What You Have to Know to Start Homesteading

homesteading gardens seen from above

Honest living in touch with the land. Healthy food and happy children with faces unglued from iPads. A quiet evening in front of a fire with your loved ones (or by yourself if you're a grumpy old goat with a Harley Panhead parked in your living room).

A better, self-sufficient life is there for the taking.

To succeed as a homesteader, however, you need to be realistic about your needs, wants, budget, and capabilities.

If you think about it, all the westward-going settlers in the Donnar party were homesteaders. They failed because they had no idea where they were going.

We can do better. And bring some food.

Thankfully, this is not the road you have to trailblaze alone. Following the advice of people who've done this before and succeeded will put you at your goal sooner, with less money and effort wasted.

Let's take a look at what you will need to know to start and run a homestead.

smiling goats looking at you

What Are You Looking to Gain from Homesteading Lifestyle?

Homesteading came to mean many different things to many different people.

It's usually described as a self-sufficient lifestyle, but that self-sufficiency is almost always to a degree.

Even the mountain men roaming the Rockies 200 years ago came down to buy ammo, salt, and of course, in hopes of spotting a glimpse of a shapely sasquatch or a mountain lady's ankle.

Yes, complete self-sufficiency is achievable.

It has been done-Robinson Crusoe ( imaginary but based on a real incident) is a great example.

However, are you willing to spend the rest of your life wearing untanned goat skin underwear?

Yeah, me neither.

So, let's pass on this extreme.

In our modern times, the word homesteading has come to mean anything from a victory garden in your suburban backyard to living in an off-grid (meaning no power or services) cabin on top of a mountain in Montana.

The biggest decision you can make to ensure the success of this enterprise is to construct a very clear idea of what YOU want out of being a homesteader.

Is it self-reliance when it comes to food?


Power and other utilities?

All of the above?

Or do you just want to get away and have a place where people stop bugging you while pulling weeds from your garden?

The more definitive you can answer this question-the more likely you are not to end up miserable.

You can't aim at a target if you don't know what that target is.

man harvesting lettuce in garden

What Exactly Are You Willing to Suffer to Reach Your Homesteading Dream?

You've got your dream figured out and neatly written out on the piece of paper. Your better, smaller, or equal half, is on board. Even your pups are looking forward to the wagons rolling out.

Time for the big ugly-what are you willing to suffer to get close to that dream?

Nothing comes for free—a homestead remote enough not to have to deal with people means hours of drive to get to the store. Miles of snow to plow after every storm.

The nearest electrical outlet 4 miles away, and your internet connection is whatever you can get while standing on the top of the tree, holding your phone to the sky in your left hand and a 20ft metal antenna in the right.

A lot of hardships country people are taking as a "nothing to it" will come as a shock to a new homesteader. There is a process of adjustment during which over 75 percent of people give up and quit.

They quit because they did not have a clear idea of what they could do without and what was worth the effort and the pain.

Don't be one of those people. Figure it out beforehand and gird your loins.

Physical and Financial Budgets

Starting out in a homesteading lifestyle is the opposite of cheap.

Land, tools, home, a vehicle that'll handle the dirt roads—none of that comes cheap today.

The drop in pay most people experience moving away from the city, and the rise in the cost of most things (if you're ways away- the products you're shopping for have to be hauled those same long ways as well) won't help much either.

Be realistic about your financial situation and what you can afford. Think past the purchase price of the land, housing, and equipment-what will you be able to afford on the level of income you're bringing in living at your new location for the next ten years?

Assess your physical and emotional budget. If you're looking to move to the northern plains or mountains of Montana, you're looking at 4 to 8 cords of firewood cut, split, and stacked to get ready for each winter.

Tons of snow shoveled. Hay stacked, and goats (or sheep or cows) chased.

Be honest with yourself-are you up for that much physical activity? If you're, not-this is time to get yourself ready.

Consider your emotional stability. There is a reason so many mountain men were, to put it gently, "peculiar." Isolation is a huge weight.

Cabin fever is no joke-make sure you and your family have something to keep you from reenacting " The Shinning."

