Old wives’ tales. Hogwash. Myth. Bunk. Pigeon religion. Bull. It goes by many names, but no matter what you call it, information and technique that, for whatever reason, is flat-out wrong but still persists is present in any corner of society. This is certainly true of prepping.
Maybe it is tradition. Probably some things spring into the public gestalt thanks to popular culture and media, but have no basis in reality. Perhaps it’s the way your grandpappy did it, never mind that your grandpappy was never much of an avid camper, to say nothing of a mountain man. Mayhap you yourself have come down with a wicked case of Dunning-Kruger.
No matter how you came to believe any of the myths and big, steaming piles of bullcrap on this list, you had best divorce yourself and divest your thinking of them ricky-tick. The brutal arithmetic of real survival will not suffer a fool to live.
You might be able to fool yourself, or even your buddies into believing you are more capable than you really are, but you’ll never fool the mountain, the forest, the desert or the tundra.
This list is presented in no particular order, and covers a variety of ideas and concepts that are usually taken at face value when it comes to prepping “common-sense.” More than a few of them are sadly ensconced in prepper canon as commandments or a given, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There will always be an exception to any rule, but that exception often serves to codify and cement the rule in the first place. Don’t look at the items on this list, think of a clever way to sharpshoot them, and then declare the entirety invalidated. Instead, keep an open mind, assess the information and arguments prevented and then use it to shore up weaknesses in your own survival skillset.
Of course, perhaps you are so skilled, or talented, or just plain good that the rules really don’t apply to you. That’s fine, too. Just because you are an outlier does not make the rule any less applicable to the rest of mankind. Sure, you can outrun Usain Bolt and a grizzly bear uphill, but that does not mean the other 99.98% of humanity can.
That’s enough “buts”; let’s get to the list.
#1. Living off the Land is a Surefire Plan
This is a big one that resides near the back of many enthusiastic but naïve preppers’ minds. The idea that when things get really bad, when the SHTF, that you can grab a knapsack, an axe, a rifle or shotgun and strike out for the wide-open plains or deep woods and with a little sweat be enjoying your rural retreat until the world puts itself back together, with a cozy cabin, full belly and warm, if rustic, bed.
Please. While idyllic, the above scenario is only viable for the most exceedingly skilled and gritty of individuals. Long gone are the days of yore when the plains and forests teemed with large and small game. Even if they still were, hunting and trapping both require a significant amount of skill, practice and a little luck. Mind you that is using modern weapons and tools. Woe betides the person who thinks they will fashion primitive hunting weapons or traps in an afternoon and be enjoying dinner the same day.
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Similarly, shelter requirements are met with something far smaller, and less homey, than even a primitive cabin. If you did not bring a tent or bivy with you expect to be fashioning a hasty lean to or similar shelter and bough mattress to keep the wind off your back and your back off the cold, heat-sapping ground.
Against all this you must always weigh your energy budget. Every action, profitable or not, will burn calories. Most of us carry plenty of fuel around our middles and backsides but peak activity levels require a steady source of fuel, i.e. food. Your food supply will predominately consist of what you brought with you.
If you expect to forage for edible plants, berries and the like, you had best have encyclopedic knowledge of the biome you are currently in; many plants, berries, fungi and the like are safe to eat, and will make you very sick or even kill you should you quaff them. Many others are edible, but will provide little or no nutrition.
Real survival out in the wild, remote places of the world is nothing like pleasure camping, not even close.
#2. You Can Easily Start a Fire without Tools
Building a camp or cook fire is easy with good fuel, and a handy tool for making a flame. Well, managing your fire well to make best use of your fuel takes a little more skill, but not too much. But take away the lighter, matches or ferro rod, and ask someone to do the same, and that is when things get decidedly more challenging.
Creating a fire using nothing but a couple of sticks, perhaps some cordage and a plank is far more laborious and taxing than you might imagine, even in the mildest weather and circumstances. It is a feat of considerable exertion, and a skill where even the slightest lapse in concentration, effort or technique will result in a botched ember, plenty of smoke and no fire.
Now imagine doing the same in the dark, when exhausted and possibly injured or already very cold. The stakes will be much higher. A cheap Bic or other lighter would suddenly be worth a pound of gold when the darkness started to close in and the sun’s warming, life-giving rays vanished behind beyond the horizon.
Only the most skilled of preppers and survivalists can make primitive fire starting techniques look easy and low-effort, and that is only because they have countless hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of practice under them, and that “easy” fire is a testament to that. For the rest of us, you had better be practicing.
