Note: For fall break, the McKays are attempting their first familial backpacking trip. Kate and I have been before, but we’ve never brought the kids, so this will be fun. While we’re out of touch, please enjoy this rebroadcast with Gary Collins about going off the grid for a much longer period of time. Gary unfortunately passed away this fall, but he left a lot of great tips on simplifying your life in this episode.
Many dream of leaving the city and all its tethers and obligations and creating a simpler, more independent life farther from the mainstream population and entirely off the grid. But how do you go from that daydream to making such a move a reality?
My guest walks us through the process today. His name is Gary Collins, he made the leap himself and now lives off the grid in Northeast Washington, and he’s the author of several books on off-grid living as well as simplifying your life. We begin our conversation today with why Gary decided to leave his conventional, urban, 9-5 existence to find a freer lifestyle, and how he defines being off the grid. We then get into why Gary thinks you should make the move to living off the grid in a series of steps, the first of which is to simplify your existing life in three main ways. Gary then makes the case for why living in a RV should be the next step in your journey, before discussing the process of finding land for your off-grid home, and the factors to consider in picking a locale. From there we get into how those who live off the grid take care of water, sewage, power, and internet, how they construct the house itself, and what to know about the start-up costs involved. We end our conversation with a discussion of getting off the grid in a more metaphorical way by quitting social media, and why Gary thinks you should pull the plug on those platforms, even if you’re an entrepreneur.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Gary’s other appearance on the show: Episode #699 — The No-Nonsense Guide to Simplifying Every Aspect of Your Life
- AoM Article: How to Survive a Grid-Down Disaster
- AoM Article: How to Bug-In
- AoM Article: A Survival Expert’s Guide to Bugging-In
- AoM Article: 5 Books to Get the Personal Finance Education You Never Had
- AoM Article: A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place
- AoM Article: How to Get Started Composting
- AoM Article: 4 Lessons From a 4-Week Social Media Fast
- AoM Podcast #497: Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- AoM Podcast #276: Utopia is Creepy
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Many dream of leaving the city and all of its tethers and obligations and creating a simpler, more independent life farther from the mainstream population and entirely off the grid, but how do you go from that daydream to making such a move a reality? Well, my guest walks us through the process today. His name is Gary Collins, he’s made the leap himself and now lives off the grid in Northeast Washington. He’s also the author of several books on off the grid living, as well as simplifying your life. We’ll begin our conversation today with why Gary decided to leave his conventional urban 9:00 to 5:00 existence to find a freer lifestyle, and how he defines being off the grid.
We then get into why Gary thinks you should make the move to living off the grid in a series of steps, the first of which is to simplify your existing life in three main ways. Gary then makes the case for why living in an RV should be the next step in your journey before discussing the process of finding land for your off-grid home, and the factors to consider in picking a locale. From there, we get into how those who live off the grid take care of things like water, sewage, power, and internet, how they construct the house itself, and what to know about the start-up costs involved, and we end our conversation with a discussion of getting off the grid in a more metaphorical way by quitting social media, and why Gary thinks you should pull the plug on these platforms even if you’re an entrepreneur. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/offgrid. Gary joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Alright, Gary Collins, welcome to the show.
Gary Collins: Hey, thanks for having me on, Brett. Appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So you have written a series of books about going off the grid, and in addition, you’ve written a book just about simplifying your life, and you’re an expert in this stuff ’cause you actually moved off the grid. I mean, so tell us your story of why you decided to leave the city and how you started getting going to moving off the grid.
Gary Collins: Yeah, it’s an interesting one, ’cause I am unique. I didn’t realize it at the time, that I actually write about what I do. Instead of making it up as I go along and write you nice little books that you wanna hear, I write the books that you need, and some of it you may not want to hear, but you need to hear [chuckle], so that’s… And people write me and they tell me that. They go, “You know, yeah, you kind of hit me in the areas where I know I need to change.” So, with me, I grew up very remotely. I grew up poor in a trailer in the middle of nowhere, and my town was like 1800 people, but I lived 20, 25 miles outside of that town in a town of less than 100 people. So I grew up very remote in the sticks, and a lot of freedom, grew up in the ’70s as a kid, and anyone who grew up in the ’70s know it was free range. You didn’t have pagers, you didn’t have anything, cellphones. Computers weren’t even around yet. There was no internet. We had rotary phone. We had a party line is what we were on, and that’s not where I talked to hot chicks who talked dirty to me. It was Gertrude and everyone on our block was on the same phone line because there just was no infrastructure and we were all poor. So you’d pick up the phone, and if Gertrude was on talking, you couldn’t call anyone for like three hours [chuckle] That’s how it worked.
So, when you’re growing up, you think that life sucks, right? And you’re all, “God, my parents… This is brutal. I’m bored out of my mind,” and as you get older, you realize… And you move to the city, you go to college and all that good stuff, and yeah, I mean, I went to college, put myself through college, first kid to graduate from college in my family, and just realized that at a point, city life was just sucking the life out of me. Not that it was terrible, but after awhile, you’re like, “There’s gotta be something else,” and I worked in the government. I started in the military, ended up as a federal agent, so by the time I left, I’d had half my life in the federal government, and I just was unhappy, is the best way to put it. I’d done every one that they told me, am I right? The system told me this is what you do. You work hard, you go to college, you get a job, you get up, you’re up to your eyeballs in debt, maybe you get married, have kids, and grind for the rest of your life until you poop in a diaper and call it a day, and I was like, “This is BS. This is not working at all. I’m more miserable than I’ve ever been. I’ve done everything, I’ve been successful,” and I just one day just said that’s it. A bunch of circumstances happened, and I’m glad they did.
