Aug 292014
 
A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper.

A bizarre approach to dispensing toilet paper – sighted at a rest stop somewhere between SD and MN.

A little known side effect of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant problems in Japan was a shortage of toilet paper that affected the entire country.

Japan has had toilet paper shortages before, back in the oil crisis of 1973 (you never thought that expensive and scarce oil would create a toilet paper shortage, did you!) and so the nation has become particularly sensitized to the potential of future shortages.  As a result, the Japanese government is now urging the public to stockpile toilet paper, and has even arranged for a special type of toilet paper roll (without the inner cardboard sleeve) that allows more toilet paper to be stored in less space.  You can read more about their public promotional campaign here.

We see two interesting things about this.  The first is the government’s determination that it could take a month for any disruption in supply to be resolved, either due to factories returning to production or by way of importing supplies from other countries, and so they are recommending everyone keeps at least a one month supply in their homes.

Depending on your point of view, a one month supply is either a generous amount or woefully inadequate.  A lot would rest on the type of disruption to local manufacturing, of course, and if it was a broader global disruption (such as another oil shock) then even a one month supply might be exhausted long before new supplies were on hand.  Of course, this is a Level 1 type preparation only, not a Level 2 or 3.

The second interesting thing is the focus on stockpiling a month of toilet paper.  We don’t disagree with this at all, of course, but how about other things, too?  Like, ummm, water and food?  If toilet paper is liable to disruptions in supply, surely food supplies too have to be considered as being at risk of some future disruptions, and if we had to choose between no toilet paper and no food, well, that’s an easy choice, isn’t it!

Don’t get us wrong.  It is great to see a national government advocate a one month stockpile of anything, but we see this as begging the question – why do we need to maintain a one month supply of toilet paper, but not a one month supply of everything else, too?

Aug 262014
 
We love traditional printed books, but storing them all is becoming an ever greater and more costly problem, demanding we switch less essential titles to eBook format.

We love traditional printed books, but storing them all is becoming an ever greater and more costly problem, demanding we switch less essential titles to eBook format.

Are you building up a library of prepper resource materials?  You definitely should be.

If you’re like us, you probably already have somewhere between hundreds of thousands and literally millions of pages of resource material, spanning tens or even hundreds of gigabytes of data on your hard drives.  It is very easy to download and save material from many different sites and sources.

If you’re like us, you’ve maybe also bought some CDs or DVDs filled with prepper type content, adding still further to the vast resource of material you have.

Indeed, our biggest ‘problem’ with our data is not knowing what we have.  We’ve so much of it, indeed we just counted and we have 137,000 prepper files, including some zip files that have in turn hundreds more files within them, and we know we have sometimes downloaded things twice, and if we had to find information on a specific topic, well, that could be a time-consuming problem!

Again, if you’re like us, not much of this is printed out, and most is sitting in abstract electronic form on your hard drive(s).  It is easily to download a five hundred page manual that you might never need – it costs you almost literally nothing to download and save onto a hard drive, for a ‘just in case’ future use – maybe sometime, probably (hopefully!) never.

Now think about the future that you’re saving all this material to help you with.  What happens if we suffer an EMP and most of our electronics are fried?  Or what happens if your hard drive simply dies – how thoroughly backed up is the material you downloaded?  Or, even worse, if your computer fails.  Never mind the data backup – how many spare computers do you have, too!

Did you know that CDs and DVDs have finite lives?  Sooner or later, the data on them will start to corrupt and eventually become unreadable.

And even if the data remains secure and readable, sooner or later, your electronics will die.  Maybe they will die quickly, through an EMP or power surge or something.  Maybe they’ll just slowly fail as the natural lifespans of the electronics passes, or maybe they’ll die quickly of ‘infant mortality’ (electronic devices tend to either die quickly, or else last most/all of their expected lives before failing).  For that matter, did you also know that some electronic components age and expire whether they are being used or not – specifically, electrolytic capacitors, which have about a 20 year life and at some point subsequently, will start to become ‘leaky’ (in an electrical more than physical sense) and fail.

Our point is simple.  A printed out book is a remarkably long-lived device, and while it has some vulnerabilities (eg to water and fire, also to dogs and small children) you’ll usually find books are more reliable and guaranteed to ‘work’ in adverse situations than is the case with modern electronics.

Should you therefore be printing out everything you download and save?

The answer to this question is a modified ‘no, not really’.  We’ll wager that probably 95% of everything you download is stuff you’d never look at, no matter what happens WTSHTF.  But, and here’s the catch – can you be sure which of the many things you’ve downloaded will be in the 95% unnecessary and which will be in the 5% of necessary/essential reference resources?

But what do you print out, and what do you leave in electronic format?  Furthermore, there are more downsides to eBooks than ‘just’ the concern that the electronics will fail.

If you can only read eBooks and other electronic files on your computer, how truly convenient is that?  Your computer – even if a laptop/portable rather than desktop unit – still weighs many pounds, needs power, and is somewhat fragile.  You probably don’t want it sitting out in the field alongside you as you work out how to construct something.  If you drop a book, you pick it up again.  If you drop a computer…..

You can’t have your computer or eBook reader in more than one place at once – you can’t have someone in the kitchen using it for cooking, someone in the workshop using it to repair something, someone in the living room using it to read for relaxation, and so on.  Sure, each physical book can only be in one place too, but you can have each of your many books in a different place.

Call us old-fashioned, but we see a clear role for hard copy printed books in our retreats.

However, let’s also look at some of the upsides of eBooks, as well as their downsides.

We keep coming back to the gigabytes of downloaded ‘just in case’ reference material we have here.  We’ve no idea how many hundreds of thousands of pages of content there are in all of these, but even if we say there is ‘only’ 100,000 pages of key content, how much paper/space/cost would that require to print it all out?

You can partially answer that question with a visit to your local office supply store.  Look at the size of a box of ten reams of paper (10 x 500 sheets = 5,000 sheets).  Now look at the size of a pallet full of those boxes of paper.  That’s quite a lot of space, isn’t it, particularly if neatly laid out on bookshelves rather than stacked on pallets.  100,000 sides, (if you can print double-sided, and if you can’t, you’d probably be well advised to buy a duplex printer prior to this enormous printing project) would require 50,000 sheets, or ten of those boxes, plus extra space for covers and whatever else.

That’s an appreciable amount of space, and we’ve not started to address the question of how you’d bind the printouts together (probably either in ring-binders or, more space efficiently, by simply stapling short works and using re-usable fold-over binding posts for larger works).  Plus there’s the cost – the paper cost is minimal, and less than a couple of cents a sheet, but then add additional for the ink or toner to print onto them (get a low cost per page laser printer rather than a high cost per page inkjet printer), and all up, 100,000 sides/50,000 pages of content probably end up costing you $2,500 or more.

Now you need a way to store and index all this material, too.  So you need some shelving and space to put it, and some sort of indexing system so you can find it in the future.  That’s more time, more money, and more hassle.

If you have a million pages of material (we’re sure we have at least that much, ourselves) your $2,500 project has become a $25,000+ project, and you’ll literally need a library room in your retreat.

So, much as we love traditional physical books, it seems there is clearly a need for balance, with some content in hardcopy form and much more remaining in electronic form.

Our suggestion is to invest in some eBook readers – not just one, but several.

However, don’t necessarily rush out and buy an Amazon Kindle type dedicated eBook reader.  There’s one huge problem with all Kindles (and some smaller problems too).

Kindles have a limited degree of on-device storage, and for more than that, they need to be synched with Amazon’s cloud service.  That works well at present, but in a ‘grid down’ situation, there’ll likely be no internet and so no way to synch your Kindle with Amazon.  This is, obviously, their very big problem.

Their smaller problem is that they’re not as ‘open source’ as a regular Android tablet, and try to lock you into the Amazon ‘eco system’, making it harder for you to view other eBook formats and files.  You don’t have this problem on a generic tablet that would conveniently allow you to view all common eBook formats.

You should get tablets that can accept SD or micro SD cards, as well as being able to be connected to a computer and to be directly synched that way.  Almost unavoidably, these will probably be Android based.

Sure, you’ll be spending money for each tablet purchase to do this, and more to buy up a supply of memory cards, but that is all probably both essential and also much better than spending some thousands of dollars printing out all those slightly weird and very out-of-date manuals and scanned pdf copies of things.

You’d be astonished at how inexpensive tablets can be, these days.  While Apple still charges way over the odds for their iPads, you can now get competing products for astonishingly great values.  Amazon have tablets for sale that cost less than $100 each,.  You don’t need the most modern state of the art super-tablets when all you need them for is reading books.  Just make sure they have a version 4 or greater of Android, and a micro or full size SD card reader on them.  A rare and not really essential bonus would be a replaceable battery.

When you have your tablets, you need to load a PDF reading program onto them, and also probably Amazon’s Kindle eBook reading software.  That way you have the best of both worlds – you can directly read your own PDFs, and can also download – and store – any Kindle books you buy through Amazon as well.

We suggest you keep your electronic library resources – the tablets that are designated as primary readers, and the removable media (micro or regular SD cards with the files on them) in a Faraday cage type storage unit.  This doesn’t need to be anything fancier than a lined metal container (lined with foam or something, keeping everything inside the container away from the metal sides) with a securely fitting metal lid and a good electrical seal between the container and its lid.  That makes everything reasonably secure against both EMP type attacks and other external environmental threats (extreme weather, rain, and animals/insects) too.

You’d want to take the units out and discharge/recharge their batteries once every quarter or so, and of course from time to time you’ll update your inventory of data files on your memory cards.

If you do this, then whenever you need to be able to access your electronic library, and in a grid down situation with your normal electronics no longer available to you, it becomes an easy thing to open up your cookie tin/Faraday cage and start using your eBook readers.

We’d be sure to have two copies of everything on memory cards, and at least one hard drive full of the files too, giving you plenty of backup and options for accessing your files in the future.

Currently (ie Aug 2014) the ‘sweet spot’ for micro SD cards is to get cards holding 64 GB per card.  You probably only need a few of these.  If you were buying 128 GB cards, your cost per GB of storage goes up.  If you buy 32 GB or lower capacity cards, you’re still paying the same cost per GB, and end up with more of the cards to keep track of and not lose.

Summary

If you don’t already have a huge collection of prepper files and texts, you should work on growing it as best time allows.

While some clearly essential titles should be purchased in print form, or printed out if purchased electronically, we encourage you to get as much material in electronic form, and to keep this on micro SD cards and view the files on inexpensive (ie less than $100 each) tablets.

Oh yes.  Do we also need to say – be sure to keep backup copies of all your files!

Aug 262014
 
You need good lines of sight all around your retreat property.

You need good lines of sight all around your retreat property.

So you’re about to buy yourself a rural retreat?  Congratulations.  We hope you’ll never need it, but how wonderful it is to know it is there and available if things should go severely wrong.

In among all the other things you need to consider when choosing a retreat is its lot size.  There are a number of different factors affecting how large a lot you need, including the soil type, what sorts of crops you plan to cultivate, the animals you might also raise, and, oh yes, some defensive considerations too.

