Apr 302013
Your neighbors should be a positive value-add part of your retreat survival plans.

Your neighbors should be a positive value-add part of your retreat survival plans.

Conventional wisdom suggests that preppers want to locate a retreat far away from anyone else.  We understand the rationale behind this, but we don’t fully agree.

Sure, we’re the first to say you should keep your distance from larger cities.  That’s absolutely so, and we have written about this before.  But we see individual neighbors – and also the inhabitants of small towns – as being very different to the refugees streaming out of larger cities.  Let’s look at why that is.

The concern that motivates people to keep as far away from anyone and everyone and to go through obsessive and probably ultimately unsuccessful ‘opsec’ charades is of course the understandable fear that WTSHTF anyone and everyone who is less well prepped than you, may decide to come after you and seize your preparations, take over your lands, and dispossess you of all you own.

Now that is definitely a risk with marauding refugees from larger cities.  These people are itinerants.  They have nothing other than the clothes on their back and whatever else they can carry and travel with, and so they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by attacking you opportunistically.  If the attack seems likely to fail, they can simply retreat and run away.  No harm done (to them) and the next day, they will try for better luck with another targeted residence, somewhere else (or possibly even return to surprise you a second time).

They can do this with relative impunity, as often as they wish.  Why?  Because if you give chase after them, they will simply keep running away until you give up and return back to your home.  They know, and soon enough you’ll realize too, that after a day or two or three of giving chase, you are going to give up.

Your retreat community needs you, and if you’ve traveled two days away, you’ll have to take another two or three days to return – you’ve been away for four or five days, and each extra day you continue traveling outbound takes you two days away in total, while exhausting you, your supplies, and increasing your vulnerability to unknown and unexpected events in areas you are less familiar with.

Issues With Neighbors

But what about a fellow property owner, next to, or several lots over from you?  They’ve made a commitment to their land, and to their home.  If they get into a dispute with you and it isn’t amicably resolved, you know exactly where to find them, and if you’re so minded, you can do exactly that, at a time and situation of your choosing so as to ensure the best possible outcome for you (and the worst possible outcome for them).

If you get into a conflict, neither of you will want to abandon everything you’ve worked to create and protect and preserve.  You’ll both fight to the finish, or negotiate a truce or surrender, and all but the most pig-headed of people will realize the best approach is to avoid the conflict in the first place.  You both have too much to lose.

There’s another perspective that applies differently to your neighbors than to itinerants as well.  The itinerant has no chance of surviving on his own.  He either has to somehow – by hook or by crook – get the supplies and shelter he needs, or perish in the process.

But your neighbors with the small holdings adjacent to your own – they are some way to self-sufficiency already (and maybe already there).  Both of you can prosper better, together.  By occasionally working together cooperatively you will get a much better outcome to everything than by competing against each other or by simply ignoring each other, or – worst of all, one of you fighting the other and either forcing him off his land and away or instead losing and being forced off your land and sent away.  The clear reality is that you probably (hopefully!) have nothing to compete about or for, and if you can see potential sources of tension, you shouldn’t locate your retreat at that place to start with.

Possible sources of tension might revolve around water rights or access rights.  If you or they need access of the other’s property, that might be a problem, and of course, if there’s a shared water resource (perhaps a river/stream that flows first through one of your properties and then through the other) then that could be an issue too, and these are things you’d need to clearly understand and resolve before buying the property.  You’d also want to make sure that your potential new neighbors don’t believe they have any non-recorded but customary and traditional rights on your property – perhaps they might assert traditional grazing rights for their cattle, or perhaps there are some unclear disputed boundary lines, or who knows what else.

When choosing your retreat property, you should not just rely on title searches and property deeds, you should speak to all your potential new neighbors to understand how they perceive the property you might be buying and its interaction with their property and rights.

Back now to the future, and to put things another way, hopefully your rural neighbors are already committed to the concept of surviving by honest hard work, and hopefully they’ll see that their work can be easier and more successful with an occasional positive interaction with their neighbors.

There’s probably an example that relates to this in your normal life.  Have you ever noticed how you make close friends with many of the people you work with, but when you or they change jobs, the friendship quickly evaporates?  It was the common ties created by doing the same job, working for the same company, sharing the same experiences, frustrations, and successes, that built a bond between you, and when those ties were broken, there was little remaining except a quickly fading chance to reminisce about former shared experiences.

A similar thing applies, positively, to your relationship with your neighbors.  You might have nothing in common with them socially, politically, or in any other respect.  But you have a huge common tie binding you together – you are both working to survive in what has become a tough and unforgiving world, and will be sharing many of the same challenges due to your proximity to each other.  Most of all, your respective chance of surviving is increased if your neighbor does well (due to the hope that they might share their success if needed).

These outside forces are of course very less apparent in normal times, and so provide much less motivation for people to interact with their neighbors currently.  But WTSHTF, different rules will apply.

If and when this should happen, you and your neighbors need to realize you are stronger together than apart.

Issues With Nearby Towns

This is a slightly trickier situation, and with different possible win and lose outcomes for you and the people residing in the town, not all of which are clearly either win-win or lose-lose.

The situation here depends very much on the size and type of town that you are close to.  If it is a small town where the residents live in houses with yards and have the potential to grow vegetable gardens and maybe keep some chickens and a pig or two, and/or where some of the other townsfolk are essential service providers for the country living people in the area – people such as yourself and your neighbors – then hopefully the small town is viable as a self-sustaining entity in a Level 2 or 3 situation.  We discuss this in some detail in our article ‘Will your nearby town thrive, survive or fail WTSHTF?‘.

It is important you understand which of these categories (thrive, survive or fail) the town is likely to find itself in.  Clearly you want to be close to a town that will add value to your existence by thriving, and equally clearly, you do not want to be close to one that may threaten it by failing.

If the nearby town is likely to be a net value-add rather than a threat, you have another potential win-win situation, the same as with your neighbors.  For the service providers (doctors, dentists, tradesmen, etc) you are a source of business and food for them, while they in turn are a source of services and capabilities you don’t have within your own retreat and its members.  And in addition to being a customer and a seller of food, you might also have services and skills of your own which they need, and maybe you might also provide employment to some townsfolk too.

The key thing is that your town has to be one which is capable of being self-sustaining.  If that is the case, then they see their future the same way your neighbor sees his future – they see that their future is best assured by working together rather than working apart, or by attempting to take things from you.

If the town is not capable of being self-sustaining, then you have problems.  What is to stop the town from using its resources against you?  In whatever form of county government that may remain, there’s a greater voice and support for a town of 100 than a retreat with 5 on it, and the townsfolk might act to annex you to their town and then make you subject to bylaws and regulations designed to seize your assets and share them with the townsfolk.

These types of semi-legal threats are even more worrying than the illegal threats of an armed gang of townsfolk simply attacking you and taking your supplies from you, because you could find yourself confronting not only a small group of villainous townsfolk, but the local law enforcement agencies, augmented by county and state forces too.

We spoke before about the issue of itinerant roaming opportunists.  They can be a problem, but they are itinerant and so are not likely to be a permanent issue (although you may get regular visits, but from different groups/gangs of itinerants).  A nearby town of needy people – that’s a much more serious thing, because it is a more permanent problem.  If the townsfolk have to choose between abandoning their homes and their town and becoming itinerants themselves, or of simply taking everything you have, which do you think they will choose?

That’s not a problem with an easy solution, because they are living close to you.  If they have no other easier nearby targets, they’re not likely to just ignore you.  They will do something and you will find yourself forced to either accede or respond any way necessary to protect your property and your livelihood.

On the other hand, while a bad town, collectively, poses a problem, if the problems are with just some individuals rather than the town as a whole, it can be a benefit to you and a constraint on the individuals and their actions.

Assuming it is a moderately small town, any action that one or two of the town’s residents might engage you in stands to have consequences to them.  Just like with a troublesome neighbor, you know where to find them, and they are vulnerable to whatever type of reprisals you might choose to take.  Perhaps the town even has some basic type of law enforcement, making such errant folks answerable not just to you and whatever ‘natural justice’ the situation allows for, but also to local law enforcement and their type of justice, too.

Mutual Security Issues Apply to Neighbors and Towns, Too

There’s one more thing to consider as well – another reason why you should band together with both your neighbors and your local town.

If a gang of outlaws moves into your area, then today they might attack you, but then tomorrow they might attack your neighbor, and the next day, the next neighbor and so on.  This is also true of small towns – if a gang starts terrorizing the outlying ranchers, how long before they start terrorizing the town dwellers, too?  This isn’t just a hypothetical situation – it is happening with Mexican gangs in parts of Eastern WA already, and that’s in a situation supposedly where the rule of law is intact and supreme.

If the town ends the menace of a gang, you benefit too, and if you end the menace of a gang, the town and your neighbors all benefit also.  So it makes selfish good sense to cooperate – and anything which appeals to a person’s selfishness is much more likely to win their cooperation than something which requires more abstract concepts of honor and justice!

You Might Need to Explain These Issues

What we’ve written might seem intuitive to you, but it might not necessarily be intuitive to your neighbors and to the nearby town.  Don’t assume that they all are thinking the same way you are, and joining the mental dots together in the same pattern.  We’d suggest you discreetly talk about such things with your neighbors, and with people who would be advantaged by cooperating with you in the town as well.

But don’t go at this like a bull in heat.  Be oblique and cautious, because you don’t want to get a reputation as being strange, unusual, and eccentric.

We’d suggest you slowly get to know your neighbors as if by chance, and only after you’ve had some casual conversations with them about the weather, sport, life in general, or whatever else, that you then start to talk about some ‘what if’ scenarios.  If it is clear that they have no concept about such things, or perhaps they are very individualistic and private and not wanting to interact/cooperate with others, then don’t press the point for now – you can always revisit the topic in the future.  But if they do show sympathy and understanding, simply indicate that in any uncertain future you’d prefer to work cooperatively with them for mutual benefit.

You can certainly easily enough explain your shared situation when it comes to shared problems and needs and external threats.  As for the potential of disputes between the two of you, you can say ‘Heck, there’s no way I’d want to start an argument with you because you know where to find me, and I guess (give a polite laugh here to remove the sting of the statement) I guess you don’t really want to start an argument with me either because I know where to find you too!’

As for townsfolk, we’ve written elsewhere about how to integrate into your local community.  You should do this, and as you get to know local merchants and service providers, there will come times when you’ll be relaxing over a meal or drink, and you can ‘think out loud’ about hypothetical future scenarios and how the town and its surrounding population would be well advised to club together if things went bad.  See who agrees with you, and who rejects the idea as fanciful, impossible, irrelevant or inappropriate, and selectively build ties with those who agree with you.


Your future survival depends not just on yourself and the other members of your prepper community retreat.  Like it or not, it also depends on the other people around you, living on neighboring blocks of land, and in the nearby town (or towns).

Your objective is to create not just a neutral ‘live and let live’ arrangement with your neighbors and adjacent town-folk, but rather to set the scene for the quick establishment of a mutual cooperation and support setup if TSHTF.  This will greatly enhance your standard of living, your resilience, and your ability to withstand disastrous events of all kinds.

Apr 302013
Small country towns have been dying out in recent decades.  A Level 2/3 situation will see their resurgence.

Small country towns have been dying out in recent decades. A Level 2/3 situation will see their resurgence.

One of the key things in developing your retreat is to create or become part of a community.  You can’t viably ‘go it alone’ in a Level 3 situation (although it is possible to do so in a Level 1 or 2 situation).

Depending on the scope of your plans, there are several ways to become part of a community.  Most people immediately assume they will have a multi-acre block of land to themselves, and as for becoming part of a community, they will simply befriend their adjoining land-owners immediately around them, and – hey, presto!  Instant community.

That’s fine, and if it works for you, so much the better.  But a rural community of adjacent farmers/ranchers is not the only type of community that will be created, or which currently exists and may survive, and further more, while working together with your rural neighbors is both essential and positive, the chances are that even when you pool all your various resources and abilities together, there are still large gaps in needed skill sets, abilities, equipment, and so on.

Even in the most extreme of Level 3 situations, there will be a need for small service towns/villages.  These will be (and currently are) places where the nearby farmers can go to buy sell and trade, to get services, to benefit from pooled resources such as education, healthcare, maybe law enforcement that require at least a small amount of ‘economy of scale’ to be feasible, and also as a place to socialize and to meet as a community to discuss/resolve regional issues.

This is very different in concept from most towns and cities these days.  Modern and larger urban creations exist purely for themselves and are sustained internally (or externally via concepts that would not apply after TEOTWAWKI), rather than to service the surrounding country dwellers.

In contrast, a rural town is more outward looking and exists as a service point for its immediately adjacent rural community.  It has an essentially similar economic base today as it has always done ever since the founding of our country, and as it has done for centuries prior to then in the UK and Europe.  It is typically small, with perhaps a one room schoolhouse, a one cell jail, a general store, a doctor, a dentist, a couple of specialty stores and service providers, maybe a lodging house, church, bar and restaurant, and is almost always located strategically on a route to somewhere (and more likely, is not on a spur to a larger town/city, but is on a road that connects larger population concentrations on either side of it).

The Evolution of Rural Towns

These days many rural towns have grown in size to become larger than has historically been the case (or have simply died out entirely).  This is because the ease of modern-day transportation has meant that instead of the local community needing small towns every ten miles, it is now sufficient to have larger towns every twenty or thirty miles.  The traveling time and cost and inconvenience to go 20 – 30 miles today is less than it was to go a mere ten miles in an earlier time.

But please note the distance constraint will become an issue again in a Level 2/3 situation, when road maintenance will be neglected and fuel for vehicles will be either scarce or prohibitively expensive or possibly both.  Instead of thinking ‘I can drive 70 miles on the freeway to a town in an hour, and pay only $6 in gas to do so’ people will think ‘it will take me almost two hours to travel by horse and cart ten miles, and more than a day to travel 70 miles’, and so closer towns will become essential once more.

The key thing about any town is that if it is to survive in Level 2 and 3 situations, it will be because it exists to provide services to the people living rurally in the immediate area.

Many small rural towns these days exist for reasons other than primarily being a service provider to nearby rural residents.  Don’t confuse these types of towns with real locally focused towns, because these other ‘artificial’ towns are less likely to survive.

For example, if a town is currently a tourist retreat, it will not survive (there won’t be many tourists in such a dystopian future).  If it is based around some type of local industry that relies upon the normal social and economic functioning of the normal world, it again will not survive (what happens when the industrial employer can no longer source its raw materials or sell its finished goods, and so can not pay its employees?).  This is as true if it is a traditional industry (perhaps a saw mill) or a ‘new’ industry (maybe a server farm for an internet company).

If it is a retirement town with a large community of senior citizens living off their retirement checks, and augmented healthcare services to meet their needs, it again will not survive (what happens when those retirement checks stop coming in?).

