Editor's Note: Ever since the terms "Prepper and Survivalist" have been used, there has been a deafening argument of what "SHTF" will look like, what scenario it will be, and how you need to prepare.
Honestly, I felt pretty prepared, until I read this article from our best selling author, Jonathan Hollerman. I have continued to hone my Survival Skills, and have done extensive planning for an EMP. In my opinion, if you're ready to survive an EMP, you're probably ready for almost anything. Recently, we produced a great DVD with The Prepper Project on hardening your structures against the very serious threat of an EMP attack, which I highly suggest you check out. However, beyond that, I was shocked to discover that even with all those preparations, I may be missing even more... Read on to see for yourself just exactly what I mean...
So the SHTF... Now What?!
Lots of "experts" have covered this subject and depending on which survival forum you frequent the most, it will result in completely different and sometimes opposite advice. In my opinion, some of the advice will prove deadly to most preppers. So if the SHTF, the easy answer for what to do and where to go is.... there is no easy answer and there are too many variables to give you a definite, "hey, go do this!" What I am going to try to do is to get you thinking and to show you what NOT to do. You will have to come up with your own game plan for your family depending on where you live. I am also going to address some ideas for those of you with minimal preparations. Now remember, every family’s situation is different and there is no one size fits all advice or recommendation.
The first thing that you need to realize is that your plan of action will be different depending on what type of SHTF scenario you encounter. As preppers, we know that things in this country are not as they seem. We know that the stock market hitting all time highs while at the same time having a record percentage of Americans not in the work force spells trouble. Fairly soon we will have a nuclear Iran and combined with the threat of North Korea, we face a realistic and imminent threat of an EMP attack. The Pharmaceutical companies are no longer developing antibiotics and with the over-prescription of them by doctors, a nationwide or global pandemic could certainly be in our future. With a porous southern border and verified terrorists entering our country at an alarming rate, a physical attack on the electric grid could be in the works. We can see the writing on the wall. In my last article I recommended that you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Same theory goes here as well. The worst case scenario, would be a long-term loss of the electric grid.
So what should you do and where should you go if there is a long-term SHTF scenario? First off I'm going to tell you what not to do. The #1, absolutely, positively, you're going to die mistake, is to take the "Lone Wolf" approach. You know who I'm talking about. The guy on the prepping forum that plans to move out to the national forest and "live off the land" like the Legend of Mick Dodge. I would estimate that only 30% of those individuals actually believe they have the necessary skills to pull it off, while the other 70% are too lazy to actually make long term preparations and they've just convinced themselves that if Rambo can do it, then they can too. Either way, none of them have ever stopped to actually consider what surviving in the wild looks like AFTER YOU FACTOR IN A SHTF SCENARIO. While a small percentage of the 30% might make it through the winter in normal times, only a small fraction could do it during a SHTF scenario.
First off, I'm speaking from experience. I've actually done it. I've spent an entire month in the mountains of Washington State during January with six feet of snow, almost no food, and very limited supplies during my training to become a SERE Instructor. During that month I lost over fifteen pounds of muscle (for a 6' 4", 190lb, 19 year old in peak physical shape, that is a lot!). I can make a solid prediction that 99% of people that go this route will not make it through the first winter. I can already see those of you who disagree. You are your sharpening your hypothetical knives and getting ready to crucify me in the comments section telling me about your amazing prowess as a half-man and half wildling creature that was raised by a pack of wolves in the forest. Please read through my rational before you keyboard commandos comment.
To begin with, living in the wild during peak conditions is hard enough. Very few Lone Wolf types have actually done it during the dead of winter for any extended period of time. Hiking-in your Mountain House freeze-dried food doesn't count and won’t get you far. I'm talking about actually foraging for your food when there's two feet of snow on the ground. There are no berries to save the day and no dandelion salads to be scavenged. During my training to become a SERE Instructor, we literally spent as much time during the day chopping and splitting firewood as we did training and instruction. It takes an incredible amount of time, energy, and calories to maintain a fire in the winter. It’s not like you can take a chainsaw with you. Where are you going to get more gas? Besides, using a chainsaw will bring in other hungry Lone Wolfs from miles around. Even an axe will bring in unwanted guests from long distances. Okay, so you’re going to use a handsaw… good luck with that, you’ll never be able to maintain the calories needed to use it long term. So you have a magic supply of firewood stashed in the woods somewhere, pre-planned for this scenario…good for you. It will run out faster than you think.
