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 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.

Jun 132012

Potatoes, fresh from the ground, prior to being cured then stored.

Potatoes are an excellent crop to grow, and to store.

Probably no other crop yields as much protein, or as many calories, when measured against the hours of work it takes you to grow, care for and harvest them.  Potatoes yield more calories per square foot of growing space than anything else, and more protein than anything except for legumes.

Depending on the soil and your growing strategy, you can expect yields from about 1.25 lbs per linear foot of potato row up to 4 lbs or more per linear foot (ie between about 20,000 and 70,000 lbs/acre – national commercial average of 41,300 lbs/acre).

Originating in South America, potatoes were brought to Europe in the late 1500s.  They have steadily grown in popularity and now are the world’s third largest cash crop (after rice and wheat).

Potatoes don’t need a lot of water or fertilizer.  And if stored in optimum conditions, you can get as much as ten months of storage once you’ve harvested them.  They can be grown across much of the US, and although they prefer cooler climates, they are even grown in Florida and Arizona.  They are grown commercially in 36 of the 48 Conus states.

Potatoes are also a key source of nutrition for most of us.  On average, Americans each ate 117 lbs of potato in 2010.

That’s not to say that potatoes are a perfect crop.  Of course, some environments are not suited for potato growing (and different types of potatoes grow better/worse in different conditions), and equally of course, as students of history will know (the various Irish and Scottish potato famines in the 1840s and 1850s) they are vulnerable to some types of bio-hazards (particularly viruses and pests) that can destroy entire growing seasons worth of potatoes.

As with anything else, we always encourage you to diversify the food products you grow so if one crop has problems, you will hopefully still have other crops unaffected by the problems impacting on the challenged crops.

But those considerations are for another time.  Tis article starts at the end of the growing of potatoes, and assumes you have already carefully harvested them at the ideal time.

There are four considerations to keep in mind when storing potatoes.  They need to be kept cold, dark, humid, and with a small amount of air circulation.

Remember that the harvested potatoes remain as living things.  They are made up of about 80% water and so need to be in a humid environment to prevent them drying out.  The cooler they are kept, the slower their ongoing aging will be, and keeping them out of the light will prevent the light stimulating the formation of bitter-tasting and poisonous glycoalkaloids.

Let’s look at their storage requirements step by step.

1.  Preparation for storage.

You should avoid washing the potatoes (ie keep them dry) unless absolutely essential.  If you must wash them, do so gently and not physically damage the potatoes (they are reasonably vulnerable to damage until their outer skin has a chance to harden) and ensure they are well dried.

It is recommended you should dig up the potatoes after a few days of dry weather, so they will be dry to start with, and leave the potatoes out in the field for a couple of hours so as to dry them further and to make it easier to clean them by brushing any dirt off them.

Treat potatoes as reasonably fragile before they have been cured (and still treat them carefully afterwards too).

2.  Curing the Potatoes

Before putting the potatoes into ‘deep sleep’ you first want to encourage them to adjust to their now out-of-the-ground experience.  You do this by curing them for a week or two, in a well ventilated humid and dark place, at a temperature of about 50 – 60 degrees, or a shorter time at a warmer temperature (ie 5 – 10 days at 59 – 68 F).  This will toughen up their skins and might help any harvesting damage to heal.  Humidity should be about 95% – 98% – as humid as possible without condensation forming.

3.  Storing the Potatoes

At the end of the curing process, you will want to inspect all the potatoes again, and if they are satisfactory with no sign of any type of infection or damage, transfer them to long-term storage.

This will also be in the dark, and also be very humid – as before, as humid as possible without allowing any condensation.  Actual water will cause the potatoes to rot.

Temperature is ideally cool to cold, but no colder than about 39 F.  If you plan on frying the potatoes, you might want to keep them a bit warmer – perhaps no cooler than 45 F.  Colder temperatures accelerate the speed of starches converting to sugars, and while in some vegetables, a sweetness is desirable, it tastes strange in potatoes.  Furthermore, if you then fry the potato, the sugars would burn.

Warmer temperatures encourage the potatoes to sprout and also accelerate the development of tuber diseases.

There should be a little air flow to enable the potatoes to ‘breathe’.

Be careful what else might be stored in the same area, or sharing the same air.  Some produce gives off ethylene gas which massively reduces the storage life of potatoes.  And the subtle smell given off by stored potatoes can be taken up by apples and gives them an unpleasant flavor.

Don’t store the potatoes piled too high – not only does this reduce the air flow into the potatoes in the middle of the store, but it also puts harmful pressure on the lower potatoes that might damage them.  It is suggested not to have potatoes piled more than 2 feet high.

