This is part of a series on preparing for emergencies. For earlier posts, see:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
- 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).
- It is planting about 80% of your garden with permanent plants–either perennials or self-seeding annuals.
- It is creating a garden that resembles a natural landscape by densely planting a wide variety of 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.
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.
But 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.
A 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.
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.