Video: 88 Tactical instructor Kelly Gaeth explains simple ways to create a fire with everyday items and explains the “one log fire” concept.
* * *
Things got very real when I saw the metal hatch to the underground bunker.
It was propped open as I drove onto 88 Tactical's property about an hour north of Omaha. It represented the next 24 hours: I would sleep and live in that bunker with eight strangers in a simulated doomsday situation. I pulled my backpack and sleeping bag from the car and took a deep breath.
I wanted to know what it was like to be a prepper — a person who takes steps some would call extraordinary to help them survive a disaster.
Their preparations may be as simple as keeping a bug-out bag in the car or as elaborate as building an underground bunker in the backyard. Though the practice has been around at least since the Cold War, recent political and economic struggles — and reality TV — have given it renewed attention. But since the entertainment media tends to show the culture's more extreme side, many associate “prepper” with a gun-toting, gas mask-wearing conspiracy theorist preparing for a nuclear apocalypse or zombie invasion.
The American Preppers Network, founded in 2009 as a centralized online location to exchange information, defines a prepper simply as someone who takes personal responsibility and self-reliance seriously.
If the lifestyle is anything like the course, however, prepping is mostly common sense. And after my weekend experience, I concluded that if the average American is anything like me, she hasn't been using that sense when it comes to being prepared.
I was thrilled when 88 Tactical owner Shea Degan, a former Douglas County deputy sheriff, offered me the opportunity to participate in a dry-run of one of the company's aftermath courses. He has been a prepper for five years and appeared on a March episode of the Discovery Channel's “Doomsday Bunkers.”
The company, founded in 2008, offers instruction for civilians and military and law enforcement personnel The civilian courses cover topics such as self defense and firearms training.
Degan said aftermath course participants vary from “the curious adventure seeker to the die-hard doomsday prepper.”
The courses run from two days to five days and, through lectures and simulations, teach people how to prepare for an event such as a pandemic, economic collapse or natural disaster. Costs range from just under $500 to almost $2,000 for the five-day course.
At the beginning, instructors told us to think of everything outside the compound as unsafe. A disaster had occurred and we had come to that location to find a safe community. Each group member was a stranger. We had to describe what skills we had that would benefit the community.
Think about that for a minute. Your ability to defrag a computer or create a killer scrapbook page would mean nothing. This group wanted to know my real skills.
Others rattled off military training, knowledge of diesel engines and experience with knife combat and martial arts.
I had to think fast or risk being seen as a liability.
Journalist, writing. Got it. I quickly sold myself as good at communication and managing projects.
At the most basic level, preppers do nothing more than what the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends to protect your family and your community.
Our course covered those basics.
We learned how to assemble a bug-out bag that's ready to take at a moment's notice. It must cover first aid, shelter, fire, water and food. The more you know about survival, the less “stuff” you need to take.
I would need a lot of stuff.
We also learned that the bag lecture, while useful, was a diversion.
An instructor alerted us to an approaching vehicle. A scenario had started. You could feel the tension rise.
“What are you going to do?” the instructor asked. “You don't know who this is. Are they friendly? Are they here to take your stuff?”
Someone hit the lights so the people couldn't see into the building. We looked at each other. The instructors weren't helping. We appointed two people to approach the vehicle with air rifles.
No threat, they reported.
Then the instructor asked us to count heads. Eight. One of us was missing.
During the bug-out bag presentation, the instructor had come in and out of the lodge several times — at one point leaving the front door open — and none of us had noticed. When the lights were off, he easily walked in and took a member of the group.
Lesson? Be alert. I was quickly learning the survival mentality.
I needed it. We embarked on a night hike, at 10:30 p.m., with no flashlights. Before heading out, we got a crash course in marching formations — Army ranger and wedge — and how to navigate using the North Star.
Away from the city lights, the stars were brighter and animal sounds in the distance carried through the night. Even without flashlights I could see well once my eyes adjusted. I was surprised how easy it was to find the North Star after someone explained it. It occurred to me I could use that skill if I was in the middle of nowhere with no cellphone reception and needed to walk for help.
Then the marching began. In the waist-high grass. Stay quiet, use hand signals, keep up with the group. Stop! Lights ahead. Crouch and wait for them to pass. I felt vulnerable. I wanted something to hide behind.
The hike went on like that for more than an hour, in the dark, in various formations, crouching, hand signals, aching knees. I only fell on my face once.
We turned in at about 12:30 a.m.
The bunker's steep steps take you completely underground to two long rectangular chambers connected by a passageway. The first chamber held an open space, kitchen and secure safe room (personal weapons were locked in here until we went to the shooting range).
We slept in the second chamber on planks of thick plywood suspended on heavy chains from the walls. Now I knew why “mattress pad” was on the course supply list. The bunker had a bathroom with a full shower and water heater.
The instructor assured us that no one would be “kidnapped” and we should all get some sleep before the 6:30 a.m. wakeup.
I naively believed him.
