We’ve all grown accustomed to having electricity in our lives. Some would even say we’re addicted. However you see it, modern life as we know it would cease to exist without the steady flow of electrons. But most of us have so acclimated our lives to the availability of electricity that it is hard to imagine any life without it.

We flip the switch and we have light, or a TV, radio or the computer, along with a whole host of power tools for your shop and yard. Modern banking would not exist without electricity, nor would modern communication.

We’re fortunate that so many inroads have been made to de-centralize electricity, at least for those who choose to educate themselves and build little systems so they can get off the grid, whether a little or a lot, and be able to have power if the whole grid goes down.

These children are doing their homework by candlelight during a major power outage. (Photo by Getty)

Ted Koppel (from the popular Nightline TV news show) wrote a book called Lights Out in which he explored what it might take for a terrorist to take down what are essentially three grids in the United States. Although he points out that this would not be easy, it could be done. Koppel also points out, perhaps to the dismay of the reader, that there is really no meaningful action plan to deal with such an eventuality.

We have no crystal ball, but let’s just look at life without electricity and explore the way in which we would then live.

During an extended blackout in a city, the only lights you are likely to see are the headlights of residents who are bugging out.

The Transition

If electricity were to go out suddenly and without warning, the results would be disastrous in today’s society, although a prepper would be better able to survive than those who are not prepared.

First, there would be widespread panic, because the means of communication, except word of mouth, would be eliminated. The lack of communication means much more than not knowing what happened and if efforts are being made to resolve the situation. It means that whatever method you have relied upon to communicate with your family, students, fellow workers and others will now be unavailable.

“If electricity were to go out suddenly and without warning, the results would be disastrous in today’s society, although a prepper would be better able to survive than those who are not prepared.”

In the interim, stand-alone walkie-talkies could be of some help. Even so, we will all suddenly and painfully learn that we relied overly much on technology and have scant few alternatives.

During a power outage, repair crews will be out in full force to get electricity flowing back to homes and businesses. (Photo by Getty)

Rural areas would do somewhat better for a variety of reasons. Bells and other sounding devices could be used for communication, as could fires on hilltops, but these systems all took time to develop in the past. A clear method of communication would not be established immediately, and I can visualize a brisk business in bicycle couriers who could hand-deliver notes and news.

You should always discuss the day’s plans with family members and review action plans and gathering points so you’ll be on the “same page” in the event of an emergency.

The only connection many people have with their money is through an ATM. Without electricity, these machines will be nothing more than locked safes.

Money Matters

Too many of us rely on the ability to go to a bank regularly and use the ATMs that can be found almost everywhere. Additionally, have you ever watched how people buy things at local stores? Most people use credit cards all the time, which is a modern marvel of technology that can only exist in an interconnected world powered by electricity.

People have always figured out how to buy, sell and trade, even before there was electricity. But, in a transition to no electricity, people might not have access to their money—maybe temporarily, and maybe permanently, depending on the nature of the emergency. If the power stays out long enough, it is probable that money will lose its trade value for anything greater than its value as paper or metal. A one-dollar bill makes just as good kindling as a 100-dollar bill.

ATMs in insecure locations can signal thieves that some cash is about to become available. (Photo by Getty)

People in rural areas have quite an advantage over people in the urban centers, because they are more likely to know where all their needs are coming from; and they are more likely to be producers of a raw commodity they can then trade for needs.

In urban areas, however, everyone tends to buy everything that’s needed, and any food, animal or craft production is nearly always at a “hobby” level. A major disaster that takes out electricity will simultaneously take out the ability for most urban people to conduct ordinary transactions. In the interim, people should band together for protection, because they should expect violence, chaos and unpredictable social and political climates during such a period until people figure out a new way of doing things.

Raised gardens are increasingly popular and can provide plenty of vegetables and other produce for your family or trading partners.

Do not underestimate the severe impact the lack of access to money will have on your life and on society as a whole.

My suggestion is to constantly have these questions in the back of your mind: What would I do if I could not get cash today? What can I do differently each day to be better prepared if that ever happened?

