I need realistic advice about living off the grid in small structures

Guest post by Jimmy Wall
Camp Fircom Outtakes - Gambier Island, British Columbia Canada - Sustainable Howe Sound David Suzuki Foundation
I’ve always had the dream of moving around place to place in my own nomadic shelter. I mean I’ve stayed in crappy camps and small temporary structures. It was always really nice… for that limited amount of time. I don’t mean I couldn’t handle it or was uncomfortable. I LOVE IT!

My problem is I look online about how great it is to live sustainable with a minimal footprint, and everyone is soooo happy and excited, but I never hear any horror stories or real cons. The cons are always like far away from places or gets cold sometimes. Even cons become pros by becoming “part of the allure.”

I would love to hear a realistic expectations for living off the grid in small structures. -Jimmy

Comments on I need realistic advice about living off the grid in small structures

  1. I can´t speak from experience, BUT you should probably see Tammy at http://www.rowdykittens.com/category/tiny-homes-2/. She and her husband lived in a 128 Square Feet cabin until some time ago, and write a lot about the subject… She actually wrote a book on it as well, and though it is a “pro” web site, she´s pretty realistic on the matter and can probably steer you in the right direction… Good luck!

  2. here’s my take on it.

    you have to downsize. a lot. no, more. no, even more than that. expect to put like 90% of your possessions in storage unless you can stuff everything you and your housemates/pets own into one car…because that’s about the amount of storage you’ll have available to you. cooking can be a pain unless you’re used to using just one or two burners at a time, or live with just microwave cooking. food smells permeate everything you own forever. you always know what someone’s doing in the bathroom, because you can’t escape the sounds/smells. showers are cramped, even for tiny people. you run the risk of rodents getting in through holes you wouldn’t expect in the frame, especially if you’re parked in the woods or in a badly mowed field somewhere.

    basically it’s like living in an smaller RV or a boat, hopefully with better vapor transfer than either of those. if this still sounds appealing, GO FOR IT. i applaud those who can do this and actually enjoy it. i…would not be able to do this for more than a month, maybe. i have a hard enough time sharing a tent that encompasses 196 sq ft for more than a couple of weeks with my husband…and that DOESN’T include kitchen or shower facilities.

  3. I feel like the cons are always going to be really individual. For me, a huge con would be pooping in a bucket: it would be a deal breaker as soon as I saw a snake in the vicinity, or whenever the temperature dipped below 50 (or above 80). But most people in that living situation just accept it as part of the package. For someone a little more tenacious, a deal breaker might be that sometimes, people call the cops on you if it’s not your land.
    One con that comes to mind for me is the overall sense of security. I know the security we’ve got living in permanent structures is really just an illusion, but compared to a lean-to? I’m not just thinking of break-ins, but stuff like sturdiness in the face of major weather events. In some parts of the country, this isn’t even a real worry, but in others, it’s going to be a very big issue several times a year. That would really grate on my resolve.

    • I feel the same. I’ve gone “glamping” because I felt I was someone who could not completely be a part of the lifestyle. We stayed in a very comfortable yurt from WeatherPort. It was large enough to house a family to be honest. We did have a compost toilet but I guess in that setting it felt very normal. I never thought I would be okay with it, but after being convinced to go glamping and then doing some of the things I never thought I would do, I’ve gotten a little more into the lifestyle. That being said, I still think it was just because staying there didn’t feel to far outside the norm and we were still around other campers, etc. Going off an roughing it on your own is a different story.

      Here’s their yurt page in case anyone is interested: http://www.weatherport.com/fabric_building/yurts/

  4. Ok, we are getting ready to move full-time into an RV for the next year. We plan to travel around the northwest and Rocky Mountain states, spending ~6 weeks in each area. Our RV, which will hold me, my husband, and our huge dog, is roughly 165 sq. ft. We are doing LOTS of conversions so we can live off the grid. If you want to be nomadic (instead of just live in a stationary tiny home) I’m guessing you are looking at something similar. Here are the big cons:
    1. Storage (as mentioned above). We are doing lots of custom work to add storage, but also selling nearly everything we own.
    2. You have to plan to pack up and go somewhere to dump your tanks every week or so.
    3. Having the capacity to support yourself without a generator or campsite hookup, and do so for a week or more, requires a lot of modifications and electrical know-how. Installing solar panels will give you more electricity to have in reserve. Similarly, you need water tanks that hold a high volume (both clean and in your grey/black tanks).
    4. Gas consumption. RVs get terrible, terrible gas mileage. We are choosing to tow a car behind us for use when parked.
    5. We haven’t figured this one out yet, but how do you go about (a) not driving your travel companions crazy and (b) making friends along the way so you are not lonely?
    6. What will you do to make this *home*? Not a vacation, not camping (though it will have elements of those), but how will you feel grounded day to day?

