[Note: This article first appeared in the December, 2010, issue of Complete Survivalist magazine.]
It is a common enough theme in end of the world fiction. The loner hero travels the blasted landscape, wanting to be left alone but time and again is roped into righting wrongs and saving the day. Fairly often, the hero is accompanied by his ever-faithful sidekick, someone who is usually something of a neophyte when it comes to survival tactics. The first example that comes to mind is in Jerry Ahern’s popular THE SURVIVALIST series with the almost mythic survival expert John Thomas Rourke and his companion Paul Rubenstein. Quite regularly, the hero also ends up saving a damsel in distress, who is all too eager to, ahem, “thank” him profusely. Think Ben Raines and Jerre Hunter from the William Johnstone OUT OF THE ASHES series.
Time and again on various online forums devoted to survivalism, I see this same mindset being displayed. When the the final trigger event takes place, the self-described survivalist plans to fade away into the forest and never again visit what might remain of civilization. Occasionally, they might mention having a small retreat set up but often the only supplies stockpiled are a few cans of beans, a roll of toilet paper, and umpteen thousand rounds of ammunition in a wide assortment of calibers. The “plan,” such as it is, is to live off the land for the rest of their days. Oh, and quite often something about killing anyone who happens to stumble across them.
Yes, these are adults (presumably).
The reality is this plan, if you want to call it that, is doomed to failure.
Sure, going it alone for the short-term isn’t necessarily a bad idea, assuming you don’t have family to care for. If you are in immediate need of disappearing, one person is harder to find than two or more. I’ll even go so far as to agree that, presuming the requisite skill sets are present, a single person could last a very long time living off the land in a remote area, successfully avoiding capture or discovery. But much like size XXXL Spandex shorts, just because you CAN doesn’t mean it is a good idea.
Let’s say our hero makes it out of Dodge and to their preplanned retreat location. He is all set up with a stockpile of food, water, and ammo. My question is, then what?
Who is going to watch over your retreat while you’re out playing the Great White Hunter and checking your trap lines? Who is going to stand watch against the mutant zombie bikers while you sleep? Even if you can manage to pull this off, it is subsistence living at best. You’re surviving, sure, but to what end? If your ultimate goal is just to stay above ground sucking air, well ok. But is that really a life worth living?
Outside Hollywood, no single survivalist can possibly know every skill that could come into play.
There just aren’t enough hours in a day, or days in a lifetime, to learn it all. Sure, you could probably get by without knowing advanced chemistry or physics, but how about basic engine repair, animal husbandry, advanced first aid, gunsmithing, leather working, metal working, carpentry, basic plumbing, and any number of other skill sets? If you don’t have those skills now, when will you have the time to devote to learning them, while at the same time keeping up with your daily life? Sure, the pioneers (as just one example) were able to survive, even thrive, on their homesteads without much of any assistance. But, they also had practiced skills like these their entire lives. I’d be willing to bet many, if not most, armchair survivalists have maybe a tenth of the practical knowledge those folks had in their day. And much of the knowledge and skills they do have just aren’t practiced very often.
Now, some folks have this as their basic plan but will be accompanied by their family–spouse, kids, perhaps a close family friend or two. We’ll call this the Lone Wolf Plus Family Plan. Ok, let’s play this out. You and your brood have successfully made it to your retreat. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of acres of wilderness surround you. You have food and supplies stockpiled to augment wild game and gathered veggies and fruits. You have enough heirloom seeds to last several years of crops. You and yours can conceivably last many years without ever seeing another human being.
Again, then what?
Your kids are going to grow up. Unless you have some vision of them living in a post-apocalyptic version of a V.C. Andrews novel, they are going to need some kind of contact with the outside world at some point. Without that interaction, among other things the gene pool is suddenly going to become awfully shallow.
What is the better alternative to being a Lone Wolf or the Lone Wolf Plus Family? Find like-minded individuals in your area and start getting to know them. Get out there and meet your neighbors. You might be surprised how many folks right in your area are interested in being prepared. If you already have property purchased for your retreat, get to know the people living in that area. Spend a lot of time getting acquainted with them and the area. Slowly introduce emergency preparedness into conversations and see where it leads. Again, you might be pleasantly surprised. Learn who has the skills you might lack. If your retreat is near a small town, get involved to some degree. Attend the corn roasts, visit the library book sales, patronize the Mom-n-Pop businesses. Let them get to know you, at least on a surface level.
The idea isn’t necessarily to invite a ton of people to your retreat. Please don’t think I’m suggesting or advocating that approach. Obviously, if you’ve taken the time to prepare a retreat and stockpile supplies, you want to keep it low-key. But, if there comes to pass a time when society falls apart, you just might find yourself in need of a product or service another local could provide. That’s not the best time to suddenly introduce yourself.
A final thought—loneliness. Going it alone will get old after a while. Human beings are pack animals, to a degree. At our core, we’re kind of wired in such a way that we seek companionship and friendship. In fact, recent scientific studies indicate loneliness can raise the levels of stress hormones and also cause the heart and circulatory system to work harder. Further, research seems to indicate there is an increased risk of stroke. Mentally, it can lead to poor decision making as well as decreased memory and learning. I think it is probably a given that in an end of the world scenario, we’ll be engaging in more physical labor than we are probably used to performing on a daily basis. Adding in heart problems on top of that is pretty much a recipe for disaster, especially when coupled with poor decision-making.
One of the reasons solitary confinement is such a severe punishment is the mental toll it takes on a person. As a species, we crave personal interaction. We need the touch of another person, even if it is nothing more than a handshake or a pat on the back. What do you think the Tom Hanks character Chuck Noland would have traded to have Wilson be an actual human being?
Even the perhaps prototypical survivalist, the mountain man of 1800s America, came to town from time to time. They would trade their pelts for needed supplies and likely as not stop by the local saloon for some respite. They also held annual rendezvous to keep in touch with one another. Whether consciously or otherwise, they recognized the need for fellowship among their kind.
I have met very few individuals who could likely pull off going it solo for the long-term. Interestingly enough, those same people rarely, if ever, brag about their skills and, in fact, don’t discuss their plans much at all. Take that for what it is worth.