In a previous post, I talked about the different kinds of (plausible) survival scenarios that the average person might have to live through. Now I’ll start talking about how you can prepare to survive them.
Let’s Be Realistic
Television shows about prepping divide survivalists into one of two categories:
- People who plan on living in an underground nuclear fallout shelter stocked with enough supplies to operate as a Super Wal-Mart; and
- People who plan to disappear into the wilderness and live like Pa and Ma Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods.
If you are an average sort of person, you look at those two things and think, “I can’t do either of those.” Your bank account won’t support the first and your skill set and/or location relative to the nearest wilderness won’t support the second. So you think you can do nothing to be prepared, so you don’t prepare.
But the people on those shows are the one-percenters of preppers. Most people who want to be prepared don’t have wads of cash and a secret hideout in the mountains.
The idea of being prepared for “what-if” can be very daunting. There are so many possible what-if scenarios (and plenty of people who are convinced that they know which one will happen) that preparing for all of them (or worrying that you will prepare for the wrong one) becomes overwhelming, so people don’t even try. (This is known as “overchoice.”)
People can come up with some pretty bizarre ideas about what the future apocalypse (aka a SHTF–Shit Hits the Fan–scenario). They read like the most severe part of the Yom Kippur service:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who will die by nuclear explosion and who by radioactive fallout; who will die by foreign war and who by domestic war; who will die by escaped CDC diseases and who by genetic manipulation gone wrong; who will die by genetically-modified f0ods and who by famine caused by radical climate change; who will die by power outage and who by lack of fresh water; who will die by zombie and who by vampire . . .
And so on.
No one can be 100% prepared for every possible scenario because no one even knows what all the possible scenarios are, much less has the money to buy all the supplies and time to learn all the needed skills. And just when you think you have all your bases covered, some dragon will come along, burning up every town in his wake and you’ll be, “Crap! I didn’t plan on dragons! Quick! Bury the gold bullion!”
To keep from getting overwhelmed, prepare for the things that seem most likely to happen to you first, then add additional stuff as necessary to broaden your coping ability. That means that not everyone will prepare for the same survival situations. For instance, where we live, we don’t have to worry about rioting and looting. But if you live in a city–especially one that’s had that problem lately–preparing for a riot is something that should be high on your priority list. If you live in Wyoming, preparing for the upcoming winter should be high on your priority; people living in southern Arizona probably don’t have to be as concerned about bad weather. People in New York City should consider what they will do if there’s another large terrorist attack; people in California should be prepared for an earthquake. If you work in a volatile industry like construction, a layoff will probably be your most immediate concern.
You get the picture.
Temporary scenarios are the ones you are most likely to experience in your lifetime. They’re also the easiest to prepare for and survive. So once you identify the temporary (or even short-term) situation you are most likely to encounter, prepare for it.
All temporary survival situations have one thing in common: you need a limited amount of stuff to survive and it needs to be portable. A survival bag (aka a “bug out” bag) will stand you in good stead in almost any temporary survival situation. And they are pretty cheap and easy to put together.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to spend huge amounts of money buying a special survival tactical bag that has a fold-out kitchen and doubles as a claymore. Any bag is better than no bag at all. So if all you have is a large gym bag, sports equipment bag, or standard backpack, that’s fine.
My survival bag is my L.L. Bean backpack that I’ve had since high school. (I swore to my mother that if she bought it for me, I would never ask for or need another backpack. That was 22 years and it’s still in good shape.) I think a backpack is the most useful kind of bag because it’s easier to carry and leaves your hands and arms freer than other types of bags, but like I said, any bag is better than none at all. Use what you have or search yard sales, flea markets, or thrift stores for something cheap.
You need to know when you’ll need your survival bag to gauge what you need to put into it. Reasons why you might grab your survival bag include:
- Getting stuck in your car due to bad weather, rioting, breakdown/ accident, or a Chinese traffic jam
- Abandoning your stranded car in search of help or safety;
- Evacuating your home, work, or school before or after a terrorist attack, natural disaster, riots, etc.;
- Being stuck at work, school, in a hotel, etc.
In short, survival bags are for when you need to unexpectedly survive away from home.
Here’s what I think will cover your most basic needs in all those situations and will fit in a decent-sized backpack (in no particular order of importance); add additional items you think necessary for your most-likely scenario(s):
3 changes of underwear (including socks)
No matter where you go, you’re going to want some clean underwear and clean, dry socks. If you get stuck somewhere for longer than three days, you can wash your things with handsoap, if necessary.
