Practical Survival Skills 101 - Understanding Emergencies

Aaron submitted this post prior to the recent disaster in Japan. As we are now being educated in real-time as to the value of developing preparedness in advance of calamity, the guidance below becomes even more relevant. This article complements Aaron's earlier "Practical Survival Skills 101" posts on fire, water, and shelter.

Preface: What is an emergency? 

There is an awful lot of academic banter in which we try to “identify” emergencies before they happen. Pedantic issues are categorized and specifics are assigned to them as potential resolutions. This is not a “flawed” approach, but it’s endemic in the American mindset, which is obsessed with micromanagement.

In order to distance ourselves from the details, which are too stochastic and specific, we can generally state that an emergency is a shortage of resources.

Resources can be defined as:

  1. Air
  2. Shelter
  3. Water
  4. Food
  5. Security

It’s important to examine the relationship between these emergencies, as they directly relate to how we categorize emergencies. For example, air, while in the greatest supply of the above, gives rise to the most pressing emergency when in short supply. This continues as we descend the list.

This lack of resources can be adapted to define everything from a local snowstorm, to Hurricane Katrina, or the well-orchestrated, disastrous attack launched in Mumbai, India. In each of these events, there was a breakdown of modern civil structure: EMS, police, food and water, energy and transportation were compromised, and emergencies ensued. In other words, an emergency can be said to occur when there is a shortage of anything required to sustain life.

So the question still lingers, “How do we categorize emergencies?”

Duration and Intensity

Over the years, my understanding of emergencies has evolved to reflect not the specifics, but the protraction of the emergency and the urgency the lack of resources presents. In any case of shortage, be it breathable air or the ability to defend yourself, four key elements are always present and can be expressed as a balance between each pair of concepts:

Intensity Duration and Probability Proximity

Even a very survivable situation can be deadly when coupled with a protracted duration, because with duration, we see the emergence of secondary and tertiary emergencies as a result of lack of resources.

What are these? Things like dehydration, infections, starvation, blood loss, thermal injury, and so forth.

These things in and of themselves are negative and become more severe the longer they go untreated.

So to put it in “direct” terms: The longer you take fire, the lower your odds of survival.

Because of this, our immediate emphasis is always on preventing secondary and tertiary emergencies - and the way we can do this is by managing the primary situation to shorten its duration as quickly as possible.

Part 1: Emergency Assessment


Intensity can be a very difficult thing to define. Each and every individual has their own set of skills, experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that define how they react to emergencies - but in general, we can still define the following as events that would be commonly regarded as emergencies.

Type 1. High Intensity - Short Duration
A high-intensity situation would be a situation in which you and/or others have minimal time to escape imminent harm. However, as a rule, high-intensity situations are limited by environmental factors and are accompanied by very brief durations. Because of this, things like eating, communication with loved ones, and other similar concerns need not be considered - they can wait. These emergencies represent situations where “immediate action” is required (whether it’s fight or flight) and typically last between one second and twenty four hours.
The equipment necessary to solve these problems is your EDC ("Every Day Carry," discussed later) - first line. For that reason, keep these things on your person whenever you’re dressed - discussed later.

Incidences of “high intensity” are:

  • Drowning event
  • A house fire
  • Being stranded in the wilderness
  • Violent attacks, such as a robbery
  • Violent attacks such as an “active shooter” scenario in which you’re amongst the targeted
  • Violent contact with gangs or gang members
  • Abrupt natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tornados
  • Sudden traumatic Injuries, such as auto accidents, equipment accidents, or events that could result in a more protracted emergency, such as a plane crash

Type 2. Moderate Intensity - Short/Moderate Duration

Moderate-intensity situations include scenarios that carry a very real threat of violence or injury, but injury to you either is unintended or would be incidental. In other words, you’re not the target, but you could become one by happenstance. As a corollary, you may have to consider providing services for yourself, to include medical, security, food, water and sanitation. While you’re not actively being targeted, you may be pressed into defending or providing for yourself. In contrast with the ‘Short Duration’ emergency figure (1 second - 24 hours), moderate-intensity events generally affect their victims for “moderate” durations - these could last between two days and one week. It’s important to note that while these situations may “seem” very intense, they differ from immediate, high-intensity emergencies in that you’re not being actively targeted or directly affected by the emergency. In other words, food may become scarce, but it’s not because someone is taking it from you.

The equipment to negotiate these problem sets is a combination of your 1st and 2nd Line Equipment, discussed later.

