Prepare While You Can, by W.L.

Sunday, Apr 24, 2011

Many of our family and friends have teased us about my husband's and my desire to live as independently and as far away from others as we possibly can. They have often scoffed at our (as one relative called it) “end of the world pantry”. These are of course the same family and friends that love to vacation at our place. The very same that called immediately after 9/11 and asked if the violence and terror reached near their homes could they come and stay with us. These same people have begun calling in the days since the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan and are asking what they can do, or should do to prepare for a possible earthquake or other natural disaster in their area. The laughing and teasing has stopped and the listening has started, but we fear as with the 9/11 attacks, as soon as the around the clock media coverage dies down, so will the listening.

There are a good many people reading this that are like my husband and I once were. You are dreaming of the day that you can afford to move to your ideal place, but not quite there yet. We spent 14 years dreaming and planning, but almost no time at all actually preparing for the life we now live. We read many books on homesteading and wilderness living. We attended every outdoor type show we could find. We talked about living in the woods and wore out our copy of the Lehman’s catalog and Abigail Gehring's "Back to Basics" book. However we didn’t do much actual learning and practicing of the skills we need to live where we now do. In that respect, we were not much different from our unprepared and panic-stricken family and friends.

Our home is located seven miles from a very small town of about (to quote a recent local graduate, from a graduating class of 12 students) "400 people and 10,000 cows". It is primarily farmland, campgrounds and hiking trails. To get to the place we have called home for 14 years now, you go through the small town, past the last campground and park at a pullout on the county road. If the weather is conducive (it is often not) and the snowmobile is running well (it is often not) then we can snowmobile in the two miles to our home. Much of the time we walk. The trek is two miles with a gain of about 1,000 feet in elevation. There is no groomed trail, we have had to climb over downed trees, walk around mudslides and hike through chest deep snow. We have come face to face with cougar, bear, and elk on this trail. Perhaps scariest of all, we have several times run in to illiterate hunters and mushroom pickers as well as quite a few looky-loos that just want to see “the weird survivalist people” that live up the hill. (The use of the term “illiterate” is justified as these poor folks cannot read the numerous "No Trespassing" signs, nor do they have the capacity to understand gates and chains.)

It doesn’t matter if it is raining, or below zero, or the ice is so thick that there is no way for our crampons to dig in as we attempt to slide uphill, that steep trail is still the only way home. In the non- snow time, which is about 4-5 months a year here, we can drive our old one ton pickup in and out for our larger deliveries. That is if the road is not washed out and if the creek can be safely crossed and if our old truck can handle the switchbacks and steep trail and if it is not too muddy and isn’t too rutted from when it was muddy. Our snow free days are about two months behind those of the valley located only 8 miles down the mountain. We have often hiked out in two feet of snow, and reached the valley to play softball on a completely snow free, green field in 60 degree weather, even though that is less than 10 miles from our snow covered home.

Our water comes from a spring and is gravity fed to our home. Our septic is also gravity operated, so no power for us is no problem. Our only source of heat is wood and that is also often how we heat water and cook. We do have limited power, but we really don’t use it much except for refrigeration and freezers. We homeschooled our children and amazingly as adults they are all intelligent human beings capable of working hard and making a living. We live in a very remote home and we like it that way.

The same friends and family that used to scoff but now ask how they can live as we do seem more panicked than prepared. So many of these otherwise intelligent people don’t seem to have the slightest idea what it takes to live in the wilderness, or even to live in a smaller community on a little farm. They have absolutely no idea how to survive for more than about 24 hours should a disaster of any kind befall them where they currently live. If you are as we once were, dreamers, then perhaps some of our “should have” list could be helpful to you. Even if you currently live in a cramped apartment in the city, or small home in the suburbs, there are many things you can be learning and practicing right now to help you when you do make the leap to the wilderness. Even if you plan on staying in the city or suburbs and riding out whatever storm may come your way, get prepared now and don’t end up like so many of the people we know. Be ready instead of reckless.

