A friend and I recently discussed some of the possible physical difficulties that might be associated with a rapid exfiltration from a devastated area during a major grid-down scenario. We thought it would be interesting to explore the personal effects of increased stress, combined with decreased caloric intake, which might be encountered while “bugging-out.” We wanted to move away from academic knowledge to personal experience, so we created a seven day bug-out “challenge” for ourselves.
Background note: my survivalist friend was a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam and then spent his career working on computers. I'm a 46-year-old male who exercises daily by running and lifting weights. I'm also a Wilderness EMT-B and I teach wilderness survival and wild plant skills as serious hobbies. We both grew up in rural Utah, and we’ve spent many years backpacking throughout the Rocky Mountains. We also invited another survivalist buddy (lawyer) to participate in the seven day challenge.
We picked 1,200 calories per day because this is the approximate amount of freeze-dried survival rations that we carry in our bug-out bags (and it's also the amount with which we've stocked our families' bug-out bags). The idea was to test these calorie limits while under increased stress. We couldn't simulate everything perfectly, as we still had to work each day and support our families. However, we thought this limited set of experiences would be achievable and educational.
Our friend the lawyer never started the challenge. In addition, my Marine Vet friend shifted to 2,000 calories by the third day after struggling with effects of calorie reduction, although he continued with the physical challenges. I personally stopped the challenge after five days – here’s why:
By the end of the second day I started getting cold and then I stayed cold. I went from one blanket to two at night. This was odd for me, as I don't get cold very often. My metabolism is fairly high and I was probably feeling the effects of a reduced metabolic rate as my body adjusted to fewer calories. One takeaway is that in a major crisis, I would probably want a larger sleeping bag than the ultra-light one I currently carry. In addition, I'll probably include an extra base layer of lightweight underwear just to maintain body heat when additional food isn't available.
Under these austere conditions, by the third day I was taking nearly twice as long to run my standard 5K route (7,000s-foot elevation, two large hills). For me that was huge, as I run this route regularly. After four days of this grueling exercise regime, I became a little light-headed just climbing a few flights of stairs. The lack of calories really affected my overall physical performance. Occasionally while I ran, I would get a weak out-of-body feeling. I felt feeble in my arms when I did pushups or worked outside with a shovel. I also experienced difficulty sleeping only six hours -- I was a little wired at night, but then I had trouble getting up the next morning. My stomach growled constantly and I even experienced low blood sugar "shakes" in my hands after exercising. I simply didn't have the fuel to perform at normal levels. A key takeaway is that I'll need to factor in a slower pace when backpacking and running long distances, as well as more time to complete light construction and related manual labor during a crisis. I might also need a small, manual-wind alarm clock of some kind.
Lack of Mental Clarity
By the fourth day images of food consumed most of my mental down time. When I wasn't thinking about family or work, I found myself drifting off while wistfully envisioning peanut butter on bread. I love peanut butter, and my brain probably associates that food with calories, so images of peanut butter became my near constant companion. I awoke the morning of day five to a vivid Technicolor dream of eating stacks of pancakes in my grandmother’s kitchen. I also found myself mentally "dull" or not as "quick" when it came to making decisions and/or responding to everyday challenges. The takeaway here is that with a fuzzy head, falling back on training will become important during a crisis. As a Wilderness EMT-B we are drilled to follow standardized patient treatment pathways and protocols for every single medical scenario. This ensures that we hit all the critical steps while under stress. During a collapse, training will probably dictate many of my decisions when I’m too hungry and exhausted to think clearly.
By the fourth day I also began to get a sore throat (remember that we were really pushing ourselves physically). My immune system was clearly weakened due to lack of food and sleep. I'm sure that if this exhausting regime continued for another few weeks, sickness would become my constant companion. I responded to the sore throat by sleeping an extra hour, popping lots of vitamin C, and drinking more liquids. This helped, but what if I couldn't add another hour of sleep or if I didn't have a ready supply of vitamin C? I could potentially supplement with wild rose hips, which are plentiful in my area (even during winter). But what if I didn't know what plants to use? Historically, during wars and other periods of extreme deprivation, more deaths occurred from malnutrition and sickness than from direct hostilities. When your immune system is weakened, a simple cold that you dodged during seasons of plenty might become a serious health concern. My takeaway here (besides obviously trying to eat and sleep more when possible) is to throw into my bug-out bag a small bottle of multivitamins and/or vitamin C, as well as dedicating even more study time to what local plants may be helpful (albeit feebly) when sick.
