|No banjos were harmed in the making of this article.|
This subject has been done about a million times, but as I near the end of editing Hunting The Dead (and it will be out soon, I promise) I feel sufficiently qualified to give survival tips for a fictional situation. And most of the articles I've read on this subject are pretty crap anyway, written as clickbait, or as an attempt at humour. And you might as well laugh, because most of the 'advice' would get you killed in a real apocalypse.
I'll treat this subject with some seriousness, because what works here will work for almost any kind of apocalypse event, whether it's a hurricane, social collapse or the fall of Rome. Humans have struggled with, and survived, such things for centuries now. For most of our history, being a prepper was a way of life. I spend a lot of time in my books on Breht's survival techniques too, so I thought it'd be a good idea to expand on them and explore the ramifications.
Let's start with the basics:
Water Is Everything
Yes, even in a zombie apocalypse, your biggest problem is going to be water. Not shotgun shells or tinned food, but water. It doesn't matter how badass you are with your crossbow and katana, if you don't have access to clean water, there's a good chance you'll catch cholera and shit your brains out until you die. Remember the pictures that charities send us showing some African kid with a distended stomach drinking out of a muddy puddle? That'll be you. If it wasn't bad, they wouldn't be asking for your money.
If 80% of the population dies off and society collapses, the power grid will cease to function and those pumps that give you that life-saving liquid from your taps will stop working. With the water treatment plants idle, most of what's in the system will get contaminated anyway. Water may cover 71% of the Earth's surface, but the truth is, most of it will kill you. If you think modern pollution or fluoride is a problem, wait till you get a load of all the parasites that can live in just a single droplet.
Medieval peasants drank beer. It wasn't because they were alcoholics, but because the boiling process would kill bacteria and the alcohol would preserve it from recontamination. They even gave weak beer to children. Because the water wasn't safe to drink straight from the stream. Or the well.
First rule of survival then is: make sure you can sterilise your water. And here's where your problems begin. You can hoard bottled water in your bunker, but it'll run out, and you'll only last three days without it. So you're going to be spending a lot of time getting water. And boiling it. And gathering wood to boil it.
Got a stream and a wood near your house? Because that's what you'll need. Once the stores and vending machines have been cleared out, you'll have to think strategically about your location. Just like humans have always done. There's a reason the first towns and cities were sited by rivers.
But what if the woods are full of zombies? Then a simple problem just got a whole lot more complicated.
An easier way to get water is from the sky. We call it rain. Catch it in a clean container, and most times (it's not 100% pure) it will be safe to drink. Bottle it immediately, and you've got something to travel with. If you opt for a tank or barrel to catch runoff from the back of your shack, though, you'll have problems again. General rule of thumb: if your water can be accessed by insects or rodents, it'll be contaminated with parasites pretty quick. So you need to boil it, and that means another trip into the zombie-infested woods.
There's an ingenious solution for if you're on your own, and you can use it if you're hunkered down or on the move. It's a Solar Still.
What's a Solar Still? Basically, it's a way of getting the sun to evaporate dirty water from one source, and condense it onto a separate surface so it's safe to collect. The impurities don't evaporate, so you end up with clean water. And the best part is that you can make one from a can and a plastic bottle, so it's something anybody can do.
You won't end up with a lot of water, but it'll keep you alive. Problem is, it'll only really work on sunny days. So if you live in Britain, you're screwed. And in winter, the sun may not be enough to generate the necessary heat for evaporation.
Of course, even in Britain, the difference between night and day temperatures means that you'll get dew on plants and surfaces most mornings, all year round (but not so much when it's windy), so if you're up early, you can soak it up with a cloth and wring out the liquid into a container. You'll get as much as you're willing to work for. Is it safe? No, the surfaces will almost certainly be contaminated, so you'll have to boil it, which means another trip to the woods.
Did I mention there were zombies in the woods?
Okay, forget that. How about a natural spring? That's a fairly good option if you're in the mountains. Water from deep underground will tend to be free of parasites, and fairly clear in appearance, so it'll look pure and fresh. The same goes for water from aquifers underground, though you'll need to drill down and find a way to pump it. Can you construct a hand pump?
It's not all good news though. While parasites, algae and plant life can't survive in the darkness underground, bacteria and viruses can. Certain rock strata also contain impurities like arsenic and sulphur. The latter will smell bad, but the former will make you smell bad when you're laid out dead and decomposing. So it's a bit of a lottery.
All this stuff gets even more complicated when you have a community of survivors. Water needs are multiplied, and the whole group will have to learn to think strategically. One wrong step could cripple the community with a debilitating illness that will take the children and the elderly first.
|Sucks, don't it?|
Food Doesn't Grow On Trees
Well, technically, it does, but if you're used to city living, you'll be surprised at how difficult it is to conjure up the stuff. Accustomed as we are to regular store deliveries and imports from different latitudes, making sure you've got food to eat all year round is going to come as a bit of a shock after the apocalypse. And the further north you are, the tougher it gets. There's a reason why Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia are thinly populated, even in these modern times. Max Brooks, in World War Z, posited that humanity's remnants would move closer to the poles, because the extreme cold would freeze the undead and neutralise them as a threat. Unfortunately, those lands are limited in their ability to support a given population. Even the smarts of an Inuit can't make the land yield more for that many people.
