How to Live Off the Grid: A Beginner’s Guide

Increasingly, lots of people in this era are growing interested in going off the grid. Once seen as the surest symptom of a person who is a little bit unhinged, it’s now viewed as common sense, even necessary.

barn with eroded ground in front during winter
a barn with eroded ground in front during winter

As the strands that hold society and our civilization together continue to fray, it’s probably best to become dependent only on yourself.

But living off the grid, away from society and all of its resources, utilities, and general “safety net,” is a huge undertaking.

Most of us have literally ordered our lives around being a component of that same society! Nonetheless, if you want to get back to a simpler way of living that was, in the not-too-distant past, just the usual way of life, it is still possible.

Below you will find a comprehensive beginner guide to living off-grid. This guide isn’t a step-by-step tutorial for skills, but rather an overview that will familiarize you with the concepts and challenges associated with off-grid living.

After reading, you can start making the changes in your own life. It might be daunting, but it can also be one of the most exciting things you can do for yourself and your family.

Roll up your sleeves and let’s get going…

What Does Living Off-Grid Actually Mean?

Before we really embark on the nuts and bolts of off-grid living, we should define what off-grid actually means.

For most folks these days, “off-grid” is more of a concept than a real classification.

It means you’re living way out there, way, way out there, probably in extremely harsh and austere conditions, catching and eating snakes and picking what few non-poisonous berries are to be had.

Right, sounds romantic! But that is survival to my mind, not really living!

“Off-grid” is really just shorthand that refers to living off the electrical grid. That’s it, or at least the strict definition.

The more practical definition is that you’re living without any connection to public utilities in the form of electricity, water, sewage, and more.

This doesn’t mean that you’ll be living without all of these amenities, far from it, if you don’t want to die miserably; it just means that you’ll have to come up with other ways to provide them. Here’s what Ii mean by that…

When you’re on-grid…When you’re off the grid…
You’re getting power through the power transmission grid.You’re getting power through your own solar panels, wind turbines, or hydroelectric power wheel.
You don’t need batteries to store your electricity.You’ll need batteries to store electricity.
You’re getting water through the water grid.You’re getting your water from a well, pond, creek, river, or through rainwater harvesting.
Your toilet is connected to the sewage system.You have your own septic tank.
You’re supplied with gas through gas pipesYou’ll buy and store your own own gas in gas tanks.
You may or may not have a backup generator.You’ll buy and store your own gas in gas tanks.
You’re getting Internet through cable or cell phone towers.You’re getting satellite Internet.
You’re getting TV through cable or by streaming cable or 4G/5G Internet.You’re getting satellite TV.

In short, when you’re living off-grid you are living a radically self-sufficient lifestyle.

Why Would Anyone Want to Live Off the Grid?

It might be a pithy answer, but generally speaking, anyone who has to ask this question will never understand it.

The real answer is that people who want to live off the grid do so for a variety of reasons, and that’s because people are basically individuals with their own unique motivations for lifestyle changes like this.

Less Dependent on Society for Good OutcomesUsually More Expensive for Same Standard of Living
Greater IndependenceA Lot More Maintenance
Better Resilience Against Disaster and DisruptionAnything that Stops You from Working Threatens Your Existence
More Fulfilling Day-to-Day LifeCan Be Really, Really Hard Work

Living off-grid is a good way to reduce dependency on society, as mentioned, but it’s also a wonderful way to improve your durability against loss and disaster. A better way to put it might be that it improves your anti-fragility. Why do I say anti-fragility?

Well, consider how your life gets turned upside down when you don’t have electricity, water, internet or sewage service in your house.

Invariably your entire life comes crashing down. Full stop, total panic, the problem must be solved before life as normal can resume.

When you live off-grid, being without these services temporarily or even seasonally is just called Tuesday! It won’t be a calamity because you are the one who provides and sustains them in the first place.

As sure as the sun rises in the east, you’ll be the one figuring out the issue and actively solving it instead of being a bystander to your own life.

Sounds strange? Or does it sound a little bit exciting, maybe even a little bit thrilling? If you answered “yes,” that’s the spark, the very appeal of living off-grid. It has already taken hold!

More than that, by reducing your dependency on society you increase your own resiliency in the face of disaster.

Our ancestors who settled in this country, and brave pioneers who settled in any other frontier all around the world, were all people who got things done. “Quit” was not in their vocabulary.

If you live off-grid, you’ll be practicing a more genuine way of living that will indefinably increase the richness of your life.

