What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

my family survival What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

This is a guest post and entry in our non-fiction writing contest  by E. Evans

Introduction
Upon hearing the word “survival,” a computer is probably not the first item that comes to mind, but having a small, portable computer system ready for use in times of need can be a handy device for communicating with others over a network, retrieving digitized scans of important documents, or for entertainment.

Strategy
Three points are key: low-power, common parts, and portability.

Low-power
All hardware runs as long as possible from the computer’s battery. External hard drives and devices obtain their power from the netbook’ USB ports. The idea is to be as free from electrical outlets as possible.

Common Parts
Only easily available parts are used to make it easier to replace failed hardware. Proprietary hardware and software are avoided as much as possible to avoid any dependencies. USB tends to be more available than FireWire or eSATA, so USB is preferable.

Portability
How portable is the whole system? AC adapters, external backup drives, extra batteries, and external peripherals all increase the amount of computer gear. We want the entire package to consume as little space and be as lightweight as possible, so small, portable components are chosen.

An Example Computer Kit
A computer kit need not be fancy or expensive. Here is a reliable kit that continues to perform well.

pic1b 300x216 What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

  • Netbook with 9 hour battery and a spare 6 hour battery. Running Ubuntu 10.10 64-bit
  • External Samsung DVD-RW drive (USB-powered)
  • Two external USB drives containing all data, backups, and software necessary for a complete system installation
    Zonet wireless router/access point
  • Spare internal drive with anti-static bag
  • External USB mouse
  • USB sticks. One with bootable Linux OS
  • Screwdriver for opening the netbook
  • USB cables, AC adapters, RJ-45 network cable, earphones, wipe cloth
  • Colored CD-ROMs to locate installation media quickly
  • Small, lightweight netbook travel case (not shown)
  • All software used is open-source, which eliminates the hassles of dealing with CD keys, activations, and license agreements.

Even though this looks like a lot of computer gear, everything packs compactly into a netbook storage case the size of a small school bag.

Netbook
The computer is the heart of the system, and since its purpose is to function for as long as possible during a power failure, it should be chosen based upon one important factor: Battery life. Most computing tasks (checking email, reading files, writing documents) require little computing power, so battery life becomes more important than processor speed. A netbook is perfect for this purpose since it offers long running times from 4 to 9 hours depending upon its battery.

Netbooks are lightweight, inexpensive, and extremely portable, making them easy to slip into a backpack and cheap enough to replace. There are enough input/output ports available on today’s units to allow almost any kind of connection to external devices, so if the keyboard and touchpad are too small, then a full-sized USB keyboard and USB mouse can be connected.

Operating System
The operating system used on a netbook affects its speed, stability, and ease of use. Linux and Windows both run on a netbook, but the operating system you choose can make the difference between a snappy system and a sluggish one.

A Linux-based operating system, such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint, runs exceptionally well on a netbook and can feel as responsive as a desktop system since Linux runs well on low-powered hardware. In addition, Linux provides excellent built-in security, stability, and eliminates the need to run antivirus and defragmenting software, making more processing power available for programs.

By contrast, Windows XP and Windows 7 tend to feel sluggish and consume more memory and hard drive space (especially if unnecessary software is installed by default) due to their higher hardware requirements. Also, keep in mind that if the hard drive fails and a Windows reinstallation is necessary, Windows requires activation by telephone or through the Internet in order to use Windows beyond a certain number of days, and these services might not be available during an extended crisis.

pic2 300x129 What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

Multiple workspaces and the desktop cube run as smooth as silk on a netbook with Ubuntu 10.10.

Recovery
The hard drive is the most likely component to fail, so plan ahead with preparations to restore the netbook to full functionality.

Keep a fully prepared hard drive on hand to replace the failed hard drive inside the netbook. This is an internal 2.5″ hard drive, not an external one, and when not in use, store it inside an anti-static plastic bag with a silica gel desiccant to absorb moisture.

A replacement hard drive should contain a fully installed operating system with updates along with the software and duplicate data you would normally use. This way, if the internal netbook drive fails, you can swap it with the replacement drive to get up and running as quickly as possible.

Include the operating system installation media with the kit in order to reinstall the entire operating system from scratch in case you obtain a blank drive or completely wipe your old one. A Windows installation will usually be performed from a CD-ROM or a DVD-ROM, so have an external USB drive that does not require an external power supply. Ubuntu can be installed from either a CD-ROM or a bootable USB stick, so for Linux, have one of each: A CD-ROM installation and a bootable USB installation in case one or the other fails.

Networking
A wireless networking device, such as the Zonet ZSR4174WE that obtains its power from a USB port, allows many netbooks within range to network together wirelessly. This spares the need to carry extra network cables and allows many users to connect to the same wireless network in the great outdoors away from electricity. Using USB power may decrease the netbook’s battery life, but it eliminates the need for a separate AC outlet that might not be available around the campfire.

Be sure to properly secure the access point by hiding its SSID, changing the default administrator username and password, enabling MAC filtering so unauthorized devices are refused access, and enabling WPA/WPA2 Personal-AES security. After all, there might be a rogue hacker concealed in the treetops.

zonet 300x236 What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

The ZONET ZSR4174WE wireless router is about as small as a deck of cards, lightweight, and obtains its power from a USB port.

Backups
The entire system is merely a support structure for your data, and nothing is more important than your data and the time spent creating it. Make backups!

A backup is a copy of your data, and all data should be backed up to at least two external USB drives, such the Seagate Freeagent GoFlex. These drives obtain their power from the USB ports, so they eliminate the need for external power supplies. They are also small enough to fit in a shirt pocket for concealment during transportation.

