Feb 242013
Your mom knew what she was saying when she told you to eat your vegetables.

Your mom knew what she was saying when she told you to eat your vegetables.

You already realize that once TSHTF, food will no longer grow on trees.

Well, okay, to the literal-minded of you, of course, apples etc will still grow on trees.  What we mean is that food will no longer be cheap and plentiful, requiring no more effort on your part than a drive to the local supermarket and paying a relatively small amount of money for a relatively large amount of food.

Instead, for most people, providing food for their family will become pretty much their primary activity for most of most days, and they’ll have little spare food left over from their labors.

So, obviously enough, if you waste, say, 10% of the food that comes into your house and kitchen, that means you have to work 10% harder than if you didn’t waste that food.

But there’s another issue that might be more subtle, but which is almost as important.

Saving on Food Means Saving on Water and Energy Too

Yes, food will become very precious and in short supply.  But one or two other things will also almost surely become very precious and in short supply too.  The first of these is water.  Depending on where you live and your water sources, you may find that at some times of the year (or, worse, at all times of the year) you do not conveniently have as much water as you might wish.

The second of these is energy – particularly in the form of electricity, but also more generally in the form of heat and fuel.

So let’s think about the first of these things first, and the second thing, second.  If you have a water shortage, you probably do things like take shorter showers, right?  You’re probably also careful to not flush the toilet more than necessary, and perhaps go easy on washing dishes and clothing too.  Maybe with some care, you can reduce your domestic daily water consumption from 75 – 100 gallons per person down to 50 – 75 gallons, and if you are fastidious, you could get as low as 25 – 50 gallons.

But the greatest need for water is outside your retreat.  It is in the fields, where you water your crops and feel your cattle and other farm animals.  You will probably use 100 times more water in the fields for agricultural purposes than you do in your retreat for household purposes.  So here’s the thing – if you can cut down your food waste by even 2% or 3%, then if you don’t need to grow 2% or 3% more food, the water saving from this will allow you to take long showers whenever you like.

Perhaps the extreme consumer of water is growing cattle.  Depending on your preferred study and analysis, it takes anywhere from 440 gallons to 2500 gallons of water per pound of beef that ends up going in your pot.  If we take a half-way point of 1500 gallons, and if we say you use 50 gallons of water a day, each pound of beef represents a month’s water supply.  That’s not a problem if water is plentiful, but if it is scarce, then it is a massive constraint.

A pound of chicken requires ‘only’ 500 gallons of water.  A pound of corn requires 110 gallons, a pound of wheat 150 gallons, a single egg requires 400 gallons, and a pound of potatoes only needs 10 gallons of water.  (Go to this page, guess at the values, then submit the form for the correct answers and data sources.)

Although your food savings may allow you to take longer showers, they will probably be cold.  Because there is the other constraint that you’re sure to be facing – energy shortages.

You can probably guess what we are about to say.  Growing your food requires a lot of energy – either your energy, or energy from horses and other animals that are helping you, and/or energy from farm machinery if you have fuel for them.

Indeed, you can get locked in a nasty cycle – growing crops to convert into bio-diesel and ethanol to power the machines you need to use to grow the crops you need to power the machines.  That’s a nasty loop to get into.

The bottom line for energy however, is the same as it is for water.  Small savings in the net amount of food you require and consume will translate to bigger savings in the energy you need to produce the food.

Almost Half of All Food is Currently Wasted

Currently, we live in an extremely wasteful society.  At present, estimates suggest that 40% of all food in the US is wasted, uneaten.  Waste occurs at all steps of the process – in the field, in distribution, and in the supermarket – not just in your house of course, but household waste is still a large and controllable part of this.

One could even say that at present, with food costs low, it makes sense to waste food.  It can be more of a hassle, and more of a time cost, to not waste food.  For example, carrots cost $1/lb or less, and potatoes maybe 20c/lb.  If you earn $30 an hour, taking five more minutes of time to save a pound of carrots or potatoes doesn’t make sense.  The five minutes of time is sort of worth $2.50, whereas you are only saving between 20c and $1 from an activity that has a ‘time cost’ of $2.50.

This is a far from perfect calculation, however, many people perceive, and more or less correctly so, that currently the time costs of being frugal outweigh the savings involved.

The present reality is reflected in other forms too.  For example, if you have a choice between making some vegetable soup from scratch, or opening a tin of Campbell’s soup, many people will reach for the Campbell’s.  Making it yourself might save you $1 in ingredients, but might cost you half an hour or even an hour in extra time.  Ignoring issues such as the quality of the final finished soup, most people understand the value of saving an hour of time and will choose the commercially prepared soup.

But this will all change when the food you eat is not grown by low-cost labor and high levels of mechanization, with no appreciable shortages of anything, probably thousands of miles away and speedily/efficiently flown from their field to your front door, but instead is grown with little mechanization and probably by yourself and your immediate neighbors only.

You are more likely to find that it takes you much more than five minutes of time, as well as lots of resource, to grow a pound of carrots or potatoes, and so if you can save a pound by spending five minutes doing something, it is time well spent.  And as for those cans of soup – they won’t exist at all.

So, how to reduce food waste?  It is easier than you think.  Here are four simple considerations.

1.  Change how you prepare food to minimize waste in preparation

Try to change your cooking style to minimize the waste.  For example, scrub rather than peel potatoes, and the same for carrots.  This will not only reduce your waste, but will increase the nutritional benefits – much of the vitamins and minerals in vegetables are closest to the outside.

If you trim the stalk off broccoli or cabbage or whatever, consider using that for a soup base.

The same thing for the water you boil your vegetables in – that is now a rich nutrient broth of vitamins and minerals.  Reuse it the next time you boil vegetables, then use it for broth or soup too.

Soups (and stews) will become your friends.  They are both great ways of using up leftovers, and reducing the amount of waste that would otherwise occur.

Okay, you can still trim some fat off your meat, but in what is almost certainly a more active lifestyle, maybe you can leave a bit more fat on the meat than you normally would.

2.  Change the type of food you grow

Oh – one more thing about meat.  Beef is by far a more energy and resource intensive type of meat to raise than pork or poultry.  You know that pork is cheaper than beef in the supermarket meat case at present, but the real difference in cost, when you have no subsidies, is much more than double.  Plan to raise pigs, and go easy on the beef.

You’ll of course want (need!) to do a similar thing with the fruits and vegetables you grow as well.  The crops you raise will be determined of course in part by the climate and soil conditions you have, and by the need to rotate crops, but also by which items will give you the greatest yield for the least amount of effort and energy.

At present, with home gardens, people have the luxury of growing the vegetables and fruits they most enjoy, but in a survival situation, you need to switch to those items which return the most nutrition per unit of energy, water, and time expended on your part, and which yield the most output from the smallest amount of ground.  Sure – you might have 10 acres around your retreat to cultivate, but the less distance and more compact your gardening, the more efficient its management becomes when you are more likely to be walking than driving everywhere.

You want to consider seasonality of when foods need to be planted and can be harvested, and also storage issues.  A fruit or vegetable that doesn’t last long and can’t be easily stored for extended time (eg lettuce) is not nearly as sensible a choice as something that can be stored and consumed over the winter season.  Chances are you’ll be growing plenty of potatoes, which are not only a high yielding crop but also a crop that can be stored for an extended time.

3.  Change what you do with cooked food to minimize leftover waste

Adjust the quantities you cook so you don’t end up with too much leftovers that eventually get tossed out, uneaten and spoiled.  Sure, it makes sense to cook in moderately bulk quantities – that can be both time and energy-efficient, but don’t overdo it, and also remember you always have to guard against appetite fatigue setting in.

Be careful at ensuring that you properly store and eat any leftovers you create – for example, quickly cover and refrigerate leftovers after cooking them.

There is nothing worse than leaving a pot of something, especially uncovered, on the stove and allowing it to naturally cool.  As the item cools, it goes through a temperature band which represents the ideal temperature band for bacteria, yeasts and molds to grow, and anything that might land in the item from the general air, or perhaps be introduced by handling, will find itself in an ideal environment to grow.  Keep all pots covered, and once you’ve finished serving out the food, quickly cool them then prepare them for storage, ideally in sealed containers with little or no headspace for air.

At present, with plentiful cheap energy, it is fine to cool things in the fridge, but in an energy scarce situation, you will probably choose to cool them with a water bath before then refrigerating them.

Depending on the item, cooked food may last longer than raw food, so plan what you have in the way of raw food and how/when you cook it.  As we said in the preceding paragraph, stews and soups will be your friends.  Don’t let appetite fatigue set in – you must vary your meals, but you also will find that some types of food preparation work better for you than others in terms of the ‘yield’ of edible food compared to raw food you start with, how much energy it takes to cook the food, and how long the prepared item lasts and can be eaten.

4.  Don’t throw away any food items – use everything in some way or another

Disable the waste disposal unit in your sink and instead place a filter over the drain so that no food goes down the drain and all is salvaged for some purpose.

