by Norman, South West England
“We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth… For my part, whatever anguish of the spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst; and to provide for it.”
— Patrick Henry
It should be noted that the event I’m talking about is the sort that completely rules out the possibility of a return to the way we are now. Something that affects a significant section of the world’s population. It should be plain to anyone that our world civilisation, being hopelessly interdependent, is facing total collapse.
To simply survive will be to revert to a state of savagery genuine survivalists must avoid. The rational idea of survival is to make the transition from our civilisation to the next with as much benefit to one’s self and posterity as preparation can insure.
Preserve as much of the modern technology as you can. But remember, if an item uses more energy than your home power plant can supply, or if it will require replacement parts later on, forget it. This latter point is important because ultimately there is unlikely to be any means of manufacturing spares.
When a civilization goes splat, the technologies that supported it tend to go with it. This is particularly true of systems that are based on highly interdependent technologies such as ours today.
When something is lost, learn the lessons that you may build what should be. Don’t rebuild what has failed, because a lesson is presented until it is learned.
If it happens to enough people over a short enough period of time, the chaos will be phenomenal. In effect, the spiritual (and I use the term very loosely) foundation of Western Civilization will have been largely destroyed. Many people would find this level of change uncomfortable. The massive level of discomfort will tend to do for the physical foundation as well, what with panic, riots, hoarding, and general brouhaha.
To cut a long ramble short, counting on living in a city — any city — will be a dangerous thing. “Earth Changes” folks seem to focus their danger criteria on things like earthquakes and water levels, and not much on the fact the behavioural veneer called civilization is very, very thin. Social and technological collapse is bad news when you’re packed with thousands or millions of others into an area that is totally dependent on technology.
How reasonable do you think people are going to be when their children are dying of dehydration, they can’t take a bath, they can’t cook a hot meal?
Most people have never had to cope with sustained, substantial levels of fear, either in themselves or in others in close proximity. My own experience is limited. I will say I believe you should be prepared to see and deal with behaviour you would never have believed possible from civilized humans. The reason I said you should avoid crowds has to do with the fact that individual frustration is one thing, but the frustration of many people feeds individual frustration and fear, which, of course, feeds the frustration of the crowd. The cycle will feed itself until either the root source of frustration is relieved or there is a catastrophic event, such as a riot.
One suggestion you may hear, from a spouse or a soldier at a road block, is to head for a relocation camp. My feeling here is, don’t. Not for any reason. The government employee who wants you to go there is not stupid, malicious, on a power trip, or anything else particularly bad. The camps are not like Auschwitz. The government just wants to keep control of the situation, which is hard if you have a bunch of half-assed civilians “trying to play Rambo,” which is most likely how they will see you. Upon admission to camp, expect to be “relieved” of everything except clothes, personal items like rings and wallets, personal medical necessities (which may be put under control of the camp medical facilities,) and children’s toys. All your survival gear will almost certainly be taken, because it puts you apart from the other survivors, while things like knives make you “armed and dangerous.” These people are out to maintain order, pure and simple. That means no favourites — no special gear like purifiers, no knives or guns, no wire saws (possible garrotte,) no herbs or food, nothing. It isn’t that they want you helpless; they want you and all around you docile. They don’t want to have to deal with people stealing your food, or you cutting somebody defending your stash, or anything else. If that leaves you helpless, just remember they’re from the government and they are there to help you. How they expect to handle things if (when?) the transportation net breaks down is another matter entirely — no food, no water, no heat or cooling, no cooking. Sounds like the basis for a riot to me, only this time rioters will be facing people armed with automatic weapons and a nasty disposition. You faced collapse once, at home, with gear. Go to a camp and you will face it again, in a tent city, with no gear. Think about it.
Welcome to the real world of social collapse, where families are sundered, and children and good, knowing people die because of the complacency, confusion, and naiveté of the unaware, which are at least as hazardous as weather, injury, and malicious action. All the gear in the world is useless if you will not use it, and sometimes the decisions that go into using it are very hard indeed. These human factors involved in survival are as important, if not more so, than any piece of gear. I will be so bold as to warn you now — if this stuff ever does come to pass, time counts. If you wait until the riot is two blocks down the street, you and yours will leave in a panic, with little on you but the clothes you are wearing. If you manage to leave under load at that point, you will likely be overtaken by others. If you wait until the proof is all but literally staring you in the face, survival for any significant period of time, much less the long term, will be a matter of supreme luck.
The relevance here is, forget the movies and the books. They may have good ideas, which should be used. They may be entertaining, which should be appreciated. But if you’re looking for The One Defining Event, forget it. While you’re waiting for what you think is supposed to happen, you’ll talk yourself out of reacting to reality. This is a Bad Thing.
