Survival Preparedness

A step at a time


"I'm really quite concerned about trends in this country today; if only I had the money, I'd build a retreat so far back in the Rockies that I might go there and no one could find me." How often I have heard that statement or some variation thereof since becoming a retreat consultant! On further inquiry it all too often translates into something like: "I'm worried, but since I don't have the cash to really do it up right, it's hopeless and I just won't do anything for now."

It's easy to understand how one might feel that way on first encounter with the retreat idea, particularly since it is so often too narrowly defined. I have heard any number of supposed experts sagely advise that any proper retreat would start with a remote working ranch of many acres, complete with a spacious farmhouse, barns, and outbuildings, various kinds of stock, a garden, producing orchards, woodlot, and berry patches, a farm pond, an independent source of power, and a well and waste disposal system. To this they typically recommend adding well-stocked underground storage, camouflage, defenses, and a full-time caretaker. Now, I'll grant you that would indeed provide good retreat potential, but it could also set its proud owner back well over a hundred thousand dollars the first year, not to mention taxes and upkeep. Not too many of us are in a bracket to make this kind of instant outlay!

That's no more the only path to preparedness, however, than a Lear jet is the only way to travel. Indeed, there are as many retreat approaches as there are people pursuing them. And those writing and speaking on this subject would do a greater service by outlining various alternatives than by trying to force everyone into a single ill-fitting and financially exclusive pigeonhole.

When Barbie and I first got the retreating bug, over 12 years ago, we had just established joint housekeeping and could little more than meet monthly expenses from our meager salaries; so any such major investment was out of the question. But we also realized that if we waited until we could afford to "do it right," there would always be something else that took precedence, and then one day it might well be too late and we would have to pay dearly for our procrastination.

So we decided to begin preparing then and to expand our efforts as funds permitted. If you find yourself limited, by income or commitment, in the amount of immediate capital outlay you can reasonably earmark for retreating, perhaps our approach to maximizing survival potential on limited funds will have value for you. I might emphasize that this narrative isn't intended to provide step-by-step instructions but, rather, to offer some examples from which to tailor your preparations to your own unique requirements, resources, and expectations. Remember, no one, pat formula for preparedness can best suit everyone's needs.

We began by carefully reviewing our finances to see just how much we could realistically allocate for survival purchases. Our budget dictated spending only $10 a month in the beginning. That may not seem like much, but as I look back on it now I am amazed at what we were able to do with that sum before the recent burst of price inflation.

We made a list of all the basic areas deserving consideration—clothing, shelter, water, food, defense, transportation, etc. Our goal was to proceed with each evenly. It made no sense to have a year's food supply on hand but no way to cook it and no water. So what did we buy with our $10 allocations? Well, I remember one month we spent it on garden tools, another on 1,000 rounds of .22 ammo, another on fishing gear and frog spears. We bought heavy-duty jeans ($3 a pair back in those days), pack sacks, first-aid supplies, wool socks, and survival books. Sometimes we saved for several months for bigger items like a mountain tent, hiking boots, or a camp cook stove.

An inventory of useful items that we had acquired already included such items as sleeping bags, several rifles, and wool clothing. We started putting our survival gear in a metal footlocker (scavenged on trash day), and before long it was full. We also let it be known among family and friends what we were up to; so when the holiday season rolled around we received gifts that furthered our efforts, rather than more neck ties, costume jewelry, colognes, and the like.

At the same time, we started an emergency fund by putting our pocket change in a piggy bank. Those dimes, quarters, and halves began to mount into a sizeable sum. Because they were silver at a time when that was already becoming uncommon, we held on with resolution to what we had. Since then we have seen this nest egg increase in value more than three times as compared with paper; our only regret is that we weren't able to put aside more.

Figuring that know-how stored in the head is the most valuable and portable survival resource, we set out to expand our knowledge in relevant areas. Since our limited budget precluded purchasing any but the volumes most essential for continued reference, we made extensive use of library privileges to fill in the gaps. There was no sense buying what would only be read once.

To augment our previous formal training, we sought out classes on useful topics. The Sierra Club was offering, at no charge, what it called a "basic mountaineering training course," and we jumped at it. Despite the philosophical propaganda, we came away with a host of valuable information as well as field experience. Other classes we attended included first aid, wilderness survival, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, combat shooting, leather working, and spinning and weaving. All in all, it was time well spent and the cost was nominal.

