“Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.”
— Aristotle (c. 384-233 BC)
What does "off the grid" mean?
There are multiple interpretations of what living “off-grid” actually means. Most people consider an off the grid definition to mean living in a manner free of public utilities like commercial electricity and water. Others take it to mean avoiding public infrastructure (though this would include roads), and some take it to mean living entirely self-sufficiently.
People find living off-grid appealing not because they want to be entirely self-sufficient, but because they want more general freedom, less of a carbon footprint, and less financial burden. There are some people in remote parts of the world who live off-grid by necessity. But even in developed countries, more people are full of romantic notions detaching themselves from the structure of modern life.
In reality, off grid living in the UK is extremely challenging, and most people only successfully live off the grid on a part-time basis. Nevertheless, this living off the grid blog guide will show you how a person might attempt to live off the grid, and to demonstrate how practical living off the grid can be, and what it is that realistically you can do.
How To Get Off The Grid: Things to Consider Before Going Off The Grid
Choosing to live off the grid is a major life decision, and if you’ve spent any time thinking about it, the following questions will have probably sprung to mind:
- Is living off the grid illegal? If not, then what are the rules?
- How do I make the transition to a more minimalist lifestyle?
- Is living in a camper full time and off the grid possible?
- What equipment should I take with me for off-grid living?
Let us answer those questions one by one.
Is Living Off The Gird Illegal? If Not, Then What Are The Rules?
The short answer is ‘no’ but it is discouraged. It is not illegal to live off-grid, but here are some things to bear in mind:
- You can only perch on a plot of land for 28-days at any one time without planning permission.
- You can live off-grid as a sort-of ‘ancillary accommodation’ which is where you essentially live on another property, such as someone’s garden, land, or even front-drive.
- You could find a residential site or holiday site that is open all year round for living off the grid in the UK (which is probably best if you want to live in a static caravan). But even then, if you have a motorhome, there may be restrictions on how often you can use it. You may also be instructed to leave for a period of 48-hours every three months or so, too. You can also live in an area if you are working on the land, too.
- For example, if you are working in woodlands as a woodlands ranger, you can legally live in the woods. You could use this opportunity to learn how to live off the grid in the woods in the UK.
All of the above implies some sort of rooted-down living. But you have other options:
- You could be a nomad (that is, living with no fixed address) in an off grid camper.
- You could opt to go on a nomadic life-style known as full-time touring. This is not the same as being a nomad (and more on this in a minute).
So, to reiterate, is off grid living illegal? The short answer is no.
Off Grid Campers — Some Must-Have Advice
Some associate the off-grid lifestyle with complete freedom to travel from place to place. This would make the lifestyle even more difficult. In that case, here are some things you should know:
- It is legal in the UK to live of no fixed abode and you can still have access to healthcare and so on. You can still register to live in a house (even if you don’t spend any time there) and this will give you the right to vote. It also makes things easier as far as insurance goes, and other paperwork.
- One way to have the best of both worlds would be to have a base address at a family or friend’s house.
- If you are planning a nomadic lifestyle with a partner, then it is extremely important that both of you can do everything. That includes: driving the motorhome, towing it, etc. In the event one of you is incapacitated — for example ill — your partner must be able to pick up where you left off.
- If you are on your own, you need to consider where you can go to recover if you are incapacitated or unwell. Again, a family or friend would be ideal. Try to think of various “recovery houses” in various parts of the country, so you can get to one easier.
- If you are ill, or need dental work or a routine operation, you will still have access to the NHS in the UK. But you will only be patched up at your nearest health clinic or hospital. If you need something in-depth or routine, you need to return to where you are registered with your dentist or GP for more proper work to be carried out.
The benefits of learning how to live off the grid in the UK as a nomad or semi-nomad is that it frees you to use camping or motorhome sites without electricity. These sites are far less popular than other sites that provide electricity. In fact, even on Bank Holidays you will, in most cases, be able to easily find a site without an electric hookup and it shouldn’t even be busy. The prices are usually dirt cheap as well, around £5 a night — even in peak season. This is ideal if you want to at least have an off grid camping UK holiday.
