Any walk of life has its own set of harsh stereotypes associated with it. All doctors have bad handwriting. All good chefs are fat. All actresses are divas. All car salesmen are sleazebags. Of course, it doesn’t matter if there’s actually any truth in the statement: if you fall into the category in question, you’ll have to contend with a set of assumptions well before anyone really knows you for who you really are. Off-grid folks are no exception.
Whether it’s because the term has become popular from being portrayed on reality TV shows, or the perceptions are just the inevitable result of the zeitgeist of our modern age, if you say you “live off-grid,” you’ll immediately be endowed with a set of presumptions about the nature of your life. As a member of that often-misunderstood population, I’d like to delve into some of the truths and lies that I’ve contended with through my (continuing) off-grid journey. Even if the discussion doesn’t change the somewhat sideways set of generalizations about this sort of life, perhaps this article can offer a laugh, a bit of solidarity to those who have also gone through some of these misconceptions, or a more honest explanation to those who are curious about what it’s really like to actually live off the grid.
Off-Grid toilets are disgusting.
I know this is an oddly specific one to start with, but I only begin here because it has come up so… many… ridiculous… times. The gateway to deciding whether or not off-grid living is a good idea, apparently, is sitting in the bathroom between the sink and the tub. Freud would have a field day.
For those who have decided that the only acceptable way to do your daily doo is into a clean, white bowl filled with fresh, potable water, the thought of any other method shocks and appalls them. If folks find out that I employ an off-grid toilet system in my own home (a fact I typically don’t share for this very reason), the routine response is almost always suppressed horror, disgusted curiosity, and then a casual statement about how they couldn’t even think about life without flush toilets.
The truth of the matter is that lots of us off-grid folk find using that fresh, potable water to fill a chemically cleaned bowl, and then throwing feces and urine into that receptacle so that it can be pumped to a distant processing plant to either be converted into fertilizer or dumped back in the river, actually quite bizarre. We don’t want to be connected or dependent on a system that is outside of our control, especially when it comes to such a basic need as using the toilet. Furthermore, some off-grid folks who are also concerned with self-sufficiency understand that it’s madness to flush away fertilizer, and then also buy it from the store.
(You don’t have to take my word for that, either: the 1914 book Farmers of Forty Centuries goes into great detail on how the scrupulous repurposing of “night soil” was one of the keys to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean farmers’ ability to grow abundant food from the same plots for thousands of years. More recently, The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins goes into encyclopedic and scientific detail on how you can harvest abundant soil fertility from what some call “waste.” )
Bottom line (ugh, that pun!), off-grid toilets sound yucky in theory, but the truth is that, in their various incinerating or composting forms, they can be extremely hygienic, smell-free, and waste-free as well. As with on-grid toilets, it’s all in how they are maintained. Don’t judge one until you actually try one.
Everyone who lives off-grid is some sort of paranoiac militia-member prepper type.
Obviously, some folks who live off-grid are parts of local militias, and many are preppers as well. That stereotype does have a ring of truth, even though the reasons for doing so can be very sane indeed. But some of us consider ourselves homesteaders, some are city escapees who couldn’t stand the rat race, and some of us are doing it just because we feel called to this life for personal reasons. If you actually ask an off-grid person why they decided to do what they do, you’ll find that the reasons for setting off on your own are as varied as the people who have decided to do it.
Some folks are off-grid because it’s currently trendy and they know they can earn “clout” online (they’ll switch lifestyles if others are more profitable, don’t worry). Others really are fearful of everything and have retreated to the forest for some sort of safety away from the maddening crowd. Some just don’t trust their government. Others just want to take responsibility for their own needs. Some don’t want to make a harmful impact on the environment anymore. Some hate everyone and just want to be left alone. Others want to keep the “old ways” alive and aren’t that razzle-dazzled by the thought of booping a phone for their mass-produced food to be delivered so they can eat it in front of their smart TV in their three-day-old pajamas. And some of us wouldn’t change lifestyles even if the world was perfect and we had all the money in the world: we just love living this way.
The point I’m trying to make is this: get 50 off-grid folks in a room, and you’ll have 50 different origin stories and 50 different sets of opinions and world views, guaranteed.
Off-Grid kids aren’t getting the same support, education, or socialization as “normal” kids.
People who move off-grid on their own certainly can get a lot of flack from the folks they left behind. But the true motherlode of flack is reserved for families who have decided to raise their children in the country off-grid. You need nerves and a constitution of steel to weather the constant questions and “concerns” about the children’s well-being, often fueled by sensational, debatably “true stories” found online.
I find the criticism levied at off-grid families somewhat darkly humorous, however. When I still lived and worked in the city, I taught environmental education. Part of my job was to “reconnect children with nature and instill personal responsibility.” Do you know what their parents paid me to do? To take the kids on backpacking trips in the wilderness, where we cooked their food over fire, slept in tents, and did as bears do in the woods. We lived a week, totally off-grid, for all intents and purposes, and everyone cheered because the kids were learning lessons that they never got in public school.
For many off-grid families, outsourcing responsibility for anything—especially the precious education of children—is just something they’re unwilling to do. And for good reason! Rather than shipping them off to a week with some environmental educator, they get to live the adventure day after day, living both the highs and the lows. The specifics of what that looks like can’t be explained here, because the truth is, each family should be viewed on their own merit, not on the suspicions of busybodies who are still predisposed to think anything outside of the accepted norm is worthy of inquisition-style scrutiny. Are there some messed up families out there? Absolutely. But you can find them in the suburbs just as easily as you can find them in the forest.
