Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Low-tech solutions to high-tech problems

Now that prepping has become mainstream, one of the recurrent themes I find is the tendency to apply high-tech solutions to high-tech problems. It’s a lot of fun, after all, to figure out how the latest whiz-bang technology can be used in case of service failures. If your problem is a lack of electricity, what’s the highest-tech solution you can come up with? If your problem is a lack of food, what’s the highest-tech solution you can find? – that kind of thing.

As I see it, these solutions can all too often be expensive, limited, and prone to either breaking down at inconvenient moments (with parts and service unavailable) or otherwise be non-renewable (such as MREs).

Through economic necessity, our household has (mostly) taken the opposite approach when it comes to prepping. We’re searching for low-tech solutions to high-tech problems.

Please don’t misunderstand – I love modern technology. I adore electricity. I love having a washing machine. I think the internet is one of the greatest inventions since sliced bread. Clean, running water is absolutely wonderful. Grocery stores? Fabulous.

But if all those things are taken away, I don’t want to be miserable or otherwise unable to function because services are down. That’s why we prep. But nor do I want to be miserable or unable to function because my high-tech solutions broke down or ran out, and I had no alternatives to fall back on. That’s why we’re looking for low-tech options to all our modern conveniences.

Almost invariably, high-tech solutions are expensive. For the cost of a solar array or even a generator, I can buy a whole lotta beans, bullets, and band-aids. If your finances are limited, then it’s far more economically worthwhile – LOTS more bang for your buck – to search for low-tech options.

Remember, the more moving parts something has, the more likely it is to break. Unless you have the knowledge and spare parts to fix what’s broken, it might be better to either skip the thing with moving parts, or at least have multiple backup options if it should fail. While high-tech solutions can be wonderful, you also have to be practical and realistic. Ultimately it’s better to learn to live with LESS than to be dependent on MORE.

That said, you also have to balance high-tech solutions against whatever physical limitations you may have. Many low-tech solutions are low-tech because they’re labor-intensive, so they won’t work for everyone. However since a lot of people (even those in robust health) instinctively know that low-tech solutions usually mean more work, they’re less inclined to seek out those options no matter how much proven historical tract record they may have.

I advocate what I call the Seven Core Areas of Preparedness (water, food, heat, light, medical, sanitation, and protection). While these Seven Core Areas are not entirely comprehensive, they cover a vast amount of territory in terms of making your life comfortable in the event of an emergency. It’s also essential to think in terms of backups to backups to backups (otherwise known as the Rule of Three). If your first option fails, you need to have a second option, and a third.

It’s not easy going low-tech in modern houses. The most obvious low-tech solution for heating, for example, is a wood stove… a solution that’s difficult in the suburbs (where will you get your wood?) or impossible in the city (high rise apartments frown on wood stoves).

In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to everything. We all have different circumstances, which means we must all search for whatever low-tech solutions will solve our high-tech issues. The low-tech solutions we come up with here in rural Idaho will differ vastly from the solutions for someone who lives in a suburban home in Dallas or in an urban apartment in Boston.

In our modern culture, and with the vast ignorance we have about low-tech living (ourselves included!), the best we can hope for is a blend of high- and low-tech answers. I’m not about to give up the convenience of flashlights (a high-tech gizmo) in favor of a hurricane lamp if I’m trying to find out what kind of predator is harassing our livestock at midnight. But if my flashlight fails, at least I have a hurricane lamp available.

I’m concerned that if preppers focus only on high-tech solutions, then (a) they may be in trouble if parts or service isn’t available for those high-tech options; or (b) they won’t bother to acquire the skills, knowledge, tools, and supplies necessary to provide a low-tech answer if something goes wrong with the whiz-bang option.

I’m interested in hearing how others respond to the call of low-tech prepping. Readers of this blog range from the impressively self-sufficient to the utter novice – we embrace the entire range of living situations – so what do you do to low-tech prep in your particular circumstances? What are your low-tech answers to high-tech problems? Let us know so we can all benefit from your knowledge and experience.


  1. Patrice, all I can think right now, with a smile, is that I've refused in my near 30 years of marriage to use an electric can-opener! Give me the handy hand-version and I'm a happy gal! Sometimes the "easier" version is simply more trouble that its worth and it won't work without electricity. I like my 30 year old manual can-opener and hope it lasts another 30 years! I know people who come to help at Thanksgiving and Christmas and they've never used a hand-can-opener. Crazy!


