The Non-Prepper’s Guide to Prepping.

First in a series on basic, common-sense preparedness.

My Big Fat Greek Disclaimer: Everything in this article is based upon my own experiences as an amateur “prepper”, and trial and error with things that have worked and not worked for me. Also, nothing in this article should be construed as specific advice for dealing with the current pandemic. That’s a job for the CDC and other health organizations.

Prepping. It’s a term that has often brought with it certain negative connotations over the years. It’s often been associated with fringe political groups and/or “Doomsday scenario” types who are just sure civilization is due to collapse from (insert threat here).

Admittedly, there are a few folks like that out there. Mostly, though, those of us who prep simply like to plan ahead and be ready. Planning for an emergency in good times is a form of insurance. I like to think of it in the same terms as keeping a fire extinguisher in your kitchen. You might not ever need it, but if you do

You don’t have to be this guy to be a prepper (Image via Specna Arms)

It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this article. Prepping can seem a monumental task at first, especially for families and people on a tight budget. First-time preppers often make costly mistakes (I know, I’ve made them all!), or buy without a plan (easy to do in a crisis, and I think we’ve all been guilty of it at some time or another, even in less stressful circumstances than the current crisis). I hope that sharing my experiences will make it a lot less daunting, and maybe even make it a little bit fun.

FIRST STEPS, OR “WHERE DO I EVEN START?”

The first thing to understand is, everyone’s preparedness plan is going to be different. Variables such as where one lives, the scenario(s) one is preparing for, even the season of the year, can all play major factors in your decisions. Rather than overload you with an infinite number of scenarios, let’s look at just a few universal needs:

A SUPPLY OF STORED WATER: This might seem like a no brainer or a bit of silliness, depending on the situation. If you’re out camping or living in the desert, of course you’re going to (hopefully) have extra water on hand. But out here in the suburbs, or in my little apartment? I can just turn on the tap!

If that’s your thought process, you’re not really wrong. For most of us in industrialized nations, safe drinking water in our homes is so commonplace we hardly give it a thought. When a problem does arise, most of us don’t experience more than the rare short term outage, like when a water main breaks or is serviced. But again, let’s consider the fire extinguisher analogy.

Long-term disruptions to a safe water supply are rare, but they can and do happen. Flooding from hurricanes or other storms can contaminate the local water supply and damage infrastructure. Chemicals spills, like the one in West Virginia back in 2014, can render a river toxic for weeks. Even something as mundane as a dry summer can lead to “boil water” warnings. There is no other item that you will miss more, or will make dealing with a crisis situation harder, than not having access to a safe source of water.

Fortunately, keeping extra water on hand is one of the easiest, and cheapest ways to prepare. Gallon jugs of water can be had at most any grocery or dollar store in the U.S. or Canada for about $1 or so, and they’ll keep fresh for months tucked away in the back of a closet. For the shorter term, it can be even cheaper — just fill up your water container from the tap and store it your fridge or where ever you have space.

There are also ways to disinfect suspect water, and handy (if sometimes pricey) filtration systems you can buy. While both methods have merit, they’re really a bit beyond the scope of the article today. For those interested, the Center for Disease Control has a page dedicated to disinfecting water, and there’s plenty of youtube videos on the different filtration systems out there.

As for how much water one should keep on hand… that really depends entirely on your situation. For a hypothetical short term emergency where you are just trying to get from the dangers of point A to the safety of point B on foot, a 20 ounce bottle or two in your backpack might be plenty. For longer situations, you might need considerably more. A quick rule of thumb among many preppers is to figure a minimum of one gallon per person per day. That sounds like a lot at first, but that’s assuming water to drink, cook, clean, wash, and use the bathroom if water service is completely disrupted.

EXTRA, SHELF-STABLE FOOD: Again, this probably seems like a no-brainer. When the Covid panic buying hit back in March and April of 2020, most likely you stocked up as best you could, along with everybody else. But because you had to buy in the midst of a panic, you probably didn’t always have the option of getting your favorite items. You also may have picked up things that you might not normally use, but figured some food is better than no food. You wouldn’t be alone in that. This is why things like dried beans started vanishing from shelves at ten or twenty times the rate they might normally sell.

The point of preparing in this department is to plan out what you realistically need, and just as importantly, will use if there’s another crisis. It’s great to pick up a 5 pound bag of black beans if you intend to take the time to soak them and cook them up into something you and or your family will enjoy eating. If not, it’s wasted money. I guarantee you a lot of those dried beans and similar items bought during the panic are sitting at the back of pantries across the country. To put it another way, mankind does not live by shelf life alone!

It’s important to make choices that will match your normal fare as much as possible when you can. If you don’t like it or don’t know how to make it, you’re not going to eat it. Likewise, stocking a variety of foods you like is a good idea, too. You might love a certain kind of canned soup, but if you eat it every day for a week, it’s going to get boring. It might seem trivial to worry about boring food, but food can be a real morale booster in difficult times.

Since tastes and nutritional requirements vary widely, I’m going to avoid getting too deep into specific foods. Rather, I’ll just lay out some broad categories to consider:

-Freeze-dried foods. At the top of the prepping emergency food chain are freeze-dried meals. These can be a great option you want minimal fuss, compact storage, and long shelf life. You literally just add (boiling) water, seal it up and wait a few minutes. Stored properly, the unused meals will last 5 to 20 years, depending on type and brand. Some brands are better than others, but generally speaking, the rehydrated meals are tasty and look and taste like “real food.”

