So Ya Wanna Go Off the Grid?

Here’s what you’ll need, and here’s what you’ll need to know.

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There are plenty of practical and personal reasons why people pursue a lifestyle “off of the grid.” Many are seeking the financial freedom that a homestead can offer, and others may be driven by some form of environmental conscientiousness that usually accompanies this sort of living. There are even those who come to this way of life out of a rejection of the norm — living off the grid being the ultimate challenge or adventure.

But whether you’re heading out into the wilderness for an extreme camping experience, or you’re planning to permanently live off the grid and on your own land, these are the necessities that are crucial to survival during your time away from modern society.

Water Source

Like, duh… You need water to survive, but you really have to consider the implications of this fact. For the weekend camper, multi-gallon water containers made for short term use aren’t hard to come by. But for the long-term off-gridder, water is everything. And where to get it, how to store it, and the total inevitable cost to use it, must all be factored into your plan to part with your local water company.

For the vanlifer, full-time RVer, and general nomad, constantly knowing where you’ll get your next water supply is imperative. Fortunately, many options exist, especially if you’re willing to get creative. Sean and I have two, three-gallon containers that we fill at the grocery store for less than $.40 a gallon, which we use solely for drinking and cooking. Many grocers provide filling stations for drinking water, and I’ve even seen similar small kiosks in parking lots and other outdoor locations. Larger containers —  like an RV’s onboard water tank — can usually be filled for a fee at state parks, campgrounds, and RV parks, and sometimes you can even fill your tanks directly from the local city’s public works department.

And when I mention getting creative, I’m thinking of a certain winter night when Sean and I both were in need of showers, but our dwindling water supply was drastically desperate, and we didn’t really have the water to spare. So we gathered snow from outside — tons of bowls and buckets of snow — and melted it, heated it, put it in the solar shower bag and hung it in our tiny shower stall. So, ya know, options are out there…

Though, I will say that it takes a true alchemist to melt snow into water — sometimes snow will simply scorch, blacken, and evaporate!

In terms of homesteading, water use can be a huge factor in what makes a potential property desirable. Is there a well or access to community water on the property? How much will it cost to tap? If the land is raw, how much will it cost to drill a well? Do I have the rights to the water on my property? Can I install a cistern and pay to haul water? What are the logistics of each option?

These are all questions to consider when going off the grid and leaving your mainstream water source.

Get it? Main-stream water?

I’ll see myself out…

Anyways, I personally think that having a private onsite well is the ideal option, but it is also usually the most expensive option. The cost to drill a well — from around $20 to $50 per foot — is dependent on location and depth. So the deeper you have to dig for your well, the more it will cost. Installing a well in the mountains is the most difficult and expensive option, and can reach upwards of $30k for drilling alone.

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Sean and I are lucky that our property is located in a valley that sits on top of one of the largest natural aquifers in the country, so water is usually hit at shallow depths and is quite easy to come by.

So we’re told… 👀

We’ll consider ourselves even luckier if this spring we find out that the “well” on our property that we think is a well, really is a well, and we’ll be over the moon if the apparent underground powerlines at said “well” actually work and will operate a pump for it.

In the meantime, we’re hauling and filling, hauling and filling — constantly hauling and filling our water.

Waste Accommodations

This is a crappy reality that must be considered, and it sort of goes hand in hand with planning for a water source. Everyone’s gotta go at some point, and it’s all gotta go somewhere, too.

Many RV’s, vans, tiny houses, and the like, have on-board holding tanks — where everything that goes down a pipe ends up. These tanks store waste contents for a while, but do need to be regularly emptied at the aptly named “dump station” — a task which can be usually completed at the same place where you fill your water tank. Or, some septic businesses will bring a big truck to your location and pump the contents into their own tank and drive it away.

Many homesteaders and nomads alike prefer using a composting toilet as opposed to a holding tank — the economical and environmental appeal mostly due to the amount of water (and trips to the dump station!) saved by using it.

However, none of that will matter if the area where you live is zoned a certain way or the county enforces certain regulations.

For example, one county may require an underground septic tank for full-time living on your property, where another may allow composting toilets, incinerators, and other alternatives to the traditional septic system. Also, most counties do not allow looong term living (more than a year or two) in structures that are below a certain square footage and not affixed to a permanent foundation, like an RV or tiny house. In fact, without applying and paying for a long-term camping permit, your allowance to be in your RV or tiny house on your property is limited to 14 days in most counties.

What all of this means, is that building is usually inevitable if you want to live legally on your property. At least in Colorado.

