A few years ago I decided that I needed to develop enough skills to be able to take care of myself and my family in case of an emergency. I began this journey in earnest—starting with growing my own food (vegetables and fruits), acquiring the supplies to become off the grid, and now implementing the learnings to put it all together.
In one book, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It, by James Wesley, Rawles, founder of Survivalblog.com, it suggested that a good way to find out your strengths and weaknesses in terms of emergency preparedness is to pick a weekend where you unplug from the grid: no electricity, no running water, no gas. Go through your weekend and see what you can do, where you've prepared well, and what you still need to learn. That was our task: Holding a Roughing It Weekend where we lived without the grid amenities.
We decided since the Friday before was 12-21-12 (End of the Mayan calendar) and we had festive activities to go to for that evening, we'd start our roughing it weekend Saturday after we had consultation to discuss the ground rules. Luckily for my son and I, my fiance, Dan, came to help me with another project so he is here to help us learn how to use the equipment. In consultation, we decided on the following:
- We would turn the heater down (60 degrees Fahrenheit) so the pipes under my house wouldn't freeze and create a problem.
- We wouldn't actually turn OFF the electricity; we just wouldn't use it.
- We would allow one last errand running effort to gather the last supplies we needed before starting the weekend.
- We would conclude the weekend at sunset, Sunday evening, to allow for preparing for Monday's activities.
- We would fill our bathtubs with water to provide extra water for chores.
To prepare, I filled 5 gallon buckets with some water for the two bathrooms, adding 2.5 pH water as the disinfectant for washing hands. You can also add bleach to the water to purify it.
In the kitchen, I filled two 3.5 gallon buckets. One with dishwashing soap and 2.5 pH water, and one with only 2.5 pH water.
One was designated as the washing bucket (the one with the dish soap) and the other as the rinsing bucket. Each labeled to avoid confusion.
I also had stowed a dozen gallons of drinking/cooking water; for us, we use Kangen water.
I have a portable loo with a toilet seat on a 5 gallon bucket and a bucket of sawdust to cover anything, as needed. Toilet paper is nearby, and an old container is used to transfer sawdust to cover the contents.
I had purchased paper plates for the weekend to make the kitchen tasks easier. When Danny and I got back from our errands, it was past lunchtime so that was the first thing to get cracking on. I had some croissants defrosted, so we agreed to one cheese sandwich and two canned salmon salad sandwiches with mayonnaise, mustard, and fresh garden greens.
Sandwiches before the cheese and the salmon salad were added. Yum! That wasn't so bad. Glad I had bought the croissants the weekend before and had them stowed for this weekend.
Water becomes very important immediately when learning to live off the grid or fend for yourself. Being able to take dirty water and make it drinkable is a good skill to have. Awhile back I watched a DIY (do it yourself) video on water filtration and had purchased a 5 gallon bucket, a galvanized metal bucket, rocks, sand, filtering charcoal, and mesh cloth. Dan drilled holes in the bottom of the galvanized bucket the day before to prepare. Then he placed 1 layer of mesh cloth in the very bottom, layered 2-3 inches of rock, 2-3 inches of sand, another mesh cloth, all the charcoal (one milk carton-sized container), and a top layer of mesh cloth.
The galvanized filtration bucket was then placed into the 5 gallon bucket. In another 5 gallon bucket Danny gathered dirty water.
Taking that he poured it into the water filtration system in the galvanized bucket.
We let it filter through the system. Remembering when I used to have to prepare my Britta kitchen water filter, I remember having to soak it for 5 minutes and then rinse it 'til all the black charcoal residue washed away. After passing the water through the system a few times, we decided we have to rinse this charcoal through several times as well.
After about 5 passes through the filter, it still looked dirty enough that we didn't want to drink it, so Dan pulled out his PUR water filter.
You can put one plastic tube into the dirty water source and put the output device into/onto a container into which you want the purified water to flow.
The PUR water filter has a output device for not as large as a wide-mouth jar. I found this narrow mouth tomato sauce jar in my jar collection, which worked just fine. You can also use any other sized opening of a container with the other output device that hooks over the lip of it.
The 'hook' unit has two parts: a little part goes into the hook component.
Once you have your preferred distribution method selected, then place the other plastic tube into the water source and pump.
The output is astonishing...
Wow... look at that. It looks clean, but is it really? Who is brave enough to try it?
OK, OK, I did. Then we all did. We agreed that it tasted a bit plastic-y because the PUR unit hadn't been used in a long time. We determined that if it was boiled beforehand that would have cleaned out the plastic taste. Something to keep in mind when you are getting your first fire going, you can always clean the tubes and the output devices by plunking them into some boiling water. Other than the taste though, the water was clean.
Another option, if you are still unsure, is to add 8 drops of bleach to a gallon of water.
Here I've covered three ways to purify water:
- Homemade water filtration with a galvanized bucket inside a 5 gallon bucket with rocks, sand, charcoal and mesh fabric pieces to hold the elements in place.