    1. ME TOO! Been married 26 years and never once owned an electric can opener! Just didn't like another electric gizmo taking up precious countertop space. When we went camping, we'd take the manual can opener out of the kitchen drawer to use!

      And yeah, it's funny to see folks who think you are in the stone age because you don't own an electric can opener! Ha!

    2. Those suckers get disgusting grunge on the blades that people never seem to clean off! Never owned one and never will.

    3. I'm happy to say I am the same way! I've NEVER owned one. Had a friend that had one that was so nasty dirty, I vowed to never own one, aside from the fact that the people I know that have one, do not have a manual one...what are they to do when the power is off?

      I have two in the house, one in the camper and one in the cabin. Hubby has a collection of little miilitary ones, p something or other, that I really like.

      I do have a preference for my manual can opener that lifts the lid off, rather than cuts it off, but that is because I've been using some of my cans to make candles out of vegetable oil and the lid is still safe to handle and can be put over the "can"dle, which I then secure with a fat rubber band.


    4. Me too, 30 years without an electric can opener.

    5. I have both electric and manual can openers and have used both, but tend to use the manual way more. If you want to see more funny looks, hand them an ice cube tray!!

  2. We live in the suburbs. I have always taken a low-tech approach because most of the scenarios I contemplated - before "prepping" for major scenarios became so seemingly necessary - were short-term, grid-down situations. What do we do when the electricity or natural gas or water or sewer or phones are out for hours, days, a week. How do we replace that function or do the same things that currently depend on them. So everything was about solutions and work-arounds that took the place of the missing service or services. Many of the early options were taken directly from camping. In fact, the plan was called, Camping at Home. While you may have to store additional supplies, all of the GEAR was camping gear. Because when you think about it, when you are off in the woods camping you are functioning without all of those services.

    This still holds true and is a great starting place for new preppers. Unfortunately the realities of the world we now find ourselves in mean the potential for scenarios that are much bigger and much uglier are far more likely. And they might go on for prolonged periods of time. It's depressing, but this whole business gets ever more difficult, time and money consuming, and complex. The pile never seems big enough.

    Jeff - Tucson

  3. I have to focus on low tech options because income is an issue. Higher tech gizmos are just priced out of my reach. We did find out, quite by accident, that hurricane lamps put out a decent amount of heat in a small area. We are in a total electric mobile home. We lost power during an ice storm so we brought all the kids into our room, climbed on the bed and played board games under lots of covers and by the light of two hurricane lamps. Eventually someone wanted something from the kitchen. We opened the door to find the rest of the house was a freezer(you could see your breath), but we were at least 60 degrees in the bedroom. Ventilation would need to be addressed, but in an emergency, It would work in a pinch. For that reason I keep alot of hurricane lamps all around the house.

  4. Sometimes it is almost impossible to come up with the best solution. We have a very lovely hurricane lamp that belonged to my wife's grandmother and we keep it filled. We went out and bought another one for around $13 and a couple of gallons of kerosene/lamp oil from Wally World for just in case. A friend of mine from work was telling me how he had purchased a small solar charging system for rechargeable batteries for flashlights.

    To be honest, both are good solutions for a short-term problem and both are bad solutions for mid- to long-term problems. If his solar charger fails or once his batteries get to the point of not holding a charge, he's out of luck. Once my kerosene is gone, I might be able to get more if I can locate it and acquire it. In a long-term scenario, there are very few things that can continue and kerosene is a good example. Once the tanks at the local gas stations are empty, where would you get it? It's not like anybody locally (or possible even regionally or nationally) would be able to produce it.

    When prepping, one of the biggest things a person needs to decide on is how long they are prepping for. Take the current run on ammunition and suggestions by preppers/survivalist on the amount you need to have on hand. Do you need to get through a short-term defensive crisis such as a hurricane? Do you need to get through a long-term defensive crisis such as total anarchy? Do you need to get through a long-term situation of hunting for food? For long-term/high usage scenarios, you can't possible stock enough ammo or reloading supplies.

    For long-term SHTF scenarios, one has to understand that things are just not if ever going to be the same.

