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Bonfire time

First burn in the new incinerator

We’re right in the middle of the time of year when bonfires are most used – by me too – so they seemed a good topic, especially as I remember very clearly how tentative I was when I first started burning some of my garden waste. Wood ash is great spread over the garden, of course, that’s why we burn it – to look after your soil is common sense as a prepper. And in doing that, you’re using something of value that would otherwise be wasted. Win-win.

Before you start

Are there any local bye-laws about when you can get one going, or allotment regulations if that’s where you’re siting it?

Will you inconvenience any neighbours? Ash all over a set of washing will not make you popular.

Is your bonfire material dry enough? Has it been raining heavily in the last few days? Stacking your branches upright, as opposed to letting them lay on the ground, will help, but if they’re soaking wet, it still won’t be an easy bonfire to get going.

Is your bonfire material old enough? Using prunings that are only a couple of days old just isn’t good enough to get a good fire going, they need some ageing, just like wood for a stove. Wood that’s comparatively dry means the fire will be less smoky, and will burn more efficiently

Don’t leave your bonfire material stacked in place, under any circumstances. Wildlife, especially hedgehogs, will creep in and use it as shelter. You do need to stack your material, of course – just burn it in a different spot, that’s all.

Not everything is suitable for burning, even if it’s natural wood: cherry laurel leaves have an appreciable percentage of cyanide. The thicker branches should be fine, but the leaves, in any big concentration, are not.

MDF, and painted and/or treated wood, of course, are not suitable for burning, not least because they’ll add toxins to your soil when you spread the ash.

Stack of wood ready for burning

Incinerator

For me, the tipping point came when I realised I didn’t want to build a bonfire directly on the ground, because of the potential for damage to my few-and-far-between worms – and any other healthy insects and bacteria scattered around, come to that. Several friends have assured me that worms go deep, in the cold and if they sense a bonfire’s heat, but for me, it made sense to have an incinerator, to do away with the problem altogether. It also does away with the problem of where to site it: in my tiny little 35 foot garden, with wood stacked here, there and everywnere waiting for me to get my bonfire act together, it just got too difficult.

Bonfire structure

So I used an incinerator. I have a bed in the bottom of scrunched up paper – plain brown parcel paper, paper bags, newspaper, things like that. No colour pages, nothing shiny – the additives are toxic in soil.

On the bed of paper,. I lay, or more accurately dump, twigs – as many handfuls as seem right at the time, one of my biggest discoveries is that this really isn’t a science, it’s an art form. On top of that, a personal choice: I have woollen rugs, and I have long hair, and the leavings from both of those things go on top of the twiglets. You’d be surprised how that builds up, and they act as the initial tinder, for the flames to first catch.

On top of that – there are small twiglets – not the snack! But instead, very thin twigs, quite small, just scattered over the bottom layers.

And filling up about half of the remainder, I lodge slightly bigger twigs, almost small branches, but I put those in vertically – these are starting to be the real fuel of the real bonfire, not just the starter elements.

Standing by, for when the flames are going well, are much bigger branches. I don’t bother sawing them ready, I just have them put by and when I want to use them, and hold them and stand on them to break them into the kind of size I want for the incinerator.

Of course, big branches like this could be used inside a multi-fuel stove indoors, and even in an emergency, it might feel good to gather around a bonfire. We do it every 5th November, after all.

Not using an incinerator?

And most people don’t, after all.   It’s especially important to watch over the burn, and see that when it spreads, you rake it back in to a pile, maybe with a rake or a garden fork.

You’ll almost certainly burn more than I’m able to burn in my incinerator, so the cool-down period will be correspondingly longer. If you can handle the ashes with your bare hands, then it’s fine to move them.

Accelerant

Now we get to it!   You need this, especially I confess, at first I used shop-bought firelighters. I’d bought them about a thousand years ago, and decided I might as well use them as keep them. Once they were gone, I experimented with dunking a few twigs in vaseline, and then with squirting hand gel onto a few. The vaseline seems to work, I have a lot and I don’t use it for anything else, so that’s what I use now, if I need it at all.

The light itself, I just use matches – no lighters, no flints, no batteries or bow drills. I have all of those things, but I have matches too, and they’re my go-to choice. It can take a while to catch, but when it does, it’s a steady job to keep it fed.

While a bonfire is alight

You keep an eye on it, first and foremost. Partly for safety – local animals, both tame and domestic, should be kept safe from it. If half burnt branches fall or pop out of it, you need to rake them back in. If sparks fly and ignite something they shouldn’t, you need to put out unwanted flames. You certainly don’t want your crops going up in smoke.

With such a small incinerator as I have, the bonfire needs constant feeding – I don’t have a huge monster of a firepit that means I put tree stumps on there to gradually burn down. Once I’ve worked on getting it going, I want to do as much as I can in one go. And it always amazes me how much I can burn before it gets full, and how small is the amount of ash.

If you’ve taken a break, and the fire has almost died down, it’s very simple – you put some of the smaller twigs on, even more twists of newspaper. There are no rules – a bonfire is just a way to get this material into a state that can be used in the garden.

