The art of survival: Essential skills for the post-apocalyptic world

Recession. Food shortages. Natural disasters. Terrorism. What would happen to us if some cataclysmic event caused society to break down? Neil Strauss wasn't prepared to leave his future to chance

Wednesday 01 January 2014 02:32

Kelly Alwood didn't say a word as he handcuffed my hands behind my back, opened the trunk of a rental car, and ordered me to get inside. With his shaven head, which looked like it could break bottles; his glassy brown eyes, which revealed no emotion whatsoever; and the.3" calibre pistol hanging from a chain around his neck, he didn't seem like the kind of person to cross. As he shut the trunk over my head, the blue sky of Oklahoma City disappeared, replaced by claustrophobic darkness and new-car smell. Instantly, panic set in.

I took a deep breath and tried to remember what I'd learned. I curled my right leg as far up my body as it would go and dipped my cuffed hands down until I could reach my sock. Inside, I'd stashed the straight half of a hairpin, which I'd modified by making a perpendicular bend a quarter inch from the top. I removed the pin, stuck the bent end into the inner edge of the handcuff keyhole, and twisted the pin down against the lever inside until I felt it give way.

As I twisted my wrist against the metal, I heard a fast series of clicks, the sound of freedom as the two ends of the cuff disengaged. I released my hands, then made a discovery few people who haven't been stuffed inside a trunk know: most new cars have a release handle on the inside of the boot that, conveniently, glows in the dark. I pulled on the handle and emerged into the light.

"Thirty-nine seconds," Alwood said as I climbed out of the trunk. "Not bad."

I couldn't believe classes like this even existed. In the last 48 hours, I'd learned to hot-wire a car, pick locks, conceal my identity, evade attack dogs, and escape from handcuffs, flexi-cuffs, duct tape, rope, and nearly every other type of restraint.

The course was called Urban Escape and Evasion, which offered the type of instruction I'd been looking for to quell my anxieties about the headlines I read in the newspapers every day, threatening riots, terrorism, economic collapse, and citywide strikes. The objective of the class was to learn to survive in a city that had turned into a battleground. Most of the students were soldiers and contractors who'd either been in Iraq or were about to go, and wanted to know how to safely get back to the green zone if trapped behind enemy lines.

The class was run by a company called onPoint Tactical. Its founder, Kevin Reeve, had been the director of Tracker School, America's pre-eminent wilderness survival centre, before setting off on his own to train Navy SEALs, Special Forces units, SWAT teams, paratroopers, marines, and snipers. As a bounty hunter, his partner, Alwood, had worked with the FBI and Secret Service to help capture criminals on the Most Wanted list.

For our next exercise, we walked inside to a shooting range behind the classroom where an obstacle course had been set up. Alwood handcuffed me again, adding leg chains to my feet. I then ran as fast as I could through the course, ducking under and climbing over chairs and benches, simulating a prison escape.

"We're nine meals away from chaos in this country," Reeve lectured afterward, explaining that after just three days without food, people would be rioting in the streets. "With gas and corn prices so high, recent events have made it much more likely that you'll be needing urban escape and evasion skills in this lifetime."

To prove his point, Reeve told us of gangs of armed looters that ransacked neighbourhood after neighbourhood in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. "One of the police officers there told me they shot on sight three people out past curfew," he added.

For some reason, I was more disturbed by the idea of killer cops than marauding gangs. Maybe it was because of the recurring nightmares I used to have as a teenager about being mistaken for someone else and taken to jail. In the dreams, I'd be so petrified during the ride to prison that I usually woke up in a cold sweat before I ever made it there. Since then, I'd come to realise it wasn't actually jail I was scared of in those dreams, but the loss of freedom that it represented.

As the sun set, we drove to an abandoned junkyard, where Reeve let us practice throwing chips of ceramic insulation from spark plugs to shatter car windows, using generic keys, known as jigglers, to open automobile doors, and starting cars by sticking a screwdriver in the ignition and turning it with a wrench. As I popped open the trunk on a Dodge with my new set of jigglers, I thought: "This is the coolest class I've ever taken in my life." If I'd had these skills in school, I definitely would have been expelled.

Over a barbecue dinner later that night, Reeve asked why I'd signed up for the course. "I think things have changed for my generation," I told him. "We were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, but now it's being removed. And most of us never learned how to take care of ourselves. So I've spent the last two years trying to get the skills and documents I need to prepare for an uncertain future."

I'd never actually verbalised the source of my anxieties before. Reeve looked at Alwood silently as I spoke. For a moment, I worried that I'd been too candid. Then he smiled broadly. "You're talking to the right people. That's what we've been thinking. Kelly has caches all over this country - and in Europe."

On the first day of class, Reeve had taught us all about caches - hiding places where food, equipment, and other survival supplies can be stored away from home, whether buried in the ground or stashed in a bus-station locker.

"The thing with caches is that you have to be able to survive if one is compromised," Alwood explained. "So each one has to contain everything you need: gun, ammo, food, water."

"You'll need lots of ammo," Reeve added, "because that will be the currency of the future."

I pulled out my survival to-do list and added, "Make caches."

I'd noticed that the way people prepare for TEOTWAWKI (survivalist slang for "the end of the world as we know it") has a lot to do with their view of human nature. If you're a Fliesian like Alwood and Reeve and you think that without the rules of society to restrain them, people will become violent and selfish, then you'll build a secret retreat, stockpile guns, and start a militia. If you're a humanist, and believe people are essentially compassionate, then you'll create a commune, invite everyone, and try to work in harmony together.

In case of disaster, Alwood and Reeve had their own list of essentials: water, food, defence, energy, retreat, medical, and network.

So far in my disaster-preparedness training, I'd found no groups where I felt like I belonged. The billionaires were out of my league. The PTs (permanent travellers) were too paranoid about Big Brother. The survivalists were too extreme about guns and religion. The primitivists were too opposed to technology and modern culture. And the growing tide of doomsdayers seemed more interested in trying to prove their predictions than do anything about them.

And unless you're Robert Neville in I Am Legend – and even he died at the end – the best way to survive WTSHTF will be to have a well-organised team with members cross-trained in every necessary skill.

I'd recently read a book called Patriots by an infamous survival blogger named James Wesley Rawles. A how-to book disguised as fiction, Patriots tells of a future in which inflation has made the dollar worthless, leading to social, economic, and government collapse. Fortunately, a group of eight friends has been training and stockpiling supplies for years - Just in Case. So they hole up in a compound in rural Idaho and, thanks to their military organisation, survival skills, Christian values, and weapons expertise, successfully fend off looters, gangs, and even the United Nations.

The lengths they go to in order to accomplish this are not just extreme, they're inspirational. They build a 900-gallon diesel storage tank, a solar pump and 3,500-gallon water cistern, a 57ft-high wooden tower for a wind generator, seven camouflaged foxholes to ambush intruders, and bulletproof steel-plated doors and window shutters.

And that's just a small fraction of their preparations. They even add an extra fuel tank to their vehicles, which inspired me to look into doing the same.

But who did I have to hang out with for TEOTWAWKI? No one.

"Now you do," Reeve replied when I shared my thoughts. "You can always come to us."

"But you can't come to us tomorrow," Alwood said, a cruel smile forming. Tomorrow was our final exam. "Because we'll be hunting you in the streets."

It was 9am on Sunday morning and I was in the backseat of a Range Rover, handcuffed again. This time, it was to another student. His name was Michael, and he was preparing to work in Iraq as a truck driver for Halliburton. He was trying to earn money, he said, to open a laundromat. "Everyone has to wash their clothes," he explained, the dollar signs practically glinting in his eyes.

Reeve had driven us 10 minutes outside downtown Oklahoma City, confiscated our bags, and left us handcuffed in the SUV in a parking lot in a desolate part of town. If we were caught anywhere in the city by Reeve and his cohorts – most of them bounty hunters and military trainers – we'd be put in restraints, thrown in the back seat of their car, and dropped off miles away to start all over again.