    1. On the ammo question, this is why I have always instructed folks to concentrate on 22 LR as the main bulk for long term. It is very cheap in comparison and one can stockpile an impressive amount for a whole lot less. Is it an optimum caliber ? No. Yet it will do the job. Forget macho ! One must approach the whole long term issue as to what is needed for providing food for the table, not so much thinking about playing Rambo. If you get into continual fire fights, ya just gonna die end of story...

  5. Our can opener is a P-38 I brought home with me from Vietnam, and I still have it - on my key chain. We have purchased more of them through Army Surplus over the years, but it will open a can - supposedly using 38 cuts, although it hardly takes 38 to get a can open.

    And it's not the only thing its ever been used for.

    Smaller than a Leatherman. Only problem? I won't be able to eat if I can't find my keys.

  6. Old timey farmer's oil lamps with the wire "cage" around the globe and candles. And a previous poster was quite correct about the heat put off by small flames. In an enclosed space, every little bit helps.
    I'm also a big believer in one prep having multiple uses. Be it food, items in a go-bag, household tools, ammo, etc. Learn many ways to use a food item you were able to secure en masse at good prices. research and find "multi-tools" for your go-bag. And I mean more than a Gerber or Leatherman. Think tampons or condoms, which have multiple uses or a utility vessel that can be used to obtain, heat and store water like a Nalgene stainless steel bottle. This saves space/weight in your go-bag. Duct tape, zip ties and cordage can be used for a plethora of things. Rain ponchos and tarps. If you're talking ammo, the .22lr is cheap, light, usually easily obtainable and despite some opinions, wonderful as a self defense round as wrll as huntin small game and varmint well as practice(affordable enough to be able to spend the time and money necessary to become proficient and nearly indescernable recoil). Granted, the .22lr round is not optimal for self defense. Larger caliber rounds make excellent marksmanship less important since a shot to the fleshy part of the arm or leg with a .45 could still render an assailant incapacitated due to shick and/or blood loss, whereas a .22lr round needs to be placed more specifically and "grouped" with following rounds. But i assure you, 3 rounds center mass, even with the puny .22lr, will completely ruin an assailant's day. And rifles, semi-auto pistols and revolvers in the .22 caliber are easy to obtain and generally lighter than their larger caliber counterparts. same with're most important tool. Learn skills with many uses. Knot tying for example.
    Long story short, multi-use preps and redundancy, make it a habit whether at home, at work, camping/hiking/fishing/hunting/biking/kayak or canoeing, commuting or learning.

  7. We have a propane furnace, but it is set to 55 degrees, and most of our heat comes from the wood stove in the kitchen/dining area. We have electric lights, but back up with flashlights, oil lamps, and candles. We have a freezer, but back up with canned goods. Our big problem is the well is electric. The only backup to that is limited water stored in various containers, none larger than 55 gallons. Next on the list is the handpump for the well. Eventually I'd like a pond, and a cistern, and a genny, and so on, but cost is always a factor. Right now, everyone is in reasonably good health, so physical labor is less of an issue than money. Someday, that may not be true, so that has to be taken into consideration in the long-term plan.

    1. Perhaps in the meantime, you might want to have a 3'-4', 3" piece of PVC with a one way valve on the bottom, top cap with an eye hook, and a pulley system to lower into the well if it isn't too deep. At least this way you can still retrieve safe drinking water.

    2. I remember the well being 175' deep, but I'll have to check - if it's shallower, that would work well in a pinch - thank you!

    3. Don't forget to drill some half inch vent holes in the top or it will just sit and float because of vacuum - might consider weighting unit also as one way valve may be too stiff or too small to allow fast fill up.

  8. This is an interesting subject. I collect only information about pre-industrial technology, and learn and use the techniques as much as possible just because I enjoy it. Will be planting flax this summer to process, spin, and weave myself. Does that mean I intend to stop buying littles (undies and socks) at Wally World and second-hands at Sally Ann? Not on your life. And as long as technology lasts, I *love* those incandescent lights and an automatic washer. The goal should be not only to survive, but to survive graciously. What I *do* hope to do is weave patterned wall-cloths for my wood-fueled home. I hope I never have to weave a bed-sheet -- but if I do, they'll be beautiful!