#3. Enough Gear Will Cover a Lack of Experience/Skills
Americans in particular fall prey to this ideology. The idea that a miraculous gadget, or other labor-eliminating piece of kit will solve all your problems at the outset is a siren song; you don’t need to know how to build a shelter or regulate your core temperature – I can just throw this tent up and I’ll be fine! I don’t need to know my routes – I have a GPS! I don’t need to know how to fight – I have this gun!
There is always a piece of kit to solve a problem. At least, that’s what the manufacturers and purveyors of such accoutrement want you to think. In actuality, any piece of gear is just a tool: a tool will usually help you work more efficiently by working faster or maximizing the results of your effort. Tools, especially the one, right tool for the job, are often indispensable, but it does not solve the problem by its lonesome.
Take the examples above for instance. Even with a tent that is a cinch to set up, you’ll need to know a little bit about properly siting the tent to minimize exposure to wind, or runoff from water.
Assembly will of course take some practice to become sure and fluent, doubly so in bad weather or the dark. GPS’s are superb tools, but if the network or device itself fails can you fall back on a map and compass? Without the map and compass can your coarsely navigate using the sun and other methods?
The firearm is the premier personal weapon of our age, but it cannot solve all defensive problems all the time. In fact it may start problems; some sketchy situations could warrant defensive force, but not lethal force. Introducing a gun into that equation may turn a small, scary dustup into a legitimate fight for your life.
The only way to work the skills you’ll need to become a well-rounded prepper and anything approaching truly self-sufficient is by doing, not hoarding gear. Furthermore you need to be practicing with your gear; if you are afraid of getting a little wear and grime on your shiny, nice stuff, ditch that attitude pronto. You need to do this in order to understand exactly what you can expect of you and your gear when working in tandem when the chips are down.
Always keep in mind that bad may go to worse with no warning. You might find yourself stripped or deprived of your gear or stash in part or entirely. For the geardo who worships at the altar of material preparation, this eventuality is a severe crisis of faith. For the prepper who is fluent or at least passable in austere or improvised techniques the same event will be a major punch in the gut, but largely surmountable.
#4. Your Neighbors/Friends/Family Will All Pull Together When SHTF
Think about all the interactions you have ever had with your neighbors, friends and family members. Chances are you can think of plenty of occasions where you and yours did not agree, or even argued over seemingly insignificant things. That’s humanity for you: people disagree, rebel and generally jump the tracks heading off to pursue their own self-interest or emotional impulses.
You had better count on this happening to a power of 5 in the midst of a real crisis of survival. The stress, uncertainty, danger and tectonic shifting of lifestyle and routine will have profound effect on the psychologies of most people you know.
Ideally, the time to find out how someone handles severe mental and physical stress for the first time is not a live event. Unfortunately, placing the people you care about, or even have a long-term friendship with in a “training” scenario to test their mettle is not always possible, or even feasible; more than a few folks will severely resent being tested, and this can have adverse affects on the relationship, especially if they feel duped or frog-marched into it.
The solution for this, like most things, lies within; leadership is a skill, as is persuasion. Charisma, an important attribute for leaders, can be developed and groomed through a combination of study and careful control of your own attitude. Panic is contagious, but so is calm, as any parent will tell you. Adults are not so different when the chips are down.
Learning how to get the people you care about to act against their thoughts and wishes but for their own best outcome will not be as simple as you think. Sometimes there will be nothing you can do to change their mind, and then you’ll have a decision to make. Hopefully you have planned for just such a contingency.
#5. The Right Time to Bug Out will be Obvious.
There will rarely be an event where you will see the writing on the wall and be afforded the opportunity to grab your BOB and go with minimal risk. Go too soon, and you may waste time, effort, resources and more on a false start (not to mention patience if bugging out with your family). Wait too long and you risk not being able to escape at all, or only do so at great personal peril.
No, as it turns out there will always be a personal element in choosing the time to bug out, the signal, if you will. Your personal line in the sand will be a function of the event you anticipate having to bug out over, your overall readiness, risk tolerance and a host of other factors like the ones mentioned above.
Note that many disasters may require evacuation but your average evacuation is not precisely the same as bugging out if you ask an average prepper.
Hurricanes, oncoming blizzards and other enormous but slow moving and mostly predictable weather events will provide nearly everyone with plenty of notice that they need to hit the road or hunker down. But in doing so you can generally head somewhere that will be minimally affected by that same event, or even completely unaffected, and then return after the event has passed, with a more or less predictable timetable.
Regardless, there is no sweet and easy method for determining when it’s “time.” No one wants to completely upend their life every time an ill wind blows, and it also would not do to sit in a losing situation with the erroneous belief it will blow over harmlessly or that you can ride it out. Don’t misunderstand, bugging in may be preferable, but some situations may be dicey, and you’ll have to choose – stay or go.