I cannot stress this one enough. While model types may look great in a business suit or fancy evening dress, stick thin will most likely not cut it in the woods, even less likely to cut it is the couch potato.  It has taken more strength and stamina than we ever thought we had in us to live where we live. We could have saved some valuable time once here, not too mention exhaustion and blisters, if we had been in better shape. What one wants when living a simpler (ha!) life is lean muscle and lots of stamina. This requires real healthy eating and strength training. Joining an expensive gym is not required, and in fact could be a major waste of money. Instead, walk everywhere you can. After work strap on a backpack with weight in it and walk, uphill whenever possible. If you do not live in an area conducive to walking, then get an inexpensive used treadmill off Craig’s List or your local want ads. Slowly increase the weight in your backpack until you can easily carry at least 1/3 your body weight. Do push-ups and squats and lunges as often as possible.

My husband recently ventured into the valley only 10 miles away from our home, but almost 1,500 feet in elevation lower than our home. While he was gone we had a freak snowstorm that dumped over 4 feet of powder in less than 24 hours. If we were skiing, 2 feet of powder would have been awesome, or snowmobiling in say 1 foot of new powder we would have had a great time. However walking in 4 feet of powder is nearly impossible. It took 36 hours total and three separate attempts for my husband to get back home. He was able on the second day to get the snowmobile about ½ way up the hill but that was only after taking numerous runs at the very steep hill. Then he walked up the rest of the way in chest deep snow as I walked down to help break a trail. I had on our large snowshoes, he, unfortunately, was caught off guard and had to walk in his hiking boots without snowshoes. It took two full hours for me to walk about ½ of a mile down, and the same amount of time for him to walk about ½ mile up. It was exhausting and very difficult. Although the snowshoes prevented me from sinking all the way down in the snow, I was still sinking to about thigh high. Since I couldn’t get my snowshoes above the top of the snow, each step I took I was lifting all the snow that fell in on top of my snowshoes. It was kind of like walking in hip deep water with 20 lb. ankle weights on. My husband was walking uphill without snowshoes and literally pushing snow with his chest. Once we met up it was another hour until we were back in the house. Even though both of us were physically spent there were still animals to tend, fires to build, wood to be brought in and food to cook. We can’t have pizza delivered to our house! At 50 and in good physical shape and used to this type of extreme exertion we were nearly done in. Are you in the kind of shape that could handle this level of exercise? If there were an EMP or other disaster that prevented you from driving to your bug-out place, could you walk there? Are you capable of chasing an elk for 5 miles and then after finally shooting it, gutting it and quartering it could you carry it back to your camp or home? You can and should be getting into real physical shape right now while you are waiting to get to your ideal spot.

As for eating, there is an excellent book titled “Nourishing Traditions”, by Sally Fallon. This book has been a literal lifesaver for us. We used to live the “low fat, soy protein, low salt” type diet and what we got for it was hormonal imbalances, extra fat, and poor health. Now believe it or not we eat lots of animal protein, veggies and fruits and healthy fats – like eggs and milk products and olive oil and nuts. We are by no means puritans when it comes to our diet, but we are living proof that every little bit helps. After following the outlines in this book, we are now at healthy weights and have (for the first time in a long time) healthy cholesterol levels, and healthy blood pressure. We are at real healthy weights, not some ridiculous insurance company’s idea of healthy weight. Although overweight according to the charts, our fat to muscle ratio is terrific, better than when we were at our “ideal”. We also have only been sick with the flu once in the past 16 years. Unfortunately it was the H1N1 virus, which we believe we picked up on a trip to the city about a week before we came down with it. Other than gallstones (a result of rapid weight loss) and the removal of the offensive gallbladder, we have had no serious health problems at all. Most of our medical issues have been accidents with the snowmobile, chainsaw or chopping wood (all due to our own stupidity) or falls on the ice or post-holing into deep, rotten snow. When we first moved here, in spite of the fact that we had hiked and backpacked often, it still took me about 90 minutes to hike up to our house in good weather. Now on a packed trail I can hike up here in about 20 minutes with a loaded backpack and still have energy once I am home. The overall health benefits from being in shape and eating well are invaluable in the wilderness.


