Survival Tips From a Pioneer Born 100 Years Too Late

Survival Tips From a Pioneer Born 100 Years Too Late

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I grew up in a hardscrabble farm in Idaho. I sometimes tell folks that the Depression lasted in that part of the country until 1963 (when I left home) . We really did pioneer and hunter-gathering things. My mother used to reuse gift wrapping paper and rebuild hand-me-down clothes. My father would pull nails out of scrap lumber to reuse it and then straighten out the nails. I had survival imperatives ingrained in my soul. So I, in my turn, save, repair, and reuse stuff most people throw away.

Some people might call me an alarmism and it would be a happy surprise if I were wrong, but everything I read and observe, and the Spirit, seem to be shouting: Hard Times Are Coming. Before 9/11, not many people took such fanaticism seriously; now, many people are getting nervous. However, I fear too many must find the wolf inside the door before they think about .

While we could justify preparedness and survival skills on such events as extreme fuel shortages, breakdown of global infrastructure, bad weather, plagues, and civil strife, and certainly volumes could be written about these scenarios, I want to cite a single effect of the combination of such events to justify this pamphlet.

“And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety. And there shall be gathered unto it out of every nation under heaven; and it shall be the only people that shall not be at war one with another” (D&C 45: 68-69).

We have read this for years without thinking it through to its logical conclusion. A number of Church leaders in ’s day prophesied about this eventuality. Let me cite one example:

“The day will come when millions of people will flock to us for bread, and thousands of them will be honest; they will be the elect of God: they will come to us for salvation, either to this place or to Jackson County “(Heber C. Kimball, JD 8:89).

So it appears that not only are we storing and preparing for ourselves, but for the millions of refugees that we will eventually need to feed, clothe and house. The majority of the population already living in the Inter-mountain West could survive for little more than 3 months on what they already have on hand. This does not take into account individual or institutional preparedness we may yet make, but I suspect the magnitude of the future challenge will require everything we can possibly do to keep the new population alive until we can expand local manufacturing and agricultural production. And, we must stop thinking of gardening in terms of growing a few herbs in flower pots and more in terms of tilling up the entire lawn to grow food.

I will describe things with survival value that can be practiced to some degree in most households. I will not try to cover everything that can be done; there are many good references to basic survival and provident living skills. One I particularly like is “Back to Basics, how to learn and enjoy traditional American skills” published by Reader’s Digest. I will suggest only things with which I have had experience, in the hope that this collections of tips will offer something helpful in the hard-enough times of today and really hard times in the future. I will assume that the reader already has some knowledge of most of the topics discussed.

Home Food Production


In a genuine food crisis, gardeners should pay attention to the amount of calories and the amount of protein that can be raised on a given area of ground. For the greatest amount of food calories per acre, grain corn and wheat cannot be beaten. With no restraints on inputs of water and fertilizer, corn gives the best yield. When inputs of water and fertilizer must be limited, wheat is the best option. Winter wheat can be planted in late September or early October after harvest of other garden crops or after killing areas of lawn. Fertilized and watered heavily once to get it up, it will form a green carpet before frost and grow rapidly with the first warmth of spring. They will mature grain without irrigation in many areas and with one or two irrigations will give yields of 100 or more bushels per acre. The heads can be dried before the grain is completely dry and further dried in sheaves and the ground used to plant a late crop such as green beans or short-season corn. Potatoes and carrots also produce heavy caloric yields per area with suitable inputs of fertilizer and water. Dry beans and peas are the best producers of high-protein available in our area. Although the yields are modest compared to cereal grains, if eaten in small quantities, they can be used to balance a diet of vegetables and grains.

Carrots and other small-seeded vegetables are sometimes difficult to germinate due to drying winds in the spring. Here are some techniques that have worked for me. Watering 3 times a day to keep the beds continually moist will do the trick, but requires more attention than many of us can manage. Some vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, radishes, and onions can be planted in the late fall and will usually germinate naturally in early spring. Covering the seeds with peat instead of soil will help maintain them continually moist. Finally, if other methods fail, plant in a slightly depressed row and cover with old boards. Check frequently and pull off the boards when a few of the plants have germinated. This works well with carrots, but less well with lettuce that appears to need light to germinate.

Carrots, potatoes, onions, and probably beets and turnips can be left in the soil, covered with about 10 inches of leaves or straw, and dug as needed throughout the winter. Swiss chard and often broccoli will overwinter and can be harvested in the spring, although the broccoli is much inferior to new plantings and the Swiss chard will later go to seed.

