Confession: When I booked a working vacation at an InForest cabin this summer, I wasn’t looking for an introductory course in sustainable living. I just wanted to escape the city without sacrificing the comforts my three teens demand. I got that, but took away so much more.
I thrive on the invigorating effects of nature and escape whenever I can to the mountains, the beach or the desert. It’s something that has become increasingly possible for many thanks to advances in solar panels, battery storage, data coverage and flexible work-from-anywhere policies that have exploded in the days since COVID-19. Now people can do their jobs from virtually anywhere they enjoy.
I knew when I went in that my energy needs would push the already well-equipped solar-powered cabin to its limits. I had all the gear I needed to work remotely while keeping my family entertained. That means one e-bike, a video projector, two Bluetooth speakers, five phones, two laptops, one tablet, three smartwatches, and a Starlink RV internet-from-space kit to keep everything connected. That’s on top of the lights and full suite of kitchen appliances and utilities already in the cabin.
This summer I was able to work and play for a week from the middle of a forest in Sweden, despite being completely disconnected from the power grid. The experience gave me a taste of what’s currently possible with off-grid technology, and a better understanding of the trade-offs required when resources are scarce – lessons I’ve since applied to everyday life as energy prices in Europe skyrocket. rise.
InForest is owned and operated by Jesper (40) and Petra Uvesten (41), who had a dream to create a series of off-grid cabins for people who want to get closer to nature. The couple opened the doors of their first environmentally friendly and self-sufficient cabin, Ebbe, in 2020. The cabins Vilgot and Esther soon followed. Each is named after one of their three children.
Jesper also works full-time with the EU working on rural development, while Petra is a dedicated triathlete. The two run InForest alone, although they also occasionally have part-time help to take vacations. Their goal is to expand from three to ten homes.
The three small cabins are located in a dense forest dotted with tranquil lakes and hunting screens in the hills of southern Sweden, about two hours east of Gothenburg or three hours west of Stockholm. The cottages are handmade by Treesign, a local builder of tiny houses. Each house had to be hauled into place by a truck over miles of dirt roads.
I booked Esther, named after Jesper and Petra’s daughter and eldest child who (rightly) insisted that the largest of the three houses bear her name.
The Esther house is powered by a large solar array on the roof, with six 320 W panels helping to keep a pair of 2.4 kWh lithium-ion batteries charged. Each home is equipped with an inverter to provide 220V AC to outlets located wherever you would like to find one.
Power generation benefits greatly from Sweden’s long summer days. Jesper tells me their solar system is configured to deliver about 1.5 kW of charge per hour, which is enough to recharge half-dead batteries in about two hours. All excess energy is then discharged to the sockets. When the sun goes down, the house is completely dependent on the batteries for electricity.
The short winter days in Sweden are a real challenge for the cabins
The short winter days in Sweden are a real challenge for the huts, as the low, weak sun can’t keep the batteries charged. That means that InForest cabins are only bookable from about March to mid-October. Jesper hopes to extend the season by purchasing an EV with bi-directional charging capabilities.
Ideally, he would like to buy a Ford F-150 Lightning pickup, but it’s not coming to Sweden anytime soon, so maybe the new Volvo EX90 SUV will arrive in 2024 instead. Whatever he buys, he can keep his relatively large battery of charging over 100 kWh at home before driving to each cabin every few days to charge their much smaller batteries. Jesper or Petra have to visit every hut every two or three days anyway to clean them and refill the water tanks.
Fresh water comes from a 250 liter (66 gallon) water tank. The house is also equipped with a 10 liter (2.6 gallon) water heater, which is enough for about five to seven minutes of hot water.
The cab’s LED lights, kitchen fan, DC fridge/freezer, heater fan, and water pump all require electricity. Jesper estimates that each home consumes about 100W per hour when not in use, allowing the batteries to power the home for about two days without recharging.
However, the houses need more than just electricity. They are also equipped with a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) system for the combined air and water heater and also for the stove and oven. There is also a Separett waterless composting toilet that InForest takes care of after guests check out.
InForest homes are designed to be serviced, so all technology is housed in a technical cabinet that can be accessed from the outside so as not to disturb guests. With external connections, the water can be topped up and finally the batteries can be charged, once Jesper and Petra have found a suitable electric car.
I’ve never been more aware of my water usage, thanks to a meter mounted on the wall in the bathroom. InForest says the 250-gallon tanks provide enough water for about three days of average use by two adults. Jesper says guests typically use about 41.6 liters (11 gallons) of water per person per day when they stay in their cabin, compared to 140 liters (27.5 gallons) per person in a typical Swedish household. I was traveling with a family of five, including three image-obsessed teens. So challenge accepted!
Seeing how much water we still had on that meter did more than scold us. In our seven days in the house we only had to have the water topped up once, I can proudly say. But that meant a pretty serious (but simple) behavior change, like turning off the water while soaping in the shower or brushing your teeth. Things I’ve never done before, I must admit. It also meant devising a dishwashing method that would save as much energy and water as possible.
I wish the cabin was also equipped with a power meter. I have no idea how close we were to running out of battery power, or how much excess power all those panels were producing during the day. As I learned when reviewing solar generators, it’s easier to adjust energy usage habits when you see them charted over time. That said, not knowing if the power would be turned off at any time was a strong motivator for everyone to keep their social media consumption devices plugged in during the day while the sun was actively feeding the gates.
The urine diverting toilet was also unmetered but seeing paper start to sprout from the poop chute on our last day was a pretty good indication it was getting full. Fortunately it is ventilated so it was odorless. The toilet collects solid waste in a biodegradable bag that is thrown on a compost heap after guests leave.
Purists quoting Thoreau often tell me I’m doing it wrong when I share my off-grid experiences. I have to disconnect completely and leave my gadgets at home. But I prefer to strike a balance, adapting nature’s will one moment to my needs, and surrendering to the wilderness the next. The grass couldn’t be greener on the other side as I straddle the fence.
The lessons I learned that week at my InForest rental turned into new habits upon my return. I still turn off the tap when I brush my teeth and when I’m soaping up in the shower. I unplugged a dozen rarely used gadgets that had been slowly draining power. I am also looking into equipping my home with solar panels and battery backup. Although here in Amsterdam I have access to what seems like an endless supply of electricity and hot water, the high energy prices mean that resources that I used to take for granted suddenly become scarce.
Of course, I’ve known for years that I should be doing these things. But somehow linking emotional memories (stress!) to the idea has made it easier to change my behavior. And let’s face it, saving money is also a strong motivator.
My biggest takeaway is this: The technologies have progressed to the point that off-grid living is a more viable option than I previously thought, without having to make too many compromises. But it’s a good idea to try it for yourself before committing completely.
InForest isn’t alone in offering off-grid getaways. A Google search will likely yield several local providers near you. Otherwise, Airbnb’s May redesign makes it easier to find experiences like off-the-grid living for those who want to head to the woods to try and live a little more mindfully.