There are many options, such as always having extra cash and coin on hand—well-hidden, of course. Improve your situation by regularly purchasing a little more of the basics than you need so you have something extra for barter if necessary. In times of duress, such as war, the best barter items tend to be those that feed the vices: alcohol, tobacco, chocolate, sugar and salt (all of which have great shelf lives).

Barter a Skill

Regardless of what you do for income day in and day out, you should always have a backup skill or ability to make something that would be in some demand if the normal functioning of society disappeared. Some of those skills include: auto repair, bicycle repair, plumbing, electrical work, courier service, protection services, firearms repair, locksmithing, washing clothes, making and repairing clothes and footwear, and blacksmithing—to name just a few.

These are some of the things you could make that would always be in demand: alcohol (beer, wine and moonshine), soups, dried vegetables, canned goods, clothing, soap, candles and other commodities people use regularly.

Teach children how to plant and grow food, and they will be prepared to supplement their food needs throughout their lives. (Photo by Getty)

Sometimes, there is no way to know in advance which skill or product will be in the most demand. But, by studying the details of what happens during wartime or severe economic depression, you will realize that if the things we ordinarily take for granted are suddenly not there, someone can earn their keep by filling that need.


Never forget that just a few very basic commodities are the basis for a society—anywhere and at any time. These are water, food, clothing and shelter, in addition to fuels, such as gasoline. Essential skills for any society at any time would be farming, protection, processing foods, sewing clothing, creating everyday products, mechanics, plumbers and other trades.

While it is unlikely that we would see a quick and rapid descent of a society into a “stone age,” the more you can do for yourself and your community, the more prepared you will be.

When you buy tools and gear, always think about your ability to do a project as if there were no electricity. Electric drills are quick, but hand-cranked drills are easy to come by, and they do the job in almost the same amount of time. For the kitchen, there are hand-cranked alternatives to electric coffee grinders, juicers, food processors and other modern conveniences. In fact, most home tasks can be done without electricity and with minimal adjustment. In the average household, perhaps the two appliances that everyone uses and that would be hard to replace are the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Now is a good time to begin growing your own produce, whether in a backyard garden in the suburbs or a group garden in an urban area. (Photo by Getty)

In previous issues of American Survival Guide, we’ve addressed how people washed clothes in the past (by hand), and we shared how most of the gear needed can be purchased at stores where the Amish shop; Lehman’s, for example. Refrigerators that are 12V DC are available at RV outfitters but are not in wide use. Still, you could obtain such a refrigerator and power it indefinitely with a few solar panels.

Otherwise, without refrigeration, many stored foods would spoil, and everyone would need to immediately start canning, drying or pickling foods. Those who have already been involved in home food storage would be well ahead of the game, because they already know some of the basics. As readers of this magazine would know, food storage is a topic that is addressed often, as well as growing our own food. Gardening will be quite important, because you won’t have the luxury of shopping at grocery stores for food to preserve.

Knowledge of low-tech weaponry is a skill that will always serve you well. Here, Paul Campbell (left) shows Dude McLean an arrow he just made in the traditional style. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

Social Interaction

Some people think that they will be a “Rambo” and do everything themselves after some disaster. If you are capable of that, well, good luck to you! But, in my opinion, you’ll do far better by developing as many contacts and relationships as possible right now, because these contacts with other people will be your lifeline when things go sour. Plus, working with other people to solve problems is far more fulfilling and enjoyable than going it alone. Keep in mind that the local population is likely to be smaller and somewhat different than those who lived there before the grid went down, so the more local folks you’re familiar with now, the better off you’ll be later.

“In a survival situation, you have to act wisely—often quickly and without mistakes. You will also likely need to make harsh decisions about what you should and should not do.”

We’ve all heard the expression, “When one door closes, three more open.” New opportunities might result from losing old opportunities but, in part, this depends on what made the first door close in the first place, among other things.