At the time, they were pretty brutal, I don’t really talk about them, but I left the government on my own free will and just left and started over. Sold my house, and the off-grid project, it was in the background, but it wasn’t quite off-grid yet. I liked the idea, but it was more about just going back to remote living. Growing up, we pretty much lived very close to living off the grid, we just had power. That’s it, we had power and this party line. That was the only thing tying us to the grid. We had our own well, we had our own septic. There was no cable TV, really, back then. It came in the ’80s, I believe. My friends had it, in town. So it was kind of getting back to that lifestyle, and as I left and started researching and looking at raw land, the whole off-the-grid concept started, and not only that, but I was in San Diego, and during the drought, and the brown outs and all that, I kind of realized that the system was using us, because during the drought, they told us we mandatory had to drop our water consumption, I wanna say by 25-30%, or face massive hiked bills and fines. And I went, “Okay,” so we all cut our bills, but we did too good of a job. Everyone conserved too much water, so they raised our bill. [chuckle] I went, “Oh, that’s how this works. So we do what you tell us to do, but now you’re losing revenue, so now you raise our water bill? Okay, that makes sense.”
You know what I mean? I’d just gotten really burned out on the system and being manipulated and having my pocket picked every time I turned around, so that’s where the off-grid concept came from, and that’s kind of how it all began. I mean, I searched for quite a few years. It took me years to kind of figure out land and where I wanted to live in the country, and what type of topography and what I was looking for. That’s the down-and-dirty. There was a lot more in there, but basically how it happened.
Brett McKay: Sure. So it sounds like your driving impetus was you just wanted… The city life was just grinding you down. You didn’t… You felt you didn’t feel free, and you just wanted to get away from the rat race.
Gary Collins: Pretty much, and not only that, but it’s hard to explain for people who have never grown up rurally, and in small communities. It’s just a… It’s not that it’s nirvana, every place has its problems but the freedom you had. You start to remember all the freedom you had and you look people in the face. You go to your local stores and you buy things from people you know. If anyone’s gonna get one over on you and try and screw you, well they just won’t be in business very long. You know what I mean? It’s a different type of living, and people really are focused on living. They’re not focused on the minutia and all the noise and BS and drama, and if they are, you just don’t talk to them. I mean that’s it. In the city it just seemed like that was really hard to avoid. And not only that, but growing up that way, I still have all my friends that I grew up with. All my good close friends, we’re great friends to this day, we talk all the time, and that’s the difference too. Instead of these fleeting relationships that I found in the city, you realize that your life-long relationships are… And they are, they’re what keep me grounded.
Those relationships I know that my friends I grew up with, I can call ’em at any point in my life if things are going wrong and they’re there. No questions asked. They’ll help me, I help them. We just got each other’s back. It’s a different deal, I guess, is the best way to put it.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about going off-grid and what’s involved in that, but before that, how do you define off-grid? Are there varying degrees of off-gridness that you could achieve?
Gary Collins: Yeah, absolutely, and off-grid, the way I define it is very basic, it’s just not being tied to any public utilities. But there’s different variations of it, ’cause people often confuse off-grid with homesteading. Homesteading and off-grid are different. Homesteading is where you have a piece of land and you’re self-sustaining, and so you have animals, you may… Small farming operation. It’s more… That’s a different… You can homestead without being off-grid, or you can homestead and be off-grid, or you can be off-grid and not homestead. So they’re different in the variations of off-grid… There’s people that consider off-grid… I’ve gotten some goofy emails over the years, and a guy said, “You don’t live off-grid ’cause you have running water.” I went, “Hmm, okay. It’s an interesting one.” And some people consider you not off-grid if you have working plumbing and you’re not pooping in a bucket or in an outhouse.
It just depends. That’s a great part about living off-grid though, is everyone does it differently. If you go to 100 people living off-grid, no two will be doing it the same. It’s your adventure and you pick your adventure. You do it as much as you want or as little as you want, and also to resources. This lifestyle’s not cheap. People think they watch those cute little TV shows and think you can just throw together 500 bucks and throw up a yurt and all’s good. It really doesn’t work that way. TV makes it look a little more sexy than it is. It’s hard work and it does take money.
Brett McKay: Alright, so basic definition is, if you’re not tied to public utilities, that’s off-grid.
Gary Collins: Yeah. That’s the easiest definition. Yeah.
Brett McKay: Okay. Okay. So let’s talk about going… Someone who wants to go off-grid. That’s a big decision, takes a lot of planning, takes a lot of money, we’ll talk about that here in a bit. And for a lot of people, it’s not something that they’re gonna do overnight. This is probably gonna be something you wanna build up into, and one thing you do in your books and your writing is that, for those who are thinking about going off-grid, one of the first steps you do or recommend is you encourage people to just to begin by simplifying their current life. Now what does that look like for you?
Gary Collins: Yeah, ’cause I always say you don’t wanna be one of those people who go from the city with a whole line of moving trucks to the country and basically take all your crap with you. That’s not the lifestyle. The lifestyle’s about simplification, and that’s where this whole thing came from, this came from organically. At a point where I realized I’m not teaching living off-the-grid, and I was a health guy. I was an ancestral health, primal health guy, that’s the business I had when I left the government, and it just evolved, that going off-the-grid. But I never intended to write that, that came off an interview, and people sent me a bazillion emails asking me what the heck I was doing. I hadn’t even talked about it. But yeah, I always tell people, you have to simplify your life first. If you take all your junk and all your garbage and all your drama out to the sticks, nothing changes. You’re going to be miserable. All you’re going to be is miserable in the middle of nowhere, that’s it.
