Listen: there are tons of prepper blogs, YouTube channels, slick magazines, and Facebook pages.
They all want you to like and subscribe, because that means more eyeballs and ads and monies in their pockets.
But is any of it smart?
Let’s get real. Would any of that stuff have helped you get through 2020?
You don’t need to close your eyes and imagine a world full of zombies, an invasion of Tentacle Aliens from Planet Xenon, or for all your kitchen appliances connected to the interwebs to get sentient and totally inspired after listening to you watch TERMINATOR 2 for the fifth time.
The Year 2020, which will forever suck, featured a global pandemic and a worldwide recession. Two epic disasters.
Let’s do a little cost-benefit analysis of common prepper items, most expensive to free, and ask ourselves if helped anybody get through 2020.
Personal space in converted missile silo
PRICE TAG: $1 million.
VERDICT: Could sorta be useful, if you were the only person inside and really didn’t want to catch COVID. Totally useless if anybody in there with you had COVID, since all y’all would be guaranteed to get it. Somebody would have to deliver food and water and such.
Out of the price range of all but the 1 percent and pretty useless anyway. You could do the same thing while saving a million bucks by working from home and getting groceries & Chinese takeout delivered.
PRICE TAG: $50,000 to $400,000 or more.
VERDICT: Same thing as the fancypants missile silo. Meh. Waste of your precious cash.
A garage full of ammo, AR-15’s, and MRE’s
PRICE TAG: $10,000 to infinity, the way ammo prices are these days.
VERDICT: Again, not a help during 2020. Wrong way to prep for a pandemic and/or recession.
Survival sailboat, a la Kevin Costner (legend!) in WATERWORLD
PRICE TAG: Depends on size, new or used, plain or cushy. Tiny and used might be as much as a lightly used Camry, nicer and bigger ones will cost three times as much as your house.
VERDICT: This would actually keep you nicely isolated, safe from COVID and mortgage payments if you sold your house and lived on it. Better have WiFi to keep working, though. And yeah, if another apocalypse decided to pile on, you would be safe from zombies. This is our first semi-winner. Not great, but not useless.
Survival SUV or muscle car, a la MAD MAX
PRICE TAG: How much guzzleline will the engine use?
VERDICT: Actually a bad idea during a real apocalypse and absolutely useless during 2020. Nope. But you’d scare everybody pulling into Safeway.
A collection of survival gear, bug-out bags, and blades
PRICE TAG: Grab the pre-packed camo bag at Costco, some firestarters, and a great machete–all for around $100. Or you can go nuts and err on the opposite end of cheap r/MallNinjaShit, spending the firstborn’s college tuition fund by filling the garage with primo gear from REI and a collection of blades that each cost more than my first car.
VERDICT: Never a bad idea to have some camping and survival gear. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires can always happen. They might have done their thing where you live, just to make 2020 suck more. So sure, not a bad good idea. Just don’t blow the college fund.
Skills, skills, and, for variety, more skills
PRICE TAG: Nothing, unless you sign up for classes, which you’re not doing because there’s a freaking pandemic and people are all broke.
VERDICT: Absolutely useful. Survival Lilly on YouTube is super informative, and what she does in the woods doesn’t require any money or fancy equipment. Do it.
Sweat and veggies
PRICE TAG: Nothing but time, though you can get all fancy and suckered into the idea that virtual coaches and Peloton bikes are required. They aren’t. Hiking, walking, running, punching things, flipping tires, hiking–whatever you’re into, do it.
VERDICT: Insanely good. We will all die, and chances are it won’t be after zombies go nom-nom-nom on our legs or plasma vampires arrive from the seventh dimension to eat the sun. It’s pretty much a 95 percent chance you or I will die to what everybody else tends to die from: a car accident (seatbelts!) or a health problem. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, COVID-19. And the best way to avoid all that is to get in shape and eat healthier.
Your time, money, and health are all precious and limited.
There’s no shortage of people who’ll try to scare you into buying their stuff. Except 2020 showed how useless a lot of that stuff is.