- PUR water filtration. This tool can be used in streams, ponds, and any water source. Very good and reliable tool to have on hand.
- Beach to decontaminate the water. You could take dirty water, run it through even a bandana to get the grit out, and add only bleach (4 drops for a 1/2 gallon to sanitize the water and let it set for 20 minutes to offgas the chlorine and kill the bacteria) to prepare it for drinking.
DIY Clothes Washer
Thinking through the household tasks, I thought we should have a way to wash our clothes without an electric washing machine. We came up with the following necessary items to make one:
- 1 wood handled plunger
- 1 bathtub drain stopper
- 1 5 gallon bucket with lid
- 1 drill
With the supplies in hand, Dan talked Daniel through the steps of constructing a handmade clothes washer. Fortunately, Daniel had previously learned how to use a drill when he and Dan put the steel roof on my house, so no drill remediation was needed. (They did this outside, so somehow the use of electricity from the outside didn't come up for discussion. I'd recommend doing this before the electricity goes out.)
Dan had marked the plastic plunger base with dots where Danny was to drill. Somehow, Danny thought he was to drill between the dots, so this is what we came out with... : )
Notice the drain stopper in the background... Dan had previously cut a hole the size of the plunger handle into the drain stopper. He used a utility knife to do this. He also cut a hole in the lid of the 5 gallon bucket the same size. Then Danny took to drilling the plunger.
Assembly is easy: Place the plunger with holes into the 5 gallon bucket. Put the lid with the hole for the plunger handle over the plunger; then put the drain stopper over the lid. Into the bucket you can place the dirty clothes, some soap of your choosing (or 11.5 pH water), and the lid with the stopper. Use the plunger as the agitator to move the cleansing water through the clothes.
You can dump the gray water onto your garden or use for flushing the toilet, then add clean water to rinse. Wring the wet clothes out by hand and hang on a clothes line with clothes pins to dry. You can even set up an indoor clothes line, if you don't want to draw attention to yourself by stringing the clothes line across one side of a room to the other using hooks in the walls. The clothes line can easily be taken down when you want to use the room for other purposes. When the clothes are dry, remove from the clothes line. Fold the clothes, and wear as needed.
Food/Meal Preparation and Cooking
By then the afternoon was ticking away and I thought I best figure out what kind of one-pot meal we'd have for dinner. Not sure how long it would take to cook, I got it ready early. Plus, at this time of year, we learned that it's best to do tasks when there is still sunlight to make it easier.
In my largest pot, I put a bit of olive oil, chopped onion, shallots, garlic, and celery. Then I washed and sliced red potatoes, carrots. I opened a can of pink beans with my hand crank can opener. Sprinkled ground sage and ground jalepeno pepper onto the mix with salt and pepper too. Added some 9.5 pH water, which speeds cooking and enhances flavors. Put the lid on 'til we were ready to start the MSR Dragonfly burner.
The MSR Dragonfly burner was new and since I had never assembled or used it before, I very much appreciated having Dan who is experienced with these things to guide me through the steps. We watched a few videos on YouTube beforehand as well to get ready.
The cookstove had to be opened up and set on the aluminum round protective barrier that it comes with. The fuel tank needed to be filled. We used Coleman propane, which you can buy by the gallon. Then the two parts at the end of the tube need to be inserted into the fuel tank and secured. Once the gas is turned on on the tank and the stove, you can use a long handled fire starter to ignite the fuel. It'll burn high 6-8" flame for a few minutes and then it'll start hissing. When it starts to hiss, it is ready to have the fuel adjusted (up or down) so the blue flame (like a jet) can be used to cook the food. Since I was doing all of this for the first time, I was so engrossed in learning the steps that I didn't take any photos of this part. Maybe I did better when Danny was learning the next day... Anyway, once the flame was going we set the coffee pot on the burner to start making coffee which we'd have to sip on while the stew was cooking. We did all of this outside and temperatures were brisk. Keeping warm became another issue, which I'll cover in a later section on clothing.
I also purchased a Sterno burner (because that's what I remember from when my brothers were Boy Scouts when I was a kid) and it didn't look too complicated. Set up Sterno burner, open Sterno can, light it, and place on the sterno holder rack below the burner rack. Place pot on top.
I discovered that the sterno burner is really good for heating up stuff, but not quite hot enough for cooking real meals. So it became the holding place to keep things warm. Like once the coffee was perked, we moved it to the sterno burner to keep it warm and put the stew on the MSR Dragonfly burner to cook.
The stew turned out great. We ate outside on the picnic table and had wintertime S'mores for dessert. Winter S'mores consist of graham crackers, section of chocolate bar, sliced banana, and a graham cracker on top. I placed them on aluminum foil and warmed them on the sterno burner so the chocolate could melt a bit and become soft. I found out that graham cracker when heated sticks to the aluminum, so next time I'd spray it with some cooking oil first. It was yummy though.
