Photos of people living off-the-grid in the United States

Eric Valli spent 3 years taking photos of people in the United States who have "decided to live light on the earth." The photographs are terrific. It looks like Valli spent time with two clans: a frontier/settler type group, and another group that look almost like cave people. I wish he had included more information about them!

UPDATE 10-17-2013: Quite a few TV production people have contacted me over the months wanting to know how to get in touch with the people in Mr. Valli's photos. If you are a TV production person, please read the paragraph above. Don't email me about this. I don't know anything about the people in the photo!

Eric Valli: Off the Grid (Via The Fox is Black)


      1.  Depends on who is doing the defining. Do rural villagers deep in the rainforest”live on the grid” without electricity, telephones, plumbing, etc, just because National Geographic sends a photographer in to take pictures of them?

        1. Obviously, the photographer who took these photos defined what The Grid is and isn’t. How about starving, inner city homeless people who live out of their shopping carts and cower frightened in doorways? Surely they’re not on the mythical Grid.

          I place vague ideas like “The Grid” beside other vague ideas such as “carbon footprint” and “Heaven and Hell”

          1. How dare an artist challenge your preconcieved notions?!?

            And in clear collaboration with counterculturalists. THE NERVE.

          2. Off the grid means off the electricity grid, whilst people may have added extra things to it to make it mean a certain lifestyle, take away the extra things and it’s base meaning is still pretty cut and dry, these people are off the grid no matter how many photographs are taken of them and they could even has access to the internet and still be “off the grid” it’s not a vague idea at all.
            So by definition they are off the grid.

            And even if they aren’t complete bitch hermits, your assertion that they are somehow champagne bitch hermits because they let someone take photos of them seems a little bit douchey.

          3. grid refers to electricity. we have lived “off the grid” for many years – life is pretty much the same as everyone else – surprise! However we are very aware of the sun – kind of nice actually. I m a teacher so my syllabus is created by solar power – washing – solar – propane for cooking -we have lights too, computers – sorry for sounding glib here but it is time to get with the 21st century. The grid is real – off grid is real too. 

      2.  no no, that’s the matrix. we’re all in the matrix.

        CLU hasn’t built vehicles that can go off grid. yet.

  1. it’s too bad that i enjoy many of the trappings of modern society. and as a painter… dropping out to spend a lot of time hunting and gathering seems… inefficient.

    1. I like painting, too. We could set ourselves up as shamans. Everybody else goes out and hunts and gathers while we hang out at the cave and do murals on the walls with paint we’ve made with our own spit and rocks we’ve chewed on. Then, to make a living, we interpret dreams and assign a few animal totems to our fellow neo-neoliths.

    2. dropping out to spend a lot of time hunting and gathering seems… inefficient.

      It has been suggested that hunter-gatherer societies have rather more free time than industrial/agricultural societies. Especially if you can convince younger and/or female members of your group to do all the work.

  2. Everyone in these photos appears to be lying to themselves about living light.
    I see manufactured goods supporting their lives in every case. All those guns were not hand made from rock. The metal fittings in the horse tack weren’t braided out of reeds. Their impact MAY be reduced but we don’t see how their waste is disposed or who is paying for the land they occupy or any of a hundred other ways they rely on “modern” conveniences. 

    1. living “light”. That means reduced not eliminated. Lite beer is less calories, not calorie free.

    2. Living Light = Never touching manufactured goods? The guns pictured look older than I am, and don’t look like something you’d purchase at WalMart.

    3. plus, i’d think one of the major components of deciding “to live light… [and] to not be a part of problem anymore” would involve NOT BREEDING.

      1. Bahh. It’s the way (a lot of) people live that’s the problem, not that there’s too many of us.

      1. I invite you to travel to India, where you turn your clothing over to someone who beats it on a rock in the river. They come back very, very clean. It does shorten the life of the fabric about tenfold, though.

    1.  Never mind their clothes–they look suspiciously well-groomed for a bunch of neo-primitives. (Yes, some of them have sort-of messy hair, but it’s messy in a very stylish way.) They look like Tyler Durden’s fantasy of what a post-developed society would look like.

