My Straw Bale Garden

Despite the best efforts of and repeated attempts by our Alaskan-sized mosquitoes to kill me, I am still alive. And gardening!

Gardening is something I have wanted to do for a long time and something I have failed to actually accomplish for a long time. (We will not speak of the bags of dirt that eventually decomposed on our front porch some years ago.) But last year, I finally, actually made a small attempt at it. It wasn’t terribly successful–some of which was my fault, some of which was the fault of the constant heat and severe drought conditions, some of which was down to the dog–but I learned a lot and decided to persevere.

I got a start a little later than I wanted this year–a combination of rainy weather and a cold snap  prevented me from getting my stuff set out–but I’m still within the planting season for the things I’ve put out, so I’m not actually behind.

I chose a different location this year for the vegetable garden. One, I wanted to go bigger and the little bed beside the sunroom only holds about 5 straw bales. (It’s now my herb garden. Pictures of that in a later post.) Second, our plants seriously wilted when the sun was on them–despite the fact that the area didn’t get direct sun until about 10:00-11:00 AM and it slowly went into the shade between 2:00 and 4:00 PM. No matter how much we watered them, they wilted every day and perked back up again as soon as they were in the shade.

Now, according to conventional garden wisdom, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and the like are supposed to need all day sun. But our plants didn’t seem to like that at all. And researching it this winter, I found that’s really a guideline more for the northern latitudes of the country where the angle of the sun is lower, so it’s less intense. It’s also not as hot, on average, and the hot days don’t last nearly as long. There are some gardeners who say that not only will summer plants be okay with just partial sun, but in southern areas, it’s necessary to limit the amount of sunlight to keep the plants from getting too hot.

For instance, when days get over 90 degrees and nights don’t fall below 75 degrees, tomato plants won’t produce pollen in their flowers. We went over 2 months last year with no days/nights under 70 degrees and pretty much every day was around 90 degrees. The drought made things worse because it was all sun all the time; never any clouds to provide some shade or cool breeze.

Something else I hadn’t considered until recently was that those plants were all planted against a light-colored wall, which meant that all the sunlight they got was amplified. (The concrete block portion of the wall behind them probably didn’t help either; it can hold heat and radiate it at night, keeping the air around the plants hotter than it would otherwise be.)

So, this year, I put my straw bales behind my house, next to the woods. They are against an open deck, not a solid wall, so there will be nothing radiating heat to them at night. They should get roughly the same amount of direct sun as before, around the same times every day, but there is no white backdrop reflecting a lot of light back on them. And instead of being across from our driveway–which is open, sunny, and the hottest place to be anywhere on our property–the plants will be across from the shady woods. But they are still in a corridor of our property that gets a nice breeze, which should help keep them cooler. The day may be 90+ degrees, but the air around my tomato plants should be down in the 80’s. (This is called creating a micro-climate. Most people make them so that their plants will be warmer–that’s how a family friend can have a large palm tree growing next to his log cabin in Middle Tennessee–but where you have hot temps, you may need to do things to cool your plants.)

We shall see how well things do this year. The fact that we’re not in a drought and aren’t predicted to have one this year will help, I’m sure. But this is why I said in my posts on being prepared that you need to garden now, when your life doesn’t depend on it, because gardening takes practice. You have to learn through experience what works (and doesn’t work) for your weather, your latitude/zone, your soil, your sun exposure, etc. Certain varieties may do better than others. A “summer” crop in northern zones may need to be a spring/fall crop in southern areas, and “cool weather” crops may grow all winter! Reading about gardening will only get you so far because just about all gardening manuals are written to be as generic and universal as possible, even though the continental United States has zones ranging from 2b to 11b. That is an area that goes from an average minimum temperature of -45 to an area that doesn’t get below 50 degrees. Logic dictates that gardening rules for Minnesota cannot be the same rules for Florida.

Making the Garden

After arranging my bales, I fenced them in. Why? Well, that would be one of those things I learned last year: the dog likes to rip up plants. I think I lost a total of three bell pepper plants to her (one pepper plant got ripped up twice; I wasn’t able to save it the second time around), the catnip, most–or was it all?–of the dill, I think another herb, and the watermelon plant. (It was replanted and it survived, but it lost the one melon it had started to produce and only ever produced one full-size one.)

The fence is constructed from plastic, step-in fence poles and, oddly enough, trellis netting. I found it on the discount rack at Wal-Mart for 50 cents per 5.5′ x 8′ package. You can’t get any fencing cheaper than that. It’s not like I needed to fence coyotes out of a chicken run; I just needed to deter the dog. Plus, if she ever gets to the point where I don’t need to fence her out, these can go back to being trellises.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What on earth do straw bales have to do with gardening?” My friends, straw bales are pretty much the laziest, easiest way to have a raised bed garden! All you have to do is wet them and fertilize them. (And, honestly, these only got one dose of fertilizer; they got wet long before I used them, so they cooked all on their own, no fertilizer help required. I only gave them a good dosing of fertilizer a few days before planting to make sure they had nutrients in them.) Once the bales have started to decompose (and they are no longer hot in the middle), you can plant or sow seeds right in them. And at the end of the season, you can put them on your garden or flower beds elsewhere and they make great mulch. Last year’s bales are mulch for my herb garden this year and it not only looks good, but it holds in moisture so I don’t have to water my plants nearly as often. Plus, any residual fertilizer remaining on the straw goes to the plants in the bed.

I used a couple of trellis nets as actual trellis. This was partly to keep the dog from jumping into the garden from the porch, but mostly it’s to act as a trellis for the cucumbers and tomatoes. Last year’s cucumbers climbed up onto my porch by themselves and started to take over. Old garden hands will probably laugh at me, but I didn’t know cucumbers grew like that. I know my grandparents had cucumbers in their garden when I was growing up, but they never had any trellises. Either they had a bushy cucumber variety and I have a vine variety, or their cucumbers just trailed along the ground and I never noticed they were a vine rather than a bush like everything else.

This year, though, my cucumbers will have a proper trellis and we will control how much of the porch they overtake.

So here’s what the bales look like up close. Those dark spots you are seeing are mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good sign when you’re cooking your bales (i.e. starting the decomposition process) because it means the bales are decomposing. Last year, I had mushrooms on the bales the entire season–not just when the bales first started to cook. I also had these exact same types of mushrooms, even though I’m sure this year’s bales were sourced from a different source than last year’s. That means the spores are probably coming from our woods.

Using a garden shovel and my hands (mostly my hands), I pulled out a big plug of straw from the bale. If you prepared your bales correctly, the straw will be slimy and you should see white or black mildew-looking stuff on it (that’s more fungus). This is also good; that sort of thing will break down the bales and feed the nutrients to your plants.

The straw from the center of the bale may still be warm when you pull it out, but it should not be hot; that will cook the roots of your plants–especially any that are cool-weather. I had one bale that was hotter than the rest for some reason. I didn’t think it was dangerously hot, but I made sure to put a pepper plant in it; of everything I had, I knew the pepper plants like the warmest soil.

I made sure to save the straw I pulled out of the bales; it will get used as mulch in an herb bed. Also, if you find you pull too much out (it wants to come out in long flakes, but you will be trying to get a round hole), you can stuff some of the straw back in where you need it. It pretty well sticks to itself at this stage.

Next, I put some dirt in the hole I made, banking it up the sides so it was essentially a dirt-lined hole. For the pepper plant in the hot bale, I made a bit bigger hole and put more dirt in, hoping that the dirt will keep the roots off the hotter straw until the bale cools down.

The plant (this is a tomato plant) goes in next, then I fill in the rest of the hole with dirt and pack it down a bit. I don’t have to worry about compacting it too much; the roots have all the room in the world on the straw side of things. In fact, when I busted up last year’s bales, I found that my tomato plants had put roots all the way down through the bale. If it hadn’t been sitting on some old vinyl signage repurposed as landscape fabric, those tomato plants would have struck dirt.

This year’s bales are not sitting on landscaping fabric, so who knows how deep their roots may go?

Once the plant was in and the hole filled, I took some of the straw I pulled out and put it around the plant so that no dirt is showing. This works just like any mulch: it keeps the moisture in and helps insulate the plant’s roots so they stay a more constant temperature.

So, how many plants can you put into a bale? Well, that depends on what you’re comfortable with. Last year, I put two tomato plants and one bell pepper plant in a single bale and they were pretty crowded (although a lot of the crowding came from the tomato cages rather than the plants themselves). I have seen people with more densely-planted bales, but I don’t know whether my dense plantings were okay or harmful last year. I have the feeling that dense plantings in full-sun locations are not only okay, but preferable, because the plants help shade one another, keep their roots cooler, and trap more moist/humid air around them. However, my bales are not in the full sun, so I think it’s better that my plants have room to bush out and collect as much sunlight as possible. So I only planted two plants per bale this year (although if I had had more than 2 cucumber plants, I would have done up to four in that bale, the same as last year; they have plenty of room to spread out vertically).

You can also plant the sides of the bales. If I had smaller plants, like maybe lettuces or spinach, I would plant those in the sides of the bales. You can also plant herbs (although my herbs are now in a permanent bed). You don’t even have to put dirt in the holes (especially when planting something that won’t be there long, like leaf lettuce).

So, here is something else I learned last year: when it’s really hot and dry, you need to water the garden every single day. We’re not always home every single day. Also, I didn’t fertilize the bales like I should have once they got started because it was hard to do. You can’t get fertilizer on the plants, because it burns up the leaves (ask me how I know), but when they get big and bushy, it can be hard to get the jug of fertilizer in there to it.

Ollas can be kind of expensive. Click the picture for link to a website that shows you how to make them out of much cheaper terracotta pots. You can even fill them up automatically!

Enter redneck ollas. (Or, if you prefer, upcycled ollas.) An olla is old technology (2,000+ years old). It’s nothing more than an unglazed terracotta bottle that you bury in your garden and fill with water. The terracotta will slowly weep water, providing your plants with a constant moist (but not too wet) earth. When the ground is wet from rain, the water will not wick out of the olla, so you don’t waste the water or overwater your plants. It pretty much idiot-proofs watering your plants. And, depending on the size of the olla and how moist your ground is, you may only have to fill it once a week.