Living In A Motorhome Permanently — How Can I Adapt To The Much Smaller Living Conditions?
Minimalist living may be a popular lifestyle choice at home these days, but living permanently in a motorhome in the UK will put you in the minimalist bracket by default. But minimalist living does not mean “going without” or “roughing it” necessarily.
One way to lessen the culture shock of moving into such a small place — if you are very serious about living off-grid, would be to sell the house and move into a very small studio apartment first. The small space will help you to offload unnecessary items. Another step would be to put all of your items into boxes and open to boxes as and when you need something. If within three months you find some boxes have not been opened, you can then make a decision whether to keep the items in those unopened boxes.
If you are considering living in a camper full time, there are a few things you need to consider carefully before doing so. The first is how you sleep. For couples, the shared living conditions can be a problem if one person wants to sleep and the other does not. The bed must also be extended out and put away every day, too — which is time-consuming. Indeed every time somebody wants to get their head down, the bed must be taken out again.
If that hasn’t put you off, here are some tips and things to keep in mind when it comes to living in a campervan permanently:
- Only put lighter items in the upper lockers for stability, especially if you are towing a trailer. The upper lockers are great for putting saucepans, plastic containers, bottles, snacks and other small items.
- You only need a minimal number of utensils for a utensil drawer when campervan living, usually just four items of each should do.
- If you haven’t already, invest in a handheld vacuum cleaner. Dirt can really concentrate in a small area very quickly, so you might have to sweep or vacuum the interior twice a day, even when trying to keep the dirt out.
- A hard standing pitch will prevent you from dragging mud into your caravan or motorhome, especially in rainy weather.
- Every space in your motorhome will need to have multiple purposes which can seem chaotic at times.
- It can be very dark inside your motorhome, even in the middle of a bright sunny day. So it is important to make sure you have good lighting inside.
- Cooking can be a challenge because counter-space will be limited. Prepare to get used to eating a lot of one-pot meals.
- The average motorhome wardrobe is probably about 2 feet wide, so clothes can end up everywhere, especially when excessive winter clothing is required during the winter months.
- There’s no real privacy when living in a motorhome full time; especially if you are cohabiting. The inability to have space apart may cause tension in some instances.
- Things in motorhomes and campers are not made for heavy 24/7 use. This is all fine for general, seasonal usage. But for off grid camper van living, they tend to be fragile, break easily, and can be expensive and hard to replace.
- Most likely, you will also have plenty of wires for all of your devices and gadgets in the motorhome. To keep them from tangling with one another, and to make it easier to find them, place each separate wire in a labelled plastic bag. Freezer bags are the ideal choice for this. Then you can bungle them together in a compact space without worrying about searching and untangling them.
Check out our blog post on how to live in a motorhome over the winter for tips on how to get through the colder months sensibly.
What equipment should I take with me for off-grid living?
You should try to keep with you an ‘off-grid’ survival pack. Here are some suggestions:
- First aid kit
- Latex-free gloves
- Dust masks
- Wind up radio
- Wind up torch
- A fire extinguisher
- DIY tools, such as nails, bolts, a hammer, etc.
- Some medium-density fibreboard or planks for repairs
This list is not meant to be a comprehensive checklist of everything needed for off the grid living. Rather it is meant to tell you what you should keep on your person in case of emergencies. If you really are going off grid, and planning on a semi-nomad lifestyle, the chances are you could be isolated from other people for long periods of time. Which, of course, is not ideal in the event of an emergency.
How To Live Off Grid: Energy, Electricity & Water
Living off the grid in England, or any other part of the UK or the world would not be much fun without energy. Luckily, recent technological advances have made some forms of energy cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use. Let's now consider some of the more practical options.
Camper Solar Panels
Solar panels will last for many years and if one gets broken, the only thing that needs replacing is the one broken panel. You can even get a solar-powered heater for caravans, motorhomes, and stealth vans.
