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Skills – Stuff: When Stuff Matters More

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I generally agree with the premise that skills are far more important than stuff, and that knowledge weighs nothing. There are skills that benefit us, every single day and definitely in a disaster – on any scale. However, sometimes collecting knowledge can be a pricey and time-consuming prospect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn, but we need to prioritize as with anything else. We also have to honestly assess our preparedness level, plan, and current lifestyle. Pat’s Preparedness Arc is perfect for this.

Exceptions & Assessments

There are exceptions to some of what I’ll suggest. If you’re a wilderness adventure enthusiast or work in extremes, you already know it. If you truly have lots of free time but zero money after lots of cutbacks, and you have materials/resources lying around and don’t have to buy anything, okay.

If somebody is just into history, a reenactor, a hobbyist, I’m also not talking about that. Mental health clause – you need an outlet. However, interests are just interests and don’t belong in the “but it’s useful/preparedness” category of our time and financial budgets. It belongs under our entertainment budgets.

Please remember those caveats as you read the list. I’m talking about somebody learning from scratch specifically as a survival/preparedness skill in lieu of practicing, buying, or learning something else.

I also hear the argument put forth that somebody’s going to learn a skill or trade because then they can barter it. That is absolutely true in some cases (medical, mechanics, midwives). In others …

We have to ask ourselves: How many people who are preparing or not preparing are actually going to be around and need that particular skill? How do we plan to find those souls who are unprepared to do it themselves, but are expected to have surpluses worth our time and labor to trade for us?

Below are a few things I regularly see pushed as a must-have skill. I’ll break down the pro’s and con’s, and cover alternatives.

Image: How sustainable is our water plan – and our bodies – compared to our need to make soap or learn primitive fire making methods, or learning an already fairly common trade?

Alternatives After Assessment

Would it be better to develop the knowledge of how to find water by recognizing terrain and land cover patterns, a map of streams and springs in the area, and the physical strength to carry and drag water-level weight through woods, on crappy roadsides and ditches, and repeatedly lift buckets and containers out of a downed well or deep cut with cord, or over the side of a pickup?

Could we instead spend time locating buckets, storage totes, and barrels, the used and wrecked pieces of furniture and equipment on Craigslist and Freecycle to turn them into water catchment, and the afternoon or afternoons it takes to assemble them, to limit the amount of time we even have to go out hunting water?

We have to ask ourselves how important primitive skills are instead of something like wrapping a sprain.

Water is always going to be a focus for me, but there are other skills, too.

Gather wood for the stove/grill and practice cooking and canning on it. Learn hauling and tying knots, and practice felling, branch removal, and topping on consecutively larger trees. Learn to change your own oil and bike chain. Figure out how to unclog a drain using supplies and tools you already have on hand. Walk on the ditch verges and wooded hills to strengthen ankles.

We have to ask ourselves how important primitive skills are instead of something like wrapping a sprain, turning off water and gas mains, producing and finding food, mending a fence, sharpening a blade, rescuing a drowning/choking infant or child, and backing a trailer.

Fire From Scratch

If you happen to have a battery and steel wool, more power to you. It was never in my pack for fire tools.

Let’s start off with a super controversial one – yay!

First, I’m not talking about finding dry tinder in wet woods or making a feather stick. If somebody’s out in the woods regularly, the potential of injury in a downpour makes them worthwhile in the crisis stance. As a through packer (I think they call it ultralight now, but my bag was never light) and multi-day paddler, those are things that saved me time and energy for my hot meal.

I’m talking about Survivorman fire starting, primitive fire starting. If you happen to have a battery and steel wool, more power to you. It was never in my pack for fire tools.

Second, if you’re a remote-creek kayaker, canoe trekker, or a hiker, get a few pill bottles to stuff with wet-weather or DIY-coated matches and a few cotton balls or some dryer lint, and start wearing one around your neck and carrying one in a pants pocket. Get a ferro rod and block or a windproof cigar lighter, and replace the chain with 550 cord to wear on your belt or pants button or the snap of your life vest or knife. Keep another set duct taped to the bottom of your water bottle or glasses case.