Cost: $0 if you pack old underwear or ugly socks that you were going to get rid of anyway.
1 change of clothing (optional); should include durable pants, like jeans, and a dark, nondescript shirt
If you are short on bag space, this is the thing to leave out. But if you can, put it in, especially if you tend to wear dressy clothes. Hiking across country in bad weather is a lot more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt than in a pencil skirt or two-piece suit. if you have the space, give yourself a t-shirt and a sweatshirt/hoodie both so you are prepared for winter and summer both. If you can only have one clothing item, choose the pants; whatever top you have on at the time is likely to suffice and pants can be worn under a dress, if necessary.
Why a dark, nondescript shirt? If you are trying to escape a riot or other dangerous situation, it’s best not to stand out; you don’t want to attract attention or be memorable in any way. Dark clothes also make it easier for you to hide in the dark, if necessary.
Cost: $0 if you use some old clothes you already have.
Walking shoes (optional)
You will want these if you normally wear dressy shoes that you can’t walk in very far. Pack an older pair of tennis shoes or hiking boots that still have some mileage on them but are thoroughly broken-in.
Cost: $0 if you pack (and you should) an older pair of shoes that you were going to replace anyway.
Toboggan and gloves
Even if you normally carry gloves and a hat on your person in the winter, you may get stuck somewhere in the fall or spring when you don’t have your winter gear and it gets cold at night. But even in the winter it may get so cold, you want to pull on an extra set of gloves and another toboggan. Or your primary set may get wet and you need a dry set. Keeping your hands, head, and feet warm and dry are of primary importance in a winter survival situation.
If you live in a very cold area or think you might end up living outside for several days, also include some chemical handwarmers that you can use in your pockets/mittens or inside your shoes.
Cost: $0-$10 for the gloves and toboggan, depending on if you already have them or not. (Dollar Tree often has gloves and toboggans both in the winter which will set you back a whole $2.) Handwarmers cost anywhere from 50 cents to closer to a dollar each, depending on where you buy them and if you get them in bulk.
3 days’ worth of your medications
All the supplies and skills in the world aren’t going to help you if you if you get to shelter and find out that you don’t have your rescue inhaler, insulin, or other necessary medication. Make sure you have some spare medicine in your bag (and if you’re going to keep your bag in your car, make sure the medicine can take the fluctuating temps). If you normally take medicine that requires refrigeration, ask your doctor if there is an alternative that will work in case refrigeration is not available; pack some and keep some at home for emergencies.
Note: If you take pain pills of any kind, make sure you keep them in an original prescription bottle; drug task forces are touchy about people who appear to be buying or selling prescription pain meds.
Cost: $0 since you’re using medicine you would be taking already.
3 days’ worth of food
MREs work well in a survival bag because they’re everything you need for a decent dinner in one packet and they’ll withstand the temperature fluctuations in your car. Other things that work in lieu of MREs or as a supplement to them include nuts and seeds, dehydrated fruit or fruit leathers, jerky, any sort of granola or protein bar that won’t melt, or a powdered meal replacement drink like Ensure or even Carnation Instant Breakfast. Food you can eat right out of a can without heating, like canned meat, vienna sausages, Spam, chili, fruit in syrup, etc. are heavier to carry, but they work just as well. (Don’t forget a can opener!)
Note: Having some canned food in your bag, while heavy, its actually not a bad idea. Most canned foods are packed in water, which you can drink both to satisfy thirst and to get a little extra nutrition. Cans stripped of their labels can also be put in a fire and used as a little cookpot and once empty, they can also double as a water cup.
Cost: If you buy in bulk and patiently hunt, you can get MREs (or a civilian equivalent) for $2-$5 per serving. Jerky can be expensive, but you can always wait until beef goes on sale and make your own at home to save money. The other snacks can generally be acquired for about $1 each at Dollar Tree or Wal-Mart. You should plan on spending $30-$50 on your food.
Basic first-aid equipment like bandaids, aspirin/ibuprofen, neosporin, etc.
Bandaids for your blisters and ibuprofen for your headache. Need I say more?
Cost: $0-$5. You probably already have what you need, but if you don’t, you can pick up some first aid supplies cheaply at Wal-Mart or Dollar Tree. If you want a serious First Aid kit, you can get those for $25-$30.
A quality pocketknife or Leatherman/multi-tool
It’s defensive. It’s offensive. It makes julienne fries. There’s no reason not to carry a knife in your bag.