So it’s about really… Yeah, simplifying, de-cluttering, I talk about getting rid of unnecessary items and paring it down, debt-free. And I have the three-legged stool in the simple life that I teach, optimal health, you need to be the healthiest you can possibly be, your health is your responsibility, being financially free by being debt-free and also finding your life purpose. And it sounds incredibly simple, but I always say too, simple is not easy. Living simply is a lot of work, especially in the beginning, because you have to turn everything upside down. You have to refocus on the things that are important.
And that’s the problem today, we focus on a lot of things that are not important. They’re just noise, and it gets us off course of living the life we wanna live, and I… With that three-legged stool, I always talk about, it’s about returning freedom to you as an individual. By allowing agencies and big corporations and the government to take over those three things, you have willingly given away your freedom. And it’s about taking that freedom back, that’s about the simplification process. So yeah, the first step is basically de-cluttering, getting rid of the things you don’t need, getting down, paring down your debt, working on to be eventually debt-free and do it step-by-step. So when you’d make the decision, if you’re going to live off-grid that it’s all there. You know what I mean? If you go live off-grid, and you’re eyeballs up in debt, your health is horrible, and you’re floundering with your life, it’s not going to fix those problems automatically.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it might make it worse, actually. Although…
Gary Collins: It very well could make it worse. Well, and I’ve seen it, I’ve seen marriages go completely south, because they thought they would fix everything and it’d be great, and now you’re stuck in the same house and same property with each other 24/7. It just enhances those issues that you had before.
Brett McKay: Alright, so simplifying your life, getting… ‘Cause that’s part of when you go off-grid, you’re gonna have to get used to dealing with less or being able to manage with less, so might as well sort of do training wheels before that while you’re still connected to the grid. But another thing you recommend for folks to kinda get a taste of what it’s like to go off-grid is to try the RV lifestyle. Is that something you did before you decided to go off-grid?
Gary Collins: I did. I still live in my RV to this day. I spend the good, nice months up in my off-grid house, I don’t like cold weather. I’ve had many surgeries and getting old, and I just don’t like it, I don’t like cold weather. So when it gets cold… And plus it’s dangerous. My property is, I’d have to snowmobile in and out during the winter, and it just wouldn’t be fun. And I knew that. I knew that coming in that I had planned this was going to be more of a summer… I spend about seven months up here. I still spend a big part of the time, but yeah, I live the other part of the year in my RV, to this day. I started eight years ago, living in my RV, and it’s great ’cause what you have to do… What it does is it forces you to minimize. It forces you to de-clutter. You cannot store very much stuff in an RV. I don’t care how big the RV is, if you go get a 300 and $500,000 massive RV, you’re still gonna be limited on space. So that’s what it teaches you too, and also you can dry camp, which means you’re not tied to any utilities, your using your holding tanks, your holding water, you’re probably charging your batteries off a trickle cell solar panel that’s on the roof. You don’t have access to TV or anything, so I always say, “Go out and dry camp. Try it out. Try an RV out and see what you think of it.” And it’s kind of a way to do a test run before you take a big step, and it’s a lot cheaper. I mean, RV living is cheap. I mean, really cheap. If you do it right.
Brett McKay: So what kind of RVs do you recommend for… How do you figure out which RV’s best for you? ‘Cause there’s a whole bunch of different… You can get the big cruiser things that Taylor Swift rides in, or you can do other stuff.
Gary Collins: It just depends. And that’s why I always say it’s pick your journey, and that’s why you should research it, and I always recommend renting RVs in the beginning and try ’em out. Go on a vacation in an area that you’re interested in living and rent an RV, and live in it and get your feet wet. Start out… I’m a big guy of… I have a way I do everything in life, plan, organization, execution. If you follow that pattern through life, your success rate will be much, much higher. You come up with your plan, you organize your plan, then you execute your plan, step-by-step. You know what I mean? That’s how I run my business. It’s how I run everything in my life. I always try and organize and have a plan. And so do that, and don’t go too far ahead of yourself, ’cause the off-grid world is littered with failure. Most people who jump right into it fail. So take the steps, make sure it’s for you, it may not be for you, you may be a high bridge, you may want… A lot of people just like the RV living. Heck, I like it. And so it depends if you have a family, how much space do you need? The easiest thing for me, especially in the beginning, well, it depends, but travel trailers.
They’re easy ’cause if you tow ’em around, the RV is not your vehicle. So you have your vehicle still, but you need a bigger vehicle, you need a truck, and I’d recommend a half ton or above. I have a one-ton diesel, and you tow it around and you can play with them. They’re cheaper than the other options of fifth wheel. Fifth wheel’s the bigger kind of… You call… A fifth wheel goes in the bed of your truck, so that’s how it mounts, that’s where the hitch is. A travel trailer, we call it a tow behind, because it goes to the hitch on your bumper, to the rear of your vehicle. Very similar in design, they tow completely differently. And then your RVs are more expensive as far as your Class A, B and C, but all of it’s dependent upon size and budget and what you’re looking for. It totally depends. And that’s what I mean, with this adventure, I always tell people, I can’t hold your hand, I can give you the basic information, but it’s your life. You have to choose what works for you, and that’s what I mean on the RV side though, the easiest simplest way is a travel trailer, if you’re going to buy right away. Or rent, and rent one of the smaller, like a Class B or something, and test it out. That’s how I would recommend doing it.
