Twelve skills for surviving in the postnuclear wasteland

If we’re really headed for a nuclear apocalypse, would you want to survive? I would. And if you’re not zonked into your component molecules by the blast itself, so would you. Survival is a natural human instinct.

But today’s civilised city-dweller, with his supermarkets and indoor plumbing, isn’t naturally equipped for life in the postnuclear wasteland … much less thriving, building a new life and business adapted to the radioactive desert. What if we changed our perspective? What if we treated life in the radioactive aftermath not as decades of torment, but as a decades-long Burning Man festival? Here’s my guide to the skills you’ll need; you’ve got 3-5 years to develop them.

1. Understand radiation.

The postapocalyptic landscape will be populated by slavering hordes of two-headed mutants, right? Nope. This one’s first because of all the aftereffects of a nuke, radiation is the most misunderstood.

It’s not the eternal bogeyman, blighting the world and its chances of recovery forever. Nor, if caught in the eye of the firestorm, will you acquire superpowers as many expect. It’s time-limited, unevenly spread (the road may be safe, the bushes alongside it deadly) and follows predictable patterns guided by relatively few factors like the weather. Knowing where the safe areas are ups your survivability quotient hugely: one woman in Hiroshima survived to old age despite being just 300m from the epicentre.

Alpha radiation can basically be stopped by a wet paper towel; Beta by a sheet of tinfoil. Both fall to survivable levels in just a few days, even near your local Ground Zero. The one to watch is Gamma (the only one of the big three that’s actually radiation to start with) and fallout, the dust and smog of the fireball’s afterbelch. The basic rule: put mass between you and the source, and cover your skin including your nose and mouth. (Lead isn’t necessary: it’s the mass in lead that makes it useful, not any property of lead itself.)

The most dangerous radioactive material is the stuff you ingest, so keep facemasks and wet towels to hand when you go out. Of course you’ve stocked up on Geiger counters: learn the units (rems or sieverts) and the difference between a count and a dose, which will tell you where you can go and for how long you can stay.

Fallout doesn’t stay dangerous forever – it falls to about a thousandth of its potency within two weeks and a ten-thousandth within three months – so the length of time you need to hole up isn’t beyond the pale; the main risk longer-term is how much of it gets into your body. Just never let your dosimeter leave your side.

2. Learn to build and fix.

2a. Build. Even if your house was outside the detonation radius, a timber-framed econobox isn’t much protection against desperate radiation-ravaged maniacs – so you need four walls and a roof that can withstand the inevitable nightly firebombings. (This one’s high on the list, because you die more quickly from lack of sleep than lack of food. Getting somewhere secure to spend the night is a priority.)

Carpentry and smithing smarts are great, but remember to learn some heavy-lifting skills like how to assemble a pulley or cantilever a platform. Mechanical advantage will help you do great things. But first, if you’re approaching a big project – let’s say a steel-walled compound with floodlighting and barbed wire – you need a sense of the bigger picture. Read a book on architecture, and learn the principles of how masses enclose spaces for human habitation. It lets you start with a plan. Then read a couple of engineering texts on statics (basically, how forces and loads act on each other) and dynamics (moving parts) and you’re ready to experiment.

Then revisit your DIY skills. The basic ones aren’t hard. How to measure and saw and drill, how to nail and screw and bolt. Plus some extra bits: working with bearings and gaskets and washers, all the simple helpful elements developed by engineers that make things work better. (After all, you’re building, not bodging – with the bonus of no planning regulations to comply with except the laws of physics.)

A basic toolset is worth listing.

For small jobs, I swear by my Leatherman Wave: a pocket-sized toolbox that should always be with you, as should a Zippo or matches. And you can’t beat a Stanley knife, the snappable-blade one, for basic scratching and scoring. Larger, but still backpackable if you’re out and about, are a folding spadesawaxepick, wrecking bar and machete:  those from Gerber are excellent. And of course a flashlight.

A decent adjustable workbench – sadly, Black & Decker’s once-great Workmate is now a cardboard-and-plastic parody – makes a base, with a vice and measuring tools. Plus a measuring tape and spirit level of course.

