Doomsday Prep for Reasonably Rational People

In 2011, I lived with Mimi in her home in Córdoba, Argentina. About two months after I moved in with Mimi, I was sitting across the table from her, listening to her explain the Argentine peso devaluation that had happened in 2001.

In the 1990s, the Argentine peso was pegged to the U.S. dollar. That meant the Argentine government guaranteed that you could always change one Argentine peso for one U.S. dollar. If you had 1,000 Argentine pesos in your bank account, you could walk into the bank and ask for $1,000 U.S. dollars and they’d hand it over.

By 2001, the peg had become unsustainable for a number of reasons and the government of Argentina abandoned it. As a result, the exchange rate went into freefall.

Imagine if you looked at your bank account and the value had gone down by 75 percent over the course of a year and you hadn’t spent a dime of it. That’s effectively what happened in Argentina.

In less than a year, the exchange rate went from 1:1 to 4:1. If you had US$10,000 worth of pesos in your bank account in 2001, a year later you would have had only US$2,500.

Attempts to withdraw U.S. dollars as the exchange rate plummeted were thwarted for most citizens, because the run on the bank (where everyone tries to take their money out at the same time) meant there were no U.S. dollars left to hand out.

Mimi told me she slept outside the bank for a week to no avail. 75 percent of her life savings disappeared. The same happened to others, and crime increased. To add insult to injury, she had to install bars over her windows to prevent her house from being robbed like many others in the neighborhood were.

Her story was not unlike ones I had heard from victims of Hurricane Katrina who had fled New Orleans in 2015 to stay in Memphis, my hometown. Their lives were changed overnight by forces outside of their control.

It’s perhaps because of these sorts of stories that I was drawn to the work of Nassim Taleb.

Taleb’s central thesis is that we are living in a world increasingly defined by rare, unpredictable, and impactful events. He calls these events “black swans.” Examples of black swan events might include:

  • What happened to Mimi
  • The Stock Market Crash in 1929 for someone who had 80 percent of their net worth invested in the market
  • Being the victim of a terrorist attack
  • Puerto Rico’s 2017 hurricane disaster

These sorts of events might happen to a person once or twice in a lifetime. However, most people in the developed world have lived through a period of remarkable few black swans.

Though there are exceptions, like getting drafted into the Vietnam War or being the victim of a terrorist attack, the period since 1945 has been a remarkably stable and peaceful one for those in the developed world compared to any prior era.

The result, I fear, is that we have a bad intuition about these rare but impactful black swans.

While we see stories on the news about hurricanes or civil unrest, we intuitively believe, “that could never happen to me.”

But more than that, most people ignore these black swan possibilities because they don’t know what they’d do if something did happen.

It’s a frightening possibility, and there’s no easy solution. When confronted by a seemingly intractable problem, sticking our head in the sand seems to be our first instinct. In cases where there’s a relatively easy solution, like buying insurance, more people seem to choose to do it.

Exacerbating these two is that not all, but many survival preparedness experts (aka “preppers”) who present solutions for black swans are often, to be frank, fucking insane.

An article by a “prepper” on how to deal with a bad hurricane can somehow end with the conclusion that you need an armory fit for a paramilitary force in your basement.

It seems quite clear that the whole prepper scene has a strain of schadenfreude that runs deep. Whenever I listen to most preppers, I get the feeling they secretly want the world to end, so they can finally stop putting up with that asshole in sales and unleash their firearm arsenal on the zombie hordes (aka former coworkers).

It’s also good marketing, as vivid images of a zombie apocalypse inspire more fear and push emotional triggers which can drive people to buy useless items.

When I had friends affected by the hurricanes in Houston and Florida in the summer of 2017, I was reminded of the danger of this confluence of factors.

Many were unprepared and unable to evacuate.

What I’d like to present here is an approach that is practical, cheap, and, well, not fucking insane.

There is a fine line between “you should make reasonable preparations for unexpected, but highly impactful events” and “OMGGG THE ZOMBIES ARE COME EAT YOUR BRAINZZZ.”

Preparing for disasters does not mean you need to bulk up on crazy gear and gadgets designed for an apocalyptic zombie landscape. It’s entirely possible to rationally prepare yourself all the essentials you’d need, packed in a single bag.

The Three Types of Disaster Events

Let’s start by distinguishing between three categories of disaster-type events.

1. Grey Swan Disasters

A grey swan is a semi-predictable event that probably wouldn’t result in death or any sort of catastrophic outcome, but would nonetheless really suck.