One member of the group brought glow sticks to hang at strategic corners and on the bathroom door so we could see in the pitch-black bunker. That was fortuitous.
Two hours later, an alarm was blaring and an instructor was yelling at us to get out.
Fire! Hazy smoke filled the bunker.
Bleary-eyed, I grabbed my shoes and scrambled outside, forgetting my coat. And we all had forgotten to check the perimeter of the bunker before exiting, as our instructor said, “like clowns out of a clown car.”
What if someone had been flushing us out? Noted. Even half asleep we needed to be alert.
The instructors suggested we patrol the perimeter to eliminate threats and start a fire with materials some of us had in our bags (too bad I hadn't thought to bring mine up). Using flint, matches and kindling, we soon had a substantial blaze.
We got the all-clear to go back into the bunker and back to sleep — for three hours, it turned out.
I slept in my jeans. There are no jammies in the apocalypse.
Breakfast was bags of reconstituted scrambled eggs with bacon and separate bags of blueberry granola. Just pour in boiling water and stir.
I found myself eating less and thinking of others more. I decided against a second helping of granola. In an actual emergency, you would have a limited supply of food and replenishing it would be difficult. It made me think about what we take for granted.
Seasoned preppers have been thinking about that for a long time.
Living in a modern society has made some people forget how to be as self-sufficient as our ancestors, they say.
“We've forgotten so many of the basic skills like canning. Our grandparents grew up preserving food and saving food,” said one man who organizes a gathering in Gretna that averages about 15 preppers each month. “We're all on instant gratification.”
The prepper community is tight-knit and likes to remain anonymous because they don't want their co-workers to know about their lifestyle or don't want people to know they have stockpiles of supplies.
Not >Kelly Blivens of Bertrand, Neb. Of course, she doesn't call herself a prepper, but her three grown children do.
“I say I'm a food hoarder, they say I'm a prepper. But if something bad happens, I'm going to be the hero with all the food.”
She's never attended a prepper education course, but she knows food will be a valued commodity if the not-so-unthinkable happens.
She estimates that she has about three years worth of food stored in the basement of her home. She will use it to feed her family, including her six grandchildren, in an emergency.
When she was a single mom, she canned as a way to make ends meet.
“I do it to be self-sufficient,” she said. “It's our responsibility to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves. It's not the government's responsibility. ... It's very naive to think nothing could happen to us. I do it for that reason. I couldn't stand to watch my kids or grandkids starve if something did happen.”
We covered a lot of ground on our second day, including how to wrap a tourniquet and read maps.
In the middle of our lessons, we heard shots to the west. Everyone scrambled into the bunker.
One problem: No one had stayed outside to secure the entrance. We knew there were intruders, but we didn't know how many. The instructor said we'd better formulate a plan.
Overhead, the intruders were pounding on the hatch door and air vents, yelling at us to come out and give them our food. The more macho members of the group offered a solution that mostly involved “shooting” our way out. We should think about what we'd do after that, three of us responded.
The youngest group member suggested that he toss his steel water bottle out of the hatch as a distraction. It would sound like a grenade, he said.
That would allow him and another member time to leave the bunker, assess the situation and facilitate our exit.
Excellent idea, the group agreed. We proceeded, exiting in pairs after the initial pair had gone up.
I was fascinated at how quickly the group assessed the situation and formed a plan. If this was a real doomsday situation, that would be my exhausting new way of life. I was only about 18 hours into the course and I already was wiped out.
A prepper who lives near Fremont often thinks of scenarios such as this when he practices defense drills and goes over security and supplies with his friends at their secluded “bug-out” location. Some preppers join forces and designate a location where they will go when disaster strikes. This prepper said even his girlfriend doesn't know his location. He estimated that he and his friends have more than two years worth of food.
“Something's going to happen, I just don't know when,” he said. “I want security for my family and I want them to be safe.”
He also stockpiles weapons and ammunition, and is teaching his girlfriend and young daughter how to fire guns for hunting and defense.
We, too, went over firearms defense during the course. Only one of the nine of us had never fired a gun. An instructor taught us that you have only three seconds to decide whether to shoot in self-defense.
There's no horsing around on the shooting range. We lined up in front of our targets — about one foot away — and shot on instinct straight out from our chests, not using the gun sights. I discovered I was a much better shot that way.
Shooting was our final activity. Instructors summarized what we'd learned, we asked questions and we each received an 88 Tactical patch for successfully completing the course.
I felt like I could handle almost anything, and like I should seriously consider preparing something, anything, in case of a disaster. I don't have shelves of food in my basement, but my husband and I have started talking about what we would do, how we would do it and what we would need for our family.
I pulled out of the property and let the last 24 hours sink in. My mind was buzzing with all the new information I could use. I also was exhausted, hungry, filthy and had a horrible headache (there's no caffeinated soda in the bunker).
I needed to touch base with the real world. I pulled into a convenience store and bought a 44-ounce Diet Pepsi, Funyuns and a Kit Kat.
Contact the writer: