Surviving With Electronics, by J.M.

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While working in the high-tech security industry I’m frequently disheartened by people’s attitude towards electronic technology in disaster/SHTF/TEOTWAWKI situations. For example, I was down in the NJ area shortly after Sandy came through, and I noticed that many people weren’t using their cell phones. I asked some folks what was wrong with their phone, and the two most common answers were: A) the battery is dead and I can’t charge it, or B) there’s no service available. Those answers pretty much sum up most people’s attitude about electronics; power for them is something that comes out of the wall, and their function is to talk to friends, update their Facebook status, or tweet their latest selfie. Being a prepper that works in the high-tech industry got me thinking about how electronics can add value in a disaster/SHTF/TEOTWAWKI situation. Note that I’m focusing on smaller, lighter, and more mobile applications, like bugging or cross-country travel, versus things you would do for a more permanent location, like a bug-out cabin.

First off, you need to accept that just because civilization has ended doesn’t mean your electronics will immediately stop working (unless it’s due to a major EMP event, but I’m going to ignore that case for now). I’ve got cell phone and laptops that are over five years old that still work fine. I used my previous cell phone every day for over two years, and it still functions perfectly well. I only upgraded because my company gave me a new one. As long as you take reasonable care of them and provide them with sufficient power, electronics can continue to function for a very long time (years). This brings up the first issue– how do you keep them powered?

Power

Virtually every electronic device sold today utilizes either rechargeable or replaceable batteries, and sometimes both. My Samsung Galaxy S4 cell phone has an internal battery that can be recharged, or it can be removed and replaced with a fully charged one. All of my BOB flashlights use AA batteries. The good news is that in the last few years the number of mobile charging options has exploded, and the price of these solutions has dropped dramatically. In general, most of these solutions fall into one of three categories– solar, thermal, or mechanical. While chemical chargers do exist (e.g. hydrogen), most of them currently require specialized chemicals to operate, which make them impractical for most bug-out situations.

Portable solar charges are one of the most common off-the-grid charging solutions, and the number of options keeps growing while the prices keep dropping. While companies like Goal Zero kick-started this market, other companies have stepped up and started offering less expensive options. A good rule of thumb is to try to get something that provides at least 10W of charging power to ensure your devices can charge reasonably quickly. One of my personal favorites is the Anker 14W Dual-Port Solar Charger ($60). I also recommend getting an external battery as a power storage device (like the Anker Astro E3); that way you can charge the battery on the move and use it to charge your other devices/batteries later without having to constantly switch devices while on the go. If cost, size, or weight are significant concerns, take a look at something like the Levin Solstar Solar Panel/battery; it solar charges an internal battery, but the size of the solar panel means it’s going to take a long time to fully charge. Obviously, any solar solution is also going to require at least some sunlight to work.

The second option for charging is by heat; the technology has been available in industrial markets for years, but companies like BioLite and FlameStower have recently started making it affordable in the consumer market. Both companies provide similar offerings– stoves that are combined with a thermocouple that generates power via a USB port while heat is being generated. This allows you to recharge your electronics while you’re cooking your meal or warming up. The cost for these is pretty much on par with a decent solar solution (anywhere from $70 to $130), but they tend to produce slightly less power per time period than solar would in full sunlight. Of course they both rely on having fuel available to burn, so if your scenario focuses primarily on desert environments they’re probably not a great option.

The third type of power source is mechanical– essentially a hand-cranked generator. These solutions, like the Eton BoostTurbine, use a hand-cranked generator to charge a built-in battery, which you then use to charge your devices. The advantages are that it doesn’t rely on having sunshine or wood fuel available. However, since you get something like a 1% increase in charge per minute of cranking, you’ll need to crank for nearly two hours continuously to full charge the battery. If finding food is an issue, you may not be able to afford the calories necessary to charge your devices.

Note that all of the devices described above provide output power via a USB port, so if you also want to be able to recharge AA batteries for a flashlight or equivalent you’ll need a USB battery charger, like the Sanyo eneloop charger, along with a bunch of spare batteries. (I suggest you have enough batteries to have one set installed, one charged, and one charging.)

So now that you have the power, what can you do with it?

