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Lessons from a Decade of Living Off-Grid

The prospect of a self-reliant lifestyle had always appealed to me, so raising my family in a rural environment was almost a given; who knew it would lead me all the way off the grid? However, I get mixed responses when I tell people I live off the grid. Some think it’s strange, and they imagine a shanty shack with meals of canned beans, only lit by candlelight and an open fire. Others think it is incredible because they imagine a rustic cabin in the woods, remote with solar panels and water tanks, foraging mushrooms, and hunting deer. Neither one is too far from the truth but not quite simple.

A Difficult Start on the Off-Grid Homestead

In 2008 times were challenging for my partner and me; we had lost jobs due to the economic crash, and although we had already practiced some homesteading skills, we were struggling. I practiced things like growing small amounts of food, preserving food from local farmers, and collecting maple syrup, but working part-time and full-time parenting, I was doing less than I needed to do. In that time of crisis, we were suddenly struggling more than ever. We quickly ran through stocks because we didn’t have much, the hydro bill got out of control, and we lost our car. We couldn’t keep up with the growing debt and daily cost of living.

I knew I had to learn survival skills fast before my family and I starved: it was then we took drastic measures, which I do not recommend. Yet the truth remains we did. We sold everything we could, hoarded our tax return rather than pay off some bills, and invested in the future we had often talked about but not dared try. A self-sufficient lifestyle, remote and off-the-grid life, aiming for a lower cost of living, and we hoped it would give us more health and abundance.

We had the right idea, yet in stressful times we risked a lot and invested a lot of faith in ourselves, and we did it with two children under the age of 10. We blindly bought 13 acres of cleared land up in northern Canada, where summers were short, and winters were long. We left with only a 15-foot sleeper trailer, a truckload of stuff, and barely a dime left to our names. Long story short, we had a rough first six months. It was damp, cold, and muddy; we had to build a driveway just to have a place to park the trailer. No water, no facilities, nowhere to sit down and eat a meal, and no heat in the trailer, it was quite an adventure, and I’m sure you can see why I don’t recommend this route. Needless to say, five years after we had built a small two-bedroom cabin with a rain collection, a tiny garden, and a greenhouse, we both still had to work full-time, and it was a hard life.

Although we did everything wrong, it was an incredible feat for a little family with no experience and little help. As time went on, for health reasons, we had to rethink our lifestyle, moreover the location, and this is where you can take point; We moved to a property that we could better resource for our needs and went to a slightly warmer location. Since we had time to think and plan properly, we could decide how and where based on our reason why we needed to move; I needed healthier food, and my partner a more temperate climate.

Research, Create a Plan, and Define Your Goals

We still wanted the same things as at the beginning of our journey, yet we knew we couldn’t do everything all at once. Taking the time to plan and research brought us to the property I still call home, my sustainable and imperfect homestead. We are still off the grid; we’ve transitioned to tiny living and turned a ¼ acre of the land into an edible landscaped space with the beginnings of a food forest. We both work from the homestead and have reached the goals we longed for. It happened faster when we took the time to think about what we really wanted and took smaller steps to get there.

The point is, anyone can be more self-sufficient, or heck, go completely off the grid; when you take some time to plan, get into the right mindset, and research goes a long way in helping you be prepared. I no longer live in a remote area, I didn’t build my house, but I still use renewable energy, collect rainwater, grow food, forage, and do as much as I can for myself. Going off-grid doesn’t mean you have to be in a remote area; it means incorporating renewable energy and living more in line with nature.

Living off the land and from the primary grid doesn’t mean you have to live a remote, secluded lifestyle; that’s one option. But, of course, some may be limited to using renewable energy options in certain townships and locations, and if that is the case, it’s up to you to create a plan that you can work toward that will allow you to use those options there or elsewhere. Right now, many people are finding themselves at the beginning of hard times, which reminds me of the years past when my family and I were forced to make changes. However, by planning and taking action now, you can regain control of your lifestyle and start the road toward reducing living costs and effectively going off the main grid.