Of course, if you leave, it’s nice to know where to go. You can go to a city and hope it works out. You can follow the idea many have of setting up shop in a small town, living there, becoming part of the community, and then manning the ramparts against the fleeing hordes. I still have some problem with this, because
(1) the town is on the power grid, which will most likely be history, and
(2) towns are on maps. When the second wave comes out, they will know where to find you, and you won’t want this crowd (gangs) to do it. Still, there are long-term benefits if nothing happens, and the idea has merit generally speaking.
You could form your own community. Finding suitable land won’t be easy or cheap, but you have control over things like power generation, water supply, housing, food production, communications, &etc. Whatever happens, you’re there, you’re ready physically and mentally, as a community.
A variation on this theme is “community by stealth.” Somebody buys land, sets up, stocks up, and then tells their friends where they are. The friends cache some “nice to have” items on the land, visit once in a while, and nobody around is much the wiser. The place is on no map, so the base isn’t a primary or secondary target. When things pop, everybody has a base to head for to set up shop. Mind you, if you do this, you had better be way in the country, or the townsfolk will be very, very pissed. The downside is your base is lightly defended, so it could get looted as a target of opportunity, and it may take some doing to get to, but on the whole I like this plan although I would only it rate it a my second preference. It’s discrete but allows for planning.
The concept most fundamental to realistic long-term disaster preparedness is retreating; having a safe place to go in order to avoid the concentrated violence destined to erupt in the cities — a place where, in addition to owning greater safety during the crisis interval, one can reasonably expect to generate subsistence for an indefinite period thereafter. Despite its central importance to the business of staying alive in the aftermath of a pervasive disaster, this aspect of the survival equation is not widely understood.
Most people who approach the topic for the first time tend to be hampered by what I call the “backpacker mentality.” They tend to conceive of disaster survival as an extended wilderness adventure in which they somehow manage to escape from the cities in the nick of time, just ahead of the fleeing mobs, carrying all they will need for shelter, food, clothing, medical care and protection in a pack on their backs, in the saddle bags of a ten-speed bicycle or in the trunk of the family car. Another common misconception centres around the isolated wilderness cabin or mountain stronghold where a single family or a few friends expect to fend off all comers, in the event of their being discovered.
Unfortunately, the gross inadequacy of current survival literature does not tend to lead one further, because most of it seems to confuse the romance of woodcraft, nomadics and homesteading with the hard realities of disaster survival. The hackneyed retreat alternatives so shallowly conceived and so tirelessly repeated by the few writers on the subject are, upon careful examination, simplistic, unworkable or of severely limited value in the real world. Some of them have a transient appeal, in a Walter Mitty sort of way, and they can spark some remarkably interesting table conversation.
Who among us has never dreamed of sailing off to exotic climes, leaving the humdrum world behind; who doesn’t cherish a secret longing for a hideaway back of beyond — a rough-hewn cabin snug against the winter, smoke curling from a stone chimney? These things have an archetypal appeal and they are exciting to contemplate — so long as your commitment does not go beyond talking and wool gathering. Only in the rarest circumstances, however, could a thoughtful, practical, reasonably prudent individual be expected to stake his life and that of his family on any of them.
To ice the matter, most of these cliché retreat alternatives require crystal-ball timing. Because they are generally such an extreme departure from conventional life patterns, one would hardly choose to activate his retreat plan a moment sooner than necessary. Who would willingly elect, before circumstances forced him, to start blundering through the bush for months on end in a flimsy motor home, popping its staples with every mile, towing a reluctant trailer containing all his possessions? Who would choose to live aboard a cramped sailboat with three kids and a pregnant wife even a week longer than he had to? Yet those who delay seeking their retreats until the crisis strikes may never reach them.
Once you have reached the point where you feel that preparedness is no longer academic, and you have a growing, apprehensive awareness that the time grows short for you to relocate away from the areas of greatest danger, it becomes increasingly easy to see the shortcomings of the traditional retreat alternatives.
As you may gather I feel that the seagoing approach, for example, is simply out of the question for more than a very few; the land mobile techniques are patently irresponsible; isolated wilderness retreats are virtually indefensible by an average family; group retreats sound good in theory but once you begin investigating actual examples, serious problems become apparent. There are too many rules and regulations, or too few; there is great difficulty in getting a good balance of needed skills in the group since awareness of the need for retreating does not even roughly coincide with a cross section of occupations in a balanced community (too many doctors and lawyers, for example, and not enough plumbers, electricians or carpenters).
Artificial communities have a tendency not to work out. Since few, if any, of them allow occupancy now, you would have no way of knowing whether they were viable until the convening of the crisis — and then it would be too late.
If you expect to ensure your safety by hiding, just getting out into the countryside will not do. For those who are caught by the collapse completely unaware, escaping from the population centres into the countryside on shank’s mare may be the only alternative, but those of you who see the problems ahead should be armed with a better plan.