Some of these considerations vary enormously (ie, the number of people each acre of farmed land can support), but the defensive factors are fairly constant.  So let’s make this an easy read for you, and an easy write for us, and talk about them.

We’ve written at length, in past articles, about the need to design your retreat to be sturdy and able to withstand rifle fire, that’s not actually the risk that keeps us awake at night worrying the most about.  Ideally you want everywhere you’re likely to be on your retreat to be safe and not at risk of enemy attack.  Most notably, you not only want to be safe inside the strong walls of your retreat, but also while outside, exposed, and vulnerable, working in your fields, too.

The Biggest Risk of Violent Takeover/Takeout You’ll Face

We see the greatest risk as being picked off, one or two at a time, while we’re working in the fields.  It is conceivable that we might be some distance from our retreat, and we could be bent over, planting or picking some crop, when all of a sudden, a sniper’s bullet slams into our back, even before the sound of the shot reached us.  Talk about literally no warning – it doesn’t get any more sudden than that.

By the time the people around us heard the shot and started to react, a second round might already be meeting the second target.  And then, all of a sudden, nothing.  Well, nothing except a thoroughly panicked remainder of the people we were out in the fields with, all exposed in the middle of the crop, and one or two dead or nearly-dead bodies.

Even if everyone always carried weapons with them – and even if they were rifles rather than short-range pistols which would be useless at these sorts of ranges – by the time anyone had responded, grabbed their rifle (try doing some type of ongoing manual labor with a rifle slung over your shoulders – chances are everyone in the group will have their rifles set to one side rather than slung over their shoulders), chambered a round, and hunched over their sights, where would they look and what would they see?  Possibly nothing at all.  The sniper would retreat, as stealthily as he arrived, his job well done for the day.

Rinse and repeat.  Have the same event occur again a day or two later, and you’re not only now down four people (and any sniper worthy of the name will be carefully choosing the most valuable of the people in the field each time), but you’ve got a panicked group of fellow community members demanding ‘protection’.  Except that – what sort of protection can you give against a faceless guerilla enemy – someone who picks and chooses the time and location of their attacks?  Furthermore, you’re now four people down, and you have to choose what to do with your able-bodied group members – are they to be tasked for defensive patrolling duties or working your crops.  You don’t have enough people to do both!

No smart adversary will attack your retreat in a full frontal assault.  That would be a crazy thing to do.  Instead, they’ll act as we just described, picking you off, one or two at a time, taking as long as is necessary to do so.  Your retreat is no longer your refuge.  It has become the bulls-eye on the attacker’s target map, and all they have to do is observe and bide their time, taking advantage of the opportunities and situations they prepare for and select, rather than being taken advantage of by you and your tactical preparations.

Don’t think that defensive patrols will do you a great deal of good, either.  How many men would you have on each patrol?  One?  Two?  Five?  Ten?  Whatever the number, you’d need to be willing to accept casualties in any contact with the adversary, and unless your people are uniquely skilled and able to use some aspect of tactical advantage, all your enemy needs to do is observe your front and rear doors and wait/watch for patrols to sally forth from your retreat.

This scenario is similar to how the Allies ringed the German U-boat bases with anti-submarine planes and ships (and how we and our adversaries monitor each other’s subs these days too).  While a U-boat might be very hard to find and detect in the middle of the North Atlantic, they all had to leave and return to their bases through obvious unavoidable routes.  Why hunt for a U-boat in thousands of square miles of ocean when you know to within a few hundred feet where they’ll be departing from.

If you do deploy a patrol, they are at the disadvantage.  The enemy will be in a prepared position while your team will now be exposed on open ground.  The enemy will have set an ambush, and your team will find themselves in it.  Depending on the size of the enemy team, and on the respective skill levels, you just know you’re going to lose some team members (and, more likely, all of them) when the ambush slams shut around them.

One more sobering thought.  Call us cynical if you like, but we suspect an attacking force will be both more willing to risk/accept casualties among its members than you are, and will also find it easier to recruit replacement manpower.  The leader of the attackers probably has no close personal relationship with his men, whereas you’re with your friends and family.  The attackers can promise new recruits a chance at plundering stores and supplies and ensuring their own comfortable survival, and if recruits don’t join, they are probably facing extreme hardship or starvation as an alternative.

From their point of view, if things go well for them, they get something they didn’t have before, and if things go badly, they suffer the same fate they are likely to suffer anyway.  But from your point of view, the best that can happen is that you keep what you currently have (at least until the next such encounter) and the worst that can happen doesn’t bear thinking about.

Or, to put it another way, for the attackers, heads they win and tails they don’t lose.  For you, heads you don’t win and tails you do lose.

So, what does this all have to do with the size of your retreat lot?

The most effective tool you have to defend against attack is open space.  If you have a quarter-mile of open space in all directions around you, wherever you are on your lot, then it will be difficult for a sniper to sneak up on you, while being easy for you to keep a watch on the open space all about.  If the sniper does open fire from a quarter-mile away, you’re facing better odds that he might miss on the all important first shot, and much better odds that the subsequent shots will also be off-target.

Compare that to working in, say, a forest, where the bad guys might be lurking behind the tree immediately ahead of you.  At that range, they couldn’t miss and could quickly take over your entire group before you had a chance to respond.

You need to consider two things when deciding how much land you need for your retreat lot.

Topographic Challenges

The first issue is specific to the land you’re looking at.  What is the topography of the land?  Is it all flat, or are their rises and falls, a hill or valley or something else?

If there are natural sight barriers, you need to decide how to respond to them.  Some might be alterable (such as moving a barn, cutting down some trees), and others you’re stuck with (the hill rising up and cresting, not far from your retreat).  Depending on the types of sight barriers you have, you can determine how close adversaries can come to your property boundaries – and, indeed, some types of sight barriers will allow them to get into your property and potentially close to you, while probably remaining entirely undetected.

Don’t go all fanciful here and start fantasizing about patrols and observation posts and electronic monitoring.  The chances are you don’t have sufficient manpower to create an efficient effective system of patrols and OPs, and if you don’t have sufficient manpower to create a secure network of patrolling and OPs, you have to sort of wonder what value there is in a partial network.  Won’t the bad guys be clever enough to plan their movements and actions to exploit your weaknesses?

As for the electronic stuff, this is typically overrated, and provides a less comprehensive set of information than can be gathered by ‘boots on the ground’, and of course, only works until it stops working, at which point it is useless.

Our first point therefore is that some lots are just not well laid out for defending, and while everything else about them might be appealing, if you feel that you’ll need to be able to defend not just your retreat building itself, but the land around it – the land on which your crops are farmed and your animals raised – then you should walk away from the deal and not buy the lot.

What is the point of buying an ‘insurance policy’ to protect you against worst case scenarios, if your policy (your retreat and lot) only works with moderately bad rather than truly worst case scenarios?  That’s an exercise in futility and wishful thinking, and as a prepper, you’re not keen on either of these indulgences!

Lines of Sight – How Much is Enough?

Okay, so you’ve found a lot with no obvious topographic challenges, and unobstructed lines of sight out a long way in every direction.

Let’s now try to pin a value on the phrase ‘a long way’.  How far do you need to be able to see, in order to maintain a safe and secure environment all around you?

Some people might say ‘100 yards’.  Others might say ‘1000 yards’.  And so on, through pretty much any imaginable range of distances.  There’s probably no right answer, but there are some obviously wrong answers.

Let’s look at the minimum safe range first.

Is 100 yards a good safe distance?  We say no, for two reasons.  The first reason is obvious – a bullet round can travel those 100 yards in almost exactly 0.1 seconds, and even a person with limited skills can place a carefully aimed shot onto a slow-moving man-sized target at that range.  You are a sitting duck at 100 yards.

But wait – there’s more.  A bad guy can probably sprint over that 100 yards in 10 seconds.  Even if he has nothing more than a machete, he can be on top of you in ten seconds.  Consider also that he’ll wait until you’re not looking in his direction before he starts his run, and add 0.75 seconds reaction time and maybe another second of ‘what is that?’ and ‘oh no, what should I do!’ time, and by the time you’ve identified him as a threat, reached your rifle, and got it ready to fire, he is probably now at arm’s length, with his machete slashing viciously down toward you.

A 200 yard range is very much nicer.  You’ve become a smaller target, and the bullet aimed at you takes over twice as long to reach you; more important than the extra tenth of a second or so in travel time however is that it is now more like three times as affected by wind, temperature, humidity, manufacturing imperfections, and so on.  A skilled adversary can still have a high chance of first shot bulls-eyes, but regular shooters will not do so well.  The bad guy with the machete will take closer to 25 seconds to reach you, and will be out of breath when he gets there.

We’re not saying you’re completely safe if you maintain a 200 yard security zone around yourself.  But we are saying you’re very much safer than if you had ‘only’ a 100 yard security zone.

So, if 200 yards is good, 300 yards is obviously better, right?  Yes, no disagreement with that.  But at what distance does the cost of buying more land outweigh the increase in security?  Most of us will be forced to accept a smaller buffer zone than we’d ideally like, and perhaps the main point in this case is for you to be aware of how unsafe a small buffer zone truly is, and to maintain some type of sustainably increased defensive posture whenever you’re outdoors.

In the real world, you’ll be compromising between lot size/cost and security right from the get-go, and few of us can afford to add a 200 yard buffer around our lot, let alone a 300 or 400 yard buffer.  To demonstrate the amount of land required, here are two tables.  Both assume an impractically ‘efficient’ use of land – we are making these calculations on the basis of perfect circles, with the inner circle being your protected area and the outer circle being the total area with the added buffer zone space.  But you can never buy circular lots, so the actual real world lot sizes would be bigger than we have calculated here.

For example, where we show, below, the five acre lot with a 200 yard buffer zone as requiring a total of 54 acres if in perfect circles, if the five acre lot was rectangular, and the buffer zone also rectangular but with rounded corners, the total lot would grow to 57 acres, and when we allow for the impossibility of rounded corners, the total lot size then grows to 64 acres.

So keep in mind these are best case numbers shown primarily to simply illustrate the implications of adding a buffer zone to a base lot size, and showing how quickly any sort of buffer zone causes the total land area to balloon in size to ridiculous numbers.

If you had a one acre area in the middle of your lot, and wanted to keep a buffer zone around it, the absolute minimum lot size would be

Buffer zone in yards   Minimum total lot size in acres   Minimum perimeter in yards
100 yards   13 acres 875
150 yards   24 acres 1190
200 yards   37 acres 1505
250 yards   55 acres 1820 (1 mile)
300 yards   75 acres 2135 (1.2 miles)
350 yards    99 acres 2445 (1.4 miles)
400 yards   126 acres 2760 (1.6 miles)

 

If you have a core area of 5 acres, the numbers become

Buffer zone in yards   Minimum total lot size in acres   Minimum perimeter in yards
100 yards    23 acres 1180
150 yards    37 acres 1495
200 yards    54 acres 1810 (1 mile)
250 yards    74 acres 2120 (1.2 miles)
300 yards    98 acres 2435 (1.4 miles)
350 yards  125 acres 2750 (1.55 miles)
400 yards  155 acres 3065 (1.7 miles)

 

Clearly, it quickly becomes wildly impractical to establish the type of clear zone that you’d ideally like.

