This article isn’t for everyone. Hopefully, it’s not for you. It’s about being proactive rather than reactive. It’s about not accepting life as it is, but about having a vision for a better life and doing what it takes to make it happen. I’ve titled it “Take Control of Your Life.” Sandy thinks I should have titled it “Enjoy Your Life.” She might be right. Because that’s ultimately what it’s about.
My inspiration for this post has came from different sources over a number of years. It’s like I’ve been hearing variations on the same message for a long time, and they’re just now really coming together and forming a more complete picture.
Inspiration #1 — Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see sales trainer and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. If you’re not familiar with this great man and his teaching, I think you could benefit from his wisdom. Zig started his talk by asking if you could think of five things that you could start doing right now that would improve your life. No problem! I can come up with a list that’s as long as my arm — eat better, exercise regularly, learn new skills, save for retirement, spend more quality time with my wife, develop meaningful relationships with the people God puts in my path, etc., etc., etc. Each and every one of those things is well within my ability to do right now.
So why am I not doing them? In some cases I’ve taken the path of least resistance. I’ve chosen to do what’s easy rather than what’s right. In other instances I’ve just fallen into a rut and mindlessly put my life on auto-pilot. Work, eat, TV, bed, repeat. Too often I operate by being reactive instead of being proactive. I don’t take the time and effort to consider if there might be a better approach that I should be taking.
I’m certain that there are a huge number of other factors at work that hold me back and prevent me from taking control of my life and making it the kind of life that I really want it to be. I need to become actively aware of these things and fight against them at every turn. I need to bust out of these ruts of inactivity and take control of my life.
Inspiration #2 — When Sandy and I were first married, we lived in an apartment that had a large rectangular space that served as the living room and dining room. The side wall was something like 27 feet long and was all white. The TV was against that wall in the living room area. We sat and stared at our little 19-inch TV for a couple of years before either of us noticed that the TV and the stand it sat on were the only things we had on that long expanse of white wall. It was like that on the day that we moved in and we had done nothing to change it or to make it our own.
Last summer I found Sandy doing some work out in the yard. She was changing something that had been just as it was since we moved to this house nine years ago. I said to her, “What are you doing??!!” She looked up at me and said, “I decided that this is our house and our yard and I can make it be whatever I want it to be.”
She was absolutely correct, of course, but this was just so unlike either of us. Our tendency, although never consciously thought out or expressed in any way, was that we just accept things the way they are and work around them. We play the hand that we were dealt. Sometimes there can be virtue in that approach, but in this case it was shackling us to the way things are and keeping us from enjoying the liberty of how things could be.
Inspiration #3 — We got a lot of comments on our last blog, including a couple from a reader who goes by the handle of “Snake Plisken.” My new buddy Snake made a point that resonated deeply with me. He said:
Getting back to your original topic, prepping makes me feel secure. I can feed myself, warm my house, provide clean drinking water, and defend myself for many months, if required.
For instance, I resigned from a job last week that I’ve had for 7 years and am in the job hunt process outside of the industry I’ve been in for 24 years. I would never have done that drastic move if I didn’t have months of savings and plenty of supplies on hand. I’ve got that cushion to rely on and am now aggressively pursuing new and interesting opportunities. I could have never done this had I been unprepared. Luck favors the prepared mind and yeah, I’m a bit scared and anxious, but prepping has given me the opportunity to pursue what I want to do.
Dang, Snake! I want to be like you when I grow up. Snake nailed it when he talked about the freedom that prepping brings us. Because he has a storehouse of goodies, not only is he able to provide for his family if a disaster strikes, he also has the security to voluntarily leave a job that he really didn’t want anymore in order to pursue something that’s more to his liking. Is it risky? Could he burn through all his preps and be no better off at the end? It’s possible, but at his age and with his skill set it’s a manageable risk with the potential of a great return. The important thing is that he isn’t just sucking it up and sticking with something that doesn’t make him happy and riding it out until retirement. He’s leaving the old behind and making a change that will make his life be what he wants it to be.
As a result of reading this article, I would like each of you to try something that you have an interest in that you’ve never done before. I want you to answer the question that Zig Ziglar asked and begin just one thing right now that will improve your life. When the poo hits the fan, most of us won’t be in a position where we can take risks. Our preps will help us through, but but we’ll be cautious about using them. Right now is the best opportunity to do it. I don’t think the world is getting any better or more secure. The time to take control of your life is now.
By encouraging you to step out, take a risk, and do something new that could improve your life, I’m not issuing you a License to Be Stupid. Talk to your spouse and talk to God. Pray, listen earnestly, and if God doesn’t tell you not to, give it a shot.
Snake Plisken is leveraging his preps to improve his future, not just hoarding them to subsist when the approaching day hits. He is “rearranging the furniture” of his life instead of just doing what he’s always done before. He never would have taken the plunge if he didn’t have his preps to live on while he’s pursuing his dream. Because it helps you take control of your life, prepping is a very, very good thing.
What We’re Reading
I got this for Christmas from my mother-in-law. Almost 800 pages of self-reliant goodness, this fat book is a compilation of articles on topics by multiple authors, ranging from solar power to gardening to hunting to foraging to you name it. It’s all written at a very approachable level, making it perfect for prepping newbies. If you want to pursue homesteading on any level, whether on a patch of untamed wilderness or at your home in the city or suburbs, this book is a great reference that will help you on your journey to becoming more self-reliant.
Non-preppers don’t get it. They think we’re wasting our time and our money. They think we live in constant fear of calamity. They think nothing will ever come of it and all of our preparations will be for nothing.
I respectfully disagree, but for more reasons than might be apparent. Whether TEOTWAWKI occurs during my lifetime or not, prepping has improved my life in numerous significant ways. Here are a few that come to mind:
Peace of Mind — We recently had lunch with a non-prepping friend who knows what we’ve been doing. While discussing current events and the potential threats they present, he said, “I couldn’t live like you, always worrying about all the problems that could happen.”
He is only half right. We think about these things often. But we don’t worry about them. Why? Because we are better prepared to face them than the average citizen. We are thinking three moves ahead and staying vigilant so we don’t get taken by surprise. We have supplies set aside for such events. We have skills and plans that we didn’t used to have. And above all else, Sandy and I don’t place our hope and trust in our equipment and our skills, but in God. Our trust in God isn’t Plan B, our last resort, but our first and foremost place of refuge. All of these — faith, knowledge, supplies, plans, and watchfulness — give us tremendous peace of mind, much more so than before we started prepping.
Our non-prepping friend brought up his apprehension about the instability of North Korea. He also talked about his fears concerning the vulnerability of our nation’s electrical grid. He knows the threats (these two, at least), and yet he has willfully chosen to do nothing to improve his ability to ride them out. He says that he wants to spend his time and money on things that help him enjoy his life. My preps make me significantly better prepared to deal with these kinds of threats, if they ever occur. Who do you think has greater peace of mind, him or me? What is peace of mind worth?
Greater Security — Our introduction to firearms has been written about many times in these pages. Next to storing food, learning gun safety and acquiring firearms were among the first preps that we did. (Notice that learning came before acquiring – that’s a good order to follow.) Being able to comfortably and competently handle firearms has provided both of us a greater sense of security. Home invasions are on the rise everywhere, but now we’re better prepared to defend our home and our lives if anyone chooses to target our house.
I’m More Healthy — I spend more time outside since I’ve become a prepper. That’s a good thing. I still don’t get as much exercise as I should, but I get more than I did before I started prepping. If the lights ever go off across America, there will be a lot more physical work to do. It’s wise to be in good shape to be ready to deal with it. I’m nowhere near being up to speed in this area, but I’m closer to it than I used to be.
Prepping led me to plant a garden two years ago. I started small but added to it last year, and this year’s garden will be even bigger. I grow my vegetables organically, so my garden enables me to eat better than I used to.
One of Sandy’s new areas of prepping expertise is with essential oils. She has used essential oils to treat congestion, insomnia, sore muscles, and wounds, all of which lead to better health. We also routinely diffuse healthy essential oils in our bedroom and living room. We’re helping our body fight off all the bad stuff before it reaches critical mass.