  9. We live in a 200 year old schoolhouse in the northeast. A few years back I decided to return it to its original design and style to preserve its history and charm. Now it was never intended to have running water but had been converted with a deep well before being retired. I opted to keep the indoor plumbing! We put a hand pump in the bathroom (closest to the well intake) with a bypass valve to be able to switch from faucets to pump without aggravation. Most people just think its part of the decor along with very old tub and sink. Same with kitchen area big old cookstove just fits in with old castiron sink and antique grain grinder. No central heat was ever here so woodstove in main room fits in and saves money too. antique style kero lamps look like vintage deco. Has gravity fed septic but outhouse still stands and has been refurbished quietly just in case.antiques look like decor but everything is functional. We use everything on a daily basis (much to the horror of tech savvy kids) but the transition to lo-tech in the event of an extended emergency will be easier. We've just made being prepared our lifestyle. God Bless

  10. Another great read, Patrice.

    I don't own a microwave, but I do have a 30 year old blender.

    My car is almost 50...few electronics. Still able to outrun anything else on the road and gets 21mpg. (And it looks gooood. :) )

    I don't throw away my old guitar strings.

    Old and low tech is good when the chips are down. You never know what might save your buns in an emergency.


  11. We were without water a few weeks ago for three days. This was a good wake up call to the need for more storage water. Thankfully we had 18 inches of snow and made use of it melted on the wood stove for flushing toilets ... heated for sponge baths.... boiled it for washing dishes, and tried filtering it through our Big Berkey .. which failed the red food coloring test during the emergency .. make sure your stuff works properly and is ready for an emergency.

  12. I also have included many of the previously mentioned items. My household has the same attitude of I can do this with electricity, but what we have alternatives ready. A few things that we have but don't use regularly is a treadle sewing machine with extra parts. I live very near an Amish community so many supplies are available. I have a hand crank coffee grinder and coffee beans vacuum canned for when I need them. My adult children lovingly joke about me being "electric Amish". Great tips as always.

  13. Enjoyed this post, and the replies, very much, Patrice. Thank you!

  14. Because I am a historical reenactor, I actually have quite a few skills that I have been masteringas back-ups to my backups. Yes, we have lots of prepper supplies and non-electric gadgets, but in a pinch, I can dip candles (tallow or wax); preserve foods through brining, picking, drying and smoking, as well as canning; cook over an open fire) (yes, even in a rain storm or the winter, even though I'd prefer not to); make an outdoor bake oven; and handsew, and my son and husband know how to use old fashioned handtools, and blacksmith at a beginner level.

  15. We live in the suburbs close to the Gulf of Mexico. It is sunny almost the entire year (68 degrees right now!!). Don't have access to alot of free wood. So, I have a solar oven (made from plans online) to cook our food when we've simulated "no electricity".

  16. Have to add about electric can opener. There was one in the kitchen when I bought my house.I never used it. They are impossible to clean and can even leave metal shavings in the food. It stayed installed under the cabinet next to the stove, but disappeared sometime after Mrs. Jay from Philly moved in. She won't fess up to what happened to it.

  17. I'm really glad that you brought this up on your blog, because it seems that no one is really looking at 'low-tech' options. My husband and I have been incorporating many of these ideas for about 5 years now. Living in major hurricane country (FL) we have always been prepared to some extent (extra food, BBQ grill for cooking, etc.), but we let our preparations follow hurricane season (June 1 - Nov 30). Then we went back to being sheeple.

    About 5 years ago we were simultaneously introduced to real prepping and the world of historical reenacting. We reenact pre-1840's Rendezvous: Fur Trade Era. Think Kit Carson, Jeremiah Johnson, Lewis and Clark, etc. We did the usual preparations for the house - increase the larder and keep it that way year round. Stored first aid supplies, extra fuel, etc. When we got into reenacting we soon realized this could be a very expensive hobby - if you buy everything. If we made it, it's actually really affordable and teaches us different skills in the process.

    So far we have learned (and have incorporated into our regular lives):
    How to start a fire with flint, steel, and char cloth
    How to cook and bake over an open flame and/or coals
    How to shoot and maintain a flintlock
    How to inkle weave, card weave, and knit. I also learned how to process a sheeps fleece and spin it into yarn. Also, how to dye fabric using only natural plant products.
    How to shoot a recurve bow and arrow
    How to process a deer hide and made it into brain tanned buckskin
    How to sew basic fabric shirts, skirts and how to sew leather (different tricks to that)
    Basic blacksmithing
    We have a yoke and buckets to carry water from a new by area. We've learned to be very judicious with consumption of water

    Additionally to that we have taken courses on wild food foraging, gardening, canning, and medical preparations (I already have a medical background, but will be taking a Medical Prep 101 class with the Patriot Nurse in Feb.) We have brushed up on our animal tracking skills.