Count yourself lucky if you are only deciding for one, and not a family, group or other communal situation. The pressure will be greatly magnified and competing interests may sway you against your instincts or better judgment.
#6. Gold or Silver will be the New Currency Standard after SHTF
Part of this myth, like most, has a basis in reality, and the other part is probably just wishful thinking. Silver and gold make fine investments, and do have a place in a prepper’s repertoire of tricks, but the idea that either or both of them will become the new defacto currency after society implodes is far from a sure bet.
For one, it is tough to imagine a scenario, at least a near- or intermediate-term one, where things are so bad the greenback is used only for kindling but people will want what is essentially a shiny rock versus commodities that will no-shit keep them alive. Yes, gold has been valuable for millennia in virtually all cultures across the globe and I do not doubt for a second there will be some starving weirdo living in a world without a single bullet left who would sell you his last magazine for a nugget of gold when the robots are hunting humanity to extinction.
That does not mean it will be reliably valued the same to all people in a situation bad enough where currency as a concept is devalued. This is not to say you should not have a nest egg of precious metals in your survival stash; we and other prepper authorities have preached the merits of having that “ace up the sleeve” that only gold can provide, and in any time other than the legit end-of-society-as-we-know-it it is universally valuable and can be quickly converted into a favor, vehicle, or provisions when all other methods of exchange fail.
Nevertheless, do not neglect all the other many and varied commodities and consumables you’ll need to set up your best chance of success in a crisis due to your conviction that gold will be the one, true universal standard once more. Chances are that will not happen, and you sure cannot eat it or shoot it.
#7. You Should Drink Your Own Urine when Desperately Dehydrated
If there is one schlocky, idiotic myth that persists to this very day, it is the idea that drinking your own urine is an acceptable survival strategy when out of fluids and dehydrating. We can thank a multitude of major network “edu-tainment” survival shows for this tripe. It just won’t die no matter how often and how viciously it gets put down.
The reasoning goes something like this: if you are completely out of water/fluids and dehydrated or very thirsty (because who in their right mind would drink their own wee any other time…) you can make use of your nasty, warm urine to stave off dying of thirst or incapacitation from dehydration. Folks believe this crap because, hey, urine is mostly water, and your kidneys will just re-filter the bad stuff out of it when you drink it again.
Anyone with even a passing erudition in human biology will throw a flag on this particularly disgusting play. Keep in mind the scenario: you are in a survival situation, one where you have utterly exhausted all other water sources that are drinkable, and so you resort to drinking your urine. What you are actually doing is reintroducing toxins, ones your kidneys actively expel as waste, back into your body so that your kidneys must deal with it again, only this time it is concentrated.
Your body will doubtless be very stressed, perhaps sick or injured, and that added stress of dealing with concentrated urea may be enough to cause a cascade of events leading to incapacitation and perhaps death. Organ function generates heat and uses water you can already ill-afford to burn, internally. Drinking your urine is a double-whammy that will simply make things far worse than they already are.
Do not give into this nasty myth! You can still make use of your urine in a survival situation where you are suffering from heat, and that is by whizzing on a cloth, headwrap, piece of clothing or similar article in order to take advantage of the principal of evaporative cooling. Yes, it is still very nasty, but far better than getting heatstroke. Or dead…
Bottom Line: NEVER DRINK YOUR OWN URINE!
#8. You Are Better Off on Your Own
This is going to be the biggest bone to pick in the whole list, I am sure of that much. Many preppers are in love with the idea of the lone wandered, the rugged individualist, the mountain man, the sole survivor, who is skilled enough, gritty enough, prepared enough to survive literally the end of the world.
This mythical being, be they man or woman, doesn’t need other people. Heck, other people will just slow them down, attract too much attention and be simply in the way or another mouth to feed. Yeah! “I’m better off on my own.” is the cry of these adherents.
Regrettably, humans just don’t work that way. Humans are social. We work best in smallish, tight units and teams, and nowhere is that rule truer than a dangerous situation when the chips are down. Other people will make labor easier and more efficient, allow you to do more work, have more eyes to see with, ears to hear with and brains to problem solve with (well, not you Carl…).
Even a duo, that is one additional person besides just yourself, can watch over you while you sleep, cover another sector on security, help you carry or shift something too massive or bulky for one, and assist in countless other tasks. An injured prepper with only themselves to rely on may not be able to render adequate self aid, to say nothing of do the things they would normally need to do to survive.