In your lockable tool trunk back home (guard it well) should be a (solar) charger and its reasons for being: electric drill, nailgun, circular saw, and angle grinder, with all the bits. Among the manually-powered stuff, include some heavy-duty wrecking bars, saws in multiple sizes, a pick, shovel, hoe, and sledgehammer, a set of screwdrivers, a set of spanners, pliers, some claw hammers and big scissors. If you like working with metal, an oxyacetylene torch lets you cut and weld, about as useful a skill as you can have in the wastes – if not, a heatgun for melting plastics together and cleaning surfaces helps. Add lots of consumables – nails, screws, duct tape, glue, sealant, paracord – and a big book of DIY tricks. You’re set.

Practice with brackets, hinges, clamps and clips to join different masses together; experiment with rubber strips and sealant to see what works best in the gaps. Think modular. Countless modern building supplies are designed to go in fast and do one job well, from No More Nails to that old favourite duct tape. Learn how different materials work together, and find a set of a dozen things you can get results with, whether it’s breezeblocks, planks of wood, or concrete sections. (That list is then your action plan every time you go scavenging in the wasteland.)

When planning your postwar home base, remember it doesn’t need to be underground or have fancy airlocks and filters; it just needs insulating mass, all its cracks and gaps blocked with sealant, and all the openings sealed against dust. The carbon paper you find in oven hoods is great.

Getting ambitious, if you’re able to move them shipping containers are brilliant. Weatherproof, room-sized, stackable and lockable with nonporous walls, you can build substantial dwellings with them; many have ductwork inside you can run cables and hoses through. (The downsides to container living are heat, noise and condensation due to single-skin walls, but that’s something you’ll fix early). Also, a container on each side of your living space stuffed with rubble makes an excellent radiation shield. What you really want is a half-dozen TEUs buried beneath a mountain of concrete in a defensible position, but that’s not something you can establish before Zero Hour itself, so knowing how to improvise is the next-best thing.

2b. Fix. Buildings are largely static structures; in the wasteland you’ll need dynamics too. How to gain mechanical advantage through pulleys, gears, levers and cantilevers; how to rebuild engines so you can generate power and get around the blighted landscape. The human body’s an incredible machine, but other machines can leverage it.

Consider learning about simple vehicles. Bicycles, motorbikes, jetskis, Jeeps, Land Rovers, old VW Beetles, the Lotus 7, microlights, light aircraft, paragliders : they’ll all be good choices in the wastes because they’re beautifully simple. (A large percentage of all Bugs and Rovers ever built are still on the roads.)

These vehicles are simple enough to be comprehended and repaired by a single skilled person with the right knowledge, and robust enough to give service for decades. Something with wheels will make you a force to be reckoned with in the wastes; something with wings gives you range far beyond your home base. (There’ll be plenty of blacktop to land on.)

3. Establish your health.

Avoiding death and disease in the first place is a lot easier than curing them. Keeping your body in balance – with exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements – is your greatest defence against death in the wasteland: in a world where a small cut results in life-threatening infection, knowing how to use medicine and its trappings is a vital skill.

So learn the natural products with medicinal value and where to find them, starting with honey and lemons (natural antibacterial and disinfectant). Because you can grow your own First Aid.

But at the core of your post-nuclear health plan should be keeping yourself and your environment clean. Squeaky-clean body and breath make life in the wastes feel a lot less toxic, while scrubbed floors and walls dispel fallout and bacterial risk. Sodium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride are your three basics to work with; they may sound like complex chemicals, but caustic soda, baking soda, and salt aren’t actually that hard to find in any blast-torn supermarket. (For speed, use the “Looting 8 Items or Less” lane.)

There are dozens of recipes for cold-mixing soap, toothpaste, and cleaning agents; find a few and learn them. (Of course, all this assumes your skin is not sloughing off in great papery sheafs in the aftermath of the blast.)

Health isn’t just of the body: a disciplined and calm mind is an equal or greater tool to a strong and fast body. Yoga soothes both body and mind and builds old-age flexibility you’ll need for your long years in the wasteland: no retirement homes or health insurance now. (Just don’t mistake a radioactive crater for a Hot Bikram class.) Meditation might help shut out the desperate wails of a thousand feral children hammering on your steel-clad door. Of course, after the blast you may be in a trance-like state already.

