Two Letters Re: Hunter-Gatherer Mobile Survival

I’d expected Blue Sun’s letter to get some responses. I feel that Blue Sun mixed fact and fiction with his/her email, and I’m sure others had that impression.

There will always be someone faster or stronger or a better shot. The best anyone can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

In earlier days, when regional populations were much smaller, nomadic cultures subsisted fairly successfully. (Many Mongolians live the same way today, albeit now with satellite television.) Such a strategy for WTSHTF is fine, but honestly even the historical hunter-gatherers had larders from which to sustain themselves through unpredictable winters. It was a hard life for hard people.

Many modern folks, even the professional soldiers I’ve had the honor of serving with, simply are not prepared for this kind of survival.

I also liked how Blue Sun through out a random weight for pack of gear. What Neolithic man, or Copper Age man, carried 50 lbs of gear? None that we’ve discovered. My pack is unfinished, but will give me the opportunity presently to sustain myself with only twelve pounds of weight — provided my hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging endeavors are successful.

Undoubtedly, the best strategy is a semi-permanent home with a deep larder and (most importantly) the skills and willingness to endure hardship to survive.

History is on the side of the cunning individual. – Cole in Texas


I read your own and other responses to my post on wilderness survival with interest, and concluded that I must not have made my original point clearly enough.  While I agree that a properly chosen and well stocked and fortified retreat is the optimal solution to many collapse scenarios, it is still not going to cover the worst scenarios.  In the old West, before the arrival of lawmen, there were many pioneers who had the ability and courage to create their own farms and ranches, and the frontiersman standing in the doorway of his home with rifle or shotgun in hand, standing off marauders, is iconic today.  However, only a small minority of people today (a very small minority) will be able to create the type of retreat you discuss at length. 

Personally, I have two retreats: one in an unnamed western state in high mountain country (actually, it is the beginning of a horizontal mine shaft that was abandoned about 150 years ago and is totally unknown to all but myself, who stumbled upon it during a solo wilderness hike and camouflaged the entrance so that nobody is likely to find it in the future). The other is on the U.S.-Canadian border where the property line of my back yard is precisely on the border (I have only to step off of my property to pass from American to Canadian wilderness, should that be necessary.  Both are well supplied with hidden caches of food, weapons, medicine, and pretty much all that I expect to need for lengthy stays. 

In the past, I also lived aboard a 30-foot sloop docked in the Florida Keys and have sailed all my life.  If I am anywhere near open water, I can easily find a suitable sailboat, big enough to live on and small enough so that my wife and I can sail her watch-and-watch well away from major countries.  There are a plethora of uninhabited islands and coastlines that can provide all of the food and water you need without the risk of running into somebody who will kill you and take the boat. It is easy to resupply and G.O.O.D. in less than a day – or if the area is  completely void of human inhabitants, we can stay a while and enjoy the beachcomber life.  Whenever I live near the sea or any river with access to the sea, I am always keeping an eye out for suitable sailing craft that spend most or all of their time moored to a dock.  The optimum would be a sloop or ketch in the 40 to 46 foot range, equipped with a roller-furled jib and ready to rock n’ roll.  Still, we lived aboard our 30-footer for a couple of years and, if you don’t do yoga below-decks, where you can stretch out both hands and hit cabin walls, it is big enough to sail around the world single-handed.  If you consider this escape route, I strongly recommend a formal course in navigation using sextant, magnetic compass, and a spring-driven (wind-up) chronometer that does not rely on battery power. Even at sea, you must be able to live without electricity or generate your own via hydro or solar power. (I’ll have more about that in a subsequent post).

However (and in my mind this is a very big however), what happens when a retreat, no matter how well hidden and how well defended, is not enough to ensure your survival?  Where can you go from there?  If that is your last line of defense, then you stand a reasonable chance of being overrun and subjected to “indignities” ending in your death or expulsion from your own home.   Remember also that, the moment you show signs of habitation out in the open, whether it be a garden or grazing livestock, you become more noticeable and increase the risk of being found as well as being considered worth the effort of looting.

Going back to the old West as an example. While a minority of settlers had the knowledge and courage to live self-sufficiently, many more were too lazy, and/or lacked the intelligence, the knowledge, and the courage to put in the hard “sweat equity” necessary for survival on the frontier.  The way they survived was by signing on with a powerful boss, most likely a rancher looking to expand his range of ownership and in need of gunmen.  They provided the muscle, and he provided food and shelter that they couldn’t produce on their own. A large gang of weak men (who couldn’t survive alone) will almost always trump an individual and his family, no matter how well they are armed and how good their security and fortifications are.  And, if the first time fails, you can expect periodic new attacks by the same gang and/or new ones.   In a total breakdown of society and widespread chaos , a survivalist needs one level of survival skills that does not require a retreat with fuel, a couple of years supply of grains, freeze-dried food, or MREs.  Even after the law arrived in western towns, most of the bosses had, by then, become rich enough to put the local politician and the sheriff and his deputies on their payrolls, and the individual families ranching or farming outside of town were no safer, and usually in even more danger, with the gangs, the politicians, and the law all working together against them.

