5 things no one tells you about the challenges of off-grid living

Have you ever dreamed of being totally free?

I have.

For years, I was obsessed with the idea of getting out of the rat race and living a simple life among nature.

I even knew exactly where I would do it. I was browsing real estate listings for a coastal town tucked away in the mountains of British Columbia, where land was relatively cheap.

A few acres is all you need to feed a small family. In a rainy climate like that, all I needed was a year-round creek to provide both drinking water and electrical power.

I thought I had it all figured out.

But I’m a city boy, and what I didn’t know about living in the wilderness off the grid could fill a book.

Here are some things you may not have considered while you’re dreaming your dreams of escaping society and living on your own terms.

1) Food security is going to be an issue

No matter how delicious they may seem, you can’t eat dreams.

Maybe your off-grid ambitions involve working remotely and having some income. But for most people, living off-grid will be a full-time job

And anyway, the whole point is to escape the rat race in the first place.

That means you’re going to have very little money to buy things, and you need to produce everything you can by yourself. Including food.

Growing food is not as easy as it looks. Depending on the climate where you live, the types of food you can grow are very limited.

For example, where I was looking for land in British Columbia, winters are mild but incredibly rainy, and things like fruit would only grow for a short season in the summer.

In hot climates, your growing season may be longer, but you will probably face issues with getting enough water.

It’s a nice dream to grow your own food in your backyard and know it’s completely organic and pesticide-free, but that means it’s going to attract tons of pests.

I used to grow vegetables in my backyard in the city, and bugs ravaged my crops, even as I tried to use store-bought pesticides to control them.

At the end of the growing season, I ended up with the equivalent of a sack of potatoes, a handful of zucchini, a single but very large eggplant, thirty Brussels sprouts, and a lot of cherry tomatoes.

That’s not getting anyone through 12 months.

I’m a vegetarian, but things get even more complicated if you eat meat. It sounds simple to keep a few chickens for eggs, meat, and free pest control, but it’s not that easy.

As writer Kristeva Dowling found and detailed in her book Chicken Poop for the Soul, chickens can suffer from an incredible range of diseases, not to mention attacks from predatory wildlife.

And if you’re thinking of keeping larger animals such as goats, pigs, or cows, you’re going to need to learn how to work with these animals.

If you grew up on a farm handling livestock, you’re probably ready for that. But if you didn’t, you have no idea how much work it is to keep animals alive, and how difficult it is to then slaughter them for food.

2) The legal aspect

In many ways, the whole point of living off the grid is to escape society and its maddening rules.

But this isn’t the frontier in the 18th century. You can’t just grab a piece of land and call it your own.

In the United States, legal homesteading ended in 1976 except in Alaska, where it ended in 1986. In Canada, homesteading was over before the second world war. And in Europe, the concept never really existed in the first place.

In other words, all land belongs to someone, whether it’s the government or private owners. If you want to live off the grid, you need land to do it on, which means either buying it or renting it from someone.

But it doesn’t end there. Just because you buy a piece of land doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it.

Regulations vary from one jurisdiction to another, but almost everywhere requires planning permission to build a house.

Different land is also zoned for different purposes, so while you may get away with a small vegetable garden, any large-scale agricultural production will require land zoned for that purpose.

And then there’s the water. Nothing is more critical to your survival than water, and yet getting it can be an absolute nightmare.

In some places, you’re not even allowed to collect rainwater.

Okay, but there’s a river nearby where you can get all the water you need, right?

Wrong.

Collecting enough water to provide for your daily needs from a natural water source like a river is surrounded by different regulations and rules. 

For instance, the river may be a habitat for protected wildlife such as fish, and any tampering with the run of the river will land you in a lot of legal trouble.

Even if you are legally allowed to collect water from a source on your property, you may have to submit samples of the water to the government for testing every month.

In other words, you can get off the grid, but you can never escape the long arm of the law.

3) Power

pic1411 5 things no one tells you about the challenges of off-grid living

Back when people were allowed to simply claim land and build a cabin on it, they lived a lot more simply than we do. Most homesteads used an open fire for heat and oil lamps for light, and didn’t need electricity at all.

You can still live like that now if you want, but it’s hard to turn your back on every modern convenience. 

For example, fridges and freezers make it much easier to store the food you’ll need to get you through the seasons when nothing grows, and the Internet can provide a lifeline to the outside world and also a way to make a living.

But all that power needs to come from somewhere. And by definition, living off the grid means you can’t just plug into the local electricity provider and have them meet all your needs.

Luckily, there are more options for off-grid power than ever before. Solar, wind, and hydropower have all come a long way in the last few decades, making it easier than ever to generate your own power.

But these green power sources mean you’ll be at the mercy of the climate and the weather.

Solar panels are a popular way to power an off-grid lifestyle, but what do you do when the sun doesn’t shine?

Plus, solar panels are expensive. It can take 20 years to make back the money you invest in them, and the lifespan of a solar panel is only about 20 years, so all you’re really doing is buying 20 years’ worth of power upfront instead of paying for it month by month.

Wind power might be an option, but it’s difficult to generate enough power to meet the needs of even a small house by wind alone. Plus, wind is generally even less consistent than the sun.

Hydropower is probably the best option in terms of upfront cost and reliability. It also means you need access to a river that runs all year round, and permission to install equipment in that river.

4) Building a house

Of course, once you’ve found your land, you’re going to need somewhere to live. It’s possible to buy land with a house already built, but you’ll pay much more.

Plus, off-grid houses often have different needs than regular houses, which is why many people choose to build their own house designed for an off-grid lifestyle.

That’s okay if you have experience in construction and know what you’re doing. But if you don’t, you’re going to have to pay someone to build the house for you. 

Often, this can be the single biggest expense of living off the grid, and it can take months or even years to get the house you want.

5) Isolation

Sometimes, the biggest threats to the life you’ve dreamed are things you haven’t even thought about.

If you’ve thought at all seriously about living off the grid, you’ve probably considered where you might buy land, how to build a house, and how to get food and power.

But have you considered what your daily life in this place will actually look like?

Even the biggest introvert needs some social interaction to keep them from going crazy. But if you live alone on an isolated farmstead, how will you meet anyone?

And don’t forget about medical care. Sooner or later, you will get sick or hurt, and you’ll need access to medical services. Have you considered how you will deal with that?

The reality of off-grid living

Look, I’m not trying to put you off chasing your dreams. Far from it.

But it’s important to go into any big life decision with your eyes open about what it will mean.

After all, there’s a reason I abandoned my own dream of living off the grid. Instead, I now live in a small town surrounded by neighbors and buy my food from the farmers’ market instead.

If you’re ready for the challenge, living off-grid can offer a sense of freedom and purpose very few other lifestyles can match.

But it’s not for everyone.

Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley

“Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions. Reach out at ryan@ryanfrawley.com”

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