There are great zombie movies, and horrifically beautiful apocalyptic films.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, WATERWORLD (hey, I’m kidding)–you get the idea.
So why do zombie apocalypse movies smash into the brick wall of failure?
Zombie comedy? Sure. SEAN OF THE DEAD. Zombie romance? Yeah, they’ve tried that. Zombie drama? Yep.
You’d think this would be like peanut butter and chocolate, two great things that taste even greater when mashed together. But I can’t think of a single zombie apocalypse movie that truly works.
The biggest such film–WORLD WAR Z–went splat, despite the star power of Brad Pitt and a big budget. Why?
I’ve pondered this, downed a pot of coffee and consulted the oracle.
Here’s the deal.
In a horror movie, everybody dies
Not because the screenwriter and director are sadistic. The whole point of a horror movie is society getting punished for its sins by the monster, who’s actually the hero.
That’s why Freddy, Jason and all the other horror monsters never truly get killed off.
Slasher movies show teenagers breaking the rules–shoplifting, getting drunk, having premarital sex, lying to their parents about it all–and getting punished by the boogeyman for their sins.
Another big branch of horror movies is about man playing God–inventing super-smart sharks with lasers, creating hybrid genetic experiments that go wrong, or sewing together body parts from the grave and using lightning to reanimate the thing. Then those creations rise up to punish the scientists for their arrogance.
This is why horror movies can fail. If the teenagers or scientists actually win in the end, the movie confuses the message. You might start out rooting for the teeny boppers or mad scientists, but in the end, you’re supposed to see the monsters as agents of rough justice.
Same thing with a zombie movie.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually about racism.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is about consumerism, which is why it’s set in a mall.
Monster in the House is a great story and a dangerous one for zombies
There’s a primal story that screenwriter Blake Snyder identifies as Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed space and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it.
JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION are all Monster in the House stories.
There’s a big difference between these stories and a true horror movie. The ending is completely opposite.
The shark dies in the end of JAWS, as does the alien and the obsessed, discarded mistress played by Glenn Close.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD feature the same enclosed space problem, because it’s good storytelling to put characters in a cage with your monster. But they stay true to the message and let the monsters win, punishing society for our sins.
In an apocalyptic movie, tons of people die–but the story ends with hope
The storytelling bones of a good apocalyptic movie are completely different than a horror story.
Civilization goes buh-bye, and the fun of an apocalyptic movie is seeing how that happens and what replaces the status quo.
Also, you get to loot the hardware store and the mall. Who doesn’t like to see that on film? Always a good time.
The message of an apocalypse film, though, is that lots of people die because they make bad, selfish choices, while the few heroes who survive make good, unselfish choices.
It just doesn’t work to mix a true zombie movie, where everybody dies as punishment for society’s sins, with an apocalyptic film, with its message of survival if you make the right choices.
So: back to the movie, WORLD WAR Z, which is a confused beast.
If you read the novel–which you should–it’s not a horror story, where everybody gets nom-nommed by the living dead. It’s a true zombie apocalypse story that can work, with the end showing the undead almost destroying the world. They’re only beaten when society makes painful, fundamental changes to work together and win the war.
Hope and survival. That’s the right way to thread the needle and tell a zombie apocalypse story that works. Give us that, Hollywood–Brad Pitt is optional.
A nuclear war is–scarily–far more likely than an alien invasion, zombies or other apocalyptic possibilities. How would you survive?
I say this with love, as a big fan of the Mad Max movies: the smartest ways to survive involve doing the opposite of Mad Max.
1) Roaming the wastelands in a sweet muscle car is a terrible, horrible, no-good idea
If you’re like most people, you drive a car. Maybe it’s a Ford F150, or a Toyota Camry.
And maybe you change the oil yourself. I’ve done that. Changed the headlights a few times, replaced the battery, even changed an alternator and such.
HOWEVER: Working on modern cars is increasingly tough without all kinds of computer diagnostic nonsense. It’s crazy difficult today, with the lights on and a NAPA store down the street full of fresh parts.
After any sort of nuclear war, driving whatever car you can find around the radioactive wasteland is just a bad idea. Because it’ll break down, and chances are you will not be able to crawl under the car with a wrench and just fix it.
Even if you’re a pro mechanic with your own set of tools, spare parts and gas will vanish in a hurry. Your car will eventually break down, or run out of gas, or both. And being stranded means death.
But let’s say those problems don’t exist. You have a magic Tesla 3 that that runs on solar panels and never breaks down. Great. Roaming around the countryside is still a terrible idea, because you’ll want to stop wherever there may be resources, like food and water that doesn’t glow in the dark, and there will be people there, defending those resources from raiders like you.
Those local people will have the advantage. They know the territory and will have set up defenses and traps. You’re gonna lose.
2) Loners will not last long
Mad Max is a lone wolf, right?
Only in the movies does a lone hero win real fights while being outnumbered 10 to 1, or 100 to 1.
Any serious effort to survive an apocalypse, fictional or not, means having a team or a tribe.
You need people who are good at different things: finding food and water, healing the injured, creating shelters, making fire, crafting tools and clothing.
And you need people to watch your back.
3) Staying put is smart
Sure, if you can’t find a decent supply of food and water, move until you do. But once you do, stay put.
Any sort of nuclear war will affect different areas in different ways. There’ll be places that get hit with all sorts of bombs, like major cities and military bases, and other places left untouched.
Prevailing winds and ocean currents will also bring radioactive fallout to some places while sparing others.
You don’t want to wander far and wide, because you’ll inevitably wind up in a place where the geiger counters go nuts.
Of course you might need to do a little hunting and gathering, or go on supply runs. Even so, do that from a solid home base. Because staying put in a good place is the smartest option. Fish, farm, grow mushrooms, whatever floats your boat. Build a wall. Set up watchtowers and keep a lookout for dudes driving Interceptors with big turbos sticking out of the hood.
4) Be sustainable
Mad Max famously carries a sawed-off shotgun with maybe four shells, two of which tend to be duds.
Shotguns are also a bad idea. You need a weapon with plentiful ammo that you can make. A slingshot, a bow and arrow, spears you can throw–anything is better than a weapon that only gives you two bites of the apple.
Remember the bad guys in every Mad Max movie? They carry crossbows a lot of the time. Because that’s sustainable. You can re-use the ammo and make new crossbows a lot easier than trying to manufacture more AR-15s for your friends, since there won’t be any factories making bullets anymore, either.
Same thing with armored muscle cars and semis. It takes a tremendous amount of time and resources to keep a single car functioning and fueled up during an apocalypse. A fleet of vehicles would be insanely tough to keep going.
Your time and resources are better spent improving quality of life and survivability: growing more food, building better walls, crafting new tools. That sort of thing.
Mad Max is a great character on screen. To survive a nuclear apocalypse, remember him and do the opposite.
Let’s talk about WATERWORLD: KEVIN COSTNER WAS RIGHT, PEOPLE–because rising seas due to climate change isn’t really a dystopian fantasy.
Climate change is happening. The world’s getting hotter, which means extreme weather, drought, melting ice caps and yes, Kevin Costner having gills and a sweet sailboat doesn’t seem so silly anymore.
So whether you’re writing dystopian fiction or prepping for the worst, a WATERWORLD scenario is worth talking about.
1) Head for the Great White North
If you live in the northern hemisphere, as most of the world does, a WATERWORLD dystopia means heading north.
Even if your home doesn’t disappear under the waves, like a big chunk of low states like Florida could, changing weather and failed crops will mean a big shift in the population to the north.
Places like Canada and Siberia will go from frigid vistas full of moose and whatnot into much warmer and hospitable places with fertile farmland and long growing seasons.
If you’re in South America or Africa, you’d head south.
Australians? Sorry, I don’t know. Hard to figure.
2) Yes, hoard those seeds
We may think it’s cute that plants and seeds are the MacGuffins in so many dystopian movies, from WATERWORLD to WALL-E to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.
In this case, collecting seeds makes total sense. Give me a choice between teaming up with a farmer with a seed collection and a platoon of Army Rangers equipped and ready for war, I’m picking the farmer. Because the soldiers will run out of gas and you can’t eat bullets.
Seeds will be priceless. Rising seas, droughts and a hotter planet will mean massive crop failures and starvation unless adjustments are made. Whether you want to be near other people or hiding out in a small group, you’ll want seeds for crops.
Why? Because (a) it’s incredibly hard to transport herds of cows, goats or other animals thousands of miles in good times and impossible when desperate people will happily kill them (and maybe you) to eat those animals, (b) seeds are small, light and easy to transport and (c) anybody who’s studied history knows humans were hunter-gatherers who had to live as nomads until they domesticated the right plants and animals.
Plants are easiest and first. Try for animals second.
3) Figure out the where before the what and the how
Where you want to end up determines what you should gather and how you should plan.
Settling with a bigger population with advantages, like the possibility of specialists you’ll want, like doctors, carpenters, dentists, nurses and other things that can save time and lives.