Sure, more people means, well, more people, with all the negatives that entails- greater consumption of food and other resources, clashing of personalities, more noise, etc. etc.- but the risks ultimately outweigh the benefits. Especially when it comes to security and appearing as a hard target, a lone man, no matter how studly and badass, is easy prey for a group or gang.
You may be the quickest draw on earth, or the most competent fighter, but this ain’t “A Fistful of Dollars”, and you ain’t Clint Eastwood: chances are you are dead in your first standup fight against greatly superior numbers, unless you have a massive advantage in positioning or firepower.
I acknowledge that some of us, by accident or unhappy fortune will not have anyone we may truly rely on, be they family or friends, and we must play the hand we are dealt rather than tie our cart to an unknown ox, and I am not admonishing those who fit that description. But I will not pull any punches when I say that your chances will always be better with at least one other person tagging along.
Should you undertake the task of survival alone, you will be existing in hard mode: no mistakes, no do-overs. Meditate on that before you let your dreams of being the lone wanderer write a check you cannot hope to cash.
#9. The Expiration Date on Stored Food is a Reliable Guide for Food Safety
Yes? No! Maybe?! This is a really tricky one, only because there is seldom if any testing done on how reliable a manufacturers sell-by dates on their food products are, and what little is done is in such small sample sizes the data is what I would classify as anecdotal.
Expiration date is an issue because spoiled or otherwise unsafe food can make for two big hits: First, it could make your very sick, even kill you. Second, you won’t have anything to eat if it goes bad!
What to do then? How long will that Mountain House meal bucket last? Are those MREs really good for three years? Will a can of peas keep for one whole year in that sopping wet can?! For some folks, it is best not to think about it lest you get so skeeved out you develop a complex over it.
The way I see it, you have three options when it comes to long-term storage of food: One, rotate it religiously and regularly, and make sure your stashed provision is all things you eat regularly so you needn’t worry about that can of mystery meat hanging around for 10 years until the fateful day you have to pop the top in desperation.
Two, you trust the use-by date, and hopefully find out that the maker knew what they were doing after all. I have personally seen items that were factory sealed and stored in ideal climatic conditions be spoiled upon opening when kept for only a couple of years. I myself have seen other items go far beyond their dates then consumed with no ill effects. The comestible in question still smelled and tasted fresh, and made for a fine meal (it was corned beef hash if you were wondering).
Three, you can invest only in those foods with the very longest shelf lives and plan around any nutritional or culinary deficits. Think things like MRE’s, uncooked beans and rice, flours, honey and the like. This is not the best option for most folks, but attractive to those who really want to count in their food being “fresh” should they need it.
And you may want to do a little testing yourself to know for sure. Set aside a few cans, packages and the like of each foodstuff you store, and set reminders to open them up at set intervals to check for freshness and quality. You may see after a little experimentation that some brands really are better than others, or that perhaps your storage site could stand some improvement.
Remember, the only person you can trust to figure this stuff out is you.
#10. Hygiene is a Nicety, Don’t Waste Space on Toiletries
Wrong! Hygiene is far from some nice perk of civilization. Quite the contrary, hygiene is fundamental to civilization because it helps prevent the spread of disease and other maladies that can incapacitate, or at least make you very, very miserable. Like any mammal, without regular grooming and care, humans will get stinky, filthy, parasite infested and vulnerable to all sorts of bugs and conditions.
Everything from dermatitis and dysentery to scabies and fleas will happily set up residence on an unwashed human body. The stereotypical “nastiness” ailments range from seriously irritating to show-stopper deadly and everything in between. Dysentery in particular is a legendary ailment when it comes to ripping through groups of people with poor or non-existent hygiene in place. The resulting sickness will incapacitate as a rule, and in an already bad situation can lead to death from dehydration and electrolyte depletion.
We don’t need to haul along our entire bathroom cabinet or shower shelf with us, but we need the basics in order to keep ourselves in good working order: toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, TP, baby wipes, a small stick of deodorant or bottle of body powder, maybe a small bottle of shampoo and a dedicated wash rag or other cloth.
Those items above will keep your hands, body and mouth clean and fresh, even in austere conditions. Not for nothing, the morale boost from your morning, evening or every-other-day routine will do wonders for morale, yours and others around you; no one but no one wants to smell your hideous underarm funk or the eye-watering stench wafting out of your gribbly mouth.
Close quarters with smelly people will test even the strongest relationship. Keep tempers and germs at bay by maintaining good hygiene procedures!
Myths abound in prepping, like anything else. Also like many other things, the reductive method is often the most efficient means of troubleshooting.
If you or any preppers you know have fallen prey to the tall-tales and puffery on this list, make you take the time to get informed on best practices before someone comes to harm believing them. This list is a start.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.