It works most efficiently if you put your plants in a circle and bury the olla in the middle, but you can use it however your garden is configured. However, it’s important to note that it’s best to plant the olla when you plant your plants. If you wait until later, when your plants are bigger, you will be digging down into their roots to bury it. This may not kill them, but it’s better not to take the risk; just plant your ollas when you plant your plants. Your plants will soon discover this reliable water source and they will surround it with their roots and be happy as little clam . . . plants. Happy clam plants.

So, what’s a redneck olla and how does it work?

I saved up some small plastic coke bottles, removed the labels, and used a pin to poke a hole in each “foot” on the bottom of the bottle. (There are five feet on a standard American coke bottle. Some bottles are tougher on the bottom than others, but all of feet are thinner at their edge, right where the plastic bends up to form the side of the bottle. It’s easier to put a hole there.) I got this idea from the internet, but other people poked holes up and down the sides of their bottles and said they needed to refill them every day or two (they may have been using 2-liter bottles, too). I didn’t want water coming out of my bottle that quickly, especially since I was planning on having 1 bottle per plant/2 per bale. So I poked a hole in the bottom of one bottle, filled it with water and tested it. I decided it didn’t drip enough, so I ended up adding 5 holes–one in each foot. This made a slow, but constant drip out of the bottom of the bottle. I also found that if there was any pressure on the side of the bottle (just the pressure from my grip), the water would squirt out like I was milking a cow.

Once my bottles were prepped, I hollowed out a little hole for the bottle next to each of my plants and stuck the bottom of the bottle in the bale.

Why didn’t I bury the entire thing? One, since the holes are only in the bottom of the bottle, the entire bottle doesn’t have to be buried. So why make extra work for myself?

Secondly, one of the drawbacks to the ollas is you can’t see how much water is left in them. Some people recommend sticking something like a surveyor’s flag in a cork and dropping it into the olla so you can tell where the water level is. By using clear bottles and leaving more than half of them aboveground, I can see where the water level is and can refill as necessary.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, even a small amount of pressure on the sides of the bottle will cause the water to squirt out instead of drip out. I was afraid if I buried them completely, the straw would squeeze the sides; this way, there is little pressure on the bottle, so it should stay in drip mode.

Now, if we’re going to be gone for a weekend, I can fill the bottles and not have to worry about missing a day of watering the garden. I can also pull the bottles out, fill them with liquid fertilizer and stick them back into the bales to slowly–and safely–feed my plants.

At least, that’s the plan. We will see how well it works.

 You’ll be relieved to know that this project had appropriate supervision. (I’m just glad I don’t have any real plants in that planter yet.)

Here’s everything planted out. In the two foreground bales, there are 4 bell pepper plants. Starting on the back-right bale, I have 2 jalapeno plants, 2 cucumbers, a sweet banana pepper, 2 roma tomatoes, 2 Florida 91 tomato plants (a solidly average tomato in size, weight, shape, seed count, etc), then 2 more Roma tomatoes.

There is also an unknown plant growing out of the backside of the jalapeno bale. I found it when I was plucking a few grass weeds out of my herb bed. I picked it up and was about to throw it out when I said to myself, “Self, that looks like a tomato plant.” So I sniffed it. And then I said, “Self, that smells mighty like a tomato plant.” This was, after all, the spot where last year’s garden was and at the end of the season, like any good permaculture gardener, I pulled up my dead plants, tossed them into the bed, then broke up the strawbales on top of them. Some of the tomato plants had tomatoes on them that we didn’t harvest because they never grew to size or cooked in the heat before they every really ripened. So I was thinking to myself, “Self, this might possibly be a tomato plant.”

I didn’t want a tomato plant growing in my herb garden–there’s no room for it, so I took it over to my bales. I had fertilizer on top of the bales that hadn’t yet soaked in, so I just stuck the little plant into the side of the bale, where the fertilizer hopefully wouldn’t burn it. It’s still there a couple of weeks later and growing, so we’ll see what it turns into.

If you have any questions about straw bale gardening, ask below in the comments.

Publishing Print Versus Digital Books

Believe it or not, I’m actually working on my book this weekend! I’m very close to having it done, if I will just grind through the tedious formatting parts.

But the grind has left me wondering if it’s worth the effort of doing both a print version and an ebook.

Pros for Print

  • I like reading a copy in print for editing purposes.
  • There are people who don’t have an ereader or tablet and/or who prefer to read a print copy. (Heck, even I like the feel of a book in my hand.)
  • It looks really impressive when you show it off. Here’s my name in print!
  • You can (theoretically) get some copies put into local bookstores.
  • Is it possible that having a print copy available makes your work look more legitimate? People who are lazy about writing probably don’t go to the trouble of doing up a professional-looking print book.


  • I could print a copy of my book from Word or Scrivener, on regular paper, and it would actually be easier to edit (especially if I do double-spacing).
  • Formatting a print copy takes two or three times as long as it does for the ebook.
  • Making a full cover for the print version takes two or three times as long as it does to make a front cover only for the ebook.
  • So far, I have sold almost no copies of my print book; I think the only people who buy it are my family members and a handful of others.
  • I make about half the profit on the print copy as I do on the ebook, even though the print copy is more than twice the amount of work.
  • If I want to issue a second edition (which I do want to do for Acceptance), I have to make edits separately to the ebook file and the print file, which means, again, twice as much work.
  • I don’t actually sell any of my print copies in local bookstores.

So, from a purely economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to continue to release print copies. And now that I have a full time job (with no down time), I have less time to write, edit, and publish. So the more time I spend on formatting, the less time I spend actually creating something new, the longer it takes to get my stuff on the market, etc.

So, unless I see some decent sales with the print copies of The Flames of Prague, I think, going forward, that I’m only going to release in ebook.

For those of you who are also writers, how do you feel print copies stack up versus your ebooks, or have you already made the switch to ebooks only?

Habits Versus Projects

Between working on my year of leveling up and reading up on habits, I have developed a theory:

There are two ways that anyone can accomplish something: by habit or by project.


Based on BJ Fogg’s theory (which I have personally found to be correct), if you want to make something a habit, it needs to be tiny (e.g. take five minutes or less to do) and needs to be paired with an already-existing habit.

An example is wanting to eat more fruit. All you have to do is buy some fresh fruit or fruit cups and then leave yourself a note on the fridge reminding you to eat it with your breakfast (the already established habit).

Supposedly, you can work on establishing up to 3 of these habits at a time, but individual mileage may vary.

The “21 days to a new habit” mantra is bunk. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits, the author cites an actual study that found that simple habits, like eating more fruit or drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning might take less than 21 days to establish, but more ambitious habits, like exercising 30 minutes a day, could take upwards of a year to establish.

A five minute habit tied to an existing habit is on the very low end of the scale, meaning it would probably take less than 21 days to establish, but since people find it easier to think in chunks of time (and since some people will take longer than average), a good rule of thumb is that you can establish a 5 minute habit in a month.

Once you’ve established your habit (or your three habits), you can take up 1-3 more the next month. And 1-3 more the month after that. If you find yourself forgetting your habit when you remove your reminders or work on building new habits, it’s not automatic yet and you need to give yourself another month.

Something may occasionally break your habits—a prolonged illness or job loss may completely change your daily routine and take away the habits that acted as triggers for your other habits—but you can reestablish them in a month if you just pair them with a current habit.

In other words, habits can be built up, one on top of another. That’s because a habit doesn’t require much in the way of thought; it’s not something that requires you to make a choice. For instance, I take the same route to and from work every day. Most of the time I’m driving, I’m lost in my thoughts and I’m doing everything automatically with only a little bit of observation by my conscious brain. But if I have to take an alternate route home to avoid traffic, then my all of my attention stays focused on where I am and what I’m doing because I don’t take an alternate way home often enough to be comfortable with it. (This is also why it can be hard to remember to stop on the way home and pick up groceries or a prescription, etc. That part of your brain gets shut off when you’re operating on habit.)


In short, a project is something that takes longer than 5 minutes and/or can’t be paired with something that’s already an established habit.

I have also found projects have two sad realities: I (and probably you, too) can only do one project at a time, and secondly, they don’t stack. Meaning when you take up a new project, the old one will automatically stop.

No matter how many times I have tried to keep one project going while starting a new one, I invariably (and quickly) drop one.

This has nothing to do with time. I can plan out my schedule to the minute and have more than enough time to work on both projects. Maybe even a third!

But I end up doing only one. Why?

We understand physical fatigue, but almost no one really understands mental fatigue. You intuitively know it exists—after a stressful day at work, all you want to do is veg on the couch and then go to bed—but it’s not something we really think about or talk about.

But scientists are starting to quantify things like “decision fatigue.” Whereas we used to say some people have no willpower, we now recognize that everyone has a limited amount of mental energy and every time we have to make a decision, it saps a little bit of that energy. That’s why people tend to blow their diets a few hours after dinner; they have spent up all of their mental energy and their ability to make decisions for the day, so the habit of having a late-night snack wins out over the decision to not eat.

When you start a project, it demands your focus because everything you are doing is new and unexpected. It’s like taking a different route home. If you try to do more than one project at a time, you will not have enough mental energy to focus completely on both projects. So you will either naturally drop one or you will feel unhappy because you think you are not doing a good job with either—even if you are spending all of your allotted time on both. Spending time on something doesn’t equal doing a good job. For the later, you need the focus, which, like time, is something you only have a limited amount of.

So projects need to be something that has a finite life or a deadline. Your project may be to write a book. Put all of your mental energy into writing a book. When it’s done, then you can move on to something else. Or you may want to lose some weight before your wedding or class reunion; exercising more and eating less becomes your focus until the deadline.

But, wait, shouldn’t exercise and healthy eating be part of our lifestyle—something we do all the time?

Yes, but people seem to fail at making those changes permanent. I think that’s because health regimens are treated like projects instead of like habits. So, when the time comes that someone wants to do something other than count calories and go to the gym every day, then the entire thing falls apart relatively quickly. If you don’t have focus, you don’t have a project. You don’t even have a few parts of it; it all falls apart, like a house of cards. If your project is finite, then it’s okay if everything supporting it goes away when it’s done. If not, then your project, at best, will come to a standstill; at worst, any progress you’ve made will decay pretty quickly.

Enough Habits Can Make a Life Change

So what’s a person to do if they want to make a lifestyle change and lose weight (and keep it off), or read more, or play an instrument regularly, or become fluent in a foreign language, etc.? Those are all things that have no completion date because we want to keep them going, in some form or another, permanently.