On the other hand, there’s one possible interpretation of these figures that would be wrong.  You can see that with a 1 acre core lot, you need a minimum of 37 acres in total to establish a 200 yard zone around your one acre.  If you grow your lot to 5 acres, your total lot size grows by a great deal more than five acres.  It goes from 37 acres up to 54 acres.

But – here’s the thing you should not misunderstand.  The bigger your core lot, the more efficient the ratio between protected space and total space becomes.  In the example just looked at, you had ratios of 1:37 and 5:54, with 5:54 being the same as 1:11.  This is a much better overall efficiency, even though adding the extra four acres required you to add 17 extra acres in total.

If you had ten acres of core land, then your 200 yard safety zone would require 68 acres in total, and your ratio now becomes 10:68 or 1:7.  Still extremely wasteful, but 1:7 is massively better than 1:37!

This improving efficiency for larger lot sizes hints at two strategies to improve your land utilization.

Two Strategies to Manage Your Clear Zone Risk and Requirement

Our two tables showing the amount of space you need as a safety/buffer/clear zone around your land embody a subtle assumption that perhaps can be reviewed and revised.

We are assuming that if you don’t own the land, it will be uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and will be exploited by adversaries to mount surprise attacks on you from positions of concealment and/or cover.

That is a possibility, yes.  But there’s another possibility, too.  If the land contiguous with your land is owned by friendly like-minded folk, and if they have cleared their land for cultivation too, plus have at least some awareness of risk issues and keep some degree of access restrictions to their land, then you probably don’t need as much buffer zone on the property line between you and them.

If you and your neighbor had five acre blocks adjacent to each other, then (depending on lot sizes and shapes), you would each require about 57 acres in total to have a 200 yard safety zone, but with your lots next to each other, the two of you together need only 73 acres instead of 114 acres.  You each now have a 37 acre lot instead of a 57 acre lot, and that’s a much better value.

On the other hand, call us paranoid, if you like, but we would always want some controlled space around our main retreat structure, no matter who is currently living next to us.  Neighbors can sell up or in other ways change.

This concern – that today’s ‘good’ neighbors might become tomorrow’s bad neighbors, points to the second strategy.  Why not rent out some of your land to other people.  That way you have more control over the people around you.

You could either do this by extending your core protected land and maintaining a buffer zone around both the land you farm directly and the land you rent out, or by renting out some of the buffer zone land to tenant farmers.

If you had five acres of your own core land, and if you then added another five acres to it, and also rented out the first 50 yards of your 200 yard buffer zone, then that would mean of the total 68 acre holding, there would be ten acres with 200 yards of buffer zone, and up to another 9.6 acres around it that still had a 150 yard buffer zone.  In round figures, you could use 20 of the 68 acres, with 10 offering prime security and another 10 almost as good security.  You’re now getting a reasonably efficient land utilization (20:68 or 1:3.5) and you’ve also added some adjacent friendly tenant farmers, giving your own retreat community a boost by having some like-minded folks around you.

Lines of Sight vs Crops – a Problem and a Solution

We’ve been making much about the benefit of having lines of sight stretching out a relatively safe distance so that adversaries can’t creep up on you, unawares.  The importance of this is obvious.

But, how practical is it to have unobscured lines of sight when you’re growing crops?  As an extreme example, think of a field of corn or wheat, and to a lesser extent, think of many other crops which of course have an above ground presence.  These types of crops will reduce or completely negate your line of sight visibility.

The solution is that you need to have an observation post that can look down onto the crops from a sufficient height so as to see if people are passing through them.  The higher this is, the better the visibility and ability to see down into the fields from above.

Depending on the layout of your land, the most convenient place for this would be to build it into your retreat.  You already have a (hopefully) multi-level retreat structure, why not simply add an observation post at the top of the retreat.

If that isn’t possible, another approach might be to have a tower structure somewhere that has a wind turbine generator or at least a windmill mounted on the top, giving you two benefits from the structure.

Summary

Your biggest vulnerability, in a future Level 3 type situation where you are living at your retreat and need to grow your own crops and manage your own livestock so as to maintain a viable lifestyle for some years, will be when you are out in the fields and focused on your farming duties.

Maintaining any type of effective security of your retreat would require more manpower than you could afford to spare, and even then, would remain vulnerable to a skilled and determined adversary.  A better strategy is to create a buffer zone between the land you work and the uncontrolled land adjacent to you.  This buffer zone reduces the lethality of any surprise assault and gives you time to shelter, regroup and defend.

Because a sufficient sized buffer zone requires an enormous amount of additional land, we suggest you either rent out some of your buffer zone or settle next to other like-minded folk, giving you relatively safe and more secure boundaries on at least some sides of your retreat lot.

Aug 222014
 
A backup hand operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

A backup hand-operated water pump is a great reassurance, but note that hand pumps can also fail.

Many of us rely on wells for our water supply, and in such cases, we have an electric pump that lifts the water up and into a supply tank.

These pumps are usually long-lived and reliable, and draw little power (at least by present day standards where we have access to virtually unlimited electrical power at comparatively low cost).

But what happens in a future adverse scenario where first our power fails and then secondly our pump fails?  The obvious answers are backups and spares, but there are also some design issues that should be considered well before any such problems occur.

Operating Electric Pumps When Electricity is Scarce

The first problem – power failing – will hopefully be addressed by your on-site power generation needs.  One of the ‘good’ things about needing power for a water pump is that – assuming you have a reasonably sized holding tank above the well, the power your water pump needs can be time-shifted to those times of day when you have a surplus of (eg solar) power – use the power at those times to pump up water and to fill your above ground storage tank, and use the water from the storage tank at those times of day (eg night-time) when you have no free power.

Water pumps vary in terms of how much power they require, depending on the lifting height they need to bring the water, and the number of gallons per minute of water desired.  Obviously, greater heights and greater gpm rates require more power.  Fortunately, assuming moderate lifting heights and gpm requirements, you can get a lot of water from a pump that uses only 1000 or 2000 watts of power.  From an energy management point of view, you would probably prefer to have a less powerful pump running for longer, than a more powerful pump running for a shorter time.

This also allows you to get good use from a well with a low replenishment rate.  When specifying your well and water needs in the first place, you should give more importance to assured continuity of water supply at a low instantaneous flow rate but with sufficient total flow each day to meet your needs, rather than limiting yourself only to wells that can support rapid draws down of water via a high-capacity pump.

Chances are you can get the better part of a gallon of water lifted up your well and into your holding tank for every watt-hour of power – 1000 gallons per kWh if you prefer to think in those terms.

We discuss the energy costs of pumping water in this article.

So the first problem – loss of utility sourced electricity – is hopefully not a huge problem (and see below for a discussion on hand pumps).

Planning for Pump Problems

However, the second problem – pump failure – quite likely may be a big problem, and so we offer several solutions to consider.

The first solution is a very simple one.  If your water pump fails, simply replace it with a spare one that you’ve kept in storage, in anticipation of just such an event occurring, as it undoubtedly will, sooner or later.

Water pumps aren’t very expensive (probably under $500) and are fairly long-lived.  You’re unlikely to need to be replacing pumps every year, indeed, assuming that the duty cycle for the pump is moderate and appropriate, it is realistic to at least 10 – 15 years of trouble-free life.  With clean water and a light cycling rate, some pumps give up to 40 years of service.

When you do have a water pump problem, it is probably something you could – at least in theory – repair rather than fix by a complete replacement, and many of the problems actually relate to the fixtures and fittings and tanks outside the well, not the pump inside the well.  But, if it is a pump problem, and to keep things really simple, obviously a total replacement should work (assuming the problem isn’t somewhere above ground, outside of the well, in particular the electrical and control wiring that goes to the pump to turn it on and off as needed).

Depending on your level of skill, your supply of spare parts, and how long you can manage with the pump system down, repair would always be preferable to replacement, of course.  It would be a good strategy to talk to whoever installed and/or maintains your pump currently to find out what the likely failure points may be and to keep those appropriate spare parts, as well as a complete second pump assembly too.

For many of us, having a complete spare water pump would be all the protection and preparing we feel we need.

Here’s a useful but slightly muddled website with a lot of information about troubleshooting and repairing well based water systems.

A Large Temporary Holding Tank

These considerations point to a related point.  You should have a larger than normal above ground temporary tank, and keep it full to half full all the time.  Your choice of above ground holding tank should be such that you can live off the remaining half of its capacity for a reasonable number of days, if the pump does fail.  That gives you the luxury of some time in which to respond to the failed pump and get it fixed, before the toilets stop flushing and the taps stop running.

There’s a related benefit to a large temporary tank.  It means your pump doesn’t cycle as frequently.  It is the starting part of the pump’s operation that is most stressful; you’ll get much more life out of the pump by reducing its frequency of cycling on and off.

It is common for the well water to be pumped to a small pressure reservoir, and then to travel from there to the taps as needed, primarily by the force of the pressure in the reservoir.  In such cases, we suggest adding a temporary holding tank between the well and the pressure reservoir (rather than creating an enormous pressure reservoir).  We also suggest locating the holding tank as high above ground as possible, so as to reduce your dependence on the pressure reservoir.  A gravity fed system from the reservoir to your taps would be much more reliable.

Typical domestic water supplies have pressures in the order of 40 – 60 psi, sometimes a little less, and sometimes going up as high as 80 psi.

Yes, there is such a thing as too much water pressure.  We’d recommend keeping the water pressure to around the 40 – 50 psi point so as to minimize stress on taps and pipes.  Each foot of water height creates 0.43 lbs/sq in of water pressure.  So even a 40 psi service would require the water level at the top of the holding tank to be 93 ft above the tap level – this is almost certainly impractical.

There are two workarounds.  The first is to have large diameter piping and high flow rate taps.  This will compensate for the lower pressure in all situations except showers.  If you want to have good showers, you’ll need to have a pressure booster of some type, either just for the shower, or perhaps for the entire house.

The problem with holding tanks appreciably above ground level is that they are insecure.  A vandal or attacker will see the tank, and almost certainly, rifle rounds will penetrate through the tank wall and while the holes might be readily repairable, the water you lose may or may not be so easily replaceable.  Without wishing to over-engineer a solution, our preference sometimes is for two holding tanks.  A large one that is mainly underground, and then a smaller ‘day tank’ type tank that is above ground at a high up point.  That way your main holding tank is relatively secure, and your vulnerability reduced; indeed, you could even have your day tank built into the attic/inside the roof of your retreat.

Adding a Hand Pump to the Well

So far, we’ve recommended adding a large temporary holding tank, set into the ground, and a smaller ‘day tank’ located in the ceiling/attic of your retreat.  We’ve also suggested keeping a complete spare pump and some replacement spares for those parts most likely to wear out.

