Travels in the Off-Grid…
14. Off-grid and mobile
WHY should a definition of the off-grid lifestyle include the necessity of a fixed address? Do off-gridders need a house to live in? That was the model that developed in the seventies. Then, rural land was cheap.
Penguin, a small town on Tasmania’s north-west coast is where I met a woman who lives on the road. Winters in Queensland, summers in Tasmania. Her small caravan is her home. She has lived like this for 20 years.
“I find living in a house intolerable”, she told me as we stood talking by the shore. “Once I had an old house with 15 rooms. I sold and downsized to my caravan and my 4WD twin-cab ute that pulls it north, south and west.”
A modern nomad, she was somewhere in late middle age, fit looking and happy living on the road by herself. In the time we talked there by the waters of Bass Strait I learned that her passion is bush birds. Bush birds, not sea birds. “Sea birds look too much alike”, she said.
I first noticed the vehicle some months before meeting her. I noticed how it would disappear for months at a time then, one day, there it would be again. It was a Toyota Coaster, a minibus-size vehicle we see many of on the road, a vehicle favoured by serious nomads whether they call the road home for a few months, a few years or full time.
I’m on my way to the community centre when I see her. She’s cleaning out the Coaster and has stuff out on the footpath. I stop to talk.
Her name is Anna. In her sixties, I would guess, fit looking, grey hair cut to ear length, tanned and exuding an outdoorsy vibe. She has the quiet confidence of someone who can look after herself.
Her Coaster is an older model. She tells me she and her husband own an apartment closer to Coogee Beach but don’t park there because the van takes too up too much space on the street. That is why she leaves it here. I learn a little of their lives as we stand talking that late summer morning. During those absences when I notice the van missing they take to the road. Their next journey will take them away for a few months, south this time along the Victorian coast.
Anne shows me around her vehicle. It’s well equipped for off-grid, independent mobile living. A double bed sleeping platform takes up the rear. A rooftop photovoltaic panel charges an auxiliary battery that powers lights and a small refrigerator. There is bottled gas for cooking, a kitchen sink and storage for food, clothing and equipment. There is probably a small portable chemical toilet too, though I don’t ask about that. Anna’s home on the road is typical of that of the van dwellers we’ve come across in camping areas and informal bush campsites.
The couple are part of a different band of off-gridders to those who are place-based. They require no land for their way of life. Nor do they maintain vegetable gardens, fruit orchards or chook runs to feed themselves. They are mobile off-gridders who live out of their vans and vehicles. Some are retirees seeking something more than a quiet life pottering in the garden. Others are younger, the fortunate ones with the work skills to make their digitally-enabled mobile lifestyles a reality. Their work is often web or IT-based.
Nathaniel at Port
Nathaniel speaks slowly and softly, like someone unhurried by the demands of life. I’m guessing he is somewhere in his late-thirties.
Atop his T3 Kombi is a cargo pod and a longboard attached to a wooden roof rack. “Yes, built that myself”, he says, pointing to the rack. “The cargo pod is filled with my climbing gear”.
Nathaniel might have been back in Port Macquarie, however his van is equipped for the nomadic life of the road. There is an awning on the roof rack to give shelter from the hot summer sun and a mattress in the back. Behind where he sits in the doorway is a pile of clothing and stuff, a net basket filled with more stuff hangs from the front seat and a row of Tibetan prayer flags hang over the door. The side windows are covered with insulating foil. I mention how this model of Kombi is regarded as a classic by VW enthusiasts. He knows that and adds that he is getting some mechanical work done in town.
“The size of the van is deceptive when it comes to space. The engine takes up a lot of room in the rear”, he says, confirming my belief that this model was the first Kombi to have a water-cooled engine.
We speak for only a short a time, too short to gain a real impression of someone, however I come away with the idea that Nathaniel is happy in a life that orbits around surfing, climbing, travel and working when he needs to.
Does mobile off-grid mean less resource use?
Advocates of what has become known as vanlife say that mobile off-grid living uses fewer resources such as energy and water than does off-gridding at a fixed address. This implies a lower environmental footprint. Other than personal experience, any objective assessment, any research to support this claim is elusive, if it exists at all.