From time to time during their storage (ie about once a month – more regularly if you are having storage problems) you should inspect them for signs of any rot or infection.  Remove any that show any signs of problems, before they start to infect other potatoes close to them.

Some people suggest removing adjacent potatoes if you find a potato that is going bad.  In a perfect world, this makes sense, but you need to trade-off between, on the one hand, disposing of too many potatoes unnecessarily just because of their proximity to bad potatoes, and on the other hand, of not throwing away infected potatoes that quickly get worse and pass the infection further on into your potato stock.

Probably what we’d do is create two supplementary storage places in your potato cellar.  One for actively going bad potatoes, and we’d eat those first (well, not the bad bits, of course).  Then the second storage place would be for suspect potatoes, and we’d eat those second, leaving the main bulk of the potatoes in the normal storage area(s).

Seed Potatoes

Store seed potatoes at a colder temperature than ones you plan to subsequently eat.

You can take seed potatoes all the way down to almost freezing.  You also want to keep the humidity high for them, too, but with seed potatoes a pale diffuse ambient light is recommended.

The Greening of Potatoes

When potatoes are exposed to the light, two things happen.  A green layer forms on the exterior of the potatoes, and glycoalkaloids are formed inside the potato.

Glycoalkaloids (in particular, solanine) are both bitter and poisonous.  All potatoes have a low level of glycoalkaloid in them, and they help to give potatoes their distinctive flavor/taste.  Light exposure causes more glycoalkaloids to form.

Some people think the green they see contains the glycoalkaloids.  This is not so – the green is harmless chlorophyll.  And so simply peeling off the green layer does not make the potato safe to eat.  The green chlorophyll is merely an indicator that correlates to the level/presence of glycoalkaloid in the potato as well.  If you see a lot of green, dispose of the potato and don’t eat it.

Even a day of sunlight can be enough to push glycoalkaloids up to unacceptable levels (something to think about next time you visit a farmers’ market in the summer and see stalls with displays of potatoes sitting in the sunlight).

Less than Optimum Storage Conditions

Not everyone will have a perfect potato store-room.  The key things for you to consider when storing potatoes are keeping the temperature as cool as possible, but generally above about 40 degrees, and to ensure there is no light in the storage area.

The next thing to optimize would be the humidity – the more the merrier – and a little bit of air flow.

Also, remember to check the potatoes when first storing them.  If they are your own potatoes, clean and cure them first, be sure they are dry, and remove any ones with any signs of infection.

A day of bright sunlight is enough to spoil a potato, so darkness is most important.  As for temperature and humidity, the warmer the temperature, the quicker the potatoes will age, and the drier, the more the potatoes will shrivel up.  Sprouting is usually the first sign of potatoes being stored too warm, and shriveling a sign of insufficient humidity.

You’ll see a number of internet sites with various suggestions about how to store potatoes if you don’t have a temperature and humidity controlled cellar.  Some of these sites have conflicting and even close to contradictory ideas; the kindest reason we can think of for this is that they are recognizing the compromises that have to be made and are more concerned with extending potato life from a week or two (if not stored well) up to a month or two (in slightly better conditions).

Boxes lined with straw or peat moss are a common theme.  If you do this, remember the need for potatoes to breathe and to get some fresh air, and also remember that while it is okay to keep the potatoes humid, you don’t want to get them actually damp/wet.

If nothing else, keep them in the coldest part of your house, and block the light from reaching them.

Some root vegetables allow for very simple storage – simply leaving them in the ground.  This is less appropriate for potatoes.


The humble spud should be an integral part of your food growing and storage plans.

It has everything going for it – reasonably easy to grow, gives a good food yield in terms of the amount of man hours needed to put in to growing them, is nutritious, and can be stored for up to 10 months.

The closer to our optimum storage guidelines you can get, the longer the storage life and the better the potatoes will be when you eat them.

May 072012

Two cans, side by side, of the same product in the store, one with more than twice the shelf life of the other

Nothing lasts forever – least of all, alas, ourselves.  But, if we can ignore that most relevant of all issues (at least for now), let’s instead look at how long any food item will last, and how can we give it maximum longevity.

In a very simplified form, the life of any food item varies depending on a number of different factors.  Some types of food are more sensitive to some storage issues, others are less sensitive, and of course, some types of food start off with only short shelf lives and little chance of extending them, whereas other food items are inherently long-lived and can be extended considerably further.

It seems that the current ‘state of the art’ for extended shelf life products is expressed in the commonly found freeze-dried foods that offer the promise of a 25 year shelf life.  Is this realistic?  Ask us in twenty-something years!

Not to get ahead of the article, but even a tin of freeze-dried product with a 25 year shelf life claim can have a longer or shorter life depending on a number of facts as to how it is stored.  Of course, the tin of product has been designed to control many of those factors just by nature of it being a sealed tin, but others still apply.