Another factor when considering the viability of a small town is to evaluate its dependence on external sources of water, food and energy.  Clearly, the more it needs to bring these three essential commodities in from ‘somewhere else’, the more its future viability is vulnerable to the disruption of the supplies of these things.

A viable town has its own water supply nearby, and sources its food from nearby farms.  Energy is more of a concern, with it being rare to find a small town that has its own city energy source.  And even if it did, the chances are that the energy generation relies upon bringing in supplies of coal, natural gas, or oil fuel.  Only if the town has a dam and hydro power is it reasonably energy-independent.

Why are we raising these issues?  Four reasons.

Four Reasons Why a Nearby Town is Important to You

First, if it is your plan to create a rural retreat, you still need to have an eye to being within reach of a nearby small township.  You can’t possibly hope to have every skill set, every experience, every knowledge base, every type of equipment, and so on, yourself, on your retreat.  You will need to be able to turn to specialist providers of supplemental skills from time to time.

You’ll also want a place where you can buy things you need and don’t have, sell things you have produced, and/or trade and exchange and barter the one for the other.

Some type of town within a reasonable distance (think non-motorized transport when evaluating distances) is therefore a huge benefit and boost to your own survivability.

Secondly, not all current towns are the same.  Some will fail just as surely and completely as the big cities, while others will survive and may even thrive.  For example, the small town with the struggling hardware store and grocery shop will find that people no longer drive an extra 40 miles to go to Wal-Mart, Costco, or Home Depot, but instead necessarily return to doing business at the closer alternate.

You need to evaluate the towns that are close to potential retreat locations and assess if they are likely to survive and to add value to your retreat lifestyle, or if they are more likely to fail and instead become a source of problems for you at your retreat.

Thirdly, many people make an automatic assumption that a retreat needs to be in a deserted rural area, ‘safely’ far away from other people.  That’s not necessarily the case at all.  If life on a farm isn’t your idea of a good time, maybe you have a set of skills and personal lifestyle preferences that would fit better into a small town environment.  Maybe instead of being a land-owner needing a blacksmith, you can become the blacksmith.  Maybe you can establish the trading mart where the local people (both town-folk and farmers) do their buying, selling and bartering.  Maybe you can become the local saloon owner.  The local schoolmaster or schoolmistress.  And so on.

Fourthly, and this is the big one, maybe there is an opportunity for you to start your own new town.  If there have been towns close down over the last 100 years, but if there is still a reasonable rural population, who now rely on good transportation options to travel further distances, maybe you could consider establishing a new fledgling township and activate it if/when a Level 2/3 event occurs.

This would require some considerable capital investment on a very speculative basis, and so is not suitable for many people to consider.  But creating a substantial rural retreat is not an inexpensive concept either, and so maybe it might be a more appealing concept for you to prepare a skeleton of a new township.  You’d probably still have some ‘town gardens’ in it for immediate food growing, but rather than creating a rural retreat with the purpose of keeping people away for safety, maybe your strategy instead is to create the kernel of a settlement that could grow into a service town, and instead of keeping people away, you’d want to welcome people into it for safety.


Whatever your relationship will be with a town, being either a part of or close to a ‘good’ town that will survive is a key part of your retreat location evaluation and decision.

Apr 292013
Our 'advanced' society comprises an underlying and obscured labyrinthine linked series of dependencies.  Like falling dominoes, one single failure could bring everything down.

Our ‘advanced’ society comprises an underlying and obscured labyrinthine linked series of dependencies. Like falling dominoes, one single failure could bring everything down.

Much of this article might be thought of as ‘preaching to the converted’.  The chances are you’re already accepting on the basic tenets of the need to prepare for an uncertain future.

So why are we writing it?  Not only to reinforce in your own mind the wisdom of what you do and why, but to help you when discussing prepping with your non-prepper friends and colleagues.  Feel free to share this article with them; maybe it might open the eyes of one or two people who read it.  We hope so.

The Domino Theory is a concept with many applications.  First formulated by President Eisenhower in 1954, the theory originally held that communism would attack and take over countries, one by one by one, with each country’s fall to communism being accelerated by the fall of its neighbor.

This process was said to run in a sequence from China to Korea to Vietnam to Laos to Cambodia and on to Thailand, then Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and India.  Clearly that didn’t actually happen (thankfully!) and for a while the theory was discredited.

But the theory can be used in many different applications, not just political, although it continues to be regularly used to argue politics.  For example, the theory has recently been used by people on both sides of current Middle East issues, arguing either that the spread of Muslim extremism is following a domino pattern while others are claiming that Middle East democracies (ummm – exactly which would those be?) may also take root and grow in a domino fashion.

Of course, you understand the analogy, right?  Set up a row of dominoes, spaced slightly apart, then knock the first over and watch the rest of them following in a wave, each set off by its neighbor.  Indeed, treat yourself to a light break for a few minutes and watch this video clip of dominoes falling in a chain (during the course of which two new domino world records were established).  It is strangely compelling, and there are many similar clips on Youtube.

So what does this have to do with prepping (other than possibly being a suitable activity to enjoy on long winter evenings at your retreat, while surviving internet or television)?

We preppers see the world we live in as becoming more and more like a chain of dominoes.  And whereas in a domino falling game, the rules say you start with only one domino being pushed over and then watch to see if all of the others fall, sequentially, we see the world as having several lines of dominoes all leading in to a central target, and with any of the dominoes on any of the lines being able to fall over and to start the chain reaction down the rest of their line to the central target.

That central target, by the way, is us and our current lifestyle, which we preppers understand as being full of dependencies and vulnerabilities, any one of which might tip over and start a domino type chain of events that end up destroying the lives of ourselves and everyone around us.

These chains of events occur in two ways.  The first are chains of events that result in a massive disruption in society, and the second are the chains of events that sees the disrupted society become a destroyed society – an anarchistic situation where the rule of law has disappeared and the government is no longer there to help us.

How could this happen?  Well, it just takes a single seed event to start a chain reaction, sort of like the child’s rhyme ‘For want of a nail, a shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, a horse was lost’ and which concludes with an entire kingdom being lost.

Two More Ways of Looking at the Domino Theory as it Applies to Preppers

Non-aware people – a phrase used by preppers to describe people who believe there are no risks or dangers inherent in our lives, and who believe the future continuity of a supportive society is assured – tell us that our concerns are needless, and say that there’s no possible way that some of the things we see as risks could ever become problems.

Let’s look at two more perspectives on this – one theoretical and one very real.

For the theoretical example, and in more modern terms than the rhyme about the horse’s lost shoe, people sometimes ask the question ‘If a butterfly flaps its wings in (your choice of a remote far away minor country), might it result in a (hurricane/tornado/whatever) in (your choice of major western city)?’.

In case you wondered, scientists have considered this question at length, and have come up with formulas to express the situation, which it seems is best summed up, in non-scientific terms, by saying ‘it depends’.  🙂

The underlying point in the question is ‘can a really small and safe seeming event end up as the catalyst that creates a huge disaster.  Non-preppers tell us to relax and not worry.  But we are like people who see a tiny leak appear in a huge damn, and worry if the leak will widen, if the crack will spread, and if, as a result, the damn will eventually crumble, with the tiny leak becoming a raging torrent.

This brings us to the real-life example.  You should go read an analysis of an airline disaster as published by whatever country’s air transportation safety board was responsible for investigating the event.  We’ve read plenty of them.

Almost without fail, all airplane disasters start off with a single small event which, in and of itself, is not fatal.  It may not even be serious.  But it is the initial precipitating event that starts the line of dominoes toppling.

For example – the pilot in command leaves the cockpit of the plane, with the two more junior pilots now piloting the plane.  Domino one.  One of the pilots is unhappy with his love life and hadn’t slept well the previous night.  Domino two.  Unusual weather causes an airspeed sensor pitot tube to ice over, and to stop sending accurate information to the flight management computer.  Domino three.  The flight management computer can’t understand its conflicting results and goes into error mode.  Domino four.  The two pilots misunderstand the error mode and do the wrong thing.  Domino five.  They call the senior pilot back to the cockpit but he just passively stands behind the two junior pilots rather than taking command.  Domino six.  One of the two pilots makes a wrong command with his joystick controller and doesn’t tell the other two pilots what he has done.  Domino seven.  The two pilots send conflicting commands to the airplane computer and don’t realize they are doing it.  Domino eight.  The dominos keep falling for five minutes, at which point the plane crashes into the sea killing everyone aboard.

Does that all sound unrealistic and impossible?  Not so.  We’ve just described the crash an Air France A330 in the South Atlantic in 2009.  The initial events were all easy to recover from, but due to a combination of mistakes and bad luck and who knows what else, 228 people died.

Back to prepping again.  Our point is that things that should never ever occur – like three highly trained pilots misunderstanding one of the simplest things in flying a plane – that when you have a plane in a stall, you push the plane’s nose down rather than pull it up – sometimes can and do occur.  Some of us are trained pilots, and to us it is unthinkable that AF447 crashed, with three skilled commercial pilots having five minutes to recover the plane from the first alarm to the final crash.  But, unthinkable or not, the plane did crash, and not because of a big huge vulnerability, but due to a semi-random chain of events that resulted in unexpected tragedy.

It can happen with planes – not only can, but does.  It can happen with anything and everything else as well – that is, after all, the quintessential concept of ‘accident’, isn’t it.  Just like if you toss a coin enough times, you’ll eventually end up with an unbroken sequence of it always landing heads, so too can ‘accidents’ happen in every other part of our life and our society.  Most accidents are small and ‘self-healing’ but there is always the possibility of a really big disaster.

Let’s see just one example of how a sequence of events results in society disintegrating in front of us.

The Dominoes Fall, Part One

Let’s start with a minor event, because the point of our article is that cataclysmic events can start from the smallest and most trivial of initiating circumstances.  It is the obscured way that the innocuous flapping of the butterfly’s wings grows to become a thunderstorm that is the problem.

In this case, let’s start with a person answering their cell phone while driving along on the highway.  Whether legal or not, we all do this, on a regular basis.  This is the first domino.

The person’s eyes glaze over as they talk, then realize they are drifting out of their lane and across the center line.  Another domino – and again, something we’ve often seen on the roads.  Startled, they over-correct and their car swerves in front of a truck.  There’s the next domino now falling, and we’re still talking commonplace events.

The truck fishtails as the driver attempts to avoid the car.  Another domino.

The truck rolls over, down a bank, and comes to rest when it hits a power pylon.  And another domino.

Now the dominoes turn a corner, and the traffic events change to a very different series of events.  The dominoes continue to fall.

The power pylon is knocked over, breaking the wires it was supporting.  Domino falls.

The power line was only a medium capacity line (we’re not going to cheat and make it easy!).  The utility that was using the power from the line switches its feed to an alternate path through the grid.  The next domino wavers – will it fall or not.

Ooops – over it goes.  Much of our grid operates at close to capacity already, and much of it is aging and in less than prime condition.  The loss of one circuit has overloaded the alternate circuit, and suddenly a transformer blows.

Due to poor design and random bad luck (this time we’re giving ourselves some help) the loss of power meant that the control circuitry for the distribution system also fails.  The backup generator failed to start.  A couple more dominoes fall.

The failed control circuitry means that the regional grid doesn’t properly reconfigure itself.  A couple more transformers overload and fail, and high tension distribution lines melt and fall.  There’s a few more dominoes.

The regional grid was formerly a net contributor of power to the national grid, but now is a net recipient of power, overloading other parts of the national grid.  In spectacular showers of sparks and noisy explosions, more transformers fail.  The grid consumes itself, just like a domino pyramid collapsing.

In less than five minutes from the car swerving in front of the truck, the nation’s entire electricity grid has gone dark.  Some local power utilities are still generating local power for their local consumers, but the vast majority of the nation, which relies on the grid to transport power from where it is generated to where it is consumed, are now without power.

So, big deal you might think.  Change over a few blown fuses, string a few replacement wires between pylons, and we’re back to normal in a day or two?  Sorry, no.

Those failed transformers can’t be repaired.  They need to be replaced, and we no longer make them in the US.  It will take more than two years before replacements start arriving from China, and maybe ten years before all of them are back online.

But whether it is ten years, two years, ten months, or even ‘only’ two months before power is restored, we have many more problems that will start occurring in the next ten minutes and the next ten hours and the next ten days.

The Dominos Fall Ever Faster

The dominoes are still falling.  They turn another corner then split into multiple parallel streams, and keep going.  The implications of a near total power loss for our modern society – which is totally reliant on electricity for almost everything – are catastrophic.

One domino stream has to do with the loss of power in the food storage industry.  Refrigeration and freezer units fail, meaning the nation’s inventory of food in cool stores starts to spoil.  Within a few days, much of it is no longer edible.  And as for ordering up replacement food – how can that be done, and where will it come from?  Because –

No power means no communications.  No cell phones, no internet, no landline phones.  Even if the emergency services had power themselves, they would be largely cut off from each other and unable to communicate and coordinate disaster recovery actions.

Think about the loss of communications.  We don’t just mean that your teenage children can’t now spend all day compulsively texting each other or posting on Facebook.  ATMs stop working, as do banks with electronic only records of accounts.

Another stream has to do with the loss of power in FEMA and the regional emergency coordination centers.  Sure, they’ve backup generators, but how much fuel do they have for them?  As for more fuel, well, no power means the pumps at gas stations don’t work, and no power means the refineries don’t work either.

Another stream has to do with life’s modern essentials.  How about water?  No power means no pumps – not for water in to your residence, nor for sewage out of it, either.

Before you know it, everything in your world has stopped working, because everything in your world either directly or indirectly needs electricity.

But wait, that’s the good news.  Now for the really bad news.

The Dominoes Fall, Part Two

So we’ve seen how a driver answering their cell phone ended up with most of the United States without power.  What happens next?

For the first  few minutes, nothing much happens.  And we truly mean nothing much happens.  Failed traffic lights will put our cities into instant gridlock.

But very soon, some clever person realizes ‘no power means no burglar alarms, and gridlock means police can’t get here quickly’ and he breaks into a store.  The dominoes quickly start falling down that path as copycats note the growing crime wave of looters acting with seeming impunity.  Not only are there no burglar alarms, there are no regular phones or cell phones either, and even if there were, without power to their computers and radios, there is no way that the police dispatchers could coordinate sending police to multiple crime scenes.  Before too long, the police cruisers will be without petrol anyway.  Meanwhile, gun control laws in the largest and most crime ridden cities mean that store owners and individuals are helpless to resist the crime wave that engulfs them.

So what happens next along that domino line?  Soon the looting becomes general rioting, and then, either by accident or deliberately, a building catches fire.

Even if the local fire department could be advised of this and attend the fire, what are they going to do?  There’s no water pressure in the fire hydrants, remember.

Okay, so they have a few pumper trucks that can maybe suck water out of the hydrants (not sure about this, but possibly), but what happens when they run out of diesel?

Soon you have the city ablaze, both from accidental fires spreading unchecked and from copycat arsonists.