4. Learn how to purify water.

There’s always water around, whether it’s a tarpaulin harvest at dawn or a filthy puddle. Making it drinkable takes surprisingly little gear: filter papers, a big steam kettle, some plastic piping. All can be improvised out of the spoils from any burned-out DIY store. (A repurposed immersion heater is ideal.) It won’t be Perrier (unless your wasteland scavenging turned up a few carbon dioxide cylinders) but it’ll be clean and drinkable, and with a steady supply you can make yourself the most popular guy in the wasteland. However, there’s one thing about distilled water: it tastes disgusting. (More correctly, there’s an absence of taste most humans dislike.)

One idea is to do what people did in the Middle Ages: drink beer instead. You can get a hundred pints from a few kilos of malt and it’ll store at room temperature for months; face one end of a shipping container onto the street, and you’ve opened a wasteland bar, where you can trade information and food with fellow survivors. Making yourself indispensable to the postapocalyptic community is a sound survival strategy.

5. Learn how to generate electricity.

Nothing will lift your jaded spirits like the sputtering into life of an LED bulb with no bills to pay at the end of the month. Arguably this comes before growing food, because with electricity you can extend the day and the season, make ice, cook from cans, keep food cold and yourself warm. All the things that make life worth living. Just 5kW can power your well-insulated shipping container home.

If space allows, ambient solar and large-capacity batteries are the way to go, silent and low-maintenance with ways to get hot water, too. (There’ll be tons of solar panels around and no planning regulations to stop you using them.) Today’s panels can generate around a hundred watts per sq m peak, meaning you’ll average about a third of that… needing rather a lot of panels to fill all your needs. But ultimately your first step is some first-year physics on AC, DC, volts and amps and how batteries work. A single day of learning now can result in decades of comfortable life during those dark nuclear winter evenings.

6. Learn to grow vegetables.

Anyone with a kitchen garden knows it doesn’t take much land to produce crateloads of beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, squashes – and it’s even easier to grow the things that make eating them worthwhile, such as herbs. Vertical growing and greenhousing (you need glass to keep the fallout off anyway) make it possible to feed a family of four from a tenth of an acre: that’s a square just twenty metres along a side, an area you can wall off and cover with glass in a week.

If you have a chance, grab a few open-bed shipping containers, pile pallets inside in steps, cover the top pallets with a ton or two of soil, and lid them with salvaged windows. (The pallets create space underneath from which you can irrigate and nourish the soil; with lighting you can even have three “floors” of mini-fields per container.) Instant secure food factories, built from a template you can repeat and scale.

(Pay special attention to soybeans. Tofu is the perfect nufood: compact, portable, protein-packed, and goes well with almost anything. You can live on the stuff if needs be, with nothing more than a crate of seasonings and some oil.)

That’s why you learned to generate electricity first; a greenhouse can be lit and heated to moderate your growing cycle year-round. In postapocalyptic times, organic growing will come into its own: learn about it. How placing certain plants next to each other fends off bugs; how crop rotation can replenish the soil for the next round; the proportions in which you can grow different plants together for maximum yield. Fresh organic produce every day will be a principal reason you’ll not only survive, but be happy as a wasteland survivor.

7. Learn guns and self-defence.

How to handle weapons, and how to handle yourself. There’s going to be some bad people out there… and if you’ve trained yourself to get stuff, plenty of others will want to take it away from you. Krav Maga is a skill that lets you fight off attackers quickly even in groups; you can learn it at home with a punchbag and dummy, although it’s best put into practice in class. Perhaps its biggest benefit, though, is simply the physical confidence Practitioners acquire: fewer people will mess with you in the first place.

In close quarters at a time when the law’s become history, there are some tools to magnify your fighting smarts. Brass knuckles, blackjacks and switchblades are small and deadly. A larger blade is as much a tool as a weapon; even swords may make a comeback. But where the best defence may be a good offense, you’ll need muscle that works at a distance, too, and that means being able to use things that go bang. (And ideally knowing your way around an ammo recycling bench.) Before law and society break down, you may want to acquire a crossbow or longbow; they’re legal today and you can reuse the ammo. Expect archery skills to be prized post-nuke.

In guns, everyone has their preferred loadout, but five guns should answer most situations. (All illegal or hard to obtain this side of the Atlantic, but hey, we’re planning for lawlessness.) First up is a handgun, something tried and tested like a Glock or Beretta, with plenty of spare magazines and 9mm ammo. (You carry this one all the time; it’s for unplanned situations.)

