Have you ever considered growing a garden, raising chickens, or even moving into a tiny, off grid home? Today I will introduce you to a family of six who live in rural Maine in a 200 square foot bunkhouse camper, which they renovated to support an all-season off grid lifestyle while building a new house with cash. Today, the mother of this family, Naomi Kilbreth, shares their story with us.
Welcome Naomi! We’re very interested in learning more about your unique family story. Please tell us about yourselves.
Thank you for introducing me to your readers! I would love to tell you about ourselves! You already know that my name is Naomi. My husband’s name is Glen and our four children are Nemo (age 8), Daphney (age 6), Atlas (age 5), and Amelia (age 3). We have been married for 10 years, and for the past four we’ve been settled on our homestead on the outskirts of Central Maine. While Glen spends most of his days as the supervisor of a wood manufacturing plant we are a close knit family. We do everything together from arrends to weddings, and while we absolutely appreciate being grounded at home we like to think of ourselves as being fun and adventurous.
How did you come to decide that starting a homestead was the right path for you?
Our decision to start a homestead and save money to build a house was based on a number of circumstances which coincided and demanded that we change our lifestyle. Job security was terrible for carpenters after the housing bubble burst, and Glen was laid off in December 2010, not to find work again for almost a year. We also had three kids and had chosen to raise them in a politically incorrect way which made us concerned about being stuck on the grid (ie. home birth, home school, no pediatrician, and we use herbal remedies…. we’re definitely DIYers!). Taking these issues into consideration, we looked at all of our options and decided that living on a piece of our family’s land and choosing the cheapest forms of housing, heat, electricity, water, etc. were going to be our best bet for getting back on our feet and having the freedom to live how we wanted to.
Tell us how your off grid system works. Do you make your own power? What about water and waste? Do you grow your own food?
The answer to that question could easily take up a whole post, so I’ll try to keep this short and sweet! Thankfully, Glen is one of those people who can see a need and fill it using whatever resources he has available. We didn’t have $20,000 to buy a solar system, or thousands to renovate our camper for winter or to drill a well. We tried to keep our needs balanced with our finances by shopping around for the best deals and doing the best we could with the least needed to get by.
What does that look like? Well, until we get a well drilled, we get our drinking water and some of our wash water from my in-laws’ tap. We also collect water from our dug well to bleach, filter, and use for wash water, but at best that only works for about 5-6 months of the year because the well is shallow and dries up. For waste, we are connected to a grey water leach field and we built our own compost toilet and out house. For electricity, we’ve gradually expanded our solar system a little more each year, and keep a backup generator to charge our batteries when we have extended cloud coverage or super cold weather. And to keep warm, Glen installed a small wood stove and a through-the-roof chimney kit he made himself. We alternate wood heat with a kerosene space heater.
We have had vegetable gardens almost every year for the past several years, which (between fresh and canned) has provided up to about half of our yearly vegetable requirements, but we also buy from local farms when produce is in season. Although we do buy most of our food from Walmart, we have been trying to gradually transition to local farms for meat and produce, to limit our wheat intake, and eat organic or at least raw food for just about everything. Aside from the bagels that have become a staple in our house, we reserve pre-packaged, processed foods for treats!
What do you enjoy most about your lifestyle?
I would have to say freedom. Some people say that living off grid or on a homestead is a “simple” life, and while I disagree with it being simple or carefree, we absolutely have more freedom living here than we had in our other home. For one, because we are not indebted to anyone for our home we do not have to worry about paying for the right to stay here. We also have more freedom to design the homestead we want, on our own time frame, and in our own order of projects. Any pressure we are under to accomplish goals is self-induced; a big relief!
What is the most challenging part of your lifestyle; what kinds of problems do you face on a regular basis?
The worst event since moving here, and really of our entire married lives, was Blizzard Nemo in February 2013. We had built a closed in porch beside our camper that extended over the roof in order to protect our home from too heavy of a snow load and give us additional space. Early in the morning of that fateful day, the hurricane level winds ripped the porch apart and threw it all over the backyard, while Glen was standing in it. It was a horribly scary moment, and one which has continued to affect us every time the wind picks up and we have to wonder – will we be safe? Thankfully God has protected us and our camper has not been damaged by any other storm we’ve faced, and other challenges we have faced have been mild in comparison.
