Arctic Adventures: Volume 5 – Living Without Water – Part 1

Arctic Adventures: Volume 5 – Living Without Water – Part 1

I believe we ALL take modern conveniences for granted. 

For us personally, we’ve lived without XYZ quite a few times, from the times we have been caretakers of remote, off-grid properties reliant on solar power to the times when we car-camp across the country to the time when we’ve gone long-distance backpacking and live without electricity, water and shelter. From all those experiences, we always made the claim we’d rather live without water than without electricity. 

So when we decided to purchase a cabin without running water in Alaska during the winter, I smugly said, we got this, no problem. 

By the way, the sun has returned to our street!!!!!
It traverses the horizon from 11am (time of above pix) until after 3pm these days. Woohoo!!

Truth be told, I was secretly wondering if we were fully equipped to be Alaskans. But I desperately wanted to try. Would we be one of those people who try out Alaskan living—in the winter no less—only to hightail it back to the lower 48? Or would we learn a lot, laugh a lot and love a lot? 

I’m happy to report: we got this (so far). Thanks to a lot of trial and error teaching us in abundance, living without water has been … interesting and mind-blowing. 

Instead of doing a massive post about living without water, I plan to break it up. I know bathroom use is a very popular inquiry, and don’t worry, I’ll get to that. 

Dry cabins—those without plumbing and running water—mean no showers, dishwasher, laundry and toilet. This is extremely common in Alaska. In fact, we feel like most of the people we know in Healy live in a dry cabin, and have been doing that for YEARS. 

While our cabin is considered dry, we do have a well outside. However, WE DON’T USE IT. When we purchased the cabin, the previous owners said they never used the well, and felt it was unreliable. People keep telling us our well is reliable, but honestly, we’ve had enough of a learning curve for living in Alaska during the winter, we don’t want to test the well pump, its heater and threads in 20 below. 

The well is on the left in this photo.

So we haul water like other dry cabin inhabitants. 

I know your next question is, what does hauling water mean? 

We have 3 hard-sided 5-gallon plastic containers, 1 hard-sided 2-gallon plastic container, about 4 collapsible, double-wall plastic containers and a smattering of water bottles. Basically, it adds up to just over 30 gallons of water that we can store.

We fill these containers anywhere we can—my uncle’s house in Fairbanks, other local people’s houses who have wells, the library, 3 Bears Grocery Store, the bar, the community well, etc. When we get our well up and running, we plan to pay it forward and open our flowing water up for business. 

I am certain the next question is, just how long does 30 gallons of water last? 

Living without water is an exercise in resource management. I’d like to think we’ve always been conscious of water consumption, but certainly not like I am now. I can account for every bit of water I use. 

We’ve done our tracking and calculations, and 30 gallons lasts us about 2 weeks. It seems that collectively, we average 1.765 gallons of water per day. 

No, we don’t melt snow for water. But it’s nice to have the excess resource when water rations are low.

This feels unbelievable, but the average single person uses 80-100 gallons of water per day.

To be fair, a fully operational household has all the things we do not have. So it’s not really anyone’s fault that they use so much water. I mean, we could all do a little better to conserve, but it’s just the way a house is built.

For example, a toilet typically uses 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Older models use 3.6 gallons, while the newest models use just over 1 gallon. On a daily basis, people inevitably use about 9 gallons of water for toilet flushing. 

We don’t have a flush toilet, so there’s one savings. 

Washing machines use between 28-41 gallons of water per load. 

Again, we don’t have one, so another savings.

One common household task we still have to tackle in a dry cabin: washing dishes. 

A dishwasher actually leads to lower usage than doing dishes by hand. It’s because most people run the water continuously while washing hands or dishes, between lathering up and rinsing. This could waste about 4 gallons of water per time! 

Since we obviously don’t have a dishwasher, nor can we run water continuously, we rely on a pioneer system, and this is where we probably save a good bit of water. 

We use a 2-basin sink system.

The first basin is where I scrub with dish detergent. The second basin is the rinsing, which I do with boiling water. 

The task can be done by 1 person, but it helps to have Justin nearby to assist. While he is clearing the dinner plates and leftovers, he’ll turn on the boiling water and sometimes pour it over. I am more conservative than I probably need to be, in that I have him pour the boiling water into one dish, like a bowl, then I pour it into the second bowl, and go back and forth for a bit. 

