Preparedness means different things to different people. Some may be comfortable with just an emergency kit in their cars, while others stockpile ammo, food and toilet paper in a secret underground fortified bunker. Prepping will always run the gamut.
My husband and I are somewhat new to the idea of prepping, and have taken only a few measures ourselves at this point in time. But in our many discussions, we decided we don’t just want to survive if the SHTF, we want to thrive—live well, prosper, flourish. It is our goal to position ourselves well for a good life in bad times, especially if life as we now know it in the USA comes crashing down.
Skill building may just be the most important prep of all, but it is not something that everyone immediately considers ahead of stockpiling and other preps. Your skills go with you no matter where you are, for one thing, so you’ll have them if you need to bug out. And the better developed any particular skill is, the more it can be of service to you. A simple illustration of this is shooting a gun; target practice will help you be more accurate if you need to hunt for food or defend yourself.
But skill building is important for more than an emergent situation or immediate crisis. Knowing how to do some of the things we take for granted in this consumer-product-driven society can make daily life better in a protracted survival situation. And certainly, when you have skills, you are better able to put yourself in a position to barter for items you lack; you can trade goods and you can also trade services.
How skill building could help you if SHTF
As a natural part of my personality, I have always liked to learn to do things hands-on. But when I stop to think about it, much of what I have learned from others or taught myself has been driven by having that nagging feeling of uncertainty from time to time which all preppers are familiar with to varying degrees. The more self-sufficient we are, the better, right?
Take gardening. When we were deep in the great recession, I applied for and received a USDA grant to assist with putting up a very large high tunnel greenhouse. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was becoming a prepper. We are self-employed, and the drop in our income was significant during the recession. While we made it through mostly unscathed, at the time I was eager to get the high tunnel to be able to grow more of our own food in case things got worse. The high tunnel allows us to start plants earlier and keep them going later into the fall. In winter survival conditions, we could grow cool weather crops like carrots and salad greens in the high tunnel under floating row covers, which effectively drops the zone we are in from a Wisconsin zone 5 to more like a Georgia zone 7.
We also do traditional summer gardening outdoors, and dabble in hydroponics and straw bale gardening. All of these techniques require very different management for success, and learning them has made us more adaptable and prolific food growers.
I also have learned to keep bees, which helps the garden and gives us wonderful no-expiration barterable products: honey and beeswax. Another shelf-stable item I have learned to make that we could trade is maple syrup we make, thanks to the handful of very large old maple trees planted by my husband’s ancestors. I think the old-timers planted them for more than just shade—they were a small insurance policy against the possibility of tough times.
No easy way out
Is it work to do these things? Yes. I have a garden every year, and it is far from pristinely weeded. I don’t make maple syrup every year and there have been times I’ve been too busy to deal with honey so it sits in the frames and waits for me to process it. I’ve resigned myself to my imperfection and the fact that I can’t clone myself. But knowing I have the skills and equipment on standby is comforting in and of itself.
What do I do with all of the fruits of my labor? Sell some and preserve a lot. Thanks to the “buy local” movement, I sell a several hundred pounds of produce each year to the local grocery store and some of the small farm markets—which is very helpful since there are times everything seems like it is coming in at once! I registered as a farm as part of the grant process for the high tunnel. Since I am selling produce, I can also legitimately deduct some of my farming costs on my taxes, like seeds and seed-starting supplies (always helpful.) Will we get rich doing this? No, but we do save some money, which can be put toward other preps. I think of it this way: I am turning my tomatoes into ammo.
Preserving is kind of therapeutic for me as I imagine other sorts of stockpiling are to other people. Seeing all of the jars lined up with good things in them is satisfying and makes the labor and time spent worthwhile. Not being afraid to experiment with new techniques and recipes has expanded my knowledge, and increased the variety in my pantry. One of the essential components of thriving, in my mind, will be to have variety. It’s not only better for the body in terms of getting enough of the necessary nutrients and calories, but in a prolonged survival situation food takes on a greater psychological value in terms of boosting morale. Imagine living on spaghetti for dinner for thirty days versus having thirty days of spaghetti, beef stew, and navy bean soup. Without variety, you’re surviving but not necessarily thriving.
Speaking of variety, I have a ton of cookbooks, many of which pertain to fermenting and preserving. Although they take up a lot of space, I think they’re important to keep around, especially since our family hasn’t yet taken the step of getting a solar or wind energy system. There’s always the possibility that a smart phone might be useless for looking up ways of pressure canning everything in my freezer that is suddenly thawing due to a catastrophic grid failure. (Keeping a couple of cases of empty jars and lids on hand also takes up space, but could be very useful in such an event.)
Items most people purchase rather than make that I have learned to produce successfully at home include sourdough bread, handmade pasta, wine and beer (including mead from our honey), wine vinegar, sauerkraut, and mustard. If you think about these products in particular, they are easy to make, and you could get by without refrigerating or canning them. Added to shelf stable items in my pantry (and what’s in the garden depending on the time of year) we will be eating like kings if things go south. Is it necessary as a part of prepping to make all of these things and keep them on hand? I don’t think so. But having some fermentation equipment available for when you need it is not a bad idea (you can ferment so many things as a preservation method) as is keeping things like yeast and flour in good supply.
Another skill I picked up over the years is knitting and crocheting. It was something I was always sort of interested in, and I finally just buckled down to learn it in my thirties. I would consider myself only an intermediate skill level, but I think if I were in a survival situation I could do things like make or repair simple garments or even make something useful in capturing food, such as a net or a rope.
