An eye-opening examination of those who survive ‘off-grid’

Going off grid is a concept that means vastly different things to different people. For Charles Foster—Oxford don, barrister and author—it involved shunning work suits and spending extended periods of time living like various English animals, sleeping in bushes and holes in the ground, and feasting on live earthworms and raw plants.

Despite his high-flying professional career, Foster claims to have spent large parts of his childhood and adult life making ever-more eccentric attempts to get beneath the skin of wild animals and connect with the reality of a genuinely natural life.

Writing about his experiences in Being A Beast, Foster describes a time when he literally lived as a badger for a six-week period in Wales, with his son, Tom. They slept during the day and went on the prowl at night. He also had a crack at being an otter, swimming around in lakes on Exmoor and perfecting the skill of sprainting, which involves sniffing poo to determine who it belongs to. By the end of the exercise he could apparently identify his individual children’s droppings by their smell.

During his red deer phase he got a friend to set a bloodhound after him, so he could feel what it was like to be hunted, and while exploring life as a swift he took to the skies in a paraglider and traced the birds’ migratory route to Africa. Foster felt he performed best as an urban fox, though, scavenging through rubbish bins and skulking around London under the cloak of darkness. But that’s lawyers for you.

Foster’s off-grid lurches are pretty extreme, but there are plenty of people out there who can empathise with his urge to get back to nature, if not his methods.

‘Over the years I’ve gone off-grid for long periods—for reasons both involuntary and voluntary,’ says Jasper Winn, writer and slow adventure specialist. ‘”Off grid” seems to mean no mobile phone, no internet, no social media, no email, but to me it’s heading off to places where there’s no regular or reliable communications, where travel can be delayed for hours, days or longer by bad weather or some geographical malfunction—like a landslide or an earthquake—and where things like electric lights, clean-ish water coming out of a tap, basic warmth, and food in the shops isn’t guaranteed. A lot of travel was once defined as an act of going off the grid.’

As a slow adventurer, Winn completed a three-and-a-half-month kayaking circumnavigation of Ireland, spent a year travelling between tents and caves with a Berber transhumant clan in North Africa, and last year walked 500 miles between Munich and Paris in the middle of winter, bivvying out every night.

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‘For the whole month I didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t physically in front of me,’ he says of his most recent off-grid escapade. ‘No phone calls of any kind. It was only later that I realised how rare that is in modern times. It was wonderfully liberating and a far more natural way of finding out about the world around me, rather than using Google. Since then I’ve been more conscious of cutting the umbilical chord between my phone and me. I’ll consciously decide to leave it behind when heading out for the day, or a couple of days.’

Winn believes long walks, horse-riding trips and kayaking journeys in five continents have weakened his ‘need’ to be constantly plugged in. ‘Sometimes there’s a period of transience between the expectation of being able to send an email or have electricity at the touch of a switch and realising that it’s not going to be that’s uncomfortable,’ he says. ‘But very quickly I feel a sort of elation at being freed from everything that isn’t tangible, audible or visible.’

‘The anxious part of my brain—which is trying to keep up with a world that’s out of sight and far away and which is only normally accessed through media and modern communications—is really quick to quieten down and then just shut up. There’s this delicious moment when you think: ‘Well, that’s that then, nothing I can do, I’ll just get on with living in the moment and enjoying myself.’

‘The physical aspects of living off grid for extended periods—having no electricity, collecting water from streams, making your own shelter, living in a hut—are all straightforward. So much of modern life seems to be about being comfortable now and in return postponing adventure and excitement and challenge (the risk of hardship, in other words) until sometime in the future. Choosing to go off grid can bring the excitement into the immediate in exchange for a bit of discomfort.’

But he acknowledges that it isn’t easy, certainly at first, to shut down the receptors in your brain that have become used to getting instant updates from near and far every few minutes. ‘There is a fear in being off the communications grid, that being out of touch might have some serious consequences,’ concedes Winn. ‘But that’s imposed from the outside. During my life—which has seen its fair share of bad news, good news, work offers, life-changing events and so on—I can’t think of one situation where the material outcome was changed for the better or the worse by being out of touch for a few days. Or weeks. Or even longer.’

Winn is the first to concede that his approach to life was at least partly shaped by ‘an unusual childhood in rural Ireland’, but besides equipping him with all sorts of useful skills, this upbringing may have extended his chances of a longer, and certainly fuller, life.

Award-winning film director David Bond claims his children’s generation is the first in human history likely to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, and it’s all because they simply don’t play outside enough.

In his brilliant feature-length documentary Project Wild Thing, Bond pleads with parents to desist from buying their progeny any more iPads, implores them to encourage their kids to get off the sofa and away from the TV, and urges them to relax the rules when they are outside. Playing in mud is good. Kissing a toad won’t kill anyone. The film echoes the ethos of the National Trust’s innovative 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ campaign—which has been wildly successful across the country, igniting the imaginations of parents and children alike.

Jasper Winn contemplates his next off-grid move from the shelter of his bivvy
Jasper Winn contemplates his next off-grid move from the shelter of his bivvy

But it’s not just kids that could benefit from less screen time. Adults too are increasingly flocking to places where they can get off the grid and away from the pressure of instant availability across a spectrum of devices. Some go further, in a determined attempt to seek sanctuary from the eyes that pry into our lives from almost every imaginable angle, now that most of us occupy a digitally dominated cybersphere, whether we like it or not.

Over 6 million CCTV cameras are in operation around the United Kingdom right now, recording people’s activities as you read this. Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems are shadowing the movements of millions of cars, and untrained and largely non-regulated private security staff—and even supermarket employees at some ASDA stores—are using body-worn videos (BWV) to creepily capture footage of customers buying cornflakes.

Even the government’s surveillance commissioner, Tony Porter, a former senior counter-terrorism officer who is personally in charge of 100,000 CCTV cameras around Britain, has admitted being ‘very nervous’ about the degree of data-harvesting and snooping that’s going on.

‘When people say ‘the public love CCTV’, do they really know what it does and its capability?’ he rhetorically asked The Guardian recently. ‘Do they know with advancing technology, and algorithms, it starts to predict behaviour?’

All sounds majorly Minority Report doesn’t it? Google certainly learned a trick or two about targeted advertising from that flick, and you can barely sneeze while using the search engine these days without an ad for tissues being thrust through every browsing window you open for the next week.

Meanwhile, every second of every day people voluntarily flood Facebook with photos and information about their interests and aspirations, and those of their kids, partners, extended families and unwitting friends, and that information is greedily gobbled up by algorithms and reincarnated as advertising.

Tablets and iPhones are more or less spy phones (nosily keeping tags on their owners’ movements and messages, and blabbing the details to anyone who can unlock them) and many homes now have ‘Smart’ TV sets that listen to conversations taking place in sitting rooms, and transmit the contents of those chats to a third party. And they really do listen. My brother in law recently got told off (and subsequently banned for a couple of matches) for using bad language while playing a football game on his clever telly, which made me laugh. Until I really thought about it.

You might be swearing at a virtually real referee, or talking about the weather—or you could be discussing bank accounts or super personal information, or doing whatever else you enjoy doing in the privacy of your front room, except it’s not properly private any more. Like vampires, these information-sucking ghouls have to be invited across the threshold of your house before they can begin bleeding you, but once they’re in…

Almost without us noticing, this level of nosiness has become the norm, and most of the online community have a complacent and complicit attitude to it. But for some people, the realisation that every element of their existence is being atomised and stored for near-future commercial gain is enough to make them unplug and peg it into the woods, for a bit of privacy. And who can blame them? Let’s just hope they don’t get caught on one of those RSPB camera traps.