Never rely upon a single hard drive as the sole source of your data. Always have at least one backup drive of your main backup drive, and store the two separately–keep the main backup with your computer kit, and store the second backup in a separate, waterproof, hidden location. This way, if your computer kit gets lost, damaged, or its backup drive fails, then your data can be recovered from the second backup. Keeping the two backups together risks losing both copies lest a calamity befall your computer kit.

Backup Utility (Windows), rsync (Linux), and tar (Linux) are customizable programs that backup specific data at regular intervals. tar will record a log of incremental backups so only changes made since the last backup are saved. tar and rsync can be scheduled to run at specific times using a program called crontab (Linux) to automate the backup process.

Do not rely upon the netbook’s internal drive as the primary backup source because the risk of losing data during a system installation is too great. Some netbook installations repartition the drive, and repartitioning deletes the data. Ask yourself “If the internal hard drive fails or if I must format the drive and reinstall the operating system, do I still have all of my data?” Think of the internal netbook drive as a scratch pad. As files are created and modified, back them up to the external backup drive.

Encryption
Netbooks and USB drives are small and portable, so if these devices are lost or stolen, you want any data contained on them to be inaccessible to prying eyes. Encrypting all personal data is always a good practice because if a hard drive fails or if you decide to sell or dispose of it, encryption helps ensure that any data remains private.

Encryption helps protect digitized medical records, credit card numbers, family pictures, and other personal data from prying eyes. Information gleaned from your private data reveals much about your life and may compromise your physical security (such as pictures of your home, land, and possessions). Would you appreciate a thief browsing through your family pictures who could then target other family members through clues obtained from those pictures?

Encryption is different from a system login. Do not rely upon a normal username and password login combination to protect your data since that only safeguards logins. Without encryption, your data is still stored in plaintext on the hard drive–even if you use a login username and password, and it can be accessed without logging in if the hard drive is swapped into another computer. Only encryption will defeat this attack because the data is scrambled.

Full drive encryption using cross-platform tools such as TrueCrypt (Linux/Windows/Mac) is the best way to go to avoid dependence upon a particular operating system for data retrieval. All encryption is handled automatically using secure, time-tested algorithms, and the data can be recovered on any Linux, Windows, or Mac system with TrueCrypt installed. You want your data to be as retrievable as possible no matter what system is used.

Ubuntu and Linux Mint offer the added feature of built-in encryption for each user’s home space on the internal hard drive. When a user logs in, all of the user’s files are automatically encrypted and decrypted making encryption transparent to the user using a regular username and password for convenience. User-space encryption for the internal drive combined with TrueCrypt for the external backup drives makes an effective combination.

Keep in mind that encryption is only one step in the process of data security. There are other things to think about to help protect your data. For example, all of your data might be encrypted securely, but if you write the password on a sticky note affixed to your monitor or underneath your keyboard where others can find it, then you have just defeated the purpose of using encryption in the first place. Avoid shooting yourself in the foot. Think.

Wiping
When selling or disposing of a hard drive, USB stick, or any other storage device, clear the data first by wiping it. Wiping physically overwrites existing data with random bits, and wiping may be performed on individual files or on entire devices.

Deleting a file or formatting a drive does not erase the data. Data persists until it is overwritten because deletion only removes the pointers to the files, not the data of the files themselves.

Programs such as Eraser (Windows), secure_deletion toolkit (Linux), and DBAN (Darik’s Boot and Nuke) are free software tools that effectively remove data. If a drive is already encrypted, wiping makes data recovery practically impossible. DBAN runs from a CD-ROM, so it is ideal for wiping the internal netbook hard drive.

Once wiped, a drive may be safely disposed of. Keep in mind that the larger the drive capacity is, the longer the wiping process will take. This might exceed the netbook battery life, so it is best to wipe a large capacity drive when AC power is available.

Integrity Checking
Files can become corrupted for inexplicable reasons, so if a file is bad, how will you know? RapidCRC (Windows), md5sum (Linux), and md5deep (Linux) are free programs that create “fingerprints” of files called hashes.

Integrity checking works by creating a hash of a file and storing it in a separate hash file. To verify the file, the hash is regenerated from the file and compared to the stored hash. If the two hashes match, then the file is good. If not, then you know that the file has been corrupted or modified.

Hashing can be performed on all files on a hard drive automatically with all hashes stored in a single hash file. If a hard drive crashes and you are wondering which files survived, simply perform a hash check on all files. Both good and bad files will be reported. Of course, this assumes that the hash file is intact, but some form of integrity checking is better than none at all.

Lighten Your Load
Avoid the temptation to become a digital packrat who saves every file because it might be useful someday. If you are not using a file now, then you probably never will. Keep only the files you need, and give them meaningful file names. This reduces the space and time needed for backups, and helps save money by requiring lower-capacity hard drives.

Organize all files by categories within a directory structure you understand for quick access. Nothing consumes time and wastes battery power faster than hunting for your latest masterpiece saved under the name “Untitled Document” in an obscure location. During an emergency, time might not be on your side, so you want your files arranged in the best manner possible for quickest retrieval.

Extras
Store the netbook in a dedicated storage case along with all peripherals, installation media, cables, and everything else needed to restore, maintain, and run the netbook. Many netbook travel cases exist, so pick one that meets your needs.

Keep a small screwdriver on hand to perform the necessary netbook dismantling in order to replace the internal hard drive. Pack a lint-free cloth to wipe fingerprints from the screen. Keep a blank USB stick on hand for emergency data transfers or as a replacement.

tuffusb What everybody ought to know about emergency computer kits

A small USB stick, such as the Verbatim Tuff n Tiny, is perfect for storing encryption keys or a bootable operating system, yet it is small and thin enough to hide almost anywhere--such as inside a pack of chewing gum.

Testing
At this point, your computer kit is ready go. Ask yourself “If I need to grab this kit and run, does it contain everything I need to operate it and completely restore the system from scratch?”

