May 26, 2019
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How to prepare for emergencies when you live off the grid

Wayne L. Brown | BDN file
Wayne L. Brown | BDN file
Houlton firefighters spray water on a burning cabin in New Limerick. May 8, 2002. The man who was staying in the cabin suffered burns when he used an ignitable liquid to light a fire in a wood-burning stove.

Living off the grid can be a great experience for homesteaders who want to live in remote natural areas, in pursuit of a simpler life that is more engaged in the world around them. However, living off the grid comes with unique challenges and compromises — including access to emergency services.

Mark Zeiger, a homesteader based in Haines, Alaska, and blogger at The Zeiger Family Homestead, said that off-grid emergencies can generally be divided into two categories: shelter threatening, like natural disasters, and non-shelter threatening, like injuries, animal attacks and other medical issues.

“There’s a million ways to die out here,” Zeiger said. “All it takes is a second to change everything.”

“Any emergency you can imagine facing on the grid, you could face while living off the grid,” said Teri Page, a homesteader and blogger at Homestead Honey, who lived off the grid for five years in Missouri with her husband and two kids. “If you live very remotely, you may not be able to access immediate care or service in a true emergency.”

Know the potential emergencies in your area

One of the most important parts of preparing for an emergency when you live off the grid is to know the resources available to you where you live.

“Off the grid means so many different things,” Page said. “You could live within five miles of a major city with emergency services, or you may live hours away from town or services. You have to be prepared to handle situations appropriately.”

This also means knowing the potential threats that are specific to your location.

“The best thing is to try and anticipate situations,” said Sarita Harbour, a homesteader living off the grid in the Northwest Territories of Canada, about 18 miles outside of the city of Yellowknife. “Every place is a little bit different in terms of what’s going to be dangerous.”

For Zeiger and his family in Alaska, for example, the most pressing natural disaster threat is tsunamis because of their proximity to a tectonically active part of the Pacific Ocean, while Harbour said she and her family are more likely to face a brush fire.

Knowing what wildlife lives in your area — and their behavior patterns — is also important.

“For anybody that is out around wildlife, it really behooves them to know the habits for them,” Zeiger said. “The body language of most animals are pretty apparent if you know what to look for.” From his experience growing up and living in Alaska, Zeiger said he has become a master of knowing to conduct himself around moose.

“Bears are a big issue here,” Harbour said. “We keep bear spray right by the front door just in case.” Bear spray is a non-lethal aerosol deterrent with capsaicin that has proven very effective in stopping aggressive or charging bears. Harbour said she also completed a firearms training course.

“It’s not something I really ever expected to do but here it’s pretty much a standard thing,” she said. “Even people who aren’t hunters generally have a gun around here because of the bear issue.”

Set up communication the best you can

If your area is prone to natural disasters, it is wise to keep yourself tuned in to any available area alerts, either online or on the radio.

“We keep a radio tuned to the emergency services,” Zeiger said. “We can call 911, but it’s not going to do a lot of good. The attitude is kind of let’s be ready for anything on our own if somebody can come and help that’s wonderful.”

Many off-grid homesteaders have roads that are not suited for emergency vehicles, but it is still important to know the number to contact emergency services in your area, especially for medical emergencies that are severe enough to potentially require emergency evacuation.

“We do not have 911 here,” Harbour said. “We may be one of the last parts of Canada that don’t have 911. There is a local number for the medical dispatch in town.” Harbour suggested asking around town to make sure you have the correct information.

Harbour also recommended making sure you have some kind of phone that is suited to the service in your area, whether that is a cell phone or a satellite phone.

Page warned that if you rely on satellite or cell reception to communicate, you may experience a loss of those services in an emergency, so it is important to be prepared to handle emergencies on your own.

“Make sure your systems are still working — solar, water, heat — would be a first step,” Page said. “If all is well, then off-grid living makes you very resilient to emergencies.”

Prepare emergency kits and plans

Having a readily available emergency kit is not only essential for off-grid living, but it will also help you feel more mentally prepared for any potential emergencies.

Zeiger and his family are all prepared with emergency go-bags, which he calls “bug out kits,” for an emergency.

“We need to be ready to mobilize within minutes,” Zeiger said. “Having the bug out bags gives us a high level of confidence.” They had first-hand experience using their go bags in 2018, when a tsunami threatened their Alaska homestead (don’t worry, the family — and their homestead — survived).

Courtesy of Mark Zeiger
Courtesy of Mark Zeiger
An emergency, or "bug out," kit.

It is also important for your family to have a plan, for example, to know where to meet if people get separated. Zeiger recommended setting up a rendezvous point and educating the whole family on where it is. At the rendezvous point, Zeiger says to keep materials that may not fit in the go bags, like extra toilet paper, clothes, food or shelter.

“Having a rendezvous point is essential,” Zeiger said. “We need to know that each person has a plan to get out of wherever they are and meet at the rendezvous point. Ours happens to be on the highest point of the property which is necessary for a tsunami.”

Children should also be clued in to all of these plans in order to make sure they are prepared.

“Children should be a part of family conversations about emergency preparedness, and should have age-appropriate training in how to call for help,” Page said.

Know your neighbors

On a practical level, Zeiger and Harbour also recommended having a good relationship with any other people who live nearby.

“We try to be self-sufficient, but we also try to be good neighbors because it’s the right thing to do but it helps us live,” Zeiger said. “Helps the safety net. We try to be good neighbors. You really have to create community, for your health and their health and safety.”

“We know all of our neighbors,” Harbour said. “[Our children] also know the neighbors they can run to. Have people who live within running distance.”

Seek medical training

Medical emergencies can be particularly challenging when you live off the grid and far from any hospitals or other medical resources. Aside from having first aid kits and medical handbooks, Harbour, Page and Zeiger all recommended taking a wilderness first responder course in order to better prepare for medical emergencies.

“Take first aid classes,” Page said. “I’d recommend the wilderness first responder as a standard for living very remotely. [It helps you] learn how to recognize medical emergencies and have a plan in place before they happen.”

“They will make up victims so that it really looks like you’re working on somebody who is injured,” Zeiger said. “You come away with a much higher level of confidence as well as skills.”

Medical training will also give you confidence for real-world situations, and in an emergency situation, having your wits about you is one of the best tools you can use to your advantage.

“The best thing would be mental attitude,” Zeiger said. “I always in any situation my mantra has been keep your wits about you. I try to live by that.”

 



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