This will help you two ways.  It will salvage a lot of food scraps that otherwise would disappear, and it will reduce the biomass inputs into your septic system (we are assuming your retreat will almost surely have a septic system).  Remember that pretty much all the solid that goes into the septic system will sooner or later need to be cleaned/cleared out of the tanks, and when you consider that after TEOTWAWKI, you can’t just call the local septic pumping service and have their truck come up and do it all, as if by magic, in an easy simple procedure.  You’ll have to do it yourself.  It will be smelly, dirty, and nasty; definitely something you want to do as infrequently as possible.

Any truly waste food unfit for humans should be fed to animals if possible.  And if that still leaves some items left over, put them into your compost bins.


Your life in a Level 3 situation will be defined and constrained by two related factors – the amount of energy available to you, compared to the amount you need; and the amount of food available to you, also compared to the amount you need.

Because growing food is an energy intensive process, anything and everything you can do to minimize your food needs will be beneficial, and help you better manage both your food needs and your energy needs.

With food, the adage ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ is very true.  Every reduction in the amount of food that goes into your kitchen will greatly pay off (maybe nine-fold, maybe more) in reducing the inputs you need to grow the food in the first place, giving you a better lifestyle overall and/or making you hopefully food ‘wealthy’ rather than food ‘poor’.

Jan 042013
The food we eat is increasingly produced further and further away from where we live.

The food we eat is increasingly produced further and further away from where we live.

One of the greatest problems that encourages us to become preppers is that the overwhelming majority of people no longer provide/create/grow their own food.

These days, over 80% of all Americans live in urban/suburban areas, meaning only one in five people are in the countryside, and not all of these rural dwellers are involved in food production.  Barely 100 years ago, the situation was almost exactly the opposite – for every one person in a city, there were four in the countryside, most of whom were involved in agricultural production.

So, in a worst case scenario back then, only one in five or one in six people were reliant on the other four or five people for their food.  But now, maybe ten people are totally reliant on each rural/farm worker for all their food.

If anything occurs to stop the flow of food from the one person who grows/provides it to the ten or however many who rely upon that food to survive, we clearly have huge problems.

In addition, we have problems because the one person who makes the food for the ten others is reliant on all sorts of machinery and productivity aids to enable him to grow so much food so efficiently.  If something happens to the productivity aids, he’ll be struggling to provide food just for himself and his family, and won’t have any left over for the other ten people who are relying on his ability to grow food productivity for them.

Our article on Urban Drift discusses some of these phenomena in more detail.  And here’s an interesting chart that shows that growing urbanization is not just a US trend – it is a worldwide trend.

Our Rural Infrastructure is Being Neglected and Abused

Our point in this article is to show how no-one seems to care about the decline in our rural infrastructure.  That’s actually understandable, in a way.  Back when almost everyone lived very close to the land, it was the central part of the entire country’s consciousness.  But today, some people who live in cities have never seen a farm or a farm animal, and don’t know anyone in the circle of family and friends who lives/works on a farm either.  Our rural foundations are no longer a core part of our awareness.

The reality of rural neglect is reflected in these comments by former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack – now US Secretary of Agriculture.  He says that rural America is becoming ‘less relevant’.

He is simultaneously right and wrong.  Sadly, safeguarding, securing, and boosting our rural economy getting less attention than it needs, even though our reliance on rural America increases steadily in line with our greater and greater concentration of agricultural production in the hands of so few.  Rural America is still relevant to us, but we don’t seem to accept that so willingly now.

And so we have city-dweller idealists writing up new legislation and new restrictions on farming operations, based not on a real world understanding of farming requirements, but on a ‘don’t confuse me with the facts’ idealized way of how food production should operate.  Some of these burdens are ecologically based (such as the famous threat that plowing fields shouldn’t create dust), and others are financial attacks, such as the provision to tax farm estates valued at over $1 million at a 55% rate.  This article exposes the threat to farm viability from the new death tax.

A death tax is perhaps appropriate, because it exposes society’s clear death wish – ie, to destroy our local sources of food production, making family farms less viable (and/or increasing their costs and thereby our food costs too) and either concentrating still more farming potential in corporate megafarms (companies don’t ‘die’ so aren’t threatened by death taxes) or forcing us to turn to increasingly distant food sources in other countries.

So we are changing from eating the food we grow ourselves, to eating the food our neighbors grew, to eating the food that farmers grew less than a day’s horse and cart journey away, to eating the food less than a day’s truck journey away, to eating the food less than a day’s plane journey away, to eating food grown by farmers in some other country, thousands or even tens of thousands of miles away from us.

In the past, when four or five farmers were growing food for each city dweller, if anything failed or went wrong, it was no big problem.  The food was largely being grown locally, and by hand.  Indeed, what could go wrong?

But now we are relying on farming operations totally out of our control, thousands of miles away.  If fuel supplies become restricted, how will that food travel thousands of miles in only the very few days it has before it perishes?  It probably can’t and won’t.

Implications for Preppers

The implication for us as preppers is starkly obvious.  In any type of disruptive event, we’ll lose our access to the food supplies we currently rely upon.  Three implications :

  • First, we need to be more aware – and supportive – of rural issues and infrastructure within the US.
  • Second, we need to have a sufficient supply of food on hand to allow us to survive a loss of third-party food supplies.
  • Third, we need to have a way to transition to growing all our own food before our stored food is exhausted.

The second issue is fairly obvious, but the need to be able to grow all our food is one with major implications – particularly if you live in a central city apartment.  Your balcony won’t be big enough to grow enough food.  You need a rural retreat with sufficient arable land to allow you to grow the food you need.

Ideally, that retreat should already be in operation as a farm.  That way, there are fewer unknowns and already existing routines and processes and procedures, and less to go wrong if you need to move there in a hurry.

Dec 022012

Bulk freeze-dried food for sale at Wal-Mart. Although their prices are prominently displayed, their real values are obscured.

Most preppers keep three sorts of food supplies.

The first type of supply is to keep larger than normal stocks of ordinary food items with typical two or three year expirations.  They simply eat this as they wish, in careful rotation, so that all food is eaten prior to it expiring, and as/when they see specials on these food items, they replenish their supplies at the best prices.

This sort of food supply will be enough to see you through a typical Level 1 scenario of from at least a few days to some weeks in a severe Level 1 event, without access to external supplies of food.

The second type of supply is to consciously buy some food products in bulk – food products which have moderately extended shelf lives (say 3 – 5 or more years) – an obvious example could be rice – and hopefully to use those up, prior to expiry, in the ordinary course of day-to-day living and eating too.

This sort of food supply will come handy if you are moving into a Level 2 type scenario, and hopefully you have many months of these types of bulk foods available to you.

The third type of supply is to buy some stocks of freeze-dried foods, typically with a 25 year shelf life.  These are put into the far corner of your storage area, and as for what happens in 25 years time, few of us have yet to have kept such things for so long that they are now starting to approach the end of their shelf life.

This sort of food supply is your ultimate emergency reserve – for example, if things have degenerated still further into a Level 3 situation, and you’ve had a bad year for your harvest, then you might supplement whatever food you did grow with a top up from your emergency long-term supplies.

It goes without saying that the freeze-dried food is the most expensive, and the bulk food the cheapest.  That’s unsurprising, and unavoidable, and fortunately, you don’t need to tie up a lot of your money in the 25 year freeze-dried foods.  The money you invest in the first and second types of food storage is not money you’ll never see again; indeed, by buying bulk foods and regular foods in larger quantities when on special, your food prices overall will drop appreciably.

But you should buy some long-life freeze-dried foods as well.  How much?  That’s something for a separate discussion, and it really has to be considered as part of what other foods you have available, how much storage space you have, and – of course – how much money you have, too.

This article is here to give you a very useful tip about how to select the freeze-dried foods you choose to buy and store.  The difference in cost as between the best value and the worst value freeze-dried foods is enormous, and the manufacturers don’t make it easy for you to understand and compare values – either within their own product ranges, or as a comparison between Brand X and Brand Y.

You’ll note that most freeze-dried foods are described in three ways – their cost (of course), the net weight of food within the pail or can, and the number of servings that the manufacturer claims the food can be subdivided into.  There is another piece of information, required by US food packaging laws, but it isn’t boldly shown; you have to look carefully for it, and this is a vital piece of information – the number of calories per serving.

What is a Serving

You probably already know, from normal life, normal foods, and normal eating, that the concept of ‘a serving’ is a very abstract and non-standard concept.  Sometimes you’ll find yourself eating multiple servings of something and still feeling hungry – as well as very guilty for your apparent gluttony; other times, you might find that a single serving is plenty.

There is no formal legal definition of what a serving is.  Generally, manufacturers prefer to define their servings as small as possible.  This does two things – it makes the amount of food they are selling you seem to be more than it truly is, and it makes all the ‘bad’ things in the food seem less prominent than they are.  Clearly, if they can split a portion of food into three suggested servings instead of two, then each serving will have 50% less fat and 50% less cholesterol and so on than if the servings were more realistically sized.

