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Hook & Barrel
A Lifestyle Magazine for Modern Outdoorsmen

living off the grid
Photo: Artur Pawlak

A Colorado family tragically died trying to live off the grid in the high elevation of the Rocky mountains. Here’s what they did wrong, and we offer some alternatives if you’re interested in the off-grid lifestyle.

When Rebecca Vance decided to take her 14-year-old son into the Rocky Mountains to live off the grid, she was seeking out a better life for the two of them. Her sister Christine Vance tagged along in an attempt to safeguard the pair. But, these worries about the state of modern life, the pandemic, and political strife drove the trio into a deadly situation.

Sadly, a hiker recently found their bodies near the Gold Creek Campground about an hour outside of Gunnison, CO. With decomposition set in, it’s unlikely that coroners will be able to tell whether they died from hypothermia, dehydration, or malnutrition. But there are some things we can learn from their deadly — and sadly, preventable — mistakes.

If you’re considering living off the grid, there are some life-saving things to take into consideration. And these range from the legalities to the logistical.

The good news is living off the grid is doable to an extent. But it only works if you stay within the boundaries of the law, personal safety, and planning.

Mistakes You Should Avoid When Living Off The Grid

1. Illegally Living Off the Grid on Public Land

dispersed camping
A dispersed camping site the author used this spring. (Photo: Nicole Qualtieri)

Unfortunately for the Vances, not only was living off the grid unprepared a bad idea, they also broke the law when attempting to live on public land. Although this mistake might not seem deadly, illegally going under the radar means that the family’s location proved too secret for rescue.

“Dispersed camping” means that you’re camping beyond a developed campground. In dispersed areas, facilities like pit toilets, potable water, and paved roads are not available. And for this type of camping, there are rules in each National Forest about length of stay. For the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre National Forest in Colorado, the rules for dispersed camping are as follows:

Campsites can be occupied for no more than 14 days, then the site must be moved at least 3 miles away. Camping is also limited to a total of 28 days in a 60-day period

Other National Forests vary from 2-3 weeks. But the reasoning behind this is to prevent long stays that damage habitat.

If living off the grid is something you are passionate about pursuing, try purchasing or leasing a small tract of private land for an off-grid setup. Plenty of people do this using recreational vehicles, small cabins, or tiny homes that run off solar, have compostable toilets, and offer respite from the modern world.

2. Foregoing a Backup Plan For Rescue if Needed

To me, the most tragic thing about the Vances’ loss of life is that this was altogether preventable. Living off-grid does not mean you have to put your life in peril beyond the modern world.

Having an emergency beacon like a Spot Messenger, a Garmin Mini, or a Zoleo in hand would have allowed emergency crews to evacuate due to a clear medical emergency. Search and rescue groups are trained and equipped to navigate all sorts of terrain. That includes heavy snow that might prevent campers from leaving a site.

Of course, some sort of solar technology would be needed to power devices, but brands like Goal Zero and Biolite make this both affordable and easy. However, solar set-ups are not always reliable when inclement weather sets in, so keeping devices charged or having backup batteries is necessary when beyond cell service.

3. Stocking Limited Calories Per Person

living off the grid
Photo: Master Sgt. Joe Harwood for the Ohio National Guard

Rebecca Vance’s plan was to live off canned food over the winter. Then, they’d grow their own food in the warmer months. But when authorities investigated the site, they found only one pack of ramen noodles left in the supply stock.

The most vital component of living off the grid might be understanding your energy input and output per person per day. Yes, many humans survived for millennia in much more rugged circumstances than today. But, many humans also died from abject starvation along the long trajectory of our history.

Caloric intake varies per person, with a teenage boy needing more food than most of us. And it shifts greatly in the upwards direction when dealing with severe cold. Our bodily furnace is fueled by food, and without it, we are at serious risk. Preparing for winter isn’t just for the squirrels; it’s a time-honored tradition of safety when we are beyond the modern world.

Stocking up on calorie-dense, affordable emergency supplies such as Mountain House meals or MREs is easy in the time of Amazon. And it certainly is a better option than nutritionally bereft ramen noodles.

4. Underestimating Elevation & Weather

When looking at Gold Creek Campground on a topographic map, it looks to sit near a whopping 9700 ft above elevation. The 9000-foot limit is about where altitude sickness can come into play. Likely, the Vances adjusted to the elevation in their time there. But oxygen is certainly thinner when you’re that high up.

The other aspect of choosing a site at a high elevation is understanding how weather changes in such an environment. Temperatures lower 3-6 degrees per 1,000 feet added. High elevations experience much longer winters, increased inches of snow, and formidable temperatures.

Their choice of location tested their limits of supplies, maximized energy expenditure, and heavily increased exposure to the elements.

5. Lacking the Fire Power For Living Off the Grid

If attempting to survive without a steady heat source, fire is your friend. And a lack of adequately stocked firewood for cold conditions is akin to writing your ticket to hypothermia.

For an idea of what it takes to survive in cold conditions, the show “Alone” does us a serious solid. You’ll notice that shelter, food, and firewood make up the three main components of each survival expert’s time spent in the woods. And it’s an adequate combination of all three that typically creates a boon for the eventual winner.

Take into account that us regular folks will take the opportunity to adequately supply food and shelter from a commercial standpoint, and firewood becomes your ticket to staying warm. A single cord of wood typically measures 8 feet long, 4 feet high, and 4 feet wide, and it can weigh up to 5000 pounds. Likely, many cords of wood would be necessary for consistent heating throughout a high-elevation winter.

But, the Vances were vastly understocked. Authorities say they were using small twigs as firewood prior to their untimely and tragic demise.

Final Thoughts: A Tragedy We Can Learn From

I write this story from a small cabin at an elevation of 6,500 feet in Montana, where heat is mostly dependent on six cords of wood per very long winter. Life here is buoyed by electricity, plowed roads, and the internet. Read: I am certainly not remote in that sense.

But I understand the dangers of harsh winters. And I always prepare for the unimaginable, whether it’s a safety kit in my car, having adequate warm clothing at all times, or stocking enough food at home in case of a snow-in. Nearly 60 inches of snow covered the ground this past spring, covering the barbed-wire fence entirely on our perimeter.

My heart truly broke when reading the story of this small family, their attempt to do something one could deem as noble, and their ultimate demise due to underestimating the situation. A wide latitude of mistakes were made when they holed up on public land attempting to survive a high-elevation winter. And I can only assume that there were moments where certain decisions might have saved their lives.

If you’re considering living off the grid, I applaud the effort. But my hope is that you do it in a way that is legal, well-planned, and deftly executed to ensure the safety of all involved.

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