Best Off-Grid Living Books | The Absolute Must Reads

Over the past decade or so, intentional, sustainable, and green living has become incredibly important to many people. The desire to take those precepts to the next level, to disconnect from society’s systems and build your life off the grid, has grown equally strong.

With such an explosion in interest has also come an unprecedented proliferation of articles, videos, blogs, vlogs, and books. Today I’m offering up what I think are the best off-grid living books and a short overview of what they offer and why you should read them.

What We’re Covering (And What We Aren’t)

If you’re reading this, you probably Googled something along the lines of ‘books on living off the grid’ and were inundated with survivalist stories, primitive log cabin building guides, and innumerable books on how to ‘survive’ off-grid solely by foraging mushrooms and filtering your urine.

Those are not the books I’ll be covering here.

Until recently, far too much of the off-grid community was dominated by preppers, old-school survivalists, and others of similar ideals. I’ve got nothing against the desire to survive, but the mindset can be very different from those in the tiny community.

The books covered today offer helpful information and inspiration for those looking to create an intentional, sustainable, and future-focused life off the grid. Some are practical guides that can help you learn new skills, while others cover some of the mindsets needed for your off-grid adventure to be a success.

1. The Encyclopedia of Country Living

Whether you want to learn more about living off the grid or are looking for practical, actionable tips for your off-grid home, the Encyclopedia of Country Living is worth a look. In continuous publication since 1974, its nearly 1,000 pages are packed full of helpful information on every possible topic relating to living sustainably off-grid.

The Encyclopedia of Country Living emerged from the back-to-the-land of the 1960s and focused on providing ‘New Homesteaders’ with a go-to resource for practical information. It leans heavily into agricultural and other food production information but does so in an approachable way that lets even total novices get started on a solid foundation.

The different sections move from plants in general to staple crops such as grasses and grains, down to vegetables, then herbs, and then the fruiting trees, bushes, and vines. It’s an excellent way to approach gardening for a novice as it helps you understand the easiest plants to develop your green thumb on without immediately jumping to difficult to manage ones.

The 50th edition lovingly updates this information with the most current management practices and knowledge, while also adding interesting modern touches. One whole section teaches you how to make natural skincare products from the bounty of the land itself.

As someone who likes to take care of his skin but struggles with the many problems of the modern beauty and wellness industry, that was a welcome edition.

Personal Highlights

I’m a sucker for bees. They’re industrious, friendly(stingers notwithstanding), and one of the most essential and sadly ignored parts of our ecosystems. The Encyclopedia of Country Living has an excellent section on home beekeeping that does an exceptional job showing the pros and cons of keeping bees and how to get started.

It gives practical advice on building and citing your apiary and can walk you through most of the serious issues your new hive may face and how to deal with them.

2. Five Acres and Independence by Maurice Grenville Kains

I have a soft spot for this book as it was one of the first that introduced me to the idea of sustainable, self-sufficient living way back when I was in college. Initially published in 1935 during the height of the Great Depression, Five Acres and Independence was one of the earliest books in the nascent back-to-the-land movement and broke down every step of finding, buying, and operating a small-scale self-sufficient farm.

It starts with a detailed description of country vs. city life and the appeals of the country. Kains has no illusions about what country life off-grid entails, namely work, and lots of it, but that’s honestly one of the strengths of the book.

It doesn’t sugarcoat the issues you’ll face trying to live intentionally off-grid and does not attempt to glamourize. Many people I’ve spoken to in my journey to a more sustainable way of living have an overly rosy view of it.

It’s understandable, social media is full of #Vanlife and similar posts that show fit, smiling people living in top-of-the-line vans, RVs, and tiny homes traveling the world. The reality of sustainable off-grid life is that many things won’t go exactly to plan and that some will fail spectacularly in ways you’ll have to figure out how to fix.

Five Acres and Independence walks through the mindset needed to succeed in these situations and does it in a timeless fashion.

Practically, a good chunk of the actual planting, growing, and livestock advice (particularly the advice concerning marketing and pricing) is significantly out of date. What’s striking is how much information from a book written in 1935 still applies.