So, in evaluating any types of food, ignore the concept of how many servings you are buying for your money.  Read on for the most important measure.

How Much Food is Enough?

The answer to that depends on if you are eating brussels sprouts or chocolate, I guess!  Nutritionists can discuss and debate this topic at great length, but we’ll cut straight to the key points that matter from a point of view of prepping and surviving in adversity.  Warning – some gross over-simplifications follow, but the basic concepts are fair and properly stated.

The amount of food we need each day can be considered in three categories.  The first category is the number of calories it contains.  Our body needs energy to keep operating, and it gets that energy from the food we eat, and the amount of energy any given piece of food contains is represented by the calories it has.  More calories = more energy.

The second category is a need for ‘raw materials’ for our bodies – material to replenish our blood supply, our dead cells, and so on.  This is where a consideration for the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and that sort of thing comes into play.  But these issues, while potentially important longer term, are not so immediately vital in the short-term.  Our body can last longer without a complete supply of raw materials than it can without energy, and furthermore, most of the time if you are eating enough food for energy purposes, and with a reasonable mix of different components in the food, you’ll ‘automatically’ be getting sufficient raw materials as well, without needing to consider the issues in any detail.

The third category is a simple need to fill one’s stomach.  Swallowing a single magic concentrated energy pill once a day might supply us the energy we need, but it would be an enormously unsatisfying way of doing so and would leave us feeling hungry for food, even if we didn’t actually need energy.  It is good to actually have some volume of food pass through our system, and it is what our bodies expect and desire.

There’s a semi-related fourth point as well – the need for variety in foods eaten to avoid appetite fatigue – an unlikely sounding ailment which can actually become fatal (click the link for a relevant article).

So, the key parameter we need to consider when working out how much food we require, each day, is to understand how many calories of energy we will need.  The answer to that question depends on what we are doing each day.

If we’re sitting around at home, doing nothing, we’re not working as much and not using energy.  If we’re spending a hard day working outside, then we’re using a great deal more energy.  If you’re young and growing, you need more energy than if you’re old and with a slower metabolic rate.  If you’re in a warm environment, you need considerably less energy than if you’re somewhere cold (just like your residence, the colder it is outside, the more energy you use to keep the inside warm).

The number of calories you need also depends on your weight – the heavier you are, the more calories you need because there’s simply more of you to keep energized and powered up.  You can browse through the internet and come up with a dozen different suggested numbers, all of which are reasonably similar, but having slightly different assumptions about how active and how heavy you are.  Here’s one such page, and here’s a somewhat more helpful page that helps you to work out your own calculation for the energy you need.

Note also, as explained on the second of these two pages, that 10% (more or less) of the energy you take in from the food you eat gets used up in processing the food you eat.  Only 90% of the energy you eat is actually available for your body to use.

So, pick a number, any number (some say to use 2000 calories for adult women and 2500 for adult men, but increase these numbers if you’re actively doing manual labor) and that tells you about how much energy you need a day.

Equating ‘Servings’ to Daily Food Needs

Now, as you evaluate different freeze-dried food products, ignore the count of the servings they allegedly contain, and ignore also their net dry weight of food.  The only thing that really matters, for our purposes of surviving in adversity, is how many calories they provide.

You will quickly notice a surprising truth.  The number of calories in a ‘serving’ can vary enormously, from as few as 30 and up to as many as 300 or more.  You’d need to eat ten times as many servings of the low caloric food as you would of the high caloric food, but the manufacturers consider both to be ‘a serving’, which provides further proof, if you need it, of the nonsense of considering food in terms of servings.

We’re now so close that we’ve almost revealed the strategy for how to maximize your food storage budget in terms of the freeze-dried food you buy.  You don’t need to know the simple cost of a #10 can of food, and neither do you care what the net weight of food is contained inside it.  Even more, you could care less how many servings it can provide.

The only thing that matters is how many calories you are getting per dollar you spend.  The more calories you get, the better the value.

The difference in calories per dollar is stunningly enormous.  Here’s a table where we went to one well-known supplier of freeze-dried food – Mountain Home – and simply took the first twenty items on their website and calculated out how many calories you were getting per dollar spent on each item.  Then, for no reason other than abstract interest, we also showed the cost in calories per dollar for some generic foodstuffs.

Our point is not to show that freeze-dried foods are more expensive than bulk rice and flour.  We all know that, already, and if we were looking for the cheapest freeze-dried foods, we’d be looking at large pails rather than #10 cans.  Our point is simply to show the huge variation in value, not only by carefully shopping between different manufacturers and package sizes, but also by simply looking at one single manufacturer’s range of #10 can sized bulk foods.

Item Price Servings   cal/serving   $/serving   cal/$
MH Beef Stew $35.49 10 210 $3.55 59
MH Chicken Stew $35.99 10 240 $3.60 67
MH Chicken a la King $35.99 11 280 $5.33 53
MH Chicken Alfredo $34.49 9 250 $3.83 65
MH Chicken Teriyaki $29.99 10 230 $3.00 77
MH Diced Chicken $48.39 14 170 $3.46 49
MH Ground Beef $44.59 18 290 $2.48 117
MH Macaroni & Cheese $28.99 9 310 $3.22 96
MH Beef Stroganoff $28.29 10 260 $2.83 92
MH Diced Beef $54.99 15 130 $3.67 35
MH Creamed Beef $46.19 54 120 $0.86 140
MH Chili Mac with Beef $25.49 10 240 $2.55 94
MH Corn $21.49 22 90 $0.98 92
MH Green Beans $23.69 20 30 $1.18 25
MH Peas $20.99 23 80 $0.91 88
MH White Rice Instant $17.99 24 180 $0.75 240
MH Cottage Cheese $65.39 20 110 $3.27 34
MH Crackers – Pilot Bread $20.29 67 50 $0.30 167
MH Sliced Strawberries $29.99 16 40 $1.87 21
MH Sliced Bananas $25.69 20 70 $1.28 55
Bulk raw rice (per lb) 90c/lb 1616 1796
Bulk raw flour (per lb) 50c/lb 1592 3184
Bulk raw potatoes (per lb) 20c/lb 352 1760
Bulk raw carrots (per lb) 50c/lb 192 384


Freeze-dried foods seem to be all similarly priced in terms of dollars per container of food.  But in terms of the most relevant measure – the number of calories of food value/energy you get per dollar spent, there is a twelve-fold spread between the best and worst values.

For reasons of preventing appetite fatigue, you don’t want to only buy one type of freeze-dried food.  But, in choosing a range of different items, clearly you want to concentrate on the higher value items and avoid the items with very low values.

Nov 242012

This NY Times photo shows a prepper family and their supplies. But there’s as much missing as is included in what they proudly show us here.

Here’s an interesting article with a great picture to start with – as you can see, it shows a family of eight with their stockpile of prepping supplies.

Pretty impressive, yes?  Everything from solar panels to salt, and quite literally, from soup to nuts.  The man who heads the family is a ‘professional prepper’ so you’d expect him to have a good inventory of things.

But – and it is a huge but…..  what can you not see in the picture?  What is missing?  While there’s plenty of food, and a strange assortment of other ‘self help’ items for the future, there are also many important things not present in the picture at all.

For example, they’ve a bucket of laundry detergent, but no bars of soap.  Talking about soap, where is the toilet paper?  Towels?  Spare clothing?

How about a book or two to read?  Paper to write on, and pens to write with?  Some board games and packs of cards?

They’ve got a dismayingly small-sized generator, but what about lights – or, more to the point, spare light bulbs?  It also seems their total gas supply is four 5-gallon gas cans – probably enough gas to power their generator for a day, but no more than that.  And while they have a propane burner of dubious value, we don’t see any propane.  They have some solar panels, but how about batteries to store the charge from the panels?  Radios and other electrical and electronic goods?

We’re not seeking to criticize this family, and almost certainly they have lots more resources that are not included in this photo, and it could even be debated if the newspaper didn’t deliberately choose to omit a lot of the resources the family has so as to make them look slightly ridiculous for what they apparently do and don’t have.

But the picture does illustrate an essential point.  There’s a lot more to prepping than stocking up on long life food and barrels of water.

Sure, without food and water, you’re not going to live for long.  But is it your intention to live a miserable life of extreme hardship, or is it your intention to be able to live adequately – not luxuriously, but not in great discomfort, either?

Particularly in a Level 1 or 2 situation (click link for definition) your ability to survive and thrive, and your ability to maintain your morale and will to succeed will be as much measured by the amount of toilet paper you have as by the amount of dried food.  To keep everyone in your group feeling positive and confident of your ability to get through the situation and emerge successfully out the other end, you want to keep as many of life’s semi-essentials available as possible.

The good news is that a year’s supply of light bulbs or toilet paper costs very little.  The same for a small library of books, and some pen and paper for people to keep their own personal journals.  Many of these ‘optional extras’ cost very little, and the reason that preppers often overlook them is not due to lack of money, but rather due to lack of forethought.

