Living off the land, growing your own food and taking life back to simpler times—for many this sounds like the ultimate dream. In the hustle-bustle craziness of modern life, it’s no wonder people are ready to forget their commute, stop shopping, turn off their TV and learn how to homestead.
Homesteading takes us back to simpler times. The idea of self-sufficiency, independence and forging your own way? Well, that’s the very fabric of the American dream. But the reality of homesteading—living off the grid, growing your own food supply, being self-reliant—is a lot to take on, especially all at once. Before you quit your day job and buy a brood of chickens, you’ll want to be certain you’ve planned for the many challenges of going off-grid.
If you’re hoping to learn the logistics of how to homestead, these are the challenges you’ll need to tackle.
The biggest conundrum when going off-grid is the cost. Living truly off-grid is romanticized and when you combine it with setting up a homestead, expectations may further exceed reality. I’ll be honest, with enough money anything’s possible of course, but realistically I would say choose one or the other to start.
I hear from off-grid newbies (grid muggles, as I like to call them) they think they’re going to go into the woods, build a cabin and live off the land. For most of us, it’s not so simple. To feed a family of four, you’d need at least two acres of land for food. You would also need roughly 25 average-sized solar panels to sustain enough electricity for four people, possibly more (you can read about my solar panel setup here). That’s not even considering the additional concerns of water, sewer, shelter, animal husbandry, gardening, food storage and more.
After living off the grid for the last few years, I can say there are quite a few considerations without growing my own food. The best method for living out your homesteading dreams is to take your setup in steps and plan on a decent upfront investment.
Solar electricity is the biggest component of going off the grid. After all, that’s literally what the “grid” refers to. Homesteaders and anyone who plans to live off the grid will need to research exactly what sort of electric wiring and solar panel system you’ll require for your particular situation. I have a great guide: Shockingly Simple Electric if you’re looking for a resource to get started.
I have 15 solar panels installed, which is enough to run everything I need in my place. My setup cost around $20,000. However, if you plan to run an electric water heater, a microwave, washer or other large appliance—or if you have a larger home—you’re going to need more than just a basic solar panel system. Forget those systems you see at home improvement stores—these small solar panel systems offer only enough power to charge your phone and laptop.
As I said above, for a family of four, expect at least 25 solar panels. You’ll also need a generator or two if you expect less than 8 hours per day of southern sun. This is especially important in the winter. Calculate your electricity needs based on the times when you get the least amount of sun. In the summer, you may generate more electricity than you require, but in the winter, you’ll be prepared.
3. Finding Land
Back in the day, true homesteading involved laying your claim to land by setting up a sustainable farm plot. In 1976, the federal government ended homesteading in the continental United States. Homesteading continued in Alaska for ten more years—but since 1986, if you want to live on a plot of land, you’ll need to purchase it.
The biggest challenge of homesteading involves the initial cost of land and setting it up, but there are also costs to maintain your homestead. Even with the smallest home possible, there are plenty of expenses involved. How will you access the land, install your well and septic, and clear land or setting up planting beds?
Minimally, if you plan to house livestock such as chickens or goats, you’ll have several things to consider. They will need a shelter for to protect them from the elements, a place to store feed and bedding, as well as fencing to keep them in and predators out.
For your garden you’ll also need seeds, seedlings and basic gardening supplies. The easiest route is to purchase land and set up your small house. Slowly adjust to off-the-grid living and take baby steps as you start to get into homesteading.
I’ve written before about the laws involved with living off the grid. The habitable structure definitions included in most municipal ordinances will exclude several factors of off-the-grid living. Many tiny house dwellers skirt this issue by putting their house on a trailer, but this only gets you out of some of the legal requirements. When you involve livestock, you’re also looking at additional legal concerns.
Again, my big disclaimer is to do your research before you start. Look into all the laws involved and restrictions in your living area. (You can check Municode here for a guide for most but not all municipal coding and government sites.) Going against the rules may result in fines or worse, so make your choices wisely. This is again where baby-steps come into play (you may be sensing a theme here). Thinking you’ll build an off-the-grid hobby farm tomorrow just isn’t realistic.
However, most of us can start a garden on our plot of land, grow a few vegetables and possibly keep chickens. Bite off what you can chew and always study local restrictions first. Don’t underestimate the power of a friendly appeal to your zoning board and code enforcement. You may also need the expertise of a contractor as well as a lawyer.
If your plot of land already contains a shelter, taking it off-grid may be a matter of adapting by installing solar, heating and on-site water solutions. Honestly, it’s often easier to get around the legal issues if your plot already has a dwelling on-site. Many ordinances require an on-site dwelling of a certain size. So, in theory you could turn an existing structure into a barn or storage, while heating and powering a smaller, more sustainable house on the same plot of land.
If you have a family to consider, you may need more space than I (a single guy) requires. Then again, the extra help with your homestead may be welcome. If you plan to raise animals, you’ll also need shelter considerations for your livestock.
The shelter requirements are obviously very different depending on your climate. A desert yurt in California may not require a heat source like a cabin in Montana. If you plan to homestead, the climate is a huge factor as well. Growing seasons and weather are vital factors for producing enough food.
6. Water & Sewer
Many grid muggles think living off the grid applies to power. Throw up a few solar panels and you’re set, right? Living off the grid also applies to water and sewer as well. When it comes to the issue of water, this is one of the other big logistical challenges.
If you live near a water source, you may be able to carry in enough water for daily use. But you need to realize that water is 8.5 lbs. per gallon, so huffing buckets of water will get old really fast. My suggestion is always spend the money to build out a high quality water system– one that brings clean drinking water to your home and the other areas of your farmstead. If you’re also hoping to grow your own food, water is more of a concern. For hundreds of years, farmers have worked with well water and irrigation systems. After the initial cost of setup, these are viable options and fairly easy to maintain. Water is one thing not to skimp on.
Your shower and sink drains can be made to be “grey water”, but it requires the use of sustainable soaps that won’t harm crops or the land with runoff. Your sewerage or “black water” may require a more in-depth system (like septic). There’s also the possibility of incineration or using humanure but there are many restrictions, so certainly explore what’s allowed in your area. While you can conserve your water usage, chances are you’ll need a system and longer-term plan, especially for a homestead.
Part of the homesteading mystique is the idea you’ll chop enough wood to heat your home. If this is your plan, be sure you really, REALLY enjoy chopping wood, because you’re about to spend a large portion of your day doing it. You should also plan on having a fairly endless supply of forest.
Alternatively, you could do what I do, which is rely on some propane for heating. Let me tell you, although it may seem like “cheating,” investing in propane and gas is well worth your time. You can use propane for your stove and water heater as well which will save you a lot of money.
Unless you have an extra $50,000 to invest in solar panels or a robust hydropower turbine (flowing water and a drop on your land), you’re going to need to rely on fossil fuels. Fortunately, propane is relatively inexpensive.
When people dream of making the leap to homesteading, they’re most likely referring to food and farming. This is an area where homesteading is fun, satisfying and really shines. If you’re on the grid and in a temperate climate, growing some of your fruits and vegetables for the year is a realistic endeavor.
If you’re off the grid or live in a less-temperate climate, then you’ll probably need to supplement some of your food supply with trade or purchase. Using storage solutions such as a root cellar (much cheaper than refrigeration), canning and preservation will make sure your family eats healthy and saves money in the process.
Growing a garden requires less land and fewer resources than livestock, so carefully measure your costs and expectations. For example, to raise chickens, your coop may require an initial investment of $500-$1,000 and around $15/month to feed. So, measure it against the cost and your need for eggs before you jump in.
A homesteader I know lives about four hours away from town in Montana. While working on clearing her property, she dropped a rock on her hand, slicing off a finger. After weighing her driving distance from the hospital, she realized she wouldn’t make it in time to save her digit and now lives with nine fingers.
This story isn’t to scare you off from homesteading, but just a reminder, the further off-grid you go, the less access you will have to necessities in case of an emergency. Because I still live relatively close to the city, I can get what I need any time. This may not be the case in rural areas.
Homesteaders benefit from basic first-aid training and from stocking up on medical supplies. While you don’t need a whole pharmacy on-hand, be prepared to deal with stings, scrapes, burns, cuts and contusions. When you live far off from the city, an ambulance might be hours away, so think worst-case scenario and take precautions.
As homesteaders we need to consider our neighbors, because not everyone thinks this life is as great as we do. In the country we may have enough land that we don’t have to worry much, but if we are homesteading on an urban or suburban lot, we need to consider the people around us.
Obviously, making sure you’re respectful and adhering to your zoning laws and ordinances will help you keep the peace. Not every neighbor is thrilled when a beekeeper moves in next door, smoke from your wood stove drifts over to their yard, or your loud generator is running at 3am.
A benefit of living in a small home or relying on your land to grow your own food is that your life is simplified. No longer are you tied to the social constraints and obligations of society. You may choose to live in a rural area where you’re more isolated from others. As long as you’re happy with solace, this setup works great. However, there’s no shooting the breeze with your buddy across the fence or knocking on the door for a cup of sugar. Self-sufficiency has positives and drawbacks.
Ultimately, if your sights are set on homesteading, it’s certainly possible. Be realistic about your expectations when you begin. The first step is planning, doing your research and setting a realistic budget. I’ve found it best to take the homesteading setup process one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be living the life you dream of!
- What do you see as your biggest challenge?