Incidences of “moderate intensity - short/medium duration” are:

  • Riots
  • Blackouts
  • Large-scale infrastructural damage, such as those that accompany hurricanes/earthquakes
  • Temporary weather emergencies, such as significant winter weather events or flooding
  • Invasion by a military (first week)
  • The ‘event’ of an economic collapse (first week)
  • Breakdown of law/gang violence

Type 3. Low Intensity - Protracted Duration

These events represent the most varied and dangerous situations because they occur along a very long timeline. Low-intensity events also be understood as the vectors for many of the “worst case” scenarios, as they’re typically created by a more traumatic, short-term, moderate-intensity situation; as such, the challenges they present are often the “secondary” or “tertiary” concerns discussed earlier. While these events do not affect you on a ‘person to person’ level, they fundamentally change the dynamics of your interactions for their duration - which is indefinite. These problem will require all the skills, mindset, and equipment of all three lines of gear, plus anything you can scavenge using your skills/equipment. More on this in the “Gear Concepts and Lines” below.

Perhaps most important when considering Low Intensity - Protracted Duration events is that within these events, the probability of Type One and Two events increases drastically. That is to say, in an economic collapse, for instance, you’re far more likely to face a situation in which you’re facing a resource shortage or are being targeted directly. 

Examples of “low-moderate intensity - protracted duration” incidents are:

  • Occupation by military
  • Depression
  • Economic collapse
  • Pandemic outbreak of a deadly disease
  • Nuclear war
  • Revolution
  • Being shipwrecked

With the above grim prospects to consider, we would be awash in fears, it would be almost impossible to nail down any way to provide a sound “solution” to the problems, and perhaps most importantly, we would be wondering how to take the first step.

Enter Probability and Proximity. While no one can foresee the future, most can clearly see that the position we find our global community in is laden with economic, socio-political, and military encumbrances that cannot be reconciled. Each of us individually must scrutinize for ourselves what we believe to be the most likely situations and how our local area will be impacted. The needs of someone in Detroit, Michigan will be significantly different than someone living in the countryside of Belgium. Again, we apply the idea of “consistency across categories” - a concept from martial artist Marc Denny - which means that we take steps to prepare for any emergency by using a combination of skillset, mindset, and tactics that are “generic” rather than specific.

The general approach is to work from the outside in - that is, from the longest, most unlikely situations first. The reasoning behind that is this: Most of the situations that are of shorter duration and intensity are precursory to the larger event, and therefore, you can eliminate the least likely emergencies and focus on the plausible ones.

It’s important to re-evaluate these considerations every so often, especially when you move to a new location or have a change in life such as a marriage, birth of a child, death in the family, etc.

For example, I believe nuclear war to be a very remote possibility at this time, but an economic collapse is very likely within the next few years; from this, we can say that the more immediate concerns would be things like riots, delays in shipments/deliveries, loss of purchasing power, and (even more ‘close to home’) increased petty crime, such as theft, assault, robbery, home invasions, and perhaps more violent crimes as well.

This allows us to “funnel” the possibilities into a simple package that we can then begin to assess.

Part II. Where to Start - Practical Preparation, Identification of Solutions

As we begin the process of identifying the “most likely” scenarios, it is of critical importance to prioritize and make a workable plan. Don’t simply buy thousands of pounds of bulk foods, stockpile ammunition, or build a bunker. These are irrational approaches that do nothing to “solve” the problem.

A common theme amongst preppers is having reserves of necessities. This is a sub-component of our just-in-time delivery system, and the need to go out and buy goods for later consumption is soon to be outdated. What we attempt to mitigate when we behave this way is another concept of shortage, in short, a microscale emergency in which we “project” that we will not have enough.

The only remedy for lack of this skillset is preparation, and has an excellent intellectual workshop here:

As you identify your needs - food, security, shelter and community - make your first step by asking the following: “What do I need to know in order to address this problem?”

The conundrum of this exercise is this: Sometimes the answer is that you can’t possibly know enough because it’s outside your area of expertise or you don‘t know where to start.

The question then becomes: “Who do I need to know in order to address this problem?” or “Where can I learn the skills necessary to work this out?”

Once you switch gears from acquisition of material to acquisition of skills, you can begin orienting yourself to mitigating emergencies.

OODA Introduction

Air Force Colonel John Byrd devised a method of analyzing how we act and react under stress. His model, known as “OODA” was a continually repeating process of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. While this process in and of itself doesn’t “train” us in a measurable way, you will notice that this is precisely how the mind thinks under stress. With that in mind, in any crisis, it’s important to recognize Col. Byrd’s contribution as an extremely valuable tool for any emergency - regardless of its intensity and duration.

With this in mind, each situation is going to require that you either use the OODA loop to assess the situation make good decisions and act upon them, or follow someone else’s lead. For this reason, training, martial arts, rehearsals, and other exercises to ‘flex’ your decision-making ability can greatly reduce the time it takes to make difficult decisions under pressure.