In areas with an appropriately long season, a gardener may increase yield on at least part of a garden by double cropping. This requires a first crop that is harvested early, followed by another crop with a short maturity time or the ability to mature in the cool fall weather. First crops that I have used in Mapleton, Utah include lettuce, arugula, cilantro, radishes, onions, spinach, and peas. Second crops that I have successfully established behind them are corn (Early Sunglow, a 63-day variety), string beans, radishes, lettuce, and arugula. Spinach would probably work in the late role, also. Corn and string beans must be planted by the second week of July to mature. Lettuce, arugula, and radishes work well if planted about the first of September.

One problem that would arise if we were forced into subsistence gardening is what to use for fertilizer because the usual ammonium sulfate, triple super phosphate, and mixed fertilizers might not be available. The pioneers and others in former times used several approaches. The best, without a doubt, is to spread animal manure. Usually, this was from horses, cattle, or chickens. Horse manure, being rather fibrous, is best spread about 1.5-2 inches thick. Cow manure should be spread about an inch deep and chicken manure, if mostly pure, should be spread about ½ inch deep over the garden area. One additional source of nutrients that might be overlooked is human urine. Urine is normally sterile and does not pose a health risk. As it is somewhat charged with salt, it should not be overused. Plant residue from the garden itself should always be incorporated into the soil and other organic material from outside may to be brought in. This might include grass clippings, leaves, food waste, and so forth. If not composted, it takes quite a lot of these materials to contribute the needed nutrients. One additional trick to use when insufficient nutrients are available to support the growth of crops, is to space the individual plants farther apart than normal.

Weeds and Pests

Weeds are probably the greatest challenge the gardener faces. Killing weeds is fairly straight forward by hoeing and hand pulling. The pioneers often employed their children in these tasks (believe me, I know). There are tricks in the process to make it more efficient. Often, the two tasks can be combined to increase efficiency. One should hoe the middles and up to within 1/4 or ½ inch of the crop plants on both sides and follow in a second pass pulling the weeds near the stems. It is possible cut very close to the crop plants by making the hoe strokes almost parallel, but at a slight angle away from the center or by placing the hoe head near the crop plant and raking past and at an angle away from them. On the seconding hoeing, most crops (corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.) can be hilled as a part of the hoeing. This is to drag dirt from the middles with each hoe stroke and cover the plant bases to a depth of about 2 inches and the small weeds around them in the process. Another trick is to smother (or shade out) the weeds by planting through holes in black plastic sheeting. For several of the crops, the black plastic provides extra warmth during the early part of the crop year and stimulates better growth. Water will have to be applied under some of these materials through drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Black plastic is expensive and may not always be available. Roof membrane, geo-textile, and woven plastic tarp material work as well and will last multiple years. Often, these materials can be salvaged after construction projects. Plastic and even boards can be used to kill grass before planting.

Deer can be destructive in gardens and orchards. Fences at least 7 feet high are necessary to keep them out. Although as a temporary solution, repellants are effective. A solution of bar soap (slivers of left-over soap can be used here) blended to a near-liquid in two quarts of water with an egg and a good squirt of dish detergent then sprayed on garden plants, will keep deer from browsing. It has to be renewed after each rain or sprinkling. Longer-lasting protection can be gotten by hanging pieces of hand soap on small trees and shrubs. It takes 3 or 4, one inch by one inch pieces to protect a 7-foot tree.

Some insects can be controlled without the use of insecticides. The bean beetle, which is brown and yellow as an adult, and bright yellow as larva and eggs, and Colorado potato beetles, which are striped as adults and pink-red as larva, can be controlled by examining the plants and mashing the egg masses and individual insects a couple of times per week. Tomato horn worms can also be controlled by killing of individual insects. Aphids can be partially controlled by washing them off the plants where they congregate by a jet of water from the hose.


The pioneers usually had to save their own seeds if they wanted to plant again the next spring. We have gotten out of the habit of saving our own seed, but we can easily do so for most of our vegetables should necessity arise. The one serious exception to this is corn, which is usually hybridized from inbred male and female lines to achieve hybrid vigor. The offspring of these hybrids vary widely in vigor and characteristics. However, there are open-pollinated (heritage varieties) of corn that can be harvested for seed, although they often lack some of the superior flavor and tenderness we prize. Hybrid varieties of tomatoes, melons, peppers and so forth, do produce progeny that are similar to their parents. Seeds for most varieties of vegetables and grains are not hybrids and can be easily produced by letting the plants or fruits become over-mature, extracting the seeds, and drying at ambient temperatures.

