Nov 282014
 
Think carefully before revealing your preparations, even to apparently like minded fellow preppers.

Think carefully before revealing your preparations, even to apparently like-minded fellow preppers.

Conventional wisdom maintains that preppers need to group together so as to have better odds of surviving in a future challenging situation.  We don’t disagree, indeed, quite the opposite – we strongly urge you to do exactly that.

At the same time, we also anticipate that should the rule of law and society in general, break down at a future time, then some of the quickly starving and deservedly panicked vast majority of the country are going to have no choice but to come after us and our stocks of food and demand we share with them.  Indeed, a demand that we share our food is probably close to a best case scenario!  Roving gangs of marauding looters who selfishly take all they can carry with them, and senselessly destroy anything they leave behind, is a far grimmer but also realistic future to consider.

Let’s think about the group of people who will pose the greatest threat to us in such a future situation.  They will be people with firearms, some skills, and who know to quickly evacuate the major cities and head out into the countryside.  These people will have the ability to survive at least to the point where they can then start to look at somehow creating a new living environment for the future.  These people – and while we don’t like it, we have to understand the motivation and accept the reality of it – will not hesitate to demand and require us to share what we have with them.  They might even demand we share our shelter as well as our food – they might say ‘there’s plenty of room in your retreat for us to join you’, and that’s assuming they’re as kind as to allow us the option to stay in what was formerly our retreat and share it with them!

Now think some more about the profile of this type of person.  While hopefully the truly lawless members of roving gangs who will gleefully and wantonly rape, pillage and plunder their way through the countryside are not people we come into daily contact with, this other type of person might well be people we already know.

If you think about it, we are describing ‘wanna be’ preppers, aren’t we.  People with a few spare cans of beans, an extra container of gas for their vehicle, some outdoor clothes, a firearm or two, and several boxes of ammunition.

We were guiltily reminded of that, ourselves, when a neighbor was proudly showing us his basement wine cellar.  To get to his wine cellar, we walked through a walled in semi-finished extension of his sub-grade basement, and at the end of it, we went through a door and into the wine cellar.  All the way through this extension, he had built shelving and it was reasonably full of stored food and assorted other things.  A great suburban prepper set-up, enough to get him through a week or two or three of problems – a Level 1, trending towards a Level 2 situation, in other words.

Good for him.

Two thoughts flashed through our mind.  The first was one of delight – ‘Aha!  A fellow prepper.  Wait till we impress him with what we have in our house, next door!’.  Sure, he had us beat when it came to wine collections, but we figured we were far ahead of the game with stored food and other supplies.

The second was a wry naughty thought ‘We’ll know where to go if we run out of supplies ourselves or if they’re not at home WTSHTF’ and accompanied by a subtle scan of what he had, looking also for any evidence of self-defence capabilities.

But then, the mirror image of the second thought hit us, and we realized ‘We have more stuff than him, and if we now show that all to him, he’ll know where to go when he runs out’.

We also realized that if we tell him about what we have, then the next time he proudly shows someone his wine cellar and they say ‘Wow, John, we never knew you had so much food stored down here’ then what will he say?  In a sense of false modesty, he might say ‘Well, if you think that’s a lot, you should see what Dave has next door’.

Not only will he know about our stored supplies, but so too, over time, will any number of other people, unknown to us.

So we held our silence and said nothing.  If things go bad in the future, we can group together with him – or not – on our terms, and in a controllable manner.

The same is even more true if you have a rural retreat.  You probably can’t and don’t want to obscure the fact you have a nice countryside second home, but have it planned so that if (when) you invite friends to come stay with you for a weekend, it looks like a generic regular country home, not a hardened retreat stocked full of supplies of every possible type.

