While searching for my own off grid property, I wondered how big a lot I really needed to be self sufficient. So, I went about finding reliable information on how much land a family really needs. And, he answer may surprise you.
How many acres do you need to live off grid? For a small family, 1/4 acre is enough to grow most of your own food and live self sufficiently. If you want to harvest your own timber for heat, then 5 – 10 acres is plenty to survive off grid.
The numbers above assume that you have good light, water available for irrigation, and are in decent growing climate. In reality, the number of acres you need depends on how you want to live, and the climate that you live in. Read on to get a better idea of what to consider when choosing the size of your off grid property?
How Much Land Does It Take to Be Self Sufficient?
The five most space consuming aspects of living self sufficiently are:
When determining how much land you need to live off the grid, I would go down the list and figure out exactly how much you need for each of the five elements.
The most space consuming element can often be livestock. While a small flock of chickens, a pig, or a goat can be a helpful addition on the homestead, if you plan on grazing larger herds on naturally occurring pasture, you will need much more land. For instance, in Montana, an adult cow needs about 4 acres per month.
The next biggest use of space on the homestead is typically used for growing wood for wood heat. Having your own wood lot isn’t always necessary, since many areas allow harvesting firewood from public land. However, if you do plan on growing your own you will need 5 – 10 acres to produce enough wood for a small efficient home in a cold climate.
For most people, food production is the biggest concern when sizing their own off grid homestead. Ultimately, how big a back yard you need to grow your own food depends on your climate and how intensively you are willing to farm. Densely planted poly-culture gardens, which require the most work, have been shown to feed a family of four on less than 1/4 acre. But, even in relatively poor climates, an acre of potatoes can produce 16 – 20 tons, which is enough to feed 4 people (at 2000 calories each per day) for more than 6 years from one harvest.
Solar power production from solar also depends on usage and climate. For more info on sizing a system in your area check out my article “Total Cost Of Off Grid Solar Photovoltaic Systems” which covers the process in detail. However, the average American home requires about 11,000 kWh per year, which could be supplied by 400 sqft of solar panels in a sunny climate. This amount will easily fit on the roof of a standard sized American home, so long as you have a good amount of south facing walls.
Lastly, for smaller lots you will want to consider space for housing and daily activities. The median house size in the US is 971 sqft per person. Additionally, consider space used up by driveways and parking, which varies substantially from lot to lot based on the placement of the home. Overall, a relatively modest home would fit nicely on a 1/4 acre lot with room to spare for food production.
How Much Area Do You Need For Off Grid Solar?
Determining how much space you actually need for solar panels to power your home can be a bit trick. It depends on three factors, mainly — 1) how much power you consume, 2) how many hours of sun you get, 3) seasonality of your power production and consumption.
For the estimate above of 375 sqft of solar panels was based on the average power consumption of an on grid home using average solar production figures for the US.
- The average home in the US uses 11,000 kWh / year (ie 11 million watt hours)
- The average solar panel produces 15 W / sqft
- The average climate produces 5 Wh / W per day
Dividing 11 million by 365 to get daily usage, then diving that by 5 times 15 gives the estimate of 400 sqft per home.
You can update this estimate for your own needs by plugging in your own numbers.
If you have a power bill, you can use that to determine your real daily, monthly, or yearly power usage in kW. However, going of grid usually means you end up using much less power, in which case you would need to estimate your usage appliance by appliance, step by step instruction here:
You will also want to consider variations in your climate, the map below from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show the average daily power production coefficient everywhere in the United States. I estimated this a 5 above, but it can be much higher or lower depending on where you live.
Be aware that this an average number, and if you are completely off grid you will probably have to size up your array a bit to cover the winter when production is lower. If you are working on your own solar system, I have a free 10,000 word guide available here: “Off Grid Solar: A Beginner’s Complete Guide”
How Much Land Do You Need To Grow Your Own Food?
Growing your own food requires surprisingly little land to make a big impact on your food requirements, or live entirely self-sufficiency. Modern intensive gardening techniques allow for extremely productive plots on very little land, providing you have good access to sunlight and water available for irrigation.
While there are some pretty impressive people out there able to grow abundant harvests on almost no land, I wouldn’t consider living on less than 1/4 acre for a small family growing their own food.
Self Sufficient Family on 1/10 acre
This family is able to produce much of their own food on just 1/10th of an acre using a combination of gardening and livestock.
Self-Sufficient Food Production Resources
While there are many books out there on various forms of organic gardening, I found these two to be the most helpful when going off grid. The first book is a very down to Earth, practical guide with an eye to self-sufficiency in a small space. While it doesn’t cover absolutely everything that you might want to know to be self sufficient, it does a good job of getting your foot in the door as a beginner.