The smartest way to prep for any given apocalypse is simple: Sweat a little more. Eat more veggies and fewer chocolate chip cookies. Learn as much as you can.
And yeah, if you want to go wild, look into living on a sailboat, you know, more like Don Johnson in MIAMI HEAT than Kevin Costner in WATERWORLD, though you’d be ready to go all WATERWORLD if stuff happened..
When you see a tool or weapon used again and again throughout history, in just about every culture, it makes you think: yeah, that’s pretty useful.
Hammers and saws. Ropes and wheels.
Swords and shields.
Previous posts have looked at what gear, weapons and vehicles might be smart for any flavor of apocalypse, whether you like (a) zombies going nom-nom-nom, (b) robots turning sentient and deciding they don’t like being slaves or (c) climate change turning Waterworld into prophecy. And listen, every flavor of apocalypse tastes equally bad. I pray to whatever gods that listen that we can avoid calamity and chaos.
HOWEVER: It is fun, and interesting, to talk about this stuff, and figuring whether you want to look Lowes or the mall first. (I know you want to do that. It’s okay.)
And shields are a serious thing to think about. They keep popping up throughout history.
So let’s talk it through.
A Mondo Vibranium Shield of Invulnerability
The temptation is to go all crazy and build the toughest shield possible, a work of art that will laugh at arrows, eat bullets and make swords break in half.
I mean, that sort of shield works great for Captain America and Wonder Woman, right?
Okay, yeah. Raise your right hand if you want a shield, your left hand for a lightsaber and keep them up if you’d sell your car to get a shield AND a lightsaber.
Everybody who didn’t raise both hands is lying.
Here’s the problem: you’re not making Wonder Woman / Captain America shield.
Not today, in your heated garage with electricity and power tools.
Not tomorrow, after you buy a bunch of welding equipment and somehow find a bunch of titanium, vibranium and uranium.
And not during any sort of apocalypse, where you won’t have electricity or power tools. Seriously. You won’t, and any book or movie about the apocalypse that features electricity is Cheaty McCheatypants.
Another clue that the movie or book cheats harder than the Astros and Patriots in a game of Who Can Steal Signs Better: clean-shaven, well-groomed heroes. Nope. Everybody in the ‘pocalypse gonna make the Duck Dynasty boys look well-groomed.
Time to get brutally practical
If you read a little about shields throughout history , a few things pop out immediately.
First, any shield had to be light enough to carry on long marches. Ten pounds is about it.
Second, even the armies that really relied on shield-and-spear formations–which isn’t a bad way to go–didn’t actually have heavy metal shields. They had light, wooden shields, reinforced with all sorts of stuff: metal or rawhide edging, linen and glue, leather.
Third, soldiers didn’t see shields as some kind of invincible, long-term tool. They knew a shield would get beat up and possibly destroyed, so these things weren’t expensive family heirlooms like swords or suits of armor. Shields were disposable and replaceable. If one saved your life exactly one time, hey, it worked. And if a shield got smashed up, making a new one wasn’t hard.
Making a scrapyard shield of the apocalypse
Our limitations are pretty logical, then:
(a) raw material that’s easy to find
(b) hand tools instead of power tools
(c) a final shield that’s lightweight and easy to repair or replace
So I tested it out and made one, then learned from my mistakes and made a SECOND SHIELD, embracing the scientific method of “make a Serious Plan, follow it to the letter until you learn that it Seriously Sucks, then give it another go.”
Shield Number 1: Wooden Pallet Craziness
As for raw materials, I went with the following main materials:
A pallet of wood. The boards were about 5.5 inches wide by four feet long, thick enough to be sturdy. Pallets are insanely common and basically scrapwood.
Two wooden stakes to hold it together. Also common and easy to find.
Wood glue and common screws to finish it off.
This thing had the shape of an octagon (think stop sign), which would seem to make sense at first, being a rough circle.
How did it turn out?
Using a wooden pallet may sound smart. Common sense.
Nope. This is a terrible idea.
Wooden pallets have poor-quality wood. Spectacularly so. The wood they use in pallets is also thickier and heavier than you’d want in a shield.
