Driving along Coastal Highway 101 in Oregon, I remember seeing them everywhere: old farm houses that told a story all their own. These breathtaking landmarks of years gone by were reminiscent of a lifestyle nearly forgotten. They sparked memories of stories told by grandparents and made passersby dream of stepping into another life. There is no mistaking these beautiful homesteads; they are replete with the elements of a former lifestyle. The shade offered by grape arbors reminds us of a day when there was no air conditioning. Weathered but still-standing outhouses take us back to a time when indoor plumbing did not exist. Dilapidated barns draw us into their charm as they tell of horse-drawn buggies and farm equipment pulled by livestock instead of tractors.
For many of us, modern conveniences such as electricity have been readily available for as long as we can remember. We have come to rely on these amenities and can’t imagine life without them. The chaos and inconvenience caused by one power outage due to a storm is enough to make us certain that it would not be possible to live without these things. How would we cook if there is no electricity? How would we keep cool or warm when the weather is extreme? And how could we live without a refrigerator? Where do people find food if not at the local grocery store? How do they get toiletries, medicines, or even shoes, if not from a local department store? And how would they manage all this while still paying off existing debts and medical bills, keeping transportation, and maintaining insurance on their cars and their homes?
But for a growing number of individuals and families, a new set of questions is surfacing: How do we continue to pay for these things with skyrocketing expenses and a faltering economy? And what would we do if these resources were to become unavailable? The fear of being at the mercy of the availability of such services and products is becoming a growing concern everywhere. In such politically, economically, and even domestically turbulent times, how do we prepare for the unexpected?
And, perhaps the biggest question of all: How do we just unplug from society and survive “off the grid”?
For some, “going off the grid” can be as simple as eliminating the need for paid utilities. But for others, the very term “grid” represents a silent enemy that has slowly taken over, enslaving them and all of those around them, and stripping them of their independence. The grid then becomes a system from which they must work to free themselves.
There are also many different perspectives between these two extremes. But while going off the grid can mean many things to many people, the common denominator for most is that the very idea can be so overwhelming that people often feel powerless and unsure of where to even begin.
Make the Switch Slowly and Sensibly
The decision to go off the grid—and the extent to which one does so—is something to be made on an individual basis. For many, the phrase “off the grid” automatically conjures up a picture of living without a car or truck, surviving off the land with no outside employment, keeping livestock for food, and working countless acres of land in order to make all of this happen. This extreme lifestyle can be possible—and even perhaps the best solution—for some people. But many give up on the idea because they realize these extreme measures are not an option. They either are too expensive, too impractical, or impossible to obtain and implement. So, it is important to remember that “off grid” and complete self sufficiency are two different things. Reaching whatever point between the two that you envision is a change that can—and should—happen slowly. By honestly looking at your own situation, your finances, the local economy, and available resources, you can set goals a little a time. When you meet those goals and feel good about those successes, then you can make new ones to take your self sufficiency even further. Just remember to tackle your goals calmly and with patience. Don’t try to make dramatic changes overnight.
Many who aren’t intimidated by what all is involved in becoming completely self sufficient are often tempted to be too hasty in making the changes. For those who believe times are indeed very dire, the immediate need for all amenities they believe necessary might overshadow the need to be both practical and far-sighted. Some rush into debt to meet their off-grid needs full of momentum fueled by fear, adrenalin, and more debt. Certainly, desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. However, as often as not, these people find themselves later with their fear subsided, adrenaline depleted, debt inflated, and momentum deflated. They are left holding half-baked, incomplete, and abandoned off-grid plans—plus a mountain of debt yet to be paid.
So the important thing to note is that attaining self sufficiency requires skills as well as possessions. It would be better to acquire the skills over time as possessions are afforded. Having many systems in place without the knowledge or skill to operate those systems won’t be nearly as successful as a maintaining a few simple-to-operate, tried-and-true systems.
The term “off the grid” refers to the “power grid,” or the chart-like system that keeps energy and utilities flowing to the general population. As mentioned earlier, some people confuse the term “off the grid” with being completely self sufficient. If you simply want to be off the grid, then generating your own supply of electricity is a good first step. There are many avenues for doing this, including using water, wind, or solar energy. Some of these methods are very expensive and others are not.