Threshing seeds and grains can be a daunting problem. Let me suggest a few ways of doing this without buying a $150,000 combine. Most dry seeds can be loosened from their pods by placing them in a feed sack and rubbing the sack back and forth under foot with a rubber soled shoe. Alternately, rub the pods between the shoe sole and concrete without the sack and then sweep up the resulting mixture. Dry beans and the like can be shelled by placing the dry pods in a plastic bucket (half to 2/3 full) and pounding them with end of a length of 2×4. Another method (for wheat, rye, and so forth) is to pass the heads through the hammer mill side of a garden chipper running at idle speed. After the seeds are loosened from the pods, pass them through large and small screens to remove the large chaff and dust from the seed mixture, then winnow by pouring in front of a fan (the pioneers used the wind) into a tub. Small quantities can be separated by hand and blown by mouth. Corn can be separated from the cobs (shelled) by hand for quantities less than a bushel. It can be done faster by beating a feed sack half full of cobs against the ground, running over with a car, or with a simple corn sheller. This, basically, is a hole in a board a little larger than the filled cobs, with a few nail or screw heads protruding towards the center of the hole to form an opening just bigger than the empty cob. The full cobs are inserted and rotated to remove the grain. There exists a hand-crank corn sheller that farmers used a century or so ago. Fruits (such as tomatoes) must be separated from the pulp by crushing and washing followed by drying. Smaller quantities can be scraped out with a butter knife and dried on newspaper.

Seeds in storage eventually lose their ability to germinate. Under dry conditions (such as we have in the West), heat is the real killer of seeds. At room temperature this may happen from 1 to 6 years after harvest, depending on species. Most seeds can be kept viable for many years by storing them in a freezer. I once germinated seed that had been stored in a freezer for about 35 years.


Animal production, for the most part, is impractical on a city lot. There is room to keep a cow, for example, but one would need an acre of other land to grow the needed forage or be able to buy hay. A sheep or a goat can be grown and fattened by staking out and twice-daily moving on the lawn or fed garden waste. A spring animal will be ready for slaughter in the fall. Remember, that sheep and goats will eat flowers, many shrubs, and the bark from trees if they can reach them. Chickens, particularly the game-cock varieties, will free-range and maintain themselves without much outside feed. When I was growing up, we had chickens (fighting cocks, I believe). They reproduced naturally and provided us with meat and eggs in the spring and summer. The downside is that chickens will eat nearly everything in your garden if not fenced out and they will forage in your neighbors yards as well. Perhaps the best animal for the urban survivor is the domestic rabbit. Raised in pens built from scrap lumber and chicken or net wire, children can gather forage daily and provide all the care needed. My own children raised rabbits for several years and we ate and sold them.


Some have contended that they could survive by hunting. This is mostly illusion. The fact is that the human population far exceeds the numbers of large game animals in most of the country. In a severe food crisis, large game animals would become scarce very quickly. The biomass of fouls and small game is so low that it could not contribute significantly. However, for some families in some areas, hunting could supplement an otherwise meatless diet.

For the most part, fish also have a relatively low biomass across the region and could quickly become scarce. There is one possible exception. Carp, (Cyprinus carpio), are largely vegetarians, grow rapidly, and maintain a relatively high biomass in most waters where they are present. For example, it is estimated that there are one hundred million carp in Utah Lake. Many other waters, have high populations of carp. The problem is that most people do not like or have not acquired a taste for carp. The one time I ate carp, I found it bony and slightly disagreeable in flavor. In many parts of the world, carp is frequently eaten. I have heard that smoked carp is comparable to smoked salmon (I would have to taste it to believe). The forked bones between every flake of meat can be softened by pressure cooking or one can pick them out as one eats. Finally, I suspect that hunger would make this fish a lot more tasty.