Dying down

Let it die, basically – let it take its time to use every scrap of material that can be burned, and then let it cool down in it’s own time. It doesn’t matter if it’s rained on, just let it happen. Even for my little incinerator, this usually takes a whole day. I don’t distribute the ash into the garden after each bonfire. I “stack” it in a corner, along with crushed, roasted eggshells and the contents of used teabags. This lets it age slightly, which I think is a good thing, and also lets me dose a good-sized portion of the garden in one go.

And one more thing

A countrywoman for whom I have massive respect told me a great way to use a bonfire that’s lit on the ground: burning off handles of old tools, handles that are full of woodworm and can’t be saved. It needs a little delicacy, to learn to put the handle into the edge of the fire, and not the tool itself, so the metal tempering isn’t harmed.

Bonfires.  You have to love them.  I absolutely do.

Cyber Security

Cats don’t care about your online safety

The first thing to be said is that all of this is incredibly basic to anyone who’s really knowledgeable, but it’s still new and unknown to a lot of people. I’m not an expert, not at all, but I do most, though not all of this stuff – I don’t use a Password Manager, for example, my own (probably quite arbitrary) gut reaction is that I’d just be giving another hostage to fortune. I think I could describe myself as a committed lay person! I hope it helps.

Software and Apps

Install the latest updates and software, of browsers, operating systems and display software – they nearly always contain security upgrades and fixes.

Firewall and anti-virus software

If there’s an out-and-out attack, you need these, badly. Make sure you have them. Check out their comparative benefits at a site you trust already; for me, thats one of the big ones, or a consumer finance website like moneysavingexpert, which has the added bonus of showing you how to get what you want as cheaply as possible.

The National Fraud and Cyber Crime Reporting Centre (at the Action Fraud link below) offers free cybercrime protection named Quad9 and DMARC. I haven’t independently researched these yet, but that sounds a great offer.

Passwords

Use a strong, secure password, notably for your email accounts. They can be used to gain access to all sorts of other accounts, including financial accounts.

Don’t use the same password for different accounts: that way, if one account does get hacked, the criminal won’t get access to your other accounts. GetSafeOnline recommends using three random words to create a strong password. Numbers and symbols can still be integrated into that, of course, for example SixBeaches18lorries** On another site, you might use SevenBooms47lychees((. Those are the same initials and processes, but almost completely different even so.

Don’t use anything that you would ever mention on social media: a child or partner’s name, a pet, a place of birth, favourite holiday, or a sports team. Keep it random but memorable for you, and you alone.

Where available, always use two-step authentication on your accounts. It adds an extra layer of insurance.

Safeguarding your data

Back up your computer regularly. It’s useful to store data in the cloud, but what would happen to your data if that firm was hacked? I store hobby data in the cloud, items that are important to me, but have no security implications at all. Backups should be safe too. An interesting point from CyberAware: make sure the external hard drive you use isn’t permanently connected to your device, either physically or over a local network connection.

I back up to an external hard drive regularly, kept in a fireproof “briefcase” type safe, which is stored somewhere safe (against burglars, against the house catching fire). If I have a particularly important set of documents and don’t have time to do a full backup, I’ll back up to a flash drive, stored in the same way. A set of flash drives is held in my bag ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Your device

Use a password to open and enter your computer or smartphone. Even if you do lose it, your data is then more safe. Can it also be encrypted? Check it out.

Use a surge protector – they’ve dropped in price tremendously in the last five years, and they’re well worth it. Many preppers think an EMP is inevitable – think how much more likely a too-near bolt of lightning is! It really is as simple as an extra plug at the mains.

Tape over the camera lens on the computer, the one that faces you. You don’t know if your computer might fall victim to a remote control hack, and then potentially anything you do in front of your computer screen is viewable to the hackers. Protection is as simple as a strong piece of tape that can easily be pulled back if you want to skype or facetime.

Catching fire

A very focussed news item from Buckinghamshire Fire and Rescue tells its own story: basically, don’t leave your laptop while its charging, and don’t leave it by combustible material (such as books!), don’t overload your sockets. Believe it or not, there’s a guide about not overloading sockets.

News to me, but I’m definitely using that in future.

Emails

Books have been written about malignant emails: just don’t open anything that you don’t already know or expect. If you’re not sure, hover over the Sender column – it should show the real email address of the sender, which can be quite an eye-opener.

Drive-by phone thefts

Whether you’re speaking with friends, or consulting Google Maps, it’s likely you’ll have your phone out at some stage when you’re on the street. I do myself. The only thing I can think of to do is to watch the local environment and to stand well away from the road, turned away from it, in fact.  If you have suspicions, don’t get your phone out!  Or go somewhere quieter, and safer.

Authorised Push Payments

Which, the consumer organisation, made a “super complaint” to the Payment Systems Regulator. This is the history of it, and the response.  

The techniques used by criminals have become extremely sophisticated, mostly based on intercepting legitimate communications between the individual and their bank, or conveyance, or savings organisation, and diverting payments, with the agreement of the victim – which is what currently lets the banks say it’s our own fault, when it’s often a criminal either inside the bank or attacking the bank’s communications systems. Official websites aren’t yet covering the steps that individuals can take to guard against this – which says to me that it’s understood that it’s not individuals who are primarily responsible. But there are some things we can do, even so.  I found these paragraphs at a private company’s website, at this link, and well done to Pettyson, a regional estate agent, for such clear, concise wording:

What you can do to protect yourself from APP fraud

Proactively protecting yourself from this kind of fraud can be difficult, as hackers can strike at any time. However, changing passwords frequently and using long and complicated alphanumeric strings – including upper and lower case letters along with special characters – is a good place to start, but these can be a pain to use. To help with this, password managers such as LastPass are highly recommended.