At this point, the police have not just been unable to respond, they’ve chosen not to respond (just like in the LA riots).  There are too many rioters out there, and too few police, who have to cluster together in larger numbers due to not being able to keep communications up and speedily travel from one hot spot to the next.

So the city is decaying into lawlessness, one domino at a time.

The dominoes turn another corner.  Stores quickly run out of food.  The looters realize that you can’t eat big screen televisions, and shift their focus to food.

It isn’t just the stores that run out of food.  People start to quickly run out of food, too.  They’re already struggling to survive with no water, and now are realizing that if/when they manage to get sufficient safe drinking water, they’re merely replacing one pressing problem with another one, the lack of food.

Not only are they running low on food.  The 25% or whatever of the adult population who smokes are running out of cigarettes.  The percent of people on addictive drugs are running low on their supplies.  You know that these groups of citizens will be becoming anxious and irritable, to put it mildly.

Meantime, there’s another line of dominoes toppling.  You can flip a coin and decide if it is midsummer or midwinter, but either way, the lack of energy to heat or cool dwellings means that people in poor health are suffering, and those who can get to hospitals are finding little solace or assistance there.  There’s a growing healthcare crisis, not yet affecting normal healthy people, but starting to become an issue.  People injured in the rioting are finding it harder to get medical care, and the general restlessness of the ‘normal’ and law-abiding citizenry is growing.  Their initial passive complacent ‘the government will save us’ attitude is being replaced with annoyed outrage – ‘why isn’t the government saving me?’.

The ‘government’ can’t save its citizens, because government employees are suffering the same problems themselves, and are also having to choose between protecting themselves and their family by abandoning their government related duties, or leaving their families unprotected in an increasingly hostile environment and risking their lives attempting to control an uncontrollable wave of civil disorder.

The ones who do honorably report for duty find themselves undermanned with insufficient colleagues to do anything, and find themselves confronted with no support from other government sources and resources, and quickly decide the situation is hopeless and if everyone else is abandoning their jobs, they should do the same.

Anarchy takes over from order.  But even as anarchy seems to be ruling supreme, a new guiding principle becomes more and more apparent – the growing need to ensure one’s personal immediate survival.  The need for shelter, water and food.

Apartment dwellers are moving out of their apartments – who wants to live on the 10th or 20th floor of a building with no elevators operating and no water?  Others are being forced out by fires.  Still others are abandoning their homes due to safety concerns or the need to find food.  Where do all these people go and what do they do?

How long will it be before begging in the streets for help, shelter, water and food becomes demanding in the streets?  How long before people start taking not just goods from stores, but life’s essentials from other people, and by force?

Time for a new line of dominoes to start falling over.  The infrastructure repair workers – people who had been trying to restore power in whatever limited amount possible – start abandoning their jobs.  They too have no water or food, and their families are being threatened just as much as anyone else’s.

And another line of dominoes now starts falling over too.  What a few people had first started doing has become now a city-wide exodus – people are abandoning their city, fleeing to the suburbs and then on beyond, looking for refuge and safety from the civil disorder, and looking for shelter, water and food.

What Happens Next?

Sorry, all the dominoes have now fallen over.  Society has been destroyed.  The people tasked with protecting and defending society have fled their posts, and (this is the real kicker) the people tasked with restoring society’s services have also fled their posts, too.  The city dwellers are fleeing their cities – but where will they go?  Who will support them and how?  Lots of questions, none of which come with good answers.

For more on this topic, please refer to Why Cities Will Unavoidably Become Lawless within a Week or Two of a Level 2/3 Event, which talks some more about how cities will fail when their support structures fail.

And for more on where people can go to when evacuating a city, we have several articles, including perhaps this one – Rural America’s Decline Means Urban America’s Increased Vulnerability.

And as to what will happen next, here’s a good article – The Four Waves of Food and Shelter Seekers.

Could it Really Get That Bad?

Many people acknowledge that society could suffer a massive failure, but refuse to accept that the net result would be lawlessness and much worse.  They prefer to think that respect for the concept of the rule of law and the treasuring of human life above all else would remain, and that people would behave honorably and well.

Perhaps some people might indeed set shining examples of unselfish good behavior.  But the thing that can’t be avoided is – what happens when people are starving, and they have to choose between allowing their spouses, children, and other dependents to die of hunger while acting honestly and nobly, or doing whatever it takes – anything it takes – to get food any way possible?

No matter how basically decent and honest most people are most of the time, when it becomes life or death, many people will choose life, no matter how it is to be achieved.  Cities will inevitably become a ‘kill or be killed’ environment.

A breakdown in society and destruction of the rule of law doesn’t require everyone to ‘go bad’.  The tipping point requires only a very few people to act that way – this has been proven time and time again with the great ‘revolutions’ in history – revolutions that now seemed inevitable and which are misperceived as having been conducted with the active support of the overwhelming majority of citizens, but which in reality were brought about by only an active few.

You may or may not be certain how you and your friends would behave, but you can be absolutely certain that enough other people will act lawlessly and violently to make ordinary normal life impossible.


Who would have thought that the US could be brought to its knees by a careless driver swerving on the freeway?

We’re not saying the scenario we walked you through is guaranteed to occur.  We agree that it ‘shouldn’t’ occur, and we agree that it is very unlikely.  But, planes that ‘shouldn’t’ crash still do, and sometimes with 100% fatal results.

We’re also not saying this is the only way that our society could be brought to its knees.  Actually, we’re saying something much worse than that – we are saying that this sequence of events is only one of countless hundreds of ways in which the multiple dependencies on which our current world around us is based could collapse and all fall down, leaving nothing behind.

Most of all, we’re suggesting that – contrary to the misperceptions of many – our society is becoming increasingly more and more vulnerable rather than more and more resilient.  Energy – and electricity in particular – is one of the core essentials that our society is built upon, and if the supply of energy were to be disrupted, society could quickly and spectacularly fail before such time as energy supplies could be restored.

We’re saying that – if you’re not already – you should become a prepper, and start to prepare for a life where you can not rely on the government saving the day in an emergency.  The only people you can for sure rely upon are yourself, your immediate family, and your closest friends.  The only food, water and energy will be that you’ve stored for yourselves or can create with your own resources and efforts.

Please see our introductory series of articles about prepping for more information about who preppers are, what their concerns are, and what they are doing about their concerns.

Apr 282013
We recommend you should build up not out when designing your retreat dwelling.

We recommend you should build up not out when designing your retreat dwelling.

When it comes to choosing a retreat, you will find that there are no suitably constructed dwellings already built and in place.

If you want to have a long-lasting retreat structure (and of course you do!) you’ll have to design it to very different criteria than how a typical spec-builder does.  He of course wishes to create the ‘most’ structure for the lowest cost, and only needs it to remain fully functional until its new-home warranty expires.

We discuss the limitations of normal home design and construction techniques in this linked article specifically, and in the retreat design topic in general.

Let’s consider the implications of one major choice you need to make.  Should your retreat be a sprawling rambler type dwelling or should it have a smaller ground footprint and be two or more stories high?

We recommend you build a multi-level dwelling, and would suggest three levels to be a good compromise to adopt.  Here is a review of the various issues that are associated with choosing how many levels to design into your retreat structure.

Note that the local zoning and building codes may have restrictions on how high your dwelling structure can be.

1.  Less External Wall Perimeter

Your external walls are your most important walls and most expensive to construct.

Any attacks will almost invariably be directed against your external walls.  The only other notable point of attack would be to your roof, and with a multi-level structure, not only will your exterior walls be shorter, but your roof area will be less too.

Keeping your perimeter as short as possible allows you to concentrate your defenses along a shorter perimeter line, and simultaneously slightly funnels your attackers into a narrower line of attack.

Going from one level to two levels will reduce your building perimeter by 30% – 40%.  But (and perhaps counter-intuitively), it will also increase the total area in square feet of exterior wall by anything from 10% – 35%.

Going from one to three levels will reduce your building perimeter by 40% – 45%, but will increase the total square feet of exterior wall by anything from 25% – 60%.

As you can see, as you add extra levels (while keeping total internal square footage the same) the reduction in perimeter becomes successively less, while the increase in total wall square footage becomes successively more.  If this were the only consideration, you’d probably want to keep your retreat one or two levels.  However, there are other issues to consider which we feel argue convincingly in favor of going to three levels.

2. No Need for Heavier Construction Materials

One downside to multi-level construction of typical dwellings is that you need to build your supporting structures to a higher loading capacity to support multiple levels of dwelling.  That becomes an appreciable offsetting extra cost.

But you’re building your retreat dwelling ‘over-spec’ anyway.  You already have stronger than necessary external walls and load bearing supports, so all that this means is that the extra strength you have designed into the structure is now being put to some actual purpose.

Remember when people start to talk to you about the extra costs of constructing multi-level structures that these extra costs are not extra in your case; they only apply in the case of people seeking to build the least robust structure they can get approved by local building codes.

3.  Roof Impacts

Going from one to two levels will reduce your roof area by half.  Going to three levels reduces the roof area to one-third of its original size.

The reduced amount of roof probably goes a long way to compensating for the cost of extra exterior walls.

But there might be two situations where less roof is not a good thing.  The first might be to do with water collection.  If you are in an arid area with little rainfall and few convenient other sources of water, you’ll surely be using every square foot of roof area for rainwater collection, and reducing your rainwater collection area by 50% (or 67% for three-level construction) might be an undesirable outcome.

The other circumstance relates to solar energy sourcing (either through photo-voltaic solar cells for electricity or through solar heating installations).  You certainly should have those parts of your roof with appropriate southerly facing aspects close to completely lined with either solar cells or solar heating devices.  Even if you have abundant other energy sources, prudence dictates that you want to have multiple sources, each sufficient in and of itself, so if something happens to one source, you still have at least one other energy source to fall back on while the other source is (hopefully) being returned to service.

Energy, more than anything else, is life in a post-TEOTWAWKI situation.

If the loss of roof area for solar energy collectors is a problem, there’s no reason why you can’t create another structure that is primarily a support/protective structure on which to mount additional solar energy collectors.  The same structure could of course do double duty as a water collector too, and could be constructed very inexpensively.

4.  Energy Losses

Continuing on the energy theme, not only is energy your most vital resource in a Level 3 situation (and lesserly so in Levels 1 and 2) it will become very expensive and precious.  Anything to reduce your energy needs becomes of paramount importance, and this is a factor that needs to figure into your building design much more than at the present where energy is abundant, affordable, and assured.

A building loses energy (ie heating/cooling) through its exterior – its outside walls, its roof, and also its flooring.  A rambler has more external surface (ie wall area plus roof area) than a two level building, and about the same as a three level building.

Adding in an allowance for floor heat losses too and it is clear that both two and three level structures are more energy-efficient than single level structures, although when you move on to a fourth level, the energy saving becomes neutral, tending negative.

This is another reason why three level structures are an ideal compromise.

5.  Functional Convenience

We’ve lived in ramblers, two-level, and three level dwellings – perhaps you have, too.  We love the convenience of no stairs in a rambler, but in reality, in a well designed multi-level structure, there are not a huge number of occasions during the day when you need to go all the way up or down from the top to the bottom level.

We would suggest a general design strategy that has storage on the lowest level, living areas on the middle level, and bedrooms on the top level.  That means that during the day, you are mainly in the middle level, occasionally going down to the lowest level and to the outside, and rarely going up to the top level, and almost never needing to go all the way from top to bottom and back again (or vice versa).

This strategy would also allow you to have the lowest amount of heating/cooling on the bottom level, cutting down the effective heating/cooling volume of your structure.

Some countries have traditional multi-level buildings in which livestock are kept in the lowest (ground) level.  This is a great idea too, but if you choose to do this, be aware that animals and their excrement can be smelly.  You’d have to think carefully about the implications of this!

6. Defensive Issues

There are several benefits offered by a multi-level building compared to a single level building.

As mentioned in passing above, a multi-level building has a shorter perimeter to defend, and by implication, people inside the structure can more quickly travel from one place to another – if you are being attacked on several fronts,  it can be easier to shift people from one side to another and to generally keep in contact with each other.

A multi-level structure with primarily storage on the bottom level can forego most of the windows on that level that would otherwise commonly be found, making it much more secure against physical intrusion.  If you have windows on the upper half of the second level, then the distance from the ground to the bottom of a window will be in the order of about 14 ft, making it difficult for intruders to quickly scale up and gain access through a window.

So by having living spaces on the second and third levels, you have the security of no windows at ground level while still having the lifestyle benefits of windows in the living areas.

A person on the third level will be close on twenty feet higher up than he would be on the first level, giving him a better view down to the surrounding ground around the retreat structure and making it harder for attackers to find cover.  Even better still would be a rampart or parapet at the roof level, giving still more height advantage.

7.  Communications

If you have a taller retreat, it is easier for you to maintain visual contact with people in your group who might be working on the land surrounding the retreat.  You can see them and they can see you, making for better security, and if necessary, some type of sound alarm (bell, whistle, siren, whatever) could be sounded at the retreat to call people back.

Lower level trees, bushes, shrubs and other things that would block your view if you were at ground level become less obstructive if you are another 20 ft up from the ground.

Being higher up can also greatly improve your radio communications.  If you have a three level structure, then your roof will be almost 20 ft higher than a one level structure.  This will extend your radio line of sight coverage (and also visual horizon) from about 4 miles to 7 miles.

Yes, of course you can mount an antenna on a mast above your rambler to get extra height, but you can do the same thing from a tri-level dwelling too.  No matter what you do, you have an extra almost 20 ft of height advantage.

8.  Land Saving

If we are considering the difference between a 3000 sq ft rambler, or a two-level equivalent structure (with a 1500 sq ft footprint) or a three-level equivalent structure (with a 1000 sq ft footprint) it might seem that the saving of either 1500 sq ft or 2000 sq ft of land is negligible, particularly if your total lot size is maybe 500,000 sq ft (ie about 11.5 acres).  You’re looking at a saving of less than 0.5%.

But the saving is actually more substantial than this simplistic calculation would appear.  Your residence will have a low productivity zone around it – an area which is kept reasonably undeveloped for security and convenience/access/maintenance reasons.  Maybe that zone extends out 25 ft, and if that is the case, the smaller footprint is magnified into a smaller overall surrounding zone, and you’re maybe saving not just 1500 sq ft of land, but 4500 – 6000 sq ft of land.  That’s becoming appreciable (0.1 or more acres).

Another Perspective – Multi-Family Dwellings or Multiple Retreat Buildings

All the preceding analysis has been based on the assumption of a single retreat structure, with the same number of square feet, but split over one, two, three or more levels.  In such a case, there is some benefit in going to two levels, less benefit in going to three, and probably no benefit in going to a fourth or more level.

But let’s consider not just your retreat structure, but also other buildings and structures at your retreat, and/or a second retreat structure for a second family.

