Why You Should KISS Emergency Preparedness

Prep & Survival: Tactics

Why You Should KISS Emergency Preparedness

By Patrice Lewis, Idaho

How many of you are confident the economy is solid, your employment is secure, the value of the dollar is sound and the power grid is permanent?

It’s no wonder the subject of preparedness has gone mainstream. We’re not stupid. We know something’s amiss in our beloved nation.

Americans have grown up accustomed to Just-In-Time distribution, smoothly operating roads and services, and an abundance of resources such as food, clean water and electricity. But the evidence of our own eyes and pocket books has begun to make us suspect that these services and resources may not be as stable as we’ve been led to believe. It’s the realization of what life would be like without those goods and services that is driving the preparedness movement, which is a movement I applaud to the highest degree. The more people who are prepared to take care of themselves in the event of disaster, the better.

However there is a modest downside now that prepping has gone mainstream. Experts are becoming involved. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of businesses that have sprung up to supply every possible whim of the new, more affluent preppers, everything from an impressive array of freeze-dried food with a 25-year shelf life, to luxurious underground bunkers outfitted with all the comforts of home.

With the increase in interest among younger, more tech-savvy preppers, there is a natural desire to apply high-tech solutions to issues of personal preparedness. It’s a lot more fun, after all, to figure out how the latest whiz-bang technology can be used in case of service failures.

I happen to think all attempts to improve one’s self-sufficiency are a good thing. But while technology has provided preppers with many efficient and creative innovations, it’s tempting to think expensive, high-tech options are always superior to the low-tech tools and skills used by our ancestors.

Many people have moved off-grid and therefore have a variety of alternative high-tech amenities already in place (or planned) for day-to-day living. This discussion is not an attack on technology as a whole. There’s a difference between having systems in place to provide everyday modern comforts—whether conventional or alternative—and systems meant as backups to carry us through stressful times when modern amenities may not be available.

Make no mistake, I love modern technology. But there’s no question cheap electricity and abundant grocery stores breed dependency on a system that may not be so dependable after all.

Incidentally, whenever I address the subject of low-tech living, I make frequent references to generic pioneer ancestors. The reason I do this is because I hold them as a useful standard of knowledge and skills to which we should aspire. These are people who created homes and livelihoods out of virgin wilderness with a minimum of hand tools. Many of the solutions the pioneers used to meet their needs had the advantage of long-term dependability. If something low-tech broke, they could either fix it or make another.

A TALE OF TWO PREPPERS

My family has been “prepping” for a number of years now. We were already situated on 20 acres when we decided this route, and we’ve tried to look at every possible contingency to brace ourselves for what may be a bumpy future. We live in a conventional on-grid home, and because going off-grid was beyond our budget, we’ve opted to explore the most viable and frugal options to address what I call the Seven Core Areas of Preparedness (food, water, heat, lighting, sanitation, medical and protection).

Most of the time, these options are low-tech, meaning they’re something the pioneers might have used as they set up homesteads across America. Our logic is these solutions are time-tested, less likely to fail, and relatively inexpensive. In short, low-tech solutions give us a lot of bang for our buck.

We embarked on a long-term goal of food self-sufficiency. After many years of work, so far we grow or raise our own beef, chicken, eggs, fruit, most (but not all) vegetables and most dairy. On a shoestring budget, we’ve built barns, fences, chicken coops, a pond, and a huge garden.

Over the years we’ve assembled a collection of low-tech tools and equipment. This includes scythes (for wheat, which we’ve grown and harvested by hand), bucksaws, mauls, carpentry tools, a pressure canner, a wood stove, a wood cookstove, water storage and filters, kerosene lamps, etc.

We’ve taught ourselves skills such as canning, carpentry, gardening, wood cutting, drip irrigation, fencing, construction, milking, cheesemaking, scything, and animal husbandry. We’ve made endless mistakes and labored to fix them. When we find a solution that works, we make sure we have spare parts or the means to repair or improve upon that solution.

Our logic is, should the power grid go down, we will be able to transition to our low-tech backups. We’re aware these options are more work, but they’re also dependable.

We know some people (the “Smith” family) with similar circumstances—20 acres, a middle-class income, and a conventional on-grid home—who also decided to become preppers. But they’ve taken the opposite tact. They’ve embraced high technology to address those seven core areas. I wish the following description of the Smith family was an exaggerated caricature, but I assure you it’s not.