When you strip the distractions of modern society, tv shows, and annoying neighbors, the person you really are starts to come through a lot clearer.

person milking cow

Compromise (Or Wave Your Homesteading Dream Goodbye)

Now that you've got the wants, the means, and the abilities figured out-it's time to find the happy medium that will allow you to get what you want without losing your family and going into debt for the next 75 generations.

To be frank, no one ever gets exactly the house on the prairie they picture in their dreams. One hundred acres of land when all you need is 5 is extra taxes, extra upkeep, and a bunch of money wasted that could have been spent on things actually needed.

A huge house, when all you need is a cabin, is just a ton of extra cleaning, heating, and repairs. On the other hand-too little land, and you don't have the rooms to grow what you need to sustain yourself.

Too little storage space and you have equipment and produce destroyed by the weather. There is a reason why the utility buildings on farm average 3-4 times the size of the living quarters.

Too much can be a very bad thing, and too little is a failure waiting to happen.

Your job is to find the happy medium you can come to love, instead of hoping for a perfect storm of rainbows and unicorns and winning the lottery.

smiling man and daughter

Food (On Your Homestead You Eat What You've Grown)

What you're planning to eat determines what you'll raise and grow, which in turn determines how much and what sort of land you need.

An average person needs between 1600 to 3000 calories a day to survive. Stress, colder weather, and hard work ( the only work you'll meet while homesteading is "hard work," and it'll usually be traveling with its close friend" a lot of work") will drive that number up rapidly.

In theory, you can get those calories from plant sources.

Not going to be easy, and you will need to learn quite a bit about making it digestible (humans can barely digest corn, for instance, without it first being treated with lime as American cultures did for thousands of years) and assembling different plants and vegetable foods to produce at least a relative approximation of a complete protein.

Few homesteaders are vegetarians by choice. The old joke, "what's the Native American word for a vegetarian? Bad hunter" holds true in most instances. But it can be done if you're willing to invest time into learning how.

Supplementing your orchard and garden with a good variety of eggs and milk products will make your health situation much better-that was the traditional farmer's food fare since the start of farming.

Food-producing options are numerous:

A garden is a must but can be very labor intensive. There are a number of gardening approaches-box, mounds, traditional, square foot, etc. to experiment with and find a fit for your particular climate and situation.

Orchard is a great idea-while slow to get going, it produces a much higher return on effort invested. A single full-size apple tree can produce up to 600 lbs of apples, but it'll take up to 7 years to get to that point.

A greenhouse is almost a necessity for those of us outside of subtropical climates.

Cows for milk or meat-great idea, but it'll take close to 2 acres of grass or 32 lbs of hay per day, close to 12000 lbs a year, to sustain one.

Plus-what are you going to do with 3-5 gallons of milk each day?

A goat or a sheep is a lot more manageable and a favorite of homesteaders.

The downside-goats are super unruly and unmanageable if kept by themselves—you'll need two at the minimum.

Chickens and ducks are a staple- they provide eggs and a better meat return on a pound of food.

Pigs are a great resource and can be surprisingly hardy.

Rabbits, or if you're in warmer climates, nutria, breed and grow fast, and a couple can provide over 125 lbs of meat each year. Downside-are you up to slaughtering them yourself?

Bee-keeping and fish farming are a bit less known resources but are of monumental importance to a homesteader. Bees not only offer one of the healthiest foods on earth-honey also lasts forever without a need for refrigeration or any other treatment.

Bees are also responsible for pollinating your garden and fruit trees.

Fish, especially catfish, produce more meat per pound of feed than any other animal. Plus, they offer you an excuse to go fishing-you can't beat that!

Keep in mind that generating food is not the end of the story-unless you're planning on not eating through the colder months, you'll have to learn how to store and preserve it.

chickens in a sunny yard

Water (Chickens Won’t Drink Pepsi)

You can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water. You and everything you grow, raise, and build, depend on you being able to secure a reliable water source.

Access to water is at a premium in the continental United States.

Water from a river or a creek can be used to water plants but has to be heavily filtered for human or animal use. A spring on your property is a huge stroke of good luck and will save a truckload of money if developed and piped to your home.