If the choice is between two or three separate free-standing buildings, or one two or three level structure with the three separate structures in effect stacked on top of each other, the math changes completely.  Instead of getting reducing benefits, you now get increasing benefits.  There is no offsetting increase into total external wall square footage, but there are instead increasing savings in total roof area, total perimeter, total land footprint and energy efficiency each time you stack another formerly separate building on top of the others you have already combined.

When does the benefit of building up rather than building out cease to apply?  There comes a point when climbing stairs just becomes too much of a hassle.  Conceivably you could grow to four levels, by concentrating your living on levels two and three and using levels one and four for supplies and other infrequently needed/accessed items.

If you went to five levels, with levels two, three and four for main living, you could attempt to have younger and fitter people in level four, but clearly you are now starting to compromise general livability issues.  We know people who live on the fifth floor of apartment buildings, in apartment blocks with no elevators, and it isn’t much fun going up and down the stairs – not just alone, but having to schlep all one’s food (and often, all one’s water, too) up the stairs.

So we continue to feel that three or at the most four levels is the best compromise point.

If your consolidated building represents a number of otherwise freestanding dwellings, that is the best scenario.  But if you’re simply consolidating barns and sheds, that is not quite as cost-effective, because you are switching from a presumably low-cost construction method for a barn or shed to a ballistically resilient construction method as part of your main structure.  So there are less likely to be appreciable cost savings, but there are still other advantages.

Security Benefits of Building Consolidation

Consolidating multiple buildings into one tall building also offers an improvement in security for three reasons.  The first is that the easiest structure to defend is the one you are already in.  You don’t need to be patrolling other buildings.

The second reason is that if your property has, for example, a main retreat dwelling, together with a nearby barn, workshop and vehicle garage, then attackers could use these other buildings as cover and concealment; they could shelter behind them when attacking you in your retreat.

But if you have just one structure, you have no obstructions preventing you from having a clear field of fire (especially from your upper levels) to anywhere around you.

The third advantage is if you have consolidated two or more households into one structure.  You have a larger stronger group of people, all equally invested in protecting the one structure.  We touch on this in our article ‘Designing and Building a Retreat – The Bigger, the Better‘.

There’s another part of having a larger group of people in the one structure.  In our article ‘Community Mutual Defense Pacts‘ we point out that while it is all great in theory to have an agreement with your neighbors, a mile or two away, to support each other in the case of attack, the reality is that your neighbors are probably too far away to come to your aid quickly enough if needed, and the even uglier reality is that if you’re under attack, there’s a better than 50/50 chance that rather than risk their lives by coming to your aid, they’ll instead simply hunker down in their own retreat.

Clearly, if the other family is living in the same structure, neither of these constraints apply.

There a downside to putting all your structures into the one building, and that is the concept of putting all your eggs in one basket.  If something were to happen to your main structure, then you would have lost everything, whereas if you had two or three structures, you could lose any one of them and still have one or more remaining structures – that would not be a good thing, but it wouldn’t be a total disaster, either.


There are compelling reasons to switch from a rambler to a two level design of retreat building.  Going from two to three levels is not quite so clear-cut a decision, but probably makes sense for many preppers.

It also makes sense to build up rather than out when it comes to consolidating additional structures on your property.  It is generally more convenient and secure to integrate them all in the one multi-level building.

Apr 282013
A computer reconstruction of the 19th century Fort Laramie, WY.  Do the 'wild west' forts validate or invalidate the concept of defending your retreat?

A computer reconstruction of the 19th century Fort Laramie, WY. Do the ‘wild west’ forts validate or invalidate the concept of defending your retreat?

An awkward issue that preppers have to confront when planning for a possible problematic future is what to expect from other people.

Will people peacefully unite and work together effectively to create win-win examples of mutual survival?  Or will some group of society (maybe only a small minority) take advantage of a possible collapse of law-enforcement and in an anarchistic manner run amok in an orgy of looting, pillaging and plundering?

Opinions differ greatly as to what might occur.  But the simple fact that there are credible concerns about a general decay into lawlessness is enough to require prudent preppers to plan for this.  Whichever outcome might happen, a prudent prepper must necessarily consider not only the best case scenarios but also the worst case scenarios, and for sure, roving gangs of violent people who simply take anything they want by force is an unpleasant situation and some type of preparation for this must be considered and provided for.

A central part of the planning and preparing process revolves around one very big question :  Is it practical to make your retreat fully secure against determined attackers?  Is it even possible to do so?  When (or if) you find yourself confronted by an armed gang of looters, what should you do?  Shelter in your retreat?  Run away, leaving everything behind?  Fight to protect yourselves and your possessions?

There are many different opinions on how to respond to such an event, and you should form your own decision after having carefully considered all perspectives, all opinions, and – most of all – all facts.

It is certainly true that it is difficult to build a totally safe and secure retreat, especially while trying to keep the cost of construction to an affordable level.  Modern munitions have enormous power and can destroy very heavily fortified structures.  Besides which, if the first explosive device fails to blow a hole in your outside wall, an attacker may simply repeat a second and third time, progressively weakening your external fortifications until they eventually fail.

So, if any structure can potentially be defeated by a well armed and determined attacker, is there any point in spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to strengthen it, in a case where such strength will always sooner or later be insufficient?  This is clearly a very important question and concept, and one which demands consideration.

A letter was posted on the Survivalblog website recently that raised some of these often discussed issues.  It is short, so to save you clicking to the link, this is what it said

A comment on the dual ring village concept. If it is advanced as a defense tactic, I would urge remembering that the walled-town versus siegecraft dynamic is thousands of years old, and the survival of walled towns and cities is only possible if they are:

  1. Provisioned to last longer than the besieging force, which is of course free to forage and be resupplied
  2. Fireproof
  3. Relieved by a friendly force from outside.

They are also utterly obsolete since the development of artillery bombardment, still more so since the airplane and missile. Sad but true.

IMHO, safety today must rely on:

  1. Invisibility or insignificance to possible enemy
  2. Effective surveillance of a wide perimeter
  3. Mobile defense force to engage potential enemy at a distance

War is not only Hell, but quite expensive!

We don’t disagree with the writer’s first three points, although in truth there is a great deal more than just three factors that apply to considering the dynamics of siege situations and their likely outcomes.  While the walled-town vs siege dynamic is thousands of years old, it is only in the last 500 – 1000 years that the relative safety of the walled-town has diminished compared to the ability of attackers to broach the fortifications.  Furthermore, it is less than 200 years ago when fortified positions were still being used to good effect, here in the US, to protect against Indians and outlaws – a reasonable analog of the situation that might be expected WTSHTF.

Indeed, the decline of forts in the US came not due to their failure to protect the people within them, but due to the peace and stability and stronger law enforcement that made such forts no longer essential.

If we were to look at history for lessons – and this is always a valid thing to do – we’d suggest that history has actually validated rather than invalidated the concept of fortified dwellings.

But let’s put the writer’s introductory comments to one side, because that’s not the main problem we have.  Keep reading on past his first three points and the conclusion he draws from them.

Now comes the trap.  We’re sure this writer didn’t deliberately adopt this well-known technique of demagoguery, but see what is happening here, and be aware when it is used to try to persuade you of other things in other situations.

The process is simple.  First you get the person you are trying to persuade to agree with you on some points which may range from ‘obviously’ true to probably true.  In the process you establish yourself as a credible expert in the person’s mind and get them in the habit of agreeing with you.  Salesmen are taught the same thing – you ask the prospect a series of questions to which the answer is ‘Yes’ then you ask him the big question – ‘Will you buy my used car’ and before the prospect has thought fully about it, he has reflexively answered yes again.

So, after the series of obviously true statements and agreements, second, comes the ‘sucker punch’.  You use the agreements on the initial points as a launching platform to adduce the apparently incontrovertible validity of some other points which superficially seem to be related to the points you’ve agreed upon, but which in truth may be completely unrelated and not directly linked.

Now, as we said, we’re sure the writer of this letter was well-meaning rather than trying to trick us, but – in our opinion – the net result is that he offers up three uncontroversial facts about a complex topic, and then slides from that to three opinions which are far from universally accepted.

Let’s focus in on his three claims.

1.  Safety relies on being invisible or insignificant to a possible enemy

Well, for sure, if you are invisible, your problems are reduced.  But – ummm, which aisle of the local store sells invisibility cloaks?  If you don’t have an invisibility cloak – and also the ‘absorbs all smells’ cloak and the ‘blocks all noise’ cloak, and if they are not large enough to cover your entire retreat, cultivated lands, wells, driveways, fencing, etc, then you’re not going to be invisible.

So saying that safety relies on being invisible is impractical and unrealistic.  You may as well say ‘safety relies on being invulnerable’ – and that’s about as likely as becoming invisible.

We do agree that it is prudent to observe ‘opsec’ and to minimize one’s profile to the world around one.  But we believe it is wildly improbable that you’ll remain undetected, longer term, and when you are detected, you need to have plans in place for how to now resolve problems.

The other half of the writer’s first point is to be insignificant.  But is this what you want, and is it possible, and even if it were, does it guarantee you a successful outcome when being confronted by a group of bad guys?  We think not.

Firstly, insignificant opponents are easy opponents.  Who would a theoretical enemy rather engage – a strong substantial well prepared force, or an insignificant small group of unarmed survivors?

Secondly, who wants to prep to be ‘insignificant’ in a future without rule of law?  Doesn’t the very fact that we have prepared and have supplies of food, shelter, energy, and everything else automatically shift us from the ‘insignificant’ to the ‘tempting’ category?  Is he saying ‘become starving and homeless and you’ll be okay’?

We should also think about the opposite to what he is saying – when he says that insignificant groups of people are safe, is he suggesting that marauders are drawn to making kamikaze type attacks on much stronger groups of well prepared communities?  That sure sounds counter-intuitive!

We’d suggest that in a future adverse situation, roving marauders will be opportunists, and will go after the ‘low hanging fruit’ – they’ll pick fights with people they know they can dominate, while leaving stronger adversaries well alone.

There’s one more thing as well.  This being insignificant thing – were you ever bullied at school (or, perhaps, were you a bully)?  Whichever you were, who were the people bullies would most pick on?  The highly visible popular students, or the less visible loners?  The lettered sports team jocks, or the puny weaklings?

How well did being insignificant work against bullies at school?  So tell me how being insignificant would work against bullies in a future dystopian world where bullies are running amok, free of any negative consequences?

There is never safety in weakness.  Only in strength.  So, this first claim seems to be in part impractical/impossible, and in other part, completely the opposite of what is more likely to occur.

2.  Safety relies on effective surveillance of a wide perimeter

There are a lot of assumptions wrapped up into this statement.  First of all, it seems to contradict his first point – an insignificant group lacks the resources to keep effective watch on a wide perimeter.  We’re not sure how wide a perimeter he is thinking of, but let’s say he is suggesting a one-quarter mile radius from your central retreat dwelling.  That makes for an 8300 foot perimeter – more than a mile and a half of perimeter.

For another measure, let’s say you have a ten-acre roughly square-shaped block of land, and you establish your perimeter on the boundary of your ten-acre block.  That perimeter would be probably about 3000 ft (a mile is 5280 ft), but that’s not a ‘wide’ perimeter.  It means you will see your opponents more or less at the same time they see the first signs of your property and the give-away indicators of fencing, cultivation, crops, animals, or whatever else.

It may not be practical to have a forward perimeter beyond your property – if you have neighbors, do they want you running patrols and maintaining forward observation posts on their land?  But if it is possible, and you have a perimeter another 150 ft out from your boundary, then you now have a 4,000 ft perimeter to patrol.

How many people will be required to patrol somewhere between 3000 and 8300 ft of perimeter?  That depends of course on the terrain and what type of vegetation you have.  Best case scenario might be eight people (say one in each corner of the 3000 ft ‘box’ and one in the middle of each side); worst case scenario could be 28 people (one every 100 yards with an 8300 ft perimeter).  You might be able to get away with fewer people during the day, and you’d probably need more people at night.

Now, even with ‘only’ eight people on duty, and let’s say that each person works eight hours a day, seven days a week, that still means you need a total team of 24 sentries to guard your perimeter, plus some additional staff for supervisors, central headquarter coordinating, and so on.  And that’s your best case scenario.  With the larger perimeter, you could end up needing 100 people for your total sentry/observation team.

So with somewhere between 25 and 100 able-bodied members of your community who are full-time tasked with doing nothing other than effectively surveilling a wide perimeter, one has to ask – how practical is that?

But let’s wave our magic wand over this part of his statement (you know, the one we used for our invisibility cloak too) and now ponder the next thought – what happens when an enemy force is detected approaching our invisible and insignificant community?  The writer answers that question in his third and last point.

3.  A Mobile Defense Force is Required to Engage Potential Enemies at a Distance

This is another very complicated concept that is not adequately conveyed in a short statement.  While it may be good military doctrine in the normal world to engage in such actions, in a Level 3 situation in particular, very different rules apply.  In a normal (or historical) military conflict, both forces are willing to accept casualties as part of furthering their cause, because they are assured of a vast to the point of almost limitless resupply of soldiers and munitions from ‘back home’ and because the commanders who make such decisions are not the fathers, brothers, and close personal friends of the soldiers they are willingly sacrificing.

But in a Level 3 situation, you only have the people with you in your community, and no replacements.  Plus, they are not strangers.  They are your friends and family.  What father will happily send his son out on a risky mission that might simultaneously see him lose his son and also see his community lose one of their precious able-bodied members?  Keep in mind also, with a collapse in health care resources, even small battlefield wounds will become life threatening.

There’s a terrible imbalance in this, too.  Although your community will have a small and irreplaceable resource of manpower – and a similarly small and irreplaceable resource of weaponry and munitions – it will be confronting a seemingly limitless number of roving gangs of aggressors.  Sure, you might successfully fight one gang off this week, but what about next week, the week after, and so on?

As we point out in our article about gangs being your biggest security threat, there were 1.4 million gang members in the US in 2010.  Now, of course, not all 1.4 million of those people are going to singlemindedly attack you, if for no other reason than geographical distances and the sure fact that many of them will lose their lives doing other things, elsewhere.  But how many more gang members will they recruit, and how many new gangs of all types will spring up when the rule of law evaporates?

So our first point is that in a future Level 3 situation, you are going to want to do all you can to protect your people and to avoid risking their lives and wellbeing.  You’ll not want to gratuitously start any firefights that you couldn’t otherwise avoid.

There’s more to critique in the writer’s third suggestion/statement, too.  If you are going to engage potential enemies, as he recommends, you need to surprise and ambush them.  So you’re going to have to have prepared ambush locations and defensive positions all around your retreat and wherever else you might choose to initiate contacts.

This strategy also links in to his earlier comment about a wide perimeter.  If your sentry perimeter is your property line or just beyond, or only one-quarter mile from your retreat, it will be impossible to ‘engage at a distance’ when you might not detect enemies until they are almost upon you.

