Aug 122014
This lovely large root cellar dates back to the mid 1800s and is underneath a farmhouse in Lancaster, PA.

This lovely large root cellar dates back to the mid 1800s and is underneath a farmhouse in Lancaster, PA.

Many people add a root cellar to their retreat.  This is good, but if you are not careful with what you store in your root cellar, the gases (notably ethylene) given off by some stored fruit and vegetables may interfere with the longevity of other stored fruit and vegetable items.

In addition, some items give off strong odors which could contaminate other stored produce.  And some produce prefers warmer or cooler temperatures, and greater or lesser amounts of humidity, than others.

So maybe you potentially need multiple root cellars – or at least some barriers or partitions across your single root cellar.

Let’s first consider root cellars in general, then look at why you should have more than one – and/or how to avoid needing to have multiple cellars.

What is a Root Cellar

Root cellars have been used in the US pretty much from the days of the first settlers, and are thought to date back to the 1600s in Britain (in the ‘modern’ form of being a walk in cellar).  They are not experimental or innovative – they have truly withstood the test of time over many centuries.

A root cellar doesn’t actually need to be underground.   Many are actually above ground.  And the term ‘root’ doesn’t necessarily mean either something down among the tree roots (that would be a mistake, keep well away from tree roots) nor does it mean a cellar only intended for root vegetables.  So it is a bit of a misnomer.

If we had to come up with the absolute essence of what a root cellar is, the answer would probably be ‘a naturally cooled dark space with stable low temperature and high humidity for storing food in an optimum environment to enhance its storage life’.

More specifically, root cellars aim for a temperature range ideally between 32º and 40º F, and a humidity in the range of 85% – 95%.  The cool temperature and high humidity greatly reduces the moisture loss from stored food items, and the low temperature also slows down the rate of micro-organism growth and related decomposition processes.  Not all root cellars manage to get down to these temperatures (or up to these humidities), nor maintain them for much of the year, but that doesn’t completely matter.  The cooler the better, and even if you are ‘only’ in the low 50s, you are still getting longer life than if you had your produce in your main retreat at room temperature.

Root cellars went out of fashion when at-home refrigerators became widely used, and as part of a general trend to city living with nearby supermarkets that carried fresh food year-round.  In that context, there’s little need for a root cellar any more, but if the assumptions of convenient home refrigeration and ever-present fresh food in a nearby supermarket start to fail, then a low-tech way to store food becomes helpful once more.

Note that while most people associate root cellars with the storage of fruit and vegetables, there is no reason not to use your cellar to store anything else that likes a cool dark environment.  Cured meats, cheeses, fresh milk, and beverages in general could also be kept in a root cellar if space allowed, as can dried goods such as grains and nuts.

Three Types of Root Cellar

There are basically three ways to build a root cellar.  The first is the most obvious.  Dig.  Start in the basement of your current house or retreat, and just dig down and out until you’ve created sufficient cellar space.  Note that the classic size for a root cellar seems to be about 8′ x 8′ x 8′, but there’s no reason not to make a cellar larger or smaller, but note that the larger you make a cellar, the more the ratio between the volume of the cellar and the surface area of its sides will change, affecting the cellar’s ability to naturally heat/cool the cellar contents.

So, perhaps, it is best not to build a huge cavernous cellar, although the chances are you weren’t planning to do that anyway!

The second approach can sometimes be easier.  Instead of digging down vertically, you dig ‘in’ horizontally, going into the side of a hill.  The net result is the same, while the excavation process might be simpler.

The third approach involves some lateral thinking.  Instead of going down into the ground, bring the ground up to you.  Create an above ground structure, or perhaps a slightly sunken structure, then layer sod over the top of it.

If you are building an external above ground cellar, you want to have it as much as possible in the shade – ie with little direct southerly exposure, and in particular, you don’t want the doorway (which is probably the least insulated part of the structure) to be in direct view of the sun.

How to Create and Maintain the Cellar Environment Needed

Depending on where you live, you’ll probably need your cellar to do two opposite things.  In the summer, you want it to be cooler than the warm/hot outside temperatures, but in the winter, you want it to be warmer than the below-freezing temperatures outside.

The best way to do this is by either digging deep into the ground, or covering an above ground structure with a lot of sod.  Even a foot of dirt provides substantial insulation and will allow for as much as a 20º temperature differential between the cellar and the outside, but the chances are you’ll want more than this, so you need both more dirt ‘insulation’ and also the ability to ‘suck heat’ out of the cellar if too hot, and ‘pour heat’ into the cellar if too cold.  This requires a lot more dirt, and the dirt changes from merely being insulation to becoming a ‘heat sink’.

The first few feet of soil tend to seasonally vary a bit in temperature, but by the time you get down 10 ft or so (or ‘in’ a similar distance if digging into a hillside) you are then in a region where the soil temperature remains more or less unchanging, year-round and there’s no point in going any deeper.  As long as you don’t stress the soil around your cellar by introducing too much heat or cold – more than the soil can absorb/conduct away – the walls, floor and even ceiling of your cellar will all act as ‘automatic’ heat sinks, helping maintain a reasonably steady temperature inside the cellar.

Having said that, although the walls will stay much the same in temperature, it is probable there will be some variations in temperature inside the cellar itself, because the ability of the walls to soak up or give off heat is not very great, and outside factors such as the air temperature coming in can overwhelm the natural heat stabilizing of the walls.  A good cellar will keep temperatures above freezing in the winter, and perhaps 40º below outside temperatures in the summer.

The air flow in the summer will obviously have much warmer air coming in from outside than in winter.  You can moderate this a bit by having a ‘solar heater’ that you can attach to the air intake during the winter (nothing fancier than simply using a black painted inlet that the sun can shine on and warm up) and take off during the summer.  During the winter, have most of your airflow when the sun is shining on the inlet, and least during the cold of the night.  The opposite would apply for the summer, with little air flow in the hottest times of the day and more airflow in the coolest times of the evening.

You can also use evaporative cooling in the summer, with the air flow into the cellar passing over a wet cloth.  This helps to cool the air down and also increase its humidity at the same time.

In an ’emergency’ some people provide some gentle heating by simply leaving an incandescent light on in the cellar, while making sure that its light doesn’t harm any of the stored produce.  An incandescent light converts nearly all its rated power to heat, so if you wanted a mild 60 – 100 watt heating element, a light bulb would be the easiest approach.

One more thing about temperature.  By the time midsummer and the hottest temperatures come along, you’ll probably have emptied your root cellar from the last season’s stored foods, and so it won’t matter so much if it warms up a bit then, although you want to always keep temperatures as close to optimum as possible so as not to cause a gradual build-up of heat in the dirt walls.

You also want to have a high humidity.  Again, the ‘magic’ of a root cellar is that the water contained within the dirt walls and floor and ceiling will ‘automatically’ release moisture to keep a high humidity – assuming you don’t overload the ability of the cellar to maintain its humidity by creating too many air changes and therefore removals of moisture/humidity as part of that.

If you need to increase the humidity, you can simply spray water onto the walls, floor and perhaps ceiling of your cellar.  If you need to decrease the humidity, the usual solution is to increase the air flow, but that may cause other problems if the outside air is very hot or very cold, so don’t get too carried away with spraying extra water.

So as to get the most direct impact from the dirt, it is best not to line your cellar any more than might be essential, although it seems that most of the cellars we see these days are at least partially lined – perhaps because it looks ‘cleaner’ and ‘nicer’, even if it harms the cellar’s functionality!  If you are lining the cellar at all, make sure to use materials that won’t be harmed by the moisture – the moisture in the soil and the moisture within the cellar.

Shelving in the cellar is traditionally made of wood rather than metal.  The wood itself changes temperature slowly, adding further to the thermal inertia.  If you are using wood, we recommend you do not use treated wood (due to the poisonous chemicals in it) but rather choose wood that is least likely to rot in moist conditions (such as cedar).  Bricks and concrete blocks can also be used for part of your shelf construction – these are odorless and last a long time in damp conditions.

Shelving should be as open as possible, and set back from the walls, so as to allow for air flow everywhere.  This will keep down the growth of mold.  Be careful also when stacking produce so as to allow air to flow through the produce, and generally it is best not to store anything directly on the ground.

One other aspect of your cellar – you want it to be normally dark.  Light is an energy source which variously activates the sprouting of some produce and encourages the growth of undesirable organisms.  Keep the cellar dark except for when you visit it.

The cellar does need some fresh air flow, however.  There’s a trick to this to create a natural air flow without needing as much machinery.  You should have an air entry on one side of the cellar and an air exit on the other side, so air flows between them.

Now for the clever part.  Your air entry inlet should come in from outside and open at close to the floor level.  The air exit outlet should start at a point close to the ceiling.  This means the hotter air in the cellar will naturally rise up and out the exit, sucking in replacement fresh air from outside, where it will land in the cooler lower parts of the cellar, before gradually warming and then exiting again.

Of course, both the inlet and outlet need to have dampers on them so you can regulate the flow of air.  They also need screens so that rodents can’t enter your cellar through the air vents.

There is always a temperature gradient within your cellar, perhaps of 5º, maybe even 10º, as between its floor and ceiling.  You should keep that in mind when deciding where in the cellar to locate the various different produce items you’ll be storing.  Onions, garlic and shallots are probably the most temperature tolerant things you might be storing, so put them on upper shelves.

Visiting Your Cellar

We suggest you limit your visits to your cellar to no more than one a day.  If you’re struggling to keep the temperature optimized, you might even cut back on your visits to once every two or three days.  The less you stress your cellar with unwanted adverse changes of air and introduction/escape of heat and moisture, then of course the better it will perform.

This should not be a problem if you accept the discipline and requirement of moving things in/out of the cellar no more than once a day.  Surely it is easy to transfer produce from the cellar to a convenient at-hand storage facility elsewhere in your retreat on an occasional basis, and then whenever needed, take from the at-hand facility.  And, when replenishing, you can build up a pile of new produce immediately outside the cellar, and at the end of a day’s harvesting, then move everything in to the cellar all together.

If this is a problem, and if you’re struggling with maintaining a suitable cellar temperature, you might want to consider making the entrance into an ‘airlock’ type double door arrangement so as to cut down further on the environmental impact in the cellar every time you open the door.

You should carefully monitor your cellar’s temperature and humidity, and you will need to adjust the ventilation going in/out of the cellar to keep the temperature optimized.  We suggest you either have thermometers and hygrometers visible through an inspection window, or alternatively, if using electronic sensors, of course these can display remotely, anywhere in your retreat you wish.

The vent adjusters should either be routed mechanically to a point outside the cellar where you can open/close them, or else be operated by remote-controlled servo-motors.

Oh yes, please also remember to keep the light switched off in the cellar when you’re not present.

Do You Need Multiple Cellars?

There are two major concerns that some people feel can justify either the creation of multiple cellars or at least partitioning off one single cellar.

The first of these is that some things – apples, peaches, pears, plums, cabbage and tomatoes in particular – emit ethylene gas while stored.  Unfortunately, the released ethylene harms produce – even the produce that releases the ethylene in the first place!  So you need to keep the ethylene releasing produce as separate as possible from other produce, especially the root veges, and well ventilated to protect it from itself.

That’s the hint that can suggest how you could manage with one cellar instead of two.  Put the ethylene emitting items close to the exit vent so the ethylene mainly gets swept up and exhausted out of the cellar, while keeping the root vegetables in the other corner, and closer to the air inlet.  This keeps the ethylene away from other produce, and also vents it away from the emitting produce too.

The other main issue is odor control.  Some things – turnips, for example, or cabbage – give off odors that would get absorbed into other items if stored close to each other.  One solution is not to grow and store turnips and cabbage!

Another solution is again to put the smelly stuff closer to the air exhaust outlet, and to keep the more sensitive produce far away.

So you are probably correctly now sensing that managing ventilation is an essential part of having a successful root cellar.

There is another consideration as well that might influence whether you have one or two root cellars.  Different produce items are best stored at different temperatures, and if you had sufficient fine control over your root cellar temperature as to be able to ensure one cellar was (say) 10º different to the other, and if you had a range of produce items that could benefit from this temperature differential, then having multiple cellars might make sense.