Note: Some states (*coughCaliforniacough*) are particular about knives. Make sure yours doesn’t exceed length restrictions, doesn’t constitute a switch blade, etc. If you buy a knife from a reputable store in your state, it’s sure to be legal (at least for now). You’re probably also safe with a classic Swiss Army knife. While knockoffs may not have the quality of the original, it may be all your budget can afford and some knife is better than no knife at all. If you don’t try to do anything crazy like cut down small trees with it, it ought to work okay.
Cost: I picked up a Swiss Army knockoff for $2 at a yard sale just a few weekends ago. We also have a knife outlet in town where we can get decent one-blade pocket knives for about $7. Generic Leatherman tools can be had around $20; the real deal is $35 and up.
A compass (if you know how to use one) and a local map
Buy a local map and use a colored highlighter to trace your normal routes from home to work to kids’ school, etc. Then use different colors to highlight alternate routes. The fastest route home, for instance, may not be the shortest or take you through the safest areas if you are having to traverse it on foot. How will you travel if all the interstates are blocked? How can you avoid downtown or other places that are most likely to be the scene of a terror attack or riot? If you want to get out of the city, which direction do you need to go? You may have to double-back in order to get around problem areas or drive outside the city and go all the way around it to get to the road you want. Make sure you give yourself several options depending on if you plan on getting home or getting out of the city, whether you need to pick up your kids from school or is a weekend when everyone’s home, etc.
It’s fastest to use Google maps to trace fast/short routes, but make sure you highlight the route(s) you want on your paper map. You never know when your phone might stop working or it gets stolen from you. (A paper map isn’t likely to be stolen unless your whole bag is taken.)
Once you have some routes planned, drive them to familiarize yourself with them. When you’re in an emergency, you’re not going to have a lot of time to slow down and read street signs or consult your map frequently; it’s better to be able to say, “Ah, this intersection is familiar; I turn right here.”
And, to be on the safe side, fold your map so that you can see as much of your routes as possible and stick it in a plastic Ziplock freezer bag. This will keep it dry in case you need to pull it out in the rain.
Cost: $7-$20, depending on the quality of your map and compass.
Two sources of fire (e.g. lighter and matches)
Because you never know when you’ll need to build a fire to stay warm, cook food, or signal for help. Also keep your fire-making tools in a Ziplock bag to protect them from moisture.
Why two sources of fire? Watch any movie: the first one you try never works.
Cost: $0-$5 depending on if you already have lighters and matches or not.
This is trickiest thing to pack because of the weight, the bulk, and the fact that if you leave it in your car, it will freeze and burst. A general rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person per day, but no one is going to carry that much with them at once. Unless you live in a desert region where open water is nearly impossible to find, you can probably get away with a little bit of bottled water (make sure to pour off 1/4th of it before leaving it in your car to freeze), one or more empty containers to put found water in (in a pinch, those Ziplock bags you have other things stored in can become water containers) and a Life Straw or iodine tablets to purify the water.
Cost: $10-$15 for a purification device/tablets, about $15 if you buy a collapsible water container, plus a few bucks for some bottled water to have on hand.
Hand sanitizer and toilet paper
Hand sanitizer not only cleans your hands (important to do before eating, when you come into contact with contaminated water or materials, or before tending a wound), but in a pinch it can sanitize a wound (although it won’t be pleasant!) and can be used to sterilize hard objects, like a knife. And it can also be used as a fire starter because it’s almost pure alcohol.
Toilet paper: because leaves are highly overrated. You don’t need to carry an entire roll, though; that’s too bulky. Just unroll a wad and stick it in a Ziplock baggie. You can not only use it for your backside, but also as a napkin, tissue, or as a bandage. (Use it to stop minor blood flow or you can cover a wound with a folded section of it and tape it down with duct tape in lieu of a bandaid.)
Cost: $0-$2. (Hand sanitizer and cheap toilet paper both can be picked up at a Dollar Tree.)
Rope and tape and wire
Cheap cotton clothesline rope can be picked up for a dollar or two and can be used for all sorts of things: a dog leash, tying members of your party together for safety, a clothesline (oddly enough), putting up an impromptu tent, emergency shoelaces or belt, etc.
Duct tape or electrical tape also has its uses, including: taping up tears in equipment, emergency bandage, sealing cracks around windows and doors, keeping things held together (think a car window that won’t stay up, a sole that’s coming off a shoe, blackout curtains that are gaping).
20 gauge baling wire can be used in lieu of rope in most cases, but it is best used when heat or fire might be an issue. It’s good for emergency car repairs, snaring animals, trip wires, and other MacGyver-esque stuff. If space and weight is an issue with your bag, you can leave the wire in your car roadside emergency kit, since that’s where you are most likely to need it. (Wiring a muffler or bumper on is not unheard of in my neck of the woods.)
