Living Off-Grid: What It’s Actually Like

When people learn that my husband and I moved our family to the Ozarks to go off-grid, we sometimes get interesting responses. Living off-grid evokes images of end-of-the-world preppers stocking up MREs and ammo, wild-haired hermits digging in the dirt for acorns and mushrooms, or maybe criminals attempting to elude capture.

But if you visited our homestead, you’ll see that we are not hiding in a bunker, nor do we have sordid criminal pasts. Though we were both born in suburbs, finished college, and worked as teachers, both my husband and I are doing everything we can to live independent of the conveniences of the grid. Stick around for a minute, have a cup of tea, and let me tell you what it’s like and why we’re doing it.

What Is Off-Grid Living?

As we open the refrigerator, turn on the lights, flush the toilet, or turn up the thermostat, we hardly ever think about how that electricity or water moves in and out of our homes. But this modern life, as we now know it, is actually a relatively new concept.

Think about it: At one point in our recent past, no matter what country or lifestyle you lived, 100% of the people around the world were living off-grid, as everyone had lived for centuries before them. Even kings and emperors lived in a world where light and heat came from fires, and water came directly from rivers and wells.

line drying
Michelle Shall / Insteading

As technological advances made life easier, offering us the public utilities that are the familiar scaffolding of modern life, “the grid” fell into place. It swiftly transitioned from a  convenience of the rich to a way of life for the general public.

But there are some who choose to shirk the comfort of the grid entirely. Imagine how an island is separated from the continent. Likewise, an off-grid life is fueled by a desire to live autonomously from the life-support of electricity, water, and natural gas that typically keep modern houses running. Whatever they look like—and their forms are as diverse as they come—off-grid homes are equipped to generate their own power, supply their own water, and handle their own sewage.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Off-grid living is intensely personal. Both dependent on the seasons and the characteristics of the region and spiced by the individual’s personal philosophies and convictions, the off-grid life is not a singular entity. Under the umbrella of off-Grid, you can find homesteaders and preppers, hippies and hermits, peasants and farmers, homeschoolers and environmentalists.

Our solar dehydrator is made from an old freezer! Herbs, roots, and fruit are dried using absolutely no electricity. Michelle Shall / Insteading

Some desire to reduce their energy use for nature’s sake, outfitting their homes with solar panels and wind turbines and harvesting rainwater for their daily use.

Others long for self-sufficiency, growing their own food, caring for livestock, and composting their own waste. Some document their lives online so that others can learn likewise, others just want to be left alone and are so off the grid, neither you nor I will ever know who or where they are.

Challenges and Rewards of Off-Grid Living

I’m not going to lie to you—living off-grid does not make you normal by any stretch of the imagination. Instead of posting photos to Instagram, catching up on our Netflix queue to wind down for the evening, or grabbing a latte before driving to work, we spend our days chopping firewood, growing and foraging food, chasing our crazy chickens, and working on building our home.

There are as many challenges as there are rewards, but rather than listing them separately, I prefer to see them as two sides of the same coin. Here are some examples:

1. Your Food Is A Huge Responsibility

For many off-grid people, food security is priority number one. Establishing reliable sources of safe, pesticide-free produce and antibiotic-free, humanely raised meat requires a huge amount of work to set up, maintain, harvest, and butcher. And once the raw materials have been picked and plucked, there is the monumental task of putting it all up so that nothing goes to waste. Not a job for the faint of heart!

This year’s squash growing in last year’s duck compost. Michelle Shall / Insteading

All that hard work does pay off, though. Sometimes, I find our dinner menus unintentionally start reading like a foodie’s wildest fever dream. Locally-foraged grape leaves (they grow in the ravine!), stuffed with organic rice and grass-finished beef (bought from our friends at the farmers market), mixed with organic, free-range, pasture-fed eggs (laid by my bossy Sussex hen), seasoned with homegrown mint and wood sorrel (growing alongside the path!), cooked without electricity in a solar oven. Delicious.