Mounted-roof solar panels or briefcase solar panels for caravans are very convenient, especially if they are free-standing so you can orientate them towards the sun. You can also put them away if you are going away and worried about theft. They might not be the most efficient option, but they give you peace of mind and can always be used effectively.
A 100-watt panel — rather than a 240v solar panel — wired into two 110-amp leisure panels in parallel should serve your energy needs well. Keep a close eye on their levels and don’t let the battery voltage drop below 12.0v. Try to have a display panel in the motorhome, but if you don’t you can always get a vault-metre to keep a close eye on your battery levels.
Your solar panel’s controller will last years, and your inverter will last anywhere from 8 - 10 years depending on the make, size, and manufacturer. The batteries are the most expensive part of the solar system. But with good maintenance, they could last the better part of 12 years.
You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that living off-grid demands more gas consumption. There is no situation where you won’t be needing to consume gas in some way or another. In the winter, we burn gas to keep us warm. In the summer, gas is consumed to keep the refrigerator cool.
A Gaslow refillable system is efficient for burning through liquid petroleum gas in a way that should cater for your energy needs. To fill one cylinder costs approximately £7 compared to about £22 to fill a similar-sized Cala cylinder. Two Gaslow cylinders should last about three weeks. But to be safe, you can always connect your system to a Cala cylinder as a backup.
A gas system might cost about £400 and you might be expected to fill up 10 cylinders a year.
Solar panels still work when it is overcast, but understandably not as efficiently as they would on a sunny day. In those cases, or in other cases where excess power is required, a generator is the ideal energy reserve.
If you are a die-hard low consumer, with no TV, microwave, kettle and so on, then you can probably get away with a 500-watt generator. Higher consumers might want a two-kilowatt generator, while a nice middle-ground between the two would be a 1000 watt generator. Honda generators have a good reputation and might cost between £500 to over £1,000. But they are known to last a long time.
Backup generators are very noisy though and can also smell, so if you have neighbours on sight or around, think of them first.
A Regular (Car or Motorhome) Engine
If you don’t have a generator and just need a little backup in case everything goes out, you can always turn to your engine. Engines have alternators that can charge your batteries.
So you can plug into the car’s electrics and switch batteries from camper battery to car from your power source (well, check you can do this from your caravan and or motorhome’s camper battery). Start the engine and charge the camper battery for half an hour or so. This should get you out of a spot of bother. Do be careful that you don’t flatten the car battery though.
Most modern camper vans and RVs have central heating and a hot water boiler installed within them, with radiators all around the interior to help keep the interior warm. These heaters can run off bottled gas and, as mentioned above, you can get solar-powered heaters for caravans and motorhomes.
Inverters and Other Gadgets
An inverter converts direct current (DC) electricity from sources such as batteries or fuel cells into alternating current (AC) electricity. Different types of inverters can influence the input voltage, the output voltage, and the frequencies and overall power of the electricity. Here are some tips when it comes to inverters and other gadgets:
- It would be a good idea to get 12-volt sockets installed in the motorhome. A 75-watt inverter will be sufficient for charging little things like a shaver, camera batteries, and other general low wattage activities.
- A 100-watt inverter should suffice for working on more demanding items, such as a laptop. For watching TV, use a tablet computer if you have one. You can charge it up during the day (preferably with solar activity) and use it at night without plugging it in.
- Power packs and BlueTooth speakers are also great at providing entertainment. Charge them up during the day. Use your mobile as a modem for downloads. This will protect your caravan batteries from being drained.
- For cooking, try a bio-ethanol stove that can also run on meths. That can act as a standby heater and cooker in case the gas system fails. Wood gas stoves are nice for outdoor cooking, like a BBQ for the late summer months. Even a petrol stove will reduce your reliance on the grid and on electrical hookups.
In reality, finding a plot of land with a reliable underground spring for off grid water collection is pretty uncommon. So you will have to think of other ways to get your water. But your off grid living water consumption will probably be less than you think. You will end up adjusting to a life of less water as you get used to living off-grid. (Gone will be the days of showering once or even twice a day if you did that sort of thing.)
On average, two people can live comfortably on 378 litres (of 100 US gallons) of water a week, and can certainly get by on 264 litres (60-70 gallons). Water is heavy though, especially in all of its containers. So you will need to know how to transport it safely, and to keep it from freezing in winter conditions. Here are some quick tips for off grid water options:
- Don’t store water in a water container with more than a 23 litre or 6 gallon capacity. Any more, and, the container tends to feel enormously heavy. You can buy containers like this in most camping stores.
- You can stock up on water at a local public water supply. You will need a garden hose to fill the containers quickly, and should aim to fill enough containers to keep you sustained for almost a week. With a hose, this should only take about 10 minutes.
- Make your own gravity fed system — this sounds more complicated that it is. Connect your container to your motorhome’s tank with a hose and put the container sideways up on a shelf. Simple!
Depending on how you interpret off-grid living, you might regard using public water sources as cheating. If you want to harvest your water from nature, and not rely on a public water tap, you can try the following for off grid water collection:
- Rain barrels can collect rainwater. The UK is one of the rainiest places in Europe, so you won’t be waiting long between showers. But the UK is also very windy, which can knock them over. You can semi-bury them which can keep them sturdier and also protect them from freezing in the winter. But beware, the cost of building an efficient rain barrel-collection system can get expensive quickly, and may not be worth the stresses and overall yield of water collected.
- Cisterns can be buried or above ground. They can provide months of water in one fill-up (and can capture snowfall and rain). It is much easier to obtain water from a cistern than from, say a well, even if the cistern itself is watered by the well. If you don’t have — or have very little — power generation, your cistern will have to be below the frost level. Above-ground cisterns are often exposed to sunlight and heat, which can make treatment difficult. But they are more affordable than anything that can be buried because they don’t have to be so durable, nor do they require a lot of extra materials. You can also transport your above-ground tank easily to a public water source in desperate times.
- Drilling for a well may be an option if you know the area has a very high water table, and that there are other wells in the area. But it cost a few thousand pounds to dig it and you may not find anything. Depending on your research, you may find that digging a well is feasible in your area. Wells are also demanding on pumps, so you will need a good pump to extract the water when it is flowing.
Final thoughts: It is very difficult and expensive to be water self-sufficient. It is not impossible, but a massive inconvenience that might not pay off. And it means you will be tied down to a particular plot of land.
Food Foraging Guide: How to Forage & Find Food In the Wild
No article on how to live off grid would be complete without mentioning foraging. Contemporary culture tends to view hunting as barbaric and food gathering as bordering on the absurd, and maybe even damaging to the natural world. But foraging for food is completely natural, and indeed even our grandparents and great-grandparents would have been familiar with at least some aspects of foraging.
If you are wondering how to live off the grid in the woods, then how to forage for food has likely entered your thought processes at some time or another. But aside from wild plants, leaves you can eat, and identifying and picking the right mushrooms, foraging can include: salting for razor clams, catching brown shrimps, and collecting seaweed.
What Is Foraging? Foraging and the Law
What is foraged food? When it comes to what you can eat in the wild; what plants you can eat, there is the notion that it is everybody’s natural right. That our ‘permission’ to do so is passed down from a higher — perhaps the ultimate — authority. After all, there is a passage in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, that reads:
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the Earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you, it shall be for meat (1:29).
In reality, off grid living in Scotland has more personal freedoms when it comes to foraging than England and Wales. This is because the Scottish government incorporated the ages-old notion that there is a universal right to roam wherever one might wish, as long as they behave sensibly and respectfully. This notion is protected by Scotland’s own Land Reform Act 2003.
Meanwhile in England, in 2017 the Bristol Council actually tried to block anyone from picking anything within city limits. The resulting dispute between pro-foragers and the Council led to the ‘Blackberry Wars’ (as the tabloids called it). The pro-foragers prevailed and the proposals were dropped.
