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Book review: Newsweek “Off Grid” special section provides critical information

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Book review: Newsweek “Off Grid” special section provides critical information

Does Newsweek’s most recent special edition “Offgrid” mean that survival and preparedness have gone really mainstream? Well, the header at the bottom of the cover proclaims: “Exploring the End of Life as We Know It. Are you prepared?”

by Leon Pantenburg

A few years back, those of us who were promoting that idea of preparedness and survival tended to be  lumped in with the guys who wore aluminum foil hats, stockpiled ammo for exotic shooting systems, built underground bunkers and prepared for Armageddon. Doomsday Preppers didn’t do anything positive for us but raise public consciousness that preppers existed.

As a result, preparedness/survival blogs and websites sprung up like mushrooms, and anyone could establish a survival website and start blogging.

offgrid magazineBut when major publications, such as Popular Mechanics, Field and Stream and Newsweek get on board the survival train, it must mean there is a significant part of the population that wants to read about the topic.  Apparently, that’s the idea behind this special section.

I received a pre-release copy of “Offgrid” recently and read it cover-to-cover.

The publication is a well-designed, slick stock, full color magazine with no advertising that reminds me of the old National Geographic magazines.  With an introduction and major story by Survivorman Les Stroud, the special section features excerpts from other survival writer-experts such as Ken Youngquist, Jan Austin, John Hudson, Jack Reakoff, Mark Richards, T.H. Culhane, Ben McNutt, Creek Stewart, Tony Nester and others.

The publication is well-documented and referenced, and covers the gamete of survival topics from gathering water to eating bugs.

Credibility starts with Les Stroud. Host of the popular Survivorman, Stroud got the ball rolling for survival “reality” shows. In a gaggle of shows that range from entertaining to ridiculous, Stroud stands out as a reasonably credible source.  I don’t agree with everything he promotes, of course, but he is head and shoulders above most of the other TV experts who face epic struggles each week to survive in the wilderness and viewer ratings.

My litmus tests on any survival publication directly relate to three topics I have extensively researched and tested: Water gathering, survival firemaking and emergency shelter building.

This Central Oregon high desert spring is the only water source for miles. The water will require clarification and purification before using.

This Central Oregon high desert spring is the only water source for miles. The water will require clarification and purification before using.

Generally, as soon some “expert” suggests making a solar still for gathering water in the desert, rubbing two sticks together to make fire, or promotes some exotic, impractical shelter system, I quit reading. The idea of drinking your own urine in an emergency is another sure stopping point.

I’m also an avid fan of Peter Kummerfeldt, a real wilderness survival expert with 50 years experience in the field. (Check out his credentials.) I have used Kummerfeldt’s expertise extensively in various publications and posts, and he is my go-to guy for survival questions.

Here’s what Offgrid mentions in these three areas.

Gathering water: Staying hydrated is an immediate, ongoing necessity. While you can live about three days without water, you’ll feel the effects of dehydration much sooner in the form of fatigue, joint pain, headaches, muscle pain, nausea etc.

But just finding water is not enough – you must purify it before drinking. Boiling is “the bombproof marker” according to Hudson. (Neither of these experts mentions a solar still!)

This segues nicely into the next critical skill,

Firemaking: Stroud, author Creek Stewart and I all agree that firemaking is the most important survival skill, because a fire can make up for inadequacies in other areas.  In the fire section, there is no mention of friction firemaking, such as firebow, fire plow or hand drill . Anyone who has ever tried these methods will attest that friction firemaking is hard.

The best idea is to take along several different tried-and-true methods of firemaking to get that fire going quickly, and save the friction firemaking for demonstrations.

Kummerfeldt recommends using cotton balls and petroleum jelly as a firestarter, and I have carried them since attending my first Kummerfeldt survival session about 12 years ago.

Shelter: Stroud promotes the use of an A-frame emergency shelter, a simple hut made of natural debris and wood, with a hallowed out space “just large enough for you to fit in.”

But beware.

This photo demonstrates how a  trash bag can be used as a quick, effective emergency shelter.  (Peter Kummerfeldt photo)

This photo demonstrates how a trash bag can be used as a quick, effective emergency shelter. (Peter Kummerfeldt photo)

“Regardless of the environment, most people seeking shelter in the wild are injured and hypothermic,” Nester, an instructor for Ancient Pathways survival school in Arizona, writes in the shelter article.

And Kummerfeldt proclaims that it is “impossible” to make a waterproof shelter out of natural materials in a survival situation.

“I have always believed that if you are going to need a shelter you had better have the materials with you to build it!” he writes. ” I also believe that it is impossible for the typical survivor to build a waterproof, wind proof shelter from natural materials!”

Here’s what I discovered several years ago on a Boy Scout campout.

Several enthusiastic scouts, all uninjured, with tools and plenty of raw materials took several hours to construct useable A-frame-style debris shelters. They knew what they were doing and worked well together. But they still could not have made a shelter fast enough to prevent possible hypothermia if the weather got nasty.

I always carry a small tarp and paracord to make a quick shelter. I also carry a 55-gallon plastic trash bag to make an almost instantaneous shelter from the wind and rain.

This was news to me

Insects for eating: You can safely eat grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies and others. According to Paul Landkamer of Missouri Etomophagy, humans can safely eat pretty much every species of the following: grasshoppers, katydids, crickets, roaches, termites, scarab beetles, damselflies, Mayflies and cicadas.

Human(ure) Energy: In industrial ecology, according to author T.H. Culhane, there is no waste, and we are part of nature. Culhane explains how to make a biodigestor that recycles poop into three byproducts: methane, fertilizer and soil. According to the article, if you have a toilet and a kitchen, you have all the making of a biogas system. A family of four produces enough waste to cook for about two hours a day or run a generator for about 45 minutes.

So, is this magazine worth the $10.99 sticker price? I think so, with these considerations:

    • It is not a survival manual, and don’t expect to learn survival techniques from it. Of necessity, all topics were covered superficially, and there isn’t enough info there to teach you everything you need to know.
    • Really cool photos. The photography is superb, and this would make a good coffee table book.
    • It will attract neutral browsers to the magazine rack. The dramatic cover will draw attention to the contents, Newsweek is betting, and possibly lure disinterested viewers into buying the publication.
    • It would be a great gift for someone who likes great photos but is presently uninformed about preparedness. It might suck them into the preparedness camp.
    • For a person teetering between getting prepared and blowing the whole idea off, this might tip them one way or the other.

Buying this magazine would be eleven bucks well-spent. It could be that one thing needed to convince someone to start thinking about getting prepared for disasters. And that’s a good thing.

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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