No belt or knife? No glasses? Don’t worry about fire from scratch then. It takes a long time to master starting a fire with a bow and starting it with a lens requires a lens. If you don’t have a knife to make shavings and the bow and start the notch, there’s a stick and another stick, and you’d be far better served spending the time making a cocoon-style debris hut.

Matches/Lighters versus Primitive Skills

People do get lost in the woods, and eventually we absolutely will run out of matches and lighters on a homestead.

We’ll run out of them faster if we’re using smaller fires for short periods and thus starting them regularly. They can break, leak, get wet and grody, and strike-anywhere are harder and harder to find so you have to figure on the striker strips getting worn totally smooth, especially if we buy the big bulk boxes.

Learning to find tinder in wet woods is time-consuming enough (and worth it for some/many).

If you’re only bugging-out to a BOL, not in an INCH situation, or if you’re a boater, fisherman, hunter, hiker, or outdoors enthusiast, throw in a cigar lighter so wind is less of a factor – they fit in a Gerber case inside bags or small plastic bottles with matches and other fire-starting materials pretty well.

For a homestead/bug-in situation, we can say three meals and a snack a day, plus morning coffee. Starting five fires is pretty generous and buys time for us to learn how to bank a fire for coals and keep one going.

Say it takes us a couple broken/burn-out matches to get one started, so we need three matches per fire. Using 15 a day for a year gives us a total of 5.5K matches.

Bricks of 100 small kitchen match boxes run $8-15 bucks each for 3.2K matches – two would cover our needs for $20-$30. My dollar store also carries match books cheaper (not my first choice).

Or we could buy one of those multi-pack bricks for $10-15, and hit Amazon for a 100-pack of disposable lighters for $20 and a set of three big boxes of 300 matches for $7-$10. That gives us 4K+ matches and 100 lighters for $37-45.

We can store them in our currently empty canning jars, or spend $5-6 at the dollar store to get candles or nail polish or lacquer to waterproof them and some baggies to keep them in. Strikers and blast matches, cigar lighters that work even in whipping Montana winds, run in the $4-$12 ranges.

Yes, it costs money. Yes, if you already have the knife, tromping into the woods to do it like Bear doesn’t.

Tromp into the woods learning to not make noise, recognize animal sign, and recognize landscape features that promise water instead.

There are multiple situations (and future practical, everyday skills) that benefit from that knowledge.

Soap – Making vs. Buying

 

Let’s start with the basics of soap. There’s a couple of modern recipes, and a link to the history. About halfway down, that one breaks soap making into three stages of lye, fats, and combination – which is where we’d be at a total pioneer homestead or “My Side Of The Mountain forever” INCH lifestyle.

I’m going to discount any soap making as viably sustainable if it’s using a fat or oil that’s not locally produced. That’s including people who buy the glycerin soap blocks. (For soap making – no comment on other uses.)

That’s the whole argument about sustainable, colonial and primitive skills – they’re for when there is no store and we run out of things.

If you need palm oil, you’re storing something and you might as well store the finished product. (There are exceptions, like the many balms and other uses for various oils.)

Some basic soap-making starter kits are available for as little as $10-15. Better will run as high as you like. I couldn’t find one that already included a scale (soap making is one of those things that requires weights according to some experts, although others have converted recipes to volume).

$10-15 for a kit isn’t much, absolutely. However, soap requires those rendered animal fats or oils. Those aren’t in the kits, and some of the ones I’ve seen in recipes are pretty pricey.

Too, in a crisis, especially if we’re living off grass-fed livestock and wildlife and the diet food of garden produce, fats and oils are going to be precious to keep our bodies functioning.

There’s still tons of bar soaps available at the dollar store and <$1 at Walmart. Some are travel sized and singles in boxes. However, options are available in 2-packs and 3-packs of standard-sized bars. So for $10 I can get 18-27 bars of soap and still pay tax.

If I’m inclined, I can cut that down, get a bottle or two each of Dawn and pine cleaner for dishes and laundry, floors, and surfaces, and still get 14-18 bars of soap.

