No matter where your cabin is, how big it is, how comfortable it is, there’s one thing that it must have. Clean drinking water.
If your cabin is in an area that’s tied into the grid or on a shared well, this isn’t a concern for you. Clean water pumped right out of the round just magically comes out of your faucets. But for a lot of cabins this isn’t the case. Many cabins are separated from others by enough distance that tying into a shared water supply isn’t practical. So what can these cabins do to get access to plenty of clean water? Well, let me tell you. The most reliable option is to dig a well. But this can be costly and so it might not be practical in the short-term. So let me give you some of the best options for getting plenty of water to your cabin.
Set Up On-Site Water Storage
Whatever you do, you’re going to need to be able to store water on your property. If you have a well, then most of your water storage is below ground. But even so, you’ll have a pressure tank that will store some water for you. But especially if you’re going to collect water from another source, you’ll need to be able to store enough water on your property to last a few days at least.
You have a few options when it comes to water storage at your cabin.
If your off-grid cabin property is located somewhere that freezes often, you might want to consider storing your water in a tank underground or inside a building that stays warm. One downside of storing your water underground is that the tank is harder to get to. It takes a lot of work to dig a big hole big enough and deep enough, and then it’s underground. That makes it hard to clean out or repair if you need to. You also need to make sure that you bury it deep enough. The top of the tank should be below the local frost depth. My cabin site in Idaho has a frost depth of 3 feet. So the top of my tank needs to be 3 feet below ground to keep from freezing.
If you’re going to worry about storing water in freezing conditions, you also need your water pipe to all be insulated. It does no good to keep the water in the tank from freezing just to have it freeze as it runs through the pipes. So in reality, they should also be well insulated and/or buried to below the frost depth.
This isn’t practical for everyone. Add to that that underground tanks cost quite a bit more than above ground tanks because they need to be built to withstand the pressure and conditions involved in being buried.
So I like using above ground storage tanks for water. In fact, the ones I use are readily available and fairly inexpensive. You can learn all about them and where to get them in my article here.
With above ground tanks, you still have to worry about freezing. So what we do in this situation is just winterize the cabin before the first big freeze. Empty the water tanks and water lines. Then, if you go up to the cabin in the winter, you just need to make sure you bring the water you’re going to use on that trip with you. It’s not as convenient as being able to just turn on a faucet or take a shower, but that’s part of the work involved in having an off-grid cabin and not having a well.
Now let’s talk about how to get water to fill and refill your storage tanks.
Collect Water from a Stream or Spring on the Property
If you have a source of water running through your property, even part of the year, this can be a great source of usable water.
Is stream water clean enough to drink? No. Don’t drink water directly from a stream.
Is stream water clean enough to use for cleaning. Yeah, for the most part yes. If it’s moving water, it’ll be pretty clean. If you’ll be combining it with soap to use for cleaning, then it’ll be fine to use as-is. For rinsing water, especially for dishes, I recommend you filter or boil the water first. That way your rinse water will be sure to not contain any live bacteria that could be harmful to ingest.
So how do you collect and use water from a stream?
We have a small stream on our property that runs all spring and about half the summer before it dries up. The simplest way to collect water is to use a small pump and just let it run.
We dug out a little hole in the stream and placed a bucket in it so we always have a place deep enough to drop in a small submersible pump like this one on Amazon. Then we just pump the water from the stream up to a 275-gallon water storage tank on the property. Once that’s full, or even as it’s filling, we pump the water from that tank to another that’s further uphill using this pump that can get it farther uphill than the submersible pump. This cascading of water tanks allows us to get the water a ways uphill, which gives us better water pressure down where we use the water. And having multiple tanks allows us to store over 1,000 gallons of water at a time. As long as these tanks are full before the stream runs dry, we don’t run out of water before winter.
The submersible pump works great to get the water out of the stream. But the transfer pump is nicer for moving the water from tank to tank.
If you find a spring on your property, that’ll be a better source for water than even a moving stream. Water that comes up out of a spring will generally be cleaner than surface water because it’s been filtered through sand and rock. So if you see water coming up out of the ground, that will be the best place to collect water from.
Don’t have a stream on your property? Or maybe you can’t get enough water from the stream to meet your needs?
Capturing rainwater can be a great way to supplement your water collection in some places. And in some locations, it can be enough to meet all your water needs.
The best way to capture rainwater is to use the largest surface you have available to guide the rainwater to your rainwater collection setup. For most people, this is the roof of your off-grid cabin.
Install gutters at all the places on the roof where water would otherwise pour off. Use gutter guards like this one on Amazon to keep debris out of the gutter and out of the water that flows through your gutters.
Then, at all the downspouts, rather than guiding the water to the ground, run the water through piping to your rainwater capture and filtration system.
This system can be as simple or as complicated as you want. In many cases, people just place a single 50-gallon barrel to collect water at the bottom of each downspout. Barrels like this one on Amazon are designed for this purpose. If you go this route, I recommend that you elevate the barrel at least a couple feet off the ground. there is a hose spout on the bottom of the barrel. You could connect a hose to this outlet and pump the water from here to a larger storage tank somewhere further uphill using a transfer pump. That way you only need a single barrel at the gutter downspout right by your cabin.
You can go much more complicated, and in doing so store more water and have it filtered pretty well on the spot.
Some rainwater collection systems involve multiple plain water barrels and the water flows through them in succession. In this type of system the top barrel can contain fine gravel, enough to fill the barrel about half-way, which is used to filter out larger debris. The next barrel should contain a finer sand to capture finer particles. You can then run it through activated carbon to filter it to the point of drinkability. This sort of setup will be larger, and bulkier, but does the job. And since more barrels are involved, it can collect a substantial amount of rainwater without you having to intervene.
Purify Your Water for Drinking
However you collect your water, you need to make sure that the water that you plan to drink is clean. Water often contains bacteria that our stomachs don’t handle very well. That’s why purifying it is so important.
I mentioned this before, but I wouldn’t worry about running all of your water through a serious filtration process. That can be costly and it’s unnecessary. Water that you use for cleaning purposes will be fine if you just screen out dirt and debris. If you want it to be clearer, running it through a barrel full of fine sand will do the job.
But for drinking water, you need to make sure it’s clean. There are a few safe ways to make sure your water is clean.
This is probably the most practical and most palatable of the three. You could run your water through a reverse osmosis filtration system. But since this water isn’t under pressure (unless you store your tank at a higher elevation) a system like this may not work. I also don’t recommend that you use a pitcher filter like you can buy at the grocery store. These are designed to filter water that’s already mostly clean.
My recommendation for water filtration in an off-grid situation is the Big Berkey water filter. This system can filter 15 gallons of drinking water per day and stores 2.5 gallons of purified drinking water. The filters are good for 3,000 gallons each, and since there are 2, you can actually filter 6,000 gallons before replacing them. The best part about this filter is that it can filter lake water and remove the particles and bacteria that make it unsafe for drinking. I like this water filter for emergency preparedness, even if I didn’t have an off-grid cabin.
This option doesn’t sit well with most people. I don’t think anybody likes the flavor of chlorine in their water. But, if you need your water safe to drink or use for cleaning, then adding some chlorine will do the job.
For water treatment, just add basic household bleach (5.25% to 8% sodium hypochlorite) that is unscented and doesn’t have any other soaps, cleaners, or color-safe products. Just the plain old household bleach you by at the store. Use 1 teaspoon for every gallon of water in the tank. A full 275 gallon water tank, like the one I describe in my other article, will take about 5 3/4 cups (sources: University of Florida and EPA.gov). Mix it into the tank the best you can and then let it stand for 30 minutes before drinking or using for cleaning. This will disinfect the water and help clean the tank and hose.
If your bleach is not 5.25% sodium hypochlorite, Go to the EPA website link above to see a table indicating the right amount of bleach to use based on the concentration of your bleach.
Boiling water won’t get the particles out of. If there’s sand in the water, it’ll stay in the water. The same can be said for chlorinating it. So if you’re going one of these routes, start by straining out your water. Run it through a strainer or colander. Putting a coffee filter in the bottom will make this step even more effective. Heat the water that you want to purify in a pot. In an off-grid situation, you can use a gas/propane stove. Or you can always use a fire. I like to use my rocket stove that can heat a pot quickly using minimal fuel for the fire.
Boiling water for drinking has one major flaw. It makes the water hot. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s something you need to consider. After getting it to a rolling boil, you need to allow it to cool enough to put into a container that you can then set aside in a cool place until it’s cool enough to drink. It also takes a lot of heat to boil enough drinking water for 1 or more people.
Boiling water for cleaning, though, makes a lot of sense. This can be a great option, especially for rinse water for washing dishes.
Bring Water With You
Another good option for water in an off-grid situation, is to bring water with you. If you have a pickup or trailer and have enough space, keeping a 275 gallon water tank on hand that you can fill up at home or at an RV dump can be a good option. For drinking water, we like to use a simple water dispenser with 5-gallon drinking water jugs.
If you don’t have a well, a stream, or much rain then this may be your only option. And that’s just part of the work involved in having a completely off-grid cabin.
Have a Well Dug
The best long-term solution in most cases is to eventually get a well dug. It can be very expensive, especially in the mountains where water could be more than 200 feet underground. Still, having the flexibility to get water in a faucet on demand will make your stay at your cabin much more enjoyable. If not for you, then for the rest of your family that’s tired of filling buckets from a water tank.
That said, not having a well doesn’t mean that you can’t have indoor faucets and good water pressure. If you store your water far enough uphill, or if you install a pump and pressure tank like you would have if you had a well, then you can have this same convenience. You just also need to make sure you have access to enough water and enough water storage to keep that sort of system running. Then, you could install in-line water filtration like reverse osmosis for the faucets, and allow the water for cleaning to flow unfiltered from you water storage tanks.
Of course, pumps mean electricity. So if you’re off-grid, you’ll need to consider the best ways to get consistent electrical power. More on that later!