To have a chance at all you must seek out real wilderness and there is very little wilderness any longer where one could build a cabin, take up residence and begin hunting or fishing unmolested. Most of what there is offers such an inhospitable climate and short growing season that cultivating an appreciable amount of food would be out of the question. Keeping domestic animals under those circumstances would probably create more problems than it would solve.
You are almost certain to encounter frightened, desperate mobs of people whose first thought in escaping the cities is the same as yours — head for the nearest patch of woods with whatever can be carried. If there is game in the area, it will quickly be decimated or frightened away. Those who are without supplies, equipment or the skills necessary to provide themselves with food and shelter will undoubtedly try to take what they need by force. Terrified, inexperienced hunters will be shooting at anything that moves; and all around you, first-time woodsmen will be igniting giant fires for warmth and cooking without due regard for safety. The conflagration that will ensue, I leave to your imagination.
When the food stores are empty, the fires will begin. Arson seems to be one of the commonest accompaniments to riots and it is unreasonable to believe that firemen and police will be reporting for duty to protect your home when they could be fleeing the cities with their families — especially since there will be no money with which to pay them for their services.
Those who have survived the first hours or days of the holocaust in the cities will begin to flee — if they have not already done so — when the public water supply and sanitation facilities fail and disease begin to become a factor. Small, isolated farms will become targets for looters and the hordes pouring out of metropolitan areas will probably converge on known food-producing areas or established resorts where it may be presumed that the affluent have vacation homes stocked with food and supplies.
If that weren’t enough, there is also the matter of logistics. The nomadic aspect of this approach to retreating limits your gear and stores to what you can carry, and you cannot expect re-supply.
Defending yourself from a superior force of attackers with only a weapon and severely limited ammunition supplies would certainly prove hazardous, particularly at close range in the open where such encounters would probably occur. Finally, stress would exact an enormous toll under these conditions.
Virtually every move you made and every decision could mean life or death. Breaking your knife blade or shattering your axe on a hidden pine knot could be a decisive factor in your struggle to stay alive, and the strain of living under such unremitting pressure brings about changes in the human cardiovascular and endocrine systems that are themselves life-threatening,
So much, then, for easy answers. Those of us who see the need to make serious survival preparations have to begin our thinking somewhere. The danger lies in not thinking beyond them. Or as I sometimes put it ‘Getting out of the Box’.
The truth is that establishing and occupying a retreat is serious business. It is going to involve extensive, informed planning tailored to the precise needs of the people who will use it, and the problems which must be resolved in making such an arrangement viable under crisis conditions are enormous.
People seldom take such serious steps without a firm commitment, and I believe that you are more likely to reach that point of determination if you arrive at your own idea of what you need by setting up your own list of objective criteria, based on an informed analysis of what the coming holocaust is apt to be like and the functions that a retreat would have to fulfil under those conditions.
Also involved are emotional factors which other aspects of survival preparation do not engender. It’s one thing to buy a gun or two and some storable food, quite another to restructure completely one’s entire mode of living. Still, it is far more reasonable to plan the details of a new lifestyle carefully in advance than to be thrust into whatever niche chance may offer when the crisis arrives.
Whether or not you are ready to make the commitment necessary to take that step, I think it is important that you understand why the lesser measures that I mention here will not do.
Although the criteria you establish should reflect your own personal requirements in the greatest possible detail, there are also a number of objective considerations which must be taken into account because they are common to virtually any catastrophic occurrence having long-term consequences.
Then there is the matter of getting to your hideaway. If it is remote enough to do you any good at all, it will probably be several hundred miles from where you live. If you wait to run until the balloon goes up, the highways will resemble parking lots and you will probably never reach your retreat. If you move there now, you will run the unnecessary risk of being without emergency medical care and lose some of the options that might be available to you if you remained nearer the mainstream of the social order. Forest fires would remain a peril in most locations and, because your entire rationale for security would rest upon your isolation, bartering goods and services would be impossible. Also, you could expect no help from any quarter if you were discovered by a hostile force. Finally, as I have already mentioned even in the sort of wilderness we are discussing here, game is now by no means sufficiently plentiful.
Assuming that you have made reasonable preparations to live self-sufficiently, the greatest single danger to your survival when the crisis strikes will be your proximity to concentrated masses of systems-dependent people. Remaining in a city is totally out of the question and even living in a relatively out of the way place in an area of high overall population density is extremely hazardous. A major factor in your location of a retreat, then, ought to be population density. Not only should your chosen site be away from major metropolitan areas, but the ambient population should be low as well.
A base camp with a permanent shelter located well away from population density, to stand some chance of escaping detection — however slim — would certainly offer some improvement over “playing Batman in the boondocks.” Such an arrangement, however, still fails to tip the balance significantly in favour of the survivalist.
