As a child, the stories I loved best were the ones about people making their homes in the wilderness. You know, the ones where the hero(ine) creates a homestead in the middle of a forest using just a few pioneer tools. From the comfort of my family’s Toronto highrise apartment, it sounded exciting and adventurous.
What my ten-year-old self didn’t fully understand is that carving a homestead out of the wilderness, while rewarding, is also pretty challenging. Especially when your forty-year-old self moves off the grid to a boreal forest 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. And when you don’t even have the experience of farming or homesteading ON the grid.
If you’re thinking about homesteading off the grid, here are a few challenges to keep in mind plus a few notes on how we handle them.
#1. Getting Water for Gardens and Livestock
Now I knew we would need water for our gardens. And it was no surprise that chicks and chickens also require water on a regular basis. However, I didn’t fully appreciate the work involved in getting water to go anywhere other than our house. We’re lucky to have an off grid water pump system to fill our 1100 gallon tank at our lakeside house, but we don’t have running water in our chicken coop or sheds. We haul water to the chicken coop using buckets and feel fortunate that we can hand-water the garden with a hose. We have friends up the trail who struggle to haul water up to their off grid properties in the summer.
Before getting too far along in planning your off grid homestead, consider how you’ll water your garden and provide the water your livestock needs. How far is your water source? How will you transport it? Can you rig up an off grid irrigation system?
Plan for this before you need it so you can work out any issues without worrying about wilting veggies or thirsty chicks.
#2. No Lights in the Outbuildings
Since we live off the grid we depend on solar panels, generators, and a battery bank to power our home. Living in the far north, we have limited sunlight during a large part of the year -- as little as four hours in the winter months. While we do use electric lights in our home, our outbuildings aren’t wired for electricity. This means no lights or running water out there.
Motion-activated solar lights mounted on each building light our way from house to coop and shed, and alert us to predators such as bears, wolves, pine martens, foxes, and coyotes.) In buildings like the chicken coop, where chores usually require two hands we use headlamps Even my six-year-old has her own. Like most things out here, we find ourselves getting used to the routine of keeping a headlamp handy.
#3. Regulating Temperature in the Off Grid Chicken Coop
As any backyard chicken owner knows, small chicks are very temperature-sensitive. When we picked up twenty 1-day old Western Rustic chicks this May, we still had three feet of snow in our garden and ice on the bay of our lake. Keeping the chick brooder at 30 degrees Celsius (that’s about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) was definitely a challenge.
We had to improvise a heat lamp using an extension cord, duct tape and a bedroom lamp, a Rubbermaid tote, and three pieces of foam insulation. We kept that bedroom lamp on by running our portable gasoline generator on the cloudy days when our solar panels didn’t get enough light to charge.
Now those chicks have grown into hefty 8-week old chickens in our new outdoor chicken coop, and we just added another 10 Barred Rock chicks, now three weeks old. And I’m thinking ahead to how they’ll all fare through the -40 C to -50 C days that are right around the corner.
I’m hoping that heavy insulation and finding the right chicken-to-square-foot ratio will keep them toasty warm. If not, I might try a propane wall heater.
If you live in an area of extreme heat or cold, consider how you’ll keep your animals’ quarters at a comfortable temperature.
#4. Food Storage for the Garden Harvest
I work hard to improve our family’s food security by growing as much of our own food as I can. Yet gardening in the north is tricky. We have a short growing season of about six to eight weeks. During that time we get almost 20 hours of sunlight and about 4 hours of twilight. So it’s a very compressed season and everything is ready to harvest at the same time!
When we lived in the city I often bought frozen vegetables in bulk when they were on sale. Yet freezers use a ton of power. Although we get enough sunlight to power our freezers in the summer, by September our days grow short quickly, which means depending on our fuel-sucking generators. At the same time, it usually isn’t quite cold enough outdoors (yet) to keep our food on our back deck.
This means I've had to embrace canning and preserving in a big way. I store our canned goods on shelves in our boiler room just off our kitchen. Even though five of our seven children are now grown and on their own, I hadn’t realized just how much food we eat over the winter, or how much room we’d need to store it all!
Plan your garden, harvest, and food storage areas in your off grid home carefully to make sure you have space and the power needed to safely do so. Consider a walk-in pantry, root cellar, in-ground cool storage, or propane freezer.
#5. Frozen Meat Storage for Processed Small and Large Animals
We count ourselves lucky to be able to provide meat for our family through hunting, fishing, and raising meat chickens on our off grid homestead. However, that meat must be safely stored to get us through the long winters. And that means either canning, smoking, dehydrating, drying or freezing it.
Now I’m a beginner when it comes to all of that except for freezing meat. Like the vegetable harvest situation, storing our home-processed wild game bird, chicken, moose, rabbit, and fish to last through the winter months takes some planning. I prefer the convenience of freezing cuts of meat in the portions we need for our favorite recipes. Yet we don’t have enough freezer space. For now, we store our extra meat in our neighbor’s freezer in exchange for giving him a share of it.
Living off the grid and homesteading in a harsh environment isn’t for everyone. Yet acknowledging the challenges we face and then finding solutions helps hone our problem-solving and self-reliant living skills. I hope our experiences help you to pursue a more self-reliant lifestyle too - wherever you are.