Others say that the mobile off-grid lifestyle is not authentically off-grid because it has no fixed address and lacks food production. We should recognise that even off-gridders who live at fixed addresses seldom grow the bulk of what they eat. Most off-gridders, especially those in the cities where there is less access to land, supplement their home-grown diet from the local shop, food co-op, community supported agriculture scheme or supermarket.
The main resources consumed in mobile off-grid living are fuel and food. Both are also consumed in the fixed-address off-grid lifestyle although fuel consumption for motor vehicles would presumably be less unless people need to commute regularly for work of business in town. The volume of fuel used by mobile off-gridders varies with how much travel they so. Those whose stay in a place for only a few days will of course use more fuel. Many stay longer, either to work to refill the financial coffers or because they like a place. That can be for weeks, months sometimes.
What fixed-address life offers is the opportunity to grow some of the food a household eats, produce some of its energy and harvest some or all of its water needs. Offsetting the mobile off-gridders reliance on the food industry’s long supply chains and the questionable corporate practices of the supermarket industry is buying food produced in the region they are traveling through or staying in, where it is available. As my partner and I found on our time on the road, local food is frequently conspicuous by its absence. Even at their most frequent, farmers’ markets are only weekly, a reality which limits access unless you happen to be in town on opening day.
Mobile living pre-dates the arrival of modern mobile off-grid life, of so-called vanlife. Fruit pickers, shearers and farm workers are among those who traditionally lived the itinerant life as they moved about the country following the harvests and the seasonality of farm work.
Today’s mobile off-gridders who make a living while on the road are part of the gig economy, the name given to those who do not have the financial security of a regular job and who make a livelihood in often lower-paid, short term or consultancy work, or who work as casual or part time employees. For many mobile off-gridders the economic uncertainties of their lifestyle is offset by the freedoms it brings, the ability to move around the land, to choose their own hours and place of work, to live only partially-connected to conventional life.
Modern tech is an enabler of the mobile off-grid lifestyle just as it assists those living a settled off-grid life. Their energy might come from photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof of the van or that are propped up against it at campsites. Electrical power on the road comes from an auxiliary battery. Water is carried in containers, cooking energy comes from a butane camping stove and sometimes from the wood of the campfire. Food is transported in a cooler or a small refrigerator. And the loo? Well, those small chemical toilets are just fine.
Communications are especially important to those working on the road just as it is to those living the stationary off-grid life. The mobile phone and internet on laptop, sometimes in a library or a cafe with free wifi are solutions. Temporary home is a caravan park with showers when the need to clean-up and wash clothes arises. More often, it is the secluded bush or beach camp that is preferred.
Involuntarily mobile and off-grid
In her 2017 book, Nomadland-Living in Cars Working for Amazon: meet America’s newest nomads, Jessica Bruder describes how older people traveling the country in their vans and camper vehicles supplement their pensions by working for Amazon and other businesses during high demand times. They make up a new cluster within the casualised workforce for whom seasonal work is a necessity because pensions are too low. It signifies the end of retirement for many.
There are others whose off-grid mobile lifeway is not voluntary. Like the family we met at the van park at Seven Mile Beach in Tasmania where we lived in our own VW minivan over the summer and into the autumn of 2019–2020. She was in her late-thirties, slim, tall, blonde hair cut short. She lived with her two primary-age children in a small caravan pulled by a car she knew she would soon have to replace. The kids didn’t go to school nor were they home-schooled at the time. Her husband worked a continent away at the big mine at Tom Price over in Western Australia. They were still there when we left. Like a few others living there, they were refugees from the housing shortage and high cost of rental accommodation.
We can draw a distinction between those who travel the land in search of work, those who live nomadically as a way to enjoy their retirement — the ‘grey nomads’, an older, retired and footloose cohort who trade fixed address for mobile home, temporarily or permanently — and those who choose a mobile off-grid lifestyle but who could, if they wanted, find work and accommodation in the cities.
A few years after encountering Anne as she was cleaning out her Coaster van there on the Randwick footpath, I met others living in the same vehicles. Sharon’s old dusty red Coaster was temporary home on the road while she travelled in Tasmania. Her home is Queensland’s Sunshine Coast but like others so fortunate, Sharon can make a mobile, digitally-enabled living as a translator. She has no need to rush back home to be on time for work.