Let’s find out. Pretend that there is an emergency forcing sudden evacuation and run! Grab your computer kit and run! Run fast. Run hard. Okay, at least run to the other room or go outdoors away from the temptations of your main system and electricity.

You are on your own.

With nothing more than the kit with you, can you access any file you want? Is all of your important data with you? How easily can you access encrypted files? Perform a file integrity check on your backup files. Create a new file, and add it to your backup. How well is the battery lasting? Pretend that your netbook’s internal drive has crashed and you must replace it on the spot with your spare drive. Can you do it? How about performing a complete system installation?

Testing your system like this helps reveal any weaknesses in your emergency strategy.

Conclusion
Other survival necessities will certainly be more important than a computer, but if you need a computer during an emergency, then hopefully this article has provided enough ideas to get you started.

After all, nothing screams electronic preparedness better than watching a movie on your backup netbook while everyone else is sitting in the dark.

This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win:

Comments

  1. David Shahal says:

    Great Article, but you left out the Solar battery charger, they come in a variety of sizes and cost is pretty low. Or get yourself a solar power backpack that way you can charge your computer on the go.

    • Cellboost or similar butane charger may be a better choice if your setup is using a smart phone.

  2. Wow, what great article–I can hardly wait to show it to the family member who will actually understand it.

    Your well-organized approach will be a tremendous help and timesaver for him, and a good framework for educating me. Thank you, E. Evans!

  3. I’m an IT guy. Yes, total nerd. This article is excellent. Personally, I am backing up any life or death files on paper, but this is an awesome way to take it all with you. Scan all of your important documents. If you can’t scan them, take pictures. Load all of that onto a USB drive and onto the netbook and keep it near you just as the President keeps the nuclear codes. Birth certificate, driver’s license, car title, insurance, etc. Also, keep up-to-date pictures of everything in your home. That way, if you have your own personal TEOTWAWKI event, like a house fire, you can grab that bag and your bath robe and know that you will eventually be made whole.

    For those of you in need, Amazon is having a sale on 32 GB Micro SD card with USB reader. Micro is the really tiny ones, like in your phone. They are only $40 today. That’s a high quality card, with a lot of storage space, for very little money. They usually run around $90 in stores are regularly $60 even on Amazon. This is a fine alternative to a USB drive, since it has a USB reader with it.

    • I recently made emergency information ‘kits’ for my young adult children. This doesn’t give you access to a working computer, and doesn’t cover all of the information/data you could store on a computer. But I think it would be a good additional step for that information that is VITAL to us.

      There were 3 components to these kits:

      1 – An organizational binder, that included the original copies of all of their important documents (passport, birth certificate, immunizations, car titles, school transcripts, drivers license copy, SS card, etc) along with sections for their finances, personal property, important contacts & family addresses, emergency plan information, etc. This can be kept at home in a location that it is readily available for bill paying and reference. It should also be able to be grabbed (since it’s all in one place) and packed when having to leave home in an emergency.

      2 – An emergency document envelope with copies of all of the important documents and other information that is more static (I skipped the bill charts, budgets, etc since they are ever changing). This envelope can be kept in a bug out bag, every day carry bag, or what ever they carry that would with them ALL of the time.

      3 – A small usb flash drive that contains scanned copies of all of the static documents. This is small enough to tape into a wallet. A different model could be attached to a key ring.

      The idea would be for this flash drive to be kept in a different ‘location’ than the emergency file so that hopefully you would NEVER face a situation where you wouldn’t have one of the three them. Alternatively, you could have multiple USB drives if you wanted to always have one in the glove compartment of your car AND one on your person in the form of your wallet. That way if you lost your wallet you could get the one from your car. If you were away from your car, you would still have the one in your wallet, etc. The key here is just redundancy.

  4. Annie Nonymous says:

    This is a really interesting article, and really hits home when you have your library on an e-device. While a MCD or EMP event is not something we want to face, it is a significant enough threat that IMO your system should be shielded as best as possible from such a SHTF scenario. I am considering one of 2 options – an old METAL footlocker to store all my sensitive electronics in (downsite being it’s heavy) or putting a metal screen (although I don’t know if that would be effective) liner in such an electronic BOB. As it is, I am soberly aware that just lugging this back and forth without protection of some kind is kinda hanging myself out there…

    The other thing is running an Apple system – while the author mentioned linux (which is what the mac os is based on) many of us switched to this after experiencing windows failure after failure. I currently use a 1gen iPad for most of my e-stuff, backed on a macbook pro… yet not being a computer geek, er, whiz, I haven’t the foggiest how to go about building such a kit based on mybpreferred os. One thing I know is unworkable is relying on a system that is buggy and has let me down in various and sundry occasions (usually when needed most!), and not having a lot of faith in the apple store techies in re opsec, I’m in a quandry as to how to securely rig my gear without the apple geeks going “hey, I met this chick while doing some prepper stuff, guess what she’s got and here’s where
    her mqc and iPad are…

    Any other Macaphiles out there who can point us in the right direction?

    Annie

    • MacBook Air.

      Netbook size and battery life, runs OSX natively, great battery life. (Also, solid state drive, no moving parts.)

      (My own opinion, based on having both, is that netbooks are basically horrible, as explained by their price and target market.

      And EMP worries are both vastly overhyped and, well… if they are that bad, it’s not like the network isn’t going to be destroyed for months or years if it happens, so unless you really like playing solitaire, or think you’ll be called upon to use Pages and Numbers to organize a new society, it’s not worth a lot of effort.

      At that rate you should be stocking up on ammo, not metal-lined B-O-Bs.)