    There is plenty more, it is certainly not easy, but I think it’s good to know what you’re getting into. I think it will be worth it. We have a blog with more details if you’re interested.

    • “4. Gas consumption. RVs get terrible, terrible gas mileage. We are choosing to tow a car behind us for use when parked.”

      best choice is best, here. a compact car is an ideal option.

      “5. We haven’t figured this one out yet, but how do you go about (a) not driving your travel companions crazy and (b) making friends along the way so you are not lonely?”

      regarding driving each other insane, find things to occupy the individual rather than all of you. go read for a while, work on a craft, etc.

      regarding making friends along the way, talk to people…especially if you’re staying in RV parks. RV people are like boat people…we’re a special breed. everyone’s usually friendly and willing to help newbies, and most are willing to share a fire and a story or two. and if you follow the snowbird track, chances are you’ll see some of the same people from time to time.

    • Re: #5
      I am not sure how populated the areas are where you plan to stay. If you plan to stay in larger towns/cities, I wonder if local meetups would be a good way to jump in on a ladies night, game night, workout event, etc.

  5. My ex lived in a cabin for 3 years with his wife and two young kids, their own pump well but no electricity on a septic system. I can tell you the biggest lesson he learned from it was preparedness. ALWAYS have many, many gallons of potable water on hand, a generator with the gas to run it, as many tools as you can stock (wrenches, drills, hammer, nails, screws, plumbing snakes, etc.) Have more warm clothes for layering than you think you need. Have emergency sewing supplies and know how to use them. Have snakebite kits, emergency suture kits, etc. on hand. Have safely canned food on hand, as wide a variety as you can stand. For one year, they were prepared on this level and everything went smoothly- all emergencies could be handled (including when he rode his motorcycle to work and ended up wrapping it around a tree in the driveway instead). The two years where they grew lax, every small issue rolled into a bigger issue very quickly, until they became overwhelmed. It can be done, but I think it requires vigilance and forethought.

  6. I am curious about this myself, and have learned a lot from the feedback.
    In researching living off grid, I have found that it’s technically illegal in some places. I currently reside in Florida, and I would like to live in a tiny house or cob house here someday; but in this state, there have already been legal battles over it. I would think you would have to know very clearly what your rights were to avoid trouble. Utility companies really don’t like to be told you don’t require their services, and they hold a lot of pull with local governments, so you can’t even necessarily expect fair play. I would consider that a huge ‘con’.
    I had a link to an article about the legality issues modern day nomads have come across, but I can’t seem to locate it now. If I find it, I will share it.

    • Local governments typically require connection to the electric grid because of safety concerns, especially in the event of a large natural disaster, such as a hurricane or avalanche. Although from the other perspective, the safety concerns are significantly outweighed by the concern for corporate greed and heavy-handed lawmakers.
      Localities may also require all sorts of other things in the name of public safety, such as a phone line, wells dug a certain depth (or connection to water main), and even a driveway or some sort of trail accessible by emergency vehicles that must be kept clear or snow and debris.

  7. The most important thing is to have a good generator. They are loud and need to be maintained. It’s the one thing that is stopping us from going off-grid.

    Alicia J. Wilson TakaokaPhD Student, UH Manoa

  8. I spent a summer living in a pick-up camper (the kind that fit’s in the truck bed with your actual sleeping bed over the cab.) Admittedly, we viewed it as an “adventure vacation” so I think our attitude was more tolerant of discomforts. Not sure how living like this permanently would change things? I can’t really tell from your post if you just want to live off the grid or travel too.

    For going off the grid (we also have a cabin in the woods) I second the generator even if it’s not constatly on. And a good spot with easy access to potable water. Food takes a ton of planning/prepping/storing. especially if cooking on a wood stove. Everything takes longer. Also you need access to a road, hopefully. We have to haul everything on ATV, so if you forget something, you go without till the next trip to town or find an alterative. And someone mentionned rodents. OMG the mice. They will find cracks, especially in fall as weather cools. And once they’ve gotten into your food once, you learn to put it all in big sealable plastic boxes.

    On the travel side, be ready for vehicle break downs. And plan a large budget for gas. Gotta empty the sewage tanks/refill water regularly. You can pack a very limited amount of clothes, so you have to plan on washing. Everytime you move your truck,everything has to be impeccably clean and behind doors or it will fall and braek. The coffee cup you left on the counter? The roll of toilet paper you didn’t squish the cardboard to prevent free un-rolling? You get the idea. Get a spring loaded shower rod and set it up in your shower when not in use to dry things like towels. The most annoying thing for us was temperature control. I am always cold, bf is always hot. In a tiny space one of us was uncomfortable at all times. Oh and don’t get discouraged. You will develop a routine for setting up and tear down of camp. The first few times are long and frustrating.

