Open frontiers, freedom to live one’s life without restrictions, and the romance of living in harmony with nature have long been part of the American psyche. Authors and filmmakers have captured the desire to live independently and rely solely on one’s abilities for centuries.
- Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century poet, writer, and naturalist, explained the fascination with a simple life in his 1854 book “Walden“: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
- Ayn Rand, writing “Atlas Shrugged” a century later, detailed the success of a community of industrialists and inventors who rejected the strictures of society to build Galt’s Gulch, a hidden community in the wilds of Colorado with little law and where everyone worked.
- Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham wrote dime novels that focused on the frontier with fictional accounts of strong, self-reliant Western heroes from Daniel Boone to Wyatt Earp, finding huge audiences between 1860 to 1920.
- Lee Child (the pseudonym of Jim Grant) has written more than 20 novels featuring his nomadic Jack Reacher character. Reacher, a retired military policeman, travels the United States by walking or traveling by bus. He stays in cheap motels using made-up aliases, has no possessions other than the clothes on his back, and eschews such modern conveniences as credit cards, cell phones, and computers.
The idea of escaping societal obligations has appealed to certain Americans since our country’s formation. Many historians characterize the Plymouth Colony, established in 1620, as the nation’s first commune, its founders leaving England’s restrictive laws to create a community in the wilderness on a new continent an ocean away. The colony initially depended on upon collectivism, and each individual’s sense of personal responsibility to sustain the colony.
Much more recently, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has proposed a new nation-state composed of banded-together platforms floating in the ocean 200 miles from San Francisco. Known as Libertarian Island, the community would have “no welfare, loose building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons.”
The Meaning of “Living Off the Grid”
The term “living off the grid” appeared in the mid-1990s and is credited to environmentalist Nick Rosen, founder of Off-Grid.net. Some define off-grid as being independent of electrical utilities and having a smaller carbon footprint (“going green”). Some claim it to be a self-imposed exile from the modern world and its conveniences (“dropping out”), while others define it as being anonymous (“being untraceable”). Andrew McKay, a journalist with Survival Mastery, calls it “living without any dependence on the government, society, and its products.”
Living off the grid is on the rise, according to Rosen. Practitioners include marijuana farmers, doomsday preppers, environmentalists, libertarians, horse-and-buggy Mennonites, and those who just want to escape the establishment. Some adherents are nomads or loners, entirely self-sufficient people who are constantly moving or living in remote areas. Some share a back-to-nature philosophy as members of colonies or communes.
Reminiscent of the hippie enclaves that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, here are a few examples of settlements across America and Canada:
- Lasqueti Island. Off the coast of Vancouver, Lasqueti Island is the home of 400 year-round residents who provide their power through solar panels, windmills, micro-hydro systems, and fossil fueled generation.
- Common Ground. An 80-acre intentional community in Blount County, Alabama, Common Ground is owned by a group of people “who caught the tail end of the Mother Earth movement and actually bought a farm.” They focus on limiting consumption and being good stewards to the Earth.
- Earthaven. Solar panels and a small micro-hydro system are sources of electricity in Earthaven, a small eco-village of 60 residents living on 320 acres by Black Mountain, North Carolina. Members of the community are seeking to expand to 150 residents.
New intentional communities continue to open. An off-grid.net advertisement recently solicited “individuals that are not afraid of hard work and are truly committed to breaking the cycle of post-industrial consumerism” for 40 to 80 acres in the North Shore area of Lake Superior.
Many define getting off the grid as reducing their carbon footprint or weaning themselves from the expense of the fixed utility grid. Benjamin Sovacool, the founding director of the Energy Security and Justice Program at the Vermont Law School, estimates there are approximately 300,000 people living off the grid in the United States, 70% to 75% of which are the result of poverty, as reported by Burn. Others either live in remote areas too far to be connected to utilities or they make a conscious choice to replace or reduce municipal utility use.
Disconnecting from the grid is neither easy nor cheap unless you are prepared to give up some or all of the conveniences of modern life, including light, heat, and instant communications. While reducing electricity consumption is relatively easy with the availability of solar panels and windmills, securing potable water and disposing of human waste is just as important and more complicated.
Furthermore, disconnecting from the grid in some locales may be illegal, with municipal health and building departments requiring running, potable water and an approved method of disposing of sewage. A resident of Cape Coral, Florida was evicted from her home because she refused to connect to the local water supply and electricity provider.
Getting off the electrical grid entirely, even with power-producing technology, is not economically viable for most people, according to a study by researchers Rajab Khalilpour and Anthony Vassalio. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the typical American home used an average of 911 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month for a cost of $114.09 in 2014. A wind turbine or solar panels capable of powering a typical home costs $25,000 to $30,000 after tax incentives, according to The Huffington Post, and that does not include the expense of batteries sufficient to store power when the system is not operating. As a consequence, only the most dedicated and affluent environmentalists are likely to disconnect from the grid completely.