For those who can’t live without electricity and who can afford to immediately set up an alternative power source, the options are increasing daily. The nice thing about many of these methods is that can you operate them right in the middle of town. For example, if you opt for solar energy, you can mount solar panels to the roof of your home. Or, if you choose to tap into the energy generated by the wind, you could erect a wind turbine, which requires a tower from 25 to 120 feet tall. Some people even combine two power sources; hybrid systems typically are the most dependable. Yet another option is to use water power for energy by installing a hydrogenerator if you live near a river or stream. (If you’re considering this, check the laws in your area. Although highly restricted, most local inspectors can help you attain your goal and maintain compliance with local laws.)
If installing these types of energy manufacturing systems is out of your price range, you can always consider purchasing a small generator that runs on regular or diesel fuel, and simply limit electrical use to necessities. Storing your energy in batteries is another option that comes with an added expense.
Once You’ve Installed Your Energy System
After you have installed an alternative power source, you may choose to remain connected to your power company for the time being. If you do that, speak to a representative from your power company about selling back the extra power. Many digital meters do not record power added to the grid, but you can ask to have a meter installed that will. Keep in mind, however, that if you do remain connected to your power company in any way, you’re not officially considered off the grid.
Another thing to consider once you’ve installed an alternative power source is the difference you’ll experience in usage of power. When you’re on the grid, you can run as many appliances at once as you choose. However, when you are manufacturing your own electricity, you will need to be more careful about your consumption. Appliances such as microwaves, washing machines, and hair dryers use a lot of electricity, so other things must be turned off when those are being operated. Some might consider this inconvenient, but when compared to rising energy costs, many consider it a worthy trade.
Once you’re generating your own electricity, you’ll definitely want to conserve it. Something that makes it easier to conserve your energy is to invest, if you have the money, in a green roof. A green roof is an insulating roof that will keep cool air and warm air either in or out, depending on the season.
Establishing a Water Supply
For obvious reasons, you will need to plan for a way to maintain an adequate water supply with plenty of safe, clean storage. Again, many options are available, depending on your resources. The best and easiest way to have a water supply is to live near a fresh running body of water nearby, such as a river or creek. Make sure to consider year-round flow to ensure supply and cleanliness. Boiling the water you use to ensure sanitation is a must.
Or, if possible, you could install a well. Sub-surface water is a much safer source for potable water due to soil strata filtration. If you plan to run a well pump, you will need electricity to run it. However, it is also possible to attach a manual pump to a well, although it may be more difficult to set up. Some people use a cistern and others collect their water in rain barrels, although making sure it is clean for drinking is more of a challenge.
Setting Up a Sewage System
If you live in the city or are on a city sewer system, you will still be considered on the grid until you find a way to disconnect from that. Establishing a system for disposing of sewage can be more of a challenge and an expense than getting a water supply. Purchasing a compost toilet is one choice, although it doesn’t address the issue of disposing of waste from the sink or the bathtub. Another alternative—albeit quite expensive—is to install an independent septic tank; however, the city might put limitations on this as well.
Disposing of Waste
If you find that you are no longer eligible for garbage services, or if you choose to discontinue using that service, you’ll need to decide what to do with your household garbage. You can probably burn much of it. What you can’t burn, you might be able to drop off at one of the many recycling centers offered in various communities.
Keeping Open Lines of Communication
Certainly there are times when not having a telephone can be inconvenient. But, as mentioned earlier, people lived without then for centuries. In fact, the uninterrupted peace and quiet that comes without having a phone can be a newfound freedom for those who are tired of listening to incessant ringing! Telephone service is much easier to disconnect from your dwelling than other utilities, such as electricity, water, and sewage systems. As an alternative means of communicating, you can simply switch to using a cell phone, borrow a neighbor’s phone when necessary, or simply live without. Our personal preference, however—because there are times it is necessary to have some way to contact the outside world—is a prepaid cell phone. These are usually available near the checkout aisle or in the electronics department of a grocery store, home supply center, or super center.
Another communication concern, especially if you go off the grid in a very remote place, is mail service. You may find it necessary to get a post office box in the nearest town.
Once you have overcome these obstacles and have no more paid utilities attached to your residence, you are officially considered off the grid. Then you can enjoy the benefits of using your power without worrying about its cost or outages. It might take time, but you will eventually recoup your monetary investment as well. Plus, you can enjoy the peace of mind of being your own energy supplier.
Father Knows Best, But Grandpa Knew Even Better
One of the greatest, yet most commonly overlooked, resources available to many people is family stories. Many people today forget that there ever was a day without the grid, but it wasn’t as long ago as they think. You and your parents may have been raised on the grid, but your grandparents and their parents probably were not—and their knowledge is something akin to “free college” on this subject. For example, when you were a child, you may have heard stories about your grandmother, as a little girl, churning butter or scrubbing the clothes clean on a washboard in a stream. Or perhaps your grandfather told you about splitting wood with an axe when he was twelve years old so that the family would be able to keep warm with fires during the winter. Of course, the best source for information is almost always the first-hand source, so if you are fortunate to have grandparents who are still living, ask them for more details about living self-sufficiently. If this isn’t the case, try to find information about the subject in old books—remember, the older the source, the less “grid-integrated” the information will be.
For example, an antique book on raising vegetables will describe a variety of good ways to rid plants of pests by using such products as nicotine, vinegar, coffee, or even whiskey. A more modern book, however, will direct you to the pesticide aisle of the gardening center at your local home improvement store. Many of these modern products are very effective, but if part of your plan involves being prepared for a crisis that might interrupt supplies to your area, it is a good idea to have a more readily available solution—such as the ones described in the older book—at hand.
Another benefit of consulting older books is that they are often very inexpensive. Keep an eye out at garage sales, flea markets, or antique stores for reasonably priced books on any subject matter you think you might someday need “old” knowledge about. You can create a reference bookshelf you can always consult—even if you have no electricity or the internet is down.
“I Want To Be More Self Sufficient, But Where Do I Start?”
A common misconception about people who live off the grid is that they don’t have regular jobs, drive wherever they need to go, or shop at the grocery store. In fact, quite the opposite is often true. Many of these people are only living off of the power grid. While being free from worries of outages from storms or the rising costs of utility bills, they are not completely self sufficient. They still rely on the grid as it pertains to the local businesses around them. They depend on the grid to power the local grocery store, for example, and they count on it to power local gas stations.
Don’t misunderstand: These people have tackled and conquered a huge step toward becoming self sufficient, and they reap the benefits monthly as they enjoy living without utility bills. But becoming truly self sufficient in every aspect of life is a much larger project involving the sacrifice of many other conveniences. Whether this type of drastic change is right for you and your family is only for you to decide, based on your needs and goals. Getting off the power grid is enough of a step to make many people feel secure. But others need to feel they have taken more measures to obtain self sufficiency. Where to start is as diverse and individual as each person’s needs, goals, and available resources. The obstacles can seem insurmountable for those who try to take them on all at once, so it’s best to start with the strongest need.
Location, Location, Location
Many factors are involved in choosing a location for setting up and maintaining a lifestyle of self sufficiency. First, consider the size of your family and determine why you are making this change. If you are single and simply want to learn to live off the land, then you can get by with very little property. On the other hand, if you are retired, concerned about the economy, and want to create a place for your children and grandchildren as a back-up plan in case of financial crisis, more land may be necessary. Consider both your budget and the number of people you might be expected to feed and house. Be realistic when shopping for and purchasing land if you are considering preparing for economic crisis: It is better to house more people in tight living quarters on property with a low mortgage (or no mortgage) than to purchase a sprawling house on hundreds of acres with a large debt. In a case like this, the extra financial burden of added people eating with you or even living with you could be the undoing of even your own self sufficiency.
Second, consider the local community. If you have or are expecting to have (or care for) children, how far away is the nearest school? (Or will you home school?) Are there neighbors nearby? Is the community a place where you feel safe? In case of a large-scale grid crisis, would the community easily transform into a barter-and-trade setting? Are your goals similar to those of others in this community? It would be less beneficial to live outside a large city if you were the only one growing your own food than it would be to face increasing difficulty in protecting your supplies during a large-scale crisis. Finding a community where you can become part of a network, where you can possibly participate in a barter-and-trade system, will add to your security as you embark on this journey. Becoming somewhat active in your community can help you meet and make vital connections with your neighbors as well.