I have caught about 300 carp (usually ranging from 1.5 to 7 lbs) which I buried in my garden for fertilizer. While there are a lot of ways of catching carp (including bow fishing and spearfishing). Here is how I do it. Using a spinning reel, 20 lb test braided line, a moderately stiff rod, I rig a ½ oz sliding sinker in front of a small split shot or swivel, a 2 ft piece of the same line as leader, and a size 2 short-shank stainless steel hook. I bait with a piece of bread mashed to completely cover the hook. I cast to an area where carp are working or resting and let the bait lie on the bottom. The carp usually pick up the bait very gently, give 2 to 4 little tugs (sometimes almost undetectable), and then make a short run. Usually, they feel the resistance of the line after 3 feet or so of the run and drop the bait. I try and strike on the second little tug. If I wait for the run, I more often than not, miss the strike.


There are many edible wild plants, most of which must be sought far away from where most of us live. I shall treat a few that are commonly found in our yards, in vacant lots, roadsides, and waste areas near our cities. The pioneers ate “lucern greens” or greens from alfalfa. My mother’s family ate pig weed greens (Amaranthus sp.) during the depression. Pioneers used to eat dandelion greens. That weed can be found in your lawn and flower beds unless you fight them very diligently. Dandelion greens are quite palatable, but except for the youngest leaves you must pore off the cooking water twice to remove the bitter taste. The flower buds and roots are also edible. The only reason we don’t eat these species today is that we have better garden greens such as chard, mustard, and spinach. When I was a child, I ate the green seeds a weedy mallow, (Malva neglecta), which is called “cheese weed” and the soft ends of grass stalks after we pulled they from the plant. You would have to work pretty hard to get a meal from these sources, but certainly they would be a good source of vitamins and minerals. Cattails (Typha latifolia) have edible root starch, tender developing leaves and heads. Although not exciting, I have tried them all and fond them acceptable. The pioneers ate thistle roots during early winters. Also, the pith of large thistles is edible, though a challenge to extract.

Two wild, but semi-urban fruits should be noted. American plum (Prunus americana) often grows on canal banks, railroad right-of-ways, and vacant lots. It has a surprisingly tasty fruit, not unlike many of the Japanese plums. It can be eaten out of hand, dried, or made into an excellent jelly. Rose fruits (hips), both of domestic and wild species are also edible. It is the rind of the fruit that is eaten and it tastes like somewhat dry, green apples. They are a powerful source of vitamin C.

One plant, naturalized rye (Secale cereale) probably exceeds all other local wild plants combined as a potential source of food, at least in much of Utah. The species grows on many rights-of-way, vacant lots, and hillsides–hundreds of acres in aggregate. The grains look like wheat, about half as long and thick. Although lower in gluten, the grain and items made from the flour taste similar to wheat. Hand harvest is a bit laborious (I clipped the heads off one to a few at a time with scissors). Surely, a better way could be found. Threshing can be accomplished by the methods described above for wheat and rye.

Preserving and Storage

Home canning with mason jars is an art every modern-day pioneer should pursue. Recently, concern about storage caused a run on mason jars so that quart jars completely disappeared from store shelves in the whole state of Utah. Because jars can last almost indefinitely, lids are likely to come up short in a real emergency. It might be a good idea to store a year’s supply of lids and rotate them. When I was a boy and we were poor, my mother used to reuse undamaged canning lids. Now, I would only reuse lids if I had no other option. The thought of reusing lids may cause some to have safety concerns. Well taken. Keep in mind that the rubber seals on lids are better than they were 50 years ago and if a seal fails to form, it will show up as a domed lid exactly as with a new lid with a failed seal and that jar can be held back and used immediately.

Drying food is a wonderful way of preserving for storage. The techniques are widely published and the equipment widely owned. Let me just mention two things about drying. Before home food dryers were available, people used roofs, especially south- or west-facing exposures. Things often dry faster on roofs than in forced-air dryers. Flies can be a problem in late summer before frost, especially when drying fruit. They can be kept away from the drying food by covering with screen or cheese cloth. It is not widely known that a very good potato product can be preserved by drying. Simply cut the potatoes into slices or french fry pieces, drop into boiling water for about 2 minutes, cool in running water, and place in the drier. The product can be stored for 20 years or more. It will rehydrate during cooking in water. Raisins are a very useful item to make through the drying process. However, they dry very slowly because the skin effectively traps the moisture within. The drying can be speeded enormously by cutting each grape in half. This is tedious and gives the raisins an excessively “fruity” taste. An easy solution, is to freeze the grapes, which splits every one, and allows fairly rapid drying and imparts a good raisin taste.