Homeowner Steve Rowe, who lives in a remote area of Maine, would have preferred staying on the power grid, but connecting to the grid had an estimated cost of $100,000, according to Pika Energy. His off-grid system of wind, solar, and batteries, designed to replicate the availability of energy, cost approximately $75,000 before tax credits equal to 30% of the expense. Rowe also notes that he is responsible for maintenance of the system, including removing snow from the solar panels, oiling the solar tracker, and replacing water in the batteries.
As a consequence of rising utility bills, many homeowners are seeking ways to reduce their use of utilities through better insulation, more energy-efficient products, and new habits. With the price of solar panels and wind turbines continuing to decline, more homeowners are likely to supplement their power sources with renewable energy, reducing their dependence on the grid without disconnecting entirely.
Dropping out of the grid to live a simple life – being wholly responsible for oneself – appeals to the pioneer spirit in many people. Men and women have left the noise and stress of a modern urban existence to seek the romanticized peace and beauty of raw nature, sometimes with a tragic result.
Reality television shows like “Mountain Men” and “The Legend of Mick Dodge” glamorize living close to nature, the spirit of which has inspired idealists like Daniel Suelo and Christopher McCandless. However, it’s not just men who are attracted to an off-the-grid existence: Jill Redwood has lived for 30 years in a home she built herself with walls of cow dung in a forest in Australia.
Benefits of Self-Sufficiency
Proponents of dropping out claim a variety of advantages for those who successfully make the transition:
- Smaller Environmental Footprint. Residents living off the grid typically live in smaller houses, consume less power even if they use renewable energy, produce less waste, and recycle regularly.
- Greater Personal Satisfaction. Being able to make do and solve your problems is psychologically empowering. Working in the soil, making things with your own hands, and learning new skills like carpentry, food canning, and meat curing is satisfying and intellectually invigorating. Many people discover a new level of creativity and better focus.
- Lower Stress and Anxiety. Living simply costs less, from the expense of utilities, to the costs of food and transportation. According to the American Psychological Association, worries about money and work are the top two sources of stress for Americans. The financial freedom of an off-the-grid existence and the ability to establish one’s personal schedule are both big benefits of living independently from society.
- Better Health. People who move to the wilderness usually trade hours of sitting at a desk in an office and watching television night after night for a more active lifestyle. Walking replaces riding in an automobile, and fast food is nonexistent. As a consequence, these folks are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer (colon, prostate, and breast), according to the Mayo Clinic.
Requirements of Living Off the Grid
The difficulty of finding a location in which to live remotely has increased significantly since the past century. Homesteading is nonexistent in the lower 48, though still possible in less friendly climes like Alaska and Northern Canada. Those seeking an off-the-grid existence today must either trespass on public or private lands and risk fines and imprisonment, or purchase acreage sufficient to provide the necessities of life.
Veterans of frontier living recommend that an off-the-grid lifestyle requires the following:
- Shelter. While many sleep under the stars or in tents initially, it is important to have a living place that provides protection from the elements and danger. Depending on region, shelters range from sturdy log cabins and reinforced yurts, to discarded mini-buses and trailers. Even when living in the wilderness, it is important to understand any laws or regulations that affect your shelter.
- Potable Water. Having a source of clean, drinkable water is essential to living off the grid. The Mayo Clinic recommends that the average male and female needs, respectively, 3 liters and 2.2 liters daily. Before selecting a location, be sure that you have access to a natural water source, or select a site convenient for hauling water. The use of a rainwater collection system is usually advisable. Many off-the-gridders rely upon hand-dug wells. However, even crystal clear water can have dangerous bacteria and chemicals, so it is important to boil or treat water before using it for drinking or cooking.
- Power (Fuel). At a minimum, a power source is needed to cook food and provide heat in inhospitable climates. Some rely solely upon the natural resources available, such as wood or dried animal manure. Technology improvements have made solar, wind turbine, biodiesel generators, and micro-hydro systems available for off-the-grid living, albeit at a significant cost. Kerosene can be used for lamps to light the dark nights. The choice of a power source depends upon estimated use, cost, and installation requirements.
- Food Sources. Being able to live solely on natural game, nuts, berries, and plants in most remote locations is highly unlikely. Plus, relying on natural sources of food can be difficult and dangerous. Christopher McCandless, living in the wilds of Alaska, subsisted for three months on squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms, roots, and berries, before dying after mistakenly consuming poisonous wild-potato seeds. As a consequence of the difficulty of finding food, off-the-grid experts recommend cultivating a vegetable garden and growing fruit trees and plants, as well as learning to can and preserve foods. Fishing and hunting may be allowed during certain seasons, but it is important to preserve meat for the time such activities are not possible. Keeping a supply of dehydrated food is essential for emergencies.
- Waste Disposal. Failure to properly dispose of human waste can lead to such diseases as cholera, intestinal worms, blood flukes, and typhoid fever. As a consequence, numerous regulations dealing with waste disposal may apply to remote locations. Outdoor toilets or latrines located away from living areas, rivers, streams, and other water supplies are the most common method of disposal, as well as composting toilets, where legal. Another option is a septic tank with a buried leach field. Household garbage may be burned in a pit, while plant and vegetable waste can be composted.
