Without water, life is impossible. Always buy land with a water source, if you can afford it. If not, make sure you catch the rainwater.
There’s a reason you can buy land in the west Texas desert for next to nothing. The reason is that it doesn’t have a water source. A water source doesn’t have to be a river or stream. It doesn’t even have to be groundwater. It can be rainwater, provided that the rainwater source is steady and reliable.
From the 95th parallel east, most of America gets the type of steady, reliable rain that makes rainwater a viable water source. With the exception of Washington and Oregon west of the Cascades, the rest of the west is a gamble. Don’t be fooled if the area looks green. Some areas get rain in bunches and then go months with none. This may allow you to survive if you have built enough storage, but it makes it very difficult to grow food.
Other areas are green because of irrigation, which may not be an option in the near future. Much of the high plains region is irrigated by the Ogallala aquifer, but the Ogallala is already stressed to the point where farmers are planning for a life without it. The Great Plains west of 100º may eventually go back to tallgrass prairie. Even streams and lakes on the high plains are now disappearing. Texas’ Lake Meredithis one example. Even if it survives, the amount of energy it takes to pump goes up, and since you’re going to be generating your own energy, this is a drain you don’t need.
Choose your location carefully.
2. Tillable Soil
Increasingly, the ability to grow your own veggies is a big part of the OTG vision. We’re not really off the grid if we have to rely on a system of planes, trains and automobiles to get our food.
Avoid a type of soil that Texans call “hardscrabble.” Nothing of any value grew in it. If you wanted a garden, you truck in soil. Then you irrigate it every day. If your idea of OTG is simply gas, electric and water, this might be fine. For the rest, tillable soil is a must.
3. Temperate Climate and Generating Capacity
If you’re going to generate your own energy, live in an area where you can keep yourself comfortable with the least energy. Do not believe you can simply tap the sun, wind and the earth for all our energy needs. Building and maintaining generating capacity is expensive, and if you have to heat 200 days a year in northern Montana or run the AC 200 days a year in south Texas or Florida, you’ve made the job harder than it needs to be.
That said, the area you choose should offer the ability to generate energy from wind, solar or geothermal sources. Many of the areas with reliable rainfall patterns are poor choices for solar, but they may offer good wind and geothermal resources. Advancing technologies also make it possible to efficiently capture the wind and sun in places where it didn’t make sense just a few short years ago.
4. The Right Landscape for Your House, the Right House for Your Landscape
Don’t underestimate the importance of the lay of the land. If you’re anywhere north of the Deep South, a sloped parcel that opens gently to the south and has trees to the north of the building site is ideal. It allows you to use the sun to stay warm and provide light much of the year while sheltering you from the cold north winds. In the south, it’s all about staying cool, yet even here a southern slope may be desirable.
It’s just as important to build a house that utilizes whatever the land provides to assist in the creation of comfort without burning fossil fuels. Make it as big as you want, but no bigger than it has to be. If you can, build a smaller house and outbuildings for storage and other activities that don’t require heated or air conditioned space. Take a hint from the pioneers who built in a manner that allowed nature to keep them comfortable in a time long before electricity or natural gas.
5. Location, Location, Location
There seems to be a strong desire by many in the OTG movement to move to the middle of nowhere. In an era of $4 and above gas, you might want to reconsider. If things get bad enough in town, the hordes are going to find your little productive homestead regardless of where you put it. In the meantime, you get to pay $10-$20, depending on what you drive, for every trip to the grocery store, or school or work or church or the library.
For anyone who would insist on getting “all the way out there”, you an also consider making your own Bio-fuel. Believe it or not, it isn’t as difficult as many would make it seem and it will run anything from a lawn mower to an 18-wheeler. It also (so far as I know) is not illegal to make your own. You can buy ready made kits via http://www.homebiodieselkits.com but as stated above by Sylvia, yes money would be a factor to get a kit up and running. And the kits are even small enough to fit in a garage if you live in town also. But consider a 1 time cost of the kit, any leftover cooking oil or fats from last night’s dinner or crop form your garden (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc) to make about 160 gallons of fuel vs $4+ every time you go to the gas station, it makes that initial cost well worth it I think.
Charles, thanks for writing about this. A couple of things to consider are: Rainwater “harvesting” is illegal in some US states. See h2o.com for updates. Regarding soil that is lacking, I’ve never had hardscrabble, but still had to build the soil with manure, compost, peat moss, sand, etc. everywhere I’ve gardened. I think all neo- pioneers should plan to make soil building part of their activity. Lastly, the place everything leads to in the end is human excrement and aspiring off-gridders need to plan how they will handle their poop. When it comes to commercial composting toilets, many US jurisdictions require an approved gray water system in conjunction. That means money for permits and materials.
I think a source of income should also be high on the list. We’ve known folks who have jumped in thinking they’ll make their land somehow pay. That might happen eventually, but you’ve got to have some income coming in for obvious reasons.