Romper

I'm Raising My Kids Off The Grid & This Is What It's Like

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

I get asked all the time about what it’s like to live off the grid. For us, living off the grid means using solar power and having occasional generator running to get by during winter. But what people actually want to know is what it’s really like to raise children off the grid. I’ve been living off the grid since May 8, 2011, and shortly after moving off the grid in the middle of the high desert on Humboldt Mountain Range in Nevada, my husband and I found out I was pregnant.

We decided to move off the grid because we felt like were slowly losing everything living in a big city: our vehicles, our land, the house we’d built, and our dignity. My husband had been forced to quit his firefighter/paramedic job due to an old injury that had happened when he was 16. It turned our world upside down. We were newly married and had no clue what we should be doing. We were limited on options and had a small goat herd we were not willing to give up. So, our plan was simple: Find land and build again. We’d looked at land in different places, some in Oregon, but mostly in Nevada, and when we came across 20-acre on a popular auction site for $500 down and $160 per month, we were instantly sold. We to look at the land, the space, and what it offered and loved the idea that we could be close to Reno where our family was, but alone enough to feel like what we had was ours. It was December when we closed on the property, and it was covered in snow. But we had the mountains. And we had the desert. We even had a reservoir close by.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

The land was beautiful, peaceful, and quiet, which was exactly what we needed after all the stress of life in a big city. We couldn't wait to start over and moved all of our belongings into a storage unit and jacked up our 10x12 TUFF shed. You know those cute little sheds they sell at your local home improvement store? Well, that’s what we were living in when the pregnancy test came back positive. And that’s when the stress set in all over again. I was anxious and nervous. How would we raise a baby out here? We’d tried getting pregnant when we had a house and a good paying jobs, and it never happened. Yet here we were, in the middle of a mountain range, and finally pregnant. With so much up in the air, my mind flooded with questions: What am I doing? Should we sell everything and move back into the city? Can I even raise a child out here!? So many what-ifs hung heavy on our shoulders, yet my husband and I were firm in our belief that we didn’t want to go back to the city life. We didn’t want to raise our baby there.

In my head, bringing a child into our world like this felt wrong and downright irresponsible. I felt embarrassed at first. I thought if anyone saw that we didn't have indoor running water or plumbing that our baby would be taken away.

When I was younger, I’d spend weeks on my uncle’s off-the-grid ranch. I’d drive the water truck at 13, fetch the cows water, help my uncle brand and field dress livestock wounds because sometime there's no time to call a veterinarian. We learned very quickly that we had to do what we could with the time available. We had freedom, fun, and responsibility and we always were able to find the perfect balance between the three. I loved spending time there. It was challenging, but it taught me confidence and strength. And I believe that all those years spent at the ranch helped turn me into the smart, tough person I am today and I was positive that's what I wanted for my children.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

Once we moved onto the land, we had no running water and no power. We hauled our water in barrels, showered at a trailer park I worked at, used oil lanterns for light a fire pit for heat, and a car battery to watch movies on a portable DVDs player. It was crazy at first. A lot of the time we went to bed when the sun went down and our days began when the sun came up. It was so different than what we were used to. In my head, bringing a child into our world like this felt wrong and downright irresponsible. I felt embarrassed at first. I thought if anyone saw that we didn't have indoor running water or plumbing that our baby would be taken away. It made me realize that we had to make some concessions, and having a baby meant we needed to move forward at a faster pace in order to make sure we’d have everything ready for when baby came.

It wasn’t just the fact that our house wasn't "normal," it was also the fact that I was a first-time mom without a clue what I was doing.  And I’d be alone, day after day, while my partner worked.

My partner and I weighed our options and realized that while it was possible to raise a child off the grid, the TUFF shed that had been our “starter home” had to go. With reclaimed wood and a construction company's donated time, we built a small cabin (that was 20 feet by 16 feet) and had it sheet-rocked and dried in two weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, Juniper Jade. I didn't know if the cabin was ever going to get done in time and it put a ton of stress on me. I had to remember that some things were just out of my hands. But my husband and the team came through. By the time our daughter arrived, our cozy space was in working condition.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

No one prepares for what life will be like when you go off the grid. We went from having everything within arm’s reach to having a ranch to being pregnant to having to work fast to ensure things got done. But it taught me the importance of asking for help, of speaking up, and honestly, of going with the flow. All throughout my pregnancy I’d been sleeping on a foam pad in the TUFF shed, and by the time our daughter arrived, our cabin had walls, a roof, and we’d taken our king-sized bed out of storage. Life on the ranch felt simple, but it felt whole.

But the glory of a simple life was short lived, because now we had to think about how to be parents, which, to be honest, was terrifying. I think most first-time parents go through all those same fears, but I realized that my fears would unfold over 20 acres of bare land, and I just wasn’t ready for that. I was not ready to go back to life off the grid. I was terrified. All of the unknowns and what-ifs made my head spin.

Since we couldn’t afford to buy firewood, sometimes we’d head into the canyon to collect fallen wood to burn. We spent most of our weekends finding and cutting wood for when the temperatures dropped.

