Responding effectively to emergencies and disasters is almost always a result of preparation. With a little forethought, know-how, and advance planning, makers with a DIY and community mindset are fantastically positioned to help themselves and others in extreme situations.
But which threats should we invest in preparing for? Risk is calculated by multiplying likelihood times consequences. Many small emergencies have minimal consequences, but happen frequently: power failures, network outages, even supply chain problems that limit our access to anything from food to fuel. On the other end of the spectrum are events that are less likely, but have dramatic impacts: disruptions that extend over a large area or last a long time, or rare catastrophic events like a tsunami, earthquake, or superstorm. The likelihood varies depending on your locality and situation.
It’s near-impossible to prepare for absolutely any event, so determining the most significant risks for you requires some research and thought. But whatever the risks, your best investment is usually to prepare to address your most basic needs — food, water, shelter, and security — under a range of scenarios.
Survival experts talk about the Rule of Threes: Humans can survive about 3 hours in extreme cold or heat, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. These numbers provide a fundamental framework for preparedness. If you travel icy roads during northern winters, then having an emergency kit in your trunk with blankets and a candle heater are a must to avoid hypothermia. If you live in an earthquake zone, storing enough water for your family can be a necessity. If you’re someplace where food deliveries could be disrupted for a month, rotating food stocks is good sense.
The topic of “survivalism” is burdened with social and political issues that often distract from practical emergency preparedness. History shows that the best outcomes in disasters emerge from strong communities working together. So we see preparedness as something that’s most effective when done in conjunction with our neighbors. We will leave the topic of self-defense for other forums to discuss.
Planning Your Prep: To structure your planning, it’s helpful to consider some variables that will change how you prepare for events. At the highest level, these are: time, severity, motion, and inclusion.
How long is a disruption likely to last? It makes a big difference in how to prepare. Having food staples on hand is a great prep, but storing enough for a couple weeks is very different than for a year. Some skills, like rotating stocks so that you use the oldest first, are great for all plans, but worst-case scenarios can potentially change your target from “lots of cans” to “whole grain wheat stored in tubs with CO2 to keep out bugs.” It’s comforting to think we can be prepared for any length of event, but doing so has a cost. Determining what works for your family, space, and budget is essential.
How bad will it be? There’s a big difference between a municipality issuing a boil water notice and actually having the water pipes go dry. (Or, as happened in Texas recently, a boil water notice at the same time as natural gas being cut off to residences!) Simple prep might be having a couple gallons of water on hand plus containers to store boiled water. Extreme situations might force you to rely on local non-potable water sources, or on alternate fuels to boil water. Knowing how much water your group needs is important for planning for different severities.
Where will you go? One of my favorite survival books is dedicated to “the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum who, to the jeers and insults of their neighbors, got packed in the night and left.” In many emergencies, sheltering in place isn’t an option. Planning for flight brings a very different set of considerations into play — even more so if some members of your group will flee while others remain in-place. Communication plans, predetermined rendezvous, and go-bags all become essential tools for situations where bugging out is the right answer.
Who are you prepping for? Taking care of yourself is less complex than taking care of children, the elderly, disabled family members, or pets. Those of us lucky enough to be engaged in communities often feel compelled to include neighbors and friends in our planning. Accessibility, medications, even entertaining distractions for kids all become critical factors when planning for a larger group. Of course, in a group, considerably greater resources may be available. Planning with, not just for, a group is essential for the best outcomes.
At the highest level, resources like ready.gov are a great place to start exploring how to put together your personal preparedness plan. In addition, we’ve pulled together an array of resources, ideas, and know-how to help with your preparation.
When Communications Go Down: We take easy communication for granted, immersed in a rich spectrum of wireless transmissions, chatting internationally through laser beams under the ocean and satellites in orbit. But this incredible infrastructure can fail in any number of ways. Here are some infrastructure-free options to stay in touch.
Your first priority? Connecting with family and friends. FRS/GMRS radios have become the entry-level, local-area tool for this. FRS (Family Radio Service) is the evolution of walkie-talkies. GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) adds additional channels, can run at higher powers, and requires a single license for the whole family.
POLICE TRUNKING RADIO DECODER
Old-school police scanners don’t work in most localities anymore due to conversions to frequency-hopping “trunking” radio systems. But for a fraction of the cost of a scanner with trunk-decoding, you can use two cheap SDR (software defined radio) modules to listen to most modern trunked emergency service radio traffic. More info
AMATEUR (HAM) RADIO
Amateur radio is the original emergency comms and still the most robust. But different setups are needed for local vs. long distance communications. Handheld VHF/UHF transceivers usable by entry-level Technician class hams are excellent for local line of sight comms, but they rely on repeaters for any significant distance — and those repeaters rely on the internet to talk to each other over regional or national levels. APRS packet radio for data forwarding and Digital Voice modes like DMR, System Fusion, and D-Start have the same limitation.
When it comes to long distance communications, HF radio (aka shortwave,) is the gold standard and can potentially circle the globe without repeaters. Using these bands in all but serious emergencies requires a General or Extra class license. Local comms are still possible on HF bands, but generally require special antenna configurations.
While most devices that operate above 30MHz are limited to line-of-sight comms, new technologies like LoRaWAN are starting to interoperate with satellites. Experimenting with new protocols like LoRa can offer makers some exciting opportunities. Check these out!
• Peter Mišenko’s “Armachat” LoRa Communicator
• Bruce MacKinnon’s LoRa mesh networking birdhouses
• Meshtastic, an open source off-grid, encrypted communication platform
CELLPHONE MESH NETWORKS
Cellphone-based mesh networking relays calls through neighboring phones rather than the tower-based cell network. This was hot after the Arab Spring, but a lot of the apps on the market disappeared not long after. GoTenna (an external device for the phone) is currently the biggest player (Figure D), but systems like the San Francisco Wireless Emergency Mesh are starting to pop up as well, using ham radio to connect nodes. More info here and here.
LEARN MORSE CODE!
Morse code (aka continuous wave or CW in the ham community) punches farther, with less power, under worse conditions, than any kind of voice technology. But actually using it is a bear if you don’t put in significant hours (months) learning it. Get expert help from the CW Academy.
Given the extremely robust nature of Morse/CW, it has become increasingly appealing to folks prepping for emergency comms. Morse coder/decoder devices like the PreppComm DMX-40 do the work for you. More info here
Cyberwar has left the pages of fiction and is now a real threat to our internet-enabled lives. Learn how to protect your home networks from botnets or bad actors, on page 58( “Cyber Prep”).
Experts agree: maintaining your attitude is essential in emergencies. Investing in entertainment options is an important way to keep your cool when things get tough. Build a retro gaming console on a Raspberry Pi and relive the classic pre-internet video games.
When Power or Gas Goes Out
When vital utilities are interrupted, here are hands-on solutions.
Download Essentials in Advance: No internet? No problem. Download these resources now, and be ready.
• Google Maps may be offline, but you can still access maps locally if you’ve downloaded open source maps and navigation from OsmAnd.
• Need to reboot civilization? Download all of Wikipedia in Kiwix’s compressed .zim format, and read it offline. Set up a Raspberry Pi as a Kiwix server to share it with friends — plus Project Gutenberg library, Stack Exchange, TED videos, and more.
• What about Wordle! Download the entire game and play in-browser without internet; or build this tiny ESP32-S2 web server and let your friends play too!
Having a generator is great, but only if it works when you need it. Learn how to:
• Store it properly so it’s ready for action.
• Do basic maintenance to keep your genny running.
• Clean the carb if you forgot to put fuel stabilizer in it.
• Plan for how big a generator you will need to replace utility power.
• Dual-fueled generators that use gasoline and/or propane are becoming increasingly common and offer lots of flexibility. When run on propane, there’s no fuel in the carb that will gum up.
PORTABLE POWER STATIONS
These big battery packs are great for short-term use — but then they’ll need to be recharged by generator, solar, or wind power.
DIY “power walls” — whole-house backup batteries like Tesla’s — are becoming very interesting. Keep in mind that these installations involve working with life-threatening (and house-burning) amounts of power; if you don’t know how to work with high power safely, then get an electrician involved. Don’t create a disaster prepping for a larger one! Check out:
• Peter Matthews’ work here and here.
• Paul Kennett’s here and here.
• Micah Toll’s book DIY Lithium Batteries: How to Build Your Own Battery Packs
Solar power is a great option, but it’s often challenging for folks to figure out how to use effectively. A solar power station requires more than just panels!
• To learn the basics, build Make:’s DIY 20-watt solar panel, then connect it to an AC inverter and battery management system.
• Enlighten yourself with Becky Stern’s free solar class.
• Check out Kurt Schulz’s mobile solar power station.
• Make an off-the-shelf solar USB battery rig to keep gadgets charged.
• Power your Raspberry Pi with the sun using PiJuice hats and solar panels.