To these we should add a further category of itinerant traveller, the adventure traveler who roams the country to follow their adventure sport, be it rock climbing, skiing, surfing, canoeing, hiking, mountain biking or whatever it is that propels them along the highways. Their origin lies with the dirtbags, the US rockclimbers of the 1960s and 1970s. Dirtbagging was not off-grid in the commonly accepted sense of the term, yet it on a social sense as they lived on the periphery of conventional society with often-tenuous connections to social institutions and had no intention of living where they camped. The lifestyle was a temporary one and was the means to an end, the end being low-cost access to their chosen places for their adventure pursuit. In Australia it was surfers who made up the majority of this cohort.
Some say living the dirtbag way of life is no longer possible. They point to increased regulations about where you can camp and other intrusions into the personal freedoms required for living this way. That is undoubtedly true, however fitting a van or other vehicle as a mobile basecamp, an ‘adventure vehicle’, has become popular over recent years.
Lewis and Kate’s mobile adventure life
Lewis was holding a ladder against the side of the Coaster. “Getting to the surfboards is a bit of a hassle”, he said, looking at the boards high up on the van’s roof. Under her denim jacket Kate wore a tie-dyed Girls Surfriders Club Tshirt, the same organisation here at this NSW Mid-North Coast break running today’s surfing competition. They are a fit, healthy-looking couple in that mid-life band of years which I have trouble guesstimating.
As we got to talking I learned how the couples’ travels are dictated by the seasons.
“We’ve just come up from Thredbo”, Kate told me. When I checked out their Instagram later, there they were snowboarding the Thredbo slopes, the Coaster their home in the snow as much as it is their home on the coast.
The van is Kate and Lewis’ adventure vehicle. Not in the sense that it takes them on rough 4WD tracks, which it cannot, but in the sense that it gets them to places where they go off on their self-propelled adventures.
“The vehicle? It cruises economically at 90kph but if you take it up to 100 or 110 it eats fuel”, Lewis said. “In summer we pack our winter gear, skis, snowboards in there”, Kate explained, pointing to the cargo pod next to the surfboards on the roof. “In winter we stow our summer gear there. And here, in the boot…”, Kate points to the hatch at the rear of the Coaster, “we have two mountain bikes with their front wheel removed”.
I felt envious of the life these two lead, a life following the adventure opportunities the seasons offer, snowboarding the winter slopes, surfing the summer coasts, mountain biking whenever.
Where to now for them? It was Kate who answered. “We’re heading north, following the coast”.
I walk along the gravel driveway of Yvonne Gluyas’ home on the ridge which forms Launceston’s western margin and notice a vehicle parked among the old apple, apricot and pear trees. A young woman with long red hair steps out.
Lauren is her name. Lauren Fisher. Better known a Red Gypsy Lauren. That is an appropriate name because Lauren and her four young children live the life of the stereotypical gypsy, a life on the road in their Toyota Coaster. was designed as a minibus. Spend time on the road and you soon discover it is a model popular for mobile living. It is smaller than those bulky motor homes we encounter on the highways, but larger than the VW and HiAce vans popular with travellers. The spaciousness of the vehicle’s interior lends it to conversion.
Lauren’s Coaster demonstrated a well-thought-out use of limited space. There’s a bed at the rear, a large chest of drawers along one side, fold-out bunks for the children and the other fittings that make the minibus a mobile family home. It’s functional. It’s homely. It works.
But, a van is not a house and it brings its own challenges unknown to those who have never lived in one. This was something Lauren discovered when, driving along a gravel road on the Tasman Peninsula, she drove into a roadside ditch. Then there’s coping with the heat, the cold and the rain. Such challenges Lauren seems to take in her stride because, here, is a psychologically, emotionally and physically resilient woman. Countering the misadventures are the good things, the people and places that the roads Lauren and her daughters take lead them to.
