Last weekend, I was privileged enough to join 9 other people in Prepared Associates’ “Urban Skills Challenge”. I know I’d hyped it here on SHTFblog.com quite a bit, and Stuart from Prepared Associates was kind enough to give us a free slot for a reader (Jacqueline, who also brought her husband, all the way up from Connecticut). We also had another blog reader, Carl, and his son, Eric, join us from New Hampshire. It was really an outstanding time: learning skills for an urban survival situation, evaluating our gear, seeing what others had (Carl and Eric had a LOT) and how it worked for them, meeting people, testing gear for later reviews, doing some team-building exercises, getting out of the office and into the fresh air on a beautiful day. How could that not be great?
The day begins
We met up on the Eastern Promenade in Portland, Maine’s Back Bay region at 9am, and quickly set to work introducing ourselves, getting to know one another. We got right to it, and gave out a door prize right off the bat: Tom from CampingSurvival.com (one of our advertisers here at the blog) was awesome enough to donate 1000 feet of multicam paracord to a winner (Jacqueline actually won it, if I recall!). By the way, a little plug for CampingSurvival.com: They are an amazing small company run by a great guy…they’re an advertiser and help keep this blog running…so go buy something from them to show your appreciation!
It was a beautiful day, and we were able to kick back in the sunshine for a bit as Stuart started in on safety protocols and gear checks. He went around to every person there and made sure they had enough supplies to be self-sufficient on the seven-hour course, and he weighed our packs to get an idea of what kind of load-out everyone had. My bug-out bag weighed in at something like 19 lbs (I’d pulled a lot of stuff out to make room for the extra clothing that was mandated, as well as a 6′ x 8′ heavy-duty tarp that I wanted to try making a shelter out of. I know, I know… I should have kept my full BOB loadout for a real test.). I also had on six pounds of bulletproof vest from Safeguard Armor to experience and review for next week’s post. It definitely added, well, bulk, and Stuart got to make a few jokes at my expense (including a fat joke) so it was all good.
Stuart also handed out information packets with emergency contact info for local police, fire and EMT services, a page with links to items we might find of interest, such as online topo maps, a program to track gear weight, and Ham radio links. Also in the packet was a piece of paper with a list of “Skill Stations” on it. These were small little exercises meant for you to honestly evaluate yourself, your readiness, and your gear. The first skill station started with a scenario run-down: You’re at the Eastern Promenade for lunch, and you’re in business attire. You’re out snapping pictures (it’s picturesque there) with your cellphone, and you hear and see the makings of a disaster, man-made, or natural, in your immediate area. After deciding you’re in danger, you head back to your car to get out of Dodge, but you find that your car is blocked in. You want to leave NOW, so you grab what’s in your car, RIGHT NOW. How did you do? Do you have a BOB? Clothes? Extra footwear that’s appropriate for walking? Do you have food and water? A cutting tool? First aid? He had us evaluate our personal situations and take notes on what was lacking for future adjustment.
Up next was basic safety equipment: air and eye protection…he mentioned that cheap clear safety glasses can be one of the most important pieces of gear, especially while travelling at night in the woods (a sharp stick in the eye could turn you into a casualty in no time.) Did we have emergency contact info memorized…in this day and age of instantly-accessible stored information on cellphones, having numbers to loved ones and emergency contacts memorized is essential for when the battery dies on your phone. Do you have a meetup place for your family in case of emergency? How about a secondary meetup place in case your primary is compromised? These were all instances he had us self-evaluate and note.
And then we were off! We donned our packs and started the beginning of our six-mile walk.
We day was awesome for walking: about 65 degrees, low humidity, bright sunshine. The first part of our walk took us along route 295, under an overpass covered in graffitti and with abandoned shopping carts and rotting vegetables strewn about. (I made the “Bonus points for grabbing a shopping cart and making like ‘The Road'” joke, but nobody laughed, so they either didn’t hear me, or I’m not as funny as I think I am.). The first leg of our journey kinda gave it a definite “urban wasteland” ambiance, and was a nice touch to get us in the right mindset.
We took a break a half-mile or so down the road in a nice lush park and plunked down in the warm, grass-lit sun. Stuart then proceeded with the next skill station rundowns: hygiene (just something as simple as brushing your teeth can be a huge morale booster), keeping your body clean and disease-free as you can. Foot care was addressed and he drove home the point that in a bug-out situation, your feet are quite possibly your most valuable tools…so take care of them! Bring moleskin and other basic foot aid items to take care of blisters, long toenails, etc. Then he chatted about proper socks (no cotton!) and footwear and even showed us a neat trick to keep our shoelaces from un-tying themselves while on the move. Packs were addressed with the next skill station. He had us stand up and grab our packs. Then, with our eyes closed (to simulate darkness, I imagine) we were told to find our emergency light source. If we couldn’t do it by feel, we were told that maybe we should address that issue. Being able to get to a light source quickly can be a real advantage, and I made a mental note to re-arrange things so I could. A group member had his light tethered right to the outside of his backpack, so all he had to do was grab the lanyard and pull. Great idea, and a wonderful example of learning great things from others – a real bonus that comes from doing get-togethers like this.
We then were told to jostle our packs around…shake them, flip them upside down, turn them around. Did gear move around? Did anything fall out? You don’t need your gear bailing out the second you do a digger…you may never find that Bic lighter again….something to think about. After some more hints with arranging gear by item in gallon zip-loc bags, we hit the bathroom and saddled back up for the next leg of our journey.
The next stop was in a park, where Stuart put forth the scenario that he had a nasty blister on his foot and asked us what to do, since he “couldn’t go on”. He took suggestions on what to do, then skillfully wrapped those and his own experience into an answer that was practical and easy. After he put his sock and sneaker back on, we broke for lunch (thanks for the snickerdoodles, Carl!!!) where a couple more door prizes were won (by Carl and Stuart’s mother-in-law) and then the fun began.