And with stories in the news of battles between off-grid homesteaders and county officials — with many instances resulting in the landowner and their property being forcibly removed from the land that they own — it’s currently in our best interest to adhere to all of the rules and regulations set forth.

So, the sort of waste management system you will need in place must be considered when living off the grid, since many counties will not issue a building permit — and maybe not even give a legal address — until the required system is in place.

As for us, we’ve been doing the composting toilet thing for a while now. We still have the onboard tank and plumbing intact if we ever want to easily switch back to a flush toilet, and we will be installing a septic system before building on our property.

Waste management also includes managing everyday trash. We accumulate it faster than we know, and if you don’t notice it now, you will when you no longer have a regular trash service. So, this is another thing to consider with your off-grid setup. Could you pay for a trash service to come out to your property as part of a regular route, if you wanted? Or, would you rather haul your own trash to the local dump/recycling center however many times a month as needed? Are you able/allowed to dispose of anything on your own property through burning, composting, or other means?

So it’s important to note that the cost, logistics, and legality of each option can directly affect where and how you decide to do your off-grid living.

Food Source, Preparation, & Storage

Food. Seems like it would be another no-brainer, of course, but the devil lies in the details. And for many, food is a serious factor in off-grid planning.

Do you plan to grow your own food, maintain a garden, or keep any animals? Then you must ensure you are properly zoned to do so.

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Most living areas are zoned either residential or agricultural, with big differences applying to each. Residentially zoned areas can sometimes stifle a person’s homesteading plans, as zoning laws there usually regulate the types, square footage, and amount of structures (such as homes, greenhouses, and sheds) allowed on a person’s property. These laws also limit the type of animals allowed on the property, and may enforce how a person uses water on their property — and how much of it.

Those living in areas zoned agricultural may have more flexibility in homesteading terms, and many RVers and tiny-house dwellers find loopholes in the agricultural zoning laws which they allege permit them full-time living on their property however they see fit.

It all seems a bit over-reaching to me — micromanaging what free people in a free country do with their rightfully owned and constitutionally protected private property — but, I digress…

So, again, all of the logistics of your food sourcing have to be considered.

As for myself, going off the grid didn’t suddenly turn me into Laura Ingalls Wilder, and our food is still sourced from the same place as before, Walmart. Sean and I still have to drag ourselves to that wretched, hateful place at least once a week to stock up on groceries, water, necessities, and who knows what else. Shudder. 

And if you’re like us, and know that you’ll be making trips to the grocery store on a regular basis, this must be accounted for in your off -grid planning, as well.

Which brings us to preparation and storage.

Sure there are the “tiny” houses that are actually modern behemoths — their fully-equipped kitchens complete with massive glasstop electric ranges and industrial size refrigerators — but those aren’t really off-grid kitchens.

*laughs rustic-ly*

All of that power and electricity has to come from somewhere, that behemoth will have to be plugged into something. And you’re in for a rude awakening if you think you’ll just operate your appliances — like that refrigerator that requires power 24 hours a day — with some solar panels or a portable generator.

My point is that when you are truly off the grid, using electricity to cook and store food is extremely inefficient.

I’ve written in another post about the wonders of cooking with help from the sun and my love for cast-iron over an open flame — this is when Sean and I *do* get down with our Little House on the Prairie — but we’ve dipped into negative double digits this week, so none of that “cooking outside beneath the big open sky” mumbo jumbo is happening again anytime soon. We’re still working with an open flame, though, fueled through the winter with propane.

Propane is an absolute essential for our off-grid life. It’s cheap, convenient, portable, and efficient, and many people in the valley have large tanks that propane trucks regularly drive to and fill.

Our little jellybean Shasta still has her original tiny kitchen oven and three burner stovetop along with her original onboard furnace, all powered by propane. When we got her, she also had her original propane mini refrigerator, which we eventually ripped out for reasons I can’t rightly remember. It may have been related to being summer at the time, and having a notion that a cooler full of ice for cold storage would be less of a hassle than maintaining a 24/7 flow of propane to the refrigerator that I hated anyway and that smelled too much like 1962.

I’m not sure if it’s less of a hassle or not, but the new set up has remained, and I think I much prefer the square space with the little wooden cover and the big cooler we refill with ice, as opposed to the smelly old fridge that used to be in its place.

We also love the efficiency of propane for heating the little Shasta, and we haven’t used an electric heater once at all this winter. I’ll talk more about that in the next part of this off-grid series — covering heat sourcing, electric/power sourcing, and land access — coming up.

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