Living Off Grid in Montana: Laws, Rules, and Best Places to Go

living off grid in montana weather

Being the fourth largest state, Montana has vast stretches of wilderness and untouched nature that are tempting options for off-grid living. Since it is a sparsely populated state, it’s a great choice for adventurers planning to live away from crowded cities.

But before you head for the state, there are two points about it that you need to keep in mind- the extreme winters and the not-so-low cost of living. Beyond that, there are plenty of spots where the power grid doesn’t function and cell phones don’t ring.

Is living off grid in Montana the best option for you?

In this article, we will share some of the necessary facts to help you find the answer.

Is Living off the Grid in Montana Legal? 

Strict local laws and regulations can make off-grid living a difficult task. And let’s not forget that you can’t live indefinitely in a tent or an RV without a proper residential structure having facilities like fresh water, toilet, heating, and cooling. 

The good news is that off-grid living is fully legal in Montana. The state also offers incentives for solar or wind-power-generating installations. That said, there can be homeowner restrictions and zoning laws in some areas. 

Hunting and fishing are popular activities in the state, as long as you have a permit. In case you are planning to keep animals and grow crops, you will need separate permits for that.

What Are the Zoning Laws for Off-Grid Living in Montana?

There are zoning laws in the state that will restrict your ability to construct specific structures. Since these laws can vary between countries, it’s best to check at the local level before you proceed. 

Some neighborhoods can have exclusionary zoning practices that restrict some types of homes. In addition, there can be a minimum square footage requirement for setting up a structure

Each county in Montana will have specific subdivision regulations. The purpose of these regulations is to prevent overcrowding of land and preservation of open space. Some counties, like Stillwater County, do not have zoning but follow development regulations.

However, the zoning laws in Montana are less strict than in most states. Other than that, the state has liberal homeschooling laws that make it easier to educate your children from an off-grid location.

off grid in montana

What’s the Weather like in Montana Year-Round?

One aspect to keep in mind while living off grid in Montana is the weather patterns. In general, the climate remains dry with a high amount of sunshine. But the temperatures can vary sharply during the year with extreme winters and warm summers. Temperature variations of 50 degrees within a day aren’t uncommon. 

The months of July and August are summertime with a dry period. Occasional storms are common during these months and also during September. With the rising effects of climate change, Montana is expected to have more heat wave days in the coming years.

October is the transition month and the fall weather can bring in some early winter storms. Similarly, the spring weather in April and May remains comfortable, even though Pacific storms can be common occurrences.

Winters in Montana are severe and the temperatures can head as low as 46 below Fahrenheit in the month of January. In the past few years, the winters have extended even to the month of March with a high intensity. 

Apart from occasional floods, winter storms, and ice storms, Montana doesn’t experience many natural disasters. In most cases, floods that occur are not severe in nature.

Note, winter snow can cut off supplies and communication lines between cities and villages. That means you may have to live for months in isolation in an off-grid location.

Altogether, the harsh cold makes off-grid living in Montana more of a challenging task.

Quite simply, if you don’t have the necessary facilities and heating, the winters in Montana can be life-threatening

Montana Building Codes and Permits

In Montana, a building permit isn’t required for residential buildings containing less than five dwelling units and for farms and ranches. The local legislative bodies follow building codes established by the Montana Building Codes Program.

Depending on the type of construction you are planning for your off-grid property, you may need to follow some of the building codes. You can contact the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Business Standards Division or the building inspectors to discuss your requirements.

house off grid in montana

How to Get Off-Grid Power in Montana 

There are no restrictions on using off-grid electricity in Montana. Even so, you will need a permit to install a solar system or a wind turbine. About 45% of the electricity generated in the state is from renewable sources.

The good news is, Montana offers generous incentives for solar power. Residents can receive a 30% tax credit for buying and installing solar panels. A $500 income tax credit is also given to individuals for installing a new alternative energy system like a wind turbine or a solar thermal system.

Considering the deep winters, heating bills in an off-grid location in Montana can cost you an arm and a leg. Generating sufficient solar power during the cloudy winter months can be challenging as well. For that reason, burning firewood is the best option for generating heat while living off grid in Montana.

How to Get Off-Grid Water in Montana

Montana is a relatively dry state and many of the counties experience drought during some parts of the year. In 2021, Montana experienced a period of intense drought that affected more than 33% of the land in the state.

With the decline in the snowpack in the lower elevations due to rising temperatures, the chances of early snowmelt are high in Montana. In recent years this has resulted in a shortage of water availability during the late-summer period; especially in the eastern parts of the state. 

Due to this shortage and the vulnerability to drought, there are specific water rights and use rules in the state.

It’s important to keep in mind that all surface and groundwater are the property of the state. That means you are a “water right holder” and need to use all available water on your land based on the state guidelines. So, it would be best if you researched the specific laws around your off-grid property to ensure that you aren’t breaking any laws by using the water.