  5. Harold Dean says:

    I heartily concur with your presentation and it needs to be observed. Much important data can be conserved on highly compact media. The only suggestion I would make is to add one of the newer Chinese EBooks to this setup that has the multiformat reading ability. I just purchased one on EBay for 36 dollars shipping included and it has all of the audio video and Electronic book format reading ability. For reading only it does not take much power and it is powered by a rechargeable LI battery that I acquired both an AC and solar recharger for. I am presently fabricating a copper mesh envelope inside a leather case that bonds on sealing with an external grounding jack so in case of EMP it can be readily grounded before the unit is opened. Since it takes the micro SD card, copious amounts of information, music, video, etc its also storable inside the Faraday cage. Harold Dean

  6. E. Evans, good work here! I keep a Dell D630 laptop running Ubuntu for my survival data. I have to keep a Windows machine running because of stupid stuff at work( I dual boot with Ubuntu on the company laptop) but other than that I use Linux. My MO to date has been to use a couple usb drives to store new files and copy to the dedicated laptop about every month and at the same time I check updates and exercise the laptop battery. I have found the battery life is much better running Ubuntu than windows. I also keep the install disks I made for the initial install( after reading your article I’ll make bootable USB sticks as well) and make separate partition for /home(knowing if the drive dies I’ll lose it, but it makes os swaps easier). The laptops I use are the same ones we have at work so spare parts are sometimes available for the asking(the lead IT guy likes me, I rarely bother him for anything and sometimes help him) because the sales people screw up the laptops by the score. I always have a couple good batteries and spare drives even a display and hinges. I’d love to try the netbook, but it’s hard to turn down all the nearly free laptop goodies.

    I’m saving your article, so many good ideas and practices in a short space!

  7. A movie was made about my computer skills. Unfortunatly it was dumb and dumber.The article was use full just beyond my understanding. It seemed to make sense I just don`t understand it.

    • Steve,

      I know what you mean. I thought “wiping” was something you did after going potty and “integrity check” was something you Dad did before he let you go out with a guy.

      • axelsteve says:

        hah a Gayle. I am more into things that go bang not electronics.I think it is funny that people call a piece of paper a hard copy. You must be a many man if a piece of paper is hard.

  8. Mama Bear in Fl says:

    Great post Evans!

    I’m going to admit that electronics are a big weak area for me, and it probably doesn’t help at all that I don’t even want the “gizmos” that lots of people seem to have. Heck, I only have a cell phone because my DH insists that I carry one for emergencies.
    Anyway, this is an excellent article and I will be sending it on to my hubby…who does all our computer stuff. Thtank you!

  9. templar knight says:

    This is an excellent article for people who use a computer to store all their information. This article is just full of good info for the computer user, and one of the best I’ve ever seen on the subject. Kudos to you, Mr. Evans.

  10. I can’t recommend pelican cases enough for this type setup. Expensive yes but they do their job under the worst conditions. For years I carried one inside a waterproof boat bag while working offshore. It went in the drink twice with no damage or leakage at all. One of those times it fell from a Billy Pugh while transferring from rig to boat thanks to a trainee crane operator. I have another for handguns that will float in freshwater with 4 guns in it. Yep I tested it by tossing it in the lake to see what would happen. Kept a line on it for the test though, I’m wasn’t that sure it would work…lol.

    Also pack everything in anti-static bags. Just another layer of protection.

    Laptop batteries have about a two year lifespan, on the average, before they start to deteriorate. Less if you keep it on the AC power with the battery installed. I keep spare batteries for the laptop, the netbook and several for the phones. And cycle them all.

    Having run my own pc repair biz for 10+ years I have pigtail adapters for converting SATA to IDE and IDE to SATA. IDE (aka PATA) are connectors used on older drives, SATA are on newer drives. The IDE uses a flat ribbon cable while SATA uses a much slimmer cable. They are not interchangeable. I also have a couple of hot swappable docks.

    One thing about e-readers and tablets. Some have user serviceable batteries, some don’t. Some have SD card readers some don’t. If I get a tablet it will be one with common I/O ports, SD card reader and an easily replaceable battery.

  11. One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Terrific, comprehensive viewpoints on the often neglected subject of computers and survival.

  12. CountryGirl says:

    OK, there is some useful information in this post. But if TSHTF my plan is to survive and stop surfing the web (which of course would not be available anyway nor would power). So what value is it sitting in your debris shelter trying to get a fire going with no food (because you spent all your money on an extra internal hard drive in case the existing on failed) to have a computer with 2 hours of battery life left??? Maybe in a not quite SHTF fan situation this might make sense but then again in that situation you would still have power and the internet would be up etc. So which is it you are struggling to survive after a total collapse and a laptop is useless or things aren’t so bad and the high maintenance and expensive “just in case kit” isn’t needed?

    • CountryGirl,
      Whether or not you use a computer, I hope we don’t hit the point of having to live in a debris shelter anytime soon. If that is the case then maintaining a computer, and most of my preps would all have been in vain and a big waste of time and money. I’ll keep that shelter option open for bushcraft training outings and surviving plane crashes, but don’t intend any other scenario where that’s the only option.

    • I can think of many good uses for a computer even after TSHTF if you have alternate ways to charge the battery.

      My resource library is HUGE. I have many books, and have have a BUNCH of articles printed and saved in a binder. But there is no way I could print everything I can save that might be helpful.

      More importantly, if I have access to my digital resources (via a computer), I can search for exactly what I need in a matter of minutes instead of hours. I think this could be HUGE especially in an emergency or other urgent situation.

      Obviously, this is just another aspect of preparing and does not rank up there with food, water, and shelter. But if the resources are available to invest in a backup computer kit, you would probably have resources available to help you manage the food, water and shelter!