Don’t boast about your ‘off-grid’ capabilities.  Play down how effective your solar cells are, and make them seem like a grid-tied system – ‘Yes, they help a bit, but they’re older generation and don’t make much power, and only do anything in the brightest sunlight anyway, plus the crazy way it is wired up, if the utility’s power goes down, ours goes down too’.  Have your storage rooms locked off and not obviously taking up lots of space.  Talk about how cold it gets in winter because it is poorly insulated.  And so on.

Another thing not to show would be any firearms you have, or perhaps, at least don’t show more than a normal number of firearms and a limited supply of ammunition.  If someone does decide to pay you a ‘surprise visit’ subsequently, it is better they think you are reasonably defenseless, unaware, and easy to surprise and overpower.  That way, they’ll be less stealthy and more overt when they appear on your doorstep.  But if they think you’re fully equipped with firearms and have the skills to use them effectively, they’ll seek to surprise you, or pick you off, one by one, in the fields.

Your plan should be to identify like-minded people who you might wish to invite to join you in the future, and to identify people who have some degree of preparedness.  But think carefully before revealing too much about your own situation any sooner than you must.  In a future chaotic collapse of everything, you just don’t know who your friends will be, and you want to be able to select such people on your terms, not on their terms.

Unless you have people who are equally invested in the success of your retreat, you don’t know what to expect from others.  People with greater capabilities than you might decide they want to grow their supplies by picking off smaller less strong retreats and their inhabitants, and for sure, people with less resource than you will be desperate to beg/borrow/steal whatever they can from wherever they can.

You can only plan on the support of people who are mutually invested in a shared success in the future where what is good for you is good for them and vice versa.  This might be adjacent retreat owners – by grouping together you create a stronger community and a shared regional defense force.  It might be selected friends and family who would have nothing if they weren’t a part of your group – but you always need to be careful, when inviting such people to join with you, that they don’t in turn bring along their friends, who in turn bring their friends, and so on, such that you’re not only overwhelmed with additional guests, but it becomes ‘their’ retreat by simple weight of numbers, rather than yours.

In the case of my neighbor, he’s sadly an unrealistic liberal.  Doesn’t like firearms, and if there’s a problem, he’ll probably not only volunteer to share his food, but will then of course insist that we volunteer to share our food too.  Would he fight to save himself, his family, and his provisions?  Almost certainly not – I can just hear him and his wife proclaiming ‘Nothing is worth sacrificing a human life for’ without realizing that by allowing their provisions to be taken from them, they have just sacrificed their own lives for no good purpose.

So now I know where to go if I run out of wine.  But he doesn’t know where to go when he runs out of food.  That’s the way I like it.

One other quick example.  The people several houses over are very like-minded folks, although they have little stored up as preps.  But WTSHTF, they’ll be the family I turn to for mutual support, not the neighbor with the wine.  The other family has what it takes to survive and win – they’re tough-minded realists who would be prepared to fight to protect themselves and those they are allied with.  But they don’t know we plan to invite them to come join forces with us if we’re somehow stranded in the town rather than able to get to our retreat.  We’ll tell them that if and when it becomes necessary and appropriate, and not before.

Until that time though, we’ve done a few things together – we’ve taken them to a local gun range and helped them with their skills, and we’ve discussed, over a few beers, what would happen if things went wrong.  So we’re laying the groundwork, but not revealing anything that would limit our options.

You should do the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topographic Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines of Sight – How Much is Enough?

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

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

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

Let’s look at the minimum safe range first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Two Strategies to Manage Your Clear Zone Risk and Requirement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lines of Sight vs Crops – a Problem and a Solution

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy Satellites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy Planes

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

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

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

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

Drones Too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolving Capabilities of Google and its Competitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update Now Published

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two general types of safe rooms.

Weather Related Safe Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

Defensive Safe Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Altered Safety Design Concept for Your Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Effective Type of Retreat Safety Strategy

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

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

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

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

We talk about prepper issues to do with tunnels here.

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

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

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

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

It is essential to skillfully conceal your tunnel exit.

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

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

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

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

Let’s quickly look at all three points.