While frequently changing your email account’s password may scupper some scammers, others may still get through, so the best line of defence will always be your common sense. If anything at all seems fishy, be suspicious. In fact, be suspicious even if all seems well! You simply cannot be too careful.

Give the company asking for payment a ring to see if the request is legit. Dig out old paper records or search Google for the company in question to find their contact details – do not under any circumstances use the contact details listed in the email, as these are likely to be those of the hacker, not the genuine company.

If you are requested to make a significant payment (even if it is one you are expecting) via email, making a small payment first and then checking that the recipient is who it is supposed to be before transferring the rest can help protect your money. While it may be more inconvenient to make two payments instead of one, it’s a small price to pay if you want to keep your finances safe and avoid joining the tens of thousands of people who have already been adversely affected by APP fraud.

Finally, if you own a business that could potentially be targeted with APP fraud, make it a matter of course to call the beneficiary of payments over a set amount. Also, agree a ‘safe word’ with your accounts department and insist they call you before making any payment over a certain figure, it could save you thousands. Similarly, alarm bells should ring if you are ever asked to make a payment to alternative bank account to a regular beneficiary or supplier. Be on your guard…it’s a real threat.

Those are the main points I want to cover right now, but I’m absolutely sure there’s dozens and dozens of other points to be made – if anyone wants to share what they know or what they’ve found, please feel free. It will help us all.  In the meantime, some useful websites:

UK Police: Action Fraud

UK government: Cyberaware

UK public/private sector partnership: Get Safe Online

UK charity furthering the work of the Electrical Safety Council: Electrical Safety First

Preparedness on holiday

I’ve been away for a fortnight, on a new-to-me type holiday: a Norwegian cruise. Jawdroppingly beautiful and I’m so, so glad I did it, but it definitely posed some preparedness-type questions for me. The main one is this: in travelling by train, plane, ship or even coach, you automatically give away some of your power to the person in charge of whatever mode of transport it is. Is it worth it to you? In my case, the answer was definitely yes: I haven’t had a holiday abroad for a while, because of illness and dodgy finances, and this felt like the healthiest way to get back abroad and start to see the world again.

Funnily enough, the questions of attitudes to safety came up when the ship was travelling down a fjord one day. Someone asked what the Norwegian attitude to danger was, and our Norwegian guide replied, “Norway is a dangerous place to live. There are avalanches, tsunami, rock falls, freezing temperatures, hurricane-force winds, and snow and ice, and until the oil boom it was also a very poor place, the poorest in Western Europe. So the Norwegian way is to live each day, not to worry, and enjoy the beauty. We’re not used to dotting the i and crossing the t.”  It was fascinating, and I found this set of danger signals, at the foot of a glacier, showing how different things are in Norway.

Norwegian dangers: avalanche, rockfall, tsunami, drowning, snow suffociation.

For me, once I’d booked the holiday, one question was what preps to take? I had to take normal holiday stuff: everyday wear (down to 3 degrees C). A few nice clothes. The bits and bobs for two weeks travel. What preps did I have room for and couldn’t do without?

  • a good quality jacket.

  • hat, scarves and gloves (double quantities in case of soaking/loss).

  • sunscreen and sunglasses too.

  • whistle and signalling mirror.

  • windup radio, compass.

  • tiny little 1” knife on my keyring as usual, and the seatbelt cutter (which is bigger, and raised a few eyebrows).

  • high quality snacks, like peanut butter and dried fruit.

  • screwdriver for glasses and sunglasses.

  • first aid kit and water purification tabs.

  • printouts of important documents: ticket, day trips I’d bought, the travel insurance. And notes of important numbers: my passport, my EHIC card, my ‘lost credit card’ and ‘lost phone’ numbers, that sort of thing.

And that was that, really. Quite a lot of that was A few things I missed out on were an alarm clock, which got pretty desperate at times – we were sailing in and out of the Norwegian mobile signal, and the phone kept resetting itself. Setting an alarm for an early morning trip became impossibly tricky, and we never got it right, just resigning ourselves to losing an hour of sleep on some days. And the other prep I missed out on was a strap to my camera: I was forever hanging it out over a two hundred feet drop, minimum, with no safety backup whatsoever. So the preps I actually took along were absolutely fine, in other words.

There was a mandatory evacuation drill for the passengers before we even set sail, which was interesting, and the crew were obviously well-versed in it all, though I found it to be distracting to be crammed into the actual muster space like sardines. Much more engaging was watching the weekly evacuation drill carried out by the crew themselves: checking the cabins were empty, safeguarding the stairs, and launching the lifeboats (which are used as ship’s tenders regularly in any case, when there’s no berth big enough to take the ship – that happens regularly in Norway, as flat space is so limited). It was obvious that some crew members were being cross-trained in lifeboat navigation, practising the slow manoeuvres that would be needed if the situation were real, and they needed to pick up people floating in the sea.