Research shows that as we age, learning new things is important for our ongoing mental health. Consistent training has prolonged effects on the brain, improving our memory and impacting our ability to do everyday tasks. Well, I’m learning lots of new things, so my brain cells are getting their exercise regularly! And one of the great things about prepping is that there is always more to learn.
Closer Marriage Relationship — I’ve read a lot of questions on prepper forums and message boards about how to get your spouse to join in your prepping efforts. (These aren’t all men. There are a lot of prepping women whose husbands don’t agree with their activities.) I feel their pain. It must be terrible to be divided on such a critical issue. Fortunately, that isn’t the case in our household. The need to get prepared was impressing itself on me in numerous ways over the course of several months before I ever said anything to Sandy about it. I’m incredibly blessed that her reaction almost immediately was, “You’re absolutely right. What should we do about it?” She has been a full partner in all of our prepping efforts, leading the way in many of them. For example, it was Sandy’s idea to start this blog so that we could help get the word out to others who are considering prepping or are just getting started with it.
Partnering with your spouse in any significant endeavor brings you closer together. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Sandy and I have always been blessed with a good marriage, but prepping has brought us even closer. We plan and work and learn and grow together. We see the importance of what we’re doing and we do it together. I’ll allow for the possibility that Sandy may not be the best wife in the world, but she’s the best one for me.
It Makes Me a Better Citizen — There are different ways to approach prepping. Some people do it to provide for themselves and their loved ones to the exclusion of all others. I won’t fault that approach, but I don’t follow it myself. We have voluntarily violated OPSEC (operational security) by writing this blog. We publish information on the Internet about products that we’ve bought to become prepared for hard times ahead. I’m not saying that everyone should do this — in fact, I would caution against it. Practicing good OPSEC and not spilling the beans (so to speak) to the world about all of your plans and preparations is a very good thing. But I would encourage you to leave room in your heart and in your preps to help others during a time of hardship.
Sandy and I prayed about starting this blog before we ever started broadcasting it to the world. We recognize the fact that we can’t become prepared enough to go it on our own if things get really bad. We just can’t do it all. I can’t be a mechanic and a farmer and a construction worker and a doctor and an infantryman and everything else that I would need to survive a real hard crash. I need a community. As such, I’ve taken some steps in my preps to provide for some of the needs of other people. One example that is near to my heart is the spiritual needs of others. When things get bad, many people turn to God, but knowledge of God isn’t as prevalent in our society today as it was a generation or two ago. So I have included in my storage cases of inexpensive Bibles and New Testaments that I will be able to give out to friends and neighbors when they decide that they want them. Sandy writes another blog, www.ApprehendingGrace.com, that talks about integrating our faith in Christ with our everyday lives. These are a couple of the ways that we want to be able to help support those around us when calamity strikes. We want to be a part of the solution, not a part of a problem.
Prepping has led me to become a better citizen in some broader ways, as well. I’m more ecologically aware and sensitive now than I ever have been before. I might need to rely on a nearby stream for drinking water at some time down the road. I don’t want to see it polluted or the water table depleted. I want to make sustainability a priority. I want to incorporate more solar energy into my home. These are things that help make the world a cleaner and better place than we found it, and that’s good citizenship. Prepping did that for me.
Convenience — Yeah, what could possibly be more convenient than being a prepper, right? But prepping really has made my life more convenient in at least a couple of significant ways. First, following the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared,” I now carry more stuff with me than I used to. My Mom lived like a prepper. Seems like anytime we were out and needed some small item, she’d rummage around in her purse for a minute and then produce the very thing that we needed (or a reasonable facsimile). Taking a cue from Mom, now when I’m out and about, I might not have everything I need to deal with every possible situation, but I’m better equipped than before with tools, pocket knife, flashlight, etc.
Another example is with my food preps. Following the dictate of “store what you eat and eat what you store,” I tend to not run out of things anymore. I have more of whatever I need in my storage pantry. It’s like having a grocery store in my own house. You can’t beat that for convenience.
The Bottom Line — Being a prepper hasn’t been a drain on my life and resources, it’s enhanced both. It doesn’t make me more anxious, it gives me peace of mind. It helps me be a better version of myself. And that’s a good thing.
The question “what are you prepping for” has just about been worn out. There is no shortage of threats in our world to be concerned about and to take steps to prepare for. Take your pick. My pet threat is economic collapse. Yours might be a nationwide power grid failure or terrorists with suitcase bombs attacking several American cities simultaneously. All of these are valid threats. I’ve joined the growing rank of people who have decided to not be caught by surprise, but rather to be as well prepared as possible if any such disaster should strike. Since you’re reading this, you’re probably in that camp, too.
But one question that doesn’t get asked very often is whether the thing that you’re prepping for is an event or a process. What do I mean by that? And why would it matter?
An event would be a sudden occurrence, like an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault that causes a significant part of California to go bye-bye. Or an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), either solar or nuclear, that wipes out all of our electronics. Everything is fine one moment, then in an instant it’s not.
What would be the results of an SHTF event? There would be a significant loss of lives, followed by widespread shock and panic. Supplies and services would be disrupted for a long time, perhaps for a very long time. Panic buying would empty store shelves in a matter of a few days. Multitudes would be unemployed. No amount of government intervention would make a dent in the level of catastrophe affecting our world. Virtually every aspect of our lives would change from anything we had ever known before. Ready or not, everyone would be thrust into full-scale survival mode.
If an SHTF event occurs, you’re stuck with what you have. If you don’t already have it, you’re not going to be able to get it. If you’ve planned to buy a good multi-fuel rocket stove, you’re too late. You won’t be able to get one anywhere now. Still working towards acquiring a top-notch first aid kit? Kiss that plan goodbye. You’ve probably got a good supply of rice and beans and wheat on hand, but have you also stocked the spices and seasonings that you’ll need to make it taste good? That ship has sailed.
There are a lot of SHTF event scenarios that have a chance of occurring in our lifetime. That’s why we prep. But the bottom line for an SHTF event is that prepping time is over and implementation time has begun. If you don’t already have it when an SHTF event occurs, you’re not likely to ever get it from that point on. The key to making it through an SHTF event is to already have the things you want and need.
It’s possible that the world won’t go out with a bang (event) so much as a whimper (process). A global financial collapse may have begun 15 years ago with the tech bubble and crash of 2000. While it appears that our economy plateaus or even rallies for a short time since then, it seems to me like we’ve been on a trajectory of steady economic decline ever since 2000. The years 2001 and 2008 saw the greatest losses in stock market history. Much has been written about this 7-year cycle, with warnings of a bigger crash to come in 2015.
An SHTF process wouldn’t come about suddenly like an event would. Instead, it would take years or decades to play out — a slow, steady decline. Money gets tighter gradually. There may be a series of bubbles that burst, but we ride them out. Businesses adapt by running “leaner,” squeezing more productivity out of fewer employees. Families adjust by taking fewer vacations. Many people are out of work, and those who have jobs have been cut to part-time so employers don’t have to pay for the benefits that full-time workers get. First and second-world countries start looking more and more like third-world countries. We find ourselves like a frog in a beaker of water on a bunsen burner. The heat gets turned up so gradually that the frog doesn’t react to the changes — and then he finds himself thoroughly cooked.
Unlike an event, an SHTF process could give you years and years of opportunity to stockpile the things you want and need. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if (when) you find yourself out of work, instead of adding to your supplies, you start tapping into your preps to get by until the next job comes along. But it doesn’t. And what you can’t eat you sell in order to get money to meet your family’s needs.
An SHTF process is not a pretty picture. Slow death never is. Yes, you are better equipped to deal with the problem than those who don’t prep, but it just delays the inevitable.
So what is the key to surviving an SHTF process? Sustainability. You will need self-reliance skills, the kind of mojo that the pioneers had 150 years ago. Do you know how to grow and preserve food? Raise animals? Use and repair tools? Prepping isn’t just about storing stuff. The best preppers would say that it isn’t even primarily about stuff. It’s about skills.
Which one will it be?
Of course, your guess is as good as mine. Sandy and I lean toward process but we are strongly aware that it could be an event and that event could occur tomorrow. We don’t let that worry us. Rather, we do what we can while trusting the Lord for what we can’t. At the beginning of each year we look at where we are, re-consider where we want to be and set priorities for the year. Yep, that’s what we’ll be doing in the coming week.