Well, if they can’t be projects, then they have to be habits. That means adding them to your existing schedule at a rate of 1-3 per month and doing them for 5 minutes at a time. (It also means that if you do more than one habit, they can’t be the same thing; one can be food-related, one exercise-related, one learning-related, etc., but not all of them can be exercise-related or that causes project-think to creep in.)

I’ve been working on making Spanish lessons a 5 minute habit that I do at the beginning of my lunch hour. (I have a reminder set up on my computer to remind me to do it.) In 5 minutes, I’m able to do a new lesson and refresh an old one, so I am both maintaining what I know and making forward progress every day.

I’ve also been taking the stairs every morning. I have to get to the 4th floor regardless of the method, and I already park near the back door so I have to walk past the stairs to get to either set of elevators. (I actually changed my parking habit several years ago so that I could make taking the stairs easier.) That makes it pretty easy to establish the habit of taking the stairs.

If I wanted to be even more serious about language-learning, I could do a lesson before/during breakfast and dinner, too, so that every time I eat, I automatically start learning Spanish. If I want to be more serious about exercising, I could just get in the habit of parking farther away, or walking a loop around the parking lot at lunch, or doing a set of stairs when I take my mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks. If I wanted to eat better, then I might make adding a piece of fruit to my breakfast a habit. Or I might add a vegetable to dinner. Or replace my evening ice cream habit with something less sugary/fattening, such as switching to cookies, then switching the cookies to honey-roasted nuts or kettlecorn, then from that to something that’s not sweet at all, then hopefully I’ll drop the snacking all together (since I’m not naturally a snacker—just a sugar fiend).

(Note: When you want to get rid of a bad habit, it’s generally better to replace it with a less-bad habit, then replace that with something better, and so forth until you’ve changed your bad habit into a positive one. Going cold turkey and stopping all together is not often successful. That’s why people who give up smoking turn to chewing gum; instead of sticking a cigarette in their mouth, they stick gum in it and that keeps their mouth busy. People who make exercise stick don’t give up watching TV; they find a way to exercise while watching TV. Etc.)

The benefit of making things habits is that they do become a lifestyle change and they’re not easily lost, unlike when you stop working on a project. The drawback, though, is they don’t give you instant gratification. If it takes you 6 months to work up to getting 30 minutes of exercise daily, bringing your lunch daily (instead of eating fast food), and eating fruit and vegetables with every meal, then it’s probably going to be 6 months before you notice some weight coming off. But people want the instant gratification of losing a few pounds the first week and a pound or two every week thereafter. Or they want to be able to have a conversation with their Mexican waiter a week after doing a bunch of language lessons.

But the day will come when people stop focusing on those things and they will lose all the benefits that they so quickly accumulated. And the more rapidly they accumulated the benefits, the more quickly they tend to lose them. We all know that cramming for a test means putting information into your head very temporarily; once you have used it, it disappears. Rapid weight loss, language crash courses, etc. are just different forms of cramming.

Speaking of self-improvement projects . . .

Leveling Up Check-In

It’s been a about a month and a half since I started working on my year of leveling up. So, how’s it been going?

Well, so far, it’s led to the revelation that I can only have one project at a time. So I either need to turn things into habits or plan on them being finite in scope.

But that’s okay, since my plans more or less fell into one camp or the other; I just need to do a bit of tweaking in how I think about doing things and how I plan to do them.

Strength: My goal was to do one physical activity a day. This was easy to turn into a 5 minute habit. I’ve been taking the stairs at work in the morning. On the weekends, it can be more hit or miss. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of yard work, including digging up and carrying rock, digging holes, shoveling gravel, making paths, etc. That will end soon, though, as the weather is getting too cold to allow me to work outside comfortably. But I will start doing more inside the house, so it should balance out.

Suffice to say, I’m content with taking the stairs 5 days a week and not worrying about the weekend, since that will take care of itself most of the time anyway.

Once the holidays are out of the way, I plan on adding to this.

Constitution (Endurance): My goal for this category was to spend time unpacking, decluttering, and cleaning for 1-2 hours a week. (And by “week,” I mean weekend.) That’s not been happening. I have been putting all of my physical and mental energy into working outside. It’s good that the outside is improving, but the inside needs work too. But with the weather turning colder, my outdoor days are drawing to a close, so I plan to focus on the inside of the house instead. At least in December. After that, we have our big March event to prepare for, which means a lot of sewing, packing, and making things. So the house is going to be on its own. When we get back, I’ll be back outside for the spring planting and other yard work. I’ll come back to the inside of the house around the end of May or June, when it gets too hot to work outside.

Long story short, this needs to be about unpacking and getting everything organized, not about cleaning, because unpacking and organizing is a project that has an end. The cleaning will have to be reduced to 5 minute habits here and there.

Dexterity: This was all about the garden. My goal was to plant one bed. I have the bed prepped, and my plants chosen, and a diagram drawn up of where I want them, how many I need, etc. All I need to do now is wait until spring (and hope the drought breaks).

I’ve actually enjoyed being outside so much, I’ve gotten ahead of the one-bed plan and I have started working on a second bed and general outdoor improvement project.

Intelligence: This has a finite goal: publish Flames of Prague. I have okayed the print proof, but I still haven’t finished the conversion to ebook yet. I need to suck it up and pencil this in as my project for one month. That’s all it will take to get it done and crossed off my list.

Wisdom: My goal here was to go to synagogue once a month and finish my prayer book. The prayer book is a project that will take a month or less. Going to synagogue is one of those rare things that is too infrequent to be a habit (unless you do it, say, the first weekend every month, but my schedule doesn’t allow for that kind of firm commitment), but it’s too short to be a habit. So I will just pencil it into my schedule like an appointment. I missed November, but plan on taking care of December this weekend. So we’ll see how this progresses over the course of the year. I may need to find a better approach.

Charisma: This is my daily Spanish practice. I’ve been slacking for over a month now. In September it was my project for the month, so it was all I thought about. When I got a new project (gardening), Spanish went into the tank—despite the fact that I only did it 5-10 minutes a day. Hence why it’s important to tie a habit to an existing routine.

I have set up reminders on my work computer to ping me at lunch, so I spend the first 5 minutes of my lunch hour doing my Spanish lesson.

I have also abandoned working with the Memrise flashcards for the time being. While they have benefits, I think part of the reason why I quit working on my lessons is that they’re more boring than Duolingo. I’ve decided that I’m just going to trust the process and go with Duolingo only.


Survival, Part V: OneNote Survival Binder

This is the final post of a series about survival:

Survival, Part I: Are You Prepared?

Survival Part II: Temporary Emergencies

Survival, Part III: Short Term Situations

Survival, Part IV: Long-Term Survival

I have touted the benefits of OneNote before, so I won’t repeat them here. Instead, I’m going to jump right to showing how I use it to organize my “Survival Binder.”

Why Have a Survival Binder?

I have spent most of this year learning about edible wild plants. While I can spot a large number of them in my yard, I find myself forgetting some that are less common, or I can’t remember which parts you’re supposed to eat, or how they’re supposed to prepared. I know cattail roots have to be soaked in changes of water to remove excess amounts of starch, but do you have to do that with greenbriar roots, too? Do I peel acorns before cold soaking them, or do I just crush them up a bit, soak them, then peel them?

When you start researching homesteading and survival skills, you are going to learn a lot. You’re also going to forget half of what you learn. You will forget whole parts occasionally, but mostly you will forget parts of the information. You may, for example, remember that pokeweed is edible, but you’ll poison yourself if you forget that it has to be cooked a special way to render it safe. Missing bits of information can be crucial!

That’s why I have a survival binder. It’s where I dump all of the information that I’ve accumulated so that if I ever get into a survival situation, I won’t have to remember everything; I’ll have the binder to review and consult. As I learn new information through experience or an exchange with a neighbor, I can add to the binder.

Now, you may ask yourself why you can’t buy a survival book or two and be done with it? Survival books aren’t a bad thing to have. We have everything from How to Stay Alive in the Woods to the Foxfire books 1-10. But if you’re looking for specific information on a topic, do you want to search through a dozen books to glean all the information available (and waste time reading duplicate stuff), or do you want to find it all in one spot? There’s also the problem that books tend to be general whereas you’re going to need some specifics for your situation. For instance, I have a book on wild edibles, but a lot of the stuff in it is found in places around a large river or lake–which we aren’t near. In other cases, the plants don’t grow in our region at all. But in my survival binder I have a long list of wild plants that I know for a fact grow in my yard or nearby. I also have lots of recipes that actually use them (something that’s very hard to find in a book!).

Paper or Plastic?

What do I mean by “binder?” Is it a digital file or a physical binder?

Ideally, it’s both. I have been using OneNote to organize all my info and I’m nearing completion; I’m not finding a lot of information now that I don’t already have. My goal is to finish it up by next month and then start the process of printing it. (A monumental task in and of itself; last I checked, it was over 800 pages long.) Then I’m going to hole-punch it and stick it into an actual binder (with divider tabs, of course).

As I find new info, I can add it to my OneNote binder and print a copy for my physical binder.

The benefit to having a digital copy is that you can always have it with you on a cloud drive or thumb drive and it’s very easy to search it for a specific term. It can also be shared with family and friends. The benefit of having a physical copy is that in the event of power failure, you still have access to it.

One thing to keep in mind, though: unless you have access to unlimited color printing, keep pictures to a minimum. I don’t have a lot of pictures outside the section on edible plants and only the plant ones need to be printed in color; everything else can be printed in black and white to save money.


Everyone’s survival binder is going to have different information in it. I have information on raising chickens, rabbits, and goats, but if you have a house with a postage stamp for a yard, or you live in an apartment, you’re not going to need information on raising livestock. However, you probably want information on things like bugging out, caching supplies, surviving riots, etc.

The medicinal section is another place that will have a lot of customization. Some medicines will be universal, such as antivirals, antibacterials, anti-diarrheals, treatments for cuts, stings, and bites, vitamin supplements, pain and fever relievers, etc. Every family needs to have those things. But you will also need to have something lined up to replace long-term OTC or prescription medicine if it becomes unavailable. If someone is a Type 2 diabetic, for instance, there are some plants that can help control blood sugar. They’re not going to be as effective as prescription meds, but they’re better than nothing in a survival situation.


