Living independently from big corporations and the 9-5 sounds like a dream, but it can quickly become a nightmare.
Most of us — at some point or other — have entertained thoughts of disengaging from everyday life. Our world can be chaotic and restless. So that the contrast of an imagined peaceful, and much slower independent way of living, calls out to us.
Most people think of going “off the grid” when they express a desire to move away from the structures of everyday life. But the phrase has different meanings for different people, and some definitions are more realistic than others.
Helpful resources: https://survivalistgear.co/emergency-survival-kit/
Off-grid living is generally understood to be a way of life that is not dependent on public utilities such as the electrical “grid” (where the term comes from) and water networks.
But some go further than that, interpreting it as a form of life that avoids pretty much everything — including even the roads. This most extreme form — complete independence — likely only exists in parts of the world where that sort of living is a necessity and is an increasingly scarce way of life.
A more common group of people have confiscated the term to identify with a reduced-standard of living that is cleaner and semi-independent. A way of life that might enable a type of full-time touring if they live in a motorhome, or one that enables periodic independence depending on the seasons and other factors.
Living off the grid is so uncommon that the general presumption is that it must be illegal, at least in parts. It is not illegal, but it is strongly discouraged. For example, in the UK one can only live on a plot of land for 28-days without needing permission to do so by the local authorities. In the United States the situation is similar, and you will need to provide a permit after a while.
So living off-grid would not be as easy as taking a one-way trip up to a place with good soil and building a cabin. Not unless one has permission to do so.
You can however, attempt to live off-grid on your own property, or someone else’s if you have permission. Oftentimes this isn’t as romantic as it seems. Caravans parked on driveways are allowed. Gardens too if they are big enough. This is called ancillary accommodation.
A final option is to live nomadically in a camper van or motorhome with no real fixed address. But this will hardly be an “off grid” lifestyle by most measures, and it will be a struggle to convince an insurance company to cover your motorhome if you don’t technically live anywhere.
In the United States, if you continue working, you might still be able to pay for health insurance through your job. But if you are self-employed or living off of the land, you can open up a health savings account. Accounts like these are often tax-deductible and can really come in handy if you find yourself staring down the barrel at thousands of dollars’ worth in medical bills. If you do not have a fixed-address, or a semi-permanent address, then do your research clearly and make sure this is known to the medical authorities.
Residents in the UK are entitled to free at-the-point-of-use healthcare, the NHS. Living nomadically, or a way of life that does not pay into the system does not disqualify a natural-born citizen from accessing the healthcare system. The point is if using the NHS disqualifies any claim to be truly living off the grid. The healthcare “grid” is probably one exception that even the most extremely independent people would have no qualms about using, even in non-emergencies.
Fixed-abode or not, one still needs to be registered to use the NHS, on their data systems. That means that some type of fixed-address is needed. A fixed-address could be a relative or friend’s house, and will determine your local health clinic; GP doctor and hospital.
If you are unwell anywhere in the country, any and every hospital will open up its doors to help. But they will only do the bare minimum that is necessary. Everything else: follow-ups, check-ups, serious dental work and future operations, has to be sorted by the practitioners local to your fixed address.
For the more casual off-grid observers, a fixed-address makes it possible to vote in elections, and generally “keep in touch” with the outside world, even for insurance or other reasons. Note that this is not a legal requirement, just a convenient one.
Unfortunately, many streams and lakes on both sides of the Atlantic are either polluted or home to organisms that can make a person very sick (or both). It is better to treat water first. Water can be treated by leaving it in direct, harsh sunlight for about eight hours. The ultraviolet radiation should then kill all of the harmful germs. This is very impractical though; time-consuming, and depends on weather conditions.
If the area has a naturally high water table, drilling a well is possible. But permission will be needed and the entire operation can cost thousands of pounds, with no success guaranteed. A deep well also requires a good pump to extract the water. Rain barrels can collect water, but have to be partly-buried so that the wind doesn’t blow them over. Then there is the issue of carrying the water, and protecting it from freezing in the winter.
Of all the aspects of off-grid living, water extraction is probably the most difficult to accomplish naturally and independently. Many extreme off-grid enthusiasts still rely on water from public taps for drinking, showering, and washing.
Food is another very difficult one. There are two options: foraging and growing. Like off-grid living generally, foraging is not illegal in the UK but is strongly discouraged. In the United States, however, many federal and local foraging laws have been described as “wrongheaded and draconian”. So while one law generally applies for much of the UK (foraging laws are much the same but generally more relaxed in Scotland), the complexities of the many local and federal laws in the United States require some serious research beforehand.
In the United States both foraging and trespassing can be criminal offences, but not in the UK. There it is technically not illegal to forage — even on private land. If you are caught by the landowner and asked to leave, you should do so. But trespassing is not a criminal offence. Foraging is described in the Theft Act of 1968 as the art of a person: “…who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant”. The landowner may be able to ask you to leave, but they cannot ask for foraged goods back — as that would be stealing.
Foraging is a careful and slow skill, and it is unlikely a person can do it for sustainable living. Rather, foraging is more like a seasonal hobby. Actually, the same can be thought of for growing food.
Raised beds, containers, and small gardens can all produce seasonal foods to eat and enjoy. But also leave one vulnerable to pests, the weather, and disease. Cafes and supermarkets dispose of food waste and cardboard — a source of potential compost — but some would argue this is still living “on” the grid.
Growing food is technically do-able, but terribly inconvenient. People often report digestive problems, bad breath, and sickness from eating the same foods. And almost everyone will need to fall back on the supermarket “grid” from time to time.
Helpful resources: https://survivalistgear.co/emergency-survival-food/
Being off the electrical grid — surprisingly — is perhaps one of most practical things one can do, thanks to advances in technology. But being energy efficient may require sacrifices, such as the microwave oven; toasters, coffee-makers, TVs and so on. But you can watch TV on a laptop instead, and get a cafetière for the latter two. LED bulbs are a powerful way to reduce wastage through lighting.
A good 100-watt solar panel should serve the energy needs of about two people, and you can buy mounted-roof ones to put away (if you are worried about theft). If they are looked after properly, a solar panel can produce power successfully for over a decade.
Gas is important for keeping things cool in the fridge, and for keeping warm in the winter. Buying gas canisters from the grid is unavoidable, and largely essential. But like the solar panel — and any generators that might be needed for back-up — some dependency on the grid will remain, but it will be sharply reduced.
It may be possible to live truly, independently, off-grid as a short-term experiment. But in the long-run, and depending on your interpretation of what “off-grid” entails, there will always come a time when it is necessary to re-engage with the structures of society. Whether that time comes in the darkest coldest nights of winter, stocking up on food, or in a medical emergency, and so on.
Off-grid living may even be more expensive, rather than cheaper, than “normal” living, too. After all, there will still be propane bills and other expenses. And in the end, your home, if it is a cabin or motorhome, will be a depreciating — and not appreciating — asset.
It is an idyllic thought, but one that most often fails to match up with reality.
Neil Wright is researcher and copywriter. He is passionate about the great outdoors and the natural world, and has written extensively about the off-grid lifestyle and living off the land in the UK on his website.
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