Since we’re talking about the collapse of civilization, any sort of city will probably have a rough form of government. The biggest, baddest people will probably be in charge and it won’t be pretty, with power struggles if not civil war. Think Bartertown.
And any real city will be a tempting target for raiders.
Hiding out in the mountains and such protects you from living in a snowy version of Bartertown and from roving bands of cutthroats. But you won’t have access to the gear, food and medicines of bigger settlements, and that’s a huge problem when a simple infection can lead to gangrene and death.
A medium approach could work: a village instead of a big city, tucked away far off the beaten path.
4) How will you get there?
This is the toughest bit. A global disaster like this means 7 billion-plus people fighting over the same resources and having the same idea: head to places like Canada, Siberia or Sweden.
It could be a disaster in slow motion, getting worse by the decade. Or the glaciers on Greenland could hit a tipping point and melt quickly.
Seems like there are two obvious options: (a) head north before everybody else even thinks about it or (b) if you wait and are competing with everybody else, travel in a completely different manner.
If it’s a sudden crisis, roads and highways will be clogged and impassable. Traveling thousands of miles on foot, mountain bike or horse isn’t really practical.
Flying could work, if you had enough fuel for a one-way trip. Tough to pull off, and difficult to have a safe landing spot. Say you’re in charge of a little airport in the Yukon and suddenly all these rich people want to land their Lear jeats packed with gold, guns and canned food. This is your chance. Block the runway unless they pay your fee, which you can make onerous. Tell them you want half of all they own. Or take all of it right when they land. People who run airports and marinas could be running things for miles.
Marinas lead to the second option: travel by boat.
Sailboats are incredibly smart for just about every apocalyptic scenario you can dream up. No need for fuel, which will run out quickly.
Hungry? Use a net or fishing pole.
Feeling unsafe? Pull up anchor and sail off.
You could sail up the west coast to Alaska, hanging out in the safety seas of the Inside Passage and towns like Juneau.
The trouble with staying in saltwater is you can’t drink it. There are methods to make saltwater palatable. I think my favorite strategy is sailing along the coast, then heading into a river to find safe harbor. There are plenty of rivers, and you’ll be able to fish for salmon and get fresh water.
5) What would you want to bring?
Aside from the standard considerations on gear covered in previous posts, a WATERWORLD scenario brings some different angles and needs.
Going to places like Canada, Siberia or Sweden mean trees. Big evergreens. That’s what you’d build things with, which means you want hand tools to work with wood. Axes and saws, hammers and chisels, hand drills and nails.
I’d also want tools for digging and farming. Shovels, rakes, hoes.
Because these tools will break, or need repair, it’d be smart to learn basic smithing and collect bellows, an anvil and tongs. Scrap metal will be easy to find in any sort of dystopian scenario, so it’s not like you need to mine your own iron.
Warm clothing will be essential during the winters, which will still be cold. You won’t be growing cotton. It’s far more likely that you’ll tan hides and use fur, so you’d want a book or cheat sheet on tanning hides along with big, strong needles and thread.
6) Is this dystopia preventable?
I have to end with this. There are all sorts of apocalyptic movies, books and possibilities, most of which are either improbable or difficult to stop. If a giant space rock really wants to hit Earth, or aliens with advanced tech decide to invade, well, Bruce Willis only saves us in the movies.
Nuclear war and rising seas / climate change are two dystopian scenarios that can be completely avoided. We might want to think about that. And I think that’s part of the message of every good apocalyptic story, which isn’t just about how that kind of desperate scenario would test and change normal people into heroes and villains. Dystopia stories are really telling us, “Come over here and listen, because this is how terrible things can really get if we act like complete idiots.”
Listen: Everyone should check out PSYCHO by Post Malone, which if you come at tabula rosa seems like a warning that we’ll need tanks and flamethrowers to survive the dystopian hell after the reign the last president of the United States, former NBA all-star Karl Malone.
Have a listen and a look:
There’s a weird thing about music videos of all genres, whether it’s country, rap, pop, rock or Pop Rocks, and that one weird thing is this: Just be different.
If you spend 2.1 bazillion dollars and hire a Hollywood director to make a high-production video that’s JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHERS, then congratulations, you’ve wasted 2.1 bazillion dollars.
Because nobody aside from your hardcore fans will love it, or even see the thing. Risk nothing, gain nothing.
You can see this mistake happen again and again by big-name stars who forget how they got there by being scrappy, edgy and different, with songs that actually tell stories and/or try to say something. They start making songs, music videos and entire albums about the most interesting subject in the world: themselves. (See West, Kanye and Swift, Taylor.)
Which brings us to Post Malone and PSYCHO, which isn’t perfect—but at least it’s different.
Though I’m a huge fan of Mad Max movies, zombie movies and dystopian fun in general, there’s no real connection between the lyrics of the song and this imagery. And those lyrics are fine. They’re not hard to decipher, or worth interpreting and dissecting like the only good song Vanilla Ice ever did (ICE, ICE, BABY) or the first music video I can remember, back when MTV actually played music videos (ELECTRIC AVENUE by Eddie Grant). This is simply a good song.
As for the video, I have no idea who the little girl is, why Post Malone is looking for her or why the animatronic wolves are just hanging around instead of munching on every human they see. Maybe they spent the budget renting tanks and didn’t have enough left to get the mutant wolves to move around.
Saying this video looks good but doesn’t make a lot of sense, sound on or off, is a valid critique.
HOWEVER: None of that matters.
Not one bit.
First, because the song is so freaking good. Seriously. Post Malone is always a good listen, on this track and his other work. Just solid.
Second, the fact that the imagery doesn’t fit the lyrics doesn’t affect your enjoyment. Sure, this thing isn’t It’s not meaningful, deep or transcendent. This video won’t become a cult classic. And you don’t care, because PSYCHO is interesting and well-shot. It’s the music video equivalent of a summer B movie: not gonna win any awards, but you’ve got a bag of $11 popcorn, the bass is loud and you’re gonna have a good time.
VERDICT: Post Malone is clearly talented, and he used a good director and film crew to make this. I’d love to see what he could do if he put all the pieces together and told a real story that matched his words.
The worst day of any flavor of apocalypse—killer robots, zombies or The Spanish Flu of 1918 on Steroids—will be Day 1, when civilization as we know it goes buh-bye faster than an airline steward can wave you off a Boeing Dreamliner.
What’s the best way to get ready for the chaos of that first day?
Step Number 1: Where Will You Be?
Unless you’re retired or on vacation, you’re typically (a) at work or school, (b) in your happy home, (c) traveling between those two places or (d) running errands and such.
Where you are makes all the difference in the world when the world goes sideways, because most people will have all their useful possessions and loved ones back home, not in their cubicle at work or the trunk of their car.
It also matters because you probably work or study in a city and live somewhere less populated. And when things go south, the last place you want to be is in a city, because that’s where the most trouble will be. Trouble is defined as hordes of zombies, armies of killer robots or scavengers willing to pull a gun so they can loot the mall before you can.
This means you’ll need different plans and contingencies depending on your location when WATERWORLD starts being non-fiction or Donald Trump starts mashing buttons on the nuclear suitcase.
Step Number 2: Where Do You Want to Go?
Conventional wisdom would say “home,” which is wrong. Without power, heat and running water, homes will become magnets for scavengers searching for gear and supplies.
The real trouble will be food, which will run out quickly, seeing how semi’s won’t be delivering Doritos to Safeway anymore and farmers won’t be planting and harvesting Doritos anymore in the first place.
Of the essentials of food, shelter and clothing, food will be the toughest problem. Farming isn’t a good answer, since even if you already had a working farm and 10 years of experience as a farmer, the starving masses will show up and devour all your hard work.
So what did smart people do before farming was a thing? Well, the ones who survived were hunters and gatherers. Nimble nomads who followed food sources along with the seasons.
That’s the best strategy, since it keeps you out in the wilderness, close to food and far away from (a) zombies, aliens or killer robots and (b) populated areas where scavengers will be killing each other as they battle over quickly dwindling resources.
This makes it critical to pick a good area with a source of fresh water and a variety of food sources.
That rendezvous point, ideally, would be halfway between home and work/school, so no matter where you are, it’s easy to reach.
Step Number 3: Who Do You Want to Rendezvous With?
“Friends and family” is the obvious answer and the wrong one, since there’s a fifty-fifty chance zombies will show up right in the middle of a staff meeting about TPS reports.
Making it through chaos and craziness all the way to the rendezvous point will be tough. Having a stalwart band of coworkers along for the trip, now, would truly boost your survival chances.
Asking people to meet you at the rendezvous point AFTER things get crazy, well, that won’t work at all. You have to figure this stuff out ahead of time.
Step Number 4: What Do You Need?
Out in the prepper community, you’ll see a crazy number of acronyms. Some of them apply here:
BOB is short for “Bug Out Bag,” pre-packed so you can simply grab it and go.