Does this all sound neat? Still with me? Great, you’ve got what it takes, I can tell you already. But you’ve got to have a place to live if you’re going to live off-grid.

Finding the Right Place

Here’s the first major hurdle you must overcome: you can’t just run out into the middle of the woods and then set up shop to start living closer to the Earth again.

That land belongs to someone, and if it doesn’t belong to you, there’re going to be problems…

You’ll need to purchase an appropriate property that can supply you with the things you need to go on living more or less as you always have.

This land acquisition itself might be incredibly expensive if you don’t already live way out in the sticks, or are able to convert your property to an off-grid one.

If you live in the middle of a city or even a town of any size, chances are this will be impossible: most cities and towns have strict codes and laws that mandate residential structures be on-grid one way or the other.

We’ll talk more about that in a minute, but generally, only properties that are in unincorporated areas and in permissive counties and states will allow you to live off-grid legally.

Climate and Conditions Matter for Off-Grid Living

More than this, the land must furnish you with the ability to supply at least some of your own food and the entirety of your water, and also be good enough for building and supporting your dwelling, whatever that happens to be.

People live all over the globe in virtually every kind of environment, but you never want to live in one of the harsher biomes that suffer from extreme heat or extreme cold.

Similarly, any area that’s prone to natural disasters or other major hazards is going to make your life even harder and riskier than it will be normally.

Sure, it’s fun to watch those shows about families living in the remote wilds of Alaska and going on about their day-to-day chores more or less like you and I do.

But what you really won’t get from these shows is just how close to the precipice these people are: Their family is their literal lifeline when things go wrong, and the fewer people you have with you, the less latitude you have for mishap and catastrophe.

One bad turn, one serious disaster, and it might see you and yours gone if you don’t have neighbors nearby who care enough to check on you.

You can live wherever you want when you’re going off-grid, but think long and hard about where you want to put down your tent pegs, as the saying goes.

Caution: Laws, Codes and Regs Still Apply

Now, time to really crank up the no-fun factor. If there’s one thing I see omitted from discussions about off-grid living over and over, it is the law. Yes, I’m a killjoy, and I own it.

But I’m trying to stop you from making a hideously expensive mistake, so listen up.

Like I said above, the fact of the matter is that wherever you go in the United States, and most other countries, you’ll be subjected to laws that will dictate to you how and under what conditions you can live life your way.

Land of the Free, indeed! Simply stated, the State will have some say so over what kind of house you can live in and where it can be put.

Even whether or not it can even be off-grid and how many people you can have in that house. Also what sort of amenities you can, cannot, or must make use of.

What happens if you just decide to flip them the bird and do it anyway?

Oh, nothing- nothing except increasingly severe fines, having a lien placed on your dwelling or land, being forcibly evicted, having your structure condemned, or even potentially even having your kids taken away from you.

Real talk, no shit. Now, there are way, way too many state laws to get into here, but the following are the ones that are most relevant to you if you intend to implement an off-grid lifestyle.

Familiarize yourself with them and then we’ll move on.

1. Residential Dwellings

In many places, residential dwellings must always adhere to the relevant county or state building codes concerning its construction techniques and the materials it is built from.

This doesn’t mean you can’t live in a yurt, a teepee, a rustic cabin, or anything else, but you might not be able to designate it as your actual residential address.

Some states will go so far as to condemn the structures that don’t live up to these requirements when they are discovered, and believe me, they will eventually discover them.

2. Waste Disposal and Water

Another major factor concerning your off-grid residence is waste disposal and water service.

Many states have strict requirements regarding the disposition of human waste, and if you aren’t hooked up to city sewer systems, chances are you’ll need to rely on a septic system.

Open cesspools and primitive waste disposals like outhouses or latrines, and even things like composting toilets may only be allowed on an interim or non-dwelling-use basis.

Once again, not things you can afford to get wrong and not things you can reasonably skirt for any length of time, no matter how practical and how sanitary your solution is.

The health department will come down on you like a hammer, particularly if you have kids in the home. Research this before you build or install.

3. Trespassing

Trespassing laws always apply, and just because there’s no one around and no one seems to be using the land does not mean you can set up shop and be a squatter. This applies to private as well as public land.

Sure, you might have the right to camp on public land but that doesn’t mean you can stay there and live there full time.

Likewise, any private land you have access to you must be a legal occupant of, and you must have permission to live and build there if the land doesn’t belong to you.

