This information is for the average person who lives in a suburban or urban area and has no survival skills, no forested mountain retreat, and no advance warning of a disaster.
It isn’t for a situation out of a survivalist novel where people start growing their own food and rebuilding society from scratch, not that that couldn’t happen. What is it for then? A world war, EMP attack, major natural disaster, cosmic event (e.g. meteor strike), airborne or waterborne pandemic, economic catastrophe coupled with extreme social unrest, or nuclear strike or war far enough away that it doesn’t kill you but exposes you to fallout and/or disables the power grid. None of those things may ever happen, but I think ‘prepping’ has gone mainstream enough that few people are laughing the topic out of the room any longer. Our economy depends on a fragile, complex chain of daily, global transactions that could be disrupted in a variety of ways and cause disorder for a significant period of time.
Preparations for disasters should be proportional to the risk that the disaster will occur. There is a middle ground between doing absolutely nothing and building a self-sufficient, concealed compound in the middle of nowhere, but unfortunately most people remain at the extremes: they either recognize the disturbing threats facing humanity and overreact (or maybe they’re doing exactly the right thing, who knows), and the ‘prepper’ lifestyle takes an overweighted part of their lives, or they write them off completely. Dramatically improving your level of preparedness doesn’t have to mean enrolling in bushcraft camp or joining a militia, but just buying a few things on the internet.
While my personal bet is that none of the above scenarios- i.e. ‘the worst’ – will happen in full bloom and on a national scale in the next few decades, I think the chance that they will is high enough to call for baseline preparation, the cost of which amounts to no more than a few days’ wages for the average American and about one day of time. Most of it can be accomplished by one person in an hour of online shopping and a five-minute supermarket detour, and requires little to no training or upkeep, the downfall of many contingency plans. Almost none of the items listed below depend on having others, so any that you buy will help. Many could be useful for outdoor activities, general home security, and minor emergencies.
If America is attacked covertly or overtly or is subjected to a disaster, I don’t believe chaos will reign particularly long. The country has too much in terms of infrastructure, resources, institutions, and an educated population to let it go to waste. If a disaster event is staged by insiders or outside parties, the goal will probably be to achieve the desired change (such as acceptance of a global government or military) via a brief and severe shock into submission (likely from food and water shortage or threat thereof), perhaps in the form of a faked event that did not even happen, as discussed in a previous post, rather than any scorched earth tactics. However, the latter route might be taken to varying degrees, so some primitive survival considerations should be included in any plan.
Basic Strategy in a Disaster
The hypothetical disaster scenario has some or all of the following conditions:
1) The electricity and water supply will not be working for at least a week
2) Food distribution will be disrupted for at least a week (supermarkets collectively carry about three days worth of food for the local population)
3) Banks, ATMs, and credit card networks will be shut down for at least a week
4) Internet and phone service will be down for at least a week
If you are able to leave quickly and things seem very bad in your area, and you are comfortable camping for long periods, have basic gear, and the weather permits, consider driving as far as you feel you need to from civilization, and assuming you don’t have access to a rural home, set up a concealed camp somewhere near a water source, and don’t leave until things normalize. Map a driving or biking route ahead of time that does not involve highways. 9 out of 10 times, camping in a secluded area will be safer than all but the most remote and concealable or defensible of homes (and if you have bad neighbors, living in the country could be far more dangerous than hiding in a town or city. In short, it could arguably be sitting duck vs. needle in haystack). A downside is you may be cut off from help and information as the situation develops. If driving won’t work and you don’t have bikes, consider walking (you can cover 20 to 40 miles in a day on flat ground, 80+ on a bike). You may choose to stay, perhaps for the following reasons:
1) You can’t leave because everyone is trying to leave at the same time and you do not want to get stuck in gridlock or run out of gas, or you are physically unable to leave.
2) You have nowhere else to go, and you aren’t confident in your ability to survive outdoors.
3) You don’t want to go to an emergency center or shelter of some kind, you just want to protect your property, and/or you feel staying put is safer than leaving (and it may very well be).