Third, assess the location’s natural resources. Is a water supply available? Is it available year-round? Does the land have good soil? Does it have good sun exposure? If you plan to raise livestock, is the land suitable for pasture? Planning in advance as many details as possible will help you put your systems into place later. Keep in mind where barns and outbuildings will need to be, what kind of animal predators live in the nearby area, what grows well in the climate and terrain, and anything else you think might help you later. For example, if you know you want to raise chickens, finding out what animal predators live in any nearby woods will help you decide where to place your chicken coop. Or, if you know that you eventually want to make a man-made pond, you can place your fence lines accordingly. Planning such as this will make transitions much easier later.
Once you have chosen your location, your next step should be to begin establishing your food supply. This might take some time if you buy bare property and are building a house on it, but even at this stage you can plant fruit trees. It is wise do go ahead and do that now anyway since it can take from two to nine years, depending on the species, for a tree to mature enough to bear fruit or nuts. The earlier the tree is planted, the sooner a food supply will begin to form. (If you’re not building—if a home is already on the property—then this is the time to consider adding solar panels, wind towers, or whatever other energy generator you plan to use.)
Even though securing a food supply is one of the biggest tasks involved in becoming self sufficient, it can also be one of the most rewarding, even fun, challenges you’ll undertake. A good place to start is at your local conservation department, your city hall, or—if you would like to keep a lower profile—your local feed store. Find out what grows well in your area. You can add specialty fruits or vegetables, or even exotics, to the mix later, but at first try to keep establishing a food supply as easy as possible. Find out what plants yield fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are edible; look for those that absolutely thrive in your climate zone and then make up your mind to eat a lot of those things in the beginning. As you learn what plants are easy to grow where you live, you will become more skilled and can then take on raising plants that are be more difficult to grow, that are less pest-resistant, or that require more specialized soil conditions. (At this point, a greenhouse would be a good investment if finances allow.) Further, buying seeds from local seed harvesters, farmers, or even your local feed store can ensure that the seeds you are buying will be better suited to the soil in your area, making them more foolproof.
Ask neighbors or newfound friends about any weeds, pests, rodents, or even animal predators that you have questions about. Remember that the local, hands-on experience of a neighbor can sometimes be just as valuable as any advice or instructions you would find in a book.
As your gardening skills grow, you can begin to branch out into growing spices, pollinator-attracting flowers, and particularly herbs, for which there are many good medicinal uses. For example, many herbs—such as Echinacea and sage—are great natural antibiotics. Some are great for soothing nerves, and others are useful in curbing asthma. Harvested herbs are easily dried, preserved, and stored for off-season use. An exhaustive handbook detailing the uses of each type of herb can be a good resource for those who want to become completely self sufficient.
If you don’t plan to manufacture electricity and therefore won’t have refrigeration, you will want to plan for dehydrating, canning, or even curing the food you raise and grow. Find out about these procedures from books, the Internet, neighbors, and experts in your community.
Taking Advantage of Natural Cycles
A beautiful harmony can be achieved between the farmer, the livestock and poultry, and the land. The farmer grows fruits and vegetables, then harvests them for canning or eating. Many of the discarded parts of the fruits and vegetables can be thrown into a compost pile and agitated into potting soil for the following year’s planting. In the meantime, chickens will help keep snakes and insects away from the property—all the while providing eggs for the farmer’s family. Further, a cow or goat can produce milk for drinking. Any vegetable or fruit trimmings that don’t go into the compost pile, as well as extra chicken eggs, fat trimmings, plate scraps, and even excess cow or goat milk, can go into a bucket that is used to feed a pig. When the pig is slaughtered for food in the winter, when less fresh vegetation is available for food, the lard can be used to make soap.
Heating and Cooling
Yet another critical step toward becoming self sufficient is heating and cooling your home. If you will manufacture your own electricity, these tasks will be a little easier. However, because heaters and air conditioners each require a lot of electricity, powering them might be more challenging than you expect. You might even think about buying a separate generator just to run these appliances.