The hardest part of building a survival binder is getting it started. What all should you put in it? How should you organize it? Finding the information is actually the easy part; once you get started, you’ll be down every rabbit hole on the internet, finding all kinds of fascinating and useful information.

Here’s a run down of what’s in my binder. The bold parts represent tabs. Everything below them is a page or a subpage.


  1. Survival – This is mainly geared to temporary survival
    1. Caching – Hiding things to access in an emergency
    2. Communication – What to do when you have no cell phones
    3. Defense – Guarding your homestead
      1. Camouflage – For hunting or hiding
      2. Riots – How to escape them
    4. Fire – How to make it and keep it going
    5. Knots – How to tie them
    6. Mental Survival – Keeping yourself, family, and companions sane; leadership
      1. Conversation Starters – Things to talk about other than disaster; also a good way to get to know new people
      2. Games – Passing time without electricity
    7. Navigation – How to use a compass to and how to walk in a straight line
    8. Reading People – How to tell when people are lying to you
    9. Shelters – Temporary wilderness shelters for all weather and terrains
    10. Telling Time without a Clock – Gauging the passage of time by the sun and stars
    11. Trading – How to trade with people without getting robbed
    12. Survival Bags – What you need in your bug out or belt bag
    13. Universal Edibility Test – How to test unknown plants for safety
    14. When You See It Coming – Last minute things you can do to prepare for a looming disaster
  2. Water
    1. Needs – How much water you need for drinking, cooking, hygiene, and watering livestock and gardens
    2. Collection – How to get drinkable water when there’s no water source nearby
    3. Purification – How to make water safe for drinking
    4. Storage – How to store water safely
    5. Transportation – Ways to transport water when you have no bottles
    6. Well-Drilling – How to drill a well by hand using PVC pipe
  3. Hunting
    1. Fishing – Making equipment, using traps, finding bait, and best times to fish
    2. Dangerous Animals – What to do when encountering bears, cougars, wolves, and moose
    3. Preparation – Tree stands, baiting fields, and deer spray
    4. Snares – How to make and set
    5. Tanning – How to preserve hides/fur, make leather, etc.
    6. Tracking – Which tracks belong to which animal
  4. Plants
    1. Companion Planting – What’s good to plant together and which plants shouldn’t be near each other
    2. Composting – Believe it or not, there’s an art to disposing of plant matter
    3. Container Gardening – How to grow virtually anything in a bucket or pot
    4. Dog-Proofing – For when your (our) dog wants to destroy the garden
    5. Edible Wild Plants – A long list of everything edible or medicinal in my immediate vicinity
    6. Fertilizing – Which fertilizers are needed for which plants and how to make them naturally
    7. Forcing – Making things grow or bloom out of season
    8. Greenhouses – How to make and operate them
    9. Hardening Off – How to transfer indoor plants outside
    10. Harvesting – A list of plants and how to know they they’re ripe and ready for harvesting
    11. How Much to Grow – A (frightening) list of how much you need to grow and put up to feed a family for a year
    12. Identifying Plants – Scientific classification of leaves and flower parts (necessary to ensure identification of edible wild plants)
    13. Insects – Organic insecticides and other ways to control pests on plants
    14. Plant Health – How to tell what’s wrong with your plant
    15. Planting Guide – When to plant in my region
    16. Planting by the Signs – Old-time folk belief that moon and astrological phases affect plants (when you’re depending on your garden for your survival, you’ll try anything to help your plants survive and produce)
    17. Seeds & Seedlings – How to start seeds, determine germination rates, root cuttings, sterilizing dirt, etc.
    18. Straw Bale Gardening – How to plant a garden in a straw bale
    19. Trees – Care of trees, planting seedlings
  5. Food
    1. General Cooking – Includes some measurements and ingredient substitutions
      1. Baking Bread – How to make bread from scratch
        1. Baking Powder – How to make it and use it
        2. Wild Yeast – How to make sourdough bread
      2. Cooking on a Wood Stove
        1. Firing up a Wood Stove
        2. Testing Oven Temps w/o a Thermometer
      3. Dutch Oven Cooking – Approximate temp in the “oven” based on the number of coals
      4. Rendering Lard & Tallow
      5. Cooking Tough Meat
    2. Recipes – Recipes for every wild edible I can find, plus a few for odd things like roasted melon seeds and watermelon rind pickles
    3. Food Storage – Make it last
      1. Dehydration
      2. Canning Butter
      3. Canning Produce
      4. Canning Meat
      5. Freezing
      6. Potted Meat
      7. Root Cellar Storage
      8. Smoking Meats
      9. Water Crocking
    4. Pet Food – You’ll be making this at home when the kibble runs out
      1. Cat Food Recipes
      2. Dog Food Recipes
    5. Wild Meat – Information on “rabbit starvation”
      1. Birds – How to hand, pluck, and butcher
      2. Edible Insects – List of edible insects, how to prepare them, and how to farm them
      3. Rabbits – How to butcher
      4. Possums – How to cook
      5. Snakes – How to butcher and cook
      6. Squirrels – How to butcher and cook
  6. Farm – This is mainly about raising livestock
    1. Fencing – How to make different types of fencing
    2. Chickens – Care and maintenance of chickens, breeding, egg collection, etc.
      1. Butchering – Slaughtering and processing
        1. Cone of Silence – How to build a chicken-slaughtering cone
      2. Candler – How to tell if an egg is fertile
    3. Goats – Care and maintenance of milk goats
      1. Milk Processing – Pasteurization
      2. Udder Care
    4. Medical – Generic pet/livestock care
      1. Flea Collars – Essential oils that will repel fleas and ticks
    5. Ponds – How to build and maintain
    6. Rabbits – Care and maintenance
    7. Weather – How to tell the weather by cloud formation, humidity, and barometric pressure (you know, how weathermen used to tell the weather before they got computer modeling, which seems to be less accurate)
    8. Wood – Preserving wood without paint, proper storage of a woodpile
  7. Health – This is for when things are really bad and you have no access to medical care and have to self-treat
    1. Antibiotics – How to use livestock antibiotics and what illnesses they treat
    2. First Aid & CPR
      1. Airborne Debris – How to keep from inhaling it
      2. Animal bites
      3. Eye Care
      4. Rehydration & Nourishment – Homemade gatorade recipes
      5. Sick Room – How to isolate someone with an infectious disease
      6. Triage – How to prioritize the injured in a mass-casualty event
    3. Medical Reference – This covers how to make certain things and the purpose of certain classes of medicines
      1. Astringents
      2. Body Oils & Salves & Baths
      3. Compress & Poultice
      4. Decoction
      5. Diuretics
      6. Glycerin
      7. Infusion
      8. Tincture
    4. Natural Remedies – A list of wild and cultivated medicinal plants, what issues they treat, and how to use them
    5. Nutrition & Vitamins – What’s needed for survival and where to find it
    6. Skin & Scalp – Different treatments for skin issues
  8. Living – This section is on how to make or repair things around your home or for personal use
    1. Adhesives & Glue – How to make glue from various substances
    2. Baskets & Totes – How to knit, crochet, braid, and weave a variety of containers
    3. Batteries – How to make low-power batteries from household ingredients
    4. Bedding – Mattress alternatives
    5. Brushes – Making free throw-away project brushes
    6. Cleaning Products – Homemade cleaning products
      1. Laundry – Homemade laundry detergent
    7. Compass – How to make a crude compass
    8. Essential Oils – How to make them (necessary for cleaning products and some medicines)
    9. Ladder – How to make a bush ladder
    10. Mud Bricks/”Cement” – Necessary for building buildings, fences, etc.
    11. Paper & Ink – Homemade writing materials (you know I need these!)
    12. Personal Hygiene – Homemade alternatives
      1. Dental
      2. Deodorant
      3. Feminine/Baby Hygiene
      4. Insect Repellent
      5. Soap/Shampoo
      6. Sunblock
    13. Pottery – How to tell if clay is usable; how to fire
    14. Roofing – Recycled materials to use on roofs
    15. Rope & Cordage – How to make your own rope
    16. Sewing – How to make your own needles and thread
    17. Tarps – How to make a waterproof oil tarp
    18. Trailers & Carts – Homemade tow trailers and hand carts
  9. Energy & Appliances – Electricity-free appliance alternatives and solar power-related info
    1. Air Conditioner Alternatives
    2. Dehydrators – How to make outdoor and solar dehydrators
    3. Dehumidifers
    4. Energy Consumption Rates – Allows you to calculate how much solar power you need
    5. Faraday Cages (& EMPs) – How to protect electronics from a natural or weaponized EMP
    6. Kearny Fallout Meter (seriously, a homemade radiation detector; directions also in Japanese because they were sent to families in Japan after Fukishima)
    7. Heaters
    8. Hot Water Heating
    9. No-Energy Climate Control – How to organize your living space to stay warmer or cooler
    10. Pumps – How to build a hand pump
    11. Refrigeration – Zeer pots, evaporative coolers, and solar refrigerators
    12. Stoves & Ovens – Rocket stoves and solar and cob ovens
    13. Washing & Drying


il_214x170-917072389_hdypOddly enough, a “survival binder” is not even a new concept. Beginning as far back as the Renaissance, people began writing inspirational quotes, measurement tables, and other info that they wanted to keep handy in what was known as “commonplace books.” By the 1800’s, information was flowing so freely and scientific discoveries were being released so frequently, people–especially housewives–began collecting clippings or transcribing useful information from newspapers and magazines. A young woman might build herself a book of recipes collected from family members and magazines, fashion pictures or patterns for things she might want to make, medicinal remedies and first aid treatments, and anything else she might think was useful for running her household and raising a family.

That is, essentially, what a survival binder is: how to take care of yourself and your family during hard times. (Or, as they thought of it during the 1800’s: every day life.)

OneNote is the tool that I find most handy for organizing my info (and you can get it for free; you just need a computer that runs Windows 7 or newer), but nothing says that you can’t use something else. I started out using Word, which, I have to say, is really awful for organizing info once you get above 50 pages or so. But it and Publisher or even a scrapbooking program can work reasonably well if, instead of putting the entire book in one document, you break it up. Each of my sections could be its own document, or, if you have a lot of information, it may be that you want the sections as folders and the pages as documents within each folder. Having it scattered in multiple documents is not quite as handy as OneNote, but if that’s all you have to work with, work with it. The first rule of survival is learning to adapt.