Rural water might be an option for some, and in the worst scenario, you can truck in water by truckload.

For most of us, drilling a well is an expensive but necessary option.

In the United States, a foot of drilled and cased well costs between 50 and 70 dollars. If you're lucky enough to buy your homestead in an area with high water tables, you might hit good water before 200 ft, but the average depth for a well is between 400 and 1000 ft.

It is not uncommon to have to drill below 100 feet in many areas of Montana to produce usable water. 800 ft well is going to cost you between 40,000 and 60,000 dollars.

Access to water should be one of the deciding factors in choosing a spot for your new home. Check out the water levels at your prospective property on this website.

Power (Even the Amish Watch “The Big Bang”)

A house full of humming electrical appliances or a freezer running on a generator will require a lot of power.

The electrical grid, solar, wind, and generators -the options are there to choose from.

While Hendry David Thoreau's paradise of quiet reflection unencumbered by distractions of modern life sounds fun from a distance, real life without lights and electricity is full of boogymen and stubbed toes that live in the darkness.

Access to the grid is the easiest and often the cheapest option in the short run. The downsides are the monthly power bills (becoming more and more substantial every year) and the cost of getting connected.

The average cost to extend an electrical line is $37 dollars a foot, $187000 a mile. If you're living in the bush, that can become prohibitive very fast.

Solar setup costs vary between 500-500 dollars for a minimalist setup with a compact battery/inverter and a couple of portable panels vs. 35000-50000 dollars for a setup that will provide enough power for your home to forget that you are off the grid.

Small wind power turbines vary in power producing capability from 5 KW to 15 KW and cost from 15000 to 75000 dollars. It's a less well-known option for homesteaders and a more complicated one to install on your own.

A water turbine can be a viable option if your property has access to a river or a creek. The average cost for a turbine capable of generating 1KW of power is around 2000 dollars, and you'll need close to 10 KW to cover the needs of a modern home.

Gasoline or gas generator is a great backup option, but in the long run, it's not very feasible, thanks to today's gas prices.

The best approach to deciding on what power setup is best for you is to add up the power load you're using right now(your electric bill will give you the exact number ) and look for a system that comes close to that number and will work in the environment you're planning to live.

Land and Home (You Can't Spell "Homestead" Without "Home")

Picking the right piece of land for your homestead is relatively simple once you've narrowed down what you will grow, what animals you'll keep, and what your budget is.

The amount of land you'll need will be based on those determinations. After that-more is better but better is more.

A thousand acres of rocky, fruitless land you can't irrigate is less useful than half an acre of good, live dirt.

Get as much as you can afford but don't sacrifice quality for quantity.

The great view, waterfront, and non-psychotic neighbors come way behind making your new place truly useful to you and your family.

The design of the home should follow a function and be based on your needs.

Decide on what you need out of your living space. Ask yourself what would make your life easier if you were snowed in your home for two weeks.

Do you need a place to work out or a quiet office?

Would placing your kid's bedroom on the opposite side of the home give you some peace and quiet, or do you need to have an eye on them to stop them from burning down the house?

Do you have enough storage room? No one does. Whatever you think you'll need, double it.

Are stairs a problem for you? Will they be after a day bent over in the garden?

Once you have the needs figured out, all you have left is to determine what suits your location the best.

Passive solar is a boon if you build for it and live on the planes or south-facing side of a mountain.

Passive solar in the forest of Idaho is absolutely useless.

A bermed or a log house is a boon in the windy north American plains on top of Montana mountains.

Finding logs to build that log house in the middle of north Dakota is going to be impossible.

Use the materials abundant in your location and build to withstand the weather and dangers of the area you're in.

The worst approach you can take is to buy a piece of land based on looks and then start trying to shoehorn it to work with your needs and means.

The Homesteading Bottom Line

Building a homestead is not easy. It's a completely different lifestyle compared to what most of us are used to. It'll require an immense amount of effort, know-how, and dedication.

Then again, nothing worthwhile comes easy. And what's more worthwhile than building a good life for you and your family?