Sunday, February 2, 2020

Prepper 101

Deus Ex Machina and I watched this film the other night called Prepper (the link is to the trailer on You Tube).  Deus Ex Machina's favorite thing to say when we load a movie to watch that might be of questionable quality is "How bad can it be?"

Very bad is often the answer.

We've turned off more than a few films.

And to be honest, Deus Ex Machina wanted to turn this one off, but I needed to watch it. 

The gist of it is that a high school geography teacher starts to pay attention to what's happening in the world, and what he sees worries him.  He recognizes how fragile our way of life is, and understands that if one of those events (war in the Middle East, contagious virii - which in the movie is Ebola -, resource depletion, climate change, etc.) goes awry, the whole thing could collapse like the proverbial house of cards. 

Rather than ignore what he sees happening, or get bogged down by fear, he takes action.  He and his wife (also a teacher) start doing things to prepare for the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (TEOTWAWKI). 

I love the premise of the movie.  I love that Joe Suburbanite decides to take a proactive approach to what he sees happening in the world.  Rather than marching on Washington holding a sign and complaining about the state of the world, he recognizes that world is going in a bad direction, and he decides to get prepared for when the thing happens.

In fact, the movie could have been based on my book Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: the Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil, because the protagonist in the movie has the same feelings that I have about being prepared rather than scared.  My mantra is:  Don't just survive, Thrive!  And Don't focus on limitations.  Imagine possibilities!

The problem I had with the movie was that I felt like their preps were too short-sighted.  The film really only focused on five areas of prepping:  food, water, cooking, self-defense, and shelter. 

So, while I will not critique the film, I will discuss what they did, and what I think those who are really looking to be prepared should do instead.


There was a lot of emphasis on storing food.  While I don't disagree that one should have six months to a year's worth of stored food, my concern is with so much emphasis on storing prepared foods. 

What I would recommend instead is that new preppers learn to really see where the food is, which is not just the grocery store.  Instead of buying a bunch of food in cans and boxes, how about figuring out how to grow, raise, and forage food.

The best start is to purchase seeds, but (at least where I live) seeds are a seasonal commodity, unless one orders the seeds, and ordering seeds, at least for a beginner gardener, can be tricky.  I have spent thousands of dollars on seeds I never used, because the description and picture in the catalog was so appealing.  It's taken me years to figure out what I can grow best, but as the movie depicted, we may not have years to get ready.

Instead, what I recommend is purchasing organic produce from the grocery store or a local farmer.  Buy only those things you know you and your family normally eat, and then save the seeds.  Many vegetables have plenty of seeds, and usually those seeds end up in the garbage or compost.  Save them. 

Some vegetables are the seeds.  Who hasn't had an onion, potato, or garlic clove sprout in the pantry?  Those things can be planted.  I plant sprouted potatoes and for every "seed", I end up with between 3 and 5 lbs of potatoes.  Not bad for something I might have discarded.

Some vegetables can also be regrown.  Lettuce and celery are good examples of vegetables that can be regrown from scraps. 

And don't forget sprouts.  Sprouts are, after all, just baby plants.  Buy some sprouts and put them in some soil.  After a few weeks, you'll have a plant.

I emphasized organic, because sometimes the inorganic produce has been treated with chemicals to inhibit their growth in storage, or they are GMOs, which are patented, and sometimes bred to be infertile.  So, the seeds won't grow anyway.

Dried beans and peas can also be grown into bean plants.  Just soak them, and then plant them ... and wait. 

I haven't tried regrowing grocery store popcorn, but I have grown popcorn.  The seeds look the same.  Could be worth a try for someone who has nothing to lose, i.e. us Preppers who just need to see what's possible.

This video details 14 different produce items that can be regrown. 

So, instead of spending a bunch of money on canned food, consider investing in some garden supplies, potting soil, containers, etc. 


For those who have a little extra space and a little more of an adventurous spirit, raising animals for food can be done. 

We have raised chickens for eggs and for meat.  The only problem with chickens, for my family, is that it is not long-term.  We only have female chickens, and so if the SHTF, we will only have eggs until our chickens get too old to lay, and since we purchase our meat birds as chicks every year, we won't have chicken meat once we run out of what's stored in the freezer.

An alternative to chickens are quail, which are perhaps the perfect suburban poultry.  Quail take up very little space.  They are quiet - both the males and the females.  They are easily bred.  The biggest issue with quail is that their eggs are tiny.  One chicken egg is about six quail eggs.  When it comes to quail, one literally has to break a LOT of eggs to make an omelet.

Rabbits are one of the best suburban livestock animals.  They don't provide eggs, but they are easy to breed for meat, they are quiet, they don't need a lot of room, and their nutrition requirements would be easier to satisfy in TEOTWAWKI when commercial feed is not available.  Plus, rabbit meat is one of the best, nutritionally. 


Probably one of the best solutions to the food issue is to know where to find food that's just out there.  Deus Ex Machina and I have spent a lot of time looking for wild foods. 

Our favorite annual wild food is maple syrup.  We have 20 or so buckets with taps, and we get between one and three gallons of maple syrup per year.  Imagine, if we do end up in an end of the world scenario, and suddenly everyone has to give up sugar.  That maple syrup will be wonderful to have. 

We also forage wild greens, berries, acorns, and feral apples.  We've learned to identify dozens of edible plants (including some mushrooms) within a 5 mile radius of where we live, and we've found many of those plants just growing wild outside our front door.  So, our suburban quarter acre lot has both cultivated annuals and consciously planted perennials, and a variety of wild edibles. 

Having a bunch of canned foods and staples (like flour, salt, spices, rice, etc.) is not a bad thing, and I don't mean to say that one should not buy those things, but at some point, if the emergency is truly an emergency, those things will run out ... and then, what?  Having the ability to make one's own food by having a garden, raising some livestock, and/or learning to forage will only make one more empowered ... and prepared.


The go-to for water storage in the prepper community seems to always be purchasing bottled water in plastic containers, which is exactly what the teacher and his wife did in the movie.  I do have to give props to the writer, however, for the grocery store clerk, who advised the couple that if they planned long-term storage of the bottled water, they might want to consider also purchasing water purification supplies (in aisle 5), because bottled water doesn't stay safe in the long-term.

The grocery store clerk tells them that bacteria in the water will render it unsafe in the long-term.  So, sure, okay. 

The real issue is that the plastic degrades over time, which leaches the chemicals in the plastic into the water AND over time, as the plastic degrades, the containers, themselves, become unsound.  That is, they will start to leak. 

The other part of buying bottled water that gets my hackles up, is that MOST of us have perfectly drinkable water at home. 

I have a friend who lives in Houston, and for those who know anything about US geography, Houston is on the Gulf of Mexico, which means that my friend has survived many hurricanes.  A few years ago, as a hurricane headed toward them, she lamented the fact that her neighbors (that is, other folks who live in Houston - not necessarily those in her neighborhood) bought out all of the bottled water in every store in the city.   Her comment was that they had water in their homes.  She said, rather than buy bottled water, how about buying containers that can be filled with water from the tap?

I completely agree with her logic, but I wouldn't, necessarily, purchase a bunch of gallon-sized plastic containers.  Instead, I would have rain barrels.  I actually do have rain barrels, and we use them all summer long to water the gardens and our animals.  Problem is, where I live, rain barrels are seasonal, because the water tends to freeze during our wicked cold winters here in the northeast.

As such, we have a couple of different solutions.

1.  I often can in small batches, i.e. I might be canning 5 quarts of tomato sauce, which means that I have room in my canner for more jars.  I will fill jars with water and can those along with whatever food I'm preserving.  Glass jars don't degrade like plastic does.  The canning process kills any bacteria that might be in the water.  So, the water in my glass jars will be longer lasting than bottled water from the grocery store.

2.  As hikers, we have water filters and in a pinch know how to make a filter out of easily found materials.

If I had been the writer of that screenplay, I would have had my characters purchase a water filtration system like this one and a couple of rain barrels, rather than purchasing bottled water. 

The absolute best solution would be to have our preppers digging a well, but that's not something that most people who live in the suburbs would be able to get away with - even in fiction.

Again, I have to give credit to the writer for thinking about the fact that, if the electricity goes out, most folks won't be able to cook a meal.  Where I live in the northeast, long-term power outages (more than 24 hours) during the winter are frequent enough that we decided not to be dependent on the grid for things like cooking and heating.  We have a woodstove, which allows us to heat our home, cook our food, and heat up water for cleaning.  It's the best investment we've ever made.

In the movie, they discuss how they will cook their food, if the power goes out.  At first, they say they'll cook over a fire, but then, nix that idea in favor of a camp stove. 

Camp stoves use propane, which is non-renewable and not sustainable. 

There are a lot of options, and I'm sad that they didn't more fully explore them, although I'm sure it was a time constraint kind of thing. 

I shared how to make a hobo stove, which can be made from materials many folks have lying around - like a popcorn tin or an old coffee can. 