Lifejackets
Ship’s tender cum lifeboat

The other big security measure is that each time you went off the ship, you went through a full security scan to be allowed back on, airport style security. The crew went through exactly the same procedures as well. I wasn’t expecting it, and it was a little confusing the first time – lots of “this way, over here, no not there” but the after that it ran completely smoothly.

Storm Hector affected us badly – about 30% of the itinerary was changed to avoid wave heights of ten metres, that would have lasted up to three days up there, up at the latittude of Murmansk. And it was interesting what the captain had to say about what he had to take account of, on behalf of passengers and crew: firstly safety, then comfort. And after that, it was a mix of the weather forecast updates, the local geography, the local port facilities and existing bookings, the availability of excursions and guides, and the speed of the ship in those conditions. I can’t praise him enough, really: as it was, we were in two separate storms with wave heights of three metres – I really wouldn’t have wanted to experience anything like ten times as big. Awful.

We didn’t know how big the waves we’d face were going to get, of course, so the first time this was an issue, we “secured” the cabin: everything that we could put away, including toiletries in the bathroom, we packed away. I’ve been seasick even on cross-Channel ferries in the past, and I knew from experience that I couldn’t look after my belongings if I felt that bad – I’d have just let everything crash down around me, quite frankly.  As you can see from the photo immediately below, some of the areas we went through were tricky for such a big boat: rocks all over the place, very beautiful, but potentially very dangerous, even in calm waters maybe.

Dangerous waters

In the end, it was unnecessary. As were a lot of other preps, but of course, good preparation that doesn’t go over the top means you can relax and enjoy whatever comes. Even if that includes involuntary shifting around in your bed, lulled by three metre waves.

I had a great time, saw some beautiful sights, met a lot of interesting people. I’ll definitely be doing something similar next year.

Keeping your body cool. Pets’ bodies too.

Lovely summer day, own photo

So, part two – keeping your body cool, keeping your pets cool, and keeping your food cool.

Like anything else, there are occasions that feel like emergencies, or when you simply want something to happen fast. So, for immediate relief:

  • stash wetwipes in the freezer, use as needed.

  • hold your wrists under cold running water.   Maybe use a bowl, since it’s also important to conserve water if you can.

  • soak a flannel with cold water, use it as a cold compress for your face and your head.

  • have a cool bath or shower. Even just splashing will help.

  • if you’re very short for time and severely overheated, stick your head under the cold tap!

Keep bottles of water in the fridge, or even the freezer, make some of the ones in the fridge the shop-bought fizzy ones for a treat.

Fill “hot” water bottles with water, and put them in the fridge, ready for you to take to bed.

Use loosely-plaited paracord, or even hair scrunchies, around the wrists, well-soaked to keep you cool as the water evaporates.

Have a tepid shower or strip wash before going to bed. Don’t towel yourself down. Evaporating water is key.

Know your own body, your own symptomatology – what does heat do to you in particular? Balance problems and migraines can be worse in heat, even though aches and pains can feel temporarily better.

Carry a parasol or umbrella to use as a sunshade.

Clothing and bedding

Wear loose, lightweight, light-coloured clothing, made of natural fibres, indoors and out. Cotton is best. Cover up your skin as much as possible.

Use a cotton top sheet and a light weight cotton blanket to pull on and off. Dampen the sheet with ice water, or use it before it’s dried after washing.

Don’t bother wearing underwear, if you can get away with it! If you can’t, wear cotton – it’s more absorbent. In any case, wear as little as possible on your own property.

Wear a wide brimmed hat when out and about. This protects you from sunburn, but also provides valuable shade from the heat, of course.

Footwear is crucial to comfort! Wear comfortable open flat sandals to prevent swelling feet if you have to walk anywhere.

Eating and drinking

Fill empty bottles with water and keep them in the fridge to use on their own or with a few frozen berries, a wedge of citrus or any of your favourite fruits. Make sure you have plenty of ice cubes.

Food for hot weather: salads and curries! I don’t do the curry thing myself in hot weather, but plenty of people do, and it originates in hot countries, so … more power to your elbow.

If you’re going to cook, do it in the most efficient way possible, so that you heat the house up as little as possible: cooking early in the day, using the microwave or slow cooker, using a steamer on top of a pan you’re using to cook something else, that kind of thing.

Bits of food that can be easily assembled seem to be really popular in the heat: sausages, cold meats, quiche, flan, tinned fish, cheese, hard boiled eggs, with salad or kidney beans, coleslaw and lengths of celery. Carbohydrates that can be eaten cold: potatoes, pasta, and bread and wraps of course!

Some soups are best used cold: gazpacho and ajo blanco, for example.

If you have desserts in your house: choc ices, tinned fruit, ice cream, soy sauce or evaporated milk, some yogurt, chopped bananas. Putting bananas in the freezer and turning them into smoothies is usually a hit.

Pets

Don’t forget your pets. Be aware of overheating for all species, especially furry ones.

Don’t leave dogs in cars.

Walk the dogs first thing in the morning then after the sun goes down in the evening Make sure they have access to shade if they’re outdoors.

For other pets, especially rabbits, put a bowl of ice cubes in their cages.

You might use old fashioned stoneware hot water bottles that can be picked up at car boot sales and fill them with crushed ice and cold water. They can be put in with the small pets or food animals – rabbits and guinea pigs, they lie up against them and sleep. Dogs too!

Consider cutting your dogs’ hair shorter than usual, especially the long-haired types.