    • Hi CountryGirl,
      Please don’t write this off so soon. I’m assuming that the keepers of the net have plans in place for SHTF too. Geeks love post apocalyptic scenarios. I would also take a swag that the yearly budget for planning and recovery by Google and Amazon alone is enough to run a small country. Web = situational intelligence. Updates on migration of zombies, where to go for water, food, shelter and real time news from You Tube or Twitter. anyone of these things could save your life. Look up how technology was used recently during civil unrest in this country and abroad. If you are on a budget like I am you could scale this down a little and get a smart phone or tablet with a micro sd card. When is the last time you went anywhere without your cell phone being in a 20ft radius of your person? In WW2 time frame a radio and transmitter proved to be powerful tools to the resistance.
      Deo adjuvante non timendum

      • Just a quick question. I could be completely wrong as I dont even know how this random piece of info is bouncing thru my head, but didnt the military come up with the internet and the ability to use it after a nuclear holocaust?

        • I will neither confirm nor deny the ability of the global communication network known as “The Internet” to survive SHTF.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET

          Here’s the first paragraph in case your not interested in reading the whole article:

          The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), was the world’s first operational packet switching network and the core network of a set that came to compose the global Internet. The network was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense for use by its projects at universities and research laboratories in the US. The packet switching of the ARPANET was based on designs by Lawrence Roberts of the Lincoln Laboratory.[1]

        • The Internet grew out of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project known as Arpanet. This network is packet switched a multi-routed, meaning that if some nodes of it are non-functional, the network will route around the failing areas. If there were a WMD attack (either nuclear or conventional) that took out specific areas of the network, located in a single city or region, and the grid power for the bulk of the country is unaffected, then some amount of the network should still be functional. The government and the military uses this network infrastructure, but the military also has its own secure alternate network known as MilNet, which is reported to be more robust. If the attack were to take out a larger area, with multiple strikes or a large EMP, then all bets are off, and even in the event of a single large terrorist strike, the resources of the net may be restricted to official government uses, whatever that may mean.

        • Thanks for answering my question. Like I said, I had no idea where that thought had come from, but I was curious if it was true or not.

  13. E. Evans,

    Thank you for the article. I am glad there are computer people who understand this stuff. In a SHTF scenario, communication with the outside world would be incredibly valuable.

    • In a SHTF scenario this computer will let you run a spreadsheet or watch a movie or play a game. Without the grid I do not see how it will be a tool of communication. For communication you would be much better off with a 70s CB radio. Or best yet an old tube driven DC short wave radio.

      • Actually a computer and some amateur radio gear (and a license) can provide many automated and digital communications tasks. The computer can also be used to encrypt and decrypt messages to allow communications while maintaining OPSEC. Even communication via courier can be secured with computers on both ends of the message.

  14. Wow, looks like I’m going to be a lone voice of negativity here.

    I think everything you put together and proposed is completely reasonable, but… I wouldn’t enjoy using this system instead of my usual system. So I’d keep it around only for emergency SHTF use. If I don’t need it in 2 or 3 years it will be worth what? $50? How often do you propose going through and keeping all important files backed up to this? In 5 years with such rapid changes in technology and standards I might not even be able to browse the web with the thing.

    I think such a plan only makes sense for someone who’s life and livelihood is largely digital. For most of us, when the SHTF using a computer will be pretty low on our lists. In a grid down world what do I want to compute? On the positive side: if a neighbor has such a system up and running and I need something (I can’t imagine what at this moment), I would imagine being willing to trade a pound of dry rice for him to (whatever).

    My rice costs $0.50/pound, will last 30 years, and feeds me whether SHTF or not. My hand tools cost $10s will last a lifetime working in good times or bad. A shotgun costs about $250 will last decades with good care, and can protect me and help me to feed my family. This setup? Cost $100s of dollars is not pleasant to use in grid up world, might last how long? 5 years? And provides what life sustaining need? I’m happy to hear from bright thoughtful minds solving problems, but define the goal. My limited time and money will be spent on this so that ______?

    • Tinfoil Hat says:

      Mike

      When I first started to read this article, I agreed, and to a certain extent, still do. I don’t think, for a newbie, the 1st thing one should do is go out and spend the $ on a netbook and the other mentioned equipment at the expense of beans or a good stihl chainsaw. But (and not to say that one should ever consider oneself “done” prepping) there does come a time when you branch out and move to other areas. For me, after I compiled my 2 years of stored food, I moved to weapons, then to a BOV, now I’m focused on stocking ammo and searching for rural land. For folks in the advanced stage of prepping (which I’m nowhere near, incidentally), there is a place for this, and I’m glad the article was submitted. I may not be ready for it, but some of the more seasoned folks on the board (Lint, Gayle, Riverrider, MD, Norcal Ray and others) may be. Just my 2 pennies

    • MikeM,
      As a society we got along fine with stone tools, until someone discovered copper, and bronze, and iron, and finally steel. Buck saws and axes are also useful tools, but for real productivity I’d still want a chainsaw if it’s available and working. A computer falls into that same technology hierarchy, and while not absolutely required, does bring a lot to the mix. Managing lots of resources, whether people, or food or tools, can be done quickly and accurately with simple programs like databases and spreadsheets. My Self Reliance library just broke the 100 GB mark, and even with unlimited toner cartridges and paper cannot be totally printed out since it contains hours of audio and video on a myriad of subjects. These tools can be used to train other people in subject areas where they are week or ignorant, and a detailed video with an expert discussing and demonstrating a subject can be very effective training. Add to that the DVD’s in my collection on firearms, martial arts, gardening, butchering, and a host of other topics, and you have a very powerful tool. The value of a 5 year old computer in dollars has no real relevance in this situation. One machine I run regularly is a desktop machine that is more than 10 years old. It will not play any of the latest first person shooter video games, nor can you even install the latest windows versions; however, it very nicely runs my instrumentation software (oscilloscope and other tools), plays video from my library or DVDs, and handles all of my other media from text files to pdf documents without a problem. I have enough pieces to keep this machine running, and build a few more if required, all laying around at virtually no cost. I also have a 22 year old ¾ ton 4WD pickup truck here on the homestead, and just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s either nonfunctional or of no value, although I suspect the blue book value on it is something close to its scrap value. Computers should be looked at in the same way, not by their value or cost in dollars, but by the productivity they bring to the table.