The logic behind the Smith’s high-tech preps is they do not want anything like a grid-down situation to interrupt their current comfortable lifestyle. They do not want to go without conveniences such as hot showers, bright lights, refrigeration, or flush toilets. If “the end of the world as we know it” (TEOTWAWKI) hits, they want to carry on exactly as before.

Accordingly they’ve gone into debt to the tune of approximately $65,000 to install a complete solar array, deep-cell batteries, windmill, dome greenhouse and an aquaponics system. While on the surface these may seem like sensible investments, I’ve seen the difficulties and limitations the Smiths have faced as they’ve installed these projects.

The Smiths do not want to learn the skills, or acquire the tools, to live a low-tech lifestyle because they are certain their high-tech solutions will insulate them from such inconveniences. In other words, they are investing in high-tech stuff at the expense of learning low-tech skills. Why bother, after all, if technology will save them?

The Smiths built a greenhouse and an aquaponics system to raise tilapia, a fast-growing tropical fish. (By the way, we’re located about two hours from the Canadian border.) They are convinced aquaponics is the long-term permanent solution to their food needs. While the idea behind aquaponics is fairly sound, and the Smiths have labored hard to get the system up and running, it is entirely dependent on heating the greenhouse and tanks with propane to keep everything alive during our bitterly-cold northern winters. Their system will only last as long as  their propane.

After several years of tweaking and improving these systems, I think the Smiths finally realized their greenhouse and 1,500-gallon tank of fish will not feed the family for more than a week or two, even under the best conditions. Belatedly they came to understand the importance of a garden. So this past summer (not spring, summer) they plowed up some ground for vegetables. They planted their potatoes in early July and did not install any means to water them (they assumed the potatoes would get enough water to grow from moisture in the ground—we had been in drought conditions for two months). They were disappointed when the result of their efforts was five pounds of potatoes they could have purchased for $2 at the local grocery store.

During a cold spring windstorm last year, we lost power for seven hours. It was not a problem for us—we kept the woodstove purring, had the oil lamps lit, cooked dinner on the wood cookstove, and used our emergency five-gallon bucket toilet when nature called. The Smiths, I kid you not, lost power too (despite their solar panels and batteries) because something went wrong with their array. But because they didn’t have so much as a candle in the house (why did they need candles when their solar system would supply everything they needed?), they sat in a cold dark house with no means to cook dinner or stay warm.

After the power came back, they tried to remedy why their solar system failed, but they opted not to purchase any backups such as candles or kerosene lamps, because next time everything would work flawlessly, by golly.

I give the Smiths a lot of credit for trying their best to become self-sufficient, and we’ve applauded some of their wiser decisions (installing a wood cookstove, for example); but it’s painful to watch them go deeply into debt to acquire tools and solutions that are not dependable, repairable, or (dare I say it) renewable.

My argument is, if they’re going to go into more than $65,000 of debt to become more prepared, how much more could they have done if they’d opted to go low-tech?

Imagine what $65,000 could buy (remember, they already have a house and 20 acres). They could have decades of firewood. They could have endless kerosene lamps and barrels of kerosene. They could have composting toilets and an outhouse. They could have an enormous garden, livestock and the infrastructure to keep them going for years. They could have hand pumps, water filters, and other non-electric means of purifying water. They could have a pharmacy’s worth of medical supplies and an army’s worth of firearms and ammunition.

Instead they have a solar array that fails frequently and an aquaponics system that provides a few meals of fish per year and a handful of vegetables. They have no backup systems at all—no lighting, no means of basic sanitation, no sustainable food production. In our prepper-oriented community, the Smiths are regarded with something akin to pity.

I realize this is an extreme example, but it has proven useful in reinforcing my opinion that low-tech solutions are viable and sensible.

KISSING EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS

The point of this article is to encourage you to keep the KISS principle in mind when prepping: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The more complicated the solution, the less likely it is to work flawlessly and forever.

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking “simple” means “easy.” It doesn’t. Using a woodstove to heat your home in the winter is simple. It doesn’t break down, it always works, it doesn’t require electricity…but let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to turn up a thermostat and fire up the central heating. Using a wood stove means you have to obtain wood, split it into manageable pieces, stack those pieces out of the weather, start the stove early in the morning, stoke the stove periodically throughout the day, and deal with ash and splinters. None of this is easy. But it’s very, very simple.

