9 min read

On water tanks and the joys of doomsday prepping

I always dismissed doomsday preppers. Now I'm starting to think they might have the right idea.
On water tanks and the joys of doomsday prepping

Hello grownups!

Greetings from day 4,305 of lockdown. How are you holding up?

Like every other nerd who grew up in the 2000s, I've always loved post-apocalypse fiction. World War Z might actually be my favourite novel of all time (I just pretend that the movie doesn't exist). The Stand, Hunger Games, The Road, Oryx and Crake, The Girl With All the Gifts, Blindness, The Walking Dead, Children of Men, 28 Days Later... oh man. I love that bleak shit. The grimmer the better.

SIDENOTE: Lauren Beukes just released a new book called Afterland that imagines a world after a pandemic wipes out 99% of the male population. It's the best book of 2020 (and also eerily prescient) and you should buy it immediately.

But no matter how much I love reading about apocalypses (apocalypti?) I've always been pretty dismissive of people who actually take them seriously. Actual Doomsday Preppers. People with Go-Bags and bunkers. You know, insane people.

Back in the long-ago time of January, one of my tangential Facebook friends started posting long rants about a new virus strain that was being reported in China, complete with alarmist exponential graphs and the prediction that this thing was about to spread across the world, and that it could kill millions of people. I nearly unfollowed him, convinced he'd been lost to the world of conspiracy theorists and kooks.

But he turned out to be right, obviously. Which has made me rethink just how crazy it is to prepare for doomsday scenarios, after all.

So... this is all just a really long, convoluted way of confessing that I've started reading Prepper blogs. I'm so sorry. I promise I haven't made a tinfoil hat, yet.

My favourite Prepper blog is called The Prepared. It features articles like:

And at this moment in history, all of these articles feel surprisingly rational and sane to me. Okay, sure, that's probably because we're all currently living through an actual doomsday situation, so imagining other emergencies barely feels like a stretch of the imagination.

I'll confess that some of the joy in reading this stuff is the same reason we've all been getting into baking bread and growing vegetables and basically turning into 18th century peasants as a form of recreation: it's the pleasant illusion of control in a world of inexplicable eldritch horrors.

Also, who doesn't want to picture themselves as Sarah Connor?

Sarah Connor
Disaster Prepping is really all about having cool sunglasses.

But I've actually come around to the idea that Prepping is actually a pretty rational activity, for three reasons:

  1. It's actually very likely that you'll live through some pretty hectic emergencies (yes, on top of this one).
  2. The worst time to prepare for an emergency is when the emergency is already happening.
  3. Prepping can actually make your life better, even if the emergency never happens.

No, hear me out! I'm not crazy! I'M NOT CRAZY! (she yells, wearing stained sushi-print pyjamas at 2pm)

You are likely to live through emergencies.

The problem with apocalypse movies is that they're usually just global apocalypses. The End of the World. You and a rag-tag band of survivors fending off the zombies from the roof of an abandoned shopping mall.

But it's not really the end of The World you've got to worry about, so much as the end of Your World.

Most emergencies are pretty local, but they're still devastating. Over a long enough lifetime, you're likely to see at least a couple of them. There are just so many things that can happen: floods and fires and droughts and hurricanes and riots and wars and pandemics and heatwaves and earthquakes and actual plagues of murder hornets (WTF, 2020?).

In fact, most emergencies aren't even local, they're personal.

There are times in my life I've needed to grab a bag and get out of my house in less than 10 minutes, unsure when I'd be back. Not because of an asteroid or even because of a house fire, but because someone in my family had an accident, and I've had to get on the first plane to a different city as fast as I could. It would have been damn useful to have a bug-out bag in those circumstances. Not necessarily one with a tarp and a water filter that will let me survive in the wilderness, but one with some pre-packed toiletries and important documents sitting in one place would have been extremely helpful.

Add up the chances of all these emergencies, multiply this by the fact that climate change affects us by increasing the chances of extreme local events, and that experts were warning for decades that our increasingly interconnected/urbanised/meat-eating/post-capitalist nightmare world means that pandemics are increasingly inevitable, and the chance that you'll live through more emergencies in your life doesn't seem so unlikely.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer quote Riley: "it turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse"
Riley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all of us circa May 2020

The worst time to prepare for an emergency is when the emergency is already happening.

Those of us who lived through the Cape Town water crisis (when our city nearly ran out of water) learned a valuable lesson: you've got to install water tanks before there's a water crisis.

Once there's already a drought happening, you can't collect rainwater to fill your tanks with. Once there's already panic, you cannot find a water tank to buy for love or money. When there is an active emergency happening, everyone scrambles for the same emergency resources, at the same time.

You know, what people are learning now about hand sanitizer, toilet paper and craft supplies.