But wait.  There’s still more!  We’d feel more comfortable if we also had some type of hand pump, so that pretty much no matter what else happens, we can always get water.  It goes without saying that if we can’t get water to our retreat, everything else becomes irrelevant and our entire retreat becomes unlivable.  Water is an essential part of any retreat, and abundant water allows our lifestyle to move massively up the scale.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind our water needs probably extend way beyond what we directly personally use in our retreat.  We have agricultural needs too, for our crops and livestock.  We might even have ‘industrial’ type needs if we have any sort of manufacturing processes.  You’ll probably find a hand pump, while able to provide the essential water for living, would be inadequate to provide all the other water you might need over and above your domestic and personal needs.  Perhaps better to say – the pump may be adequate, but your supply of pumping manpower may be inadequate!

Hand pumps come in many different shapes and sizes, and come with various types of claims and promises about being easy to operate and providing so many gallons per minute of water from your pumping actions.

There are, however, two main types of hand pump (and many other types of less relevant ways of raising water too, starting with a traditional well and bucket that is lowered down to the water level and then lifted up again).

Pumps that are designed to lift water only a short height are probably suction pumps (also called pitcher pumps) – their piston is above ground, directly connected to the pump’s operating handle, and simply sucks the water up the pipe and eject it out the other end of the piston.

But suction pumps quickly become less effective when the distance the water needs to be lifted increases.  A sometimes cited rule of thumb is that suction pumps are good for about 25 ft of lifting.  At that point, a totally different type of pump comes into its own, the lift or piston pump.

pumpoperationdiagThese pumps have their operating mechanism at the far end of the pipe, down where the water is.  Each stroke of the pump handle causes the cylinder to lift another measure of water up into the pipe.  Eventually, the water has been lifted all the way to the top and comes out the spout.

These pumps can lift water hundreds of feet, but the greater the lift height, the more effort is required to lift the water, and the more stress on the cylinder’s seals and the tubing in general.

Treat all the claims of gallon per minute (gpm) outputs and ease of use of hand pumps with a grain of salt.  There are unavoidable physical laws of nature which dictate how much energy is required to lift water from your well to your holding tank, and while a hand pump can operate with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency, thereby influencing how easy/hard it is to pump the water, it can never be more than 100% efficient (and more likely, never more than perhaps 70% efficient) so you’re always going to have to put some effort into the pumping.

Adding a hand pump to your current well system is probably much easier than you’d think.  Well, it is easy now while society is still functioning; it would be much harder subsequently!

The good news is that your current well comprises a pipe that is probably 6″ in diameter, and the pipe for the electrically powered pump water that comes up is probably only 1″ – 1 1/4″ in diameter.  This leaves lots of room for more pipes, so you simply lower down an extra pipe, and mount a hand pump on the well head.

Now for a clever extra idea.  You can have the output of the hand pump go to a valve, which can direct the water either to an outlet/tap or to feed into the water line from the electric pump (through a check-valve of course).  That way, if your electric pump fails for any reason, you can still feed water into your holding tank, your pressure tank, and your household water system.  This is a bit like having a distribution panel for your electricity, allowing your house wiring to be fed from utility power, a generator, batteries, or whatever other power source you wished to use.

What sort of hand pump do you need?  Our first point is one of warning.  Hand pumps are not necessarily long-lasting just because they operate by hand rather than by electricity.  We’ve heard of people having their hand pumps fail on them after less than a year of moderately light use.  In alphabetical order, we’re aware of Baker Monitor, Bison, Flojak, Simple Pump and Waterbuck Pump brands.  You might also find used Hitzer pumps out there, but after some years of struggling, the company finally liquidated a short while ago this year (2014).

There are other brands as well, but we’ve not uncovered as much information on them so hesitate to mention them.  We’ve not experimented with all the different makes and models of hand pumps, and hesitate to make a recommendation.  We suggest you speak to a couple of different well digging and maintaining companies and see what they recommend, and roam around online user forums and see what type of feedback the different makes and models of pumps are getting from bona fide users.

The Waterbuck product seems impressive, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it is or how it has the apparent advantage and extra efficiency it claims.  It seems to still be a fairly new to market product – maybe by the time you read this there is more feedback from people who have been using it for a while and who can comment accordingly.

aermotorbWindmill Powered Pumps

If you are fortunate enough to be somewhere with a reasonable amount of wind, maybe you can supplement your water supply with a windmill.

The classic American windmill can provide a reliable regular supply of water, ideally into a reasonably sized holding tank so as to buffer the differences in supply and demand as between the vagaries of wind powered pumping and the water draws for your various requirements.

Windmill powered pumps can lift water up to almost 1000 ft, and the more powerful pumps can lift up to 1000 gallons per hour (albeit more moderate heights).

Windmills can therefore work well, even as primary water supply pumps, just as long as there is a reasonable amount of wind to drive them.

Well Depth Issues

There’s no avoiding gravity.  The deeper you have to drill for water, the more hassle it becomes to then lift the water up to the surface and on into your retreat, the more energy it requires, and the more stressed every part of the pumping process becomes.

It would be time and money very well spent to explore widely around your retreat property to find the best location for the shallowest well.  A well digger can probably tell you fairly quickly, based on logs from past drilling projects in your area, what the typical well depths might be and if there’s likely to be much variation in the distance down to the water table around your property.

It is massively less costly, from an energy point of view, to run a water line horizontally across your property than it is to dig down in the first place.  Our point here is that if you had to choose between a 50 ft well, half a mile away, and a 200 ft well, right next to your retreat, we’d probably choose the 50 ft well (assuming there were no other risks or negative factors associated with then running half a mile of pipe from the well head to your retreat).

Best of all, of course, would be to do both wells, giving you another element of redundancy and assuredness of water supply.

Summary

Typical well water supplies have water feeding from a well to a relatively small and pressurized reservoir and then from there to the household plumbing.

We suggest a better design for a prepper has the well feeding to a holding tank, of sufficient size to store several days of water.  The well pump should be configured to deliver water infrequently with fewer starts and stops, making it less stressed and therefore more reliable and longer lived.  A second system then feeds from the holding tank to a pressurized reservoir and into the house.  This makes it easier to troubleshoot your water supply system and, in the event of the well pump failure, gives you some time to fix the pump before running low on pumped water on hand.

In addition to the electric well pump, you should have a second pump line going down your well tube, with a hand-operated pump at the top.  The pump should also feed into your main holding tank supply, plus have the ability to have water drawn direct from the pump itself.

Lastly, a backup system to feed water from the holding tank to your retreat would make sense also.

Aug 182014
 
One quarter of the entire country believes this Ferguson looter is behaving appropriately.

One quarter of the entire country believes this Ferguson looter is behaving appropriately.

One of the biggest unknowns that we as preppers face is what will happen if/when some sort of event occurs that disrupts our modern society and its smooth functioning.

To put it in more specific terms, what will happen if something means the supermarkets run out of food, water no longer comes out of the taps, the toilets no longer flush, and our power is out?  How will people respond – positively and constructively?  Or negatively and destructively?

We are concerned about what will happen not so much five minutes after these events, but more like five days after these events (possibly sooner).

In particular, what will happen when people start to realize that these outages will be longer term rather than temporary, and most of all, when people face the fact that the government won’t be coming to help them?

The massive calming concept of overarching authority has gone, and that points to the big question – what will people do when law and order breaks down?

There are two main schools of thought here.

1.  Some people believe that everyone will band together and positively work through the problems.  This would be similar to the ‘Blitz spirit’ demonstrated by determined Londoners during the German air raids in World War 2.  Or not tremendously different from many poor countries today.

People who believe this is the more probable outcome point to the rational reasons for acting this way, and point to mankind’s underlying noble spirit and caring nature.  They expect the people who have spare resources to share those resources with the people who need them, and the people who need the scarce resources to be polite and respectful, and appreciative of the assistance they are given.

We desperately hope this scenario proves to be the correct one.  Now let’s look at scenario 2.

2.  Some people believe that chaos and anarchy will rule, with gratuitous senseless violence taking over, and indeed, senseless mobs destroying some of the scarce remaining resource rather than caring for it and using it carefully.

People who believe this point to the occasional outbreaks of lawlessness and looting that sometimes bedevil parts of western society, and rather than claiming man is an evolved creature with higher moral principles, they suggest that mankind is inherently base, selfish, and if not actively evil, certainly not actively good, either.

Can we say one thing about these two outcomes.  The first type of outcome envisages a scenario where there is still enough resource for everyone to manage to survive.  Maybe no-one will live well or very comfortably, but there will still be enough basic food, water and shelter for everyone.

That’s a big weakness of the first scenario.  If there is a major failure in our society, and if the supermarkets don’t get their daily or even twice daily shipments of ‘just in time’ food deliveries, there simply won’t be enough food, and it is going to run out very quickly, rather than gradually and slowly.  The supermarkets will be empty within a couple of days.  People’s pantries will empty out a couple of days later.

Where, other than supermarkets, will an urban population of some millions get food?  Even if people had garden space, they don’t have gardens, and neither do they have seeds.  By the time any sort of basic gardening was underway, the enormous bulk of most urban populations would have starved to death.

The other big weakness of the first scenario is that in almost all cases where people do act nobly, the ‘rule of law’ has remained intact and in-place.  That was true during the London Blitz, for example.  It is largely true of normal life in poor countries – there is a social and legal structure regulating people’s activities.  Even if the local effectiveness of such things might be briefly shattered, everyone perceives it to be a short-term, temporary, and very local phenomenon.

No-one thinks that the rule of law has been fractured and broken for a long-term, and no-one thinks that other external support resources aren’t about to come in and provide alternate and additional support.  But what happens after some truly major national disaster?  What happens if a solar storm destroys our electricity grid and there’s no likelihood of its restoration for several years?  What happens when it is unavoidably obvious that there is no ‘deus ex machina’ coming to magically save the day?

We suspect in such cases, people’s restraint will be abandoned, and it will indeed become a ‘dog eat dog’ struggle for survival, with no remaining rules or constraints on how people behave.

The Rasmussen Survey

There’s another reason to fear that scenario two is the more likely.  It is easy to perceive the people who loot and riot, and those who support them, as ‘outliers’ and as tiny minorities, albeit with a disproportionate impact on our society.  If only a very small number of people ‘go rogue’ in an adverse scenario, maybe the rest of society can ‘keep it together’ and voluntarily continue to observe laws and act in a civilized manner.

But – we suggest – the perception/hope that the anarchistic element in our society is small and insignificant is sadly wrong.  It may be massively larger than we think.  A national survey by Rasmussen and just now released has now shown that 25% of the population believes the mob violence and looting in Ferguson is appropriate and justified, and another 23% are not sure.  Barely half the country view it negatively!