Luckily, I had internalised the first lesson of urban survival: planning. I'd spent the previous night locating supplies, hiding them in caches, and finding collaborators in the city. To make sure my hairpin pick wasn't confiscated, I'd made a thin slit in the seam of my shirt collar and stashed it inside.

I pulled it out and undid my handcuffs, then Michael's. Beneath the Range Rover floor mat was an envelope containing the first of several tasks we'd need to execute in downtown Oklahoma City to prove we'd learned to successfully navigate a dangerous urban environment. Our first assignment was to meet an agent wearing a black hat in the Bass Pro Shop in an area known as Bricktown and use persuasion engineering to get her to reveal our next mission.

Bricktown was a long walk away – especially since we'd get caught by bounty hunters if we took the main streets. Nearby, however, there was an Enterprise Rent-A-Car office; perhaps someone there would give us a ride.

The only customer inside was a young, muscular man in a large sleeveless basketball jersey. He was at least six inches taller than me and three times as thick. His face was crisscrossed with scars.

So I asked him for a ride.

"Our friends dropped us off here as a joke, and we have to make it back to Bricktown. Is there any way we can get a lift?"

"Do you got any guns or drugs on you?" he asked. That wasn't exactly the response I'd expected.

"No, definitely not," we reassured him.

"I'll give you a ride then," he grunted, "but I gotta warn you, if I'm pulled over by the police, I'm not gonna be nice to them."

I didn't know what he meant exactly, but it was scary as fuck.

In that moment, I realised this wasn't a game. This was a real city, and this was real life.

Yet we followed him outside to a black Chevy Tahoe and climbed inside anyway. This, I realised as he drove us into town, was how people got killed. Evidently, in my mind, the law of conservation of energy had overruled the principles of common sense.

As he drove into town, he handed me his card. Underneath his name were the words "credit doctor". "If you ever need your credit repaired, I can do it overnight-for the right price," he informed me. He, too, was an urban survivalist of sorts, with his own method of beating the system.

He dropped us off in an alley in Bricktown where I'd cached a bag of disguises the night before. In a lecture on urban camouflage, Reeve and Alwood had taught us there was a certain category of people in cities called invisible men. If the city is a network of veins, invisible men are the white blood cells: they work to keep it clean. They're the janitors with bundles of keys on their belt loops, the alarm servicemen with clipboards and work orders, the UPS men hidden behind piles of boxes, and the construction workers with hard hats, safety vests, and tool belts.

In these disguises, Reeve and Alwood said, we could walk unnoticed into almost any event.

However, since Alwood and Reeve had taught us these disguises, I knew they'd be looking for invisible men. But what they wouldn't be looking for was an invisible woman.

I slid under the back porch of a Hooters restaurant and found my bag of disguises. Miraculously, it was still intact in a small ditch in the rear of the crawl space where I'd cached it the night before. I grabbed the bag, climbed out, and entered a small corridor of shops above while Michael waited in the alley.

Inside, I found a public restroom and began my transformation.

First I shaved my moustache and goatee in the bathroom mirror. Then I stepped into the stall and put on a flowery yellow cardigan I'd bought at Wal-Mart, after having seen a nondescript woman wearing a similar top.

I removed my cargo pants and replaced them with women's black dress slacks, then swapped my sneakers for yellow flat shoes.

Next, I pulled out a purse I'd stuffed with the rest of my disguise: hat, wig, sunglasses, clip-on earrings, and makeup my girlfriend, Katie, had recommended – face powder, mascara, and lipstick.

I left the stall to put on the hat and wig. Gazing at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I realised, to my disappointment, that I didn't even make a good transvestite, let alone a passable woman. I hoped Katie's make-up tips would help.

I powdered my face, which helped conceal the faint outline of my freshly shaven beard. But as I was pulling out the mascara, the bathroom door swung open and a thick-necked college student with a crew cut and a striped button-down shirt stumbled in. His face was patchy and red, as if he'd been drinking.

He looked at me, and slurred: "What the fuck are you doing?"

"I'm doing a class exercise," I blurted, hoping it would sound normal enough to calm him down. Then again, I was in a men's room in Oklahoma, dressed like a woman.

"What the fuck are you?"

I wasn't so sure I understood the question, but I tried to answer anyway. "I'm being chased by bounty hunters, and I need to dress like a woman so they don't recognise me."

He glared at me and knitted his brow. I tried to clarify: "It's for a course I'm taking on urban evasion."

In response, he opened the bathroom door and yelled into the corridor. "Hey, broheim [brother], get a look at this."

Seconds later, "broheim" walked into the bathroom. He was bigger than his friend, and just as drunk.

"What do we have here?" he asked as soon as he saw me.

At this point, I was sure I was going to get my ass kicked.

With the two of them blocking the exit, I needed to put my survival skills to use immediately. Unfortunately, there were no locks to pick and no cars to hot-wire. And instead of my Springfield XD automatic pistol, I was carrying a handbag.

In the course of my training, I'd learned that force respects greater force. So I ripped my hat and wig off in one motion, mustered as much toughness as I could, and told them coolly and firmly, "I'm in the fucking marines. We're doing a drill in the city. Now back the fuck out before I get the rest of my battalion."

The thick-necked guy who started it all stared for a moment at my shaven head and then said, sheepishly: "I guess you are in the marines."

Thank God I hadn't attached the clip-on earrings yet.

I made a mental note to add another skill to my survival to-do list: hand-to-hand combat. I couldn't be a runner all my life. The only reason they were leaving was that they thought I was a fighter. I was reminded of something I'd been told at Tracker School when they were teaching us to hunt: "A fleeing animal is a vulnerable animal."

After they backed out of the bathroom, I quickly changed into my jeans and tennis shoes again. Then I put on a military-green cap I'd bought, glasses, and a flannel shirt. With my facial hair gone, I hoped I'd be difficult enough to recognise. I'd learned my lesson: cross-dressing is not an urban survival tactic. It's an urban suicide tactic.

When I returned to the alley, my urban escape team was waiting for me. Michael had been joined by four locals I'd recruited by posting a bulletin on MySpace the previous night, asking for volunteers in Oklahoma City for a top-secret mission. (Evidently, there's not much to do in Oklahoma City on a Sunday afternoon.) Because the instructors had divided us into pairs, I hoped to escape their notice by moving in a larger group.

Sticking to alleys, parks, and industrial areas, we made our way to the Bass Pro Shop and safely carried out the first few missions.

But then I made the mistake of leaving the group to grab another cache, which included a set of lock-picking tools. As Reeve had taught us, "Once you learn lock-picking, the world is your oyster."

I found the cache behind a pile of sandbags lying along the banks of the city's canal. But as I made my way back to the group, I noticed a bounty hunter on a bridge above. He hadn't spotted me yet. But he would soon.

There didn't appear to be anywhere to hide or run – except for a door on the side of the bridge. I tried the knob. It was locked. I grabbed my lock-picking tools, found a pick with a flat underside, stuck it inside the lock, and raked it against the pins. There were five of them.

I selected a thin pick with an S-shaped end known as a snake and stuck it into the lock. At the bottom of the lock, I inserted a tension wrench. As I raked the snake along the pins, I pressed gently downward on the handle of the tension wrench. After a few minutes, the wrench began to turn. I pushed slightly harder on the wrench and, with a click, the door was open.

This class was better than my entire college education.

I needed to remember this wasn't a game. This was reality and it could have consequences.

After emerging 15 minutes later, I rejoined my team and completed the remaining assignments, which mostly involved finding and photographing survival locations and items in the city: a water source, food source, daytime hiding location, safe place to sleep at night, easy-to-steal car, and an item that could be turned into a stabbing weapon.

This could just as easily have been a Fagin-like class for future career criminals. But like most governments, police forces, and armies, by calling ourselves the good guys, we had full permission to do any bad things we wanted – that is, until other people who thought they were the good guys felt otherwise.