These are events like:

  • Your house/apartment catches on fire while you are sleeping and you have to run out and don’t have time to grab much (or anything).
  • A small natural disaster, like an ice storm, leaves you without electricity or water for three days and the grocery store shelves are empty.
  • You lose your job unexpectedly and it takes longer than expected to find another job.
  • You accidentally injure yourself (falls, vehicle collisions, and poisonings together account for some 40 million ER visits annually in the U.S.)

2. Black Swan Disasters

A black swan is an unpredictable event that could be potentially catastrophic.

These are events like:

  • Terrorist attacks or war like we have seen in the Middle East, and increasingly Europe and the U.S.
  • Large-scale natural disasters, like a Category 4 or 5 Hurricane (like Katrina, Irma, or Harvey), which climate scientists predict are becoming more common
  • Large industrial accidents, like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima
  • Economic crises and social unrest, like what happened in Argentina in 2001, or more recently Greece and Cyprus
  • Pandemics like in 1918 when an unusual strain of flu managed to kill 75 million people (4% of the world’s population)

3. Zombie Apocalypse Disasters (aka Black Hole Swan Disasters)

Zombie Apocalypses, or what I am going to call Black Hole Swans, where the whole world is swallowed up, are the stuff of science fiction (or major hits at the box office).

It includes events like:

  • Unprecedentedly virulent viruses (28 Days Later)
  • Insanely violent weather anomalies (The Day After Tomorrow)
  • Global thermonuclear war (The Day After)
  • Robots deciding to kill all humans (Terminator)
  • Invasions of extraterrestrials (Independence Day)
  • It turns out that the black hole at the center of the milky way is, in fact, a giant inter-galactic black swan which mistakes the Earth for a piece of candy corn and eats it on Halloween. (Star Trek XVI: Attack of The Black Hole Swan — Coming Soon to Theatres Near You)

Preparing for the Three Types of Disasters

You can probably think of someone who had dealt with at least one, if not more, of the grey swan disasters. It’s highly likely a few things in this category will happen to you in your lifetime, (though obviously I hope not!)

Generally, grey swans can be managed by following basic personal finance advice like:

  • paying down and eliminating debt
  • building an emergency fund with six months of expenses
  • having life, health, and home insurance

The difference between a black swan and a grey swan is somewhat arbitrary, but generally a grey swan is something you can see coming, whereas a black swan is something truly unexpected.

If you decide to go skydiving and your chute doesn’t open, that’s a grey swan. It’s unlikely to happen, but you can see it coming.

If you decide to go play golf and while you are teeing off on hole four a skydiver falls out of the sky onto your head, that’s a black swan.

A black hole swan would be if you were golfing and your buddy teeing off on hole four was hit by what you thought was a skydiver but was actually a biological weapon sent by aliens, which then proceeded to spawn alien babies that crawled into your brain via the ear canal and made you a mind control weapon of the Khan.

I am being a little tongue in cheek here. I don’t mean to trivialize the possibility of something like global thermonuclear war, which has been a very real possibility for the last half century.

What I am saying is that I believe prepping for survival of a black hole swan zombie apocalypse as an individual is a moral miscalculation.

If I’m wrong, I’ll happily be one of the first zombies mowed down, but I’m with Max Levchin, the co-founder of Paypal, who 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?’”

These events are so large that I believe they must be dealt with at a societal level rather than an individual one.

Most prepping for zombie apocalypse level scenarios is less calculated risk management, and more of a schadenfreude fantasy by people who probably just need to see a therapist or volunteer at the local homeless shelter.

However, the black swan category is an area where I believe a lot of people are miscalibrating because they think the effect of such disasters will be less severe than it is.

How We Miscalibrate: The One Time They Won’t Be There Is When You Need Them Most

While traditional types of insurance are good for grey swan events, they fail at Black Swan events because the sheer demand goes up so high, and so quickly, that no insurance company or government agency can handle it.

A close friend’s parents live in Naples, Florida, where Hurricane Irma made landfall in the summer of 2017.

The governor announced a mandatory evacuation on Tuesday afternoon. They followed instructions, packed up their stuff Tuesday night, and got in the car to leave first thing Wednesday morning.

By late afternoon, they hadn’t moved more than a few miles. The interstate was completely clogged, and there was no fuel left at the gas stations. The entire state of Florida was trying to leave. Amazon wouldn’t deliver, the grocery stores were bare, and the shelters were packed. They turned their car around and went home to ride it out.