GHB means “Get Home Back,” with gear meant to, I don’t know, get you home.
INCH stands for “I’m Not Coming Home,” so it’s a more complete set of supplies, food and tools.
This series of posts hates complicated things, including acronyms. Hates them worse than black licorice and fruitcake. We’re all about simple and sturdy, cheap and sustainable.
Forget having four different sets of bags for different reasons. Keep it simple and have One Backpack of the Apocalypse, a single bag to rule them all.
This backpack will be with you whether you’re at home, at work, at school or stuck in traffic while radio shock jocks pretend to be outraged about something to fill three hours of airtime. How will it faithfully and magically stay by your side with you at work, home and while you commute and do errands? Here’s the trick: you’ll give that One Backpack and a Pair of Hiking Boots a comfy home in the trunk of your automobile.
The question of what goes into a One Backpack of the Apocalypse is deep, with a lot of options for specific teams. It’s worth a few posts to drill down on that.
Here’s the TL;DR version of what you’ll put in there: ways to make fire, filter water, catch food, stay warm, catch food, fix boo-boos, navigate, create shelter and defend yourself. Check out Survival Lilly, who’s from Austria and is completely practical.
P.S. Every loved one, neighbor, cousin you still talk to and coworker you take along can be of whatever shape, size, age, gender or background. Go wild. The lone condition for making them part of your Nimble Band of Nomads is they need to have their own One Backpack of the Apocalypse, because none of this will work if there are 15 people wandering around trying to share a single set of gear. That’s how you all win a Darwin Award.
Step Number 5: Prep Your Rendezvous Point
To get fully prepared, make your rendezvous point a welcoming safe haven.
Bury food and supplies in waterproof containers, like five-gallon paint buckets. Create a rough shelter, whether it’s a lean-to made of logs or a big tent you stash nearby.
While this is a good topic for a post, here’s one smart, easy way to make a shelter with no tools.
Bring your friends out there, wearing their hiking boots and backpacks, and stay one night. Make a campfire, filter water from the nearby stream or lake and figure out what you’re missing now, not after the aliens land and it’s too late.
Step 6: Be a Nimble Nomad with Food In Your Tummy
The last step is to figure out how you’ll migrate and follow food sources along with the seasons.
Migrating doesn’t mean traveling thousands of miles like the birds that fly from South America to Alaska and such. That’s crazy talk. You can accomplish what they do by simply heading into the mountains during the spring and summer, then back down to the valleys and the coast during winters.
The easiest way to do this is to follow rivers, either in a small boat or on foot. Rivers are born as streams on the tops of mountains after Zeus sends a stork and all that. This make navigation easy.
Finally, practice a bit of hunting and gathering. Spend a night or two at this rendezvous point with backup rations that you don’t touch. Practice trapping squirrels and rabbits, picking non-poisonous berries and catching these things I like to call “fish.”
P.S. Hunting big game like deer is a whole different topic. I live in deer country, and know all sorts of friends who also hunt bears and cougars. But this is not my expertise. Cute little deer hang out on my property, knowing that I only shoot photos of them, while the cougars hide in trees and the bears munch all my blackberries. I leave them be. If you want to practice this sort of thing, get a hunting license and buddy up with an expert. Big game is nothing to play around with and even a successful hunt means a lot of hard work to preserve the meat and make use of the fur and hide.
If the zombies rise up, the aliens come down or Mad Max turns into non-fiction, what could truly keep you safe at long range?
Clearly, guns are far more advanced than crossbows, bows, slingshots and other weapons.
HOWEVER: Just as clearly, once a real apocalypse hits, ammunition will go buh-bye, because factories will stop making bullets right when everybody in the world is using them all up in a desperate battle against the undead, the Borg or whatever fashion of apocalypse you favor.
Right off, you have to see firearms as a transitional weapon and a last resort, with precious bullets saved for critical situations while you use sustainable options—bows and arrows, crossbows and slingshots.
So what makes sense?
Option Number 1: A trusty handgun
Hollywood loves pistols, and I’m not against them. Have one myself. Yet there are good reasons why, in a long term SHTF scenario, you wouldn’t pick a pistol as your long-range weapon.
First off, it’s not long range. At all. Handguns are only accurate and effective at close range.
Secondly, you might think the power and capacity of modern handguns balances out the short range. Except shotguns have as much capacity as revolvers are are much more powerful, while many rifles have 30-round magazines with far greater range, accuracy and power.
Arguing for handguns is (a) the fact there are bazillions of them, making it more likely you’ll find one and the ammo for them, (b) the great reliability of modern pistols and revolvers and (c) the intimidation factor, with even an unloaded gun giving you stand-off power against a group armed with melee weapons and (d) the fact that handguns are small and light.
Verdict: A pistol a decent backup weapon, but it shouldn’t be anyone’s primary choice.
Option Number 2: AR-15s and AK-47s
Both have their pluses and minuses, along with passionate defenders. The bottom line is AK’s are brutal, simple beasts and more durable. They’re designed to get muddy and dirty but still fire, and the round they use (7.62 mm) is a lot bigger than the 5.56 mm shot by AR’s, which are more advanced and accurate, but more delicate.
You’d think these would be the king of guns, and they’re great, modern weapons … if you have easy access to more ammo. That’s the trouble. AR’s and AK’s make it easy to crank through magazine after magazine of ammunition, and they won’t be making them anymore.
From the sound of this man shooting an AR and an AK on the same course, you’d think these guns were fully auto. Nope. Same semi-autos that you and I can buy in ‘Murica, so yeah, conserving ammo is not something these weapons like to do.
Verdict: If you’re going to pick an assault rifle for a long-term apocalypse, you can’t use modern tactics like covering fire, because your ammo would be gone within the first couple of battles. Get one with a scope, keep it on semi-auto and treat the ammunition like precious gold.
Option Number 3: Submachine guns
Uzis, Mac-10s, Tommy Guns—the idea for all of these weapons is to use pistol ammo in a machine gun.
And yes, Chuck Norris looked cool with two Uzis.
But true submachine guns aren’t really available to folks without a special license to own automatic weapons. You can buy semi-automatic versions, but those are really just handguns with more capacity than normal.
Verdict: For a gangster in the ’20s smuggling moonshine, submachine guns are great. For our purposes, even if you can find a fully automatic submachine gun, they’re terrible, a handgun on steroids that wastes ammo by design.
Option Number 4: Sniper and hunting rifles
Now we’re talking. Most sniper and hunting rifles are bolt action, which is a lot simpler and easier to maintain than the complicated mechanics of a semi-automatic. Bolt-action is more accurate and makes you conserve ammo.
These guns also have the best scopes.
Armies use a variety of sniper rifles, from modified hunting guns to giant .50 caliber monsters. Those are crazy big and heavy, and those massive bullets are actually meant to be used against vehicles and such, not deer, zombies or aliens.
Verdict: Deer rifles are common and proven. You can’t go wrong with a bolt-action deer rifle.
Option Number 5: A slingshot
This seems like a silly pick, a child’s toy.
But think about it: you need meat on the campfire every night. There’s no way you’ll be lucky enough to bag a deer whenever you get hungry. The most common sources of meat every day will be things like birds and squirrels, which would disappear in a puff of fur if you shot them.
Slingshots are easy to buy, scavenge or craft. You’ll never run out of ammunition as long as the earth keeps making rocks. And this long-range weapon will probably keep your stomach full for years. They also silent, and a good ambush weapon.
Verdict: Everybody in your party should pack a slingshot.
Option Number 5: A crossbow
This is the best of both worlds and the worst of both worlds.
A crossbow is more powerful than a bow (see Option Number 7, below) but far less powerful than a rifle. On the plus sign, they’re silent, unlike guns, yet heavier than a bow.
Crossbows shoot bolts, which you can technically re-use, repair or replace. Yet bolts aren’t easy to craft out in the bush, while arrows are, and good luck repairing a broken crossbow.
Verdict: This one is tough. It sounds like a good choice at first, but the more you think about it, the more it seems meh. A deer rifle or bow seems smarter.
Option Number 6: Mall ninja nonsense
Yes, there are throwing knives, ninja shuriken, boomerangs and bolas. These things exist.
If you want to see what’s out there, go inside your local gas station. For some reason, most gas stations also double as ninja superstores, I kid you not.
Even the higher-quality versions are short-range weapons of dubious value, all of which require a lot of skill and practice to make them remotely effective.
Can you hunt with these things? Not really.
Do they make up for that defect by being amazing combat weapons? No.
Verdict: Come on. Honestly.
Option Number 7: Robin Hood FTW
In the movies, heroes like Robin Hood can lay waste to dozens of soldiers with their trusty bow.
Bows don’t have the range and power of modern guns. Hunters need a lot more skill and patience when they’re using bows instead of rifles, and you wouldn’t want to go after dangerous game like bears, mountain lions or zombies with just a bow. The margin of error is too tight.