Comment below or on Facebook to let us know whether you think SHTF will be an event or a process.
Whatever your SHTF scenario, make the most of your time by getting (right now) the top priority items that you need to ride it out, and continually work on building the skill sets that you will need to sustain yourself and your loved ones through tough times ahead. You’ll find links to our favorite suppliers in the sidebars. (Yes, we make a small commission from the sales that are generated from this site. Thanks for supporting TheApproachingDayPrepper.com.)
I apologize for this posting being such a buzz kill. I hope you all have an exceedingly blessed, healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year, and that next year finds you in a better place than you are right now.
Being in the holiday spirit reminds me how important celebrations and traditions can be. Even those who adamantly declare that they avoid traditions are, in effect, implementing them – that is, their avoidance of tradition is, in fact, their tradition. I know, it sounds strange, but it’s true.
Traditions ground us – they define who we are and connect us to community. The community may be present or may be miles away, and it may be large or small. Growing up, we always baked Christmas cookies the day after Thanksgiving. Now as an adult, when I bake cookies on that day – even if I am baking alone – I feel connected to those I baked with, and even the people they baked with before I was born.
Traditions can be reassuring and calming. When the world changes dramatically, I can’t think of anything we’ll need more! What a better way to prepare for such a time, than to create “Holidays in a Can.” Or a six-gallon pail. Phil describes the contents of holiday cans as “the saved of the saved.” In other words, we’re prepping for the holidays, not just for survival. We’re purposefully storing special food and other items with our preps that we won’t touch until the holiday comes around so that our holiday will be special even when times are tough.
What holidays should you plan for? Any days that are special to you – birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve or Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, and Independence Day come to mind. In our house, only a few of those are important days – you identify the ones that are important to you. (Phil is a peculiar fan of Groundhog Day. Go figure.)
What should be in the holiday cans? Now there’s a question that will have a unique answer for each of us. Ask yourself this:
What makes the holiday special to me and my family? Is it smells or activities or sights or sounds?
Your answer to that question will help you identify what should go into your can. Here are some ideas.
- A card (birthday, anniversary, etc.)
- A decoration or two
- Ingredients for a prepper version of a favorite or special food (or just include a fruitcake!)
- A gift – something special to share with others
- Something frivolous or fancy
- Something that evokes memories of the holiday – perhaps a picture or ornament or piece of clothing (an ugly Christmas sweater comes to mind)
- Candles. Fancy ones since you might be using candles more in TEOTWAWKI and we want the can to hold special things. Don’t forget birthday candles if it’s a birthday can – and if you’re one of those people who always puts trick candles on the cake, be sure to include them.)
- Spray scent (I hate it, but if I was desperate, I might really enjoy the Christmas feel of it – or it might just remind me of why I always hated it – which is a part of Christmas, too!)
- A game
- A special drink (every year at Christmas I have a glass of Crown Royale because it’s what my dad gave me for Christmas every year)
The key is to pare the items down to just a few that will bring the essence of your holiday into a time of crisis.
The Alternative Holiday Can
Having written all that I just did about the importance of traditions – and believing every word of it – I’ve also experienced times when it was important to break with tradition to make the holiday livable. For example, the year Phil’s mom died I specifically planned a non-traditional Christmas for us. I knew that the holiday memories would be too difficult the first year, so instead of focusing on the holiday, we remodeled our living room and dining room over Christmas week. Yes, we took a short break to join family for dinner, but then we returned home to finish painting.
So another approach to your holiday cans (or perhaps just some of them) is an alternative holiday can. Instead of filling it with things that remind you of former holidays, use it as a starting place for igniting new traditions or simply having a fun day. Here are some ideas:
- A new game
- Supplies to make a new scrapbook or cards
- Treat food that isn’t reminiscent of your holidays. I’m loving Auguson Farms Blueberry Muffins these days. A couple batches of that in my birthday can would be a new tradition I’d enjoy!
- An IOU for a day of rest and pampering – in whatever form that would take in TEOTWAWKI. Massage oils would probably have a very long shelf life.
- A letter that you write now that would still be applicable then
- One thing that reminds you of and connects you with the traditional holiday. Just a small thing. Don’t make it the centerpiece of the can.
Remember, your holidays in cans are the “saved of the saved.” They’re in the secret vault not to be opened until the holiday arrives. That’s what holiday prepping is all about.
What are your ideas? How are you including the holidays in your prepping? Comment below or add your comments on Facebook.
And again, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a blessed and prosperous New Year.
This week, Americans have been indulging in the annual food extravaganza known as the national day of Thanksgiving. People have been baking pies, roasting turkeys, and stuffing themselves with stuffing. We took part in the festivities, too, but in the couple of weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Day we’ve been eating our own dog food.
Not literally, I’m happy to say.
“Eating your own dog food” is a slang expression that means personally using the same products and practices that you recommend to others. If we don’t do what we encourage others to do, why should anyone?
In our case, we’ve been preparing meals using long-term storage survival food from a one-month kit that we bought from Augason Farms. We don’t want to give you the impression that we’ve been living on survival food exclusively. Far from it. (You can read our introduction to this experiment here.) But we thought it wise to sample a variety of long shelf life food and learn how to cook it and make meals with it before we found ourselves in a situation where we absolutely had to use it to survive.
Going into this experiment, we had a lot of the same questions that anyone would have about food they aren’t familiar with:
- How is it different from what we normally eat?
- How does it taste?
- How easy is it to prepare?
- Could we really live on a steady diet of this stuff?
- What would we miss from our regular diet?
The one-month food kit that we were working from is largely a collection of ingredients that you combine to make recipes, rather than pouches or cans of just-add-water freeze dried entrées. We own and have tried some of the ready-made entrées. They’re quick and easy to prepare, and are quite tasty. They’re also relatively expensive, so we gravitated toward the much more affordable ingredients approach. Most of the ingredients are dehydrated, but some were the more expensive freeze dried varieties. Besides, if you buy a freeze dried beef stew entrée, what can you make with it? (This isn’t a trick question.) The answer is “beef stew.” But if you have all the ingredients you need for beef stew, you can use them to make beef stew or many other dishes. Consider Taco Bell. They’ve built a fast-food empire by coming up with different combinations and preparations for about six basic ingredients.
What have we eaten?
The kit from Augason Farms came with a booklet with 54 recipes. There are also recipes on each of the cans. Using the booklet as our guide, we’ve made:
- Creamy Corn and Potato Chowder
- Chicken Noodle Vegetable Casserole
- Creamy Wheat Cereal
- Scrambled Eggs with Bacon Bits
- Buttermilk Biscuits
- Broccoli Cheese Soup
- Mashed Potatoes
We should note here that one category of food that is glaringly missing from our list is desserts. We haven’t sampled any of the desserts or drinks yet. The pictures of milkshakes on the box look delicious. How do they taste? We don’t know yet.
How is it different from what we normally eat?
That’s a very personal question and your answer will undoubtedly be different from mine, but my answer is that it’s not drastically different from what I normally eat. Providing familiar foods that people already eat and enjoy is one of the major goals of a long-term storage food vendor. In this regard, Augason Farms was on the money. Dehydrated foods are a part of the dining landscape more than we realize. Grocery stores sell a lot of products that include dehydrated or freeze dried ingredients. The quality of these kinds of products has increased a lot over the years, and these are the same kinds of foods that come in the cans of long shelf life survival foods.
One major difference from my normal diet is that survival food won’t provide large portions of meat, fish, or poultry. No thick, juicy cheeseburger. No platter of fried chicken. No big honking slice of ham. I grew up in an age when kids heard a lot (at least from our parents at the dinner table) about the people starving in China. Real oriental food (not the Americanized stuff we get at carry-out restaurants) traditionally used proteins sparingly to flavor a dish, almost as a condiment. Rice or noodles and veggies were always the bulk of a dish. You’ll need to adopt that kind of mindset when you use your survival food.
How does it taste?
Having said that the foods are familiar and tasty, I’d like to add here that many of them are much higher in sodium than I am accustomed to, especially the soups, which are a staple in the survival menu. That’s bad news for anyone on a reduced-sodium diet. The good news is that the soups are flavorful enough that you can use them as a topping for potatoes, rice, or noodles. This practice will stretch your food budget while cutting back on your salt intake.