But technophiles always see a problem as an opportunity to indulge in all sorts of pricey, complicated systems—“toys for boys,” pardon the stereotype.

Pioneer methods are for pansies. The more expensive and technical the solutions to their basic needs, the better.

But the technophiles are missing the big picture. Almost invariably, high-tech solutions are complicated, require continuous maintenance (often by professionals), necessitate specialized parts, and are prone—simply because of their complexity—to breaking down. For the cost of a solar array or even a generator, I can buy a whole lotta beans, bullets and Band-Aids.

Remember, the more moving parts something has, the more likely it is to break or malfunction. Unless you have the knowledge and spare parts to fix what’s broken (and let’s face it, many technophiles don’t), it might be better to ensure that you have multiple low-tech backup options available. While high-tech stuff can be wonderful, you also have to be practical and realistic.

Another thing to think about is that blazing lights and a noisy generator draw attention. If you have the only brightly lit house—the envy of your neighbors!—then you might attract more than envy…and more than neighbors. Just saying.

Flooding in Washington state made getting supplies in and out more difficult.
Flooding in Washington state made getting supplies in and out more difficult.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SKILLS

One of my frequent laments is what I call the “death of knowledge.” For thousands of years of civilization, mankind has honed hundreds of survival skills. What bugs me is this: We’ve forgotten thousands of years’ worth of skills in less than three generations. Should the grid ever fail, the loss of those skills could prove fatal to many.

It’s easy to guess why these skills have been lost as modern technology became widespread. Low-tech skills require more time and more work, and are less efficient.

The knowledge required to use low-tech tools is often overlooked among preppers. Low-tech living can be a surprisingly difficult prospect, mostly because few of us have grown up learning the necessary skills at our parents’ knees. With rare exceptions (except perhaps among Countryside readers), your average urban dweller isn’t called upon us to sew on a treadle machine, cook on a wood cookstove, milk a cow, cut and split firewood by hand, build without power tools, or repair anything from a shoe to a window screen.

There’s no doubt modern methods are usually highly efficient—a combine harvests wheat far more efficiently than hand-scything (take it from someone who knows)—but it also means there is an enormous wealth of skills that we’ve lost in the last century.

If modern conveniences become unavailable, we’d have to get by on our own. Can you imagine how helpless we would be if we were teleported back to the days of the pioneers? You and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to “make do.” Our pioneer forefathers (and mothers) had a staggering variety of knowledge that has largely been lost today. They could cook (truly from scratch), sew, shoot, preserve food, and a zillion other things we’ve let lapse over the last century of easy living.

The problem with these kinds of skills is they take time to learn…and the time not to learn them is when the bleep has hit the fan and people are scared and panicky. If you’re coping with a long-term power outage and need to preserve the food in your chest freezer before it rots, are you going to wait until then to teach yourself how to can?

“Skills” are more important than “stuff” most of the time; yet “stuff” is what most people think of when they get into prepping. We invest too much in things and not enough in education. Knowledge is of limited use without the proper tools and equipment; but tools are use-less without the knowledge of how to use them. Both are important.

SENSIBLE COMPROMISES

And yet, people have to balance low-tech solutions against whatever physical limitations they may have. Many low-tech solutions are low-tech because they’re labor-intensive, so they won’t work for everyone. To someone who is elderly, disabled, or in poor health, livestock and gardening might be beyond their physical abilities, in which case those MREs and freeze-dried foods are a smart resource.

But physical limitations aside, too often we avoid low-tech solutions because of the workload involved. Even people in robust health often don’t think in terms of choosing low-tech options because it’s such hard work.

True story: A couple of years ago we grew a half-acre wheat field as an experiment. While we used a tractor to break up the soil, the rest of the work was done by hand. We sowed by hand, we scythed by hand, we raked by hand, we bundled into sheaves by hand, we threshed by hand, we winnowed by hand, and we ground the wheat into flour by hand (well, okay, we used a hand-operated grain grinder, but you get the point). It was a tremendous amount of work that gave us a deep appreciation for what early farmers did as a matter of course. Nor is it an experiment we’re anxious to repeat unless we have to.

