Some of my best memories are from when I was camping in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, attending Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School. There, I learned to make fire using a few pieces of wood and a shoelace, build a shelter out of sticks and leaves, and cook food while it’s buried in a hole. Tom’s school teaches people how to thrive regardless of where they are, and, while I doubt that I’m practiced enough to survive absolutely anywhere, the basics that I learned are nonetheless the same as those of people who can walk into the Mojave Desert without even a pair of shorts and live there comfortably for years.
These skills work in reality, but it’s hard to say for fantasies like the apocalypse. The problem is that – whether it’s an apocalypse from dragons as in Reign of Fire, weather like The Day after Tomorrow, the undead like in any of the various zombie movies and games, or maybe a nuclear war of the sort that everyone lived in fear of until the far distant past of nineteen years ago – everyone is a survival moron. In his Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival, Tom says that the results of a nuclear war would be far too horrific to imagine, and working for prevention is the only way to survive. The reality of these games, books, and movies, then, is that they’re products of forgiving imaginations: infinitely milder than the horrible reality of being caught in the Curve of Binding Energy.
The main themes in any post-apocalyptic setting are the sudden disappearance of common utilities and the breakdown of social order; not only are there no warm places to sleep, nor clean water to drink, nor processed meals to eat, but there’s also no one you can turn to for help. You’re on your own, and, if you’re anything like most characters from this genre, you’re monster chow. But, since we’re imagining the aftermath to be milder than it would actually be, then, of course, someone with the correct survival skills will be fine.
One simple guideline that can help anyone anywhere is the Law of Threes: a human being can go three hours in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit with a wet back before catching hypothermia, three days without water before dehydrating, and three weeks without food before starving. Let’s start with shelter and go from there.
No matter if zombies’re banging down your door, bombs’ve vaporized your house, or dragons’re using your condo as a volleyball, everyone needs sleep and warmth, and the basis for any warmth is dead air space (as little free-flowing air as possible). This means that, unless you build a fire (alerting the roving bands of cannibals to your location), you’ll have to work with as confined a space as possible, letting your body heat do the work. For starters, wear as many dry (wetness lets cold in) interlocking layers (undershirt tucked into underwear, underwear into sweater, sweater into pants, pants into boots and jacket, etc.) as is comfortable. You want to minimize your exposure to the elements, and you can always take something off if you get too warm (the zombies’ll enjoy accessorizing as you scamper to safety).
With no free time to build shelters due to the rampaging giant spiders, your best bet is to push together a pile of leaves, blankets, rugs (whatever) and sleep inside. This debris pile won’t keep long, so, once you have the time, a longer lasting shelter is a debris hut.
A debris hut is like the pile but with an infrastructure. Similar to a lean-to except closer to the ground and built to your body’s proportions, a debris hut can last months with minimal maintenance. In the woods you’ll build it with sticks and leaves, in the city you’ll use whatever non-toxic materials are on hand. It doesn’t really matter how good your shelter looks though, just as long as it has the dead air space you need to keep warm (leave the fashion statements and lavish mansions for the vampires trying to suck your blood).
You’ll need to filter and boil your water to make it safe. Most of today’s water is contaminated with biological contaminants like Giardia spores, which will make you crap your pants until the sun don’t shine, so you’ll need to boil your water to destroy them. Also, just to make water safer in general, bury your own feces above the waterline (you can tell where this is by the sudden shift in leaves, sticks, etc.). For an easy filter, take a sock, add charcoal, sand, then grass. This’ll remove dirt and debris along with some chemicals (filter until it’s clear).
That covers flowing water, but there are other sources that are already safe. Dew, whether you collect it with a cloth to squeeze into your mouth or lick it off of grass like in The Gods Must Be Crazy, is always clean. You can also drill a hole into the largest side of a Sycamore for water (only one per tree and tap the hole when done), peel then chew up Thistle, or build a solar still using a sheet of plastic, a tube, a cup, two rocks, and a hole in the ground. All of these’ll give you clean, fresh water that won’t leave you running for the bushes.