    2.  I have to say that I know one of the people in these photos – the blond haired woman. She is for real. She used to live near me in NW Montana but has since moved and it was a treat to see her in these photos. She is not against driving or using a phone at times etc. but simply minimizes her use of “stuff.”  Really cool lady, very intelligent. There are others who live like her, I have met some of them, NOT a hoax.  

  3. In the second group, the young men are curiously well-groomed, despite their caveman/crustypunk outfits. Such well-shaped beards, especially the second-to-last picture, require attention and care. It makes his unwashed face and feet seem more of an affectation than a necessity.

      1. I laughed when you said Portland folk…Looks like Morel hunting in Oregon.. You can get pretty ashy walking through wildfires all day without a mirror or a reason to care.. They should start a band and tie their dogs outside a coffee shop.

    1.  Of course when your living ‘off the grid’ and female, well, women’s arms just like women’s legs are as hairy as mens.
      Silk stocking were worn to hide hairy old ladies legs and make them look like pre-teens legs, sick but true.

      1. women’s arms just like women’s legs are as hairy as mens.

        No, unshaven women’s arms and legs are, in general, not as hairy as men’s.

        Is it normal for women to shave their arms where you live? I don’t know anyone who does that.

  4. I thought the folks done up in that groovy buck-skin looked a bit to pretty to be living off the earth.  They are, apparently, part of some “class” you can take to learn primitive skills.  See here:

    So they are “living off the grid” in the sense that they, along with up to 11 other people, pay $600 a week to learn “primitive skills.”  And I guess the instructor, too, is “living off the grid” if you don’t count the $6K she siphons off of the folks who are living on the grid the other 51 weeks a year.

    But, hey, I dig the antler buttons.

    1. It actually looks like a lot of fun, and I think you’d learn a lot from a class like this.  It’s a chance to get a sense of what living wild really would be like.   Not the “Survivor” or “Man VS Wild” style, but a lot more rough.

      Labeling them as “living off the grid” types is not exactly accurate. Labeling them as “people getting a sense of what it’s like” is probably a bit better.

    2. from her site: “She emerged from her first sweat lodge ceremony in 1989 with the realization of
      the calling back to the Earth, learning, sharing, and teaching the old ways.”

      white people are so cute when they co-opt other cultures in their search for deeper meaning.

        1.  I invite you to explore the etymology and cultural context of the phrase “Sweat Lodge”. Note, not steam bath, sauna, turkish bath, etcetera.

          1. I am quite familiar with the term, the practice, and in particular, the pan-cultural aspects of the tradition.  It is up to octolover to provide context to his or her statement, and more significantly, describe how the woman’s skin color related to the cultural practice she enjoyed. 

      1. Right. So much better to never experience or learn from other cultures. Also non-white people never do that.

      2. The Romans had them 2,000 years ago- they called them “caldarium”. Russians have “bania”. The Finns and the Scandinavians also have their own forms of saunas. 

        Ignorant (self-hating?) cultural assumptions are so cute.

    3. Good work! Nothing says “off the grid” like a Blogger site, just like the ancient sage Two Dogs Fucking* used to make in the elder days.

      *I’m assuming everyone’s familiar with the joke.

  5. The folks in the first few pictures, with the old-timey (rather than prehistoric) clothes, seem a bit more genuine.

  6. Heh, when I was 18, from August to February I lived in a tent, camping around the Sierra Nevada’s. I wasn’t homeless, just frustrated with ‘real life’ and sought to escape. I had a car, and my tent and various boyfriends along the way. It was one of the most freeing experiences of my life, but I definitely learned what “rain season” meant, where not to lay a tent during the rain/snow, what true hunger feels like. But the peace, the quiet and the soul-searching so to speak were very liberating.

  7. From their immersion program:


    1.  See, I was all ready to make a joke about how neat the fringes on their buckskin was, but then I thought to myself that it would probably turn out that they’d killed the deer themselves and brain-tanned the hides and made those perfect fringes with flint knives that they’d knapped themselves.

  8. You guys are funny. You won’t be satisfied unless they’re eating rocks, shitting sand. “Off the grid” is sans electricity, things like that; it doesn’t mean living naked in a cave. 