Another note on taste is that since you are preparing the recipes, you can modify them to your liking. The first meal that we made was the Creamy Corn and Potato Chowder. It was OK as is, but we had some leftover chicken that we added to it. Adding the little bit of chicken made it less like a soup and more like a meal. The pancakes were fine as is, but we tossed some frozen blueberries into the batter and kicked it up a notch. On another occasion, I made a sauce for baked potatoes by mixing some of the Broccoli Cheese Soup with just enough water to make it a sauce consistency and added some of the TVP Bacon Bits (a vegetarian soy-based bacon replacement) to give it a smoky kick. (Prepper Fun Fact: A little bit of TVP bacon bits goes a very long way. Use them sparingly.)
Of course you can also modify a recipe by leaving out things that you don’t like. Augason Farms’ recipe for Scrambled Egg with Bacon Bits included adding dehydrated chopped onions. We obediently followed the recipe, even though we don’t normally put onions in our eggs. We were open to trying something new, but the result was that the eggs were pretty strongly oniony. I was OK with the novelty of it, but Sandy didn’t like it at all. It wasn’t just the oniony-ness of the eggs, that Sandy didn’t like, though. She found the powdered eggs less than desirable in general. She’ll eat them in an emergency, but she won’t be pulling them out to make a meal when we’re out of eggs.
One of the questions we asked as we ate each meal was “would we serve this to guests?” In many cases the answer was “yes.” The creamy corn and potato chowder or broccoli cheese soup would be totally fine to serve to guests on a “come on over for soup and sandwich” night. Having friends over for breakfast? The pancakes would be fine, as would the creamy wheat cereal. The cereal is especially good with some raisins or other fruit thrown in. Of course, be sure to stock cinnamon because your cereal will come alive with some cinnamon. The biscuits were good, but the texture was a little off. We want to experiment with them a bit more before we serve them to friends.
Having said that, we’re thinking a “Prepper Food Tasting Party” might be a great way to introduce some of our friends to the prepper lifestyle.
How easy is it to prepare?
Most of it is just add water, simmer, and stir. Sandy, who does very little of the cooking in our house because she truly hates it did most of the cooking during our experiment. So I’m seeing a real benefit to adding some prepper food to our diet on a regular basis!
The Chicken Noodle Vegetable Casserole was more involved. You simmer some ingredients for 20 minutes, then combine others and bake it for 15 minutes. The result was a real casserole-style dish, but for a survival situation it was too energy intensive. I don’t want something that I have to both sauté and bake. Too much heating. One or the other, please. Still, having the capability provides nice variety. Maybe we’ll splurge on energy usage for a special occasion!
Could we really live on a steady diet of this stuff?
It has suitable nutrition and caloric content to sustain life. It tastes OK — sometimes better than just OK. We’ve become spoiled by abundance and variety. Of course we could live on it.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter full of joy to his friends in the church in Philippi. In it he said, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13, NIV)
Sandy and I have been broke many times in the course of our 36-year marriage. Going broke is a good thing, if you know the secret of being content in any and every situation. It develops an appreciation and a gratefulness for the simplest of pleasures, the most basic of necessities. None of these are guaranteed in life. Entitlements are a man-made fiction. Can we live on a steady diet of long-term storage survival food? It might not be our first choice, but when it becomes our only choice I suspect that we will be quite happy to have it.
What would we miss from our regular diet?
My mother (who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this month if she were still on this earth) grew up dirt poor in the hills of central Tennessee. She told me that her favorite Christmas gift every year was an orange that she would get in her stocking. Not a pony. Not an iPad. Not a trip to Paris. An orange.
In a prolonged period of austerity, there are things that each of us will miss. We each need to give this matter some serious thought and plan accordingly. We might only be able to get fresh fruits and vegetables when they’re in season locally, which is a major change from what we’re accustomed to now. Learning to can and store those items would be helpful. We’ve also mentioned that large portions of meat might become a thing of the past. Those can also be canned. A lot of people store bulk quantities of wheat, but are they also storing baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, and all of those other “minor” ingredients that we take for granted?
Sandy and I consider our experiment of “eating our own dog food” to be a success, but only a preliminary success. We’re going to make this an on-going part of our preparations. We will continue to learn to cook with food storage items and practice cooking on camp stoves and rocket stoves and maybe a solar oven. Food preparedness is about more than just hoarding. It’s also about knowing how to use what you’ve stored.
Of all the articles that we’ve written, the one that is the most enduring favorite of our readers has been Grocery Store Prepping. It only makes sense. Most people make two or more trips to the grocery store every week. If the grocery store sells the stuff that we need and use the most, we should probably be thinking of it as our first resource for beginner preps. Once we get the basics covered, we can venture to a wilderness outdoor equipment store for the more exotic preps.
Besides grocery stores, there are other vendors in our neighborhoods that can also serve up some pretty good preps, and many of them at discounted prices. Today we’re going to focus our attention on dollar store prepping, but don’t ignore other options such as Goodwill or resale shops and the good old yard sale.
We are blessed to live in a rural area that is well serviced by a number of the large chain dollar stores, such as Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree. These stores have become our go-to places for certain items that we regularly use, and we’ve discovered that dollar store prepping can be a thrifty prepper’s best resource. These stores tend to be cut-rate general stores that stock a lot of what you need to get you through routine emergencies, such as a power outage or storm.
The impetus for this article was a one-day sale we found at our local Dollar Tree store that’s happening tomorrow. While you can save money prepping at Dollar Tree or any of the dollar stores any day of the week, you can save more money (or buy more preps for the same money) on Sunday, November 23 (2014). It’s Customer Appreciation Day at Dollar Tree and they are offering 10% off all purchases that total more than $10. That makes every item you would normally purchase for a dollar only…wait for it… 90 cents! (Yep, we can do basic math here at The Approaching Day Prepper.) To get the 10% discount, you need to print this voucher from their website and present it to the cashier.
We’ve found that the products sold at Dollar Tree are often off-brand, but off-brand doesn’t always mean inferior. Sometimes you’ll find a product by a little unknown brand that beats what you’ve been paying much more for elsewhere. Be adventurous! What the heck — it’s just a buck. But don’t be a careless shopper. Take a minute or two to read labels, making sure you’re getting what you expect. Packaging can be deceiving, so read the label to determine how many feet, ounces, or items you’re getting for your buck. Check expiration dates as well.
Here are some ideas of what you can buy at your local Dollar Tree store. (You can buy them online, too, but Customer Appreciation Day applies only to in-store purchases.)
- Bins & baskets – You’ll find a wide variety of sizes and types. You may not have an immediate use for them, but you’ll sure find one soon.
- Baggies – It’s always good to have a supply of baggies in various sizes – sandwich, freezer, snack, etc.
- Plastic wrap, aluminum foil – Watch package sizes to be sure you’re getting a good deal.
- Canning jars and lids
- Canned vegetables – Watch for expiration dates. If the dates are soon, perhaps you can use them immediately in lieu of pulling from your pantry. You’re extending the life of your pantry which is, in effect, extending your food storage.
- Boxed foods (or as we call them, “cardboard food”) – Brands may not be those you’re accustomed to, but you can find some interesting items to try, including some imported items that you’ll never find in your grocery store.
- Canned meats – We list these separately because many people forget about canned meats. They’re great prepper food. Think tuna, chicken, sardines, Vienna sausages, etc.
- Candies – This is often an overlooked item in prepping, but let’s plan for a life with treats!
- Cords, twine, rope, clothes line — I can guarantee you that in a longer-term emergency you or someone close to you won’t begin to have enough of this stuff on hand.
- Tarps, ponchos, vinyl table cloths, and shower curtains – Anything that you can use to keep things covered and dry outside.
- Glow sticks
- Duct tape
Kitchen Utensils & Supplies
- Pick up that extra can opener you should have. Look for utensils that can be used in outdoor cooking. Look for small items that can be put in your bug-out bag.
- Baking tins for making your own cleaning products. I make some of my own cleaning and health products. They often require pans and utensils and I don’t want to use the same as those I use for baking. Cupcake pans, small loaf pans and cookie sheets all come in handy.
- Grater – Both for food prep (you may not be able to use your electric food processor) and for making cleaning products.