Living off the grid doesn’t mean disconnecting from the world but from the primary energy grid. However, disconnecting from the main power sources can reduce your carbon footprint and contribute less to damaging our natural resources—while focusing on a lifestyle of fewer material things, being more connected to nature, and working towards financial and personal freedom. Having lived off the grid for many years, I have some insight I’d like to share with those who are dreaming of a life off the grid. Below are my tips and lessons learned that will help you make the right decisions to reach your off-grid goals.

The Off-Grid Lifestyle Mindset

Despite dreaming of a self-reliant lifestyle and because we made such a rash decision, I can honestly admit dreaming of a full pantry doesn’t actually put you into the mindset of how much work and ingredients, how much equipment and tools, or the energy, water and other things needed to fill a pantry myself. Mindset is essential before any new job, skill, or adventure, and no one dives off a cliff to base jump without some mental preparation. It is the same for any new thing, especially a lifestyle that removes many of the conveniences we are familiar with and used to.

Mindset is preparing yourself as much as possible for a new situation, but how can we prepare for something we are not used to? One day at a time, one small habit and skill. If you want a life that costs less, in your mind, you must visualize yourself washing dishes by hand, wearing yesterday’s clothes, cooking over a woodstove, etc. The devil is in the details; whenever you think about what it will be like to be off the grid, think about those details. The more we prepare in our mind, the easier things will be when we transition, downsize or let go of convenience.

Be Inspired by Others

We can get inspiration and lessons learned from people like myself and others living this lifestyle. Through stories, conversations, and online, we can find so many people who have experience and can offer insight into the trials and tribulations that we’ve never even thought of. When you begin researching skills, property, and so forth, include exploring people and stories of living off the grid, what it’s like to grow your food at home, what winter is like with only wood heat, etc. Find as many sources as possible for both inspiration and a reality check. Mindset is most important when planning a life disconnected from the grid, understanding why you want to live this way, and preparing in as many ways as possible.

Off-Grid Family Life

When we announced to our extended family that we were moving 13 hours farther than the already 2 hours away we lived from them, I admit their reactions weren’t excitement or met with exhilaration. Instead, the response was regarded with rather harsh and horrible reactions. On top of all that, our friends said we were crazy and we’d never make it.

Family can be difficult to deal with; in many cases, some would have felt guilted into staying closer. However, when we venture out into the world and become adults, we get to choose how and where we want to live our lives and how we want to raise our children. I don’t deny I truly missed my family and friends being so far away, but sometimes you have to overcome the negative and work towards your dreams. Our family wasn’t helping to pay bills or feed us, and why should they? It is not up to them, and because it’s not their responsibility, it’s also not up to them to judge how we feed ourselves.

So, although family is so important, it is your life and your partners; if you have one, you guys get to choose. Lifestyle choices are made to make you happier or hope to, at least. Remember, family will always love you, and you love them, but they are not in your shoes and mind. Don’t let family deter you from attaining the life you want.

Help Your Children Understand What to Expect

Besides the extended family drama, your immediate family has to be on board with this decision, and if you have school-aged kids who have never spent a day on a farm, then you expect them to pick eggs and clean chicken coops; it may not go over well. My oldest struggled to adapt to life off the grid. Not everyone is made for the DIY lifestyle, and that’s okay; she was still willing to try. As a family, we discussed this decision and what it meant for us all, and everyone agreed. The kids didn’t want to leave friends, of course, but they also wanted to have an adventure, so as long as the children were good to go, so were we. Take the time to talk to your children ( if you have them) about what changes they can expect, and make a list of pros and cons. Explain why this choice is important to you, the planet, and your wallet; whatever the reasons, be honest. If they are old enough to comprehend, make an effort to include them in every decision. Young children under the age of 4 usually adapt quickly, don’t stress too much about transitioning them to this lifestyle. The family has to agree with the changes, for the most part. A remote or off-the-land lifestyle affects how everyone in the house lives, behaves, and works. It is less stressful and frustrating when a family can work together.

