When Push Comes to Shotgun: Survival in the Suburbs, by Michael K.

To anyone who swatches the news or opens up an internet browser from time to time, it’s exceedingly clear that the world is becoming an extremely dangerous place.  From the abstract threats such as global economic collapse or pandemic to the more concrete ideas of natural catastrophes, terrorist attacks and the like, it’s obvious that preparedness isn’t just something to think about occasionally, it’s an absolute necessity.  Yet, with our feet firmly planted in the middle class, my wife and I don’t exactly have the money to go out and build the fortified bunker of our dreams for the day when, inevitably, life as we know it here in America may take a turn for the worse.  We’ve had to adapt our game plan to match both our materials and our means.  And let me tell you, preparing for disaster smack dab in the middle of the suburban wasteland is a completely different ball game.

So, to start off, I think we should have a little history about me and my situation.  I grew up in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, deep in the heart of Dixie.  In rural Appalachia, self-sustainable living and prepping are just normal parts of everyday life for a lot of people, and my family was no exception.  Hunting, fishing, gardening, canning food, etc. were pretty much the norm in our area, and served as a means for people in a fairly poor economic region to build both a comfortable life for themselves and a little peace of mind.  On top of that, the mountainous terrain of the southern back country offers great protection from a lot of natural disasters (tornados, flooding, etc.) and isolation from most of the rest of the American populace should widespread civil unrest occur.  In short, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was born and raised in a prepper’s paradise.  Then, against all odds, I found a beautiful woman who loved me back and we’ve been building a life together for the last 12 years.

However, once we got married, we joined the world of corporate America in order to be able to make the kind of living that we wanted for ourselves in the “new” economy.  Unfortunately, our company underwent some “consolidation” and shut down the office in our hometown.  My wife and I (who both work for the same business) were tasked with a choice:  both face unemployment and risk becoming part of the foreclosure statistics on American home owners, or follow our jobs and move far from friends and family out into the Midwest.  It wasn’t an easy decision, but with the prospect of starting a family of our own right around the corner, there was no choice but to bite the bullet and take a chance on building a better life.  With only a three month window to find and purchase a new home, we ended up settling in a large subdivision on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area near our new place of employment.

Back in Tennessee, our home was a two story brick house with a sizable basement, snuggled into the side of a heavily wooded mountain.  However, due to the higher prices of real estate in our new area, we ended up in a single story wood-framed house built onto a concrete slab, surrounded by hundreds of nearly identical homes.  We are less than 10 miles from one of the largest cities in the continental United States, and to make matters worse, our home is actually visible from one of the major interstates that feed into the city.  In other words, like most of Middle America, my new house is a nightmare in terms of survivability should any major collapse of society occur.  Yet, for that very reason, immediately bugging out during a time of crisis is not an option, due to some of the following factors:

  • Living near a major population center means that when food/water/electricity go into short supply, everyone is going to have the same idea: get out of Dodge.
  • The major roadways around our home become near parking lots during rush hour every day as it is.  In a disaster, those traffic pileups are likely to become semi-permanent.
  • Since a lot of people in large cities don’t commute via cars, during the mass exodus to escape, those who do have working transportation will become immediate targets.
  • Furthermore, like the swarm of locusts of Biblical lore, a large group of people trying to flee an area on foot are likely to consume every resource in their path, one way or another.  While they may not have cars, it’s extremely likely that whether it’s a golf club or a Glock, some will be armed.

Therefore, for all these reasons and more, a more nuanced approach is required.  As much as we would like to, getting back to friends and family in the mountains of Tennessee just probably won’t be an option in the short term.  This means bugging in and hoping to ride out the worst of it until such a time that either:

  • We deem the situation fit to travel via the back roads and reach a more defensible location back home with our families.


  • The turmoil in our area has cooled to a point that we can start trying to become self-sustainable here in our community without fear of reprisal (openly gardening, hunting, fishing, etc.)