- Wooden spoons – Can you ever have enough?
- Paper plates and plastic ware
Cleaning & Sanitation
- Soap and laundry detergent, for less than what you pay elsewhere
- Chlorine bleach (but beware that chlorine bleach doesn’t store for very long)
- Cleaning wipes / wet wipes — especially if you have young kids
- Towels & rags – I recently bought four good quality dish towels to replace the towels I put on my counter under my tea station and by our plant area. The old ones are permanently stained. I figured I could spend $4 to quit looking at the stains. If I had waited for this 10% off sale, I could have gotten them for $3.60. I might go buy more!
- Latex gloves – Both disposable and longer-use gloves.
- Rubbing alcohol
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Lip balm
- First aid tape
- Toothpaste, toothbrushes, toothpicks
Holiday Items & Decorations – While not a prepper item, per se, I think it’s important to remember to plan for the fun events in life when setting aside items for a time when life is less comfortable than we know it.
During National Survival Month, we encouraged readers to identify a task they hoped to accomplish. We were slammed with work that month and getting ready for vacation, so I picked an easy task that had been on my list – create a menu to be used during the first month of a serious emergency and gather the needed recipes.
As I began the menu project, Phil reminded me that we had purchased a one-month food supply kit from Augason Farms. This kit contained 48 small cans of dehydrated and freeze dried ingredients and came with a recipe booklet with more than 50 recipes. Wow! Menu task accomplished! Well, not quite. But close.
From that easily accomplished goal we decided that after returning from vacation we’d set aside a week during which we would make some of the recipes and get a more realistic idea of what it would be like to live off of our long-term storage food supply.
Our original plan was to eat nothing but food from our long-term food storage, with a focus on the Augason Farms kit. After putting off our one week of survival food experiment several times, we realized that our original plan needed some tweaking. We realized that maintaining our normal schedule of work and ministry activities meant that it wasn’t practical for us to only eat survival food for that week. In an emergency, these commitments would be radically altered. We weren’t willing to make those adjustments for our experiment. Still, we were able to accomplish our goals by eating most meals from our long-term food storage while allowing the restaurant or fast food option when our schedule demanded.
Yes, we know that we’re not practicing true survival. We’re not forcing ourselves into simulated hardship. Instead, we’re practicing with and sampling our survival food. I’m OK with that for this experiment. So what were our goals?
Our goals for the week are to:
- Taste the food. Do you remember the line from the movie Crocodile Dundee – “It tastes like crap, but you can live on it.” Were we going to be miserable eating what we’d bought? The Augason Farms kit has a wide variety of their staple products and recipes that could be made from them, so we’d be able to sample much of it. (And we’d have an idea of which foods we might want to purchase in larger quantities…and which we wouldn’t.)
- Practice preparing the food. It’s never a good idea to wait until five minutes before you really need something to start learning how to use it. We want to practice preparing the food before we absolutely need to use it. Our one-month food kit is not a case of prepared entrees. It’s an ingredient-based kit that allows you to mix and match items to make a lot of recipes. There’s a big difference between reading the contents on the box and figuring out what you could make with it.
- Evaluate what’s missing from our food storage plan. When we start living on survival food, what will we be craving that we don’t have? It might be fresh fruits and vegetables, or meat, or desserts, or salty snacks. But until we start using what we have stored, we won’t know what is lacking. We need to fill in the gaps now.
- Evaluate how much water we’d be using when cooking primarily dehydrated and freeze-dried food. (As it turns out, the kit clearly specifies that it takes 23 gallons of water to prepare all of the included food. That’s 23 gallons of water for one person for one month for just food preparation. What does that do to your estimate of how much water you want for every person to include drinking and washing?)
- Evaluate portion sizes. Would their claimed “makes 2 servings” really make 2 real world servings?
- Share our findings with you.
With all that as a backdrop, we finally picked a week to start – last week as a matter of fact. Here are our first lessons and impressions from our week of survival food testing:
- We have more food in our fridge at any given point than we realize. We were scheduled to begin sampling the survival food last week and immediately realized that we had enough food in our fridge that we needed to use before it spoiled to last us nearly a week. So the first five days were spent eating from our fridge with a little supplement from our pantry shelves. I was actually surprised at this because I don’t think of us having that much ready food on hand. I know we have a healthy-sized pantry, but didn’t realize that we had so much that needed to be eaten. I was really encouraged by this. I know that if an emergency takes out our fridge and freezer (which it likely would), that week would turn into “eat as much as you can in the next few days”. I’ll have more to share with others than I thought I would. (And no, we didn’t go out and do big shopping shortly before our survival food experiment was to begin. Quite the opposite. We had abstained from grocery shopping for about a week before that.)
- With our on-hand “need to eat” food, our one week of survival food experiment has turned into two weeks of survival food. We’re five days into it and we tasted our first survival food today. (Yes, we’ve tasted many other products in the past, but today was the first in this experiment.)
- There is a lot of variety in the Augason Farms one-month pack. You can do a lot with it. In addition to their recipe booklet, there are also recipes printed on each can’s label. Being who I am, I put them all into a spreadsheet and created a weeks’ worth of menus.
- Along with the variety, there’s also a lot of repetition in the Augason Farms recipes. Chicken noodle soup, chicken noodle casserole, and chicken noodle vegetable casserole sound a lot alike to me! Still, having just tasted my first variation of potato soup (creamy potato soup with corn and chicken), I’m embracing the variations. (More on that in our next blog.)
- I’m really looking forward to this!
Without trying to sound like a commercial, it seems like I should give more info about the Augason Farms one-month pack. This pack is advertised as providing almost 2,100 calories per day for one person for one month. Nutritional information is provided on each can. The only absolutely necessary ingredient that isn’t provided is water. Some of the recipes in the included recipe book include ingredients that you may not have available (sour cream or hard cheese, for example), but most do not.
The kit includes 21 different items in a total of 48 cans:
- Beef, Chicken, and Bacon TVP (textured vegetable protein)
- Cheesy broccoli soup mix
- Creamy potato soup mix
- Chicken noodle soup mix
- Southwest chili mix
- Broccoli (freeze dried)
- Corn (freeze dried)
- Potato dices (dehydrated)
- Potato gems (for mashed potatoes)
- Onions (chopped dehydrated)
- White rice
- Whole eggs (powdered)
- Creamy wheat cereal
- Buttermilk pancake mix
- Strawberries (freeze dried slices)
- Banana slices
- Milk (powdered)
- Chocolate milk (powdered)
- Orange delight drink mix
Have you ever seen the cooking competition show called Chopped on the Food Network? Chefs are given a basket with four ingredients. Some of them are normal ingredients, some are very abnormal. The challenge is to make a tasty meal using all four ingredients, plus whatever else they have available. This kit is like playing Chopped. What kind of culinary wonders can you create with these ingredients and what’s in your pantry?
These aren’t the jumbo #10 cans that you normally see for long-term storage food. Those big boys hold almost a gallon each. The food in this kit all comes in the smaller #2.5 cans which only hold about a quart. The smaller size makes it practical and affordable to sample a lot of products. Besides, the big #10 cans aren’t always your best choice for every type of food storage, as blogger The Survival Mom points out in this excellent article.
The regular price of the kit is $256.99 (with free shipping as of this writing), but it is occasionally on sale. We paid at least $60 less for each of the packs we’ve purchased. (We purchased three kits at different times, so the price of each pack varied.) If you’re just getting started with prepping, or you’ve looked at the huge one-year food kits that many food storage vendors offer and found them to be way out of your budget or your prep plans, this one-month kit might be just the ticket for you. It’s way more affordable, takes up way less space, lets you sample a lot of products, and could be good as a starter pack for you or as a gift for someone else whom you wish was better prepared.
At the regular price, assuming 3 meals/day for 30 days, the price per meal is less than $2.63. That seems pretty darn reasonable. At the prices we paid for our one-month packs, our cost went down to $2.18. And when the meals are stretched with rice or pasta, the price goes even lower. Of course one of our purposes in this experiment is to find the things we like most and purchase those items in larger cans at a better price. But considering the convenience of the smaller cans with menus provided, I’m a happy camper.