    When I was younger, I lived in an area where many of my contemporaries lived without plumbing, electricity, etc. Most used kerosene lighting. One or two still do, with some modern advances, such as a propane-powered refrigerator. It wasn’t horrible–it just resembled the way people in the country lived up until even the 1950s in many places.

    1. You seem to be confusing living off the grid, with showing up with your 6 dressed buckskins and taking a class on how to make fabulous buckskin leggings.

    2.  If you’re going to lecture us, you might want to check on your definitions yourself. “Off the grid” doesn’t necessarily even mean without electricity–it’s off the power grid, which could mean having your own renewable source of electricity. Also off the financial grid, and the web, ideally, which sort of mitigates against the commercialization that Lynx is displaying above. That “naked in a cave” business is a straw man of yours; commenters here are just saying that they don’t look like people living in a Stone Age style, they look like an ad for people living like that, which in a sense is exactly what they are.

    1. It’s a blanket capote, basically the ur-snuggie or protoslanket as they are made from thick wool Hudson Bay blankets or similar. Early fur traders traded blankets to Native Americans for hides, and Native Americans quickly realized that they could be made into coats that are warmer and more comfortable (don’t ask how I know this) than handsewn buckskins.

      You can make one yourself from patterns available online:

  9. The guy from the 2nd last picture has some fairly well trimmed beard until a few days before taking this picture..

  10. I wanted to say inb4 all the Comic Book Guy type pedantry, but I see I’m way too late.

    Not one of them have cholera!  Worst “off the grid” photos ever!

    Nerds.  (not the good kind either)

  11. Apparently the idea of being off the grid simply terrifies trolls. Look at all the haters in here. 

    1. I guess we all know that a stiff breeze and a (flu pandemic, coronal mass ejection, financial collapse, Yellowstone eruption – pick one) will spell curtains for the western military/industrial complex. Any ‘skills’ we have that centre around manipulating phosphors on a rectangular panel will be irrelevant. It’s unnerving.

      1. more salient is how useful the skills that people have at negating and devaluing others won’t be.

        1.  Or telephone sanitising. Or mid-level market managing. After the incident, we could put them all on an ark.

          1. Hey, knowing how to manage people is an invaluable skill when living in small bands in very stress-inducing conditions. Apart from the culture-shock, I think most Fortune-500 CEOs would do very well as the God-King of a cannibalistic Death-worshipping tribe…

            …that’s what they are already, after all.

  12. The first fellow and the old couple at the table look very content.   Gotta be honest, that looks like a wonderful existence.  Thoreau’s Walden inspired me when I was very young, and if I were to someday “go to there”, I hope it would look something like that.

    To live like that, I think you have to give up relevance.  The ‘simple life’ is actually a life of hard work, all day long.  So much so that you don’t have time to *not* be connected to your food and the earth.  Values and peace of mind come from the work of providence.   I think that is a wonderful thing and I think we don’t have that in modern American society anymore.  We section off and compartmentalize all the different parts of our lives.  Our identities are disjointed and I think this leads to feelings of emptiness and purposelessness.  However, modern society facilitates high-speed human creativity and ingenuity.  We can progress and analyze culture and study things.  We can do important things that we couldn’t do without living the fast life making the money we make.

    Most other peoples in the world seem to still have the connection of providence/peace of mind thing.  Maybe it’s because they’ve been doing it for a whole lot longer than Americans.  Can you combine the values of science and progress with the simple life or at least the identity of the simple life?  I think it’s possible to a certain extent.

    Also, having grown up in Humboldt, those hipsters look like the people who fill up the towns after Reggae on the River until the rainy season starts.

    1. I’m exactly one generation removed from approximately the bearded gent’s lifestyle.  My father grew up on a subsistence farm, eating only what they raised and ploughing the land with a mule.  This was out of economic necessity and a global depression, not by choice.  He valued the lessons he learned by his upbringing, but no so much the malnutrition, rickets, and poverty.  When inducted into the Army in WWII he had never seen a dentist and a doctor only once, when he nearly died of rheumatic fever.  He was one of the best marksmen in his group, because he had grown up hunting for food with a single shot gun.