Just because a friend or family member owns the land and gives you general permission to be on the land it does not mean you have carte blanche to build a cabin, install an outhouse, and say you live there.

If you trespass, you will face escalating charges, potentially up to and including felony charges that will net you several years in prison. Try these laws at your own peril!

Off-Grid Shelter

So, assuming you own or have legal occupancy and residency of the right off-grid parcel to make your dreams come true, what are you actually going to live in?

This depends entirely on what is effective, what is achievable, what is sustainable, and what you want out of your life. And in no particular order mind you.

We’ll get more into the sliding scale of off-grid amenities later on in this guide, but generally speaking, the average person wants to live more or less as they always have… only now they want to do it off-grid.

This means they want a modest stick-built home, modular home, mobile home or a more rustic structure like a cabin that is at least reminiscent of a typical dwelling most of us inhabit presently.

Any of these structures will ease the installation of indoor plumbing and the use of electricity assuming you can supply it or obtain it.

Then again, plenty of folks want to go decidedly primitive. There are many cultures around the world today that still live, and live well, in structures like the aforementioned yurt or hut.

These shelters are semi-portable structures that provide considerable protection from the elements and plenty of space inside, but they can be broken down and relocated or moved as the situation dictates.

For others, having a very literal house on wheels in the form of an RV or camping trailer is the best of both worlds, affordable, and will always provide you with an escape pod of sorts if you just need to get the hell out of there and head for the lights on the horizon.

This is certainly viable, and will provide you with many of the comforts of home so long as you can keep the vehicle maintained and powered.

Then, of course, you really could rough it in a tent or improvised shelter if you have the right gear.

This shouldn’t even be considered if you have a family, but for the right kind of person who just wants to get away from it all and live an ascetic lifestyle, it is doable.

My advice? Know thyself!

If you have no experience with building any kind of structure or shelter, thinking you’re going to run out into the woods with a chainsaw and a carpenter’s hammer and crank out a finally finished cabin in a few months is the very summit of lunacy.

Likewise, consider what your family will and more importantly will not put up with.

Trial runs are the order of the day: extended camping forays, hunting trips, and austere vacations will allow you to gauge not only your own tolerances for such things but also those of your loved ones.

Getting Food When Off-Grid

When you aren’t living as part of society, and when the amenities of society are either inconvenient or totally unreachable, the very first question you should be asking yourself is what are you going to do for food?

It’s a good question, and this is where some of the major toil concerning an off-grade lifestyle comes from…

In short, you’ll need to provide at least some of your own food. How are you to do this? The same way people have always done it: you can grow plants, raise animals, hunt animals, or gather plants. That’s pretty much it.

Growing crops is obviously attractive, but this is a seriously nuanced skill set that people spend a lifetime mastering.

You need not think you can till a little bit of soil and scatter some seeds and then come back in 3 months to start picking award-winning vegetables.

Growing healthy, bountiful crops means they’ll need fertilization, and that means you must learn to create your own compost.

Similarly, raising livestock of any species is a full-time job and will also necessitate that you deal with the grim business of slaughtering them if you want their meat.

Same thing with raising fish in a pond, lake, or tank that you own.

Hunting wild game or fishing is viable, but will rarely be a truly satisfactory and sustainable source of calories.

Most places simply aren’t as bountiful with game as they used to be, and the stocking rates of your land and the legality of taking game is another nuanced factor you’ll have to sort out.

Similarly, do not, and I mean do not, count on actually living on gathered edible plants. They make a great supplement, yes, but chances are they’ll never be able to keep you well-fed.

But, people have provided most for all of their food for millennia, making up the difference by trading with neighbors or getting food at local markets.

You can do the same, but the prerequisite skill sets are huge undertakings in and of themselves.

You can learn as you go when living off-grid, but you better plan on still bringing in groceries until you have all of your requirements well in hand.

55-gallon water barrel
55-gallon water barrel

Off-Grid Water

Another major concern when living off-grid is, obviously, water. Water for drinking, of course, but just as importantly water for washing, cleaning, watering animals, and providing irrigation for crops.

Failing to have clean and usable water for any or all of these purposes is a bullet train to disaster: you’ll be there in just about 5 minutes.

Luckily, getting water is straightforward in most places although not necessarily easy.

You can, of course, collect water from streams, rivers, or lakes but it won’t be suitable for drinking or even giving to your animals unless that water is treated through filtration and other purification methods. This requires its own skills and materials.