Assuming the food is good. Assuming it truly is 30 days’ worth of food. That story comes next…
We’ve never run an article verbatim from another site before, but yesterday I stumbled upon this one while I was searching for something else and the story moved me. It’s about a product that was conceived of during a blackout. It doesn’t just solve a problem. It changes people’s lives. Here’s the article, with some further comments by me at the end:
Sarah Collins couldn’t sleep. It was 2008, and rolling blackouts had darkened the city of Johannesburg. There were severe, ongoing energy shortages throughout South Africa, and everyone was affected. Cities and towns, hospitals and schools — all had power only once every several days, and then only for a few hours. It was during one of these blackouts that Sarah leapt out of bed at two in the morning and woke up her roommate. “I’ve got it!” she said. “I know how I’m going to change the world.”
Sarah had devoted her entire life to searching for ways to empower people in rural Africa, especially women. She worked in AIDS orphans clinics. She did environmental conservation work. She started community-based businesses to help rural women generate an income. She even created a political party and ran for government.
But the night of the blackout, Sarah flashed back to her childhood. Growing up on a farm in a remote part of the country, she had watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking and conserve her limited fuel. “Why wouldn’t that work?” she thought. Then she remembered watching the San people bury food in the ground while they were cooking. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the oldest technology in the world.’”
The next day, Sarah created the prototype for her heat-retention cooker, the Wonderbag. After food is brought to a boil, the pot is placed in the heavily-lined bag where it slow-cooks for up to 12 hours. “Finding firewood for cooking takes a huge amount of rural women’s time,” explains Sarah, “and gathering it is very dangerous. The wood fires used to cook then cause indoor pollution, a leading cause of death worldwide in children under five. Having the Wonderbag would empower the women to feed their families, generate an income, and save them time.”
“Right away I knew it would work,” says Sarah, “I just knew it. I called my brother and said, ‘I’ve found it! I’ve found my life, I’ve found my destiny, I found the way I can help make a difference.’ And I described the idea, and he joked, ‘Sarah, for years the family has been looking for an excuse to have you institutionalized, and I think I just found it.’”
Sarah brought her first bag to a grandmother she knew who cared for nine orphans. The woman earned a meager living selling food that she cooked all day over a wood fire, but still struggled to meet her family’s basic needs. The tarpaulin where they lived was always full of smoke. The kids weren’t in school, because they had to spend their days gathering firewood. “I said to her, ‘I’ll live with you while we see whether this works.’ But she got the idea right away,” says Sarah. “Their lives were completely changed. Within three months, the children only needed to gather firewood once a week, and they were all in school. They had money for shoes. It was a catalyst out of poverty for them.”
Five years later, Sarah has sold or donated more than 700,000 Wonderbags throughout Africa.
The Wonderbag is now available in the U.S., through Amazon, and Sarah’s new goal is to sell one million to people worldwide. For every bag sold, one is donated to a family in need. “I chose Amazon because I loved the idea of combining the oldest technology in the world with the most high-tech, efficient, environmentally-friendly way of doing your shopping,” says Sarah.
“Having the Wonderbag on Amazon brings healthy, wholesome, slow-cooked portable food into mainstream kitchens. Just as important,” says Sarah, “it empowers consumers, by giving them innovative ways to be part of the solutions that the world is looking for.”
- This is a prepper story. I wasn’t aware of the rolling blackout problems that this story talks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they occurred in America eventually. As flaky as our crumbling infrastructure is, the most vulnerable element seems to be our aging power grid. Prepping is about more than just storing beans, bullets, and band-aids for a potential future emergency. It’s also about making changes to our lifestyle now, before anything happens, to better train and equip ourselves to deal with hardship when it comes. One huge aspect of that lifestyle change is learning to make do with less. The less you use, the less you need. The slogan “Reduce – Reuse – Recycle” is beginning to resonate with me. A great place to start is to find ways in which you can meet your needs while using less energy. Sarah found a way to use less fuel energy by cooking in a Wonderbag.
- The Wonderbag isn’t a new idea. Sarah plainly says as much in the article. She watched her grandmother bundle blankets and cushions around a hot pot of stew to keep it cooking. She got this brainstorm for a new product that was actually a very old idea. “Old school” techniques and technology rock, especially in a prepper situation. Keep your eyes peeled for information on how people got by in the pioneer days or during the Great Depression. It might be helpful someday. And look for ways to update some of these old ways. You might be able to put a new spin on an old technology and have a life-changing impact on many people like Sarah did.
- Because this is “the oldest technology in the world” and Sarah’s grandmother was able to accomplish the same thing with blankets and cushions, you don’t have to buy a Wonderbag to cook your meals. Use your own blankets, or dig a hole in the ground and put your pot in it. Sarah’s new-fangled Wonderbag may work better than those approaches, or it may not. I don’t know. Clearly, more research is called for. (Perhaps I should apply for a government grant.) The answer to your problem isn’t always to spend more money or to buy a new product. Sometimes you just need to use what God has already put in your hand in a new and different way.
- At the a selling price of $56.57 (as of the time of this writing), the Wonderbag is over-priced. Intentionally. For every one you buy, they give one to a needy person or family in Africa. You can’t buy one for a lower price and not have one go to Africa. They don’t give you that option. If that bugs you, you can always try making your own or try the digging-a-hole-in-your-backyard approach. If their forced philanthropy appeals to you (as I’m certain it does to many), you can buy two Wonderbags. Keep one for yourself and give the second one to the person of your choice. (I strongly believe that prepping is about sharing, but I very strongly believe that I should be the one who gets to decide who I share my stuff with.) And you can feel good about blessing two families in Africa.
- If the Wonderbag works as well as the reviews suggest (out of 237 customer reviews on Amazon, 166 of them are 5-stars), it’s selling price of $56.57 is a bargain. When I read the article, my mind instantly went to a group of contemporary products that do the same thing. They’re called thermal cookers, and they use the exact same principle — bring your food to a simmer and then transfer it to a thermal-retention unit. It continues to slow-cook on residual heat for hours. The one I’ve seen the most positive comments about on other prepper sites is Saratoga Jack’s thermal cooker. People rave about it, but at $110 plus $13.50 in shipping it makes the Wonderbag look like a bargain. And Saratoga Jack’s isn’t the most expensive such product by a long shot. Zojirushi (whose products I hold in high regard) sells one for $194.65, which makes the highly-rated Wonderbag looking down-right cheap by comparison.
The bottom line is that necessity is the mother of invention. Plato said that, a very long time ago, and it still holds true today. Whether you buy a Wonderbag or try to cook stew in your sleeping bag, we need to get creative about using less and making due with what we have. It will save money in the short-run, which could enable you to buy more stuff that you need in the long-run.
Ever since I became aware of the need to be prepared for a disruption of life as we know it, I’ve been drawn to solar power. I’ve been impressed with solar power since the first time I saw a solar powered calculator many, many years ago. A tiny photovoltaic chip generated enough energy from ambient light to run a calculator. How cool is that?
I’ve wanted to dip my foot in the solar pool (so to speak) as part of my preps. What has kept me from it so far is that I wanted to start small. Why? Because solar can be expensive and I’m on a low budget, and because I’m a solar power dummy. Unfortunately, the problem with starting small in solar power is that there just aren’t a lot of small applications that would be of any real value to me. (Beyond the nifty calculator mentioned above, that is…but these days that doesn’t have a lot of value either.) Yes, I could shell out $100 for a solar gadget that would recharge a cell phone or power an LED light, but it just didn’t meet a real need or solve a real problem in my life, so I put solar power on the back burner.
I’ve Finally Got a Problem that Solar Power Solves!
But now I’ve acquired a problem for which solar power is the ideal solution. In my last blog I discussed our decision to purchase a pellet-burning stove (as opposed to a more conventional wood-burning stove) as an alternative heat source for our home. You can read about my contrarian reasoning in that blog. But one of the key factors that impacted my decision to go with pellets was a critical piece of information provided by my stove vendor. He told me that a pellet stove, while it requires electrical power to operate, uses so little electricity that you can get a battery back-up unit to run it when there is a power outage. I asked our stove guy how much a back-up system like he was talking about would cost and he said $500.