My wife complained that I was grouchy during the challenge. I've learned that care must be taken to control irritability and the tendency to snap at others in your family or team when fatigue sets in from too many sleepless nights and not enough food. Kindness and patience come easily when your stomach is full, your family is happy and healthy, you are fully employed, and your DVR successfully records your favorite television program. But can you practice charity and self-control when everything is collapsing around you and you can't even think clearly?
After the fourth day I was down nine pounds. This much weight loss in such a short period of time simply wasn't healthy – I pulled the plug on our little experiment at the end of day five. I remember once reading an article on SurvivalBlog.com that suggested being 10 pounds overweight during a system collapse might be advantageous. As a middle-aged exercise junkie I thought "how could being 10 pounds overweight be even remotely beneficial?" Well, I've just learned that under stress and with reduced caloric input, I'll easily burn 10 pounds or more in a week if I'm carrying a heavy pack and dragging my family away from a crisis zone. Of course, the assumption here is that one is in excellent physical shape (regardless of being a few pounds overweight) so they can actually perform under great duress. Over the course of the last year I’ve increased my exercise regime knowing that being in shape may be the difference between living and dying in a collapse scenario.
I cheated twice during the experiment. I ate an extra 100 calories of peanut butter on two separate occasions. My body was literally screaming for food and my brain was starting to rebel. Most folks will probably cheat a little bit under similar conditions. But stealing a few extra calories now and then may reduce how long you can survive with your given stash. Because I teach wild plant food skills and I grew up hunting, I'll (theoretically) be able to augment my food storage with a few (very few) additional calories. But knowing that I have a tendency to want more calories than I currently have stashed for myself and my family, my personal takeaway is to add to my total larder (and especially to our bug-out bags) while the stores are still open. My initial estimates of how much food my family will need while bugging out (or “bugging in”) were too low.
Coincidentally, I had a doctor’s appointment immediately following the challenge. The nurse asked if I was dehydrated, as she had a very difficult time finding a vein from which to draw blood. My resting heart rate was approximately 64 and my blood pressure was approximately 106 over 71. I thought I had been over-hydrating during the increased exercise. It turns out I hadn’t hydrated adequately. I also gained back about two pounds later that day when I ate as many peanut butter granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and glasses of milk as I could hold! I diligently lived up to the exercise component of our challenge, and I learned that I simply wasn’t drinking enough water (and I thought I was pretty good at hydrating). The takeaway here is that in a crisis, forcing yourself to drink more water than you want (or can perhaps even hold on a shrunken stomach) will be critical. Water will always be more important than food in any crisis. I probably need to add an additional water bottle (or two) to my bug-out bag in case finding water becomes difficult.
“Survival Is Not Fun”
This real-world experiment might seem a little strange to most, but I personally learned a great deal about how my mind and body react to stress, increased physical exertion, and the significant lack of calories that will accompany many of the larger collapse scenarios. Your experiences may vary under similar conditions based on your own level of fitness and your personal metabolic rate. The ultimate goal here was to test ourselves, our equipment, and our survival food choices. We achieved that goal, although the experience wasn’t much fun. As Les Stroud of Survivorman fame states: “Survival is not fun. It’s not pretty. It’s never comfortable. It may involve eating gross things, enduring pain and deprivation, and battling fatigue and loneliness.” Prior to this exercise I was quite cavalier about how little food I would need to maintain optimal performance levels under stress (I'm invincible, right?). Now I know from personal experience that I need to eat more calories and drink more water than I previously estimated if I want to stay physically and mentally sharp during the first critical phases of any future collapse.