As for the shooting that started things, the survey finds that 23% of the country has already decided that the police officer should be tried and found guilty of murder (indeed, these people probably don’t even feel the need for the trial).  Another 51% are undecided – we guess they want the trial, but aren’t quite so insistent on the guilty verdict automatically following.  Only 26% are giving the officer the benefit of the doubt and assuming he was acting in self-defense.

Note this is a national survey, and adjusted to be representative of the country as a whole.  It is not just a survey of ‘poor black folks’ in Ferguson.  It is a survey of all of us, everywhere.

These numbers seem to clearly illustrate that WTSHTF it won’t only be a troublesome but tiny minority of people who cause problems for the vast majority of decent citizens.  It will be a quarter the population, probably more, and possibly half the population who are quick to adopt an ‘every man for himself’ approach – as well as a ‘what’s yours is now mine’ approach.

This points to an interesting additional point, one we’ve seen for ourselves in some other countries.  When a certain percentage of the population starts acting in a particular fashion, the remaining people feel compelled to join in, otherwise, they are the foolish few who are being taken advantage of by the vast majority.  The social norm has shifted.  In this case, which would you choose to be?  A taker of other people’s property, or the victim who the others are taking from?

We’re not saying that you too will be caught on a security camera, triumphantly carrying a blender or a television or something else equally useless out of the local store WTSHTF, but we are saying that most of your neighbors – probably including the least likely of them – may act in such an irrational fashion.  And, yes, when we’re all struggling to eat, and there’s no electricity, we do expect the local gangs to still be stealing DVD players and televisions!

The Bottom Line

We suggest this Rasmussen survey points to a much larger slice of the population being poised to ‘go rogue’ at the slightest provocation, and with no qualms or concerns about their behavior when they do so.

Even if we say that only some of the 25% of the US population who support the Ferguson riots would actually go out looting themselves when things first go haywire, isn’t that enough to destroy things totally?  And at that point, the balance of the 25% will surely join in, and then more and more of the 23% of ‘not sure’ people will decide they may as well help themselves too.

Then, what will happen to the remaining 52%?  How many of them are sheep – are lambs moving blindly to the slaughter?  Only a very very few are the people who will fight back to protect themselves and their families.  Quite likely, there won’t be enough of those people – of people like us – to influence the outcome.

Our best hope is to ‘Get out of Dodge’ – to bug out to our rural retreat – at the first sign of the cities degenerating into chaos, mayhem, and murder.  It seems inevitable that if our society is disrupted, the people in our society will respond negatively and in the least appropriate manner, endangering not only their own survivability but that of everyone around them too.

So, the bottom line?  We suggest that the Ferguson riots, and the Rasmussen survey, both point to there being a much larger segment of society who is poised to ‘go rogue’ at the slightest provocation, and we suggest we need to plan for a future where society turns on itself in a destructive manner.

Most of all, we suggest that the large urban population concentrations will fall into violent anarchy.  Think rioting, fires, looting, raping, senseless destruction and violence of all kinds, and also think of no police or other law enforcement presence to constrain and control these evil forces.  We suggest this will all happen more quickly than you might think, when a disruptive event occurs.

Think of bugging out early, in other words!

Aug 172014
 
This spread of shot shows the shotgun to be at the outer limit of its B zone range.

This spread of shot shows the shotgun to be approaching the outer limit of its B zone range.

A key consideration when evaluating the suitability of a shotgun for any particular purpose is to understand its range.

Unlike rifles and pistols, where range is a simple concept (closer is better, further away is worse), shotguns have three different ‘zones’ with three different sets of considerations applying.  Few people understand this.  Let’s explain these three zones and what they mean.

First, it is important to understand that the length and distance of each zone varies depending on the type of shotshell you are using, the shotgun barrel length, and its barrel profile or ‘choke’.  It is helpful to appreciate the interplay of these factors before moving on to consider the specifics of shotgun range issues.

In general terms, a shotgun’s range is a function of the likely target coverage by the pellets or shot balls that you are firing – ie, the spread of the shot.  Once the shot has spread to the point where insufficient of the individual shot balls/pellets will land on the target, then the shotgun’s range can be considered to have been exceeded.  Note that this distance is probably shorter than the range from the perspective of accuracy or from the perspective of the remaining kinetic energy and stop-power of the load you’ve just fired.

Shot Spread Issues

The spread of the shot can be influenced by three main factors.  The first relates to the specific cartridge you are firing, and what type of cupping and wadding is inside it.  Some shells are designed to maximize the spread of the shot within them, others act to hold the balls more closely together for longer.

The other two factors relate to the shotgun itself – the length of the barrel and its choke.

In general terms it is fair to say that the longer the barrel, the less spread there will be.

As for a barrel’s ‘choke’, this relates to whether there is a taper inside the barrel or not.  Some shotguns have no taper – they are the same diameter at the breech end of the barrel as at the muzzle end.  This is said to be a ‘cylinder’ bore, and is well suited if you are shooting solid slugs.  We have also read about some barrels offering ‘reverse’ or ‘negative’ chokes – where the muzzle is wider than the breech (think of a blunderbus as an extreme example).  We’ve never seen one of these, but believe they might exist.

All other tapers are of the type where the barrel diameter gets narrower from the breech to the muzzle.  This tends to slightly funnel the shot elements together and make for less dispersal of shot subsequent to it emerging out of the muzzle.

In addition to barrels with a choke built-in to them, some barrels also have a variable choke adapter at the end, so you can simply rotate the choke setting to quickly give yourself more or less choke depending on the dynamics of the target, the range, and what you are shooting at it.

There are a number of different standard chokes, all with rather non-intuitive names.  Perhaps the most complete list we’ve seen is this, in order from the least amount of choke to the most amount of choke :

 

Choke Name Constriction       Net Diameter for 12 ga  
Negative -0.005″    0.735″
Cylinder   0.000    0.730
Skeet   0.005    0.725
Improved Cylinder   0.010    0.720
Light Modified   0.015    0.715
Modified   0.020    0.710
Improved Modified   0.025    0.705
Light Full   0.030    0.700
Full   0.035    0.695
Extra Full   0.045    0.685
Super Full   0.055 +    0.675

Most shotguns with chokes are intended for sporting or bird shooting.  Self defense purposes usually sees cylinder bores only.  For that reason, our discussion of the three zones assumes a moderately shot barrel length and no choke (ie a cylinder bore).

Are Nine Shot Balls Better or Worse than a Single Rifle/Pistol Round?

This is an interesting issue, with points both for and against.

On the one hand, you’ve all seen the movies, where a single shotgun blast takes a huge solid circle out of a door or something else.  Now, of course, that is what you see in the movies rather than real life, but the concept of having nine 00 balls (the typical load of a 00 buck shot shell), each similar in size, weight, velocity (and therefore energy) to a .32 pistol round, hitting the target close to each other is obviously an exciting thought.

But a .32 cal pistol round isn’t exactly a highly lethal round.  And this energy calculation is at the shotgun muzzle.  The 00 buckshot balls quickly lose speed (and their energy drops off with the square of the speed, so a 25% reduction in speed means a 63% reduction in energy).

The lethality of the shotgun round rapidly diminishes with distance.  Furthermore, its lethality is spread over nine individual balls.  When those balls strike more or less as one, they also deliver their energy more or less than once.  But by the time you are 10 yards or less away from the shotgun, you are now delivering nine individual balls, each with their own 1/9th share of energy, and already diminished appreciably by the 10 yards of distance.

To put this in context we’re aware of one situation where a ‘low recoil’ shotshell’s load of 00 buck wasn’t even able to penetrate a bad guy’s jacket at 40 yards!  A round obviously needs to be able to penetrate through clothing, and then potentially through skin, flesh, bones, and so on if it is to have any noticeable effect on a target you are trying to stop.

Think again to movies.  We now they are a terrible source of bad information, but just think of all the movies you’ve seen where a person was shot by a shotgun, and the net result is the doctor picking out pieces of shot from the guy’s butt.  That’s probably more realistic than the sudden total destruction of the door images seen in other movies!

So quite apart from accuracy issues, there is an ‘ability to stop’ issue which is massively more limited than many people consider.

Now let’s look at the three different ‘zones’ of coverage offered by a shotgun and their tactical implications.

Zone A – Very Close In

A shotgun’s A Zone is considered to be the distance from the shotgun where the pellets or balls are all traveling together, in a bunch, with very little spread between them.

This is typically about five to seven yards.

Within this range, you need to aim your shot much as you would need to aim a rifle or pistol shot, although of course, at this distance, many people can instinctively point-shoot with acceptable accuracy, when shooting at man-sized targets.

In other words, in the A Zone, a shotgun is no more or no less accurate/easy to aim than any other type of firearm, while being at least as lethal as most rifles and much more lethal than a single pistol round.

Note that there’s no clear transition point between where the A zone ends and the B zone begins.

Zone B – Medium Close

The B Zone for a shotgun is from the vague point where the balls/pellets start to separate and out to the point where they have spread so much they will no longer all hit the target.

Clearly this zone depends to an extent on the size of the target.  But generally, it is thought to be about 20 – 25 yards.  At 20 yards, 00 buckshot  has probably spread slightly more than a one foot circle.  Think about that – this means that some of the balls will go 6″ to the left and some 6″ to the right, etc, of your aiming point.  That means you have to aim accurately to within 6″ of the ideal aiming point so as to be sure of getting at least half the balls onto the target area.

That is hardly a ‘magic’ spread of shot that avoids the need for careful aiming, is it.  Furthermore, the less accurate you are, the fewer projectiles that will land on your target.

There’s nothing wrong with having one or two of perhaps nine 00 buck shot balls miss your target.  The remaining half dozen or more may still create an effective stop, although see our comments above about if nine balls are better than one bullet.  When you combine a reduced number of balls landing on the target with the ballistic fact that shot balls lose their energy much more rapidly than pistol and rifle bullets, and as you move out in the B zone, the shotgun’s effectiveness starts to massively decline compared to a rifle, and by the end of the B zone, is probably no better than a pistol, but without a pistol’s ability to be fired rapidly and to have a magazine holding 15 or more rounds.

Zone C

The C Zone for a shotgun is from the point where the projectiles have dispersed so much that they won’t all land on the target, and from there out to a practical limit to the shotgun’s effective range, a point defined either by accuracy or ballistic effectiveness, and probably somewhere in the 50 – 100 yard range for most people and most shotguns and their loads.

But, there’s an important consideration in the C Zone.  Because you’ve now passed the point where all the individual projectiles will land on the target, it increasingly becomes sensible – and, the further out you go, essential – to switch from shotshells to solid slugs, at which point, you’re now shooting single rounds and need all the accuracy of a regular rifle.

So in the C Zone, if you’re shooting multiple projectiles from a shotshell, you’re rapidly losing effectiveness, and if you’re shooting single slugs, you need the same accuracy as a rifle, while probably lacking the same quality of aiming system.

It is possible to hit targets with a shotgun, even at 50 – 75 hard ranges, if you are sufficiently skilled and practiced with your shotgun.  But it is greatly easier to do this with a rifle, and causes us to ask you ‘why bother with a shotgun when a rifle is so much easier in this scenario’.