There’s another category of essential items that also doesn’t appear in this photo, but which you need to consider.  Tools and other things necessary for maintaining the things in your retreat, and a generous inventory of spare parts to replace the things that will almost certainly fail during a Level 1/2 situation.

A tool kit (we recommend as many hand powered tools as possible rather than air or electric tools, for obvious reasons) is not expensive, and some of the more essential spare part items for the various things around your retreat are not necessarily expensive either.  That way, when something fails, you actually feel good and experience a small triumph when you produce the necessary spare part and the tools to replace it with, rather than feeling abject and despondent as, little by little, item by item, your conveniences and comforts fail, making life increasingly less pleasant.

What Do You Need?

It is very hard to come up with a definitive list of all the non-food and non-essential items that would help to make a Level 1/2 situation more endurable, because everyone has a different lifestyle and a different concept of what may or may not necessarily be essential.

But there’s a way for you to start to build your own list.  What we suggest you do is get a tiny pocket notebook (we use one which measures only 2 1/2″ x 4″ with about 50 pages in it) and carry it with you, everywhere you go.  Any time you use any thing, write it down in the notebook, along with whatever you can think of that is related to the thing you are using.

For example, you turn on a light, and that makes you think :  Spare switch, lightbulb, fuse.  It might also make you think :  electrical wire, screwdrivers, side cutters, pliers, electrical tape, multi-meter, soldering iron, and who knows what else.

For example, you go to the bathroom, and that makes you think :  Toilet paper, water, sewage.  It might also make you think :  ‘toilet spare parts kit’, soap, towels, plumbing snake, cleaning fluids, bucket, and who knows what else.

You turn on television, and that makes you think :  Television, electricity, spare parts for tv.  It might also make you think :  satellite receiver, old-fashioned external antenna, radio, shortwave radio, walkie-talkies, and who knows what else.

You turn the temperature up when it gets cold, and that makes you think :  Thermostat, furnace parts, filters, humidifiers.  It might also make you think energy sources, alternative heating strategies, insulation, warm clothes, CO and CO2 detectors, and who knows what else.

You go to the kitchen to heat up a can of beans and that makes you think :  Can openers, pots and pans, cutlery and crockery.  It might also make you think :  knives, knife sharpeners, kitchen gadgets in general (preferably hand-operated) and who knows what else.

As you live your normal life, continue entering the details of things you use and do into your notebook as often as you can, for everything you do, and as you can see from the examples above, try to think not just about exactly the thing you are doing, but the immediate and reasonably related other items that the thing you are doing/using relies upon as well.

Finding Subtle Obscured Dependencies

Note from the examples above that you try to think through the layers of dependencies and consequential issues with each thing you do or use.  If you find yourself thinking about the need for laundry detergent, you should try to think through the entire washing clothes process, which of course includes drying them after washing has been complete.  How will you do that when you can’t just turn on the drier unit next to your washing machine?  If the answer is ‘hang them on a washing line’ you next thing ‘hang them with what?’ and realize you not only need a clothes line but also clothes pegs.  Next, for ‘bonus’ points, think also about the life of the clothes and other things you’re washing.  If you have children, what will happen when they grow out of their present clothes.  What will happen when you’ve worn holes in your shoes, socks and clothes – and think not just about replacing, but also having repair kits to extend the life of your garments too.

Most of all, be alert for some of the things that we take so much for granted because they almost never fail; but when they do fail, they can have major impacts on our lives.  This starts with the structural integrity of your dwelling itself and external threats that might be posed – do you have trees around the property that could – either now or in five years time – fall and crash through your house?  What is the state of its roof?  Might it start leaking?  Do you have large picture windows, and if so, what would you do if a pane of glass was smashed in the large picture window?

So, how long should you do keep recording everything you use and rely on for?  We’d suggest two years.  That seems like a very long time.  Of course, the number of new items you’ll uncover in the second year will be much less than in the first year, but the longer you do it, the more robust and resilient your preparations will become and the more likely you’ll be to uncover/encounter some of the unusual but important problems you might have.

The first few weeks will be a rush of a huge number of new entries into your notebook, and then things will start to slow down, but each new season will bring about new seasonal related issues and requirements.

As time and money allows, you should of course work slowly but steadily towards addressing each of the items on your list and coming up with a suitable preparation.

How Much Do You Need?

How high is up?  How long is a piece of string?  And how large an inventory of food and non-food supplies do you need?  Three questions, all with no exact answers.

Ideally, you want to retain some balance in your stockpiling of items.  There is no point in having a decade’s worth of light bulbs if you only have three months of food, is there.  On the other hand, once you have laid in a three-month supply of food, and the means to ensure a reasonable ongoing supply of water, then you might want to pause in your food stockpiling efforts and add in some of the other non-food items that can keep your overall quality of life at an acceptable level, before continuing to add more food.

By all means stock up more than you need of some items, because you might be able to use the extra supplies of the item to trade with other people.  But if all the preppers for miles around have stockpiled extra quantities of salt and hard liquor, then you’re going to find the supply and demand equation for those items will have depressed their value greatly.  Try and think of things which other people are less likely to stock up on.  Ideally such things should last forever rather than have a short-lived expiry date, be of high utility value and low-cost for you to buy up front, and be able to be stored in a small amount of space.

Packs of playing cards and books of card game rules might be an example of a ‘quality of life’ thing – they are inexpensive to buy, last forever in storage, and with the probable demise of high-tech electronic entertainment options, might become very popular in the future again.  Even better still, while a pack of cards can last a long time, sooner or later the cards will get damaged and lost, and so you stand to sell more packs of cards from time to time to the same people who bought them from you in the first place.

On the other hand, toilet paper, while low value and long-lived, and definitely a consumable item, is perhaps not so great as a trade item to stockpile, because it does take up a lot of space.

Use your imagination, and your own life experiences as recorded in your notebook, to come up with not only what you need, but also what might be great to keep spares of as trade items, and try to more or less balance your food/water and non-food/water prepping so that you have adequate amounts of everything.


Sometimes we feel there is too much focus on food and water, and too little focus on ‘everything else’ when it comes to preparing for a future adverse scenario.

Of course, without adequate shelter, water and food, life itself is at risk.  But once you’re ensured the ability to sustain life, you then want to start to focus on improving the quality of your life, by prudently adding non-essential but greatly appreciated extra things.

Keeping a notebook and listing everything you do and creatively working through that to everything that the things you do/use are in turn dependent upon can help you come up with the list of non-food items you would benefit from having.

Nov 042012

Most of the medicines in your medicine cabinet remain completely effective for five and even ten or more years past their expiry dates.

We wrote before about shelf life issues in general, and pointed out that the expiry dates on most medicines are ridiculously conservative, and that it is common for medicines to retain full potency for many years subsequent to their printed expiry date – assuming they have been stored in optimum conditions.

Here’s an interesting article that cites two studies of the extended effectiveness of medicines beyond their stated expiry dates.

The larger study was conducted by the DoD and FDA, and tested 3,005 different drugs.  Of these, 88% maintained their full potency for an average of 5 and a half years after their official expiration dates.

The other study was by the University of California, San Francisco, which looked at eight different medicines which contained, between them, 15 different active ingredients.  The samples were between 28 and 40 years old, and in their testing, the researchers determined that 12 of the 14 ingredients tested still retained at least 90% of their potency (the two exceptions being aspirin and amphetamines).

Conventional wisdom says you should throw away old medicines that have passed their expiry dates.  We disagree.  Apart from the specific exceptions of insulin, liquid suspension antibiotics and nitroglycerin (all of which do have short shelf lives), you can – and should – safely keep and use almost all other medicines for at least 10 years past their expiry dates.

Although the UCSF study showed that aspirin and amphetamines slowly lost their full effectiveness over extended time, they still remained partially effective and if your aspirin isn’t working as well as it formerly did, that is hardly life threatening and easily remedied by simply taking more aspirin.

We would recommend, with prescription medications, that you get new prescriptions as appropriate, but stockpile unused portions of prescriptions and use the older medicine first, rotating it the same as you would food.  Pay attention to the recommended storage conditions for each medicine – some are best kept at room temperature, others in cooler environments, and all of course should be in a dark area away from sunlight.

The traditional bathroom cabinet is often not the best place to store medicines, due to it having substantial variations of temperature and humidity.

Note that you should always take all of any course of antibiotics.  Never stop part way through just because you seem to be feeling better.  So it will be more difficult to stockpile antibiotics, although we’ve found many physicians are understanding and willing to prescribe extra antibiotics – particularly if you explain the need as perhaps a desire to have some emergency antibiotics prior to traveling to a foreign country.

Note also – we are neither doctors nor pharmacists.  If you are being treated for a serious life-threatening illness, you should be careful before taking potentially less effective very old medicine.  If in doubt, don’t risk your health now in favor of creating a supply of medications for some possible future need.

Oct 142012

More freight is moved a greater distance in the US each year by rail than by any other method.

The movement of people away from rural areas and into the cities has meant that food has to travel longer distances between the people who grow it and the people who eat it.  The evolution from lots of small manufacturing companies to only a few mega-companies (in each industry) has caused a similar increase in distance as between where products are manufactured and where they are sold/consumed/used.