So let’s consider the major factors as they relate to any and all food products and the shelf life you can expect from them :

  • Bio-activity (ie fresh fruit or meat going ‘rotten’, seed germinating, etc)
  • Water/moisture – (Both humidity and liquid water can trigger or accelerate bio-activity)
  • Oxygen (and sometimes other gases too)
  • Light (although some things may be activated also by the lack of light)
  • External contamination/pests/etc
  • Temperature (usually the cooler the better)

The one reliable constant factor that can be said in all cases is that the warmer the temperature an item is stored at, the more rapidly it will spoil, whereas the cooler the temperature, the longer it will last.

Having said that, there are practical limits to how cold you should chill items down to.  Sometimes it is not a good thing to freeze items – the freezing of the moisture inside the item may break up the item’s cells, making it go mushy when unfrozen.  But in most cases, keeping an item down around 40° or thereabouts will appreciably extend the life of the item in question.

How to Tell if Food is Still Good or Bad?

The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ need quote marks around them in the heading, because they are subjective measures rather than absolute measures.  And they can have several different meanings.

One measure of bad food is when an item has become unhealthy to eat – when it has acquired a significant level of harmful bacteria or toxins such as to make a person eating the food item unwell.  Even this is not an absolute measure, because some people have stronger stomachs than others.

Another measure is when a food item no longer looks attractive or smells appealing.  These of course are subjective measures too, and it is fair to say that what looks unappealing to a person in middle class suburban comfort today might look extremely appealing to a starving person post TEOTWAWKI tomorrow.

Our sense of ‘bad’ food is a fairly reliable predictor of safe/unsafe food.  If food looks and smells bad, and if you proceed to taste it and it tastes bad too, it probably is bad.

Yet another measure is when the nutritional value of the food item has reduced down to something close to zero.  This is impossible to detect by looking/smelling/tasting; but you’ll find out empirically.  If after eating a food item for several days, your weight goes down and health deteriorates, probably the food has lost most of its nutritional value.

MREs as an Interesting Example of Time vs Temperature

Just exactly how much extra storage life can you expect by keeping your stores cooler than you otherwise would?  There’s no exact answer to that question, but a couple of elaborate tests of MREs give us some clues.

Testing of the MRE formulation in the 1980s (which included free-dried food items) by the Army’s Natick laboratory were conducted, using a panel of ‘average’ people, and having them do subjective taste testing, with the results then averaged to try and create some consistent measures.

These taste tests showed that the shelf life of MREs ranged from as short as one month if the MREs were stored at 120° to as long as 130 months if the MREs were stored at 60°.

The report said that longer shelf life would be possible at temperatures below 60°, but the test did not have the time to study this.  It also said that food which was rejected by the panelists as unappealing was still nutritious and healthy, even though it no longer looked, smelled or tasted appealing.

Here’s a table showing the results.

Storage Life
months increase
(from previous row)
% increase
(from previous row)
120 1 n/a n/a
110 5 4 400%
100 22 17 340%
90 55 33 150%
80 76 21 40%
70 100 24 30%
60 130 30 30%


The key learning point here is not so much the increase in shelf life between 120° and 110°, but more relevantly, the increase in shelf life between 70° (the temperature are houses are at, most of the time) and 60°.

The implication of this is that we can increase the shelf life of many products that we store by a sizeable amount – 30%, which in many cases will mean another year or more of shelf life – by doing nothing more complicated than keeping them in the coolest part of the house.  That closet in your basement, rather than upstairs in the sunny pantry.

After the reformulation of MREs, a new set of tests was run.  The results aren’t directly mappable to the other set of results, and show the new MREs have much shorter shelf lives.  Here’s the best guess we can make on the new results to show them in similar format to the old ones

Storage Life
months increase
(from previous row)
% increase
(from previous row)
120 1 n/a n/a
110 2.5 1.5 150%
100 6 3.5 140%
90 18 12 200%
80 36 18 100%
70 40 4 10%
60 48 8 20%
50 60 12 25%


These results are interesting because they add another data point – the additional extension in shelf life at 50° rather than at 60°.

The earlier set of results showed a 30% shelf life extension by going from 70° down to 60°; this newer set shows a lower 20% extension, with a further 25% extension if dropping the temperature by another 10°.  While not quite as drastic as the earlier set of results, 20% is still better than nothing, and probably for no more effort than moving your stores from one part of your house to another, and in the possible event that this cool area averages closer to 50° than 60°, you’re getting as much as 45% extra life compared to leaving them in the warmer part of your house.

Here’s a good page with some interesting pictures of applesauce and cheese spread (click them to see more) that has been stored at different temperatures and times.