Of course, you can eschew the digital format all together and have only a physical binder. If you subscribe to any type of survival, wilderness, camping, or gardening magazine, pull it apart (or make copies) and put it into your binder, too. (It’s much easier to find information if you have it integrated into your organizational system than having to read through all the magazines to find it again.) If you see good info in a newspaper article, cut it out and tape it to a page. Make it a survival scrapbook if you want to. Add your own pictures, press flowers or plants to use as examples, etc.

Just make the binder your own. It exists to help you and your family through hard times, so whatever you think will help should go into your binder so you can reference it later.

Survival, Part IV: Long-Term Survival

This is part of a series on preparing for emergencies. For earlier posts, see:

Survival, Part I: Are You Prepared?

Survival Part II: Temporary Emergencies

Survival, Part III: Short Term Situations

Long-term survival scenarios are things that last for a month or more. Or, as I mentioned in my first post, they are your “new normal” because you have to accept the situation and make permanent changes to accommodate it. This isn’t a matter of waiting for the power company to repair your downed lines or waiting for someone to evacuate you from flood waters. You’re in this for the foreseeable future.

This is the scenario that most preppers are preparing for with their underground bunkers full of ammo and food or their bug-out cabin deep in unmarked territory: living without any (or steadily dwindling) modern conveniences, living alone or in a small, hand-picked community, and facing complete social breakdown and lawlessness like something out of Mad Max.


Welcome to our lives post-Apocalypse.

While there’s always an outside possibility that some sort of civil unrest, war, government breakdown/ overthrow, crippling terrorist attack, or widespread natural disaster will cause a technological and social setback that will have people living la vida Laura Ingalls for months, years, or even decades, it’s more likely that you personally will experience a long term survival situation due to economic hardship. This can be something widespread, like the Great Recession or Great Depression, but it can also be something personal, like disability that causes permanent job loss, bankruptcy, or finding yourself a single parent with no support.

While those scenarios sound very different from than those involving the breakdown of society, the effect on you can be the same. People chronically short on cash may find themselves without utilities because they can’t afford them. Or they may have to grow their own food because their grocery budget is too small. They may also have to learn to cook from scratch, make their own stuff, and do their own home and car repairs because they can’t afford to buy those things and services anymore.


So, how does one go about preparing for a long-term survival scenario, especially if you don’t have much money to spare and/or don’t have space to store a lot of stuff?

Long-term survival isn’t so much about having stuff as it is knowing how to do stuff. Only the very rich are going to be able to sock a lifetime’s worth of food and supplies into a hermetically-sealed underground bunker. The rest of us will have to be on the surface, surviving like our pioneer ancestors.

Luckily, skills are something you store in your brain (and in your survival binder, which I will cover in my next post), so they don’t take up space, and with a billion blogs and YouTube videos out there on every skill and handicraft you can imagine, it doesn’t have to cost you anything to learn.

I could live this way. I DO live this way.

My husband and I are at a distinct advantage, being historical reenactors, because living without modern conveniences is something we do for fun. As a hobby, it does cost money, and it does require the storage of stuff, but since almost all of that stuff doubles as survival gear, it’s not wasted space.

What sort of skills do you need to have? Of course, some of this will depend on your family’s individual needs and whether you are in a situation where you can get some manufactured goods or you have to make do with salvaged materials or have to make everything from scratch. But skills it’s generally good to have include:

  • Sewing. Clothing repair will be necessary if you can’t easily replace things that are wearing out. Since a sewing machine may not be available, make sure you can sew by hand.
  • 38fcf3de9c5a23de8b0cd0d89dd715b9

    During the Depression, so many people made clothes from flour and feed sacks, manufacturers started to pattern their sacks and make the labeling detachable.

    Clothing Construction. Patterning (whether working from a commercial pattern or making your own) is yet another skill set. In a long-term situation, you need to be able to make clothes for everyone in your family.

  • Knitting/Crocheting/Netting. There’s a reason why knit sweaters are ubiquitous in the winter: they’re super warm. The ability to make them (including how to recycle old sweaters for yarn) is very handy when winter comes around. Those skills can also be applied to making hats, socks, gloves, shoes, and some household items. Netting comes in handy if you want to trap small animals, keep birds away from your berry bushes, make a hammock, etc.
  • Leatherworking. Speaking of shoes, knowing how to make repairs or replacements from leather is helpful. Plus there are a lot of other uses for leather, such as belts (both for people and for machinery), bags, gloves, protective aprons, etc. Bonus skill: Also be able to make your own leather from hides.
  • Spinning/Cording. Being able to spin or twist your own cording (rope) is a valuable wilderness survival skill. Also important: learn to tie a variety of knots.
  • Basic Plumbing. Know how to take out a leaking or clogged pipe, clean it, and either replace it or glue it back into place.
  • 9164230_orig

    It’s like a shaggy Viking lodge.

    Build a Permanent Shelter. An A-frame shelter will do if you only need to spend a night or three in the woods, but if you and your family find yourselves permanently homeless, you need to know how (at least in theory) to build a log cabin, mud brick/adobe house, dugout, straw bale house, earth bag house, rammed earth or wattle-n-daub walls, or something similar.

  • Cook Over an Open Fire. Building a fire is a skill; maintaining it–especially so it lasts overnight–is another skill. Cooking over it is yet another distinct skill–especially if you want to get really fancy and bake something inside a Dutch oven.
  • Cook from Scratch. If there was no more store-bought bread, could you make bread? What if there are no packets of yeast, either? What if there was no flour?
  • Preserve Food. If you’re growing or foraging your own food, you need to be able to preserve it. Study dehydration, canning, smoking, potting, salt brining, root cellars, etc.
  • Gardening. All the vacuum-sealed packets of heirloom seeds in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to grow anything. Practice gardening now, when you don’t need the produce, so you will know what to do when your family’s life depends on that produce. Also look at putting in long-term food suppliers like fruit and nut trees, bushes, and vines now since those take some years to bear fruit.
  • Foraging. I started learning about foraging wild foods this summer and I’ve found that there is a surprising amount of stuff that’s edible in our yard and along our roadways. You’re not going to survive permanently on a diet of nothing but weedy greens, but they’ll help fill your belly (plus give you vital vitamins and minerals) until you can get a garden and livestock/hunting established.
  • Hunting/Slaughtering. The reason why that diet of greens won’t do long-term is because you will be lethally short of fat and calories. Fat and calories are something we have in overabundance now, but if we’re ever cut off from regular food supplies, both will actually be very hard to get. Nuts are probably the best source of fat in the wild (plus they supply sufficient calories), but they’re only available for a limited amount of time. That means meat will be very important. You need to at least understand how to hunt, trap, and fish, in addition to knowing how to skin and butcher common animals, like chicken/ turkey/ game birds, rabbit, squirrel, possum, and deer.
  • Livestock. It’s easier to “hunt” something that’s tame and in a pen, so if you can raise your own animals, that’s best. Chickens are usually what people start with because they are allowed in a lot of places–even urban areas–they’re small and relatively easy to care for, and they produce protein (eggs) without you having to slaughter them. Oh, and the egg shells can be used as a calcium supplement for you, your pets, or your garden, and chicken litter makes for some serious fertilizer. Meat rabbits are also easy to care for, allowed in most areas (especially if you keep a small number and classify them as “pets”), and reproduce rapidly. The next step up for the serious backyard farmer are pygmy goats, which are used primarily for dairy, but can also be eaten.
  • First Aid/Herbal Medicines. If medicine and/or doctors are in short supply, what are you going to do? The more you can do for yourself, the better the chance that you and your family will survive. For instance, there are a number of common wild plants that have anti-viral properties. If antibiotics are not available, that would be your only hope. If you have a very deep cut, you need to be able to at least clean and bandage it, but being able to sew it up would be better.
  • Water Management. Know how to collect or trap water, different methods of purification and filtration, and safe storage and recycling.

Like I said, there’s no shortage of videos showing you how to do all of this. A series that I recommend simply because it’s so fascinating is by Primitive Technology. He’s way beyond Amish living; he’s back to prehistoric jungle living. Watch him make tools from stone and build several different styles of houses without the first modern tool to help him (or another person!). It should give you confidence that no matter how bad things get, you can still survive.

Prepping Without LOOKING Like You’re Prepping

If you have some room and can afford to stock supplies (or at least slowly accumulate them), then by all means do so. Ideally, everyone should have about 6 months’ worth of food stocked away (8-9 months if you live in a cold climate with a short growing season), plus a large variety and quantity of vacuum-packed heirloom seeds. This way, even if disaster strikes right at the beginning of fall, you will have enough food to see you through the winter and until your new garden can begin producing adequately.

But there are other things you can do to prepare that don’t involve a basement room stocked floor-to-ceiling with canned goods. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do to get prepared that will not be obvious to others (in case you’re afraid your family or friends might think you’re nuts).


If you had no access to municipal water or it was contaminated (Flint, MI), what would you do for water? Buying it all the time becomes expensive and it might be impossible to get in a survival scenario. What can you do to have water for yourself, your animals, and your garden?


If it works, it’s not stupid. (Click pic for a link to building instructions.)

If you live within a mile of a stable body of water (meaning one that isn’t likely to dry up, even during a drought, and it won’t be completely depleted if your entire community is using it), then consider how you will transport, purify/ filter, and store the water. Of course, if you have access to a car, that makes life easy. But what if you don’t have a car or can’t afford the gas?

One thing you might consider is a bicycle trailer, which will make transporting a large load of water a long distance much easier. (It’s also handy for transporting things besides water around your neighborhood or even around your property.)

If you have the money and your area will permit it, consider digging a well and putting an old-fashioned hand pump on it. Even if you don’t have electricity, you’ll have water that won’t require purification and filtering.

Rain barrels are another option. Many people capture all the rain hitting the roof of their house, garage, and even outbuildings and use it to keep their gardens green and lush when the rains become too infrequent. But the water in rain barrels can be drunk, too, if it’s purified.

Lastly, consider a pond or even a natural swimming pool. With the proper water plants and water circulation system installed, they will not only be mosquito- and algae-free, but some natural swimming pool contractors boast that the water in their pools is clean enough to drink straight from the pool.