The second book is may favorite overall gardening book written by a master gardener. While it doesn’t necessarily focus on self-sufficiency, it takes you all the way through a highly productive and working saving method of organic gardening from seed to harvest. I especially like how the book considers food storage as part of garden planning, which is essential for a self-sufficient garden.
- Mini Farming — Self-Sufficiency on a 1/4 Acre (book)
- No Dig Organic Home & Garden: Grow, Cook, Use, and Store Your Harvest (book)
Average Crop Yield Data
When planning out your garden space, it is helpful to know roughly how much space you would need for each plant. The table below shows you roughly how much to expect for each 100 square foot planting of the following crops in terms of both pound and approximate calories.
|Crop||Yield (lbs / 100 ft)||Calories / 100 ft|
|Green beans (as a vegetable)||100||463|
|Green beans (dried, as a protein)||20||463|
|Beets (just the roots)||200||1,896|
|Beets (just the greens)||200||970|
|Corn (on the cob)||55||1,043|
|Corn (dried for cornmeal)||18||1,524|
|Sunflower (shelled seeds)||6||772|
Yield Source: Markham, Brett L.. Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre (pp. 82-84). Skyhorse. Kindle Edition.
Calories Source: USDA FoodData Central
While much of the self-sustainability literature heavily emphases vegetable gardens, cereal crops are still some of the most calorie dense and easy to store crops there are. Likewise, they make good winter feed for animals.
Productivity of cereals has increased significantly over the centuries. The above chart is data from the UK in metric tonnes per hectare, which is about 892 pounds per acre. So, wheat production has increased from about 1 t/ha to about 7000 pounds per acre in modern times. Other cereal crops have similar yields.
Much of this increase in production is due to modern breading programs with produce highly productive verities of wheat, as well as chemical fertilizers and active irrigation. This goes to show that there is quite a bit of variability in return per acre, and if you plan on growing heritage cereal varieties using pre-industrial growing methods, you should probably expect a lower return than you find on the USDA productivity maps.
How Much Land Do You Need For Wood Heat?
Homesteaders frequently turn to wood for both heating their home in the winter and for cooking year round. Wood is one of the best renewable heating resources, being both cheap and widely available. However, wood is only renewable when harvested in a sustainable manner. So, the question is, how many acres of forest land would you need to own in order to heat your home?
The overall number depends both on your climate and species of trees that you have available in your land, as well as the amount of wood that you need to heat your home. While, you don’t have much control over the productivity of your forest land, beyond providing good stewardship, you do have a lot of control over how much wood you use.
Often, increasing insulation, building a higher efficiency wood stove, and incorporating passive solar heating in to you home can significantly reduce the amount of wood you use to heat your home in the winter.
How Much Firewood Will an Acre Produce
The United States Forest Service provides data on forest productivity which indicates approximate values for forest wood production. Here is a distillation of some of that data they provide.
|Forest Type||Cords / acre / year|
|Douglas Fir||0.4 – 1.5|
|Grand Fir||0.4 – 3.0|
|Western Larch||0.07 – 0.4|
Here a cord is defined as 128 cubic feet of wood (8’ x 4’ x 4’). The amount shown is new growth per acre of mature forest land. So assuming you harvest at this rate, you should never run out of wood. Of course, if you clear cut an area you would get much much more wood than listed.
This data fits well with the old rule of thumb of about 1 cord per acre with minimal management. If you take care with the tree you choose, you should be able to get 1.5 cord per acre or more if you live in a fast growing climate.
How Many Cords of Wood Do You Need for the Winter?
The amount of wood you will need to burn is a very personal matter, and depends on the efficiency of your stove, the size and insulation value of your home, and the severity of your climate. One rough way to estimate is the following:
- 1 cord per week of burning per open fireplace
- 1 cord per month or two of burning per wood stove
- 1 cord per two or three months of burning per high-efficiency wood stove
By this logic, if you have a typical wood stove that you burn for about 6 months a year, then you would probably need about 6 cords for the winter. Again, in that case you would need around 6 acres of wood land to sustainable supply the stove.
Ways to Burn Wood More Efficiently
Once you go through the work up putting up 5 – 10 cords of wood for the winter, you will certainly wonder if there is a way to use less wood. There are a number of good ways to improve your stove efficiency or burn less in order to burn much less wood
Make Sure You Wood is Very Dry
Wood needs to be very dry to burn efficiently. One way to test this is with a low cost firewood moisture meter. Well seasoned firewood should be less 20 – 25% water in order to burn well. The lower the better, with well aged wood usually around 15% moisture.