Reading and classroom experience weren't enough. We knew we would also have to get out and test our training and learn a bit by trial and error. Barbie and I had both tended gardens with varying success before, using cultivated bare-earth methods with lots of water, fertilizers, and insecticides. But there were new techniques, less dependent on purchased chemicals, that we'd only read about. So following the ideas in Ruth Stout's Gardening without Work and How To Have A Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, we jumped into mulch gardening with both feet. Since the fellow next door put in a conventional garden of comparable size, we were able to compare approaches.

We covered the ground with about eight inches of leaves and lawn clippings early in the spring, only parting the soil where rows of seeds were to be planted. Once the seedlings were up, we tucked mulch back in around them and waited. Our neighbor, on the other hand, spaded, rototilled, fertilized, and raked. He strung strings as a guide to mark neat little planting rows guarded at the end by sticks capped with the seed packages. Once his seeds were planted, several hours each day were spent on watering, hoeing, and spraying. The whole summer we only watered on half a dozen evenings after particularly hot days; and we never had to cultivate, because weeds were unable to push up through the thick layer of mulch, just as Ms. Stout had predicted. The fellow next door had a respectable harvest to show for his 300 hours of gardening, but despite a few mistake-induced problems, we really had produce running out of our ears. After eating, canning, freezing, selling, bartering, and giving away what we could, almost a third of the crop just rotted on the vine. We were still eating two summers later what had been preserved from that one season's gardening experiment.

That was just one of many learn-by-doing adventures we pursued. Others included hunting for large and small game, fishing in lakes, streams, rivers, and the ocean, foraging for wild plants and cooking what we gathered, testing our theories on underground caching techniques, preparing camping shelters and gear from native materials, building fires several ways without matches, and finding our route with map and compass, by the stars and sun, and with the aid of geologic features. We also tested the gear we were accumulating on these outings and, as funds permitted, replaced that which didn't live up to our expectations.

The hiking, hunting, fishing, and gardening all provided valuable exercise for keeping in shape, and this too was considered in our long-term survival preparations. Without good health, one would be far less able to meet the demands of retreating. But that requires more than just exercise. So we became quite involved with health planning. We read books on good nutrition and started weaning ourselves from excessive sugars, starchy overprocessed foods, caffeine, and alcohol and began to eat better planned and balanced meals. The fresh produce from our garden helped with this.

We also wanted to take care of possible health problems while doctors were still available. We had complete physicals, began stockpiling those medications we used regularly, and sought corrective care as recommended by our physicians. I'd had my tonsils removed when I was about ten, but Barbie's were still giving her trouble, so out they came. We also resolved to have appendectomies performed as part of the package if either of us required abdominal surgery for other reasons.

We had our dentist fill all developing caries promptly and remove wisdom teeth so they wouldn't be a problem later. We sought his advice, too, on maximizing our oral preventive measures. Since we both had been "blessed" with eyes requiring correction, we each had several pairs of glasses made but saved the old ones. Good vision would be very important at retreat, and we reasoned that if all our lenses ground to current correction became broken, even specs with an outdated prescription would beat blurry squinting.

The idea of saving and recycling discards was important to our preparation in other ways. With a bit of imagination, a lot of essentials can be fabricated from natural materials, but clothing is one of the more difficult. So rather than planning to make do with buckskins and scratchy homespuns, we opted for stockpiling clothing in advance. Going out to purchase a wardrobe for retreating could be an expensive venture, though; so we sought alternatives. It occurred to us that we had been discarding and replacing quite a lot of clothes over the years because they had become faded, tattered, or out of vogue. They might not be suited for further use here and now, but they would sure beat running starkers through the puckerbrush at retreat. And what wasn't good enough to salvage could serve as patching material for that which was. We might not look fancy for the bears or rabbits, but we'd be warm and protected from sunburn and brambles. We started packing away our discards for future use instead of sending them off to Goodwill.

Once we had pursued that line of thought this far, other erstwhile rubbish took on new value. Those down-at-the-heel but still serviceable shoes went to the cobbler for resoling and then into a carton marked "retreat footwear." The same kind of thinking put empty bottles, discarded pots, pans, and other kitchen items—even grocery sacks—into storage. They might be unwanted now, but how do you improvise a brown paper bag in the wilderness and in how many ways might it prove useful?

Having learned to see discards in a different light, there seemed to be no reason to limit them to our own. Our income had grown by this point, so we took our enlarged survival gear allowance to swap meets, estate auctions, and garage sales where other people's rejects often filled our "wants" list for a fraction of new cost. We secured a great pressure cooker that would process five half-gallon jars at a time for $5, canning jars for 60 cents a dozen, tools for pennies on the dollar, and even used unregistered firearms in like-new condition at a sizeable savings. The realization that in our throw-away society a discard isn't necessarily junk certainly took some of the tension out of our retreat budget. The only thing we had to watch was becoming tempted by bargains that were not high on our list.