Either way, the name of the game becomes surviving the short term fallout that is bound to follow any collapse of basic societal structure.  Following Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it becomes pretty easy to map out the way that things will probably play out.  Our lives, like it or not, are ruled by this chart.  Surviving the “exodus” near a major city means two things:  Having the basics in the bottom row of that pyramid covered for up to a 6-month time period for you and your family and having the means to defend it from those who will want to take it from you.  However, there are unique challenges to achieving either of these goals when living in a matchstick house on a concrete block amidst hundreds of other families and within spitting distance of millions of potentially hostile people.

Let’s start with the first part, meeting your needs.  There are plenty of preparation checklists out there with great advice on every little thing that you might need to survive the apocalypse.  I’m going to assume that you know how to cover the basics of food/water/medicine storage.  However, there are a few extra things to consider when living in the suburbs.  Basic bunker mentality for bugging in during a crisis follows the “dig in and defend” model.  We’ll call this the tortoise approach.  That’s great if you have the means to make it work, however, there’s nothing particularly defensible about many people’s homes, mine included, so that mentality has to change.  For me it has become “avoid detection and deter”.  My home doesn’t have a basement, a bunker, or a safe room, so the idea of holing up in a fortified spot with enough firepower to hold off the mob just isn’t feasible.  Instead, I want to present a small target and make it as unappetizing to potential looters as possible.  Think less snapping turtle, more porcupine.

Back to Maslow’s handy dandy pyramid of preparedness priorities, we know that water is the number one driving force of human survival behavior.  Once the taps stop running and the Aquafina has flown off the shelves, it will be a matter of a few short days before people either leave their homes in search of greener pastures (lakes, rivers, etc.) or start to beg, borrow, plead, and potentially kill to take water from those who still have it.  Here are some things to remember about water storage in the ‘burbs.

  • Diversify your storage.  Like the old adage says, don’t keep all your eggs in one basket (this includes brands, types of containers, and storage locations).
  • You should try to have at least 100 potential gallons per person in your house at any given time, and stored in a variety of places around your home.
  • Keep emergency water containers clean, dry, and ready to be filled at a moment’s notice.
  • My solutions include:

It’s been said over and over, but it is the truest statement in this world: water is life.  Storing water in this way, even if a portion of my home becomes damaged or inaccessible, I’ll still have enough to survive the short term and reevaluate the situation.  Eventually, though, even the largest supplies will run dry.  In this case, you need to be able to answer these questions:

  • Where is my nearest source of clean water (stream, river, large lake, etc.)?
  • Is it easily reachable by foot, under cover of darkness?
  • If not, how likely am I to be able to reach it by car?
  • Do I have an easy way to transport it back to my home?
  • Can I protect myself during this process?
  • Do I have some way to make sure it’s safe (boiling, filters, water treatments, etc.)?

Next on the list comes food storage, and this is another topic that is covered ad nauseam in any number of preparedness web sites and books.  But the important thing to remember for our purposes is that not only do you need to have food, but you need to not draw attention to the fact that you have food.  Nothing brings uninvited guests to the party quite like the smell of fresh beef stew when they haven’t eaten a thing in weeks.  In fact, they’re likely to bring their own silverware if you catch my drift.  Here are some ways to keep that from happening:

  • Avoid storing foods that have to be cooked in an open container or that put off a strong or unique odor.
  • Avoid heating methods that produce smoke or have to be ventilated in any way.
  • Don’t store foods that require much, if any, water to prepare.  Water is going to be your number one resource; you can’t waste a drop that you don’t have to.
  • Try to cut down on trash as much as possible (i.e. large resealable containers as opposed to individually packaged and disposable containers).  Trash has to be disposed of at some point and is a clear indicator that someone is still taking the wrappers off of candy bars.
  • Keep calorie intake healthy, but to a minimum.  Being the only guy in the neighborhood who still has a double chin is another red flag.
  • Don’t use a generator for any reason, ever.  In an isolated location, with proper noise reduction and ventilation, it’s a viable choice.  But nothing says “come burn my house down and take my stuff” like being the one family that has electricity when the darkness comes.

The whole goal here is to fly under the radar as much as possible.  Shelf stable foods that don’t have to be cooked at all are ideal.  Think mixed nuts, dry cereals, beef jerky, and the like.  These types of foods are also much more convenient to transport and prepare should you have to bail out.  Self-heating MREs are also a fantastic option but do require water to prepare and are easy to get burnt out on after a while.  While it’s no fun to have very few fresh hot meals, survival in the midst of the fleeing hordes revolves around avoiding notice at all costs.  You may not be happy, but you’ll be alive.