You could, of course, stock your cabin, if you do by chance have one, in advance and hope to benefit from a wider selection of weapons, more ammunition, reloading supplies, storable foods, books, a wood stove, medical supplies, spares of critical items such as knives and axes. The risks from pilferage and deterioration would not be inconsiderable, however, unless you resorted to fairly elaborate and expensive storage caches. Building a hidden, waterproof, underground storage vault, for example, miles from the nearest settlement poses some problems.
One of these is the probability of concerted, widespread violence which may last for a protracted period at a relatively high level. None of us knows, of course, exactly what will occur, but of all the possible scenarios, unrestrained violence and looting seem the most probable. It should be obvious that the mass hysteria and unbridled fear stemming from a crisis of the magnitude contemplated here will not have a calming effect upon the hatred and fragmentation that already exist in our society. In addition to the violence-prone, there will be the element of normally decent people who didn’t prepare and who will try to take what they need by whatever means necessary to keep themselves and their families alive.
Clearly there are places where the odds of discovery would be greatly in your favour, but if you should be stumbled upon by looters, remote from any possible aid, the superior force would almost certainly prevail. Further, if your security were to depend on remaining undiscovered for an extended period of time, the hardships and limitations placed upon you would be enormous. For one thing, raising animals for food would be virtually impossible and even cultivating a garden conveniently near would be a hazard. The emotional strain of keeping constantly quiet and hidden would also be burdensome to most including particularly any children.
Planning for the long term, even assuming you have a pre-stocked base, is not easy. All the basic criteria — water, fire, food, shelter, clothing, and medical — need to be provided for, two or ten years after the event. Many items you start with will last the long haul, but food, medicines, boots/shoes, children’s clothing, cleaning supplies, and many other items will be used up, worn out, outgrown, gone, and/or expired after about a year of hard use. What ever stocks you may have is a flying leap into the unknown future, you may have enough stuff to get you to it, but not through it (the future, that is.)
The resources you have are not infinite. For farming, you have to account for fertilizer, water, weather, and pests, plus planning for the preservation of a surplus for next year’s planting. You need trees and/or clay (for bricks) for building materials, but if you have trees, you must have a harvest and reforestation plan, while clay pits aren’t inexhaustible. You can’t allow your group to over-hunt an area, or there won’t be any game. This might imply access to livestock, which have to be grazed, watered, cared for, and housed. Try to plan your resource usage as wisely as you planned their availability.
Sanitation is a nasty problem, no pun intended. Septic systems in place require maintenance, and how do you propose to add new ones once it falls apart? Drainage, water table, water sources, decomposition aids (real wetlands are a big help,) and many other considerations come into play here.
One thing I have never seen adequately addressed is long-term provision of potable water. Many books tell you how to store it, but what about the remote site? Hand purifiers are rated for a certain number of gallons max, and that maximum isn’t that large. The only idea I’ve been able to come up with is a large, permanent solar still. You have a pond in it, preferably with a black plastic floor, a large window to let in sunlight for heating, and you have a shaded condensation area that allows the condensate to drain into a trough for consumption. Another possibility is a parabolic reflector made from aluminium, possibly foil over wood, with a pipe near the focus point run water into the pipe and let the sun boil it. A slightly less complicated variation would be to suspend a metal drum at the focus point and boil your water 30-50 gallons at a time. Whatever. I can’t say I’ve given enough thought about the feasibility of what I’ve suggested.
If you have a group but no base, it’s hard. Everything depends on knowledge of what’s where, so planning has to include maps, travel, and reading. Get to know some of the possibilities. Remember, you must be ready for the winter. That includes housing and basic sanitation. Of course, if it is winter, head for an area you can hunt in, build temporary housing, and hole up until spring. Use the time to plan your next move as best you can. Almanacs can become an invaluable asset here, since they list things like products by state. Don’t go looking for Eden (unless you feel you should,) but also don’t assume that your winter stopping spot is where you should be. If can find a better place on the map, go for it. This might mean you pull up stakes and move six months after leaving home, but look at it this way — you survived winter, you learned a lot, and you still have a purpose.
If you’re on your own, it’s difficult. As an individual or family, you are less of a threat than a large group when you approach a town. You are also an easier target and have fewer resources in adversity than a group. I have little advice save follow your instincts. If solo, maybe you can become a bard — travellers were sources of news in the days before the telegraph, and sometimes offered hospitality on that basis.
Most people think of survival as a negative — “I won’t die.” When you turn around and start thinking as “I will live,” you open the door to thinking about how you will live — and, maybe, how you’re living now. The psychological distinction between the negative and the positive can be significant. The positive gives you a purpose, which guides efforts and gives support in adversity. The negative lacks a purpose that lends guidance beyond the day-to-day efforts — it isn’t what has happened that a negative person measures, it’s what hasn’t. This lack of purpose — lack of future, really — can be lethal.