At the risk of getting too technical, these sorts of black swans have what are called nonlinear scaling effects.

That means as the intensity of an event scales, the effect of the event increases at a greater-than-linear rate.

In the case of the storm surges that accompany hurricanes, each additional foot of surge causes a greater-than-linear amount of harm.

For instance, a ten-foot storm surge may cause five or ten times as much damage as a five-foot storm surge, despite only being twice as high. A fifteen-foot surge may cause fifty or a hundred hundred times as much damage as a five-foot surge, despite only being three times as high.

To use a simplified example, imagine you live in a home that is eight feet above sea level.

  1. A five-foot storm surge may mean no water reaches your home and you just have some wind damage, due to high winds tearing up the roof, costing thousands of dollars to repair.
  2. A ten-foot storm surge would flood the house and ruin everything on the first floor, causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage.
  3. A fifteen-foot storm surge would completely destroy the entire house, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage.

Fortunately, the hurricane was not as strong as predicted in this case, but the lesson is important: in a black swan event it’s unlikely anyone will have the ability to help you if you haven’t prepared already, and the degree of danger can escalate very quickly.

However, with some basic preparations you can dramatically reduce the effect that a black swan event might have on you.

Daily Mail, Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Simple Math Behind Bug Out Bags (For Rational Preparedness)

So the gist is this:

  • Rare, black swan-style disasters are probably more likely to happen than you intuitively think
  • When they do, they will probably have a larger impact than you think they will
  • It’s likely that no one will be able to help you if you haven’t prepared already
  • Preparing is actually quite easy (and cheap) if you do it in advance and you avoid the crazy zombie apocalypse stuff

If you have the option to buy cheap insurance for a potentially devastating event, why wouldn’t you?

If you had a million dollars worth of property and you could insure it for a one-time payment of $500, would you do it?

Yes. So why wouldn’t you do the same for your wellbeing?

A bug out bag will not prepare you against every potential black swan event, but it will cover a broad swath.

This is what I see as the purpose of the Bug Out Bag, a cheap form of insurance for a broad array of black swan events.

The purpose of a Bug Out Bag is to function as a 72-hour emergency resource. If some sort of black swan event did happen, you’d have everything you needed to survive for 72 hours in the bag, which should be enough time to get somewhere safe or at least for you to ride out the worst part of the event without having to venture out of your home.

It’s worth noting that the the 72-hour time frame is based on advice from organizations responsible for disaster relief and management, who say it may take them up to 72 hours to reach people affected by a disaster and offer help. That is, even the people whose job it is to help at least somewhat recognize the nonlinear scaling effect of black swan events.

I put together my Bug Out Bag in a couple weeks and spent a few hundred bucks to do it. Most of the items are non-perishable, so once you’ve put it together, keeping it up-to-date requires even less time and money.

Hopefully I never have to use it, but I do sleep a bit better knowing it’s there if something happens. The improved sleep alone is worth the cost in my opinion.

Of course, it’s not free, and not everyone will be able to put something together. This is all the more reason for those of us fortunate enough to have the resources to prepare do it on our own, so that aid agencies and other organizations can devote their resources to those who did not have the resources to prepare.

The Bug Out Bag List

Note: All links are just what I have in my bag. Unless otherwise noted, these are all commodity products, so getting a different brand is fine.

Download the free bug out bag checklist and packing guide here.

It contains a bug out bag checklist of all the items you’ll need and links to buy them on Amazon.

Bug Out Bag Essentials: The Bag

Choosing a Bug Out Bag (or any bag for that matter) is always a debate.

There’s only a couple guiding criteria:

  1. Big enough to hold 72 hours of supplies — depending on how much you weigh, you’re looking at 50–85 liters. 50-liter capacity would be appropriate for someone with a small build like 5’2” / 120lbs, while 85 liters would be more appropriate for someone with a big build like 6’4” / 250lbs.) REI has a great guide here.
  2. Comfortable to carry while walking long distances — I’ve been on a backpacking trip with a pack that didn’t fit me right and it’s pretty miserable. Everyone is built a little differently, so I would try to go to a local store and try on some packs to see what fits you. In my experience, a comfortable hip strap that lets the weight rest on your hip bones rather than your shoulders is the most important variable.

If you’ve ever gone backpacking for a three-day or longer trip, whatever you used for that will almost certainly work.