The Need for an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Practicality of an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cost of an Escape Tunnel

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

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

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

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

Another Tunnel Purpose/Benefit

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

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

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

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

Tunnel Design and Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permits and Approvals For Your Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choosing and Obscuring Tunnel Exits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking the Security of Your Tunnel Exit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

Aug 272013
 
The powerful but uncommon .357 SIG in the middle, others are 9mm, 7.62 Tokarev, 10mm and .40 S&W.

The powerful but uncommon .357 SIG in the middle, others are 9mm, 7.62 Tokarev, 10mm and .40 S&W.

We all know about the dreadful ammo shortage that has plagued the country for the last nine months.  Less well-known is the reason for this – sure, a lot of people bought extra ammo after last December’s school shooting in CT, fearing new government restrictions, but the biggest reason for the continuing ammo shortage seems to be massive buying by the federal government.

You may have read about the billions of rounds of ammo being purchased by the Department of Homeland Security, who are buying more ammo than the US Army – and whereas the Army is fighting wars overseas, the DHS has no apparent reason for using ammo at all, other than training.

It is easy to shrug this off as just government overspending – a sad but far from uncommon event.  But then, once in a while, something comes along that makes you stop and wonder.  Here’s one such example.

The Transportation Security Administration has published a tender for the supply of 3.454 million rounds of .357 SIG pistol ammunition.  On the face of it, there’s nothing astonishing about that.  But – stop and think about it some more, and you’ll end up scratching your head until it bleeds, trying to understand why the TSA needs such a large supply of ammo.

The thing is this.  You’ve all seen TSA employees – they’re the people manning the screening stations in airports.  The TSA is a relatively new government department, formed as part of the knee-jerk panic responses after 9/11/2001, under the assumption that a government department could provide better airport security than could private contractors.  The main feature of ‘better’ seems to be ‘more hassle’ rather than ‘more secure’, alas, and the events of 9/11 were not a result of any security failure.  It was legal to take box-cutters on planes; the problem was not the box-cutters as such, but rather our ridiculous policy of cooperating and complying with hijacker demands that caused the problems of that day.

Anyway, here’s the thing.  Almost every one of the 55,000 TSA employees has no law enforcement powers, can not arrest people, and do not carry guns.  Sure, they like to dress up in fancy new semi-police style uniforms, and they wear police style badges, but they are not sworn peace officers.

Which brings us to our question.  What does the TSA need with 3.454 million rounds of .357 SIG pistol ammo, when its employees are not armed?

Can anyone answer that?  In what new way can we expect ‘our government to be here to help us’?

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.

Summary

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.

Mar 242013
 
These Cobra FRS/GMRS units are typical middle-of-the-road units.

These Cobra FRS/GMRS units are typical middle-of-the-road units.

In a future ‘grid down’ situation, your normal cell phones will almost certainly not be working.  These days we’ve grown so accustomed to being always in touch with everyone, no matter where we are or where they are, that we’ll almost certainly want to recreate some form of ubiquitous communications, at least with other members of our retreat community and possibly with friendly nearby neighbors, too.

There is a wide range of different types of radios that can give you this ability, ranging from little more than $10 each and up from there to $1,000+ each.  Many of these radio transceivers (ie a radio that both transmits and receives) require some sort of official FCC license to operate.  Some types of license simply involve paying a fee to the FCC, other types of license require you to pass a skills/knowledge test about radio theory and practice.  Other types of radio require no license at all.

The good news is that the types of radio that require no license at all (there are four main types – CB, MURS, FRS and GMRS) are generally the least expensive, most readily available, and probably all that you need for most of your survival requirements.  Sure, the fancy and expensive Ham and commercial radios might be more appealing, more powerful, and more functional, but unless you’re going to go through the necessary licensing steps to qualify for operating these types of radios (anyone can buy and own these radios without having to show or prove their licensing authority to operate them, but as soon as you press the transmit key, you’re committing a moderately serious offense if you aren’t already appropriately licensed) you’re best to leave them alone.