Remember also you need to allow time from when your sentries have sounded an alarm to when your reaction force can group together and travel to the point of encounter.  This is indeed another reason for wanting to set your perimeter out as far as you can.

But if you extend your perimeter out to, say, 1 mile, you’ll have all sorts of issues with patrolling on other people’s land, and your manpower requirements will increase enormously.  You could quickly end up needing 500 people for sentry duty, and much more sophisticated communications systems to control and coordinate them all.  So that’s not going to work very well either, is it.

There’s also the simultaneous moral and tactical issue about what do you do when encountering – to use the writer’s term – a potential enemy?  If you do as he advocates and engage them at a distance, does that mean you’re opening fire on people who may have been quite peaceful and having no intention of attacking you?  Does that mean you’re killing people who didn’t even know you were there (remember, you’re also supposed to be insignificant and invisible)?

Or, if you’re giving them warnings, haven’t you just revealed your presence, and ceased to be both insignificant and invisible?  And, having given them a warning, you’ve now lost the initiative – they can decide, after making a show of retreating away, whether they’ll stay away, or if they’ll circle around and attack you unawares from another side.  (Oh, right, yes – your effective surveillance of a wide perimeter is keeping you safe.  Maybe.)

We could go on – for example, we could wonder how mobile the mobile force the writer advocates would actually be in a Level 3 situation.

Are we talking horses, or vehicles – if the latter, just how much gas do you have to burn on roving mobile patrols, and how complete an inventory of spares for the vehicles you’re using all day every day?  What type of roading will be required?  And how invisible/insignificant are you being with motorized patrols?

Alternatively, if you’re going to use horses, they aren’t a free source of mobility.  Horses require feeding, stabling, training, medical care, and so on.  You’ve just added yet another layer of complexity and cost and overhead to your retreat community.  Not only do you now have some hundreds of people full-time on sentry duty, but you now need a mobile force of, shall we say, 50 cavalrymen, and they in turn require how many extra people to care for their 50+ horses?

Remember the concept of a ‘horse acre’ – each horse requires almost an acre of farmland to be supported.  So the first 50 acres of your retreat are required for the cavalry horses, and the first 500 adults in your retreat are all either sentries or soldiers, and if we say you need another 1000 people to do productive work to cover their own needs plus those of the 500 strong security group, and if we say that these 1500 adults have on average at least one other family member, your retreat community has now grown to 3000 people.

Is that still small and insignificant?

Actually, we are probably being conservative about the proportion of ‘support people’ and civilians that are required to underpin your security force.  It is rare to find a country with more than 5% of their population in the armed services.  Even in the gravest parts of Britain’s struggle in both World Wars One and Two, with the entire country locked in a life and death struggle and every part of the economy devoted to supporting it troops, and with the civilian population suffering rationing of everything – food, clothing, energy, you name it – the largest force that Britain could field was only about 10% of their entire population, and that was for only a brief part of the war.

With possibly less automation in your post-WTSHTF community, and with the need to have a sustainable allocation of resources to defense compared to simple food production and survival, it is unlikely you could have much more than 5% of your total retreat population tasked with defense duties, and/or no more than 10% of your adult militarily fit (generally considered to be 17 – 49) population.

So there’s a rule of thumb – multiply your defense team numbers by 10 to get the total number of 17 – 49 year olds in your group, and by 20 to get a minimum total group size of all ages.  Or, working backwards, divide the count of adult able people in your group by ten and that’s about how many you can afford to spare for defense duties.

Some Alternative Thoughts

Okay, so the three ideas proposed by the letter writer don’t really make much sense, do they.  But we do probably all agree that being besieged by an opposing force is not a good situation, either.

So what is the solution?

This brings us to another trick of demagoguery.  Are the initial three statements, the statements we agreed with, actually applicable to our situation?  As we hinted at before, we suggest not.  We’re not talking about medieval wars between states, when brightly colored knights on horses jousted in a chivalrous manner with each other, and armies mounted sieges against lovely crenelated castles surrounded by moats, located obligingly on open fields.

We are talking about a roving group of marauders, probably numbering from a low of perhaps 10 up to a high of probably less than 50.  For sure, if they encounter us, they would be keen to take whatever they wished from us, but if they can’t do that, will they devote the next many months or years of their lives to mounting a siege?  Or will they give up and move on, because for sure, some miles further on will be some other small community who perhaps truly is insignificant and easier to plunder?

If fortified settlements worked well in the wild west against similar types of bandit groups, wouldn’t they work well again in a future Level 3 situation?

Our point is this – a strong well fortified central retreat is more likely to discourage rather than to encourage attackers to press on with an attack.  Sure, they might start off by attempting to overwhelm your group, but if they fail at the easy stuff, are they then going to risk losing more of their people and sweating the hard stuff?  We suggest not.

While it is true that modern artillery and air delivered munitions are beyond what we could realistically build defenses against, how likely is it that a roving group of marauders will be towing field artillery pieces, or have an airforce at their command?  Even if they did have some military grade munitions, do you think they would have many of such things, or maybe just one or two that they were reluctant to squander?

So what level of protection do you need to build into your retreat?

Realistic Construction Standards for Your Retreat

We suggest you design a retreat that can withstand being shot at by heavier caliber rifles, and which is fireproof.

It is certainly conceivable that attackers would have rifles, and it is certainly conceivable that their rifles would be in full size calibers such as 7.62×51 (ie .308) rather than in lighter calibers such as 5.56 (ie .223) or 762.×39 (ie Soviet type AK-47 calibre).

So your retreat should be built to be able to withstand multiple hits in a single location from .308 and similar calibers, and be constructed of a material that you can readily repair at the end of any such attack.

It also has to be strong enough to resist physical assault – in other words, if attackers get to your retreat’s exterior walls, you don’t want them to be able to break windows and climb in, or to knock down doors with a battering ram.  You want to physically block them by your exterior wall while you pour defensive fire down on them from protected positions on the top of the wall.

Talking about fire, it is certainly conceivable that attackers could somehow get incendiary devices to the walls and roof of your retreat.  The strongest walls are useless to you if you have a shake roof which the bad guys set on fire.

If you have wood on your walls or roof, then you’re vulnerable to this type of attack.  But if you have stone, adobe, metal, or concrete, you are safe from the threat of fire, too.

There’s a lot more to this topic – a lot more on both sides of the discussion – and we’ll come back to it again in future articles.  But for now, can we suggest that it is possible to envisage a viable future that doesn’t involve 500 sentries and soldiers, invisibility cloaks, and contradictory and morally unsound strategies.


The question of how to optimize one’s ability to survive against attacking marauders is a key and critical issue that you need to consider.  We’re not saying that every day will see you battling afresh against new groups of attackers – such events may be very rare indeed.  But, rare as they may be, they are not unforeseeable and may occur.

The problem becomes of how much resource to invest into anticipatory defenses.  A text-book perfect solution would require an impossible amount of manpower and resource.  You will need to compromise, accordingly.  But we don’t think there is safety in weakness; surely there is only safety in strength.

We’re reminded of the story about how to survive a bear attack if you’re unarmed.  You don’t need to be able to outrun the bear.  You just need to be able to outrun the people you’re with.

In our case, to survive an attack by marauders doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be either invisible or invulnerable.  It just means you’ve got to be less tempting a target than other people in the surrounding area.

Don’t get us wrong.  The best case scenario of all would be for your neighbors to be similarly hard targets, so that word gets out that your entire region is best avoided.  But first make your own retreat community strong; and only after that, work to help your neighbors on a basis of mutual support, too.

We’ve spent much of this article critiquing the letter we quoted.  But hopefully through the critiques, you can see implied positive strategies and approaches, and we’ll write more on how best to protect your retreat in further articles.

Apr 222013
The UV-5R comes in different case styles and model numbers, but all are identical inside.

The UV-5R comes in different case styles and model numbers, but all are identical inside.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably either just purchased a UV-5R or are about to do so.  Congratulations on a good choice.

Like any other professional grade two-way radio, the UV-5R has an enormous amount of flexibility and versatility in terms of how you can program and use it.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  You can’t just take the radio out of its box, charge up the battery, and start using it.  Although it comes with 21 simplex channels pre-loaded, you’re not likely to use any of them, and so you’ll need to program in and name the channels you want.

Furthermore, you’ll quickly discover that the provided manual is far from well written.

But, never fear.  Solutions to all these issues are readily available.  Let’s go through them more or less in some sort of sensible sequence.

1.  Radio Firmware

Do you have a recent level of firmware in your radio?  There are some relevant improvements and bug fixes in newer firmware levels, and it is easy to check.

Turn your radio off.  Press and hold the ‘3’ key, and while holding it, turn your radio on.  Release the ‘3’ key.

Your display will show the firmware level in the radio.  It will say something like


You want your radio to be version 297 or higher.  This software has been out since about Nov/Dec 2012, and if your radio has a lower version firmware, that means you’re getting old stock.  More to the point, earlier version firmwares have some bugs in them, and – most to the point – the firmware in your radio can not be updated.

We’d recommend that if you get a radio with an earlier firmware, you contact your seller and ask for an exchange for a more recent version radio, or simply return it if they can’t/won’t/don’t offer an exchange.

This is one of the benefits of dealing with Amazon (the link takes you straight to their UV-5R page) – not only do they have great prices, and fast free shipping if you’re a Prime member, they also have great return policies.

At the time of writing (April 2013), we are still occasionally hearing of people getting stuck with old stock radios.  Don’t let it be you.

2.  A Decent Manual

Okay, so your radio does have recent firmware in it.  Great.

Now let’s fix the dreadful manual by getting you a very much better manual.  Click the link to download an improved Baofeng UV-5R manual.  This improved manual was written by one person and then edited/annotated/corrected by a second, and between the two of them, is by far the best reference work for the radio currently available.

Here’s a second link to a great ‘cheat sheet’ for the keyboard programming options the radio comes with (written by the same guy who annotated the excellent manual above).  Grab a copy of that, too.

3.  Software to Manage Your Radio

Okay, so now you have an up-to-date radio and a great manual and keyboard (as in ‘the keyboard on the radio itself’) programming ‘cheat sheet’.  The next thing you need is good software to program and manage all the radio’s settings and the 128 different channels that can be stored in its memory.

This assumes you have already purchased a programming cable for the radio that connects between a computer USB port and the radio’s mike/speaker connector.  If you haven’t done so, you’ll, about now, be discovering just how essential this is!  Here’s a link to the programming cables on Amazon.  Go and get one.

Note that some cables are for the baby brother of the UV-5R – the UV-3R  Don’t get that – it uses a different connector.

And there’s no need to pay extra money to get the cable and software.  Just get the cable, because the Baofeng software it comes with is only slightly better than the Baofeng manual the radio comes with.  Again, you’re going to replace the inferior provided software with very much better, and free, software.

Once you have your cable, go to the CHIRP website and download their software.  There are versions for PCs, Macs, and Linux.

The CHIRP software will enable you to program both the radio’s general settings (things such as squelch levels, backlight settings, scan mode, and so on) and also the specific settings for each of its 128 memory channels.  You’ll find this amazingly easier and more straightforward than struggling either with programming the radio from its own keypad, or through the Baofeng software.

Here’s a great guide to what the various CHIRP fields mean for programming the channels.

4.  Choosing Your Frequencies

Now for the fun part.  There are 128 memories in the radio, and you can load frequencies of your choice into them.  But what frequencies will you load in?

We suggest programming some FRS/GMRS/MURS frequencies into the radio, plus some ham frequencies too (assuming you’re a bona fide licensed ham).  These are discussed below.

We suggest you use some sort of standard frequency numbering scheme – although you can (and should) also program frequency names, it is helpful to have some sort of self-interpreting channel numbers, too.

For example, we have channels 1 – 9 for high priority high usage ‘general’ channels.  These include the standard national calling channels (eg 446 MHz) as well as a few local repeater channels that give good coverage, and our own group’s calling channels.

We then have channels 11 – 24 for FRS, 25 – 29 for MURS, 31-8 and 41-8 for GMRS simplex channels, and 51-58 for GMRS duplex channels.  We have channels 61 – 99 for various other repeaters and specific channels for specific services, then channels 100+ for ‘interesting’ local channels we like to monitor (public safety, etc).

The reason for naming channels is so that when you hear a transmission on an unfamiliar frequency, its name might give you a clue as to what you are hearing.

Note that these radios are not ideally suited for scanning purposes – mainly because their scanning rate is too slow.  By the time they’ve cycled through 100 or so channels and returned to channel one, more than 30 seconds has passed.  This means you can miss entire conversations.  If you really want to scan multiple channels, you should get a separate standalone high-speed scanner, or at the very least, get multiple UV-5R radios and program each one to only a limited number of channels.

4.1  FRS/GRMS/MURS Frequencies

In several of our other articles about handheld radios we’ve discussed the grey legality of using these radios as FRS/GMRS/MURS radios.  It is up to you how you personally resolve this issue, and perhaps suffice it to say that if you wanted to program the channels in to your radio so you could at least monitor and listen to the channels, that would be perfectly legal.  It is only if/when you transmit that you possibly trespass to the dark side of the grey area.

The good news is that the CHIRP software has these frequencies already available for you to copy in to your radio.  Go to Radio – Import from Stock Config and select the frequencies you want and decide which channels to import them to.

You’ll see that CHIRP has the eight GMRS repeater frequency pairs in its stock configuration.  That is great for using the radios with GMRS repeaters, but if you wanted to transmit/receive on the frequency paired channels in simplex mode (ie both transmitting and receiving on the same frequency) you’d want to import the frequencies a second time and edit them to simplex using the transmit frequency, then a third time and edit them to simplex using the receive frequency.

Note also the first seven of the FRS frequencies are the shared FRS/GMRS frequencies.

Our article Explaining the Confusion of Frequencies and Channels with FRS & GMRS Radios provides some much-needed clarification on these matters.

It is helpful to have all these frequencies programmed if you want to scan/monitor the frequency bands to pick up on other people nearby.  But if you’re only interested in using the radios for your own use, then you don’t need every last frequency entered and maybe it keeps things simpler to just have a few frequencies stored in memory.

4.2  Ham Frequencies

Find out who your local frequency coordinator group is.  If you have a copy of the helpful and annual (but not always up-to-date or complete) ARRL Repeater Directory you’ll find listings to local groups in the front; a bit of ‘detective work’ through Google and the ARRL site will often get you to the appropriate groups as well.  Hopefully the frequency coordinating group has a website and hopefully you can download a set of repeater frequencies from them.

The CHIRP software also links you to some online services (Radio – Import from Data Source) that have many of the local frequencies already in suitable format for you to automatically transfer over to your radio.  If you do this, it pays to check the data with the local frequency coordinator group if possible – generally the local frequency coordinator group has the latest and best information to refer to.

You’ll find it helpful to understand which repeaters you can access, and you’ll want to build up an understanding of the coverage areas of such repeaters.  In the event of an emergency that does not immediately destroy such repeaters, they will be one of your preferred means of communicating with other members of your group, especially if some of the group are not within direct/simplex range.