Cooling coats for dogs.

I’m very doubtful about this, but the fact is that breeds of dogs meant for Scandinavia and the Arctic live in this country, and they may need help to do so, as well as new breeds of dog that are bigger, heavier and hairier than older breeds. So they may well need help too.

Looking at what’s on offer, it would be easy to simply drape a big wet cloth or chammy leather over your dog, that still makes use of evaporation! Or you could put freezer bricks in the dog bed, or even (and I’m letting my imagination run away with me here) make a little set of saddlebags for your dog so they can carry the freezer bricks around with them.  Either of those tactics would certainly do well enough for a very sudden hot spell.

Stay safe, and cool, and enjoy what you have.

 

It was snowing!

By Hannes Grobe, Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons

Like most people, I’ve been dealing with the effects of several snowstorms over the past month – for me, the Beast and Emma were the worst. I was lucky enough, and prepared enough, that I could just semi-hibernate until the really bad stuff left my area, which it’s now done. But it did start me thinking and looking around for what could be done in addition to “don’t travel unless it’s essential”. Which is sort of fair enough as far it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

It feels vaguely ridiculous to be posting this at the end of March, but some people in the UK have snow right now. So, what’s what:

AT WORK

Keep some extra supplies at office: water, and snacks. Not too salty, not too sweet, but still appealing enough to your tastebuds.

Spare shoes and socks. The need for these will be obvious if you get caught out in the snow/slush.

Layers, as usual! Several, if you can manage to find the space to store them.

AT HOME

Boiler maintenance: on it’s own, it will never guarantee that your boiler won’t break down, but it will help.

Frozen condensate pipe

If your boiler makes strange noises, either grumbling or being possessed by a poltergeist (mine did both) shut it down quickly. Your condensate pipe has almost certainly frozen. Unfreezing is simple, once you’ve seen it done once. I never had, so I called in my friendly neighbourhood plumber. He wasn’t making any regular appointments, he was simply responding to emergencies all day: a knight with a shining spanner. Kettles of boiling water poured down the pipe, from where it emerged from the boiler, did the trick. He actually took the pipe off it’s mount, and shook out the ice to speed up the process, it was amazing to see what looked like ice core samples from an Arctic expedition. There was a lot of it, too. I couldn’t do that, not at the moment, but I can certainly pour hot water over a pipe!

Not shovelling snow

This is heart-attack country. I shovelled about three inches of just-fallen snow from a path that was twenty feet long in total. To be honest, it was easy, but if it had compacted and then turned to ice, it would have been a very different story.

WALKING

Don’t travel if you don’t have to

An oldie but a goodie, and very simple. Don’t travel if you don’t have to. Go to the local park to have some fun, by all means, but travelling far enough away from home that you have a problem when transport breaks down, don’t do it unless you can’t avoid it.

Walk like a penguin

Well, I really didn’t know about this one, but it seems to be true – once I saw it, I couldn’t get away from it. This is a good, non-sensationalist summary, which also includes the advice not to keep your hands in your pockets.

Walking aids

I’ve seen more people using sticks and poles this year than in all the previous years put together, and while I wouldn’t currently want to use them myself, I do have a couple of walking sticks in my porch, for elderly relatives that stay with me, who don’t use sticks regularly, but might want one on the odd occasion. And I found a couple of good links too: this one from Mountain Warehouse about necessary gear. And this one is a discussion on an arthritis forum, of all things, mostly about handle shape. It may not be all that useful for you, but if you’re buying, it’s certainly something to think about.

Sunglasses are good, not only against blizzards but also for long term care of your vision. And though crampons are a tad far for me, I have just bought a pair of yaktrax, for next year.

Anything you can do to keep yourself safe, and even comfortable, is important, especially in winter: the consequence of any slip up in winter is likely to be a wait of up to 12 hours or so in an overcrowded A&E, after all – much better to have the gear that means you’re less likely to slip, and less likely to be injured badly if you do slip.

Stay warm!

EDC: travelling in the UK

I’ve just come back from what used to be the family home, a trip to work on probate issues. It’s almost a seven hour journey each way, and on a trip like that there’s a fine balance between taking normal prepper-type precautions and weighing yourself down with kit that you’ll never need.

I took the train both ways this time, though sometimes I do it by car. So, as well as taking the things I need normally to flourish – toothpaste and dental floss, changes of clothing including a good fleece and a waterproof, my kindle, all that sort of thing, what do I take with me?

  • my keyring has some gizmos on: seatbelt cutter, a little 1” spyderco knife, a sturdy metallic whistle, an extremely sturdy, fierce-looking bottle opener in the shape of a shark, that has several uses.  I have a link below to a spyderco knife – bigger than mine, but recognisably the same line.

  • snacks. As well as my own food (intolerances of all sorts make this the best option) I carry snacks – usually oatcakes and dried fruit.

  • an all-metal pen, and a handy size anti-perspirant bottle sit ready for use, right by my antibacterial handgel.

  • a torch. I have a tiny 3” long thing, absolutely wonderful.

  • matches. Just because.

  • as much water as I’m comfortable carrying, usually only a litre, in two bottles.

  • extra cash, as much as I can stash away, in several different places.

  • there’s a tiny first aid kit, plasters, ibuprofen blah blah, nothing special. I confess, I do also put some water purification tabs in there when I’m travelling long distances.