Once again, Kevin Costner stinks it up in a big-budget movie yet somehow points us toward the truth. Bows and arrows are a beautiful option for the apocalypse. They’re easy to make and use, silent and versatile.
Bows and arrows are an especially good pick if you’re being smart, conserving ammo and traveling as a Nimble Nomad with Friends, since one of you can try taking down prey with the bow while the other three in your party are ready with hunting rifles or spears. If that arrow misses the mark and the beast charges, your friends are ready.
Arrows are also completely sustainable, while you can make bows out of scavenged material or out in the middle of the forest.
Verdict: Get a bow and learn to make arrows. DO IT NOW.
If (a) zombies come knocking on your back door, (b) aliens land in Manhattan to enslave us or (c) an Angry Space Rock obliterates civilization because Bruce Willis was otherwise occupied, you’ll need to fend for yourself.
That means some kind of makeshift armor along with weapons to hunt for food and defend yourself.
So what’s makes sense?
This series is about being brutally practical, which means the ideal melee weapons would be:
Simple to use, even for people with no training
Cheap or free
Easy to find or replace
Blade Choice Number 1: A Knife for All Occasions
There’s nothing more basic than a knife, which is both a weapon and an essential tool.
So what kind of knife?
Folding knives are nice, small and full of serious flaws. Any sort of mechanism, springs or no springs, can wear out. And no matter how expensive and well-made a folder might be, it won’t be as strong as a full-tang knife.
The other flaw is the lack of a crossguard, which is essential protection in a fight or doing serious work. Without one, any blade will slip and cut your hand to ribbons.
So: you want a non-folder, also known as a “knife.” There are all kinds of varieties. You can’t go wrong with time-tested hunting knives or military K-bars.
The only pitfall here is going too Crododile Dundee / Rambo here and picking the Biggest Knife Known to Man. Make sure the knife you pick is something you can comfortably wear while hiking through rough terrain. Any sort of blade is useless if you have to dig through your pack to grab it.
Also, one of the uses of a knife is speed. You can grab it and use it faster than almost anything else, including a gun. Because the old saying, “Never bring a gun to a knife fight” might not actually be true.
Verdict: Yes, you need a knife, as an essential tool and weapon.
Blade Choice Number 2: Romancing the Sword
If a knife is essential, a sword is even better, right?
Bigger. Longer. More able to chop and slash.
Movies and books have brainwashed us into thinking swords are amazing, if not magical. And yes, a lightsaber would be the ultimate weapon, if they existed.
However, lightsabers aren’t an option. Also arguing against picking a sword: history and logic.
Knights and samurai actually relied on bows and spears as their primary weapons. Swords were a last-ditch option, not a primary choice.
Since factories will stop making ammunition and everyone will be shooting up the place, guns will quickly become useless. Everybody will be using more primitive weapons, which means smart people will wear armor to guard against blades and bludgeons while people who resist this armor fashion trend will earn fancy Darwin Awards.
Swords work best against unarmored opponents. Armored knights didn’t actually fight each other with swords, because even the sharpest steel bounced off thick armor. They used maces, flails and war hammers to bash in that armor.
Picking a sword as your weapon therefore hurts if you actually come up against armored opponents, and let’s face it, unprotected folks aren’t going to last long in a real apocalypse.
Expensive, high-quality swords won’t be lying around. It will be hard to repair or replace a truly nice sword, and any long-term apocalypse means you need to be able to repair and replace stuff—or have extras to gear up new friends.
That being said, people are going to pick swords. It’s like our romance with handguns, which are nothing compared to the power of shotguns and range of rifles. People don’t care. Swords and handguns are catnip to a lot of people. So: if you’re going to pick a sword no matter what, what makes sense?
Though this series of posts is all about cheap and sustainable apocalyptic goodness, going too cheap with a sword is an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey, because most swords out there are meant to look pretty while hung on the wall, not used for combat year after year. The cheaper a sword, the more likely it will break or fly off the hilt.
Not kidding about the “fly off the hilt” bit. Take a look.
At the other extreme, the best possible swords do not make sense, since they’re crazy expensive.
Therefore: check out the wisdom of a Paul Southren, a man who lives and breathes moderately priced swords at sword-buyers-guide.com. Paul field tests and abuses his swords, and his whole schtick is about buying the best quality for a moderate amount of money: $100 to $300, though he does test and review swords that cost a bit more and has a section dedicated to the rare sword under $100 that’s actually decent.
You see insanely huge, double-bladed battle axes in movies.
That’s because in real life, such things would be heavier than a Volkswagen Bug.
You wouldn’t want to use a modern two-handed axe, the kind designed to cut trees or split wood, because those things are still too heavy to carry around as you march through the wastelands all day, much less use in a real battle. Same thing with pickaxes. All of these monsters are too slow. Anybody could see it coming and dodge the blow.
If you look at actual warfare over the centuries, soldiers did use single-handed axes, which are a lot faster than today’s two-handed axes meant for trees. Check out this discussion of the pros and cons of one-handed axes. This man is both an expert and British, so you have to listen to him.
Verdict: During any sort of apocalypse, you’d want some way of cutting wood for shelter, fuel and tools. So this is a lot like the conversation about a knife: a one-handed axe is both a weapon and an essential tool. Get one.
Blade Choice Number 4: Machete Madness
Economists have a concept called “opportunity cost,” which is a fancy way of saying blowing 2,000 on a high-end katana makes no sense when, for the same money, you could buy 50 top-quality machetes for $40 apiece and equip an army of your closest friends and family.
One sword or a horde? Come on, that’s not even a question.
Machetes also hit our sweet spot: cheap, common and durable.
In my decade-long fight against scotch broom, I’ve bought and used all varieties and brands of machetes. Here’s the deal:
Garden-variety machetes in the Garden section of Home Depot: The long, thin machetes you can buy at any hardware store are OK for cutting blackberry bushes and Scotch broom but a bad idea for the wasteland.
Military grade: Armies have as used machetes for decades, especially for jungle warfare. They’ve researched and perfected tough blades that stand up to abuse in the worst conditions. Army surplus all the way.
Sword-like goodness: You can get thicker, longer machetes that are really tough little swords for a fraction of the price. Cold Steel makes a crazy assortment of these machetes. I can vouch for the magnum kukri, which is tough enough to use as an axe. I’ve cut down trees with this thing.
Verdict: Machetes are a great choice, especially the thicker, higher quality ones that can do the job of a sword and an axe.
Blade Choice Number 3: Sharp Things on Long Poles
Here’s why spears and poleaxes rock and are the King of Apocalyptic Blades:
Reach rules: The evolution of combat has always been a question of greater and greater reach, with the winning side typically being able to throw rocks, shoot arrows or fling missiles from beyond the range of the enemy. The same thing applies to melee combat. Whoever has the greater reach will usually win. Spears and polearms give you better reach than knifes, swords, machetes or any other sort of blade.
You won’t be fighting one-on-one: The default way of thinking of melee combat is you vs. a solitary opponent, which is completely wrong. Any organized group of average people has the advantage against a Lone Wolf, and this series assumes that (a) you’ll be smart which means (b) you’ll travel with a group of friends. If there are four people with spears against four people with knife, swords, machetes or baseball bats, I’m betting the spears win every time, simple because nobody on the other side can get close enough to do damage before holes get poked into vital bits. Four people with spears and shields would be a tough, tough combination to overcome.
Easy to make: Trying to make a real knife or sword would be tough. You’d need the right scrap metal, a hot enough forge, an anvil plus the knowledge to do it all right. There’s a science to quenching and tempering. Spears, now, are easy to make. You can do a simple spear by sharpening a straight stick. Done. Want a fancier spear? Last a sharp bit of scrap metal or a knife on the end of a pole.
Verdict: Buy or make a Sharp Thing on a Long Pole, the most practical of the blade options.
Bludgeon Option Number 1: Brass Knuckles
Any sort of bludgeon is better than fighting barehanded. And sure, brass knuckles would be fine if you live in a terrible neighborhood where people get into fistfights all the time and you want an edge.
In any real apocalypse, the zombies, alien invaders, killer robots or scavengers won’t be getting into fistfights with you. Plus, brass knuckles are typically illegal in most places, which makes them hard to find. And it’s not the sort of thing you can just craft from some old Campbell soup cans and a hammer.
Verdict: Ixnay on the brass knuckles.
Bludgeon Option Number 2: Lucille
Baseball bats don’t take any training to use and are absolutely deadly.
They work equally well against unarmored and armored opponents, are cheap and easy to find.
A few caveats:
Aluminum baseball bats seem like the ultimate choice here. They seem better than wood, right? However: aluminum bats are hollow and designed to hit baseballs or softballs. If you smack them against other, bigger, tougher things, they’ll bend.
Wooden bats are the way to go here.
Verdict: A good option if you want to bash your way through problems.
Bludgeon Option Number 3: Thor’s hammer
Yes, I know it has a name, but (a) nobody except total comic book geeks can pronounce it and (b) even when somebody pronounces it right, it sounds like the sound a Swedish cat would make.