One of the very best ways to keep in water while off-grid is through the use of rain-catching systems, alternately called rain harvesting.

A good rain-catching system on your house or a purpose-built, standalone rainwater harvester and some large tanks can net you dozens and dozens or hundreds of gallons of water each and every time you have a good passing shower or storm.

This water must still be treated, typically, but it’s a whole lot safer than almost any gathered groundwater source.

Then, of course, you can just dig a well like people always have. The problem is that a well installation is complex, difficult, and very time-consuming assuming that you want a deep well that will produce consistently safe, potable water.

Shallow wells might be okay for producing utility water for washing and other tasks, but not for drinking without treatment.

Having your well installed by professionals will entail a significant additional expense for geological surveys and suitability assessments, but likely necessary if you want to avoid botching the job and potentially contaminating your aquifer.

jackery explorer 10000 solar saga solar panel

Off-Grid… Electricity?!

It might seem like an oxymoron to talk about electricity on an off-grid property, but remember what I set up above: Off-grid strictly means off the public power grid, not without electricity entirely.

In fact, there are dozens of very good reasons to look into installing and operating your own electrical generation infrastructure: It can provide light and power for all sorts of tools and gadgets, tools and gadgets that can dramatically increase your efficiency and safety.

When it comes to off-grid power, the best thing going for sustainability is a solar system, typically used in conjunction with large, whole-house battery banks they can provide electricity when the sun isn’t shining or when the weather isn’t favorable.

Other options include generators of all sorts, but you’ll have to keep them fueled, and getting fuel to your property means deliveries or retrieving it yourself.

Other sustainable options include wind power, although it’s less reliable and fussier compared to solar.

Hydrodynamic power is a tremendous option if you have enough moving water near your property to operate the dynamo.

Thermal electric generators are expensive and somewhat niche, but if you rely on the attached stove for heating and cooking, you can get maximum benefit from any fuel that you burn.

Staying Safe Off-Grid

Chances are very good if you live on an off-grid property you aren’t going to live close to civilization.

Well, you might still be able to rely on your county sheriffs and the legal system at large to help you settle disputes, taking care of immediate security concerns will invariably be your responsibility and yours alone.

Accordingly, stepping up your security preparations is all but mandatory.

At the very least, consider perimeter alarms in the form of electronic sensors if you can support them and power them, or non-electronic noisemakers that use something as simple as marbles in cans that are strung on fishing lines.

Assuming that you have the personal power infrastructure, security cameras are now more portable and easier to install than ever and can be a great way to increase peace of mind if you live on a larger parcel or you’re going to be away from your parcel for any length of time.

And, as always, it pays to be prepared to defend yourself and your family when dangerous critters or dangerous people just won’t take no for an answer.

However you might feel about them, firearms are basically a necessity if you’re going to live this sort of lifestyle far from civilization.

If you can’t or simply won’t own them, bows, crossbows, and even medieval weaponry like spears, machetes, clubs and swords can prove to be highly decisive close-range defensive implements.

Sanitation and Waste Management

Like I mentioned up above, quite a while ago, one of the most commonly overlooked but crucially important factors you’ll be responsible for when living off-grid is dealing with sanitation and waste management.

This is a total problem: you’ll have to deal with your household garbage and food waste, and also the human waste, generated by every person in your household.

Considering that most people generate more than a pound of poop a day and a whole lot of urine, if you stop handling this material properly at any time, you are only a hop and a skip away from a devastating disease outbreak and abject misery.

When dealing with household trash, consider if you are far out enough you won’t even have door-to-door trash service, and so you’ll be responsible for hauling your trash to the dump, or dispensing with it in some other way.

Burning trash is not ecologically friendly, but it might be legal in your county. Likewise, you might be able to use a dump or landfill on your property under the right circumstances and again assuming it is legal.

Human waste is another challenge, but one with more solutions compared to trash. A septic system is the most obvious solution, but you’ll need flushing toilets to make that work.

Lacking running water, you might be able to use a composting toilet which can safely break down waste for easy and safe disposal elsewhere on your property or to turn it into valuable humanure compost.

However, depending on your state and county laws this might not be legal for a proper dwelling.

In some places, you can resort to the old standby of centuries in the form of an outhouse, or if you are really roughing it, an open pit latrine or slit trench.

Obviously, none of these solutions stack up to the convenience of your usual trash collection and flushing toilets, and that’s something you should consider before you embark on this journey.

You wouldn’t be the first person to call this a deal breaker!

