Is it possible to live off-grid in a motorhome?
If there is one downside to the romanticism of living a life detached from the structures of society, it is the issue of mobility. An off-grid lifestyle implies a certain rootedness to the land, one that doesn’t allow for much free time to travel around in. This requirement is at odds with the human spirit for adventure and almost represents an off-grid lifestyle ‘paradox’. After all, what good is ‘freedom’ if you are tied to the land? And what good is travel, if you aren’t really free?
For a lot of people, a reconciliation between the two is the attempt to live some form of off-grid lifestyle out the back of a motorhome. This way, ideas of both travel and freedom can be blended. It sounds like a dream. But like most dreams, is it too good to be true?
Freedom and a little bit more – different interpretations of “off-grid”
We cannot know if off-grid living is possible without first defining what it means. As it turns out, there are lots of different interpretations — and some of the more generous ones make the lifestyle much easier than others.
Here are the common definitions for off-grid living, each more extreme than the last:
- Living independently from the public power grid.
- Living independently from all public utilities, including water.
- Avoiding all forms of public infrastructure, including roads.
- Avoiding pretty much every aspect of modern life, including even healthcare and food stores.
For most people, the top definition is sufficient. And as the more astute reader will have noticed, anything below option two is automatically ruled out for anyone considering a motorhome.
Getting about in an off-grid motorhome
With a motorhome, you will always be dependent on the road network to get about. You will also be more answerable to government legislation, regulation, and taxes in ways that may frequently shatter any illusions of freedom.
Then there is also the issue of finding someplace to settle down for a short while. Roaming about is great, but there will come a time when you will want to stay put, even if only temporarily and especially if the intention is to grow food and source water.
In the United States, it is just not possible to park up at the side of the road and let that be that. The local authorities will soon demand a permit. Similarly in the UK, you could get away with it in theory for a period of 28 days. After which you will be required to provide proof of ‘planning permission’.
But there are ways to get around this. For example, you could:
- Look for a residential or holiday site that accepts motorhomes. Not all of them are open all year round, but some of them are. And it is usually possible to stick around for fairly long periods, even for months at a time. Certain opaque legal requirements might require you to ‘leave’ the premises for a few days, every quarter, but this isn’t really a problem — and is even an invitation to do some exploring.
- You can choose the ancillary accommodation method. This is legalese for “staying with a friend”. If a family member or somebody you know grants you permission, you can happily park up on a field or even a driveway for as long as you like.
- Get yourself a permanent address, even if only on paper. For example, at a friend or family member’s house. This is not unlike ancillary accommodation, and will make the house a “hub” — ideal for returning every few weeks (or months) to check up on the gritty reality that is insurance, taxes, and other life admin duties.
There is a fourth option — arguably the most romantic of them all, but one that grinds up against reality. You could live as a true nomad, with no address at all, but it will make your motorhome insurance almost impossible to achieve.
A romantic middle-ground?
The decision to live off-grid is not an easy one to make. It requires a lot of thinking through. So ask yourself — do you really want to live off-grid? A lot of people, while simultaneously dreaming of the nomad life, might actually be more interested in full-time touring.
Touring is not off-grid living, but it is relatively independent and free. It has all of the upsides and none of the sacrifices of the off-grid life.
For example, a full-time tourer would have no qualms about heading to a supermarket or restaurant for food, or joining a 24-hour gym for the hot shower alone. And if the bitter winter is too much, there is no sense of guilt about riding the nearest camp and plugging in to the grid. At the same time, the lifestyle is still likely to “harden” you more than the casual motorhome enthusiast. Allowing you to exploit the very cheap (and often empty) campgrounds during the holidays that do not have power grid accessibility.