Or, you might choose another route, such as wood heat. Heating your home with wood involves more work than running heating and cooling appliances with generated energy, but many people find it is a great alternative—especially since a wood-burning stove can both heat your home and cook your food.
If you take the wood-heating route, you will want to invest in a few tools like a good chainsaw and some splitting wedges. It also helps if you have some land where you can manage a wood lot. But if this isn’t possible, you can easily find other ways to obtain wood. Often, winds from a strong storm will blow down trees. If you spot a tree that has fallen in someone’s way—perhaps on a driveway or a road—you can offer to help clear away the tree in exchange for some or all of the wood. By keeping your eyes open and being ready to volunteer your services, you’re likely to find yourself with more wood than you have time to harvest!
The options for cooling your home are a little more limited than for heating, but there are several ways to at least minimize the oppressive heat if you live in an area that gets unbearably hot in the summertime. If you’re going to be designing and/or building your home yourself, you can install strategically placed windows to channel the evening breeze. If not, plant shade trees anywhere that the sunlight directly hits windows or doors. Another way to help keep the house cool in summer is to invest in a barbeque grill or use other outdoor cooking method. This keeps heat out of the house and eliminates the need for electricity to be carried to a stove. Charcoal or wood chips can be used to cook outdoors in a pit, and as long as you are not preparing for a large-scale crisis when it might not be available, propane can be very convenient for cooking as well. (Propane can also be a good way to solve your heating and cooling problems if you are not worried about availability. It is also a reliable way to make sure you have hot water on tap if you choose to have a hot water heater.)
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A final—and quite critical—step toward self-sufficiency is providing a way to have clean laundry, a place for bathing, and a sanitary restroom.
Laundry. If you do not plan to have an electric washer and dryer, your method of keeping laundry clean will vary depending on your circumstances and plans. A washboard or even an old-fashioned, crank-style, wringer washing machine and a clothesline might be worthwhile investments. If this is what you choose to do, keep in mind that clothes won’t dry on an outdoor clothesline during the winter; you’ll need to come up with an alternate, indoor strategy during the cold months.
Bathing. As for bathing, this can be one of the hardest comforts of the modern world to give up if you don’t plan to manufacture your own electricity. Depending how far off the grid you want to go and how rustic a lifestyle you choose, you will simply have to decide whether it is worth it to you to bathe in a river or if you would rather heat water (with propane, solar power, or wood) and bathe indoors.
Restroom. If you have a septic system and choose to have a running water supply inside the house, this will make the restroom issue easier to solve, because you can simply have a toilet in your house.
However, if you decide to go completely rustic, you can build an outhouse (if local laws allow). As for personal and feminine hygiene supplies, plenty of washable products are available. Again, it’s important to remember that decisions such as this are to be made on an individual basis; regardless of what modern inconveniences you choose to go without, your grandparents did exactly the same thing, and they did just fine.
A Few Final Tips
We should stress one last time that whether you decide simply to go off the grid or to become completely self sufficient, your options are limitless. While you strive to become independent, keep in mind that there are hundreds of trades that can be invaluable to you both for obtaining what you need and for helping others get what they need. Anything you can do with your hands, or any skill you have—i.e., sewing, mechanics, building, or knitting, to name a few examples—can be a tremendous asset.
Choose your own reasons for going off the grid or becoming self sufficient, then set your goals accordingly. Remember to keep the follow-through at the same pace as your goals, and don’t become overambitious. It bears repeating again: A small but well-worked system is a much better asset than over-ambitious plans that are beyond reach. You will not be alone. Soon you will find yourself making new contacts and networking with others who have been working toward the same goals. Most people are more than willing to take you under their wing and give you advice as you become more self-sufficient.
The point of going off the grid is to build your own stability and security, both financially and personally. Grasp the challenges and enjoy them, as each new obstacle overcome offers a new level of achievement and freedom. See the opportunities as fun and liberating. Don’t be surprised when, as soon as you accomplish certain goals, you find yourself taking things a step further and making new goals. Someday, you will even wonder how you ever lived, paying those utility bills and relying on the local market for food!