I bought an 85-Liter Osprey Bag about a decade ago and still regularly use it for camping and backpacking. It works great as a Bug Out Bag, and conveniently 90% of the supplies I take camping I also keep in my Bug Out Bag. Any similar brand backpack should work fine as well.

Bug Out Bag Essentials: Water

Water is the most important thing to have in a Bug Out Bag. One liter per person per day is the minimum recommendation. So if you are using the bag for yourself, you’ll want to keep three liters of water in it.

Platypus Bladder: Most packs will have a holster for a bladder that you can use to drink water while walking. The holsters let you keep the water close to your back in the pack where it’s weightiness is minimized. It is also easily collapsible when not in use.

Shatter Resistant Water Bottle: In addition to the bladder, a water bottle is useful around camp and provides a backup water source if the bladder runs out.

Water Purification Tablets: There are a bunch of different products for purifying water you draw from streams or rivers. These tablets are cheap and I’ve been using them for years and never had a problem. If you carry a stove (below), you can always boil water as a backup option.

Bug Out Bag Essentials: Food

Note: Most of the food items are cheaper at a grocery store than online.

After water, food is the next thing you want to make sure is included. I optimized for things that were:

  1. Cheap
  2. Last a long time (so I don’t have to replace them frequently)
  3. Have a high calorie/weight ratio (so the pack isn’t too heavy)

What combination of the below you get is up to you, but the recommendations below are for 3,500–4,000 kcals (calories) per person, per day.

High Energy Sugar Bars: Mylar-packed varieties can last 5–10 years. Such products are inexpensive (~300 calories per dollar), convenient, and energy-dense (~2,000 calories per pound). (Recommended: 10 bars/person)

Canned Tuna or Canned Chicken: You need some source of protein. The storage life on canned meat is usually in excess of 20 years (you can ignore “best by” dates). They are also cheap (~200–300 calories per dollar). (Recommended: 9 cans/person)

Coconut Oil / Nut Butters: Coconut oil or other nut butters (e.g. Peanut or almond) are also cheap and have a lot of calories for the weight. They last at least a year, usually longer. (Recommended: 1 16oz jar/person)

Ready Rice: Microwaveable rice can be heated up with a stove in about two minutes, and it’s nice to have something warm to eat. It’s pre-seasoned, so you can just throw in a can of chicken and it’s a meal. Technically they go bad within six months, but I’ve eaten them as late as two years after expiration and they were fine. (Recommended: 9 pouches/person)

Instant Coffee: To those of you who are not addicted to this sweet, sweet nectar, I salute you. For the rest of us, going through a caffeine withdrawal during an emergency is not a great idea. Starbucks Instant Via is surprisingly good for instant coffee.

Stove and Fuel: You’ll need something to cook the rice and it doesn’t hurt to carry an extra way to start fire. If you were trapped at home without utilities, this would also let you cook for a few days.

Lighter(s) in a waterproof bag: standard Bic lighters work great. Just toss one or two in a ziploc bag so they don’t get wet.

Aluminum Pot and Spork: to cook and eat the food. The link is to a nifty fold-up camping stove, but any aluminum pot works. Aluminum is nice because it’s light.

Bug Out Bag Essentials: Clothing

The biggest thing with clothing is to think in terms of layers. What layers you’ll need will depend on the climate you’re in, but you want to have items that will allow you to be comfortable in any season where you live. Regardless of where you live, you’ll want to avoid cotton — wool and synthetics dry faster.

I mostly just used old clothes that were stained or worn and that I was planning to throw out anyway to put this together. I figure I won’t care too much about how presentable I look if I have to use this bag.

  • Hiking boots (water resistant)
  • 2 pairs of (wool) hiking socks
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of pants (The convertible kind with a zipper are great since they let you adjust based on the weather)
  • 2 T-shirts
  • Rain poncho/jacket

If you live somewhere cold, then you’ll probably want to add:

  • Winter coat (rainproof)
  • Gloves — try to get a pair that are durable and flexible enough you could make a fire while wearing them.
  • Warm/winter hat
  • Long/thermal underwear

Bug Out Bag Essentials: Shelter and Bedding

-Two-Person Tent: I think the extra weight of a two-person tent is worth it for the room if you want to be able to keep your pack inside or if you end up having a friend/significant other with you. If you want to keep it as light as possible, then go for a one-person.