All this talk of procuring firewood doesn’t really matter anyways, because the second you light a fire, you are attracting attention from a long way off. All the other thousands of Lone Wolfs and the locals who are hunting the big forests will be drawn to your camp like moths to the flame. And the locals probably won’t take too kindly to you infringing on their favorite hunting spot. How do you plan to warm yourself, dry your sleeping bag, boil your water, or cook your meat without a fire? Some will try to convince me about using a Dakota fire hole or a rock ledge overhang etc. to hide their smoke and flame, but that doesn’t work either. Those methods only minimize a fire’s signature not eliminate it. When we train pilots who might get shot down behind enemy lines, we teach them that a fire is only acceptable in a life and death situation (i.e. you fall in a frozen lake). I vividly remember during one of my trips to the mountains noticing a strange, slow pulsing orange glow about a half mile away on the next mountain over. I asked the instructor what I was seeing and I learned that another element of trainees was on that hillside. One of them was breaking the rules of evasion, and smoking! In the dark cloudless night, the entire forest around him lit up faintly each time he pulled in a puff. Don’t try to convince me how you’re going to hide a campsite, your fire, let alone the smoke and the smell of fresh meat from the thousands of other people wandering around the woods.
Meat! That is the number one thing I hear from the Lone Wolf’s on how they will survive: by hunting. What they don’t understand is that with thousands of other Lone Wolf’s roaming the forests combined with all the other locals who are also going to be hunting for their family’s sustenance, THERE WON’T BE A SINGLE DEER OR OTHER BIG GAME ALIVE within a month of the SHTF. You might be able to survive off game during normal times, but not during a SHTF scenario. You’ll be lucky to shoot a squirrel or a rabbit a month. There are hunting seasons for a reason: to maintain the big game populations. You figure in 350 million starving Americans and no game wardens; you’re going to find a hunter behind every tree and in every small patch of woods throughout this country during the first couple months following the collapse. Let’s say you get lucky and shoot a deer. Guess what, you’re more than likely to have a dozen starving hunters that heard your shot and show up while you’re gutting it out. I hope you intend to share your prize or be ready to kill a fellow human being to keep what’s yours.
I could go on for ten more pages on the reasons why you don’t want to Lone Wolf your way through a SHTF scenario. But for now, I will add one more reason, and it’s the biggest one… desperate, starving people! A very small percentage of you reading this MIGHT be able to convince me of your wilderness scavenging skills. However, what you will never convince me of is the other 99% of Lone Wolfs who don’t have our skill sets. Even though you might be able to survive the cold, the hunger, and the depression, you’ll never convince me that you’ll survive the desperate and hungry Lone Wolf’s who are not making it: the ones who have decided they’d rather kill you for your food then die of starvation on their own. It only takes one starving Lone Wolf to creep up on you at night (don’t forget you are a Lone Wolf so nighttime security details don’t exist) and shoot you from 100 yards away with their Pappy’s 30-06. I don’t care about your security measures or your hidden trip lines… it’s just a matter of time till someone pops you off from distance on the hope you “might” have something in your pack that they can eat. Every second of every day in the forest, you run the risk of being shot from a distance. All the tactical training in the world won’t save you from stumbling upon a hunter who is in a tree-stand or hidden in some brush. If you Lone Wolf it through the SHTF, you will almost assuredly die!
The next type of survival strategy I would shy away from would be the “Taker” or “Looter” theology. These are the types of survivalists I hate the most. They are too lazy to prepare ahead of time and they plan to just take what they need from those of us planning for hard times. Do not under-estimate these types of people. This is another reason why it is so critical to keep your preparations private. Even when sharing information with your closest friend, you can’t be sure who he is talking to about your plans. Even in an innocent conversation, it only takes one looter to hear your name and the fact that you have plans laid out. They will eventually show up to take your food when the SHTF. These types of survival scum will become ruthless, and with no moral compass and no police to stop them, they will be the ones committing some of the greatest atrocities. If you are a prepper, steer clear of these types on the forums and message boards and especially in real life. Don’t engage them or try to change their thinking. You want them to know as little about yourself and your plans as possible. Matthew 26:52(the Voice) clearly spells out a warning to these types, “People who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Even if you aren’t into “religion” there’s still karma that is going to catch up to you. Again, don’t under-estimate these types. The “looters” who survive the first couple months without getting shot, will have figured out a pretty good game plan on how to assault a retreat.