Gluing the pieces together was also a giant mess that didn’t work out. Wooden pallets have incredibly rough cuts.Smooth, perfectly straight wood might glue together fine. These things weren’t meant to be glued.
When finished, the shield was not just too big, but incredibly heavy, and more useful as a portable wall than a shield.
Verdict? Straight into the garbage can.
Shield Number 2: Cedar Fence Special
You can find cedar fences anywhere, making this a solid idea. The wood is a lot thinner than what you find in a wooden pallet, and a lot higher quality. YES.
I went with a hexagon instead of octagon, which saved weight while still having a roughly circular shape.
To strengthen it, I hammered a bunch of extra steel plates meant to protect wiring (yes, they probably have a name, and no, I have no idea) along the edges, with some thin scrap metal plates in the center.
The final steps, which aren’t done yet, would be attaching a handle or rope, then covering the front with duct tape to protect it from water, give it extra strength and cover up the scrap metal.
Didn’t use glue at all on this one–turns out you don’t need to. Screws all the way.
Verdict: Completely doable.
Is a shield smart?
Yes, as long as you treat it as a cheap, disposable object and keep it small.
Marching long distances with any sort of giant shield would be a good way tire yourself out.
If you’ve got a group of people with you, whether it’s three or thirty, I’d want everybody to have a small shield to protect themselves and each other. Honestly, if you’re wandering around the wastelands and see six random people with machetes and garden tools, then another six people with matching shields and spears, you’re gonna steer clear of the folks with shields. Especially if they do a decent formation with shields making it hard to hit them, and spears stabbing you before you get close enough to even try.
To maximize the effect of shields, use your Psych 201 skills. Paint every shield with the same colors or symbol, because the absolute last thing you want to do in the ‘pocalypse is mess with people who belong to a gang or army, and get hunted down by Robert Duvall or whatever.
Also, if your band of survivors gets good enough with swords and shields in formation, it means eventually doing stuff like this. You know, in epic slow motion.
Since prepping went mainstream, of course people made infographics out of the apocalypse.
Let’s pick two examples, one that doubles down on Conventional Wisdom that Will Get You Killed and a second graphic that could turn you into Mad Max.
Don’t Do Any of These Things
Sure, you need food and water. But are you really going to carry $5,000 worth of groceries and water around in your backpack? No. Not even with a squad.
Which is why they’re saying hey, you need $10,000 for a pickup. Which sounds smart until you consider that the roads will be a mess in any sort of apocalypse, nobody will be producing more guzzoline and you’ll have no luck finding spare parts or mechanics.
The huge red flag is the one with the biggest price tag: $330,000 to buy land and build a bunker.
Anybody who’s checked out bunkers knows they have maybe six months of food and water. Once the gas for the generator runs out, you’re also in trouble in terms of heat and power.
If you’re building a bunker, it’s really a $330,000 coffin, because you will be unprepared to go on the surface and find new sources of food and shelter.
You’re far, far better off building an old-fashioned log cabin in the woods by a stream. No electricity. Nothing fancy. Could do it for free–all it would take is labor. Ditch the fancy gear and guns (nobody will be making new bullets) and stick to fishing, hunting, trapping and foraging. That’s a lot more sustainable, and cheaper, than what this infographic is telling folks to do.
So yeah, all of this advice is pretty bad, though the infographic looks pretty. (Note: The rest of it is about what stocks to invest in for an apocalypse, top grossing end-of-the-world films, etc., so we’re skipping it.)
Hey, this is pretty good. I really like how it gives very different advice for very different scenarios, which is pretty rare. Most infographics and guides tend to assume it’s a zombie apocalypse, which is kinda sorta unlikely unless you’re a Hollywood director and those zombies are hungry extras.
There’s nothing about this infographic that truly off-base, and just about every plausible apocalypse is covered.
Super Volcano and Giant Asteroid are actually great scenarios to plan for, because they will happen. It’s simply a matter of when.
Well done, maker of this infographic. You would actually save lives along with preventing folks from spending at least $330,000 on a bunker.