And in 2016 the Forest Commission announced what many interpreted to be a mushroom picking ban in New Forest, Hampshire. The Commission placed signs in the car parks warning foragers not to pick any mushrooms. This outraged the foragers, who threatened legal action and complained that confiscating mushrooms might constitute theft. The Forest Commission backed down and the warning signs are gone; replaced by polite notices asking for abstention against foraging.
In England and Wales, the spirit of our time seems to be a slow withdrawal of the rights to forage, along with discouraging the practice and even making it seem like it is illegal when it isn’t. The chances are the law will be on your side, even if hidden under a veil of secrecy. But if you do plan working out how to find food in the wilderness, make sure to take some time to understand your area and any rules or dangers. Although you will have to stretch back as far as the nineteenth-century to hear three tragic cases of mushroom pickers being shot at by farmers (two of them died). As recently as 1911, a Mr William Miller from Croydon was sentenced to four days’ hard labour for damaging a gorse bush while out blackberry-picking.
What to do if you are ‘caught’ foraging
It is not a crime to forage on someone’s land, even without their permission. You may be trespassing, but that would be a civil and not criminal issue. The landowner also cannot demand the foraged items from you — as that would be theft on their part. The landowner is within their right to tell you to leave. And in that case, you should.
Here is how foraging is described in the Theft Act of 1968:
A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purposes.
For purposes of this subsection ‘mushroom’ includes any fungus, and ‘plant’ includes any shrub or tree.
So, as long as you forage for your own gain and not for financial gain, you are fine.
Sustainable foraging — What not to pick
The careful forager has good manners and forages sustainably, making sure to leave plenty behind to regenerate for later foraging.
There are four types of fungi, some lichens and mosses, and over a hundred flowering plants that cannot legally be picked. It is just as well that almost all of them are not edible things, and so there would be no sense in foraging them. But one type of rare fungi, the Bearded Tooth (or Hericium erinaceus) is unfortunately meant to be very forageable, edible and very delicious. It can be found growing on rotten oak, and you could be imprisoned for picking it — as one lady found out when she posted two carrier bags’ full of freshly picked Beared Tooth onto her social media.
Remember foraging should be treated as a delightful hobby rather than a method for self-sufficiency. At best, learning how to identify edible plants could save you from spending money on a couple of meals every now and then if you learn how to obtain food in the wild. Finding food in the wild can also be dangerous. Make sure you are confident the food you have foraged is edible. Keep an edible plant guide — such as Northeast Foraging for edible berry identification — on your person, or a foraging app. If in doubt, contact an expert.
Growing Your Own Food
Growing your own food is not only a rewarding experience, but it is also naturally organic and, unlike supermarket food, did not have to ride across an ocean in a carbon dioxide-spewing tanker. You can grow plentiful food in small spaces too — perfect for off the grid living in a motorhome or other, but only if you are planning on settling in an area for a couple of months at a time. You don’t need an extensive vegetable plot or orchard to grow a wide variety, either. Let’s look at some options:
The best way to start growing vegetables is in a raised bed. This makes vegetable growing practical and manageable. Raised beds are also ideal for spaces where the soil quality may be poor, or where there is no earth (such as on a patio).
The best way to think of a raised bed is as a special container with no base. This makes the growing area for your vegetation higher and allows for more opportunity to grow. You can construct one easily from wood, or brick. The ideal beds are about 4 feet wide, or if positioned against a wall, about 24 inches wide. (This is to prevent repetitive strain injuries from tending to it.)
All you have to do is fill the bed with compost, or good-quality soil and a mixture of organic matter, and make sure the base is well-drained. Raised beds allow for high-yields and the soil in them warms up quickly — which is especially useful in the winter. They are perfect for root crops.
Containers are especially good for growing fruit. You can control the size of the plant by restricting its roots inside a pot, a method which also forces the plant to grow quicker. Containers, therefore, allow you to maximise the cropping potential of your plants.
Almost any shape and size of the container can be used to grow plants: from old kettles to wooden boxes. However, you need to make sure the area beneath the containers are well-drained. The small size of most containers also means you cannot rely on rainfall to nourish your plants, because the leaves may intercept, crucially, the water meant for the soil. The limited size also means that feeding the plants will be necessary, as they won’t have superabundant access to nutrients.