At some point, there are going to be other people wandering in your neck of the woods. Early on, it’s very possible they are hungry, desperate, and not too picky about how they solve their problems of food and shelter. Remember your planning, and develop a routine to handle the situations stragglers can present. Even if you have an “open arms” or alternative settlement policy, some people can’t stand the thought of not being in charge. It does no good to empathize with an axe murderer — the fact you understand why he is trying to kill you doesn’t change the fact he’s trying to kill you.
Consider trade as time goes on. If you sit along a natural trade route, think about things you’ll need, like (probably) salt, and what you can trade for it. Art objects aren’t much use, but blades, smelted metals in ingot form, cast items, pottery, leather and items made of it, some items of wood, bees wax, herbs, etc. will be.
These generalized criteria, coupled with your own personal requirements and such other considerations as reasonable climate, factors suitable to agriculture, the availability of some hunting, fishing and trapping will considerably narrow your search for a geographical area in which to locate your retreat. But one major question remains: Do you attempt to go it alone in complete isolation or do you join with others who share your concerns?
The question almost answers itself — at least partially — because regardless of where you choose to locate, there is no retreat site in the continental United States and even less in the UK where you could be certain of living in total isolation, completely undetected.
For these reasons, and many others that become obvious when you think seriously about the problems of establishing an isolated, single-family retreat, one is tempted either to opt for a group retreat — despite the obvious shortcomings — or to remain paralyzed from indecision, doing nothing as time runs out.
Although the problems with existing group retreats invalidate them from practical consideration so far as I am concerned, I remain convinced that only a community of reasonable size with a balance of vital skills would be both workable for the long term and proof against attack by the determined bands of well-organized looters that would doubtless emerge from the crisis period.
If wilderness nomadics are one extreme of living off the land, then full-time farming is the other, and it too has its drawbacks. For one thing, making a living solely from working a small farm is so labour-intensive and requires so much skill that few people succeed in the attempt. Under survival conditions, of course, you would need only to produce enough to feed your family and, perhaps, a bit more for barter, but even that modest goal involves considerably more knowledge and work than the uninitiated may imagine. Insects, animals, thieves and weather can all thwart your plans even if you know when, what and where to plant, how to cultivate, rotate and keep your land fertile without the use of commercial fertilisers, and all the rest.
Fortunately, neither isolated primitive living nor blundering through the woods with a rucksack exhausts the possibilities of surviving through self-sufficiency. There is at least one viable approach to foraging and living off the land in the aftermath of a disaster.
The empirical answer to this dilemma, which the theoreticians seem to have missed, is obvious: an already existing, functioning community in which the balance of skills, social interplay and other essential factors has been established pragmatically. A small town.
Not just any small town will do however. It should meet the stringent requirements for any good retreat and offer certain advantages of flexibility as well.
The small town
I am concerned that a large number of people who believe that a catastrophe is coming and who see the need for survival preparedness may do nothing because they are convinced that they will be able to perceive the warning signals and flee to their retreats in the nick of time. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking makes for victims, not survivors.
There will probably be no warning at all, and unless you are living at your retreat when the first blast occurs, the odds are that you will never reach it. As an example, if the collapse develops from economic and political causes, the chances are that its coming will be so gradual that you will wait too long to leave and if the collapse comes suddenly then the likelihood of getting there will be, I think, remote. I’m not, here, predicting when a collapse will occur, but I am saying that I believe everything necessary to cause such a catastrophe is now in place.
This preamble is meant to point up one of the primary advantages of locating your retreat in a small rural community, as opposed to following one of the more radical cliché alternatives (that is, isolated wilderness retreats, commercial group retreats, sea or land mobile retreats). You can move there now and live comfortably with whatever conveniences your means allow, for whatever period of grace we may have before the breakdown occurs, and by doing so, you can eliminate the two greatest risks in the survival equation:
(1) estimating or recognising the time when you should leave for your retreat, and
(2) the hazardous travel that might be involved in getting there when the crisis actually occurs.
Another advantage of relocating now is that establishing your retreat gives focus to the rest of your plans. It is one thing to know that you will want a generator, for example, but quite another to know which generator to buy when you have no idea of how or where it may be used. Similarly, choosing your retreat now will simplify the selection of clothing, storable food, weapons and other supplies that you will want to put by.
Further, if you are to realise the full advantage of retreating in a small rural community, it is extremely important that you allow enough time before the trouble starts for you to become a part of that community. The last thing you want is to be the stranger — perhaps the expendable stranger — who just blew into town before the crunch began.
One of the most prudent reasons for moving to a rural retreat now is the development time involved. If you really intend to try having a self-sufficient farm or smallholding, you will need as much lead-time as you can get before the crisis hits. Even the best small farms will seldom be ideal for your purposes. Most of them rely heavily on electrical power for irrigation and pumping drinking water and many employ electrical cattle fencing. Almost all are dependent on a tractor or other farm machinery for maximum productivity and few farmhouses or outbuildings approach a standard that you or I might recognise as energy efficient.