In one of the author’s classes on self-reliance, students learn how to make traditional long bows. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)
Pascal Baudar shows students how to set up a simple quail trap for capturing birds. Such a trap is silent. (Photo by Christopher Nyerges)

In the context of our discussion, it’s important to see the world as it really is. What does “when one door closes” mean? It can mean that you got fired from a job; that a meteorite hit your part of town; or that someone close to you has died. It can mean a lot of things. So, in terms of “doors opening,” it is important to realize that nearly everything in your life happens as a result of your interactions with other people and their interactions with you. People who say, “I am not a people person,” are those who tend to keep doors closed all around them. From a survival and self-reliance standpoint, it is actually very important to have as many interactions as possible with people of diverse economic classes, races and backgrounds.

Your willingness to be open to sharing knowledge and experiences, working with different people and finding areas of commonality will go a very long way to making doors open in your life when you need them opened. In other words, the more contacts (“doors”) you have, the greater the chance that one or more will open when you need it to.

Learning how to make things from nature is a skill that is even more valuable if your cash becomes worthless. Here, the author (with shovel) is showing students how to identify clay in the wild. Later, these students processed the wild clay and made pots. (Photo: Rick Adams)

People, Not Things

In a survival situation, you have to act wisely—often quickly and without mistakes. You will also likely need to make harsh decisions about what you should and should not do.

I am a great fan of writing a list for myself on a daily basis. This is even more important in a survival setting, in which you might not be able to think clearly. Write a list, prioritize the tasks, and stick to your list as much as possible during the day.

My Dirttime.com friend, Vec, used to tell us that the solution to our problems is always within two bodies away. And, if it isn’t, he’d tell us, it isn’t our problem. This is interesting advice, and I never forgot it. I would not memorize this as if it were some sort of dogma, but Vec had a way of keeping us real and being pragmatic when it mattered.

What might start as a hobby could develop into a way for you to generate extra cash or make goods for bartering for other things you need. (Photo by Getty)

Simple Steps You Can Take

Join your local neighborhood watch. Get to know your neighbors and become an active part of your local system of communication and crime-prevention activity. If your neighborhood doesn’t have one of these groups, start one. (Need help getting started? Go to www.NNW.org.)

“However you see it, modern life as we know it would cease to exist without the steady flow of electrons. But most of us have so acclimated our lives to the availability of electricity that it is hard to imagine any life without it.”

Take advantage of local CERT training. This is an excellent way to see who’s who and what systems will come into play in the aftermath of an emergency. You might be surprised to learn what sort of plans already exist for dealing with local emergencies. (Find a local CERT training opportunity near you at www.Ready.gov/cert.)

Learn how to grow at least some of your own food. If you have absolutely no idea how to start, look for your local neighborhood garden or a local farmer. In addition, get a gardening book at the library, such as any of the quality gardening books from Rodale Books. You can also check out many useful gardening videos on YouTube.

Making and repairing furniture is a skill that will always be in demand, and it can be done with hand tools. What might start as a side business can become a key way for you to barter for supplies, food and gear you’ll need if the grid collapses. (Photo by Getty)

Join a gun club and learn how to safely, effectively and ethically use a firearm. (How do you find a local gun club? Check online or check https://Explore.NRA.org/programs/clubs/ for local clubs and ranges.)

Make the decision to learn a few new skills. Don’t overthink this—and don’t put it off! 

Begin with those skills that interest you. This might mean taking some classes at a local junior college, tech school or privately. Yes, I know you are already a very busy person with family and work and home. And I agree that education is expensive in many ways, but ignorance is even more expensive.

12 Top Barter Items

  • Toilet paper
  • Alcohol (all forms, including the do-it-yourself variety)
  • Chocolate (has a great shelf life)
  • Tobacco (cigarettes, tobacco, loose)
  • Aspirin (and various common medical supplies)
  • Vitamins (in small containers)
  • Food, canned goods (small and compact)
  • First aid supplies (bandages, tape, disinfectant)
  • Feminine hygiene supplies
  • Soap (bar soap and liquid soap)
  • Small sewing kits
  • Batteries (ideally rechargeable, because they can be reused hundreds of times)
  • ***Is ammunition a good barter item? In theory, yes, but in an emergency, you won’t want to barter away any of your ammo, especially to people you don’t know or trust.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the APRIL, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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