Usually the repeater listings tell you approximately where the repeaters are located, so that gives you a good helpful start to understanding which ones might be relevant – both around your local normal area where you live and work, and on any routes from there to where your retreat is, and of course, repeaters in/around your retreat.

It is hard to know whether repeaters will remain operable or not in any sort of emergency scenario.  If the repeater is only powered from mains/grid power (perhaps with an hour or two of UPS battery as backup for brief power cuts) then clearly, as soon as it loses power, it goes down, and it stays down until mains power is restored.

But if the repeater is solar-powered (and an appreciable number are) then it is much more resilient to interruptions in the normal world.  You should find out about your local repeaters, and maybe join the appropriate groups/clubs that own and maintain them, and subtly lobby for making the repeater grid-independent.

You’ll actually find you have a fair measure of support for such concepts.  While not all hams are preppers, many enjoy the thought of being able to participate and assist in minor regional emergencies – temporary Level 1 type scenarios, and within that concept, the idea of making a repeater as robust as possible will find plenty of support.

4.3  Other ‘Interesting’ Local Frequencies to Monitor

You can use resources such as www.radioreference.com and www.scannerstuff.com and www.mygmrs.com and www.interceptradio.com to get lists of local frequencies used variously by public safety, local, state and federal government, and all types of businesses from the local fast-food joint to mall security companies and just about every other type of radio user imaginable.

It can be interesting listening to some of these frequencies, and you might think of some tactical advantages to being able to monitor some of them as well – both while life is comfortable and normal, and in an uncertain future if things start to go suddenly very wrong.

However, remember that these radios are not fully featured when it comes to advanced scanning, and they can’t monitor digital or trunked frequencies at all. If these are things you want to monitor (and increasingly the more ‘interesting’ radio channels are on digital/trunked systems), you’ll need other equipment.

At the risk of stating the obvious, just because you have a radio that is theoretically capable of listening and transmitting on any particular frequency, that does not mean that you are allowed to do so.

4.4  Weather Frequencies

Not a separate function, but an often overlooked capability, is to program in the NOAA Weather Radio channels.

There are seven of them, in the VHF band.  If you are getting low on spare channels, you could just program in the one or two for the areas you expect to be (the preceding link takes you to pages that list the locations and coverage areas for each transmitter); otherwise, it is easy to put all seven into your radio (and CHIRP has them preloaded to copy over – go to the Radio – Import from Stock Config option).

    • 162.400
    • 162.425
    • 162.450
    • 162.475
    • 162.500
    • 162.525
    • 162.550

5.  A Note on Frequencies

The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios will receive and transmit on FM modulated VHF frequencies between 136-174MHZ and on FM modulated UHF frequencies between 400-480/520MHz.

It will also receive only (but not transmit) on FM modulated VHF frequencies between 65 – 108 MHz.

First, to explain the UHF range.  Many times the radios might be specified as having an upper range of 480 MHz, but (at least for the more recent firmware units) the upper range is actually 520 MHz.  Trust us on this – we’ve tested to confirm.

Second, there is a problem with very inexpensive radios being freely available.  Sometimes people buy them who, ahem, probably shouldn’t.  We regularly see ridiculous claims from people on websites, saying that they have managed to modify their UV-5R radios to receive (and presumably transmit, too) on other frequencies – not just slight extensions of the official frequency ranges, but all the way up to 1 GHz and down to only a few MHz.

We’ve also read other people saying they have modified their radios to receive AM as well as FM signals.

Both these types of claims are physically impossible, and are outright utter nonsense.  We can’t comment as to the mental health of people who make such claims, but the unavoidable electrical and electronic reality is that – no matter what you can get the display on the front of the radios to show – they will not work outside the frequency ranges they have been designed to operate on.  We will concede that with increasingly poor performance, maybe you could extend the two bands by about 5% – 10% at each end, but beyond that, the circuitry just will not work.

And as for receiving AM signals on an FM radio, that’s also not electrically/electronically possible.

We all like to get something for nothing, but don’t risk damaging your radios by trying these nonsense modifications.  They can’t work, they don’t work, and they won’t work.

6.  Broadcast FM Radio

In addition to being able to transmit and receive on its two bands, the Baofeng UV-5R has a bonus feature.  It also has a good quality extended FM broadcast band receiver in it, which allows you to receive but not transmit on both the regular broadcasting FM band (88-108 MHz) and also on the 65-88MHz frequencies too.

There’s not a lot of activity in the 65-88MHz part of the spectrum (that’s putting it mildly) and the radio only tunes in 100 kHz steps in this mode.  However, the regular FM radio capability is convenient.

You can’t store FM channels in the radio’s memories, but you can use the scan function to jump from one radio station to the next.

7.  Some Settings to Consider

The radio has a lot of configurable options, either through keyboard programming or via the CHIRP software.  Most items can be left at their default setting, and the per channel items for each channel can be configured as is needed.

There are a few settings to consider, however.

7.1  Squelch

The squelch setting can be varied from 0 (squelch off, you get all background noise all the time) up to 9 (very high squelch, only strong signals punch through).

The radio is set to a default value of 5.  Different people have different approaches and opinions about squelch, and you should adopt an approach that reflects your needs.

If you only want to use your radio for local communications, then set the squelch level for one or two numbers lower than the level necessary to ensure that it always ‘opens’ when receiving signals from the furtherest away place with the poorest radio signals that you want to receive from.  By having a higher number squelch setting, you’ll be less troubled by other weak signals, especially ones that many times are too weak to really understand.

But if you want to hear the other guy’s transmissions before he hears yours, and if you want to be sure to pick up even very weak signals, just for the knowing that there are other people out there, even if still some distance away, then set your squelch down to 1 or 2.

We generally have our squelch setting at 1, and find that we can understand most of the transmissions that come in.  We want to know who else is using radios out there, hopefully before they know about us.

7.2  Dual Frequency

If you have a lot of people in your group, and if you are using your radios a lot, it might be sensible to have multiple channels, plus a master emergency channel.  Then you could have everyone in one team using one channel, and everyone in a different team or tasking unit using a different channel, and the two different sets of users not interfering with each other.

At the same time, you’d also have both teams having a second global channel on their radios, so if there was any sort of emergency or community wide broadcast, everyone would get it on their second channel.

7.3  CTCSS, DCS, etc

There are ways to code the radios so they send specific inaudible tones or other types of signaling with every message they send out, and also so they will only play through the speaker messages they receive with specific tones on them, too.

This is a very dangerous and widely misunderstood set of capabilities.  They are useful and sometimes necessary when using a repeater – repeaters are commonly configured so they will only rebroadcast a message if the incoming message has an activating tone associated with it.  The repeaters are configured this way as much to cut down on repeater to repeater interference as for any other reason, although they are sometimes also used as a small measure of access-restriction too.

But for regular use within your community members, adding these types of tones seems to often result in someone’s radio being mis-configured and the person not hearing any messages, and his own messages in turn also not being heard.

So generally we recommend you keep all these settings off.

But there is one possible alternative factor to consider.  If you were to have any opposing force take one of your radios, they’d then be able to monitor and even possibly jam your communications within your group.  The radio they’d have seized would have all your channels programmed into it.

If you configured vulnerable-to-being-taken radios to use some type of tone signaling, then this would (hopefully) not be intuitively obvious to the people who stole the radio.  You could simply switch your other radios to another code (and there are hundreds to choose from) and that would probably be all you’d need to do to prevent the person with the stolen radio from listening in.  Only if they had technical radio skills, and knew how to read the configuration of your radio and how to change it could they restore their ability to monitor your radio traffic.

Note that if you use these types of tones to selectively block unwanted radio traffic within your network, it will not prevent other people (ie OpFor types) who already have radio receivers tuned to the frequencies you are using, from monitoring your transmissions.  They would of course not have any of these selective block features enabled and so would hear all your transmissions.

The recommendation to use the tones on your radios would only be beneficial if you were using unusual frequencies that any other people would be less likely to be monitoring.  And, of course, if they did get one of your pre-configured radios, the recommendation again assumes (and assuming is never a good thing to do!) that they wouldn’t know either about ‘opening the squelch’ via the button on the side of the radio, or about reprogramming the radio to ignore the CTCSS or whatever control tones.

So it might be beneficial, but it sure isn’t a guaranteed solution.

7.4 Key Lock

This is an essential feature that we urge you to enable in your radios.  Set the radio for automatic key lock any time the keyboard has not been used for a while.

When your radio is locked, you’ll still be able to use the on/off/volume control and the push-to-talk button (and the other two side buttons too).  But all the other keys are locked.  This is a good thing – it means there’s no way you can accidentally bump the radio and change its frequency or one of its other settings.  If you don’t have the radio locked, you will inevitably be bumping it against things from time to time, so it may not be on the channel or setting you need it to be on when either you urgently need to contact someone, or someone urgently needs to contact you.

So set the radio to auto-lock.  It is easy enough to unlock if you do need to change something – you just hold down the lock/unlock key for a couple of seconds.

7.5 Channel Frequency Step

If you wish to scan a block of frequencies (and remembering that these radios are not at their best as scanners due to slow scanning speed and lack of sophisticated scanning features) you should consider what frequency step setting you have.  The radios can be set to move from as little as 2.5 kHz up to as much as 25 kHz for each step while scanning and tuning.

If you set it to 25 kHz and a sophisticated opponent is using nonstandard frequencies for his own radio communications, you might skip right past his frequencies and never detect them.

For this type of purpose, it is better to set the frequency step low.

7.6 Transmit Power Setting

The radio can be set to transmit with 1W or 4W of output power.  This can be set channel by channel as appropriate.

Although a lot of the time we are focused on getting the best possible range from a radio, there are exceptions to this case.  Generally we recommend you transmit with the least amount of power necessary.  This saves your battery, reduces the amount of radio frequency energy and any effects it may cause on you, and also limits the distance at which your communications can be overheard by other people.

Sure, if you can’t be clearly heard at 1W, then by all means go up to 4W, because you have little choice.  But if you are heard clearly at 4W, consider dropping down to 1W.

8.  Other Information and Resources

The Baofeng radios are very popular, with the result there are lots of websites and user forums out there that discuss the radios.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that some of the participants on these forums seem like recidivists from the ‘bad old days’ of CB radios in the 1970s – the real reason the CB radio ‘craze’ died out (in our opinion) is because the airwaves became infested with idiots who jammed up the channels and made the participation of ‘normal’ people into an unpleasant and difficult experience.

Just as low-priced GMRS/FRS radios have sort of overwhelmed the FCC’s policing of the GMRS radio bands, the ready availability of low-priced HT sets like the UV-5R threatens to see the 2m and 70cm  ham bands infested by such people, too.  Fortunately – at least so far – the ham community has been vigilant at policing itself, and we hope that will continue to happen on the air, if not on the internet.

There is an excellent website at http://www.miklor.com/ that is focused on all UV-5R related issues.  It is well worth your while to read all the way through it.  The material is generally accurate and helpful.

There is an active Yahoo Group – http://groups.yahoo.com/group/baofeng_uv5r/ – that you might want to join as well.  We’ve found that there’s a high proportion of nonsense messages in this group, alas; but if you can survive that for a few weeks, you might pick up some useful additional information, and it is easy enough to unsubscribe from the group again.

Currently there are 7700 members of the group, and at least some of them are very helpful and sensible.  Others however clearly don’t know what a ham license is, let alone have one.


Your Baofeng UV-5R radios are capable of doing many things, and are flexible and versatile communication tools.

Hopefully the information on this page will help you configure them to best reflect the operational needs and situation in which you are using them.  If you’ve not already done so, we recommend you also read through our article A Complete System for your Baofeng UV-5R Radio – this gives you details of other accessories that you should get to extend the use and functionality of your radios.

Apr 192013
The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios - our recommended best choice.

The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios – our recommended best choice.

Update :  This article is still very useful in terms of appreciating the issues surrounding how to make a choice of two-way radio.  But the recommended choice in this article – the Baofeng UV-5R – has now been sort of superseded by a new model, the Baofeng F8HP.  Click the link for an explanation of the differences.

There are dozens – maybe hundreds – of radios being sold for use on the FRS and GMRS bands.  Clearly some are better than others – and not so clearly, most are not very good at all.  Which are the better and possibly best of the many radio choices?

Before answering the question, may we ‘cheat’ a bit and redefine the question from ‘the best radio for FRS/GMRS’ and instead look at it from surely the better and broader perspective – the best radio for short-range wireless communications.  The ugly truth is that all FRS radios are deliberately designed to be next to useless, and most consumer rather than professional grade GMRS radios are only slightly better.

So, can we look at the broader topic of short-range radios, but we’ll keep the GMRS/FRS requirement in mind.

By short-range we mean ‘tactical’ ranges based more or less on lines of sight – ie the ability to communicate reliably, probably up to a mile and definitely less than ten miles.  In other words, you want to be able to communicate from anywhere on or immediately adjacent to your retreat property to anywhere else on or close to it.

Of course the range of any radio depends massively on the terrain, so it is difficult to generalize and part of what you need to do once you’ve purchased radios is to then ‘map out’ your retreat and adjacent areas, testing communications to see if there are dead areas anywhere, ending up with some coverage maps, sort of like the wireless companies publish.

As you probably know, there are other radios capable of much longer distance transmissions – even circling the globe, and even bouncing signals not just off overhead satellites but even bouncing signals off the moon too.  But these generally are quite a lot different to the concept we’re considering here – short-range radios, possibly/probably hand-held.  (If you ask us nicely enough, we might write separately about longer range radios.  🙂 )

If you have real problems with short-range radio coverage, you can consider an option to substantially extend the range by adding a repeater, and we’ll explain about repeaters in a subsequent article.  The radio we are recommending is ‘repeater capable’, and the GMRS service allows for repeater type operation.

So, what’s the best radio?  That’s of course like asking how long is a piece of string, because any choice involves compromises between cost and features and portability and many other things (see our two-part Buyer’s Guide to FRS/GMRS Radios for more information on these issues).

The radio we are recommending is a low-cost/high-value radio.  It isn’t the best performing and doesn’t have the most features, but it is unbeatable from a value point of view.

Now, before introducing you to the radio, some more introductory comments.

Using Ham Radios for FRS/GMRS – Legal, Illegal, or a Grey Area?

Okay, so remember our comment in our article ‘A Prepper’s Introduction to Walkie-Talkie Radios‘ – the part where we said ‘always follow the law’?

We meant that when we said it, and we still mean it now.  But…..  It seems that perhaps the policing body, the FCC, doesn’t really care all that much, any more, about what happens on the FRS and GMRS frequencies, and as long as you don’t do anything too egregious, they may be content to ignore you.