    Have fun!

  9. I’ve never been in this situation, so I can only tell you what I’ve heard. Most of the cons I know of have already been listed. Some others:
    1. Exercise. As in, you can’t unless you go outside or join a gym. There’s no space for machines, and unless you’re very careful about your floor plan and storage, you probably won’t be able to lay out a yoga mat.
    2. Privacy. Assuming you have a partner of any kind or will ever have a partner, you should assume you’ll occasionally want alone time or get into a fight and want space to cool off. One of you has to leave to get that, and that’s not always an easy call.
    2 1/2. Illness. You have no chance of getting away from a sick partner/child in a tiny house. There’s no option of sleeping on the couch until they’re better.
    3. Legal residential address. There must be ways to handle this one, but I don’t know what they are. You have to register your car/RV with a legal residence (I don’t think it can be a PO Box) in order to maintain your licenses, and you have to check that mail regularly. Imagine getting a red light ticket that turns into a warrant because you didn’t check your residential mail for two months. Heck, imagine the mail issues in general. Anyone have advice on that? I’d love to hear it!
    4. Cleaning. Clutter builds up quickly in a tiny space, and dirt is ever-present. You have to constantly clean and tidy up.
    5. Ladder. My personal hang-up is the ladder to the loft bed in most tiny homes. Climbing a ladder while half-asleep sounds to me like a great way to sprain an ankle.
    6. Shopping. Because you can’t store much in the way of food or leftovers, you have to be diligent about making only as much food as you need and you have to make many more grocery trips.
    7. Bathroom smells. This has been covered, but no matter what kind of system you have for neutralizing odor in the toilet, you’ll still have to deal with the immediate post-poop stench. Not fun in a regular house, so I can’t imagine it would be pleasant in a tiny home.

    • Regarding the ladder, I sleep in a loft-bed. Your body quickly memorizes the ladder route down to the subconscious level. I have more than once sleepwalked down the ladder safely, waking when my bare foot touched the cold floor.

    • As for mail, we will be using a service where you essentially set up a new mailing address (not a PO box and can be used legally). This place scans the envelopes and gives you the options to toss it, open and scan it, or forward it to you (at say, post office general delivery in the town you’re staying in). I don’t know all the details (my husband has been figuring it out) and obviously you can’t, like, subscribe to magazines, but options like that exist!

  10. I haven’t done it myself but I do want to one day to travel around the country, and try to live by a lot of the minimalist principles.

    I recommend watching “we the tiny house people” which you can stream online, you’ll see a lot of solutions for things like storage etc.

    If you’re travelling you could plan to go south in the winter to require less heating, and north in the summer.

    You could register your vehicle to a trusted friend or family’s address and have them email you when you get mail, or have them open it for you. Find a wifi place to check your mail every week or two.

    I don’t know if you can have compostable toilets in rv type things but I feel like that would cut down on needing to go to towns often. You can add enzymes to that to break it down faster and reduce smell. If you’re wwoofing or volunteering as you go, you could see if the farmers would let you bury the composted toilet waste on their land.

    I can’t imagine wanting electricity, or a generator. But I live in a very warm country! I think that I would just cook outside on a gas one burner stove each night, have an engel refrigerator running off the car for food storage, and try to solar heat water for washing and maybe lighting. Candles also. I find when camping I end up going to bed when the sun does. Or laying watching the stars.

    I would want to do this on my own also, so no worry of driving anyone else insane.

    Taking some mechanics and first aid classes seems like a good idea too. And getting CB radio for your vehicle in case of emergencies and needing to call for help. Keeping at least one person notified of your plans and progress so they know to organze a search if they don’t hear from you.

    Best of luck!!!!

  11. I lived a nomad life for a few years, and it definitely has its ups and downs. Now, I didn’t drag my home around with me, I traveled around in my little compact car and lived in furnished, short-term rentals. But I knew a lot of RVers who were doing the same thing.
    You really do have to get rid of all of your stuff. You can keep like 5 things. Your clothes too – you won’t have storage space for anything but the basics. My music, movies, and books all went digital. I started out keeping a lot of stuff in storage, but when I realized I didn’t miss any of that stuff after a year on the road, I got rid of almost all of it.
    My biggest problem was maintaining a legal permanent address. If you have a RELIABLE family member or close friend, you’ll probably be ok. But keeping licenses and registrations up to date & legal, and just stuff like tracking down tax forms every January, was difficult and annoying. I feel like I’ve got to be on some USPS black list for the number of times I’ve had them forward my mail around to different places. I have had some stuff get lost in transit.
    For the RVers, maintenance was always an issue. If you have an RV or a truck pulling any kind of trailer, you have to be prepared for break downs. Also anything built to be moved around is not going to stand up to the test of time and the elements as well as a permanent structure. And if you’re wanting to live off-the-grid in remote areas, keep in mind you’ll be pretty far from the nearest repair shop and/or Home Depot.