But unless you’re going to be supplementing your natural heating/cooling with artificial heating/cooling, you’d probably find that two root cellars would have very close to the same temperature.  The better approach to temperature management is simply to stratify the location of your produce, keeping in mind that the higher up in your cellar, the warmer it will be.

So, for most of us, we can probably get by with ‘just’ a single root cellar, but keep these issues in mind when deciding where to locate the produce within it.

For Further Information

This article, although spanning over 3000 words, only lightly touches on the topic of root cellars.

Unless there is a reason why a root cellar would be impossible (ie, you are an apartment dweller with no plans to have any sort of land or rural retreat) you should definitely add a root cellar to your retreat and so it is an important topic to understand and get right.  A root cellar is a wonderful and energy-efficient way to store many different types of produce, giving you well-preserved food long out of season, without any need for the hassle and energy costs of boiling, blanching, bottling, canning or freezing.

To learn more, you can certainly roam via Google to other articles on root cellars, but can we modestly say that you’re not likely to find much more than you’ve already read here.  The best thing to do is to get a copy of the definitive book on the subject – Root Cellaring :  Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel.  This 320 page book not only covers cellar design and construction, it also guides you in the choice of produce to store in your root cellar, and even tells you when to harvest and store the items you grow.

Amazon sells the book both as a Kindle eBook and in regular print.  It is better, if buying the regular print edition, to ensure you are getting the latest edition – not the original 1979, but the second 1991 edition.  For about $10, this is an excellent investment.

Aug 122014
Locations of riot events in St Louis.  The original police shooting is on the left, in the middle, in green.

Locations of most of the riot events in St Louis. The original police shooting is on the left, in the middle, in green.

A white police officer in Ferguson, MO (a suburb of St Louis) shot a black youth on Saturday 9 August.  On Sunday, during the day, there were some protests by members of the local community and a vigil.

What happened next was unfortunate, but also educational to us as preppers, and it behooves us to learn the lessons inherent in the events that followed.

(Note :  The riots initially filled Sunday night, Monday night was fairly quiet, and we wrote this piece on Tuesday, thinking the matter was essentially done.  Not so.  There have been continued relevant developments during the week, so after reading this article, please then click to read our follow up piece, written on Saturday, ‘More and Updated Lessons from the St Louis Rioting‘.)

There’s, alas, nothing particularly unique about police shooting black youths (or for that matter, shooting people of any race or age) and neither is there anything surprising about the transformation of youths who were deservedly shot as a result of their own inappropriate actions, now suddenly being beatified and described as saintlike creatures who were victimized and totally innocent of any and all charges.  Normally, people on both sides of the equation go through the ritualistic utterances that these events require, and then life goes back to normal, sadly with nothing changed.

But the unpredictable and unforeseeable lottery of life threw out a joker this time.  Sunday evening and night saw rioting and looting break out in the broader area around Ferguson, with the lawless perpetrators quite unashamedly and aggressively justifying their actions.  As is invariably the case there was no logic to the wanton gratuitous destruction – for example, in this article there is a video clip of a couple of rioters attempting to smash a bus shelter.  A bus shelter?  The destruction of public transport facilities disadvantages the very social sector of society that is rioting, not the vague aspects of society they feel they are protesting about and against.

But who ever said that logic or sense needs to apply to such actions?  Although, and please understand this, the rioters and looters actually think what they are doing is both sensible and appropriate!  This article quotes one person as saying

This is exactly what is supposed to be happening when an injustice is happening in your community.  You have kids getting killed for nothing.  I don’t think it’s over honestly, I just think they got a taste of what fighting back means.

There’s so much to disagree with in those three sentences.  How does a police action against someone justify someone else, somewhere else, looting another person’s store?

And that’s actually the first lesson for us as preppers.  We can not judge people and predict their actions based on our own standards of common-sense, rationality, fairness and justice.  Here’s something to live by (the closing line of this excellent article on a very different subject) :

What you find utterly unthinkable may prove quite thinkable, even reasonable, to your enemies.

One of the problems of the west in general, the US more specifically, and the people around us in particular is that they expect the people, groups, and nations they deal with to act predictably, sensibly, and in a manner and adhering to values similar to themselves.  We’ve two words to offer anyone who thinks they should predict how other people will act and behave based on their own values :  suicide bomber.

It is unthinkable to us that we’d become suicide bombers, and hopefully it is also unthinkable to us that we’d go off and riot/loot/etc based on something we knew little about and which neither directly involved ourselves or the people/businesses we were then gratuitously attacking.

But, right here in the US, just a couple of nights ago, hundreds – possibly thousands – of our fellow citizens gleefully set about doing exactly these things, and feel totally justified in what they were doing.

So, please consider this.  If these people feel entitled and empowered to loot stores with this ‘justification’, how do you think they’ll feel in any sort of broader breakdown of society?  Do you think they’ll hesitate, for a country moment, to loot not just stores, but then to turn their attentions to ordinary people in their ordinary residences, and continue their gratuitous looting without pause?

Even worse, when the food runs out, what will they do then?  Won’t they feel doubly empowered and justified to take by destructive force any food they can find from anyone?  Indeed, isn’t it likely they’ll come up with some more pseudo-justification as to why what they are doing is perfectly moral and correct?

One last part of this second point.  Don’t you think that as social order progressively breaks down, the initial core of looters and rioters will quickly be joined by more and more people?

That’s the second lesson.  Lots of people will quickly start acting irrationally and harmfully.

As seems to typically be the case, when the rioting and looting broke out, the lawless groups went after the easy pickings.  Sure, we got to see examples of armed local business owners protecting their businesses, but there’s another aspect of this that is worth considering as well.

This report is very interesting.  It tells how 10 – 15 cars with nearly 30 people pulled in to a strip mall, and the people then set about smashing into a shoe store and looting it.  Right next to the shoe store was a Radio Shack, and you just know that the electronics in a Radio Shack would be ultra-tempting to the looters.

But there was a single security guard at the Radio Shack, and his presence was enough to deter the 30 looters.  Like all bullies, they are essentially cowards.  When someone stands up to them, they usually slip away rather than confront a determined opponent.

We suggest that the one security guard was very fortunate in this case, and wouldn’t count on one person consistently being able to turn away 30.  But probably you don’t need to have 30 people on your side to defend against 30 attackers, because only one or two of the attackers will be seriously motivated.  The rest of the people will be ‘going with the flow’ and believing that they can do so with impunity as part of a larger group.  As soon as their safety is directly threatened, their enthusiasm will fade.

Update :  This article, several days later, about the ongoing rioting, includes the delightful line

Early in the evening gunshots were heard near the gas station sending crowds of protesters screaming and running away.

We think that proves our point!  It seems no-one was shot, and we’re guessing that some people defending their business simply brandished their weapons and fired a few rounds in the air.

We are not sure that this would be all you need to do in a truly dire situation with all of society crumbling around you, but in this lesser scenario, it was obviously more than sufficient.

So our derivative point and third lesson is that you should group together with your neighbors, at work and at home, to have at least a small group of people to back you up and create a more credible defense when confronted by rioters.

Our next point and the fourth lesson is that this rioting was entirely unexpected.  It came out of nowhere and erupted like wildfire in a seemingly unpredictable manner.

But although it was unexpected and unpredictable to the victims, that is not to say that it wasn’t also planned by the rioters.  For example, think about the implications of the 10 – 15 carloads of rioters that drove to the shoe store and Radio Shack.  There was nothing spontaneous about that.  Those 30 people got together and carefully coordinated making a special journey to those two stores.  See our earlier article about flash mobs and social media for more discussion on this growing phenomenon.

So don’t underestimate your adversaries.  Although on the surface, rioting looks spontaneous and haphazard, underneath there is a mix of the truly spontaneous but also darker forces eagerly seeking a ‘free ride’ and exploiting and aggravating the situation as best they can.

Our last point and fifth lesson is that the geographic locations of the rioting and looting is not necessarily directly related to the location of the trigger event.  Rioters and looters can travel to targets of opportunity, as long as they feel that the umbrella protection of the rioting/looting will protect them.

The two maps in this article are interesting.  They show the spread of riot related events, some far out of the local community.  Just because you might think you live in a ‘good’ or ‘safe’ area, in terms of the demographic makeup of your community and local crime levels, does not mean that it will remain good or safe when rioting breaks out in the region.


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.

Update Now Published

Further to this article, written on Tuesday (the rioting started on Sunday night) we have added a second article on Saturday.  Please now go read More and Updated Lessons from the St Louis Rioting.

Aug 102014
Who knew there were so many potentially significant health events in the US at present.

Who knew there were so many potentially significant health events in the US at present.

As realistic preppers, we know that we don’t always get unfiltered ‘real’ news and sometimes there are ‘policy issues’ that intrude on how news is shaped and reported.

This is particularly true of enormous potentially world-changing events.  While your local newspaper can be relied upon to be first to break the story if a local cat gets stuck up a tree, and also to give prominence to news that furthers their own ideological agenda, other stories can sometimes get delayed, re-written, or totally ignored.

The good news is that these days the major news outlets – the three traditional television networks and our local newspaper and radio stations – have now been eclipsed by all the other news sources out there, and all equally close to us through the internet, no more than a url and a click away.

The problem is that there are so many of these second and third level news outlets, news gatherers, and news finders that they all tend to get lost in the crowd, and it is hard to know where to find reliable and timely news that is important to us.

One vital thing that we as preppers are very focused on is getting early advance warning of trends and changes that may impact on our society and which may herald an oncoming significant event that might see a Level 1/2/3 scenario as a result.

We like the Drudge Report for general news distribution, but his selections of articles tends to be broadly focused at more or less mainstream readers.  We subscribe to a number of prepper type reader forums as well, but these tend to be a mix of rumor and nonsense, with only occasionally useful/important alerts mixed in with the other content.

The current prominence given to Ebola frankly has us unsettled, but perhaps for the opposite reason to what you might think.  We are puzzled why this present outbreak in West Africa is being given so much exposure and importance.  Is there something the authorities know which they’re not yet telling us?  Is there some other hidden agenda item?

Similar issues sometimes surround other important trends and stories and developments in the world.

We came across an interesting and very useful site today that automatically scans much of the internet for health related news.  It is so good at doing this that it found the first stories about the latest Ebola outbreak nine days before the outbreak was labeled as Ebola, and long before the western press started to write about it.  The site is  It was originally intended as a tool for public health agencies, but it is open for anyone to use and for anyone to sign up for email alerts, and most of their content is in ‘plain English’ rather than in obscure obtuse medicalese.

We see on their event map (using the ‘diseases near me’ feature) that at present it is reporting on the spread of West Nile virus further into the American Redoubt (a mosquito borne virus that is taking over the world and not receiving nearly enough attention).

In addition to the general map, they also have specific tracking projects for diseases such as flu, Dengue Fever (another relatively new but significant entrant into the US) and a ‘Predict’ map that apparently anticipates possible future diseases that are spread from animals to humans.  A lot of good stuff.

They offer a newsletter alert service that we recommend you sign up for.

All in all, a great and free service that hopefully helps us to keep better informed and ahead of health/disease type issues.

Aug 102014
A store of 3.5 gallon 'brick' water containers.

A store of 3.5 gallon ‘brick’ water containers.

Water is the third of the survival essentials.  Air is first, shelter is second, and food is fourth, and you’re probably familiar with sayings like ‘you can go without air for three minutes, shelter for three hours, water for three days and food for three weeks’.

Actually, we’d not like to have to prove any of those four claims!  But you get the general point that they try to make.

So, having acknowledged the essential need for water, the next question becomes ‘How much water do you need to store?’.  That’s an easy eight word question to ask, but we’re going to take just over 3500 words to answer it, because the first part of the answer is ‘it depends’.

Let’s have a look at some of the dependencies that go into answering this essential question.

How Many Days of Water Do You Need to Store?

The first thing that is a massive dependent variable is how long you believe you will be without water.  Are you planning for a Level 1, 2 or 3 type situation?