Not having enough water can be horrible, but having none is far worse. The longest I’ve gone without water was two days, and by the time I drank again I felt like I would die. (Never do this. It was stupid and you should learn from my mistake.) My skin grew clammier until it seemed like clay, and I got a headache that escalated until I was staggering in pain. The psychological effects were the worst though – I started wanting to really hurt myself, and felt like I could drain my veins just to feel dampness on my skin. At this point, I decided I’d learned enough and started drinking again (I prefer my near death experiences to be from driving on the highway, thank you very much).
Everyone experiences dehydration differently though, so your main indicator should be the one everyone shares – pee. Your urine should be clear: Any yellow is a sign of chronic dehydration (I believe the first sign of over-hydration is known as drowning).
Finally to food, the most consuming of all needs. As the last man on Earth, you’re stuck with hunting and gathering for sustenance. In a Zombie Apocalypse there should still be plenty of plants and animals left since the formerly-deceased aren’t interested in plants and animals are too fast and stealthy for shambling corpses. Plants and animals should also be around in the others (if they weren’t then the earth would have run out of oxygen), so you’ll need to go where they’d be, and water is as good a place as any to start looking.
People instinctively walk towards water so don’t worry about finding it (try downhill if nothing’s working), and check the trees. Acorns are edible after a few boilings (or just eat them straight if you don’t mind the non-poisonous but overpoweringly bitter tannic acid), and you can grind up the inner-bark of Oak trees to make flour. Grass is edible, as are clovers and their flowers; pine needles are good for tea, and the nuts from pinecones are edible.
The animals that you find will be faster, more alert, sneakier, and, let’s face it, smarter than you, so, in order to eat them, you’ll need to become more aware, stealthy, and intelligent than they are. Two helpful tools in this endeavor are fox walking and wide-angle vision. You’re in wide-angle vision when you unfocus your eyes. This way, you’ll pick up motion before details which is also how animals see. You’ll have to fox walk to get near them. First, balance on one foot, touch the ground with the edge of the other foot, let the rest roll down (feel for anything you’d rather not stand on), and then put your weight on it. It should take three seconds for each step, and forty times longer if the animal is in-front of you (playing red light, green light the whole way).
Throw something at its head – hard enough to at least knock it out – once you get close enough, then bash it in (only kill what you need). Skin it (for an easy edge, take a round stone with a low pitch and strike it against a rough stone with a high pitch – the sound when you tap them is what matters – you should have a decent shiv if you struck correctly), cook it on coals (rub flint and steel together next to a fluffy bundle of inner tree bark strips for some fire) until they stop sticking (kills parasites), and you’re ready to eat.
Whether you live in a debris hut stuffed with pine needles or a closet filled with old clothes, it still needs to be someplace safe from our glorious robot masters. Take a minute to check out your surroundings, notice all the prominent spots … now look again at everyplace else you’d regularly neglect. It’s in places like these where you can hide from space aliens, undead pigeons, and nomadic cannibals (for a visual demonstration, watch the beginning of Benicio del Toro’s The Hunted) since they’re just as likely to overlook them as you. This attention to various details combined with wide-angle vision and fox walking are the key to raising your awareness as well as your chances of survival.
The final bit of knowledge you’ll need to survive the end of days is sign tracking. Sign tracking will tell you when you’re crossing a heavily or seldom used road; a clearing untouched for years or one that recently hosted a cyborg luau; a deserted canyon or one that dragons just nested in. You need to be aware – are the sticks and leaves on this trail broken up or undisturbed since falling? Is this house in good repair or long since abandoned? Is this cliff evenly weathered or does the surface change suddenly? Attention to these details will tell you what’s happening, and it’s this awareness which will ensure that you will flourish where zombies can only flounder.
The skills outlined above are consistent with reality, and, to some extent, so is the genre of apocalyptic games and movies. The lawlessness and famine present in post-apocalyptica are unfortunately very real in some countries today. Somalia, Afghanistan, or a nearby country on the Failed State Index, is actually a lot like the wasteland of Fallout (sadly, undead or dragons aren’t real enough to be experienced on Earth). By playing current videogames, you may learn how to barely survive in Somalia; but by applying the skills above, you just might thrive.
Jack Baker is an international superstar. When he’s not out battling evil robots, sleeping with beautiful Amazonian women, and plotting to deliver our planet to the minions of Lord Xenu, he’s working towards an infinite Gamerscore and writing articles for The Escapist.