I’m talking about hammers of all sorts, from carpenter’s hammers to sledgehammers. They’re great for using against armored opponents, since armor is typically meant to guard against blades.
Sledgehammers seem deadly, but they suffer from the same problem as two-handed axes designed for cutting down trees or splitting wood: too heavy to be nimble enough in combat.
A long-handled carpenter’s hammer would do the job. Cheap, easy to find if you need more and versatile, since it’s useful for scavenging or crafting.
Verdict: Pack a hammer.
Bludgeon Option Number 4: A mace
Not pepper spray. A medieval mace is even better than a baseball bat or a hammer for dealing with armored opponents.
A real mace is an amazing choice here.
The trouble is finding one. Unless you buy a bunch, now, you won’t randomly find them in the rubble of the wasteland and won’t be able to craft one out of scrap metal.
Verdict: A beautiful option that’s simply too rare to be practical.
Those are the basic options for blades and bludgeons. As for bad ideas, there’s a treasure trove of terrible choices.
Bad Idea Number 1: Flailing away
Any movie set in the Middle Ages has knights with swords, shields and flails, which seem deadly.
Two problems with flails: First, they’d be pretty slow. Maybe you successfully whack somebody upside their helmet. It would take a while to recover and swing your flail at a second enemy, and an effective blow has to be completely accurate. Compare that to a sword, where the entire length is sharp and any sort of contact will draw blood.
Second, flails weren’t really a thing. At all.
Bad Idea Number 2: Chainsaws
They’re big, roaring, imposing monsters and yes, nobody wants to get cut by a chainsaw.
Trouble is, chainsaws and require fuel, which rules this out as an option.
Another nail in the coffin: even if you had a magic chainsaw that never rain out of fuel, actually using one in combat against armored opponents would be clumsy. You’d have to get awfully close and they’d need to sit still while you chewed away.
Bad Idea Number 3: Nunchucks
If you’re Bruce Lee, sure, nunchucks look amazing and deadly.
For everybody else, these aren’t an option. It’s super easy to hit yourself instead of your opponent. They don’t have much range and would bounce off most armor. Plus, instead of looking like Bruce Lee, you’ll probably look like this dude.
Bad Idea Number 4: Flamethrower
Nobody wants to come up against a flamethrower. You run away to avoid becoming barbeque, right?
Actual flamethrowers are incredibly hard to find. They also require fuel, which is stored in a crazy heavy tank on your back.
If you actually had a sustainable source of flammable liquid—say, grease from the cooking fire—it’d be smarter to bottle that up and make a supply of Molotov cocktails.
Bottom line: You can’t predict when and where melee combat breaks out. The right options work as both a weapon and a tool, which means your best bets are a knife, a one-handed axe, a hammer and/or a spear, which gives you the most range and serves as a handy walking stick.
Though you’re going to pick a sword no matter what I say, so pick the right one.
Also: a tough, high-quality machete (not the floppy cheap kind at the hardware store) can take the place of a sword and an axe, plus they’re cheap.
Next week: Chapter 9—Getting Real about Long Range Weapons
In any real apocalypse, fire and water will be essential, as in, “without them, you will essentially die quicker than the box office of ISHTAR.”
Without a way to make fire, you can’t keep warm at night or cook your food to make sure each bite of bunny or muskrat isn’t full of nasty germs and parasites.
Without a way to find, purify and carry water, you’ll dehydrate and become human jerky for the zombies.
Yet many of the standard ways of making fire and purifying water make absolutely no sense during an apocalypse of whatever flavor, and yes, that includes climate-change causing WATERWORLD, because salt water isn’t what scientists call “potable” and civilians call “drinkable.”
Lighters are built to do this, right? This is their job.
Except lighters run on fuel. I don’t care if you buy the fanciest Zippo in the world or stockpile a case of cheap plastic Bics: you will run out of fuel.
And yes, a Bic + hairspray = a tiny flamethrower, but such a thing is only good against hornet nests and such, and completely useless against zombies, aliens and scavengers.
Verdict: Ixnay on the ighter-lays, for they are unsustainable.
Firemaking Method Number 2: Waterproof matches
These are a staple for hikers and campers. Even if you fall into the river and get them soaked, these reliable suckers will still create a spark, light a campfire and keep you warm at night.
Matches of any sort have the same fatal flaw as lighters: nobody will be making them anymore. It’s not a long-term choice.
Even if you’re tempted to put some in your One Backpack of the Apocalypse and switch to a different method later, this is a bad idea. Practice that other, sustainable method instead.
Verdict: Nopity nope.
Firemaking Method Number 3: The famous fire drill
This is the famous method of making fire when you don’t have a Zippo in your back pocket or a box of matches: You spin a stick really fast, or take off your shoelaces and make this complicated thing to spin a stick even faster while the bottom of the stick sits in a notch of wood.
TV and movies have shown this so often that unless you grew up in an ice cave, you’ve seen it 100 times. Here’s a smart man doing it from scratch, and even he takes a long time just to get the right materials.
There are other ways of making fire that are far easier.
Verdict: Maybe, if you’re desperate and easier methods didn’t work.
Firemaking Method Number 4: Nine volt magic
Bear Grylls uses this. You take a nine-volt battery and touch the working bits to some steel wool and BAM, there’s fire.
There’s a lot going for this method. Unlike other techniques, it’s pretty foolproof. I can’t think of a way to screw this up. And the material needs are small and light. I like it.
Verdict: Even though this is definitely unsustainable over the long haul, this method is so fast, surefooted and easy, it’s worth including as part of a first phase sort of plan, where you need to do things quick and easy before switching to more long-term options. This one is like picking Batman in a fight against Superman, when every ounce of logic says Supes wins, but your heart says nah, Batman is too smart and Superman is too lame.
Firemaking Method Number 5: Flint and steel
Now we’re talking. There are a hundred variations on this, and other metals involved aside from steel, like magnesium, and don’t ask me how all this works except magnesium = fire, which is Good.
Flint and steel is completely portable, reliable and sustainable. You’ll have a knife, so the steel part is taken care of, meaning all you really need to carry around is the flint or some fancy magnesium-type alternative.
Verdict: This is your go-to firemaking method. Learn it, practice it, embrace it.
Firemaking Method Number 6: End the perpetual Quest for Fire with a char box
If you burn some wood, paper, cotton or other burnable shebang, then put it in tiny metal box and screw the lid on, Sir Fire gets separated from one true love, Princess Oxygen, and his little heart is broken. Sir Fire falls into a deep, dark depression—actually, a coma—and goes dormant.
You can put that metal tin in your pack or pocket all day. Once the sun says goodnight and you need a campfire, pull out the tin, open the lid to re-introduce Princess Oxygen to Sir Fire and watch the embers spark as they embrace.
Here’s the thing: keep a healthy char box going and you never have to make fire again. You own it. You control it like the Fremen controlled the galaxy’s supply of spice, and when you control a thing, you can make really bad movies about starring Kyle MacLachlan.
Verdict: Char boxes are the best thing ever. This is your apocalyptic jam.
Protips for moving from “I got a spark” to “I’ve got a roaring fire that will cook our food, boil water and keep us warm all night”
Protip A: Tinder
You need tinder, which is not a dating app in the age of evil alien overlords, hungry zombies or Mad Max nuclear wastelands. Tinder is the fluffy, easily flammable stuff that helps transmogrify those first few sparks into a real fire.
For tinder that’s absolutely reliable and absolutely free, start collecting dryer lint. I kid you not. It’ll work great.
For slightly more advanced tinder that burns better, take cotton balls and dip them in Vaseline.
There are other sources of tinder, like dry moss, dry leaves, dry anything.
Protip B: Kindling
Kindling is not an app that finds you the best private kindergartens in Manhattan, where tuition costs more than Harvard.
Kindling is one step up from tinder. You got a spark, the spark got the tinder hot and bothered, now you need to kick it up a notch with kindling before logs and such will hop on your Fire Train.
A great natural answer? Fire sticks. Take a stick and your trusty knife. Carve curls of wood from the stick without separating those curls from the stick. Basically, make yourself a funky Christmas-tree looking thing with all sorts of wood curls. Surface area is your friend.
Newspaper and the pages of books are both highly flammable. Nobody will have a use for 10-year-old editions of The New York Times or first editions of TWILIGHT, so this will be a source of kindling for a long, long time.
The sap of trees makes great fuel. There are bits on a tree where sap tends to collect, like the intersection of the trunk and branches. Use those bits. GET SAPPY.
Water is life
You can survive without food for weeks. Without clean water, it’s game over, man.
The emphasis is on clean. Unless you’re in a desert, water itself will be pretty easy to get. Drinking it, though, will make you sick.
And there are different kinds of sick, many of which will kill you, some of them involving plain old germs and others involving parasites that make the chest burster from aliens seem like a friendly doggo.
So: purifying water will be a huge deal.