If you’re planning for a short-term Level 1 situation – something that you’ll stay at your normal residence for, then probably it is prudent to consider a two-week outage as a sort of reasonable period to have water on hand for.  If you’re still without water by the time two weeks approaches, you’ve probably got other very pressing worries on your mind as well as water (ie probably no utilities and no food and increasing problems with the maintenance of law and order) and you will be needing to consider ‘getting out of Dodge’ for all these reasons.

That’s not to say that having more than a two-week supply of water is a bad thing.  We’re simply suggesting, that for a Level 1 type response, two weeks of water should be the minimum you have.

In a Level 2 situation, you may also choose to prepare for that with stored water, or you may instead ensure that you have some type of ongoing water source/supply (such as a well).  Quite possibly, you’ll have a mix of both.

Pretty much by definition, Level 3 preparations require you to have a viable ongoing supply of water rather than be relying on stored supplies.

However, although both these other types of more severe scenarios have a growing dependence on renewable sources of everything, you should still keep an emergency backup supply of stored water too.  For example, what happens if your well pump fails?  You’ll still need water until such time as the pump is repaired.  What happens if the well runs dry?  You’ll doubly definitely need some stored water while urgently seeking a new ongoing source.

Note that even a Level 1 response can also consider sources of ongoing water as well as relying on stored water.  Maybe you have a rainwater collection system, maybe you have a creek and water purification capability.  But in most parts of the country, there are times of year when no rain will fall for more than two weeks in a row, and if your creek is seasonal, that’s not a guarantee of water either.  So we suggest that you probably should keep at least two weeks of water on hand.

How Much Water is Needed per Day?

The classic rule of thumb is to allow one gallon of water per person for each day of water you are storing.  Now that’s not the same as saying you all need to drink a gallon of water a day, although many people confuse these two points.

The amount of water you need to drink to maintain reasonably good health depends on how much work you are doing, what you are eating, and the temperatures around you.  The more work you do, the more water you need.  Similarly, the hotter it is, the more water you need.  But some – most – of the foods you eat contain water within them and so help you get towards your daily water needs.

One rule of thumb says you should drink eight glasses of water a day, each with 8 oz of water, making a total of 64 oz, 4 pints, 2 quarts, or half a gallon.  This is probably on the high side of normal, and also can be adjusted down for the water you also receive from food (and, ahem, from wine or beer too!).

In addition to drinking water for basic survival, there are other close to essential needs for water.  The most immediate is water for cooking.  Try boiling vegetables without water to boil them in!  Try steaming rice without water to steam.  And so on.  (Actually, there are ‘dry’ steamers that use little or no water to cook vegetables, and also fatless fryers too.)

If you are able to keep the water you’ve used for boiling vegetables chilled, you can store this water and reuse it for several days, and then use it as a soup base.  This is a very good thing to do because you are capturing all the vitamins and minerals and flavors that leach out of the vegetables and into the cooking water.  It improves each batch of vegetables that reuses the same water and makes for wonderful soup at the end, as well as reducing your water consumption, too.

You also have some water needs for basic hygiene.  Try brushing your teeth without water.  Or washing your hands.

Beyond these essentials – drinking water, cooking water, cleaning water, you then start to move towards more ‘luxury’ type water uses.  For example, one of the greatest aspects of modern civilization is surely the flush toilet, and each time you push the flush lever, you are using 1.2 gallons or more of water, depending on your toilet design.  If you still have a working sewer system, how many times a day will you treat yourself to flushing your toilet?

Note that it may be possible to re-use your washing up water for flushing the toilet (ie using your ‘grey’ water).  There are some issues and considerations if you were going to do this long-term, but for short-term needs, it is perfectly fine to fill the toilet cistern with the water you used for washing your hands or dishes or whatever else.

In normal life, a typical American uses an average of between 50 – 100 gallons of water a day for all purposes, possibly also including outdoor/gardening activities as well.

So there’s an enormous gap between our normal lifestyle consumption of 50 – 100 gallons of water a day, and our bare minimum need of – well, of what?  Is the one gallon of water per person per day a useful number of rely upon?

A one gallon per person per day allows for half the gallon for drinking and half the gallon for all other uses.  In a dire emergency, this is sufficient to survive, but clearly, the more you can add, the more comfortable you’ll be.

Doing the Sums

So let’s see what happens now that we are saying we want to store at least one gallon of water per person per day, and at least 14 days of water in total.  If you have three people in your residence, that would be something in excess of a 42 gallon store of water.

Our point, in case it is not obvious, with the ‘at least’ emphasis is that there’s really no such thing as storing too much water, but there definitely might be a problem if you have too little.

How much is 42 gallons?  A couple of easy ways to visualize this is that it is less than a single 55 gallon drum, and it is the same as about seven or eight typical 5.5 – 6 gallon plastic gas ‘cans’.  It is also the same as about 80 2-liter plastic soda containers.

Hopefully you’ll agree this is not a ridiculous or impractical amount of water to store (and based on the calculation above, we’d massively increase the amount we stored, to something more than 100 gallons).  Water weighs 8.34 lbs/gallon, so 42 gallons has a total weight of 350 lbs – you’re not going to have any floor loading problems.  And you can already visualize the very limited amount of space you’ll need (there are 7.48 gallons of water per cubic foot so in total there is 5.6 cu ft of space required – think of a cube with each side measuring 20″ and that’s how much space 42 gallons needs, if stored in the most efficient manner possible).

Which of course then begs the question – if you can easily store one gallon of water per person per day and keep 14 days worth of water on hand, why not store more than this?  That’s a great question, and we’re delighted you’re asking it!  Yes, absolutely, you should keep very much more than this so as to be able to treat yourself to a more comfortable lifestyle during the water outage, and/or so as to have additional essential water supplies if you are sheltering other people, or have unexpected water needs, or need to survive for more than 14 days.  Water is cheap and easily stored.  You’ve no conceivable excuse for not having a lot on hand.

And more water – some ‘spare’ water – would also to allow you to occasionally flush a toilet!  Make sure at least one of your toilets is a modern very low water consumption per flush type – it seems that currently you can find them using as little as 1.2 or 1.3 gallons per flush.

What to Store Water In?

recycleThe two best types of storage containers for water are stainless steel and glass.  These are the most impervious, longest lasting, least reactive and easiest to clean.

The other obvious alternative is some type of plastic container – either a container you’ve purpose-purchased specially for water storage or one you’ve repurposed from some prior use.  Plastic is ideal for portable water storage, because it is less breakable than glass and lighter than both steel and glass, and is more likely to be shaped into suitable sizes for storing and carrying.

If you are using plastic, you want to limit yourself to food-grade plastic that won’t leach out any of the moderately poisonous chemicals that are often used in the manufacture of plastic containers, and which aren’t made of poisonous plastic to start with.

The recycling number shown on the side of most plastic containers (and illustrated here) allows you to understand if it is suitable for storing food and water or not.  If it is type 1, 2, 4 or 5, then it is made of a suitable type of plastic.  Some types of #7 plastics might also be okay, but you probably have no way of knowing if it is a suitable or unsuitable type 7 plastic, so best to leave well alone.

This page tells you more about each type of plastic.

Note also that plastic is somewhat permeable and allows gases to migrate through itself.  Water can’t leak out, of course, but smells can leak in.

That means that if you are storing your water in an area with strong smells or other gaseous products, the water will gradually acquire those smells through the plastic.  Glass and steel are, for all intents and purposes, totally impermeable.

Because of the permeability of plastic, when we are reusing plastic containers, our preferred choice is to use soda type plastic bottles that originally held some sort of carbonated beverage, because these types of plastic containers have lower permeability (so that the soda or sparkling mineral water inside doesn’t lose its fizz).  The least desirable are the small size plastic bottles that hold regular water.  These are so thin these days that they offer very little gaseous barrier.

If you are re-using a container, you want to be sure that it is thoroughly clean prior to adding water to it.  Some things are easier to clean than others, and according to this page, milk jugs are surprisingly difficult to clean.

The chances are that you’ll be storing your water not in the same place that you’ll want to use the water, so we’d be tempted to keep the water in carry-sized containers – ie, probably less than ten gallons per container.  Otherwise, if you have a more ‘industrial grade’ bulk tank of water, you’d simply want a tap (or a siphon or a hand-operated pump) that you can use to then fill transfer type containers to take the water from where it is stored to where you’ll be using it.

We obviously suggest hand rather than electrical operation of a water pump because electricity might not be available, and to keep the pump’s operation as simple and trouble-free as possible.

Note that if you’re using a hand-operated siphon/pump, that too needs to be food grade.

There is an obscured issue with large-sized water storage containers.  As you’ll see below, we recommend replacing the water every year or so.  This is relatively easy to do when you just need to carry the containers to the sink, pour out the old water, and run new water in from the tap.  It is harder to do when you have to drain in place a large container of water, then refill it also in place.  That’s a lot of water transferring.

Needless to say, Amazon has a wide variety of water storage containers of varying shapes and sizes and costs.  Even if you don’t buy from Amazon, it is a useful reference to start from and gives you a great range of idea generators and a feeling for costs.

When looking at cost, we consider both the utility/good sense of the container and also what the cost works out in terms of dollars per gallon of water stored within the container.

We do like the stackable 3.5 gallon water bricks (see image at the top of this article), even though they are fairly expensive in terms of dollars per gallon of water stored.  They are easily carried, emptied, filled, stacked, and moved about and generally ‘managed’.  They are an efficient size and shape that allows you to make best use of the storage space available.

Their ease of use encourages people to actually do what they should be doing and rotate their water supplies, disposing of the oldest and refilling with fresh water (see the next point below).  Even the children in our group can usually carry one of these at a time, and most adults have no problem carrying two.

Note that most water containers should not be stacked on top of each other unless specifically designed to handle the weight of the extra containers on top.

There are also some excellent 7 gallon water containers that we like as well.  When full, these weigh just under 60 lbs.  Some people can carry two of these, others prefer to carry one at a time.

Anything heavier than this is not really portable and becomes too hard to pour small measured amounts from, and instead becomes more ‘fixed in place’ storage that you then transfer water to and from.

Containers should have lids or in some other way be sealed, and should be filled with water to as close to the top as possible.  This not only keeps out obvious sources of contamination, but it also stops oxygen from getting into the water and possibly feeding any micro-organisms present.

Some people have wondered about storing water in old-fashioned type wooden barrels.  These are acceptable for very short-term storage of water, but not for longer term storage.  Sure, wine and whisky is stored in wooden barrels, sometimes for years, but you don’t then drink half a gallon of wine/whisky every day, and cook with it too.

There are not only flavor-imparting and flavor-modifying chemicals in wood that react to the wine/whisky, but there are also poisons in the wood.  They’re not too poisonous when enjoying the occasional sip of bourbon or glass of wine, but not only would they flavor your drinking water, they’d eventually start to cause some undesirable heath issues too.

The Optimum Storage Environment for Water

Water should be kept in a cool dark environment, and the containers should be filled and sealed prior to storage.

The colder the water is, the better, and if you can freeze it, that is even better still.

Note that if you are freezing water, the water will expand 9% when it freezes, so make sure you have some headspace for this within the container and the cap on loosely, or else it may burst.

Talking about freezing water, we recommend filling up your freezer(s) with containers of water to use up any available spare space.  This does two things.  It gives you more water, and it also gives you a ‘battery bank’ – a thermal reservoir – of cold so that if the power fails in your freezer, it will take longer for the cold to leak out of the freezer and for the food in it to spoil.

The reason to keep water both cold and dark is because even the purest water probably has some micro-organisms in it, and over time, these will tend to grow and make your water taste bad and possibly even be harmful.  These organisms need warmth, light and oxygen to grow.  There’s probably enough dissolved oxygen in the water to allow them to grow to a certain extent, so your best way to slow down their growth is to keep the water as cold as possible and as dark as possible.

How Long Can You Store Water For?

This might at first seem like a ridiculous question.  We know that food has a finite storage life, but water?  What can age in water?

The answer to this question is that the water itself will remain stable and not change.  The concern instead is with the various micro-organisms that might be found within the water.

The best type of water to store is of course water that has as low a contamination level to start with as possible.  Where do you get that from?  The answer might surprise you.

Most of the time, the water direct from the tap in your kitchen is a better choice than any sort of special ‘triple distilled’ ‘ion exchanged’ or whatever else water you might buy from a supermarket or water supply service or anywhere else.