Brett McKay: Right. So yeah, it sounds like testing out the off-grid lifestyle with an RV, you get to see what it’s like to live with reduced amenities, what it’s like to deal with having to think about your electricity, having to think about your waste, how to think about your water. ‘Cause if you’re in your house, you never think about that stuff, you just take it for granted. RV makes you think about those things, and also it’s a good test run. You might find out, like you said, maybe RV living’s just for you. Maybe you get an RV and you decide, well, in the summer, we’re gone and we just do that and in the winter we come back to our house or whatever or vice versa. It could be the other way.
Gary Collins: Yeah. And I have a lot of people who follow me who do a multitude of this. It’s crazy, I get the emails, and I have people from straight RV living all year, people who live off-grid all year, homesteaders. Yeah, it’s a wide variety, and that’s the beautiful part about this lifestyle. You get to pick it. You get to choose it. It’s your adventure.
Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s say you test out with the RV lifestyle and you decide, “Okay, I’m gonna go further with this. I actually wanna buy a place, buy a property and go off-grid.” But again, you’re still not making the jump right away, you actually recommend folks… Okay, there’s a transition period. If you own a house, you recommend folks selling your home and then renting an apartment or a house, why is that?
Gary Collins: Again, well, it depends, but for most people in the city, that’s kind of the natural progression. Or rent your house out, if you can make money on your house and turn it into an investment, that’s a real good option too. That’s what I’ve done for 20 years. That was my side business is real estate. So it’s an easy transition too, because instead of going from 0 to 60, selling your house and going straight off grid, not really having a place to live, and job too, you have to figure out how are you going to support yourself. That’s getting easier today with all the chaos going on, ’cause now we’re going hyper-speed into remote working. But for some people, they may still have to go to the office and plan things out, so you can transition into an apartment or rent a house, and then take the next step. And that’s what I mean, if you take it slow, everyone wants everything right now. This lifestyle doesn’t work that way. Even when you get here, it’s not right now. Everything takes time. Everything you do is a slower process. Living is a slower process if it’s great.
So just take that transition, and that way, you’re not leaping into anything and not buying something. That’s the biggest thing is it gives you time to kind of solidify your plan without making a major financial commitment that you may regret. That’s the biggest point. So if you can sell your house, rent, downsize too, also downsize. Don’t rent something the same size or bigger. You need to rent something significantly smaller, so you can take that transition for the next leap, and that’s what I did. I went from a 1,700 square foot house to a basically 475 square foot studio. And that’s what I did. And then I moved into my RV. So there was these phases I went through where I downsized, downsized, simplified, simplified, and built the business I have and then got everything going. And then it was a lot less stressful that way. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that it was easy, but it took a lot of the stress out of it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve been talking about sort of the stuff leading up to going out, and we’re still not even there yet, like the next step, so you say you’ve done all this stuff, you’ve practiced with RV living, you’ve sold your home, you’re sort of downsizing. The first step of going off-grid, like really going off-grid is finding land where you’re gonna live off-grid. And that could be hard. And then I think a lot of people, they just wanna, like you said, a lot of people just wanna buy something right away. You advocate just take a slow. So when someone’s looking at property, what sort of factors should people look into when they’re deciding on property to build their off-grid home?
Gary Collins: Well, and the biggest thing is what most people don’t know in the beginning is what they’re looking for. This is all new. So I always recommend take your vacations or travel to areas that you’re interested in. If you’re interested in living in the Midwest somewhere off-grid, well, go to the Midwest. Check out the towns, drive around, that’s what I did. I was lucky, in the government I traveled all over all the time. So I kind of already knew the area where I was looking at already, but get about five places, and the easiest way is to research it on Zillow, and just research land. You just check the box that says land. And what it will do is it’ll give you an idea of what’s available and how much it costs, ’cause you may want to live in a certain area, but you may not be able to afford that area. So that will change your plan.
And wants are great, it’s not about wants. It’s what you can afford and what works. So I recommend that and just take your time, go to the areas, and not only that, the biggest part that I think a lot of people miss too is you’re moving into a community. Cities are different. Cities, it’s a melting pot of a lot of things. Well, when you go remote, you’re in a small community and that already kind of has a personality, and they’re not gonna change their personality to fit you. You need to blend in to it, and that’s one of the biggest problems I see people doing moving from the city to out, especially out here where I’m at, there’s a couple of towns that are just blowing up with people from California and other places. Thank God I don’t live there. But what they do is they bring in all their drama and BS into these small towns and try and change everything to what they were leaving. Trust me, you will make enemies and put yourself in a bad light right away.
And not only that, but there’s towns that, it’s just human nature, there’s places that you go to and you just don’t fit in. That’s just part of life. So make sure that you fit in and that you get along with the people, you believe in the lifestyle, you like the downtown and all that, and if you need a medical facility, if it’s there around. Those are the things you have to look at. And so that’s what I mean, you have to spend some time in it, in the town or area you’re in to make sure it’s a good fit. That’s probably one of the most important points that I try to tell people is make sure it’s a good fit, ’cause if you get there and it’s not, and I know I’ve seen this happen too, it’s not a pleasant experience. And you’re remote, so it’s harder for you to get out. If you buy a property, in most places, it’s not easy just to turn around and sell it right away.
Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, take your time with this, don’t rush into making a purchase. What do you think about Lands of America? Is that a good place to check too?
