What I’ve Learned From the Subsistence Lifestyle

Cabin in the snow

I'm a sucker for real-life dramas like Life Below Zero. This show follows the lives of several people who essentially live off the land – or the subsistence lifestyle.

There's a lot to be learned from these folks who have forsaken “having it all” and have chosen a more simple way of life. They are not wealthy, but they seem to be some of the most satisfied people I've seen on TV.

One of the shows more interesting characters is a man by the name of Glenn Villeneuve. He lives in the Brooks Range of Alaska in a small cabin he built by himself. He doesn't have a vehicle, or many of the modern day conveniences – but hunts for all his food and knows a lot about living off-grid.

According to a Facebook interview he gave in 2013, he still works some of the time in the business world so he can support a subsistence life. Viewers don't get any insight as to his family life either – but is a father of 4 children. Something that I find a bit troubling (“Why would you leave your kids behind to chase a lifestyle dream?”).

The other shows characters all live the life full-time. And reside in the “last frontier”: Alaska.

Having watched several of the seasons in my spare time, there's a few things I've learned from the way they live.

subsistence lifestyle

Experiences are priceless

A golden nugget that I've gathered from watching the people live off the land is how much they cherish the experience of life in nature and having to make due with what the wild provides them. One family (the Hailstones), seems to really enjoy their life of hunting, fishing and then trading when they need something. They spend a lot of time teaching their children too so they can one day live a subsistence lifestyle. All seem to place a high value on experiences over accumulation / possessions and appear to be happier for it.

You don't need much

Watching the show brings to mind some of the conversations we've had with our tiny home dweller, LaMar Alexander. Many of the subsistence folks live in very small residences and don't have a lot of things. Resourcefulness is a word that comes to mind after watching some of the things they are able to build and achieve with limited tools.

Contentedness is a byproduct

Another thing that surprises me about the people who are living off the land is they seem to be very content and comfortable with themselves. My guess is that many years of living on your own produces a certain amount of intrinsic rewards that boost a healthy self-image. The lifestyle also seems to humble its participants (which could result in contentedness).

Take advantage of opportunities

One of the themes that reverberates among the cast of characters is this idea of being “opportunistic”. Many will go hunting for a particular animal, only to spot another and then go after that. They don't know if they'll ever get a chance to shoot their desired meal – so they have to take advantage of what is available to them.

Life is an adventure

One of the things that I often forget in my world of working in a traditional, 9-5 corporate job is that life is to be lived – it is an adventure. Sometimes, one day at my job seems to be like any other, without a lot of stimulation and it can leave you a bit dull. This sense of adventure and living life on the edge seems to be present with those living a subsistence life. They need to step up and make things happen or they don't eat. I'm sure it is be very exhilarating, challenging and rewarding.

You can do alot without money

The Hailstone family seems to do very little with money (In fact I've never seen them exchanging dollars for goods). Since their primary job is hunter / gatherers – they will trade food for any other material things they need with people in their village. While this could be due to the culture they're from – trading seems to be a necessity when living in the bush. I sometimes wonder if I could employ this more in my every day life too.

I'm curious if you've seen the show too – and some of the things you've observed? Or, perhaps you've lived (are living) a subsistence lifestyle?

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  1. I’ve been watching maybe 20 to 30 episodes. At first I found it fScinating. I’m beginning to wonder though why would you spend all day/week for food/heat. When ok maybe they are more satisfied living that way but with a job you can eat , have heat, spend time with the family in a secure dwelling. And still have income for fun, education, others. Etc. In many ways it seems self selfish, self serving. Antisocial. I don’t know. Not for me. Glad it works for them!

    • Hm, you make a good point. I hate to speak for them – but I think its about the adventure, and being w/ nature.

  2. These shows are a great glimpse into subsistence living but a lot is kept off camera to make it look like they’re living harder than they really are, not to take anything from them because they really are living a more subsistent life than most. Each of the families or characters portrayed in “Life Below Zero” are paid very well for their part in the show, they are also forced to do things on camera they would never do because of safety hazards but they do them anyways because of the money or the fact producers think it will add more drama. There are subsistence farmers and homesteaders like myself that open our property up to people who are serious about the subsistence lifestyle to join us in day to day hands in work and see if it’s something they can really handle, this is a far better option than deciding you want to do it because you watched it on tv. As far as “hacks” go, these people are doing things the way they’ve been done for hundreds of years, the hacks come from all the modern conveniences that have made these tasks easier. I hope I’m not coming off negative, I’ve just seen a lot of people try to start homesteading and put themselves, their family and livestock in a bad situation because it looks a lot easier when someone with real skills is doing it on tv, producers tend to show success over failure and it takes a lot of time and energy to overcome the latter. It’s not a glamorous life but you’re right about one thing for sure, it does humble you, it shows you that everything is connected when you take out unnecessary distractions.

    • Thanks for the insider’s viewpoint Jacob!

  3. These shows are so neat! It’s interesting to see the hacks they come up with to stretch their resources. I think us soft city folk could learn a thing or two as far as stretching our money and not wasting a thing.

    • Oh yeah, the hacks they use are also very educational!

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