Your Brain On Paper—How to Write Useful Operating Instructions, by M.R. – Part 2

Topic Areas for Operating Instructions

Topics will vary for different groups, depending upon the extent of their preparations and unique specifics. I live in the mountains of California. You will find earthquake instruction in my binder, but you will not find one concerning hurricanes. Choose one or two areas important to you, and start with them. This will allow you to learn and test the format and save a lot of re-do time.

On the bright side, you may find that the operating instructions and the binder provide a place to organize and include papers and information that you have already stashed away, as attachments. An instruction concerning caches can have inventories and maps as attachments, for example. Here are some possible areas to get you thinking:

  • Home Defense
  • Family Meeting and Training Plan
  • Bug-Out Vehicle Inventory and Maintenance
  • Bug-Out Bags and Contents: Inventory and Review of Use/Purpose
  • Alternate Routes to Safe Location
  • Plan of Action for Civil Disorder
  • Plan of Action for Disease Epidemic
  • Plan of Action for Natural Disaster(s)
  • Inventory of Supplies and Equipment
  • Survival Food Pantry Inventory and Rotation (for those not constantly using and rotating)
  • Wind Turbine Operation and Battery Bank Maintenance
  • Solar Electrical System Operation, Maintenance and Battery Care
  • Portable Generator Operation, Maintenance, and Use Log
  • Critical Contacts List and Means of Communication
  • Vehicle Care/Maintenance and Log
  • Well Pump Maintenance, Testing for Bacteria, and Treating Bacteria
  • Financial Documents Inventory and Related Instructions
  • Emergency Water Supply Storage and Purification
  • Tool Use Instructions and Maintenance
  • Firearms and Ammunition
  • Operation and Maintenance of Generator, and Fuel Storage
  • Fuel Storage and Use
  • Medical Supplies and Equipment
  • Caches and Hidden Items
  • Order of Tasks and Events for Evacuation from City to Safe Spot
  • Home Security System Operation and Battery Replacements

This is just a sample list. Remove or add those topics that are important to you and your situation or group’s needs. A great way of identifying the need for an instruction is to ask the person in your family or group who you think is, second to yourself, most knowledgeable about your preps:

If this is your spouse, say something like, “Honey, tell me everything you know about (such and such).” Brace yourself for the response! However, this is exactly what is so valuable about the process. You will find out who knows what and what areas are most important to document right away. Also, you will impress upon those you ask, the level of their own need to buff up their knowledge and take the operating instructions seriously.

Operating Instruction Mistakes

There are some things to avoid:

Too many instructions. You will either not get around to all of them, or you may skimp on the content. You might also make updating them a nightmare. Start small and stay focused. Only those areas you rank most important, in terms of content or in terms of the areas your family or group members are the least familiar with.

Too many copies at too many locations. On the surface it is tempting to include copies of instructions at more than one location, as a backup if a binder is misplaced or damaged. However, too many copies increase the likelihood of outdated information not being updated. Bad information can be worse than no information. Operating instructions are no fun. Why make the process more difficult for little to no gain in value?

Using electronic documents in place of or in addition to hard copies. Unless you are an UberGeek who has a solid plan for the use of electronics when SHTF and even after an EMP attack, electronic copies are sensitive to being lost to device failure. It makes it harder to ensure that sensitive information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and it complicates the updating process.

Skimping on the materials you use for the instructions. On the top end is a waterproof copier or waterproof writing paper. On the more affordable end are indelible ink and document protectors. Large ziploc bags are my preference; they’re just large enough at the tab to allow holes to be punched for my 3-ring binder. Flexible binders are generally more expensive but are more durable than rigid binders. Plastic construction trumps paper products. Placing the flexible binder and contents into what is called a “project” case or container is further protection and provides a hard writing surface and means to store writing instruments and “white-out” or to co-store bulky items, such as related roadmaps. At the end of the article I have listed some links to my favorite items for a minimal and durable system.

Failing to store important things that you have referenced in your instructions along with the instructions binder. This can be eliminated by including all of the information in the operating instruction, of course. However, that can turn the task of writing the instructions into real labor and the instruction into an overly complicated encyclopedia. Why reinvent the wheel? Attach that key owner’s manual or store it with the binder.

Thinking that operating instructions replace skill acquisition, essential knowledge, and practice or recurring training and review. They don’t! Survival skills are sometimes so important that they require motor memory—our nervous system and muscles knowing what to do quickly and without thought. This is head knowledge that must be known and applied on the spot. You won’t have time to run to a binder of operating instructions to find out how to use a tourniquet safely or to apply a clotting bandage while a loved one is bleeding out. While the less common tasks for disassembling and reassembling one of your least used firearms can be in an instruction, marksmanship skills and weapon operation must be so well known that they are automatic. Key skills are for knowing and mastering without having to look them up in time of need.

Not reviewing and changing instructions as needed. Outdated information can be more than simply unhelpful; it can be dangerous. It is inconvenient, if not worse, to dig up a cache container only to find out that the contents were moved or changed without telling anyone. Using that new air compressor that uses oil for lubrication or cooling is not going to benefit from the old instruction for the oil-less compressor that you replaced when it broke.

An Example of a Completed Operating Instruction

Okay, we’ve reviewed the why, what, where, when, and how to. Let’s look at how an instruction comes together:


Operating Instruction: Emergency Water Supplies

Purpose: This instruction covers the amount and location of water currently stored at our city home, in the 2006 GMC Sierra 2500 truck, and at our safe location at the ranch in the mountains. It also covers the refilling of stored supplied, and actual use during an emergency, as well as where replacement items can be purchased.

Explanation of Terms

Plastic Water Storage Containers: Refers to the blue, plastic, 5-gallon containers in the basement of the ranch cabin and in the garage of the city house. They are topped with white filler caps and have the date of filling with safe to drink water written the top in black magic marker. All containers are identical. Dates may vary.

Katadyn Water Filtration Kits: There are large Katadyn kits stored on the top row of water storage containers at the ranch, in the city, and a smaller kit stored under the right front passenger seat of the 2006 GMC truck for use during bug-out. Each is enclosed in its own zippered black storage bag labeled “Katadyn”. Explicit instructions are in the kits and this item is regularly reviewed and used during annual family training. (See Operating Instruction on Annual Family Training.)

Bung Wrench: This is the red, plastic, long-handled wrench stored on the top row of water storage container at each location. The wrench is used to open the white plastic caps on the blue containers to dispense the water.

Portable Water Container, 5-gallon: Refers to the two, folded, plastic bag-containers carried in our truck tool box. These are used to collect water for filtration and use, if needed, during the trip to the safe location.

2 and 1/2 Gallon Distilled Water in Retail Containers: Refers to the 10 retail bottles of “Spring Pure” brand distilled water carried in the tool boxes that are mounted to the bed of the truck. The water is steam distilled. The containers are marked on the top as to date of purchase.

Reliable Water Source: Refers to city water during normal times and well water used from our annually-tested ranch well. (After a SHTF scenario in the city, or if the well water has not been tested within 12 months for bacteria, the water sources are NOT considered reliable and will require processing through Katadyn filtration systems before consuming.)