I once figured that between bathing and washing my hands and face, I run through a cake of soap a week, so I need more than $9-10 worth. I need more in the neighborhood of $20-$30, and about a shoebox of space. For laundry, surfaces and dishes for a year, and surface cleaning, depending on household, I need a couple of free liquor boxes and another $20-30 for liquid cleaners, even buying from the dollar store. (The dollar store is not the cheapest per ounce or most compact form, but they are incremental purchase and use sizes.)

Cost doesn’t apply for the folks who plan to have fatty pigs and cattle, and use their wood ash. For them, the comparison is strictly about time. For a lark, sure, jump one weekend. But weigh out what else could be learned, what other materials cost, and what family ties could be strengthened with a different activity.

Soap is compact. They are sensitive to dampness, so they need a Ziploc bag, lidded can, or plastic tub. There are environments where dry soaps melt, but most of North America could keep them in a shed. So will the ingredients for making soap, or finished homemade soaps.

Rendering suet for tallow

Some will still think it’s worthwhile. To each their own, but please refer back to the general premise and Pat’s arc to be sure it’s the best use of your resources and time as you stand now.

On the flip side, totally learn how to make suet and tallow if fatty animals and materials are present. They have a ton of uses, provide a storable sustainable fat source, and they fill very real needs in a self-sustainable lifestyle.

Treating Hides

Hides and making useful items from hides is 50-50 with me. On one hand, I know a woman who makes a bundle from it, and if you have rabbits or hunt deer, you have hides. On the other hand, should the world collapse to colonial and pioneer day levels if not the Dark Ages, lots of humanity will die fast enough for me to find underroos, sheets, work boots, and socks should I need to go out past my X date – they aren’t exactly the things being grabbed in today’s riots.

Photo from North American Bushcraft School

 

If it’s going to be a side business, sure, jump – after you do some market research. If it’s a niche market half-hobby, jump.

If it’s something on the to-do list because it seems like a great skill … maybe consider jumping on a maps website, finding farm fields and nearby specialty farms, making some non-nut cookies or muffins to carry, and sharing that you’re interested in breaking away from city life, would the nice farmer be willing to work out some kind of tag-along for labor deal so you can get a good idea of what’s involved.

Another option useful in disasters of all kinds is mapping power-line cuts to avoid traffic jams, snow and flood evacuation routes, and directions and A, B, C routes to and from kids’ schools and the school evac rally points.

Skills versus Stuff

Nine times out of ten, I would argue that knowing is better than having. However, there are exceptions – usually because of the time and-or resources they require, and sometimes because of the space.

There are lots of things that we should know just to be well-round humans, let alone homesteaders or – if inclined – nomads. However, sometimes we waste our precious resources learning something that only benefits most people during a very specific type of disaster, or a total breakdown and reversal that lasts for 5-10+ years.

Sadly, a lot of people who push and learn those lack the skills and supplies to survive long enough for some primitive skills to become valuable again. Some of those skills come at the cost of things that can benefit us, right now.

There are all kinds of things to do without spending more money or spending time on something with highly specialized skills and low-likelihood needs.

I figure I’ll get hate mail for the concept and for the specific few I listed. I just want people to weigh their to-do and to-learn lists so that they can prioritize based on where they already stand and where they want to go.

If there’s true need and potential – and sometimes there is – or it’s just a hobby, there’s nothing wrong with any of the primitive skills. I think most of us, though, have something we would be better served learning, practicing or building than the three listed.

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  • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

    Good food for thought R. Ann.
    The single sentence concept I get out of your article is that while a shtf event, even if it’s long term or permanent, will not require the skills of an amazon aborigine. We may be transported back to roughly 1800 without the 1800s infrastructure, but we will still have all the accumulated knowledge from that time forward.
    On the long term storage stuff – I use generic food grade vacuum sealer bags.
    Everything degradeable in my GHB, BOBs, and long term stores has been vacuum packed. You obviously can’t reseal them, at least not without the gadget or something equivalent you devise. Hmmm: That is something to think about…
    Anyways. It’s ideal for caching stuff, even weapons or ammo.

    • R. Ann

      Thank you!

      I agree about the cultural aspect you mention. Yes, we may lose the infrastructure we depend on without the existing infrastructure that made life possible 1750-1910, but we still have collective knowledge.