The point is, not everyone has the physical ability (or frankly the interest) to engage in such tough activities. So don’t. Prepare yourself to handle things commensurate with your abilities…but don’t overlook the fact that low-tech living is almost always more labor-intensive than high-tech.

DON’T OWN STUFF YOU CAN’T FIX

One of the problems with our luxurious modern society is we will do anything and spend whatever it takes so we will never be deprived of our creature-comforts. If the power is out, we still want our hot showers, bright lights and flush toilets.

But our pioneer forefathers didn’t have those luxuries and they mostly got along. I’m not saying they didn’t stink or experience discomfort using an outhouse in freezing weather, but that was just the way things were.

If the time comes when utilities are unavailable and our lives revert (temporarily or long-term) to life without modern amenities, then we can’t expect to keep our creature comforts at the same level. Remember this: Ultimately it’s better to learn to live with less than to be dependent on more.

One of the dangers of technophiles is they often can’t fix the stuff they buy. Of course I could be wrong—many people are technologically savvy, in which case I recommend a stash of replacement parts for if/when an item breaks. But otherwise, be careful of owning stuff you can’t fix.

If your prepping efforts depend on high-tech things such as generators, solar panels, windmills, pumps, and communications devices—and then something goes wrong—what will you do if service experts or parts aren’t available?

We can’t be too purist about the notion of only owning stuff we can fix. I don’t have the faintest clue how to fix a computer, yet our family owns several. Ditto for the car, the well pump, and the chain saw. These items are useful and valuable and help make our lives easier and more productive. But arguably they’re not critical to our survival. If they were knocked out of commission, we have low-tech backups so we won’t be hungry, thirsty, sitting in the dark and unable to stay warm.

RULE OF THREE

Even those currently living off-grid know the wisdom of having  the Rule of Three in place—essentially backups to your backups. If your solar panels fail, have a generator. If your generator fails, have a woodstove and oil lamps.

The same applies to lower-tech options: make sure you have backups to your backups, or at least multiple versions of the same useful, dependable item. If your Aladdin oil lamp breaks, make sure you have a regular oil lamp ready to light. Lay in a good supply of candles as well. And don’t forget the matches.

Now let’s face it, by no stretch of the imagination are oil lamps anywhere near as bright as incandescent bulbs or CFLs powered by solar panels or a generator. But so what? Is it necessary to have home lighting so bright that you’re forced to squint? Prior to electricity, the world was a much darker place; but it’s better to have a candle to light than to sit around in the dark when your generator runs out of fuel.

Lantern & Candles
Lantern & Candles

BLOOMING WHERE YOU’RE PLANTED

Since everyone’s circumstances are different, it’s important to make whatever concessions are necessary depending on your health, finances and physical location.It’s not easy going low-tech in modern houses. The most obvious low-tech solution for heating, for example, is a wood stove…a solution that’s difficult in the suburbs (where will you get your wood?) or impossible in the city (high rise apartments frown on wood stoves).

In our modern culture, and with the vast ignorance we have about low-tech living, the best we can hope for is a blend of high- and low-tech answers. I’m not about to give up the convenience of flashlights (a high-tech gizmo) in favor of a hurricane lamp if I’m trying to find out what kind of predator is harassing our livestock at midnight. But if my flashlight fails, at least a hurricane lamp is available.

The moral of the story is this: Don’t indulge only in high-tech solutions at the expense of their low-tech alternatives. Even folks who regularly live off-grid understand the need for backups to their backups in the form of kerosene lamps, simple water purification systems and more.

As you acquire more skills and the equipment necessary to tackle low-tech living, you may discover a lovely side-effect: a sense of accomplishment. Low-tech living is harder, requires more knowledge, and is sometimes messy; but it can also be soul-satisfying, peaceful, and fun. And if you get used to low-tech living now, your learning curve will be less and your pocketbook will thank you.

Prepping isn’t a destination, it’s a lifestyle. In this high-tech world, I prefer to take refuge in a lower-tech standard of living that will serve us equally well in both normal and emergency times. As someone once said, “Reject convenience and select inconvenience now. It will help in adjusting to life without later.”

So before you rush out and buy $50,000 worth of solar panels and a room full of deep cycle batteries, ask yourself whether there’s a simpler solution to your survival needs. If you still think that those panels are the best bang for your prepper-buck, then go for it! But don’t forget that if something goes wrong…well, it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. So make sure you have a few candles in stock.

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