So it's the end of the world. No problem. Don't panic. Just grab your handy bug-out kit, sit back with some popcorn, and try to make the most of Armageddon. I just have one question for you: what in the world did you put in that bag that makes you so confident you'll do any better than the unprepared masses around you? (Don't answer that... it's a trick question!)
Do you remember that old cartoon “Felix the Cat”? There was a line in the theme song that went, “...whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!” Those were the good old days, huh? Well the sad truth is that we often approach survival preparation just like that. If you think you can pack a bunch of gear in a bag and call yourself “survival ready”, then you are in for a world of hurt. If being prepared were that easy, we'd all just pick up a FEMA-approved survival kit from Wal-Mart and wait out the next disaster in duct-tape-and-plastic shelters. The truth is, there is no magic bullet, and if it's TEOTWAWKI out there, there's no guarantee you'll even make it home to your bullets. There's one thing that I will guarantee though: In an emergency, your survival kit will not contain everything you need, no matter what you've packed.
Now before you get too bent out of shape defending the $15,000 you spent on Bisquick, whiskey, and ammo, here's what I mean: Packing a bag is not the same as being prepared. Regardless of what gear you've decided you need for survival, I'd like to offer you six important things that won't be found in your kit:
#1 Questions (BE SPECIFIC!) - Survival is a mindset, and questions can be powerful when preparing for the worst. Ask them now while life is easy. You might not like the answers you come up with when the pressure's on. Below are a few good questions to ask yourself. These questions are not rhetorical. It's up to you to come up with your own answers, but I did include a few of my own in italics. Now on with the questions:
-Can I really be so cold-hearted as to hunker down with a year's supply of food and firewood while my neighbors are starving outside in the cold?
Do I have the mental toughness to turn strangers away? What about my neighbors? How would I explain that to my kids? Is isolation the answer? Is there some better approach that still protects my family? If not, am I willing to stand firm?
-What gear am I putting too much faith in?
What if I lose the key to that lock or forget the combination? (More on lock-picking later...)
Is my flashlight waterproof?
What if my GPS is dead when I go to get my secret cache in the woods?
I'll answer this one for you. All you need is a decent compass with clear angle markings. Standing at the cache site, carefully record the angles (from North) for at least two objects nearby. Now you can find the spot again as long as you can find your reference objects. You may want to pick more than two references just in case the view to any of them is blocked. Avoid things like trees or buildings that might not be the same when you go back. ...now back to the questions.
-When is my kit going to cause more problems than it solves?
Did I leave anything in my hidden cache that could compromise my security (or the location of my other caches)?
Am I going to get in trouble if a state trooper finds my [fill-in-the-blank] hidden in the woods? What if a teenager finds it?
Could I stand to carry that heavy bag all day? On the run? Quietly?
Could there ever be a situation when it's safer to be unarmed? Last year a man was killed in my neighborhood when he threatened a gun-toting punk with a rock... not smart and ultimately tragic. If you are outgunned, it's probably best if you are not seen as a threat.
-What about creature comforts? Sure, I can survive using X,Y, and Z, but can I make my life easier by preparing better?
Am I willing to use nothing but a Leatherman to open canned goods for several weeks or months?
Can I stand to sleep on/in [fill-in-the-blank: my packable hammock, cot, sleeping bag, truck bed, back seat, etc.]? How will poor sleep affect my ability to keep up with the daily tasks required for survival?
Do I have to wipe with 80-grit toilet paper just because it’s WWIII outside? Wouldn’t the soft toilet paper be okay for emergencies too?
-What if X,Y,or Z doesn’t work?
Will I starve in my own Y2K bunker because my can opener fell apart? Probably not, but if you buy a cheap-o can opener and it breaks, you might do something stupid like cut yourself while trying to get into your can of beans with a knife. Seriously, get a reliable tool for the important things like food.
What if the batteries/generator don’t work?
What if the water supply dries up?
What if I run out of cartridges? What if the slingshot breaks and I run out of arrows too? How will I hunt?
What if there are no animals to hunt? Where will I go? What will I do?
-Have I printed out all of the manuals and instructions I might need just in case the computer gets fried? Do I honestly expect myself to remember all this info without any printed manuals?
…And so on and so on. You get the idea. Ask the hard questions. Expect the first, second, and third plans to fail, then learn how to improvise and adapt today while learning is not a matter of life and death.
#2 Understanding Physical Security – Physical security is more than owning a gun or putting a lock on the door. It requires careful thought. Think like a thief. Think like a desperate, scared, and hungry soul just trying to find the next meal. What would you do? Where would you hide if you wanted to ambush someone on the road? Physical security means thinking like your opponent and staying one step ahead:
Locks: A lock is only as good as the door it’s attached to. Sure your door has three locks on it, but this is the end of the world, and that guy is hungry. Why wouldn’t he just break the window or kick in the doorjamb or smash through the wall with a car? Locks keep honest people honest. For everyone else, it just slows them down a little (“a little” may be all you need). A good lock will at least make life harder for looters and thieves.
Lock-picking: When used responsibly (and legally), lock-picking can be an extremely valuable skill. Even if you don't use the skill often, it will give you a better understanding of how much trust you can put in any given lock. There’s a ton of info on the net about locksport (see: MIT Lock-picking Guide by Ted the Tool), but learning takes time and practice. In an emergency, you will have neither the internet nor the time to practice, so you'd better learn to do it now. And don't bother spending $100 on some fancy “professional” pick set. Some of my favorite picks have been cut from a dull hacksaw blade. If you buy a set, get a cheap one that you don't mind losing or breaking.
