Going off-grid is a huge endeavor and one that could take years to accomplish as you search for land, make the move, and set up your self-reliant system.
If you’re just getting started, it can seem like an insurmountable task to think about all that needs to be done. And if you don’t have your land yet, the whole thing can feel like a mere castle in the sky, floating despairingly out of reach.
So with this list, I will try not to overwhelm you with hopes and fears about the massive end goal. Instead, here are weekend-sized projects that allow you to build up confidence, have relatively speedy success, keep the dream alive, and achieve small steps toward freedom.
Whether you live on 40 acres in Idaho or a bitty slice of land in inner-city Chicago, all of the projects can offer you more autonomy from systems that are beyond your control.
Off-Grid Projects to Consider
For each project, I’ll describe the basic idea, then direct you to a place to find more information and step-by-step details.
When it comes to off-grid living, one of the first systems that should be established is your water supply. Of course, that water is only useful for consumption if it is potable.
A Berkey filter is a dependable, long-lasting filtration system, but admittedly, it requires a very pretty penny to secure one. If you want to experiment with an alternative method of cleaning water while you build savings, try a biosand filter. By mimicking the natural filtering action of the Earth, paired with the activity of a beneficial layer of bacteria that can kill of pathogens, it can clean water satisfactorily once up and running (a process that may take at least a month).
Dealing with your own waste may not be considered a palatable topic but the fact is, we all do it and most of us depend on a mysterious flush down mysterious pipes to mysterious locations to handle it. When you go off-grid, however, the responsibility of handling your own waste falls squarely in your lap. Thankfully, with proper management, what was formerly labeled “waste” can instead be converted into safe-to-handle fertilizer, as these plans show.
Setting up a composting toilet can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, as we detailed in an earlier article.
If you have the space for the composting system, a composting toilet is simple to set up, and offers you a place to relieve yourself whether or not there’s a sewage hookup. Of course, even if you don’t plan on using a DIY toilet system in the long term, it’s a great skill to have prepared for emergencies, small house living, traveling, or RV camping (as long as you have a place to compost it at the end of the trip).
When folks talk about food preservation, freezing and canning are probably the first methods that spring to mind. The strange thing about these methods is they are some of the most fragile to depend on. Most freezers only work when they are connected to that lifeline of electrical power, and the lid-and-ring canning process only works if you have enough of those lids.
Before a freezer or canning jar was a glimmer in an inventor’s eye, there was dehydration — a dependable method of preserving a harvest that requires nothing other than good ventilation. You can use these plans to create a modern, off-grid dehydrating chamber by upcycling an unwanted stand-up freezer or refrigerator into a solar dehydrator. You keep a giant hunk of material out of the garbage and get some shelf-stable food: win-win!
Our dehydrator has worked very well for drying nuts, seeds, and leaves — though I admit that I have yet to try it on tomatoes. The trick to using it, however, is to fill it during dry, sunny weather, and to remember to empty it before the weather turns. I made the mistake of forgetting about some wild teas in my dehydrator during a rainy spell. Though they had been crispy dry, the moist weather quickly dampened them again, resulting in some ruinous mold.
Rain barrels of all sizes are the gift of foresight for dry times. In several regions, if you plan ahead and gather the spring rains, you can ensure that you’ll be able to water your animals and gardens during a dry spell. And even if you don’t live in a drought-prone area, a rain barrel by the garden or chicken coop can give you super easy-to-access water so you can get the chores done with relative ease.
I know they sell cutesy premade rain barrels at the garden store, but you can make your own custom-fit rain barrel for far, far less. Give a 55-gallon plastic barrel or a some 275-gallon IBC totes a new lease on life with the simple addition of a spigot (and a custom paint job, if you’re feeling artistic).
In our modern world, the idea of washing laundry by hand has become synonymous with hardship, crisis, or so called third-world conditions of living. But for the off-grid experimenter, it’s one of the many benchmarks for securing self-reliant success.
There are many different gadgets and devices that are promised to be excellent off-grid laundry systems, but after trying out several of them and coming out disappointed, I’d rather offer you the system that I personally employ — the cheap, reliable, and effective washbasin paired with a plunger. I detail the process in full here for those interested.
You can also build a more complicated unit, if you’d like.
The benefits of raised beds are many — they allow you to start growing your own food, make for excellently shaped root vegetables, save you a backache, and they look nice, too. But for those who don’t want to commit to the permanent change they make on a landscape, who rent their property, or plan to move in a few years and don’t want to customize the backyard too much, consider the strawbale garden as a workaround. Easy to set up, customize, and remove, strawbales offer you all the benefits of a raised garden with the bonus of being easy to take down and convert to compost.
Setting up a strawbale garden is as easy as plunking each tightly-tied bale in the location of your choosing. For planning’s sake, you should know that they’ll require a few weeks of “conditioning” (aka encouraged rotting) before they’re ready to be planted. Check out our earlier article for more information on the down-and-dirty details of how to get one going this weekend.
Drying clothing with the free power of the wind and sun can be a game-changing first step in switching over to an off-grid lifestyle (it was for me, anyway). Setting one up can be as simple as stringing a sturdy line between the posts on your porch and a tree, or as refined as building a stand-alone structure. There are kits you can buy, but there are also plenty of online plans for the DIY crowd.
Once you’ve enjoyed sleeping on a sun-dried pillowcase, you’ll understand why dryer sheets are always trying to mimic the experience with their fakey “line-dried cotton” scents.
Farmer and author Joel Salatin is probably responsible for making this moveable chicken system famous, but it’s for good reason. It works well. Chicken tractors give your birds the benefits of free-ranging with the predator protection of being under cover.
Fellow off-grid homesteader Doug has a simple design featured on his YouTube channel where you can quickly assemble a decent tractor for around $50. Considering some small coops at the feed store are hundreds of dollars, the savings of a DIY job like this can’t be beat.
Cooking food with the sun? Absolutely. You can convert bright, sunny days into bakery, bread, and slow-simmered goodness with a bit of reflective material and some patience. There are several plans to be found online, from tinfoil-covered pizza boxes that look like a (vaguely) successful middle school science project, to downright professional-looking builds that will last you for many meals.
For full disclosure, the Sun Oven I have pictured here isn’t a DIY job. I cook with the sun so often during the summer that I wanted the heft of this very well-built model. From my experience cooking, I can tell you what the photos online don’t. You need to be very present when cooking with the sun.
Far from a “set it and forget it” cooking style, you’ll need to adjust your oven every 20 minutes or so to ensure its orientation is in line with the sun and keeps a steady temperature.
The original off-grid cooking system also happens to be a great conversation starter, a source of cozy heat on a starry night, and an ideal location for midnight storytelling. Setting up a fire pit in the backyard gives you all this and more. A fire pit also allows you to clean up windfallen sticks and dried brush trimmings, converting all that unwanted woody material into ashes for the garden or used to dust chickens with a parasite problem.
The fire pit I have pictured here was built solidly with bricks and a sawed-in-half metal barrel, and I use it for cooking through much of the summer. If this isn’t quite your style, the options for the DIY warrior are endless.
Don’t give up on your hopes of going off-grid even if you can’t figure out where you’re supposed to do it yet. I hope this article has given you ample fodder and plenty of helpful links to keep the dream alive. These are just my own ideas. If you have other projects that have helped you become more independent, let us know in the comments below.