A word here about the house.
Whether you build or simply remodel, maintain an exterior appearance in keeping with the houses around you-no concrete tee-pee’s surrounded by moats, rammed earth underground forts, stainless steel huts, bullet-proof geodesic domes or any of the other configurations that shout “retreat.” You do not want your home to attract undue attention, either by its grandeur or its unique appearance.
Selecting a Small Town Retreat
Size and composition
The community you choose must be small — one to 5,000 population, preferably, and 2,000-3,000 optimally. You are looking for a community large enough to be able to stand a good chance against any outside attack short of one by an armoured division and still small enough to remain cohesive during hard times, with a minuscule disruptive element. Just because a small town has fewer people than a city is no guarantee that it will be nirvana for retreaters. I would consider 20,000 the upper limit even in unusual circumstances because communications and direction become virtually impossible when the population is larger.
Also, the community must be essentially rural — a small industrial town will not do. The economy should be based on small individually owned farms producing a broad variety of crops and livestock. What might be termed “subsistence truck farms” would be ideal. Avoid one-crop areas where vast amounts of grain or some other specialized item is produced but where other food consumed by the population must be imported. Make certain that a large number of the residents do not depend upon government employment, industry or large agribusiness. Imagine what might happen in the small town if the local food producing plant for large supermarkets closed.
The community you select should be as far removed from any large city and far enough away from even moderately sized population centres as you can get to be truly self-sufficient. This is more easily said than done particularly in the UK. All of the vital skills should be present and there should be enough practitioners of them. A quick look at the yellow pages in the local phone book will provide the necessary information on this point.
It should be obvious that you will want to avoid areas plagued by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, high winds, forest fires and the like. Coastal areas are, similarly, a poor choice because of the possibility of tidal waves. Also to be avoided are all areas of high ambient population. You can be well away from cities and still have too many people around for the best security. Resorts, college towns, tourist areas and similar locales having a large seasonal population upon which the local economy depends are better avoided even when other criteria are met. Conspicuous food-producing locations promise particularly high risks, since they are probably the first places starving mobs escaping the cities would think to run.
Nuclear power plants in the vicinity of your proposed retreat also pose an unnecessary risk. As Paul Ehrlich points out in his book The End of Affluence, such a facility merely abandoned and not properly shut down could detonate, spreading radioactive material for miles.
Known landslide country and heavily forested areas should be avoided because they can be a great danger even in ordinary times. During a crisis, when there is no one to put fires out, that danger could be multiplied many times over, particularly when you consider that the woods are likely to be filled with refugees from the cities — many of whom may be less than expert in handling wilderness campfires.
Nearby military bases could also pose some problems. Even if the troops stationed there did not decide to expropriate the supplies of those living in the vicinity, you might expect the bases to be looted sooner or later and few retreats would be proof against attacks with armoured vehicles, flame throwers and grenades.
Whatever your view of the possibility of nuclear war, it seems foolish to me to ignore potential target areas and fallout patterns, even if you don’t presently feel that a nuclear exchange poses a high-risk factor, in selecting a retreat site. If you are going to the trouble and expense of establishing a retreat in the first place, you may as well have one that is secure against as many perils as possible. It seems imprudent not to eliminate as many credible perils as possible in an undertaking of this sort.
This is a difficult topic because there is much evidence that our climate is changing, but there are a few points worth considering. It seems prudent to avoid already severe weather patterns. Further, milder weather will allow you to reduce the amount of clothing and fuel you will need just to stay alive. You will also want to look for a good growing season (160-180 days) and moderate rainfall tending — if toward any extreme — toward the wet. Except in flood-prone areas, too much rain is generally less of a problem than too little. Drought can disrupt all of your survival plans (another good reason to lay in plenty of storage food even if you plan to grow your own).
It is important that you give some thought to the local government of the area in which you choose your small town. Obviously, it is an advantage to select an area with relatively small government which has no pretensions to national leadership and which provides its officials with no great springboard to national politics. The more services which the local government provides, the more taxes will be extracted from you. Smaller area governments also interfere less in your life generally. There are fewer restrictions on what you can do, buy or build and there are fewer officials to enforce the restrictions on the books. This statement may be mare applicable in the USA.
There is an inherent social discipline in small towns. There is no anonymity and, perhaps for that reason, the people generally tend to have a strong sense of responsibility. Further, unproductive people who are unwilling to work are seldom attracted to farm communities. Farmers are usually disciplined because their work demands it. If you have a cow, she has to be milked twice a day every day at the same hours. Such people are already accustomed to working together for barn raising, harvest and the like. Also, barter is a way of life: lamb for pork, butter for eggs, hay for grain, or labour for a share of the crop. These are the kinds of folk who would band together in a crisis to protect their community from outsiders. They have worked for what is theirs, they take pride in it and they are determined to keep it.