PACE Introduction

The military loves acronyms, and there are dozens of them available that can be easily committed to memory and used to plan in harsh situations. Like OODA, PACE is an acronym that we can use before, during, and after an emergency, and which must be occasionally reassessed.

PACE Stands for:

  • Primary - The “standard” action to be taken for the situation.
  • Alternative - An alternative plan, if some obstruction to your standard plan exists.
  • Contingency - A backup plan in case the standard and alternative plan become untenable.
  • Emergency - A plan to be used in the event that an emergency occurs during the execution of your plan.

Keeping this in mind as you plan. It will be easier to communicate and execute your plan to those in your family, circle, or community. A firm standard can help us cycle more quickly through our OODA in any type of crises. Thus, we can look at OODA like an “Operating System” on our computer and PACE as software used to accomplish our goals.

PACE is one of my favorites because it can be used for almost anything: communications plans for frequencies, routes of travel, avoiding potential trouble areas, and escaping if necessary. The “if/than” mentality that it teaches will help you remain flexible but still have a cogent set of criteria with which you can communicate with other people in a secure fashion.

In addition, it’s self explanatory - each letter corresponds with a plan that will be defined by the user. The modularity, simplicity, and utility of this acronym can be a great asset when planning.

GOTWA Introduction

The third and final acronym for this series is GOTWA. Primarily employed by military combat units, it is an outline for travel away from a known safe area - whether it’s a bivouac, firebase, LP/OP (listening/observation post), or a campsite. It can be modified for your needs to help alleviate the dangerous of traveling without high-tech communications by framing what each party can expect.

It’s important at this point to revisit Survival 101 - “Shelter.” From there, we can recall some vital information for the setup of such a camp (if you’re unfortunate enough to have to hold up while traveling), as well as procedural words, duress words, and challenge words. While I do not intend to make this a “tactical” primer, it should be understood that things like light, litter, and noise discipline will increase your odds of remaining undetected. Like proper defenses, these increase the odds of your survival, which is what this series is all about. Use this information, but be flexible! It doesn’t have to be a primitive wilderness camp - you can use these concepts at a friends home, your own home, or a spot you stop to regroup at while traveling to your destination.

GOTWA will help you address things that may be tough to consider in normal times, such as what to do if you encounter others who are starving or scavenging, hostile groups of bandits, other survivors, or procedures on how to safely rendezvous with your own group in case of splitting up. Keep in mind, for this latter situation, a well-defined PACE plan will go a long way towards securing your trip.

GOTWA stands for:

  • G - Where I’m Going
  • O - Others with me
  • T - Time I will be gone
  • W - What we’re doing
  • AActions upon:
    • Contact (non-hostile)
      • Base team
      • Away team
    • Contact (hostile)
      • Base team
      • Away team

While this seems boorish to even consider in the First World, it is a subject best thought about before it is needed. In almost all incidences, breaking contact - meaning disengaging communication or hostilities - is a priority. If you’re trying to return safely, getting caught up in transient affairs is a poor ingredient in the recipe for success.


While proper equipment is important, it’s secondary to your ability in every respect. If we view this as analogous to a house, having the equipment is like having the building materials. Without the skill to assemble them into a structure, you’ll find they do you little or no good. For this reason, it’s absolutely paramount that your equipment selection matches your level of skill, and as you learn and develop an increased capacity, you will want to revisit your equipment.

Over the years, I’ve had scores of people ask me, “What should I get?” and then proceed to buy something I’d found to be ineffective, practically useless or of faulty design because it was cheap, or promised a quick fix. There are absolutely no magic bullets in this world. You must invest the time in yourself - only then will your equipment provide you with the comfort you seek. Many of the tasks we could find ourselves in are as dependant on chance or fortune as they are on our abilities or equipment. For this reason, we must make every attempt to use our OODA loop to assess situations as we enter them.


One of the most underappreciated luxuries of our time is our ability to travel great distances with little or no inconvenience, cost, or risk. While I’m certain others will disagree, traveling in a “post-collapse” society will carry with it some extreme risks that in my opinion will present the most dangerous situations imaginable. In history and more modern failed states, road agents, highwaymen, gangs and hostile members of other societies or communities have used “safe passage” as a method of extracting wealth. From taxes to attacks, traveling presents a number of problems that must be examined.

Before I go further, I want to make a note that this is my belief, and a situation I think many of us think about. That said, it will be heavily opinion based and largely theoretical. Further, study of our current occupations in the Middle East will provide an enormous wealth of information on how travel-based incursions happen, how they are combated, and some of the reasons they’ll be an attractive option for those on the sides of both order and chaos.