But that's all long term stuff. At the height of the outbreak, when you've bugged out with your bottled water and tinned peaches, you'll be fine for food. Your water will run out quicker, and then you'll be fucked, but food will be less of an issue. If you're willing to slug it out with the panic stricken mob at the local superstore and brave the shoot-to-kill policy of a desperate military trying to quell the looting, then it's all there for the taking: biscuits, chocolate, pasta and noodles. All the luxuries of modern civilisation, just sitting there on the shelves.
Fruit trees will keep on fruiting, no matter how much you're screaming as you run down the road, so if you can find some in gardens or orchards, it'll be good. But it'll be the only fresh food you can get, as the rest of the stuff in fridges and deli counters will rot. And the biscuits won't last for long either. There's still dried foods like pasta, noodles and flour, and a year later this stuff will still do you good. But you'll need water. Remember water? Yeah, you'll have your own problems getting hold of that.
Water is at least simple. If it doesn't make you ill, it'll provide your body with hydration. Food, on the other hand, has to be varied. You need proteins, vitamins, trace elements, etc. Miss out on any of these things, and you'll develop skin conditions, gum recession, heart palpitations, constipation, and a bunch of other symptoms. Eating nothing but corned beef may be boring, but your life can get a whole lot more interesting when you develop scurvy and your teeth fall out.
Because someone will mistake you for a zombie and shoot you.
Food's hard enough to find when you're on your own, but if there's a group of you, foraging won't be enough. The fights over who gets to eat the last hot dog won't be pretty. And hunger will cause havoc with your social life. As Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart Of Darkness:
Group cohesion is going to be hard to maintain if basic needs aren't met. Good manners will avail you not. For any community, sustainability is everything.
No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.
So where can you build your community? That's easy. According to many stories and TV shows, you just head to your nearest farm. Lots of fertile land, crops, livestock and space to breathe. You can chill out with a more traditional life, getting 'back to nature', no longer bothered by the hectic 9-5 of modern urban life. You can till the soil with satisfaction, knowing that you are living by the fruits of your labour, with no artificial additives in your food. It's all fresh. You can chew on a stalk of wheat and shout 'Caaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrlll' to your heart's content.
Pfft! Have you seen what a modern farm's like? The farmer only buys seed once or twice a year, sowing it immediately, so you won't find any for a second crop. At best, you'll find a barn with dried grain (for the livestock) or potatoes. And any livestock that hasn't already been devoured by the zombie horde will have jumped the fences and gone feral. You'll be better off finding an orchard or a vineyard. At least you won't get scurvy.
And maintaining security on that much open land won't be easy. Your scrawny electric fence may keep cows and sheep in, but to a zombie that doesn't feel pain, it's just a single strand of wire. And how are you going to power it anyway? You're going to need a bigger fence - two to three metres high, at least. And a chain link fence won't be strong enough when there's a mob of undead pushing against it (they won't be half as compliant as the ones in The Walking Dead, content to let Rick get close to them without going absolutely apeshit. Ravenous hunger defines the undead). You're going to need steel security fences, and concrete to bury your posts. Do you have any idea how much foraging it will take to get all that, never mind erecting it (and that's assuming that the zombies don't take a sabbatical while you're busy putting it up). You're going to have to patrol it regularly, and keep it maintained. And all that just to guard a few acres of land that you don't even have seeds for, because nobody thought to stop by the garden centre and grab every seed packet they could get their hands on.
Eventually you plant your seeds. Then you wait. And wait. And wait. And argue over the last hot dog while the shoots are still sprouting.
Growing food is hard work. Farmers have it down to a fine art because they can draw on centuries of tradition, plus modern technology - tractors with fuel, sprayers, fertiliser, etc. Even organic farmers benefit from the society they're a part of. Drag it back to the pre-industrial age, and growing and harvesting food is back-breaking work. And it only takes the wrong weather, an insect rampage or some innocuous plant disease to ruin an entire crop. Your post-apocalyptic farming community will do well if it can make it through the first winter - and you won't be able to import food from warmer climes to get you through Christmas. The food you harvested in the fall (if you managed to harvest any) will have to be preserved so it can last through till spring. So no, the food you'll be eating won't be fresh.
If there's a river or lake on the land (and you'd better make sure there is one) you can fish. And you can hunt - though that's another trip into the woods. If you've managed to acquire livestock, you can butcher some of them, but you'll need to give them time to reproduce. And your chickens can lay eggs, but your community won't survive on just that. A community that swells its numbers with incoming survivors will have its work cut out just to stay alive.
And meanwhile, the zombies are still out there, waiting to chow down on your guts.
In the next couple of articles, I'll discuss the issues of defence, location, plus a few other things. In the meantime, the general rule applies: don't get bitten.