The downside to freeze-dried meals is that they aren’t cheap. A top brand like Mountain House will run you anywhere from $6 to $10+ a meal, depending on type. Portions are generous, but it’s still going to be pricey option for long-term situations or for a family. It’s often best to keep a few of these on hand, but base your emergency pantry on more affordable items unless weight is a critical factor.

NOTE: freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are two different animals. Freeze-dried foods retain their cell structure when processed, whereas dehydrated foods don’t, and tend to be rather mushy in texture. dehydrated foods also don’t store nearly as long, though they generally are cheaper than freeze-dried.

-Dry Goods: dried pasta, rice, premade box foods (mac and cheese, pasta sides, the ever present ramen), granola bars and the like are staples in many homes, so it makes sense that they’d be part of an emergency food supply. They also have the benefit of being inexpensive, putting them into nearly everyone’s prepping budget, and can play nice with other foods (sauce for your spaghetti, etc.). The one thing to consider is a number of these foods are going to require a fair amount of water to prepare, along with some way to heat or boil that water. If water supply and a cooking source is not an issue, then have at it.

-Canned goods: Fantastic for sheltering in place, terrible if you’re planning on being on the move. Canned foods are bulky and heavy, but they also tend to be relatively inexpensive and offer a lot of variety. It’s also probably the best and most palatable way to keep shelf-stable proteins on hand (tuna, chicken, etc.). Foods that can be eaten straight from the can are most useful, as they’ll be “good to go” if there’s no means to heat them up. Also, if the can isn’t a pull tab type, don’t forget to keep a manual can opener or two in the stash in case the power’s out.

-MRE/Military ration type meals: These are shelf-stable, ready-to-eat foods that come in a retort pouch — a fancy name for a heavy duty plastic or mylar pouch. Typically, these include an entree, snack foods like a packet of peanut butter or cheese spread, some drink mixes, a candy, and an accessory pack with items like instant coffee, matches, and gum.

Image via Cliparts.com

There are a number of civilian MRE meals being produced now by companies like Wornick and Sopacko, and most of them are pretty decent. MRE’s aren’t as lightweight or as long-lasting as freeze-dried foods, but also don’t require rehydration, and are a good deal cheaper over all than freeze dried. It’s sometimes possible to buy a selection of the entree pouches only, which is what I’d recommend. You’d spend less money and have less bulk and waste. A good option for a backpack, but again I would base a home supply on cheaper items.

A FEW BASIC TOOLS — ILLUMINATION, FIRST AID, CLOTHING/COVER, AND COMBUSTION.

Most people have a flashlight in a drawer somewhere. Most people also probably couldn’t tell you the last time they checked the batteries on it, or would know right where to go if the power goes out.

Some form of emergency lighting is always a plus to have on hand, be it in a car bag or at home. With the arrival of LED bulbs, inexpensive, powerful flashlights and lanterns are readily avaliable at most any big store. You’ll want to avoid the super cheap stuff like the 20 lumen headlamps that go for like a dollar at Wal-Mart — they produce too little light to be anything other than a toy — but you should be able to get a decent LED headlamp or lantern for $15 or less. Decent flashlights are even cheaper, and it never hurts to have extra sources of light (along with extra batteries and a means to charge your electronic devices).

First-aid kits are an area where one can get deep into the weeds with all of the permutations and possibilities. Enough so that the subject warrants its own article at a later date. For now, having a basic first aid kit on hand is highly recommended. Whether you buy a pre-stocked kit or put together your own, it’s strongly recommended to have one on hand at all times. Having one in the home and a second smaller one in the car is a great idea, too.

Though not exactly a tool, one should also give thought to keeping clothing or other cover on hand to protect against exposure to the elements. The type and amount right for you obviously will depend a lot on where you live and the current season, as well as what event you’re preparing for and for how long. Just remember any preparation will leave you better off than you would have been otherwise. An emergency rain poncho in the glove compartment or a couple of old (but warm) blankets in the trunk might not sound like much, but they can make a miserable situation a lot less miserable.

The last tool I’d suggest for this initial look at prepping would be some form of combustion. That is, the ability to make fire. For this, the single best tool you can get is a good disposable lighter like a Bic. No, I’m not joking. A disposable lighter is handier and easier to light than matches (though It’s good to have those around, too), and the ability to make fire means the ability to keep yourself warm, to cook food and sterilize water, and to provide yourself with light. Next to water, there’s no single thing you’ll miss more if you need it than the ability to produce flame.

When selecting a disposable lighter, avoid off brands. This might seem trivial, but I’ve seen enough dollar store lighters leak or wear out that the extra buck or two for a name brand is money well spent. Also, try to select a lighter that is a bright color you’ll be able to spot more easily if you drop it on the ground outside or in the dark. Bright orange is best, but yellow works well, too. And always carry an extra lighter just in case you can’t find the one you dropped.

Next time: From getting home to “bugging out”: how to put together an emergency bag for (most) any situation.

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One aging Gen-X-er’s thoughts on life, humor, film, and whatever else tickles my fancy at the moment.