Many places in the woods or desert areas do not have electricity or cell reception. Many people are also addicted (and I mean that in the literal sense!) to their computers, iPhones, iPods, iPads, televisions, DVDs and gaming systems. Not only will many of these things not work if there were an EMP or extreme disaster, but many areas do not have access for making these things work right now. In spite of an ugly cell tower blocking our otherwise beautiful view of the top of the mountain we live on, cell phones don’t work here. In fact, to get cell reception you have to climb up the hill behind our house, or go to the valley where cell phones work in a few choice places. There is no high-speed Internet hook-up either. We are lucky to be hooked up through our dial-up service at 26 kbps – that is on a good day, it can be as slow as 9 kbps. Those television commercials that claim you can have high speed internet no matter where you live, don’t often apply to extremely remote places. Even though high speed is available only a few miles down the mountain from us, we cannot get it here. That translates to no videos, no Skype, next to impossible to download pictures attached to e-mails. We cannot play games on our computer, except for solitaire and a few other card games. No chat rooms or Facebook, no Twittering, basically we can e-mail text only, and view text only sites, or sites that do have pictures instead for us will have boxes with little red “X’s” in them where the pictures should be. All this is contingent on the phones actually being up and running, which in the last 16 years has been about ¾ of the time. We have had visitors that nearly go stir crazy without constant input and instantaneous feedback of their (mostly, but admittedly not always) narcissistic “social sites”. While we are on the subject, no one has 200 “friends”! You may know 200 people, but these are not your “friends” America! These are simply, for the most part, other people that are so wrapped up in themselves they also believe that other people actually care when they took a bath or where they ate dinner. Obviously it can have some huge benefits, such as people being able to contact others letting them know of safety after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, or after Hurricane Katrina. But lets be real here folks: The vast majority of people on social networking sites are hooking up with old flames and bragging, or making stuff up about their lives. There are people in our extended families that can spend hours on the computer, but cannot finish a school or work assignment or housework. We personally know three different people that ended up having affairs and ruining their marriages and they all began on Facebook!

Besides the time-sucking computer, there are also many folks who come home from work and plop in front of a television. That is just as bad, and no, watching television with family does not count as actually spending time with them. Our teenaged niece actually sat at one end of her couch, while her friend sat at the other and instead of talking to one another, they texted each other! One teenaged visitor to our home once asked, “You don’t watch television, and you don’t have video games. Cell phones don’t work here and your Internet connection is lousy and you don’t let your kids get on there anyway. What exactly do you do?!?” He wasn’t being rude; he was asking a question very seriously because he couldn’t imagine what one would do without all the constant electronic input he was used to having. Many of you reading this may be included in this population of folks that “need” their electronic fixes daily. Perhaps you should try now to go without these things. Actually turn off your handheld devices, including cell phones. Unplug your television and gaming systems. In fact, do without as much electricity as possible for at least one week, a month is better.

Obviously we are not recommending that you all unplug your refrigerator or freezer and let your food spoil. Also there are a few (doctors, people on transplant lists, pregnant women) that may actually have need of a cell phone, but maybe limit it to necessary calls only. For those of you with older children, this could be the challenge of a lifetime, but give it a try. Many will find that after the initial shock wears off, you are actually living life, instead of just tweeting about it. Another benefit is you might actually spend some real time in actual conversation or playing with your children or reconnecting with your spouse. In my old life I worked in social services. I was continually told by clients that they did not have time to try out some new discipline technique, or take a class or actually cook with their child. When I asked these people that seemingly had “no extra time” in their schedules if they watched television, virtually all of them admitted that they spent about 4-5 hours each day after work either on their computer or watching television. I would then ask them if they wanted to explain to their child later on that they didn’t have time for their children because they needed to watch a television program, or they needed to update their facebook page. Most, but sadly not all, said that they thought in light of what they were actually spending their time on, that they could change their schedule to benefit their child. There probably isn’t anyone that reaches the end of their life and says, “If only I had spent more time watching television or on the computer and less time with my family”. Get used to not only no electricity before you are forced to do so, but also get used to actually doing stuff with your family – most people enjoy it a lot!