- Security. Despite the romance of living in harmony with nature, certain ever-present perils can befall a careless resident. The dangers range from wildlife – bears, cougars, and wolves – to human outlaws.
Extensive preparation is the key to a successful transition to off-the-grid living, especially for individuals or single families. Learning survival skills such as basic carpentry, fishing, hunting, gardening, recognition of regional plants, and basic first aid treatment should be completed before moving to a remote location. Being in good physical shape is important too, as living off the grid often requires hard physical labor every day.
Recognizing that living alone can be psychologically difficult is important – and it’s not for everyone. Being isolated can lead to stress, fear, loneliness, and depression. Participants in the History Channel’s “Alone” series experienced the whole gamut of emotions, only one of the ten who participated lasting as long as 56 days.
In a modern society, it is virtually impossible to live anonymously unless a person is prepared to forego the modern conveniences that make life more comfortable and secure. That includes a home, a job, an automobile, health insurance or medical care, telephone, bank accounts, the Internet, and credit cards. Children typically receive a Social Security number at birth unless their parents are willing to forego the tax exemption for their care.
Unfortunately, almost 600,000 people in America do live anonymously, generally through no choice of their own. The homeless population in major cities – many of whom suffer from mental illness or addiction – are off the grid, drifting from community to community while sleeping outdoors or in charity shelters, scavenging for food in dumpsters, and relying upon charitable strangers for cash and food donations.
Some, like Steve, choose the life because “this is the only way I could feel alive.” According to an Engadget article, Steve quit his job, sold all his possessions, and began a “long-term camping trip.” He wakes up each day outdoors, searches for food, and wanders across the United States by foot, sometimes hitchhiking or hidden in a rail car, to get as far away from society as he possibly can.
There are ways to reduce your traceability without going to the extreme measures that Steve has chosen. Protecting one’s privacy makes sense in a world of digital and real stalkers, identity theft, and unsolicited attention.
Here are some methods to reclaim your privacy:
- Use a Fake Name. It is not illegal to use a fake name as long as the intent is not to defraud or harm another person. For example, writers and artists frequently use pseudonyms for their work. It is illegal to use a fake name under oath or in legal documents. Always use your real name when dealing with the government, paying taxes, or receiving a check. Never use your real name on the Internet.
- Rent a Post Office Box. Never give out your physical address, other than to friends and family. Use a passport for identification, as it provides neither your birth date nor address. When asked for information, consider the purpose that the person or company might need the information for and whether you trust them to keep it confidential. In most cases, it is used for marketing and may be sold to others for the same purpose.
- Avoid Credit Cards. Do not write checks, especially with your real name and address. Use cash when possible for purchases or prepaid credit cards when credit is necessary.
- Employ Smartphone Privacy Settings. CBS’s 60 Minutes demonstrated how easily hackers can break into a mobile phone or a mobile network and access personal information, including phone calls, texts, and pictures. Apple and Android phones have privacy settings that can be activated by their users. For those seeking more security, ZDNet, a CBS website focused on technology, recommended the best eight cell phones for maximum security. Those who are especially paranoid can rely on “burner” phones, which are prepaid phones used for a short while and then discarded. Remember the warning of John Hering, one of the hackers featured on “60 Minutes”: “We live in a world where we cannot trust the technology that we use.”
- Use a Proxy Server or VPN on the Internet. Each computer has a unique Internet address that can be used to trace the location of the user. A proxy server acts as an intermediary between the computer in use and the Internet, increasing – but not eliminating – the difficulty of finding the user’s location when online. Free downloads of proxy programs are available on the Internet. Some users employ a virtual private network (VPN) through a company like VPN Unlimited – a group of remote computers linked together with encrypted communications – for security. Experts recommend a paid VPN service for maximum privacy. If you visit social networks, use a fake name and picture. Never open emails from someone you do not know.
- Rely on Public Transportation. Owning and driving an automobile requires state-issued licenses, as well as various types of insurance, both of which make finding your location and movements easier to track. While technology like vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications make driving easier and safer, they also increase the vulnerability to being tracked. According to IEEE Spectrum, research using off-the-shelf equipment costing $550 was able to find the location of a target vehicle nearly half the time, and the technology for doing so is improving.
Going off the grid is more difficult and more expensive than many realize. Despite stories of individuals who live without relying upon municipal utilities, flourish in the wooded backcountry alone, or succeed in becoming invisible, the reality is quite different. Few people have the income, skills, or willingness to abandon their material comforts for a new life. Diana Saverin, a writer living alone in a cabin near Denali Park in Alaska, described her experience in The Atlantic as “The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau.” Her outhouse had no door, her view no roads, her faucet no water, and her power outlets no electricity.
Despite the difficulties, there are real benefits to going green, experiencing nature at its wildest, and maintaining privacy. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is essential to our health and, perhaps, the existence of our species. Returning to our roots and embracing the pulse of life in all its beauty thrills our hearts and feeds our soul. Keeping our secrets secret from a curious public, some of whom would relish in our discomfort, is essential to our confidence and security. Perhaps the answer is not jumping off the dock into the deep end, but sitting and pondering our course while dangling our toes in the water.
Are you considering going off the grid?