Sleeping Bag: You will want to have this be a serious enough bag to stay warm. I’ve camped in sub-freezing temperatures with a cheap sleeping bag, and it’s nearly impossible to sleep. If I had to give a general degree rating, I would say a safe bet is a 30–40 degree bag. If you live somewhere that is regularly colder than that, adjust down.

Sleeping Pad: Sleeping directly on the ground is terribly uncomfortable. A sleeping pad solves that.

Bug Out Bag Essentials: First Aid Supplies

First Aid Kit: You can buy a premade one here or put one together yourself.

Duct Tape: Useful for just about everything. Carrying a whole roll is unnecessary and adds extra weight. I like to wrap maybe 10–20 percent of a roll around my water bottle and carry it that way.

SAS Survival Guide: The classic book on outdoor survival. Nice to have as a reference. The paperback is intentionally small so you can carry it in a pack.

Sewing Kit: If your tent or bag rips or a button flies off your extra pair of pants, you will be happy to have this.

Camping Towel: These dry fast and are super light.

Any prescription medications: Don’t want to leave these at home and be in a bind. (Keeping an extra month’s worth at home at all times is not a bad policy regardless of disasters).

Miscellaneous Items for Your Bug Out Bag List

Fire Paste: Fire paste performs the function of rolled up newspapers in starting a fire at home. You build a fire the way you normally would, with kindling etc. Then you squeeze out a few inches of this stuff on the end of a stick, light it, and stick it under the kindling.

AM/FM Radio Receiver: In the event of an emergency, radio is usually the most reliable way to stay up to date with what is going on. A battery-powered radio is cheap and light and will work if the power goes down.

Headlamp: I prefer battery-operated headlamps to flashlights for hiking at night or making camp since you can leave your hands free.

Flashlight: that being said, it’s good to have a backup light source. :)

Multi-tool: I like Leatherman’s, but again, any basic multi-tool should do the job. If you need a can opener for the food you bought, make sure it has that.

Maps of your local area: in the case that the internet is not working or more likely overloaded, paper maps are useful. The Rand McNally ones are quite good in my opinion.

Cash (in small denominations): I talked with a friend that was in New York when Sandy hit and the ATMs were empty for almost two weeks by his apartment. Keeping some cash in small denominations should smooth that out.

Copies of important documents: medical records, birth certificate, social security, Photo ID, etc.

3 Trash Bags and 3 Gallon Ziploc Bags: generally useful for all kinds of things.

Mosquito Repellant
Backup Batteries
Toilet Paper

That’s it.

You will notice no guns or night vision goggles. Again, I’m mostly concerned with events on the near side of the zombie apocalypse, so if shit turns into the Mad Max Thunderdome, I’m out of luck and I’m alright with that.

The crazy cost comes in when you start getting ready for a zombie apocalypse and decide you need an arsenal and night vision goggles.

If you have basic camping/backpacking supplies at home like I did, then you can put this together for a few hundred bucks. If you are doing it from scratch, then you’re probably looking at $800–1,000.

To keep it up to date costs less than $100 and two hours per year, so once it’s put together there’s not much additional cost.

Actually using the equipment once, so you know how it works, is also not a bad idea — besides, camping is fun. :)

To Bug Out or Bug In?

The idea of a Bug Out Bag presupposes you’re going to “bug out” and leave. However, in a marginal situation, you should stay put. Bugging out exposes you to more danger than staying at home. I think people like the idea of bugging out because it sounds cool and rugged, but if you have proper supplies, then you’re probably better off just staying put until the situation is more under control.

The good news is if you “bug in,” then the Bug Out Bag list above contains 90 percent of what you need anyway.

If you’d like to go up one level of preparedness, you can stockpile water and dry survival rations to last an extra two weeks. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that it may take a while for stores to reopen after an earthquake or a flood, so it’s not a bad plan to play it safe.

That’s as simple as:

Water: Buy two 5 gallon cans per person in the household and fill them with tap water.

Food: Buy more high-energy sugar bars, fat (peanut butter, coconut oil, nuts), and canned chicken or tuna. Again, aim for 3,500 kcals (calories) per person, per day.

Energy: Buy 2 big canisters of fuel (450 grams) for the camping stove and batteries for your flashlights and the radio receiver. If you were expecting night goggles and feel like you still want to splurge, go crazy and buy a solar charger for your smart phone.

Ready to build your own bug out bag?

Download the free bug out bag checklist and packing guide here.

It contains a bug out bag checklist of all the items you’ll need and links to buy them on Amazon.