If the world actually does come to an end, it's important to remember the mantra "Skills, not things" as ultimately, your things will run out, break or not be accessible and it's the skills you develop which will really save you.
I spend an inordinate amount of time on the prepper subs on reddit (Which I strongly recommend and have an article on that topic coming soon), the "I'm new to prepping, how do I get started" post appears on a fairly regular basis, especially in the last few years as prepping slowly creeps closer to the mainstream.
The posts almost always go something like this:
"I'm new to prepping and I'm not sure where to start, how much food should I store, what guns should I get, do I need item x or item y, how many of each thing should I get, can someone please give me a list of recommended items"
There is a massive problem with this question though and - whilst it's entirely acceptable that a beginner would ask this - there are not enough responses which attempt to put this right.
The problem is this: Things are not going to keep you alive; skills are.
- That food you stockpiled. It'll run out/perish
- That gun you bought - eventually it will break or run out of ammo
- That Knife you are weirdly proud of. It's more likely to be used against you than to defend you.
Some things are great for short term problems, a blackout, a burst water main, a temporary job loss. You will definitely want stockpiles of food, water, candles, medication etc... they will see you though temporary calamity, however if the world really does end, you'll only last as long as your supplies do.
Even the things you do have which could be useful in the long-term will only be useful if you know how to use them. Many people think that a knife is a great thing to have as a prepper and I agree but if you're gonna get a knife and then stick it in the cupboard and never use it then you'll never become proficient in it and there is a good chance that you'll use it poorly and hurt yourself - just like I did when I first got my first bowie knife and sliced my thumb wide open when trying to open a fiddly package with it.
Also if you think that knife combat is a simple as 'keep the pointy end at the baddie' then you'll be screwed as soon as you come up against someone with even the basics of training (or a bigger knife) or if you are trying to take down an animal which has defensive capabilities.
Using a knife in combat is not as easy as you might think. I'm willing to bet most people reading this don't know that in a knife fight - even with training - you will almost definitely get cut and that the best 'technique' for winning a knife fight is to run away.
There is a saying when it comes to learning about knife fighting:
"The winner of a knife fight leaves in an ambulance, the loser leaves in a coffin."
This is a sobering video about the realities of knife defense:
The other problem with 'things'
The man with everything has nothing if the man who knows everything decides against it.
Whilst I'm not a proponent of the whole 'Dog eat dog' part of the apocalypse, there are bastards in the pre-collapse world so there will be bastards after it too. Your stockpile of food, weapons and other things are only yours if you know how to defend them when someone with the knowledge and the will decides they want them.
Why isn't this common knowledge?
Amongst most seasoned preppers, it is. It's just so obvious many of us don't think to talk about it. There are plenty of moron preppers (Just watch Doomsday Preppers on Netflix if you want to see them) who will tell you that they don't need to worry about the apocalypse as they have a bunker full of tinned spam and 150 AR-15s, but the majority of preppers don't make a big song and dance about the fact that they know how to garden or that they could repair a boiler if it broke down or that they could fire an arrow into your eye before you even knew they were there.
The main reason why this isn't commonly said though is because learning things is time consuming and challenging and buying stuff is easy. I suspect that the vast majority of preppers out there are not really preppers at all, they are just scared of the future and want peace of mind and if buying a few things will give them that, then fair play to them.
Many people who instinctively know that 'skills not things' is important but don't say it is because they picked those skills up over the course of our lives and don't really think anything of it. The best preppers are practically minded by default, they are not 'prepping' they are just living their lives and doing things they enjoy. My Dad for example had never heard of prepping until I spoke to him about it after 9/11, even now I can guarantee that he doesn't think about that sort of thing at all, I'm willing to bet he has no idea where that fully loaded bug-out bag I got him one Christmas even is. However, he probably stands a better chance than most of in a post-collapse society as he as one of the most practically minded people I know. The best preppers in the world very probably never even heard the term.
Isn't it too late to start?
I'm a software developer by trade and until about 6 years ago, I didn't know the first thing about anything, I had a ton of things in my stores and felt pretty safe, hell even only 3-4 years ago I didn't really develop my 'skills not things' philosophy, even my first post on here only includes it as a footnote but a few years ago, my mindset changed a little. Nothing spectacular happened really and it's not really an exciting story. It all started when I bought myself a bow and arrow.