If you’re looking to try living off the grid but can’t do so immediately, Five Acres and Independence is the book for you. You’ll always have the city and the modern conveniences to go back to when you’re done, but you’ll look back on the read fondly.

Personal Highlights

One of my favorite parts of Five Acres and Independence was the intense focus on practicality and the very first section on “Tried and True Ways to Fail”. Kains goes through some of the most common ways to fail before getting started and gives practical advice on avoiding them.

Most of them, particularly ‘Too Little Capital’ and ‘Uncongenial Location’, are ones that every prospective off-grid enthusiast should consider. There’s lots of good land out there, and there’s lots of cheap land out there, but there isn’t a lot of good, cheap land available unless you know what you’re looking for.

3. All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Edition by Mel Bartholomew

Growing your own food is one of the most popular aspects of living off the grid for most people, and with good reason. Many in modern society feel disconnected from the source of their food and (rightly) suspicious of industrial agriculture.

All New Square Foot Gardening offers a way for virtually everyone, living virtually anywhere to get back in touch with where the food comes from and start a garden quickly and easily. I recommend it for those looking to live off the grid because it’s one of the best methods out there for those with no gardening experience to get started growing more food than you can believe.

Square foot gardening is an intensive style of gardening that uses a defined growing area, one square foot, in a raised rectangular growing bed. Each patch is 6-12” deep and filled with a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost.

4’ X 4’ or 4’ X 8’ are common starting beds, but you can scale it up as large as you’d like.

The benefit of this type of gardening is that it allows you to plant many different vegetables, herbs, and fruiting bushes in a tiny space. The planting mix is free of weeds(theoretically at least), pests, and fungi, so there’s lower overall upkeep without impacting yields.

The Third Edition of All New Square Foot Gardening updates Mel Bartholomew’s original guide from 1981 with new materials, new growing media, and better fertilizers/compost mixes. It takes an already easy and effective growing system and makes it even better.

Personal Highlights

All New Square Foot Gardening is a step-by-step guide more than anything, so no one section stood out in terms of moving writing. I appreciated the book’s comprehensive guide to picking the correct vegetables and variants that work best in the square foot growing style.

I’ve read many gardening books before, that lays out a system and a maintenance plan but doesn’t do the actual on-the-ground research to determine which of the hundreds and hundreds of vegetables and herbs work well for it.

4. Hacking the Earthship: In Search of an Earth Shelter That Works for Everybody by Rachel Preston Prinz

One of the most interesting parts of the intentional and sustainable living communities is the Earthships. First developed in the mid-1990s, Earthships are passively heated and cooled, ecologically sustainable homes built from recycled and natural materials.

Long considered one of the most ‘crunchy granola’ sides of the back-to-the-land and off-grid movement, Hacking the Earthship seeks to take the Earthship concept and turn it into a solid, workable housing solution that works on a larger scale.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the ecological and environmental side of building an Earthship, it takes the approach that Earthships are first and foremost homes that need to function effectively. Prinz combined the very best modern research on passive building techniques with a strong understanding of the practical side of building a house.

Where many books on Earthships linger on the ‘cool’ factor, Prinz has a detailed and highly organized guide that goes through practical considerations of actually building one. She covers the bland side of things, permitting, building codes, insurance, mechanical systems, and the minutiae of building a home that is often overlooked in posts and articles about Earthships.

Hacking the Earthship seeks to take Earthships from something only the most committed environmentalists do to a rational, resellable, and comfortable home for anyone.

Personal Highlights

The amount of time Prinz spends so on financing, building codes, insurance, and other purely practical matters impressed me deeply. Too often sustainable living books and articles gloss over crucial details in favor of pretty pictures and glowing descriptions of sunlight through reclaimed glass bottles.

The fact that she dedicated a section purely to the consideration that someone might one day want to resell their home and gives tips on making an Earthship marketable makes this book worth a read if you’re considering Earthship architecture.