VERDICT: You can’t print this, stuff it in your Army surplus jacket and treat it as a survival bible, but hey, it’s a good little primer, and does exactly the job it’s intended to do.
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.
Just as it’s not brilliant to (a) quit your job, cash out your retirement and move your family to an underground bunker in the Yukon to eat canned beans and get ready for the arrival of zombies, aliens or killer robots, it’s equally dumb to (b) do absolutely nothing. Because there will always be hurricanes, earthquakes, raging wildfires and pandemics. No matter where you live, something can go wrong.
HOWEVER: What should you actually prep for, and what scenarios are fanboy fantasies you can safely forget about?
Two bits of terrible nonsense that definitely will happen, but you can completely ignore
Two big ones on the BBC list are things that will happen. Guaranteed.
Yet you can safely ignore them.
Death of the Sun–Yes, this will happen, eventually. Billions of years from now. What are you gonna do about it?
Heat death of the universe–Also guaranteed, if current physicists are right. Also impossibly far off in the future and not worth your time pondering or prepping.
Four horrific things that MAY happen that you should also ignore
Gamma Ray Bursts–Doesn’t sound that bad. Isn’t that how Bruce Banner became the Hulk? But no, in the actual universe instead of the Marvel one, Gamma Ray Bursts are insane space death rays that originate from black holes and such and can fry a planet like earth just like that. Nothing you can do about it. No way to predict or stop one, and they’re crazy rare. Fuggetaboutit.
Rogue Black Holes–Yeah, this is theoretically possible. One of these might float into our solar system and eat Jupiter for breakfast and Earth for dinner. Not likely and there’s nothing you can do about it.
SimCity–Some people think our entire universe is a simulation, and some 13-year-old alien may get tired of it, shut it down and play Batman: Arkham Knight instead. Also not likely and impossible to stop if true.
Zombies–Though I adore zombie movies, you have to really stretch to pretend there’s a scenario where zombies actually happen.
Eight different Apocalypse Maybes
Now we’re talking. These scenarios are (a) possible, if not likely, (b) capable of causing global havoc, (c) preventable, (d) survivable and (e) good fodder for a movie starring The Rock.
Waterworld–Kevin Costner was a prophet, right? Climate change is happening. Seas are rising, weather is getting more extreme and it doesn’t look good.
Spanish Flu on Steroids–Airplanes circling the globe make it super easy for a new virus or disease to spread unnaturally fast.
Supervolcano Goes Boom–There are about a dozen supervolcanos on earth. Any one of them going off could ruin things for, I don’t know, a century. Nasty business.
Overpopulation–We’re already kinda there, with 7 billion people using more resources than the earth can replenish every year.
Underpopulation–The flip side, most likely in combination with another disaster.
Mad Max–Though it’s a Hollywood cliche, nuclear war is still a real-life issue.
The Terminator–Killer robots, or AI gone rogue, are definitely possible, especially if militaries increasingly deploy killer drones and AI tanks and such.
Killer Rocks from Space–Little asteroids hit Earth all the time. A big one could end modern civilization.
In the next few weeks, I’ll dive into each of these eight scenarios. Can it be prevented, and how would you actually prep to survive it?
(1) Prepare for anything, because you can’t predict what will happen in your lifetime
(2) Get ready for the most likely emergencies, disasters or apocalypse (singular, because There Can Be Only One … at a time), or
(3) Dedicate all your time, money and imagination to preparing solely for your Most Favorite Apocalypse, because the other types are lamer than a Justin Bieber concert—and if loving zombies is wrong, you don’t want to be right.
This matters because what you do to prepare for WATERWORLD: KEVIN COSTNER IS OPTIONAL is far, far different than if you expect a Mad Max wasteland next Tuesday after Kim Jong Il insults the bathroom décor at Mar-a-Lago and the Donald starts mashing buttons on the nuclear suitcase.
This great infographic by the BBC gives us a look at the entire universe of possible, probable and unlikely disasters:
Well done, BBC, just spot on. Terrifying, sure, but good.
Next week, let’s start going through all the major options.
What’s a fun fantasy that won’t happen? What’s the most likely and smart to prep for?
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