Water Purifying Method Number 1: Purifying tablets
This is the standard method and it’s proven to work. Pop a couple of pills in your dirty water, wait for the pills to work their magic, then drink.
This is a good method if you’re camping or able to stop by REI to pick up more tablets.
During any sort of apocalypse, water purifying tablets will run out about as fast as .22 LR rounds.
Water Purifying Method Number 2: Filter straws
These are cheap, light and re-usable, the three Holy Grails of this series.
You can throw a dozen of these in your pack to trade with people who ran out of water tablets or didn’t think about water as they went full Rambo.
The only trouble with these filter straws is volume.
Verdict: Definitely put water filter straws in your One Backpack of the Apocalypse.
Water Purifying Method Number 3: Boil away
Boiling water kills all germs and parasites. It also has side benefits, like the option of cooking food.
If you make a campfire every night and boil water, you’d have enough for days. You need a suitable container for boiling water, which means a bush pot.
Verdict: Boiling water whenever you make fire is smart and completely sustainable.
Water Purifying Method Number 4: Natural filters
Say you’re absolutely without gear. No water tablets, no filter straws or pump and can’t make fire.
Natural filters are a good last-ditch option.
Here’s what you do: make layers of straw, grass, sand, charcoal and anything else that might filter out germs or parasitic nonsense. Pour water on the top of your contraption and let it drip through at the bottom.
Verdict: This is slow and imperfect, but a lot better than nothing. You can improve this sort of thing with bits of cloth in between layers.
Water Purifying Method Number 5: Filter pumps
This is a filter straw on steroids: bigger, faster, stronger.
It solves the problem of volume with straws and creates all kinds of safe, filtered water in a hurry.
Verdict: A great, sustainable option. Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
Next week: Chapter 8—Blades, Bludgeons and Bad Ideas
Looting the local mall is a staple of zombie and disaster movies, and yes, the idea is not only great entertainment on the big screen, it also (2) makes good sense if a real apocalypse happened.
HOWEVER: You’d have to do this right. Because there are real troubles standing between you and driving a stolen U-Haul down the aisles of Home Depot.
Challenge No. 1: You will not be alone
No matter what flavor apocalypse you favor—a giant space rock plowing into the Atlantic, aliens landing to make us mine unobtanimum all day, a supervolcano goes boom or zombies (fast or slow) rise up—everybody is going to have the same idea: loot the local mall.
Things will kick off long before police and civilization breaks down. Store will be jammed with people buying up essentials: canned food, batteries, blankets, generators, ammo, everything.
And yes, this will make the worst excesses of Black Friday look like a holiday.
It will get more interesting after the apocalypse of your choice, with survivors roaming those same stores, except they’ll be pack shotguns instead of VISA cards, and they’ll be a lot more motivated to fill their shopping cart.
Long after whatever Extremely Bad Thing turns things upside down, scavengers will set up camp close to shopping malls and stores. Truly organized and ambitious bands of survivors might turn the local mall into their actual base. Because why commute?
Challenge No. 2: How do you plan on carrying all that, tough guy?
Say your local Home Depot didn’t get emptied by shoppers before the Extremely Bad Thing and is somehow clear of zombies and scavengers after everything went Mad Max.
Let’s pretend there are perfect conditions and nothing to worry about. The store is yours, so go wild.
Here’s the trouble: how will you haul away all that loot?
Not on foot, especially if you’re already carrying all your wordly possessions in a backpack.
Not on bicycle or horseback, though those two options make a lot of sense.
You’re gonna need something bigger.
Challenge No. 3: Where to stash it
If you manage to cart off all sorts of valuable stuff without suffering any casualties, great. The next problem is keeping it safe from the elements and other survivors.
Wherever you hide the loot has to be a long-term solution, since staying in a permanent bunker or fortress isn’t a smart option. Even the best-stocked bunker will eventually run out of MREs and water.
You’ll need to travel with the seasons and follow migrating food sources.
So: how can you loot a mall, then stash all that stuff somewhere safe enough that if you head south for the winter, all those valuable treasures will still be there when you return come spring?
Challenge No. 4: Which stores should you prioritize, and what should you take?
Even if you hotwired a fleet of U-Hauls and RV’s, there’s no way you and your friends could possibly loot an entire mall. There’s too much stuff.
You have to pick the most essential items.
When everything is free for the taking, that’s a hard decision to make. The temptation will be to throw anything you like into your shopping cart.
This is something you’ll need to decide, as a group, before you go in there. And this has to be a team effort. A lone wolf has no shot of pulling it off, because there will be other groups looking to do the same thing. And they won’t want to share.
A practical plan
Rule Number 1: Looting an indoor shopping mall is suicide
There are good reasons to go ixnay on the oppingmallay, despite the fact it has a Regal Cinema while strip malls and big box stores tend to have a Panda Express.
Take a look at this floor plan for an average indoor mall:
That’s a maze, with far too many entrances, exits and hiding spots.
You’d need an army to secure every entrance before clearing out each tiny store. Only then could you move on to Sears (no apostrophe, don’t ask why) and Macy’s (yes apostrophe, because grammar).
Rule Number 2: Go for big box stores and strip malls
Big box stores and strip malls are much easier to secure than an indoor mall. Plus we can do them in sequence instead of putting our eyes on swivel for zombies.
With your average big box store or strip mall joint, there’s just one main entrance and a back door with a loading dock. Let’s back up the bus on that sentence for a second: loading doooock. Oh yes.
Big Box stores also specialize, which gives us more selection.
Rule Number 3: Get your Mad Max on
For a dozen good reasons, relying on a motor vehicle during any sort of apocalypse is an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey. HOWEVER: This is one situation where you absolutely, positively have to get behind the wheel, at least temporarily.
Sedans aren’t a good choice. Can’t hold much loot.
Station wagons and SUV’s are better.
You’d think a semi would be perfect, except most people don’t know how to drive a semi and you need a haul your loot up a long ramp to get it inside.
Best bet: U-Haul trucks. There common, they’re easy to drive and they’ll hold a lot of stuff. Grab your friends and nab two or three of these before heading to the shopping center of choice.
Rule Number 4: Shopping carts are old and busted; handcarts and wheelbarrows are the new hotness
Speed is essential. You want to load up on treasures, roll them into your borrowed U-Haul, stack them neatly and skip back inside the store.
Shopping carts are the enemy of speed. They make it easy to put things inside and hard to take out.
This is why your first store should be in the Home Depot / Lowe’s family, where you can grab handtrucks and wheelbarrows right off.
Rule Number 5: Take what others don’t want
Here’s a short list of unsustainable items people will fight over to grab first, compared to the smart, sustainable alternative that you and your friends will take instead:
Sustainable and smart
Flashlights, batteries and generators
Lanterns and kerosene
Guns and ammunition
Bows, crossbows and slingshots
Chainsaws and power tools
Regular saws and hand tools
Lighters and matches
Flint and steel
Wire, cordage and traps
Perishable food and vegetables
Seeds to plant
Rule Number 6: Improve your start by starting at a home improvement store
The first stop should be a hardware/home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Here’s why: carrying things by hand stinks. Begin in the garden section to grab wheelbarrows and hand trucks.
Stay there to fill your wheelbarrow full of every seed packet of edible goodness in sight and load up on machetes, axes, shovels and other good stuff right by the garden gnomes and garden hoses.
Sidenote: You would not believe some of the deadly stuff they have in the garden section, and it’s all sturdy, well-made stuff, which is in stark comparison to your average gas station ninja superstore, where the nonsense they sell (ninja swords for $12, throwing stars for $5) won’t cut through a snowman. Not kidding.
Check out this thing, which Home Depot calls a ditch blade. I call it a The Beheader of Giants.
After you pillage the gardening section, head inside the store proper to the tool section for heavy work gloves, hammers, crowbars and multi-tools.
Then swing over to the nuts-bolts-screws-nails aisle to snag a variety of boxes, especially oversized bolts and such you won’t be able to scrounge from the average garage of private home.
Then hit the rope and chain section for cordage, chains and padlocks (important!) before cruising over to grab all the Gorilla Glue / Crazy Glue / Super Crazy Gorilla Glue and such you can find.
Rule Number 7: Sporting goods will give you a sporting chance
Big 5, Dicks and other sports stores are pretty common.
Here’s why you want to head there second: a sports store is a great source for backpacks, hiking boots, socks and camping material: sleeping bags, tents, compasses, canteens, rain gear, fishing poles, slingshots, bows and arrows, crossbows, cheap guns and ammo, knives and clothing.
This is also your best bet to pick up practical armor, which is a topic deep enough for future post all by itself.
For now, just know that imitating the body armor of the Army and Marines isn’t a real option. What soldiers wear is incredibly heavy. Once you get shot, whatever panel that got hit needs to be replaced, which you won’t be able to do.
Sports stores have the kind of armor that’s sustainable and works against the main threat you’ll face: melee combat. Football helmets and pads are good protection against blunt instruments and blades.
Even better: motorcycle and mountain bike armor, which is tough leather with Kevlar inserts. This sort of armor is also easy to move in.
Rule Number 8: Don’t forget the small stuff
A little pharmacy may not seem like a top target, yet it’s a gold mine.
First aid kits, crutches, allergy pills, sunscreen, antibiotics, sunglasses, prescription drugs, toilet paper—the best stuff from a pharmacy is life-saving gold and perhaps the best trading material possible.
Let everybody else stock up on gold bars and AK-47s. When they run out of ammo, which will happen sooner than you think, what will they do with those heavy, useless gold bars? You can’t eat them. They won’t keep you warm at night. What are you gonna do, make necklaces out of them?
Raid a pharmacy and you’ll have what everyone else wants and needs. Because people will inevitably get cut, shot, sick or infected.
Rule Number 9: Before you start, figure out where you’ll safeguard all this good stuff
Any option you choose has to protect your liberated loot from the elements, wild animals and other survivors.
If you get a bunch of plastic bins, garbage bags and five-gallon buckets from your first top at Home Depot, you can hide and/or bury your loot all over the place. Just keep a map of where you put it all.
Unloading all the stuff into a safe building seems like a good choice until you think about how long any building will be safe when every single person is hungry, wandering around and breaking into places to scrounge for food and stay warm.
The best bets: (a) hide your fleet of U-Hauls in plain sight by driving them into a junk yard, (b) drive them far off into the woods on logging roads and ram those suckers into the forest until the wheels don’t move, (c) bury the moving trucks in junk, dirt and debris or (d) lock them with multiple padlocks and chains, then park them back-to-back, so nobody can get in until you return with the keys.
You can also make cheap, waterproof shebangs that can store a lot of stuff. PVC pipe is a good bet.
Rule Number 10: There’s nothing wrong with pre-looting
Ethically and morally, it’s completely wrong to loot a store today. During a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion, the moral compass changes polarity, because (a) it’s a question of survival and (b) when society collapses, there won’t be any cashiers waiting to take your checks, banks to cash those checks or functioning corporations to make a profit.
HOWEVER: There’s always the option of beating the crowds and the craziness by doing this carefully and comfortably, without worrying about getting munched by zombies or shot by other scavengers. Buy and cache a little every week, writing down what you stored and where you stored it.
It’s not hard to buy and cache a little every week. Because you’re going the smart, sustainable route instead of the expensive, unsustainable path, this won’t be expensive, either.
Below are some different ideas for pre-looting and caching:
Here you go, my friend: a backpack full of tools and gear, for when you add a new friend to your party.
Food, glorious food: a PVC pipe full of beef jerky, jars of peanut butter and MRE’s.
Shelter: a full-size tent, which you wouldn’t want to pack around, pre-placed in a good spot next to running water and a food source.
Hunting and gathering: Snares, traps, bows and arrows, slingshots, fishing nets and a sturdy metal pot to boil things up.
War: Let’s say a wannabe-Negan mugged you, taking all your gear and weapons. It’s never a back idea to have backups stashed someplace safe.
Next week: Chapter 6—Suit Up with Seriously Practical Armor
As we discovered from the first three posts, you can’t count on (a) lounging around in a bunker that never runs out of food and water or (b) cruising the wastelands in a vehicle. Which means (c) bushwhacking around while carrying all your possessions in a backpack.
In apocalyptic movies, heroes tend to sprint around in ripped T-shirts with a single weapon. You never see them hefting around a sleeping back and a bunch of food.
Meanwhile, video game heroes carry around an entire gun store, plus food and medical supplies. If you’re playing a Fallout Game, the hero can scavenge entire cars and somehow lug all that around while running and fighting.
A huge part of really prepping for any sort of apocalypse—whether you favor Mad Max nuclear wastelands, alien invaders or zombies—has to be (1) figuring out the essential gear to put in your One Backpack of the Apocalypse, then (2) putting on good hiking boots and actually trudging through the wilderness for a mile, then two miles, then over downed trees, across streams and all that.
How much can you really carry over long distances?
Modern soldiers in the U.S. Army and Marines carry about 60 pounds of gear. On long-term patrols, maybe double that.
However: no sane human being should plan on lugging around 120 pounds of stuff all day, every day, during any sort of long-term apocalypse. Even slow zombies are not THAT slow.
MythBusters did a nice bit about this. How much you carry, and how you do it, matters more than you think.
What kind of backpack should you get?
There are all sorts of cheap, pre-packed survival backpacks these days. We got a couple from Costco to leave in the car. They’re great for a short-term problem, like a car breakdown in the middle of nowhere or an earthquake. These backpacks just aren’t a long-term solution.
What you really want is something proven to work that also works for you, specifically.
If you want to get the best of the best, hop on down to someplace like REI and actually put on backpack after backpack.
The cheaper option that doesn’t sacrifice practicality is a local Army surplus store. The military knows a lot about backpacks (they call them rucksacks) and how to make everything modular and attach to other bits you’re wearing. The old system was called ALICE; the new hotness is MOLLE, which is pronounced Molly and stands for Modular Lightweight Loadbearing Equipment.
Here’s a good comparison:
Which boots will last the longest?
This is a trick question, because eventually this won’t matter. Not one bit. Even the best, most expensive boots on the planet will wear out.
You’ll have to repair them. Eventually, those boots will be beyond repair. And this will be a big, big deal. Because you can’t walk around barefoot.
Repairing and replacing the soles is the biggest issue. Tires are a great material for soles. Tire rubber is insanely tough and will last a long, long time. Plus it will always be easy to find and scavenge old tires. The tough bit will be cutting it. A hacksaw might be required.
The design for this is important. Glue will be hard to find, and the last thing you want to do is wrestle a hungry polar bear, while the second-to-last thing you want to do is try to sew tire rubber onto the remaining bits of your hiking boots. No needle is that strong.
The best idea is use rope or straps. Here’s one way to make sandals out of a tire and some straps, and they smartly don’t try to pierce the bottom of the sole, which would stink in terms of waterproofing. Well done.
Socks will actually matter, so let’s get this right
There’s no perfect sock, and even if you had a pair, they’ll eventually get holes.
The best idea is to wear two pairs of socks. The first layer is a thin sock to cling to your feet. If you have to scavenge socks, thin white athletic socks work for this. The second pair of socks is good, thick wool for cushioning. This way, you don’t get blisters.
Wool is the only way to go here, and with most of your clothing. Remember these words: cotton kills, wool thrills.
What essentials go inside the One Backpack of the Apocalypse?
Fire: A way to make fire plus dry tinder. The quick answer here is a flint and steel plus a waterproof container full of dryer lint (free!) or cotton balls rolled in vaseline.
Water: Some sort of container to hold water plus a method to decontaminate it, such as a filter straw.
Warmth: Any sort of way to keep warm at night, whether it’s extra clothing, a wool blanket or a lightweight sleeping bag. This is crucial.
Wood: A way to cut or chop wood for fuel and shelter. Hauling a honking big full-size axe around isn’t an option. A hand axe, a heavy machete or a folding hand saw would work.
First-aid supplies: Absolutely essential. There are also military surplus first-aid kits that are a lot more hardcore than the dinky civilian kits at the grocery store. Get one.
Rope: Paracord is light and incredibly useful. Tie a bunch of logs together and you’ve got a raft. Lash your knife to a pole and you have a spear. Make a series of snares and you’ve got bunny stew tonight instead of a rumbling tummy.
Charmin: Maybe your neighbor is buying gold bars and putting them in a big safe, thinking gold will be worth more than boring paper money if things go bad. Instead of handing over valuable purple euros for mere ounces for gold, stock up on scads of toilet paper and put more than you need in the backpack. Toilet paper works as tinder to start a fire and, mark my words, soft toilet paper will be far, far more than gold once the zombies go nom-nom-nom.
A long-range weapon: A rifle, bow, crossbow, slingshot—something to help roast dinner on your campfire at night.
Food: You can’t count on living off the land every day. To start out with, the One Backpack of the Apocalypse needs high-calorie goodness that won’t go bad, like jerky, protein bars and MREs.
A knife: Not a folding knife. A full-size knife with a hilt, and none of that Rambo nonsense with a hollow hilt full of fishing hooks and a compass on the bottom.
This is a big topic, and future posts will break down each of these items into various options:
Grizzly Adams: absolutely free and crafted from whatever you can find in the woods
Scavenger Special: free or truly cheap, taken from recycled material, stuff you find in a junkyard or can buy today for almost nothing
Best of Both Worlds: great quality for a great price
Crazy Billionaire: the most expensive option, just for the sake of comparison
A short training program
Endurance alone isn’t enough. Say you can put the gym treadmill on a 10 percent incline and power-walk at 4 miles an hour for six hours. That’s amazing. It’s just not the same as bushwhacking through the forest or trudging through miles of sand while the sun tries to roast you.