This is almost definitely true of the diminished need to get an $85 five-year license to operate on GMRS frequencies, and may also be true of the requirement to only use formally approved radios on the FRS and GMRS bands, or so this message in a Yahoo Group seems to hint at.  We asked the message writer for clarification and he wrote back to us simply affirming that the Baofeng radios are okay to use on GMRS frequencies without showing any proof of his assertion, so make of that claim as you will (hint – a lot of nonsense is put forward as fact in many of these forums).

We subsequently spoke to an official spokesperson at the FCC, but she first asked to only speak ‘off the record’, which we of course happily agreed to, and hoped that meant she would then speak frankly.  Unfortunately she then proceeded to do nothing other than robotically repeat the official FCC regulations without giving any hint at all as to the real-world application of these regulations.  However, she did disagree with the claim in the preceding paragraph that a radio that is not licensed for GMRS frequencies (Part 95 of their regulations) could be used on those frequencies if it was licensed to be used under similar frequencies by the FCC under either Part 90 (commercial land mobile use) or Part 97 (Ham radio operator) requirements.

Maybe the most that can be said is that if you are using a unit that conforms to FCC specifications for the GMRS service, and if you use it appropriately without causing interference or problems to other users leading to complaints to the FCC, and without going overboard on transmit power, then perhaps – just possibly perhaps – no-one’s going to come knocking at your door.

After all, if the radio conforms to FCC requirements, how would anyone even know that you were using a non-approved radio?  It is only when you’re using a radio that doesn’t conform to their requirements (too broad a bandwidth, poor frequency control, too much power, etc) that you’re raising red flags in the broader radio using community (which does a fair amount of self-policing and reporting to the FCC about unlawful use) and possibly causing someone to complain to the FCC about you.

If you do choose to use a ham radio on these ‘Part 95’ regulated bands (there are four Part 95 bands – CB, MURS, FRS and GMRS, and all are close to ham bands, with appropriate ham radios usually being capable of working on the nearby Part 95 band as well), then some advice.

  • To avoid drawing attention to yourself, don’t use ‘high power’ on MURS frequencies.  MURS service is limited to a maximum of 2W transmitter power, although it does allow for external antennas.
  • Don’t transmit on the FRS channels at all.  They are limited to 0.5W of power and don’t allow external antennas – if you suddenly started transmitting on the FRS band with a 5 or 50W transmitter and a super external antenna, you’d be very obviously contravening the regulations and inviting someone to file a complaint with the FCC.  The FCC might not voluntarily hunt down offenders on its own initiative, but it will respond to complaints.
  • GMRS service allows for external antennas, repeaters, and up to 50W of transmitter power.  You can probably use reasonably powerful ham radios and with high quality antennas on the GMRS frequencies and no-one will be any the wiser.

So, to answer the question we posed at the start of this section, in theory using unlicensed equipment on the GMRS or MURS bands is illegal, but if your transmissions conform to the other requirements of the band you are transmitting on, you’re probably happily in a grey area of non-enforcement – a bit like if you drive just a few mph over the speed limit on the open road.

All these worries would of course evaporate if you obtained a Ham radio operator’s license.

So with all this as lengthy preamble, may we introduce :

The Baofeng UV-5R – the Very Best Radio for FRS/GMRS (and MURS) Use

The lovely Baofeng UV-5R series of radios have just about every feature one could hope for in a mid-grade portable radio transceiver, and at a bargain price (typically around $40 each).  They are not the best performing radios out there, but they are definitely the best value and have all the capabilities and options you are likely to need.

They are also dual band, which means you could theoretically use them on both the MURS and GMRS bands.

On the other hand, strictly speaking, although they are FCC certified for both Part 90 and 97 use, these radios are not certified for Part 95 use (ie on the GMRS, FRS and MURS bands).

If there’s any way to discreetly use these radios without arousing the ire of the FCC (see the preceding section), then it would be great to be able to do so, and they are probably your very best choice of radio in terms of value and cost/performance compromise.

Ideally, you should get a Technician level Ham license (see our article about getting your Ham license and our subsequent article about the easiest way to pass the Technician Ham License test) and then you can use the Baofeng units totally legally on the 70cm (similar to GMRS) and 2m (similar to MURS) Ham bands they support.

Note – there are many different models in the UV-5R series.  Some are described as ‘new for 2013’ or ‘improved’ or whatever else.  They are all identical.  The only difference is the model number (eg UV-5RE, UV-5RA, UV-5R+, and so on) and the external case design.  This is the same as how some companies will make products for Costco with a different model number to the same product which is made for Walmart, and the same product with a different model number for other stores, too.

Buy the cheapest UV-5R radios you can find – often they are on Amazon for under $35 and with free shipping, even though on the same page of listings you might see some ‘chancers’ trying to sell ‘improved’ units (which are identical) for $20 or more extra.

Oh – you’ll also see different models get different review ratings on Amazon too.  But, trust us with this.  ALL the UV-5R units are identical.  What’s that – you don’t trust us?  That’s okay, you can prove it for yourself.  Simply see the official FCC approval numbers.  They are the same on the different models.  Every different radio model with a change in its electronics needs a different approval number – the fact that all the UV-5Rs (even the F-22 models) have the same approval number seems clear proof to us that the radio is identical.

It is that whole marketing thing with radios again – as we asked before, why is it that radio marketing keeps getting so terribly close to downright dishonesty?

Like many other Chinese products, their manuals are not very well written.  However, there is a huge community of enthusiastic users of these radios, and a couple of people have written their own very much better manual, which you can see here.  We’ll be publishing a separate article shortly full of tips about how to best use your Baofeng radio.

Oh, there are lots more Ham radio transceivers that are designed ostensibly for the Ham 440-450MHz (70cm) band that will also work on the GMRS 462-467MHz band too, but none of the other radios cost less than $100, and only when you start getting into the $200+ and $300+ units do you start to get units that are noticeably better than the lovely UV-5R units.  Just for comparison purposes, here’s the probable ultimate in such radios – the Yaesu VX-8DR – where you’ll be politely asked to pay $500 per unit rather than under $50.

Summary – and More Information

We recommend the Baofeng UV-5R radio series as being the best value radio for most prepper’s local radio communication needs.  Ideally, we urge you to get a Ham license and use it on ham radio bands rather than on GMRS and MURS, but it does seem that the FCC is being reasonably permissive about the use of such radios on the GMRS band in particular.

The UV-5R radio, while good ‘out-of-the-box’, will work much better if you add some extra accessories to it.  That will be the subject of our next article (please click on to read it).

Update :  As we said that the top, there’s now a new model Baofeng – the F8HP.  It offers greater power, a better antenna, and longer battery life, but it costs twice as much (although that still means a cost below $65).  Click the link to read our article about this new radio, then decide whether you want the UV-5R or F8HP.

Apr 192013
The UV-5R comes with some accessories to start with, but some additional items will make the radio much more valuable to you.

The UV-5R comes with some accessories to start with, but some additional items will make the radio much more valuable to you.

In our immediately previous article, we recommended the Baofeng UV-5R and/or the Baofeng F8HP as the best general purpose two-way radio.

When you buy a either radio, you usually get the radio in a kit that comes complete with standard Li-Ion battery pack, charger, carrying clip, wrist strap, rubber-ducky antenna, and earpiece/microphone.  That’s a great set of goodies, all for about $35 or $65, but you should consider getting some accessories and additional items to add substantially to the radio’s performance and versatility.

You want to have a better antenna, you must have a way to program the radio, and perhaps you’ll benefit from a spare battery or two as well.  Indeed, with the radios so inexpensive, you should also get one (or more!) spare radios, too!

We suggest the following as being the most useful add-on items to get for your Baofeng radio.  Most of the following are less than $20, and some are less than $10, making them very easy buying decisions to make :

1.  Improved Portable Antenna

The standard ‘rubber ducky’ antenna that the radio comes with has the benefit of being short (4¾”) and reasonably sturdy.  But it is not an efficient radiator/receiver of radio signals.

You’ll get a massively improved range if you replace this with a longer/better antenna.  As we discussed in our article on How to Maximize the Range of your FRS/GMRS Radio, replacing the antenna can more than double the range of your unit and more than quadruple the effective power being radiated (or received).  We suggest you also read our two-part article on adding and optimizing an external antenna to your radio, too.

Noting the test results that were reported in by substituting a Nagoya 701 antenna for the standard antenna, this seems like a ‘must do’ item for everyone and all situations.  The Nagoya 701 antenna is about the same weight, and 3″ longer (7¾”) but still more than sufficiently portable for almost all situations.

There are many other antenna choices as well as the Nagoya 701; we feel the 701 represents an excellent compromise between size/convenience, performance, and cost, but you’ll be delighted with pretty much any other dual band portable antenna you choose.

There is also a still longer Nagoya 771.  This measures about 15¼” in length, but its greater length interferes with the portability of the radio and makes everything more awkward and clumsy, without adding any perceptible extra range.

One word of warning.  We have heard reports of fake/counterfeit Nagoya antennas out there – one way to tell if you have a real one or not is to read the label on the bottom of the antenna.  A genuine antenna will refer to the frequency ranges of the antenna in MHz, a fake may instead say NHz (instead of MHz).  If your antenna has this error, then it is probably not a genuine Nagoya.

Note, when choosing a portable antenna you need to find one with a Female SMA type connector on its end, so as to mate with the male SMA connector on the radio itself.  Otherwise, be sure to get the appropriate connector adapter as well.

Nagoya 701 antenna – $10 or less on Amazon.  Truly the best value you’ll ever get for less than $10 on improving your radio’s performance and range.

One more thought :  Antennas are semi-consumable items.  That is, they are sometimes knocked about, and possibly damaged.  They are also essential – no antenna means no working radio.  At less than $10 each, we’d probably get one or two spares – maybe one spare for each four  radios, ‘just in case’.

2.  Programming Cable and Software

The Baofeng radios have 128 programmable channels that you can define, and in each case you can set a lot of different parameters for the channel, ranging from bandwidth to power to offset frequencies if used with a repeater and CTCSS/DCS type tones on both the send and receive side of the channel.

You can do this by hand, but it is cumbersome and slow to work through many different layers of menus to set all the attributes for each channel.

If you get a programming cable and software, you can do this all from your computer, with a nice large interface screen to work on, reducing the time it would take you from hours of frustration (and possibly making errors that are hard to identify and correct) to minutes of simplicity.  Even better, you can download preconfigured files of repeater frequencies from several different websites that will automatically program up your UV-5R or F8HP for you.

Another huge time-saving is if you have multiple radios – you can create a series of configuration files and then quickly upload them to all the radios.  This also ensures all radios are exactly configured the same, with much less potential for errors.

The cable runs from your computer’s USB port to the external speaker/mike port on the phone.  As for the supplied software, ignore it.  There is much better free software, that runs on PCs, Macs, and Unix type computers (see our upcoming article on how to get the best use from your Baofeng radio for details on this).  But you do need the programming cable, even if you don’t need the included software.

A programming cable and software costs under $10 on Amazon.  We consider it another ‘must have’ item.  And, yes, you guessed right.  At less than $10 each, this is another thing that it would pay to have at least one spare of – the cable isn’t just a cable, it also has some electronics built into it, so there is the possibility of failure.  A second cable is cheap insurance.

3.  Spare Batteries

In truth, the units get excellent battery life from its provided battery.  For the UV-5R, it is rated for 1800 mAh and is a 7.4V Li-ion type battery.  The F8HP comes with a slightly more powerful 21oo mAh battery.  Both are said to give ‘up to 12 hours’ of life, presumably with a duty cycle of something like 90% listening to nothing, 5% listening to a received signal, and 5% transmitting.  Some reports have suggested that people have got more than 12 hours life out of it.

You can get additional batteries as spares, of course, and at as little as $5-10 each, you’d be well advised to get a few.  You can never have too many batteries, right?  There is also an extended capacity battery available – some models claim 3600 mAh and others 3800 mAh – probably they are the same battery, just with different capacity claims.  These are appreciably more pricey – $22 – $25 each.

So in theory, you can get more battery for your money by buying standard sized batteries, and perhaps it is better, if you think you’ll need more reserve power, to simply stick a spare standard battery in your pocket than to use one bigger, heavier, and more expensive battery.

Both types of battery are of course available at good prices on Amazon.

4.  Car Power Adapters

There are two types of car power adapter for these radios.  The first is a replacement battery back – you take off the regular battery and slide in this back instead, which runs via a coiled cord to a cigarette lighter power supply.

The other option is intriguing, and you should get one of these too, whether your radios will be used in vehicles or not.  It is a cord that plugs in to the cigarette lighter (or other 12V source of course) at one end and plugs into the power-in socket of the charger unit that was supplied as standard with the radio at the other end.

The interesting thing about this device is that it gives you a convenient way of powering the standard charger and recharging batteries if your mains power is down. The other unit doesn’t recharge the battery, it replaces it instead.

Both are helpful and useful.  Normally we use the battery back replacement unit when we have a unit in a vehicle, but we have one of the other connectors as a ‘just in case’ unit so we are prepared if there’s a future grid-down scenario we need to cope with.

Both types of units can be had for under $10 each at Amazon.

5.  Mobile Antenna

If you plan to use your unit in your vehicle at all, then it makes sense to replace your already upgraded Nagoya portable antenna with a true ‘mobile’ type antenna mounted to the exterior of your vehicle.  This will further improve the range with which the radio can send and receive signals.

Again, we suggest you read through our two-part article series on upgrading/replacing your radio’s antenna for a thorough discussion of this issue.

As for specific antennas, perhaps the least expensive and good performing antenna would be the Tram 1185, which costs about $30.  The only disadvantage is the wind noise that whistles through its coil; and if this is a nuisance, you could consider a more expensive antenna with a solid loading device rather than an open coil.

Note you will probably need an adapter to match the fitting on the end of the antenna lead to the connector on the radio body (you need an SMA-F type connector to screw into the radio body output connector).  In the specific case of the Tram 1185 (which ends with a PL-259 connector), this adapter does the trick perfectly.

External antennas on cars have finite lives.  Not only are they slightly stressed as you drive along the freeway at 70mph, but sooner or later, you’re going to drive underneath an object with little clearance, and it is going to collide with your antenna.  Maybe the first few times, the antenna will survive, but eventually it will mechanically fail.  It might break off its mounting, it might break in the middle if it is a multiple element antenna, or in some other way fail.  If the antenna lead is just going through the seal in the vehicle’s door, then depending on the pressure being placed on it, maybe sooner or later the coax cable will short out.  So you need some spares.

But use this to your advantage.  Don’t simply order a bulk quantity of identical antennas to start with.  Order two different antennas, and then experiment to see which one you prefer in terms of performance and price.  Then if you get a third antenna, you either know which of the first two is the better choice for you, or maybe you experiment further and get a third different antenna, giving you still more understanding of the ‘best’ antenna in your situation.  You can then use that information to know which antenna make/model to get more of in the future.