Navigation

The most common and obvious application for electronics in a bug-out scenario is to assist with navigation. Virtually every modern cell phone and tablet provide GPS capabilities; some of them even provide support for both U.S. and non-U.S. GPS systems. These include GLONASS and Galileo. There are two important points to remember about using GPS for navigation in a SHTF/TEOTWAWKI situation:

  • Even though all existing GPS system installations incorporate some kind of ground base stations, the satellite systems themselves (which send the actual GPS signals to your device) will continue to function for a long time, even if the ground stations are destroyed. While satellite orbits and timing signals may drift over time and affect accuracy, estimates are that the systems can continue to function for years after any purely terrestrial disaster.
  • The best GPS solution in the world will be absolutely useless for navigation if maps aren’t available. Cell service and the Internet will probably be two of the first casualties of any major disaster, so using Google Maps online probably won’t be a viable option. You need to install an application that allows you to pre-load all of the maps you may need onto your device before a disaster occurs. There are a lot of Open Street Map (OSM), USGS terrain, and other map options for Android, Windows Phone, and iOS. So spend some time trying them out, and find something you’re comfortable with. Then make sure you download and save every map you could possibly need in a disaster scenario. Note that this is where having a device that supports extended removable storage (like a 64GB microSD card) comes in handy.

It’s also critical to understand that, like fire starting, you always need to have more than one navigation option available. Having access to an electronic navigation system doesn’t mean you don’t need to invest in a compass, learn compass and map navigation skills, and have the right paper maps (and compass) with you.

Besides navigating from point A to point B, having an electronic navigation system can also allow you to easily locate your hidden and buried caches, plan patrol routes, and more.

Reconnaissance

Electronic devices can also greatly aid you with reconnaissance activities. Besides planning the recon route using navigation tools, you can use a digital camera (like the one on your phone) to photograph objectives, obstacles, guards, et cetera to view and/or share prior to any action. Written (typed) or spoken notes on a device can be used to help remember critical observations and keep a log of items you may want to return for later. Look for a note-taking app that allows you to easily insert GPS coordinates into the notes you’re taking. Electronics can also make recon activities safe– you can use a cell phone’s rear-facing camera to peek around a corner, over a wall, or into a window without exposing yourself directly to hostile observation or fire. Another interesting piece of visual recon kit is a telephoto lens that attaches to your cell phone, like this one for the Samsung Galaxy S4; it’s not exactly a $200 pair of binoculars, but it fits in your pocket and can be used to take pictures.

Night vision devices (NVDs) are another obvious piece of electronic kit that can greatly aid in reconnaissance activities. There are hundreds of articles and reviews on the multitude of available night vision devices, but the one thing they all have in common is that they require batteries to operate, so make sure you have one of the charging options previously discussed and that you can charge the right kind of batteries.

While NVDs are great in many situations, wouldn’t it be nice if you could afford a FLIR-like thermal vision device like the military uses on its aircraft? Well, you can! Seek Thermal has a $200 thermal camera that works with both Android and iOS phones/tablets and provides a decent quality IR thermal image. Now you can easily spot enemies, track game, and find heat leaks in your shelter. One thing to keep in mind: if you use this camera at night in your target’s line-of-sight, your face will be lit up by the image on the screen, which kind of defeats the purpose of being stealthy. There are two simple fixes for this– either include an extension cable in your kit so you can hold the camera up over a wall or around a corner while you stay hidden, or make a simple hood for the screen out of cardboard and view the image with one eye while preserving your night vision in the other.

If you want the ultimate in electronic reconnaissance kit, consider picking up a drone with a remote camera. Companies like Parrot offer both flying and rolling models that start at under $200, and other companies like DJI offer higher-end models with all of the bells and whistles (and price tags to go with them). While a lot of people think of these as toys, the ability to spot marauders, game, and more from the air or ground at a distance while remaining undetected yourself can make the difference between life and death in a survival situation. Want to see if there’s a bear sleeping in that cave you want to use as a shelter? Would you rather stick your head in to check or run a rolling drone camera inside from a couple of hundred feet away?

