Try this at home: 5 inspiring books for getting started with off-grid and homestead living

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Heavy, real paper books are something I have to think twice about packing up and lugging along my transatlantic journey from the USA to Tanzania. This means that all the books that have made it over here with me are well-vetted, well-loved, and, in our off-grid life, indispensable because of their practical and non-battery-dependent content.

In this post I’d like to share the top books from a few different homemaking- and homesteading-type categories that have made the journey with me and which I refer to time and again.


1. Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World
by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutsen

I was gifted this book by friends in Pittsburgh, and it’s a great “gateway” guide for those interested in DIY all-natural and homemade solutions for everyday life. The book has great projects written up by a witty and ingenious couple devoted to finding ways to do things themselves (i.e. do things better). It features projects large and small, which are scaled so that wherever you are in the world or on the DIY spectrum, you’re guaranteed to be able to make some positive changes and / or try one of their many doable projects, like vermiculture or growing microgreens. Towards the larger and more-involved projects are chicken coop construction and what Coyne and Knutsen refer to as “backwards beekeeping”; both are sections that inspire the interested reader to do further research elsewhere.

encyclopedia of country living

2. The Encyclopedia of Country Living: The Original Manual for Living off the Land & Doing It Yourself
by Carla Emery

Originally titled “Old Fashioned Recipe Book,” this book has inspired hundreds of thousands of people since the early 1970s. I found a copy for myself at a used book sale a few years ago, which I bought mostly for sentimental reasons at the time (my mom has her own beat-up copy). Little did I know how much helpful information I would find inside. Reading the introduction and all of Emery’s personal experiences intermixed with her practical and down-to-earth guidance is truly eye-opening and sometimes jaw-dropping.

the new laurel's kitchen

2. The New Laurel’s Kitchen
by Laurel Robertson, Carol L. Flinders, & Brian Ruppenthal

Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, this updated version of “Laurel’s Kitchen” is an essential cookbook because of its can-do tone and its devotion and faith in proper nutrition and its place in family life. It has the perfect mix of warm and friendly guidance through its descriptions of cooking and baking techniques, recipes, and nutritional advice. For data-oriented people like me, it’s also appealing for its nutritional tables of all of the foodstuffs used in its recipes. This book saves you the hassle and time drain of endlessly googling whole-food recipes and nutrition facts for semi-obscure ingredients, (I speak from experience on this). Put your smartphone aside and let Laurel guide you – you’ll be glad you did!

how to grow more vegetables

4. How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine
by John Jeavons

Jeavons’ gardening methods are taught to and promoted by Peace Corps volunteers, which goes to show how proven his methods are in improving soil and garden production all over the world and with limited resources. Jeavons’ focus is on soil health: good soil will grow healthy and productive crops. This book has in-depth guidance on composting, soil amendment, and garden bed preparation. Its planting advice uses French intensive gardening methods, which maximize usage of the surface area of a garden bed more so than other popular methods like square foot gardening or planting in rows. Again, for data-oriented people like me, this book has fantastic appendices chock-full of growth and nutritional data for almost every imaginable crop you’d like to plant in your garden or on your farm.

introduction to animal science

5. Introduction to Animal Science
by W. Stephen Damron

For those who have little or no experience in keeping livestock, this textbook can answer many basic questions and provide you with a good biological background as you expand your knowledge further. (I linked to the 2012 edition because used copies of that next-to-most-recent edition are pretty inexpensive on Amazon.) This book’s animal nutrition and feeding, sheep and goat, and rabbit sections are particularly informative. For those interested in ration balancing and mixing their own animal feed, this is a good place to start. It also has helpful charts for calculating adjusted lamb and kid weight gains and good information on rabbit housing needs. This is another book that has given me accurate information without me making endless Google searches for the exact same information!

What are some of your favorite books you refer to again and again? I’d love to hear.


Laundry list: handwashing from start to finish

Run four loads of laundry through a washing machine and that’s about two or three weeks’ worth of water, for all our needs, for the two of us. 

We do not have running water. Being off-grid is not a choice at this point in time; the water line has not yet reached our property. When it does, trust me, I’ll be the first to break the ground for that trench. We currently have a 500-liter water tank, which is roughly 130 gallons. When it runs low, we have a guy bring more water for us, which costs 12,000 shillings – about $6. That’s 5 cents per gallon if you price it out.

Today, as I was procrastinating actually doing laundry, I looked up how much water a typical clothes-washing machine uses per load. A relatively efficient washer uses 30 gallons per load. My mind, which now thinks in increments of buckets, reeled: that’s six five-gallon buckets! For one load!

Since we have neither electricity nor running water, all our laundry is handwashed (as is probably 99% of all clothing in Tanzania). For about ten largish clothing items (pants, dresses, shirts, etc.), I use a total of less than five gallons. Maybe even three. Again, this is out of necessity, but in any case, at least now I know how to clean clothes with no electricity and minimal water. I think it’s a valuable skill.

All you need is a wash basin and a rinse bucket. Pour about a gallon, maybe two, of water in each. I typically use just bar laundry soap (an American brand would be Fels-Naptha), but if clothes are exceptionally dirty, I use detergent powder as well. The powder is harder on your hands, though. If using powder, put about a quarter cup in the basin and agitate the water so the suds appear. You’ll scrub clothes in this water, using the bar soap for stains and dirty sections.

The rinse bucket can be either plain water or water with a cup or so of white vinegar. Using vinegar makes your rinse water go much further, as the vinegar removes all the soap, keeping the rinse water from getting sudsy and slick and having to be dumped and replaced. It’s also great for removing sweat stains and deodorant residue from shirts.

After destroying my hands a couple times from washing jeans, I added a scrub brush to the operation. It comes in handy for heavy fabrics like denim and twill, which can hurt your skin when you’re washing them with your bare hands.

For each article of clothing, turn it inside out and put it in the wash basin. Scrub it against itself in your hands (or use the brush if it’s a sturdy fabric). Use the bar soap for especially dirty areas. Wring out, then rinse in the rinse bucket and wring again. Hang up on your laundry line (clothing still inside out to prevent fading from the sun) and move on to the next one.

Bleach I find is typically unnecessary if I’m line-drying clothing outside; the sun bleaches white fabrics naturally.

Take care with fabrics that may bleed color or shrink, and also with sweaters or other clothing that may get stretched or warped by wringing and line drying. 

So there you go. You might have to develop some handwashing muscles, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not such a bad chore for a beautiful sunny afternoon. And now you know you can keep your clothes clean – off the grid as well as on.