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5 Difficulties to Expect When Moving Off the Grid and How to Handle Them

Maine Sustainability Lifestyle
by Emma Thieme Oct 22, 2014

The central encompassing theme of off-grid life is autonomy. You’re living in a completely self-sustaining habitat that isn’t dependent on any public utilities. Meaning you either do not have electricity, running water, or sewage; or you harness all of these resources independently by using alternative forms of energy — solar, wind, geothermal, micro-hydro. For example, you might not have electricity but you have a fridge that runs on propane. You might not have running water but you have a generator that powers a pump from a well.

There are lots of different ways you can self-sustain and still have access to the luxuries of modern life. However, all of these systems take time and money. Most people who choose to live off-grid go without until it’s feasible for them to put some systems in place. My experience is currently at this beginning stage. I’m going without. My partner and I live as if we were constantly camping inside. We have shelter, a wood cook stove, a cooler, and a quilt.

I don’t think anyone can argue with me on this — living off-the-grid is badass. I won’t lie, that was the main reason I decided to make the jump. But let me tell you, it is difficult.

1. Most people are going to try and change your mind.

When you decide to move off-grid you are making a very brave decision. When you decide to actually tell people about it, you are being even braver. It’s not a mainstream idea. You’re not going to be close to the mall or an acceptable fast-food chain with a drive-thru. Most people will think you are downright wacky. Some might even say you’re “being irresponsible.”

I’m a bartender, so you can imagine I spoke with a few people about my decision to move before I actually did it. It did not take long for me to realize that the general public did not support my decision to live independently. And they were not shy in telling me so. Many people brushed it off as too “romantic,” “whimsical,” one particularly outspoken Republican gentleman in an ill-fitting flannel shirt and Abraham Lincoln beard told me living off-grid today was “not possible.” I’ll also never forget the retired lawyer who absolutely man-splained the shit out of the basic function of a woodstove for me.

“Heating with wood is a nice idea and all, but they’re just not worth it because you have to keep putting wood into them. Someone always has to be home to keep stoking the fire with wood, or else it won’t be warm.” A seriously revolutionary tidbit right there.

Something to understand is that people are very dependent these days on access to public utilities. Every day we depend on companies to power our coffeemakers, to keep our beer cold and our bodies warm. When you tell someone that you want to take control of these things yourself — just for the new experience — they might feel a little threatened by that.

Basically every negative opinion — whether it’s about you making a big life change or not — should be dealt with in the same way: a big F YOU.

2. You’re going to be extremely isolated.

You can live off-grid in a lot of places. Most of them are very rural. You should expect to get lonely sometimes. I currently live in a cabin in rural Maine. The closest bar is 13 miles away and it closes at 8 every night. When I moved out here, I knew I was giving my bar-hopping, miniskirt-wearing, street food-scarfing, 80s night-dancing, Sunday brunch-munching days a rest for a little while. And that’s okay because I actually don’t miss them that much.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that a support system is a crucial thing to have. I’m lucky to be living off-grid with my partner, who also happens to be a very good friend of mine. So I have someone who will coach me through using our haunted outhouse at midnight, someone who will help me stack wood, and someone who apparently will make out with me. He’s a friend, a worker and a suitor all in one perfectly acceptable human specimen. But even if he’s a triple threat, one person isn’t enough.

What’s great about off-grid life is that it attracts a lot of interesting people to small, close-knit communities. These people know how to party. If you’re new in town, they’ll most likely want to get to know you and they’ll usually bring food. I’ve had people reach out from all ends of this community. More than a couple random strangers have gotten in touch with me just to say: “Hey, heard you moved here. Wanna hang out?”

To which I always reply: “Yes, for the love of fucking God. Yes. Thank you.”

3. Everyday activities are going to become more difficult than usual.

Planning is your friend. There are some questions you’re going to have to answer before you take the leap.

How are you going to refrigerate food, and more importantly beer? I use a cooler with frozen milk jugs in it. I’m able to freeze the jugs at my neighbor’s house and rotate them out. Many people purchase a propane fridge. They’re difficult to find and are pretty expensive (at least $500) but if this is a permanent life change for you, finding one might be a good idea. If you can get your hands on an old camper — something surprisingly easy to get your hands on around here — there might be an adorable little propane fridge in it.

How are you going to cook food? Campfires and camp stoves are two very obvious solutions for cooking. I depend on both of them primarily and use a wood cook stove — circa 1820 — on cold or rainy days.

How are you going to remain a clean and socially acceptable human being? This one was a big source of worry for me — showering. I do all my writing work in a very tiny public library and I bartend a couple times a week in a fairly upscale restaurant. I can’t show up with sap in my hair and ash crusted around my nostrils. I just can’t. So I solved this issue before I actually made the move.

It only took me a couple of hours to read a few blogs and peruse four different Home Depot aisles before I used a garden hose head and a few plumber’s fittings to convert a pesticide sprayer into the most luxuriously pressurized and conveniently portable shower to ever grace this soiled Earth. Whenever I need to take a shower, I heat up a small kettle of water on my camp stove, pour it in, let it cool, pump her up and boom! Almost instant cleanliness. This solution cost me less than $40 and I can get two showers out of 3.5 gallons of water. How’s that for self-sustainability?

4. Some things are going to be too difficult to do alone.

Chores. No one has told me to do my chores since my mom was cutting the crusts off of my cucumber and mayonnaise sandwiches. But since I’ve moved off-grid, chores have all of a sudden become a thing again.

Living this way takes a lot of daily work. We don’t have a well so we haul water from a neighbor’s house. We go through about three 7-liter containers every week and a half. These containers need to be hauled in a garden cart up a hilly gravel driveway, through a large field and down a heavily rooted forest path before they can arrive in our kitchen for our hydrating pleasure. This is a chore that I just cannot do by myself, partly because I cannot physically lift one full container and partly because this job requires a lot of moral support and encouragement.

When you move off-grid you need to accept that this is no time to be a hero. There are just some things you can’t do alone. If I can’t be a natural water-hauler, maybe I can be an all-star woodchopper and resident dishwasher instead. Chores cannot be neglected when you’re depending on yourself to survive. So be aware of your limits, ask for help when you need it and by all means, try not to break a rib.

5. Winter is coming.

If it’s not already here, it’s working on getting here. Do not be the grasshopper who spent the entire summer floating on an inner tub with a couple Twisted Teas in hand and a joint in his waterproof Indiana Jones hat. Plan ahead.

People who choose to live off the grid are natural ants; they’re constantly preparing and storing for winter. The primary source of heat for most people living off the grid is wood. Wood does not cut, split, and collect itself. Propane does not stay at a somewhat affordable price forever. If you want to be successful at this lifestyle you need to be constantly planning ahead and taking advantage of the resources that are available to you now. It’s no joke, when freezing temperatures come around you should expect to be hemorrhaging resources — heat, food, water. And they’re all going to require 50% more energy to access.

So yes, living off the grid is badass. Do it right.

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