2. You Might Need To Build Your Own House

Modern houses are not designed with off-grid in mind. Leave them without power for even a week, and the basement is moldy and damp, the refrigerator is a hazmat zone, and the attic could probably roast a turkey.

Many people who move off-grid construct their own home—often with their own hands. This is one of the many reasons why off-grid homes are often found in rural areas—city building codes are far too restrictive.

::: Early Summer Scene ::: Today we’re going to get the rest of these seedling babes into the earth, finally!! We’re also hauling lots of manure from a neighbor’s horses and topsoil from Keith’s new Homesite to the new terrace garden bed. With the exception of the forest, our land has pretty much pure clay soil – excellent for natural building but poor for gardens! Soil building is the name of the game around here. It continues to be a lesson in patience as I dream and await the day when all these new gardens become lush and fertile. This is the first year I’ve been able to put any real energy into creating gardens and it’s amazing how much more work it takes in comparison to other places I’ve gardened. I took for granted water systems, soil quality, relatively prepared beds, and layout. When starting with raw land, it’s all up to you!! Or me… and on that note, I’m going to get back to the garden 🌺 . . . . . . . . #offgrid #summerblooms #garden #gardening #permies #biodiversity #homesteading #fromscratch #homesteadlife #homesteading101 #rawland #newgardens #creatinghome #earlysummer #greenhousebabies #seedlings #offgridlifestyle #offgridhomestead #growyourown #learningasigo #rainwaterharvesting #soilbuilding #ecologically #olympicpeninsula

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This ultimate DIY project is a huge, intimidating endeavor, and one that is right in the center of our current concerns on our homestead. But we love the freedom of choice. We get to choose to make our home out of non-toxic materials, renewable resources, and we don’t have to retrofit anything to suit our needs. We’ll build it the way we want it in the first place! Our house will be inspired by the Earthship design, but the design possibilities are endless to the creative.

3. If You Don’t Do It, It Doesn’t Get Done

Procrastination and passivity are not an option in the off-grid life. Heating with wood  means that much of the spring and summer is spent splitting and stacking firewood. Growing your own food means lugging mulch, plucking endless weeds, composting animal manure, and caring for chickens and goats.

No service is going to come in and empty your composting toilet, your clothesline isn’t going to sound a buzzer when the clothes are dry, and the only way you’re going to enjoy that homemade aged cheese is by getting your butt out the door to milk the cow in the first place.

Felling, chopping, stacking, and drying firewood for the winter is a year-round task. Michelle Shall / Insteading

But these are some of the richest rewards. I mentioned that we quit our jobs in the city to move to our homestead. We haven’t gotten new jobs—and we certainly don’t miss them! We now make money through a funny patchwork of different little side enterprises, and it’s enough for our simple life. Many of our needs are now managed by our own hands.

We don’t have to report to a boss, punch a time card, or go to staff meetings. I love knowing that all of the (immense) efforts we spend throughout the day goes directly into feeding, clothing, warming, and building our family and our life.

4. You Can Weather The Storm

We’ve all experienced power outages and breakdowns. It’s unsettling when the lights don’t turn on, there’s no water, or the roof is leaking. The exchange for the comforts of the grid is that you live at its mercy. If something goes out … all you can really do is grab the flashlights and hope it comes on again before your ice cream melts.

Off-grid is a lot of work, admittedly, but the payoff is stability, consistency, and a general hardiness that doesn’t fear a storm. It is ready for it. While the people in the city may be swarming the grocery stores for last-minute supplies, you can watch the clouds roll in with a warm fire in the hearth at your back.

5. A Lot Of People Won’t Understand You

Your life is going to be a lot different than most of the people you meet. They may view your lifestyle with quaint curiosity, apprehensive confusion, I-could-never-do-that admiration, or outright disdain. You may find that the room falls awkwardly quiet after you share your ideas for a composting toilet design or a rotational grazing system for your chickens and goats.