While looking for water (available from several fountains) and food (available from edible plants and public ponds stocked with fish), I accidentally found several caches in the bushes made by homeless people. One contained a frying pan, the other a plastic bag with blankets inside. Between the cracks of the city, there was another world. And in that world, I learned, it was possible to live with no name and no money. I'd never thought of the homeless as survivalists before.

After completing our assignments, we reported back to Kevin.

"How'd you get everything done so quickly without getting noticed?" he asked suspiciously.

Though I was worried he'd accuse me of cheating, I told him the truth: I'd recruited a scout and camouflage team on MySpace.

"I saw those guys, but I had no idea who they were. That goes down as one of the all-time great class stories."

I was relieved. Unlike wilderness survival, urban survival had no restrictions. Whatever worked was permissible. And that's why it appealed to me. After all, living like our primitive ancestors doesn't necessarily mean using sticks and stones. It means using every resource available and any means possible.

Thanks to Reeve and Alwood, I was finally ready to aggregate the skills I'd learned and conduct a trial run of the apocalypse to make sure I was fully prepared.

That is, after I called the Krav Maga centre in Los Angeles and signed up for street fighting lessons. I wasn't going to get caught defenceless in a bathroom dressed as a woman again.

This is an edited extract from 'Emergency', by Neil Strauss, published by Canongate Books. To order a copy for £10.79 with free P&P call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit

Survival language: What you need to know

WTSHTF is short for When The Shit Hits The Fan. And, as disastrous as that may sound, it's not nearly as bad as EOTWAWKI – The End Of The World As We Know It.

Bugging out is slang for leaving your home to go somewhere safe. To do so, you'll want a bug-out bag (or BOB) full of survival supplies for the road; a bug-out vehicle (or BOV), to get you out of the impact zone and through traffic as quickly as possible; and a bug-out location (or BOL ) stocked with enough provisions to get you through whatever crisis is occurring.

So, in short, WTSHTF, you're going to want a BOB to put in your BOV to go to your BOL – where you'll pray it isn't the EOTWAWKI.

Key skills: How to evade pursuit vehicles


Prepare ahead of time with, at a minimum, run-flat tyres that will operate at high speeds when punctured. If possible, also add high-quality shocks and springs, bullet-resistant windows, stainless-steel brake linings, a heavy-duty radiator, and dual-ram bumpers.

If you want to get serious, add layers of Kevlar on the car interior, ballistic wrap around your petrol tank, a dual battery system, an electric-shock system on the car exterior, and steel plates (with gaps for airflow) protecting the engine. Keep in mind that any additional weight will affect the car's handling.


Quickly disable unoccupied pursuit vehicles by sticking a knife into their tyre sidewalls or shattering their front windshields.


Carry a handheld spotlight or 500-plus-lumen flashlight to shine into the eyes of pursuiing drivers. Ideally, install spotlights or flashing strobe lights on your vehicle.


Create a panel of switches to independently control the lights of your vehicle, so you can become near-invisible at night. Keep night vision goggles in your car so you can drive in the dark.


The goal in a car pursuit is not to be the fastest, but not to crash. Unless you have a far superior car to those of your enemies, try not to exceed a safe speed, so you can remain in control of your car.


Practice evasive driving manoeuvres, like effective cornering.. If the pursuit vehicle is trying to pit you (by ramming your rear side panel and causing you to spin out), continually brake and accelerate.


Never let a car pull alongside you, especially on the driver's side. To prevent this, don't leave a lane open on the driver's side of the car. If the enemy is still able to get in position for a drive-by attack, slam on the brakes.


If you need to abandon the vehicle, pull in front of a crowded, covered area, such as a shopping mall. Walk inside and lose yourself in the crowd.

If possible, carry a shopping bag with a razor, change of clothes, and other identity concealment gear.

If there's no crowded space nearby, find a dense area with cover, like a forest, where only foot pursuit is possible.

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