Like our other topics, travel can be broken down systematically into subsets that have “common” elements - for example, there will be drastic differences between travel by foot, by animal, or by mechanical means. Similarly, traveling alone provides you with unique advantages and disadvantages when compared to traveling in a group. For this reason, when we plan to meet an emergency, it should be thoroughly considered.

While these situations are important, there is no specific way to predict how they’ll play out. We can loosely define our travel as either on foot or in a car, and alone or with a group.

While there is no “certain” way to judge how any of these situations could go, putting these as row and column headers in a 2x2 matrix (or Punnett Square) to plan can be a useful tool. In each box, use PACE/GOTWA to sketch an idea of what you expect and how you’ll deal with it.

Once you’ve identified the threats, problems, and solutions, you can start thinking about what you’ll need to address these concerns. As always, assess your deficiencies now!

Part III. Gear and Lines and Concepts

Most of the time, this discussion is what you hear when you hear “survivalists” consider their options. It’s the equipment - What rifle for deer? What (this) to accomplish (that)? It’s intentionally placed halfway through this article, because before we decide on any sort of equipment, it’s imperative that we shape our demands, and our demands are not equipment - our demands are skills. A set of lockpicks aren’t going to do you any good if you’re trying to escape a dead city and you can't tell a rake from a torsion wrench.

In short, our priorities are:

  1. A cogent assessment of the situation
  2. A detailed plan on what you have, lack, and need, in terms of skill set, mindset, and know-how
  3. The skills to perform the given task
  4. The tools to perform the given task

With skill comes mindset; with mindset comes tactical thinking. Therefore, when we are skilled, we can “think on our feet.” Any “tool” will do when you understand the objective. This is especially true of firearms, though it applies equally to many other things.

In the spirit of “consistency across categories, I arrange my equipment to correspond with the levels of crisis discussed above in the “Intensity/Duration” section, which is to say, each of the three “lines” of equipment meet the demands of their respective emergencies.

Furthermore, integration of each line should be additive - your line two should commensurate your first and third line. If you’re left with only your first line, you should have the mindset, skillset and tactical knowledge to “procure” any of the other items you may need.

Consider a few other points: 

  1. Try not to look conspicuous. Dress appropriately for what you’re doing. Carry clothes that are inconspicuous for your area - make sure you’re comfortable (not just physically).
  2. Don’t overload yourself. Try and stick to the target weights, or define your own as needed.
  3. Make sure your equipment is secured and doesn’t rattle. Tie it down with Paracord and make sure your pouches are secure. Zippers and velcro make noise. Buttons make less.
  4. Buy quality; cry just once. Don’t buy equipment off the bargain rack to fill a perceived insufficiency - use the skill axiom first! If you can’t over come the deficiency with just skill (such as in an emergency like a house fire), buy reliable, quality tools to augment your knowledge.
  5. Try to find objects that are “multi-purpose,” but be aware that some things will always be “special purpose.”

Often enough, people ask, “What do I need?” This, of course, depends greatly on what skills you possess, your perceived dangers, and what you’ll actually carry. That said, I will do my best to make my recommendations.

First Line
  • Method of Carry: EDC “Every Day Carry" on person
  • Target weight: 1-5 lbs.
  • Purpose: Mitigation of Immediate emergencies and violent encounters; supplementing second and third line in more protracted emergencies.
  • Components
    • Pocket knife (I prefer the CRKT M16-12Z)
    • Lighter/matches
    • Thumb drive (on key ring)
    • P-38 can opener (on key ring)
    • Multi-tool (I prefer Gerber - Leatherman pictured)
    • A notepad with pens
    • A rubber band or two
    • Safety pins
  • Optional
    • Sidearm (I prefer a Glock in 9mm)
    • A reload for your sidearm
    • A fixed blade knife (I prefer a Shivworks Clinch Pick)
    • A Paracord bracelet - deconstructed, these can provide you an amazing amount of material to use as rope, fishing line, snare wires, or thread - the limits are only in your mind.
Second Line - Kit
  • Method of Carry: Lightweight satchel or low signature chest rig
  • Note: NOT a backpack - a backpack is your third line.
  • Target Weight: 5-10 lbs.
  • Purpose: Putting emergency plans into effect; geared towards Moderate Intensity, Medium Duration situations.
  • Components
    • Water container
    • Zip Ties
    • Siphon hose
    • Spare magazines
    • Head lamp
    • Flashlight (I prefer the Surefire C2)
    • Pocket chainsaw - this is an endorsement - it rocks.
    • Snare wire and fish hooks (tied on their leaders)
    • Notepad and pens
    • Magnesium firestarting block
    • Medical kit
    • GPS/compass
    • A few pieces of silver
    • More Paracord
    • Cyalume flares
    • Water bottle
    • Idiosyncratic items (Kestrels, GPS, maps, reading material; whatever makes you comfortable)
  • Optional
    • Rifle (legal and ethical)
    • Spare magazines (pistol/rifle)
Third Line - Backpack
  • Method of Carry: Backpack
  • Target Weight: 25-40 lbs.
  • Purpose: Providing more advanced gear that supplements first and second line, and affords the ability to exist in transit for >1 week, depending on level of skill and need.
  • Components
    • Food (I prefer MRE entrees with the cardboard [for fire starting])
    • Sleeping bag or insulated blanket
    • Mylar sleeping bag and/or space blanket
    • Fixed-blade knife
    • Rope
    • Hydration system (3 Litre)
    • Plastic bags
    • Medical kit
    • Capilene underwear, shirts, and socks (2 pairs each)
    • Stainless steel or aluminum cook-set (with utensil)
    • Fishing line/hooks/power-bait
    • Water purification (tablets, Pur Hiker/Katadyne etc)
    • Canteen with cup
    • Extra items: lighters, pens, trading items (cigarettes, silver, etc)