Muscovy ducklings are always happy to see you! Michelle Shall / Insteading

And when the conversation picks back up, discussing juicy details from the last episode of “Game Of Thrones” (which you may have never seen), you may find yourself feeling like that island—adrift from the lifestyle of the mainland. It’s okay.

At home, there are blackberries ripening in the glade. Your favorite chicken is laying blue eggs today that will be tomorrow’s frittata. The house is almost done, the final layer of limestone plaster just needs to be applied.

And once you get the woodstove crackling again, a cup of homemade chai in hand, I hope that you remember that you’re not the only one who doesn’t feel like you don’t belong in that “normal” life. There’s a lot of us out here, swimming against the current, finding a life that is so much more challenging, rewarding, and meaningful-feeling than the one they show in those evening sitcoms.

How Do You Get Started in Off-Grid Living?

I know not everyone who reads this article is going to suddenly ship off to a rural plot and start taking showers out of a bucket (though they are quite refreshing). But if you have the desire to start being more self-sufficient or find yourself dreaming of an off-grid life, I have but one recommendation for you. START NOW.

The best way to get started is to begin making changes today. Before we found our land, even when we lived in a tiny house on a tiny lot in the middle of a not-so-good city neighborhood, my husband and I practiced off-grid living.

wood burning stove
Michelle Shall / Insteading

We wanted to be ready when the time came, and I’m convinced that the preparation made our transition to living in the country far smoother and more joyful than it would have been otherwise.
Here are five things we did before making the switch. Maybe it can give you some inspiration.

1. Install A Wood Stove

These are a great gateway for practicing off-grid life—you can heat water for bathing, heat up food, line-dry clothes when it’s rainy, and you now have a good reason to start chopping and stacking your own firewood. Saves a ton on your energy bill, too!

2. Learn From Others Who Are Already Doing It

People like “Off-Grid with Doug and Stacy,” “An American Homestead,” and “Rain Country Homestead” were (and are) huge sources of inspiration and encouragement for us.

3. If It Can Be Done By Hand, Learn How

Convenience devices all require loads of power to function, and many of them only teach you to be dependent. Find manual methods for some of your daily activities. Kneading the dough by hand, grinding coffee manually, using a hand saw, or hanging laundry to dry on a clothesline in the sun doesn’t really take much more time and can be far more satisfying.

4. Rethink Your Evenings

Exchange vegging out in front of the TV for practicing skills like knitting, whittling, sewing, cooking, and using hand tools. Use that valuable time to start reading books on homesteading and building, or researching off-grid living online. Not only will you start building up a valuable knowledge base, you’ll also start learning the discipline of entertaining yourself in the evenings, rather than depending on your phone or computer.

5. Start Searching For Your Land

Truly living off-grid in the city is near impossible. Regulations, building codes, and lack of land are all obstacles that you will be free from once you get into the country. It took a while to find acreage that we could afford, but once that new horizon was in our eyes and rich red dirt was under our feet, we felt like we were freed.

apples on a tree
Our first apples of the year on our land. Michelle Shall / Insteading

You may notice that I am 100% in favor of leaving the city and living an off-grid life, so perhaps this article comes across as biased. That’s alright. For us, this is the most beautiful, freeing, meaningful, rewarding, and fulfilling life we’ve ever lived. We work harder than we’ve ever worked, and we feel healthier, stronger, and so much happier than we did when we lived “normal” lives.

It’s a good way to live. For us, it’s the only option we feel is right. So, if you feel the conviction to be more self-sufficient, stop talking about it and do something now. Start learning about what it takes today. Start looking for your land today. No one is going to do it for you … but isn’t that exactly what self-sufficiency is all about?

Written by Michelle Shall

Michelle and her husband recently escaped from the confines of city life and moved their family to 12 acres in the Missouri Ozarks.  They are currently in middle of establishing their dream of a self-sufficient, off-grid homestead.  She can be typically found knee-deep in brush, foraging for wild edibles, cooking on cast iron, hugging her favorite chickens, chasing her kids, sporadically waving her arms to emphasize a point, and, in quiet moments, sketching and painting.

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