Environment

Electronics can also help you understand and monitor your environment. My Samsung Galaxy S4 has a built-in compass, barometer, thermometer, hygrometer, and light sensors, so I can monitor changing weather patterns and know well beforehand when a storm might be moving in. If you want to go beyond that, there are products, like the SensorDrone, which connects via Bluetooth to Android and iOS devices and incorporates 10 different sensors, including multiple gas sensors. Want to know if it’s safe to remove your gas/oxygen mask? Pull out your SensorDrone and take a reading.

Communications

Communications capabilities are another obvious piece of electronics for your kit. In any situation ranging from a regional disaster to a worldwide TEOTWAWKI event, there are most likely still going to be radio broadcasts of some sort. One of the primary axioms of any survival situation is “information is power”, and the more you know the better you can plan and act. At the most basic level an AM/FM/WB radio can provide core communication reception capabilities. I use the Kaito KA800 AM/FM/WB when I’m traveling; it’s small, lightweight, and rechargeable directly via USB. If you’re more interested in receiving shortwave signals, the Grundig Mini GM400 is a good choice, but it doesn’t get weather bands. My personal favorite is the diminutive Icom IC-R5 (which has since been replaced by the IC-R6); it can receive pretty much anything that’s transmitted at 100 kHz – 1309.995 MHz (excluding cell phone bands if you buy the U.S. model). I can recharge the two AA batteries with my solar USB charger, and they last a long time.

Of course if you have a group of people, you’re going to want to be able to communicate remotely, so look into the various Family Radio Service (FRS) options available. Whatever one you choose, make sure you can recharge it with your available power supply (USB or 12V); many of them require a 110V AC outlet to recharge, and those will probably be kind of scarce.

Entertainment

While your kids/spouse/inner child might have been pretty scared at first after bugging out, they’ll eventually reach a point where boredom sets in. That’s where having some books/movies/video games available on your phone or tablet can come to the rescue. While you may view the current situation as a golden opportunity to wean your 16-year old off of video games, I can pretty much guarantee you they don’t view it the same way. You also need to consider your own needs. I’m a voracious reader, and being able to spend an hour or so a night relaxing with a good book would do wonders for my morale and state of mind. I have a refurbished Kindle Paperwhite in my bug-in/out kit, and I’ve loaded it with over 1000 books (many of them free). Since it’s an e-ink display the battery will last over two weeks at 1 hour of reading per day; I can easily recharge it, and I can include various survival, military, and medical reference texts. If you have some money to spare, a company called Waterfi makes a waterproof version of the Paperwhite.

Miscellaneous

Here are some other odds and ends that might be useful:

  • Want to scare a potential intruder away? Play a recording of a growling dog/bear/squirrel on your phone/tablet. (We have pretty mean squirrels here in New England 8-))
  • Want to lure a potential marauder into an ambush? Play the sound of a person crying behind a tree or on the other side of a hill.
  • Whatever device you decide on, get a waterproof/shockproof case for it.
  • Consider getting a second device just for your bug-out bag, or move your current device into that role when you replace it. You can find inexpensive new and refurbished phones and tablets lots of places on the Internet, and even a used one in good shape could meet your needs. If you go that route, keep it turned off in the bag (remove the battery if possible), and take it out once a month to charge it, power it up, and update any software or maps you have installed.

The Ultimate Device?

I typically dislike it when anyone that claims anything is the ultimate device for any given purpose, but I came across something a while back that comes about as close as I’m willing to get to claiming that for survival electronics. It’s called the Earl Tablet, and it’s (possibly) a survival geek’s nirvana. It’s got a 6” e-ink display (20 hour battery life), built-in solar charging, GPS/GLONASS, built-in maps, a built-in 2-way radio, an AM/FM/SW/LW radio with weather bands, weather sensors with local forecasting capability; it’s also waterproof and has a couple of dozen other features. It hasn’t started shipping yet, so take all of that with a grain of salt, but I’ve ordered one and when I receive it I’ll make sure to share a detailed review.

Summary

While electronic technology has typically had a bad reputation among preppers, we shouldn’t view it as a crutch to be thrown away as soon as disaster strikes. With some basic forethought and planning we can leverage that technology to not only increase our odds of surviving but also to inject some additional safety and comfort into what’s sure to be a bad situation. As usual, please feel free to provide any suggestions, comments, or criticisms.

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