Few job descriptions are as ambitious and ambiguous as that of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Once you make the 27-month-long commitment to serve in a country you may know nothing about; you get little information about specific living conditions. Expect to prepare to live off the grid. Volunteer site assignments happen only after you’ve begun in-country training, so you can’t know if you’ll have running water or electricity or what kind of climate is specific to your region.
When I applied for the Peace Corps, I submitted a general application to serve in any sector in any country. I was assigned to serve as a health volunteer in a tiny country in West Africa I had never heard of: Togo. Running water and electricity were not guaranteed, and I ended up living in a rural village of about 2,000 people. I did have electricity, albeit an unreliable connection. I was meant to have running water, though it was never turned on, and nobody knew why.
All in all, I was only partially off-the-grid. My life still had versions of the amenities that I am comfortable with: I had a bucket flush toilet and a fairly spacious two-room house. Still, at times the experience was challenging and isolating. Luckily, I was prepared and had packed for the most extreme off-the-grid living experience. Below is a list of products I packed, or similar versions, that helped make me feel comfortable, connect to my loved ones and embrace a totally different living situation from where I grew up. Use this list as a packing guide for your own off-the-grid excursion, whether you’re leaving for a Peace Corps assignment or taking a trip to a rural, remote corner of the world.
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1. Solar-Powered Lights
Whether or not you expect to have access to electricity, you should definitely pack some kind of solar-powered light. If you lose electricity in a rural area with unreliable infrastructure, it can take a long time to get the lights back on. This solar inflatable light was my favorite thing I brought, and when I polled some fellow volunteers, they agreed. Below is the actual solar-powered inflatable lantern light that I got. There is an upgraded version if you can spend a bit more.
MPowered Luci Outdoor 2.0: Solar Inflatable Light
It stormed on my first night in my training host family’s home, and the single light bulb in my room went out. This was the first time I used the Luci light, and I used it many times after. It has multiple brightness settings, but it surprised me how it lit up an entire room, even on its lowest setting. The handle makes it easy to hang around something, giving you a hands-free solution to a blackout. I often hung it from my bedposts. With this solar-powered light, I never worried about going without electricity for extended periods. It was easy to pack on weekend trips since it’s waterproof, inflatable, and very lightweight.
Luci Pro Lux Light
This upgraded version of the Luci Light is another excellent option for people living off the grid. It works as a solar-powered light and a source for charging your phone. Keep in mind that the phone charging capacity will drain the battery much quicker than the light. So if you don’t want to be caught in the dark, you may want to pack a few of these or opt for a different portable charger option. Still, this versatile all-in-one solar-powered device is great for use in a pinch.
2. Portable Power Bank
Living off the grid doesn’t necessarily mean living without devices. A power bank came in handy more than a few times when I needed to submit work reports while traveling or during a blackout. You may need your devices to back up photos, journals, or other information you gather on your trip. Below are some power bank options to satisfy all your charging needs.
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Anker 737 Power Bank
Anker never disappoints. We’ve tested and reviewed the Anker Nebula Portable Projector, Anker Soundcore Earbuds, and more. This power bank is no different, thanks to its capacity to fully charge a smartphone over four times and a Macbook a little more than once. This super powerful charging source can charge up to three devices at once but remains small enough to pack in a backpack for any kind of excursion. This was key for me, as I had to pack light and needed to be able to maximize every item I brought with me.
SinKeu Portable Power Bank
This slightly cheaper portable power bank from SinKeu is a great option for people on a budget. It can recharge itself in less than four hours and comes with car charging accessories so you can recharge while you’re on the move. It can charge your smartphone up to 6 times and is small and easy to carry.
3. Durable Laptop
Even if you’re living off the grid, you might need access to a computer for submitting work, sending emails, or streaming that new TV show capturing everyone’s attention back home. Take into consideration extreme temperatures or weather conditions when researching which laptop will function best in those environments. I brought a laptop with a touchscreen to Togo for my Peace Corps service, but within two months, the screen was buckling and cracking. I got a Lenovo Thinkpad shipped to me, and it proved reliable and durable. I packed it in the backs of overflowing cars and strapped it atop motorcycle taxis, and it never showed any signs of wear.