The Three Zones, Summarized

Now think about what we’ve analyzed for all three zones.  In the A zone, the shot dispersal is minimal, so there’s no benefit in terms of ‘not needing to aim’.  In the B zone, the shot dispersal is still fairly small and because the range is opening up and the target getting effectively ‘smaller’, you still need to aim a shotgun almost as well as you would a regular rifle or pistol.  By the time you get to the C zone (which is still actually very close range in rifle terms – only about 20-25 yards out) you should consider switching from multi-pellet shotshells to solid slugs, and unless you have something like a dual barreled Keltec KSG, you probably have the wrong load in your shotgun, while not having a tactical opportunity to empty it out and reload.

So – and without considering any of the other factors/issues associated with shotguns, let me ask you – at what particular range do you feel the shotgun to be superior to either a rifle or pistol?  It seems, to us, that there’s no clear advantage at any range.  Sure, there’s some extra stopping power in the A zone, compared to a pistol, but nowhere is there any need for less accuracy, and always a shotgun is more unwieldy, has massively greater muzzle blast and recoil, is slower to bring back on target for a second shot, and carries fewer rounds than most pistols and rifles.

The Mythical ‘No Need to Aim’ Claim about Shotguns

Have you picked up on something else?  One of the urban legends about shotguns is that their spread of shot is such as to make it unnecessary to aim.  Just point the shotgun in the general direction of the bad guys, pull the trigger, and try not to flinch too much while tightly closing your eyes, and according to this legend, by the time you open your eyes again, all the bad guys will be down and dead.

But carefully look at our analysis of accuracy needs in each of the three zones.  In the A zone, the shot travels in a single solid group, giving you no real benefit at all compared to a rifle or pistol.  In the C zone, you really need to switch from shot to single solid slugs, and a shotgun is harder to aim than a rifle.  As for the only zone that might bring a benefit – the B zone, the spread of shot is hardly enough to balance out the growing distance and the need to carefully aim at an ever smaller target.

These considerations are very different when you’re shooting at clay targets or at ducks.  In those cases, the C zone is still a lethal zone, because the clay or bird only needs to be hit by a very few of the perhaps 100+ pellets in order to be effectively shot down.  But when you’re defending against attacking people, you need to get most and ideally all your balls onto the target, bringing you back to an effective range closer to the end of the B zone.

The Implied Maximum Defensive Range of a Shotgun

There’s one more consideration as well, and in this case, we’re focusing on the key word ‘defensive’.

When you transition from the A zone to the B zone, you start to move out of the ‘legal self-defense’ range.  A person at 5 – 7 yards is a deadly threat, even if they ‘only’ have a knife (and possibly if they only have a hammer, or even just their bare hands).  Somewhere past that point however, unless the person is also armed and is actively shooting at you, it becomes hard to plead essential self defense if you end up shooting an adversary.

Bottom Line :  The Effective Range of a Shotgun

If we were in a defended place inside a house or somewhere else where the lines of sight and shot were very short, we’d love to have a shotgun with us.  Because we’d not be moving ourselves, we’d have no need to be concerned about weapon retention issues, and we’d love the awesome firepower of a shotgun with 00 buck shotshells.  But if we were having to sweep a building ourselves, we might prefer a pistol or maybe a rifle, especially if we were concerned about possibly multiple adversaries such that we could not be sure that a single tube full of shotshells would be enough to deal with the problem.  Having to do an emergency reload of a shotgun is no fun.

The effective range of a shotgun – considering accuracy and lethality – is very short, and probably no more than 25 – 40 yards.

Aug 162014
 
These young gentlemen probably missed the Sunday School lesson about two wrongs not making a right.

These young gentlemen probably missed the Sunday School lesson about two wrongs not making a right.

We wrote an article, ‘Five Prepper Lessons from the St Louis Rioting and Looting‘ on Tuesday of this week, after the first two nights of unrest following the police killing of a youth in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis.

The first night of looting was relatively uncontained, while the second night saw a massive police presence that largely kept order throughout the area.

We thought/hoped that would be the end of the uncontrolled senseless violence part of the response and reaction to the police shooting.

Based on that first night of rioting and looting, we formulated five (or perhaps six) lessons.  They are :

1.  Don’t judge and anticipate other people’s actions based on your own views and values.  Other people will act unexpectedly and irrationally, in ways that can potentially be enormously harmful to yourself, your family, and your possessions.

2.  In an adverse scenario with normal social order disrupted, other people will feel justified in taking everything from you, including definitely your dignity and quite possibly your life, even though there is no possible logic to this.  Do not expect a breakdown in society to bring out the best in everyone.  It will bring out the worst in sufficient numbers of people as to pose major problems.

3.  If you actively protect your property and yourselves, you’re likely to deter all but the most determined or desperate of looters during the early stages of any civil breakdown.  Later on, when looters are no longer motivated only by greed, but instead by fear and the need for survival, the situation will become more extreme.

4.  We never know when rioting might suddenly break out.  The trigger events and the degree of response can be unexpected and disproportionate.  But don’t underestimate the rioters.  They include organized gangs of roving opportunists who are coordinating and communicating among themselves to plan their actions.

5.  Rioting can spread through a region, and reach into unrelated communities, because the rioters aren’t only on foot.  They have cars, too.  When a metro area becomes infected by rioting somewhere, the entire metro area becomes at risk.

And, lastly, at the risk of stating the obvious, a bonus sixth point.  When things go seriously wrong, you can not count on the police being there to protect you or your belongings.  It truly will be every man for himself, and every small neighborhood watch group or strip mall business owners association for themselves.

Now that we have had four more nights of experiences, do these lessons need to be revised?

For sure, since that time, the rhetoric has escalated several notches, and what appears on the face of it to have been a totally justified police shooting is being painted as anything but.  Let’s first look at what is currently known about the initial encounter.

Tragic Accident?  Justified Shooting?  ‘Suicide by Cop’?  Or a ‘Racist Execution’?

As best we understand the circumstances, a single police officer stopped two youths who were walking down the middle of the highway and interfering with traffic.

The youths matched the description of two people who had just robbed a nearby convenience store, and one of the two youths may have had a box of (stolen) cigars in his hand.  The officer decided to arrest them and take them back to the station.  At least one of them resisted arrest, a struggle ensued with the youth trying to take the officer’s gun from him.  Fearing quite appropriately for his life, the officer shot the youth.

Much has been made of the fact that the youth was shot apparently six times.  But if you know anything about self-defense, you know that when you are struggling for the control of your weapon, when you’re outnumbered, and when the other person is coming on to you, you don’t just fire once, then stop and see what happens before carefully considering a second shot.  You also know that pistol bullets are woefully inadequate and some people have continued in a fight after being hit a dozen times.

So, you fire as quickly as you can until ‘the threat has ceased’.  Those six rounds were probably fired in little more than a second.  This wasn’t a cold-blooded execution, it was a panicked act of self-defense against a gratuitous attack, by an officer who credibly was in fear of his life.

It is important to also appreciate that the assailant was 6’4″ and 300 lbs.  Based on published photos, the officer appears to have been of average height and something under 200 lbs.  It seems he had already suffered appreciable injuries from his struggle with Brown.  He had no choice but to resort to his firearm in this scenario – but these facts are not interfering with the public outcry blaming the police officer.

Furthermore, the autopsy shows that four of the rounds hit the assailant in the arm.  They would not have stopped him.  The officer needed to continue firing.

None of this needed to happen, if the youth had simply cooperated with the police officer.  The event was as much ‘suicide by cop’ as anything else.  The youth brought the consequences completely on himself.  Even the stupidest of gangbangers knows that if you resist arrest and attack an outnumbered police officer, and particularly if you try to take his gun from him, then you’re almost guaranteeing a lethal response on the part of the police officer.  End of story.

However, our point is not about what to do when you are stopped and subsequently arrested by the police, because there’s no need to write that story.  It is dead simple – you cooperate.  By all means stand up for your rights, but don’t inflame a situation that is always tense for every police officer.

Even if the police are in the wrong, you cooperate during the interaction with the patrol officers and then you have a chance subsequently, through the legal system, to right any wrongs that occurred.  If you don’t cooperate, you will definitely have some valid additional charges added to your charge sheet by the police, and your own reciprocal complaints will be tainted by your inappropriate actions, making you a less sympathetic victim.

Oh yes, and if you really misbehave, you have a good chance of being tasered, or possibly even shot.

Back to our five lessons.

We’d like to amplify two of the points we made before.

People Become Venal and Self Serving in a Stressed Situation

Our first lesson was to be aware that people around you may act unexpectedly and irrationally, and not in ways that mirror our own views and values.

When we stated that on Tuesday, our focus was on opportunist mobs who would gratuitously attack and destroy your property.  But there’s another part to that risk which has become increasingly apparent as the week has continued.

Not only have the mobs continued their reprehensible looting, whenever they think it to be safe and they can get away with it, but their actions are being justified by other groups in society, and the initial event that started everything, rather than being a somewhat sad example of a stupid lawbreaking youth suffering the inevitable consequences of his actions in fighting with the police officer, the story is now being painted as a racist cop gratuitously ‘executing’ a harmless young lad.  The local community is up in arms (almost literally) about this, they are defending the undefendable, and they are being encouraged and joined by all the usual professional agitators and disruptors.

What does that mean for us preppers?  We’ve written before about how, in a level two or three situation, we need to fear not only gangs of lawless looters who might attack us and our retreats and try to take everything we have.  We also need to fear the ‘law abiding’ people around us.  They will also gang up, but perhaps not violently, but instead in a civilized way, and rather than attempting to attack us ‘just because’, they will send duly appointed officials to deprive us of everything we have, the same way a gang would, but under the color of law.  Court officers, bailiffs, and any/all police and other law enforcement and emergency agencies may create, validate, and then enforce mandatory sharing of ‘vital resources’.

We write about the very real danger of this in a three-part series – Preppers Beware :  Our Hoarding Can be Deemed Illegal.

Fortunately, it is possible to fight off the occasional ‘one off’ lawless band of looters who attack your retreat.  But we’re not so sure how possible it will be to attack the FEMA/HSD/etc officials who come to effectively do the same thing.

If people can delude themselves into believing that the police officer was in the wrong in this recent event, how hard will it be, when they are starving, to delude themselves that you are in the wrong by seeking to protect yourself and your fellow retreat members, and demand you share your supplies with them.

Preppers often wonder what to expect when TSHTF.  We can never know for certain, but we can look at analogous events and try to see possible parallels.  The St Louis riots, and the way large portions of the population have rationalized things, ignoring the reality and instead bending the facts to fit their self-serving viewpoints (or ignoring the facts entirely) does not encourage us to support the idea of mankind’s inner nobility and higher values asserting themselves in a high stress situation.

In Extreme Situations, the Police Will Not Come to Your Aid

The sixth ‘bonus’ lesson we offered was that you can’t rely on the police (to come to your aid, that is).