Keep in mind that a heavier third line might include more food, water, and a better sleeping bag.

Costs and Practicality

This list may seem long and costly - and it is.

The skillsets presented in this series are meant to be the foundation that, if practiced properly, will see that your basic needs are met. It is incumbent upon you to develop those skills. 

Turning these words into practical, useful skills will require an investment in time, energy, and patience. It will cost money, pride, and comfort. But as you invest in yourself and build confidence in the things you can accomplish, you’ll see the investment return all of what it’s taken back to you.

The journey of self-development is very long, lonely, and at times will have you questioning your motives, intent, and possible outcomes. It should be harsh, painful, rewarding, and humbling.

The training you complete is an investment in your most integral asset - yourself. Budget for it as you would any other expense, and continually view it as a way to weather yourself against the unexpected challenges.

Some of the most simple things you can do are:

  1. Take martial arts.
  2. Take good care of yo

    This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Nice mention of the" OODA Loop"!  Looks like someone has been through the Air Force NCO or Officer courses or one of the SERE schools… =D
I particularly like the first, second, and third line gear lists with pics.  Nice write up!

Excellent, Aaron.  Thank you very much for taking the time to write this paper.   As someone who had their left frontal lobe decimated by untreated lyme disease for 8 yrs, the way this is laid out is very helpful - logical, step by step (as is all of Chris’ writing). . . gives me a blueprint for accurately and systematically preparing.

NIce piece – I spend a lot of time with boy scouts and like the travel light approach.
Got any pictures or videos of the pocket chain saw?

And has anyone ever said to you “Is that a chain saw in your pocket, or are just glad to see me?” Wink

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Any satchel brands that you prefer for everyday carry?
Any good courses that you reco outside of standard self defense classes that may simulate the psychological aspects a bit more?

I’ve lived through a couple of Hurricanes in my life, and have observed a few other disasters from a distance, and one thing I always have a hard time with in presentations such as this one is the idea that anyone is going to find themselves in a wilderness survival-type situation.  Granted, a lot of the things on your lists could be pretty useful in a many bad situations, e.g., something to protect you from the elements; a light source; sturdy, comfortable clothes and shoes (MUST include a hat); a radio or other device for getting alerts; a basic pocket knife or leatherman; water; and some food.  You can definitely plan on living without electricity and running water for a while, and probably sleeping on a floor of some type.
But my experience is the terrain you are most likely to be in or travelling through in an evacuation or recovery is going to be mostly urban or roadway, and crowded.  The reason is pretty simple:  That describes most of the territory you are likely to be in when the emergency happens, and the vast majority of the territory you have any chance of reaching in any reasonable amount of time.

You are going to find shelter in schools, churches, government buildings,  and possibly parking lots if you’re in a vehicle, which most people will be.  Trust me on this, that’s where the good roof over your head is going to be, and maybe warm food.  Even if you could find an outdoor spot that doesn’t happen to be someone’s back yard, you’re not going to want to sleep there many nights.

Authorities will be in all of these places, and the routes between them, and they will be very nervous if you are armed.  They will be a lot more focused on maintaining order than on worrying about your preferences.

If you are unfortunate enough to be one of the people directly affected by the emergency situation, and you don’t have a definite secure location to travel to, you will most likely be depending on the kindness of strangers and the aforementioned authorities.  Certainly, the more amenities you can bring to such a situation, the less of a burden you will be on your benefactors.  That will depend on how well you were prepared, how much warning you got, and your mode of transportation.

