So, you want to live off of the grid. The smell of civilization is starting to spoil in your nostrils, the crowds of people constantly surrounding you have jangled your sanity – the wilderness calls. And you feel the strong urge to heed its beckoning, to exercise some civil disobedience and start looking for sustainable survival options.
I’m all for it. In fact, I believe that surviving in the natural world, off the fat of the land is a skill everyone should understand. Because those are our roots. It’s easy to get caught up in a world full of flashing lights, screens and browsers, social webs, easy access to food and energy, and to forget that at our core, we humans are animals that belong in the wild.
To this extent, everyone should try living off the grid at least once in their life – even if it’s just for a season or two. Because it teaches you a lot about yourself and your place in the world.
But here’s the rub: living off the grid can be extremely bad for the environment. If not done properly, your little home-stake in the wild might be coughing up a pretty massive carbon footprint. And for someone who escaped to nature, polluting and damaging it might conflict with your priorities. Don’t you want to take care of the environment in which you live? What’s the point of living in nature if you’re just going to kill off the magic that made your off-the-grid getaway beautiful in the first place?
Sustainable off-the-grid living is totally doable (and it can even save you money!) Unfortunately, it isn’t always simple or straight forward. And it almost always requires a little more effort. Sure, it’s way easier to overlook the fish and the birds and the grass and the trees and the air and water quality of the place you live in. But if you are just a scourge upon the land that supports you, if you don’t give anything back or make any effort to be a steward of your environment, then you might as well just spend your days in the filthy heart of some concrete jungle.
Sustainable Energy off the Grid
Last summer I was way up North, in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge helping a filmmaker capture the annual caribou migration. The arctic tundra is a vast wilderness, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – there is nothing up there.
The only way to get around is by bush plane or helicopter and the only camp/refueling station out there in that desolate wild, is Kavik River Camp, run by one Kavik Sue. Sue lives way off the grid. Sue is a total Alaskan badass. But Sue is incredibly unsustainable in the way she runs her river camp: she burns all her trash (which is a lot, because she hosts hunters, photographers, filmmakers, oil crews and government scientists most of the year), she dumps the contents of their outhouses into the Kavik River, and perhaps worst of all, she runs her massive diesel generator all day and all night, non-stop, constantly, rain or shine.
The point of this story? You don’t have to use a gigantic gas-burning generator to produce enough electricity to live by. Especially if it’s just you and a few family/friends. Sue needs her big diesel generator, because sometimes there are up to 75 people staying at Camp Kavik (although she certainly doesn’t need to run it as much as she does).
Even if you can rely 25% on sustainable forms of energy, that is something. Most people who use alternative sustainable forms of energy production, do so in combination with a gas burning generator.
This is a form of sustainable energy that is growing in popularity. It harnesses heat from within the Earth and converts it into electricity that you can use in your home. The only downside to geothermal energy is it takes a lot of planning and a lot of technical installation. You have to be situated over a geothermal hotspot that you can tap into. So, many structures that use geothermal heat were built with that plan already in mind. Geothermal energy is extremely reliable, and pumps out a significant amount of energy.
If there is running water on your property, or near your off-the-grid getaway, you can harness that and create free electricity. You can build your own hydroelectric generator or have one installed professionally. Here is an extremely helpful guide to using hydroelectric generators, and understanding their survival applications.
Solar panels are widely available for purchase, and some companies even offer free installation. Obviously solar energy works best when you are in a place that get’s a lot of sun, and the Panels have to be south facing in order to maximize sun contact. Solar panels produce steady, reliable amounts of energy, and just a few small ones might be enough to produce all the energy you need at your off-the-grid getaway.
Wind is a little harder to nail down. Because big wind turbines are SUPER expensive and require teams of engineers to build and maintain. That isn’t an option for most people – but there are some smaller, personal and home sized wind on the market. Even in the last couple of years the technology has come a long way – the Micro Wind Turbine is just one of several types of portable wind turbines designed for backpackers. Wind energy is extremely sustainable, and in windy areas it is a very reliable source of electricity.
Making sure your house is sustainable is first and foremost a matter of protecting your energy (and your wallet). If your house or cabin or hut can’t hold heat for crap, then you will constantly be wasting energy and money and polluting in the process.
So what can be done? Well, there are a lot of ways to make a structure sustainable. Here are just a few:
These are the most sustainable homes on the market. They are “the Ultimate green houses” and can be built anywhere on the planet. They use extremely creative recycled materials to build these homes – which function effectively to hold in heat in cold weather and keep it cool in hot weather. Earthship Biotecture is the company that invented these super-sustainable off-the-grid homes, and they can build one for you, to your specifications, with alternative electricity, potable water, and sewage systems included.