So after giving birth, I stayed with my mom in the city for almost three weeks after Juniper was born. Then I got the itch to go home. I was over being away from my husband and I knew he needed his baby to cuddle. Plus, I missed the life we’d built there. So I sucked it up and had my mom drive me the two hours home. She was emotional. I was scared. It wasn’t just the fact that our house wasn't "normal," it was also the fact that I was a first-time mom without a clue what I was doing.  And I’d be alone, day after day, while my partner worked.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

But I did what I’d always done: I adjusted. I realized that while I could go few days without bathing, my baby could not. She was easy enough to bathe though, so I heated water on the cook stove to the perfect temperature and bathed her in a baby bath on the dining table. I did laundry once a week at local laundry mat. We went shopping once or twice a week in the nearest town, which was 30 minutes away. Just before Juniper was born, we saved up and were able to buy a fridge. But it wasn't your normal plug-in-the-wall appliance. This fridge was propane and totally changed the way we lived. (There are only so many dry box meals you can make and eat before you go crazy.)

With the fridge, and with baby, we were able to have meat and dairy that didn't need to be consumed the day it was bought. We’d trek to the reservoir as needed to refill gallons of drinking water. We made sure we had wood cut for out tiny little fire place. Since we couldn’t afford to buy firewood, sometimes we’d head into the canyon to collect fallen wood to burn. We spent most of our weekends finding and cutting wood for when the temperatures dropped. I was able to strap Juniper in my backpack to help my husband with the workload. It was our little routine. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput
My bed and the babies’ beds take up one half of the house. The other belongs to the kitchen, living room, and the fire place.

With the help of my husband’s parents, we were able to get a loan and have a well drilled just before Juniper turned 1. It was the best three days and 350 feet of my family’s life! It opened us all up to so many opportunities, like gardening and even just normal bathing. Before, our showers were comprised of five gallons of warm water heated with a battery-operated camping pump. We also had to use a hand-held shower head. Now, we had a well, and it literally gave us life. My husband and I could finally stop hauling water from a friends house 10 miles away in 275-gallon increments. As if that wasn’t enough, the well was an “artesian well,” which meant that the static water level was above ground and could be poured without a pump. (For reference, most domestic wells have pump in them, but ours had natural pressure from these underground rivers so we were able to hook a hose up to the pipe and fill water storage barrels, goat water troughs, and start a garden with ease.) It was so exciting.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

After the well arrived, I bought a washer and a propane dryer, and it all lived outside. The bathroom was enclosed, but could only be accessed by going outside. It wasn’t exactly a problem, but it was super sucky when the temperature outside as 2 degrees. I could handle it, but I was not ever going to put my child through that. During the colder months, we potty-trained Juniper inside with a training potty placed pretty much in the center of the house. It was easy. I've heard of mothers centrally locating the training potty in the house so that potty training was easy and stress-free for their child, and the same worked for us.

In the spring and summer we usually let Juniper play outside naked, in which case she’d just squat and go. By the age of 3, Juniper was using the outhouse. She still needed night time diapers and there were still plenty of occasional accidents, but we’d made progress. There were days when she’d request to just squat outside and pee instead of trekking to the outhouse. I didn’t mind. In fact, I encouraged it. Our daughter’s always been a free spirit and we didn't have neighbors near us so I didn't fear anyone seeing her. I always gave her a choice: go outside, or use the outhouse. And it seemed to help her have a little bit of control in the potty-training experience. Plus, we saw nothing wrong with letting her going outside.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

As we could afford things, we upgraded our commodities. I worked so hard to be able to do my laundry, shower, have a functioning flushing toilet and indoor running water in my home for my daughter. Now, we have two children. Our son, Brody Bruce, was born August 2014.

Our children know where our power and water come from and where it goes, which will help them understand how to use and conserve both. Juniper knows how special a flushing toilet is, and I think that's something a lot of people take for granted. She also loves gardening, mainly because she knows it offers her an endless supply of broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and tomatoes.

After his arrival, our needs only grew, yet we’re still living in the same small cabin. My bed and the babies’ beds take up one half of the house. The other belongs to the kitchen, living room, and the fire place. We now have solar and satellite TV, and Internet. We use a generator for laundry and to charge batteries on the stormy days. I always joke that laundry is the unsustainable evil. But the truth is I am so grateful to be able to do all of these things. I never take it for granted.

Courtesy of Marjorie VanCleemput

It’s now been almost five years and we are now planning to build a much larger house with straw bales. We’ve saved and sacrificed. Our children will be there every step of the way learning and they’ll be with us as we build our home. My husband and I believe doing so is the best way to show our kids how to work hard for things they want and need in life.

My children are so independent it scares me at times. I take things as they come. Everything is trial and error, and I’ve alway said that education is not free. I like learning as I go, and I want my kids to have the same opportunity to the same.

When I think back on all we’ve accomplished, I’m so grateful for the situations we’ve been in and went through that helped us choose this life. We’ve learned so much about ourselves and each other and the kind of life that makes us happy and fulfilled, and I hope our children take a small piece of good out of living like this. Our children know where our power and water come from and where it goes, which will help them understand how to use and conserve both. Juniper knows how special a flushing toilet is, and I think that's something a lot of people take for granted. She also loves gardening, mainly because she knows it offers her an endless supply of broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and tomatoes. I can't keep her out of it. I love how much she loves it.

Both Juniper and Brody have cared for the meat that sustains our family. They both know where it comes from and are both involved in helping harvest the meat and collecting the eggs. They love collecting eggs. Brody may break more than he saves, but I can see the fascination on his face firsthand, and it's silly moments like this that I hold so dear. We show gratitude for our life together everyday, both with and for each other, and for the world that sustains us. My kids will grow up learning from the world around them, and that’s something none of us will ever get tired of.