Because we had to proceed slowly, we had time to establish priorities carefully and to investigate our purchases before they were made. That was one of the compensations of working with very limited funds. In my professional consultations since, I've had the opportunity to observe the kind of blunders easily made by those rushing into preparedness too quickly with a generous budget. I know of one individual who is presently trying to dump his fourth "retreat" property! It, like the others, has proven, in time, grossly unsuitable for its intended purpose. He ended up selling the previous three at losses, and it appears he may well be in the same boat again.

One of the first outings of our Sierra Club course was to be a "desert car-camp." At the time they announced it, I wasn't sure quite what that was. It turned out to be just about what it sounded like; we left for the California high desert one fine spring weekend and camped for several days in or around our vehicles. Lacking more luxurious accommodations but hesitant to share our sleeping bags with miscellaneous uninvited groundcrawling creepies, we tossed a twin-sized mattress into the trunk of our '64 Plymouth and slept very snuggly there. It was over six feet inside between the fenders; so I wedged in quite well, though the gas filler spout did prove a somewhat uncomfortable lump in my side by morning. We even found that if the wind became too vigorous we could be nicely protected by pulling the trunk lid down so it was only open a crack.

We continued to camp that way for some time, including a weekend spent with some retreater friends on Rosarita Beach in Baja, but as our family grew and we accumulated more gear, it got a bit crowded. Barbie had a chance to do some subcontract work, and she suggested we save that money to purchase a small trailer for camping in now and possibly for eventual retreat use. It seemed to make a lot of sense. Though we were living in Los Angeles, it was our plan to return to the inland Northwest for retreat, that area being well away from massive population centers, familiar to me from 20 years' earlier residence, and where much of our family still lived.

We figured that if things came crashing down earlier than we had planned, we could jump in the car and be in the Rockies in less than 30 hours, to join those already there, with what survival gear we had. But as ever more of our want list was filled and usable discards accumulated, it soon became far more than the car alone could transport. A trailer behind would not only carry that extra equipment and supplies but provide housing once we arrived. And it would allow us to take advantage of the automotive power-plant we already had, greatly cutting the costs over purchasing a pickup camper or mini-motor home.

After careful shopping and comparison, we settled on a beautifully maintained little 13-foot Santa Fe that cost almost exactly what we had allocated for the purpose. We'd never known such camping luxury! It had a king-sized bed with a three-quarter bunk above for the boys, a stove, sink, and ice box, a water tank and pump, gas and electric lighting, a closet, lots of storage, and a huge window in the back for enjoying the view. We were soon spending nearly all our weekends in it someplace away from the city. It also proved great for vacations and later for visits to our chosen retreat site.

Our experiences with the travel trailer confirmed some theories we had formulated already about the idea of a vehicular retreat:

1. It's less expensive than a fixed location dwelling at retreat.

2. Because you can keep it next to your home or in a secured recreation vehicle storage facility, it's less vulnerable to vandalism than the fixed retreat dwelling, without the added cost of a full-time caretaker.

3. It provides more flexibility; you can have several destinations in mind and, if one is unreachable, can head for another and have your gear with you. And if circumstances require that you move to another part of the country at some point, you can take your retreat home and goods along.

4. It provides greater secrecy; if you buy a fixed retreat home, the previous owners know as much about it as you do and may decide to return if things come unglued. If, on the other hand, you have someone come in and build a fixed retreat home for you, they'll know it inside and out as well as you do. But a mobile retreat unit is built in a factory using economical assemblyline methods by workers who will probably never see it again.

5. Since your goods are with you, you will have them if for some reason you can't reach your intended destination when the time comes. If you got half way to your retreat and were stopped by a severe snowstorm, for example, you could pull off the road and have warmth, food, and other essentials to get you by until you could complete your journey.

6. Finally, and for many people most important, you can enjoy now what you have purchased. If you live in a major city and the nearest place that you feel is safely remote and otherwise suited to retreating is 500 miles away, there won't be too many times a year you can enjoy your investment. But if it's parked in your driveway, it's always handy.

We found this last feature true with our camping trailer. As I indicated, we used it almost every weekend. But that doesn't mean we always took it to the same place. It was our mountain cabin, our beach house, our motel when visiting other cities or when on the road, our desert hideaway, our lake house, and our ski chalet, depending on where we parked it. When traveling, it also proved a great place to stop for a meal or snack, a rest break, or to clean up before arriving at the home of friends.

