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Editor’s Note: This is an updated and revised edition for 2018.
Trying to make a comprehensive list of skills a prepper might need is a laughable task. There are so many possible SHTF situations, so many strategies and tasks to be performed, that there’s just no way to learn it all in your lifetime, and no way to cover it in an article.
In fact, all of these skills are part of what makes starting out as a prepper so overwhelming. It’s hard to go from being completely reliant on our modern systems to even thinking of providing everything you and your family may need without those systems.
Skills are More Important than Gear
Perhaps that’s why so many preppers neglect skills and prefer to collect gear. Gear can be a shortcut to learning the required skill. Don’t get me wrong, gear is highly valuable and you should be investing in it. It’s not just a shortcut in skill, often its a shortcut in time and materials and those are precious.
But, you can’t lose skills. Skills don’t break, they don’t get stolen or used up. When the unexpected happens (it is impossible to prep for everything, after all) skills are what you’ll rely on.
So, it is imperative that you prioritize which skills you learn. To a great degree, this will depend on your specific strategy and which specific SHTF situations you’re prepping for. But, there are still some basics you can count on needing most situations, even outside of when SHTF. And, after that, we’ll explain a few good strategies to use to decide which other skills you should learn first.
Here are the first skills every prepper will need to learn, organized into eight categories for clarity. I’m a strong believer in being prepared both to bug-in and bug-out, which is why both are listed here as categories of basic skill.
Orienteering, or navigating, is the basic skill you need to get yourself to your bug-out location. Depending on what kind of terrain you’re navigating, this skill could vary.
Map reading, compass reading and creation, and navigating by the stars, will likely all be essentials. If your bug out position is further than a few hours away, you will likely need to know how to create shelters and fires as well.
When you’re bugging in your house is your castle, and suddenly the parts of your castle that the government maintains will fall to you. Largely this means shutting off your waste disposal and water systems, to rely on your storage or systems you can maintain all yourself.
Other basic house maintenance skills are a top priority too. Lastly, you’ll need to know how to defend your property from the people who may know be flooding past in their quest to bug-out.
While you shouldn’t solely rely on gear, you should have the skill to properly use and repair it. For most gear, this means practice. For very specific gear, like fire extinguishers, this means taking the time to read the instructions a few times, until you can recall the knowledge reliably.
The basic equipment most preppers rely on to bug-out (or just on a day-to-day basis) is their car, so its useful to know how they work and how to perform maintenance and basic repairs.
Perhaps the single most important survival knowledge is how to make a water filter, knowing which water to collect from, and knowing how to safely store your water. If you have a well, this means understanding how it works and how to fix it.
The most basic skills for food are knowing how to store food, how to assess if your stored foods are still safe, how to cook your stored foods, and how to ration them. Rationing is actually a very important skill, although it is often overlooked.
There are, of course, so many other relevant food skills to learn, but it’s more important to have the skills to make the most of your stored foods, before you learn how to keep adding to that store. This way, you can survive short-term SHTF events, even before you’ve mastered hunting or foraging.
It’s not just first aid and CPR that you need to learn. An essential health skill which is often overlooked is basic physical fitness. Without that, you’re slow, vulnerable, more likely to fall ill, and less efficient at getting your survival tasks done.
Don’t even start thinking about a HAM radio yet. That’s complicated, and not near as important as learning how to better communicate with people face-to-face. It is essential to know how to negotiate with your neighbors, and to de-escalate a violent or angry intruder or ally.
The skills of mental fortitude are among the top skills you may have to rely on when SHTF. You need to know how to remain calm, how to prioritize your next moves, and how to plan for the long-term. The best way to learn all of this is practice.
After you’ve learned the basic skills, you need a new guiding principle to direct your learning. An ideal one I’ve come across is the timeline method.
I first came across a version of this method from Maj at Prepper Resources. I think the basic idea is perfect, but there are some issues I have with his categorization of which skills belong in which time category.
