The Best Prepper Tech for Non-Preppers
I’m not a prepper. But 2020 has thrown a hell of a lot of upheaval and disaster our way and I’ve found myself increasingly focused on building my family’s resilience in the face of calamity, using gadgets, DIY tech — and some weird, oily meal bars.
I’m in good company. Wired reports that since Covid-19 struck, companies who previously served the gear needs of “fringe survivalist” (read: preppers) are now receiving so many orders that they can’t keep up with demand. Sales of basics like masks and hand sanitizer are up 319% and 79% respectively, and bespoke companies like Preppi are offering disaster kits that can cost $10,000. Disaster prep has become mainstream — maybe even trendy.
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I’ve always had a fascination with extreme weather and natural disasters. While other kids were enjoying the folksy misadventures of the Hardy Boys, I was reading the SAS Survival Handbook cover to cover. I’ve had experience with real extreme weather, too. While driving through Northern California in 2014, I saw a giant, funnel-shaped cloud snaking down towards the ground just off the Interstate 5. “Wow, that looks exactly like a tornado! But we don’t get those in California…” I recall thinking, just as hailstones started raining down on my car. The cloud was a tornado that touched down just after I passed. I got a great blog post out of it.
Behold my DIY microgrid
More recently, my slice of the Bay Area has dealt with Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Realizing that they’re unable to supply electricity without also starting lots of fires, our utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), has begun killing our power preemptively when conditions are conducive to wildfires. Sometimes they leave it off for days.
After experiencing our first PSPS last year, I knew I needed a backup power source. Several companies provide systems that pair batteries with solar panels to keep your home running during an outage. Tesla’s Powerwall, for example, provides 13.5-kilowatt-hours of backup power — enough to run your fridge, lights, and basic appliances for days. But it also costs $7,000 and has to be hardwired into your home. I decided to build a DIY alternative — my own private microgrid (don’t try this at home unless you’re totally comfortable with electricity and know the risks).
To start, I bought solar panels from Renogy. The company specializes in supplying off-grid solar systems for RVs, boats, and remote cabins. Their panels are cheap — for $287, I got two 100-watt panels and a 50-watt panel, for a total capacity of 250 watts. I also got an Adventurer charge controller ($50), and a beefy 100 amp-hour car battery from Home Depot ($120).
I started by placing the panels on a balcony on the front of my house, and running a 40-foot, 16-size American Wire Gauge (AWG) cable down to my garage. My homeowners association was not okay with that. So I moved the panels to a sunny part of my side yard instead. I connected them to my charge controller, and the controller to the car battery. Car batteries aren’t ideal for this, but it’s worked fine for me, since I’m only using power from the microgrid during outages.
I then bought a 500-watt Renogy power inverter ($120), which takes the 12-volt output of the battery and transforms it into the 120-volt power you use in your home. The whole system cost around $620. That’s about 9% of the cost of a Powerwall, for a system that’s almost exactly 9% of the Powerwall’s capacity.
Several companies provide systems that pair batteries with solar panels to keep your home running during an outage.
In full sun, the panels provide more than enough power to run my desktop PC. They’d keep a Chromebook humming for days. They’re also beefy enough to power small appliances, lights, a TV, or nonessential medical devices, like a nebulizer. I even hacked a car charger to pull power directly from the battery, allowing me to charge my phone from the panels and bypass the inverter.
After the sun goes down, the battery provides supplemental power. Unlike the fancy lithium ion batteries in Tesla’s Powerwall, a lead acid car battery only supplies about 50% of its rated capacity without suffering damage. Still, my battery’s 50 effective amp hours are enough to run a TV for 10 hours, a household lamp for 40 hours, and to keep essentials like a sump pump operating. During a PSPS, it’s a great comfort knowing I have backup power ready to go.
Pack your go bag
I’ve taken some other basic preparation steps around my home, too, like stocking up on canned goods, keeping bottled water in stock, and investing in a fireproof safe. But what if I need to evacuate instead of sheltering at home — as thousands of Californians have had to do during wildfires?
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Organizations like Ready.gov have been telling Americans to create emergency kits and evacuation “go bags” for years. They recommend including essentials like food, water, a battery powered or hand crank radio, a first-aid kit, and a flashlight.
Living in an earthquake and wildfire zone, I know I should have made a go bag years ago. But it’s the kind of task — like writing your will or refactoring your codebase — that’s super easy to put off. So turning to the internet, I outsourced it. Companies like Preppi and Judy make beautiful, highly styled survival kits. Preppi’s fire-retardant Kevlar Prepster Advanced backpack looks like a prop from a David Bowie video, includes niceties like TCHO chocolate and “premium teas,” and costs $995.