6.  External Speaker/Microphone

On the face of it, this might seem like a fairly unnecessary extra accessory,  Sure, if you think you might have a use for it, you can get a speaker/microphone unit that connects via a coiled cord to the handset.  That way you can have the radio clipped to your belt or securely mounted in the car, and conduct a conversation using the speaker/mike unit (which also has a push-to-talk button on it).  But if you need to change any of the radio’s settings, then you’d of course still need to access the transceiver itself.

But there are two important benefits that come from using one of these.  One has to do with safety, the other with the range you’ll get from your radio.

The UV-5R and F8HP manuals say you should keep the radio at least an inch from your head when transmitting, so as not to have problems with strong radio signals possibly harming your head and brain.  While the radio’s frequencies are lower than cell phone frequencies, they are also potentially at least ten times stronger, so just as how it is good practice to always use a headset with a cell phone to keep the cell phone radiation level to a minimum, it is good practice to use some sort of similar device with your handheld radio transceiver.

The other benefit is that if you don’t have to have the radio close to your mouth to speak in to it, you are free to locate it somewhere else for best signal transmission and reception.  You can hold it away from yourself, so your body isn’t soaking up as much radio energy, and you can hold it up a foot or two over your head (you’d be amazed at how much extra signal boost this one simple thing will do).

The good news is the radio comes complete with an included earpiece and microphone, which is all you really need to address these two issues.  But if you don’t like sticking earpieces in your ears, then an external microphone/speaker is something to consider.

They are not expensive, and when we looked at the low $10 – 15 or so cost of these accessories, we ended up getting a couple.

7.  SWR Meter

You’ll need one of these to tune a mobile antenna to your radio (this is explained in the second part of our antenna series).

If you have a friend already with a VHF/UHF SWR meter, you might think that all you need to do is borrow his.  Sure, that would work for now, but you’ll find that you’ll be wanting to refer back to it surprisingly often – any time you move or change your external antenna, and, of course, WTSHTF, who knows where your friend and his SWR might be.

So we recommend you buy one to keep as part of your radio kit.

Using a SWR meter to tune your antenna will give you better range and protect the transmitter circuitry – it really is a must have device.  There are good $40 units such as the Workman 104, and better $60 dual/cross needle units such as this one.  You only need one.

You may also need to get more adapters to connect the SWR meter to the antenna and to the radio – if you can’t tell what you need, simply get the unit and see what can be connected and what you still need after it arrives.

8.  Anything Else?

What else might you want?  Maybe a protective case for the radio – they’re only $10 – $15, although with radios costing only $40 a piece, there’s not a great deal of need to spend too much on protecting them!  On the other hand, in an uncertain future, you might not be able to buy replacements for love nor money, so taking care of your radios is just plain sensible.

Especially if you wear them on your belt, there’s every chance you’ll occasionally bash them in to things, and for sure, you’ll drop them on the ground sometimes, too.  So protective cases are probably a good idea.

Maybe a directory listing repeater frequencies (although we found the directory most useful for pointing us to websites of local repeater frequency coordinator groups and then accessing their more up-to-date lists).

And maybe some type of base station antenna to mount on your house/retreat roof, but that’s another subject worthy of its own separate discussion.


The best value two-way HT type radio for most purposes is the Baofeng UV-5R or its slightly more powerful and expensive newer sibling, the Baofeng F8HP.  They are both capable of transmitting on Ham frequencies, GMRS, FRS and MURS unlicensed frequencies, and land-mobile frequencies too.

The radio by itself will benefit from adding additional options to it.  We suggest the following should be on your ‘shopping list’, but you don’t need to buy everything all at once.

  • Baofeng UV-5R HT – about $35 each – as many as are reasonably required for your group, plus some spares
  • Baofeng F8HP HT – If you have a slightly bigger budget, you get a lot more radio for about $30 more cost per unit.  More range, better antenna, more power, greater battery capacity
  • Nagoya 701 replacement handheld/portable antenna – less than $10 – one for each radio that will be used in a portable application, plus some spares
  • Tram 1185 or other mobile antenna – about $30 – one for each vehicle that will have a radio in it, plus some spares, plus connector adapters as needed to match antenna connector to radio connector
  • Spare batteries– about $5 – 10 each – most of the time, the standard battery will be sufficient for an ordinary day’s operations, but it is good to have a few spares ‘just in case’ or for extended operations and in anticipation of batteries eventually failing and needing replacement.
  • Mobile battery replacement and 12V charger power supply – about $5 – 10 each.  Any time you expect to have a radio in your vehicle for more than a short time, it makes sense to switch from battery power to vehicle power.  So we’d recommend one of these for each vehicle that will have a radio in it on a regular basis (the same as your plan for mobile antennas) plus a spare or two.  The 12V charger power supply is a great product too, and we’d suggest one or two of those also.
  • Programming cable and software– less than $10 – we’d probably get two, just to be on the safe side.
  • External speaker/microphone – $10 – 15 – or otherwise use the included earpiece with each radio.
  • SWR Meter – units are available in the $40 and $60 price range.  You only need one, but you do need one to ensure best antenna matching on external antennas.

Properly equipped, you’ll find your Baofeng radios a great choice and very helpful for your local/tactical communications.

Apr 182013
Is the Glock 17 the perfect prepper pistol?  Read this four part series and decide for yourself?

Is the Glock 17 the perfect prepper pistol? Read this four part series and decide for yourself?

This is the first part of a four-part article series on choosing the ideal prepper pistol.  After you’re read this first part, please do choose to click on to part two – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol; part three – Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol; and part four – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.  Yes – we finally get around to suggesting an ideal pistol at the end of the fourth part of the series.

Is there such a thing as an ‘ideal’ pistol for preppers?

Many people think so, and at times vociferously express their opinions, but notwithstanding the apparent certainty with which some people answer the question, there is no clear consensus as to the ideal or best pistol for anything.  Different situations require different pistols – that’s part of the reason why there are so many different shapes and sizes of pistols offered for sale.

Choosing an ideal pistol is never easy, because any and all pistol designs are creatures of compromise.  No pistol offers the accuracy or stopping power that would be ideal, and all pistols have to wrestle with trade-offs such as size and weight.

So to evaluate your ideal pistol choices, you need to first identify the relevant selection criteria.  We suggest that understanding your selection criteria and how possible pistol choices stack up against those criteria is an essential part of choosing an ideal pistol.

So let’s look at the major issues that need to be considered when choosing a prepper pistol.  We’ve come up with a dozen issues, and have ranked them in our suggested order of importance (as it relates to a prepping perspective).  Certainly the issues should be ranked in different orders for different applications, and if you wish to change our order of ranking even for choosing an ideal prepper pistol, feel free to do so as you wish.

For preppers, considering an uncertain future with the possibility of an extended time period of no external support – a scenario where ‘what you’ve got is all you’ve got’, we suggest the most important considerations are longevity, ease of maintenance, and reliability.

At the other end of the scale, we suggest the least important consideration is price.

1.  Longevity

You’re wanting a pistol that can be used for years and years, and for tens of thousands of rounds.  Even if you never shoot more than a thousand rounds through the gun, and those all in a training situation on a range, you still want a gun that is a long-lived as possible, because WTSHTF you’ve no way of knowing when or if you’ll ever be able to get more spares for it.

In a Level 3 situation, it might be a very long time before you can buy a replacement pistol if the one you have on hand fails, so you want a pistol that has as long a useful life as possible.

In its ultimate sense, a pistol is like an axe.  As you know, an axe is something that will last forever – sure, you occasionally need to replace the handle and sometimes the axe head/blade, but the ‘axe’ lasts forever.  It is the same with a pistol – in theory you could replace every component as and when each part wears out, and one hundred years later still have the ‘same’ pistol, albeit with no remaining original parts and a new serial number on a new frame.  When we talk about longevity we mean the length of time each of the components will operate before failing or becoming unreliable.

For example, some springs are limited to only a few thousand cycles before needing replacement.  Others are good for more than ten thousand cycles.  Some frames are known to crack after only a limited number of full power or over-power rounds are fired, others last for very much longer.

Some traditionalists still insist on disparaging polymer framed pistols.  Maybe some ‘plastic’ guns might have had shorter lives than metal guns in the past, but these days, there is no indication at all that a high quality polymer framed pistol such as a Glock (which still has a metal slide, barrel and other stressed moving parts) has any shorter a life than any type of metal constructed pistol.  If anything, the polymer seems to be at least as reliable and sometimes better than metal, which might crack or stretch or rust.

There is a difference between longevity and ease of maintenance and reliability.  A long-lived gun is not necessarily more reliable than a shorter lived gun, and may actually be harder to maintain, although generally a long-lived gun is also reliable and because of its ‘fault tolerant’ design, easy to maintain as well.  These other two factors high priority factors need to be balanced out, but we suggest the most important feature, but only by a whisker, is longevity, although for sure the reliability issue is terribly important when you actually need to rely on the gun to function.

2.  Ease of Maintenance

In theory, anyone can ‘field strip’ a pistol because, by definition, field stripping is designed to be done, anywhere, by a gun owner/user, rather than by an armorer with special skills, and without requiring special tools either; indeed, most pistols can be field stripped with no tools at all (although sometimes you might need to use a bullet or other sure-to-be-on-hand improvised tool).

When we refer to maintenance we don’t mean field stripping.  We mean the ability to fully strip the pistol down to its 30+ individual pieces, all separated from each other – oh yes, and the ability to put it all back together again, fully functional, and with no mysterious pieces still remaining on the bench at the end of the procedure!

A related part of maintenance is the ability to troubleshoot problems.  If a pistol is ‘misbehaving’ it is important to first be able to understand what is causing the problem before, secondly, resolving the problem.

You should get an armorer’s type manual for whatever pistol you choose, and if possible, attend a class in how to fully strip, repair, and rebuild the pistol.  At the very least, search out some Youtube videos and disassemble and reassemble the pistol so you know you can.

You should also get a full set of spare parts for your pistol, and two or more of any items that wear at an accelerated rate.  Sometimes you can find suppliers that will sell a complete kit of commonly needed consumable items for a firearm – but if you buy one of these, don’t rely on it containing everything you need.  These kits can sometimes include all the cheap parts, so as to create an impressive long list of included items at an appealing low price, but they omit the more expensive but equally prone to failure parts.  Use such kits as a start towards assembling a full set of spares, but don’t consider them all you will need.

There comes a point though where it may be cheaper to simply buy a second pistol – and that’s a perfectly valid option too.

Beware of some firearm manufacturers who restrict the sale of some components to only certified dealers/armorers.  In part this is a cowardly avoidance of probably non-existent liability – their lawyers have told them that if an ‘ordinary person’ tries to do work on their pistol and makes a mistake that results in a pistol malfunction (either discharging when it shouldn’t, or not discharging when it should – both are bad!) then the gun manufacturer/part supplier might be sued.  So the gun manufacturer simply restricts the sale of such items to only certified professional gunsmiths.

What use to you, longer term, is any firearm that you don’t have a full set of spares for?  As soon as one of the items you don’t have a spare for fails, it becomes a paperweight (or, at least, a source of spares for other similar guns you might own).  And Murphy’s Law – which will be working overtime after TEOTWAWKI – almost mandates that any parts that fail will be parts you don’t have.

That issue also touches on the value in standardizing the weapons used among the members of your group.  If you all use the same weapons, that means any of you are immediately able to competently use someone else’s weapon, and you need a smaller inventory of spare parts.  This is an important topic we’ll write separately about on a future occasion.

Make sure, the first time (and, ideally, every time) you fully strip and reassemble any firearm that you either have a knowledgeable friend double-check your work to confirm the pistol has been properly reassembled before then firing it, or at least that you do so yourself.  Many pistols have a standardized set of safety/function checks you can and should do after reassembling it to help you confirm its return to safe operation prior to the first time you test fire it.  The last thing you want is a pistol exploding in your face.

Two sources of materials to teach yourself some gunsmithing capabilities are On-Target Productions (videos and printed manuals) and the American Gunsmithing Institute (a huge range of full teaching programs and videos).

3.  Reliability

Reliability means that every time you want the gun to go ‘bang’ it will indeed do exactly that, with no jams or malfunctions.  It also means that it will never discharge unexpectedly without your having pulled the trigger yourself.

No gun is 100% reliable, and we include revolvers in that statement.  Some people mistakenly believe that revolvers are 99.999% reliable, and so choose a revolver as being the most reliable pistol possible.

Maybe we’ve just spent too much of our lives shooting firearms, but we’ve seen plenty of revolvers unexpectedly fail in the field.  Pieces work loose, fall off, wear out of spec, or jam.  Parts rust and corrode.  Springs break.  And so on, almost as much for revolvers as for semi-auto pistols.

The reliability of any pistol should be considered under two categories – its ability to function without malfunctions, and its ability to function without jams.  Most people use the terms interchangeably, but strictly speaking, a malfunction is considered to be an easily solved problem that you can fix in a few seconds in the middle of a gunfight (assuming you can spare a few seconds at such a time!), whereas a jam takes the gun out of service until an armorer can take some time and tools to fix it.  A jammed gun in a gunfight is a disaster, a malfunctioning gun is less serious (but still ideally avoided).

It is true that revolvers malfunction appreciably less than semi-autos (ie almost never, ever), but they jam pretty much as often as semi-autos.  Because most people don’t choose to distinguish between jams and malfunctions, they end up mistakenly believing that revolvers are 99.999% reliable both as measured by malfunction rate (a correct assessment) and by jam rate (a very incorrect statement).

Furthermore, if you had to choose between a pistol that malfunctions rarely and almost never jams (a good semi-auto), or a pistol that almost never malfunctions but rarely jams (a good revolver) you should choose the gun that rarely malfunctions but never jams.

A well maintained semi-auto, shooting a suitable choice of cartridge load (ie bullet shape and weight and neither too much nor too little powder/charge) should run 1000 and more rounds between malfunctions.  As many as 5,000 rounds between malfunctions is not unheard of.

Note that, with all pistols, some malfunctions are the fault of the ammo (such as primers not igniting) and, with semi-auto pistols, some other malfunctions are the fault of the shooter (‘limp-wristing’ the pistol rather than holding it firmly).

In terms of jams, a well maintained semi-auto, and again with a suitable cartridge, should go more than 10,000 rounds between failures (the Beretta M9 exceeds 35,000 rounds before failure), and an occasional strip down, check, maintenance and repair of worn and soon to fail parts will extend that time still further.

Our point here is that a modern reliable semi-auto is so incredibly reliable as to make it as close to the equal of a revolver as makes no practical or measurable difference.

Bottom line?  Don’t just rely on our uncorroborated statements.  Look around you at professional gun carriers/shooters.  What do they have in their holsters?  You can – and should – join almost the entire world’s armies and police forces in trusting your life to a semi-auto.

Please Continue Reading

This is the first part of a four-part article series on choosing the ideal prepper pistol.  After you’re read this first part, please do choose to click on to part two – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol; part three – Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol; and part four – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.  Yes – we finally get around to suggesting an ideal pistol at the end of the fourth part of the series.