Folks trying to make get into the Special Forces train for what they call ruck marches, which is exactly what we’re looking for here. The goal of this training program is to finish an 18-mile march carrying a 50-pound ruck in 4.5 hours.
They include strength building, like squats, because you need strength in your legs to go uphill while carrying weight, and you really need it to climb over downed trees and other obstacles like walls or cliffs.
For homework, find a good backpack, stuff it with the essentials, put on some hiking boots and see how comfortable it is to hike a mile or two. Then adjust what you’re carrying, figure out what gave you blisters, and hike double that the next weekend.
Next week: Chapter 5—Yes, Any Sort of Apocalypse Means Looting the Mall
This chapter is about traveling, which you’ll need to do since hunkering down, bunker or no bunker, is a terrible option.
Most apocalyptic and zombie movies feature some sort of vehicle—Mad Max is packed with them. Though it would look amazing to ride a Harley through the wastelands, you would only look amazing for a week or two before that bike ran out of gas or attracted dozens of enemies with its insanely loud exhaust, advertising your exact location to anyone within a half a mile.
There are serious problems with relying on any sort of vehicle, no matter how cool it looks when Tom Hardy is driving it.
Though you can count on having to walk, hike, trudge and climb, are there any decent alternatives? In the end, I found three good options.
To get there, let’s talk through the problems and solutions for getting around without zombies going nom-nom-nom as you’re trying to siphon gas from a wrecked Ford Expedition.
Problem #1: Running out of guzzleline
Any serious, long-term apocalypse would mean nobody’s filling up the local Chevron anymore. Fuel would run out within weeks.
There are complicated ways of getting around this, such as using diesel engine and making your own biodiesel. Except that’s pretty involved even today, when you can do it in the comfort of your garage and can get new parts from the local hardware store.
Making your own fuel isn’t practical when you’re trying to survive in a wasteland. Neither is setting up Bartertown just to gas up your rig. We all know how well that worked.
Solution: Whatever options we pick need to be sustainable, and preferably not rely on any sort of fuel.
Problem #2: Roads and highways will be dangerous messes
You won’t be cruising along I-5 at 70 miles an hour—wrecked and abandoned cars will clog up the roads. Smart scavengers will also use obstacles and roadblocks to ambush anyone who does drive through.
A related issue is the fact that highways generally mean civilization, which should be avoided. They’d be trouble in an apocalypse, with millions of people streaming out from big cities and crowded suburbs to look for food. Looting the Safeway is not an original idea. Everyone will head there first with a can opener in their pocket.
Solution: Good options need to travel off-road, and this includes water. WATERWORLD may have been terrible, but a sailboat isn’t a bad idea at all.
Problem #3: Insanely equipped and armored vehicles are also insanely expensive
We’re shooting for cheap and sustainable here. A real military Humvee, armored personnel carrier or RV decked out with steel plates and spikes would cost a lot of money to buy and modify.
It’s also not smart to invest everything into a single vehicle.
Economists have a concept called “opportunity cost” that’s useful here. A plain vanilla RV can easily cost you more than $100,000. Armored cars will cost a lot more. If you can buy a good hiking backpack for $80 and fill it with the essentials for $300, you can equip all your friends, neighbors, coworkers and those college kids down the street with what they need to survive for the same price as that one vehicle.
Solution: Anything that makes our final list has to be cheap, or readily available as you wander around.
Problem #4: Breakdowns would be fatal
Say you have a great vehicle, and it goes off-road just fine. All your food and gear is happily stowed inside.
Any sort of mechanical breakdown would put you back on foot. And there would be breakdowns, since oil changes and mechanics would no longer exist. Even if you’re a trained mechanic, finding parts and tools would be tough.
Solution: This means adding “easy to fix” to our list.
Problem #5: Going to the air is completely nuts
A helicopter could get you in and out of trouble and a dirigible could stay safely above the fray for weeks or months.
And yes, a gyrocopter looks amazing. Combine a Carver trike with a gyrocopter and even James Bond would get jealous.
Fuel isn’t your real problem here, though. You won’t have to come down to the ground just for gas. You’ll need food and supplies, too. And that means landing. A lot.
Every time you land, that beautiful flying machine is sitting there, completely vulnerable. Zombies will swarm it, aliens authorities will confiscate it or scavengers will steal it.
Solution: We’re sticking to ground and water options.
Our three best options
Motorcycles would seem like a much better option than heavy, gas-guzzling RVs, Humvees and M-1 tanks stolen from the National Guard depot.
They’re nimble and could get around wrecks. Even better: dirt bikes, to easily cruise through logging roads, mountain trails and deserts.
Though this is appealing, fuel is still the sticking point. However: dirt bikes do lead us to the first smart, sustainable option.
Great option #1: Mountain bikes
Cheap to buy and equip.
Easy to fix.
Never need fuel.
If your mountain bike gets mangled, you can scavenge another. They’re everywhere.
There are even fat-tire mountain bikes, overbuilt for sturdiness rather than speed, with giant tires meant to go through mud, sand and snow.
Great option #2: Sailboats
A sailboat is a great idea. You can actually pick up small, used sailboats for pretty cheap.
They’re sustainable and have a built-in shelter, letting you snooze out of the elements. A sailboat also means an easy supply of fish.
You can anchor the boat far from shore to stay safe, or use it to set up a series of island bases as you follow the seasons and migrating animals. A sailboat also gives you the ability to carry a lot of friends, food and gear with zero penalty in terms of fuel, since all you need is wind.
A decent sailboat gives you all the benefits of a bunker with none of the drawbacks.
There will be other people with the same idea, and therefore avoiding other boats is smart. But if you know how to work sailboats, and teach your friends to sail, you can liberate marinas along the way and get an entire fleet of boats.
Calling yourself the Dread Pirate Robers is optional.
Great option #3: Horses
If you know how to deal with them, though, this is a smart, sustainable way of getting around. Horses can travel over tough terrain and make it easy to escape trouble.
Since you’ll be traveling in a group as a Nimble Nomad with Friends instead of a Lone Wolf in a Bunker, a group of horses is even smarter because they can feed themselves and reproduce, two tricks that mountain bikes and sailboats still haven’t mastered.
Once again, Kevin Costner has a great idea in a terrible movie.
Despite the fact that Kevin Costner should never again star in an apocalyptic movie, he nailed two out of three best options: sailboats and horses. Well done, Costner.
Next week: Chapter 4—One Backpack and a Pair of Hiking Boots
If you live long enough, something bad will happen. The question is how bad, and whether you’re ready for it.
Here are seven easy ones:
Rising seas from climate change, possibly leading to WATERWORLD (Kevin Costner is optional)
An big, nasty asteroid decides to plow into our planet when Bruce Willis is otherwise engaged
MAD MAX doesn’t seem much like fiction after a reality TV star starts a nuclear war with (a) North Korea, (b) Russia, (c) China or, for variety, (d) all of the above
Aliens invade to enslave the human race, making us all mine unobtanium 20 hours a day after their home planet totally runs out
Zombies—slow, traditional and terrifying
Fast zombies—which tell you this film is full of CGI and no good at all
Say hello to our robot overlords
Even if nothing truly terrible happens, it’s a good idea to be prepared for emergencies, be they tiny or huge. Public health folks have brilliantly latched onto this idea, using zombies to get people to prepare for earthquakes and hurricanes.
Plus it’s just fun to think, “What if?”
However: The traditional—and heavily advertised—ways of being fit and prepared for any sort of apocalypse aren’t all that smart. At all.
The ideal of fitness today means (a) looking great in a speedo or bikini, (b) winning athletic contests or (c) looking great in a speedo or bikini while winning athletic contests.
It also means being highly specialized.
Yet all the tools people use to be fit today—gym memberships, Olympic weight sets, $400 running shoes and protein shakes—won’t exist in any sort of long-term emergency or apocalypse.
And being extremely fit and specialized, by today’s standards, would actually be a problem.
Giant muscles require a massive and steady amount of calories to maintain, along with all kinds of free time and gym equipment, none of which you’ll have in whatever flavor of apocalypse you favor.
Extremely low bodyfat makes you look great on a beach, yet nobody will see you on a beach during the apocalypse, and zero body fat gives you zero margin of error when it’s freezing at night or you can’t find food for three weeks.
Being highly specialized in one game or sport isn’t helpful for survival purposes, where you’ll need to be pretty good at a ton of different and random things.
So that’s what this series of posts will be about—researching and experimenting to find the smartest, cheapest ways to actually prepare for some sort of disaster or apocalypse. And the emphasis will be on cheap.
Each post will look at four different options for whatever we’re talking about, rating them on weight, price and practicality:
Grizzly Adams: absolutely free and crafted from whatever you can find in the woods
Scavenger Special: free or truly cheap, taken from recycled material, stuff you find in a junkyard or can buy today for almost nothing
Best of Both Worlds: great quality for a great price
Crazy Billionaire: the absolute most expensive option and top of the line, just for the sake of comparison
Next week: Lone Wolf in a Bunker vs Nimble Nomad with Friends