No woman actually wants to live off-grid; they just get dragged into it by their insane husbands.
I won’t expound too long on this one, except to utter a most exasperated sighhhhhhhhh. I can’t speak for every woman, but I can speak for myself. I hate being thought of as a reluctant tag-along, rather than a willing, motivated partner who is fully invested in our land and lifestyle and who also wanted it from the start. I know the women I left behind in the city just can’t comprehend why I’d rather pump water from my manual pump and lug buckets while they drive a fancy car and wear designer shoes. But, while they battle stop-and-go traffic, I get to rise with the sun and be among my family, animals, and plants. Maybe they can’t imagine “surviving” my life, but I know that I wouldn’t want theirs.
Off-grid homes are dirty, third-world survival shacks—OR—Off-grid homes are expensive, tech-supported, futuristic buildings that normal people can’t afford.
Did you know that, prior to 1882, every home in the United States, from the fanciest mansions of the elite to the most broken-down shanty in the slums, had no connection to an electrical grid? That should put into perspective the range of homes that exist under the umbrella of “off-grid.”
There are no rules for an off-grid house in terms of how technologically advanced or regressively simple it is. Some folks like to use timber from their own land to heat and cook, while others employ an advanced system of solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling. Some wash laundry by hand and let it dry in the sun, others have gasoline-powered washers and driers. Some can control their whole house with their smartphone. Others want to take a Luddite hammer to any smartphone that comes within their sight. As I often say, you can spend as much—or as little—to live off-off grid as you want to.
Remember that hypothetical group of 50 off-grid folks from above? Each one of them has a completely different type of house as well, from beautifully humble, hand-built homes to wallet-busting fortresses to not-so-impressive ramshackle assemblages. Some of them chose to spend lots of money to achieve their goals. Some chose, instead, to spend lots of time.
People who live off-grid don’t interact with normal society.
Some of them, maybe. Some off-grid folks are absolute (and somewhat justifiable) misanthropes, and they’re so far off the grid that neither you nor I could ever find or even contact them. They emerge from the wilderness every season to stock up on coffee and sugar and pick up their mail, then disappear again into the mist.
But some of them could be your neighbors. We shop at the local grocery store, run errands in town, meet a friend for coffee, and have our kids participate in 4H or the FFA. We just happen to come home to a different sort of house and different habits than yours. I guarantee we’ve got some different opinions on certain aspects of life, politics, and spirituality, but that just makes us more interesting to talk to.
I would hazard a guess that one of the real reasons off-grid folks are somewhat standoffish with “normal” folks is that we’re just so sick of being misunderstood and made fun of. Honestly, there are only so many times you can explain that your toilet works just fine without a water-gush flush before the conversation (and relationship) start to go a little stale.
So, “Off-Grid” means you’re using solar panels and growing vegetables… or something?
It’s amazing how so many people have such strong opinions about off-grid living without really being able to define what “off-grid” means in the first place. There are many different so-called “grids” that we are connected to, but the electrical grid is where the term originated. As the off-grid lifestyle came into being, however, the idea of “The Grid” as an entity has expanded to include: the water grid, sewer grid, gas grid, food distribution grid, and, basically any publicly organized and controlled utility or resource.
Of course, that said, probably one of the quicker ways to start a fight online is to go out and unequivocally declare yourself the true judge of what counts as off-grid and what does not.
Does using gasoline or propane put you on-grid, since it’s a resource you can’t provide for yourself? Is the Internet part of the grid? Should you be able to provide all of your own consumables, or is it good enough to be able to barter for some of them? Do you have to be entirely off-grid to call yourself off-grid, or is it enough to be independent in some key areas like water and heating? Can you use the grid since the house is hooked up to it but have backups that function in case it ever goes down? The more you look into defining “off-grid”, the more you’ll discover that it’s a surprisingly gray area to define.
However, once you start decreeing what is “allowed” and “not allowed,” you’ll find yourself in a heap of moral and logical debates that are likely and largely a waste of time. Perhaps, then, it’s more useful to say what isn’t off-grid. Though they’re often used in the same sentence, off-grid, homesteading, prepping, farming, primitive living, and self-sufficiency aren’t synonyms. Like the worst SAT question you’ve ever faced, you’ll find that folks who live off-grid might be preppers, but some preppers aren’t off-grid and don’t really plan on it, and that some homesteaders are happily on-grid and just trying to raise some chickens, while others are trying to be self-sufficient and get all their life necessities off-grid, while meanwhile, some farmers have off-grid water out of necessity but don’t consider themselves off-grid, and some people are just trying to cover all their bases and are trying to live self-sufficiently off-grid on a homestead and are trying to prepare themselves for winter or drought but don’t consider themselves “preppers” in the doomsday preppers sort of way, and that one guy who honestly just wants to live alone on his mountain on his own terms while wearing a coonskin cap and shouting at you to get off his land, ya good-fer-nothin’ miscreant teenagers.
Is your head spinning? That’s normal. The off-grid life, just like the people who live it, refuses to be concretely defined. You can’t make a box that any of it will fit in (a series of boxes make a grid, after all!).
Did that sentence make sense? If it did, maybe you live off-grid too.
And if that’s the case, I promise to not ask you how your toilets work.