When the Shit Hits the Fan I – How to Keep Breathing

The current political situation notwithstanding, I reckon the odds of a major societal collapse to be pretty low.  Things aren’t so hot right now, but the power is still on and the gas stations still have fuel.  But still – we do have rolling blackouts in California.  We have had riots in the streets over most of last summer.  So, in the event the malodorous assimilated residue of the digestive process meets the oscillating air-movement device, it’s probably good to have some idea of what to do next.  In fact, it’s probably good to have some idea what to do well ahead of time.

Even if it doesn’t actually happen, well, times are interesting, and in times like these, it’s sometimes entertaining to examine what life could be like after a major societal collapse.  So, this series will give the thoughts of a simple old country boy from Allamakee County on how to get through any such really, really bad times.


Loyal sidekick Rat tends a fire.

Over most of North America, a good part of the year is pretty chilly for humans, who in spite of our vaunted technology are still, biologically speaking, hairless African savannah apes.  So, a source of heat is important, not only for keeping warm but also for preparing food, sanitizing drinking water, making tools and a host of other purposes.

While maintaining a fire is easier than starting one, there are more than a few easy ways to get a handy blaze going.  The Old Man, at some point in the mid-Seventies, picked up a secret weapon when it came to fire-starting, due to the advent of the cheap butane lighter.  Even though he was a lifelong non-smoker, he always carried one somewhere around his person for use in the event he needed to set something on fire.

Even today you can pick these up for a buck or so.  I’ve got a collection of them, in fact, from all over the place.  Many were given away for free, with the name/logo of a restaurant or bar on them.  They are reasonably wet proof although most aren’t terribly windproof.  But if you can stock up a hundred or so of them, they’ll last you a long, long time.

Waterproof matches can also work well and there are some good ones on the market.  But they have a couple of disadvantages:  Like cheap lighters they are not windproof, and light for light I suspect (but have not done the analysis) that they are more expensive.  Personally, I prefer just the plain old box of kitchen matches, stored in a waterproof container, be it a match safe for carrying around or something like an old surplus steel ammo can for the homestead.

Now once you have an ignition source, you need two more things:  Kindling and fuel.

Kindling is of course what you use to transfer flame from the ignition source to the primary fuel, which will probably be wood in any such circumstances.  While generally the kindling for a wood fire is smaller wood, like split twigs and so on, dry grasses or bundled old papers also work well.  So do large, blunt candles, as they are useful in applying a steady flame to the kindling.  And don’t underestimate the value of accelerants; kerosene works well for starting fires.  Back in the day, when we were clearing brush, we often burned big piles of green brush and small junk trees which normally would have been difficult to set ablaze, but as the Old Man was fond of noting, “anything will burn with enough old tires and kerosene.”

Fire is important. We’re the only critters that have so far figured out how to use it. In most places, having and maintaining a fire is essential to living in extreme circumstances.

Stock up on:  Cheap butane lighters, waterproof matches, big candles and kindling.


Speaking of biology:  You can live longer without food than without water.  The ancient Romans knew clean water was important, and it’s no less so today, not only for drinking but for a host of other purposes.

There are a lot of neat little filters, some as small as drinking straws, that will allow the more-or-less safe drinking of water from almost any source.  But water is used for cooking and washing as well as drinking, and while the neat little backpacker filters are handy for wandering afield, for longer terms a bulk solution is in order.  Of these there are two primary methods:  Treatment and boiling.

Boiling is easy and self-explanatory, although even boiled water, if treated in no other way, has a shelf life.  Treatment last longer, and can be done with a variety of substances, the easiest to obtain being plain old generic chlorine bleach.  In my days in Uncle Sam’s colors the Army had 400-gallon water trailers we called “water buffalos,” and those were often filled from sources like rivers and sanitized by dumping in one good old gallon jug of Clorox.  I don’t remember anyone ever getting a bad case of the quickstep from water treated thusly.  There are also iodine tablets and other treatments for canteen-sized containers, but for the big ones, a jug of bleach will do the trick.

Stock up on:  Filters, cheap chlorine bleach, containers for boiling and water containers.


Next in the hierarchy of needs, one needs to eat.  There are a few ways to go about this.



My grandmother would have stated from personal experience that it’s possible to feed a family of eight on the proceeds from a fifty-acre farm, as she and my Grandpa did during the Depression.  She grew simple truck crops:  Sweet corn, potatoes, carrots, turnips and so on.  Grandpa also raised field corn for income.  During WW1 he made a fair amount of money growing hemp (not that kind of hemp), but you can’t eat hemp, so we won’t discuss that here.  Some vegetables, like carrots and turnips, yield not only the edible root but also greens that can be boiled, cooked in bacon grease, or cleaned and eaten in salads, according to preference.  And if you’re solo, or have a spouse or small family, you can grow a fair amount of truck on a couple of acres.