Your second workaday weapon is a shotgun. Leave sawn-offs to the movies; go for something 24″+-barrelled in 12-bore, ideally a semi-auto with tube magazine. (A decent-length barrel allows a decent-size tube – some hold up to a dozen shells – and the more shells up your sleeve the better; box and drum mags are harder to carry.) There’s a big choice of rock-solid ones: the Spas-12, the Mossberg 500, the Remington 870 are all provably awesome.

A shotgun is basic because unlike rifles or handguns, it lets a beginner aim at targets more than a few metres away and actually hit them. The spread pattern at 50m can reach several metres, enough to make a glare-crazed pack of feral dogs think twice. A shotgun is also the ultimate modular weapon: slugs and beanbag rounds turn it into a short-range rifle or a nonlethal deterrent, while more exotic ammo takes you into sci-fi territory (there’s even a Taser shell out there.) Ammo is valuable in the wasteland and a weapon that lets you scatter a gang of scoundrels with one shot should never be far from your shoulder. (Take this one everywhere beyond your barricaded front door.)

Third and fourth, some sort of assault rifle – even a spray ‘n pray AK-47 will do – for when you can afford to plan your To-Do list in advance, and a long-barrelled sniper rifle – the Barrett .50 is top dog here – for when acting at a distance is an option. (Keep both these back at your base; they’re mission-specific.)

Lastly, a submachine gun like an H&K MP5 makes a solid companion for when you need to shock and awe the slavering feral gangs that roam your territory into submission. If you never learned to shoot before the bombs dropped, start by remembering the basics:  aim without anticipating recoil, squeeze don’t pull, and train yourself to lift your finger immediately. Short bursts are where it’s at. (This last one’s also mission-specific: basically, whenever you need to go room-by-room.)

8. Learn how to capture and cook animals.

This is lower down the list, because understand your days of enjoying animal protein three times a day are over. Even if you’re a farmer by trade, the concentrations in which fallout will accumulate in mammalian tissues preclude raising cows and sheep even if you have the grazing space. It takes a hundred kilos of vegetable matter to make one kilo of beef; it’s just not feasible to farm large mammals post-apocalypse. (Especially if you want to maintain your green principles: remember “free-range” now means “Someone else’s dinner.”)

So the only animal protein available in the wasteland will be wild. Don’t expect to see many rats, cats, or dogs the month after the apocalypse, while chickens in barns are the low-hanging meat: so overbred they can’t even walk. (Bernard Matthews will go down in wasteland history as a god.) Bambi will be a memory, since deer are relatively easy to bring down in the assymetrical confrontation with an armed human.

Foxes and rabbits will be numerous, suddenly freed from human population control measures, but you’ll earn your meal: they’re wily. Longer term, when farming returns, the best fleshy crops aren’t the conventional ones: ostrich will be the rich man’s staple meat, rabbits will be mass-produced, and pigeons will be battery-farmed. (The birds get big on scraps, the leporines reproduce without encouragement.) The one large mammal with a future may go Oink: pigs are such useful creatures for waste disposal the economics may just work. If you acquire a few, remember the closer animals are to us genetically the more diseases you can catch from them. Pigs are very close, so sear that pork to a crisp.

The key skills here – slitting and slicing – transfer well from species to species, so learn how to seperate skin, flesh, bone and organs and how to use the various bits profitably. (There’s a lot of meat on just one rabbit if you know how to get at it.) Learn to slay and love offal, and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh meat when you see the opportunity.

9. Develop a cash crop.

This is where you stop surviving and start thinking about thriving again. An economy of sorts will arise even if 99% of the world’s population is wiped out; buying and selling stuff is a basic human driver. So you need something you can sell, with a large target audience (starving humans), and that ideally doesn’t cost anything but labour to produce. With a cash crop you can keep yourself supplied with other of life’s essentials: meat, wine, 9mm Parabellum, anything.

You might try wheat, rice, or potatoes, but in the lawless wastes an excellent saleable crop could be hemp. (Cotton takes a lot out of the soil, and it’s not as if you can afford to let land lie fallow for a year.) You can sell marijuana to take the edge off life under a burning sky; you can weave the stalks into textiles people can use for clothing and bedding; you can turn the remnants into burnable biomass.