Suppose you have a small plot of land akin to that of a small garden. Then congratulations, the scope of your fruit and vegetable growing is even more extensive. When crops are grown directly in the ground, they don’t need to be as strictly watered or fed as otherwise. You will have to watch where you plant fruit trees, in order to prevent their roots from causing too much damage, but you can also make use of vertical walls and fences for scrambling and climbing plant varieties.
Composting Your Plants
There are two types of compost — green and brown compost that, fortunately, you can find easily scavenge straight from the natural Earth.
- Green compost is rich in nitrogen, a crucial ingredient for plant growth. Green compost is composed of animal manure, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, young weeds that have not flowered or gone to seed; and even coffee grounds.
- Brown compost is rich in carbon. Autumn leaves, small branches from garden prunings, and even shredded paper and cardboard can nourish your plants with carbon. The smaller the pieces are, the faster your brown compost will decompose. So get shredding.
A handy tip is to visit a cafe for vegetable scraps and a retail store for cardboard. Most retailers handle large amounts of cardboard every day and only send it off to be recycled at the end of trading hours anyway.
We’ve looked at what helps to nourish a plot of land. Now, here’s what you shouldn’t do:
- Fish and meat will attract rats and other vermin.
- Citrus fruits will make the soil acidic, killing off the microorganisms and worms that help to decompose compost.
- Teabags contain plastic. Keep them away from your plot.
- Chemically treated wood.
The Off-Grid Cheat List
Going off grid in the UK completely is immensely tough, and perhaps near impossible. Some people, however, live off-grid on a more pick-and-mix basis. Here are some things to keep in mind if you don’t mind taking the odd shortcut every now and then:
- Join a 24-hour gym with hot showers. Many gyms have chain stores up and down the country and only a PIN is required to get in at night; where a comfortable, hot shower awaits. The monthly price of a gym membership is often less than a water bill, anyway.
- A base address will make everything much easier. As mentioned at the top of this guide, having a fixed address — even if you are hardly ever there — will allow you to vote, provide you with a registered GP, and make handling policy documents much easier.
- Don’t turn your nose away from public water sources. It is immensely difficult to source your own drinkable water in the wild, and you may be breaking the law when you do.
- Likewise, on the darkest and coldest winter nights, don’t be ashamed to use an electric hookup. From time to time, this will help you recover and provide the necessary motivation to continue on.
- Libraries and 24-hour restaurants and coffee shops make ideal escapes from your partner. For when living on top of one another gets too much.
Final Thoughts: Is Full Time Motorhome Living Off Grid Feasible?
The answer to this question depends on your interpretation of what it means to live off-grid, as explored above.
With the most extreme interpretation of off-grid living, that is, with total self-sufficiency, off-grid living is probably not entirely possible. It would be an incredible amount of labour-intensive work, with a lot of governmental red-tape to work around. Almost certainly, even die-hards would have to return to the grid for some fresh water, some supermarket produced food, and an electricity hookup.
But it is certainly possible to live off grid for weeks at a time, and perhaps years at a time with a semi-nomadic lifestyle. An almost off-grid lifestyle would almost certainly be greener for the environment, but it might not be cheaper. It might even be more expensive.
If your ultimate goal is to live a life unshackled by a fixed abode and to explore, then congratulations. This is a much more realistic ambition. Thanks to today’s technology and conveniences, you can opt to go for full time touring. This would make it easier to work remotely, and would enable you to go wherever and whenever, and to enjoy hookups, supermarket food, and all of life’s little luxuries. It would also ready you for periods off grid, which you would then be able to take advantage of on camp sites in the peak summer months.
We all want to lessen our impact on the planet, and you can do this fairly quickly by taking some very simple steps. Some which have been listed here. Living a semi-nomadic life in a motorhome or camper van is a much more attainable goal. It may not be self-sufficient, but it will certainly seem freer.