Not only is most city water purified to a very high standard to start with, but it is almost always also chlorinated, which acts as an inhibitor to slow down the future growth of things inside your stored water.  Some people add a splash more chlorine (ie bleach, or iodine instead of chlorine) to the water they store to extend its life still further.

This type of water, optimally stored as we suggested above, will be good for a year or more.  You’ll pretty much know, when you open it, if it remains good or not.  If it looks clean, smells clean, and – yes, tastes clean (by all means have a test sip) then it is clean.

If it isn’t, well, at least you have slightly impure water, which you can variously use for secondary purposes and also which you can then filter or boil (actually, you don’t need to boil water to make it safe, but an easy rule of thumb is that by the time you’ve brought water to the boil, you’ve probably killed off anything within it during the heating time up to boiling) to use for drinking purposes too.

Fortunately, water is cheap, so apart from the hassle factor, there’s no reason not to turn your water over every year or so.  What we do, to try and control the hassle factor some, is we recycle some of it every month, meaning that at any time, we have water of different ages from nearly brand new to about a year old.  Of course, if we ever had to start using it, we’d start from the oldest first, although being as how there is only a few weeks of supply, it probably doesn’t matter too much what order you then drink it!

Obviously, the cooler and darker the water, the purer it was to start, and the more airtight the container, the longer it will last.  The opposite is of course also true – if you’re storing water in ambient temperatures in the 80s or 90s, then it will need replacing very quickly – definitely at the end of every summer and maybe partway through the summer, too.

A Tip for When You are Filling Containers With Water

When you fill a container with water that you intend to store for the next year or whatever, try to pour the water into the container ‘smoothly’ without introducing a lot of air.  Think of filling a beer growler, perhaps, as an example of how to do this.

You should ideally have a plastic hose that runs from the tap to the bottom of the container.  Turn the water on slowly, and only increase the flow rate as the bottom of the container is covered, and make sure there is no bubbling or undue agitation of the water while the container fills.  Don’t shake it after you’ve filled it, although if you do find air bubbles on the sides of the container, definitely tap the sides to dislodge them.

If you’re filling straight from the tap, have the water run down the side of the container.  Again, think of the water as if it were beer, and your objective is to avoid the ‘beer’ foaming and getting a big head as a result of your pour.

Level 2 & 3 Storage Requirements and Considerations

This article is primarily focused on how much water you need to store to get you through a short-term disruption to your water supply.  As per the definition of a Level 1 situation, this is a short-term problem where you can realistically foresee a relatively fast and certain restoration of normal service, and in such cases, a fairly limited store of water is all you need.

If a scenario lengthens and becomes more a Level 2 or worse situation, then your issues and your preparing changes.  Your focus becomes on bulk water storage and ongoing water resupply strategies.  We suggestion you read through our other articles on water for further ideas and suggestions.

Note we also suggest you keep a supply of water stored, even as part of your Level 2/3 preparation.  So that probably means stored water both at your normal residence and at your retreat.


How much water do you need to see everyone in your normal residence through a Level 1 event?  Do you have that much water, and hopefully a bit more too, stored and not too stale?

If you don’t have sufficient water, we urge you to start adding to your water supplies right now.  Even if you do nothing more than clean out 2L soda bottles and fill them with water as you occasionally may buy and consume such things, that is at least making progress (and at close to zero cost) towards having sufficient water for Level 1 problems.

Ideally, we recommend you keep your water in 3.5 – 7 gallon sized containers, because they are easiest to manage – easiest to fill, to store, to rotate, to empty/refill, and to work from if you ever need to use them in a water-down scenario.

Aug 092014
A secure entrance to your safe room is essential, and buys you necessary time if your retreat is overrun.

A secure entrance to your safe room is essential, and buys you necessary time if your retreat is overrun.

We sometimes amuse ourselves reading properties for sale advertisements that describe themselves as being prepper properties.  We particularly like looking at the dwelling structures – what they proudly term the prepper retreat – on such properties.

Nine times out of ten (maybe even 99 times out of 100), the ‘retreat’ is nothing more than a generic house with nothing at all that would enhance its role as a sturdy building, reliably protecting the people inside it from the outside elements and threats.

We see huge picture windows, insubstantial wooden construction, shake roofs, and standard architectural practices that make no sense when designing a sturdy survivable structure that could reasonably required to remain comfortable in a grid-down situation for an extended period of years.  They are totally vulnerable to any type of attack, also to fire, and often show little sign of being either energy-efficient or energy independent.

Okay, so maybe it is a lovely building, maybe even a rambling rustic cabin or a classic ‘A frame’ log home, and qualifies as being in the general sense of a ‘nature retreat’ or a ‘country retreat’ or a ‘lifestyle retreat’.  But these are definitely not prepper retreats in the sense that we understand.

Most recently, we saw a so-called house on one of these listings that boasted having a ‘safe room’ inside.  They thought this made it a more bona fide prepper retreat.  We think completely the opposite!

Let’s talk about safe rooms and whether they add to – or detract from – the prepper functionality of a retreat building.

There are two general types of safe rooms.

Weather Related Safe Rooms

The first type of safe room is a well constructed part of a structure that is designed to withstand extremes of weather.  The rest of the structure may fail but the safe room will remain intact and the people inside will remain protected from the outside conditions.

A tornado cellar would be an example of a safe room under this category, for example.  FEMA write about these types of safe rooms here.

We have nothing against these types of safe rooms, and agree with the value of having them, in normal houses.

But for your retreat, we would hate to think you deliberately designed your retreat so that if some sort of foreseeable extreme weather event came along, it would be destroyed, all but for the one safe room somewhere within it!  Your entire retreat must be built to withstand weather extremes, because if it fails, there will be no team of builders turning up the next day to repair and rebuilt it.  Even if there were builders available, there’d probably be no building materials available for them, and even if there were building materials, maybe there’d be no way to transport them to your site.

Remember – we’re planning for a Level 2 or 3 situation where all the usual services and support features of our modern-day life have failed.  We only have what we have at the start of such a situation, and if something breaks or fails, we must either ‘make do or mend’, all by ourselves.  Every part of our entire retreats need to in effect be a safe room and resilient to the worst that the elements can throw at them.

Defensive Safe Rooms

The other type of safe room is one where you can go and hide/shelter if your home is being attacked/invaded by intruders.  The concept of this type of safe room was popularized in the Jodie Foster movie, ‘Panic Room’.

For sure, it is a sadly realistic thing to anticipate and plan for being attacked in our retreat in the future.  But there are two obvious problems with this type of safe room in a retreat as a solution to this scenario.

The first problem is that if you retreat to your safe/panic room, you’ve abandoned the rest of your retreat, allowing the attacking intruders to help themselves to whatever is in all the rest of the structure.  Is that really wise?

You might be protecting yourself, but when you emerge from the safe room, what will you do if all your food and other survival essentials have been taken?  What will you do if the attackers damage/destroy the rest of the building?  They very likely would smash windows, maybe even just set fire to the entire structure (although hopefully you’ve been careful to build your retreat out of non-combustible materials).

The second problem is that a safe room assumes either that you can summon help from within the safe room, and/or that within a reasonable period of time, the bad guys will give up trying to break into the safe room, leave and you can emerge.  But what say instead, the attackers merely seal your safe room door shut and allow you to literally rot inside?  How is the safe room benefitting you in that respect?

If you have a nice retreat, maybe these roving marauders will decide to stay there for a few days or weeks or indefinitely until they’ve eaten their way through all your supplies.  You’re stuck inside your safe room and unable to do anything about this, with your choices being either running out of food and water in your safe room, or emerging and being taken prisoner – at which point, you really don’t want to think too carefully about what is likely to happen next.

Let’s just say that a universal consequence of civil disorder, particularly when the bad guys are already attacking and looting, extends to such other terrible things as rape, torture, and murder.

Just like your entire retreat must be weather resistant, you must also be able to defend your entire retreat from marauders.  Do we need to state the obvious – after TEOTWAWKI, and with a break down in the normal rule of law and social support structures, you can’t sacrifice anything you have in the expectation that you can recreate it subsequently, or in the belief that appeasing attackers will buy you safety.

Totally different rules apply and you must defend everything that you have and need.

An Altered Safety Design Concept for Your Retreat

We urge you to protect your retreat and to repel marauders.  But we will concede there may be occasions when that becomes impossible.  If you have only a small group living with you, and if you are surprised by a large determined group of marauders, and if your retreat isn’t sufficiently solidly constructed as to give you physical protection, then you will surely be overwhelmed.  Maybe not in the first five minutes, and maybe not the first time that marauders attack.  But some time, and more likely sooner rather than later, you will be disabled and your retreat will lie open to the attackers.

Would a safe room be appropriate then?  We don’t think so, at least not in the traditional sense of a temporary refuge.  In part, we’re reminded of why the British were slow to adopt parachutes in their World War 1 aircraft.  They were concerned that parachutes would encourage the pilots to give up the fight and simply jump out of the plane when confronted by enemy planes aggressively attacking.

It could be argued that you need to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach to defending your retreat.  Without your retreat, you lose your shelter, your supplies, and your ability to survive into the future.

On the other hand, parachutes are now universally accepted, and so we see no harm in having a ‘worst case scenario’ plan for you in your retreat.  But we suggest this should not be limited to just a safe room, because there’s every chance that your attackers will emulate the attackers in the Jodie Foster movie and seek to break into your safe room, believing that to be the ultimate repository of your most valuable supplies.

Some people advocate having a hidden safe room – a place where you can hide that the bad guys can’t find.  That’s a good idea, but there is a problem with it.  Think it through – there you were, just a few minutes ago, mounting a furious defense of your retreat.  Then you all go and hide in your hidden safe room.  The bad guys break down the front door, go through the house, and don’t find you.

What happens next?  Do the bad guys say ‘Wow.  They must have a Star Trek type transporter, and got Scottie to beam them out!’.  Do they stop looking and just loot the rest of your retreat, then go on their way?

Or do they say ‘Wait a minute.  They were all here just a couple of minutes ago.  They must still be here somewhere; and if they have hidden themselves, I bet they also have a hidden cache of supplies and other goodies too.  Let’s rip the house apart until we find them and it.’

The thing about most of the hidden safe rooms is that they rely on the house structure remaining more or less intact, and they also assume that a safe room needs only to withstand a temporary home invasion, because the bad guys will need to act moderately discreetly for fear of alerting neighbors, and will need to leave at some point for fear of the police arriving.

That’s obviously not the case after TEOTWAWKI and if the bad guys start punching holes in the dry wall, they’ll soon enough find your hiding place.

We’d much rather have a safe room with an obvious entrance that can’t be broken into than a safe room with a hidden but insecure entrance.  Of course, a safe room with both attributes would be better still, but keep in mind you can never guarantee how long a safe room remains hidden.  The most important consideration is to be able to keep the bad guys out.  You (hopefully) have more control over that.

The Only Effective Type of Retreat Safety Strategy

The previous paragraph starts to give us a clue as to the most effective type of hiding place, should you indeed be determined to create one.  Rather than creating an obscured part of your above ground retreat, how about an underground cellar.  If you have a sufficiently camouflaged/hidden entry into the cellar, then the bad guys could level the entire building and never find it.  And if the entry is sufficiently sturdy, even if they do find it, they won’t be able to get in for sufficiently long to give you valuable time to pursue other options.

On the other hand, if they do level the entire house, and if some heavy beams fall on top of your cellar entry/exit portal, how are you going to get out?

By having multiple entry/exit points, you might say.  Yes, that’s correct, but there’s a particular thing to keep in mind here.  Don’t have multiple entry/exit points within your retreat.  If you do that, you’re simply increasing the chances that the bad guys will find one or more of them.  The other access point should be somewhere outside your retreat, and indeed, as far outside your retreat as you can realistically tunnel.

In such a case, you’ve transformed your ‘safe’ room from a no-exit trap into an escape route, allowing you to either (or both) hide from the attackers or (the preferred response) exit out of the occupied area and regroup, either to continue your retreat, to wait out the attackers’ eventual departure, or to mount a surprise attack from outside the retreat.

We talk about prepper issues to do with tunnels here.