Another, even more likely scenario that can threaten the retreat is as follows:  right now our climate is changing literally year by year. I don’t care whether one believes it is caused by nature or humans or both, BTW.  It is still demonstrably changing, whatever the cause, and areas that are fertile now may be subject to periodic flooding, destructive storms or prolonged droughts in five or ten years.  The prudent survivalist will be sure to store away enough seeds to plant at least two years worth of crops in case the first year’s crop fails due to weather beyond the farmer’s control.  Once you are producing crops regularly, you are still vulnerable, since you are relying on each year’s crop to provide the seeds for next year’s planting (assuming you are smart enough not to get your seeds from Monsanto, with the terminator gene that only allows a single year’s crop, which will produce seeds that are sterile and can’t be used the next year – ah, the glories of the free market).   So, what happens if you have two years or more of crop failures due to drought, excessive rain and severe storms, or flooding?  The chance of finding yourself locked away in your retreat living on what little is left of your preserved food is very real (farms fail every year, even with all of the modern equipment and expert knowledge).  Even if you do still have “seed corn” left, you might find that your once fertile retreat is now turning into desert before your eyes.  Dig down in much of our fertile mid-western soil, and you only have to go a few inches to hit sand – from what was a massive desert in the not so distant past.  At what point does a retreat become a death trap?

The ability to live entirely in the wilderness, carrying a minimum of tools and other equipment on your back, and being able to forage, hunt, and trap, is a lifestyle that can allow you to survive indefinitely.  It is certainly true that early hunter-gatherers had a short life span, but then 19th Century pioneers had on average a lifespan somewhere in the mid or late 40s – far lower than their city counterparts folk back in the East.  On the other hand, early hunter-gatherers and 19th Century homesteaders did not have the advantage of the current state of the art in our accumulated knowledge, equipment, and other advantages.  Today, there is no reason, outside of a disease or injury that we can’t treat ourselves, that a person or a family living off the land will have their life spans significantly shortened. And that type of injury or disease is just as threatening in a retreat.

Living off the land does not mean that you hump through the boonies every day and make a temporary camp each night.  Once a suitable spot is found, sufficiently deep in the wilderness, you can live for a couple of weeks or months in the camp – at least until you have exhausted the local edible flora and fauna, or worry that staying in one spot too long might increase the danger of being found.  Indeed, the great majority of your time will be spent in camp – though not a permanent one as in a retreat.  Also, it is far better to avoid confrontation than to court it and risk losing to stronger and equally well-armed attackers.

As far as age is concerned, my fascination with backpacking and living off the land started when I was 15 and in High School, and continues to this day.  My wife and I manage to get in two extended wilderness trips of at least a month (or more if time permits), on average, every year.  We hike primarily in the Canadian North Woods, The Rockies, and the southwestern deserts. (Though one year we decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine – all without re-supplying even when passing close to towns just off the trail.) 

I am 63 years old and my wife is 65, but we work hard every year to stay in maximal condition (I have a resting heart rate in the 40s) and can still carry packs with weights only slightly less than when we were first married, though we tend to stop hiking and make camp about a half-hour earlier than in our early years. Luckily, there is a great array of equipment and food significantly lighter in weight than when I started.  And, although we have no children ourselves, we have known numerous other couples who found that taking children, even those under 10 years of age, on extended wilderness forays was not hard on the kids.  In fact, the kids usually enjoyed it so much that many of them, when they grew older, joined the ‘movement.’  So, there is no reason that wilderness living won’t provide multi-generational safety, let alone be unsuited to children, with the exception of the very young.

Again, my original point was not dismissive of hunkering down in the city or living in or bolting to a well-stocked retreat.  It was just that, no matter what sort of short term, long term, or permanent breakdown of society we encounter, it can be survived in surprising comfort if you have the skills, knowledge, experience, and equipment to simply walk away into the wilderness and wait out the crisis.  I offer up advice on living off the land in the wilderness for extended periods – years or longer –  but I also make the point that, once you learn to be comfortable living off the land, you have developed all the survival skills and equipment you need to get through shorter periods of collapse (though not nearly as ‘cushy’ as barricading yourself into a city apartment or enjoying all of the amenities of a retreat.  If the grid were to go down nationwide, my wife and I would be out of Dodge within an hour, and totally lost to the rest of the world in another two or three hours.  Not a bad alternative arrow to carry around in your quiver of survival techniques.

So, following this post, whether you are in agreement that there is some advantage to “the ultimate survival strategy” or prefer some cushier levels of survival methodologies that are still dependent on a significant amount of technology and less-than-infinite stored supplies, I will continue posting some of the gear I routinely carry when alone or with my wife in the wilderness. First off, is communications and power – though these are serious advantages, most of this equipment can be easily abandoned to lighten the load if necessary.

Best Regards, – Blue Sun