It is a common refrain: “I wish I knew that before I…” Hindsight is always 20/20 as the epigram goes. It’s true. You just don’t know what you don’t know. Worse, ask anyone with a little seasoning and they’ll usually tell you how often the wisdom they try to impart to the new and the young falls on deaf ears. Oh, to be a boy and know everything again! As I age it is continually embossed on me just how much is still left to learn.
Now, I’m no old guy but I’m also not a sprout either. That being said, I have been seriously prepping since my early 20’s and I am now in my mid 30’s. I have learned much, and learned a few lessons The Fun Way, which is almost always close friends with The Hard Way and The Painful Way. I would not trade that wisdom for anything, but I do wish I knew beforehand what I gained at such terrible cost afterward.
In this article, if you’ll indulge me, we can enjoy a fireside chat of sort while I regale you with tales of my mistakes, trials and tribulations in prepping and self-sufficiency with the takeaway being the things that I wish I knew before I started my journey on the road to self-sufficiency.
Accumulation of Knowledge is not Enough
I have been a reader all my life. A prolific one. In kindergarten I was reading at a third grade level. By the time I reached middle school I was an accomplished speed reader with excellent long term retention of the text.
Blessed with this combination of a thirst for knowledge and great interest in books, I naturally abused my gift and devoted all of my energy to studying anything but my schooling. To this very day I read everything I can get my hands on although my obligations prevent me from indulging as profligately as I would enjoy.
When I made the decision to start really prepping way, way back in the dim days of 2005-2006, I approached the task at hand as I always did: by burning through stacks and stacks of printed and electronic writing on the subject.
I had grown very accustomed to my thorough and speedy consumption of any given subject matter giving me a leg up on any task I set my self to, and I expected no less swift integration of all the disparate skills of prepping.
I studied outdoor survival in woods and swamps. Shelter construction, fire starting, hunting, trapping, you name it. I studied self-sufficiency, livestock care, the works. Anything remotely related to the subject, I studied. And studied. And studied…
Utterly sure of my own intelligence and recall, I would not put myself to the test by putting my skills to practice. Invariably, when opportunity or fancy struck me I would belly up to the bar and attempt to use my “skills” (really just information at that point) and many times would be confounded and frustrated by what should have been a simple task like starting a fire or fashioning a shelter from natural materials.
Well, as you and I both know now, there is a wide gulf between “knowing” and “executing” and if in the doing there was kept a sidebar of notes by some cosmic editor, the margins of our attempts, failures and successes would be slathered in red-inked notes.
I learned quickly that when building a shelter the devil was in the details; size, condition and species of wood, locating it so as to avoid soil favored by ever present fire ants, cutting and carving fasteners and attachment points, what needed more attention and what needed less.
If you would have seen my first few attempts you’d have thought me crazy and incompetent, though I would have at the time levied my “knowledge” against anyone in the county.
Today, any new concept or skill I am even thinking about remembering I set out immediately to attempt practical employment. “Hands-on” is the ultimate barometer. I have forgotten most of what I learned those years back about the dozens of kinds of shelters as superfluous, but never forgot the lesson: mere knowledge is never enough.
Without practical, hands-on experience and practice, the finer nuances of any skill will elude you.
If you want to learn something, go do it. Full stop. Read enough to know what the desired end state is and then go execute. Fail. And execute again. That will produce more knowledge than a half dozen books.
Prepare for the Likely, Not the Fantastic
I was younger once, and like many younger folks prone to fixation on large, shiny objects. Shiny objects in this case being mega-disasters and proper apocalypses that damn near no one will survive. That’s why it is called the apocalypse!
Sadly, this attitude, though forgivable, continues today with adherents touting that true preparation to face one of these end-of-days occurrences will by default make you ready to deal with all kinds of lesser, mundane disasters.
My favorite flavor of doomsday was a nuclear exchange. Back then the threat of terror attacks and even proper war was far crisper in peoples’ minds than it is today I approached getting ready for such an event with gusto.
Leaning all about nuclear weapons, likely targets for hostile deployment of nuclear weapons, fallout effects, and more. Prevailing wind direction charts, nuke plant maps and locations, everything even tangentially related to a nuclear attack I was in to.
And while I was fat and happy researching in exacting thoroughness what kind of gasmask and filters I needed, and who made the best brand of anti-radiation pills, seriously important and far more common threats slipped completely under my radar.
Oblivious, I let my one-dimensional obsession with preparing for the Big Boom blind me to what was important on a very individual level.
I worked other personal skills, mostly defensive ones, intermittently for a couple of years after I started down my personal pipe dream, but not with the intensity of purpose as the other. My wake-up call arrived in the form of an automobile accident on a remote county highway on my way to the shooting range.
A car had left the road and plowed into a seriously dense old tree. The damage was significant. The driver was obviously injured; bleeding and unconscious. The idea of a cell signal was laughable. This road did not see much traffic and was even less likely to see a police officer or other first responder. I had no idea what to do.
