If, in the past year and change, you’ve seriously considered finally turning off your TV once and for all and running off to live in the woods somewhere, you’re not alone. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that at the end of 2020, 48 percent of Americans said they would prefer to live in a town or rural area, if given the choice—a statistic up from 39 percent in 2018.
The appeal of living off the grid, somewhere out of reach of the roller-coaster ride of society, only grows when the world seems to spiral downward into chaos—a merry-go-round you wish you could disembark, if only for a little while.
Gary Collins, for one, did just that. A former federal agent, Collins’s background spans military intelligence as well as serving as special agent for the U.S. State Department Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
At some point, Collins decided he’d had enough of the stresses of conventional life, and designed and built a fully off-grid home in a remote area of northeast Washington, where he now resides (when he’s not exploring the country in his travel trailer with black lab, Barney, in tow).
While definitions of off-the-grid living can vary, to Collins, the basic definition of his lifestyle is “living a simple life on a more remote piece of land not connected to any public utilities.” While of course he still has water, plumbing, and electricity, he runs them on his own, using his own systems that aren’t connected to the grid.
Now, Collins is such an expert on off-the-grid living that he literally wrote the book on the subject. “Going Off the Grid: The How-To Book of Simple Living and Happiness” was published in 2017, to help others simplify their hectic lives and make the same transition that has brought him so much fulfillment. He also speaks regularly on life-simplification and off-the-grid living.
Disconnecting From the Grind
Collins had good reason for going off-grid. “After spending 20 years in military intelligence and federal law enforcement, I saw a trend I didn’t like: politicians making promises they couldn’t keep, and a lot of Americans waiting for them to follow through with these promises. It was a perfect storm of what we are seeing today,” he said.
“I knew by being more self-reliant and living a simpler life, I could manage my freedom more on my terms, and that was the direction I needed to go.”
His experience living the off-the-grid lifestyle has been mostly positive, he said.
“While there has been a lot of discontent and economic ruin for small businesses over the last year, I have been relatively insulated from this—also, having peace and quiet goes a long way these days.”
The freedom his lifestyle affords is a major draw. When asked what an average day looks like in his off-the-grid house and life, his response was: “Whatever the heck I want it to be.” Who doesn’t wish for that?
Collins explained, “I have the freedom to live the life I want, on my terms; I still run a business, but I love what I do, so an average day is doing some work and then spending the remainder outdoors on various projects, mountain biking, hunting, or walking my two dogs.” The claustrophobia and ennui that many have faced through country-wide quarantines and lockdowns over the past 12 months are foreign concepts in such a life.
Of course, as with anything in life, the off-grid lifestyle doesn’t come without its drawbacks. The downside?
“It’s a lot of work,” Collins admitted. “But I’m OK with that.”
He insists that off-the-grid living is the superior lifestyle (and he would know, since he’s lived in both worlds).
“Once you experience this lifestyle, you can never go back to ‘the grind’ again,” he said. “Compared to the average American’s lifestyle today, mine may have some unique challenges, but nothing that’s insurmountable—and it’s more rewarding, with far fewer hassles and stress.”
Transitioning to a fully off-the-grid lifestyle is a major life change, and a switch that can’t be taken lightly. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not a move you can make overnight. But, as Collins points out, whether you’re ready to fully commit to going off-grid or just want to “trim the fat” from your everyday, so to speak, anyone can simplify their lives—no matter where or how they choose to live for the long haul.
First, you must ensure three vital components, which Collins illustrates as a three-legged stool: optimal health, financial freedom (by being debt-free), and finding your life’s purpose—in other words, knowing what you want to do with your life and why, and then living in alignment with that. It’s not easy, he recognizes, and it takes discipline—but the key to embarking on a more fulfilling life starts with these basics.
Next, Collins shares some quick, “five-minute fixes” that anyone can enact today. Think of these steps as “trying on” how life-simplification efforts go for you, and see what your experience is like after incorporating these small shifts:
- Live a healthy lifestyle by incorporating healthy eating and exercise that you follow for life, not just to lose 10 pounds after the holidays.
- Limit your exposure to today’s news cycle.
- Delete most (if not all) of your social media accounts and focus on real human interactions with a small tight-knit group.
- Use technology as a tool, not as shiny objects to buy and waste time on.
- Get rid of clutter that has no meaning in your life, physical and emotional.
- Take a vacation to a small town for a couple weeks and try out a slower lifestyle with less drama.
Going Fully Off-the-Grid
These easy steps may be just the right amount of change for you, or you may find yourself wanting to whittle down life’s unnecessary complications even further. For those considering making the switch and going off-grid completely, there are adjustments you can begin making now to begin your transition, Collins said, starting with mindset shifts and laying plans.
“As I always advise in any program I lay out, you need two things before you start an off-the-grid existence: money and a plan,” he said. “This lifestyle doesn’t happen overnight.”
You might want to quit the world cold-turkey, but Collins says it takes most people 3 to 5 years to find their land, build their house, and settle in.
“Those who jump in cold-turkey usually fail in epic and fantastic ways,” he said. “Don’t be one of those people. This life is not like a TV reality show. It is real life, with real consequences, so take it slow in the beginning.”
Start now with ridding your everyday life of unnecessary stressors by eliminating debt and distraction. From there, you can decide whether you are ready to detach further from the frenetic pace of our modern, tech-addled world.
Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman