Jan 202015
This 7.62mm rifle will 'automatically' sight and shoot accurately out to 900 yards.  No skill required.

This 7.62mm rifle will ‘automatically’ sight and shoot accurately out to 900 yards. No skill required.

We have written before about the problems we have protecting our retreats – see for example ‘How Many Acres Do You Need for Your Retreat – Defense Considerations‘ and our broader category of Retreat Defense in general.

A new development, announced at the Consumer Electronic Show in January this year, adds a new factor and concern to the mix.

Until now, it has been realistic to assume that in most cases, a ‘reasonable distance’ kept clear between your retreat and where attackers could shelter was sufficient as to give you reasonable protection.  We’ve always been a bit vague about how much that distance should be, because in truth, there’s no single magic answer and instead, it is more a case of having to make a compromise between what is practical and possible in the real world and what would be desirable in a perfect world.

We sort of suggested that you should try to achieve a 200 yard clear zone between where your retreat and farmed land would be and where attackers could shelter and attack you from.  That type of range would give you a little warning – note the emphasis on little – if attackers attempted to overrun your retreat, and you could buy yourself a bit more time by having some disruptive landscaping to prevent attackers from coming directly to you on a good surface well suited for vehicles, horses, or even just plain sprinting on foot.

But the really big problem is long-range sniping.  In skilled hands, even a .22LR rifle might remain reasonably accurate and definitely dangerous at 200 yards, and in a Level 2/3 situation, what should be simple survivable wounds become much more life-threatening than they do today when the local Emergency Room and state of the art medicine and antibiotics and painkillers is probably no more than 15 – 30 minutes drive away.

Being able to accurately get rounds on man-sized targets at ranges of 200+ yards starts to become a fairly demanding skill.  Hitting – well, let’s be polite and talk about, perhaps, 8″ or 12″ plates, at 100 yards is something that most adult shooters can readily master, particularly when firing from a supported/prone position.  But once ranges start to go the high side of 200 yards, you’re more into ‘precision shooting’ than regular shooting, and from our perspective as potential targets, our chances of suffering a first round hit/kill start to measurably decline.

Unfortunately, a new device looks to replace skill with technology, and promises (threatens!) to give even unskilled shooters an almost super-human ability to get rounds on target at long-range.

A weapons technology company, TrackingPoint, demonstrated two new sniper-type rifles at the Consumer Electronic Show.  It is very rare to see weapons technology at the CES – not only because of the slightly off-topic concept, but also because just a couple of weeks after CES is the annual SHOT Show which is the typical venue for new weapons technology.  But perhaps because the TrackingPoint product was more a technological solution than a weapon solution per se, they decided to release their products at CES.

They offer two new weapon systems with computerized targeting and fire control.  One is on a 5.56mm rifle platform, and claims to give accurate shots out to 0.3 miles (528 yards) and with the target moving at speeds of up to 10 mph.  The other is on a .338 Lapua Magnum rifle platform, and claims to give accurate shots out to 1.0 miles (1760 yards) and with the target moving at speeds of up to 20 mph.

To be fair, TrackingPoint define ‘effective’ differently for the two products.  For the 5.56 rifle, they say it means being able to consistently hit a 5″ target, and for the .338, they refer to an 18″ target.

So, their one mile range claim can be considered optimistic rather than realistic, and also the moving target concept requires the target’s movement to be consistent.  If you’re semi-randomly zigging and zagging, the computer fire-control would not be able to predict that, and with it taking two or more seconds for a round to travel from rifle to target, if you’re not staying still during that time period, you’re probably in fairly good shape.  (But, remember, it isn’t a case of hearing the shot and then ducking – the round, traveling at supersonic speed, will arrive on target before the sound of the shot does.)

The good news is that you’re not very likely to find yourself staring down one of their .338 caliber systems.  Why?  The price is $50,000 (and each round costs $8).  On the other hand, the 5.56 system is a more reasonable $7,500, and for sure, this price is likely to drop as other companies start to adapt similar technology to their rifles, too.

Here’s a rather terrifying review of how easy it is for a non-shooter to land rounds on target with the 5.56mm system, and here’s a review of the .338 system.

If we were looking at deploying the technology as a defensive measure for our retreat, we’d probably choose their $15,000 system, based on a 7.62mm rifle.  At longer ranges, we much prefer the extra stopping power of the 7.62 round compared to the light 5.56 round.  Oh yes – their claim that it is good for out to half a mile (with an 8″ target as the objective) is another point in its favor, too!

To come back to the actual point of this article, the ugly bottom line is that the long-range accuracy and capabilities of attackers is likely to improve over time.  We’d guess that within a decade, the cost of these super-sniper-rifles will reduce almost ten-fold.  Well, the $7500 5.56 system might drop to $1500 – $2500, the $15,000 7.62 system might go down to $2500 – $3500, and the .338 system might reduce to $7500 or so.  Or, to put it another way, ‘intelligent’ fire-control systems will replace ‘unintelligent’ telescopic sights and cost no more than today’s best telescopic sights.

There was a time when any type of telescopic sight was rare and exotic and expensive, and most people did most shooting with open iron sights.  Nowadays, telescopic sights are abundant and on just about every rifle that its owner plans to use at any sort of range at all; our prediction is that the expensive rarity of these fire control systems will evolve and we’ll see them as common on rifles in ten years time as telescopic sights are today.

What to do about this?  We suggest two things, because in selecting and developing your retreat, you need to have an eye to the future as well as the present.

It further reinforces the value/need to cluster together with other retreat owners, having a central core where you all live and farm, and then an extended safe zone outside your core – perhaps for cattle grazing, or perhaps not.

And, secondly, the topography around your retreat and its perimeter becomes more relevant.  If there are natural features that obscure/block your retreat or limit the longer range threats, whereas previously they might have also acted as cover for shorter range attacks, now they might be considered more desirable, particularly if you incorporate responses to such features into your defensive plan.  Remote monitoring of such locations and the ability to surreptitiously and/or safely move people around your retreat become helpful considerations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topographic Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines of Sight – How Much is Enough?

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

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

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

Let’s look at the minimum safe range first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Two Strategies to Manage Your Clear Zone Risk and Requirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines of Sight vs Crops – a Problem and a Solution

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy Satellites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy Planes

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

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

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

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

Drones Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolving Capabilities of Google and its Competitors

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Update Now Published

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two general types of safe rooms.

Weather Related Safe Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Safe Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Altered Safety Design Concept for Your Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Effective Type of Retreat Safety Strategy

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

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

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

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

We talk about prepper issues to do with tunnels here.

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

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

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

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

It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

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

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

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

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

Let’s quickly look at all three points.

The Need for an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practicality of an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

Another Tunnel Purpose/Benefit

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

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

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

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

Tunnel Design and Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permits and Approvals For Your Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing and Obscuring Tunnel Exits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking the Security of Your Tunnel Exit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

May 062014
Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there's no reason why you can't create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

Sharecropping is often associated with poverty and exploitation as implied by this 1935 picture of cotton sharecroppers, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a fair and mutually beneficial agreement to allow third parties as tenants on your retreat acreage.

If you are fortunate, you have managed to secure a reasonably large lot for your retreat, and if you are very fortunate, the chances are your lot will be larger than what you could work yourself in terms of cultivating crops, grazing livestock, and so on, particularly in a future scenario where mechanical productivity aids like tractors are no longer available to help you in your work.

There are plenty of good reasons why you should wish to have a larger-than-you-can-handle lot size.  For example, it allows you to expand the number of people you admit to your retreat, because extra people can productively be put to work to provide food for themselves and extra for everyone else.  It also gives you a geographical buffer against natural disasters and unexpected misfortunes, ranging from fires to floods, infestations, and who knows what all else.  It also gives you a ‘buffer zone’ and some added isolation and security.

If the commonly held views are correct, if/when a major crisis destroys our society, it is likely there’ll be some sort of exodus of people from the cities and from the towns, too.  These people will be looking for land to settle on and live on, and when they see your large spread, they’ll feel entitled to take some ‘fair’ (in their eyes) portion of it for themselves, especially if it is land that is lying fallow and not being actively in production by yourself.

This is not just conjecture or speculation.  We confidently assert that it will happen, because there is plenty of historical precedence for such things – you only have to look back 150 years in our history to see plenty of examples of such things as our own west was settled.

This is the point where some preppers start to mutter darkly about weapons and tactics and all that sort of stuff.  We’re not so sure that’s the best response because there may likely be some downside to you and your family members if you and the other people truly do start trading shots, and in this type of future, with diminished access to any type of healthcare, and the essential role of everyone in your community, such things are likely to be more impactful than they already are now.

If you do this, you’ll be reliving the range ‘wars’ and recreating the tensions between the cattle barons and the homesteaders in the late 1800s during our country’s ‘cowboy’ era, and such altercations seldom brought any good to any of the people involved.

There’s another consideration, as well.  If you choose to aggressively defend your land, it will be something you will need to do on an ongoing basis.  Some people will appear today, and after you beat them off, another group might appear tomorrow or next week.  You will need to win every one of these ‘battles’, and hopefully to do so bloodlessly too.  Sooner or later, you’ll find you’ll lose rather than win.  To be realistic rather than defeatist, you can’t fight against all 330 million of your fellow Americans (or even the massively smaller percentage who will actually come to your land).

If you have land that is not being used to best purpose at present, why not cooperate with such people and strive to create a win-win arrangement for you and them.  Why not encourage them to settle, and even help them get established.

If you do this, you populate your land and change the dynamic for future encounters – it is no longer a case of you being seen to be selfishly keeping to yourself more land than you can possibly need or use, but instead, it will be land that is being fully developed by people living on the land, which changes the moral equation from a dubious situation to one where you clearly hold the high ground, should other opportunists come along and seek to displace you and the people also sharing your land with you.

Now for the best part of all.  By bringing more people onto your land, you are creating a stronger, more robust and resilient community, and likely with a larger pool of talents and skills.  Furthermore, when you allow these people to start working parts of your land, you don’t just let them do this for free.  You of course charge them a ‘rental’ for the use of your land, and possibly for the use of your tools and other resources and facilities, and for seed, and so on.

Do we need to stress that any ‘rental’ that you charge must be fair, and must allow the people on your land to benefit as well as you.  If you get too greedy, you’ll change the dynamic from ‘win-win’ cooperation to a ‘win-lose’ confrontation that is counter-productive.  Think of it like a tax – we might grumble a bit, but we don’t mind paying a minimal tax when we can see fair value in return for it, but if we were to be slapped with a 90% tax, then many people in such cases feel completely justified in lying and cheating to avoid the tax, and/or will simply not work as hard because they see nearly all their earnings going to the government rather than flowing through to themselves.

Models for Sharing Your Land

There is nothing new about the concept of allowing other people to work part of your land.  For centuries, societies have had various arrangements, from feudal systems in the middle ages, through clan/crofting systems, to much more modern share-cropping, tenant farming, and farming cooperative arrangements.

Some people criticize some of these arrangements, and indeed, some can be validly criticized.  But the criticism should be understood as applying more to the specific allocations and shares rather than to the underlying methodology.  For example, something that might be fair on a 25/75 split might be grossly unfair if all the details were the same except for the split being changed to 75/25.

From your perspective, if you have land that you aren’t using and won’t be using, any sort of return on that land becomes a bonus, and apart from wanting to ensure you get a fair share, there is no need to drive too hard a bargain, particularly in view of the other benefits of growing your local support community.

The return you should expect also depends on what you are doing and how you are helping your new ‘tenants’.  If you simply allow them the use of your land and do nothing else, then a small share of whatever they produce is all you can fairly expect – maybe in the order of 10%.  But if you also provide housing, and if you give them a start by providing them some livestock or seed, and maybe you also provide them with tools and productivity enhancements, and perhaps you also provide some expertise and assistance in how to develop the land, and if you also provide them food until such time as they start to become self-supporting, then each of these value-adds on your part can be fairly reflected in a larger share of the outputs they create.

Needless to say, you should never create a scenario where it is impossible for your tenants to be self-supporting.  You don’t want to create too vast a wealth-inequality as between you and your tenants.  If you are enjoying huge feasts while they’re struggling to put any food on their table at all, that’s a recipe for a tenant uprising, and you truly don’t want that.

In centuries past, exploitive share-cropping arrangements survived because there was no precedent for other arrangements, and because all the power was controlled by the owners rather than by the tenants.  It took a very long time and much evolution of social values for the appallingly exploitive and unfair former arrangements to eventually die out.  We do not feel it would be easy or appropriate to seek a return to such times, because these days, everyone has much more egalitarian expectations for their personal wealth and well-being.

We urge you to be fair to the point of being generous with any such tenancy agreements you enter into.  There is truly not a lot of ‘cost’ to you in allowing your under-utilized land to be better utilized, and there’s an enormous amount of upside if you do so on a win-win basis that fairly rewards the tenant and encourages them to truly ‘treat the land as if it were their own’.

Some Suggested Issues to Record in an Agreement

We would suggest that you record your tenancy agreements formally, in writing, and in as rigorous and extensive a form as possible.  This is simply common sense and gives both you and your future tenant some certainty and protection.

We are not attorneys, and you probably should get a standard agreement blank formally drawn up by an attorney, in advance of any problems, and then use it for all tenancies that might come your way in the future, simply filling in the specific gaps and adjusting the provisions to suit each unique scenario.  So, not to give legal advice, but merely to provide some talking points and suggestions to consider when you discuss this with your attorney, an agreement should cover issues such as :

  • The area being let to your tenant, described both legally and in unambiguous terms that can be understood without recourse to district plans.
  • The term the tenant can have the land for, and on what basis the term can be extended subsequently, or ended prior to its scheduled expiration.
  • In what form should the land and anything else used by the tenant be returned to you at the expiry of the agreement.
  • What happens if the tenant dies or leaves prior to the expiry of the agreement – can the tenant pass the ‘lease’ on to someone else or does the land revert to you, and if the lease is being passed on (or sold) to someone else, who gets the proceeds of the sale.
  • What you are providing to the tenant over and above access to the land – initially and into the future.  How about things such as seed, fertilizer, water, tools and equipment, and storage?  Are there any buildings/sheds included?  What about energy – are you providing any energy in any form?
  • The tenant’s right to things that might come from or through your land such as water in particular, and similarly, your right to the same things that might come from or through the tenant’s land.
  • The tenant’s right of access to his land through your land and your obligations (if any) to maintain such accessways, and in turn, your right of access to your land through the tenant’s land, if applicable.
  • Fencing obligations between the tenant’s land, your land, and possibly other land – who is required to do what.
  • Liability for stray stock or other harm from other things kept on your land that intrudes on the tenant’s land and vice versa.  This might also extend to things like the possibly harmful effects of trees that shelter/shade the other person’s land, or the equally harmful effects if something on one party’s land is removed, causing impacts to the other party’s land (for example a wind break planting of trees, or vegetation that was stabilizing a hillside that once removed caused a landslide, and so on).
  • What the tenant’s obligations are to actually work the land following best practices and doing so full-time, and what the consequences would be if the tenant fails to meet these obligations.  The concept here is that if you are allowing someone to farm your land, you want to have that person do so sensibly and well, and fairly creating additional ‘wealth’ for both you and him.
  • What you will receive from the tenant in return for allowing the tenant to use your land (a share of whatever is produced, or money, or labor, or whatever else – and either a fixed amount or a varying amount, and how it is calculated).
  • If you are getting a share of a harvested crop, who gets to decide when the crop is harvested?  If you are getting a share of the proceeds after selling the crop, who gets to decide how and where it is sold – maybe something might be able to be sold for more money later on, but maybe the tenant (or you) needs the cash immediately – how is that resolved?
  • Will your share of whatever it is you are getting be delivered to you, or are you required to collect it from the field or from somewhere else, or will the tenant store it for you until you decide to collect it, or maybe, if it is something that will be sold on to other people, will the tenant deliver it to an appropriate market location?  For that matter, are you expected to participate in any crop harvesting, livestock slaughter, etc?
  • What aspects of the land use can the tenant independently decide and control and which aspects can you insist on being observed/followed/implemented – for example, can the tenant decide to switch crops from corn to potatoes, or to swap pigs for cows?  Or, for that matter, to swap from crops to animals (and of course, vice versa)?  Can the tenant decide to intensively farm land to the point where the soil fertility is harmed, or can you insist on rotating crops and leaving fields fallow some years?
  • What happens in a bad year if the tenant fails to get the yield he expects from the land, due to no fault of his own?  Maybe the tenant gets a larger share of the first amount of yield from the land, then a lesser share of the extra yield above that.
  • What happens in a good year if the tenant gets a better yield than anticipated?  Following on from the last question, maybe if the tenant gets a better than normal yield, he should get a larger share of the ‘bonus’ extra harvest, because you have now got all the return you fairly anticipated, and the tenant’s own hard labor and/or expertise should be fairly rewarded.
  • Any obligations the tenant has to source supplies from you or from designated suppliers?  On the one hand, you don’t want to play the trick of forcing tenants to buy from you at inflated prices, on the other hand, if you can combine your purchases of some items, maybe you can negotiate better prices for both you and your various tenants.  Also, maybe there are some issues with some suppliers that you are aware of that cause you to be wary of dealing with them and you want to ‘quality control’ your tenants’ actions to prevent them from buying bad product.
  • A process whereby any changes to any of the terms or shares/splits/payments can be negotiated or will be changed in the future.  No matter how diligently you, your attorneys, and also your tenant and his attorneys may work at creating a complete agreement to cover all future eventualities, for sure there will be unforeseen issues arise and assumptions that need to be corrected appearing from time to time, and you need a fair way to be able to negotiate changes that protects both you and the tenant.
  • Your rights of access and inspection to confirm and verify the tenant’s processes, procedures, and calculations of your entitled shares.
  • How you will resolve disputes and misunderstandings about the contents of the agreement (both if the formal legal system remains in place or if it fails) and who will pay the cost of such dispute adjudication.  The consequences and sanctions that either party can levy on the other in the event that one party is found not to be meeting their obligations under the agreement, and how they will be calculated.
  • A recitation of the overarching principles and laws under which the agreement is framed and the parties expect to be used to interpret the agreement in the case of any future disagreement.


Allowing third parties onto your land, and helping them work that land on a fair and mutually beneficial basis is, well, exactly that – fair and mutually beneficial.

Adding extra people, even at an arm’s length type of tenancy arrangement, can only help the viability of you and your immediate retreat family/community.  This type of tenancy arrangement is a useful midway point as between totally turning people away, at one extreme, and immediately welcoming them into your retreat as equal members at the other extreme.

It truly is a win-win, and so much so that you might choose to anticipate such an occurrence by adding some extra structures on parts of your land that would be suitable for such tenancies.

Jul 172013
Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Maybe you’ve decided that town living is a better choice for you.  There’s nothing wrong with that decision.

Many of us have little ability or interest in a farming lifestyle, and particularly if we have some other type of non-farming/rural talent or ability we can use to survive on in the future, it not only becomes sensible for us to consider living in a town, it becomes essential, because the town contains the concentration of people needed to be your future customers.

There’s no need to feel like you’re becoming a second-class prepper by not buying a dozen acres in the middle of nowhere and becoming totally self-sufficient, because in reality, the concept of living by yourself, and being fully self-sufficient, is an impossibility to start with.  The solitary farming family will need help in many different aspects of their life, plus they’ll need people to trade with – to sell the surplus food they’ve grown themselves, and to buy other food items to supplement the diet of their own food.

That has been the historical role of towns since mankind stopped being nomadic hunter gatherers and started to settle on land.  The towns provide a focus for the farmers around them, and the supplemental services and support the farmers need.

As towns grew larger, they started to then add extra people and extra services for the existing townsfolk as well as for the farmers nearby, and then of course, with the industrial revolution, towns started to be centers for factories, and so it went from there to the mega-millions of people in some of our massive sprawling cities of today.

But, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, towns will revert back to essentially being support resources for the surrounding farmers, and you’ll want to either have something that farmers will want/need, or something that the other people in the town will want/need.  There will only be a reduced level of trade between nearby towns, and almost no trade with more distant locations, because transport will become expensive, slow, difficult and probably dangerous.

House or Apartment?  Big or Small Lot?

So, do you want to have an apartment above a store on the main street of the town?  A condo in a block of condos?  A house on a 1/8th acre lot a street back from the main street?  A house on a 1/4 acre lot several streets back from the main street?  Or a house on a one acre lot more or less at the town limits?

As a rule of thumb, the closer to the town center, the smaller your lot will be.  Of course, lot size is probably not your prime consideration, but we’d suggest you should consider this somewhat, and in particular, we’d urge you to consider having a freestanding dwelling rather than a condo/apartment/townhouse.

We’re not saying you need a large house – a smaller house would be fine, but you should probably allow for being able to accept some ‘guests’ who will want to join you WTSHTF.  A spare bedroom or two might be much appreciated by all.  Generally you want to choose an average sort of house consistent with its surrounding houses – ‘security by obscurity’ in a sense.

Having your own freestanding dwelling on your own lot gives you much more security, independence and privacy than sharing a structure and common areas and land with others, and in an uncertain future, you’ve no idea who might be living next to you.  The ability to have a buffer zone between your residence and the next residence/street gives you a very slight warning and a ‘no-man’s land’ where you can choose how to respond to unwanted visitors with less than lethal force.  When they’re breaking down your door – or, even worse, coming at you through the shared common wall with the adjoining apartment – your options are much more limited!

You can also use the land around your residence to erect a ‘garden shed’ or two in which you can store additional supplies and materials, in addition to whatever is in your home itself.  If you have your own land, you can have your own septic tank, or at the very least, dig a privy.

Talking about such things, some distance also gives you a sanitary/quarantine gap from your neighbors as well.  High density housing combined with a failure of services such as water and sewer is a huge invitation for dysentery and all sorts of other nasty diseases to spread like wildfire; and in a situation with diminished healthcare resource and fewer modern medications, what is currently inconvenient can quickly become lethal.

It also gives you a firebreak.  With the loss of public water services, fires can be harder to fight, and spread quickly between nearby buildings.  Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to modify the house you buy to ‘harden’ it against fire, or, even better, you will get an empty lot so you can build a house the way you want it, right from the start.

When you’re very close to your neighbors, and especially if you’re sharing a common structure, you’re beholden to them and you will be vulnerable to the consequences of their mistakes.

Your own extra space does a lot more than insulate you from the mistakes of your neighbors.  You have some space to set out some solar cells (in addition to whatever might be on your roof, or perhaps instead of being on your roof, so as not to draw attention to yourself).  You also have space for a generator and can park several vehicles securely.

Talking about being insulated from your neighbors, we’d urge you to avoid any type of property that is subject to a Home Owners’ Association, and be very wary of any attached covenants, codes and restrictions.  Home Owners’ Associations can run amok and cause no end of problems to people like ourselves – people who may not be willing to conform to the most excessively politically correct mandates of the HOA.

Not only do you want to avoid the constraints of an HOA, you want to have a moderate amount of privacy on your lot – you don’t want to be looking out your living room windows and straight into your neighbor’s living room, and so on.

If you have your own freestanding dwelling structure, you also have your own roof, and so you can collect rainwater from it without any complicating factors.  You can fireproof the structure too, and – while you’re at it – also make it ballistically stronger.

Even Non-Gardeners Should Have a (Small) Garden

One more thing about having some land.  Yes, you’ve already decided you’re not going to live a life as a rural farmer, spending all days doing back-breaking work in the fields.

But we’d urge you to have a few rows of veggies in your back yard, or perhaps erect a small greenhouse (then you can even raise plants up off the ground and not have to bend over so much).  Even a small bit of food independence (or, more accurately, less food dependence) might make a lot of difference when things get really tight and really tough.  Grow some easy, resilient, fun things.

You’re growing such things to supplement your other food and income, rather than to survive from, and if you grow some non-standard food items, you might find them much appreciated by other people, too.

So, one of the framing factors in your location choice within the town will be the varying costs of having some land together with a freestanding dwelling – how much you feel you need and how much you can afford.

Having acknowledged that, you should choose a place as centrally located as possible.  Sure, convenience is a good thing, and the ability to only walk for three or four minutes to get to your nearby Starbucks store in the morning is definitely a plus – well, okay then, maybe you’ve found the one town in the US that doesn’t yet have a Starbucks or analogous coffee shop.  🙂

For sure, you need to plan your future based on walking or riding a bicycle wherever you go in town, rather than driving a car.

Security Issues

There’s another reason for choosing to be close in to the center of the town as well.  If your town gets attacked by marauding bandits, two things will happen.

First, unlike the wild west movies we see, the bad guys won’t ride into the middle of the main street, a yelling and a hollering as they come, then shoot up everything they see, then ride out of town again.  Whereas, in the movies, the center of town seems to always be the most dangerous spot, in real life, we think it will be the safest.

Just like German U-boats against convoys in WW2 that would pick off the stragglers – the bad guys will attack, by stealth, the furthest out properties – the ones in the sort of grey zone where lot sizes have got larger, houses are further apart, and if you didn’t know the official city boundary line, you’d not be sure if they were in the town or not.

The second thing that will happen is a response to the first.  Outlying residents will come in to the center of the town for protection, and at the same time, the people who live closer in will band together to protect themselves – and themselves only.

The city limits sign will have no meaning.  The townsfolk in the center of the town will band together and protect only the inner enclave of their town.  This will be the area where an attack on one building is ‘dangerously close’ to other nearby buildings, such that the neighbors feel they have to help defend.  When the population density thins out some, if one building is attacked, neighbors will either cower under the kitchen table or run away, but when the population density rises, neighbors will feel that it is safer to help repulse the attackers, because they’ll perceive the direct danger to themselves much more starkly.

We’ve also seen analogous examples of this in history too – towns where the inner part was defended by a city wall, and the outer part – outside the city wall, was on their own.

Okay, we know our advice seems contradictory.  On the one hand, you want to have a reasonable lot size, and a bit of privacy and buffer zone between you and the neighbors.  On the other hand, you want to be close in to the town center for security and safety.  Where do you compromise?  That really depends on the layout of the town (and your budget).

When we talk about town layout we don’t just mean the streets and houses and plat maps, although that is of course relevant.  We also mean the ways in and out of the town, and any geographic buffers/barriers that might provide protection – rivers and hills, for example.

Clearly, attackers will be very likely to approach from some directions and less likely to approach from others.  This isn’t a military campaign, they are looking for ‘low-lying fruit’ and will leave difficult situations well alone (because there will be plenty of low lying fruit).  So consider degrees of risk when choosing your location in a town, although the most important thing to appreciate is that if/when threatened, the town will ‘shrink in’ on itself, and only the dense central area will end up with the residents effectively uniting against external problems.


If you have a skill that can be used in a rural town after WTSHTF, then by all means plan your prepping on the basis of setting up your retreat in a town.

We discuss how to choose a suitable town separately.  Once you have chosen a suitable town, in this article we explain where in the town is best to locate yourself.

May 052013
Whether intentional or accidental, a vehicle can very effectively smash through most unprotected building exteriors.

Whether intentional or accidental, a vehicle can very effectively smash through most unprotected building exteriors.

You probably already know that your retreat needs to be reasonably protected against high velocity ballistic attack, which is a fancy way of saying it should be more or less ‘bullet-proof’.  But have you thought about low velocity attacks?

What do we mean by low velocity attacks?  We mean instead of having small rapidly moving things (ie bullets) impacting on the side of your retreat and possibly penetrating through the walls, having much larger but slower moving things impacting on the side of your retreat and again possibly penetrating the walls.

The first example of such an object would be a traditional battering ram.  We’re going to hope that there’s not much chance of an enemy being able to deploy a battering ram against your retreat doors or windows, because that would presumably expose the people with the battering ram to sustained fire from you and your fellow defenders, to the point that by the time they’d positioned their ram and started to use it, they’d have experienced unacceptable casualties, causing them to break off the attack.

But there’s another type of low velocity ballistic weapon which you need to consider.  What say the bad guys simply drive a car or truck at full speed up to your retreat and crash it in through the walls?

To put things in perspective, a typical pistol bullet has in the order of 300 – 900 ft lbs of kinetic energy.  A .308 rifle round is in the order of 2000 – 2500 ft lbs.

A 5,000 lb car or truck, traveling at 30 mph, has 150,000 ft lbs of kinetic energy.  Get its speed up to 42 mph and it has 300,000 ft lbs of energy.  If you can get it to 60 mph, it will have 600,000 ft lbs of kinetic energy.

A passenger car, even at fairly low speeds, can crash right through the exterior of a typical stick built home, and end up in the living room (we know this from experience).  Add extra weight, reinforce the front with a ram to focus all that energy in one concentrated area, and get the speed up a bit, and any attacker has a formidable weapon.

It isn’t even a very high-tech weapon.  Any old vehicle, as long as it can be driven, will work perfectly well.

One more point.  With safety belts (and possibly air bags), even at quite high speeds, the person driving the vehicle into your house is unlikely to be harmed.  The reason for this is that the impact event is spread out over time and distance, so instead of a deadly sudden impact lasting only a few hundreds of a second, it is a survivable impact that extends over a second or longer.

There’s another issue, too.  At even a fairly slow 30 mph, the vehicle is covering 45 feet every second.  If you have, say, a 250 ft ‘clear zone’ around your retreat, that means it takes the vehicle just over five seconds from when it first appears to when it is crashing through your wall.  That’s not much time to respond to the threat – even if you were on active sentry duty, at least a second to recognize the threat and start a response, another second or more to get your rifle shouldered, sighted, and safety off, and that leaves less than three seconds to try to do something.

With the vehicle being a moving target and its angle to you probably rapidly changing (meaning you need to appreciably lead the target with your sighting – how much practice do you have at that?), your chance of getting any effective fire on it is minimal.  Even if you could get some rounds landing on the vehicle, and while that might injure or kill the people inside, you’re almost certainly not going to stop the vehicle continuing on and into your wall.

Sacrificing a vehicle to break into your retreat might seem like an extreme move that not many attacking groups would willingly do, but if that’s what you think, maybe you should think again.

Our prediction is that in a Level 2/3 situation, vehicles will be a dime a dozen.  What will be in precious short supply is fuel for the vehicles, but how much fuel does it take to start a vehicle, gun the engine, and drive it at full power a couple of hundred yards?  A pint or two of petrol should do the trick.

An adversary could have a team of horses tow the vehicle to close to your retreat and would only need to use precious petrol for the last short powered dash of the vehicle into your outer wall.

Such a method of attack – unless you had prepared for it – would be very hard to resist.  It behooves you to consider this risk and devise appropriate defensive measures.

The obvious solution might be to strengthen your walls still further, but that’s not necessarily the best, and certainly is far from the only possible response.  Generally, we’d recommend the better thing to do is to prevent potentially threatening vehicles from being able to approach your retreat at any speed other than a crawl.  Keep the battle at a safe distance from your retreat whenever possible.

There are two ways to do this.  The first involves ‘taking things away from the ground’ and the second involves ‘adding things to the ground’.  In other words, digging holes and ditches, or adding obstructions and obstacles.

Obstructions and Obstacles

An obstacle doesn’t need to be large to be effective.  It can be either permanently mounted (ie dug deep into the ground to hold it in place) or can be relatively mobile.  There are many different types of obstacles, but for simplicity, we’ll consider four primary types.

In sequence from easy and simple to largest and most complex, the first type is very simple – known as caltrops, these are nothing more than metal spikes/stars that you can sprinkle over the ground.  At least one of the spikes always sticks up and so will puncture a vehicle’s tire(s).

The best caltrops are made out of hollow tubing, so as to increase the certainty and speed of the tire puncturing.

The nice thing about caltrops is they are low tech, simple to make, and quick and easy to deploy and similarly not difficult to remove again.  You might be thinking ‘if I can easily remove them, so too could an attacker’, and that is half-true.  But while the attacker is out there, sweeping aside your caltrops, he is very exposed and vulnerable to your defensive fire, and he has lost the ability to surprise you with a vehicle coming from nowhere and cannoning into your retreat unexpectedly.

You could even have a caltrop deploying device – a slingshot or something – that would enable you to throw more caltrops onto any cleared pathway.  You’d be tossing them out from behind cover, while the bad guys would have to be exposed in the open to clear them.

A second type of low tech very simple obstacle is almost laughable in its simplicity, but people who have seen this in action assure us of its effectiveness.  Simply strew old car/truck tires where you wish to impede on-coming traffic.

We are told that this will massively slow down an oncoming vehicle, as it suddenly finds itself having to go up and down over tires that are probably each 6″ – 12″ high.  Like the caltrops, the tires can be spread out and cleared on an ‘as needed’ basis, and while an opposing force could also clear the tires, that would again involve exposing themselves to your defensive fire.

A really determined enemy could devise a ‘snow plow’ or ‘cow catcher’ front to put on their vehicle that would deflect tires and caltrops away, although it would probably have to do so at lower speed.

The bottom line for both these approaches (and indeed for all of them) is that a truly comprehensive defense involves using multiple layers and strategies, and you have to realistically decide where to draw the line and how much is enough.

The third type is what are sometimes called Czech hedgehogs.  They are structures that might be freestanding, or possibly weakly anchored.  They might be individual units or possibly may be linked together, and might be made out of metal or concrete.  They work best when they are only slightly taller than the clearance underneath the class of vehicles they are designed to stop – that is a reasonably known quantity when defending against tanks, but in your case, you might be confronting anything from a low slung sports car to a ridiculously raised 4×4.

So these are not so good as a general purpose ‘one size fits all’ device.

The fourth type are large heavy concrete blocks – possibly in pyramid shape, possibly just pillars or some other shape.  These objects are more commonly securely mounted in the ground.  They have been called dragon’s teeth (and many other names too).

Unless they are ridiculously solid, they are vulnerable to being knocked over by a sufficiently strong oncoming vehicle.  But in the course of being knocked over, they will absorb a great deal of the vehicle’s energy.  They are particularly good, in this ‘sacrificial mode’ when reasonably close to your retreat exterior, so in the event of them failing, the vehicle won’t have enough distance to build up speed again.

Noting that attacking vehicles might have been raised up on trick suspension, we’d suggest you need to make any sort of obstruction fairly tall, and we don’t really much like that concept too much because you may then be providing cover for enemy forces to shelter behind when attacking you.

Obviously, obstacles can also be large and prominent.  You could have a three-foot high and three-foot thick wall (perhaps a type of Hesco bastion, for example).  But then you run the risk of providing a defensive cover for your attackers to shelter behind, hence our focus on smaller sized obstacles that don’t have this type of downside associated with them.

There’s another type of simple but effective device for slowing down vehicles, but it is not without its limitations in our sort of environment :  A gravel pit, such as you sometimes see going down long steep hills for runaway trucks.  If you’ve ever seen one of those, you may have noticed how short it seems – those gravel pits do a great job of slowing down and stopping a speeding truck on a steep slope and would do the same for any vehicles approach you at speed too.

Arrester beds typically have a depth of between two and three feet of small-sized gravel in them.  Some locations use sand, which provides a much stronger decelerating force, but in cold winters, the sand will freeze into solid blocks and cease to function as a dragging medium, instead it becomes a smooth surface for the vehicle to drive over, unimpeded.  A loose gravel pit will probably still work as intended in freezing weather.

The shape of the gravel is important – ideally it should be fairly well-rounded, enabling each piece to move and slide over each other piece, rather than causing pieces to interlock together and present a firmer more solid platform for the vehicle to drive on the top of.

A truck at 45 mph typically takes 200 – 250 ft to stop in an arrester bed.  That becomes a massive waste of space if being used to defend a retreat on all sides, unfortunately, making arrester beds less practical for retreat defense.

In addition to gravel and sand arrester beds, there is a special type of collapsible concrete material used at some airports as a run-off zone at the end of runways.  This material stops planes safely and quickly and in less distance.  This ‘engineered material’ has also been used to protect the approaches to secure locations, being a discreet way of providing protection against vehicular attacks.  It is more expensive, but takes up less space.

Unlike gravel, which is a relatively low tech product that can be probably fairly easily replaced or just raked back into place, once the collapsing concrete blocks have stopped a vehicle they need to be replaced.  This would be difficult in a Level 2/3 situation, and you’re still looking at a requirement for at least 100 ft of arresting zone.

Ditches and Moats

A defensive ditch can be a great vehicle stopper.  It can also slow the advance of regular infantry forces, although note that any such ditch needs to be designed so it doesn’t inadvertently provide a secure position for enemy troops to regroup in and then press their attack against you.  In other words, the closer the ditch is to you, the more readily you’ll be able to shoot down into the ditch, and the less cover it will provide an attacking force.

If you have abundant supplies of water, adding water to a ditch makes it into a moat, which can slow down the progress of enemy forces and vehicles even more effectively.

A moat can be expensive to create, especially if you line it with concrete, although it would be possible to line a moat with puddled mud as an alternative.  Depending on where your retreat was located and the wind and weather conditions, you could expect appreciable evaporation in summer, and if it froze over the winter it would not be very effective while frozen solid.  A possibly easy solution to that would be to partially or completely drain the moat in fall and refill it in spring, assuming water is plentiful.

Moats and trenches can be bridged over, and if they are not very wide, maybe by nothing more sophisticated than 2″x12″ planking, although such an arrangement would not allow for a vehicle to proceed over at high-speed.

Traditionally, castle moats were at least 12 ft wide, and ranged in-depth from as little as 3 ft to as much as 30 ft.  Ideally they would be too deep to allow an attacker to wade across.  A 30 ft depth is of course not so essential, but one benefit of a deeper moat was (and still could be) that it protected the structure inside the moat from tunnelers.  Unlike medieval sieges, we feel it unlikely that any attacking force against your retreat would go to that degree of effort, whereas the depth of moat might interfere with your own escape tunnels out of your retreat.

Clearly the width is an important parameter – the wider, the better, at least up to a certain point.  But it is also necessary to consider cost.  For example, if we say your retreat exterior measures 40′ x 100′, and if we say there is a three-foot space between the building’s exterior walls and the start of the moat, and let’s make the moat 15 ft wide and 8 ft deep, that’s a lot of excavation (44,000 cu ft of dirt).  You could use some of that to build up the raised berm on which your retreat stands, and you’re sure to find a landscaping or strategic use for the rest, but you’ll still have to pay a considerable sum for the earthworks.

If you decide to line your moat with concrete, and if you have a six-inch thick floor and walls (some sources suggest thicker walls), then using the same moat dimensions as in the previous paragraph, you need 5624 cu ft of concrete, or 210 yards.  At a total cost for the concrete and pouring of perhaps $200/yard, that’s close on $45,000 for the concrete alone.

As for the water required, let’s say you decide to fill the 8′ deep moat with 6′ of water.  That would require 245,000 gallons of water.

One more interesting factor about a moat.  On a warm summer’s day with a gentle breeze, you would lose at least 1,000 gallons of water a day to evaporation.  Note that the evaporative loss rate is unaffected by the depth of water – it is proportional to the surface area of water, not its depth (and also to the temperature, humidity, and wind speed), so simply reducing the depth of moat water would do nothing to reduce the rate of evaporation.

Of course, a moat is effective whether wet or dry.  If dry, it is a ditch and still prevents vehicles transiting over it, and slows people down – they have to climb down 8 ft (in the example we have been using) and then climb up 8 ft at the other side, and then have only a very slim 3ft ‘work area’ pressed up hard against your retreat’s exterior walls.  The more water in the moat, the slower their progress across it will be, and the more difficult it will be to take equipment with them.

If you find yourself choosing between a deeper moat and a wider moat, then assuming you have a minimum width of 12′ or slightly greater, you would be best advised to make your moat deeper rather than wider.  There is little or no added value in increasing the width – the difficulty of a moat is mainly in the ‘transitions’ from level ground to whatever depth/differential the moat is, and then from whatever level the moat is to the ground on the other side.

Ideally, we’d recommend the water depth be 6′ or slightly greater so that people can’t conveniently walk across, and then any extra depth should be used to create a vertical air space/wall between the water level and the ground level.  Getting in and out of a moat is even more difficult if you have to ascend or descend more than a convenient number of feet, and with water rather than solid ground at the lower level.

Allowing for Legitimate Vehicle Passage

You need your own vehicles to be able to travel through your obstructions, and you’ll also have legitimate friendly traffic coming and going too.

If you have a ditch or moat, obviously the solution for that is to provide a drawbridge – either a device like in old-fashioned castles that raises up and lowers down, or alternatively one which extends out from your retreat to the other side, or one which rotates/swivels.  Of course, whichever design you use needs to be very secure so that an opposing force can’t take over its mechanism and lower/extend/rotate it to span the moat against your will.

If you are relying on a series of above ground obstacles, you need a lane through them that vehicles can travel, and by including tight turns, you ensure that the vehicles have to move slowly.

The best type of tight turn is to require a three-point (or sometimes called ‘Y’) turn.  Because it requires the vehicle to actually stop, reverse, then proceed on forwards again, this is a very effective delay.

Of course, having had to very slowly work through the obstacles would cause the enemy to be in the open and exposed to your defensive fire for an extended period, plus means that when they finally do arrive close to your retreat wall, they are moving slowly rather than quickly.

Note that when you are planning for how you will allow legitimate traffic to come and go, you need to consider the dimensions and turning abilities of the largest probable type of vehicle that may legitimately visit.  This could be as large as a semi truck/trailer unit with a 56′ long container behind the tractor unit; alternatively, you might decide to have a staging point somewhere remote from your retreat where larger vehicles can be unloaded to smaller vehicles.

That is a much less efficient arrangement, so if it is possible to allow for at least moderately large semi trucks to get through your ‘maze’ that would be the best option.

A Last Line of Physical Defense

Naturally you want to stop vehicle attacks some safe distance from your retreat.  Even a slow speed vehicle, when approaching your retreat, can provide cover for enemy attackers sheltering behind or alongside the vehicle as it slowly moves forward, so some type of obstacle arrangement is essential.

Unavoidably, the further away from your retreat you place such defenses, the more extensive they will have to be.  If you have a retreat with perhaps 40′ x 100′ exterior walls, the walls themselves have a length of 280 ft.  If your vehicle barriers are a mere 100 ft away from your retreat (a distance that a sprinting attacker could cover in four seconds or less) then they will be a massive 1080 linear feet in size.

So possibly you’ll have a partial line of obstructions at a distance to slow down incoming vehicles, then a more severe obstacle design closer in to stop them.  This is the concept of layered defenses – it also helps you to understand the intentions of people approaching your retreat, requiring them to show aggression earlier on.

In addition, if the budget allows for it, maybe it makes sense to have a last line of defense that is actually immediately adjacent to – or even part of – your retreat wall.

One form of this would be an immediately adjoining moat.  Another form would be to build your entire retreat above grade on a berm.  Maybe the first three feet or so of the retreat is nothing other than a solid earth foundation.  In addition to its three-foot (or more) height, f you had this solid earth foundation extend out even only another foot or so (due to it being liable to be compressed if hit by a vehicle) that would be a very strong stand-off layer.

Having your retreat an extra three feet higher is a good thing for all reasons, giving you a better commanding view of your surroundings.  And presumably at least part of that extra three feet of height would be used to get you a head start on excavating basements, too – your below grade basements would in effect have their first three feet above ground level, but still be treated as basement.

In the event that you were blessed with a water table that was very close to the surface, raising up the ground level of your retreat structure is obviously very beneficial.

Whether you raise up your retreat or not, you definitely should make sure there’s not a downhill slope running towards your retreat.  That just makes it so much easier for an incoming vehicle to gather more speed and more energy.  It isn’t only bad feng shui to have your house lower than the surrounding area, it is bad strategy too.


There will be three major categories of physical threat against your retreat.  Bullets, heavy weights and vehicles, and people.  A good series of obstructive defenses will help keep vehicles away from your retreat walls, and will slow down the speed at which people can reach your walls too.

It is easy to underestimate how far away a person can be and still be an immediate danger.  A person 100 yards away can cover that distance, if there are no obstructions, in about 10 seconds, whereas if you’re just going about your ordinary lives in your retreat, there’s no way you can mount an effective defense with that little warning.

Rather than creating impractically huge clear zones around your retreat, you need to slow down the speed at which people as well as vehicles can get to your retreat, to buy you time to prepare an effective defense.

Above ground obstructions have some value in slowing down vehicles, but are less effective against individuals on foot.  Fencing works well against people (but probably not vehicles).  Ditches and moats will stop most vehicles and slow down people.