You may also want to get heavier nylon rope and leave it in your car. My husband has actually used it to pull out a stuck vehicle before (run it between the two vehicles at least 4 times to make it strong enough). It can be used for climbing/repelling or tying a load onto your truck or roof rack.
Cost: You can get one of everything for $5-$7; add about $12 if you also want heavy-duty rope.
1-2 space blankets and/or a small tarp or sheet plastic
Space blankets are cheap, easy to find (Wal-Mart carries them in their sporting goods section), and absolutely life-saving; there’s no reason why you shouldn’t own two. If you are camping outside, you can lay on one and wrap yourself in the second and be nice and warm even when it’s terribly cold. You can use one as a tent; silver side up will reflect the sun away from you; silver side down will help keep your body heat in the tent. You can hang one up behind a fire or wood-burning stove to reflect more of the heat onto you. You can stuff one in your coat or cut it into pieces and line the insides of your shoes, hat, or mittens to keep you warmer. You can cut one up like a poncho to keep a cold rain off you and keep your body warm. Truly, there is no reason not to have a couple of these life-saving devices.
A piece of plastic or tarp makes a more durable tent than the space blanket alone (although you can line the inside of your tent with the space blanket and trap your body heat). You can also use it to protect yourself from wet ground. It can cover a hole in a larger shelter (think tarps on roofs after a hurricane or tornado, or covering a broken window or missing door). You can also put heavy things on it–like an injured person or found supplies–and drag them with you.
Cost: $3-$7 per space blanket, depending on size; about $5 for a small tarp.
Plastic utensils (optional)
You will probably appreciate not having to eat your food with your fingers. The handles of plastic cutlery can also double as splints for broken fingers.
Cost: $0. Just recycle some takeout plasticwear.
Assuming you have about half of this stuff at home already, you can pack a decent survival bag for about $60. If that seems high, consider it will contain enough food to feed you three meals for three days, so instead of looking at it as $60 sitting idly in the truck of your car, think of it as buying 9 meals in advance. If the time ever comes when you need your supplies, you will think it money very well spent.
But even if you have $0 to spend on your bag, at least pack it with what you can spare out of your current supplies; limited supplies will always be better than none at all. But even the tightest budget can generally find room for the purchase of an extra can of Spam or vienna sausages each trip to the grocery store. Add your spare can to your bag and you’ll be that much closer to surviving away from home.
How to Use Your Survival Bag
As you may have noticed, I mention keeping your survival bag in your car. That’s generally the best place to keep one, since it’s handy in just about every situation. If you are stuck at home, you can get it out of the car. If you’re stuck at work or school, you can go out to the parking lot and get it. If you are stuck in your car or find yourself stuck in a motel room, it will be there. If you need to move away from your car, you can grab it and go.
The exception to this might be in a riot situation where you are unsure if you are going to flee by foot or by car. In that case, it’s better to keep your bag by your bed or door. If you feel the need to flee, you can grab it and either head for your car or slip out a back door or window and cut across country.
If you don’t have a car, you may want to have two bags: one at home and one at work. That way, if you are at either place when trouble strikes and you need to get out, you will be ready to strap on your bag and move.
Packing for Two (or More)
What if you have a family to think about? Then each family member should have their own bag. Each adult should have a full compliment of gear in case you are stranded separately, but children only need to carry their own food, water, and spare clothing. (This should fit into a backpack small enough for them to manage.)
Pets, too, need a survival bag (although this can be pretty small.) Make sure you have three days’ worth of their food, a couple of collapsible dishes for their food and water, a spare leash, a toy, and any meds they take. Dogs can tolerate drinking pretty icky water, so you don’t have to pack spare water for them, but you will need one bottle per cat. Also make sure you have carriers for your cats in the event you need to evacuate your home. Cheap options that take up almost no space include a cardboard carrier box from your vet’s office or a collapsible soft-side carrier (I got ours at Dollar General). These will run you $5-$15 each.
If you have a disabled family member, take the time to think about what it would take for you to get that person into a car and evacuated on short-notice. What equipment do you need? Is there any way to get spares of at least some of it and have it in your garage, ready to be loaded? At the very least, make a list of everything that needs to be packed in case of an emergency and tape it to the back of the person’s bedroom door. That way, when you’re in a hurry and panic, you won’t have to worry about forgetting something. (It also allows others to help you pack.)
Temporary Survival Skills
I’ve covered what supplies you need to survive a temporary emergency. Now, what skills do you need?