  • toilet paper! It doesn’t need the end of the world for a UK train to run out of toilet paper.

  • a compass.

  • a windup radio.

For the last two, in particular, I have to thank Jenny Sutherland, one of the female protagonists in Last Light, Alex Scarrow’s brilliant book. Hundreds of thousands of us are en route to or from somewhere every day, and chaos, even temporary chaos, doesn’t wait for us to get safely where we’re going. Prepping gives us all a helping hand in those situations.

These are links to the most common sorts of kit that can genuinely increase your ability to survive and prosper, whatever gets thrown at you.   There’s also quite a lot of fun to be had with these: not just the reading, but the whittling with the knife, the fiddling about with the radio to listen to unusual channels, and playing endlessly with the torch.

For the return journey, my brother drove a van full of the stuff I went up there to sort and fetch – family papers and photos I’m taking care of, a patchwork quilt, my duvet, a couple of dining room chairs, some vintage glassware. He was also carrying my trolley case, and before the journey I was a bit concerned about not having my (very basic) preps with me on a seven hour which includes crossing London. But the above list of absolute essentials is so little, I could actually carry them in a day rucksack, and let the trolley case be used for boxes of the more fragile things. That was a win-win.

I know plenty of people online who’d be horrified at how short the above list is – and yes, there are some scenarios where, if I only had what was on this list, I’d be in trouble. But if prepping is also about attitude and thoughtfulness, then I’m good. I’ve taken calculated risks all my life, and they always work out, always – in the sense that if the bad thing happens, I can cope well enough with what I’ve got on hand, and adjust my actions and plans accordingly.

That’s real-world prepping, not end-of-the-world fiction. That sounds like it clashes with Last Light, which is end of the world fiction, after all. But Last Light is pretty real-world psychologically, all the better for it, and that’s what matters in this instance. In every instance, come to that!

Escaping railway stations

This post comes from having too much time on my hands at railway stations over the last year. And from my regular travelling companion, who isn’t a prepper, suggesting that when we meet up at a London railway terminus, we should do it outside the main station, to avoid bomb blast and falling glass. That didn’t come from me, this time: safety from terrorism in particular is definitely becoming more mainstream.

A regional station

Last summer, for instance, I was changing trains at a station named Three Bridges, which I pass through every month or so. That day, my train was cancelled so I had an unplanned half hour to spend there. I didn’t feel like settling down with my book, and instead I had a walk round, thinking about preparedness. I use this station regularly, to visit a local shopping centre, I have friends and relatives who live nearby, and I pass through it other times too, including going to and from London, so it was actually a good use of the time.

What really got me thinking was, what if I was trapped on the station platforms by a big accident or a terrorist incident of some sort, maybe in the forecourt? Trains would be stopped in such a situation, I think, because the rail line runs right by the forecourt. The forecourt is busy in itself, an ‘A’ road runs right past, there are industrial areas nearby, and the rail line itself is very, very active, one of the busiest in the country. So, as I had a whole half hour to spend, I walked up and down the platforms at the edges of the site, and had a look how I’d get out.

Any kind of expedient exit from the platforms themselves would have to be on the opposite side of the station from the forecourt, i.e. to the east, as the deadly-in-this-scenario forecourt is on the western side of the rails – and there at least two chances of escape to the east.

At one place, there’s a gap underneath the platform, and if the trains were stopped you could quickly scramble through and get out to a small road. And they surely would be stopped if, say, there was a fire on the forecourt right next to the bridge carrying the railway lines. The wriggle gap is only two or three feet high, but it’s enough. I went to the next platform over so I could take a photo of the gap (I was really into the exercise by this time!).

The gap underneath the eastern platform at Three Bridges Railway Station

Further down the platform, even further away from that dangerous forecourt of my scenario, there’s a long metal fence thats maybe six feet high. But right by it are a series of seats, and poles supporting railway signage. Some of them even have a handy roof on the other side of the fence as a nice little handhold. Once over the fence, you’d be in a local car park, about thirty feet from a secondary main road, and since you’re far away from the business end of the station, you have successfully removed yourself from the most dangerous part of the event.

Platform furniture as an escape route

You’d be on foot, then, of course, but at least you have options again.

On the western side of the station, it’s much more difficult to investigate, which is paradoxical because that’s the site of the much bigger public car park; but possibly because of that, and because of building works, there are serious amounts of fencing and locked gates blocking the way. I didn’t have time to investigate from the westernmost platform either. That’s a job for another time.

St Pancras International

I used St Pancras very recently when going to see the Harry Potter exhibition at the British Museum. Preparedness is not my whole life, I’m happy to say. But the wait for the train was almost as long as it had been at Three Bridges last summer, so I did the same sort of thing. Where would I go, in a terrorist attack, or a fire?

You could hide behind one of those big pillars, and hope that terrorists wouldn’t come further down the platform (unlikely).

A railway platform at St Pancras International, with doors and potential hiding places

You could run down the tracks (you’re very visible, and there’d probably still be trains running at that stage of the emergency).  But maybe better to do that than get shot, or suffer smoke inhalation.

Or you could run through the emergency exit door. I was pretty circumspect about taking this photo, I didn’t want to start off an alarm myself, but it’s clear that there’s a way out in an emergency, as long as it’s not blocked or something. Another exit sign is just visible through the glass of the door, but I can’t tell anything else about it.