There are, of course, a few sociopaths in every town, I suppose, but in a rural population of two or three thousand, that number is very small indeed — probably no more than the cartridges contained in a single 45 magazine.
Much as I abhor being dogmatic, I see no viable alternative to relocating to a small rural community, if you believe as I do that we are on the verge of a catastrophic social upheaval. Arguments against the position are all ultimately irrelevant if you regard survival as a priority, just as arguments against breathing are irrelevant, no matter how persuasively an expert might insist that polluted air can damage your lungs. There are difficulties, of course, but they must be regarded as necessary adjustments, not reasons for choosing a wholly untenable course of action.
There is simply no tactful way to say this, so I will be blunt: Compromises in the location of your retreat are likely to get you killed. Never mind that you have friends in upstate New York or that you prefer Florida’s climate and proximity to beaches or that there’s no Junior League chapter to which your wife may transfer. Either you are sufficiently committed to the retreat concept so that you will choose a location with cold-blooded objectivity or you are not. If you are not, you might as well forget the whole idea. Halfway measures will not serve.
If you are new to farming or smallholding, you should have at least a full year for experimenting with various crops and animals in order to decide what you want to raise before your life depends upon it. You will also need to learn by experience from your own operation just what equipment and supplies you should stockpile. Guidebooks are useful, but none of them is a fair substitute for spending four seasons on your own land trying to outwit the invisible bugs that are eating your corn, aiding at the birth of a litter of pigs, sitting up all night with a shotgun across your knees to end the career of a fox or wild dog that has killed six of your best laying hens, or trying to entice a sheep with the brains of an ice cube into the feeding pen through the same hole in the fence it just came out of.
I approach this topic with some misgivings. Nothing in the field seems to generate as much controversy and, frequently, outright hostility as the question whether living off the land is a viable approach to long-term disaster survival. At the risk of being required to turn in my fire drill, snare wire and obsidian knife, I intend to answer that question forthrightly, in the great tradition of acknowledged experts everywhere: yes and no.
Obviously, the answer is yes, at some level of technology, because we all draw our sustenance from nature every day. If, however, your idea of living off the land is heading for the nearest woods with nothing more than a backpack and a gleam of confidence in your eye, then I would rate your chances of surviving the sort of catastrophe which I contemplate as somewhere between zero and none.
Like thumb sucking in children, the notion of escaping a holocaust and subsisting on forage in the wilderness seems to be a phase that all of us must go through when faced with a high probability that the fragile symbiosis of our current urbanized social order may fragment into chaos as a result of runaway inflation or nuclear war.
Before I begin to sound like a temperance league activist leading a roomful of alcoholics in a chorus of “lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine,” let me hasten to add that I am no less susceptible to the siren call of the wild than you. I grew up daydreaming over Robinson Crusoe and the appeal of cruising real wilderness for a few weeks or even months is certainly not lost on me. Nevertheless, the arguments against the “mountain man” approach to long-term survival are telling — even for experienced woodsmen. Be that as it may, back to the points in hand.
Fortunately, there is a middle ground between the two extremes (full time farming and nomadics) of seeking long-term subsistence from the land: a thoughtful combination of foraging for wild food and limited small-scale agriculture. Although unusual, this approach is practical and it can save you a great deal of money when you purchase the land for your retreat.
There is often a greater abundance of food more easily available on an abandoned farmstead in good game country than can be found on ten times the acreage in true wilderness. Yet the most expensive farmland is usually well kept and completely cleared to maximize its use for cultivated crops. It offers little in the way of cover for game, and hardy nutritious plants such as dandelions, lamb’s quarters, Jerusalem artichokes and thistles, which flourish without care in most parts of the country, have been uprooted and burned as unwanted weeds. That is a logical approach for the full-time farmer whose eye is on developing cash crops for market, but for the survivalist who is concerned with producing the surest source of nutrition for his family with the least amount of work, it is a serious mistake.
An optimal retreat site for the survivalist forager might be a poorly maintained or abandoned small farm, a portion of which had once been cultivated but which had never been entirely cleared of trees. You might even want to add additional brush piles for small-game cover, and, if a suitable one does not already exist, you should consider digging a pond. Nothing else will enhance the food-producing potential of your land as much, even if you don’t bother — as you should — to stock it with fish. Turtles and frogs will appear as if by magic, deer and other large game may be attracted if the terrain and certain other conditions are right, flocks of migratory birds will probably come in if you are near a flyway and a variety of edible small game will undoubtedly take up residence there. The pond doesn’t need to be more than a few feet deep unless you should require a great deal of irrigation water from it, but the surface area should be as large as you can reasonably make it, for maximum effect. A two-acre pond on an eight to ten acre parcel is none too large. Surrounded by a start of such nourishing edibles as wild rice, cattails, berry bushes and the like, then stocked with trout, catfish or bass and bluegills — depending on location and climate — such a pond alone could provide substantially all of the food necessary for a small family.