While most adults have reasonable protection from things like measles, mumps, etc., many vaccinations’ potency wears off as we get older, increasing the risk that we might catch something. It used to be that didn’t matter, unless we were going out of the county, because herd immunity protected older adults with weak protection as well as infants and those who are too ill to get vaccinated. But with increasingly-large outbreaks of things like measles and whooping cough here in the U.S., more adults will be exposed, increasing the likelihood that you will catch something. Not only that, but there have been vaccinations created since you were a child and you likely haven’t gotten them. There are now vaccinations against several types of Hepatitis which you are unlikely to have if you’re over 40 years old. There’s also a vaccination against Shingles, which is important for anyone who has ever had chickenpox (that’s most adults today); Shingles is very painful, often temporarily debilitating, and long-lasting.

And then there’s the tetanus shot. No one wants to get it, but it, more than anything, is important to have in a survival situation where you are likely to get injured and be in contact with dirty, contaminated objects. And, unfortunately, it wears off quicker than other vaccinations; doctors recommend getting one every 10 years.

If you live in a wilderness area, hunt (or plan to hunt), or otherwise work with or around animals, you might also want to inquire about rabies vaccinations. Veterinarians and wildlife handlers get them as a matter of routine, but they’re not commonly given to the public at large because we vaccinate our pets instead and most people have a minuscule chance of exposure. But in a widespread, long-term disaster scenario there will be no more pet vaccinations and you may find yourself interacting with wildlife a lot more often.

So the next time you go in for your annual physical, talk to your doctor about what vaccinations and boosters you need. Get them now while they’re available and you have the money/ insurance to cover them. If you are ever in a situation where medical care is hard to come by and diseases more rampant, you’ll be glad you have that built-in layer of protection against some of the most debilitating and deadly diseases.


Passionflower (aka Maypop) is not only a great flower for your garden, and not only produces edible fruit, but it’s also historically been used to treat anxiety and insomnia.

Herbal Medicines

As I mentioned above, you should start studying herbal medicine now in case our standard medicines are not available. To further this goal, set aside a bed in your yard for medicinal plants. They will make a pretty display of flowers and greenery and no one visiting your house will ever know that you have a survival prep sitting right there in front of them. As an added bonus, most medicinal plants are perennials or self-seeding annuals, so you can pretty much plant your bed and forget about it.


I’ve been in a situation where I literally wore my eyeglasses out past the point where I could fix them (and I had been repairing them for several years before they broke completely). I didn’t have the money to replace them, but I did have some old, weak contacts, which I wore until I got a new job and could afford to go to the eye doctor.

If you have the money to do so, get Lasik. Even though your close-up vision will still deteriorate as you get older, it’s easy to stockpile a few pairs of reading glasses in various strengths. You can stockpile prescription glasses or contacts in your current prescription, but you won’t be able to get any stronger ones for when your long-distance vision deteriorates.


Don’t neglect your teeth or put off getting work done; do it while you have the means to do it. If you get thrown into a survival situation, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of your teeth than people who go into the same situation with cavities that need filling and broken teeth that need caps.



I was recently introduced to the concept of permaculture (also known as food forests, forest gardening, edible landscaping, plant guilds, and a few other interchangeable terms) by a survival blogger who referred to it as “hiding your food in plain sight.” This is especially important if you live in an urban or suburban area where your garden might get pilfered even in normal circumstances (much less when everyone is hungry), but permaculture is great for everyone.

So, what is permaculture?

  1. It is planting 95-100% of your yard or garden with useful plants–either edible or medicinal or useful in some other way (like bamboo).
  2. It is planting about 80% of your garden with permanent plants–either perennials or self-seeding annuals.
  3. It is creating a garden that resembles a natural landscape by densely planting a wide variety of plants.

Lonely, lonely plants.

American landscaping tends to have what I call desert islands. Like a cartoon showing one palm tree on a tiny plot of land, people plant a single bush and surround it with a sea of mulch. Mulch has to be constantly renewed because weeds will take advantage of the otherwise empty expanse. (Because Nature abhors a vacuum.) It’s also a lot more obvious when your bushes get woolly, so you have to trim and shape them once or twice a year, then cart away the clippings.


You’ll be cramming food into your mouth while people pass by your garden of Eden thinking it’s just an overgrown yard. (Click pic for link to permaculture blog.)

American landscaping is still largely based on English formal gardens. But permaculture looks like English country gardens or traditional Japanese gardens. You let things grow naturally, only pruning dead limbs; you practice cut-and-drop, which means everything you cut back gets left in the bed to compost; you plant densely so that your desired plants smother out the weeds that need light and space (meaning you don’ t have to put down mulch once your plants are established); and you do little to no digging once your bed is established, so you not only have less work to do, but it also cuts down on weed seed germination.

But wait, what about tomatoes and beans and peppers? Most edible vegetables are annuals.

You can still have them, but rather than planting them in rows of naked dirt, each plant standing alone like that desert palm tree, you plant them in small, dense clusters in amongst your perennials. By separating them, you make them less attractive to pests. By planting them in an already-established bed you can trade your rototiller for a garden trowel. And by planting them densely where there are already dense plants, you will shade out weeds, eliminating the need to weed, and those same dense plants will also trap and hold rainwater in the soil longer than your typical garden, so you need to water less often.

Of course, we have 5.5 acres of land (and another half acre of roadway easement that contains a lot of edible weeds), so we have plenty of space for animals, gardens, grains, wood (for fuel), and pretty much anything else we want to do. But what if you only have a typical suburban backyard? You may think that your postage-stamp size yard isn’t big enough to grow food, but you can get a lot more out of it than you would think if you plant densely and think vertically.

But it’s important to remember that this self-supporting garden isn’t something that you’re going to put in this winter and be living on by summer. You need time to plant trees and bushes (and allow them time to mature), time to build beds and improve the soil, and time to learn what to do and what not to do. In short, practice and experiment before your life depends on it! The more food your garden produces, the more food secure you will feel. You’ll know that if the worst happens, you can always go right out into your front yard and get dinner.

I’m really excited to do permaculture and I’ve already started creating some beds which I will plant in the spring. I’ll do some future posts showing my progress and going into more detail about permaculture. Suffice to say, the more food you can have in your yard and the less work you have to do to raise it, the better.


Sugar, along with grain, is something that will disappear overnight in the vast majority of the county in the event of a serious, widespread disaster. You may consider that a good thing, because we really do consume too much sugar, but it has its benefits. As Mary Poppins sang, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down; if you’re making medicinal tea from bitter herbs, you’ll wish you had some sweetener to make it more palatable. Sugar also contains a lot of calories for its volume–a drawback in a world where the feast is never-ending, but a godsend in hard times when calories are hard to come by. Sugar and ginger and water, or sugar and eggs and milk (egg nog), make great rehydration and energy drinks for people doing a lot of physical activity, especially in the heat.

If you live in the Deep South, you can grow your own sugar cane. Where I live, I could grow it in the summer, but I would have to cut it back, dig up the root ball, and keep it indoors during the winter. (Baby it, in other words.) Sorghum is a much better option because it does well in my part of the country with no babying required. But a third option is to keep bees for honey.

Honey has a lot of benefits besides being sweet. It is anti-microbial, so it can actually be used medicinally to boost the effectiveness of some medicines. It’s also a good treatment by itself for cough and sore throat, and also dental problems, like an abscess. (Abscesses are quite dangerous; they should always be treated by a dentist immediately. But if there is no dentist to be had, honey is better than nothing.) Honey can also be used like Neosporin on wounds; it kills any bacteria in the wound and blocks anything new from getting into it. Watered-down honey is an old-fashioned treatment given to sick people who can’t eat very much. Bee stings, believe it or not, are an old-fashioned treatment for arthritis. Lastly, if you’re really desperate for food, the bees and larvae themselves are edible and a good source of fat and protein.

And let’s not forget that bees help pollinate your garden, so nearby hives means increased fruit production for you. (It also means increased production for everyone in your community, especially now that bee populations are dropping dangerously low.) You can even get wax for candles from them, but not as much as you would think; you have to have a lot of hives to produce enough wax. (Candles are better made from oil or fat (tallow) than wax.) But the wax you can harvest is still useful for leatherworking and sewing and waxing cloth to make it waterproof (sometimes referred to as “the saran-wrap of the middle ages).

If you’ve ever thought about keeping some bees, now is the time to invest in the equipment. The upfront costs are a bit expensive, but once you have the bees going, they are pretty cheap to keep.



Solar panels are becoming cheaper and more mainstream as people seek to lower rising electric bills, guard against rolling blackouts during energy droughts, and “help the planet” in general. Survivalists are also getting them installed as a backup if the electrical grid were to fail or electricity costs soar to the point that power was unaffordable. They won’t produce enough power to run your central heating and cooling unit (at least not all day and in every season), and in winter months and cloudy periods, they may not be able to run power-hungry appliances like your stove and dryer, but they will power things like ceiling fans and lights, televisions and computers, and probably even your hot water heater. And those few things will go a long way toward making you feel a lot better about your situation.

instapark-mercury-10-solar-panelBut even if you can’t afford solar panels for your entire house, you may be able to afford a small, portable solar panel which will at least charge your small electronics, like your cell phone, tablet, or even laptop. (They’re $100-$200 for one powerful enough to charge a laptop; cheaper ones can be had if you don’t mind it taking all day to charge your cell phone.)


If you don’t already have a wood-burning device in your house–either a stove or a fireplace–consider getting one installed. Small wood-burning stoves can be retrofitted into most houses and chimneys aren’t necessary (they make stovepipe that can be installed in a wall or the ceiling), making it a fairly affordable upgrade.

Why wood-burning and not gas logs? While gas logs will heat your house when the power is out, they won’t heat your house if you have no money to for the gas or it’s not being delivered. People have a much easier time finding free stuff to burn since even in suburban areas there are usually a lot of trees and other biomass available. There are even ways to turn waste paper into bricks or logs that will burn for a reasonable length of time.

The other benefit to having a wood-burning stove or fireplace is that you can also use it for cooking. Even if you have solar panels providing electricity, you will likely need to cook over your heat source occasionally when your solar panels aren’t drawing enough power.


Candles and oil lamps and battery-powered lights are for short-term power outages. It won’t take long before they run out of fuel and you’re waking with the sun and going to bed as soon as it gets dark.

Solar panels will keep the lights on, but what if you aren’t able to afford solar panels or can’t get them installed for one reason or another?