      Thanks to the GI bill, he ended up helping design the Space Shuttle and put up the GPS satellites.  He made sure I was comfortable with subsistence and wilderness skills- I was taking two week wilderness  “walkabout” trips sans adults by the time I was 12.  I don’t live that sort of lifestyle now, but the lessons are there always and I think make me more solid and stable on the earth.  

      That said, these photos look a bit “staged” and romanticized in the tradition of Edward Curtiss.  Nothing wrong with people developing skills, having different experiences, or adopting a non-standard lifestyle. Or engaging in extended live-action role paying, for that matter, but it does seem to me that the photographer is probably misrepresenting the reality just a bit.

  13. Just this week there was an episode of a local public radio show, Colorado Matters, about this one fellow who “quit money” and started living in a cave – the show has this person on along with another fellow who recently wrote a book about him, titled “The Man Who Quit Money”.

    Sorry but BB doesn’t like the full link – just page through the results to 4/30 and you’ll find it.

  14. I am surprised how wimpy the blond woman’s legs are. Seems like she should have more definition. 

  15. Haters will hate. 
    They look like interesting, strange people.  All of them. 
    Doing stuff you are not. 

  16. For what it’s worth, I absolutely hated “Quest for Fire”.  Horrible, horrible movie.

    1. Wha? With the Ray Dawn Chong rape scene? That movie is a classic (ly bad movie).

  17. I live in eastern Montana.  You want to live off the grid, you move a few miles back off a county road and voila!  Have to be careful about pit toilets contaminating water but other than than, it’s not that hard.  As for the silly people in the cave man class, that is just ridiculous.

  18. That last group of five that look like they are in a post-apocalyptic movie?  I have seen four of them before.  They are actors.

  19. My first thought was ‘Blair Witch Project.’ The photos might or might not be of actual homesteaders or people practicing primitive living skills. The thing is, that can be a lot of fun, and a very fulfilling way to pass time. I have spent parts of my life at various removes from civilization, and it’s really great, then at some point I would get bored with that and re-enter. Some people really like subsistence living and don’t ever want to go back. For most, it’s a temporary, or on-and-off thing. Totally worth giving it a go if you’re so inclined.

    Dick Proenneke did it for a long time (although he pragmatically had supplies, mail, etc. flown into his remote location), starting at age 51. Great cat.

  20. Really? I’m this late an still get to be the first with a “My Side of the Mountain” comment. Must be an age thing. Oh, and I did my time in a van down by the river when I was single and it was a blast.

  21. The bearded gents are shooting with flintlock firearms. I can’t tell from the picture whether they are smooth bores or rifles.  Having spent quite a bit of time firing flintlocks, I can assure you that is a pretty primitive firearm. Hunting with one of those is no easy thing. Loading each shot is a pretty involved process (Wrap the ball with an oiled patch, measure the powder for the shot, add powder to prime the pan, then fire and hope the flint makes a big enough spark to ignite the pan and fire).  They are also extremely inaccurate compared to a modern firearm. I have quite a bit of respect for anyone who manages to hunt their meals on a daily basis with a weapon like that!

    1.  They are rifles, FWIW (you can tell by the octagonal barrels), reasonably accurate to about 300 yards. You’d have to be crazy or very hungry to hunt with a smoothbore musket– muskets like the Charleville or Brown Bess, the M-16 and AK-47 of the 18th century, didn’t even have sights (the thing sticking up above the muzzle of a Brown Bess is a bayonet lug).

    2. That looks to me to be a percussion cap action, not a flintlock. A modern (early 1800’s) innovation that works much better in the rain. No pan.  

    3.  Not only are they rifled, they are also not flint lock. Those are percussion cap firearms.

  22. I’m frequently surprised by the amount of sneering judgement on display in Boingboing comment threads. I would have thought BB readers would be self-selected to be appreciative or at least curious about people experimenting with different lifestyles.

    So you disagree with what they’re doing. Go ahead and don’t do it. Problem solved.