As you can see in the photos that it is dark outside and cold is setting in. We also had a Coleman lantern that had never been used, so we had to prepare the mantles by lighting them and then turn on the fuel and ignight it. We decided to only use it outside because lanterns emit carbon monoxide and we didn't want to risk anything, even with having our house windows open a couple of inches at the bottom for ventilation.
Satisfied we headed indoors. Inside we used candles and not too many of them. The fewer you have lit, the less you have to keep track of in case of emergency. We gathered in the living room for additional reading/conversation time. I had purchased some flashlights that strap on one's head, so we were able to read for awhile. But it didn't take long before we each went to our individual sleeping spots. Early to bed, early to rise comes to mind.
We also noticed how quiet it was in the house when there were no appliances running. Stone quiet.
The next day was very brisk outside. Around 19 degrees Farenheit. The idea of having to get up, get dressed and go out into the cold to start the burner to heat the coffee really wasn't too attractive. Fortunately, Dan is tough and got the coffee made before I knew it.
When I went outside, he had some tinfoil panels, which we had previously used for a solar baking experiment last year, blocking the N-NW wind. There's also the protective shield that goes around the MSR Dragonfly burner to protect the flame from the wind. Interestingly, the coffee left over from the night before was stored at room temperature and when brought outside into the cold started steaming without ever reaching the cook top!
Clothing and Layers
I was still learning about layering when he brought hot coffee into the house. I'm glad and thankful that he doesn't mind doing these tasks. I had bought some long underwear for Danny and me the day before, so we each decided today was the day to break them out. Under my jeans and sweatshirt they went. I had a neck scarf on, headband, and gloves in addition to an outer jacket, but when I went outside I was still cold. Dan told me to get my polypropylene jacket on. Replace the sweatshirt with a 100% wool sweater. Swap out my knit gloves for the survival gloves I have. I also had my thick wool socks on my feet. With those modifications, I was much warmer and could function outside. Daniel made similar discoveries and tweaked his clothing layers as well so he could manage in the cold.
The next day we decided to heat up the leftover stew so we wouldn't have to deal with storage or waste. It was already cooked so it wouldn't take as long and we could just crack some eggs on top once it was boiling for some poached eggs.
The stew with the poached eggs was yummy. We elected to eat indoors since the wind was a bit much to deal with.
Preparing Food became very important. Since I don't have experience doing this stuff and we only had one real burner for cooking, I didn't know how long it would take to make various dishes. Right after breakfast we discussed how we could cobble together an makeshift oven because I had a cake I wanted to bake. Dan suggested we take the largest pot and after washing it, place a layer of stones on the bottom of it. Then mix up the cake and pour it into the smaller sized pan and place that inside the larger one. The stones will act as a buffer and distribute the heat around the smaller pan so it's like an oven. I put the lid on the smaller pan and we had to put tinfoil over the larger one since it's lid didn't fit securely with the smaller pan's lid on.
The kind of cake I made was using a Chocolate Cake Mix, I can cherry pie filling, and 6 oz. gingerale. I mixed them altogether and put it into the smaller pan. The directions on the box said the cake would take 35 minutes. We checked it then, then added 10 more minutes, and then 15 more minutes for a total of 60 minutes (1 hour) before it was done enough. We didn't want the cake to burn or the bottom to become too crusty so we took it out when it was still deliciously moist.
Unveiled... what do you think?
The Chocolate Cherry Camping Cake looked so good to us, we really didn't want to wait to eat it after dinner. Danny quickly got instructed on lighting and using the MSR Dragonfly so he could whip together a quick lunch for us. Then we decided to have some of the lovely looking cake for dessert after lunch.
Dan and I had Bocaburger sandwiches and Danny ate Canadian bacon sandwiches. Then we enjoyed the cake... : )
Since our "oven" idea worked so well with the cake, Dan thought we should try using the same 'oven' and make baked potatoes. I washed 6 potatoes, poked holes in them with a fork on both sides, and wrapped them in tinfoil. We place that into the large pot with the stones on the bottom. That went on the burner at 1:00 and it took about 3 hours for the potatoes to be baked. We decided that wasn't the most efficient use of fuel or time, but since they were baked we'd warm up some beans with BBQ sauce on them and have that for dinner. We ate at 4:30 p.m. so we'd still have light and not have to light candles.
Cutting the baked potatoes in half, adding a pat of butter and a scoop of the BBQ beans made for a very tasty dinner that didn't require too much work.
- We ended up consuming 3 gallons of water for 3 people over the day and a half for cooking, drinking, beverages.
- We used about 1/4 of the fuel for all the meals we cooked and determined we could probably make about one week's worth of meals if we cooked judiciously.
- We decided that we really liked modern amenities and that it takes a lot of energy to think everything through when learning how to do this for the first time.
Then we waited for sunset so we could turn on our lights and conclude our Roughing It Weekend. : )