We can no longer obtain everything we need in our lives, ourselves, by walking or driving to the actual sources of the things we need and buying them directly.  We are reliant on other people, sometimes far away, transporting them to retail outlets conveniently close to us, and if those people stopped transporting the things we need, we’d not be able to go get them ourselves any more, because the distances are way too great.

Our ‘advanced’ economy also means that, in general, we are using more and more manufactured or processed or complicated things in our lives, rather than living primarily off items and objects produced locally.  Even if we could buy something we need locally, the chances are that the person who makes the thing we need is, himself, dependent on some raw material or essential ingredient that comes from far away.

We all sort of know this instinctively, but have you ever worked out what it actually means.  Here’s an interesting report about the nation’s rail system, and in particular, the table on page 6 is astonishing.  Without considering the distance the freight has to be moved, if you divide the total freight moved around the nation each year by the country’s population, for the last twenty years the answer has been a fairly consistent figure of 40 tons of freight is transported, each year, for each person living in the US.

This figure includes all sorts of things that we probably don’t even think about – the movement of fuel to power stations to create the electricity we use, for example, and not just stuff that needs to be moved to us for our consumption, but also the movement of stuff made by us, which is necessary for us to remain in employment.  It includes the domestic portion of goods being exported and also the domestic portion of goods being imported.

Our point is simply this.  Think about the magnitude of 40 tons of goods per person per year.  That’s almost a ton per week.  It is 220 lbs of materials of all different sorts, sizes and shapes, moved every day of the year, for each person in the country.  Some items are moved short distances only, others are moved from one side of the country to the other.

Now ask yourself – what would happen if something interfered with our nation’s transportation system, making it difficult for all this material to be efficiently moved every day (34.2 million tons every day)?  The answer, while unclear, is certainly not a positive one.

Now ask yourself the next question – is our nation’s transportation system a robust and secure system that can withstand occasional outages and service losses, or is it precariously balanced and vulnerable?

There are essentially five forms of freight hauling in the US.  Rail moves 39.5% of the total ton miles, followed by trucking (28.6%), pipelines (19.6%) and water (12.0%).  Air carries a mere 0.3% of total ton miles.

So air freight is an insignificant source of freight movements to start with.  Water freight is not something that can be appreciably grown – the few navigable rivers suitable for commercial barge freight are already being used for those purposes, and due to the slow speed of water traffic, it can only be used for some types of freight.

Pipelines show a surprisingly large percentage of total freight moved, but they are clearly only suited for some sorts of products – ie liquids and gases.  Pipelines are used to move bulk supplies of oil and gas around the country, but aren’t practical for just about anything else.

This leaves us with rail and trucking for just about everything else.  To a certain extent, it is fair to say that if there’s a reasonable sealed road, you can operate a truck on it, at least short-term (assuming there are no height, width, or loading restrictions).  In theory, the same is true of rail freight – if there’s a rail line, you can operate trains on it.

But let’s think some more about rail, which carries 39.5% of all freight (compared to trucking, which carries much less – 28.6%).  Rail is clearly a critical part of our freight system, and its importance is growing.  After decades of decline , about fifteen years ago rail freight experienced a turnaround, and has been steadily growing its share of long haul freight subsequently, in particular because it is such a cost-effective means of transportation.

First, a freight railroad needs high quality track for the very heavy trains to move over.  You can’t resurrect a stretch of abandoned rusting track, unevenly now misaligned, and with rotten cross-ties, and start operating freight trains over it immediately.  You’d probably need to upgrade the rail to a heavier type of rail, you’d need to redo the track ballast (and possibly even the underlying track bed) and the ties, and the signaling too, before you could start running trains.  There’s nothing impossible about doing that, but it for sure would take time.

Our nation does not have many railroads these days.  While there are about 140,000 miles of railroad track in total, much of this is on spurs, and there is not the same level of interconnected redundancy that there is with surface roads (of which there are 2.7 million miles of paved road plus plenty more unsealed road).

Have a look at this map (which only shows the major lines rather than minor spurs) then look at your state and count the number of ways trains can enter/exit your state.  If you live in WA, you have five paths, if you live in ID, you have six (or less – problems at key points inside the state could eliminate multiple paths in and out), if you are in MT, you have nine (or less), and so on.

The relatively small number of main railroads is exacerbated by ‘choke points’ on their routes – either tunnels or bridges.  In both cases, the loss of a tunnel or bridge would close a rail route for potentially many months or even years.

Okay, so maybe if a group of terrorists worked really hard, they could destroy 100 or 200 key bridges and tunnels that would bring the nation’s long distance rail traffic to almost a complete halt.  You can understand that, and you will probably also discount the likelihood of that occurring.

But there’s another entire level of vulnerability that you’re probably not even thinking of.  One of the big differences between rail and road traffic is that whereas road traffic is ‘self guided’, rail traffic has to be guided all the way.  The drivers of cars and trucks always know which side of the road to drive on, and rely on maps, GPS, and road signs to know where to turn to get to their destination.

Not so for rail.  Each train relies on a network of signals to tell it when it is safe to proceed or when it must stop and wait (even though the train’s driver might not know the reason for the delay or the rationale behind the ‘all clear/proceed’ signal), and every train relies on each switch that it crosses being set correctly, so that it is always switched onto the right track.

Signaling is an essential part of the safe and efficient operation of a rail system.  Most accidents (and nearly all of the preventable ones) that occur on a rail network are based on signaling failures.

Guess what.  Much/most of this control is managed by automated systems and computers these days.  If the computerized controllers were infected with a malicious bug, they might start switching east-bound trains onto tracks currently being used by west-bound trains, creating massive head-on collisions.  If the two oncoming trains were also controlled and timed so that the collisions would occur in cities, and if one train had inflammable or explosive materials, and the other train poisonous materials, the effects could be catastrophic.

In addition to setting switches incorrectly, a computer attack on railroad controllers could also misreport their status to the humans who do keep an overall supervisory level of control over their railroads.  They might think that a switch was set to ‘straight ahead’ whereas in reality the switch was set to ‘divert’.  Or maybe a switch could wait until one second before the train arrived at it to then switch over, at which point it would be too late for any override or other human response.

Of course, a switch that flicked over halfway through a train passing over it would simply derail the train and block the track for however long it takes to clear it.  It doesn’t necessarily take a railroad long to respond to and clear a single incident, but what if every train get derailed – how long to solve all those problems?

More benignly, the control systems could simply set all signals at stop.  The rail system would be paralyzed, and a return to manual control would massively reduce the volume of freight which could be transported.  Much of our rail system is single track – one track is shared alternately by trains traveling in opposite directions, a situation which requires careful sequencing and control.

Our point is this – there are some single points of vulnerability and failure that could essentially zero out our rail system if they were to fail.  And it isn’t just us hypothesizing about this – read this report where the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, specially refers to the vulnerability of railroads to computer/cyber attack.  Indeed, he talks about our nation being at risk of a cyber-Pearl Harbor.

Let’s think things through a little bit more.  If our rail system fails, we have only one fall-back option to replace the trains – truck based shipping.  But we don’t have the trucks available to suddenly handle a 150% increase in freight.  For every ten trucks on the road now, we’d need to add another 15 – where will they all come from?  And also, what would happen to our already congested roads?  If they suddenly had to handle 2.5 times the number of trucks there already are, what do you think will happen to congestion and travel times?

Even if we could miraculously get the extra trucks needed, the impact on our economy would be enormous.  Trucked freight costs five to ten times more than railed freight (per ton/mile).

Oh – and when we said, above, that road transportation is self guided, we’re only half right about that.  Think about driving anywhere – sure, you’ll follow street signs and use common sense, but there’s something else you’ll come across sooner or later.  Traffic lights.  As you know, even the failure of one single traffic signal can screw up traffic for blocks and blocks, and even if a policeman manually directs traffic, he never seems to do as good a job as a traffic light does automatically.

All traffic lights are computer controlled.  Some are semi-independent, controlled on a fixed/demand driven process by the traffic around them, others are moderated by central computer systems, but all of them use computer controllers.  What happens if they stop operating, or if they start misbehaving?  At best, you’ll have gridlock across the nation.  At worst, if traffic lights start going green in all directions at once, you’ll have accidents galore.

So, to circle back to our opening point.  We all rely on the safe and efficient transportation of 40 tons of freight a year to support our lives and our lifestyles.  And while those 40 tons of freight comprise a massive variety of different products and modes of transport, both in your local area and elsewhere in the country, with a chain of dependencies that we can’t even start to guess at, the uncomfortable reality is that just a very few failures in a limited number of key parts of the national transportation system could cause the entire system to come falling down.

Add to that the ‘just in time’ delivery system which relies on the ability of goods to always arrive where they are needed, at the time they are needed, and with little or no reserve supplies kept anywhere, and the net result could be that a failure of the transportation system 1500 miles away from you ends up with life threatening shortages of essential items in your area, too.

