Foster Huntington likes living in interesting places. For three years, he lived in a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro and then a pickup truck camper, which inspired his first book, “Van Life: Your Home On the Road.” Then he built two treehouses with his friend, where he resided for five years, living 20 feet in the air. He now lives in an 1,100-square-foot farmhouse on the same property as his treehouses in Skamania County.
His latest book, “Off Grid Life: Your Ideal Home in the Middle of Nowhere,” collects the perspectives of several people living in unique off-the-grid or minimally connected dwellings, from treehouses to “earthships” to shipping containers. Huntington spoke with The Seattle Times about living small and how the coronavirus pandemic may affect rural communities.
Seattle Times: How would you define living off the grid?
Huntington: I think it’s really about starting somewhere and building on that. I talk with people in the book that are fully off-grid, 100%. I show a range. To me it’s all about just getting started and not having this idea that it needs to be perfect when you first do it. You can just get your foot in the door and figure it out. You don’t need to have an acre garden and all these animals and a massive solar setup to be living in a way that’s closer to nature, that’s more environmentally conscious, that will bring more fulfillment to your life.
ST: In the book, you’re presenting these places as an alternative to home buying. How many of the people in your book are responding to economic inability to purchase a home, versus choosing this kind of home for other reasons (moral, environmental, etc.)?
Huntington: I think they often go hand in hand. Banks want to have big houses because big houses appraise well and hold their value. We don’t need a big house, we need a small house. And living decentralized and having a garden and having chickens and goats allows you to make more environmentally conscious decisions in terms of what you do to consume food.
ST: What are the challenges of living off the grid?
Huntington: It just requires a level of self-reliance that we’re just not used to in a normal city. For example, people don’t come and collect my garbage. I have to bring it to the local transfer station. When I have an issue with my washing machine, I’ve got to figure out how to fix it. Even with food delivery and stuff, I can’t use Postmates, I can’t use Uber Eats. If I want food, I’m either driving 25 minutes or I’m making it at home.
A lot of responsibility has just been removed from our world. The goal of technology is to remove things that are a pain in the butt. Living remotely forces you to go against the grain and confront that in a way that, sure, it’s definitely challenging, but it’s rewarding.
ST: With the rise of remote working during the pandemic, there’s been an increase in home purchases in smaller towns that were previously small vacation areas. Places like Bloomberg and NPR are calling them “Zoom towns” after the ubiquitous conference call software. There’s concern this movement will drive housing prices up in previously affordable areas. What are your thoughts on Zoom towns?
Huntington: I think it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Rural America is struggling really bad [and has been] for the last 30 years. There’s been negative population growth, the average age has skyrocketed. In order for rural areas to thrive they’re going to need more young people. If they’re working on Zoom, so be it. These rural places need money and they need business, [they] need little restaurants and little stores. So I support it. I think it’s a good thing. The fact of the matter is that cities are too expensive for young people, so they’ve got to go somewhere.
ST: You’ve got quite an Instagram following — well over 900,000 followers. How do you think social media is changing our attitudes toward alternative lifestyles like off-grid living and van life?
Huntington: I think it’s giving exposure, exposing people to things they just never knew existed. At its best, social media is a window into another world. I think van life and people living in cabins is a great example of that. Like, here’s a bunch of people with really unique lifestyles doing really unique things. You can look and see what it’s all about.
ST: Do you think social media ever misinforms about what it’s like to live this way?
Huntington: I think that what you see on Instagram is not real. I definitely think that people have these very glorified views of things. But that’s why I’m really excited about the book. It’s not this vapid look at cabins. There’s a whole range of people actually doing it and some of them are really photogenic amazing places and some of them are not. I think it’s really important to see that.
ST: What is it about off-grid living and small homes that fosters happiness, do you think?
Huntington: Creating an environment and being in control of that, [whether that’s] taking an active role, taking an active role in your garden, your animals, your environment, brings a lot of joy to people. Not to mention, living rurally in a small house has a much lower financial burden than paying $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in some city somewhere.
For me, happiness has to do with living in a place in a way that I can be creative. It’s really important to have a low overhead to do that.