Literature, websites and social media suggest that a significant number of people in the US follow the life of the modern nomad. Some are forced into it through job and accommodation loss, some by relationships breaking-up or because of some other life event. Many, though, find life on the road a way to avoid high, income-sapping rents, expensive utility bills and the other costs of urban living. For them, the nomadic life is a choice.
The modern nomads are not the first to adopt the transient lifestyle but theirs’ is an attitude and a sense of freedom that make the links between yesterday and today’s off-gridders worth visiting.
In the US, the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression of the 1930s drove rural families from their land in the Mid-West and put them on the road to California. John Steinbeck novelised this exodus in Grapes of Wrath. Many decades later, another cohort took to the highways, voluntarily this time.
The first of these were people who, after the novel came out in the late fifties, by thumb and old car followed the cross country trails blazed by Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy, transcontinental journeys immortalised in Kerouac’ book, On The Road. It was the cities, however, New York, San Francisco, that were their destinations and where they lived when not on the road. The novel is based on real life, the names of the characters changed, time concatenated, events real.
On The Road’s call to the freedom of the open highway influenced more than its own generation. It still calls softly from the shelves of city bookstores where it site waiting to ensnare those who hear its whispered message of movement across the landscape and life lived in the moment.
Later, but not much later, came the surfers of the sixties and seventies who in both Australia and the US loaded panel vans or old cars with surfboard and travelled the coasts in search of the green glassy swell. Theirs’ was not a permanent lifestyle on the road, more a road trip spanning weeks or months. Some would discover places like Byron Bay and stay while others continued the search. It is a path still followed. Surfin’ Safari, a Beach Boys song of the 1960’s, was a cultural recognition of the new lifestyle at the time it emerged.
Neither the readers of Kerouac’s books nor the surfers traversing the nation’s highways were off-gridders in the conventional sense. They sought no fixed address although some found that and in doing so became off-gridders. Their mobile off-grid life was merely the means to an end of travel and adventure.
Ours, Fiona and mine, were brief forays into the mobile off-grid life. They were shorter journeys in vans that we refitted for travel and living out of on the road. We installed a simple sleeping platform in the Mitsubishi L300. Fiona’s old Kombi already had a platform atop the engine compartment that required just a mattress. Toss in a bag of clothes, camera kit, Trangia cookset and a cooler of food. With this arrangement we froze nights away in Victoria’s winter mountains when the van became a refrigerator with us huddled in warm sleeping bags inside. We sweated away the hot summer nights. It was a good life.
In 2019 we set off on a nine month road trip along the south-east coast and into the mountains behind. In campsites and on the road we met others on similar journeys. There was the couple with their pre-primary aged school child travelling the country in a camper trailer pulled by their Mitsubishi 4WD. There was the couple living in their car camping tent, the guy studying and his wife working. There was the lone woman living long term in her camping trailer in the caravan park while she looked for a home to buy. There were also those whose involuntary mobile life was dictated by loss of accommodation and its high cost and scarcity.
There is a growing library of how-to books on mobile off-grid living. Instagram has numerous idealised images showing the desirable side of life on the road but seldom the unglamorous — coping with days of rain, the cold of winter, the mosquitos. Like off-gridders with fixed addresses, mobile off-grid can be a partial decoupling from social institutions. For a growing number it is a way to avoid the increasing costs of urban living, costs that drain weekly pay packets to such an extent that people cannot get ahead financially and feel trapped.
Lloyd Khan, author of the influential Shelter, Tiny Homes-Simple Shelter and Builders of the Pacific Northwest books recognised mobile as an authentic off-grid lifestyle by publishing Tiny Houses on the Move. The book carries stories of people living in vans and other vehicles as well as on boats. Lloyd is a recognised authority on off-grid living and building. While his book doesn’t answer the environmental footprint question of mobile-off-grid versus fixed-address off-grid, it validates the mobile off-grid way of life.
When mobile off-gridders describe themselves as that they are often talking about more than being free of the energy, water, utility and financial grids. They mean they are off the social grid too, as much as their lifestyle with its need for fuel, food and periods of work make possible. It is also the description of a mental state coming from a deliberate disconnect from social institutions like corporations, marketing and government. Eschewing those, a sense of freedom is gained which although partial is nonetheless liberating.