Our little home on wheels also offered some unexpected fringe benefits. Since our house was small, the trailer was a good place to get away from the noise and confusion to read, work, nap, or just relax. When we entertained out-of-town friends it was our mini-guesthouse, and we sometimes even played grand host by outfitting it with a fruit bowl, glasses, and a cold bottle of wine for the first night of their visit. Because the isolation provided by the trailer allowed visitors to get out from under foot and have more independence, we all enjoyed their visits more; Ben Franklin's saying, "fish and visitors smell in three days," no longer held true.

One of the concerns we had encountered with parenting was the uncertainty of leaving our children with a babysitter. Often none were available when we decided on an impromptu evening with friends, and, if one could be found, he or she might well spend the evening filling our children's heads with philosophical or religious viewpoints out of line with our own. And it seemed that the market demand for child attendants was largely filled by those too immature or too senile to provide a quality of service with which we could be comfortable. So we started taking the children and trailer with us; we'd park it in our hosts' driveway, and when the children were tired we could put them to bed where we could be close at hand. The dog kept them company and stood guard, and we were only a few steps away if they needed anything. Also, if the gab session or party ran very late, as it too often did, we could just go out and go to bed, delaying the long drive home until morning. All in all, it was real luxury.

Once we were convinced of the present and retreat advantages of a camper outfit, it wasn't long before we wanted to upgrade. We saved our pennies and soon had a used Dodge camper van conversion. We would use the van alone for overnighters and pull the trailer behind for "two room" comfort on longer outings. The van we purchased was mechanically a bit of a headache due to inherent design weaknesses, but it still was a big step forward.

Now we've traded that van for a mini-motor home and have space and comforts that really bring mobile retreating into its own. Since the new rig provides all the accommodation required by our family of four and two guard dog/pets, the trailer has, at this point, been relegated to carrying our extra gear and supplies. We now have a family retreat site with fixed structures and other improvements as well and are living in the Northwest, but we still like the backup security our mobility provides.

Perhaps some of these insights will help you in considering the course of your own preparations. Our experience has proven to our satisfaction that you don't have to start out like Daddy Warbucks to garner the benefits of retreat ownership. In fact, in many cases those forced by budget considerations to proceed a step at a time seem to arrive at approaches and solutions better suited to their individual needs than the few who start out with more dollars than sense.

As I said in the beginning, too often individuals who are aware of and concerned about the uncertainties of this country's future are nevertheless overwhelmed by the chore of realizing a retreat for themselves and those for whom they care. But I believe this can be surmounted by dealing with the task piecemeal.

In his book The Woods, Charles Seib explains this very well. Mr. Seib had bought a patch of woods in Virginia as a place to get away on weekends from city madness. Thinking it would be nice to have a cabin there and wanting it to be his personal place, he nevertheless knew he wasn't up to the enormity of building a whole house. So he decided to try approaching it in steps more within his own scope. He might not be able to build the whole thing, but he could dig the holes required to pour footings—any fool could dig a hole! Once the holes were dug, mixing a little concrete and pouring it into them didn't seem too tricky. And putting posts on the footings wasn't that hard. Then setting beams on top of the posts seemed relatively simple. So it went—with floor joists, flooring, plates, studs, and so on until before he knew it he was putting the cap on the chimney. What had appeared impossible viewed in its entirety proved to be child's play when dealt with one step at a time. So it is with retreating.

There is another analogy that can be drawn between Mr. Seib's cabin and retreat preparation, and that has to do with the fun and growing sense of efficacy that it can provide. Often a person's first motivation for preparedness is fear of the personal consequences of the crises he anticipates. But fear is a negative motivation and one to which we tend to become immune; witness the way most of us just block out the fear of nuclear war, which a few years ago drove people to build bomb shelters. Unless that fear incentive is reinforced or replaced by more positive motivations, the task at hand soon tends to fall by the wayside.

In analyzing why we've followed through on our retreat efforts when so many others haven't, I think it is because we made sure it gave us not only peace of mind but also more positive reinforcement. This came both in a sense of accomplishment with each new skill mastered or needed item acquired and from the fun we have with those goods and skills. Preparedness is our hobby!

Those are my criteria for a successful retreat approach; it should not only provide peace of mind and safety in the teeth of an uncertain future but should also give a sense of accomplishment and provide recreational fun right now. Our step-by-step method leading into vehicular retreating was workable because it met those criteria. I think it is one deserving your consideration too.

Don Stephens is coproducer, with Barbie Stephens, of a Survival Tape Series and The Survivor's Primer and Updated Retreater's Bibliography.