See the next section for why we strongly recommend you follow all FCC restrictions, requirements and regulations.

Don’t Break the FCC Licensing Laws

We always urge you to conform to all laws, even in a period ‘without rule of law’, because you don’t want to create any type of vulnerability, either before, during or after any type of Level 1/2/3 situation.  You might think ‘WTSHTF no-one is going to care if my radio is licensed or not’ but you’d only be partly right.

First of all, what happens prior to when things all go wrong?  How can you practice and rehearse for such situations with your radios without breaking the law if you don’t have the appropriate licenses?  You’ll definitely want to get familiar with your radios, and the coverage areas they provide you, and which channels are most free of interference; that will require extensive use of your radios long before any type of problem scenario.

Secondly, there will be patches of semi/pseudo law and order, even in the depths of a Level 2 or 3 situation.  If you’ve ever talked to a policeman, you know they boast ‘We can always arrest you for something’.  Maybe that’s true, but don’t make it any easier than unavoidable for them to find a reason to arrest you.

If you and the interim authorities get offside of each other (and we do foresee unavoidable tensions between the unprepared majority and the well prepared minority, with the former seeking any excuse or authority at all to confiscate food and supplies from the latter), you desperately don’t want to give them any sort of reason to confiscate any of your prepped supplies, and/or to ‘fine’ you or lock you up.

Thirdly, at the end of any such situation and with the return of normalcy, anyone you may have upset during the lawless period can now attack you – hopefully not physically, but definitely legally, using any of the laws that you may have broken during the crisis situation.

Can you rely on the grey suited faceless government bureaucrats – perhaps the same people who were going hungry while you were restricting your own limited supplies for your family – saying ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, they were tough times for us all, the important thing is you survived, never mind how many laws you broke in doing so’?

The Four Types of Unlicensed Radio Services Anyone Can Use

As we mentioned above, there are four main types of radio service which you can use without needing a license.  All of these are covered by Part 95 of the FCC’s regulations.

We recommend you concentrate on the FRS and GMRS type of radios, so let’s explain the differences between the four radio services and why FRS/GMRS is probably the best choice for most people.

CB Radio

You probably remember CB radios (CB stands for ‘Citizens Band’) from the 1970s – they became very popular after movies like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and many people had them in their cars.  But after only a brief period of general popularity, they faded back into obscurity and while they are still out there, and while they are still used by many truckers, these days most ‘normal’ people never have any contact with CB radios.

CB radios can have as good or even better range than FRS/GMRS radios when outdoors but not so good indoors (and are still basically limited by line-of-sight considerations), but they require very large antennas for good range (about 9′ as a good compromise length – a quarter wavelength).  This is practical at a ‘base station’ – ie in your retreat, it is possible in a vehicle, but is very much less practical in a portable radio – a ‘walkie talkie’.

Furthermore, over the last decade or more, radio manufacturers have lost interest in CB radio (there are fewer companies making them, fewer models available, and very little in the way of new models or feature), and there are not many high-end models available as portable sets.  That’s not to say you don’t still have a reasonable selection, as you can see from Amazon’s several pages of listings.

If you only wanted communications between vehicles and base stations, maybe CB radio is still a possibility, but why would you want to limit yourself to only base and vehicle services?  Whatever you use has to be useful in all three types of applications – base, mobile, and portable.

For the sake of completeness, we’ll tell you some more about CB radio.  It was established back in the 1940s, and originally was a licensed service.  In 1983 they became unlicensed (largely because during their surge of popularity in the 1970s, many people didn’t bother licensing them and it seems the FCC gave in to the inevitable), so now anyone can operate a CB radio without needing an FCC license.  The radios can be used for both business and personal communications.