The next step is to dispose of the dirty dishwater when it’s nasty (usually after 2 meals, maybe 3, depending on what we eat). But before throwing out the dirty water, you must strain to get all the particles out. Leave No Trace!!!! We definitely want to keep the wildlife wild.   

Definitely time to change the water!

Last, but not least, take dirty dishwater outside and broadcast it off our deck to disperse. Sometimes, when it’s really cold outside and the water is hot, it evaporates before hitting land. 

We do have pipes under our sink that go outside. So the water could theoretically could drain in the summer time. For the winter, we’ve plugged up the drains. But apparently there’s still some water that trickles through. 

Dirty dishwater icicles. That’s a first.

Another alternative that people with dry cabins use is using the sink itself (instead of basins) and draining into a slop bucket. I don’t particularly like that method because we use our under-the-sink area for storage for our water (tiny 300 square foot cabin, remember?). Plus, we’ve used that slop bucket system before, and tend to forget to check it. We’ve never had an overflow, but it’s heavy to empty and sloshes all around while carrying it outside, painting you with gross stuff. 

Lessons I’ve learned for dish-washing in a dry cabin: 

#1 – Eat every morsel of food on your plate. Lick the plate if you have to. Crumbs are easy to dump in the garbage, but other items (leftover ketchup or applesauce) just makes the dishwater grosser than it needs to be. 

#2 – No wasting includes liquids. Leftover almond milk in cereal? Drink it. We bottle up grease and anything extra that can’t be consumed, then chuck it on garbage day. 

#3 – Do the dishes IMMEDIATELY. The more they sit, the more things crust up and harden. Without running water, it is so much more work to scrub. Also, do not stack dirty plates & bowels unless they are sitting in water. 

#4 – Cooking elaborate meals with multiple dishes sucks. 

#5 – Curry is evil. 

#6 – Invite friends over to dinner who say, “Let’s just use the same plates for dinner and dessert.” They understand. 

Next post: what’s it like to shower in a dry cabin? And, the most asked question: what’s it like to use an outhouse in -20?

7 responses to “Arctic Adventures: Volume 5 – Living Without Water – Part 1”

  1. Jamie says:

    Does this mean you don’t use condiments!? No ketchup!? I can’t believe the average daily water consumption per person. Perhaps I need to do some more if it’s yellow let it mellow. Thanks for all the entertaining information!

    • plavigne says:

      Your brother loves condiments!! He always needs something to dip into! But we practice good portion control & sop up everything on the plate we can. And I know! I can’t believe the daily consumption rates. I definitely try to be more mindful when we are in fully functioning households.

  2. Misti says:

    Yeah. I was grossed out by the using dishwater twice or three times. Nope, nope, nope, that’s a recipe for my gag reflex to be put into action. In fact, I had to turn away at the photos! LOL Doing the dishes that way is fine, I just couldn’t do it multiple times with the same water. I had wondered what your no water meant and this is a great primer!

    With that dishwater icicle—why isn’t a hose put out farther from the cabin so that it isn’t dripping straight under the cabin?

    • plavigne says:

      There is a hose that extends even underground beyond the cabin, but we disconnected it in the winter. We just figured we’d be plugging up the sink, so no need to have this long piping set up and exposed to the elements (it’s plastic, which is precarious in the cold temps). Now that we know water still drips out, we’ll probably set up a different system for the next winter we’re here. Live & learn!

  3. Mary says:

    Sounds like the dishwashing system we have at the ski yurts or on a river trip. Alas, I’m afraid I’d kill my husband if we lived in 300 square feet.

  4. Clara says:

    It’s is disgusting the amount of fresh water is wasted around the World. You don’t realize how much you waste until you don’t have it.

  5. Paul says:

    This post (which is awesome btw) reminds me of the time when hiking the AT that I took all my hiking buddy’s water bottles a mile off trail to a public piped road side spring in NY. I was so hoping to yogi a ride back to the trailhead and relieved when a car pulled in while I was filling up. Thought I’d strike up conversation while he waited for me, but he never got out of his car, so I started walking. After I walked past his car I heard him unlock his doors and hurry to the spring, and it dawned on me – I smell like an ape and haven’t cut my hair or shaved in many months. I think the dude was frightened by me. I can’t even frighten a 10 year old normally

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