How To Move To Alaska & Live Off The Land

There are some dreams about Alaska that I hear over and over from people who wonder about it once they find out I once lived there for years. Have you seen the Northern Lights? How did you get through winter? How did you sleep during summer? Then, of course, comes the big one, which is some variation of: Is it true you can move to Alaska and live off the land / just take land as long as you develop it and live there?

I’m not annoyed by this question because I get it. We’ve all wanted to get away at one point or another, and Alaska is one of those states that has so much mystery and adventure wrapped up just in the name. That was a big part of what attracted me to the state in the first place – it started as a dream of wonder, adventure, and just plain curiosity when I was in the Lower 48 and life happened strangely, which is why I ended up living there.

However, just “moving to Alaska and living off the land” isn’t as easy as you might think for a huge variety of reasons ranging from skills to unique climate to the fact that land isn’t just there for the taking. Most people reading this weren’t alive when homesteading was banned at a national level, and while the dream of free land might be illusion, that doesn’t mean there isn’t cheap land in Alaska. That doesn’t mean there aren’t cheap lots available where you can build the cabin you want or house you want and live your way.

There’s a lot of freedom in Alaska, and if your dream is to move to Alaska and live off the land, that is possible – but there is a right way to go about it and then all so many wrong ways.

I love Alaska and have explored so much of the state. Visiting Alaska was a dream I had since early grade school when I would stare at this far away spot on the globe my grandmother gave me for my birthday and wonder what it was like in that far away place. Little did I know I’d end up living there for years.

Fairbanks Alaska in winter
Now is that an evening sight, or is that an evening sight? Around my old hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Can You Move To Alaska & Live Off The Land?

This is one of the most common questions that gets brought up and I understand why. It’s a romantic image, throwing off the shackles of society, leaving social media far behind, and heading to a state whose literal nickname is “The Last Frontier” to meet the most interesting of people, claim your own little spot of northern heaven, and just be left alone to do your own thing.

And a lot of that is absolutely 100% possible, but it’s not as simple as rushing up, walking around until you find a piece of land you want, claiming it, and then you get to build at leisure.

I don’t know why so many people think it is like that, but it does take work. Serious work. You will need to locate what land is available, what level of support you’ll need, and have the money to make the purchase. Then decide whether all the building is on your own or if you will be getting help.

If you’ve spent a year falling in love with a local community, living there and helping others, there will be no shortage of people willing to help out. On the other hand if you really want to go the hermit route, there are places where you can buy hundreds of acres of wooded land…but be prepared to do all the work there including building your own roads to get in.

Or don’t. My friend Iver found a good spot of land well off the roads and relies on snowmobiles or ATVs depending on the season to get into local Talkeenta and then back out to the house. In some places this is viable but keep in mind you need to have the mechanical parts on hand and skills in order to make repairs because if you’re out of town and don’t have any vehicles – that’s a problem. Especially if something goes wrong with heat, or you’re low on food or other supplies.

cabin being built in alaska winter
One of my dearest friends who I met within days of moving to Alaska (we’ve now been friends for 20+ years) gave up a dream professor job in Colorado to come back to Talkeetna and build his dram cabin – and here’s a great picture of it during that building process (trust me: you want every bit of that insulation!)

What Are Your Realistic Survival Skills?

Do you have homesteading, self-sufficiency, and major survival skills? If your answer is anything other than an immediate “X decades of experience” then you need to slow down and plan. The skills that can make you a pro at camping wild in the Lower 48 or even tackling weeks’ long challenges to survive in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho or Wyoming

That doesn’t mean you can’t start from nothing and get to this point, but you need to be very, very careful. Learn from the tragedy of Chris McCannis, which brings up something that many Alaskans understand: you can be a wilderness survival expert elsewhere, and Alaska will still kill you.

Even the Rocky Mountains in the Western U.S. are a poor preparation for the many ways things can go wrong in the sheer wilderness of Alaska.

I understand that for many “living off the land in Alaska” means more homesteading than survival, but if you don’t have anyone within miles and miles of you…it may very well become the same thing at some point.

Homesteading Skills Checklist

  • Do you know how to can?
  • Have you ever created a huge garden?
  • Are you an experienced hunter?
  • Have you received advanced first aid training?
  • What are your carpentry skills?
  • Do you have multiple backups for starting a fire/fixing a wood burning stove?
  • Can you take apart (and put back together) a snowmobile, ATV, or other engine?