I’m no stranger to battery back-up systems. We’ve been using battery-powered back-ups with surge suppressors and voltage regulators on all of our desktop computer systems in our office for over 20 years. The problem with those battery back-up units is that they don’t run very long. The battery just isn’t big enough to provide power for very long. They have to be recharged from a working electrical outlet. That’s not a long-term solution in a grid-down situation. And that’s when I knew that I had found my perfect small-scale application for solar power. I could get a battery back-up that recharges from a solar panel. No need for an electrical outlet. So long as the sun keeps coming up each day, I would be in business.
What Components Do You Need for a Solar Power System?
If you’ve read this blog for very long, you know that I’m a guy who knew nothing about prepping when I started. Dumber than a bag of hammers when it came to gardening, guns, first aid, ham radio, solar power — you name it. But I like doing research. I read a lot. I like to shop online. So I set about to learn what I needed to meet my modest solar power need.
My research soon took me to a line of products offered by Goal Zero, a company that I liked well enough to add as an advertiser to this site. They make a nice line of products that address a wide range of small-to-medium sized solar applications, including three sizes of portable “solar generators.” Sounds like just the thing. And at $460 for the Yeti 400 model, the price was in line with the stove guy’s quote of $500 for a conventional battery back-up for the pellet stove.
Not content to be taken in by Goal Zero’s slick website, I dug further online looking for reviews of their products from people who weren’t selling them. I lurked online in solar power forums and off-grid websites. What I found were two types of people: those who actually used Goal Zero products and liked them, and those who claimed that you could easily assemble components to build your own system for half the price. The second option intrigued me. If I can put my own kit together, be able to upgrade bits and pieces as needed, and save a buck in the process, I’m all for it. (More on Goal Zero vs. DIY below.)
What components do you need to build a solar powered battery back-up system? You’ll be pleased at how simple it is:
- An energy source. Since we’re talking solar here, solar panels are the obvious choice. Just to expand your thinking a little bit, the power source could also be a windmill or a water wheel, but for our purposes, we’re sticking to solar panels for now.
- A charge controller. Solar panels capture energy from the sun, but they don’t store it. You need a battery to store the energy until needed, but you can’t tie your solar panels directly into the battery. You need a charge controller between your panels and your batteries to control the flow of energy into the batteries. As it turns out, batteries are kind of fussy about such things. Too much juice all at once will ruin them, so you need a charge controller.
- One or more batteries. Batteries store the electrical energy until you tap into it. Be advised that there are a lot of types of batteries that can be used with solar systems, and some kinds are better for some applications than others. I’ll do a blog that discusses battery types and features in the future, but this one is about solar power for dummies, so we’re keeping it simple. But I will say this — not all batteries are suitable for indoor use. Some of them emit fumes that require that they be for outdoor use only. Read the small print before you buy.
- An inverter. Solar panels and the batteries used with them have something important in common. They work with direct current (DC) power. Your car battery also uses DC power. Nothing in your house does. All the electrical appliances and gadgets that we use run on alternating current (AC). So how does one get the DC power stored in your batteries into the AC power that your electrical stuff craves? With an inverter. Don’t ask me how it does it. I’ve already told you more than I know. But the bottom line is that you plug your stuff into the outlets on your inverter and it works, just like plugging into your home’s electrical outlets.
Just four pieces. Panels, charge controller, battery, and inverter. Mystery solved.
Is that really all you need? If you’re keeping it small, portable, and simple, the answer is yes. If you’re going to expand your system, which you can do to meet your growing needs, you’ll want to add fuses and input/output meters and who knows what else. But at that point you’ve gone beyond small, portable, and simple, which is what we’re shooting for today.
More on Inverters
I told my stove guy that I was looking into a solar powered solution to my electrical back-up need for the pellet stove. He was dubious. While he was pro-solar in general, he had heard a number of reports from customers who had tried solar powered back-up systems and had poor results. The electrical components of the pellet stoves ran erratically or not at all when running on solar power. He didn’t know why.
Ah, but I do! It all goes back to the inverter, the magic box that coverts the battery’s DC power to usable AC. The electricity coming out of your wall socket comes out in nice, smooth “sine waves.” All of your electrical devices love these pure sine waves, but less expensive inverters don’t generate pure sine waves. They generate “modified” sine waves. In this case, modified means chunky. Depending on how good the modification is, the waves can be almost pure or they can be clunky, chunky stair steps. A modified sine wave is good enough for many electrical devices, but not all of them. You’ll get a lot of “noise” on TVs or audio devices — and apparently, pellet stoves don’t like modified sine waves at all. For my purposes, I would need an inverter that generates pure sine waves. You can buy them, but they’re more expensive than modified sine wave units.
DIY vs Goal Zero
So how does the home brew system match up with the sleek and sexy Goal Zero equipment? I put a lot of time and effort into finding the right components to beat the price of the Goal Zero Yeti 400 solar generator, but I just couldn’t do it. Too many trade-offs. I wanted small, simple, and portable. I wanted something that was safe for indoor use. I wanted a pure sine wave inverter. The expandability of a homemade component system would be nice, but not absolutely necessary for a starter purchase. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 provides all of the features I wanted and more.
If (when) my power goes down, I’ll want more than just my pellet stove to work. The Goal Zero Yeti 400 has two AC outlets and two USB ports. It doesn’t come with solar panels. You have to buy them separately (just as you would with a homebrew system). But here’s a huge plus — you can also charge the battery on the Yeti 400 by just plugging it into a wall outlet. Your home’s electrical system can keep the Yeti fully charged and ready to rock until your power goes off. This is a feature that I really, really like, because recharging the Yeti from solar panels might not always be a better option than from a wall outlet while the grid is up. It also meant that I didn’t need to buy solar panels right away (which my dwindling budget appreciated). A wall outlet recharger would be a fifth piece to a DIY setup, and I only found one vendor that carries anything like that. You can buy them online from Northern Arizona Wind & Sun, but it adds $154 to the price of the component system. This made the Yeti the clear winner for my needs in terms of both features and price. Another added plus is that you can also recharge the Yeti from a car battery. That feature might be the icing on the cake for some users, but it’s not something that I feel a need for right now. But it’s there if I need it. Better to have it and not need it… And the Yeti also has a simple meter built into its control panel that shows you how much charge is currently in the battery and how much power is being drawn by the stuff that you’re running off of it. A meter like this would be another expenditure in a homemade system.
Getting back to the expandability issue that I said would be nice, the Yeti 400 allows you to daisy-chain more batteries to the system, giving you more capacity than what comes in the box. You can’t add on to it infinitely like you could with a homemade system, but it provides a degree of flexibility while staying small and simple. I’ll most almost certainly go to a component-based solar setup at some future date, but that doesn’t negate my preference for a Goal Zero Yeti for my particular current need. Having a solar unit that was designed from the ground up to be grab-and-go portable just makes good sense to me, for bug-out or any number of other uses.
The Bottom Line
I haven’t had my new pellet stove delivered and installed yet because I’ve been gone on vacation, so the solar back-up unit hasn’t been an immediate need, but I knew going into the pellet stove purchase that this would be a vital part of the stove system. I never would have bought the pellet stove without this capability being available to me, but by the time you read this, I may have already placed my order with Goal Zero.
As a closing remark, I said up front that I wanted something small to get into solar power, but it had to be something that met an actual need cost-effectively. I’m guessing that most of you don’t have a burning need for a back-up power system for a pellet stove (yet, but many of you may have a need for an electrical outlet where none exist. It could be while you’re camping or doing something in your yard or elsewhere outdoors. Goal Zero has a lot of products that meet these kinds of needs head on. Simple, portable, rechargeable electric power. I know some folks who use the dreaded CPAP masks for sleeping with apnea. A battery back-up system like one of the Yetis could be wonderful to have for when your power goes off. CPAP users can even go camping with them. There are probably other medical devices that aren’t coming to my mind right now that could be run off a Yeti when the power goes down.
I’m not trying to sell you anything (although, in the interest of full disclosure, we make a little money from the purchases made when you click on the ads on this site). We NEVER want to nudge anyone toward buying something they don’t want or need) — just doing a little brainstorming. At the risk of nullifying what I’ve just said about not trying to sell you anything, allow me to inform you that Goal Zero is having a Buy 2, Get 1 Free sale on their 15-watt solar panels. It’s a $90 value (nothing to sneeze at), and is good through October 31, 2014 when you use the code EXTRASOLAR at checkout. Just thought you’ like to know.