Now, possibly, it could be said, in an attempt to excuse the lack of police presence on Sunday – the first night of rioting – that the police were unprepared and didn’t know what to do.

But how about later in the week, such as on Friday?  What excuse applies then when you read about situations such as this, where store owners dialed 911 but couldn’t get any police resource of any sort to come to their aid, and where other store owners saw squad cars driving by looters who were actively in the progress of looting?

The lack of response wasn’t due to the police being overworked and with too many different emergencies all calling on them simultaneously.  It seems the police made a political decision to do nothing and instead let the riot ‘burn out’ on its own, without adding new ‘provocations’ and inciting the rioters still further.

Don’t be surprised by this.  A passive non-response, limited merely to efforts to contain the worst of the lawlessness, seems to be the standard approach adopted by police departments in most parts of the western world when rioting rages around them.  Maybe it is even the right response.

We can simultaneously understand that position, while also being outraged by it.  A passive non-response for all but the most egregious acts of violence may indeed allow for a de-escalation of tensions and a return to ‘normalcy’ (whatever that actually is).

But how do you think the individual store-owners feel about this, finding themselves being sacrificed for the hopefully greater good of the region as a whole?  Did they agree to that?  Are they not entitled to protection and for the impartial enforcement of the laws?  And what message does that send to the rioters and looters?  Doesn’t it affirm the validity of their actions, and encourage more lawlessness in the future?

Is this the new standard of law enforcement :  ‘We’ll enforce the laws, but only as long as doing so doesn’t anger the criminals’?

And what does this mean?  Do we give in to acts of domestic terrorism?  Yes, you’ve not heard the riots described that way, have you, which is in itself a telling omission.  If it were right wingers complaining about blacks, don’t you think they’d have been smeared with every racist epithet known to our left-wing press.  But because it is predominantly blacks rioting against whites, we have to ‘cut them some slack’.

If you or I threw a brick through a shop window, and a policeman saw us, we’d be in the slammer faster than we could spit.  But if 100 or more of these lawless rioters do the same thing, the police hold back.

Now ask yourself what will happen if a more lawless situation engulfs not just a couple of suburbs of St Louis, but instead, an entire county, state or region of the US, and if there is no obvious source of immediate help.  Do you think the police will come to your aid if your home and business are attacked, or will they hold back?  Especially if they know they do not have a nearly inexhaustible supply of reinforcements available at the other end of their radios.

So, we see three clear lessons from the extended St Louis situation.

  • It only takes a small spark to start a large conflagration, to cause lawlessness to break out across the board.
  • People will act in selfish self-serving manners without any rational constraint, and will readily justify to themselves everything they do, no matter how extreme it may be.
  • The police will capitulate.  They may concentrate on writing parking tickets in any remaining safe districts, while entirely abandoning lawless regions and leaving the people in them to save themselves.  Or, if things turn really grave, they may well take off their uniforms and join in the looting.

Summary

If you are a prepper, you have decided to plan and prepare for possible adverse future scenarios, in a manner so as to ensure your own continued survival.

We all have different views about what these possible adverse scenarios may be, and how best to plan and prepare for them.  We can’t know for sure how any specific circumstance may unfold.  So the best thing to do is to learn from past events, and the more recent the past event, the more valuable.

We’ve set out the lessons we’ve drawn from the St Louis situation, here and in our earlier article.  You might agree with us, or maybe not.  But don’t ignore this entirely.  Carefully consider what has happened, and what it means for possible future scenarios, then make sure that you modify your own preparations accordingly.

As for us, we’re going to double down on getting to know our neighbors, and very gently encouraging them to a point where if things become dire around us, they are more likely to stand beside us to enhance our shared best interests and mutual survival.  On the other hand, the tree-hugging aging hippies on one side?  Well, that’s a story for another day…..

Aug 132014
 
Sometimes the old-fashioned things are also the best and most reliable.

Sometimes the old-fashioned things – like this phone – are also the best and most reliable.

This is the first of a series of short articles about things in our lives we take for granted but which we need to consider in our preparing.

Today’s topic is the telephone.  Not that fancy smart phone you have in your pocket, and not the multi-station cordless system you have at home, either.

We’re talking about really simple and basic hard-wired phones.  You know, landline phones that are powered from the phone line itself – the type of phone we all used to have.  Phones with no caller ID or other display, no built-in answering machine, no memories, no multiple lines, no built-in intercoms; phones with nothing at all except a dial and handset.

You probably have a phone or two like that somewhere at home at present, and maybe you’ve sometimes looked at it disdainfully and thought you really must get around to junking it.  Don’t do that!  Keep it as part of your emergency ‘power out’ kit.

The value of this type of phone is that in a power outage, all our cordless phones will die.  In a severe power outage, the cell phone towers will die – maybe not immediately, because many have backup batteries or onsite generators to give them some minutes or even hours of power, but definitely later if not sooner.  Cell phone service also has a mixed record when it comes to availability.  Some severe events have seen the cell phone towers all massively overloaded, making it impossible to place or receive phone calls.

Note that in such cases, you should try sending text messages.  They use a different part of the cell towers’ bandwidth, and can usually get sent and received even when there’s no dial tone or ability to make voice calls.

In a disruptive situation, our landlines may prove to be more resilient.

A word of warning, though.  You not only need an old-fashioned phone, you need an old-fashioned ‘POTS’ (Plain Old Telephone Service) type landline too.  If you get your regular phone service through your cable or internet company, or if you get your regular phone service through a fiber optic line, then you are again relying on electricity to drive your phone service at your dwelling, and also relying on electricity through all the electronic switching and processing that goes on, invisibly to you, between the side of your dwelling and the central office where the phone signal is patched into the regular ‘old fashioned’ phone network.

If you no longer have one, we’re not necessarily saying you should spend extra to maintain a POTS type phone line at your residence.  Depending on your need to communicate, and who else you’d wish to communicate with, maybe you’re better off with radio transceivers.

But we are saying that if you do still have a regular POTS phone line into your home, be sure to have a regular ‘old fashioned’ phone to use with it, too.  Amazon of course offer several types of traditional phone, and currently a standard white color corded phone is showing as only $10.

Note that if you have a very old phone that is now your emergency phone, it is appropriate to test it out once every half year or so.  Some of the electrical components inside it (particularly electrolytic capacitors) start to fail after about 20 years, and the last thing you want is to discover your super-emergency phone has failed, unnoticed, at some time in the past.

Come to think of it, maybe spending $10 for a new phone that will be more likely to be trouble-free for the next decade or two might be a good idea!

One final comment, which lifts this out of the category of a little thing and into the category of a more appreciable investment.  We know of many corporations that have issued all their key executives and other essential personnel with satellite phones.  No matter what happens to the cell phone towers and the landlines, the satellites up in the sky are likely to remain operational, making a satellite phone probably the most fault-tolerant and guaranteed to work of all communication systems.

We’ll write about satellite phones separately, but for now, a quick heads-up is that the Iridium phones have consistently tested to be the best, the several times we’ve tested them and the other brands/services.  There’s no need to get the latest model with the most features.  A refurbished older model works just as well for most purposes and situations.

Satellite phones need a direct view of the sky.  If you’re in an apartment building with your windows facing out onto other apartment buildings, your reception may be marginal.  But if you can go outside somewhere where you can see much of the sky above you, free of obstructions, then they’ll work perfectly, everywhere.

Aug 132014
 
You can see the stripes on the ground in this very clear 20" resolution image.  New commercial satellites have four times better resolution.

You can see the stripes on the ground in this very clear 20″ resolution image. New commercial satellites have four times better resolution.

Today marked a watershed moment in our privacy.  A new commercial satellite was launched with four times better than before imaging capabilities, further reducing our privacy.

There was a time when getting privacy in our retreat was an easy and simple concept.  Choose a location away from the main roads, and you knew that as long as the parts of your retreat that you wished to keep private were not visible from any other property or public land or vantage point, you could enjoy privacy.

Ah, for the good old days!  The situation these days is enormously different, but perhaps you don’t realize just how different it has become.

Sure, we’ve known about ‘spy satellites’ in vague terms for a very long time.  The U-2 and SR-71 spy planes are now matters of public record.  But we’ve sort of assumed that these military/intelligence resources would not be deployed to snoop on what we were doing in our back yard, but would instead be solely focused on our actual and potential enemies.

For the last several decades, if you think about it, there has also been available commercial imagery and aerial mapping taken by planes that would be engaged to fly over an area and take ‘birds eye’ photos – such a harmless and appealing term.  This type of resource was expensive and, as best most of us knew, little used for ‘general purposes’ (whatever those might be!).  Our backyards were still reasonably private.

More recently, we’ve been treated to products such as Google Maps and Google Earth, and a number of other similar services, and we’ve noted with interest and excitement how we can see pictures of pretty much anywhere on the planet, typically taken sometime in the last five years or so, and of varying degrees of quality.

This has started to gently sound alarm bells, although the thought of having one’s retreat fuzzily photographed once is perhaps not a heart-stopping fear.

But have you kept track with the evolving capabilities not just of the Google products, but of all the other providers (and, even more alarming, perhaps, users) of aerial imagery?

For example, the chances are your county has a Geographic Database or Information System (GDS or GIS) that includes aerial mapping of the entire county.  Sometimes these services are ‘in-house’ only, for county employees, sometimes they are publicly published on a website for anyone, anywhere to access.

Usually these services reveal no more data that you can already see on Google, but think about the implications of this.  Many counties now have their tax assessors using the GIS and associated aerial mapping images to check the validity and completeness of their records of building structures and improvements.  If you add a new structure to your lot, they’ll see it and may come knocking on your door, enquiring where the permits are for its construction, and adjusting your property valuation to reflect the new additions.

Indeed, if you even do something relatively minor, like adding on to your deck, they’ll see this too and that may also trigger a visit and inspection.

Of course, the ‘good news’ part of this was that the overhead imagery was only taken infrequently.  If they take one picture every five years, that means there’s only one chance in 1826 that on any given day your property might be photographed.  So if you are working on a project that you’d rather not share, and if it is a five-day project, at the end of which, your site will be returned back to looking pretty much the same as always, you have one chance in 365 of being photographed during the process.  Those are reasonably favorable odds.  And even if you were photographed, the reasonably fuzzy picture and the lack of any evidence subsequently could allow for various different interpretations as to what happened and why.

That is no longer the case.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and first look at the two – increasingly three – types of aerial photography collection systems.

Note also that this article primarily focuses on visual – photographic imagery.  There are many other types of overhead data collection such as infra-red, radar, and so on.  Some weather sites offer examples of some of these other types of capabilities.  There are also satellites that can analyze the type of vegetation in an area, satellites that can make educated guesses about what types of minerals might be underneath your ground, and satellites that can detect if the earth has been disturbed.  So, ahem, if you were hoping to grow something that might otherwise embarrass you, or hoping to dig and bury something unnoticed, or if you’ve created some sort of underground structure, all of those things too might be detected by some of the other types of overhead monitoring satellites.