The driveway is perhaps one of the most annoying challenges, which we may have resolved this year once the dirt driveway has been finished. Until then, we continue to walk the 600 feet to our camper from the road when it is too muddy or icy to drive, which includes hauling laundry, groceries, water, propane, and gas up and down the hill in a wagon or sled.
Do you have a memorable high point since moving onto your homestead?
Without a doubt that would be our daughter Amelia’s birth! She was born at home in our camper with the help of a midwife team on the record hot day we had in March 2012. Amelia’s was a very peaceful birth, and welcoming her into our family was absolutely the high point of our homestead years thus far, but the second best memory I have was that of reaching our first year anniversary of living here in May 2012. Despite the preparations we made before moving Glen and I had doubted whether or not we would actually make it through the winter without crying uncle. I remember the morning of the anniversary; a bright sunshiny day, leaving for a family outing and beaming at the thought that we had actually done it. And even though we knew the journey to building our house was far from over, it was certainly encouraging to bask in the moment, knowing that whatever we faced we could not only pull it off, but flourish!
What about regrets? If you were to go back in time, is there anything you would do differently?
Glen would tell you without hesitation that he regrets not doing this sooner. Before we married and he changed jobs, Glen was a well respected high-end finish carpentry subcontractor. He was regularly bringing home a grand a week (granted, that was before taxes), and he doesn’t have anything to show for it. Once we went into debt for a house, we kissed any chance of building a fast savings goodbye (or easily cash-building a house). He wishes he had bought a piece of land and a camper before we married and started building the house while he had lower expenses, which would have meant that by the time our first child was born we could have had a house already… a house we owned 100%. The moral of the story is to be wise with your finances, and don’t buy into something just because “that’s what everyone does”. You don’t need a mortgage to settle down and raise a family!
Even though you live in a camper, you seem to have a lot of things in common with other families. You homeschool, you buy groceries from the store, your husband works out of the home… so what makes your daily life different than average?
Our days feel normal to us because we are used to them, but it is often when friends come over and we have to tend to the “un-normal” parts of our lives that I remember our home is a bit unconventional. For example, each day we must keep an eye on the battery level. When the charge is too high we disconnect the batteries from the solar panels and when it gets too low (during cloudy stretches of winter weather) we run the generator for a few hours. Also, before washing dishes or taking baths we must check the water level in our RV tank. When low we must fill it via a 12-volt pump. And because we can’t easily run a washer and dryer, I spend one afternoon a week at the laundromat. There are other ways our life is different, but those stand out!
Where do you picture yourselves five years from now, and what are you doing to work toward that goal?
Five years from now we fully expect to be living in our off grid house and that construction will be finished. I also have hopes to expand our gardens and potentially our livestock. It has taken careful planning in material purchases for the house to ensure that we can do so with much less than it typically takes to build, but our current plan includes an 800 square foot, off grid, ranch-style house with a partial second floor. We also included a plan to build a sun room that will technically be a closed-in porch, but will add extra square footage for living space.
Because we have four kids and are working with a relatively low income, we have to be very intentional with how we spend our money in order to achieve our goals, and look for ways to save money in other places so we can put as much away for the house as possible. So far we have built a large shed, the out house, the leach field, and had the house site dug out with our savings, and we currently have half the money we believe we’ll need to build our house.
One last question before we say goodbye: how would you encourage a family planning a similar life change?
Three things. First, know that it can be done. It won’t be easy, but if you belive in yourself, you can accomplish your goal. Second, build up your courage to be willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and keep trying. And lastly, look at life as an adventure – every path has it’s ups and downs and twists and turns, but if you anticipate that you will both face challenges and overcome them, not only will you do so, but it will also be far easier to enjoy the unexpected beauty that you find along the way.
Thank you again for sharing our story!
Naomi Kilbreth is a Christian, a birth doula, and the author of two books, including A Year In a Camper: a family’s story of rediscovering the american dream. She and Glen own BagsOnSticks.com. You can learn more about her family’s adventures by Liking their page on facebook. You can also support their efforts to finish building their house this year by contributing to their fund at www.crowdrise.com/ahomeforthekilbrethfamily. If you have any questions for Naomi or you would like to share your story with her, she welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org