Needless to say, your safe room – perhaps better to say, ‘staging area’ needs to have reasonable physical security so that if you have to abandon your main dwelling structure and move to your safe room, while preparing to then exit through the tunnel, the bad guys can’t quickly follow you into the safe room.  You need it to buy you enough time to make your exit safely and to vanish away, rather than having the bad guys in hot pursuit.

From this perspective, it is more important that the safe room access be secure than for it to be hidden.  As long as it can keep the bad guys out for a reasonable period of time, it doesn’t matter so much if they find it or not.

Only in this case – where a ‘safe room’ has become an emergency exit path out of your retreat, has it become truly valuable and truly contributing to your safety.  All other types of safe rooms bely faulty assumptions and create only a dangerous illusion of safety.  Don’t be fooled by such things.

Aug 092014
It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

We’ve seen very little written about adding an escape tunnel to your retreat, and what has been written has not necessarily been practical or prudent.

First, of course, do you need an escape tunnel for your retreat?  That’s something you have to decide for yourself, and probably also something you have to do a cost/benefit calculation on.  Most of us have our retreat designs limited first and foremost by our budget, and we have to compromise between the ideal retreat and the achievable retreat.  You need to make a list of all the features you’d like to have, approximately cost out each feature, and then based on the importance and value and need of each feature, balanced against its cost, decide what you will spend your money on and what you won’t.

It would be ridiculous, for example, spending money on a deluxe tunnel while overlooking the need for a good solar cell array.  But we suggest there will come a point, somewhere on your priority list, where an escape tunnel becomes a prudent consideration, and of course the first part of that evaluation is understanding what form an escape tunnel would take, and what its approximate cost might be.

In considering the need and value of an escape tunnel, there are several issues to look at.  The first of course is your evaluation for how likely the circumstances of needing an escape tunnel, the second is the practicality of building such a tunnel, and the third would be the cost involved.

Let’s quickly look at all three points.

The Need for an Escape Tunnel

Is it possible that your retreat might at some future point be attacked by a lawless group of marauders?  In a Level 3, and possibly even a Level 2 situation (defined here) – at a time when society has broken down and there is no longer any ‘rule of law’ – it is definitely foreseeable that you’ll be visited by outlaw bandits of some form or another.

What do you think might happen when such people do come ‘visiting’?  They’re unlikely to limit their visit to a polite knock on the door, an even politer request for some free food and supplies, and a most polite of all acceptance of your refusal and a peaceable departure!  Sure, it is likely that individual beggars might adopt this approach, but it is also likely that some organized gangs – either new gangs that will spring up from the ruins of our society, or extensions of the current ever-increasing number of gangs in our society – will come and be prepared to use any amount of deadly force to secure whatever they wish from you.

So, what do you think will happen when an armed battle-hardened gang attempts to shoot their way into your retreat?  Assume, for the sake of this discussion, there are 20 of them, and they’ve surprised you, unawares, either at 2am when you’re sleeping, or, if you prefer, at 2pm when some of you are out in the fields working and others of you are attending to chores inside.

There are several outcomes from such a surprise attack.  The first outcome is sadly quite likely, and that is that you’ll be immediately and totally overrun.  If that happens, there’s of course no need for an escape tunnel!

The second outcome is that you quickly rally around, you have a quick response force who immediately returns fire, and after a harrowing time, you win and they retreat.  Again, no need for an escape tunnel.

The third outcome is that as many of you as can make it back to your retreat, you secure the retreat, but the marauders continue to press their attack, rather than giving up and going away.  They either set siege to your retreat, or they manage to break into the retreat and overrun it.

This is the scenario where an escape tunnel might come in very handy.  A secure retreat is all very well and good, but it is also a ‘prison’ that confines you in one place, while your attacker is free to come and go, to resupply, and generally do as they wish.

Opinions differ as to if marauders would be ‘casual’ in attitude – ie, if they would selectively pick off only the easy targets, and leave harder targets well alone.  Or maybe, particularly after all the easy targets had been plundered, then they might become more fixated on taking anything they come across, even if it requires some time and patience to do so.

So, how likely do you feel these different scenarios could be?  Should you be considering an escape tunnel?

The Practicality of an Escape Tunnel

There are several things to consider when looking at the practicality of building an escape tunnel.  Clearly, if your retreat is built on bedrock, it will be close to impossible to tunnel through solid rock.  (Note that, in the other extreme, it is actually quite easy to build a tunnel through sand or marshy ground.)

So the first part of considering the practicality of a tunnel is to understand what you’d be tunneling through.

The next consideration is how long the tunnel would need to be, and where it would finish?  The tunnel exit needs to be out of the field of view of your main retreat structure.

If you are using the tunnel exit, it seems reasonable to assume that your retreat has been overrun, and there are bad guys all around, in a moderate state of alert.  If they look behind themselves, or through a window of your retreat and see you climbing out of a manhole just 20 ft from the front door, well, you can guess what will happen next.

This obscured visibility also needs to extend to a continued above ground escape route on away from the retreat.  The problem with this is that if you’ve designed your retreat well, you’ve made sure that you have excellent views for all the approaches around your retreat, so people can’t sneak up close to it and surprise you, and so people have no cover if attacking you.

If you have nothing but open ground, enlivened only by lawn, concrete, and vegetable gardening, for 100 ft or more all around your retreat, then you might have to consider a scenario where you will hide in an obscured basement safe room until nightfall and then make your retreat at that point.

That’s a far from desirable scenario, but so too is running across open ground in broad daylight!

The other consideration is just how long a tunnel you can afford to build – generally, the longer the better.  Which leads to our third point.

The Cost of an Escape Tunnel

The cost of your tunnel of course depends on the method of tunnel construction you adopt, and if you do some/most of the work yourself or not.

We’ll look at those issues subsequently in this article.  For now, let’s just assume an all up cost is $200 per foot of tunnel, which of course means that even a ‘short’ 100 ft length costs you $20,000.  Obviously, the longer the tunnel length you can put in place, the more secure your eventual exit and escape (or regroup and return) will be.  But this cost has to be balanced against all the other needs to spend money on hardening your retreat and ensuring your survival (not just in this quasi-military sense, but also in things like energy independence, food supply, and everything else).

Clearly, the longer the tunnel needs to be, the more expensive it becomes, and the lower the cost/benefit becomes compared to other risks that might be equally life threatening and probable and which require less investment to optimize and solve.

Let’s now move on and consider some of the issues associated with constructing a tunnel.

Another Tunnel Purpose/Benefit

So far, we’ve been considering tunnels for one purpose only – as an escape tunnel for you to abandon your retreat and hightail it away.

That’s a sad but essential purpose, but there’s another more positive use for a tunnel as well.  Depending on where it exits, maybe a tunnel can be used to move part of your defensive team to a second unexpected location, and to suddenly engage the enemy from its rear or flank, in addition to your continued defense from the retreat itself.

If this thought appeals, its practicality is somewhat terrain dependent.  You don’t want to be at a point where you are yourself caught in the own cross-fire between your in-retreat team and the bad guys.  You need to be able to guess at likely locations where attackers would base their attacks from, and then work out suitable points to have a defensive team appear.

If doable, the benefits of this tactical resource could be enormous.  Indeed, don’t just trust to chance with this.  As part of your total retreat design, you might even choose to skew the odds in your favor with some judicious landscaping and creating of some apparently better and worse locations for attackers to base themselves.

Tunnel Design and Construction

Your tunnel doesn’t need to be particularly deep, and neither does it need to be large enough for people to stand up and comfortably walk along.  You’ve probably seen pictures of the Gaza Strip tunnels, or even our own tunnels leading in to the US from Mexico – enormous things and put to terrible misuse in both cases.  You don’t need anything like that.

A relatively small tunnel is all you need, and here’s the trick.  You don’t need to worry about claustrophobically crawling through it.  There’s a much better way to travel through a small tunnel.

Our recommended tunnel would be a pipeline with a circular or oval profile, and rather than walking or crawling through the tunnel, you’d have creeper/trolleys –  boards you lie on with wheels on the sides, like mechanics use when going underneath cars.  You’d then propel yourself through the tunnel by using your hands and legs on the sides of the tunnel, or possibly you’d have a rope along the top of the tunnel that you could haul yourself along.  In both cases, you’d lie on your back on the board.

One of the benefits of using these boards is that you’d never be on the very bottom of the tunnel, so if there was an inch or two of water on the bottom of the tunnel, it would not be an issue.

Depending on the size of the people in your retreat, you might find a 24″ inside diameter sufficient, you’d probably find 27″ more than sufficient, and 30″ would be starting to become expensively spacious.  Yes, it sounds very small, and if you were crawling through it, you’d hate it.  But scooting along on a wheeled creeper board would be easy, quick, and not nearly as unpleasant.

Needless to say, this type of tunnel could not have any sharp corners or kinks in it, because the boards wouldn’t be able to turn around tight corners.  But also, needless to say, you’d not want your tunnel to be anything other than the straightest shortest distance needed.  It shouldn’t have corners in it.

As long as the tunnel is deep enough to be undetectable from the surface, and as long as there is no danger of what is happening on the surface harming the tunnel or causing a cave-in, then your tunnel is clearly deep enough.

You need to consider, when digging a tunnel, drainage issues and also the potential for tree roots impacting on the tunnel over time.  It is easy enough to make sure there are no large trees close to the tunnel (although keep in mind that any tree which is currently small may potentially grow to become big in time).  As for water, if that is likely to become a challenge, it is entirely possibly to make your tunnel tubing waterproof, and we’d also suggest provision for some sumps and pumps just in case water subsequently starts to leak in.

Probably the easiest way to dig a tunnel is to use a ‘cut and cover’ approach.  You’d use a backhoe/excavator/JCB to dig a trench, put in preformed piping, then fill up the trench over the tunnel structure.

Most dedicated backhoes can easily dig a trench 10′ – 14′ in depth.  Smaller machines that are a combination loader/backhoe and built on a glorified tractor frame can usually go down 7′ or so.  If you consider a 12′ depth, that would give you say 2.5′ for your tunnel tube, and 9.5′ of cover over it – an enormous amount of cover and almost certainly much more than is really needed.  Better to have less depth – it will be easier and quicker and less expensive to dig/construct, and there would be less weight of soil on top.  A 7′ deep trench would still have 4.5′ of cover over a 30″ pipe.  That’s way more than enough so that no-one would accidentally dig into your tunnel from above, and to keep vegetable and small plant roots away from it.

If you are worried about having a third-party contractor come in and construct your tunnel for you, you could buy a backhoe second-hand, use it as needed yourself, and then sell it when you’d finished for probably close to the same price you paid for it.  If you are doing this, you’d probably want a combo backhoe/loader unit.

Concrete pipe is much heavier and thicker than polyethylene (plastic) pipe, but also more robust and long-lived.  It can weigh in the order of 400 – 500 lbs per foot, and have side walls of 4″ in thickness or more (depending on pipe diameter of course – here’s a useful table).  Figure on a cost of about $100 per foot of concrete pipe, and you’ll be close to right.  Plus an unknown amount extra to lay the pipe – depending on the land and soil conditions, etc.

We mentioned in a preceding section using a rule of thumb of about $200/foot all up for tunnel construction.  We hope that’s on the high side, particularly if you are running a reasonably long tunnel over easy ground and doing much of the work yourself, but best to start off with a high guess and then improve on the real cost as you progress through the exercise.

On the other hand, modern high density polyethylene (HDPE) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pipe is about 20 times lighter than concrete, has much thinner side walls (which makes for easier trenching and allows for smaller outside diameters), and is claimed to be about as reliable in use as concrete.  Price-wise, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference, although the plastic piping is less expensive.

Some people argue that plastic piping requires greater care while being laid than concrete pipe, due to its innate lower strength and greater reliance on optimized ground loadings.  But its lighter weight makes it very much easier for you to work with it yourselves, without needing trained crews of men and specialized machinery to move multi-ton pieces of concrete piping exactly into position.

Overall, there seems to be no clear consensus on concrete vs plastic, and we suspect the price advantages of one over the other will vary depending on where you are and how close you are to sources of either, and what the associated trucking and installing costs and considerations may be.