• Build an easy solar phone charger on page 74 (“Solar Power On The Move”) in Make: Vol 83, a solar bottle lamp on page 44 (“My Solar Bottle Lamp”), and a solar perpetual weather station on page 82 (“Perpetual Battery-Free Weather Station”).
• Lend solar to your neighbors. Follow the modular Solar Library project at Burning Man (Figure L), by Jared Ficklin from Maker Faire Austin.
OPEN SOURCE CAR CHARGING STATION
With electric vehicles, no juice means no wheels. Check out this open source car charger based on an Arduino Nano 33. Could you run it off solar or wind power?
Old motors are easily converted into wind turbines to generate electricity. Build a small one from a bike generator hub wheel or a big one from a treadmill motor, like this or this.
Or try Daniel Connell’s vertical-axis $30 kilowatt turbine at Open Source Low Tech.
Wood has served humankind for many millennia as a heating source. Modern rocket stoves offer super efficient ways to heat or cook with even scrap wood.
• Start with Connell’s $5 rocket stove.
• Prep for hard times and practice your welding skills with a rocket stove kit or a big “mass heater” for heating well-ventilated spaces.
Don’t underestimate high temps in small packages, like this mint tin stove.
Cook your food with nuclear fusion! Make a solar cooker and then put it on a solar-powered platform to track the sun.
Heat is often a waste product. Turn it into power — a 5V trickle charge — using the thermoelectric Peltier cell.
When Weather Goes Wild: Climate chaos will create a tremendous range of needs for short- and long-term emergency response. Your local threats may be drought, hurricanes, fires, flooding, heat, cold, or any combination of those. Research what your area may be in for.
BUILD AN EMERGENCY KIT
Scrambling to meet basic needs in the aftermath of an emergency is stressful and difficult. Advance preparation can make a tremendous difference. Putting together an emergency kit for your likely threats is a great investment (Figure S). Kits can range from pocket sized to pantry sized, but generally include food and water, flashlight, radio, batteries, can opener, medications, local maps, and important documents. Sleeping bags and camping gear are handy too. Get your kit started here.
Like it sounds: a prepacked bag, usually day-pack sized, that you can grab on the go. “Go bags” or “bug-out bags” can be tailored for different emergencies, but generally contain snacks and water, clothes, flashlight, radio, matches, meds, cash, map, documents, maybe a tent or tarp — enough to travel a day or two and get somewhere safe. More info on Go bags here, here, here, and here.
Most first aid kits offer minimal supplies for serious trauma. When the EMTs aren’t able to respond, knowing how to do emergency trauma response and having the supplies for it can mean the difference between life and death (Figure T).
PARACORD ZIPPER PULL
Handy and hardy, what’s more prepper than paracord (Figure U)? Bracelet tutorials are everywhere but if that’s not your style, you can stash a foot or two of nylon cordage on any zipper, following Becky Stern’s paracord zipper pull project.
FLOODS AND RISING SEAS
The majority of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coast. They’ll be impacted by rising seas, storm surges, and displaced people if they don’t have to move themselves. Assess whether your area will be impacted by looking at flooding maps and tools that project sea level rise.
Bags for sandbags are fantastic to keep on hand, as is boarding for windows and doors (which disappears from hardware stores fast in an emergency). Tape and tarps can keep broken window glass from spreading, but plywood or polycarb panels are needed to keep them from breaking at all.
DIY EMERGENCY SHELTERS
Sandbags and barbed wire aren’t just tools of war. Earthbag homes (aka SuperAdobe) turn these items into DIY homes and shelters
Makers with access to CNC tooling should check out Shelter 2.0, digital fabrication for small temporary housing.
Of course you’ve got N95 masks in your kit. But learning to manage vegetation around properties is critical for wildfires.
Air filtration, personal and household, is helpful in fire season. In a pinch you can build your own DIY room air filter from a box fan and a furnace filter (Figure W).
If the fire is upon you, in most cases you’re at greater risk from the smoke than the flame. Emergency escape smoke hoods are extremely effective and easy to store (Figure X).
Before the predominance of air conditioning, swamp (evaporative) coolers were a common solution (Figure Y). DIY swamp coolers are an easy build and can be battery or solar powered. More info here, here, and here.
Emergency heating often carries the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Build a DIY CO detector.
There’s no substitute for learning how to dress warmly in the first place (no cotton!)
And pack your winter car kit now!
When Supply Chains Fail: Many of the things we buy, we could probably do without (at least for a while). But food, drinking water, and fuel are essentials we need to plan alternatives for.
