Huffman has been a frequent attendee at Burning Man, the annual, clothing-optional festival in the Nevada desert, where artists mingle with moguls. He fell in love with one of its core principles, “radical self-reliance,” which he takes to mean “happy to help others, but not wanting to require others.” (Among survivalists, or “preppers,” as some call themselves, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stands for “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid.”) Huffman has calculated that, in the event of a disaster, he would seek out some form of community: “Being around other people is a good thing. I also have this somewhat egotistical view that I’m a pretty good leader. I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove.”
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According to Hobel, shelter is your first priority. Lay down cardboard and other materials to insulate yourself from the ground. (Even in summer, the ground can have temperatures that lead to hypothermic conditions.) Use tarps, blankets, pillows—whatever you can find—to build the shelter on that layer. It should be as low to the ground as possible, and you shouldn’t be able to sit up when you’re inside, Hobel says. Other than the airflow you need to breathe, block all openings to keep cold air from coming in. It’s a matter of conserving heat. A lot of people don’t realize that their bodies are heat sources, Hobel says. You’re almost 100 degrees. Trap that heat around you instead of letting it rise in a tall shelter, and you won’t need a fire to stay warm.
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To Levchin, prepping for survival is a moral miscalculation; he prefers to “shut down party conversations” on the topic. “I typically ask people, ‘So you’re worried about the pitchforks. How much money have you donated to your local homeless shelter?’ This connects the most, in my mind, to the realities of the income gap. All the other forms of fear that people bring up are artificial.” In his view, this is the time to invest in solutions, not escape. “At the moment, we’re actually at a relatively benign point of the economy. When the economy heads south, you will have a bunch of people that are in really bad shape. What do we expect then?”
You can tour this slice of underground history today. After the Southwicks visited the bunker recently, they said they felt even more strongly about the need to prepare. Their family reflects a new preparedness instinct that has been growing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After that shock, the government urged people to store food, buy duct tape and roll water barrels into their basements.
In practice, the process can be a bit tricky. Freeze-dried meals require that you have potable water lying around, which might not be the case in the event of a serious calamity (some Wise Company kits include water purifiers). The cooking instructions for the Wise products I tested call for using the entire four-serving bag at once, which means that you have to have a container on hand to store what you don’t eat, and a fridge to keep it from spoiling. Even at my office kitchen, the only way I could make it work was by pouring about a fourth of the packet in a mug, filling it with water, and putting another mug on top of it.
Another concern when you’re lost in the wild is where to procure potable water. Sometimes there will be bubbling streams of crystal clear water rolling down wooded hillsides to fill your water bottle and sometimes you’ll have little more than a stagnant pool standing between you and dehydration. The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter is survival gear that can turn that stagnant pool into a lifesaver.
The funny thing about freeze-drying is it’s kind of an exception to the rule. Removing all the water from a floret of broccoli, for example, doesn’t turn it into something new; it simply transforms it into a slightly lesser version of itself. “Once you change the physical structure of something by drying it out all the way,” Allen said, “the texture is never really the same.”
If the fire is around you and you can’t escape, you don’t have many options, says Shane Hobel of the Mountain Scout Survival School. If there’s a pool or a pond nearby, jump in and try to wait it out there. Otherwise, if you have time, dig a trench that’s two to three feet deep and long enough for you to lie in. Soak a blanket in water, wrap it around yourself, and lie down in the trench. It’s risky, but at least you’ll have a chance.