There are 40 AM channels in a range from 26.965 MHz to 27.405 MHz (channel 9 – 27.065 MHz is an emergency calling channel, and channel 19 – 27.185 MHz, is a general ‘hailing’ channel to contact other people).  The channels from 36 – 40 are often used in a SSB form which gives the signal more range and power (all channels could be used in SSB mode but by convention only the upper five channels are used that way).

CB radios can have external antennas, and are limited to 4W in power, or 12W in SSB mode.  In years gone by, it was common to see a lot of illegally modified CB radios – typically either with too much transmitting power (some would go as high as 1,000 Watts) or tweaked for non-standard frequency operation.  Even now, with only a bit of searching, you could probably find ‘linear amplifiers’ for power boosting and radios capable of transmitting on non-official frequencies.  But if that appeals, maybe you should re-read the preceding section on keeping everything legal!

Here’s an FCC summary explanation of CB service.  For full details of any of the four types of service, you should click the link to their full Part 95 regulations.

MURS

The Multi-Use Radio Service, or MURS for short, is the newest of the four services.  It was established by the FCC in 2002.  There are five VHF FM frequencies (in a range from 151.820 MHz to 154.600 MHz) and they can be used for business or personal use, but can not be patched into the normal telephone system.

MURS radios are limited in power to 2W, and can have external antennas.  Repeaters are not allowed.

MURS is an okay alternative to FRS/GMRS, although with 2W maximum power, they may have more difficulty reaching their theoretical maximum (ie line of sight) range).  Unfortunately, there are very few MURS radios out there, and they tend to be more expensive than the FRS/GMRS radios, so we prefer to focus on FRS/GMRS to the exclusion of MURS.

Here’s the Amazon page of MURS radios.  Currently it seems there’s nothing less than $80 per radio, whereas the FRS radios can be had for as little as $10 each.

Here’s an FCC summary explanation of MURS service.

FRS

The FRS (Family Radio Service) was instituted in 1996.  The rules associated with it are designed to allow for only very limited range communications, which can be for either business or personal purposes.  The radios can not have external antennas, and are limited to a maximum power of 0.5W.

There are 14 FM different frequencies, the first seven of which are shared with GMRS radios.  They range from 462.5625 MHz to 467.7125 MHz.

Manufacturers have started offering FRS radios at amazingly low prices – it is not uncommon to see a pair of them being sold for $50 or less.  As you can see, Amazon has a lot of different FRS radios, with some as inexpensive as $20 a pair.

You will also see that the radios are being advertised as having range capabilities up to 36 miles.  Do not believe this nonsense claim.  Well, to be more specific, if you were up the top of a ship’s mast on the unobstructed ocean, or if you were on the top of a mountain, and looking over to a person that you could see (through a telescope) free of obstructions on the top of another ship mast or mountain, then maybe – just possibly maybe – you could get a signal to punch through.

But for the real world, with obstructions between you and the people you’re wanting to communicate with, you’ll probably get something less than a mile, and often very much less.

One more thing about these offensively incorrect statements about range capabilities.  Don’t think that a radio with a claimed range of 36 miles is better than one with a claimed range of 24 miles, or any other range.  Typically there are the same identical radio electronics inside the different models of FRS radio; the main difference is the packaging, the marketing hype, and the price.

So the good news about FRS is that the radios are very inexpensive.  The bad news is the radios are good for only very short-range communication.  But even the lack of range is a mixture of good and bad news.  You don’t want strangers, five miles away, to be able to listen in on your communications or even to know you’re out there at all.  If low powered FRS radios give you the range you need around your retreat property, but don’t reach much further, then that is a good rather than bad thing.

Also, with low transmitting power comes longer battery life.  There’s a lot to like about FRS radios, and you need to realize that sometimes short-range is a good rather than a bad thing.

Here’s an FCC summary explanation of FRS service.