Parching is a technique used from time immemorial to soften hard seeds and to render certain seeds with toxins edible. Some of the parched grains are quite tasty. Corn nuts are a commercial example. It is sometimes necessary to moisten the seeds beforehand to leave them soft. Some seeds can be parched dry. Simply place them in a saucepan or frying pan with enough oil to coat the seeds and cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until they turn golden brown. If no oil is available or if they are to be stored for an extended period, it can be done in a dry pan, but the results are not as good. I have prepared or eaten parched products made from wheat, corn (sweet corn seeds are best, but any will do), soya beans, lima beans, peas, pumpkin seeds, and bitter almonds. I understand that fava peas, dry beans, and sorghum can be used as well.

Knowing how to make fermented pickles and sauerkraut were a part of our pioneer ancestors repertoire of skills. Because the fermentation process makes its own acids, no vinegar is required. Simply place the washed and cut vegetables in a brine made from un-iodized salt (in the case of sauerkraut, with just un-iodized salt), and spices (garlic, dill, hot peppers, etc.) in a crock or plastic bucket, place a plate over them to hold them under the brine, and place a fruit jar filled with water on the plate to hold it down. Ferment in a cool, but not cold place. It takes a couple of weeks to complete the process.

Building with Scrap and Other Ways to Get By


One of my children remarked: “Making bread is a lot of work.” Yes, that’s why we usually buy bread at the grocery store. In fact, most of the pioneer and survival skills are a lot of work. As we move up the economic “food chain”, we escape work through higher cost. When we lose some of our affluence, we must again substitute work for the money we no longer have to spend.

There is an old pioneer rhyme that goes like this: “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Although many can afford to live wastefully, it wouldn’t hurt us all to get a little closer to this way of thinking. Even the Savior, after He had fed the 5,000 as it were, from nothing, commanded his disciples to gather up the scraps that remained, “that nothing be lost.” Before we throw things away, perhaps we could ask ourselves, could this item be repaired or used in some other way. We live in a throw-away society. Most items smaller than a car are not meant to be repaired. This does not mean that they cannot be repaired or that they may not contain useful components. I make jerry-rig repairs frequently with glue, wire, or weld and keep a lot of things going. I also take junked items apart and save the screws, bolts, aluminum and so forth. When I must make a repair, I have several pounds of screws, bolts, washers, and springs and a lot of scrap iron and wood to work with. I realize that not everyone has time or space to do this. But in future hard times, we may have more time than we are used to having. Some claim not to have the skill to repair and build things. To some extent, this is true, but generally, skill follows will.

As with appliances, most shoes are not made to be repaired. However, many can be repaired and ordinary people can repair them in a pinch. A molded sole that has separated can be reattached with a silicone glue. Clamp the parts in place until dry. Even better, is an industrial strength rubber cement which can be purchased at a good hardware store. Paint both sides to be glued, allow to dry and pound them together with a mallet or hammer. Sewing can be done by punching holes with an awl and lacing with dental floss pulled with carpet needles. The needles go through the holes better if the points are rounded. Use two needles passing in opposite directions through each hole. Some heels can be reattached by lifting up the insole and inserting screws from the inside through into the heel.


As I mentioned, my father salvaged and built with scrap lumber and used nails. Nearly all of such materials are now carted to the landfill. Granted, they are not as good or as pretty to build with as new materials, but in a pinch, they can work almost as well. At least, old lumber and construction scrap can be cut up and burned to heat homes. I heat my home with scrap lumber and cut-up pallets, as well as prunings and cordwood.

Living in unheated quarters, while not usually dangerous to healthy people who can bundle up, is at best miserable. It is hard to get anything done when you feel cold. Many old wood stoves could be rehabilitated and new ones could be built. Fabricating them is not high technology. I have built one from old steel plate. A word here about fireplaces. Open fireplaces are the least efficient form of heating. They often heat the room immediately around themselves, but suck the warm air from the extremities of the house. However, fireplaces with inserts and circulating fans can approach the efficiency of free-standing stoves. Certainly, the whole population cannot heat with wood. There simply is not enough wood around. There are enough coal deposits in the region to heat the whole population, but the air quality would suffer terribly. Adding additional insulation to homes or adding insulation to improvised shelters is almost as good as heating. If new insulation is unavailable or unaffordable, salvaged fiberglass insulation and fireproofed cellulose-based insulation, although inconvenient to use, are just as effective as new materials. For makeshift shelters, any number of materials will do. In the first half of the 20th century, sawdust, wood shavings, straw, or even layers of old newspapers were used. Keep in mind, that all these materials can be a fire hazard.

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