Do you know how to can? Can you handle the seemingly endless winters – this is CRUCIAL to figuring out if Alaska really is viable or not because those long winters do NOT get easier to handle.

What Are Your Skills For Surviving Off The Grid?

Setting yourself up off the grid takes a lot of decent skills and while construction can be average or even subpar in some places and MacGyver’ed to acceptable levels in some states in the Lower 48, but that is a terrible idea in Alaska. You don’t want leaks in the insulation when it is 40 degrees below zero. Especially if your neighbors are a long ways away.

  • Do you know how to set up solar or other energy sources?
  • Can you repair them if anything goes wrong?
  • How good is your carpentry (insulation)?
  • Do you have heat lamps for the outside (and extension cords that can handle the heat?
  • Did you take permafrost into account?
  • Can you deal with the wild seasons?

And I’m not even talking about the winter cold that will kill you very, very quick. Though that is certainly something you need to worry about as people die every year in Alaska due to exposure, and these are people who often know better and are prepared.

2004 moose hunting camp alaska
Moose hunting camp from 2004-ish on the Kenai.

I’m talking about seasonal quirks that take place from living so far north like:

  • 24 hours of sunlight (hope you can sleep in light or go 4 months with little to no sleep)
  • Near total darkness for 6 months (mental health is ROUGH during the darkest sections of winter)
  • Hoards of mosquitoes during the summer months

These aren’t small things – they can affect you in strange ways. My summers were full of 22-hour days running around and doing stuff because I couldn’t sleep, so why not find others who were the same way? The mental health aspects are also unpredictable.

The first winter Seasonal Associative Disorder (SAD) barely affected me at all. A little tired, a little moody at times, but it wasn’t that noticeable…especially compared to many others around me. Until I surprise visited my family in Iowa (which is NOT known for mild winters) and I was bouncing off the walls hyper during the day because *gasp* actual sunlight. Then crashed immediately once it got dark.

“It was actually kind of scary to watch,” My Dad would tell me later. “You were an insane hyperactive Ferrari during the day when no one should have that much energy in winter and then you would just pass out like a dead man until the sun came back up again.”

The second winter, however, I was hammered by severe depression…and somehow switched between wanting to sleep 12+ hours at a time and insomnia. It was a very different reaction from my first winter and nearly an opposite one at that. That was a rough one.

My third winter was about 75% energy all the time, temptation to take a nap pretty much all the time, and a touch sadder than normal, but nothing that was comparable to the high and lows of the previous two winters. In other words, it was a much more balanced out reaction which made it much easier to deal with.

Point being: One winter in Alaska is NOWHERE near enough to know whether or not you’re built to handle the Alaska seasons and you need to experience at least three or four while fully living life (with all stresses and responsibilities) in order to know for sure how you’re going to consistently react and if you can consistently function at a high level through Alaska’s harsh winters.

My reactions were also nowhere near the most extreme. I have stories which are the type of dark humor where you have to be a sick twisted individual to find it funny because of the implications, but it’s crazy funny because of the absurdity of it all, and these stories revolve around people who went really off the deep end during, or right after, a harsh winter.

If you want to move to Alaska to live off the land, find a job up in the Last Frontier in one of the larger cities like Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, or Kodiak, and spend a year or two there making a living in town, meeting the people, learning the local culture and make sure it’s really for you. If it is, and it won’t surprise me at all because Alaskans are generally awesome, then you can start looking for what part of the state you want to look at setting up.

You are much better off spending a few years living in really cool cities, meeting great people, and having your Alaska adventures before realizing “this is a bit much” and starting a homestead search in the Pacific Northwest or Maine, or another area where the conditions aren’t quite the same level of extreme. This will also give you more time to pick up skills, talk to people who live off the land or have built their own cabins, and pick up the skills and knowledge needed to either continue with your adventure of living off the land in Alaska – or moving those skills to a better fit for you.

Those important skills are the same no matter where you’re going to live off the land, so why not learn them firsthand in the harshest of environments? Whether you decide Alaska is right for you or not at this point, you’re prepared for wherever you end up going.

lake on UAF alaska campus
There’s no lack of beautiful spots…finding yours on land that’s for sale is the challenge…but there are still options.

There Is No Homesteading In Alaska

Despite what some Internet sources claim, there is no homesteading in the state of Alaska. There is no free land.

There was a time when homesteading laws applied to Alaska, but those days are well past, so don’t believe anyone who says that you can still homestead in Alaska because that’s just not true.