There are also various types of metal pipe material as well.  Black iron and steel are the most expensive materials.

We don’t know enough to recommend one type of material over another, but we do note that most ‘general purpose’ tunnels and pipes are made of either concrete or HDPE.

Permits and Approvals For Your Tunnel

If you are in a jurisdiction that requires formal permits, plans, inspections and approvals for building construction, and if those requirements extend to tunnels as well, you have to make a difficult decision as to whether you get all the necessary paperwork or not.  If you don’t, there’s a measurable danger that your tunnel may be discovered, in which case the best case scenario is you are up for major fines, and the worst case scenario is that you could have your entire retreat structure condemned, temporarily or permanently.

You might think that what you do on your retreat, perhaps in the middle of a pristine wilderness and miles from any road and totally out of sight of any public land would be a secure safe secret.  But look up.  See that plane flying overhead?  Maybe it is mapping the landscape for Google Maps, or directly for the county (we understand that it is not uncommon for counties to use aerial mapping to confirm the accuracy and completeness of their records about what structures exist on the land they tax).  Look even further up – see the satellite in the sky?  No, of course you don’t, but it can probably see you, and it too may be transmitting pictures of your construction project to all sorts of interested agencies.

Update – here’s another interesting article on the capabilities of observation (ie spy) satellites – they have such fine sensors they can detect shotshell cases on the ground, and evidence of recent digging, and are being launched in ever greater numbers.

Another update – here is information that Google plans to launch its own constellation of 24 satellites operated by Skybox.  The satellites will, between them, take three pictures, every day, of every place on the planet.  They will also have video capability.

Final update :  We became fascinated by the topic of aerial observation, and so rather than continuing to add to this article, we’ve now added a separate standalone article about aerial imagery.

The other interesting thing to note from these articles is that the current 10″ resolution capability of the satellites does not represent the highest quality resolution the satellites are capable of.  Instead, it is an artificial limit that the satellites are restricted to by US law.

On the other hand, it is surely unappealing to have your super-duper secret emergency escape tunnel on the permanent public record, available for anyone to scrutinize at the county office, and even online too.  It is true that such facilities may disappear entirely in a Level 2/3 situation, but who knows how many people have found out about your tunnel already.  Even if marauding strangers don’t know about your tunnel, you can be sure the locals would, and sometimes you might have as much to fear from locals as from strangers.  Suffice it to say that building a tunnel clearly labels you, your property and your retreat as being ‘out of the ordinary’ and ‘interesting’.

Perhaps one possible approach is telling half the truth.  Have a septic line running above your tunnel, and get that permitted.

Another possible approach would be not doing a ‘cut and cover’ approach (which is obviously very visible and obvious) but instead doing a true below ground tunneling exercise, like prisoners do to get out of jail.  However, we’d urge you not to do this unless you have an enormous amount of manpower and time, and also a highly detailed knowledge of the soil conditions that you’re tunneling through.

Creating a tunnel that way would require tens of manhours per foot, plus a lot of resource for removing/secreting the dirt from the tunneling, and all the necessary wood and other materials for shoring up the tunnel from the inside, along with an ever-present risk of cave-ins if you made any mistakes in your calculations.  You’d also need to make it larger than a pipe type tunnel, because you need a work area at the tunnel face as you dig your way forward.

Hand digging a tunnel is not impossible, but it is definitely a very undesirable approach to tunneling.

Choosing and Obscuring Tunnel Exits

One of the most difficult aspects of designing a tunnel is choosing where its exit will be.  As already mentioned, you don’t want it to be in the middle of an open field, with you emerging out of the tunnel being in plain view of everyone.  Not only this would be in plain view, but so too would be your continued escape across the open ground.

Ideally your tunnel exit needs to be out of sight of both the retreat structure and also out of sight of likely locations where attackers might situate themselves.

The specific topography of your location will determine the what/where/how of this, and obviously, the longer your tunnel and the further away from your retreat, the safer your exit will be.  Note also that you might do some landscaping or plant some particular types of bushes or whatever,  to create some visual obstructions or other features to make it easier to make your escape unseen.

The other consideration is concealing the exit so it is not obvious to people, prior to your using it, that it is a tunnel exit.  Remember that tunnels work both ways – you don’t want your attacker to use it as a means of safe passage right into the heart of your retreat, and neither do you want, when emerging from the tunnel, to find a ‘welcoming party’ assembled to surprise you.

It is common to attempt to locate tunnel exits inside some sort of building or other structure.  There are obvious advantages in doing this, and if you have a barn or shed or pumphouse or any other sort of structure that could be used for this purpose, so much the better.

Another possibility would be to disguise the tunnel exit in some junk.  If you saw the movie RED, then you’d have noticed how Marvin used the trunk of a junked car as an obscured entrance to his underground hideaway.  Something similar might also work well for you, and it is far from unusual for rural lots to have some old vehicles rusting away somewhere.

If you have a large tree that you could cut down some distance off the ground (ie above eye level) and then use the tree stump, hollowed out, for egress, that’s another approach to look at.

There are any number of other ways that a tunnel could terminate.  For example, maybe you have a short storm water drain/waterway running under a road.  Anyone can look from one side of it through to the other, and can see it to be a normal simple water drain.  But your tunnel terminates on the side in the middle of this and you can simply move a panel of the drain’s side material and step into it.

Another method is to have your tunnel’s exit shaft end a short distance below the ground surface, and when you need to exit, you simply remove the reinforcing at the top of the shaft and dig through the remaining dirt or whatever.

Maybe you have a shallow pool somewhere and your tunnel actually terminates underneath the pool.  The benefit of this is that normally, the water obscures the tunnel exit.  The downside – do we need to tell you this – is that when you open up the exit hatch, you’re going to get wet.  And there’s a risk that the exit hatch might develop a leak, potentially flooding out the tunnel and making it unusable.

Keep in mind there are two types of tunnel exits, with different considerations.  There are ‘single use’ exits that you will only need to use once, and once you’ve used it, you’ll not have any need to reconceal it for future reuse.  There are also multi-use exits that you will want to be able to use on a repeated basis.

Instinctively, the thought of multi-use exits appeals.  But think carefully – how often are you likely to need to use this?  Using your emergency exit presupposes that you’ve been not only attacked, but defeated and your retreat has been overrun.  Hopefully you’ll never need to resort to this, possibly you might use it once, probably never twice.

On the other hand, you will want to occasionally do drills to practice using the tunnel, and ideally these drills should go all the way through to having your group exit at the far end, which would require opening up the exit and being able to subsequently obscure the signs of people exiting and moving around.  So, if possible, it is better to have a multi-use exit.

Checking the Security of Your Tunnel Exit

Think about this.  You’ve constructed a tunnel, with a secure exit out of view of the retreat.  You’ve been attacked and unfortunately find yourself unable to defend your retreat and so need to escape.

But, you can’t see the far end of your tunnel.  You don’t know if by chance some of your attackers are camped right on top of the exit, or maybe they have discovered it and have a couple of people guarding it, just waiting for you to emerge.

It would obviously be highly desirable to be able to monitor the situation around the tunnel exit before emerging.  We recommend you should have some type of facility to allow you to do this.

There are several ways you could check what was immediately outside the tunnel exit before emerging.  Again, the method you select will probably depend on the nature of the terrain around the tunnel.  If it is in an open field, you’ll do something very different to if it is in a building or in a forest.

The lowest tech approach would be to have a thin tube periscope that you can poke up through the ground and then survey around the area.  If the periscope also had a microphone that passed down to a set of headphones, you could listen as well as look.

A more complicated approach would be to have a hidden video camera somewhere that is pointing at the general area where the exit is located.  The downside to this is that if the camera is discovered, it begs the question ‘what is this camera doing here and what is it looking at’, so you might choose to have several cameras or to have the viewing angle set so that it is apparently looking at an obvious different place to look at, as well as less obviously at the tunnel exit.

The other issue with video cameras is how you get power to the camera and then the video signal back to a monitoring point.  We suggest this should all be done by wire rather than wirelessly, and we also suggest the wire go, buried below ground, back to your retreat rather than directly to your tunnel exit.  That way, if the camera is discovered, the wire can’t be traced to the tunnel, but instead, to your retreat, which is what a person would expect.

The chances are you will be setting up some video (and audio) surveillance around your retreat anyway, so including at least one camera to monitor the state of your tunnel exit is just part of the total picture.

Note that it would be best to have a periscope at the tunnel exit as well.  If something happens to disable the video feed, or even just so you can get an updated evaluation between when you left the retreat and were ready to exit the tunnel, this would be useful.


You’re building your retreat as a haven and safety to protect you against as many eventualities and circumstances as possible.  This means you’ll make your retreat as robust and secure as possible, of course.

But one eventuality is the possibility that, your best efforts notwithstanding, you might be forced to abandon your retreat.  A secure secret exit tunnel would increase your chances of doing so and living to fight or at least to survive beyond that.  Without such a feature, your retreat has changed from being your safe haven to instead being your prison and potentially your coffin.

We feel that adding a tunnel is an important and necessary feature of a complete retreat design.  Using a cut and fill method of tunneling and preformed concrete or plastic tubing makes it a relatively quick and straightforward process.

Aug 082014
Pictures like this add to the shock and scare value of the present news about Ebola.

Pictures like this add to the shock and scare value of the present news about Ebola.

The news seems filled with stories about Ebola currently.  On Thursday the CDC issued its highest level alert, something it has only done twice before.  Today, WHO did the same, declaring it an international health emergency.

Newspaper articles tell horrifying stories about Ebola being ‘out of control’ and overwhelming the national health systems of countries like Sierra Leone, and of victims being dragged into the streets and being left there to rot in Liberia.

On the face of it, this is all alarming and concerning.  And, as preppers, we are of course always looking for such signs of pending problems.  But, if we scratch the surface of the Ebola hysteria, a different type of truth appears.

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has resulted in less than 1000 deaths over the course of six months (although this number is steadily increasing).  How many other diseases, in Africa and elsewhere in the world, have killed more than 1000 people in the last six months?  What makes Ebola so special as to get the CDC and WHO both giving it highest priority, and why does Ebola fill the pages of newspapers at present?

To put this number in perspective, in a typical flu season in the US alone, somewhere over 200,000 are hospitalized and up to 50,000 people die.  Yes, up to 50,000 people die of flu every year in the US, but the death of 1000 Ebola sufferers in West Africa now has the US CDC giving Ebola a higher priority status than flu (and a higher priority status than cancer, Aids, and everything else).  This really makes no sense.

Ebola surely doesn’t deserve this status because of its ‘rapid’ spread.  1000 people in six months is slow compared to true worst-case scenarios that have occurred in the past.  It also isn’t because of its implacable mortality rate.  Even with the worst of healthcare facilities in West Africa, it seems that somewhere between 25% and 40% of patients are surviving.

It also isn’t because it jumps from person to person like wildfire.  At present it seems that the virus is only spread through contact, not coughing.  The CDC say that an infected person can be treated in a regular private hospital room.

Has political correctness now invaded our healthcare system as well as everything else?  We are forced to conclude that this is indeed the case.

Now, don’t get us wrong.  Ebola is a spectacularly nasty disease, and having two-thirds of the people who get an Ebola infection die is a terrible outcome.  It is also true that currently there are no preventative vaccines, and no specific treatments for if/when a person does get an Ebola infection, but work is underway on new treatments and even on vaccines too.

It is also true that our society is more at risk of a global pandemic than ever before.  A person can be infected on one side of the world today, and then travel to the other side of the world tomorrow.  You may have heard the comment about how everyone in the world is no more than six people away from knowing anyone else, and indeed more recent studies suggest we are now more like only five people away from anyone else – that degree of contact applies to spreading disease, too.

In particular, it takes somewhere from two days to three weeks for an Ebola infection to become apparent in a person, allowing lots of time for that person to travel from somewhere to somewhere else, and the rudimentary type of health screening of arriving passengers at airports around the world will not detect Ebola during this incubation period.

The good news part of the Ebola incubation period is that a person only starts spreading the Ebola infection when they become symptomatic.  So we only have to be concerned about the few days between when a person starts feeling ill and coughing, etc, and when they are hospitalized and diagnosed with Ebola.