If you’re looking for something more utilitarian, you can spend a lot less. After some research, I settled on the Earthquake Bag from Redfora. For $217, I got a bag which promised to keep my family of four warm, sheltered, protected, and fed for three days during a natural disaster. The bag includes first aid and hygiene kits, sleeping bags, a tent, a radio, a flashlight, hand warmers, glow sticks, and enough shelf-stable water and food to last three days.
Test taste your emergency food (or trust my review)
The shelf-stable food fascinated me. It comes in the form of dense, wrapped meal bars from a company called SOS Food Rations. According to their website, the company’s Coast Guard approved bars can survive for five years in temperatures ranging from -22 F to +149 F. They’re often used in life rafts and airplane emergency kits. Each tightly sealed pack of nine bars provides 3,600 calories (mostly from sugar and flour). They’re not exactly nutritious, but they’re enough to keep a person alive for three days.
In the interest of journalistic inquiry, I decided to try the bars. Being a good content creator, I did this in real time on YouTube.
SOS Food Ration’s bars taste simultaneously better than I expected in some ways, and much worse in others. The most off-putting thing about the bars is their oiliness. Their third ingredient is palm oil, which is semisolid at room temperature and melts around 95 F. That means that the bars have an oozing quality, especially when you touch them and briefly expose them to your 98 F skin temperature. For a product that’s meant to last five years, I expected them to be denser and more inert than that.
Members of the survivalist community apparently challenge each other to live on the bars for three full days, as a way to prove their prepper bona fides. One comment on a YouTube video of the challenge reads “thnx for ur sacrifice!” I won’t be participating in this challenge.
Prepare everything for a power outage
In addition to the Earthquake Bag, I also bought an LED lantern from Wsky, which costs about $16. You switch it on by pulling up the top, and it’s bright enough to light an entire room in your home. One of the best features is a strong magnetic base, which lets you stick the lantern to metal objects in your home. During our last PSPS, I stuck it to my refrigerator and used it to light our kitchen while I made breakfast in the early morning.
I also picked up a $39.99 E. Power 10,000 MAH solar charger from Renogy. It’s a compact, water resistant battery pack sheathed in dense plastic, with USB ports to charge your phone and other devices. The “solar” here is really just for show — the device does include a tiny solar panel, but it takes about 10 days in full sun to fully charge the battery. (I recharge mine via USB instead.) The $189.99 Phoenix mini power station — an upgraded model — provides enough juice to run a laptop, and includes a flexible 21-watt solar panel that provides much more charging capacity.
I found that browsing through disaster supplies felt like falling down a rabbit hole of imagined catastrophes and spiking fears, tempered by a laundry list of devices intended to placate those fears.
Money can’t always buy safety
Scrolling through Amazon, I found all manner of other survival gear, too — flares, pedal-powered laptop chargers, emergency beacons, and more. I briefly considered purchasing a $149 container of powdered eggs I saw on the site. I guess eating nothing but powdered eggs for several months would be preferable to death. But it feels like a toss-up.
I found that browsing through disaster supplies felt like falling down a rabbit hole of imagined catastrophes and spiking fears, tempered by a laundry list of devices intended to placate those fears — all of them for sale. After the third page of water-purifying UV pens, I started to wonder if any of this stuff was actually useful. Do these gadgets really make us safer? Or is buying them just a way to rope back some sense of agency and orderliness from a world that feels increasingly out of control?
Experts, like British researcher Michael Mills, have wondered the same thing about the prepper movement in general. At its best, prepping can show up as a positive tendency towards building self-reliance and increasing the resilience of communities — like gardening or beekeeping. At its darkest, the movement can manifest as a deep-seated, fear-driven anger towards governments, institutions, and societal change — the kind that drives practitioners to stockpile weapons and retreat to wooded compounds. Prepping, Mills and others believe, exists on a spectrum.
In our post-Covid-19 world, stocking up on extra canned goods — or even investing in a water filter or solar charger — is probably prudent. But you can likely skip the $25,000 underground bunker. Likewise, if you’re tempted by a $5,000 survival bag, consider getting a cheaper, more functional one instead, and donating the difference in price to an organization that helps actual people experiencing real disasters right now, like the American Red Cross.
Overall, if you feel like your disaster prep purchases are moving from the “healthy preparedness” end of the prepper spectrum towards reactive panic buying, take a step back. In what may be the biggest “no shit” declaration of 2020, the CDC says: “Pandemics can be stressful.” Even if you’re not the type for meditation or hot baths, there are probably better things to channel that stress into than purchases of powdered eggs.
As you embark on your own preparedness journey, determine the gadgets and supplies that you need to genuinely build your resilience. Buy those things (or if you consider building DIY solar systems a fun hobby, have at it). But be sure you know in advance where to stop. Sometimes the best way to build your resilience might be purchasing a kickass multitool or a kitted out emergency radio. But sometimes, it might be as simple as taking a walk or calling a friend.