Admittedly, establishing the water rights attached to a piece of land isn’t easy. To start with, you can check the state’s online query system. However, some older records may not be available in the system. Beyond that, water rights for a piece of land can also be leased for a certain period.

Keep in mind, the law of prior appropriation is followed in the state. That means the person who has obtained the water rights first has the prior rights over it. This prevents you from using the water in many basins and rivers. We suggest you go through a buyer’s guide to get proper clarity about the water rights in Montana.

Here are a few points to keep in mind while using surface water in Montana. 

  • You need to obtain a permit from the DNRC for using the water from a stream or lake on your land. However, a livestock pit or reservoir can be constructed based on some conditions. Keep in mind that the process of obtaining a permit can take a long time. You need to plan accordingly.
  • In the case of groundwater or well water, no permit is required for a limited appropriation of 35 gallons per minute or 10 acre-feet per year.
  • Rainwater harvesting is legal in Montana and is encouraged by the state. The process requires no separate permit. A simple system can be set up for any off-grid location by using the guidelines from Montana University.

Waste Removal for Off-Grid Living in Montana

There are detailed guidelines for subsurface wastewater treatment systems in Montana that you need to follow.  You can also recycle graywater as long as you have a permit. 

Basically, all sewage needs to be deposited in an approved public sewage system. The other option is to use a sewage treatment and disposal system as per the local laws. Using a septic tank or an absorption field is permitted. Solid waste should be disposed of periodically at a licensed solid waste disposal facility.

Setting up outhouses and compost toilets is legal in Montana. Before setting up a compost facility, you need to obtain a Montana pollutant discharge elimination system (MPDES) permit. Note, there are multiple rules to follow while setting up such a facility.

One important point is, the system should not be located in a wetland or floodplain. Also, there should be no water leakage from the facility that can contaminate surface water or groundwater.

Other than that, separate collection for organic waste isn’t mandatory in the state. Food waste and yard trimming disposals are allowed.

life off grid in montana

What’s the Cost of Living Off Grid in Montana?

In terms of cost-of-living Montana lies in the middle of the scale. It’s neither too expensive nor is it among the least expensive states. That said, the cost of living varies between different cities and off-grid zones.

As per the data obtained in 2020, the average annual cost of living in the state is around $42,310. The average expense for food and groceries is $318 per month for a person. Besides, the property tax in Montana is less than the national average. The average land cost in the state is around $915/acre.

It goes without saying that living off-grid is about optimizing costs and not focusing on a luxurious lifestyle. So, in some scenarios, building a simple home can be cheaper than purchasing one.

Best Places to Live off the Grid in Montana

After comparing the various factors, we have listed the top places for Montana off-grid living.

Madison County

With a relatively large land area of around 3587 square miles and a low population density, Madison County has plenty of spots ideal for off-grid living. So, finding cheap land is easier here.

Being in the southern part of the state, the summers are hotter here and the winters milder. The higher temperatures will allow you to grow a variety of crops during the summer. Additionally, the splendid natural beauty of the land is a big plus.

Beaverhead County

In terms of climate, Beaverhead County is similar to Madison County. On top of that, the cost of living is slightly lower. It has a population of around 10,000 people in a land area of 5543 square miles. The cost-of-living index is not too high either.

Another advantage is the easy communication to the cities from the off-grid locations. The education facilities for children are also good in the County. In addition, the agricultural economy is well-developed due to the milder climate.

Ravalli County

The population of Ravalli County is on the higher side with almost 46000 people in 2394 square miles. That brings down the cost of essentials and resources. Since the County has farming-friendly policies, growing your own crops is easier.

Beyond that, the land price in the County is on the cheaper side. In terms of weather, the summers are warm are pleasant. But the winters are chilly and you will have to deal with heavy snowfall during these months.

Granite County

Granite County has a smaller land area of 1728 square miles and is mostly a rural region. The winters are less harsh here with plenty of sunny days in the summer. However, the area experiences annual issues with flooding. So, choose the location of your off-grid property carefully.

The land price in Granite County is below the national average, but the grocery costs are the same as the US average. The farming opportunities are good enough for off-grid survival.

Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex

If you are looking for a short-term off-grid adventure in Montana, this Complex is one of the best destinations with around 1.5 million acres of mostly untouched wilderness. With rocky cliffs, flowing streams, meadows, and tranquil lakes, the area has numerous breathtaking sights. 

There are multiple trails through the area ranging from intermediate to difficult. So, options for planning a multi-day trip on foot are plenty. 

But before you start, make sure to check the trail conditions. Most importantly, the area is thickly populated with both grizzlies and black bears. So, make sure to take the right precautions.

Final Thoughts

Time to face the question- is Montana one of the best destinations for off-grid living?

To be honest, the answer depends on your preferences. The main problems with living off grid in Montana are the harsh winter climate and the relatively short period for growing crops.

If you don’t mind battling freezing temperatures, Montana has plenty of great spots for connecting with untouched nature. The low population density and the incentives for renewable power sources also work in its favor.

Either way, the experience of off-grid living in Montana is something that you will either love or hate.