Food Off-Grid

We messed up big time with the food situation when we first went off the grid, and years later, I paid for it with my health. One of our most important reasons was to provide healthier food, which we grew and hunted ourselves. In theory, this sounds simple enough; it’s not when you don’t research, plan or have a budget for tools and equipment. For us, it was even worse since our location had hard clay ground with no viable soil and a short growing season. Back then, I didn’t know about no-dig methods, soil building, or any other regenerative garden methods. I was only familiar with traditional growing with tilling, planting seeds, water, and fertilizing.

Food is essential, and I wasn’t growing much; between building a house, collecting wood and water, working, and being parents, we mainly relied on the grocery store for the first few years. Despite wanting healthier food choices, we carried on with a standard American diet with lots of meat, starchy processed food, and canned goods. We also did forage berries and fish, but we needed more to have stockpiled; that poor diet gave me health problems later that couldn’t be ignored.

Food is essential and must be part of planning right from the beginning. Off-grid living means doing as many vital things for living ourselves. Not previously planning or learning more about gardening methods and proper nutritional needs meant our goals were not being achieved, and my health, in particular, was being affected.

Having the healthiest food choices soon became a priority, so I could strategize what I needed to learn and put it into practice by planning and asking myself the questions I didn’t ask before we moved. For me, that meant soil building, raised beds, greenhouses, cold frames, starting seeds early inside, and other things I wasn’t previously doing. These new habits and practices then generated more abundance for storage and everyday living.

Growing in Abundance for Health

Planting more than you need means you’ll need more storage, so ensure when you devise how much you will grow and remember where and how you’ll store and process that food. We didn’t have much storage or energy at first, which meant I was limited in how I preserved and how much I could store. Over time we invested in equipment and added space to be able to reach our goals. Planning these tasks and projects and gathering equipment before you need them is better.

Animals need space and can be costly to raise and care for. If raising animals is too expensive, takes up too much land, or doesn’t fit your health goals, you don’t have to raise the entire farm. Instead, consider your health needs and focus your time, money, and land to produce more of the most beneficial foods for your health. It is strange when people have only two acres and dedicate one in a half for one or two larger animals for one or two products; an acre of land can grow a variety of food, including raising small animals.

I didn’t ask myself some of the most critical questions, how, where, and what are the alternative choices? Plan how you might use the most effective resources you have access to for growing and finding food, and begin planning and setting goals for things you still need to do. Off-the-grid living or homesteading, in general, is an active lifestyle. We need energy and good health; this comes from a diet of whole foods you can grow and forage. The more you grow, raise, and find yourself, the healthier you will be. So make food a priority, if nothing else.

Quick tip; Start by growing the food that you eat the most and can preserve in different ways. For example, I grow extra tomatoes because we can eat them fresh, dried, canned, frozen, and in oil.

Medicine Off Grid

As long as man has walked the earth, we have used plants to feed and heal our bodies and minds. I knew home remedies, herbal medicine, folk magic, whatever you want to call it. It was vital knowledge that I wanted to learn.

One of the first things I did when moving to a new location was to learn about the plants that grew around us and their benefits. As it turned out, I was surrounded by medicinal plants; it was exciting to have the knowledge that could potentially treat ailments and injuries. The funny thing is I took so much time to learn about all the plants around me, but still, I needed to learn how to harvest or use them.

I didn’t gather any for storage or to make medicine with, and I didn’t understand the art of herbalism; I thought just knowing was enough. Knowledge only has power when you can put it into action, which I did not do for a long time.

Looking back, I was scared to use herbal medicine because I was convinced modern treatment was more effective and safer, like many of you. As it turns out, many of our most common over-the-counter medicines are derived from a natural source, then synthesized and mixed with toxic chemicals, which can come with more risk than many herbal remedies.

Once I understood that nature, although it has dangers, so does the medicine I was already consuming. Mindset plays an important role when choosing to become more natural. Most of us were raised on Tylenol and aspirin and it can be hard to let go of traditions.

Learning Herbalism

Herbalism can seem overwhelming at first, but the truth is once you focus on just a few plants and learn how to process and use them, the rest then becomes rinse and repeat. Herbalism is a lifelong learning journey, and millions of beneficial plants worldwide exist to learn about.