The last piece of the puzzle is the hardest, but also the most important: defense.  A quiet, middle-class suburb is a pretty appetizing target to people in a desperate search for the basic necessities of life.  All of the supplies in the world won’t mean a thing if you can’t defend them.  However, the key is to not to attract any unnecessary notice and to make your home an inadvisable target.  Some potential tools for getting this job done include:

  • Door Crossbar Holders:  These can be installed quickly during a time of chaos with nothing but a cordless drill, some heavy duty wood screws, and some spare 2x4s.  Putting up at least two sets per door means that the old police trick of “kick and breach” won’t be quite so easy.  It also stops the more subtle “lockpick in the night” routine.  Remember, the goal here isn’t to make the entryway impregnable (which is nigh impossible in a wood and drywall home), but rather to buy some time to defend.
  • Biohazard Signs:  If pandemic is the trigger that starts the collapse, one of these signs on each door is tantamount to installing an invisible force field around your home.  Even if it’s something more plausible, like a global economic collapse, looters are much more likely to target the house that they think won’t give them cholera.
  • Window Privacy Film:  It’s ok for people to know that your home is still occupied.  In fact, an abandoned house is far more likely to be ransacked than one that is thought to still be defended.  Letting people pinpoint your exact location before an attack, however, could cost you your life.  With this upgrade (along with normal blinds/curtains) you can still use lanterns, headlamps, etc. without giving away where you’ve chosen to bed down.
  • Window Bars:  Again, the keys here are speed/ease of installation and deterrence.  You don’t need to protect your windows from a full SWAT team with breaching charges, just dehydrated, half-starved city folks looking for some free supplies.  These bars give you time to line up a clear shot from behind cover and make sure that the person trying to get in realizes the risk vs. the reward.

It’s also important to designate a small fallback area within your home and use this as the staging area for everything else you do.  This way if part of your home becomes compromised it’s not a total loss.  While your “Alamo” may not be a fortress, it should be a place with as few windows and doors as possible and a clear field of fire.   Ours is the large master bathroom with an attached walk-in closet.  The only window in the bathroom is small, octagonal, made of thick frosted glass, and about 8 feet off the ground.  Once things look to be turning south, all our supplies can be quickly moved to the closet, the bathroom door triple barred, and the window filmed over.  The two Mossberg pump action 12 Gauge shotguns with 500+ magnum slug shells that live in the closet provide the “deter” portion of the game plan.

Finally, if possible, it’s also great to have a “plan C” just in case.  If your home catches fire, is completely overrun, or for some other reason becomes uninhabitable, you may have to leave in a hurry.  Fortunately for us, there is attic access in both the walk-in closet and our garage, with only about 20 feet of crawlspace between the two.  Hiding a couple of bug-out backpacks in the crawlspace allows us a fairly covert escape route directly to the car, or at the very least, out of the house.  Planning everything needed to bail out and stay safe on the run in a completely different topic in and of itself, but just keep in mind that bug-out supplies are similar to bug-in supplies, just on a much smaller, more mobile scale.  It’s not a perfect scenario, but having a “last ditch effort” retreat solution is never a bad thing. 

At the end of the day, I think it’s very feasible to sit tight and ride out the initial panic of any major catastrophe, even in a less than fortified location.  When the lights go out and the trucks stop running, places in and around major cities are going to revert to the Wild West fairly quickly.  But it’s for that very reason that staying put is the best option.  When the world around you is chaos, there are too many things that can go wrong by stepping out into the maelstrom, even if the goal is getting to a safer location.  It’s hard to predict exactly how things will go down and Murphy’s Law will bite you on the butt any time you think you’ve got it all figured out.  In any event, by keeping a low profile, deterring looters if possible, and using force if necessary, I think that we suburbanites stand a pretty good chance of making it through the first few months of TEOTWAWKI relatively unscathed.  And that, my friends, is what it is all about.