      • OP said “The value of a 5 year old computer in dollars has no real relevance”

        For many of us who work on a budget of putting aside around $50/month for preps (Since you are an established voice here you know this site has a clearly stated focus on prepping with a small budget http://www.thesurvivalistblog.net/about-3/ ). Taking about 10 months of my prepping budget for a dedicated system that will not hold its value (in dollars in a grid up world) has lots of relevance to me and lots of the wolf pack.

        I can see (you mention your 100 GB library and that you have a dozen machines running linux) you have an extraordinary interest in the machines and creating a digital survival storehouse of information. I would be very happy to have you somewhere nearby if any real problems came along. But I think you are also plenty bright enough to understand that most of us would not put as many resources into digital data preservation. Instead directing our limited resources in into the preservation of our families through food and defense.

        • Hi MikeM,
          I’m writing this post to you using a Compaq laptop that was the latest and greatest right before the turn of the millennium. It is running Puppy Linux from a thumb drive. Total cost? 0 dollars. The Compaq was headed for the recyclers and the thumb drive I got as a door gift from a conference I went to many years ago. As I stated to CountryGirl, a basic computer that can connect to the web can provide you with the one thing others may not have but will need. Intelligence. Please give this post more consideration.

        • Thanks to all your well reasoned responses to my comments. You have made me think twice. My general strategy until now has been – have no reliance on digital access to anything. Use it when it improves my life, but never rely on it for anything. I still think thats a pretty safe strategy. Now, I will consider putting together a bootable Linux thumb drive with some important personal documents on it, an office suite, a programming language, and a DVD player. I see that is a cheap way ($7) to add some capability and portability. I will just use it on either one of my own laptops or any machine I come across when needed. How universal and what longevity do you think this approach will be/have?

          Thanks again.

    • Josh,

      I actually agree with you SHTF is an “extremely slim chance”. But that was part of my point – imagine both possible scenarios: normal life and life grid down. Normal life I buy and extra system to sit around in a to go bag in case something goes bad – and nothing does. 5 years later my investment is the sort of thing you could get for free from craigslist. Now the other scenario: If things do go grid down what use can I imagine for this system as described?

      I do see now where the disconnect is and I missed it in the article the first three times reading it. Again and again the focus is on having access to “your data”. There are many of us who use computers every day and have no “my data” that is of any dire need. I started programing on a CPM 80/86 system have used machines and pieced them together for about 30 years. And yet I have no data that is meaningful for me in a grid down or even a temporarily grid down world. Very little of my personal life is in a digital format. I don’t plan on keeping my professional life as a research scientist very active in a world without electricity.

      Yeah I use a powerful computational tool that makes my current life possible, but if there is no electricity, I’m probably not going to be dying to run the next regression, or calculate the eigenvectors on my 16,000 x 16,000 covariance matrix.

      Furthermore if you know how to piece together a working computer that knowledge will be very useful, but having a machine sitting around may not actually be very important. If you think older machines today are cheap imagine how much value the average person will place on a computer after power has been out for six months. They will be there for the picking.

      To summarize – SHTF grid down world slim chance so little reason for me to buy special grid down computer system. Well if its such a slim chance why do anything? Because my white rice feeds my family today, next year, 30 years from now with no loss in value and its cheap to start with. This system – expensive and value declines with a half life of about 12 months.

      • Mike M,
        In your post above you imply spending $500 on a system that just sits around ($50/month times 10 months), and here you state, “5 years later my investment is the sort of thing you could get for free from craigslist”. The point is that right now you get the 5 year old system free, from Craig’s list, install a Linux version with an inexpensive 500GB hard drive and you’re set, at very low cost. The point in my post, is that if you don’t plan to play the latest 3D video game, an old inexpensive or free machine like this will play audio & video (including DVD’s), and display all of your text and pdf files. Training neighbors or others, how to field dress a deer, dress a hog, tear down, clean and reassemble a host of firearms, and many other useful skills can be much more easily accomplished with a myriad of videos.
        When I mentioned all of the machines I run, it was only to demonstrate that Linux is viable in a lot of situations. Most of my Linux machines are embedded development machines that I use to develop software for embedded applications. The newest of the Windows machines is more than 3 years old, and the two oldest are more than 10, which in today’s market makes them worth zero dollars, although they are still very functional tools for my needs, although those needs don’t currently involve the heavy computation you mentioned. I’ve been prepping for more than 40 years, and also have a great library in books. The digital version of these resources can however be much more easily shared with others when needed.
        I personally don’t see the need for a new Netbook, but if you look around (perhaps even with the IT folks where you work) you may just find some very serviceable hardware available for the hauling. My rack mounted Linux based firewall/router system was acquired that way at zero cost.

  15. blindshooter says:

    Gayle, my setup is not really for communicating but more of a library that I can carry. I have survival books, some fiction books, articles and how to things stored and also things like service manuals for the vehicles I have. There is also a copy of all my digital pictures and some music. It might be nice to look at some pictures and listen to some music while hiding in your underground lair waiting for the world to come back to level :^)

  16. Lots of great ideas. Now I just need upgrade my framinahats with the dowhistle dorkwhicky in the s85 series with squidbrains outpits! Understand about half the post and just enough to be a little dangerous. Guess I will have to edjumicate myself a little and see if I need or want to spend any money on this side of preps. Thanks for the enlightenment, that is what the place is good for , to help round out our skill sets to be best prepared.