So, in the beginning, stick with the plants you have access to and can forage or grow yourself, and learn the basic ways to process and use them. Tea blends and syrups are the easiest to start with after discovering the herbs you’d like to use; keep it simple to start; otherwise, you might become overwhelmed.

Quick tip: Your spice shelf is full of medicine; begin your learning journey by exploring the benefits of the herbs and spices you are using for culinary purposes; you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Off Grid Shelter

Did I mention we only had a sleeper trailer when we ventured north? Big mistake, especially when you have kids. The shelter is vital for protecting us from the elements, and we learned firsthand the effects of living in a damp space; it weakens the immune system making it difficult to fight off colds and reducing your energy. Although we had a building up within eight weeks, during those couple of months, we had cold, damp nights, and we had to build an outhouse which took almost a week; no fun when a freak snowstorm happens, and you have to go!

We had the traditional camping gear, a stove, bbq, and folding table, but no real place to sit and eat, we got cold and wet, and I lost lots of food despite having it in containers and covered. Sure, we had a roof over our heads at night and during bad weather, but 4 of us plus three dogs in such a small space wasn’t ideal.

Prepare for the Worst

Off the grid doesn’t have to be so rough. However, we could have been better prepared if we had planned a bit better. We assumed that because the weather was ideal during May, where we had resided previously, I thought it would be close to the same up north; I needed to research or plan accordingly. Unless you are buying a house or converting your current home, think about your shelter options, even if they are temporary. We overestimated our resources and time, and our shelter didn’t give us what we really needed during those first couple of months.

When planning your shelter, consider the weather in that location, additional storage, more water capacity, and backup heating options. Last, I recommend having your facilities worked out before heading out to a remote location; even if that means a porta-potty with a potty tent, I promise you you’ll regret not having that. 🙂

Off-Grid Energy Source

Disconnecting from the main grid is so you can have control over your energy uses and overall cost. However, believe it or not, many people are slow to get enough power they need through renewable sources because the startup cost for equipment and the learning curve is only sometimes something people have or are willing to invest in.

Most of us in the western world have access to energy for all our favorite conveniences, the microwave, dishwasher, coffee machine, washing machine, water pump, lights, phone charges, and so on. After choosing to run your power through a microgrid system, whether from solar, wind, or a generator, it will be hard at first to reduce the amount of energy you are used to, but it is vital for keeping costs low as well as your carbon footprint. Unless you can finance all you need for running equipment and storing power right away, you will not have the same energy that you are now used to from the main energy grid.

When my family headed off the primary grid, we had a couple of batteries to store power, an inverter to convert energy from a couple of solar panels, and we had a generator. We soon realized our power supply wasn’t enough to run power tools or small appliances. Finding propane appliances at the time was difficult and expensive. Over time we added more batteries and panels and even invested in a windmill, and still, we had to watch every kilowatt. I went many years without using everyday conveniences like a blender or coffee maker.

If you want to run your own energy grids and still use all the power you are used to, you will need to plan or budget for that before you switch off. If you are not moving, you can do this slowly over time. If you move to a new location, begin to save or gather supplies before you move. Locate a supplier or dealer in your area, or learn other ways to provide power for your home before you go. Whoever will be maintaining the equipment should understand the basic understanding of how input and output work. How to read the meters measuring the energy coming in and being sent back to your home; and how much power the items you are using now use.

Know your Energy Usage

Flip over the air fryer, coffee maker, and hairdryer; how much power do they suck? Will you have enough energy for those items? Learning is an integral part of controlling your own microgrid. We all know solar and wind make power, but knowing how much you will need for your space and lifestyle is up to you to figure out.

Consulting with others with a similar setup to the system you hope to use is a great way to learn. Dealers are great for supplies and installation, but they are also salesmen, avoid the ‘salesy’ types; they are not much help. An electrician and small appliance repair guys can offer more insight into electrical parts. Of course, online is a world of information.

Quick tip: Plan, research, and learn!