If you have solar path lights around your house, pull them up and bring them into the house. Stick a cluster of them into a vase or similar container. They won’t produce enough light to read by, but they should produce enough to allow you to eat dinner. One alone in a bedroom or bathroom will work as a nightlight. If you put them back outside the next day and let them charge, they should be functional for a very long time.

rillie_0A prep you can do now is get a light tunnel installed. It’s a small, tubular skylight that doesn’t require nearly as much work (or money) to install as a regular skylight. While it won’t help you at night, it will go a long way toward brightening up your house during the daytime, making a lack of lights less obvious. Consider getting one installed in rooms that don’t have windows, such as interior hallways, bathrooms, or laundry rooms. They can actually be run for about 20 feet, which means you could conceivably run one from your roof all the way to your basement if you have a place in the upstairs of your house where you could hide the tube (like inside a closet).

I definitely have one on my “want” list for our windowless upstairs bathroom. To use the bathroom during a power outage would require a candle or lamp. With a light tunnel, it would be very easy to use the bathroom at any point during the day. The Solatube brand even has a built-in, solar-powered night light, which would probably produce all the light we need to use the bathroom at night.

Another thing you might consider doing is replacing a solid door with a glass one, or at least adding a good glass “screen” door to all of your existing entryways. This allows all of your doors to become windows. We have a lot of light in our house because we have glass doors, and I want to replace our basement door with a glass security door so we’ll have natural light in our otherwise windowless storage room.

Finally, one thing you might want to stock up on are Gravity Lights. They are currently putting the final touches on their factory production line, but expect to start producing them for retail sale in 2017. They were created to bring light to people in Africa and other parts of the world who don’t have access to or reliable electricity, but there’s been a big demand for them elsewhere; preppers, campers, FEMA, and off-grid homesteaders all want them. Unlike a candle or oil lamp, one Gravity Light produces enough light to read by, and if you get satellite lights and plug them into the main light, you can get enough light to decently light an entire room.

They are powered the same way that an old cuckoo clock is powered: by a weight slowly falling, turning gears and, ultimately, a generator that produces power. LED lights need so little energy, they can run on this weak electrical output, producing light as bright as any from a lamp. You get about 20 minutes’ worth of light with each hoist of the weight, so it doesn’t even take a lot of effort to keep it going. They don’t make a mess and also don’t create a fire hazard.



Click pic for instructions on building a can rocket stove.

So what if you have no fireplace or woodstove and you’re out of charcoal for your grill and you have no large source of wood? A rocket stove made from recycled cans (or even bricks or concrete blocks) will cook your dinner while using twigs and small branches that you can find in any suburban yard. Make one or two up now and store them in your garage or wherever you keep your emergency food; they don’t take up much more room than a paint can. That way, they’re ready to use whenever you need them.


As I have been writing this series, there has been rioting in a number of cities across the U.S., and forest fires around my area have led to people being evacuated from their homes. Just last week, a nearby city announced a boil advisory for its tap water because it’s contaminated with e.coli.

I hope that I have proven that being prepared for when something bad happens isn’t weird or crazy; it’s something that everyone needs to do because it will happen to you at some point in your life. It may be minor or it may be life-altering. But if you have spent at least a little bit of time preparing for the possibility of trouble–both mentally and with a stockpile of supplies–you will weather the storm much better than others. Why suffer a lot of anxiety and deprivation if you don’t have to? Just prepare a little!

I will close this series out with one more post discussing how I use OneNote to organize all of my survival information so I will have it when I need it. Stay tuned.

Tennessee Burning


White Oak Mountain burning against I-75 between Cleveland and Chattanooga. It was on fire Tuesday morning and again Wednesday night.

It was just announced this morning that a residential community on Signal Mountain is being evacuated because of the forest fires burning there. As there is no forecast of rain any time in the near future, the fires will likely continue to spread and endanger other homes on the mountain.


Satellite image of TN’s and NC’s wildfires. Kentucky also has some wildfires, but they’re mostly getting our smoke.

Also, there are so many fires burning around Chattanooga, Knoxville, and North Carolina (honestly, this is not why they’re called the Smokey Mountains!), the air quality for the Tennessee Valley is red and, again, with no rain in sight, it is likely to remain that way for some time. People with serious asthma and other breathing problems are starting to miss work and school because the outside air is so bad.

We have had smoke wafting through our yard and ash on our cars, even though we’re many miles from the nearest fire. When I was driving over White Oak Mountain yesterday, the smell of smoke became so strong, my eyes started to tingle.

This is a prime example of needing bug-out bags and short-term supplies. You may think that a natural disaster isn’t going to strike your area, but we never expected wildfires like this, either. They’re actually not very common in our area and are normally quickly contained. Nothing like this has ever been seen in my lifetime. So you never know what or when the next natural disaster will strike. That’s why you need to be prepared to evacuate or shelter at home, depending on the circumstances.

Edited to Add: I no more got this posted than my husband called and said that he heard on the radio that White Oak Mountain is on fire yet again and the interstate is at a stand still.

Survival, Part III: Short Term Situations

This post is part of a series. Read my introduction that covers realistic survival situations that just about everyone endures in their lifetime and why you should prepare for them: Survival, Part I: Are You Prepared? Part II specifically covers dealing with temporary situations that last from hours to 3 days: Survival Part II: Temporary Emergencies.

Temporary survival situations are typically about surviving while away from home; it’s all about being on the move. Short-term scenarios, however, typically find you at home (which means you don’t have to worry about carrying a lot of stuff around and you have all of your supplies at home at your disposal). The two most common situations are bad weather that traps you at home and being short on money.

Short-term survival scenarios may last up to a month, but a week or less is much more common. So when you’re building up your supplies, aim for having a week’s worth of supplies to start with and a month’s worth if you can afford it and can store it.

What You Need to Stockpile

  • Food
  • Water
  • Source of Light
  • Source of Heat/Cooling/Cooking
  • Cash
  • Medicine


Everyone ought to have at least 1 week’s worth of food in their pantry at all times. If you have a tendency to let your store run low, then make a separate stash that you only use in emergencies.

Because you have to assume that in a survival situation you will have no utilities–and thus no refrigeration–and you don’t want to be constantly restocking your stash with things that expire relatively quickly, like chips and cereal, everything you put back needs to either be in a can, or have a shelf-life of a year or more, such as flour and whole grains, dried fruit, jerky, pasta, instant dishes like potatoes or pudding, “helpers” or meals-in-a box, and dehydrated milk (or shelf-stable, ultra-pasteurized milk which tastes better than dehydrated, but only lasts about 6 months). In short, anything that you could donate to a food pantry is what you can put back for your own emergency pantry.


A snow fridge. Because your beer should be as cold as you are.

Speaking of having no utilities, what do you do if you have no refrigeration? If it’s cold outside, you can move your food to a cooler or other secure container outside and let nature keep it refrigerated for you. If it’s not cold, however, you need to make eating everything in the fridge a priority. (If you only have a small amount of stuff in the fridge, you will probably be better off moving it to a cooler; if the food is close together and in a small space, it will keep itself cold longer. And if you have a basement or other part of your house that’s cooler than your kitchen, store the cooler in it to buy yourself a little more time.) After eating through the fridge, switch to the freezer, where you will probably find most stuff thawed enough to eat. Only once you’ve eaten everything that will spoil do you switch to eating out of your dry goods supply.

preppers-pantryWhat does one week’s worth of food look like for your family? Keep a record of every can and package that you use while preparing a week’s worth of meals and you will have a shopping list for your emergency stash. (Don’t forget to compensate for any meals that are eaten away from home, such as fast food or school cafeteria.) Alternatively, plan on having one serving of protein, one starch or grain, and two vegetables or fruits at every meal for every person. You should know if one can of corn is enough for your whole family for a meal or not. If it is, add another canned vegetable, a pot of rice, and some meat and you will have one meal for the family. Multiple by three to have a day’s worth of meals, then multiply by 7 to have a week’s worth.

And speaking of meat: most people think of fresh meat that goes in the fridge or freezer. This will disappear quickly, either because you consume it first, or you can’t get to all of it and it spoils. There is a lot of canned meat now available and you should stock up on it for when your fresh supply runs out. Most of them are pre-cooked as well (or can be eaten raw, in the case of the fish), so you can eat it cold right out of the can, if necessary. Tuna, salmon, chicken, roast beef, spam, vienna sausages, plus canned soups that have meat in them–they’re all available to you for long-term storage.

And don’t forget your pets! Have a week’s worth of canned food and/or a small bag of their usual dry kibble put aside for emergencies. If you normally make their food fresh, you will still want canned/dry food stored because their fresh food will go bad just as quickly as yours does and you don’t want to try cooking pet food from scratch on an improvised cookstove.


Water sprays sky-high from a burst water mains pipe in Melbourne.

Yeah, they’re not going to have water on their block any time soon.

A serious power outage may stop the municipal water supply because the pumps don’t have power. Freezing temps can cause your pipes or even entire water mains to burst. Flooding or government malfeasance can cause local water to become contaminated. And anyone who has a well knows that there will be periodic outages when the pump fails or a drought dries up the aquifer.

Ideally, you should have seven gallons of water stored for each person in your house (1 gallon per person, per day), plus some for pets. This doesn’t cover using water for things like bathing, doing dishes, or flushing the toilet, so you should set side some spare water just for that. How much extra? That depends on your toilet. The newest toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush, but old ones need 5-7 gallons. You will want to figure flushing the toilet at least once per day per person. To avoid clogging the toilet between flushes, toilet paper should be thrown away instead of put into the toilet.

You don’t actually have to have additional water for washing up if you have water set aside for your toilet. Just use the water for bathing or cleaning first, then bail it out of your sink or tub and use it to flush the toilet. Also, save any water leftover from cooking (like pasta water) and add it to what you have for toilet flushing or use it to water houseplants.

To further cut down on the amount of water that you need, stockpile disposable dishes and cutlery that you can throw away instead of washing, and substitute hand sanitizer for soap at your sinks. Some dry shampoo and a pack of baby wipes can help extend your personal hygiene a day or two, too.