The key to well seasoned firewood is airflow and time. Firewood should be kept out of the rain, but in stacks that allow considerable wind movement on both ends of the stick. Seasoning wood can take 2 – 3 years.
Use a High Efficiency Stove
There are many high efficiency “catalytic” wood stoves on the market, which will cut your wood usage significantly. Also, there are several low cost DIY options for ultra efficient wood stoves. My favorite or rocket mass stoves and masonry heaters.
Both DIY efficient wood stove designs both work with similar methods of improving efficiency — allow the wood to burn hot and efficiently, while saving the excess heat in a large mass.
Rocket mass heaters are simple to make, require only few materials, and are highly efficient. Typically, you only need to burn the stove for an hour or two per day in the winter, and it will radiate heat all throughout th rest of the day. Rocket stoves require two or three times less wood than a similar sized cast iron wood stove.
Another DIY option is the masonry stove. Popular in in the cold climates of northern and eastern Europe, they are large brick ovens that burn ultra efficiently and store radiant heat like the rocket mass stove. Follow this link for free masonry heater plans. The site is in Russian, but the pictures are easy enough to follow.
Passive Solar Heating
The best way to use less wood is to heat the house without it. If you are building your own home, or remodeling an existing home, taking the time to make the most of free heat from the Sun can save you $1,000s and/or 100s or cords of wood over just a few years.
- The south wall should have many windows
- The north wall should have few windows, and plenty of insulation
- Eaves should be the right length to let sunlight in during the winter, but shade the widows in the summer
- Store heat in thick earth walls or black water barrels
The basic concept here is that you should get lots of light inside during the winter, and this light should fall on either earth (cob) walls or dark colored water barrels, which store the heat during the day. The earth wall could be part of you rocket mass heater from above, or a section of you masonry heater as well.
How Much Land Do I Need to Keep Livestock?
Depending on how you plan to raise your livestock, they can be a very space consuming element of the farm. This is primarily true if you plan on pasturing them and/or growing your own feed.
Chickens are the most space efficient of the common domestic animals. As a rule of thumb, each bird needs about 2 sqft of nesting space and about 10 sqft each of outside area. But, they will need much more pasture you plan on them being pasture feed.
The famous Polyface Farm houses their birds in 10ft x 12ft x 2ft tall “chicken tractors” with 75 birds each. These movable structures act as the bird’s coop and living area. The tractor is dragged each day to allow access to a fresh piece of pasture. Since these are 8 week birds, that would allow for about 500 chickens per acre, using this method.
Keeping pigs in a pen only requires 8 sqft per pig, although keeping them in a small area tends to cause a muddy, poopy mess. Also, pigs need help keeping warm in the winter, if they are below 50 lbs, and ways to keep cool in temperatures over 70 F if they are over 150 lbs.
Pastured pork is becoming increasingly popular. Leaving pork in a single large forest pen is a good way to clear out plots for later use, and leveraging the pig’s natural rooting tendency. For sustainable pastured pork a stocking rate the works for experienced farmers is 10 – 20 pigs per acre. Seeding legumes for forage and supplement their feed with whey is also a good way to improve the natural forage of your off grid pig.
Cattle grazing rates are a well studied subject, and a varies quite a bit from pasture to pasture. Professionals measure the productivity of pasture in AUM / acre, which stands for animal unit months. An animal unit as 1000 lbs of animal weight, which is roughly the size of an adult cow. The AUM of a pasture is often called carrying capacity of the land.
If there is any commercial cattle grazing in your area, your local extension office should have more information on specific AUM for pasture in your area, and would be a good resources to help you determine how many cattle you can have on your land.
Can You Live Off Grid on a 1/4 Acre Lot?
For me, the most surprising conclusion of this investigation is that if you do not need to get fire wood from your own land, you can pretty comfortably live off grid and largely self sufficient on as little as a quarter acre of land. The key to living on such a small plot is being efficient with every square inch of the property.
By leveraging permaculture planting techniques such as check moats and poly-culture, as well intensive no-dig organic gardening techniques, it is feasible to grow enough for a family on such a small plot.
Solar panels to run a home do not need to be larger than the roof, so an appropriately positioned home (with good south facing exposure on the roof) could easily produce all the electricity they need from roof top solar panels.
How many acres do you need to live off the land?
A self-sustainable home that grows its own food can be built on as little as 1/4 acre. If you plan on harvesting fire wood from your own land, then 5 – 10 acres of mostly forested land is plenty to live on.
Do you have to buy land to live off grid?
No. You can just as easily live on rented land or on some else’s land if you have their permission. There are also a number of “eco-village” communities that have room for people who want to live off grid.