  23. So, they are out there in the forest, living outside and learning skills. Meanwhile you sarcastic haters are in front of you keyboard in your cubicle. I understand that you are jealous and frustrated that people with more courage than you even try to do something with their lives. 

    1. Yes, there are people out there who are “trying to do something with their lives.”  There are people who are “living outside and learning skills.”  Then there are people who “emerge from their sweat lodge” and decide that the best way to live lightly on the earth is set up a website and charge $6K a week to take groups of people out in the woods and show them how to stitch their pre-tanned buckskins into clothes.  And then there are the people who take photos of this and present it as “people living off the grid.

      I certainly didn’t suggest that there is anything wrong about “living outside and learning skills.”  That is wonderful.

      What is questionable, perhaps even dishonest and reprehensible, is stylized, glamorized, and inaccurate portrayals of that.   The photographer is, among other things, a fashion photographer.  Here’s a link to some work he did for Vuitton: 

      I guess if you believe that this guy’s “clan of the cave bear” photos are of people “trying to do something with their lives” then you also believe that owning a Louis Vuitton duffle bag will help you land your bush plane in the Serengeti.

      1. Doesn’t follow. Of course the “clan of the cave bear” cosplay photos are of people “trying to do something with their lives”. A hobby is a hobby is a way to be outdoors, learn interesting stuff, make things with your hands, gain appreciation for your humanness. Got jack all to do with buying Luis Vuitton duffle bags and I cannot at all see how you are making that link.

        Are people so shitty about this because the blurred lines between authentic (“off-grid”) and inauthentic (“fashion photographer”, “survival skills for city people”) are making scratches over their brains? I don’t understand the venom.

    2. That’s nice and all, but when one of these people come down with the flu or some other less benign sickness, I’m pretty certain they will hasten to the nearest hospital and be very thankful for modern niceties. Trust me, the hostility is a two-way street..

  24. More context for the photos would be nice. Pictures of healthy, well-groomed young people practising outdoorsy survival skills/stone age handicrafts/Clan of the Clave Bears cosplay=one thing, moderately interesting. Pictures of people living long term with low-impact technologies and self-sufficient food raising and preservation, off the electricity/water grid for long stretches of their lives= incredibly interesting, more infos please!

    The main problem with this photo gallery is that it makes no distinction.

  25. I’m pretty sure I have seen pictures of the epic beard guy living like a settler in an article somewhere… I’ll try to dig it up. If I remember well he was kind of pissed because all of his children except one chose to go back to the city.

  26. I saw that blond lady, funnily enough, at the Portland airport last year. Totally stunning woman in person, like she’s from another world. She had on a leather patchwork skirt trimmed in a million eagle feathers. She seemed straight from Clan of the Cave Bears (she did look quite a bit like Daryll Hannah, actually). I spent some time trying to find out who she was but gave up.

  27.  Living off the grid is so great. I’m the only adult in my blood family that doesn’t have diabetes, nor a body fat percentage over 25%. The floating staph infection was a bit problematic, and the gastrointestinal pain brought on by iodine water purification tablets  and flourishing fungal infections, coupled with cystic acne, were a bit harsh, but I was lucky to enough to never need /serious/ medical attention while I was at Philmont.

    The only real difficulty was not being able to clean my hair with any of the eighty pounds of water I had to backpack with me.

    There’s nothing that says that living authentically “off the grid” involves manufacturing everything you have from the ground up. Whether you backpack is framed with an aluminum frame from a garage sale or willow, you’re still impacting the same.

  28. Won’t be more entertained today than I just was reading all y’alls comments. Like a group of lovable jackals, and I mean that with great sincerity and respect.

  29. Did anyone else notice that black and chrome wood burning stove? It is certainly well maintained indicating a skill set not found in most modern lives. The perpetual maintenance of durable quality goods is something we can learn in our modern lives that would benefit all of us.
    The stove itself raises so many questions for me. How did they get it up in the hills?
    How old is it? The vents on the side make me think it’s a modern design.
    Come to think of it, much in that shot are modern goods – lamps, clothing, door pulls, even the lumbar used to in the interior is milled and nailed with modern nails.. How do they earn money to pay for all of that?

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