What Should Preppers Do

There’s precious little we can currently do about Ebola.  But you should definitely keep a watching brief on the Ebola news, and understand if the outbreak starts to spread outside of West Africa.  The CDC website is a good source of regularly updated information.

It is also helpful – if you haven’t done this already – to plan and prepare for how you could continue to work, without needing to be physically present at your place of employment.  For some people, this will be impossible, but if you are an office worker, shuffling papers (more likely, electronically moving computer data these days) or a phone representative, maybe you can spend much of each working day doing your tasks remotely from home.

Your employer should be considering this too.  In the event of a pandemic, the business will be at risk as much as you will personally be at risk, and both your survival and the business’ survival might depend on it being able to fragment and ‘virtualize’ with people working other than in one central office.

Beyond that, you should keep your supplies well stocked.  Disruptions to the food chain are almost inevitable if society gets crippled by a broad pandemic.  You should also keep your medical locker and protective gear fully provisioned too, so that if someone in your group gets afflicted, they can be cared for without endangering the rest of your community.

It is almost certain that one of the first failures in a future pandemic will be our hospitals and healthcare system.  Currently there are just over 900,000 hospital beds in the US – one for every 400 or so people.  But many of these beds are in use every day, so the number of available vacant beds is very much less.

Something that only affects as few as 0.25% of the population would overwhelm the healthcare system – and even if there were available beds, would there be available nurses and doctors?  Even if there were both beds and staff available, would there be available healthcare supplies?

Particularly with some type of virus for which there is no cure, there may be no benefit in being hospitalized, even if it is possible, and especially if you can provide competent palliative care at home.

If any sort of pandemic does start attacking our cities, you need to minimize your contact with other people as much as possible.  Try to keep away from all public places, and if you need to go to do shopping, do so in off-hours when the stores are likely to be nearly empty.

One more thing.  Your biggest risk of infection is by touching some other contaminated surface (what is called a ‘fomite’ in medical terminology).  Be sure to regularly wash your hands, and try to develop an awareness of the surfaces you are coming in contact with.  The next time you push open the door in front of you, wonder how many other people have touched the same door handle that you have.  A virus might survive some days on the surface of that handle.  That’s not to say you can’t safely touch the handle (assuming no cuts in your skin) but it is to say that you need to use hand cleanser or something on your hands on a regular basis – not just prior to eating food, but on an ongoing basis.

Think this through.  You touch the infected surface and your hand gets some virus infection on it.  You then touch your car steering wheel five minutes later, and transfer the virus to your steering wheel.  You step out of the car, and several hours later, someone else gets into the car, and also touches the steering wheel.  Your ‘safe’ seeming steering wheel has now infected someone else.


We do not see any cause for undue alarm about Ebola today.  We don’t know what the future holds, but as of today, and other than the general preparations we mention above, there’s nothing any of us need to do except remain alert.

In broader terms, we rate it unlikely that Ebola will become an actual threat to our society.  But we do consider the wider risk of some type of pandemic to be credible and concerning.  We have written several other articles on this topic, which you can see here.

Aug 052014
This compact foldable bike costs $200, has six speed gears, front and rear brakes, a load carrying platform, and weighs under 30lbs.

This compact foldable bike costs $200, has six speed gears, front and rear brakes, a load carrying platform, and weighs under 30lbs.

Your retreat absolutely must have bicycles.

There’s no better, low-tech, energy-efficient means of transportation than a bicycle, for when the grid goes down and gas for your regular vehicles becomes scarce or unobtainable.  We’re not saying rely solely on bicycles, but we are saying be sure to have at least once each (if you have additional ones left over, the chances are they’ll make great trade goods).

There’s another potential use for a bicycle, in addition to being used for transport around your retreat.  It may possibly also be used as transportation to get to your retreat – as a bug out vehicle.

Bicycles are light and maneuverable and can almost literally go anywhere, and as long as you can lift your bicycle, you can even climb over fences and other obstacles and manhandle your bike over them too.

A bicycle might not be your most desired or primary bug-out vehicle, especially if you live hundreds of miles and several snowy mountain passes and/or dry deserts away from your retreat.  But there may well become times when it will be your best remaining, and ‘least-bad’ choice.  (Your worst choice is probably just staying where you are!)

One of the big concerns when bugging out is that the regular roads may become jammed with regular vehicles – either jammed in the sense of very slow-moving, or in the sense of stalled/broken down vehicles on the road blocking the way for other vehicles.  Indeed, the first scenario inevitably leads to the second, as and when vehicles run out of gas and become immobilized.  Our suggested solution is to bug out early, but this is sometimes easier said than done.

Note – we’re unconvinced that simply using a SUV or other 4WD type vehicle would give you a solution to jammed roads.  If you’re on a restricted access freeway, with barriers protecting the sides of the freeway from the side of the road off the freeway on one side and the oncoming traffic on the other side, you’ll not be able to drive your SUV over/through those barriers to get around any stalled vehicles blocking the road.  And even if there was simply an emergency lane outside of the regular vehicle lanes, those will all quickly get jammed up with vehicles too.

Maybe it might be possible to drive off the freeway and onto the surface streets or whatever is next to the main highway, but that assumes you’re in the lane closest to the edge of the highway, and further assumes there’s somewhere you can drive onto from the highway.

There are better solutions if jammed traffic is your greatest concern (and depending on how far you have to travel to get to your retreat).  In particular, we are writing a series on using motorbikes as bug out vehicles, and they clearly present as a more resilient way of getting through jammed highways and of traveling on non-traditional road surfaces.  Even better is to fly to your retreat, but not all of us are fortunate enough as to have our own private plane, which also would need to be close to our normal residence, and able to travel to very close to our retreat.

The problem with a motorbike is that it is pretty much an ‘either/or’ decision you make before setting out on your journey.  But if you use a push bike, possibly supplemented with extra power as a moped, although adding the weight of a motor and possibly batteries does compromise the bike’s ultimate maneuverability and slightly increases your reliance on technology, you don’t have to necessarily make this decision up front.

Bicycles can be used as a back-up with a regular bug-out vehicle.  These back-up bikes don’t even need to be full-sized (and probably you’d not be able to fit three or four full-sized bikes into whatever your main bug-out vehicle is.

You can get small folding bikes, typically with 20″ wheels, still having multiple speed gears, weighing under 30lbs, and at a cost of under $300 (click the link to see what’s currently on offer at Amazon and see the picture at the top of this article for an example).  That’s a very sensible bit of ‘insurance’ to keep in the back of your vehicle if your primary backup transportation becomes ineffective.

Thinking Through the Issues if Using Bicycles

Talking about insurance, if you’re going to keep some emergency bikes in your bug-out vehicle, you’d also need to keep some essential repair/maintenance items with them.  A puncture repair kit and pump would definitely be prudent.

You should also consider the implications of what you’d keep with you or leave behind if you needed to transition from your bug-out vehicle to your bikes.  We’d recommend practicing bike riding with backpacks on, using the portable bikes you’d take with you, and get a feeling for what sort of load you can either hang off the bicycle frame or have on your back.

Have these things pre-packed so that if you need to transition from vehicle to bicycle, there’s no need for anything other than getting out of the vehicle, opening up your bikes, putting on your backpacks and saddlebags, and then cycling off, without a second thought.

Part of what you’d want to have in your bicycle based bug-out bags would be weather protection.  In the summer, protection against the sun, and in the winter, protection against the cold.  Possibly also wet weather gear.

Depending on distances, you might want to also keep some water, possibly food, and possibly even overnight shelter items too in these packs.  And, alas, probably some personal defense items too.

By the time you kit out your bags with the essentials for your bike-based journey, there might be little space/weight remaining for other things to bring with you to your retreat.

But, truly, that shouldn’t be a problem because your retreat should always be ‘ready to go’ without the need for any last-minute top-up supplies.

How Far Can You Travel in a Day

This is an essential question for you to consider, but almost impossible for us to answer in general terms.  You’ll have to do some experimentation to get a better feeling for your likely range of travel per day.

Some obvious things to consider are how efficient and ergonomically friendly your bikes are.  Lightweight portable bikes will probably not be ideal in this regard, and adjusting them correctly is essential.  You might want to get a specialty bike-shop to help you fine-tune the various adjustments to make them best suited for the lengths of your arms and legs, etc.  Put marks on the various adjustable parts so you know exactly where to set them when deploying your bikes.

It also depends on the amount of gear you’re carrying in your backpacks.  And on the weather.  And on the type of road surface you’ll be traveling on.  And on any hills along the way.  And also on how fit the least fit member of your group is.

As regards this last point, while – short of ridiculous obsession – there’s no such thing as being ‘too fit’, in this case your situation is a bit like the group of people being chased by a bear.  You don’t need to be able to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun the other people with you!

With the biking, the main focus of fitness training will be on the least-fit people in your group.  Obviously you’ll also balance out the pack loads so the less fit people carry less than the more fit people, particularly if there is any up-hill travel involved.  But your group’s ability to travel, as a group, will be limited by the least fit members, and this is the aspect you most need to optimize.

In ‘average’ conditions and on sealed roads, people travel anywhere from 30 to 100 miles a day.  Switching to dirt trails will probably at least halve this, and maybe reduce it even more.  Yes, that’s a big range of distances, isn’t it – clearly anything you can do to move your capabilities closer to the upper end of this range, the better you’ll be.  Even if your retreat is only 50 miles away, the range of your daily travels makes the difference between getting there, still refreshed, in half a day, or struggling to make it in two days.

The further you can go, and the faster you can cover the distance, the less time you’ll be exposed to all the risks and uncontrollable factors out there, ranging from weather to wild animals to unpredictable encounters with other people.  The less food and water you’ll need to carry with you, and the sooner you can be occupying your retreat (and defending it against anyone else who might stumble across it, empty).

We shouldn’t have put that last comment in brackets, because it has to be a major consideration.  No matter how secretive you think you’ve been, people know about your retreat, and more people will find out about it in the future (see our article ‘Is it Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Won’t be Found‘).  If society crashes in a heap, and the rule of law fails, then anyone who knows about your retreat may choose to go and take it for themselves, particularly if they see it empty when they get there.  Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and so you do need to get to your retreat as quickly as you can to head off such unpleasantnesses.

On a single day, you could probably push yourself and go a greater distance than the 30 – 100 miles we mentioned above, and of course, competitive cyclists on their many thousands of dollars bikes go much further.  But probably, for you, on a multi-day journey, these sorts of distances represent a fair range of sustainable capabilities.  On level ground with no head wind, it is reasonably easy to cycle at close to 10 mph without expending too much energy, so 30 – 100 miles becomes 3 – 10 hours of travel a day.  Sure, there might be daylight for more of the day, but your legs will be complaining somewhere in this sort of range.

Unfortunately, if you’re bugging out, you might not always be traveling on the best roads, and not always in a straight line.  Plus you may detour off the route, sometimes considerable distances, to avoid dangerous areas, and to find safe places to camp at overnight.  So 50 miles of travel may not be the same as getting 50 miles closer to your retreat.

There’s no substitute for actually trying it out, for real, to see how well you do and how far you go, and to determine who needs the most training to bring them up to the capabilities of the other people in your group.

Oh.  One more thing.  Please also remember to do this during weather extremes – when it is stormy, raining and pouring.  When it is scorchingly hot.  And freezingly cold.

Don’t Give Up

You might find that the weakest person in your group can only manage 10 miles a day, and that due to extremely difficult travel conditions, even a best case scenario sees you only traveling 15 miles a day, with your retreat being 150 miles distant.

Many people might decide, at that point, that a ten-day cycling journey to your retreat is impractical and impossible.  It would have to be either by motorized vehicle, or not at all.

You’d be dead wrong if you thought that.  Or, possibly, you’d just simply be dead.  If you need to bug out, you need to bug out.  You need to get to your retreat, or die in the attempt, because the alternative, if you do nothing, is also death.