We live in a drafty, 50-year-old house. Despite having a good furnace in our basement, the ductwork was done in such a crazy way that what little air gets to the second floor couldn’t begin to be called warm. We’ve explored various options with multiple HVAC vendors over the years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be fixed. So our furnace doesn’t do a great job of heating our whole house. We’ve tolerated the situation by supplementing our heat with space heaters in the three mostly commonly used rooms. Not a great option and an expensive one.
Also, if we get hit with a power outage of any duration, we have no heat at all. Our forced air natural gas furnace requires electricity. That means we need something that would become our primary heating solution in a power outage situation. So last year we started to think about installing a wood-burning stove.
Wood-Burning Stoves Are Great!
Wood stoves are the darlings of the prepper crowd. They’re simple, durable, affordable, and about as old-school as you can get. And now there are also catalytic wood-burners that are much more efficient than basic models. As it turns out, nearly half of what makes up a log is smoke and creosote, both of which are merely wasted byproducts when you burn logs in a conventional wood-burner. A catalytic wood stove gets so hot that it burns the smoke and creosote too, making your wood-burner almost twice as efficient. If you have an adequate source of free timber, a wood stove becomes a no-brainer. Sign me up!
So why don’t we have one yet? Why did we spend all of last winter living out of a bedroom with a space heater to try to save the cost of heating the whole house? What was the deal breaker for us?
Our Problems with Wood Stoves
With a wood-burning stove, you are required to have a substantial chimney that can sustain a lot of heat. The chimney has to extend above your roof. Since we live in a two-story house, the new chimney would cost as much as the stove itself, doubling the price of the new heating system. The affordable wood stove was no longer affordable for us. We don’t have deep pockets. The addition of the chimney requirement knocked the wood stove out of our price range. We made do without, and hoped for no power outages. But the need was still there, and so was the desire.
OK, we could take a little time and save some money to build the chimney that we would need, but there are other downsides to a wood burner for our set of circumstances. We may decide to move elsewhere. We could presumably take our wood stove with us, but the chimney is staying put. That money is gone. If we took the wood stove with us, we would most likely have to pay to construct a new one at the new location. More money.
Any other problems? Yes, at least for us.Wood stoves put out inconsistent heat. They’re cold until you start a fire in them, then they get blazing hot for a while, then they burn with a steady heat for number of hours, but they eventually burn down and get cold again. A moderate-sized stove would need to be stoked about three times a day to keep the house from getting cold. Call me lazy (it’s been done before), but that’s a bit high-maintenance for me.
What else? For the time being, we live in a rural area, but we’re “townies.” We live on an unwooded quarter-acre lot. We don’t have any friends that own acres of forest that would give us wood for free. That means that we would have to buy firewood and have it delivered to our home (because we don’t own a truck, either). Yes, we want a truck. (At least I do. Sandy isn’t sold on buying one yet.) Yes, we want to live on land that has a lot of trees. But right now we just aren’t there and we need to do something that will meet our current needs within our current limitations.
For all these reasons, we abandoned our pursuit of a wood-burning stove last year and just decided to wait things out a bit longer.
Pellets for Preppers?
Being city kids and fairly new preppers, we didn’t know anything about wood stoves until we started shopping for them last year. We visited a couple of dealerships and found that there was another alternative to wood stoves that is pretty popular now — the pellet-burning stove.
Pellet stoves are high-tech wonders dressed in wood stove clothing. They look like a wood stove, but they don’t work like a wood stove. Instead of burning logs, pellet stoves burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. Pellets come in 40-pound bags, like buying a big bag of dog food. Dump a bag in the hopper and a motor feeds a small quantity of pellets to the burn pan. Pellet stoves are more efficient than wood-burners and need to be cleaned less frequently.
Pellet stoves are popular because they are a blend of the time-honored effectiveness of a wood stove with modern technology. Many pellet stoves are thermostatically controlled to maintain a consistent temperature in your home. The thermostat on a pellet stove controls the rate that the pellets are fed into the burn pan. If no more burn is needed for a while, the thermostat will shut the stove off and then electronically reignite itself when a new burn is required, keeping the heat consistent all day and night. And you only need to fill the hopper once a day. Pellet stoves are a cleaner and more efficient alternative to wood stoves, which is why they’re so popular these days. At least with the non-prepper crowd.
The Problems with Pellets
But we didn’t even give pellet stoves a second glance last year. They just aren’t “prepper.” The big issue is that they require electricity to feed pellets into the burn chamber and to ignite them. We want to go closer to being off-grid and any major appliance that requires electricity is a step in the wrong direction.
Besides that, pellet stoves aren’t simple or old-school. They are full of moving parts and electronics (even a motherboard, for crying out loud!) that can fail and need to be replaced. Where are you going to get a new motherboard in a TEOTWAWKI situation? Very un-prepper.
You want more unprepperliness? Pellet stoves can’t burn logs. They aren’t built for it. Instead of cutting down a tree and throwing hunks of it in the stove, you have to buy pellets that are made in a factory. If (when) the grid goes down, it will be mighty hard to procure a few tons of factory-made pellets.
Not very prepperly at all. No thank you. What self-respecting prepper in his or her right mind would choose a pellet stove over a wood stove?
If you guessed us, you’d be correct.
What Were You Thinking?
Yes, we are the proud owners of a new pellet stove, just awaiting delivery and installation in a month or so. “What!?” you say. “What were you thinking? How could you possibly choose pellet stove over a wood-burner?”
This summer, we ran into one of the local wood stove dealers at our county fair. He had a pellet stove set up for a demo. We told him that we were close to buying a wood stove last year, but the cost of the chimney installation killed that plan. He told us that we should consider a pellet stove. Instead of an expensive chimney that extends above your roof, you just need to vent them out of the side of your house like a clothes dryer vent. Cheap and easy!
Yeah, but pellet stoves had one inherent drawback that we just couldn’t get past. We wanted an off-the-grid heating solution, and pellet stoves require electricity. The stove guy smiled when we said “off-the-grid” and told us that he was very like-minded himself — and that the electrical components in the pellet stove only required six watts of electricity to run. So little that we would never see it on our electricity bill if we installed one. So little that we could hook it up to a battery back-up unit to power the stove if our electricity goes down. And we could recharge the battery with solar panels. This electric appliance could do it’s thing off the grid.
It’s amazing how a little additional information can cause your train of thought to go in a radically different direction. Our objections to a wood stove were still fully in effect, but our major objections to the pellet-burner were being overcome.
OK, but what about the issue of burning logs versus manufactured pellets? In our case, that was a tie. Since we don’t have access to free firewood, we would have to buy it and truck it in, the same as we will for pellets. In our situation, neither works well in a long-term grid-down situation. But we’re not going to let the potential of the grid going down stop us from getting a supplemental heating system that meets our needs now. We’re looking into a small solar-charged battery system to serve as our electrical back-up unit. It will be my excuse to dive into the world of solar energy on a small scale with a very practical application.
Another factor is that we may decide to move to a better location someday. The pellet stove can come with us. It’s much lighter than a wood-burner, making it easier to transport. It doesn’t require an expensive chimney in the new location — just a vent out the side of the wall. It’s even safe and approved for use in a mobile home. And we won’t have to leave an expensive chimney behind when we leave this house.
Pellets are fairly cheap right now. If you keep them dry, they can be stored for years. The don’t attract pests like logs do. We can stock up on pellets and be good for a while. Just two or three tons of pellets would give us a whole year to figure out our what to do next in a true TEOTWAWKI situation.
So with much lower cost of installation, our no-power-grid objection mitigated, and the portability of the pellet stove benefit, we opted for a Harman pellet stove. Can’t wait to have it installed – our weather is already hitting 45° in the early hours of the morning.
I imagine some of you are still thinking “Dude…it’s not prepper!” Perhaps not, but what works for one prepper doesn’t work for every prepper. We’re surprised we ended up with a pellet stove, but are confident it’s the best option for us. You can’t let yourself get stuck in a single mindset. Sometimes the best solution to your needs is something that goes against the flow.
We’ll let you know how well our new pellet stove heats our drafty home in February or March.