A year ago, I spent a weekend at Earth Native Wilderness School outside Bastrop learning how to survive an outdoor emergency. My fellow students and I dabbled in starting fires, navigating the backcountry without a map, and finding edible plants and drinkable water in the wild. Above all, we learned the mindset we’d need to make it through unexpected hardships like getting lost in the woods.
Our instructor, Earth Native founder Dave Scott, also teaches Urban Survival and Disaster Preparedness courses. These focus on how to endure a major storm, earthquake, or other event that affects utilities, food, and medical resources. As the COVID-19 pandemic started reshaping all our lives, I kept thinking about Scott. What was he doing to prepare for the months ahead? Could I follow his example?
When I talked with Scott last week, I learned that, while it would have been better to prepare for a pandemic months ago, it’s not too late to plan ahead. The same principles we learned in our wilderness-survival course apply to COVID-19. Scott’s expertise is in nature—not pandemics—but he suggests keeping five basic ideas in mind.
Keep your head.
In my class at Earth Native, Scott emphasized that our brains are our best survival tools. For example, if we’re hiking in a remote area and realize we’ve lost the trail, panicking and rushing around in all directions will only make our situation worse. But if we stay calm, we can figure out a more methodical strategy for retracing our steps.
Similarly, if we stay in freakout mode about COVID-19, we may do things that aren’t in our best interest, especially our collective interest. “We are capable of creating a crisis where there is no crisis,” Scott says, pointing to the gas shortage created after Hurricane Harvey by drivers who were worried there wouldn’t be enough. The recent run on toilet paper is another example. If we stay calm and buy only what we need, we’ll avoid compounding our problems by creating shortages.
Adopt the right attitude.
Mental toughness is a critical element in survival. Our approach to COVID-19 can be the same as our approach to a crisis in the outdoors. If you’ve sprained your ankle on a remote trail, wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to get you rescued or keep you warm overnight. You’re better off taking a moment to curse and then focusing your energy on improvising some kind of shelter.
Similarly, if a trip or graduation ceremony has been cancelled due to COVID-19—or if you’ve lost your job—it’s natural to grieve that setback. Then dry your eyes and start thinking about how to prepare for the future.
“If you’re wrapped up in that moment of grief, you can’t have the foresight to see what’s coming next,” Scott says. “And, ultimately, that could be much worse than what your current situation is.”
Anticipate what could go wrong.
Wilderness literature is rife with stories of people who used sheer grit to survive extreme conditions, such as getting lost in a snowstorm or tumbling over a cliff. But, Scott explained to our class last spring, we never read or watch movies about the people who packed intelligently for a hike, told friends where they were going, or turned back when they saw storm clouds. Prevention isn’t exactly Hollywood material, yet it is one of our best tools for survival. If we can think realistically about the worst-case scenario, we’re more likely to avoid it.
Right now, Scott says, much of our energy is focused on preventing community spread of COVID-19. But we also need to consider a scenario where we do get sick. If, say, your whole family contracted the virus, would you have enough over-the-counter medications to treat the symptoms? Would you have enough easy-to-prepare food to keep everyone fed?
Scott suggests this would be a good time to make sure your medicine cabinet is stocked with cough suppressant, electrolyte replacement, acetaminophen, cold and flu medicine, and working thermometers. If you buy these medications and don’t get COVID-19, great—you’re prepared in case someone catches a cold in the next year. But if you do contract COVID-19, you’ll have what you need to treat the symptoms, plus you may get a mental boost from knowing you were smart enough to prepare.
Keep looking forward.
If the pandemic has been your disaster-preparedness wakeup call, Scott says there are a couple of easy steps you can take, even now, to weather future emergencies.
First, have enough food at your house to last your family for two weeks. This is a good way to prepare for natural disasters, but it’s also a smart strategy now. If you get sick, you’ll need enough supplies to last you through your quarantine period. Even though grocery shopping is harder now, you can buy a little extra on each trip until you’ve built your reserves.
Even more important is having enough water to last your family for a few days. Having extra water is a buffer against all kinds of scenarios: consider the lack of potable water in Austin in October 2018, after floods overwhelmed the city’s treatment capacity. Instead of buying bottled water, Scott recommends rinsing empty milk or juice jugs and filling them with tap water, which will stay perfectly drinkable for a couple of months. “Water is such a critical need, and this is such an easy solution, that there’s no reason not to be prepared,” he says.
Don’t spend energy worrying about a breakdown in social order.
Classes at Earth Native Wilderness School focus on developing a relationship with nature, not prepping for the apocalypse. Still, I wondered if Scott thought there was a chance society would crumble under the weight of the pandemic and its economic fallout. Was he preparing to live off the land, just in case? Should I? Could I?
No, no, and, seriously, no. Scott says it’s highly unlikely COVID-19 will affect utilities like electricity and water, or disrupt supply chains enough to create widespread food shortages. If history is our guide, people will help one another, not turn against one another, during the pandemic.
“People generally come together in crisis,” he says. “We have, as a country, been through some incredibly difficult things, and we’ve always gotten through it through perseverance and working together. The government has helped at times when it’s been needed, and when the government wasn’t there, individual citizens helped each other.”
So, set aside the food and medicine that you need, and then call your neighbors—especially those who live alone—and check on them. We’re all in this together. We will get by; we will survive.