There are two main types of overhead photo imagery.  The first is that which is collected by a satellite, and the second is that which is collected by a plane.

Spy Satellites

Spy satellites – more properly generally called ‘Earth Observation Satellites’ and indeed these days, being a mix of both military (spy) and commercial (public) satellites – are generally located somewhere from about 250 miles above the earth up to about 1,000 miles above the earth.  Higher up satellites see more of the planet at any time, and stay in orbit longer (due to less friction from the outer fringes of our atmosphere).  But lower down satellites see things more clearly, because they are closer to the ground and don’t have as much atmosphere obscuring and blurring their vision.

Spy satellites do not hover over one spot.  Satellites need to be way high, at about 22,000 miles up, to ‘hover’ over a spot and that’s clearly too far away to be able to get clear photography.

Instead, they are all the time traveling in orbits around the planet, typically taking two hours or less to do a complete orbit, and because the earth is rotating beneath them, they see a different ‘slice’ of the planet each time they go around.  By having multiple satellites in complementary orbits, it is possible to have most of the planet within view of a spy sat for much of every day.

Spy satellites have military value because they can ‘safely’ overfly anywhere on the planet to get imagery.  We use quotes around the word ‘safely’ because in theory they are vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons, but to date and with only a very few rare exceptions, no country has deliberately shot down overhead satellites that pass overhead, and instead they seem to be allowed to overfly without interference.

Although satellite orbits can be changed, doing so uses up valuable fuel, and the useful life of a satellite is in large part limited by how long its onboard fuel lasts, so the military is reluctant to reposition satellites too often.  This means that even only moderately sophisticated countries can track and anticipate when overhead satellites will be passing and plan their activities around such passes.

Indeed, with the wonders of the internet, you too can now tell when at least some of the spy satellites are overhead – there’s an iPhone app that will tell you.  But note the two limitations of this app – first, it only includes officially acknowledged satellites.  It does not report on any of the more secretive satellites, and neither does it alert you to the most detailed type of photo reconnaissance of all – that done by airplane.  Second, although it tells you when a satellite is approaching, it can’t tell you if the cameras on board are actually pointing at you or not.  The cameras on some satellites can be remotely controlled and pointed in specific areas, and also zoomed in or out.

How good a picture can a spy satellite take?  The short answer is ‘more than good enough’, at least in terms of their ability to reasonably accurately capture the private details of what we’re doing in our own backyards.

A more detailed answer has to consider a number of factors.  An obvious variable is the weather between the satellite and the ground.  On a clear day with no haze, the satellite camera can capture a better image than if there is smoke, dust, smog, or natural effects such as clouds and rain.

Assuming a best case scenario, the resolution quality of spy satellite imagery is a closely guarded secret.  Early satellites could only make out details greater than 40 feet in size.  That would not pick up people or even cars, and struggled to pick up smaller sized houses.  But a lot has progressed since then.

This webpage (and many others) claim that some current satellites can resolve details as small as 5″ – 6″ in size, and they seem to be relying on a 1998 news item to base that claim.

Rumors have long existed of satellites being able to read the number plate on a vehicle.  We don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems reasonable to assume that the state of the art in spy satellite imagery is much better than the state of the art in commercial imagery, and it also seems reasonable to assume that whatever is public knowledge is a generation or two behind the current state of the art capabilities.  One more reasonable assumption – technologies have improved from that which the military agreed to disclose in 1998 to what it is keeping secret today, 16 years later.

On the other hand, it isn’t always necessary for spy satellites to have an HDTV type resolution quality of the entire world and to not only read the registration plate on your car but also the writing on the document in your hand.  For military purposes, it is usually sufficient to be able to identify equipment, understand their locations, and get reasonable estimates of manpower and other related functionalities.  More tactical intelligence gathering however can be enormously enhanced if you can track specific vehicles (and more so again if you can track specific people).

So perhaps, after reaching a certain resolution sufficient for strategic imaging and analysis, the R&D effort backed off some.  Furthermore, there are some ‘can’t be broken’ limits on the quality that can ever be obtained from a camera moving at 20,000+ mph, 200+ miles above you.

But if we had to make a wild guess, we’d guess that the best state of the art satellite imagery currently up there is probably capable of a 2″ – 2.5″ resolution, and maybe even better, particularly when enhanced with computer enhancing, averaging of multiple images, and the use of stereoscopic pictures.  That’s probably enough for a satellite picture to tell if you have a 16″ or an 18″ barrel on your rifle, but not quite good enough to tell if it is all barrel, or part barrel and part silencer.  They’ll be able to tell if the lady of the house, if sunbathing, has had a ‘Brazilian’ or not, and so on.

This type of resolution isn’t quite good enough to read your license plate, but it is very close and quite possibly a computer enhancement could recognize that certain types of blurs were more likely to represent some characters whereas other blurs might represent other characters.

Spy satellites do a lot more than ‘just’ take photos, but the photo imagery is the part of greatest interest to us.

Commercial satellites are now launching that mimic many of the capabilities of the spy satellites, and indeed the military has started buying imagery from commercial satellites in addition to its direct capabilities.  Until June 2014, commercial satellites were not allowed to take ‘good’ quality images, but now they are allowed to take images with resolutions down to 10″.  The previous 20″ limit has been a ridiculous restriction – the ‘other side’ almost certainly has imagery abilities comparable to our own, so the only people being restricted from access to good quality satellite imagery was ourselves – US civilians.  Why restrict our access when potential enemies already has good access through their own resources?

The first of this new generation of high quality commercial imaging satellites launched today, successfully, from Vandenberg AFB in California.

Now for a key point.  If the restriction is now set at 10″ (actually, 25 cm), then the very fact that there is a restriction limiting commercial providers from capturing better quality imagery clearly shows that there is a readily deployed technology to do so.  How long will it be before the commercial providers get approval to start doing 5″ imagery, or maybe even still higher quality?

Spy Planes

Of course, just as how the reference to spy satellites these days has to be widened to also encompass a growing number of commercial satellites, the same is true of ‘spy planes’.  Commercial aerial photography has been around for a long time; the main distinction between it and spy plane based photography is that the latter tends to be done over territory where the plane shouldn’t be, and so is generally done higher and faster than is the case with civil/commercial planes and photography.

Commercial aerial photography can be done from as low as 1,000 ft or, (at least in the days of the SR-71), as high as probably about 100,000 ft (a comment at the bottom of this article claims 120,000 ft).  The U-2 has a maximum altitude somewhere in excess of 70,000 ft.  100,000 ft is the same as 19 miles and 70,000 ft the same as 13 miles, so clearly spy planes, even when at maximum altitude, are much closer down to the ground than satellites, and so are capable of taking much more detailed pictures.

Because commercial flights are at the lowest altitudes, they can offer the best resolution of all, but only when overflying authorized areas.  This makes them great for regular purposes but not so good for military reconnaissance.

However, from our perspective, any and every type of overhead imagery may reveal more details of what we have on our land than we would wish to be public knowledge.  There’s no such thing as a better or worse type of aerial photography.  It is all equally intrusive.

Drones Too

It seems you can’t open a newspaper these days without reading another story about someone and their drone.  The original drones – the large-sized bomb toting remote piloted aircraft used by the military – are of course enormously expensive and require very specialized support resources.

We have seen the military transition from large-sized expensive drones to now having tiny ‘personal’ type drones which individual squads can deploy for immediate tactical information on the battlefield around them.  You launch them by simply throwing them into the wind by hand.  They are small, affordable, and easy to operate.

The same is true of civilian drone technology.  These days you can buy a ‘drone’ yourself, typically a multi-element helicopter type unit with maybe four, six or eight sets of rotating helicopter blades.  These units come complete with a high quality gimbal/gyro-stabilized HD video camera and realtime video downlink, are priced at about $1000 – and some models are available for half that price.  They are usually battery-powered and have an operating range, standard, of about half a mile or so.

Their operating ability is limited by their battery life and the radio reception between them and the control unit.  If you boosted the remote controller and the onboard receiver’s radios, you could increase the distance they’d operate from you and the controller substantially, but their ‘loiter time’ – the total time they can be aloft on a single charge – seems to presently be limited to about 20 – 30 minutes.

These wonderfully low-cost and very sophisticated devices can take high quality high-resolution aerial photograph pretty much anywhere you wish.  They can be used for ongoing surveillance and aerial mapping type projects, and can also be used, the same as the new small military drones, for tactical intelligence when confronting an opposing force.

You not only have to be aware of the potential presence of drones in your skies, you should also consider buying one (or several) for your own present and future use.  They can help you manage your crops, they can help you see into forests to understand their tree cover and density, and in the future, if you find yourself challenged by unwanted visitors, they can help you safely scout out their location and numbers and capabilities.

While there is a morass of legal issues surrounding drone use, that doesn’t seem to be slowing down anyone from rushing to buy and use these devices.

The Evolving Capabilities of Google and its Competitors

Google keeps getting ‘better’ in terms of the vast store of information it compiles, collates, and publishes.  The first version of its Maps and Earth products had limited and low resolution aerial imagery.  But now, the imagery has become much better quality, can be manipulated (for example, you can look at objects from four different angles), is updated more regularly, and you can even see a historical time series of data.

The historical data series can be very revelatory.  Rather than just seeing a single image, you see a time series of images which helps you understand if an area is being increasingly developed, or increasingly abandoned, and you can spot the shifts of things from one image to the next.  Sometimes simply seeing no change is also a significant data point.

This historical time series is about to become extraordinarily more detailed.  Google has bought a satellite company (Skybox Imaging) and intends to launch 24 of its own satellites, which between them all will be able to photograph everywhere on earth, three times every day.

The satellites also have video capabilities as well as capturing traditional still images.

That’s not to say that just because the satellites could take three pictures of your property every day, that it will be done, and that’s not to say that historical timelines will now have up to 1000 images per year.  But you can be sure that pretty much the entire US will be re-photographed several times each year, and the entire country will now be captured in best quality resolution rather than selectively in standard or low resolution as has been the case at present.  It sort of makes sense to have summer and winter pictures, and maybe spring and fall too.

So, within a few years, anyone will be able to see highly detailed time series of pictures of practically anywhere on the planet.  That will not only allow them to see the changes to your property, but it will also enable them to see how much cropping you are doing, how many animals you have in your pastures, and even how much washing you are hanging on the line to dry.  It will be obvious if a place is occupied or not, and possible to make some reasonable guesses as to how many people are living there.

Summary

These days it is necessary to accept that we have no privacy.  Sure, we might be obscured from the nearest road and neighbor, but aerial photography will reveal pretty much everything about our land and retreat that can be seen from the sky.

Opsec?  We never thought it was possible to start with (for example, see our article written back in May 2012, before the latest profusion of satellite technologies, ‘Is it realistic to expect your retreat will not be found‘).  Nowadays, hoping to conceal your retreat is impossible.

You need to plan your future based on the expectation that everyone who you’d wish not know anything about you will sadly know everything about you.