    We have found that many of the older technologies & tools are actually much better than some of the newer junk made in China. The only caveat is that much of these things require more time to accomplish.

  18. The number one daily lifestyle change we made was to reduce our consumption of electricity. We started paying close attention to our monthly electrical bill and kilowatt hours used. We learned what a kilowatt hour WAS and how many of them our major appliances use. We use a LOT less electricity now and have slowly purchased a few non-electric items that serve our family's needs in place of electric appliances. Jennifer in western NC

  19. I no longer buy "modern" appliances with one exception, that was my sewing machine when my 28 year old machine finally died last year, I bought a new one with as few bells and whistles as I could find.

    I'm collecting in a notebook how to's, soap in particular. That is one thing people used to make from scratch that we need.

  20. Because of the MSM slant on news, lots of people think that growing a garden is a prepper activity and don't realize just how much fun a garden is and how tasty the food is that comes from that garden. Of course the fact that you can grow varieties that are not in the supermarket or Co-Op is overlooked.

    The 2013 Heirloom Exposition will be held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa, California September 10-12. Photos from 2012 are at:


  21. I have problem, maybe someone can help me! I am allergic to the oil used in old oil lamps, allergic to candles,I've bought candles made out of soy and still they make me sick. Anything that uses a flame and gives off the slightest order causes me to be come sick. Any suggestions for lighting for long-term. Thanks for the help.

    1. Perhaps an olive oil lamp would work out better for you. Check out this article from Mother Earth News:

    2. How about an olive oil lamp?

  22. Don't know where to put this but I just wanted to say that I love the picuter of Lydia you have pu up on your header. Our Great Pyr, Opal, loves the snow too.

  23. Hi Patrice,
    I'm an old man who spent 28 years in the Army and 15 years in Law Enforcement afterwards.
    As a result I'd like to add one thing to your Seven Core Principals and that is "Faith."
    I've been in situations where I truly believe that only Faith allowed me to survive in spite of excellent equipment and training.
    I am a member of Oathkeepers and will NEVER violate that oath.
    I read your blog daily. Keep up the good work.
    Gary in the Deep South.

  24. This is just a heat assist. I keep some pieces of black woven fabric (batiste), and during the winter pin them to the back of the curtains on sun-facing windows. I've measured the air temp coming out the top at 17 degrees warmer than the air near the floor. Later, I covered several windows with bubblewrap and even with that I can get a 13 degree rise. That's pretty low-tech. brenda from ar

  25. I am from New Jersey and was here for the Hurricane Sandy event.
    We did OK because we went low tech. We have a wood stove and propane camp stove. We did not need a generator. The generators created problems with gas lines at the few pumps that had service.
    We were lucky, we had no electric service for 12 days, many were less fortunate.
    My advice is to go low tech. Especially in the suburbs.

  26. Great article, great replies..and lots of great ideas! I'm approaching this from the hippy/tree hugger side, but the principle is exactly the same! Clotheslines, candles ( I buy them on discount day at the local thrift store, or pick them up cheap at yard sales (I even got 2 of the lovely brass candle holders with the handles that way), a good book on what wild edibles are in your area, a rain catch barrel made of salvaged materials, the most insulation you can afford.
    Whether a person wants to save the planet, or save their family or both, low-tech and no-tech is the way to go! I live in a completely urban environment, but have a yard.. so I have an herb garden with sage, thyme, rosemary, chives,rhubarb, lavender, oregano, mint, and am adding more perennials every year. If I'm ever living on rice and beans.. mine are going to taste great!
    Anyway, some of the most important things I've found are that a) even the highest tech and expensive stuff goes on sale or gets offloaded by bored technophiles on Craigslst the instant a "newer" version is available. I got a Big Berkey for $25 plus the cost of a new filter! and b)make use of the money and shopping opportunities we all have now, they may not be available forever. You can get pretty good solar lights (I like the D-light)CHEAPLY.. because the manufacturing process and places like amazon are making these things cheap and easy to get right now.

  27. I just loved where you wrote,
    " Ultimately it’s better to learn to live with LESS than to be dependent on MORE."

    I think I heard it best said this way, it's very difficult to go from the penthouse to the basement, when you already live in the basement your used to doing without.