A mother of four once lamented to me that she wanted to get her kids out of the low income housing they were living in and move them to the country. She was upset because she said there simply was no way she could save even one penny each month. She was also very concerned because her children were exhibiting some rather serious behavioral problems. They lived in a cramped three-bedroom apartment, and there were six (yes that is six) televisions in the home. There were gaming systems hooked up to all but two of the television’s. All had DVD players attached – as well as four individual DVD players in the family van.  All the children had numerous handheld games and laptops. Mom had a big computer in the dining room (it was on the table because all the kids ate in front of their own televisions or game systems). She was paying for three cell phone bills for her and the two oldest children. They ate almost exclusively pre-packaged, overly processed food and take out. The family was receiving food stamps, free medical and mom was getting free educational services so she could better herself. The family was stuck in a cycle of self -created mayhem. Her children told her what to do, and blatantly defied even her simplest of requests. They were not allowed to go outside because of the neighborhood in which they lived. This mom asked for my help, so I sat with her for hours and went over her budget and showed her how she could easily save at least $300 per month. Some of the cuts she could make immediately were to get rid of all but one television, and sell all gaming systems. The family didn’t truly have need to be paying for Internet at home as the children never used it for school, and the mother admitted that she mostly (in her words) “got lost” in it to avoid her children. Her schooling to that point had only required printing of papers. Since she lived in an area where free Internet was available through their public library, it really was a waste of her money. Some of her children’s behavior problems might also be alleviated if she insisted on family time instead of five separate individuals living in one apartment. Unfortunately for her children, this woman today, 10 years later, lives in the same low- income apartment in the city. The neighborhood has gotten worse, she is further in debt, and her children that stayed in school (two dropped out) are in special education classes for severe emotional and behavioral problems. She fantasized about living in the country, but was either unwilling or unable to do the work it took to get there. If you are serious about wanting to move from the city, then get yourself in financial shape to do so now.

Cut out all extras. Almost any budget has some wiggle room to lessen output and increase savings. We struggled for a long time financially, but luckily for our children and me, my husband was determined to be debt free. Now as many of our friends and family are drowning in debt and living in homes they owe more on than they are worth, we own our home and vehicles and we have money. Even if we don’t have everything we want, we definitely have everything we need. We have even taken some awesome vacations and paid cash for them so we could truly enjoy the trip, instead of worrying how we were going to pay off our credit cards once we got home. Our children as well, now all adults have proven to be very thrifty and seem to recognize the difference between wants and needs. If you get control of your finances now, you are that much closer to reaching your goals.

Some skills we have needed and used often are cooking from scratch; building a fire (there is an actual skill to this art!); wood cutting and gathering; cleaning, loading and firing a gun; basic home repairs; animal care – including butchering; gardening and preserving of foods; first-aid (I have had to give stitches twice); teaching homeschooling; and many others. While we could and did practice some of these skills before moving here, such as hunting and gun care, and canning and gardening, we had to learn many others the hard way. One such hard-learned lesson was how to build a proper fire and clean a chimney and NEVER burn wet wood! We learned this by a chimney fire that nearly cost us our home. Now we know to burn only properly cured (dry) wood and to clean the chimney about 3-4 times a year. We also learned from an old man to burn a “super hot fire” in the morning and let it “blaze away” for about an hour before dampering it down. Since we have done this, we have little creosote build up when we do clean out the chimney. Also clean chimneys draw better and burn hotter making the house warmer with less wood. Canning is another skill that I highly recommend you practice before you need to actually can anything. It can be tricky and I have found that nothing replaces practice and actual experience in perfecting this skill.

In order to learn and actually perform these skills now there are many resources. The most obvious are older friends and relatives that have actually done these things. There are also gun clubs in most cities and towns that offer beginner classes. Local hospitals and community centers often offer classes for free or low cost on everything from cooking to first aid to gardening. Years ago when I started canning (and even some tough questions now) I found our county extension experts to be a fantastic resource. County extension offices (in the government pages of most phone books) offer free advice and pamphlets on many subjects such as gardening, canning, and curing meats, animal care and others. Home Depot and Lowe's offer classes for free or materials only fees on everything from installing a water heater to putting up sheetrock to building a deck.

Another great resource for learning some of these skills are nursing homes and senior centers. Many older folks are more than happy to share what they know and also most love to have an occasional visitor. Simply ask the director if they could match you up with someone or if you could post a notice on their bulletin stating what you are looking for. Something like, “Young housewife seeking to learn art of baking from scratch” or, “Middle aged man wanting to learn building and home repair skills”. We were fortunate to have grandparents that lived a very long time who were very willing to share what knowledge they had gleaned through the years. To learn about animal care you might consider volunteering at an animal shelter or vets office, you can gain a lot of knowledge and do something worthwhile at the same time. Most people learn best by actually doing things, instead of simply reading about them or watching a DVD.

Basically what I am really talking about here, is instead of wasting your time dreaming or fantasizing about what you want someday, learn to do it now so when you do realize your dream of living out away from all the chaos of a city, you can actually relax and enjoy your accomplishments. Become a “doer” not a “dreamer’.

Copyright 2005-2012 James Wesley, Rawles - All Rights Reserved