off the grid, living off grid, natural living

The Rigours and Rewards of Building and Living Off Grid

Words: Dustin Jones
Photography: Gary Sobonya

Ever wanted to live harmoniously in nature? Here are six tips for getting (and staying) off the grid.

Most of us have experienced the bliss of being off grid, even if we haven’t defined it as such. With any excursion, whether it’s a backpacking trek or a dip in the ocean, when we’re immersed in the outdoors we’re almost always off the grid. But for some, the weekend, or even weeks-long expeditions into the unknown just aren’t enough. And at times, the hangover of reentering the “real world” gets worse, not better, with experience. For those, like Henry David Thoreau, who feel “the world is but a canvas to our imagination,” here are six tips to getting off the grid and staying off the grid.

1. Land and lifestyle  

Finding land is the no-brainer first step to building off grid, and there’s still plenty out there to be discovered. But what’s the point of settling a remote piece of Mother Earth if you’re not enthralled by your surroundings? Of course, you want the land to provide space and resources, but the lifestyle it offers is almost as essential. For some it might be a remote coastal nook, for others it’s an alpine setting with snowy backcountry in the winter and stony crags in the summer. And for the owner of these 40 acres on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains, Gary Sobonya, arcing a homemade fly across the nearby Klickitat River for steelhead in late summer is bliss. Know yours before you break ground.

sunset, Washington, off the grid

Sunset over Washington’s Cascade Mountains.

2. Life goes where water flows

Just as NASA searches for extraterrestrial life by first looking for extraterrestrial bodies of water, anyone looking to build and live off grid needs a bit of land with a water source. That doesn’t mean you need a river running through your back yard, but you do need some sort of trickle that you can convert to potable water and, if you’re lucky, energy. In the case of the property pictured, there’s an artesian well (meaning the water reaches the surface of the ground under the natural pressure of the aquifer) that puts out some 300 gallons of fresh, drinkable water per minute. Not only is that enough water to slake a mighty thirst, it’s also enough to power an electricity-lavish lifestyle.

solar heater, solar panel, off the grid

A solar heater is great, as long as you have year-round sun.

© Wikimedia Commons

3. Finding energy sources

There’s a number of off grid energy options, from solar and wind to hydroelectric, but the key to success is utilising the resources your piece of paradise has on offer. If you’ve got sun year round, solar is a solid option. And wind begs a windmill. Though, sometimes combining both can keep you covered on cloudy or windless days. If you’re lucky enough to find a place with a high-producing artesian spring or well, hydroelectric is a reliable, noninvasive, cost effective, green option that runs day and night, regardless of the weather. With 300 gallons per minute you can hook up a $3,500 hydro unit that will power the tools you need to build your house, provide electricity once the build is complete, heat your water, and run your woodshop. Speaking of wood, if you’ve settled amidst a lot of timber, a wood-burning furnace is an easy way to convert an available resource into heat. But before you chop everything into firewood, consider the possible building materials you might be able to mill out of some of your taller trees.

4. Making building materials from onsite resources

The amount of lumber on a 40-acre plot in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains is enough to build a small town, so you need hardly scar the landscape to pull just about every piece of lumber needed to build a home. For this project, every structural beam was milled onsite from Douglas-fir trees cut from the property, and the pine used for the tongue and groove ceiling and interior trim was sourced locally. But make no mistake, felling and milling timber is no walk in the park. In fact, builder Gary Sobonya, a contractor for more than 30 years, explained that the days spent felling trees and milling lumber for this home were the hardest days of work in his life — but in exchange for that hard work comes significant savings (8’’ x 12’’ x 24’ structural beams are expensive!) and an intangible satisfaction of building a home from the land on which is sits.

straw insulation, off the grid, natural living

Straw bales make a great natural form of insulation.

5. Expect the unexpected

With any construction project comes unforeseen obstacles, and those are magnified when building on a raw, remote piece of land. Just cutting the road to your building site can prove a major project, and even then that road might not be suitable for heavy equipment. Such was the case here when it came time to pour the foundation. The closest the cement truck could get to the site was a quarter mile away. That meant running a quarter mile of pipe through the forest, watering down the mix sufficiently to keep it flowing, and trekking up and down the line all day, banging on the pipe with a mallet to coax any clogs along — and that was just to pour the slab, phase one of the build. It obviously wasn’t the last time improvisation, gumption and a little faith would be required to keep the project going.

6. The Payoff

In addition to the obvious financial incentives of living off grid (you own your water, resources, and energy) there’s the thrill of having made your own little place in the universe. It’s not for everyone; finessing, fixing and improving is inevitable and ongoing — a life’s work — but there’s no small joy in making the land you’ve settled - as Thoreau says - the canvas of your imagination. 

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