The next segment of preppers would be what I call the “Roamers”. These are the people who plan to pack up their RV and hit the open road headed for some campsite or trying to drive to some remote area of Canada hundreds of miles away. First off, if we are hit by a Super EMP, there is a good chance your RV may not even run. Assuming it does, there are going to be traffic jams of people running out of gas all over this country you are going to have to bypass. Unless you have a custom built 4WD rig with a winch and reinforced bumper, you may be driving hundreds of extra miles out of your way which takes extra gas(which you have to haul) and extra time(which you don’t have). Again, during a grid down scenario, it is vital that you leave town immediately and you’ll only have two to three days before total panic develops in the bigger cities and four to five days before things fall apart in the small towns. The last place you want to be is out on the open road with tens of millions of people fleeing the big cities. If you are driving around in a big vehicle laden with food and supplies, you are a target. I hope your vehicle is protected with AR500 steel panels because you are now a bullet magnet.
Another bad idea is typically by rich people who want to build bunkers in their back yards in suburbia. Now, I am not against bunkers in general, just the ones in town. Let me be clear here: cabin fever is a real thing. While it may not be as crazy as “Here’s Johnny!” from The Shining, it will still make you go crazy. This is compounded if you have multiple family members and small children cooped up in a small space underground. Humans were never meant to live underground. While a good bunker is a great short-term fall back plan or storage location for your supplies, don’t plan to live there long-term. You will get claustrophobic and start coming up more and more often for sunshine, fresh air and to grow your garden. Eventually you’ll get caught. Living in a bunker isn’t living, it’s marinating.
The next group I want to discuss is what I call the “Pacifists”. These are the Mother Earth News types (don’t get me wrong, I love that magazine). These are the Preppers you often see on Doomsday Preppers who are building a sustainable off grid homestead in conjunction with the small town they live in. They are the ones who actually have the skills in place beforehand and you would think they would have the best chance of survival. Similar to the Amish, they grow their own food and operate a small farm stand in town selling and trading free-range eggs and grass fed beef. The problem is, MOST of these types suffer from two fatal flaws. One, they operate out in the open and the typically the entire town knows where they operate from. Unfortunately, once those townspeople who absolutely loved you beforehand start to starve to death, THEY ARE COMING FOR YOUR FOOD. You can’t keep everyone fed no matter how large your homestead is and how badly you want to help people. They will either consume all your winter stores from your charity or eventually they will take them by force. Either way, you don’t make it through the first winter. Two, “Pacifists” are typically the hippie types who don’t believe in guns and believe in the overall goodness of man’s human nature. They are the ones you see on Doomsday Preppers running around with Super Soakers filled with pepper spray… clown shoes! If you are faced with a starving and desperate mob of locals or transients and you bust out your Super Soaker, you are going to get shot and killed at some point in time. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight and expect to live. You can have all the skills and preparations in place, but if you are unwilling or unable to defend them with force when necessary, you will lose everything… guaranteed! The “everyone works together attitude” ONLY WORKS if everyone has enough food to eat. Once people start to starve to death, there is no such thing as sharing.
Okay, I’m taking a big breath here and exhaling slowly. For all those Lone Wolfs who are going to react negatively to what I’ve said, there are going to be ten times more people that disagree with my next section. I am probably speaking to the largest segment of preppers out there… the “Bug-in” or “Survive in Place” preppers. These are the honorable middle class people who live in cities and small towns across the country and can’t afford to build a remote off grid retreat to bug out to. I get it! I was actually one of you at one point myself. Most of the people that fall into this category are there because they don’t see another reasonable way out. You know the city around you is going to explode, but what else can you do and where else can you go? This is the most frustrating part for most preppers, and to some, it makes the point of prepping almost hopeless. I know there are a lot of people who are storing up hundreds of gallons of water and hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of survival gear and food in their basement in downtown suburbia. Now, I am going to throw you “Survive in Placers” a bone here. If your only fear is a short term disaster, hurricane, or small financial collapse then you will likely be okay. For anything long-term where we lose the electric grid or there is a total collapse and mass panic for a long period of time, you are screwed.