If you are one of the people in the area receiving evacuees, you will probably join with your neighbors and render aid.  That’s a very natural human reaction to seeing people in distress.  Certainly, the more prepared you are, and the more organized your community is, the better you can help.  You are not going to want to see these refugees heading out into whatever semi-natural ground they can find and setting up camp.  You are definitely not going to want to see someone whip out his pocket chain saw and go to work on the local flora.  Not good for the landscape or your peace of mind.

That’s one reason the authorities are going to want to channel you into some sort of mass facility, and if you live in the receiving area, you are going to want to see it, too.

Remember, there is very little true wilderness left in most of the world.  Most that is left is that way for a reason.  It was either too barren, too cold, too hot, too dry, or too wet for anyone to make a year-round living there.  Everything else is claimed by someone who considers it his property.  Even so, if you were to be lucky enough to come across real wilderness during a more hospitable time of year, you’ll likely find that it is not empty, but is someone’s turf.  Someone who lives on a nearby ranch or farm community and who has been deer hunting in that area since he could walk, and knows it like you know your back yard.  And probably feels the same way about it as you would if you saw someone setting up camp in your back yard.

EDIT: changed “aren’t” to “are” in penultimate paragraph.

Syd O-
That’s a very good question, with unfortunately no quick answers.  Some martial arts schools and self-defense courses go heavily into psychological aspects of violence (both for the aggressor/predator and the one being attacked), but in my limited experience most do not or just lightly touch on it.  I really think it’s a badly neglected area in many martial arts studios and feel it deserves more attention than it gets.  IMO it depends more on the individual instructor than the type of martial art that’s taught, so it’s hard to recommend any one martial art for this. 

One of the things you can often do is visit a studio, talk to the instructors, and ask if you can participate in a session to see if it’s right for you.  Most instructors I’ve met are easygoing and eager to do at no charge, or at the very least are willing to let you sit in to watch a session or two.  Also, many times self-defense courses are offered at community centers by local martial arts studios, and are great (and inexpensive) ways to see if they offer what you’re looking for before you commit to throwing down a bigger hunk of cash for regular lessons.

  • Nickbert

Thanks for the feedback, but literally all you offered was an opinion based critique of a suggestion I never made. This tells me two things:

  1. You didn’t read the article, and;

  2. Espousing your opinion was more important that presenting a well rounded tool for comprehensive preparedness.

The second is fine, the first is inexcusible.

This is about resourcefulness and perseverance, not any single disaster. Your approach is myopic and very dependant on living situation. Please widen your view, read thoroughally and self police your replies.

Tommy, thank you, and yes sir.

Syd O,

The M51 engineer bag is my “go to”, works well for my needs

All, thanks and cheers,


Nice post Aaron.
I know that Fernando, the survivalist from South America, also carries a folding knife with him at all times.  Can you say a little more about why one should carry a folding knife, what to use it for, how to learn the proper way(s) to use it, etc.


Very nicely laid out article.  I would feel a whole lot safer if I knew someone with your skills.  Do you have a family with small children?  If so, how do you account for them?   If not, do you know anyone with your skillset that does and what have they done?  I just packed a “bug out bag” for our family that filled up an entire backpack (small type for daytrips our one overnight) without any food or clothes.  I figure if I am “bugging out” I will just focus on clothes and food since those are easy to grab.  My children would be too small to carry their own stuff, and they are too big to carry for long.  What does the military teach about these issues?

Thanks again for the thoughtful insights.

Aaron -
Excellent write up.  I have a couple of questions when you can get to them:

How easily is the M51 swapped from one side to the other?  All the pictures I saw were left side carry - which would interfere with someone who carried off their left hip.  You’ve got to be able to switch sides right?

What are your thoughts on staging multiple third line rigs, each tailored for a specific situational or seasonal event?  I’m figuring you already have your’s assembled so you can grab and go, or does your egress plan allow for time to modify based on a specific set of circumstances?  It would necessarily mean extra expense to have multiple rigs on the rack, but you might be in a situation where you need to clear quickly.  My rig is going to be different in January than it will be in July.  I think back to the last two nor’easters we had here in Virginia.  The most recent one dumped 8 inches of snow with lows in the 20s, the one before that dumped 10 inches of rain with lows in the 60s - both occurred in Nov-Dec.