What are the Most Important Off-Grid Living Skills?

This is sort of a trick question because the most important off-grid living skills are going look very different from person to person depending on where and how they live.

Generally, I can make a blanket statement and say that shelter skills are the most important overall because exposure happens to be the single biggest and most reliable killer of people who are caught outdoors.

If you can’t get warm, hypothermia can get to you real fast.

But obviously, if you have a house built on your property or you’re already accomplished at construction, the shelter itself is not so much the issue as keeping it warm.

Depending on how you warm your house, this might be a simple matter of logistics keeping enough fuel on hand, or it might be a matter of doing enough work to accumulate the firewood that you’ll need to survive the winter. It all just depends…

On the other hand, if you are genuinely dependent on the food that you grow and prepare for your survival, I would say that farming or animal husbandry skills are the most critical. You can see where this is going.

The point of all this is that you should have a wide variety of skills and be competent and able or at least willing to solve any problem that you might encounter.

So overall, if I had to pick just one, I would say that problem-solving skills are the most important for off-grid living.

When you decide to go off-grid with your life, you really won’t be able to call for help and make problems go away like you used to, and if you can chances are they’re going to be dramatically more expensive.

Besides this, a few more important skills include:

  • gathering, chopping stacking wood
  • knowing how to handle woodworking tools for various fixes around the homestead
  • gardening
  • taking care of livestock, including when they’re sick or after they die
  • preserving food through various methods such as canning
  • giving first aid to your family or to yourself immediately after a work accident

How Much Does it Cost to Live Off the Grid?

What will it cost you to live off-grid? Is it going to save you a bundle or cost a fortune? Well, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on how many amenities you want, and what sort of standard of living you are willing to accept.

Consider the following list for various components of your self-sufficient lifestyle costs and plan accordingly:

  • Land: $3,000 to $17,000 per acre, depending on location, amenities, etc.
  • Cabin (DIY): $20,000 to $175,000 depending on furnishings, material and finishing.
  • Stick-built House (Professionally Built): $150 per sqft. Likely higher if location is remote or austere.
  • Mobile Home: $60,000 to $200,000+. Depends on size and style. Foundation and delivery fees extra.
  • RV/Camper: $10,000 to $500,000+. Varies considerably depending on size and features.
  • Septic System: $3,500 to $20,000. Size of tank and difficulty of install and hookup wil increase price.
  • Solar System with Batteries: $25,000 to $40,000, professionally installed. This can be done much cheaper if you are willing to “Frankenstein” a system together- assuming you have the skills!
  • Livestock, Chickens: $5 to $30 per head depending on breed and age. Upkeep costs vary significantly.
  • Livestock, Cows: $500 to $5,500 per head, upkeep ranges from $500 to $1,500 per head per year.
  • Livestock, Goats: $75 to $350 per head depending on breed and age. Breeders cost significantly more.
  • Irrigation System: $500 to $5,000 depending on size and complexity. Small DIY irrigation systems can be installed for very cheap if you can source parts.
  • Fencing (Split-rail): $12 to $30 per linear foot.
  • Tools (Mechanic and Gardening): $500 to $5,000 depending on brand, completeness and quality.

And that is just a few of the big ticket items to go totally self-sufficient. There are many variations, improvements or subtractions that can be made from that list depending on what you want from life.

Further Reading

Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. Survival Sullivan is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. See my full disclosure for more.

If you’re ready to start digging into the details of going off-grid with your life, consider the following books and resources good starting places to further your education:

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you still live a normal life off-grid?

Yes, you can. If you really want to, and have the time, money, and determination you can still have electricity, household plumbing, and even internet while living off-grid.

Is living off-grid dangerous?

No, not overtly, but it is more dangerous than living in a town or community that has high trust. Isolation is always a risk factor.

Can you save money living this lifestyle?

Possibly. If you want to really streamline and simplify your life, and are content to work hard and have a lot less, you might be able to save money living off-grid. If you’re really determined, you might even be able to do it with little or no money. But that’s not for everyone…

Can you take your house in the suburbs off-grid?

Generally not. Most states and municipalities mandate that residential properties in incorporated areas and townships abide by plumbing and building codes, and this invariably entails being hooked up to the electrical grid.

Is living off-grid legal?

Yes, broadly. Although some states might have so many regulations for your dwelling and other amenities that living off-grid is effectively impossible, it is achievable almost everywhere in one form or another.

how to live off the grid pinterest

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