The nice thing about root crops like potatoes is that you can save the re-plantable portion and still have quite a bit to eat.  Removing the eyes from a potato for replanting results in more potatoes, which is one of the appealing things about the noble tuber.  Note that this won’t work for taproot vegetables like carrots.

Still, it’s best to have seed on hand.  Stored in a cool, dry place, stored seed will last for quite a while.

Stock up on:  Seeds and fertilizers.


Grandpa with chickens, probably 1935.

My Grandpa used to say “eatin’ ain’t eatin’ unless there’s a dead critter involved.”  Some kind of stock is the most reliable way to eat meat, if eating meat is your thing.

Here’s the thing, though:  It takes a fair amount of pasturage to support even one beef cow, let alone a herd capable of sustaining the occasional cull for eating.  When considering stock for a SHTF situation, though, in general, small is better.  Think chickens, ducks, rabbits, and pigs.  During the aforementioned Depression Grandpa kept a couple of pigs and a big flock of chickens, and as Mom was fond of pointing out, during the Depression rural families like hers “…didn’t always have much money, but we always had plenty to eat.”

Chickens and pigs in particular are useful because of their ability to turn almost any fodder into edible (and tasty) meat.  They can self-forage to some extent as well, as can ducks.  Various breeds are available for various climates, and it doesn’t take a lot of acreage to support a flock of chickens/ducks or a couple of pigs.  Rabbits are a little fussier when it comes to feed, but some breeds tolerate cold well and can self-forage some in warmer seasons.  With chickens and ducks, you also get the bonus of eggs.

A dozen or so chickens and a couple of pigs can go a long way towards keeping your belly button from touching your spine.

Stock up on:  Feed, chicken wire and bedding.


A fish weir.

In this kind of situation, the first thing you should do is forget about looking up your state’s hunting and fishing regs, because those will rapidly go out the window.

Now, a caveat: Over the vast majority of the country, there won’t be enough game to sustain much of the population for more than a few weeks.  After a year, a freshly dead squirrel would be a damned valuable commodity – that’s why I mention farming before foraging.

But in some places, there are more game animals than people, and plenty of fish to boot.  One of the main reasons we are pulling up stakes and moving to the Great Land is the abundance of good hunting and fishing.  And in those places, game and fish could at least supplement your diet.

Techniques for survival hunting vary as wildly as the world’s landscapes and would probably rate a series of articles in and of itself.  But there are a few common things to think about:

  • Guns and ammo. As I’ve said repeatedly, you could do a lot worse than to have a 12-gauge pump shotgun and a .22 rifle.  The shotgun will kill anything from quail to moose, with the right ammo, and the .22 will kill small game without messing up too much edible meat.
  • Lots of ammo.  In a major collapse, the bad times could last for years.  And ammo won’t be useful just for shooting edible critters; in an extreme case, those folks who hoarded gold and silver will be melting them down for fishing sinkers and ammo will become the new currency.
  • Netting, fishing line and hooks. Forget the fly rods or spinning tackle; in the case of bad times set lines and nets are the order of the day.  A fish weir (see illustration) can also yield plenty of edible fish, especially if you’re in an area where fish annually move up or downstream in spawning migrations; these can be anything from salmon on the coasts to the big white suckers of my Allamakee County youth.

But, as noted, it’s important to have a plan A that’s more sustainable within your own personal borders.

Stock up on:  Ammo, especially 12 gauge and .22, as well as nets, fishhooks, and fishing line.

A traditional long-spring trap.

A good trail snare set.


While hunting and fishing require a certain degree of attention throughout the process, trapping is different.  You can run a pretty good line of traps in an hour or so, and the preferred interval is twice daily, although you can get away with once in cooler climates.

In my youth I kept myself in shotgun shells and pizzas by running a trapline.  I took mostly muskrats and raccoons, both edible critters if you aren’t too fussy (and if you’re hungry enough, you won’t be too fussy.)  And in a world where the normal rules are gone, you can take all sorts of edible animals with standard leg-hold traps, Conibears and snare wire.  You can even take deer-sized and larger game with snares, which may not be sporting but it’s dashed effective.  Sets in trails and passage points can be very productive.

In fact, trapping is another topic that probably deserves an article in and of itself, since it’s becoming something of a lost art in most places and those of us who remember the particulars tend to be on the aged side these days.

Stock up on:  Traps, trap wax and snare wire.

Stocking Up

There are some miscellaneous things you should have a good supply of.

Tools.  Woodworking tools in particular.

Spare parts, for guns and vehicles.

Nails and wood screws.

Knives and sharpening tools.

A good axe and one or two good bowsaws.

Rope.  I like hemp rope because it doesn’t stretch, even when wet.  I generally keep a hundred feet or so in the truck and a spool or two around the garage/workshop.

Other things may come to mind depending on individual circumstances.  Bear in mind that a rural homestead in Arizona, or Mississippi, or (like us) rural Alaska will have different conditions, resources, and requirements.  Plan accordingly.

Keeping it All

Defending what you’ve gathered together likewise requires some planning.  But that’s a topic for the next installment.