LONG HAUL FOOD STORAGE
• How much food to store per person? This calculator can help you figure out your needs.
• How to stock an apocalypse pantry
• Storing bulk staples requires preparation to keep out vermin. Learn to fill 5 gallon plastic tubs them with staple foods, and top them off with dry ice (CO2) to flush out oxygen and keep out bugs.
• Many products are good well past their stated expiration date; learn how long is too long here and here.
• Canning isn’t just something your grandmother did. It remains and effective and fun way to preserve food. livelytable.com/beginners-guide-to-canning
• Fermentation for food preservation isn’t just a great idea, it can actually increase the bioavailability of the nutrients in the food itself (Figure Z). Try making yogurt, kraut, kimchi, kombucha, beer, wine, cider, sake, mead, even fermented hot sauce, all from Make: here, here, and here.
• An excellent guide to all this is Preservation by Christina Ward (Figure Aa)
Growing enough food to be completely self-sufficient is much more difficult than we might imagine. But that doesn’t mean a garden can’t make a huge difference in sustaining you. Some high yield/high nutrition crops can be surprisingly easy to grow.
• Potatoes aren’t just for castaways on Mars (hat tip to Andy Weir!)
• Square Foot Gardening is an amazingly simple and effective way to get the maximum output from the minimum space.
• Three Sisters “tangles” of corn, beans, and squash have a long history and can produce a complete nutritional protein.
One gallon per person per day — it adds up fast. See page 94(“Get Barreled”) to learn about water storage and build your own 55gal drinking water drum.
While folks have different opinions, bleach and chemical purifiers are easy to use, very effective, and have long shelf lives. More info here
A rock/sand/charcoal filter (Figure Bb) is very easy to make and can handle all but the worst biological offenders, turning your locally found water into something that requires minimal purification. Examples here and here.
Use charcoal filtration as a first stage before a LifeStraw or other purification device, to make expensive devices last much longer. More info here.
Pasteurization is an overlooked but super useful method — use heat from the sun to purify water with radically less fuel than boiling.
Desalinization, i.e. removing the salt from seawater, is typically an energy intensive and industrial scale activity. Recent research and some new products are starting to make this tech viable for personal and family use. and Examples here and here.
Remember all those makerspaces 3D printing face shields and other PPE in 2020 when supply chains failed? Open Source Medical Supplies helped organize critical design information so that DIY PPE was safe and effective. They continue to help people prepare for the next crisis with 100+ open designs for masks, oximeters, and other devices, and links to local response groups.
Refining your own biodiesel takes planning and preparation (Figure Cc).
Household scale methane production is possible and done in some developing-world villages, but also requires preparation in advance.
If you’re ready for more challenges, there are also DIY refineries for making fuel oil from plastic, diesel from waste mineral oil, and ethanol from sugar.
You never forget how to ride a bike. Knowing how to maintain and repair bikes is a great skill for sustainability and emergencies. Recourses on bike maintenance here, here, and here.
BICYCLE CARGO TRAILER
When pedal power is the best option, increase your carrying capacity with a bicycle cargo trailer (Figure Dd).
PEDAL POWER PROJECTS
• Build a electrical generator bike stand
• E-bikes, trailers, panniers, lights, bike repair stand — Make: has lots of DIY projects
KEEP BIKES WEIRD
• Unholy bicycle/shopping cart hybrid (Figure Ee)
When Radiation Gets Loose: “Duck and cover” isn’t really a plan. Whether from malicious or accidental events, having a plan to deal with radiation can be a life saver.
Learn to detect fallout with a DIY Geiger counter (Figure Ff). Make: has several builds you can try. Or use household materials to build this DIY electroscope radiation detector, aka Kearny Fallout Meter (KFM), designed by physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratories during the Cold War.
Nuclear weapons and major solar storms create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that can fry unprotected electronics. Shield your small electronics in a Faraday pouch to block EMPs.
And check out page 50 (“Nuke Proof Your Ride”) to protect your ride with an ultrafast vehicle EMP surge protector.
Governments and individuals have been planning and preparing for nuclear situations since the 1940s. Take advantage of their work. More info here and here.
Rebuild an Industrial Base
Many of the essential tools that underlie our society are shielded behind patent restrictions. But amazing work has been done to create open source designs that anyone can build.
• Open Source Ecology wants to help with open source blueprints for civilization.
• The Open Hardware Observatory is creating a clearing house for sustainable/off-grid projects.
[feature image Adobe Stock – top vectors, Androidmarsexpress, CC BY-SA 4.0]