Powering an off-grid motorhome
Energy self-sufficiency is actually remarkably easy, thanks to modern technological developments. It is certainly the easiest aspect to off-grid living. Leaving aside the fact that you will still need to purchase fuel from petrol stations, you can turn to four other devices to source the rest of your power. They are:
- Solar panels — A well-maintained solar panel should provide infinite clean energy from the Sun for well over 10 years. There are many different models to purchase, but the best ones in this case are the ultra-portable ones that can be orientated to track the sun in the sky, and then folded and stored easily away. Mounted-roof panels and briefcase solar panels are highly recommended model-types.
For two people, a solar panel of about 100-watt capacity wired into a couple of 110-amp leisure panels should suffice to generate most of the power, with minor sacrifices. (No TV, toasters, coffee makers and so on. But you can watch TV on a laptop or tablet and find another, just as easy way to make coffee.)
- Gas — Another invaluable source of power comes in the form of gas. Gas powers both refrigeration units and heaters, working to keep us both cool and warm. A simple refillable gas system paired with a backup gas cylinder should provide all the gas you need. Choose your system wisely, as some are more cost-effective than others. Two cylinders should last about three weeks before refilling.
Note: die-hards will not consider gas cylinders as “off-grid” because it requires a trip to the supermarket to purchase them.
- Backup generators — They are noisy and smelly, but sometimes necessary on those short, dark winter days if the solar panel cannot cut the mustard. A couple might be able to make do with a 500-watt model, with some smart thinking. When splashing out on a backup generator, make sure to research the model first. A reputable generator should provide at least ten years of use, if maintained properly.
- Car engine alternators — The ultimate last resource. If you do not have a backup generator, the plugging into another car engine should help to power up the electrics. Be wary though, of draining the battery.
Sourcing power is not hard, but it can be expensive in the long run.
Believe it or not, sourcing water is one — perhaps the most difficult — part of off-grid living. Even the most extreme off-grid enthusiasts are often forced to admit defeat and turn to a public water source for a drink.
The grim reality is that most rivers and freshwater lakes are polluted or just dirty (with animal waste). Some lakes in Canada and the northern United States even contain parasites that, if ingested, can cause serious illness.
Digging a well is also out of the question, and not just for motorhome enthusiasts. As digging a well will most certainly require government permissions, expensive digging equipment, an industrial high-pressure pump to extract the water — and of course, there is no certainty the well will even find water. Even in an area where the water table is naturally high.
So the short answer is: no, it isn’t really possible to source water independently from the utilities in a motorhome.
(Editors note: unless you have a Berkey filter!)
Food self-sufficiency in a motorhome — an impossible dream?
If the answer to water self-sufficiency is an emphatic ‘no’, then the answer to food self-sufficiency is an equally emphatic ‘sometimes’.
This is because you can grow a surprisingly large amount of fruit and vegetables in a small, carefully managed environment. A raised-bed just 24-inches across can certainly provide considerable sustenance for a couple of people. This yield, of course, can also be supplemented with other types of edible plants grown in containers and pots on the side.
Obviously this is best done during the ‘downtime’. That is, when your motorhome is on a site (with permission from the owners) or at a friend’s. It isn’t possible on the road. You can forage and hunt, but all sorts of labyrinthine and head-scrambling laws are waiting to trip you up. (E.g. you can hunt this type of deer, but only when; you can pick edible mushrooms, except this one.)
In any case, what little food you can temporarily grow, hunt and forage, will almost never be at the level of self-sufficiency. But sourcing food like this can be immense fun just for the sense of accomplishment.
Answering the question posited in the title of this article requires a clear definition of what “off-grid” really is. If your definition is taken to mean, self-sufficient power generation independent from the power grid (i.e. not the supermarkets), then yes, living in a motorhome off-grid is possible and not too difficult.
On all other accounts though, the answer is no. At best, you might be able to be self-sufficient for short intervals, some of the time. In any case, the sense of accomplishment during those periods is bound to be immense, great fun; an endorphin spike to the brain — even if only temporary — of what true freedom feels like.
Neil Wright is researcher and copywriter. He is passionate about the great outdoors and the natural world, and has written extensively about the off-grid lifestyle and living off the land in the UK on his website.