I realised I hadn't the first clue how to use it, so I took an indoor archery course and soon decided that I didn't give a crap about learning for prepping, archery is fun as hell! These days I'm an accredited field archer, I probably couldn't shoot you in the eye before you knew I was there, but I can probably pop a rabbit or two in the course of a day’s hunt if I needed to. I don't do that to prep though, I do it for fun.
A similar story goes for the other skills I've developed over my lifetime:
- I'm still considerably better at killing plants than I am growing them but in the last two years I've successfully grown potatoes, lettuce, basil, coriander tomatoes and onions. Eventually, with persistence, I'll be green fingered enough to keep myself alive with things I've grown myself. I don't do that to prep either, I do it because I feel that if I can grow my own food, I'll be less reliant on factory farming techniques which are ravaging our planet. Eventually I hope to also rear my own livestock too, but I don't have the room for that and I'm nowhere near ready.
- I'm a damn good cook. I can even make vegan food taste good, 20 years ago when I first started learning, I was terrible and my food was a salty, garlicy mess but I had to learn as my ex-girlfriend was also an awful cook and there was no way she was going to bother learning so it was either ready meals and takeaways for the rest of our lives or I work out how to throw together a Spaghetti Bolognese. Nothing to do with prepping at all.
- I learned basic electronics, I could now fix most electronic appliances if they break down, I even know the basics of plumbing so could mend most boiler issues, again though, I didn't do this for prepping, I learned this because I want to build my own smart home and being able to fashion my own components really helps.
- I learned woodwork, again, not for prepping but so that I don't need to be a mindless consumer in the world we live in right now, if I want a new spice rack, desk or shelving unit, I am more than capable of building it myself. I even built a small staircase a few years ago to make it easier to get into my basement in my old house.
The real trick to becoming a successful prepper is to switch your mindset away from prepping and towards becoming practically minded it's something that many of us (my generation and millennials in particular) have never bothered learning because this world of convenience and plenty is there to take care of us with little effort. The problem is that by taking all that we take from the world for the sake of our convenience, we are actually making an apocalypse more likely, that's the opposite of prepping.
If you feel like it's too late then don't be so defeatist, I still have a ton to learn and quite a few things I've not even realised I don't know yet and if the world ends tomorrow then I very well may be buggered but if it doesn’t then for as long as that remains true, I can grow my skills. Society has an expiry date but none of us know when it is, so you might as well make hay whilst the sun is shining.
OK, so what do I need to learn?
At the most basic I'd say that you need to have a reasonable grasp on the following:
- First aid (Most universities offer classes; in fact, many larger companies offer free First aid training so that’s probably worth an ask)
- Self Defence (Try a mixed combat method like Krav Maga or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA))
- Gardening (I'd go for raised bed, it's way easier. ProTip: For free gardening advice, join an allotment society, they are super-friendly and an invaluable resource, I learned more from Tim our local green-fingered guru than I ever could have learned from a course)
- Cooking (Cooking classes are great here but honestly, a few internet recipes and some trial and error experiments (and time) are all it takes to get ‘good enough’)
- Food preservation (no point growing carrots if they are just going to rot)
I'd also recommend learning something that you could use as a tradable skill in a post-collapse society (unless you get really good at the above, then you can use those skills as tradable.) Don't overthink what skill to learn though, just find something fun and then think of it more as a hobby than a 'prep'. I chose electronics and woodworking as I enjoy them, and they help me with other aspects of my life.
You don't need to become an expert; you just need to be proficient and don’t beat yourself up about it taking time to learn. You literally have all the time in the world.
As far as the list above goes, local classes are a great way to learn the majority of them, for me (in the UK) finding a food preservation course wasn’t really working but YouTube was a great resource there (Although I’m still pretty rubbish at doing it – my canning machine is getting dusty).
And that leads me nicely to...
But you still will need a few things
You can’t learn food preservation without some food preservation supplies, you can’t learn archery without a bow and arrow and cooking without a knife is a non-starter so obviously I’m not suggesting you 'Marie Kwando' your entire prepping cupboard, if you’ve already bought it, keep it, you might one day need it, just make sure that a) you learn to use it, b) You don’t buy supplies mindlessly and c) make sure it brings you joy ;)