Water Off Grid

Water is just as essential as food; in some cases, even more so, we need water for everyday uses, personal washing, cooking, and drinking, but those are not the only ways we need or use water. Individual washing alone takes quite a bit of water, then factor into that 1 gallon a day minimum for drinking and cooking. Just for those basic needs, we need a lot of water per person daily. We also need water for dishes, laundry, pets, livestock, and growing food. Going off the grid usually means disconnecting from the primary water grid. Of course, many people have wells and manage just fine. If you have a well, as you know, they require power to run pumps; consider that when planning your water needs, having a well on the property doesn’t mean you have water access. Hand pumps still work; you can order them through long-standing hardware stores or online through sites like Lehman’s or links from mother earth news.

Identifying your water source

Our family went without running water for years because we didn’t plan accordingly; our biggest mistake was insufficient water storage. Collecting water was easy, filling buckets from the pond with no problem, but the water always disappeared so fast, and in cold temps, it froze more often than we thought. Also, we didn’t have a well on the land, and due to the bedrock, it would have cost tens of thousands to drill, another thing I didn’t research (rolling eyes and laughing).

Large storage tanks are vital if you plan to collect rainwater as your only primary water resource. My homestead has a few 50-gallon drum liners, a large 250-gall farm water tank, and several garbage cans strategically placed around the yard for water collection. We can collect and store about 500 gallons and can quickly run through 250 gallons a week during dry summer months just for watering the garden, the chickens, basic hygiene, and cooking needs.

Identifying multiple water sources is vital for having water access all year long; these sources may include rainwater collections, digging for a shallow or deep well, digging a pond, locating artesian wells or springs, diverting rivers or waterways, etc. My advice is to source water in as many ways as possible, along with different ways of collecting, transporting, storing, and purifying.

Storage and purification

Water testing should be a regular practice, testing kits can be purchased at hardware stores, or water samples can be taken to water treatment plants, and in smaller towns, hospitals sometimes provide testing. Cover your tanks to keep out debris and provide some form of circulation if the tanks are not being used and filled regularly, and this will prevent bacteria and algae from forming.

Depending on the tank size, you can use pumps, air bubblers, or windmills to circulate or oxygenate the water. Freezing water can split your storage tanks, so devise a plan to keep your store from freezing. There are plenty of options, like exterior heating lines, pads, and covers; the air bubblers and water circulators will also help prevent freezing. Remember to prepare them before winter weather arrives. Water is vital to take time to plan how you’ll get water, where you will store it, purify it, move it around, and so forth.

Quick tip: Storage tanks for water can be any container that will withstand your coldest and warmest weather temperatures and has a thick wall for insulation and strength. If you buy used storage that only previously contained food-grade or biodegradable items, wash thoroughly and test the water after it’s filled.

Earning an Income on the Off-Grid Homestead

Last but not least, let’s talk money! We need money no matter how much we own or make. Somewhere down the line, you’ll need money for replacement parts or tools, fuel, medical needs, whatever! We live in a money-centric world. No matter how you are financing your off-the-land lifestyle now, eventually earning your own income or even lessening the amount of income you need to earn is usually part of the longer-term goal.

The goal of financial freedom is to need less money to live and make the money you will have yourself. Of course, by no means is this some rule set in stone. Living off the land doesn’t automatically mean you have to be an Entrepreneur. Many people have outside jobs and have microgrids. However, if earning your own income is your goal, take your time planning. It takes money to make money, and plan to invest in tools, learning, or other resources to help you reach your goals.

Once my family and I could have complete control over our energy, housing, and water and are taking back more and more control of our food security, the cost of living has drastically dropped, and we don’t need a lot of money to have what we need. It can be the same for you!

Start earning money with things you are already practicing or making. Starting to earn income from what I had been doing and skills I already knew is what I’ve found most successful for planning how to earn money. I was already raising chickens for eggs, so it made sense to invest in a few birds so we could sell some. Now we have a small egg business with regular customers. I started selling a few of my jams and jellies, which were a big hit, so now I make a dozen cases a season to sell.

Earn money with hobbies you’re already doing and skills you already have and over time, expand on the things that work the best or that you enjoy the most.

Final Note

Off-the-grid living is a lifestyle that can lead us to the freedom many of us are searching for, a place we can thrive on our own terms. I’ve learned a lot about this lifestyle, and the most important thing I’ve learned is planning and patience are the keys to success.

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