N.D. Mazin cartoon saying "don't wait for the drought to mend the dam!" - farmer's proverb
N.D. Mazin

Sure, don't ruin the good times by ruminating on the doomsdays to come, but remember that you can't build up an emergency savings fund once you've lost your job. You can't buy disability insurance once you're already disabled. You can't buy bread flour when every other person in the damn world has also gotten super into quarantine-baking at the same moment.

The minute the shops reopen and I'm allowed out of my house-prison, do you know the first thing I'm planning to buy? This kiff water filtration set.

Prepping can actually make your life better, even if the emergency never happens.

The image you have in your mind of a Prepper is probably someone with a lot of guns and a hoard of tinned beans hidden in a concrete-lined bunker, who believes that the government is secretly controlled by lizard-people, right?

Sam, that's no way to live! I hear you say. And I agree with you! Thinking about emergencies all the time feels like a sad, anxious existence and I'd much rather keep thinking about nice things like the new season of She-Ra.

But what if you're not thinking about this stuff all the time; you're just thinking about it for, say, a couple of days a year, and you're using those couple of days to to the most effective things you can do, to make you more resilient in a disaster?

And in many ways, Prepping can actually be pretty rewarding even if the hurricane/next pandemic/fire/earthquake never arrives. Especially if you don't take the guns-and-beans approach, but rather take the make-friends-with-your-neighbours-and-learn-how-to-grow-your-own-food approach. Learning new skills like basic first aid is hella satisfying, it turns out. Tomatoes you grew yourself are much more delicious. Installing water tanks increases the value of your house.

Not to mention how much better you'll sleep at night knowing that if things go to shit around you, you can be the badass who puts on your cool dark classes and says, "follow me if you want to live" in a casual way and then leads your plucky band of survivors to safety. Everyone wants to be that person!

Welcome to #PrepperLife

Yes, yes, I know that all of this is almost certainly just my own way of soothing my OVERWHELMING ANXIETY at how weird the whole world is right now. Bear with me. We've all got our coping mechanisms (it's an improvement on the first few weeks of lockdown, when my primary coping mechanism was reading the Entire Internet every morning).

Viviane Schwarz's worry monsters
Viviiane Schwarz likes to make little monsters out of their worries; I like to make spreadsheets. Same thing really!

But maybe Preppers really had it right all along. Maybe taking a couple of hours a year to assemble a bug-out bag isn't all that different to taking a couple of hours to apply for disability insurance (you've got disability insurance, right?).

So if you want to join me in #prepperlife, here's what to do.

The best way to prepare for emergencies is to do the stuff that will be the most generally useful, rather than focusing on specific scenarios. It's easy for our brains to trick us into thinking that specific things are more likely than general things. For example, what feels more likely?

  1. That an emergency will happen that will mean you have to survive in your home with no outside supplies for 2 weeks.
  2. That another global pandemic will happen a few years from now - and it will be even more deadly and spreadable than this one, so it's not safe for you to go to the shops for 2 weeks.

In some ways, it feels easier to prepare for scenario 2, because it feels EXTREMELY REAL and possible to us right now. But actually, preparing for scenario 1 covers scenario 2, as well as a bunch of other scenarios that might result in you needing to survive on the supplies in your home (you lose your job and can't afford to buy things; violent civil war; a natural disaster; hungry zombies).

The good news is that there are some basics that you can put in place that will make it easier for your to get through a whole number of situations. My list includes these things:

  • Build an emergency fund. Including some actual cash.
  • Build a bug-out bag that allows you to leave your home at a moment's notice.
  • Store copies of your important documents somewhere safe (both in your home, and a copy that's not in your home).
  • Have enough supplies of food, water and basic medications to allow you to survive for 2 weeks in your home. This could extend to things like installing water tanks or buying water filtration devices if you're getting fancy.
  • Make sure you have basic supplies in your car/bike/office to handle emergencies (I used to keep a first aid kit in my car, and used it several times).
  • Get to know your neighbours.
  • Make sure that you have appropriate insurance.
  • Learn survival skills. Take a course in basic first aid. Try some multi-day hikes - it's a great way to practice living off the grid.

Your own emergency preparedness checklist will look different to mine. The Prepared is a gold mine/rabbit hole of ideas. Please don't get obsessed with this stuff, or ruminate on it endlessly. But maybe spending a couple of days a year thinking about how you can reduce the impact of future emergencies isn't such a crazy use of your time.

Or, you know, feel free to dismiss me as a ranting kook. 6-months-ago-me would have done the same.

I'll just be over here, reading reviews of water tanks.

Wishing you concrete bunkers and the Aqua Quest 10" x 10" Safari Tarp (it's the best one, apparently),

Your Doomsday Prepper friend Sam.


Updates from Sam-land

  • It's storytime, kids! I'll be doing a live-read of my favourite bits of Marvel's Jessica Jones: Playing With Fire on the Serialbox Instagram on Thursday 28 May, 9pm UK time.
  • Garden centres have opened up in the UK again. I can't stop buying plants. Someone's going to have to come over here and stage an intervention.
Two people holding a cat
Family Portrait with Masks