One of the women in my knitting circle was a homesteader who raised meat animals for sale. As her daughter went off to college, she and her husband were short a worker for processing turkeys at Thanksgiving. I offered to help, and she let me, although I think she had her suspicions I would be grossed out. I found it to be a little rough at first, but then a natural rhythm set in and the gross factor dropped away. That experience led me to raising our own chickens, including meat birds. It was great to eat the eggs (and sell a lot of them!) and eat the meat knowing the birds were treated humanely. I now know what to do with a dead animal if we ever need to hunt for food, or if raising our own livestock becomes a necessity. Once again, skill building, even if it is not in your comfort zone, can truly benefit your quality of life in a survival situation. My garden is still benefiting from the chicken manure although we are taking a break from raising birds!
Soap-making is one of my more recent interests, which I am slowly turning into a small body-care business, with lotions and other products. This came about because I bought a beef quarter from the aforementioned farmer to fill my freezer, and the butcher asked me if I wanted the suet when I was telling him what cuts I wanted. At the time I thought I would make suet cakes for the wild birds, but little did I know how much I was going to get! I rendered it, poured it into plastic containers and froze it, and eventually decided to try my hand at soap. It is so much better than store-bought soap, I love the “kitchen chemistry” of it, and it is such fun to unmold it the next day and see how it turned out. In a survival situation, soap is one of those things that could be traded for something you don’t have, given how fast humans get to smelling bad!
Again, we are not “advanced” preppers yet, although we’ve always had some prepper tendencies. I must admit I am not super-skilled in the down and dirty survival stuff. But I have upped my game in two major areas in the last year: firearms and power tools. Those have been my husband’s domain until recently. I took a gun safety course last fall, and I learned to be more comfortable using a number of scary power tools last summer. I discovered in both cases, these potentially dangerous things are not that big of a deal as long as you pay attention and think about what you are about to do.
I would encourage anyone to step outside their comfort zone and at the very least get familiar with firearms. Even if you cannot envision ever using a gun to defend yourself, try to imagine that you could be in a situation someday where you have to pick a gun up and unload it just to neutralize it. Knowing how to check if a gun is loaded, empty it, and be sure it is empty is an important skill to have.
Knowing how to use common tools can make you more of an asset in an emergency or in a prolonged survival situation. If two people instead of one can operate a circular saw, for example, one can be cutting plywood while the stronger person nails the cuts up over the windows. If everyone in the group bugging out has fire-starting skills, one person can get the blaze started while the rest gather enough fuel for the night. Basically, extra working hands, not just helping hands, can make all the difference.
When you consider how this great nation was settled, both men and women had to have a number of skills to be able to build a homestead, make it through a harsh winter, or protect themselves and their property. There was more of a crossover between what was considered “men’s work” or “women’s work.” For example, in our family, my husband’s great uncle was an island lighthouse keeper in the late 19th/early 20th century, and knit all of the socks and mittens for the family.
Back in the day, people knew how to preserve more than just vegetables, and used every part of an animal from “nose to tail” because it served a purpose in daily life or for the future, not because of personal ethics, environmental purposes, et cetera. Prepping was part of life, because in the wilds of America, the S could hit the F on any given day and there would be no neighbors, and no government entity to help you out.
Those with no skills died, those with basic skills survived, and those with lots of different skills thrived. Those that thrived were able to settle the land, build wealth, and have strong, healthy heirs. Although I’m short-cutting the telling of history, our thriving forefathers and mothers passed on their legacies to subsequent generations, and thus America was built into the greatest nation on earth.
I hesitate to use the word “Darwinian” to describe what I am getting at, but when you think about, it is evident that smart people with well-developed skill-sets who work hard applying their skills do better in life, and in turn they tend to pass on their genetics and knowledge to the next generation. (And here is why government handouts don’t actually help people at the low-end of the economic spectrum lift themselves out of poverty; handouts do not teach them anything they can use, and therefore they don’t learn to improve their own positions and pass that on to their children. But that’s another discussion altogether.)
What are my next skill building preps? One will be spending more time at the firing range getting comfortable with shooting. Also, my fermentation obsession is going to expand very soon into kombucha and lacto-fermented pickles of all sorts, especially since probiotics have been found to be extremely important for a healthy gut, and may help prevent any number of diseases. Good health is important to thriving, after all!
As a fellow prepper, I encourage everyone to pick up new skills or expand upon existing ones, and break out of gender molds. If you’re a man, although it might seem like “women’s work,” you may be surprised at how rewarding it is hearing your sourdough bread’s crust “sing” when you take it from the oven, or at how much your friends appreciate getting your homemade soap (future customers when the SHTF.) If you’re a woman, and power tools frighten you, find someone willing to show you how and try a beginner’s project, like a birdhouse or a Leopold bench. Soon you’ll be amazed to find yourself with the confidence to take care of things on that “honey do list” instead of nagging the old man!
Fair warning to both sexes: you might just get hooked, and new skills could become lifelong hobbies or obsessions. Since you have the prepping gene, it’s highly likely! But if the SHTF, you can rest assured by expanding your base, you and yours will not be living in mere survival mode. You will enjoy a better quality of life and have more creature comforts than your neighbors because you can do things yourself and/or barter to meet your needs—in other words, you’ll thrive!