Roughing it: Keys to unplugging from the grid


Living off the grid teaches skills largely lost in a world dominated by automation. This is the beginning of a semi-regular series of outdoors stories dedicated to exploring different aspects of that simplicity.

Every year, it seems, Idaho Public Television anchors its annual fund-raising efforts on the cabin-building skills of Dick Proenneke in the fabulous documentary “Alone in the Wilderness.”

Proenneke built an Alaska cabin by hand in 1968 and created a man cave of lore. The guy carved a two-stage door lock out of a knuckle of wood.

His cabin is now part of the U.S. National Park Service and his documentary exploits have inspired generations of city slickers who dream of building a mountain cabin for weekend getaways.

Part of the allure of North Idaho and Eastern Washington is that it affords reasonably priced patches of ground for those who seek to live simply, off the grid, away from the electronic-gadget- dependant hordes.

Some take it to the extreme – I wouldn’t say 27 junker cars around a single-wide trailer with exposed-particle-wood walls is my idea of a man cave, but hey, at least it’s simple.

Others pay exorbitant sums to essentially build a second home in the woods with all the amenities one would expect in the city.

My own private Proenneke adventure began in 2007 when I purchased some ground and a terrorist-squirrel infested cabin near Lake Roosevelt.

Most folks I trucked up there took one look and said they thought the aforementioned 27-junker-cars-and-a- single-wide pit was a step up. A BIG step up.

Though I had never even operated a table saw, I had ambition. More importantly, I had an uncle and close friend who owned all the tools I needed to borrow.

Along the way, I broke and re-purchased most of the borrowed tools and learned a few things about how to turn roughing it into “smoothing it.” I did it all amid encounters with bears and nightly incursions by the terrorist squirrel, which apparently resented my remodeling of what had been his squirrel cave.

Water is life

With no ready source of water, the only way to survive off the grid is to haul your own.

Since I am an old camper by trade, I had more than enough water containers I could fill at home to survive a weekend.

The key to water management is finding a smaller water container with a spigot that allows you to control the outflow of the water to a trickle.

After a little practice, you’ll find that 10 gallons of water can provide enough water to drink, wash dishes and even shower.

A couple can easily survive an entire weekend on the same amount of water wasted in two toilet flushes at home.

Lighting the way

Headlamps may be one of the best inventions since, uh, that stuff that comes on rolls. But we’ll get to that later.

When you spend time off the grid, light sources become very important.

My former camping neighbor ran electric lines throughout his cabin and simply plugged his man cave into a generator.

He had light on demand and all the power he needed to watch dozens of the worst western movies ever created.

But his plan cost fuel and therefore cost more money and it was loud.

I chose a simpler path. I had help from the aforementioned neighbor and ran a copper propane line into my cabin to run both my oven/stove and a Coleman propane lantern. Turn the handle and light it up.

While some off-the-gridders go to the extreme and pay for solar panels to charge deep-cycle batteries, I added lights that I could afford: battery-powered lights from a certain box-store.

I then purchased a gross of rechargeable batteries. When a light burns out, I simply replace the AA batteries and take the dead ones home to recharge.

Each room has a remote light switch and corresponding lights for the entire cabin, all at a price that didn’t break the bank.

Winter is best

In the early days of the terrorist squirrel – which was a flying squirrel who’s scratching and marauding ruined countless nights of sleep for me and my dog, Lily – I used a propane heater to warm the cabin.

Prior to actually insulating the cabin, I stayed one winter weekend when the outside temperature stayed at minus-5. The heater, cranked to its max, kept it a not-so-balmy 32 degrees inside.

Other than limited power, the main problem with propane heat is the exhaust.

While the propane heater had a built-in carbon monoxide sensor that automatically shut it off, I augmented the system with the best battery-powered carbon monoxide sensor I could find.

Eventually, I was able to add the woodstove, which eliminated the carbon monoxide threat and allowed for a much more sustainable heat source. It also provides a light source on cold winter nights.

As for fuel for the stove, wood tends to be plentiful in the woods.


If there was any doubt, bears actually do their business in the woods. Believe me. Lots.

Anyway, I always keep this camping necessity very simple by drawing upon my lengthy experience in wall tents. I simply use a trusty 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat designed to ride on top.

I double-line the bucket, pack everything out and have for years. I also have a conventional Porta-Potty that gets regular service.

Those who like to spend money to avoid the pack-out can try a composting toilet. But the most effective ones can be expensive and sometimes require solar panels and deep-cycle batteries.

Obviously, the natural solution is not much of a solution if you want to continually enjoy your land. My final answer is a propane-incinerating toilet that I hope to install soon.

So does my wife.

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