    • george,
      Instead of the s85 series you might look to the s89. The ’85 is notorious for it’s overheating and the lack of mamory on the squidbrains outpits are a real handicap. :-)

  17. Hunker-Down says:

    P/C’s are great when times are good and you like to blog.
    My P/C and this blog are the source of survival knowledge for me. It has changed my life, and that of my DW, the way we spend money, and the contents of our home. If either M.D.’s Blog or the internet, or my P/C were not in my life none of the above would have happened.
    BUT, when TEOTWAWKI happens, our priorities will be flipped up-side-down.

    Personal computers are so unreliable that they have no place in my prepping plans. Software is full of bugs, and any program that is bug free can be compromised by another program trashing the storage (RAM) space of the first mentioned program. This is the reason every P/C has the ctl/alt/del reboot feature.
    Static operating systems on mainframe computers take from 7 to 10 years to debug. Operating systems on P/C’s are in a continual state of change, and therefore terribly unreliable. Every application program support team has a different standard of testing, if any, before releasing software to you, or, downloading it onto your P/C without your knowledge. If you are a network security analyst you can stop it. If that is above your pay grade, good luck. It’s a treadmill I refuse to trod on.

    My reference data (food storage, water, recipes, medical, equipment, gardening, guns),is printed and my post SHTF communications devices are two way and broadband radio.

  18. E. Evans,
    Good comprehensive article, but I do have a few questions for you.

    Why are you building an emergency battery powered system and including WiFi? WiFi costs a good bit of your power budget, and I can only envision two scenarios for its use. You’ve found a working hotspot, which has power, and therefore you will probably have power available for the computer; or, there is no power and no hotspot, so no need for the WiFi. Just wondering about the reasoning here.

    For backing up your system you recommend rsync &/or tar. While they are both reasonable options, unless managed properly, you can automatically overwrite good data with corrupt data. Some sort of backup system with incremental capability might be more useful.

    The use of hash tools like md5 are a great way to ensure data integrity between your data and the backup copies and detect duplicates, but unless scripted can only do 1 single file at a time. Do you have any recommended scripts or programs that can perform the task automatically across directory hierarchies full of files?

    Instead of external USB hard drives I would recommend large capacity MicroSD cards, which can hold a lot of data, have very low power requirements, and are so small that they can be easily stored in a protective wrap and hidden where they would be nearly invisible.

    As for using Linux as an operating system, I absolutely agree. I currently have about a dozen machines running Linux plus 4 machines running windows variants. One is a desktop machine (with a large UPS) and one is a laptop, and both are more than 10 years old and still function fine for their intended purpose, and so far the only maintenance I’ve needed is a new power supply for the desktop and a new battery for the laptop. I personally find the Linux command line environment to be extremely useful, so if you’re forced for some reason to use Windows as your O.S., install the free package known as Cygwin (Cygnus [The Swan] fir Windows). This package when installed is rather large, but gives the user nearly every Linux command line program including development with most Linux based languages (e.g., C, C++, Perl, Php, etc.).

    While probably not as important as your basic beans, bullets, and Band-Aids, a computer can be a very useful preparedness and survival tool.

    • SickSkilz says:

      I think you are correct that there are multiple scenarios but I don’t disagree with preparing for both. If no power and no wifi, wifi can be disabled. But you have it in case there is both.

      • In the case where there is both, I’m most likely not really in that big of an emergency situation, and my normal (non-emergency) machines will probably do what I need.

  19. SickSkilz says:

    As long as a device can connect to the existing network, its not outdated. when the SHTF, will it really matter if your somputer is 5 times as fast as mine? I have a 10 year old laptop that still functions for keeping old data, etc.

    One thing you can do is just keep your old devices as you replace them. I get a new computer every 4 or 5 years and a new smartphone probably every 18 months now. So it easy enough to just keep the old ones in a box.

    Then that comes back to storage. I have seen Faraday cages mentioned MANY times on this site and others and I want to caution everyone that the vast majority of instructions for making them are flawed to the point of uselessness or will only work with a emp blast of specific strengths and types. So, if you are going to make one, you need to make it correctly.

    Without going in to all the gory details. Electricity doesn’t just follow the path of least resistance, it is dispersed inversely proportional to resistance. The result is that a conductive material will attract electricity but then the area around that area will have a higher voltage then the general ambient. The result is that a small poorly made cage will actually be worse off for electronics than nothing at all. For bonus points, there is really no way to test them at home. Even in labs it is very difficult to approximate a source from far away.

    So, you either need a fairly large faraday cage (like over 100 sf), a multi stage cage where you have 1 very conductive material that is grounded,a barrier of 6 inches or more, a thinner conductive material, and then a barrier and then your devices, or this:

    Here is how you can be 99.9 % sure your devices would be safe.

    Get a non conductive, waterproof container that your stuff will fit in. Dig a hole int he ground at least 4 inches deeper than the container. Put the container in. Cover it with a 2 inch layer of anythign non conductive. (a few sheets of plywood will do and thats my choice)\. Get a sheet of metal (preferably aluminum) that is at least a foot in each direction bigger than the top surface area of the container and place it over the container but at least 2 inches from ground level. Then cover with 2 inches or more of dirt.

    This system will survive any EMP blast except one so strong that it basically vaporizes humans in the process.

    Source: I double majored in Computer and Electrical Engineering and took a class where we tested homemade Faraday cages (and most failed)

  20. Since I’ve been “out of the business” my computer knowledge has dropped off. Thanks for the info and all the comments!

  21. blindshooter says:

    A good way to get cheap hardware is to ask your friends that own a business for their throw away machines. You may have to give them the drives but they are cheap and you can learn to install Linux without fear of messing up that aggravating windows machine you are stuck with now;<)

  22. While I am not going to go buy a set up just for preps, I do use my laptop, and other stuff I have as an extension of my preps. I keep all of my stuff on an external hard drive, and important things backed up to several different thumb drives (at least I think that is what they are called?), and have them in multiples, one with a trusted friend (she cant access the info anyhow), another at my parents house, and then also in the BOB’s. I also have information backed up on the micro memory cards, that can be accessed in both my e-reader and my phone.
    I dont rely on just my electronics, and have what I can printed out, like another commented, not everything can be put on paper. Not to mention, if the electric grid is still up and running and it is a personal SHTF situation, well I have a ton of info stored on my external hard drive, and that is one less thing I would have to worry about replacing. So IMHO, while not as important as food, water, and shelter, it is something I do keep up on.