I was shocked and scared by this. I will admit now that, in the aftermath, what stayed with me the most was not the fact that I was less than useless for the poor motorist I happened upon (they lived, by the way) but the fact that I wouldn’t even have been able to help myself if I were in their seat.
That woke me up. I wound up racing Hell for leather to the nearest house and pounding on the door to get a local to call EMS from a landline. The biggest threats to our personal life and limb were the small scale everyday emergencies and common natural and man-made disasters that we see on the ticker tape and in the paper every day.
I resolved then and there to completely change my approach. I went on to methodically revamp my training and skill building to favor preparing and defending against the most likely threats, only moving on to more niche skills and threats after thoroughly understanding and preparing for the previous.
To this very day I regret and resent the countless hours and days I wasted “preparing” for something so unlikely to happen as to be nearly fantasy. What I would give to have had those hours back.
The lesson: you have more to fear and are more likely to die from common, localized events than massive, spectacular catastrophes. Train and prepare accordingly.
First-aid skills, driving skills, empty hand-based self-defense. Those should be your trifecta starting out, considering you are far more likely to need to heal than harm, you are far more likely to need to dodge a drunk driver than a zombie, and you are far more likely to need to go hands on with someone than shoot them.
Physical Fitness is Incredibly Important
I have little doubt this will rustle jimmies far and wide, but hear me out anyway. I was never in what I would call poor shape. That being said, looking fit and being fit for the task at hand are two different states.
I was completely content to knock around in my size 32 jeans and look the part. I worked out 3 times a week and watched what I ate, so I was hot to trot. I was. Yes, I was…
Learned a few bitter lessons, just not in tandem. The first and most clarifying came in my mid twenties. I was heavy into the gun scene by then and pursuing a career somewhere on the training/consulting side of that industry.
After much practice and several expensive professional training classes my pistol skills were excellent. That was a point of pride that sowed the seeds of what would become a blinding hubris.
My belief that my pistol skills would solve any defensive problem that warranted it before it turned into a truly physical battle of strength and endurance saw me sit complacent when it came to physical ability. The first shock and shaming came at a training class, a force-on-force kind, and the evolution was a full on grappling fight, full power, against an attacker who is attempting to take your gun away and kill you with it.
The instructor set up the scenario and ding-ding, the fight was on. In short order my attacker who was about my height but more heavily built and significantly more athletic had me on my back and wriggling trying to both protect my pistol and make space for it to get it safely into gear and getting lead into him.
It felt like 37 hours but must have only been a minute or so of flat-out exertion and I was soaked in sweat and losing steam fast. Panic clawed at me. I had gotten my pistol out of its holster but my positioning and security was all wrong. Now he and I were in a classic tug of war for the gun.
My only advantage was that I had worked my grip like a lunatic in prior practice, and had the gun clutched as tightly as a deranged crab in my sweaty hand. Even that was not enough in the face of my opponent’s superior conditioning.
It would only be a matter of time before my grip failed, and if he managed to start attacking my fingers with his hand I would be lost. Long story short, only by sheer luck and unintentional trickery did I manage to clear the gun, and shift it into my other, free, hand, and plowed simulated shots into my simulated badguy’s flank.
At the break I promptly slithered out of the ring and vomited. I saw stars kaleidoscopeing to and fro. I could not catch my breath. I was so utterly drained of strength it felt as if my skeleton had fled my body. I felt worse than a slug, I felt like a beached jellyfish! Devoid of structure and motive power.
I thought I was going to really die, right there. In contrast my opponent sat, huffing and puffing, sipping a Gatoraid chatting with the other students.
How on earth would I have fared in real attack, on during a disaster with no cavalry coming, one where I had to either get up and keep going afterward or tend to my own injuries? I vowed right then and there to work my strength and conditioning as diligently as any other skill.
The lesson: your body is your first tool, and your first weapon. Letting it decay and rust into uselessness will doom you and yours in an emergency. You must be strong enough and have enough stamina to survive. You may need to flee, fight, carry or hike like a man possessed to save yourself and those you love.
You may need to work like a mule in Hell. You will not rise to the occasion, but instead will succumb to the lowest gradient of your conditioning. This may be a fight, or it may be a long march out of town with a heavy pack on your back and a child in your arms.
Don’t delude yourself. You are not Superman. Get fit. Get strong. Get fast. Stay that way.
There you have it, my embarrassing stories and failures. Laughing or crying, each imparted on me an important lesson, hard-earned, that I remember and honor to this very day. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would give anything to carry those lessons back in time with me.
I would love to see how much better I faired with the wisdom imparted by the trials and travails of the older me. If you are a beginning prepper, or know someone who is, it is my sincere hope that you’ll take or pass on these little parcels of wisdom.