Be able to build a fire
Can you build a fire if it doesn’t involve charcoal and a lot of lighter fluid? Using a lighter to burn up a piece of paper also doesn’t prove you can build a fire. Imagine you are in the woods and you have some sticks and some matches. What do you do? You can’t just put a stick to the lighter like a piece of paper and expect it to catch. Worse, what if it’s been raining and everything is wet?
It’s best if you practice building a fire before you need it, but even if you live in a city and don’t have the ability to start a real fire, at least study the technique. Knowing, at least theoretically, how to do something is better than being completely clueless. There are plenty of YouTube videos on making a basic fire, like this one, Never Fail Camp Fire Building, and this one on building a fire when all of your materials are wet: Starting a Fire with Everything All Wet Materials.
Think you won’t need a fire? Fires not only keep you warm when it’s cold, they can dry out things that are wet (like your clothes), signal your location to rescuers, cook/heat your food, ward off wild animals, provide light, and sterilize water. You never know when you will need one of those things
Be able to build shelter
I was reading a blog post last week about a local man and his two young sons who had died from exposure while out hiking. They had left their lodge when the weather was dry and rather warm. But apparently they got turned around and couldn’t find the trail that went back to their camp. Rain moved in in the afternoon and then the temperature dropped sharply. By the time they were found the next day, they had all died of hypothermia.
If they had just stopped walking before the rain came and built themselves a shelter–even if it had just been a really big pile of leaves that they burrowed into–they would have stayed dry enough and warm enough to last the night and could have been rescued the next day.
As you probably learned in high school biology class, humans are warm-blooded; our bodies need to maintain a certain temperature in order to function. Hypothermia is when your body temperature falls too low and it starts to affect the function of your organs. Your brain is the first to be affected. When it’s too cold, you grow weak, sluggish, and your ability to think is impaired. (It’s not unlike being drunk.) In more advanced stages, you can become delirious to the point that you leave shelter to stand out in the elements and may even remove your protective clothing. (This is not an uncommon phenomenon.) So hypothermia is nothing to sneeze at. And if you are exhausted, wet, and the wind is blowing, you can get hypothermia when the air temperature is as high as 55 degrees Fahrenheit. So don’t think that it’s only something that happens when the temps are at or below freezing. When it’s cool, wetness is your enemy. That’s why it’s important to build a shelter and wait out the rain. Even if you’re already wet, a shelter will allow you to dry out and your body temperature will be able to at least stabilize, if not warm a little bit.
Here is a list of basic shelters: How to Build a Survival Shelter. If you need to learn how to build any of these, there are ample YouTube videos to show you how. If you live somewhere that receives a lot of snow, also look up how to build a Quintze Hut (a type of igloo).
Know how to escape a mob.
While it can be easy to say, “If someone blocks my car, I’ll run them over; if they block me, I’ll shoot them,” in reality, an angry mob is more powerful than either your gun or your car. If you doubt that, just watch Black Hawk Down. A mob of angry people were way more powerful than well-equipped U.S. troops.
There are plenty of websites that talk about how to survive a riot whether you’re on foot or in a car or are hiding. This article briefly covers most of the situations: How to Survive a Riot,
Have an evacuation plan
This goes hand-in-hand with having a map with alternate routes planned. Getting out of town is good, but once there, where are you going to rendezvous with other family members and where are you going to stay the night?
Have a list of places where you will go, depending on how far you need to (or can) go. That may mean going to a friend’s house on the other side of town, or a hotel just outside of town, or to a family member’s house 100 miles away. (But make sure you have the permission of your friends and family to come stay with them for a few nights if there’s an emergency before you put them on your evacuation plan!)
Once you have several places lined up, make sure that your other family members know the plan in case they are separated from you. If they can’t contact you and can’t get home, they are to go to the first stop on your list. If they can’t get there, then they will move on to the next one. This allows everyone to evacuate swiftly, without trying to first go home or wasting precious time waiting meet up with others, while making it easier for everyone to find one another because there are a limited number of places to look. (These locations also give you a place where you can leave a note to let others know that you are okay and are moving out to the next point.)
Don’t Repeat History
If you still think this prepping business sounds a little crazy, remember the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome fiasco. People ended up in the Superdome because they didn’t know where else to go–and they got there with little to no supplies. It was several days before the government could get in and evacuate them to proper shelters. And it took many of them days and even weeks to track down friends and family members because they ended up scattered all over the place.
The farther you can get away from a disaster on your own and the longer you can take care of yourself, the better off you will be.