      They make needle-pump types of vaccum sealers and you can use a hot iron (or file) to close them.

      I like jars for anything household or vehicle based, because nobody has enough (nobody, ever) and they can be resealed as you go.
      Help me with the real name – There’s white tape that’s not actually sticky that you wrap pipe threads with. We call it plumber’s tape (we also call the thimble-concave angled thing you can buy for caulk a “spoon”). Or, if you’re me, use to fully seal some buckets, oversized pill bottles, and those jars.

      My opinion about BOB’s/GHB’s is that they should really only need to last you a few days or a week. There are some extreme cases of longer and winter-spring bags are going to need some love, but the amount of gear some people feel the need to pack and 90% of the food, at the cost of water, water supplies, and footwear, just … makes me shake my head. 🙂
      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

      • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

        The white stuff is Teflon tape.. I was using some this weekend on a leaky compressor fitting 🙂 I like jars, but they’re fragile relatively speaking.
        Lowes/HomeCheapo/Amazon/etc.

        My GHB is < 14 pounds without water or weapons, although I plan on worst case of 6 day for the trek from work to home, (42 road miles now), and there are a TON of military around here, so lots of, err, "opposition" to avoid if it comes down to it. The BOBs are actually my fully good to go, four-season camping gear stored in an outbuilding that's not attached to the main house.

        We plan on staying right where we are….

        • woody

          Yep on the bugging in. When you already live at the end of the road…… you just need to get home. So we put our focus on GHBs. Look at a folding or take-down bike if you vehicle, (or workplace, maybe, has room). Like you, 40+ mile journey home, even a crappy folding bike can make that in a long day. Keep a pump and tire/tube patches/plugs in GHB.

          Our ‘BOBs’ are 20′ and 40′ shipping containers. Anchored to concrete, (this is tornado country), inside metal buildings. They double as tornado shelters, and can be lived in in a pinch. And they’re as cheap as I’ve ever seen them.

          I seal a new gallon freezer zip-loc, (or 2 or 3), in vaccum storage bags with stuff that may have to be opened and worked out of.

          Our aquired skills need to match up with our stuff, and a little extra.

  • Nailbanger

    Good piece, thank you,
    There are so many varying opinions on all of this stuff, it may well boil down to luck. I dont plan on bugging out, just a death sentence IMHO, unless you have a stocked place to go within a day or so walk.
    So were stayin on the farm come hell or high water, theres just as much of a chance that we will never need any of this stuff or skills as there is that we will, but thats why our prepping is more just along the lines of stocking what we use and a few alternatives and our hobbies and such compliment the frugal perhaps post disaster or bigger event life.
    All the knowledge is great, but if you cant source the raw materials you may as well know nothing, like the soap making thing, any idea how long it would take to collect that much fat from normal cooking etc? A long time, and then are you confident you can make a batch that wont remove your skin? Or worse? Ive seen that, was all fun and games right up till the screaming and freaking out started.
    Knowledge is excellent though, doesnt weigh anything and is transferrable, but if i run out of matches we have much bigger problems, ditto on the firewood, water, soap and TP!
    Prep as best we can with what we have and hope for the best.
    Personally i feel locally we will see a tsunami or hurricaine strike, high chance of that in my lifetime, even just a solid smack from a tropical storm could knock out power for a few weeks,
    Stuff like shipping strikes or war are also highly likely, in fact the longer we go without something like any of that happening the higher the odds, but thats life isnt it.
    My biggest concern isnt the event, or my abilities or supplies, but those not prepared in any way shape or form, i know i can get by, but its those from the community or beyond who did nothing and then expect those with stuff or skills to save them, that is going to be the tough thing to deal with, ill burn my stash before ill spread it around so everyone can starve equally,,, and theres part of the problem, cause i cant see that happening but i can see other things not so pretty resulting from anyone demanding anything of me.
    Its going to be tough, i trust few as it is in good times so after isnt going to be better. Especially here in my AO, heavily democrat, and of them heavily recent arrivals with their mainland progressive ideology,
    Yea, i guess i could move, but why? I was here first, and our place is a one in a million.
    Anywho, am just rambling now, need to stop, but this stuff always opens the can o worms that is prepping!