Emergency exit doors at St Pancras platform

This sort of exercise should hopefully be carried out in relation to any place you pass through or travel to, especially if you travel there regularly. Although of course it can be argued it’s all the more important to do this when you’re not familiar with the place, and you haven’t been there before. Remember this: things happen when you least expect them, in places which you thought would probably be fairly safe and predictable. Using a spare half hour for a thought experiment in preparedness is a useful thing to do, in itself, and because it keeps you alert to your opportunities. And they’re not just your opportunities either. In a real life emergency, maybe your demonstration of a way out from the blocked platforms could have defused tension, given anxious people something to do, or even saved lives – you can’t really know, but it’s a real possibility. When you prep in this way, you benefit yourself and other people too.

Maintenance: body and mind

Notice something that needs doing, then do it before it starts to create other problems.”

The sentence above is a paraphrase from a recent post of mine, where it applied to our homes and our possessions, and it absolutely applies as well to our own selves, our bodies and minds. Prevention is another word for it!

Without it, we’re stuffed, frankly. Without your health, whether physical, mental or emotional, nothing else can make much of a difference to your life or the lives of those around you: look at any child carer of a disabled adult, or someone who carries around an oxygen tank to enable them to breathe, or a traumatised survivor of a terrorist attack, or a soldier who lives with flashbacks.

Self-care is something we’re continually exhorted to do by the NHS and by every other cash-strapped and resources-strapped organistion tasked with helping us. And as those organisations falter and become more and more overwhelmed, it becomes more and more important to actually take the steps they recommend to us. If we need help, it might be a very long time coming, and might not be in the format we’d choose for ourselves. Much better to carry out a bit of self maintenance, whether it’s prevention or healing, and that will also mean that whatever “dip” you go through probably won’t be as deep or as incapacitating.

So, what kind of things am I talking about? The kind of thing that’s all over the web, TV and radio over the New Year, and each of us needs different levels.

Sleep.

Sleep must be first and foremost – it’s crucial. Without it, you’ll die, eventually. And even if you don’t die, your lifespan, your health, and your quality of life, will all be less than they could have been.

Extra needs: pregnant women, convalescents, teenagers.

Nutrition.

Humans can subsist on very little, but there are two cliches to remember, if you want to prosper: you are what you eat. And to live your best life you need to eat and drink well.

Extra needs: intensely active people, convalescents, pregnant women.

Hydration.

Yes, the 2 litres a day is not well researched, and I wouldn’t recommend that. But we certainly need to stay hydrated – to use our bodies, to flush toxins, to keep our brain functioning (ever had a dehydration headache? I have, especially before I was due to have a general anaesthetic. Not a good feeling).

Extra needs: intensely active people. People on toxic treatments.

Exercise.

Everybody knows we need exercise. A lot of the things a prepper does will help you to exercise: nobody needs to be a gym bunny, but we all need to stretch ourselves physically. Remember that flexibility, strength and stamina are different things and it really isn’t one size fits all.

Extra needs: newbies building up their strength and fitness; convalescents; older people; anyone who has a problem area: does anyone reading this have a bad back, for instance?

Weak Spots

You absolutely have to look after your own weak spots, building that into your own routine. Maybe it’s that bad back. Maybe it’s your eyes, or you sunbathed a lot as a kid and now your doctor has told you to look out for cancerous changes in your moles. You know your own weak spots, I’m sure you do: but what do you do about them? I was thinking how essential our vision is, in everyday situations and when we need our preps. How do you look after your vision, if at all? Here are some ideas:

  • wear sunglasses!

  • have a couple of eye-baths ready, and know what kind of liquid you can use in them: tap water, distilled, what?

  • eye exercises: both the muscles around the eye, and the focussing mechanisms within the eye.

  • learning to rest those same muscles. Experiment with closing your eyes when you don’t actually need to see what’s around you: like when you’re sitting on the toilet, for example!

  • there are good self-help websites out there for all sorts of maintenance issues: Seeing  and WebMD are two that are to do with eyesight, that can be really helpful.

After these basic four needs, I think that the other categories, although just as important, are based even more upon our needs as individuals, there’s such a wide variety in the amount each of us needs in terms of human contact, adventure, recovery time and so on.

Human Contact.

We all need people in our lives too, some more than others. I’m a pretty solitary person, currently living alone as well, but even I need to see people regularly. Without connection, we slowly sink down and lose ourselves.

Safety and Adventure.

We need both of these! Long term, we need safety – to relax, to have fun, to raise children, whatever. But we also need the buzz that adventure gives us, and if we can’t get it in real terms through battling sabre toothed tigers or climbing mountains, then we’ll get it from horror films and online gaming. Get your adventure in as positive a way as you can find, something that feeds you long term as well as giving you an adrenalin buzz. Though going on rollercoasters also has something to recommend it…

Purpose and Contentment.

These two are also connected, I feel. A deep long term purpose in your life is bound to help you feel contented, even if you don’t fully accomplish your goal. Contentment is very different from happiness, by the way. You can work at doing things that help you feel contented, but you can’t work at being happy. Even the American Constitution acknowledges this: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Not just happiness, but its pursuit. Without some sort of purpose, sooner or later a human will drift into a negative spiral of some description.