This last one is sort of a product endorsement, and I would strongly encourage you to take a look at these if you aren’t already familiar with them - The Halo Recon series of backpack sleep systems.  The Recon 3 is a 27 ounce, 0 degree (C) bag that is about the size of a softball when cinched down in its compression sack.  They are a little pricey, they will set you back between $130 -$140, but that’s not a bad price for deep two-season that packs and carries as small as it does.  The series runs from Recon 2 through Recon 5, the 5 is a -20C bag, runs $220-230, weighs 4 1/2 pounds and packs down to 9" x 9".

Keep up the good work, I read these as fast as you post them.

Hi Aaron
That was a very impressive article.  I’ve never seen this topic covered in such a high level analytical way.  You have obviously trained for this and more importantly, given it serious thought.  Unfortunately, I think you may have been at a higher level than many people wanted or could use.  You deserved a lot more responses, but then Japan dominated everyone’s attention.  I’m just catching up myself.  I liked your thoughts that skills and mind set are primary, and they will drive your gear selection.  The use of three lines of gear was also very helpful.

Just in case you haven’t read Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art Of War, by Robert Coram, you would love that book.




Thank you for the comment. I did feel that this thread went straight to archives with the Japan meltdown being on everyone’s minds. That’s a bit depressing as this was sort of the capstone of the other basic survival threads. The sequence was supposed to be as I preach: skillset, mindset and tactics.


The expedition bags are made well and are geared to be worn under the right arm - ironically, that why they don’t work for me.


I don’t have children, but I can try and find some resources and share some tactics used on protection details. It may be several weeks, as I’m away from home right now.


That conversation could go on for days! A knife is the kind of tool that is essential for so many tasks - the best way to explain it is to have people recognize how often they use blades. Proper use is extremely specific to the task: cutting rope is different than cleaning fish, for example.

Aa good knife is the tool upon which all other tops are made useful, in survival.




Aaron, I realize I was a little quick to jump into criticizm mode on my post.  If I had spent some time with what I liked about it, you might have read it differently.  It obviously put you into a defensive posture, or you wouldn’t have felt the need to attack me with groundless smears.  I don’t make it a habit to write long-winded comments on posts I haven’t read.
Your essay is entitled “Understanding Emergencies” and it does begin with a lot of reasonable categorization and mental organizational tools for understanding emergencies in general.  I also agree that the first line of preparedness is always mental.  You handled the acronym soup method of organizing pretty well.  I was trained as a wildland firefighter when I worked for the Forest Service, and I am certainly familiar with that approach, though I never had much use for it.  I find those approaches too abstract, but if it works for you, fine.
I started being uncomfortable with it when I got the the third of the acronyms, and concluded (and still believe) that you are talking about situations that don’t have a lot of probability of becoming reality.  That’s fine, I probably should pay attention to it, since it would certainly make the gods laugh to put me in one now.  But seriously, I probably shouldn’t have jumped to the shorthand of “wilderness” because I then took it too far in my latter paragraphs.
Still, I think the whole “base camp” and “going on a mission” mindset would tend to set you up for a lot of unnecessary conflict with others, especially with the authorities.  I just can’t think of a whole lot of situations where that sort of planning would come into play.  And this is reinforced not further in the essay where you get to supplies.  Being prepared for the worst is not bad, unless actions you take could create greater risk in situations that were indeed more likely to be encountered.
One of the things you are very likely to encounter if you are in a travel mode, is that wherever you go, someone is probably already there, and they just might consider the place to be their property.  You can’t seperate out your actions from the fact that we do live in a society that has rules and expectations.  The good news is that if you are travelling due to an emergency, you are also going to meet some very good, kind, helpful people.  I don’t want to say anything’s absolute, but you can almost certainly count on that.
OK, I’m not doing a good job of communicating this, and don’t want to turn it into a whizzing match between you and me.  Let me make one more try:  I don’t believe there is a very high probability that anyone is going to be in an emergency situation that lasts for more than a few hours (your Type 1) in which there is no control or organizational structure exerted on all concerned.
Hope this works for you.  You still don’t have my name right.

I think a very important thing about emergency preparedness is becoming prepared for what you think is least likely to occur.  After all, what kind of an emergency is it if you can forsee its occurance?


Your name get zapped automatically by spell check. Your points are considered, but as a part of a comprehensive plan, consistent, useful development will allow you to deal with the type two and three events, whether you see them or not.

That is the purpose of my approach.



I’ve been at CM for about 2 years and your posts have always been exeptionally helpful to me.  I’ve made lists, plans, purchases, preparations to the best of my ability and within my means.  This whole article is extremely well-done and useful, especially, the training aspect! I’ve been so busy that I’ve really overlooked that… doh!  You will react in the same manner that you’ve trained… whether it is for a school test, ballet recital, fire drill, combat, etc…  if you train sloppily then your actual performance will be sloppy!   This is a wonderful Emergency 101… it is getting printed out and posted on my family board.Thanks so much!