Gary Collins: Yeah. Gosh, did I use them back in the day? I can’t remember. It’s tricky, and that’s what I mean, I used a couple of services to look. They’ve gotten better, because it’s becoming more popular. Back when I was doing it, it wasn’t as popular and there weren’t a whole lot of land agencies, but that’s one of the bigger ones to get a good idea and look. And that’s what they kind of… That’s what they specialize in. So they’re a good one, but the way I tell people it’s good feet on the ground. It’s you gotta go up there and do it yourself, ’cause there’s a lot of properties too that are for sale by owner, or maybe through the local real estate office that just aren’t listed or that people know about. Mine was on Realtor.com and everything, but it was pretty hard to find, and who brought my attention to it was a local realtor. I didn’t see it in my research, but he knew about it, and it’d been listed for over a… What, two years? Year and a half?
Brett McKay: Wow.
Gary Collins: That’s what I mean. So the best deals, and some of the land that you won’t find are the good ones. Not to say you won’t find it online, ’cause that’s changed too. I bought another property that I’m gonna build a house in another part of the country, I found it through a realtor online. I mean, I found it. Or no, wait, no, she found it. So, I knew the area, and then she fine-tuned our search ’cause she was local in this area, and I knew the area, but not real well, and so she was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, no problem,” and it took her… She listed about 30 properties, I went through all of them, and I found… I’d been doing this a long time. I found it the next day, I found my property the next day, and had it closed in like a week, or got it all set up, but don’t expect that. Like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time and real estate is still a side business that I do.
Brett McKay: So yeah, it sounds like the big takeaway there, instead of just… Use online, but if you really wanna find good land, you have to usually go to the place where you’re thinking about living and…
Gary Collins: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Just check things out, start talking to people, and that’s typically where you find the really good stuff.
Gary Collins: Yeah, and never buy land sight unseen. Never, ever do that.
Brett McKay: I’m sure there’s people who do that, and they regret it.
Gary Collins: Actually, it happens a lot in off-grid and remote living. A lot of people buy land sight unseen. Don’t do it. Huge mistake.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s say you found your property. You gotta think about, whenever you read like survival books when you’re not connected to the grid, one of the first things they say is you gotta look for water.
Gary Collins: Yep.
Brett McKay: So how do you take care of water when you’re not connected to the municipal water?
Gary Collins: And that’s when, going to the property and seeing for yourself, is that’s where you’re going to understand, and water’s the key. I always say if you don’t have access to water, you just bought a high-cost camping site is what you just did, or you’re gonna have to haul water, and people, in the beginning, and I’ve seen this too, “Oh, I’ll just haul water,” and they’ve never hauled water before, and I go, “Do you know how hard that is? How are you gonna haul it in the winter? You do realize it’s gonna freeze?” And they’re like, “I never thought of that.” [chuckle] Hauling water is a pain. I know people who do it. It is a major, major inconvenience. It wasn’t worth it to me. I mean, I grew up in places where people hauled water, and it wasn’t for me, but it’s a well. You have to have access, you drill a well. It’s becoming a little trickier today, the price has gone up, and some places are not allowing people to drill wells, like there’s a limit. So it’s getting a little more difficult, but yeah, you’re just gonna drill a well, and the easiest formulation for cost is it’s roughly 50 to 60 dollars a linear foot per final, so that’s pump, casing, everything. My well was $25,000. It was one of my most expensive things. It’s the first thing I did, though, was drill for water.
The easiest way, if you’re in an area, remote, almost everyone around you has wells, so what they do is the well company will do a survey. So they just pull it up, they have a database that they all have. They pull it up and they’ll see where the wells are and what the depths, and that way you kind of have an idea. I knew where I’m at. I mean, I’m above a lake, I’m surrounded by lakes, and everyone around me has wells. We know they’re there. I mean, even though they’re far away. We knew there was water here. That wasn’t the issue. It’s how deep is the water? How deep are we going to have to drill to get it? I’m at the top of a mountain.
So if I was down below, my well would have probably cost me $7,000. So that’s what you have to look at too. By me wanting to be on the top of a mountain and have these great, fantastic views I have, that means my well costs more ’cause I have to drill further down, but yeah, you’re just going to use a well, but you can also buy properties with water, with a creek, and that’s a great way to go, too, but creeks can dry up. That’s the down… But wells can, too. But creeks, and you can use hydropower on creeks as well. If you wanna be on a lake as well. I lived on a lake as I was building my house several years ago, and we got our water from the lake through a pump and a filter system, so you just have to make sure you have access to water.
Brett McKay: All right, so we talked about water, so another thing when you’re off the grid, you’re not connected to sewers. So what do you with human waste? You gotta manage that, so what do you do with it?
Gary Collins: You just dig a hole. No. You can. In some areas, you can still have an outhouse, like Alaska. You know, Alaska, you can still have outhouses. In certain parts of the country, in a lot of parts, outhouses are for seasonal cabins, and that’s what I mean by code, and I preach that to you, you need to build everything to code. Do it, it’s a pain, I know, you get involved with bureaucracy and government, but if you don’t do it that way, you basically are selling land when you go to sell your property ’cause your house is unapproved, it’s not up to code, more unlikely, and I get into that in the book. But yeah, again, I grew up with gravity-fed septic. Been around forever. It hasn’t changed much, so that’s the most common, and what that is is that’s a septic tank with a leach field. So your solids go into the tank and then all your liquids go out into a leach field that basically spreads it out, it’s all underground, and it dissipates and spreads out and then soaks into the earth. Real basic, and gravity-fed means you have an angle of your sewage pipe in your house and outside to the tank, and it all feeds off gravity. That’s how it works, know that.