Recovery time, and Healing

Yep, these get their own category! They can be just as crucial as sleep, in some ways, as far as prepping is concerned.

Physical: you rest your muscles somewhat, after strenuous labour. You also need to clean your teeth regularly. And protect your eyes from injury and eyestrain. You’ll have your own focus for this – respect your own body and your own needs.

Emotional: when you survive an armed robbery, a mugging, a flood, a house fire, and a thousand other stressful situations, you need to deal with the after-effects and the consequences, to bring you back up to speed. One particularly important thing about emotional maintenance is that some types are helpful to some or even most people, but are actively destructive to others. It’s especially important to respect individual wishes here, though that may have to be overridden in extreme situations when it conflicts with the safety of the rest of the group. For instance, when someone traumatised by seeing something terrible refuses to accept help, and instead acts out with drunkenness and violence.

 

I hope this helps: and if anyone has any self-care, or maintenance steps that they take, I’d love to hear about it.

Maintenance: physical and digital

Where you live is just the beginning.

It’s just what we have to do to look after our homes, isn’t it?” Or maybe your landlord does it, and you don’t have to plan for it? Getting the boiler serviced, bleeding the radiators, a new rug when the tatty old one in the kitchen gets stained?

Mortar cut away and renewed

No, it’s not just that stuff – there’s a genuine prepping element to a lot of maintenance.

There are two types of maintenance that have been consuming me this month. The first is physical: ever since I moved to this house, I’ve been repairing the bodges of an unskilled DIY-er, and it’s a painful process. But there’s a step on from this type of work, to structural elements: for me, it’s mostly been the pointing, of all things. Two years ago, the pointing failed on the most exposed wall of my house, in the middle of a wet winter. The house became damp, no matter how often I had the heating on, and mould started to grow. A cardboard box of papers underneath the stairs was ruined. And the plaster on the internal side of the exposed wall became cracked and blown. Some of it swelled and fell off, it was horrible.

Getting it repaired the next year was difficult, because the holes were so big bees had lodged in there, and the builders told me lots of stories about how insects would eventually chew through the internal wall, on the other side of the cavity, and come through into the house. A beekeeper had to be brought in to sort out the bee nests. Plus a plasterer for the internal wall – it took a whole summer to bring it all back up to scratch.

So this year, noticing that another wall was also showing signs of advanced age, I had no hesitation in booking the same builder to do the same thing – and my wall is once again immaculate. This time, no bees ejected from their homes, no failed plaster, just a solid wall that’s going to last another 30 years.

That’s what preparedness is, in this context – noticing something that needs doing, and doing it before it starts to create other problems.

There’s another form of maintenance too, for preppers, which is the art of keeping your preps up to date. Mostly, people talk about this when they’re talking about rotating food stocks, so that we eat the oldest tins or packets first, to stop them going out-of-date. And that’s important, and I do it too, but the information we take with us is also important, the information we grab when we’re evacuated because of a sinkhole, a newly discovered unexploded bomb, a house fire, a flood, whatever it is – all sorts of events can mean that we have to grab our bug-out bags and head for a hotel, a friend or relative’s house, or even a community centre.

Amd I bet your bug out bag has some relevant stuff in it, yes? Warm clothing, some snacks, hygiene equipment, extra water. And like me, I bet you have a notebook or something with a listing of the addresses of relatives and friends, with the security details of your email account, your financial accounts – current account, savings account, credit card(s), savings accounts for the kids, your premium bond holder number, the privatisation shares you never sold, the pension schemes you belong to, the mortgage details, the insurance company, your passport – all sorts of things in there, yes?

I have news for you, news that you know, but the cumulative effect can really smack you over the head when you can least cope with it. Things change: that’s my news:

  • relatives and friends move house, or change telephone numbers. They may even fade from your life altogether. Are you sure you’ve listed all the changes?
  • emails and passwords change. Sometimes a firm gets hacked and asks you to change your password. Do you make a note of the new one?
  • even financial information changes: my bank changed the account number of my current account! I opened a Regular Saver, an ISA matured, I closed a credit card. One company changed it’s name, and two of them changed the name of the product I’d purchased ten years ago.
  • when my circumstances changed, I was able to get cheaper insurance by shopping around – that’s a really important change to make sure you keep updated, as a fire or a flood will likely destroy your paperwork, of course.

I’ve always tried to keep up to date with all changes, but in the last year the pace of change has accelerated tremendously, and my little notebook has become quite a large notebook, thanks to layers of Tippex and self adhesive labels that I can write on.

So I made a change in the format: I wrote out a Word document, with addresses, phone numbers, opening times, passwords, everything I could think of that would help me in some unknowable local disaster that would leave me sitting in a B&B trying to reconstruct my life in the immediate aftermath. I printed it out, and put it in a waterproof map case that was well fit for purpose. Then I copied the document to a little flash drive, and also to a compact disc, and erased it from my computer, for safety’s sake: so much sensitive information in one place is asking for trouble, unless a lot of care is taken with it. One hack of my computer, and all my sensitive information would have been compromised.

Please check out the information you’d be relying on in this scenario: the phone numbers and addresses of the people you love, who want to know that you’re safe, as well as all the financial necessaries. You might be surprised at what you’ve left out.