Adobe houses are made from a mud and clay mixture, and they are extremely popular throughout the southwest US desert. The natives of that region have been using adobe for thousands of years because it is such a great building material in the desert. Its insulating properties make it perfect to handle the often drastic temperature shifts of those regions. Adobe is the perfect, natural, sustainable material for building off-the-grid getaways in the desert – but I wouldn’t recommend them anywhere else.
Believe it or not, Hobbits were onto something with their hole-homes. But they didn’t come up with the idea first – building residences directly into the sides of hills and mountains has been a common practice throughout Scandinavia for centuries. And (as we learned with Adobe) Earth often makes for the best insulating, sustainable building material. Hobbit holes are particularly good at retaining heat when it’s bitter cold out, and staying cool when it’s warm. Vikings commonly built homes and hunting huts like these, and the practice is just as effective today as it was back then. If you want to make a hobbit hole, just pick the right hill and make sure you build in a lot of support… it wouldn't be good to have your hill collapse on you.
Log cabins are old school, they make for classic off-the-grid huts. Logs are readily available almost anywhere, and they insulate well. The only caveat I’ll maintain about building log cabins is this: if you are cutting down the trees to make your hut, do so sparingly. If you’re trying to be sustainable, it does no good to level an entire forest just to build yourself a personal six-bedroom hunting lodge out in the middle of nowhere.
Living off the grid requires that one either stocks, or grows/cultivates their own food. I believe in a healthy balance between the two: keeping a generous supply of canned and preserved goods in case of an emergency, while also growing as much fresh produce as possible. Putting all your eggs in one basket or the other will likely lead to issues.
If storing food is all you do, you’re spending lots of money and making lots of trips to the store, wasting gasoline to do so, and probably eating pretty unhealthily on top of all that. Growing fresh food and raising fresh livestock is important, not just for your wallet, not just for the environment, but for your health.
The first time I was introduced to this fancy type of gardening was at a Mahayana yoga ashram high in the Rocky Mountains where they exclusively cooked food for the entire community with produce grown in their greenhouse. The system is about as sustainable as gardening can get – a big tank of fish produce fish waste, which is then fed through pipes to the veggies, which use the nutrients in the water as fertilizer to flourish. Those flourishing veggies filter out the water, which is then clean and pumped back to the fish tank, where the cycle starts all over again. The fish provide the plants with nutrients and fertilizer, and the veggies provide the fish with fresh, clean water. And you get to enjoy all the fresh goodies they make.
Animals are really good for the land. Cows and goats fertilize the earth with their waste, chickens aerate the soil as they peck through it in search of grubs and seeds, and bees pollinate the flowers and the trees… And having access to cow milk, goat milk, fresh eggs, poultry, and fresh honey is extremely beneficial for someone living off the grid. It’s a win-win situation: the land stays healthy and you stay fed.
Eventually you want to be growing and producing more food on your own than you are buying. That’s the end goal, but you don’t have to get there right away – start small with a greenhouse or a couple chickens, then work your way up to having an entire farm. Agriculture and animal rearing are essential to off the grid living, and when it comes to food, sustainable growth is the only way to go. Anything else just falls short. Your animals and gardens will be most productive when you are running them at maximum sustainability.
Managing Waste Off-Grid
Burning your garbage is a terrible idea. I saw it being done all over Thailand and Vietnam, and the smoke produced by it is absolutely toxic, and pumps so much pollution into the air. Sadly, this is how most people living off the grid choose to dispose of their waste. It might be impossible to eliminate burning garbage at your off the grid home altogether, but you can certainly minimize it by composting, reusing and recycling.
Any and all organic material can be piled up into a compost pile. This mound of garbage will rot and decay and can eventually be used as fertilizer for gardens. This reduces a lot of what ends up getting thrown away, and repurposes it.
This one is pretty simple. If there is a glass jar or plastic container that you can repurpose and use somewhere else to some other end, do it. Reuse as much as you possibly can.
I know, it requires a lot of effort. But if you keep all cardboard, paper and tin/plastic/aluminum set aside, once a month you can make a trip to town and recycle these materials. This is the biggest reducer of garbage besides compost, and is an essential piece to sustainable living.
There are a lot of ways to achieve sustainability. You don’t have to do them all, all at once. Nor do you have to drastically change your off-the-grid lifestyle all at once. But I can promise you that living sustainably in nature is far more rewarding, and far more enjoyable than living in nature only to destroy and pollute it.
And hell, maybe you don’t care about this “hippy-dippy BS”. Maybe you just want to run your generators, fell your trees, and burn your garbage all day long. I can’t stop you. But you live in the world you create – and if you make a toxic dump out of your off-the-grid getaway, it’s you who has to live there.
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