Whether you stay or go, all you will need in this plan is water to drink and soak foods, which you should be able to get enough of in the first few minutes. You will technically not need to make a fire, use electricity, leave your home, or even move much. You’d need to cook with a camp stove at least once a day, although you could eat soaked foods (soaking is required for legumes) for a few days if necessary.
If you stay:
Step 1: If the water supply is not shut down or compromised, fill two 100-gallon bathtub water tanks (few people will probably do this before you, and there should be enough residual water in the system to fill the tanks even if water utilities are down) and move them to your hiding spot if you are able. If there’s enough water, fill large trash cans also. Once it becomes available, set one can at your downspout to collect rainwater the next time it rains. If water lines are down or contaminated, bring water tanks and/or trash cans to the nearest pool, creek, or body of water and fill them up, then boil the water later and/or allow excess chlorine to evaporate.
Step 2: If things are bad enough, consider trashing your own home so that it looks looted (leave door ajar, break window, scatter items, hide TVs and valuable objects, etc).
Step 3: Stay inside and as discreet as possible. Set unstable objects near entry points that will fall and alert you to a break-in. Locking the home down and making your presence obvious could result in a siege scenario, especially if you live in a rural area and are thought to have resources.
Protection & Survival Tools: $375 (for 4 people)
2 canisters bear spray: $64 (also at sporting goods or gun stores) (see also regular pepper spray, $11)
Marine signal horn (to alert others you may be cooperating with and scare intruders): $17
Mossberg 88 shotgun: $190 (and/or Marlin Model 60 rifle, $160)
2 large hunting knives ($32), 1 machete ($15), 1 tomahawk ($22), 1 axe ($20) 1 crowbar ($7): $95
Ammunition: $40 (see also)
Within 10 feet, guns are inferior to hand weapons in a do-or-die situation, although they work well as a psychological deterrent. If confronted in close quarters, bear spray (much longer range and wider spray stream than regular pepper spray) and/or the threat of lethal hand weapons would be formidable enough to ward off most threats without actually using force. Most looters would just be looking for low-hanging fruit (abandoned properties, and the possessions of the 87% of NJ households who do not own a gun and have in many cases little to no means of self-defense) and wouldn’t want a fight to the death. The marine horn alone (extremely loud) would scare many people into thinking they may soon be cornered and cause them to run away. See bottom for more details on guns. It probably goes without saying, but this isn’t meant to cast fellow human beings as enemies or faceless ‘looters,’ just to recognize that we live in a densely populated society whose economy can easily be disrupted, which could result in shortages where there simply isn’t enough to go around and using deadly force in defense of self and loved ones could conceivably be the only option.
2 months of food (1,850 calories/day), water, medicine, and ‘entertainment’ for 4 people: $525
120 lbs white rice, $60 (200,000 calories; indefinite shelf life. Brown rice has limited shelf life) (Goya or discount supermarket brand, e.g. Aldi)
60 lbs lentils, $60 (100,000 calories; indefinite shelf life, i.e. 30+ years)
60 lbs instant oats, $55 (105,000 calories, 3-year shelf life) (indefinite if canned with oxygen absorbers, or consider rotating)
2L olive oil, $12 (16,000 calories, 2-year shelf life)
30 lbs canned wild salmon (180 small servings; 22,000 calories; 5-year shelf life), $75
500-count multivitamin: $16
1 lb Himalayan salt (important to prolong hydration) $6 or 1 lb table salt $1
1/2 lb black pepper $8
Assorted spices, $3
1 lb sugar $3, or 1 lb honey, $5
Instant coffee, $3
2 WaterBob 100-gallon bathtub water storage tanks: $40
Life Straw water filter: $19
Camp stove: $14
Butane canisters: $22
Large box matches: $5
Peroxide and rubbing alcohol: $7
Cotton balls (first-aid and tinder): $5
First-aid kit: $14
Sewing kit, safety pins: $12
Campsuds soap: $10
Toilet paper: $5
100-ft, Paracord, expandable to 700 feet: $8
Maglite 6-cell flashlight (doubles as baton) plus batteries, $40, or regular flashlight $10
3 packs potassium iodide tablets (modest fallout protection; southern NJ is a somewhat low-risk area): $18 (see below for more)
2 dollies to move heavy items (double as cart base if walking or biking): $24 (Harbor Freight or other hardware store) (see also)
Wind-up radio with flashlight and phone charger bank: $20
Deck of cards, dice, notebooks and pens, books (if you leave): $10
Potential add-ins for outdoor survival or worst-case scenarios, $460:
Encyclopedia of Country Living: $18
Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of North America: $14
SAS Survival Guide: $9
Ponchos, 10-pack: $12
2 mylar-lined tarps: $30
4 Bivvy emergency sleeping bags (see also): $52
Military entrenching spade: $40
Folding saw: $20
2.5-lb club hammer and box long nails: $16
Magnesium firestarter (with whistle): $8
Wetfire tinder: $5
Headlamp with extra batteries: $17 (see also)
Bag Balm (antiseptic, firestarter): $8
Duct tape: $5
100 ft steel wire: $3
Camouflage netting: $32
Slingshot: $10 (absurdly, illegal in NJ due to typo, unless owned for ‘explainable lawful purpose’ e.g. hunting, sport) (see also: 1) (similar for large knives e.g. camping, whittling, cutting boxes, food prep)
Small fishing net: $15
Fishing line, hooks, bobber, sinkers: $15 (see also pole & reel)
Mosquito net: $15
Better-quality compass: $19
2 Nalgene bottles: $20
Jumbo contractor bags (waterproofing, collecting, misc needs): $10
4 respirator masks and safety goggles: $30
Animal trap (for domestication, e.g. rabbits, or trapping): $23
Seed potatoes: on hand
Small kettle, pot, and strainer basket (see also): on hand
On survival tools and books: everyone should have some idea, if only a vague, theoretical one, of how to be an Indian, or at least a caveman (or otherwise have a physical book on the subject), not just for potential practical use but also for wisdom’s sake and out of respect for those who came before us. Among other things this means knowing how to build a basic shelter, identify and prepare the most common edible wild plants (e.g. dandelions, nettle, clover, acorns, tree cambium and syrup, maple seeds) and bugs (most ants, earthworms, crickets), field dress animals and tan hides, find and fashion stones for rudimentary tool-making (axe, hammer, grinder) and cooking (flat rocks for frying, hot rocks for boiling and shelter heating). There’s always the possibility, no matter how remote, that civilization may ‘reset’ and we will have to return to living in nature, or if not, that we might have to turn to nature to supplement our diets. For related information on Youtube, these are some of the better channels: Primitive Technology (see also), Outsidefun1, Trapper Jack.
On food and water: rice and legumes eaten together form the cheapest complete protein you can buy. Lentils are better than beans because they are higher in protein and lower in fiber. You don’t want to have to run to the bathroom every hour. Brown rice spoils much faster than white rice. Store bulk foods in airtight containers with oxygen absorbers in a cool, dry place. Rather than bother with canning or rotating you are probably better off spending the $100 or so every 5 years to repurchase perishable items, or replacing them with longer shelf-life foods. Salmon and mackerel, the cheapest canned animal proteins, are relatively low in mercury and are good sources of vitamin D, omega 3 fats, and cholesterol, important for keeping nourished and maintaining mental clarity. Mackerel has a slightly higher fat content, salmon more protein. If rationing for two months you could aim for three meals a day: a breakfast of oatmeal with honey, a small lunch of rice and lentils, and a big dinner of rice, lentils, and fish (with salad of backyard greens if available). Calorie needs assume you are hunkering down and doing minimal work. In desperate circumstances, this amount of food could prevent starvation for closer to 4 months. Unless money is less of an object, ‘official’ storable food is not strongly recommended. The above foods provide 450,000 calories for $262, or 5 cents per 100 calories, which is under $1/day per person. Leading lower-priced companies (examples: 1, 2) charge 14 to 42 cents and up per 100 calories. Not exactly a sky-high price, but considering you may never use the foods you want to keep expenses as low as possible. Plus, the above foods can be purchased locally with cash rather than ordering online and paying for shipping.
You’d need approximately one gallon of water a day for cooking or soaking rice and lentils, leaving a half gallon a day for drinking and any personal washing. Rainwater can supplement your stored water.
This list is nothing particularly special, but if you didn’t feel like thinking about what to buy and were unsure of a budget, here you go. Obviously it’s possible to be far better prepared and more comfortable, but this is a lower-budget starting point. Not much research was done into pricing and it’s likely possible to get better deals. Almost everything is from Amazon, and was selected based on price and reviews. Buying these items separately is far more economical than pre-packaged duffle bags that contain powdered foods that need more preparation, often contain very low-quality tools, and are generally incomplete and less geared towards home-based survival than camping and woods survival. The focus here is on material preparations, but having a plan to cooperate with others is equally important. Just as we were told when we were kids that families should have a plan in place for a fire, we should also have a plan in case of a large-scale disaster.
Assuming you have almost nothing listed, the cost for all three ‘packs’ is about $1300 for four adults. Two months’ food for children and any other additional people costs $55 each (cost of food-month per person: $27.50). If you have some extra food to replace one of the bulk food items and have a few other items on hand, you could save $100-200. For one person the cost comes to around $500 if single items are purchased and sizes and quantities reduced, and probably about $800 for two people. If you only have $50 or $100 to spend, start with a water tank and bulk food and build from there.
Again, I think that none of these things happening soon is more likely than not, but the chance that they will is far enough from zero to warrant taking some steps to protect oneself. Even if emergency supplies are never used, being prepared makes us more independent as a people and less likely to be scared and bullied around by the establishment.
Note on guns
To get a gun in NJ, you need to apply for a firearms purchaser ID card at your local police department up to 6 months in advance (it’s supposed to be done within 30 days, but some towns take much longer. $5 application fee, lifetime permit). There are no special licenses needed for rifles or shotguns. Shotguns have a big edge for close-quarters home defense and hunting birds and big game. The Remington 870 ($350) is another pump shotgun that has a sturdier build than the Mossberg 88 and is widely used by police and military, but both are of acceptable quality and do the same thing. If your goal is preparedness on a low budget, you are better off getting both guns listed for the same cost as the Remington. As for .22 rifles, such as the above Marlin Model 60 ($160), they are still lethal at any reasonable distance but are smaller, lighter, more accurate, and better for small game hunting and longer-range shooting than shotguns, and use much cheaper ammo. Another high-quality .22 is the Ruger 10/22 ($235). The Model 60 is cheaper and more accurate, while the 10/22 is more customizable and has a higher potential ammo capacity. If desired, the tactical conversion package of the 10/22 has a more intimidating look than the classic wood stock. As far as handguns go, pistols can jam, especially cheaper ones. Get a foolproof revolver like the Rock Island Armory M200 ($200) instead. Highest-reliability semi-auto pistols will cost $400+. An AR-15 or AK-style rifle is the most versatile for defense, but they cost $600+. Only purchase if you are also able to cover all of the other bases. For protection and overall utility, a pump shotgun is probably the best value. More on NJ gun laws here. If you don’t want to buy a gun, another option is a crossbow. They’re legal without a license (as are swords), small, lethal, and require almost no training, but you only get one shot.
Optional: $300 tiny fallout shelter, ready in 2 to 4 hours
Contrary to popular belief, a nearby nuclear strike, and even a large-scale, nationwide nuclear war, is highly survivable if modest steps are taken to protect yourself. Few fields of knowledge are more rife with misinformation and wrong assumptions. I don’t wager that there will be a nuclear war, but given the relentless provocation of major nuclear powers in recent years, the possibility of a nuclear war, especially a preemptive, tactical strike, is no longer remote enough to dismiss. With under $300 in supplies you can protect yourself no matter where you live, or at least be ready to should a conflict occur or the risk of one seem to increase.
Unless you are within about 2 miles of the point of detonation aka ground zero, your home will not be destroyed even in a very powerful blast. The main concern for the overwhelming majority of Americans would be radioactive fallout (and disruption of food and water supply chains), which can kill you within a few days or years if you aren’t protected, depending on the dose. The only way to protect against radiation and fallout (other than potassium iodide, which mitigates the effect) is to surround yourself with as much dense material as you can, which usually involves going underground. Two feet of concrete or three feet of soil reduce radiation exposure by 1000x. 16 inches of soil (slightly less than one sandbag width) reduces radiation by 100x. The vast majority of radiation victims in past nuclear attacks had no radiation protection and were close to ground zero (even in unprotected areas immediately outside the kill zone, which for an average weapon is about a 1/2-mile to 1-mile radius, long-term survival was around 50%). Protection by two feet of soil for two days will subject you to 10,000x less radiation than someone with no protection.
The worst of the fallout subsides in a matter of days. By 48 hours after a blast, radiation levels have decreased by 99%, and 99.9% by two weeks. As long as you have a few days of water in the shelter and keep it ventilated, you will likely survive long-term. After about three to four days you could safely leave the shelter for brief periods to get food and stretch out. After one week, two at the most, you could leave the shelter altogether, though it would be advisable to stay in an underground area and wear dust masks most of the time for another week or so.
The biggest problem to overcome with shelters is ventilation, since temperatures can get extremely high and oxygen scarce. Installing a real ventilation system means investing in a real fallout shelter. The best option would be to use breathing tubes and open the door occasionally, using a large, battery-operated fan to pump new air into the shelter when needed. You’re increasing your risk of coming into contact with radiation, but still dramatically reducing exposure, probably enough to avoid long-term cancer risk, with total exposure far below that of routine medical procedures. After 48 hours, the radiation dose in unprotected, open-air areas in the direct fallout path 50 to 100 miles from a major blast (most areas around a blast are not subjected to fallout, only those downwind) would be about 0.1 mSv per hour, which rapidly diminishes every subsequent day. By comparison a chest x-ray is 0.1 mSv and a CT/CAT scan about 10 mSv. This would make many quick, few-second ‘breathers’ a relatively insignificant risk.
How your response to a nuclear attack might actually work:
While radiation travels at near light speed within a blast zone (the 3 to 5-mile radius where instant radiation exposure, severe structural damage, and high burn risk occur), fallout moves at wind speed, which averages 10-20mph. The closest likely nuclear targets to Philadelphia and southern NJ are about 50 miles away, with most of the nation’s primary and secondary targets over 100 miles away. If nearby targets were attacked first, which is unlikely, you might still have time to return home and prepare your shelter, even if you had no warning of an attack. Even then, the worst fallout areas would be within 30-40 miles of the target (although any area outside of the instant-kill zone, about 2 miles for large weapons, is survivable long-term if steps to protect oneself are taken). Obviously, you can plan ahead and cut boards or construct part of the frame and/or fill bags ahead of time, which would allow the shelter to be completed in under an hour.
If you are not at home at the time of an event and very close to a blast, your best bet would be to quickly grab water if possible and head underground to a basement, subway, or even storm drain. While it wouldn’t be pleasant, a sewer is one of the safer places outside of a shelter to survive an attack. Make note of the nearest underground access to your workplace, including manholes (most can be opened with small crowbar or tire iron, or with a special tool, $20). Simply being underground can reduce exposure by 90%. Fallout can take hours to days to reach outlying areas affected by a blast, so you may have time to go home if you are not in the immediate area of attack.
As ridiculous as it may sound, the simplest possible strategy that could actually save you would be to go to your local garden center and purchase 20 or so bags of top soil, and keep them on hand. If an attack happened you would go into your basement, lie down, wear a dust mask and eye protection, surround yourself with any relatively dense material (such as boards, metal sheets, containers of water, books, etc) you may have on hand, and cover your actual body with the bags, then try not to move for at least two days. That or fill trash bags, pillowcases, etc, with dirt and do the same.
Materials and instructions:
To build the shelter you need two to three 1500 lb capacity steel sawhorses ($70), six 2×8 boards ($50), five sheets of thin plywood ($50), thin PVC pipe ($5), a 16″ dolly ($15), 220 empty sand bags ($80), battery operated fan with batteries ($25). Optional: Geiger counter ($150). Determine the footprint of your shelter and build a crude outer frame of plywood on 3 sides, or 4 sides with a door cut out in front, cut to the height of the sawhorses. Cut and set five 2x8s cut at 6.5 feet or your height plus six inches across the top of the evenly spaced sawhorses. Unless you want to build an outer frame, you can use furniture like an armoire, folding table, etc to provide an outer frame on one side to drop sandbags between the shelter. Use a corner of your basement or room for an outer frame on two other sides. Cut several small-diameter PVC pipe sections to use for ventilation tubes.
For the door, nail a piece of plywood the size of a sandbag on to top of a dolly. Ideally, strap narrow steel sheets four to six inches wide below the bottom edge of the dolly platform to reach as close as possible to the floor so that it lightly scrapes the ground. Otherwise keep 2 to 4 sandbags placed vertically inside the shelter to buffer any door gaps and help seal the space between the dolly platform and ground. Pack sandbags on all five sides of the shelter, (one bag width going up the sides, placed flat-down, 2-3 bags high on top, also placed flat) then on the dolly. If necessary, pack loose soil in any gaps. Go into the shelter and pull the dolly-door in behind you. On top, two sandbags thickness will provide you with 16″ of protection. A third might be able to be added on top depending on the sawhorse ratings and distance between roof supports. Here is a diagram of the shelter.
While this all may seem silly to some people, there is no way I can think of other than this general concept to reliably survive fallout without digging a ventilated underground shelter and investing a significant amount of money. Relatively few people think the chance of nuclear war is high enough to spend $3-5k-plus on a ‘real’ shelter, but more might spend $300 to offer themselves some potential protection. This isn’t intended as a permanent installation in your home. An observant citizen will probably have some notice to kick into action, and as noted above, it might even be feasible to build the shelter after an attack has begun as long as you have supplies on hand. Again, I do not bet that there will ever be a nuclear war, but believe the chance is too high to completely dismiss any thought of it.
The shelter would be 40″ high x 6.5 feet long x 3.5 feet wide, enough for 4 average-sized people packed like sardines. It would take 1 to 2 hours for four people to fill the bags with soil (25-45 bags pp/hr). Expanding the shelter to 6′ x 7′ would just mean two more sawhorses, a few more boards, and more bags. If you filled sandbags in advance they could be stored in a footprint about 6.5′ x 5.5′ x 6′ high.
The design is not nearly comfortable as a real fallout shelter (which costs $3k++) but would most likely prevent death from a high radiation dose. It is for someone who lives in an urban property or a property they don’t own, or who doesn’t want to modify their own property in any way. An identically sized, lumber-only shelter that uses posts and no sawhorses can be built by those with extra time and carpentry skills. If you have the land, a much simpler option would be to dig a narrow, rectangular hole in the ground and span it with thick boards that can support about six to nine sandbags each (two to three long, two to three high), and place sawhorses or posts in the middle for extra support if needed. Then completely cover the roof with soil-filled sandbags, and make a slightly-smaller-than-sandbag-sized exit hole outside the rectangular perimeter covered by two to three bags (16-24″, 80-120 lbs) that can be pushed out from below. Note that ventilation is more of a challenge in this kind of shelter, and having it outdoors increases your radiation exposure when outside the shelter or the roof is opened.