Clearly if there is an enormous disparity in abilities among the different people in your group, you might have to make some difficult choices.  Yes, that is a polite way of saying ‘leave someone behind’ when your vehicle fails.  If a person is too frail and infirm to make it to your retreat, you have to dispassionately determine just how much value they’re going to add to your survival once you get to the retreat.  You can of course politely pretend that the traffic blockage may get resolved, and you can politely laugh that the person you’re leaving behind will get there first (and you should definitely keep in radio contact with them just in case this proves to be true!), and these polite fictions will make it easier for everyone, but when you are faced with this issue, you need to do what needs to be done.

While the thought of leaving someone behind sounds dreadful and uncaring, what is the alternative?  Three people go to the retreat while leaving one behind?  Or all four people sacrifice themselves and stay behind?  How does anyone benefit if you commit gratuitous group suicide?

If the less-strong person/people is/are children, that probably also means they are light rather than heavy.  By the time they become heavy, they also have become able to ride a bike.  But while they are young/small/light, you can validly consider carrying them in a backpack style carrier, or in/on a bike trailer (less desirable and more unwieldy) or something.

Even if you are all very fit, and you still find yourself confronted with what seems to be an impossibly difficult journey, you have to ask yourself – what is your alternative?  You either stay behind and risk probable death, or you struggle to your retreat as best you can.

Maybe you can make your journey easier by advance identifying some overnight places to stay on the way.  Maybe you can cache some supplies at some of these places so you don’t have to carry everything with you.

Or maybe you need to rethink your entire ‘where do I normally live and where is my retreat’ equation.

Do what you have to do, but whatever you do, do something!  Surely it goes without saying that having a retreat but not the matching very high probability of being able to reach it WTSHTF is an exercise in self-deception and foolishness.


Few people would find a bicycle an ideal primary bug-out vehicle to travel to their retreat when it comes time to ‘Get Out of Dodge’.  But small portable bicycles can be stowed in your primary bug-out vehicle and if something prevents you continuing the rest of the way to your retreat in your primary vehicle, you then have an alternative means of travel that is still massively much better than trudging there on foot.

Because they are affordable and easily used, we urge you to keep bikes for all probable members of your bugging out group in your vehicles so you have this emergency alternative.  Don’t just have the bikes.  Have pre-packed loads of necessary gear and equipment in backpacks so if you need to switch to bikes, you can quickly load on your backpacks (and possibly saddle bags) then continue on your way.

Aug 032014
The new L131A1 standard sidearm of the British Armed Forces (aka a 9mm Glock 17).  Are the FBI likely to also adopt the G17 next year, too?

The new L131A1 standard sidearm of the British Armed Forces (aka the 32 yr old 9mm Glock 17). Are the FBI likely to also adopt the G17 next year, too?

This week saw a watershed event in the never-ending debate about pistol calibers.

But first, let’s put this week’s development into historical context and perspective.  Until the 1980s, most police departments were issued with six round revolvers, usually chambered in .38 Spl or possibly .357 magnum.  A few police departments were cautiously – indeed, hesitantly – experimenting with semi-auto pistols; in particular, early model Smith & Wesson semi-autos, chambered in 9mm.  And, overlaying it all, particularly in departments where officers could choose their own handgun, there were .45 M1911 type semi-autos as well.

The hesitancy on the part of police departments to shift from revolvers was due to several reasons.  One of the more prominent reasons were a concern about reliability – it was felt that a revolver was close to 100% for-sure guaranteed to always shoot when called upon, whereas some of the early model semi-auto pistols were significantly less reliable, and in a typical close-range police encounter, the officer seldom/never has time to safely do a clearance drill if his weapon malfunctions at a critical point.  Another prominent concern was a need for more hours of training for officers to become proficient with a semi-auto, and a related point was of safety – both for the officer and for the general public.

All these pistols held relatively few cartridges, by modern standards.  Early S&W Model 39 pistols held eight rounds, a standard M1911 magazine held seven, and of course a revolver typically had six (and some departments had a policy restricting officers to only having five rounds loaded, with the hammer resting on an empty chamber).

The FBI mirrored the practice of most police departments and generally issued its agents with similar revolvers and occasionally semi-autos as well.

In 1982 the winds of change were starting to blow, with Glock’s totally revolutionary design first appearing, although it took a while for this to start to have an effect in the US.  Not only did the Glock have a new type of cocking mechanism and carry condition, but it also offered 17 round magazines.  Prior to then, the highest capacity magazines were on Browning Hi-Power pistols, with 13 rounds.  Both the first Glocks and the Hi-Powers were chambered for 9mm cartridges.

It was not until 1986 that this slow-moving evolution of sorts switched to obvious and sudden change.  This was the year of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, which saw two FBI agents killed and five wounded in an extended gun battle with two bank robbers.  The two robbers also eventually died, but they each absorbed multiple hits and remained in the fight, continuing to effectively continue exchanging fire with the eight FBI agents, until finally succumbing to their wounds.

This was a shocking outcome and caused a colossal re-think on the part of the FBI and law-enforcement in general – a re-think that was of course echoed by private shooters as well.  New focus was given to ‘stopping power’ and the desire of ‘one shot stops’, as well as greater consideration attached to larger magazine capacities.

After studies and stopgap temporary fixes, the FBI first settled on a 10mm cartridge as being the ‘ideal’ cartridge for their agents, and then after finding that the 10mm was ‘too powerful’ (ie too difficult to shoot well) they eased back a bit and determined the .40 S&W cartridge (which is basically a lower-powered 10mm cartridge) to be the ideal compromise, and designated the Glock 22 and 23 as the two official carry-pistols for their agents, in 1997.

Police departments also started to rethink their standard sidearm issue, which both saw the end of revolvers, being phased out in favor of higher capacity semi-autos, and a shift up in calibers.  While 9mm remained common, it was no longer as dominant as it once was.  It was quickly decided that the earlier concerns were less important or could be resolved, as of course they could be and were.  These days you almost never see any law enforcement officer with a revolver.

While this was all happening, a surprising opposite transition was occurring in the US military, which after a lengthy evaluation decided in 1985 to replace their venerable M1911A1 pistols with the new M9 – a Beretta 92S-1 model double action semi-auto pistol chambered in 9mm, and with a 15 round magazine.

This was a very controversial decision in every respect – the decision to go ‘down’ from a heavy big .45 round to a smaller lightweight 9mm round, and spurning the M1911A1 design and all American gunmakers in favor of an Italian made pistol.

While gun owners might agree on many things, the one thing guaranteed to always cause an argument would be a discussion of what is the best handgun caliber.  People would quote semi-scientific studies that could be selectively found to ‘prove’ just about any preference, and the conflicting moves of the military down-sizing to the 9mm while police departments were upsizing to larger calibers gave everyone plenty of ‘facts’ to prove whatever their personal preference was.

But, and although it took decades to occur, a new perspective slowly emerged, and we’re now seeing a reversal of what has happened to date.  As background to this, it is necessary to explain one very important fact.  All pistol rounds are inadequate and unable to guarantee a significantly high level of one shot stops.  The only difference between them might be shades of inadequacy, and the choices are not involved with finding the best caliber but instead with finding the least worst caliber.

Recent FBI testing – well, a couple of years old now – has shown that the most important factor that corresponds to the effectiveness of any caliber is not the caliber itself, but the ability of the person using the firearm to shoot the pistol ‘well’ – ie, accurately (and, to a lesser extent, quickly, with second shots quickly delivered, also in a controlled well-aimed manner).

This ‘discovery’ should astonish no-one, except the semi-skilled shooters who hoped they could find a ‘magic’ caliber cartridge that would excuse them the need to develop decent skills.  Unfortunately, there is no such magic cartridge, and the bottom line shows that really there’s not much difference at all between any of the main pistol cartridges – the big difference is in the shooter, not in what he is shooting.  That’s something that we’ve always agreed with ourselves.

So, if the issue becomes one of shooting proficiency rather than cartridge effectiveness, which cartridge is easiest to master, and which cartridge can be carried in greatest quantity in any given size of pistol?

The answer to that, as determined by the FBI research, is 9mm.  The 9mm has the least amount of recoil and is the smallest ‘full size’ pistol cartridge.  Typically a modern double-stacked pistol will carry two more rounds of 9mm in a given size magazine than it would .40 S&W.

Some two years later, the FBI are finally putting their money where their mouth is, and this is reflected in their preliminary notice of an upcoming tender for 9mm pistols, published just this week.  It is expected the formal tender will be officially announced probably during the first quarter of next year – clearly this is not something the FBI are rushing into!

A move back to 9mm has already been occurring in police departments around the country.  The .40 S&W round might have more energy and maybe even more stopping power, but it is harder to shoot well, and untrained shooters are more likely to flinch due to the greater muzzle blast and recoil, meaning that fewer of their shots land effectively on target.

The appalling accuracy of police officers is the thing of legend throughout the firearms training industry (generally quoted as being around about 25%, depending on if you include such things as guaranteed single shot hits in police officer suicides), and part of the reason for this is that many police officers are not gun enthusiasts, and never use their firearms for recreation, and dread their annual or more frequent qualifications in their .40 caliber semi-auto.  So if/when they ever need to use their firearm ‘for real’ they are poorly trained and their shooting reflects this.

It is better public policy for police officers to shoot fewer bullets and more accurately.  Here are just two examples (one two) where innocent bystanders have been hit by police fire – nine pedestrians in the first case and two in the second.  With only one ‘bad guy’ in each case, it is beyond bad that an exchange of fire with a single gunman saw the police wound nine innocent civilians.

This is where better training with the 9mm might really pay dividends.  If the police only fired eight instead of 16 rounds in the first of the two preceding examples, then clearly there’d be no way they could injure nine innocent civilians, and if indeed the 9mm round is less ‘lethal’ than a .40 caliber, the chances of fatal injuries on innocent bystanders also drops.

The same issues apply equally to ourselves.  Even if we train more rigorously than police officers, the additional overlay of adrenalin and fear will destroy much of the ‘skill’ we have calmly obtained in a relaxed safe training class at the local range, and we too may be wildly firing rounds everywhere except on target.

Just like police officers and federal agents, we not only need good training but we also need a firearm that is easily controlled and operated.  And, for 99% of people, no matter how well they say they can shoot a .40 caliber pistol, the chances are they can shoot the same pistol in a 9mm chambering even better and more effectively.

The really amusing part of this story?  At the same time that the FBI and many police departments are returning back ‘down’ to 9mm, the military is once more having another look at its M9 and considering a shift back to a larger caliber.  Some special military units still use (or have returned to) .45 caliber pistols, but these units tend to be very highly trained, where the abilities of their personnel and their training more than compensate for any extra difficulty in controlling the higher powered pistols.  But for your average infantryman who also seldom turns to a pistol, it remains unclear if the military will switch back to .45 or some other caliber, or stick with 9mm.

Bottom Line Summary

We’re not saying that any pistol caliber is better than any other pistol caliber.  Indeed, if we had to be pinned down to a statement, we’d say that all pistol calibers are bad, and we’d definitely say that you should spend your energy in training, not in seeking a pistol caliber that will spare you the need for training.

But, having made that comment, we do agree with the new FBI finding that a larger number of well placed 9mm rounds will always be more effective than a smaller number of poorly placed larger caliber rounds, and we agree with their decision to return to the more easily handled 9mm caliber.

Our favorite pistol is a 9mm Glock 17.  We also have Glock 19, 26 and 34 pistols, so we have all four of the double stacked Glock 9mm pistols.  We do have other caliber pistols too – .40, .45, revolver calibers, and smaller semi-auto calibers too, all the way down to .22 and .32.  We love our M1911 .45 semi-auto and sometimes carry it, but most of the time, our Glock 17 is our first choice.

Our .40 (a Glock 22) stays in the gun safe and is never touched, other than for when demonstrating to friends why the 9mm is so much nicer and easier to control than the .40!

We own other brands of 9mm pistol also, and have shot just about every major style of 9mm pistol.  Some are nice and some are nasty, but no matter what else we sometimes trial, we always come back to our Glocks.

As preppers, you want to have an ultra-reliable, easy-to-maintain pistol that uses a standard caliber of cartridge.  Glock pistols chambered in 9mm come close to max on all three of those scales.  Others might get close, but we feel that overall the Glock 9mm remains a prepper’s best choice.

Please see our four part series on choosing a prepper pistol for a detailed discussion on the entire topic of how to find a suitable pistol.