Being reliant on the proper movement of 40 tons of stuff a year is a huge dependency, and one we can do little to directly control.  Are you worried about this?  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is.  Don’t you think you should be, too?

Jul 112012

Short term randomness in weather patterns mask longer term repeating cycles. We need to base our calculations on extended time periods to factor in cycle peaks and troughs.

At the time of writing this, parts of the midwest (most notably Wyoming) are suffering major agricultural/economic impacts due to suffering the worst drought in ten years.

Excuse us?  The worst drought in ten years?  The worst drought in 100 years – they could be excused for being tripped up by that.  Many of us would even allow a person the benefit of the doubt for the worst drought in 50 years.  But to be blindsided by something that happens once a decade?  That’s imprudent planning and greed on the part of the farmers, who simply gambled that they’d have a good year this year, and so over-extended their water consumption, and now have had their calculated gamble, based on greed, turn around and bite them.

It is hard to feel too sympathetic for such people.  But at least they may qualify for various assistance programs, and if they have to end up selling off livestock, they have people to sell the livestock to (potentially located thousands of miles away), and will be able to buy new livestock next year (and potentially source them from a considerable distance).  The current infrastructure of the country, its economy, and even its social support mechanisms all act to minimize the still unfortunate impacts on these farmers at present.

But in a Level 2/3 situation, and with any farmer’s market being reduced to a very local region, there’d not be such broader resources to rely upon.  Quite the opposite – the market for cattle would become massively depressed, and next year, there’d be precious little in the way of breeding stock to make up the shortfall.  This begs the question – how much weather risk is it prudent to accept – not so much in the present day situation, but with an eye to a less forgiving future scenario?

The answer is obviously that we can’t accept any risk that would threaten our ongoing viability.  So how much weather risk is too much risk?  This is very hard to establish, in large part because weather isn’t a ‘constant variable’ (a concept that sounds like an oxymoron to start with).  Let us explain.

Short Term Randomness in Weather

There are many factors impacting on the weather we experience each day.  For our purposes, most of these factors can be perceived as semi-random in the medium term.  For sure, in the very short-term, we can make a reasonable guess about tomorrow’s weather based on what we know of the weather today, what the barometer tells us, the direction of the winds, and how we read the sky.  We can make a somewhat less accurate guess about the day after tomorrow’s weather, too.  But the degree of accuracy continues to erode with each extra day into the future we look.

Will it rain on Tuesday in five weeks time?  Maybe, maybe not.  Will next year’s growing season be shorter or longer than normal?  And so on.  Apart from making a statistical guess based on past rainfall patterns, it is hard for us to otherwise give an accurate prediction based on any factual modeling of how the weather will act between now and then (although weather forecasting services, with super-computers and data inputs from weather stations all around the world make attempts to answer these types of questions, and with varying and not always impressive results).  So, for this purpose, the weather becomes more or less random, within the constrains of certain probabilities.

Another way to think of this is like rolling a dice.  You are playing a game where the rules are that for the first 15 minutes of each hour, you’ll win if the dice shows a 1 or 2.  For the second 15 minutes, you’ll win if the dice shows a 1, 2 or 3.  For the next 15 minutes, you’ll only win if the dice shows a 6.  And for the last 15 minutes, you’ll win if the dice comes up 1,2,3,4 or 5.

So depending on the time of each hour, while you still have a totally random chance of winning, your overall chance of winning changes from very favorable to very unfavorable.  You can think of, eg, rainfall in a similar manner.  While there’s no guarantee about levels of rainfall on any day, the chance of rainfall goes more or less predictably up and down depending on the season.

This randomness applies in the ‘short-term’ which in this context we consider to span periods of five to ten years, more or less.

Longer Term Cyclical Variations in Weather

Now that you understand the random nature of weather on a short-term basis, we can now move on to considering other factors that also impact on weather, but in the long-term.  There are various cycles that see regions go through periods of predominantly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ weather, cycles that can last for ten, twenty and even more years.  Indeed the length of these cycles from the start of one complete cycle to the start of the next can extend out as long as 50 – 75 years or so.

Here’s an interesting web page with a fairly bewildering array of charts and graphs, but if you scroll much of the way down (and you don’t really need to read or understand everything that is being presented), you’ll see an interesting graph headed ‘The PDO + AMO cycles are not in phase:’ and immediately below that, four fascinating maps of the US showing drought conditions over the course of the cycles, and right at the very bottom, a 500 year time series based on tree growth and clearly showing cyclical variations.

These longer cycles are creating part of the uncertainty about alleged global warming.  Was the observed warming trend of a couple of decades ago the result of manmade activities, or was it a normal cyclical thing?  And is the lack of global warming for the last 15 years also cyclical, or is it significant?

These graphics give a very good indication of how weather is not only random in the short-term, but also follows longer term cycles.

These long cycles can create a major trap for people trying to understand what type of weather to expect in the future.  If people only sample years that are at one part of the overall cycle, they get an erroneous impression of the future.  What should be obvious and predictable based on a long enough historical time view so that you can clearly see the cyclical nature of the weather variations, instead is perceived to be unusual, unexpected, and exceptional, even though in truth it is none of those things.

Clearly, in understanding the weather, you need to understand not only the short-term semi-random variations but the overall longer term cyclical impacts on the range of short-term variations.

Working With Long Term Data to Set Acceptable Risks

We said above to steer well clear of even a conservative 100 year flood plain – the good news part of that is that someone else has already calculated what the 100 year flood plain area is likely to be.  But for some other measures of possible weather extremes, you’ll probably have to do your own figuring.

Clearly you need to be conservative in assessing the acceptable level of risk for weather extremes like droughts, because if you guess wrong, you could be endangering the livelihood and survival of you and your entire community.

There’s no sense to setting yourself a ‘less than once every hundred years’ target for flood avoidance, but accepting a ‘once every ten years or so’ level for drought avoidance.

Our point, however, in this context is that in order to make such decisions, you must have more than five or ten years of historical data.  There are statistical techniques that can analyze shorter periods of data to project the probability of what longer data series would reveal, and maybe you need to get an expert to do such things for you (we offer these types of services ourselves), but this analysis can not factor in the presence of cyclical impacts.

The best thing to do is not guess, but instead to use as many years of weather data as possible.

But be careful in doing so.  As the whole climate change controversy indicates, weather data is subject to interpretation.  Maybe, over an extended period of many decades, the weather station location was changed.  Or maybe other things changed around the weather station – maybe it went from being in the middle of nowhere to now being in the middle of a medium-sized city.  Maybe it changed its sampling methodology so that the same weather now results in different numbers being recorded, compared to some years previously.

And, whether due to man-made causes, the influence of the sun, regular cycling, or just random variations over time, most people will accept that climate conditions have changed over the last 50 years or more – there was a steady period of increase, and then – at least through 2011 – temperatures started trending down somewhat again.

So if you can’t get a full 100 years of weather data, that’s perhaps not a great loss; and indeed, if you did, you probably should attach less statistical weight to old data compared to new data.

See also our analysis in our water storage calculations article about combining the worst year’s results, month by month, compared to the worst year’s results for multiple months in a row, as a way of further stressing your projections.

So, while the historical numbers might seem very exact and certain, interpreting them for probable and worst case future outcomes becomes a very subjective undertaking.  However you do it, you’re sure to arrive at better final numbers if you have more raw data to start with.

To summarize all of the above, don’t, for example, base your rainfall expectation for a location on only the last two or five or ten years of data.  Maybe the region was going through a very rainy cycle, and maybe, as soon as you move there, it will flip over to a very dry decade, making the land you thought to be fertile and well watered suddenly become dry, arid, and expensive/impossible to work.

The more data you have, the more informed your decision will become, and the less risk you’ll be confronting in the future.

Jul 042012

Weather changes from an optional bonus part of our choice of location at present, to a mandatory component of choosing a suitable retreat location.

We all know about weather, right?  Warm and sunny with a clear blue sky and a gentle breeze is nice.  Cold, windy, rainy or snowy – all that is nasty.

Perhaps weather has even had a moderate impact on your choice of where you live at present.  And/or maybe it is something you like to complain about.

Well, whatever you formerly felt about weather, and however important weather was to you in your choice of current location, multiply that by, oh, let’s say one hundred times, to now appreciate how important weather will be to you in your retreat.

There are several reasons for this.

Weather Will Impact Us More Directly

First, currently we massively modify the weather as we experience it personally, without even really thinking about it.  We heat or cool our homes, our cars, our offices, our shopping malls.  If the weather is too hot, we can stay out of the sun, somewhere air-conditioned to be cool.  If it is too cold, we can get out of the cold, and turn the heating up a bit more.

In a Level 2/3 situation, we won’t be able to conveniently do any of those things.  We won’t work in a nice comfortable air-conditioned office – we’ll be working outdoors, in the fields, much of the time.  If it is hot out there, we just have to suck it in, and the same if it is cold.