GMRS

Yes, we’ve deliberately left what we view to probably be the best radio service until last.  The General Mobile Radio Service has the same 1940s origins as CB radio, and, the same as CB radio, has evolved over the years.  Although CB’s evolution has brought us to an easily understood point today, the same is not quite as true for GMRS, which is in a period of regulatory transition at present.

The Evolving History of GMRS

The distinctive thing about GMRS is that it uses similar, and in some cases, identical frequencies to the FRS radios, but usually at greater power and with fewer restrictions.  This meant that it didn’t take too long after the release of FRS frequencies in 1996 for manufacturers to start selling dual-purpose radios – higher power for GMRS and lower power if you switched the radio to its lower power setting for FRS.

But whereas FRS has always been a license-free service, back in 1996 GMRS required a license – either a business or a family license – to be used.  So the manufacturers were being slightly naughty selling radios that combined FRS and GMRS capabilities, and selling them at retail rather than through specialty radio stores, and with only the smallest of small print somewhere telling the purchaser that to use all the frequencies, and on high power, it was necessary to now go fill out a form and pay a license fee every five years to the FCC.  The five-year license fee ($85) is often very much more than the person spent to buy two or more of the walkie-talkie radios.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that lots of people bought the more powerful combo radios, and almost none of them bothered to get FCC licenses.  At first, the pre-existing GMRS licensees were appalled at their quiet uncongested ‘sensible’ channels suddenly getting shared with unregulated users, often young children just having fun in the back yard, and the FCC tried to enforce its licensing laws.

But it became plain to the FCC that, just like with CB radio licensing in the 1970s, this was an unwinnable fight, and what could it do, anyway?  Even the nastiest FCC official didn’t really think it fair to send a family – mom, dad, and the kids too – to federal prison for two years because they’d bought a pair of radios at Office Depot or Costco or Target or wherever, didn’t read all the pages of fine print, and were just simply having fun with them.  And the cost of trying to go after probably hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of law breakers was just impossible for even the federal government to consider.

So they unofficially gave up on enforcing the requirement for licenses, and in 2010 published a proposal to officially remove the licensing requirement for GMRS radios (and also to change power limits and some other things too).  Strangely, the proposal has languished somewhere in the FCC and is still pending, unresolved, nearly three years later, as we write this in March 2013.

So at present the theory says you need to buy an $85 five-year license to use GMRS radios, but the FCC no longer seems to be enforcing this.

The Present Situation with GMRS Radios

GMRS radios are allowed to transmit up to 50W of power, although we’re unaware of any handheld GMRS devices that do this (they’d eat through batteries tremendously quickly, and might be dangerous in terms of too-strong RF emissions too close to you).  Some of the base stations and mobile units do use this much power, though, and that really helps you punch your signal a bit further out, and through obstructions on the way.

GMRS radios can have external antennas, and can be used by either the licensee’s family or the employees of a licensed business.  We expect this will probably become ‘can be used for personal or business use’ once the requirement for licensing is removed.  You can’t connect a GMRS radio into your phone system.

We’ll talk more about range another time, but suffice it to say that while more transmitter power doesn’t always guarantee more range, if all other things are equal, more power can often help provide additional range out to the end of ‘line-of-sight’.  For a portable handheld transceiver and a short stubby antenna, with probably 1W or 2W of power, you’ll get similar or slightly better range than with an FRS unit.

Unique among these four radio types is permission to operate repeaters for GMRS radios.  This can massively extend the range of a GMRS based system, allowing it to reach out potentially 50 or more miles, depending on the topography of the area in which you live.

There are 23 FM frequencies assigned to the GMRS series.  Sixteen of these are in the form of eight frequency pairs for repeater operation, and the other seven frequencies are shared with FRS service.  Frequencies range from 462.5500 MHz to 467.7250 MHz.

There are many GMRS radios to choose from, ranging from ‘consumer’ grade units that are usually dual purpose FRS/GMRS units up to ‘prosumer’, professional and commercial grade units.  The consumer type dual purpose units cost little more than FRS-only radios, the high-end units can cost plenty more than $100 each.