But if you don’t have the ability to have gravity-fed, you need a pump system, which means you have to pump that sewage from the house, depending where the line is. And that gets more complicated and that’s expensive, that’s a lot more expensive, but most people have gravity-fed. It’s like I said, it’s what we used growing up, it’s what you do when you live in the sticks. And yeah, it’s not that difficult. Can you put them in yourself? Sure, sure. Yeah, you can put them in yourself. You need a bulldozer or a excavator though, ’cause you gotta dig a pretty big hole, but it’s just a tank and pipe and goes out into a leach field. It’s pretty basic.
Brett McKay: Well, so we’ve taken care of water, taking care of sewage. Power, that’s a big thing. So what do you do about power when you’re not using the grid for your power source?
Gary Collins: Yeah, and you have three ways you can get… Well, four, technically. You can use obviously, the most common and most popular is solar. You can use wind and you can use hydro. Hydro is if you have a running stream, you can use hydropower. Real easy setup. And then the fourth, which is not as common is geothermal. Geothermal, you can do DIY it yourself, there’s ways to do it, but for most people, it’s probably a pretty advanced step, if you’ve never done it before and it has to… You have to have proper land conditions and all that, but there are professional systems, geothermal, highly efficient, highly efficient. Problem is really expensive. And it depends where your land is. Like I couldn’t do geothermal up here. I live in slabs of decomposing granite, and I’m on granite right now, so it wouldn’t work, but most people use solar or a combination. I’m getting ready to put my wind turbine finally. I’ve been meaning to put it in for three years now. Timing. But I’m putting that in next month, I just ordered it. But I use solar. I have now, I started with six panels. I now have 12 panels. Multiple, I’ve built the stanchions and stuff, but it runs my whole house, no problem, and batteries, you need backup battery where you store that energy ’cause at night you don’t have sunlight. So no sunlight, no power. So you have to store that in a battery bank, and the battery technology has come a long way, a really long way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, Elon Musk is helping out with that.
Gary Collins: Yeah, and the concept of solar… All the technology’s here, and that’s the part that I think people… They think it’s a little more complicated than it is, but it’s not. I live in a normal house, I have a washer, dryer, fridge, I live… I have the same stove in this house that I had in my house in San Diego. It’s the exact same stove. I live pretty close, I have hot water, I have running water. I have two full bathrooms. If you walk in my house, you would not know it’s off-grid. It runs exactly like a normal house, but the solar, that’s the most common. And the panels are really cheap now. The price on panels have come down a lot, so… Yeah, it’s whatever you want. Whatever your desires are, there’s a system. If you want to have a jacuzzi and a pool and 4,000 square foot house with central heating and cooling, you can do it off-grid, it’s gonna cost you a lot, but you can do it. The systems are all there, all the technology’s there.
Brett McKay: Alright, so we’ve taken care of power. So what about the house itself? ‘Cause I think most people think, if they’re gonna move off grid, like you said, they move into a yurt or they move into a cabin. Or a tiny house. It doesn’t have to be like that, right?
Gary Collins: No, you can do whatever you want. That’s the great part about it too. The one thing you’re probably not going to do, unless you live in a very neutral temperature zone where it’s really nice, is build 2 x 4 stick frame, you’re probably not going to do that, but my house is made out of a product called Faswall, which is a insulated concrete form, and my walls are about 14 inches thick. So that’s a green material that I use because I’m at the top of a mountain. The winters are really cold. So I needed more insulation, but you don’t have to do that. You can… Usually 2 x 6 framing is what most people use. Most people do not use central heating and cooling, ’cause it’s a big tax on your alternative energy system. But people do. I have an air conditioner. It’s just a portable air conditioner ’cause I only need it a little part of the year because of where I live, but yeah, you can go from that to… You can…
And teeny home’s a little confusing as well. There’s two different types of teeny homes. The teeny home that we’re versed with is the one on a rolling chassis, right? It looks like a trailer. You pull it behind your car, that’s the one people are most familiar with, but the other definition of teeny home in off-grid living or remote living is a house that’s 500 square feet or smaller. It’s a normal house. It’s just small. That’s it. It’s built the same way, same materials for the most part, but it’s 500 square feet or smaller, but materials-wise, I would say the… People convert pole barns, people… I have a friend who was living in a shed until he got married, he built the shed, insulated it, put running water in it, there’s…
Again, everyone does it differently, but it’s gonna depend where you live. If you live in an area that is extremely cold, well, you’re gonna have to have far better insulation value. So you’re probably going to have a much thicker walls, hay bale construction. There’s still adobe houses, sand bags. You name it. You can do it. I’m gonna say those are not easy, the ones I just talked about are very difficult to build. People think they’re easy again, ’cause they watch TV shows. I know many people who have built those houses. They’re hard to build. The easiest today is still stick frame, your typical standard construction. And which you can do. You can totally do. It’s not a big deal. It’s just your walls are thicker. That’s it.
Brett McKay: Right. So another thing is, you’re living remotely, you’re off the grid, but you have an online business and you’re talking to me via the Internet, so how is that happening?
Gary Collins: Yeah, yeah, I get accused, too, of not living off grid ’cause I have Internet. Well, there’s a couple of different ways of internet now. And it’s come a long way, even though I thought it would be better still, but a lot of people remote use satellite Internet. Satellite is not a good way to run a business, but it’s a good way to have Internet access for email and all that, ’cause it still has data limits. I don’t know of any that’s unlimited yet. I got lucky, I got grandfathered into an unlimited plan a couple years ago, but I use WiFi, a hot spot. I use a hot spot, so it’s through a company, cellular company. I don’t wanna mention it ’cause if people are listening in my area, they could screw up my Internet bandwidth [chuckle] if they all buy it. I hate to be that way, but it’s already happening. With people working at home, it’s kinda crunching my bandwidth a little bit.