Unfortunately, instead of thinking and planning your way through it, there are tons of “experts” out there that stroke your hopelessness and write books and articles explaining how to take the easy road and “hide in plain sight”. They teach you things like “build a tall fence around your backyard”. Yeah… like your next door neighbor isn’t going to hear you hoeing and digging up your backyard for a garden. Also, the looters and raiders roaming around are going to notice a high fence right off the bat. You might as well hang a sign on your fence that reads “Garden Full of Food”. They teach you how to turn your suburban home into a “fortress”. Please, catch me while I fall over laughing. Your average home CAN NOT be made into a fortress. Regardless of the action movies you’ve seen, walls do not stop bullets! Your house is not fire-proof! You are not Rambo! And boarding up your windows or installing steel grates or shutters over them will only draw attention to your home. These groups of looters and raiders are going to become really proficient, really fast at assaulting homes. If they can’t force you out because every family member in the house was prior Seal Team 6, then they’ll wait you out with superior numbers. How do you plan on stepping outside to maintain your garden? You have just become a prisoner in your own home. If you do go through the enormous expense to turn your home into a fortress, then you should have just bought a few remote acres and built a small off grid cabin! The other thing you need to be aware of are “firestorms”. A lot of the big cities are going to burn down to the ground, especially the older ones and city centers where houses are built close together. It only takes one idiot trying to warm their home with a charcoal grill to set fire to entire city blocks. If its a windy day, and with no firefighters to stop the blaze, the fires could grow enormous and spread to the suburbs. These so called “Bug-In Experts” are going to be responsible for the deaths of millions of Americans because they don’t know what they are talking about and don’t understand the concept that a desperate and starving neighbor will eventually kill you for a can of peaches. They have never been to a third world country and have never done any research or studied human desperation.
The same philosophy of the “Survive in Place” crowd also spills in to what I call the “Fortify My Street” preppers similar to the book Lights Out by David Crawford. While it is an entertaining read with a few hidden gems of wisdom, for the most part, they never realistically explain how they feed all those people on a daily basis. This is an area where a lot of preppers aren’t prepared at all. Most preppers buy a years worth of freeze dried food not realizing that they are actually getting about seven to eight months of actual food (barely enough to make it through a single winter). Very few preppers, aside from those that homestead already and are currently living off grid, have a clue how much food is actually needed to make it through a winter. And I don’t mean make it until spring, but until your actual crops start producing a harvest where you can replenish your food stuffs. If you plan to fortify your suburban cul-de-sac, you better be 100% sure that EVERY SINGLE PERSON on your block has the same amount of food, ammo, and seeds as you do. What is most likely going to happen is everyone is going to talk the talk but very few of them are going to actually put their money where their mouth is and buy long term food. At the end of the day, YOUR FAMILY’S FOOD is going to be distributed among the group once they figure out that you aren’t starving like everyone else. The group WILL confiscate your food eventually… guaranteed! Now granted, as a group you have some strength in numbers, but if your cul-de-sac is on the outskirts of town, I can assure you that eventually there are going to be raiding parties much bigger than your band of merry men. The moral of the story here is: If you stay in the city, you will be overrun… eventually.
The overwhelming truth in all these scenarios, once again, comes down to a single focus. It’s not the EMP, the cyber attack, or the solar flare that is going to kill you. Your plans MUST include staying as far away from the starving masses as possible. Aside from the resurgence of long forgotten diseases like cholera and dysentery from poor sanitation and hygiene, the starving and desperate masses (even the everyday Joes) are going to be the real killers. So maybe I’ve convinced you to second guess some of your plans. Now what? Back to square one? Not quite. All the supplies and food you’ve already attained is still needed. You just need to stage them far away from the population centers and you can actually do this on a budget. Don’t bank on the fact that you are going to have a running vehicle or clear roads to load up all your gear and bug out of town. Regardless, you must get out of town which means bugging out. To do so requires a pre-organized plan of action though. Here are my recommendations.
Some would say to find an existing survival group on a prepping forum, especially if you have some sort of skill or expertise to bring to the table. That may work out for you if you’re a doctor or surgeon and I am not discounting the idea. Just be careful. The TV show Doomsday Preppers is a perfect example of how bats**t crazy some preppers are. By the way, if you are getting the bulk of your prepping advice from the aforementioned TV show… you are doing it wrong!