Why the Variation in Shelf Life Extensions?

You’ll see there is no constant variation in shelf life extensions per ten degrees of temperature change – either in terms of months or percentages.  This is slightly puzzling because most chemical reactions speed up at a constant rate related to temperature increases, and so we would normally expect to see steady percentage changes.

There are two factors at issue here for why some ten degree steps have larger or smaller impacts on shelf life than others.

The first is sampling and testing errors.  There is no scientific exact way of rating food as good or bad based on appearance and taste, so the personal preferences of the samplers will add an element of randomness to the numbers.  We’d suggest all numbers be viewed as plus or minus 10% of reality, which enables us to say, for example in the second set of results ‘10% plus a 10% sampling error is within the same zone as 25% less a 10% sampling error’.

The second is that different processes are triggered at different temperature points.  Some processes might be dormant at all temperatures below a certain number, but ‘wake up’ and start impacting on shelf life above a certain point.

What Does the Shelf Life Statement on a Food Item Mean?

So there you are, looking at your can of baked beans, and studying the ‘Best By’ date printed on it.  How was that determined, and what happens the day after this date?

The USDA has a page that explains some of the distinctions between ‘Use By’, ‘Sell By’, and ‘Best By’ dates.  Some of what they say is vague and meaningless, and the key take-away point is that these dates for non-perishable food items (ie not raw meat, fruit, etc) are not very exact or scientific.

We suspect – but absolutely don’t know for sure – that some food manufacturers find themselves steering a compromise path between setting dates that are too ridiculously short (which might discourage people from buying their products) and dates which are extended well into the future (which would reduce the amount of food people either junk or eat in a rush due to it being about to expire, and which also could create liability if the food is not well stored).

The significance of the date you see is not actually the date itself, but how far into the future it is.  If we say that, to be on the safe side, manufacturers assume a storage temperature of 80°, and you actually store the item at 50°, then this could be enough to give you an extra 65% of storage life.  So if the date shows you have two years remaining when you buy the item, maybe that means you really have, in your cooler store, an equivalent of just over three years.

Plus also remember that these dates are when the food first starts to become less than prime/perfect.  There’s an unknown amount of extra time into the future before it becomes appreciably less than appealing.

Pure Seed and Grain Storage – More Temperature Dependent

Here is an excellent page of information about storing grains and seeds, including rice and wheat.  It cites the USDA in claiming that a 10.1°F change in temperature will halve or double the shelf life of the product being stored (depending on if the temperature goes up or down).

The two main points from this page are to keep items cool and oxygen free, and that whole wheat keeps a lot longer than flour, and white rice much longer than brown – you probably already knew these things, and now you’ll understand why, too.

These rates of change are much greater than observed with the MREs.  We guess this may be because the MREs have been treated to give them some longevity so the usual ‘laws’ of biological activity and their dependence on temperature have been modified.

Special Case :  Medicines

Very good news here.  The expiry dates on medicines are ridiculously conservative.  With the exception of insulin, liquid suspension antibiotics and nitroglycerin, most medications can be considered to remain active and potent for ten years beyond their expiration dates.

Again, the same as other items, the cooler you keep them, the longer they’ll last.

Useful Tip :  Check Shelf Life in the Store Before Buying

You probably know, when buying milk or other products with a short shelf life, it pays to check the expiry date before selecting the product in the store.  Sometimes you’ll note a carton several back from the one in front might have a week or more of extra shelf life – ie, the milk cartons in front offer one week, and the ones behind them offer two weeks.  If you’re not sure how long the carton of milk will last you, it for sure makes sense to take one from the back of the line.

Surprisingly, this is true of other items too.  We were in a local supermarket today and observed cans of tomatoes on sale.  Tomatoes – an acidic product – typically have a shorter shelf life.  Some of the cans were showing an expiry of March 2013 (ie 10 months from now) but some of them were showing an expiry of March 2014 (ie 22 months from now – more than twice as long).

And if we were to store them in a cool place, getting perhaps a 50% extension in shelf life as a result, that would get us an extra 18 months of storage time on the longer dated product.

This was an astonishing difference in shelf life statements.  So if you’re buying even canned goods that you won’t be immediately opening and eating, be sure to check the shelf life statements on the cans, and choose your cans accordingly.


Shelf life statements on food items you purchase are not exact magical dates whereby the food is perfect up until midnight on that date, and then useless/dangerous from that point forwards.  If anything, these dates represent the shortest amount of life you can expect from food items, not the longest.

Shelf life of all items is massively influenced by temperature.  A change of 10° may as much as double (or halve) the shelf life of food items; there will be less impact on pre-processed items, more impact on unprocessed items.

Always keep everything as cool as possible, but most products should be kept slightly above freezing point.