There are two major points of differentiation between consumer and professional/prosumer/commercial units.  The first is the more expensive radios have better receiver circuits and can take external antennas – these capabilities will have more impact on your radio’s effective range than its power output.  The second is that the more expensive radios will be capable of operating in both ‘normal’ mode (what is termed ‘simplex’) and also in split mode, with different frequencies for sending and receiving, a mode which allows the radio to work with a repeater.

You can see Amazon’s extensive range of GMRS radios from the link.

As with the FRS radios, ignore the ludicrous claims of enormous ranges.  Remember also – don’t think that, whatever the range truly is, that because one radio costs $40 and claims a 30 mile range that it ‘must’ be better than a radio costing $30 and claiming a 20 mile range – they probably have identical circuitry inside.  More professional GMRS radios are typically sold by industrial and Ham radio manufacturers and are described as being in the 70cm band or UHF or will show the frequencies they can operate as ranging from somewhere below the start of the GMRS band to somewhere above the end of the GMRS band – sometimes as broad as 400 – 520 MHz.

Not all of these radios though are certified for use with GMRS service.  The FCC might have certified them for Ham radio service (Part 97 of their regulations) and for private land mobile radio services (Part 90) but perhaps the manufacturer didn’t request Part 95 certification too.  That may pose a slight ethical dilemma for you.

Become a Licensed Ham Radio Operator

If you want to be able to lawfully use more powerful and sophisticated radios (although, alas, they’ll be more expensive, too), if you’d like the flexibility of additional frequency bands (that fewer other people will be likely to be accessing or using too), and to have additional capabilities and longer ranges, then you probably should become a Ham radio operator.

The good news is that – these days – there’s no need to learn Morse code.  For a basic ‘Technician’ Ham license you need to learn about some aspects of radio theory, law and operation, and then sit a test with 35 multi-choice questions for which you must get 26 correct.

You can see a list of about 400 multi-choice questions from which the 35 questions will be semi-randomly chosen in advance, making it easy to prepare for the test, and easy to pass it.  There are two higher levels of Ham license you can also obtain, after passing two more exams.

We have a separate article that tells you all you need to know about how to become a licensed Ham radio operator.

Encryption, Scrambling, and Codes

The FCC forbids the use of encryption or scrambling (two words that essentially mean the same thing) or talking in code on these public access frequencies.  But it does allow people to use codes such as the popular ’10 Code’, and as you’ll see if you do some research on the 10 codes, there are an enormous number of different codes, and some numbers mean different things in different areas for different user groups.  Yes, 10-4 pretty much universally means ‘Okay, understood, agreed’ but beyond that, things get more arcane and individualized.

There are some walkie-talkies with built-in encryption capabilities.  You can legally buy these, but you can’t legally enable the encryption feature.  That might sound stupid, but – hey – you can legally buy a sports car that will do 200 mph even if you’re not allowed to drive it at that speed anywhere.

If you want to draw attention to yourself, then start using encryption.  That’s a sure way to end up with an unwelcome visit from an FCC Radio Inspector (there are legions of self-appointed ‘spies’ – Hams who monitor radio communications eagerly looking for violators they can report to the FCC for enforcement action).  But if you want a low level of security you could use your own set of 10 codes, and you could also use some obfuscations – for example, maybe you could flip any bearings you give and say a number 180 degrees different, and maybe you could change numbers in some way too.  ‘I see ten people six miles south of us’ might mean ‘I see five people three miles north of us’.

Summary

Some type of wireless communication service and strategy will be close to essential for life after TEOTWAWKI.

Ham radio gear is probably the best choice for the truly dedicated prepper, but if you have less time, less budget, and less technical skill, then GMRS radios are probably the second best choice.

Please see our detailed two-part Buyer’s Guide to Walkie Talkies for information on how to choose the most appropriate units for your needs and budget.