Heating or cooling our houses will be problematic.  Energy will be in short supply, rather than essentially limitless as it is at present, and that which might be available will be massively more expensive.  We may be able to heat our homes by way of a wood burning stove or fireplace, although even a convenient ongoing supply of firewood is far from assured (imagine if you had to hand carry every log you burn, several miles from where you felled a tree to your dwelling).

Cooling our houses will be even more difficult – a/c units use a lot of energy and are moderately complex – if they fail, they’ll probably then be out of service for the duration of the Level 2/3 event.

Snow Will Be More Serious a Challenge

Another weather impact that will become more severe is snow.  Currently, and particularly if you live in an area with regular snow falls in the winter, snow removal is more or less something you almost take for granted.  The good news part of that is that, almost certainly, your local city roads department have teams of men and machinery that keep your roads passable.  They start off by laying chemicals down on the road surface to stop ice forming, then they go through with snow plows and grit/salt spreaders, and although there may be many feet of snow on the fields, the roads are, most of the time, passable.

Little or none of that will happen in a Level 2/3 situation.  There’ll be no working machinery, and even if there was, there’d be more essential uses for any remaining diesel fuel.

If you’re in an area that gets significant snow accumulation during the winter, you need to figure on being essentially cut off from other places, other than travel by snowmobile or horse – both of which are – albeit in their differing ways, complex and expensive solutions.

So, at our retreat, our personal life experience will be massively more impacted by weather than it is at present.

Weather Impacts On Our Water and Food Supply

One key element of weather is rainfall.

If an area doesn’t have an adequate supply of rainfall through most of the year – hopefully balancing carefully between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ than you’re either not going to be able to live there, or will need to have an absolutely certain alternate supply of water – either from a well (or wells) or spring(s) or from a river/stream (and you’ll have no end of hassle getting the rights to take water from ‘your’ river/stream if such rights don’t come already attached to the property title).

Of course you need water for yourself, and of course you will also need water for growing crops and for any animals you may be raising too.

Note also that the hotter the temperatures, the more water you’ll need (due to increasing amounts of water being baked out of the ground by the sun, and due to evaporative losses from any holding tanks you have.  Sure, you’ll drink more water too, but that is a totally trivial consideration compared to the extra hundreds/thousands of gallons of water you’ll need each day to care for your crops.

Another key element of weather is what is termed the ‘growing season’ – which in the US is a fairly arbitrary measure that simply tells you the number of days between the last frost in spring and the first frost in fall, or, even more simply, between the last day that night temperatures fall below 32° in spring and the first day in fall that they start to drop below 32° again.

As such it isn’t really telling you much about how fast your crops may grow or how bountiful they will be, but it is one of a number of quick easy measures that gives you some rules of thumb to apply to the weather and its impacts on your ability to grow crops.

Other factors that impact on crop growing range from things like soil type to average and peak temperatures to sunlight hours and intensity to elevation.  And, as already discussed, rainfall or compensatory irrigation.

A more meaningful measure to assess plant growth rates is Growing Degree Days (click the link for a definition).

In your present life, you probably don’t need to grow all the food you eat.  Indeed, more likely, you don’t grow any of it at all.  But when you’re at your retreat, you’ll either need to grow all the food you need, or alternatively have some other product or service you can trade with other local residents for their surplus food.

If you’re hoping to trade some other product or service for food, that requires two things – first, it requires you to have some other product or service you can create or provide on a renewable ongoing basis, and secondly, it requires people conveniently close to you who both have a need for your product/service and who are able to exchange surplus food of their own for your product service.  Unless all of these requirements are met, you’ll go hungry.  From this perspective, there are less variables outside your control if you make your first priority to be able to grow sufficient food, directly, yourself, on your own land.

Either which way, either you or your neighbors need to be able to grow food readily and in generous amounts – there’s no way you’ll be getting in regular twice weekly air freighted shipments of fresh food from South America!  If your retreat location is not in a fertile area that readily grows crops, both you and all your neighbors will suffer a depressed – or even an unsustainable – standard of living.

It is definitely a positive if the general area you choose is good for everyone in that area and their food production.  It is much better to be part of a moderately prosperous and sustaining region than it is to be surrounded by people even more desperate than you in their attempts to survive in a future adverse situation.

Choose a location with better weather.  You could potentially grow twice as much food there, and enjoy a substantially better lifestyle, than if you go somewhere with bad weather.

Weather and Energy

We mentioned before about how extreme weather can require us to consume more energy to compensate for the bad weather.  But weather can also help us with energy.  For example, if we’re somewhere with lots of clear skies and sunny days, then we can get more energy from solar cell arrays than we could from somewhere bedeviled by constant cloudy overcast days.

And if we’re somewhere that has wind that is neither too strong nor too weak, and reliably steady, day in and day out, maybe we could get some wind power too from a wind turbine.

If we had to choose between a place optimized for solar or a place optimized for wind power, we’d probably advocate choosing the better solar location.  Solar cells have no moving parts and are reasonably resilient and can be expected to last 20, 30, even 40 years and more with little or no maintenance required (other than keeping them clean).  Wind generators, on the other hand, are complex, unreliable, and maintenance intensive.

When Bad Weather Can be Good

There’s one situation when bad weather can be a good thing.  If a Level 2/3 event occurs in winter, it is reasonable to assume that most people, when evacuating the cities, will probably stream south or in whichever other direction most quickly gets them to warmer parts of the country.  They’ll hurry through the colder areas with no intention of attempting to settle there.

This would not so strongly apply if the Phase 3 and 4 stages of an event occurred during a balmy warm summer.  Some people, gifted with some foresight, would still head towards warmer climate areas, but others would live in the moment and go anywhere nearby where food and shelter were possibly present.

Weather – Very Important.  But Only One of Many Factors

Okay, so we’ve spent the last little while talking about how vitally important weather will be to you in your retreat.  All of that is true.

But it isn’t the only factor to keep in mind when determining where to locate your retreat.  Unfortunately, the parts of the US with the best overall weather are usually totally unsuited for retreating to, due to other factors that also have to be considered.

If one considered only weather, much of California would be great to retreat to, for example.  But the state laws make it close to impossible to realistically plan for a viable retreat in California (either before or after WTSHTF), and many of the other great locations are too close to major cities, too.

All the best weather locations have already been settled in – sad, but close to true.  That makes evaluating weather issues harder, not easier, because you’re going to have to decide which parts of the overall weather subject you can most and least compromise on, and to balance out the better or worse weather with other issues that relate to your retreat location as well.

But, having said that, and recognizing you will never get a ‘perfect’ location by any measure at all, while it is acceptable to allow some compromise in weather, you mustn’t go beyond the point that prevents you and your neighbors from being able to grow more than enough food to survive and have a bit left over besides.

How to Evaluate Weather Issues to Determine Suitable Retreat Locations

Please see related articles for more on this vital topic (weather) and a discussion on how to actually rate different locations on their weather suitability.  Here’s a category listing of weather related articles.

Jul 042012

It is important to maintain an appealing variety of food in a Level 2/3 situation. You don’t need deluxe buffets, but you do need regular variety.

As a youngster, I used to live in city with a chocolate factory.  We all envied the workers enormously, because they were allowed to eat all the chocolate they wanted.  No limit.  They couldn’t take any home, but they could eat as much as they could cram in each day during their shift.  Truly, a child’s dream come true.

But the chocolate factory managers were smarter than we children gave them credit.  After a possible brief period of gluttony, without exception, the workers lost interest in the chocolate that surrounded them.  They were suffering from selective ‘appetite fatigue’.

Appetite fatigue is one of those things that few people ever have cause to think about.  We eat something today, something different tomorrow, and different again the next day.  Even for something that is a favorite, like ice cream, we can go to Baskin Robbins and choose from 31 different flavors (actually, count them next time you’re in a BR store – chances are it has way more than 31).

But if you’re hunkered down in a difficult situation with merely whatever food you’ve stored on hand, your menu choices might be more limited.  Rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day.  Try that sometime – well, actually, better you don’t.  Trust us on this – after only a very few days, you’ll find yourself preferring to starve rather than face another plate of rice and beans.

Appetite Fatigue Can Kill

We are guilty of trivializing appetite fatigue by talking about eating ‘too much’ chocolate (apparently there is such a thing as too much chocolate – who’d a thought?).  Appetite fatigue was first understood when people were discovered who had starved to death, while still having food around them.  The appetite fatigue they experienced was so overwhelming that the people ended up starving rather than continuing to eat food which no longer had any appeal.

Appetite fatigue is a problem for combat troops in the field, who in the past would be eating the same rations, day in and day out, for extended periods.  The decline in appetite and eating as a result caused health problems for the soldiers and diminished their combat effectiveness, which is why a supply of reasonably decent and varied food is now an important part of the support system of modern soldiers.

More recently, appetite fatigue has been a problem for astronauts as well.  It isn’t just extravagant indulgence that sees astronauts enjoying more than the science-fiction postulated concept of unvarying concentrated food paste for every meal.