Homesteading stopped being a legal option on October 21, 1976. This was the date the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 was signed into law and among the many changes to land law in the United States this also ended the legal practice of homesteading.

So while there might be opportunities for inexpensive land whether from individuals, land development companies, or even the state or local government looking for investors willing to transform some local land into something developed to provide more for the community – but it’s not going to be free and you can’t just “go out and claim it.” Not legally, anyway.

While I definitely see the appeal of this, it’s no longer a viable way to fulfill that fantasy of going to Alaska, getting off grid, and living off the land. So while it would be nice to be able to just “Stardew Valley” it and get out of the dead end office job in the city to some place new, unless you have a Grandpa with an actual property deed, you’re not getting any free land in Alaska.

Hate to be the dream crusher, but the good news is that if you really are committed to this, have the skills to live out in the country or off grid, you do actually have quite a few options to help you find the right bit of relatively cheap land for you in the Last Frontier, just not via homesteading.

You Should Live in Alaska for 3+ Years First

There are many people who played a lot of Stardew Valley, thought moving to a country farm and renovating it and getting into farming was the life they wanted, then found out that reality wasn’t like the game. This is an expensive mistake to make and one that can derail lives depending on how recklessly it was done, and moving to Alaska to live off the land can be in that same boat.

If you lived in Alaska for multiple years recently (and this MUST include winter – not just aggregate of summer and spring months from multiple years) then this isn’t as important because you have your answer. However, Alaska is unlike other states – even those in the Pacific Northwest. What does this mean? It means you need to spend some time living through the long, dark, and cold winters year after year to make sure it’s worth it to you.

Try out an apartment or a house in the city. Keep in mind that “city” is a very loose term in Alaska and most of Fairbanks and Kodiak don’t feel like especially big cities. Live through a harsh season or two to make sure you can handle it, and the goal in your mind is worth going through the hardships that do exist.

Downtown Fairbanks
This is the second most urbanized area in all of Alaska. Notice the massive amount of woods, lakes, rivers, and greenspace. It’s even more pronounced on the ground – that is Alaska!

Finding the Right Alaska Land to Homestead

Once you’ve done this you can look at moving to a smaller town or location, building your own cabin, and then deciding just how far off the grid you want to go. Since you’ll already be living up there you’ll also have another huge advantage: you will find land that no one can find online or through other means.

The reason is there are large chunks of wooded land that are owned and put up for sale via a sign with a phone number (and this can be in the middle of nowhere – where you haven’t seen another house in 40+ minutes of driving through mountain passes), or local governments put acres up for inexpensive sale but do so through meetings or announcements where locals must show up in person to put in their bid or application.

In other words, having boots on the ground will make you privy to deals that will never exist in an online listing, app, or even your conventional real estate office. If living there first isn’t an option, or you just refuse to go slow (as a fellow burning out comet I appreciate that point of view), then you will still want to head to Alaska for multiple weeks to explore the state.

Nothing beats boots on the ground and talking to locals to find out where you should look, what lots are available, and what your best options are in any given area. That said, start with online listings and sources, and then when you head up North to scout various areas out, you can explore side roads, check out cabins around the outskirts of towns/cities, and look for incredible deals out in those areas.

Also, don’t sleep on Alaska DNR land sales. These are usually for parcels of land relatively close to a road or public area with access, but not always. These are sold as lots and if you are looking for complete isolation, not likely since you may have neighbors (or at least hunters every time a new hunting season opens up) that are close by, but DNR sales are first come, first serve, so if you are on top of those listings you have a chance to buy some cheap undeveloped Alaska land.

These are just some starting spots for online searches, but they do give you a list of places to visit, contacts you can make, and will let the relators or other contacts know you’re serious about looking for the right piece of land for yourself.

Just finding a potential bit of land to move to can be a major process, but following the steps in this article and using the available resources will help you see what options are available and find the ones that most closely meet what you’re hoping for…or possibly even exceed it!

Is The Alaska Dream Dead?

So is the dream dead? Is the dream of moving to Alaska, finding your own piece of land, and living off the land there a pipe dream? Something that maybe was done in the past but is no longer a viable option? Absolutely not!

There are still plenty of people who move to Alaska, fall in love with the state, and end up moving there. If you have friends or family it’s easier, but for many who are doing this for the first time I would recommend moving to the state and stay in a city or village in a regular apartment for a year. This lets you learn about the local culture, how Alaskans see and do things, and find some land that will meet your needs for living off the land.

Other Alaska Articles You May Love