But yeah, there’s that technology, and then there’s cellular or radio technology, kinda a weird way to call it, but there’s little satellite dishes, which I’ll be using in my other property, and it points at a cell tower, and it’s its own kind of Internet access. So there’s numerous ways, and I tell people that, too. The reason I picked this property, as well, is I had my cellphone with me, and the first thing I did once we got here is I pulled my cellphone out to see if I had reception. I’m lucky. The cell tower is a long way away from me, but it’s on another mountain line of site, so I can get my binoculars and I can see my cell tower. It’s on another mountain, but it’s out there, so this worked. If I was down below in the valley, there’s places where it’s completely dead, there’s no cellphone reception at all. So you have to look at that, too, if you’re going to run a business online, you have to have access.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’ve talked about some of the big things. Again, for every person, it’s gonna be different, so you give sort of big picture advice, and you go into details on some things, but for most of the stuff, you’re gonna have to figure this out on your own. But let’s talk about money, ’cause a lot of people think, “Oh, off-grid, it’s gonna be cheaper.” You just talked about your well cost you 25 grand. Like, what are we talking about with start-up costs for going off-grid?
Gary Collins: Oh, gosh, I hate doing this. It depends.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Gary Collins: You can take it any direction. I know people who’ve bought land, financed it through a sell-by-owner, and then they financed it, it’s a couple hundred bucks a month. They drag a beat up, their old trailer, or they live in their van, from I’ve seen people build 4,000 square-foot cabins. It just depends, again, what your budget is, but I always say this lifestyle costs money, especially in the beginning. If you don’t have your finances in order, this is not going to work. ‘Cause people think automatically that off-grid does, it means cheap living. Well, yeah, if you’re debt-free. If you’re not debt-free and you have a bunch of bills, those bills are not going away. Yeah, you’ll get rid of your monthly Internet, it won’t be as high, cable, maybe, all of that good stuff, but you’re still gonna have bills. If you’re going to use Internet, you still have to have a cellphone if you’re going to want to have a cellphone. So I always recommend have a good savings coming into this, and that’s what I did. I spent five years, basically, worked my butt off for six, seven months, build for five, six months, run out of money, repeat. I did that for five years, because there is, at this time, there is no financing for off-grid houses, and what do I mean by that?
You cannot go out and go to a bank and get a standard construction or home loan for off-grid building. I know a couple people who have done it, but they own ranches. They have a viable, fairly good size ranching business already established on the property and the bank loaned them the money for their house, which was going to be off-grid. I only know of two instances of that in the country. So, cash. Cash is king. You’re going to have to bring money to this adventure, and I always recommend you buy your land cash. Don’t finance your land. Don’t have that debt just in case something goes wrong and you decide not to do it. You don’t have another payment thrown on top of it, you know what I mean? And that sounds a little difficult, and I’ve got some pushback on that, but most of the people I know, we’ve all bought our land cash in the beginning, and then you just… You do it step by step.
You can live in your RV. That’s what I did, I lived in my RV, and I just built my house as I went. I could not get my RV up here. I thought I could, I made a tactical error. My roads are really brutal, both sides of my property, so I could not get an RV up here. If I could, I was gonna tear it up and I wouldn’t be able to get it back out, so I lived in a park for like $300 a month. That was it. And that’s what a lot of people do, though, they’ll just buy an RV and they’ll bring it on their property, and they’ll live in their RV as they build their house. Or a yurt, I know people who do yurts, too.
Brett McKay: All right, so yeah, it is a process. It’s not something you can just do, it’s one and done. Okay, besides talking about off-grid living, you also, part of your business, part of what you’re doing with your work is try to encourage, help people simplify their life, in general.
Gary Collins: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And one way that you’ve done that, or have helped people simplify their life, you urge people, or you recommend people get completely off social media. Why have you done that? What have you found the benefits of getting off social media?
Gary Collins: Oh, the social media can of worms, here we go. One of my favorite things to talk about. The easiest way, when I was in the government, social media was fairly new, and I told people the only time I used it was to find criminals or people I couldn’t find to interview [chuckle] That was the only, ’cause every moron was on social media, even back then. I couldn’t find a guy, I would just go look on social media. Guy had hidden himself, made sure he wasn’t getting mail to any address. Jump on social media, and I could find the fool. It’s just stupidity, especially for criminals. Just dumb. I always said we only caught the stupid ones.
But social media, to me, is highly toxic, and it’s something that I tell people, I go, “What’s the benefit? How is it benefiting your life?” And every time, I get a blank stare back, and I go, “How much time do you spend a day on it?” Hours. Hours, and it’s wasting time, and when you waste time like that, you’re stealing from your own life, ’cause that’s time you cannot get back, and I look at that, and I did a podcast on wasting time and wasting other people’s time, and I call it a form of theft, because we only have so much time on this planet, so every time someone wastes your time, you waste their time, or you waste your own time, you’re basically stealing life, that’s what you’re doing.