    Here is a big one a lot of people don’t think about: it can actually be surprisingly expensive, in some ways, to live in a minimalist fashion. When you have very limited storage space, you have to buy small quantities of things, which are always more expensive than buying in bulk. And since you have no room to stock up, you have to go shopping to re-supply a lot more frequently – when the nearest store is an hour away that’s a lot of time and gas. Also, you don’t have room to keep things that aren’t immediately useful, so you find yourself re-buying things a year later. If you had a garage or a basement, you’d tuck that thing away and pull it out again when you needed it someday, but in a tiny living space you have to get rid of it to make room for more important stuff, so if you need it again you have to buy it again.

  12. I have noticed that these mobile tiny-homes need towed by trucks. Putting a shell on the truck would increase storage, enabling one to save money buying bulk and storing food.

    My Dad lived the mobile life for awhile, with his wife, so they had two drivers. This enabled them to have the trailer for beds and cooking and stuff, and a converted bus for his library. He was the original Ivory Trailer Intellectual!

    • Storing bulk food in a truck trailer may pose some problems. For one, it’s not temperature controlled, and the inside of those things can get hot if it’s left in direct sunlight. For another, wildlife can easily get into any vehicle. When I was a teenager, my car got infested by both bees and mice. It’s also one of the big “n0-no’s” of camping in places where animals like bears can open a car like a tin can to get to the food inside. Bears are attracted by both sight and smell of food packaging.

      • Oh my gosh, bears. Terrifying but amazing things I have not had to consider being in Australia. Zoinks!!! Possums can be vicious but bears win hands down.

      • Thank you for pointing this out to me! I had not considered that heat would be a problem for grain and beans and such, but it could cause the oils in them to go rancid faster, I guess. And I had no idea that a camper would be so permeable to pests! But plenty of voices of experience here say so, saving me from the experience of finding out the hard way.

        • anything mobile has holes big enough for even the smallest pests. *anything* mobile. it’s so the body can flex as it goes down the road. if it were too rigid, it would rattle apart in transport. i’ve seen this happen with homemade Vardo wagons – people build them to be as strong as possible while discounting the fact that body flex is a thing, and by the time they reach their destination everything’s loose and needs to be reattached.

          when we store our camper for the winter, we load it up with dryer sheets. seems to do the trick, but i wouldn’t want to live with dryer sheets everywhere all the time.

  13. If you are moving frequently, I second the remarks about the post office. If you have one location that you stay nearI would get a PO box to avoid forwarding stuff. There are laws around what they can and cannot forward that effectively prevent forwarding of anything you really need to get. I have not received car registration, W2’s, important bank info, and on one occasion my vote by mail ballot. If it comes from the government, they will not forward it. You can recieve fed ex and UPS at your PO Box by providing the street address of the post office followed by #[your PO box #].

    As far as the small off grid house itself, everyone’s situation will vary. Cooking in a one room cabin will result in food smells and humidity in your bed. Boiling water for dishes is very time consuming. Outdoor bucket baths are amazingly decadent and wonderful, assuming you have warm water. Everything will take more time, planning, and brain space.

    Try to have an area outside your main living space where you can stage stuff that is coming or going from your life, or that you just do not want to be tripping over. It can be pretty dreadful when the only place to put the case of yams, or the chop saw, or the soaking wet, muddy work clothes is right in the middle of your six by six square foot living area.

    Edited to add: composting toilets do not work well in small spaces. The human part was fine and not smelly, but the saw dust got everywhere and I was allergic to it. We tried peat moss and my partner was allergic to that. We now have it in a shed,

  14. I can’t speak from experience, but I’d recommend giving it a test run first! I just happened across an article the other day that featured an interview with a couple who had been considering the shift and rented a tiny house for the weekend. A quick search online turns up a bunch of places that offer these rentals, but obviously restricted to certain parts of the country. Definitely check it out if you can.

  15. It sounds like you have “tested” yourself somewhat, but maybe it is telling that there is not a lot of negative reviews? I do have some friends who recently got a tiny house that was built in Tennessee and then driven to NH for them. It ended up being several feet smaller than expected, and in northern NH, every foot of indoor space is vital, even for outdoor enthusiasts in the winter. My point is, just be clear about what you are getting and realistic about where you live

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