    • R. Ann

      Thanks!
      “our prepping is more just along the lines of stocking what we use and a
      few alternatives and our hobbies and such compliment the frugal perhaps
      post disaster or bigger event life” That tends to be my overall take on things as well. I DO plan for the likely things (such as, I have teenaged nephews and may at some point have teeny ones again, whether it’s normal life or a crisis).

      Also glad to see you mention the hobbies!
      (Gotta stay sane, big-world problem or little personal reversal!)
      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

      • Nailbanger

        Those big world problems we dont have much control over,
        Have been limiting how much tome i spend reading about our world as lately it just raises my blood pressure, so burry myself in hobbies and work and things that i enjoy! There is NOTHING i can do about any of the crazy going on around us other than stay away from and out of it.

    • Woody

      I agree, bugging out will be a death sentence for 99.99% of those who attempt it. And some will, as you feel, wind up at your doorstep. Causing us to make some hard choices.

      The first tsunami you’ll see may be the human one, as you said. If you can get thru that sifting out of humanity, then maybe it’s bath time. We keep a couple years worth of vinegar, pine-sol, bar and liquid soap, (wife insists on some pump soap), toothpaste and brushes, dawn dish soap, (great product), big box bags of baking soda and Epson salt. And a bit of chlorine bleach. And so on. This stuff is cheap, so load up. It should all be under the ‘insurance’ colum in your family budget.

      Yep, stock up on the food and sundries you use. We keep some board games, playing cards and such in case, but it would mostly be ‘all hands on deck’ to keep the food, water, firewood, and the other necessities of daily living on hand. Even the little ones will be assigned weeding, watering, animal feeding duties. As it was for my grandparents, and young parents, a dawn to dusk operation, demanding involvement from even the youngest family members. Hobbies will be mending and making clothes, shelling nuts, putting food by, mending harness, repairing tools, reloading, (guess that’s a hobby, my kids started very early), etc.

      Now layer security duties, (very stressful, labor-intensive, time consuming endeavor), on top of the mix, and free time will become mostly nonexistent. Now I’m rambling, big can, many worms. Every situation is different.

      • Nailbanger

        Big big can almost bottomless,
        I know so many people who dont even consider having extra detergent and stuff, they think their pantry cabinet of a few dozen cans of this or that will get them through and it wont happen here,
        Good luck with that is all i can say, its happened before it will happen again

      • R. Ann

        I tend to look at the hood of the car, a few carlengths up, to the next few vehicles, and to the horizon, and the odd street/highway signs – when I’m driving and in life.

        That means I prepare for the expenses like vet bills, the fuel-grocery yoyo’s, the things in the middle like layoffs and recessions and furloughs or a house burning down, or a larger but less-severe potential like Greece and Argentina, as well as the Great Depression, internet/satellite/banking virus, etc.
        In a total breakdown requiring security and total self-reliance, the dark hours will be largely resting hours, but there are whole world’s worth of things that can go wrong in my life without the world around me actually having too many hitches.

        Having some new puzzles and playing cards to open, DVD sets we’ve never watched I can bust out if needed, and even things that work as gifts for family and will let me donate a little cheer and joy to Toys for Tots for the ‘tweens and teens and the local church hampers, they’re just part of my daily life and thus something I pick up on sale and stock away so I can limit as many changes to that life as possible for the low-level and mid-level crises.

        • Woody

          Good ideas.

  • Flattop

    R Ann: A good word. However, most preppers are planning for the short haul. ( A few months). The big depression in the thirties lasted a few years. What they discovered was everything has more than one use, and its all about helping your neighbor. My parents went through it, and when it was over they threw nothing away. Their thinking being, if it happens again I will need this.

    • R. Ann

      Thank you!

      The funny thing is how biased we are, especially certain types of North Americans and Western Europeans. We kind of forget that it was 20-25 years ago that Albania even really started gaining extended contact with the outside world. They make a great example, because you mentioned trash and throwing nothing away. The “new” income and exposures mean the Albanians now actually have trash – and no infrastructure to deal with it. For decades and centuries now, they’ve lived as our parents and grandparents did.