If you have a heads-up that you might be without water (if you expect a power outage and you have a well pump or there’s a hurricane predicted or flooding is getting worse), fill everything you can with water. Fill bathtubs, sinks, stock pots, unused aquariums, kiddie pools, 5 gallon buckets, etc. These now contain your water for bathing and flushing the toilet. (If you want to drink, cook, or wash dishes with it, though, you’ll need to boil it first; water stored in open containers gets contaminated by airborne bacteria fairly quickly.)


Some time ago, I came across a blogger who tested which candles burned the longest, put out the most light, made the least amount of mess, and cost the least. The hands-down winner were tea lights. They’re the least bright candle, but you can use two of them together and still come out a lot cheaper than the next-cheapest candle.

So, if you’re going to stock up on candles, stock up on tea lights. (Just make sure you place them in a holder or on a heat-resistant plate; when they burn down, the bottoms get very hot and can scorch whatever they’re sitting on–ask me how I know.)

under-the-oil-lamp-light-richard-mitchellOther source of light include old-fashioned lamps (which were typically used with kerosene, but they will run on less volatile, shelf-stable lamp oil) and propane camp lanterns. For children’s rooms or around pets, though, use something flameless, like a battery-powered or hand-cranked flashlight or lamp. Get one with an LED light to get maximum use out of your battery life.

c3f77206-d60a-4835-9cda-60aef64820c5_1000Also consider having one or two of those stick anywhere touch lights on hand. They run on AA batteries, and while most of them are not very bright, they are great as a nightlight in a child’s room, bathroom, or hallway. And unlike candles or oil lamps, there is no danger of fire.q-exquisite-olive-oil-lamp-thermal-glass-wick-insulator-olive-oil-clay-lamp-backpack-olive-oil-lamp-can-olive-oil-be-used-as-lamp-oil-can-olive-oil-be-used-for-lamp-oil-can-olive-oil-burn-i

And if you are caught completely unprepared? You can make an oil lamp from a glass jar with a metal lid, cooking oil, and a cotton wick made from braided cotton twine or strips of T-shirt or even a strand from a cotton mop head.

Heat/Cooling (& Cooking)

Most power outages are due to bad weather, and those mostly occur during the winter. That means you’re more likely to be cold than hot during an emergency. And, unfortunately, more people die of being too cold than too hot.

So the first thing to plan for is staying warm. If you heat with oil or have gas logs, being prepared for winter is as simple as getting your tank filled. If you have a fireplace or wood stove in your home, you need to make sure it’s functional and have a decent pile of firewood to burn in it. Even if you keep it closed off most of the time because you don’t use it, you need to have it in a state where you can open it up and get it operational in half an hour or less.

That leaves everyone else. What can you do for heat if you have no fireplace or gas/oil furnace? A kerosene heater is the most commonly-used emergency heat source. There are also propane heaters that run on small tanks of camping propane or even on grill gas tanks, but those are not rated for indoor use and can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. (You should have a carbon monoxide detector if you have a kerosene heater too, because if they malfunction–and I’ve seen that happen twice–they can produce carbon monoxide as well.) A propane heater may work better in, say, your garage if you need to keep it warm for the benefit of pets, plant seedlings, or water pipes. (Just makes sure that, if your garage is not already drafty, you crack a door or window for ventilation, and keep a carbon monoxide alarm out there just in case.)

Kerosene, unlike gasoline, does not quickly go bad. Depending on who you ask (and how it’s stored), it can be good for 1-3 months or up to a few years. You should be perfectly safe buying some kerosene at the beginning of winter and storing it until spring. At that time, it would be best to get rid of it, since age and summer’s heat will likely make it go bad. Depending on how hot your run your heater and whether you run it constantly, a 2.5 gallon tank should last 2-3 days, so estimate 5-7 gallons of kerosene getting you through a week.

But even if you have no source of heat at all, there are ways to stay warm inside. You can wear all of your winter clothes and make a pillow fort or blanket tent over a bed in the floor and sleep reasonably warm. But if you have no source of fire, you will not have any hot food. And cold food doesn’t taste nearly as good and it doesn’t help warm you up like some hot soup and tea.

grill-snow_phIf you have a grill that you can use outdoors or on a balcony, then all you need to do is store some charcoal or a full tank of propane. You can use it as a grill or oven or stovetop. Another alternative is a Coleman camp stove, which can be found pretty easily at flea markets and yard sales, or you can buy them new at Wal-Mart or any sporting goods place. They run on small propane tanks, or you can get an adapter kit that will allow it to be hooked up to a full-size grill tank. You need to set it up on a heat resistant surface, like a metal table or concrete stoop. In a pinch, you can set it up on your stove cooktop, but make sure you turn on your vent (if it vents outside) and/or open a window. Like the propane heaters, the propane stoves put off carbon monoxide, so it’s really best to use them outside.

013If you have a kerosene heater or wood-burning stove, you can cook right on top of that. If you have a fireplace with a stone or brick hearth, you can cook on that, too, but you do need to watch some videos on open-fire cooking before you do so. It’s not as simple as putting a pot on top of a burning log.

What if it’s really hot and the power or A/C is going to be out for days or someone in your family is very heat intolerant? A battery-powered or solar fan can help keep a person from overheating. Past that, your options for cooling down are more primitive. Wetting your head (especially if you then sit in the breeze of the fan) will cool your body down considerably. Open windows at night and close them at dawn and cover them with heavy curtains or blankets. The inside of your house will heat up much slower than outside, so you want to trap that cooler air inside. In the afternoon, when it seems that the inside is as hot as the outside, then open your windows on the north and east sides of your house. (Never open the west side windows, unless that side of your house is shaded; it’s the hottest.) At dusk, open the remaining windows and leave them open all night.

Dampen a thin sheet and hang it over an open bedroom window; this will cool any air blowing in. You can also look at building an evaporative (aka swamp) cooler (although they have little effect if it’s humid).


Putting aside money for savings when you’re on a tight budget can be really hard to do; you already feel like you need every penny. But in reality, you can usually spare a penny here or there. Whatever you can spare, save it. Even a small amount saved back can help in a pinch.

When I was in college, my car needed transmission work and it took everything my parents and I could come up with to get it repaired. I was left without a car for a week and no money to speak of in my checking account. But I did have a small amount of cash secreted away in my apartment. I had saved it up by always emptying the spare change out of my purse and the occasional dollar bill. It was enough to buy me taxi rides to school.

So save all of your change; a 32 oz cup full of loose change yields a surprising amount of money ($60-$100, depending on how many quarters you tend to save). Or, if you use very little cash, round up all of your purchases in your checkbook. At the end of the pay period, you should have a little spare money leftover which you can then withdraw and stash.

There are some bank programs that will automatically round up your purchases and stick the difference in a savings account. These aren’t a bad idea, but for a survival situation, you need some cash at home, not just in a bank. One of the survival situations you might find yourself in is a problem with your bank account; you need cash in hand to buy groceries and put gas in your car until your bank situation is straightened out. So always have at least a little cash stashed somewhere in your house.

(BTW, I also like to keep a $20 in my glovebox. This comes in handy if you need gas but pull up to the only station around and find their card reader is down.)


You can usually get your prescription refilled every 27 days, meaning you can get a refill while still have a few days’ worth of medicine on hand. Use that monthly surplus to create an emergency stash that will last you at least a week. (Like food you will need to use it and replace it with new every year or two.) That way, if you are stuck at home or short on cash when your prescription runs out, you will have enough to by until you can get to the pharmacy again.

first-aid-kitMost people keep basic medicines on hand all the time to treat things like cold, cough, allergies, and pain/fever, and probably some basic first aid supplies like hydrogen peroxide and bandaids. But consider buying a full first aid kit. In an emergency situation, more people are likely to be injured and have worse injuries than usual, so you may end up very glad you have an adequate amount of things like gauze and burn ointment on hand. (Also, in cases where you can’t wash up regularly or you’re in contact with things like contaminated water, you will need to be careful to clean and bandage even small cuts that you normally wouldn’t bother treating.)

The portability of first aid kits also makes them good if you find yourself trying to help out a wounded neighbor or outdoor animal, and they’re easy to toss in a car along with your survival bag if you decide you need to get the hell out of Dodge. (Or just if you’re going on vacation.) The supplies in them do expire/dry out over time, so plan on culling the bandages out and tossing and replacing the rest every few years.

Where to Store It

You may be saying: storing food and gallons of water is all well and good if you live in a big house, but there’s no room for that in my tiny apartment!

Well, actually, if you take a good look around, you can probably find empty places that you don’t currently use because they’re too inaccessible. But that’s okay for our purposes, because you’re only going to want to access this stuff in emergencies (or to rotate it out once a year).

Unusual places to stash food and water:

  • Shelving put in beside (or under) stairs.2f58fa07160360096580693fd0013944
  • Under a bed. If you want easier access, put the food into short plastic tubs and slide them under the bed.
  • Under the kitchen sink or in the back of a corner cabinet.
  • In the bottom or very top of a pantry.
  • In the very back corner or top shelf of the bedroom closet.
  • On the plate rack above the kitchen cabinets.
  • In the cabinet above the fridge or on top of the fridge.
  • In the back of a linen, bathroom, or utility closet.
  • On shelves in your laundry room.
  • If you don’t mind some remodeling, you can take out paneling or cut out sheetrock to reveal your wall studs. Then you can put up shelves between the studs to contain your pantry. (You can even put the paneling back up to make it a secret stash.)


    Recessed shelves can actually look quite nice if you finish them correctly. If you don’t want your food stash showing, use the shelves to contain something currently in a closet–like bath linens–and put your food in the closet instead.

  • In the attic.
  • In a waterproof tub in a crawlspace. (Don’t store flour or grains or pasta in there, because the humidity will probably ruin them and they’ll be attractive to rats; store sealed water and canned goods only.)
  • In the rafters in a garage.
  • Behind books on a bookcase.
  • Under or behind a couch or chairs.
  • In a storage bench or box on your balcony or outside porch.
  • On bookcases in a wide hallway.
  • Replace your simple coffee or side tables with either tables made to double as storage, or create some cheap, DIY tables by putting together some storage boxes, throwing a wooden board across the top, and then covered the entire thing neatly with pretty fabric.
  • Lightweight items, like oatmeal, flour, and pasta can be stored in unused luggage. (Or you can store out-of-season clothes or linens in your luggage and store the food in their place.)
  • Shelves installed above doors and windows and around the top of a room.

Up next: Survival, Part IV: Long-Term Survival