Stuart then addressed shelter, and divided shelters up into basic types: do we want to be seen, or stay out of sight? He discussed WHY we would put shelters in certain areas, the importance of a back-pad, and the benefits of different types. Then he said, “Okay, everyone, dig out your shelter materials, and put your shelter together. You have four minutes starting….NOW.”
Whoah. We quickly split into teams (not everyone brought shelter materials) and looked for proper set-up spots. Since my tarp was so big, we went for the low -profile tent-style setup. We strung paracord between two convenient trees and unfolded the tarp over the paracord, utilizing broken sticks through the tarp grommets as tent stakes. It actually worked really well, and I crawled in to test it out. It was definitely serviceable! I’m keeping the tarp in my BOB from now on.
We then went around to get the pros and cons of every other team’s setups, which ranged from a simple big garbage bag to curl up into to a lean-to tarp setup to a mylar emergency bag setup. It was a huge learning experience. I’d never really thought of emergency shelters, as I’m rarely in an urban environment….I tend to think of natural materials for makeshift shelters. However, a tarp might be quite commonly found strung over a boat or car in an urban area, so I thought it would make sense to grab one to build a shelter out of. Turns out it’s pretty easy, depending on the surroundings. I’d never known that if i hadn’t gotten off my ass and gone and DONE it.
We reviewed ground pads and Stuart showcased some of his personal BOB gear, and then we headed out to the next stop. Here, we reviewed communications.
Stuart’s a wicked techno-nerd, and he was completely geeking out when it came to the communications. Check out that grin!
He gave us a quick run-down on different types of communications, from HAM radio to old Nextel direct-talk cellphones, and scanners. He showed us some neat gear and different alternatives to communicate, and to stay informed on what’s going on around you. I was impressed with the tablet setup he had: He converted a standard Droid-based tablet into a multi-frequency receiver that receives more than just your standard AM/FM radio. It was pretty cool and wasn’t too expensive. For those of you who keep a solar panel and a tablet-type device in your gear to store information, it’s definitely something to look into. He’ll be doing a write-up on how to do this in the near future; keep an eye out for it here on SHTFblog.com.
The next walk took us through a residential neighborhood where we got some funny looks for sure (and got to witness a good ol’fashioned dog tussle), back towards the area we came. We stopped by the junk-filled shopping cart (with a “DON’T TOUCH” sign on it), and we dug out our stoves and ran over usage and differences. I brought my beer-can alcohol stove (that I learned about through a post by Jarhead Survivor; be sure to check it out), but we saw a few different types, all of them lightweight, functional, and useful. It was cool to see them in action, and ask opinions of how different stoves worked for different people…I’d been in the market for a small lightweight stove and it was nice to be able to get more information that what I can just get from reading the sides of boxes at the store.
We packed up our gear again, and schlepped our way down past a water treatment plant (apropos, no?) to a nice sunny grassy knoll where we hunkered down and learned out water filtration and purification. We dug out our setups (I had a Lifestraw from CampingSurvival.com…no, I’m not on commission), and I got to try it out (on water that I’d brought) and it worked pretty well. Stuart demonstrated some other methods of purifying and filtering water (the idea to use a biodiesel filter to pre-filter water before purification was pretty cool, I thought.). He then chose the last door prize winner, and Ryan won a really great UV purifier from SteriPen. I’m not gonna lie, I was completely jealous.
Here’s my son Andy trying out his LifesStraw:
After a few questions and opinions on gear, we walked the couple hundred yards back to the original meeting place, where we debriefed, shared what we’d learned, shared likes and dislikes, and had closing remarks from Stuart. What did I learn? I learned that bulletproof vests make very good back/shoulder padding…I really had no complaints about pack weight distribution over the 6 1/2 mile walk. I learned that if you carry a concealed firearm in an IWB (Inside the waistband) holster like I did, be prepared to be miserable if you’re moving a lot. I have scabs from healing wounds on my right hip where the kydex holster was chafing me. For seven hours. Lesson learned: bring an outside-the-waistband belt holster in your BOB if IWB is your primary carry method. Also, I learned that shelter is well worth the extra room it takes up in your BOB. I’m keeping my tarp in mine, or maybe I’ll upgrade to a poncho liner like Jarhead Survivor swears by. Either way, it’s worth it to me to have in my pack. Also, I learned that I really don’t need all the extraneous gear in my bag. There will definitely be a gear day of reckoning for my BOB here this weekend. I thought as the course went on, “boy, THIS isn’t very urban” as we walked through parks and residential neighborhoods – but if you think about it, it makes sense that you’re trying to get OUT of the city and area of mass panic…and these are the areas you would probably gravitate towards. Makes sense.
All in all, it was an awesome way to spend a day. I know I’ve said this before, but THIS is the way to go if you want to learn something: a group of people interested in a common goal with different ways of going things with different gear, being coached by a person who provides top-notch training gained through a process of personal experience. Stuart at Prepared Associates practices what he preaches, and that’s the kind of person who I want to learn from. The myriad tidbits of knowledge that he passed on during the course of the day were all immensely useful, no matter how small. As a team, we cut through the crap, learned from each other, assessed ourselves, and came out more prepared, in a better spot than we were going in, by far. Professional training and getting off your ass and into the fresh air is THE ONLY way to learn, as far as I’m concerned…and if the armchair warriors want to complain about it and throw THEIR ideas out there and say they’d do it a different way, let ’em. I know I’ve been there, done that, and have a plan. And that’s what it’s all about.
If you care to check out Stuart’s official after-action report and see more photos, you can check them out here!
Have you had any professional training in SHTF type scenarios? How did it work for you? What were your lessons learned?