04/22/2013 04:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

Why Rent? Off the Grid in a Mobile Home on the Alaskan Frontier

On a sunny day in Anchorage, a compact and time-battered RV rests at a pullout alongside Chester Creek in midtown. Perhaps it's a harbinger of summertime, when swarms of motorhomes will descend upon the state, crowding parking lots and clogging highways, a fact of life as inevitable as summertime highway construction in Alaska.

But look again, because there's something a little different about this rig. Photos of living off the grid in Alaska

Maybe you notice the stark blue "bull bars" crisscrossing the front bumper. Perhaps then your eyes travel to the license plate: YRENT. Or maybe you spot smoke billowing from a chimney jutting from the roof - don't worry, the RV is not on fire. It's just smoke from the wood stove crackling inside.

Welcome to Tim Johnson's home. For the past year, Johnson has been living in his 1989 Toyota Odyssey motorhome decked out with solar panels, a wood stove, propane oven and make-shift bathroom. This is his version of living off the grid, his way of building a home without being tied down to a plot of land.

On the frigid spring day that I visited Johnson, I was greeted outside by his husky Tobias, a hefty dog with orange creamcicle coloring. Inside, the air was dense and cozy from the radiant heat of the woodstove. His girlfriend, a performer who goes by the name Cage Free, reclined in a cushy seat by the door, and Johnson pulled up a chair next to the miniature fridge, offering me the bench seat facing the stove.

Johnson, a graduate student studying environmental science at Alaska Pacific University, has just completed his first year of living in the RV. "I'm here to say it works," he smiled.

He came up with the idea after several years of considering where to buy land."I just couldn't decide where I wanted to build," he said. And then it hit him: Why not go mobile?

Although his plans were met with less-than-enthusiastic responses from friends, Johnson soon began searching for his new home. He knew he wanted a four-wheel drive Toyota RV and, as luck would have it, one popped up "almost immediately" in Los Angeles.

"It was kind of a gamble, and I just decided to go for it," he said. He flew to L.A., and drove the rig back before settling in to refurbish it, a journey he chronicled ...