When you practice lock picking, don't get cocky. Remember that there's a big difference between a file cabinet lock and the deadbolt on your house. Remember that lock-picking takes time, so don't expect doors to just fly open if you're on the run. Also remember that it can be a useful self-protection scheme to honestly say: “I don’t have a key to that lock.”
One more thing: don’t lose sleep over thieves picking locks. If they can’t cut the lock, kick the door in, or break a window, then they probably won’t bother picking it. Even if they do, that's what alarms are for.
Alarms: Alarms are the second line of defense when your locks and physical barriers have failed. Ideally, the alarm gives you notice before they fail so you can decide whether to take a stand or run. An alarm can be as simple as a few pebbles in a can on a string, but my emergency alarm system of choice is a sophisticated mobile listening device that I like to call “my dog”. She just happens to have a very handy set of teeth on her too.
Camouflage and Deception: Sometimes that big padlock just screams “Something valuable is in here”, so you really need to disguise it. When you do, remember that “almost perfect” camouflage is usually worse than an okay disguise. Most people have a knack for noticing when something is “not quite right”, and inappropriate camouflage may draw attention rather than hiding your treasures. In other words, it's better to make something look like useless trash than to make it look like a weird rock. To really understand what I mean, try going geocaching. Not only is it fun, but it will also expose you to a wide variety of both well and poorly disguised containers in all sorts of unusual hiding places.
Show of Force: You may scare off the lone thug, but be wary of scouts who may come back with a group. If you put your biggest gun on display, someone will find a bigger one or come at you in some way you don't expect. You must balance the element of surprise with deterrence. This is a judgment call.
Use of Force: If you have a CCL, you know all about this. This has been covered elsewhere on SurvivalBlog, so I won't say too much about it. It is a last resort, but you need to be willing and capable of using whatever weapons you own instinctively and effectively. Just be prepared to live with the consequences.
#3 Staying in Shape – 24-hour gyms don’t take new members during the apocalypse. Just play it safe and get in shape now. If you don't already have a fitness plan, I would recommend using the US Army Physical Fitness Manual. It provides basic exercises with and without gym equipment. The Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) at the back of the manual also provides an excellent baseline for determining how in-shape you really are. If you are fit enough for combat, you are fit enough for emergencies.
When you exercise, push yourself. You'll be mentally and physically tougher for it. Hard exercise teaches you to endure and overcome pain and discomfort like nothing else. This is especially true of long-distance running. If you are not a consistent runner, you will find yourself rationalizing shortcuts before you've reached your goal. Learning to recognize and overcome these head games in sports will help you deal with them confidently in life too.
#4 Having Fun – You don't have to study the psychology of survival to know that your mental state can determine whether you live or die. Have a plan for keeping spirits up and especially for dealing with boredom. You can't afford boredom-induced mistakes, so have something on-hand in case you are stuck in one spot for a long time. At the very least, throw a deck of cards in your kit. A harmonica or an Irish whistle can be great portable morale boosters if you know how to play them (but very annoying to others if you don't). Likewise, a football, hackey-sack, or Frisbee might take up valuable space, but they may be well worth it when you need a physical distraction from the stress of survival.
#5 Clothing for Daily Use – Think about the Virginia Tech shootings or other “going postal” scenarios. More than anything else, the shoes you are wearing right now could determine whether you survive the first thirty seconds of such an event. You may not have the luxury of showing up at the office in your jungle boots, but there's still a good chance an emergency will happen during working hours. If you can't run in your work shoes, then at least keep a set of tennis shoes nearby.
As far as outfitting for work, here's what I do: for my shoes, I wear what amounts to a leather tennis shoe. They look professional enough to go with my slacks, but they're comfortable, and I can run in them if needed. Even on Fridays I prefer slacks to jeans, because they are lighter, more comfortable, and easier to run in. I always carry a pocket knife, an LED key-chain light, a pen with a metal clip on the cap (the clip makes a good flat-head screwdriver in a pinch), and a small lock pick set. I also keep a light jacket and a pair of boots in my work locker. You may want to add a few things to your own list, but the main point is that you should wear and carry whatever makes sense for your own environment.
#6 Practice and Experience – You can't train for every situation, but constant survival practice will build confidence in yourself, and it helps you keep a level head when the time comes. Practice will also build your confidence in the gear you carry and teach you how to improvise when something is missing or goes wrong. Only experience teaches you what gear is trustworthy and which things are going to need routine maintenance.
“Survival training” doesn't have to be unpleasant. Try to have fun with it. I already mentioned geocaching, and camping is an obvious way to practice, but be creative. There are countless ways to hone your survival skills that won't make you miserable in the process. If you don't enjoy it, you won't do it often enough, and that means you will rely too much on unproven equipment when an emergency comes along.
Conclusion - If you ask 100 survival-minded individuals what items you should keep in an emergency kit you'll get at least 100 different answers. For myself, the answer is simple and yet not so simple: pack your brain. No matter what gadgets you may pack away, you can't predict what you'll need, what will break or get stolen, or what will be in short supply. So do your best when picking and packing, but be prepared to make the most of whatever you can find around you.
Trust (in yourself or in your gear) should be earned, so don't give it out blindly. Ask questions, then try out your solutions in practice. Have fun with it, but don't take it too lightly. We are still dealing with life and death. Only you can decide the best way to prepare, but remember that you will be the same person five minutes into an emergency that you were five minutes before. Be the best person you can be today, and you won't regret it tomorrow.