      I have no problem with preppers preparing for short hauls. I actually just submitted an article about preparing based on most-likely events first, and expanding outward as those get met (and one Woody is apparently going to like). 🙂
      I just see soooo many new people pop up looking to learn or being pushed to learn skills that require very specific conditions (INCH, total collapse) without thinking through what the tradeoff or alternative is.
      And soooooo few people – even those who expect total collapse, or bunker-then-Dark-Ages – who do so little in the way of water and gardening preparedness.
      Just wanted to air an alternative theory, and some things to consider learning instead.
      🙂

      • Woody

        Don’t tease.

  • Bolofia

    Terrific article, Ann.
    Your reference to catastrophic SHTF scenarios illustrates an important point. Over a period of a few weeks or months, there would be literally millions of vacant homes containing useful articles (food, clothing, tools, etc.) that would benefit survivors. Call it what you will – scavenging, recovery or whatever; those still living will collect resources that keep them in the game.

    • R. Ann

      Thank you!
      I don’t plan-plan for it (one, leaving the home; two, I expect raging fires for a while) but it’s out there.

      I feel the same about wood-only construction. I suppose young, fit bodies can do adobo and mud huts fast enough to merit it, but working without power and vehicles to do stripped-log or bark-on construction, I feel like I’ll just about be faster to scavenge parts from burn-outs, disease&violence deaths, abandonment faster should we have run through our sheds and the stockpiles of my father’s junk – *ahem*, resources & supplies.
      (I try not to make fun of him, because when I want something, somewhere in those jam-packed sheds, garage and crap piles is something that suits up.) 🙂

      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

      • R. Ann

        I should have said “wood-only PRIMITIVE construction” – go build a cabin type stuff.
        Great if you have small enough trees and enough labor, and good skill to have, but … to learn to do it instead of some of the skills like canning over a wood fire, finding and fixing a leak, and dealing with foot maladies and overuse or twist/strain/sprain injuries, for most folks, less necessary.

  • JD

    Another great article R.Ann! One of the things I’ve gleaned from it is, work smarter not harder. I think there are those who are on the romantic side of things and those who are on the more practical side of things. Using one example, yes, knowing how to start a fire using a bow drill or fire sled, or other primitive means is a good thing. But these days a lighter makes more sense, weighs nothing, takes up almost zero space, and pocket change will buy one. Really no reason not to have one in your pocket if one will be heading out into the woods. I like the soap example also! As I wouldn’t know where to even start with making soap! I’m more apt to do like the picture says so subtlety, for 97 cents, I’m buying my soap! Lol

    • R. Ann

      Thank you!

      Yeah, I’m pretty much always going to be with you on the “smarter” side of camp. Partly because it’s just more efficient (permie – efficiency is our god) and partly because I’m lazy.
      In this case, though, it’s just looking at likelihoods.

      1 – Is everything else in place to survive in the kind of world where knowing those 3 skills is necessary or particularly lifesaving.
      2 – 100% – “My Side of the Mountain” and some of the others that make it look feasible to go join every former/current Boy Scout, SERE school attendee, Daniel Boone wannabe, and who knows how many others in the shrinking public lands are not helping. There’s bushcraft worth knowing, especially for adventure sports and explorer types. Others … not so much, not for the vast majority of people, at the early-middle stages, or the vast majority of possible disasters and crises.

      There’s also the aspect with fire especially (and foraging foods) where people believe it’s going to save them.
      Without proper siting, it’s really not, and most of what’s available to forage is very low cal and usually takes a fair bit of effort to prepare.
      Better than nothing in some cases, but I’d rather see people learn the foods that don’t need rinsed and simmered and figure out how to fish and find dry tinder, and get strong enough to ALWAYS have a trash bag and a medicine bottle worth of supplies. Even in Montana in spring, if you can block the wind (like, get under a poncho with the tinder pile, or rig that trash bag), you can use a simple, tiny striker and a tea light candle or a cigar lighter and a birthday candle to get a good, strong fire going.
      And in those conditions, time’s better spent finding materials to get you up off the ground, insulated, and covered than boring out and spinning limbs for fire.
      100% with you there!