Successful Maine off-grid homesteaders find ways to build solid shelters and power them with alternative energy like solar. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

At its most simple, living off the grid is a lifestyle choice that involves self-sufficient living in a location without connection to the electric grid.

It is not walking into the woods and just setting up a tent. That’s something else entirely.

In describing how the three family members found dead this month near a Colorado campground were living, national news outlets, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe have repeatedly used the term “off-grid,” parroting the words of a medical examiner and family members. But the story, at best, should be seen as a cautionary tale of irresponsibility and unpreparedness.

The decomposed bodies of Rebecca Vance, her 14-year-old son and her sister Christine Vance were found by hikers earlier this summer. A year ago in July Rebecca Vance told friends and family she was heading into the wilderness with her son to escape what she described as a chaotic and dangerous world. One of her sisters decided to tag along.

Before they left, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, worried family members and friends with experience of successfully living off-grid tried to talk them out of it. When that did not work, they offered land in a safe remote location, an RV, a generator and the expertise to help them succeed. Rebecca Vance turned it all down.

Rebecca Vance’s plan was to grow and gather food at an elevation over 10,000 feet where the brief growing season is roughly only 88 days long — compared with Maine’s relatively short season 155 days. They would live in a tent in an area that routinely gets four feet of snow in the winter, where temperatures fall well below freezing. They would break contact with the outside world.

Nothing about Vance’s plan was living an off-grid lifestyle. At best it could be called an extended camping trip. At worst, she essentially made herself homeless and took her son and sister along with her. With fatal results.

remote survival tips and tricks

Plenty of people live off-grid in Maine. Quite successfully. But they will be the first to tell you there is nothing simple about the so-called simple life. It takes planning, preparation, commitment, a specific skill set, hard work and the ability to fund it.

At the end of a half-mile long driveway off a dirt road in Solon, Sikwani and Nathan Dana live off-grid in a home powered by enough solar panels to run lights, a washing machine, a small refrigerator and a video gaming system.

Savvy off-grid homesteaders in Maine access clean water using gravity-fed systems, cook and heat using wood-fired stoves, set up wind turbines in addition to solar panels to power any electronics they need or want.

They are masters at DIY to get things done inexpensively. A woman in central Maine repurposed an old above-ground swimming pool into a successful greenhouse for growing vegetables.

Maine’s poet laureate Julia Bouwsma lives and finds inspiration on her off-grid homestead where her days often divide between writing at her desk and splitting firewood.

They and other off-grid homesteaders in Maine may have slightly different ways of approaching their off-grid lifestyle, but the one thing they have in common is a recognition it can’t happen in a vacuum. In 2023 it’s next to impossible to live a truly off-grid life completely separated from society or without having a day-job to fund it.

No matter how simple or off-grid you want to live, there is no escaping the three survival requirements — shelter, food and water.  

Your shelter needs to protect you from the environment. According to media reports, the Vances were living in a single tent. It gets really cold during a Colorado winter, so they would have needed a way to dependably heat their tent throughout the cold season — assuming that was even realistic.

A lot of Maine homesteaders living off-grid opt for a wood-fired heating system in a solid building. Those can be very efficient at heating large or small spaces. But even the best wood stove is useless without the firewood to fuel it. It looks as if the Vances lacked even the most rudimentary heating source. At the end, again according to the New York Times, they resorted to burning dry sticks in their tent for warmth.

off-grid living tips

The Vances’ plan to grow and forage for their own food had a fatal flaw. They moved into the wild in the month of July — long after the time when you can start, much less grow — a garden of vegetables for harvest in Colorado’s short growing season. It also didn’t give them a lot of time to forage for naturally growing edible plants.

Even if they had made the move in time for spring planting, that can’t be done without basic supplies like seeds and gardening tools. If they wanted animal protein, they’d also need livestock, animal feed and shelter, firearms and a reliable clean water source. Plus a way to cook and preserve food is also essential.

The Vance trio apparently headed into the wilderness with a limited stash of canned food and ramen noodles.

Nothing was said about any water availability near the Vance campsite. If there was a lake, pond or stream nearby, the likelihood of it being pure enough to drink directly from the source is slim. Backcountry water is notorious for harboring dangerous parasites and algae that can make you sick. No matter how reliable the water supply is, it’s useless if you have no way to purify it by boiling it or running it through filters.

Then there’s the matter of land. To live off the grid, you need your own land — or at least rented land. For their part, they declined land offered by family members. Instead, the Vance family parked their car at a trail head, and started walking until they found a spot they liked and plunked themselves down with whatever they were able to carry in.

That’s called squatting, not living off-grid.

There is nothing wrong or irresponsible about deciding to move to a remote area and disconnect from the grid. There is also no reason it can’t be done successfully — as long as care is taken to do it responsibly.

The Vances should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking it’s a good idea to take to the woods and live off the land with limited skills and gear.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.