If you can’t afford a bug out retreat location, I would first point you to family members (even extended family) that live well away from the city. If you think discussing the whole prepping idea with them will make you the “crazy nephew” at family get-togethers, then just rent a storage unit close to where they live and cache your supplies there. Once the SHTF is in full effect and you show up at their doorstep with food, your former preparations will make you out to be a genius and a forward thinker. If you don’t have rural relatives, then I would suggest you take up renting cabins in the mountains for weekend getaways pre-SHTF. Do your research and make sure the cabins fit within the retreat location parameters. Also, try to find rentals that are corporate owned and not a cabin that some family rents when they are not using it. A carefully worded casual conversation with the management company or the person renting you the cabin can go a long way to getting an answer to that question. Don’t get me wrong, this is a time-consuming process and it may take you multiple weekends to find the right cabin, but it is a lot better option than staying in town. Again, cache your supplies in a storage unit near that cabin. On a side note, you are not taking that cabin from someone else, you are hoping it will stay abandoned. If the owners do show up, please realize that YOU are the intruder, not them. If you have any savvy whatsoever, you should be able to explain the SHTF scenario to the owners and explain the benefits of joining forces with them for security purposes and extra manpower growing a large garden.
Lastly, if you procrastinated your prepping and the SHTF before you are ready, follow the advice I lay out to my co-workers in chapter 3 of my first book. It is risky, but it is still realistic and far better than hanging out in town waiting to get over-run. Knowledge is power, and if you can articulate well what the future holds after a grid down situation, you WILL EVENTUALLY be able to find a rural farmer to take you in. The key here is having something to trade for room and board, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. You need to have a pre-planned bug-out strategy with paper maps of the rural area you are headed for. Your area should be away from a major city by at least 100 miles. If you live in New Jersey or Washington DC, you may have to travel much further to get away from the sprawling cities and population centers. Locate a rural, preferably elderly farmer or couple. Explain to him what is going on in the world and persuade him that he needs you and your family’s help to survive the coming apocalypse. The best way to get room and board from him is to have something he needs in trade. This goes back to your basic survival gear, having weapons and ammo to help protect his farm and hunt, offering you and your family’s younger muscles to plant and harvest (this will need to be done by hand, because a tractor will attract too much attention after the SHTF), offering to help keep 24-hour surveillance over the farm and crops, and most importantly having seed to plant the next harvest. I grew up on a small farm and every farmer I know buys his seed two days before planting. If you did have a stash of food in a storage unit down the road, it will make this conversation MUCH easier (but keep this information as a last resort, your ace card). Also, this recommendation is ideally for the first week after the SHTF. After that, people will be really on edge and approaching multiple farms and knocking on doors will be a far more dangerous of a preposition. I realize that this is a scary scenario, and the perceived “safety” and “comfort” of staying in your own home is hard to let go of especially when you have lots of “experts” telling you you’ll be just fine. You won’t! Please head my advice and get out of the cities IMMEDIATELY while you still can! The uncomfortable nature of this plan is sure better than figuring out three weeks into the SHTF that your decision to board up the windows in your duplex was a very bad decision, and by then it has become far too dangerous to travel on the open road.
All the recommendations I have laid out in this article are still SITUATIONAL dependent. Every person’s location and circumstances are different. If you live in Las Vegas and you’re surrounded by desert for hundreds of miles, Bugging-out by foot would be extremely difficult: almost impossible without caches of water and supplies along your route (hint hint). Having a classic 4WD pickup to get of the city in this scenario would be almost vital and at the top of the list for your survival needs. Maybe you do have an old RV that will get you where you need to go… great, than utilize it. Maybe you’re a “Pacifist Homesteader” but at the same time, you’ve negotiated with a “security team” to come help you protect your farm after the SHTF… well that may work for you (make sure they’re trustworthy people). What I’m saying is to stay adaptable and flexible, but at the same time, never underestimate the starving masses or what your next door neighbor is capable of once his children start starving to death. Regardless of your circumstances, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can “hide in plain sight” in a big city. You can’t! It’s just a matter of time till they find you and your food! Good Luck!
Jonathan Hollerman is a former USAF SERE Instructor and an expert on prepping and survival. Working as an Emergency Preparedness Consultant through his website GridDownConsulting.com, Jonathan helps his clients prepare for the hard times ahead. Jonathan is the Author of the Amazon Top Ten Bestselling prepping book EMP: Equipping Modern Patriots, A Story of Survival, and recently released the sequel to it called EMP: The Aftermath. Jonathan will also be releasing a full-length prepping on a budget manual this Christmas.