feel like you’re cooking the whole house at 425.
So here’s a tip taken from generations of women who live and feed their families in sweltering climates: cook outside. From Mexico to India, much of humanity is well acquainted with cooking outside. The energy-guzzling, wasteful luxury of artificially climate-controlling your living space and then blasting an oven to cook your food is a first-world norm that is simply madness when you take a step back and look at it.
So are you limited to simply grilling out every meal? Hardly! There are dozens of forms the outdoor summer kitchen could take, from a simple electric burner on the front porch, to a classic charcoal grill, to a full-on, brick-and-mortar structure with seating and a fire pit. I challenge you to consider the following options—they have saved my homestead a ton of energy and have made wonderful meals, from early-morning breakfasts to dinner parties with friends.
Solar Ovens: Though it’s pricey, the All-American SunOven is totally worth the investment. The SunOven gives you your oven back in the summer, converting the blazing summer sunlight into breads, pies, casseroles, baked potatoes, stuffed peppers, and more. It’s off-grid, it’s simple to use, and all it requires is a sunny, flat-ish spot. Solar Ovens are limited to sunny days (obviously) but in the summer, these are in ample supply.
Portable Range: These can be bought very cheaply at Big-Box stores—you may even have one in the basement for use during potlucks or parties. Set it out on a table on the front porch, and you now have the ability to boil noodles, fry up that fresh fish or garden zucchini, or heat up the teapot without bringing extra heat into your home.
Air Fryer: I know these have been super trendy lately, but they’re also secretly a great way to have yet another outdoor cooking option. Set it out on the porch (next to your portable burner, of course), and you have a way to “bake” rain or shine. For scratch cooking, the air fryer is great for making french fries, biscuits, fried chicken, or even cookies (though all of these dishes will require you to mess around with the recipe until you figure out a mixture that works for this rather unusual method of cooking).
Fire Pit(or Grill): If you simply have a safe place to build a fire and a means of positioning a cooking vessel over it, you can cook more dishes than you realize. From simmering spicy curries, searing roti, simmering rice, roasting eggplant, and grilling the classic burger, a well-built, low-burning fire has been the cooking method of choice for far, far longer than any appliance you now rely on. Get your fire-building skills up to par, invest in some solid cast iron cookware, and take the time to practice cooking your favorite dishes over a live flame—you will be amazed at what can be done! (Related: A Practical Guide for Cooking Outside 365 Days a Year)
Arm Yourself with Proper Attire when Working in the Sun.
The modern approach to going out in the sun is tragically childish and ignorant. Because it’s hot, people wear less clothing—sometimes barely any at all. Because they know the sun can burn them, they put the whole of their trust in a tube of chemical sunscreen that they slather over their entire surface. And since they want to do what they want to do when they want to do it (or when their boss tells them they have to do it) they go out in the hottest parts of the day to play or work and wonder why they’ve gotten sunstroke.
We can do better. We have, actually, for thousands of years! Let’s take a look at two historical and brilliant ways to protect yourself that work a whole lot better than sunscreen.
Enter the hat. Hats used to be a really important part of daily wear. Much more than a fashion statement, they protected the wearer from the direct effects of the sun’s intensity. Look at any historical image of a farmer in his field or a herdsman, from any culture. You’ll notice that they all always have hats or some sort of head covering. And what many historic hats feature—that a modern ballcap notably lacks—is a covering that shades the neck as well.
The head is what is most exposed to the sun, and covering the head and face with a hat—particularly when working long hours outside—is an essential precaution against getting overheated. Covering the back of the neck is also crucial, as it is an area of the body where the brain stem is actually a bit exposed. If the head and neck aren’t protected while working outside, exhaustion, headaches, and weakness will soon approach. If you don’t have a hat with a wide enough brim, you can easily adapt any hat to have a neck shade by simply tucking a handkerchief into the back of the hat and letting it drape down to your shoulders.
This next tip may take some modern westerners by surprise as we seem to be fans of wearing as little as possible in the summer months. Covering your arms and legs when outside in the sun is actually a huge way to protect yourself—the nomadic, desert-dwelling Bedouins of the Arab Peninsula knew this for centuries. The skin is a huge organ, covered with sweat glands that allow moisture to be released and cool the body. But when bare skin is exposed to hot sun and hot wind, the moisture in your body can be lost at dangerous speeds. Covering your arms and legs gives a layer of protection from that exposure. This works best if the clothing is lightweight and light in color. An ideal set of summer work clothes are a white linen shirt and linen pants—you can often find these cheap at a thrift store. Get a couple of shirts so that when you sweat through one, you can put on a fresh one.
So sure, you may look a bit funny to the neighbors in your mismatched, dirt-smeared white linen shirt and pants and a wide-brimmed hat, but you’ll be able to sleep without a headache that night. To me, that’s totally worth it.
I hope that with these tips, the summer for all my fellow off-grid homesteaders will be just a little bit more healthy and comfortable. And if you’re looking to wean yourself from the energy-guzzle of the air conditioner (or you find that it’s suddenly broken and don’t know what to do next) you now have some ideas to try out. Let me know how it works for you in the comments below!
About the Author: At 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 of land 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.