Essentially though, you should focus on learning the skills that you will need first. There’s no use learning to make clothing when you don’t know how to grow food (that is, assuming your food stores will run out first). So, focus on what you’ll need for the first week (your first 72 hours are likely covered by the basic skills) and go from there.
I’m providing you with a general outline of what the timeline method could look like. But, I highly suggest you make your own, and don’t be afraid to adjust the list based on personal need, or the skills I inevitably forgot!
- basic and intermediate weapon use
- basic and intermediate self defense, including stealth (to avoid people, not to steal)
- intermediate property defense
- intermediate health and sanitation concerns
- alternate water strategy
- how to tie knots
- basic clothing repair, including shoes
- basic woodworking
- alternate weapon use (don’t rely on a single gun, or only guns)
- intermediate mechanical skills
- how to make cordage from various sources
- distance communication
- provide group leadership and/or morale
- manage difficult personalities
- intermediate woodworking
The placement of the following skills depends on when you think your food will run out, and whether you want to be using them as part of your life even before SHTF. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend learning one-year skills before a handful of these, but, again, your personal circumstances may change how practical that advice is for you.
- animal husbandry, including butchering
- growing food, including grains
- hunting, a wide range of game
- foraging, even in less than ideal seasons
- cooking on an open fire
- food preservation and storage, including meat
- how to create clothing
- how to replenish ammunition or exclusively use non-gun weapons
- how to replenish everything else
- advanced knowledge in all basic areas (see the “becoming a specialist” section for details)
The Problem of Health Emergencies
Maj lists advanced health skills further down the timeline than I would like to see them. Surely, as time goes on past the initial SHTF incident occurs, the more likely it is that a critical health emergency occurs. But, unlike with many other skills relating to prepping, there is just no real tools or supplies you can use to prolong the need for this skill.
As an example, let’s say you’re a relatively new prepper when SHTF. You have three month’s worth of food and water, and you’re bugging in. But then, a few hours in, a critical health incident occurs. You need to suture a wound. If you followed Maj’s list, this isn’t a skill you’d have learned until you were looking at skills you’d need for a year-long SHTF event. In comparison, at three months you would already have learned how to weave, tan hide, identify edible plants, gunsmith skills, and more. But, this new prepper could have traded all of these skills in for suturing, and survived a those three months anyway. If the time came that he or she needed more clothing, food, or a gun, they could have made due with scraps, guess work, bartering, and more.
Simply put: there is no replacement for serious health knowledge. That’s why it’s my personal strategy to learn a great deal of health skills before I turn my hand at most middle-grade skills.
I recognize that this just may not work for everyone– and I would love to your thoughts on this point, in particular, in the comments. Is there a good solution?
Becoming a Specialist
If you’re following the timeline method, you may find yourself branching out into all kinds of unique areas of skills, trying to gain intermediate and then even advanced knowledge in them all. This can be frustrating, time consuming, and not as effective as specializing in one or two areas.
Once you have competence in every basic area, you could focus on a skill which you can use to barter, or to bolster the success of your group. If you choose to specialize in foraging, and your spouse chooses to specialize in using and repairing guns, then together you’re much better off than if you both had only intermediate knowledge in both areas.
At some point you may want to pick a specialty or two, and hopefully it can be something you’re good at which also enriches your life outside of disasters. Especially because truly maserful skills require a great deal of practice. Similarly, some people learn how to produce one high-value bartering item really well (medicinal plants, alcohol, toilet paper, etc.) so that they can trade for the items they haven’t yet learned how to make.
How to Identify Gaps in Your Knowledge
Hopefully, running though the timeline list has given you some idea of where your skill weaknesses may lay. Another, more surefire, way to find that out is to run drills.
For example, you can run bug-out drill where you follow your route, with your bag. You’ll find out quickly if there are any skills you’re missing. If your primary plan is to bug in, try living off only your supplies for a short time. Or, vow not use your power and see if you hit any roadblocks.
Learning skills as a prepper is a big endeavor, but it’s well worth it. When your plan “B” breaks down, your skills will provide you with the means to adjust, improvise, and make plan “C” a reality.
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