Kindest thanks and sincerest gratitude. Knowing that this may help, even in very minor ways is what drives me.



Aaron, great read, thanks for putting it together! I’ve just now had a chance to spend a bit more time with this. I’m wondering if you can expand on the following:

A common theme amongst preppers is having reserves of necessities. This is a sub-component of our just-in-time delivery system, and the need to go out and buy goods for later consumption is soon to be outdated. What we attempt to mitigate when we behave this way is another concept of shortage, in short, a microscale emergency in which we “project” that we will not have enough.
I am a bit confused here—it seems like you're criticizing those who would stock up on things as a mode of preparation, although your suggestions also entail a lengthy list of gear.

Perhaps you are saying that buying canned goods is no substitute for skills, know-how, and person-to-person connections, which I would agree with. Perhaps you’re saying something more nuanced about how folks get off-track in putting away reserves?

Thanks again.


I finally got around to reading this article.  An excellent presentation as usual.  I’d be interested in how you came to select certain pieces of equipment.  I know Surefire has a superb reputation for tactical lighting but I wonder why you selected this particular light given its considerable expense and the fact that there is no recharge capability with either solar or a crank dynamo?  Also, any attention to a different color light option?  For example, I use a headlamp that has a green light option which is much less visible at a distance and also less likely to spook game.

On the other hand, you selected a folding knife that was much less expensive.  I’m not familiar with the knife but while the reviews were generally quite favorable, one of the negatives mentioned screws that came loose and needed to be treated with Loctite.  I’m not sure why you made your selections but I think I’d personally be more inclined to spend money on a better quality knife than on a light.  With regards to the fixed blade knife, I was not familiar with the Shivworks knife but reading the write-up about it, I found the ergonomic theory behind it interesting and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.  I plan on investigating it further for personal use.

I’m wondering if we should consider a Definitive Knife thread given that, in my opinion, the single most important external survival tool is a sharp edge.  I’ve had a Buck folder in the past that was very practicall but I can’t even remember what happened to it.  I went through survival training with a Finnish puukko which was an able tool and still used it to this day.  When camping or fishing, I’d typically pack the puukko and my wife would pack a small filet knife.  In addition, I have a spear point self defense knife that I keep bedside as back-up.  I had also picked up a SOG Seal Pup Elite to keep in my vehicle which I really like and have found to be very utilitarian including when dispatching and butchering a lamb this fall.  I realize I need a better all around hunting/skinning knife though and also need a good boning knife.  My wife and I are looking into a new kitchen knife set so that’s something else on my list (but obviously, outside the realm of “normal” survival tools).

With regards to food selection, why the MREs?  I would think with their water content, they’d be heavier than you’d like. 

Years ago, we picked up a couple of AlpenLite survival type fanny packs from Early Winters when it was a top notch innovative camping equipment company.  We’ve used them for about 25 years and they’re still holding up very well.  I love their design.  They have a large front pouch with two top zippered top pockets, two side zippered side pouches, and two side water bottle containers.  We’d each carry a compass (with mirror), whistle, fire starter kit (with waterproof/windproof matches, small candle, lighter, and flint), PeliLIte submersible flashlight, mosquito headnet (since we spent time in Canadian shield mosquito country, fixed blade knife, knife sharpener, small multi-purpose towel (for wash-up, cool down, keeping mosquitos off neck, use as a bandana, sopping up dew, etc.), gorp (nuts, seeds, assorted dried fruit, M&Ms), water bottles (with a small ziplock of powdered drink), and metal cup (for emergency cooking, water gathering, etc.) and layered clothing suitable for a range of weather conditions.  We’d be good to go for a day in the bush canoeing on a waterway.  All the equipment still works (including the flashlights) and we still keep these fanny packs ready as a BOB of sorts.

If long distance travel were necessary, I think I would stick to waterways, if at all possible.  I know one of the participants in this 28,000 mile canoe journey and patterned a lot of our personal camping equipment selection based on his experience (having read about him in an extensive magazine article years before I ever got to meet and know him personally).

He’s an impressive guy and his background as a Navy SEAL lends further credibility to his knowledge.

One other comment.  While it raises the requirement for food and water, a dog can be a great idea.  With better smell and hearing, it will enhance your sensory acuity and there is the obvious deterrent value against potential violence.  I’d be inclined towards an alert, intelligent, athletic, medium to large dog with a coat capable of handling the elements, natural guard instincts, and a dark color, preferably black (which tends to be more dissuasive to potential attackers).  Something like a black Dutch Shepherd comes to mind.

Thanks again for all the time and effort you’ve put into your articles.  We greatly appreciate it.