Whatever cash crop you decide on, do it well. You’re not subsistence farming here; you’re bringing to market an exciting new product and want to max-out your profit margins and consumer surplus. Develop sound operational processes with a Continuous Improvement ethic, thinking constantly about how you can reduce your resource costs while upping quality.

Nurture an audience of repeat customers and incentivise the best with discounts and dealership opportunities. Get hold of some dyes, seals and stamps, and brand your product in a non-easily-copied way: your packages then become a trusted name, enabling you to start wholesaling to a network of retailers. Whole communities may become economically dependent on you, with a stake in keeping your brand valuable. (At worst this gives you a few rings of fleshy cannon fodder to use up when rivals try to “chip away at your competitive advantage”.)

Build as much brand equity into your crop as you can, to prevent it becoming a commodity: it’ll help maximise your ROI while everyone else is hardscrabbling. In the wasteland, you can survive… or you can thrive. Other options: tea, grapevines, tobacco and their higher-margin finished goods further up the value chain.

10. Have a wealth strategy.

In the first months, “wealthy” will mean anyone who drinks clean water and has all his skin intact … but before long, systems of barter will give way to conventional economics, simply because portable, fungible stores of value are more convenient. Once your income stream is working, think about how you can leverage it towards actual wealth. Gold coins, silver ingots, single-carat diamonds, even antique books or bottles of wine in a pinch: things that are small and have broadly recognised value in today’s society.

Find out where such things are (a  list of safe-deposit offices is a start) and how you can acquire them in the event of a nuclear catastrophe (hint: demolition bar). Even better, start building your stash beforehand. Society will arise anew, and when it does, there will be wealth and poverty once again. As you progress from survivor to citizen again, you’ll find wealthy is better.

11. Get connected.

What they (erroneously) said about DARPA’s “Internetwork” in the ’60s will eventually prove true: the Internet will survive a nuclear war. Enough people will escape the big firestorm that there’ll still be thousands of people in Britain capable of setting up a radio station, or booting a server, or understanding IP. Those first post-apocalyptic IP nodes won’t stream video and there’ll be no Google, but they will form the beginnings of the next Web, and every node that gets added rebuilds it faster.

Perhaps it won’t even take a year before a few thousand people with laptops are stringing social networks together with wifi and retrofitted satellite dishes. Perhaps the key drivers of search, trade, jobs, news, and human interaction lead to new global websites and the next wave of fortunes, before it’s even safe to return to the cities. Civilisations come and go, but the Internet won’t die until the second-to-last node is destroyed. Find out who’s starting the revolution, connect to them early, and keep yourself at the forefront as the world rebuilds.

12. Keep your mind alive.

Last – but not least. Survival and thriving are of the mind, not just the body. You need to stay self-actuated, remember what life’s all about. Even if Britain turns into a toxic wasteland, it doesn’t have to be a cultural one.

Under your flickering LED lightbulb, enjoying a rare rabbit stew and a joint from your personal crop of an evening, devote an hour or two to reading. And watching, and listening, experiencing the shows and songs of the Old World. But it’s one thing you have to plan for in advance. The main threat to electronics isn’t the blast but the EMP, which will silently deep-six every phone and computer for kilometres around. (Believe me, nobody will be calling from the blast radius to say they’re on the train.)

A few well-stuffed laptops, Kindles, iPods, USB hard disks wrapped in thick layers of heavy foil under corrugated iron in a locked basement will still work after the blast: your cellar may become your generation’s Library of Alexandria. So if you unwittingly find yourself custodian of ancient knowledge, remember to pay it forward.

If you’re part of a community, teach the children, train the adults. Try to ensure the learnings of society get passed on to the next generation, so we can salvage as much as possible of what we lost. In doing so, your survival becomes part of a larger idea: that a ragtag bunch of survivors can be a civilisation again.

As a final word, the most important survival skill you’ll ever acquire is a positive mental attitude. The ability to live in the moment while looking forward to each new day; to enjoy small tasks while building towards larger results. That’s what’ll sort out the men from the boys in the wasteland. And I plan to be one of them.

POSTSCRIPT: The images on this post are from My Fallout New Vegas Tour, trips I took in 2011 exploring the real-life locations parodied in the game “Fallout: New Vegas”. If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at that one too! – Chris

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