5. One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey

For those of us in the sustainable living and off-grid community, the draw of nature is always strong. Many express a desire to shut out the world and walk into the woods to live a simpler life even in ‘normal’ life.

Dick Proenneke, at the age of 50, walked into the Alaskan wilderness, found a place, and built himself a simpler life.

One Man’s Wilderness is the collected journals, musings, and reflections on life and the natural world he wrote over his first five years living alone by Twin Lakes. It’s a simple account in his own words that nonetheless has a larger-than-life appeal.

Proenneke talks of how he felled, cured, and processed the logs for his home. Using only hand tools and a lifetime of experience, he built a cabin and planted a garden. He explored the wilds of Alaska, fished, hunted, and grew his own food.

The 50th edition of One Man’s Wilderness includes a stirring foreword by Nick Offerman, beloved actor and outdoorsman, and gorgeous full-color photographs that have never been previously released.

Personal Highlights

The entire book is an absolute gem and should be a must-read for anyone considering living off the grid. There’s much I could say about this book, but I think Proenneke said it best himself in his first few sentences:

“It was good to be back in the wilderness again where everything seems at peace. I was alone. It was a great feeling—a stirring feeling. Free once more to plan and do as I pleased. Beyond was all around me. The dream was a dream no longer.

I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do. Not just dream about it but do it. I suppose, too, I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.

What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet? What about my limits? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about winter? Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its brooding ghostly silence, its forced confinement? At age fifty-one I intended to find out.”

To get a sense of what the book is like, consider watching the documentary Cabin Alone in the Alaskan Wilderness. It’s a little under 30 minutes long and uses film shot by Proenneke in the late 1960s as he first walked into the wilderness.

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6. The Foxfire Series

If you’re at all interested in sustainable living, you need to check out the Foxfire Series. Started as an educational magazine on experiential living in the Appalachian region of the Southern U.S., Foxfire expanded into a sprawling 14-book series that lovingly collects and saves the oral traditions, style of living, and practical advice of a vanishing people.

The books provide a different perspective to usual off-grid and sustainable living books and focus on the skills and techniques of a vanishing American culture. Despite the age of the books and the skills, many are still applicable to modern homesteading and off-grid life.

Each book has a different focus and includes different speakers and writers to show them. Some of the practical skills in each volume include:

The Foxfire Book (book 1)

  • Log Cabin Building
  • Hog Dressing
  • Basketmaking
  • Cooking
  • Fencemaking
  • Crop Planting
  • Hunting
  • Moonshining

Foxfire 4

  • Gardening
  • Horse Trading
  • Fiddle Making
  • Spring Houses (water and wells)

Foxfire 8

  • Folk Pottery

Foxfire 5 (a personal favorite)

  • Ironmaking
  • Blacksmithing
  • Flintlock Rifle Making
  • Bear Hunting

Personal Highlights

My great-aunt introduced me to the Foxfire series when I was just 11 years old. My people had lived in Appalachia since before the revolution, and she wanted me to know how those who came before had lived, loved, and survived in the rolling mountains of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.

What stood out to me most at the time wasn’t the practical advice on surviving in the sometimes harsh environment but the mindset and rugged strength of the people whose stories were told. Foxfire opens with an account from Mrs. Marvin Watts of Rabun County, GA, describing how her family lived.

In her own words:

“we usto have corn Shukings to get our corn shucked every body in the neighborhood come and my mother cooked a big dinner for the crowd seames as every body was happie to it sure was good back in them days we lived in a log house it was prettry hard to keep warm by an open fire place but we never was Sick back then we had a Spring to cary our watter from and my dad had to take his Shovel and ditch out a way through the snow for us to get to the Spring”.

Final Thoughts

As someone who writes extensively on sustainable living and the practical side of life off-grid, I strongly feel that books have a lot to offer. The books above provide fresh perspectives, practical advice, and valuable information for anyone considering going off-grid.

Some are purely practical, notably The Encyclopedia of Country Living, while others offer more of the spiritual and philosophical side that explores why life off-grid is worth living.