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Lenovo ThinkPad Gen 2 Laptop
4. Cotton Underwear
Do not underestimate the importance of the cotton underpants. Yes, things are more stylish, sexier, and maybe even more comfortable, but nothing will withstand vigorous hand-washing and severe bouts of stomach parasites like the cotton brief.
I scrubbed my own underwear so hard it made my knuckles bloody, but the underwear only began to show signs of wear toward my 8th month off the grid. If you’re living remotely for over a year, I recommend bringing twice as much underwear as you want and keeping half of it locked away in a ziplock bag. This way, once your first batch starts to deteriorate, you can pop open that new, sealed bag and start over with a set of fresh pairs you didn’t need a store to acquire, in case you’re living so remotely that finding proper undergarments is a challenge.
Hanes Men’s Boxer Briefs
Amazon Essentials Women’s Cotton Bikini Briefs
A good pair of slides is crucial for living off the grid in hot places. I brought a pair of Birkenstocks, but due to intense weather conditions or simple overuse, they began to break down almost immediately. I ended up throwing them away within the first few months of training. I also brought Chaco sandals, which were great for walking and long-wear situations.
Surprisingly, a pair of plastic slides I purchased at a local market was my most worn pair of shoes while living off the grid. In Togo, it’s the cultural norm to remove shoes before entering a home. It became too annoying to have to loosen my sandal straps all the time to remove them, not to mention I was constantly expanding the straps throughout the day as my ankles and toes would swell in the heat. Still, I recommend packing a good sandal for walking and a slide.
Chaco Men’s Z1 Classic
Chaco Men’s Classic Flip Flop
Despite being a total book-holding advocate, I packed a Kindle for my trip. I fell in love with my e-reader, and it was one of the best things I packed for my Peace Corps service. The Kindle battery lasts so long, and the screen really mimics the appearance of a book. It’s super lightweight, so it’s great for on-the-go use. Plus, you can download library books whenever you have access to Wi-Fi. Pro tip: set your device to airplane mode so you never lose a library book you haven’t finished.
7. Microfiber Towel
Microfiber towels proved convenient and useful in a humid, dusty country. During my service, I showered twice daily, sometimes thrice, simply because of the heat and how much dirt and dust accumulated on my feet and legs. A microfiber towel will dry more quickly than regular towels, making them great for travel or frequent use.
Fit-Flip Travel Towel
8. Electric Hair Trimmer
If you’re planning on living in extreme heat for an extended period of time, you will likely get the urge to shave off all of your hair. This happened to me just a couple of months into my Peace Corps service. My village’s hot and dusty conditions, combined with my thick hair and bucket showers, did not bode well. My head became a greasy, clumpy mess. So, I enlisted the help of a local barber to shave it off. He found my request extremely odd, and with a language barrier, I struggled to explain my haircut goals.
In the end, I got a decent but slightly uneven buzz cut. Luckily, I found someone in my Peace Corps program with an electric trimmer. He quickly became very popular among the many volunteers who opted for a shaved look. I always wished I had packed my own trimmer to have been able to regularly shave my head to avoid the unsightly mullet that eventually grew out.
Philips Norelco Multigroomer All-in-One Trimmer Series 3000
This Philips grooming kit will satisfy all your trimming needs at a great price. It can be used for trimming your head, beard, nose, and even ear hair. It comes with hair guards, a rechargeable battery, and a travel bag making this perfect for off-grid living and travel.
9. Durable Backpack
With off-grid living, durability is an essential quality of any product. In the intense West African climate, it was much more important that I had rugged products that would last. I brought a North Face backpack with a laptop sleeve that kept my computer extra-protected while traveling by car or motorcycle. I was always surprised how much I could squeeze into the single pack for a weekend excursion or fieldwork. Despite all the heat, humidity and dust. My North Face backpack held up, and I still use it today.
The North Face Vault Backpack
This North Face backpack has a padded laptop sleeve and a huge main compartment for storing your off-grid living gadgets and gear. It features two external water bottle pockets and a padded back panel. This backpack is comfortable to wear even when it’s full, and it can fit a lot.