And so for me, I just look at social media… And it’s built that way. And plus, I have a huge problem that people who follow me know with the creators of social media. They’re not very good people, and I’m being nice by saying that. They’re sociopaths. Their whole goal was never to create a platform for you to communicate and exercise your First Amendment rights. They built these platforms in order to data mine you. That’s what social media’s primary function is, data mining. The more data points they have on you, the more money they can make selling it. It works for their… Why would you create something completely for free, have people invest billions and billions of dollars in it to keep it free? That’s not a business model. These guys always knew, ’cause they all come from the tech world, it was about data. Data, that’s what these are for.
Once you kind of realize that you’re the product of social media, and see, I’m lucky. By not using it… I do use Twitter here and then I told you, a buddy sucked me back on to it. But we have a group. I spend very little time, maybe 15, 20 minutes a month, that it’s just one of those things where I don’t get advertising like other people do. I don’t get spammed like other people do and they go, “How do you do that?” I go, “I’m not on social media.” I go, “Where do you think that information is going? They’re selling it. You are literally giving away your most sensitive data and intimate details for free. And you’re making these idiots filthy, filthy rich.” That’s all social media is. Once you get to that point, it takes on a whole new meaning and I’ve actually gotten several, several, I’ve lost count of people off social media. And they come back and talk to me and they go, “Wow. My life, way better.” I go, “Exactly.”
And we also know the algorithms on social media are devised to cause drama. They’re meant to get people to battle each other, and there’s even bots and trolls and… I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty confident that all these social media companies have little mills overseas that literally go on and go and cause drama, getting people to react to things on purpose. I don’t know. Does that sound healthy to you, Brett? Does that sound like something you should invest your life in?
Brett McKay: No. I don’t… Sounds like a recipe for mental illness.
Gary Collins: It is. It’s already been proven.
Brett McKay: Right.
Gary Collins: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ve had people on the podcast before talking about the dangers of social media.
Gary Collins: Yeah, they have.
Brett McKay: Like Cal Newport, and he’s a big proponent of not being on social media and this idea of deep work. And whenever we have these podcasts, people always go, “Well, I got an online business, how am I supposed to promote my online business if I’m not on social media?” And it seems like you’re doing okay without being on social media.
Gary Collins: Well, I’m an overnight success that took a decade. People look at me and… That’s why I write The Simple Life books. I just put out 14 Habits and I’m going to be doing an entrepreneur book about… And I remember probably three, four years ago, I was talking to a marketing friend of mine and he was questioning me, and he is now getting off social media. I said, “You watch.” I go, “I’m going to prove that you can build a successful business without social media.” I go, “I’m gonna prove it.” Is it easy? Nope. Is it a lot harder? Yep. Is it the right way to do it? Yep. ‘Cause you own your customer, and I don’t mean own you. But you own their information. I tell people, I go, “If you come to me, in my website, in my business, in my following that I’ve built, well, I’m not mining your data. I’m not sending you ads.” You come to me, I’ve built this relationship, and it’s not built on a proxy through social media. I call it the place for lost souls, and I have many friends who literally built their entire business on social media who are getting their butt handed to them right now. Because you don’t own the information and a couple of them have gotten booted off for running ads, and if you don’t own it, you can’t control it.
And that’s why I got off YouTube even and people were like, “Your YouTube channel was doing pretty good.” I went, “You know what? A, I hated doing the videos, they’re a pain to do and I’m not comfortable with people being a voyeur into my life.” Yeah, it’s my choice whether I wanna do it or not, I’m choosing not to do it. So I built my company basically on doing interviews. So I’ve been doing interviews since I first started on podcast, radio and that’s what I’ve done. I built it purely old school and then I speak and I do live speaking events, and I built it the right way, the slow way, and I teach that as well and I know you talk about a real business doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time and you have to build it, and you don’t even know if it’s going to work for like five years. [chuckle] You have no idea.
Brett McKay: Right.
Gary Collins: It’s hard. But if you want the quick fix and you wanna run on social media, you’re gonna get a lot of really bad customers, is what you’re going to get, and you’re gonna get a lot of people who complain. That’s what I’ve noticed. They’re just searching around. I don’t want someone to come find The Simple Life or my Going Off the Grid books whose in between looking at cat pictures and videos and posting what they ate for breakfast. That’s not the person I want. I want the person who really wants to change, not just surfing and is bored and comes across what I’m doing. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Right. No, that idea that people, when they create a business, they’re entirely relying on social media. I know some people, their whole audience is on Instagram or it’s just Facebook or it’s just Twitter. You don’t own your business. Facebook owns your business. Like Nicholas Carr, he’s a technology critic who wrote several books, one is The Shallows. He calls this… People who have businesses on other platforms that they don’t own, he calls them digital sharecroppers.
Gary Collins: Yep.
Brett McKay: You think you own the thing, but you don’t. Like the guy in charge can then kick you off and they’re taking a big cut of the money you could be making, so try to avoid that. We’ve talked a lot about some of the big things you gotta look at when you’re going off grid, about simplifying your life. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
Gary Collins: Yeah, it’s my website, thesimplelifenow.com. Don’t go to The Simple Life. You’ll probably end up at Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton’s old website, forgot about that.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah.
Gary Collins: But my website, my podcast Your Better Life, and the best way to stay in touch is sign up for The Simple Life Insider’s Circle. That’s how everyone… I like everyone… We’re a group and I like it that way, small, intimate. But my website’s the easiest way. Everything is on there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Gary Collins, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Gary Collins: Thanks a lot, Brett. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Gary Collins. He’s the author of several books on Going Off the Grid. There’s Going Off the Grid, Living Off the Grid, all available on Amazon, on his website. He also has books on simple living. Also find out more information about his work at his website, thesimplelifenow.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/offgrid where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another addition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you not only to listen to AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.