  23. For everyone hating on this article, it is relevant for me because my survival PDF library is vast whereas my survival book library is not. And the 6 or so books I do have get heavy quick. How many debris shelters have libraries in them? If TS really HTF, then it could be for a good amount of time. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember how to make my own diesel fuel, or how to set up a still, or identify various illnesses, or navigate by the stars. I may need to look something up.

    • I agree that my library is being condensed to a smaller way, good idea, my problem is what happens after the batteries die or no sun because of a cloudy day to recharge them, if a EMP hits and you are working with it then it will be fried, we need written word also if only in microfilm so we can start anew after it is over

  24. What good is a computer if and all this extras if the internet, electrical power, water, gas pumps, sewer,etc, is not working, I agree that we need a way to save our notes and info, but to be able just to watch a movie at night because we can was a little silly to me, when it all comes down hard, I do not think I will be just seating around showing off me computereze by watching a movie to prove that I can, good article just to full of holes, (by the way I teach computer science)

    love to all

    suga

    • Hunker-Down says:

      +1

    • Nail on head. In the event of any mass power loss, critical infrastructure goes away even with backup power and generators. Look no further than the northeast blackout of ’03. Cellular access was spotty at best, and data was virtually non-existent.

      With lesser events, like hurricanes and such, you have a better shot at usable cellular data, but that remains the only method of network access that is in any way likely to remain up with downed lines and power delivery issues.

      The only silver bullet solution would be a satellite based system like BGAN– unfortunately the equipment and data rates are extremely expensive, and capacity is very limited.

      If it hits the fan, you really don’t need a computer. The “situational awareness” justification is laughable. If you want that, pick up a VHF/UHF scanner. It’ll tell you a whole lot more about what’s going on locally than the internet you’ll be unable to access.

    • Rob Crawford says:

      Well, “Suga”, the computer could have copies of “When There is No Doctor”, “When There is No Dentist”, and the ships captains’ medical guide. It could have copies of your prep inventory, and not just phone numbers and addresses of out-of-town contacts, but also maps and photos to get you to their homes. You could have a massive cookbook to help you use all your stored food.

      All for a few pounds of weight and a small investment.

      And don’t discount the worth of being able to watch a movie. If you’ve done all you can — or haven’t the energy to do more — but can’t sleep, some music, or reading, or a movie could keep you from wasting your mind worrying about things you can’t change.

  25. It’s an interesting article, but not particularly geared to my needs.

    For basic communication, my iPhone will serve as well and it’s far more compact. I’ve got enough battery extenders to use it for about a week if the power is down. Turning to the large batteries in my UPS and car, I could go for months. I also have a solar charger with a USB output that should be good enough to run it for several hours a day indefinitely.

    For emergency how-to books, I’ve got several apps on my iPhone to diagnosis illness and tell me how to handle all sorts of emergencies. For free PDF books on emergency medicine etc, I’ve got them on an epaper Kindle that’ll run about a month off its own battery and can be charged from any USB power source.

    For continuing to do what I do for a living (write), so the money continues to flow in, I want to use the tools I already use, in my case a MacBook & Scrivener. In the midst of an disaster, I’ll be too busy to learn a new OS and apps. As long as I can protect that MacBook from damage and get power for it (no different from protecting and powering a netbook), I’m fine.

    And yeah, I’m not sure what I’d do with a ‘end of civilization as we know it’ type disaster. But I suspect in that case, any semblance of my current lifestyle will be gone. I’ll be focused on food, shelter and protection.

    In short, in most cases the best emergency computer kit is one you’re already familiar with. It doesn’t require buying anything new other than power storage and protective gear.

  26. M. Report says:

    A watertight case would be a worthwhile addition, Pelican for example:
    http://www.pelican-case.com/storm.html

    For the truly paranoid, a case shielded against EMP pulses from Zero:
    http://www.zerocases.com/CC-centurion200x.php

    Since solitary survival is much more difficult than group survival,
    a wireless mesh capability would be a good upgrade for a community:

    http://www.tpi1.com/cisco_aironet-client-adapters_wireless-p-15.html

    http://www.tpi1.com/motorola_la4137-wireless-networker-compact-flash-card_wireless-p-554.html

  27. Re – EMP – I used to design EMP-hard computers. Any hole in your metal container bigger than a pencil-lead will allow the EMP to leak in. The radiation also seeps in along the seams of the box, so you actually would need to buy copper tape and tape all around the seams. And then you’d never be sure. But also, if EMP actually happens – you’re back to 1830s technology, so losing computerized records will be the least of your problems :) You’ll be far more worried about food and cannibalism, for a very long time. All of that is outside the scope of this discussion – this is so you have a good set of electronic records after a tornado/earthquake/natural disaster (v. man-made).

  28. Great advanced planning. But I’m afraid all of this gear is simply moot in the face of the impending threat of a CME (coronal mass ejection). The sun is, after all, entering the part of its 11 year cycle of increased electromagnetic radiation, and it’s just a matter of time til one of those eruptions that’s big enough and is aimed just the right way, hits the earth and disables large segments of the electric grid. Think it’ll be over quick? Depends on how many transformers get fried, what production capacity is at the time, and availability of materials. It could take as long as four years for the grid to be fully restored. Your emergency kit will make a lousy doorstop in those circumstances.

  29. Great insight. Thank-you. :)