Before you decide on a location for your pond or clear a square inch of land, however, you should get a good book on plant identification. Then walk your entire property with a notebook, listing and marking the location of everything that grows there. You may want to remove and destroy all poisonous or otherwise harmful plants and, perhaps, introduce some edibles that flourish in your neighbourhood but are not well represented on your land.
A few fruit and nut trees should also be considered, not only for their relatively carefree harvest but also to attract more game. Prudence dictates having a garden, despite the work involved, but it need not be large. A plot fifty by seventy feet, properly handled, will provide all the produce a family of four can use. Twice that area would yield an abundance for both storage (canning, dehydration, etc.) and barter.
Most survivalists forget about growing grains. You shouldn’t, but neither should you consider the kind of labour-intensive cultivation and machine harvest used by agribusiness. The five bushels of grain consumed by the average family can easily be grown on one sixth of an acre — a plot seventy-five by one hundred feet — and harvested by hand. If you have farm animals, you may want a bit more to increase egg production or improve the quality of your beef — and nothing else will attract wild game birds as quickly as a few stands of grain sown along your fence lines.
Harvesting your cultivated crops and slaughtering your farm animals for the table, if something of a chore, requires little instruction, and foraging for wild plant edibles takes little more effort than a casual stroll; no more equipment than a garden trowel or a stout, oversized sheath knife and a deck of plant identification cards in your pocket. The kind of hunting you will encounter under the circumstances outlined here, however, is apt to call for some specialized knowledge, different tools and an overall approach to which you may be unaccustomed. Foraging is not sport hunting and, under survival conditions, the consequences of an empty game bag are considerably more serious than merely being the butt of some good-natured, if crude, humour at day’s end.
If you really expect to succeed living off the land, you will almost never “go hunting.” It is too time-consuming for the amount of food produced; yet you should always be prepared to take a mixed bag, as it is presented, whenever you are outdoors at your retreat. Small farms develop a certain rhythm which the animals perceive and they expose themselves much more frequently when you are performing routine chores than when you are “hunting.” The problem is, when you set out for the day’s work, you never know what you may have the opportunity to garner: a few giant bullfrogs or a couple of snapping turtles sunning themselves on a log as you pass the pond, quail or pheasant flushing ahead of you as you enter the pasture or, perhaps a deer helping himself to the salt lick you so carefully provided near the orchard. You may also encounter a variety of pests that need eliminating, from rats in the feed bin to coyotes stalking your new lambs. Obviously, you will need to be armed routinely, but with what? Your Sunday-best scoped centerfire rifle will seldom be needed for such service and after a few months aboard the tractor or parting brush and being dropped in thickets, it might pass as a relic of the Boer War. Besides, such a rifle would not offer sufficient versatility and would be too cumbersome for daily carry. A shotgun? Better, perhaps, but certainly not ideal for frogs and turtles or long shots at varmints.
The wear and rough handling that long guns are almost certain to receive under these circumstances seem to call for simple, reliable utility arms. In particular, I have the Savage 24 series combination gun is virtually indispensable in such service. The short, hardy 24C takedown Camper’s Model with a .22 rimfire rifle barrel superposed over a 20-gauge smoothbore is especially suitable. The hollow butt holds extra ammunition and the rifle is far more accurate than either the gun’s appearance or its modest price would indicate. A switch that falls naturally under your thumb on the hammer when you cock the piece provides an instant choice of either shotgun or rifle. Coupled with a short, big-bore handgun, you are prepared to meet almost any foraging challenge your farmstead may offer.
Most of the animal life you can bring to bag at a farm retreat will be potentially edible and probably highly nutritious, but you may never learn how to make it palatable without some expert guidance. For this reason, include some of the better wild-food cookbooks in your survival library and make sure that they cover not only recipes for the customary game animals, but instructions on preparing the more common small farm denizens and Unusual plants as well.
Almost anyone can gain the necessary skill to provide a full larder of wild food by taking advantage of the great variety of edibles freely available on uncultivated land in rural areas. If you do, you may increase your health by replacing the stale, over processed, chemically laden food in your diet, gain peace of mind from knowing that you can live off the land in an emergency and derive satisfaction from self-reliance that no amount of plucking plastic wrapped packages from the supermarket shelf could ever bring. And when the time comes that the supermarket shelf is no longer there — you could save your life.
This article has been compiled as a guide and ‘food for thought’ if you are contemplating what the future may hold. It is full of suggestions and thoughts but only you can decide ‘if and when’ if ever.
If you have any thoughts on this article please feel free to e-mail me at Norman@noidea.me.uk
South West England