There’s a subtler element to appetite fatigue as well.  Even if people continue eating, albeit unenthusiastically, their morale will drop if the food is unvaryingly bland and boring.  One of the greatest essential factors in your ongoing survival and success will be your ability to maintain a positive mental attitude, a ‘we will win/succeed/triumph’ approach to your life, and an upbeat way of handling life’s various ups and downs.  Good varied food helps this enormously, bland boring food hinders it equally enormously.

Appetite fatigue is generally thought to set in after about 30 days of routine eating, but some people report suffering from it after much shorter periods.

You need to very carefully guard against appetite fatigue, by varying your daily food as much as you can.  Don’t take the easy way out and simply follow the cooking instructions on the side of the pail of dehydrated food you’re eating from.  Use those to understand the general approach to cooking the food, but after you’ve understood that, use the entire range of other foodstuffs and cooking procedures you have available to you in terms of how you cook the food.

Here are some suggestions.

Style of Cooking

Most things can be cooked either by boiling or with a drier heat – in the oven or in a pan, and maybe also by frying, and while barbecuing is basically a variation on a dry heat cooking process, no-one can deny that the smoky flavor it imparts to food almost qualifies it as a different form of cooking entirely.

Talking about barbecuing, in an emergency, mildly burning the food can help to add a different flavor to the food, too (but don’t get too carried away with this – burning food adds carcinogens, although that is probably going to be the least of your worries in a survival situation!).  In addition to fast barbecuing, there is also slow smoking as a totally different cooking process too.

So be as creative as you can in how you cook your food.

Food Combinations

Mix different foods together to create different types of meals – with different appearance, different flavors, different mouth feel.

One strategy can be, if you have (for example) four different food items, work out all the different combinations of two of the items and try moving through them so each day you have a different meal.  In the case of four items, A, B, C & D your choices would be AB AC AD BC BD CD – six different ways to combine four items.

Also consider adding some non-traditional items together.  While many of us are probably fairly traditional ‘meat, potato and veg’ type eaters, one of the strategies that award-winning top rated chefs use to create ‘interesting’ dishes is to combine food types and flavors that aren’t traditionally combined.  Raisins or sultanas or fruit with meat, for example.

Be a bit careful with your experimenting, and better to do some experimenting with your long-term bulk stored food items prior to a Level 2/3 situation, so you know in advance some of the things that work and the ones which, alas, are failures.  Start building up your own cookbook of recipes that can turn ordinary food into imaginative different eating experiences.

Spices for Food

One way to vary your food is to use a different spice palette with the food one day compared to another.

We use the term ‘palette’ advisedly.  Spices can be a bit like paints.  If you randomly mix paint together, you always end up with a muddy brown, right?  It takes skillful selection of colors to create interesting new colors that are different to each other, rather than all generically brown.

It is the same with spices.  You want to selectively mix spices together to create specific flavor combinations, rather than end up with a generic mix of all flavors.  Maybe one day you make your rice spicy with a pepper sauce.  The next day you add a curry blend.  The next day might see some Italian type herbs.  The next day might see some cumin, then maybe paprika, then maybe lavender, then the next day perhaps a salty beef stock, and the following day a vegetable mix.  That’s eight different flavor sensations, all very different to each other.

Of course, the underlying product is still unchanging rice, but by selected use of spices you have changed its flavor profoundly from one day to the next.  There are still remaining elements that contribute to appetite fatigue such as mouth feel and visual appearance, but you can work on those too.  Fluffy rice on day, sticky the next, fried the day after, for example.

Spices are an essential ingredient for any cook who feels the need (as we all should and must) to extend our bland generic foodstuffs and to make them more interesting to eat.  They will help us fight off appetite fatigue.

Spices as a Trade Good

Spices can be a great trading item.  They take up very little space, they last a long time, and they can be very high value.

Another positive feature of them is that you can profitably buy herbs and spices in bulk at massively lower costs than you pay to get a small container of them at the supermarket.  It is common to see products being sold in 5lb or larger bulk quantities at prices per pound the same or even less than the price you pay per ounce for small jars of the product in your local supermarket.

So quite apart from any increase in value that they’ll gain in a Level 2/3 situation, there is an underlying profit opportunity as between what people perceive a given measure of a spice as being worth and what you can buy it for.

Needless to say, if you’re buying spices in bulk, you’ll need to be careful how you store them so as to get longest life from them and to preserve their distinctive smells and tastes.

We suggest you also stock up on salt – a seasoning so essential and commonplace that many people take it for granted.  The great thing about salt is that it lasts forever, with no special storage requirements (well, best to keep it in as dry a place as possible, but that is all).

Sugar is another product that pretty much lasts forever and which could make a suitable trading good, and one thing is for sure – most people have a great appetite for sugared foods.  If you had to choose between sugar and salt, we’d advocate salt, because a month or year supply of salt is much less than what a person might hope to have in sugar – in other words, you can sell less salt for more money than you can sugar.


We mentioned, above, one of the ‘secrets’ of good cooks – combining food items that you’d not normally consider combining so as to create new taste experiences.

Another ‘secret’ (we put quotes around this word because it isn’t really a secret at all, it is just something many people overlook) is the preparation of sauces to go with prepared food.

A sauce can transform something as bland as chicken breast (which, as you surely know, scores about zero on the flavor intensity scale if just boiled by itself) or pasta (another thing with close to zero built-in flavor) and make it into an explosion of intense flavor.  If your main entree item choices are limited, consider creating a variety of different sauces to accompany them.  So you can have your chicken breast (or whatever else) first varied by how you cook it, secondly varied by some spicing and seasoning, third varied by what other food items accompany it, and fourth varied by different sauces.


Talking about liquids, there’s another way to provide food – both vegetables and meat – and that’s in the form of soups.

Soups are not only a nice change of eating experience, but they are also a great way to use leftovers and discarded food items.  Soups (and stews) can use ‘seconds’, present as a way to get more nutrition from bones, and also provide a strong base to add flavors too.  A generic vegetable soup with some sort of stock base can then be flavored several different ways to make it seem like quite a different soup, and can have different types of garnishes to further change its appearance.

Maybe you can take your generic vegetable/bean/pea soup, and one day then add a bunch of fresh carrots to it and serve it as carrot soup, then the next day, repeat with broccoli and have broccoli soup, and so on.

Food Presentation and Appearance

Food that looks good is usually as easy to prepare as food that doesn’t.  If you can vary the presentation of your food and make it look nice and dress it up on the plate, the eyes tell the brain that the food will be nice and enjoyable.

There is a reason that restaurants garnish their food with little bits of stuff that you mightn’t even eat.  Truly, eye appeal is almost as important as taste/flavor.  You should do the same.  Little bits of presentation pizzazz add greatly to the overall morale and ‘feel good’ factor in your group, too.

Candy and Dessert Too

Talking about morale, which – as we mentioned above – is almost as important as nutrition, comfort and snack and ‘treat’ foods are an enormous morale booster.  Boiled candies have a very long life (and are easy to make), and can add a dash of color on the side of a meal, as well as providing a small treat.

Desserts and cakes are also positive experiences, and while you don’t need every meal to include a lavish selection of sumptuous and sinful dessert confections, it is great to occasionally include these trivially small but greatly appreciated indulgences and treats.

Occasional Special Meals Help Carry People Over

Even if you are doing all the things we mention above, you are still going through an unvarying ritual of meals that are similar in overall eating experience.  Just the routine of sitting down at the table, at a similar time, and eating a similar sized meal on a similar sized plate with similar knives and forks becomes boring.

So we suggest you vary the style and presentation of the food.  One variation can be on a formal scheduled basis – for example, families used to have a traditional ‘Sunday roast’ where once a week there’d be a more special meal and family event.  We suggest you do this, with perhaps a two or three course meal instead of a single course, and maybe use different plates and cutlery if possible too – why not even dress up for the meal.

This sort of event not only helps measure the passing of time, but also reminds you of your overall ‘civilized’ nature and the ongoing success of how you are managing in your Level 2/3 situation.

We also suggest, on a more random basis, so as to add to the casualness of it, that you occasionally have different formats for eating.  Maybe ‘build your own burgers’ (or tacos or whatever) which you then eat with your hands.  Or have a ‘hot pot’ type meal where people gather around a boiling pot of broth and stick thinly sliced pieces of meats and vegetables in to quickly cook and eat them that way.

However you do it, you want to vary every possible aspect of the eating experience so as to fight off appetite fatigue and to maintain a positive morale in your group.


When planning meals during any sort of extended situation, you need to consciously make an effort to vary the type of food you are eating by varying how you cook it, how you flavor it, what you combine it with, and how you present it.  Varied meals help to maintain the group’s positive morale and also combats potential appetite fatigue.

In your preparing, you want to first make sure you have several different ways to cook food.  Second, you want to vary the type of food you store as much as possible, so as to have flexibility in your meal choices.  Third you want to present the food in different formats and ways, so as not just to be altering the food experiences but also the eating experience too.

One key consideration is to have a generous inventory of herbs, spices and other seasonings and garnishes, both for your own use and as a potential trading good.