A home-made grill is another option.  Right after I graduated from college, I found a job, which meant I had to relocate.  Unfortunately, my new employer didn't help with moving costs, and so, while I was able to pay my first month's rent, I didn't have enough saved to turn on the gas for the cook stove and the water heater, and I wouldn't have my first pay check for at least a month.  Cold showers were bad, but spaghetti in a crockpot was the worst.

I had no grill, no fire place, no fire pit.  What I had were the shelves inside the oven, a concrete patio, a few bricks, and some charcoal.  Using the bricks, I made a frame to hold the rack from the oven and lit a fire with the charcoal.  Voila!  Instant grill.  Using a cardboard box, I was able to make an oven in which I managed to bake cornbread. 

Had I been a little more knowledgeable back then, I might have built myself a rocket stove using the bricks, and then, instead of needing charcoal for my fire, I could have used twigs.

Since the implication in the film was that the teachers didn't really have any survival skills, they wouldn't have been building hobo stoves or rockets stoves.  If I had been writing the screenplay, I would have had them purchase a Biolite camp stove rather than a propane stove or grill.  The biolite stove uses twigs as fuel, and while it is cooking one's food, it is also generating electricity for charging phones, laptops, and USB headlamps.  Biolite camp stoves and a number of other low-energy cooking options are available in camp stores.  I'm not sure why so many people end up at an Army Surplus store when they're looking for survival gear.  Frankly, I've met some hikers who are a lot more hardcore than many of the folks I served with.  So, there's that.

Of course, my little make shift grill worked well and was, essentially, free with the exception of the charcoal, but did you know that you can make your own charcoal?  Yeah, I didn't know that, back in those days.  Charcoal is made from wood

Which is why I would actually encourage new preppers to consider stocking up a small supply of wood.  It could be as simple as saving the branches from pruning one's trees or finding some free pallets, but having some wood is not a bad idea. 

And I would also encourage the acquisition of a dutch oven.  As the name implies, it can be used as an oven, when placed in hot coals.  The temperature inside the oven gets hot enough to bake bread.  And it's another of those items one might find in a camping store, but not in an Army Surplus store. 


As with most prepper authors, the screenplay author had his protagonists buying guns.  I don't have a problem with owning guns, and when it comes to prepping, I don't have an alternative suggestion for self-defense, but I do have a caution.  If one owns a gun for "protection", one must be prepared to shoot a person, and kill that person.  Most people get queasy thinking about killing their own food.  Killing a person, I imagine would be much harder, even if that person was being threatening.


The protagonists decide to go in search of a bug out location.  When they fail to find some land that they can afford and that is also useful (i.e. flat and buildable), they start looking at bunkers for their backyard.

Ultimately, they realize that what they have is what will have to do.  I agree that our actual goal should be to bug-in rather than bug-out, and that's why I recommend living (and working) in a place where one can imagine surviving long-term, should the SHTF. 

I also happen to think that the suburbs can be the perfect TEOTWAWKI location, especially if one knows and likes one's neighbors. 

There were a lot of things that impressed me about the film, and I am not sorry that I encouraged Deus Ex Machina to stick it out with me.  He'll never agree that it was a good film, and that's fine, but a couple of things were actually incredibly thrilling to me.

First, the fact that the protagonist was a middle class, high school teacher who lived in the suburbs, and realized that our culture, our way-of-life, is unsustainable, and he started making changes, gives me hope for the world.  I loved the fact that he wasn't a paramilitary commando.  He was actually not a gun buff, and only bought a gun, because some guy at the Army surplus store recommended it.  I also liked the fact that he had some trepidation about sharing that he was prepping - not because he was worried someone would steal his shit, but because he wasn't sure how other people would react, and he didn't want to seem crazy, although he KNEW that IT was going to happen - and soon - and he needed to be proactive to keep himself sane.

Second, he doesn't hide himself away. He builds a community. 

I read a lot of prepper fiction, and I read this book a while ago about an EMP event.  EMP stands for electromagnetic pulse, and the fear is that if a nuclear warhead is detonated up in the atmosphere, it can destroy anything electronic.  In this book, one of the main characters lives in a suburban home.  His neighbor is a single-professional woman with a high-powered office job.  In a collapse scenario, the main character decides she is useless. 

I disagree, and feel like the folks in that novel passed up a great opportunity to build a community where they were, rather than embarking on a dangerous, long-distance bug-out venture on riding lawn mowers.

The main character in the movie Prepper did not assume that his neighbors, even the ones he didn't really like, had nothing of value to offer to the community to ensure that they could all survive.  I was excited to see, for the first time in Prepper fiction, a story line in which the preppers embraced their non-prepper neighbors and discovered that everyone had something to offer.