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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Being a prepper is actually something rather new in the world. That’s not because people didn’t have disasters in the past or because they didn’t prepare for them. Rather, it’s because the things we do to prepare for a disaster were things they did every day.
They weren’t dependent on the vast infrastructure that we are dependent on today, and they understood that they lived in a world where danger was all around. The farther they ventured from “civilization,” the more aware of those dangers they became.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in the westward expansion of the United States. As our ancestors moved farther and farther from the relative safety of the East Coast, they put themselves in even more danger as they were farther from help when disasters did enter their lives. While many thousands of them died conquering the west, conquer it they did, with many more thousands living.
Some of the things those pioneers succumbed to were no strangers to mankind; disease, pestilence, wild animals, and natural disasters were all things their ancestors had faced since the beginning of time. But they were also faced with the growing animosity of the Native Americans as the white man broke treaty after treaty. Surviving in the harshness of the frontier took true grit, the knowledge of what to do, and the right preparation for any problems they might encounter.
It didn’t matter if they were traveling alone, moving west in a wagon train, establishing a homestead, or building a town—there were things those people needed to know and do if they were going to survive. Even doing them was no guarantee of survival, but missing one of them, even one time, could spell the end for anyone.
Here are some frontier survival tips that kept the pioneers alive.
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1. Know Where the Next Water Is
One of the great challenges of traveling in the west was finding water. Not only can water be extremely scarce, it can also be hard to find. The greenery which is sign of water may be hidden down in a ravine, making it impossible to see it until you are right on it. There were times when you could go right past that water without even seeing it.
Everything from the wagon trains to trail drives was calculated on water. Cattlemen driving the great herds up from Texas to the railhead had to know where to find water and planned their drives from one watering place to the next.
While cattle might be able to go a day without water, two days on the trail without it meant losing stock. Likewise, the trails used by the wagon trains were scouted and planned based on where water could be found.
2. Share Information on Trails, Watering Holes, and Campsites
Cowboys who drifted from one place to another had an encyclopedic knowledge of where to find water, trails, and good campsites, even in places where they’d never been. It took a keen eye for terrain to travel back then, and they would spend many an evening sitting around the campfire, sharing that information.
Preppers are rather poor at sharing that kind of information. Partially that’s because we don’t know it ourselves; partially because we want to keep it to ourselves; and partially because we really don’t talk amongst ourselves all that much.
3. Always Stake a Claim on Water
So much of the westward expansion was based on water and water rights. Many a rancher controlled thousands of acres because they had staked claims on the land holding the water holes. Those coming along later needed water as well, and many a fight broke out over it. Yet as long as the ranchers had staked a claim and fulfilled the obligations to make improvements on the land, it was theirs and the water on it as well. Those who wanted water had to find their own.
Amazingly, there are preppers who establish survival retreats without a sure source of naturally-occurring water. I don’t care where you are, make water a priority. If you don’t have surface water, drill a well or put in rainwater capture. The idea of hauling water to your survival retreat is a non-starter.
4. Carry a Gun and Know How to Use It
There were many dangers in the West which required a gun, least of all outlaws. The cattle they raise were half-wild creatures and the horses they rode weren’t much better. A stampede was one of the most deadly things one could try to live through. A gun was a necessity to survive many of those dangers.
But just having a gun wasn’t enough; it was important to know how to use it as well. Fortunately, most of those who went west were veterans of the Civil War, so they not only had the guns but knew how to use them. They also had the guts to stand up against those who might try to take what was theirs.
5. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
There are countless stories of Indians sneaking up on wagon trains and individual travelers. The Indians were very aware of nature and experts in adapting it to their needs. Their ability to sneak up on people came from watching mountain lions and snakes, both of whom were very real dangers in the west.
Not knowing what dangers are around you is a sure recipe for disaster. While we can try to stay ready to react at all times, the reality is that we eventually let our guard down, even if it is just because we are tired. That’s when danger comes.
Part of this situational awareness isn’t just about dangers; it’s also about seeing potential places to use for defensive sites. If you’re attacked, where can you go and how can you use the terrain to your advantage? It’s too late to start looking after the attack begins.
6. Don’t Cross Open Ground Without Looking First
Scouting ahead was important for wagon trains, cattle drives, and even stage drivers. Even an individual riding the trail must be constantly looking ahead to see where danger might lie. Whether actual scouts were sent ahead or not, it was important to stop when cresting a rise or leaving the tree line to look ahead, seeking out potential danger.
Even just a bit of dust in the air could mean someone was there or it could just mean the wind was blowing. Spotting those potential danger spots was necessary to being ready.
7. Make Sure You Have Access to Resources
We talked about water, but water isn’t the only resource needed to survive. Fuel to keep a fire going in the winter was important, as well as food that can be harvested from nature. If someone is growing crops for sale, they don’t want to eat everything they are growing. While most farmers also had a vegetable garden, it was to augment the food from the store and meat gained by hunting.
We have a much greater challenge in the resource department than those pioneers did. There is less wild game available and there are fewer swaths of virgin forest. At the same time, there are more people who are going to be out there hunting and gathering resources. Unless you have your own land which you can defend, or you are on land which is far out from where others will be, you may very well have to compete for resources.
8. Always Be Able to Start a Fire
Being able to start a fire is one of the most critical survival skills. Those pioneers carried a tinder box with them which contained a flint and steel. It also contained some dry tinder as that might be hard to find in wet conditions. They’d keep their eyes open for good tinder as they traveled, constantly replenishing their supply. With some dry tinder, it’s always possible to get a fire going, even if finding fuel that isn’t damp is hard.
The invention and popularity of the match didn’t put an end to the tinder box. Matches were unreliable, especially if they became damp. That was enough of a motive for many to continue carrying along their tinder box, just in case.
9. Stop Long Enough Before Sundown to Make Camp
Everyone knew the importance of stopping well before sundown so as to make camp. When they stopped, everyone knew what to do, each having their task. Camp needed to be set up, fires started, livestock tended to, water hauled and dinner cooked, all before the sun went down. Timing was critical because they didn’t want to waste daylight, but they had to be done with everything while they still had light to see.
10. Never Stop Collecting Necessary Resources
Wagons going west would have a piece of canvas slung below the bed. This was for collecting firewood. As they walked alongside their wagons during the day, people would pick up wood and cried cow patties to throw into that canvas sling. That way, when they stopped at night, they had the necessary fuel to start a fire and didn’t have to go looking for it.
This was indicative of the way pioneers lived. They were constantly on the lookout for the resources they needed. Rather than taking out time to go hunting, they preferred to wait until the game came near. Then, because they were always ready, they would shoot enough to eat without wasting a lot of time.
11. Make Good Use of Time
We might not think so today, but those pioneers understood the value of their time. Things took so long to do that they did everything they could to avoid wasting it.
Shoot a turkey for supper? Pluck it while walking or riding; that way it will be ready when you get to camp. Sitting by the fire after dinner? Use the time to do some sewing or to make nails. They were the kind of people who today would be doing something while watching a movie, just to make good use of the time.
12. Have Enough Food to Make it Through Winter
The big challenge for pioneering families was in filling the root cellar, smokehouse, and silo before the first snow fell. That food didn’t just have to get them though the winter but all the way until the next year’s harvest. While they could hunt for meat come springtime, they needed other food to round out their diets. For some, going to town to get that food meant a long and arduous journey.
We can trace the idea of building a stockpile to last a year directly to those pioneering ancestors. That was their goal every year, knowing that without it there would be some mighty lean months. Should we ever find ourselves in a long-term survival situation, we’ll need that year’s worth of food. In many parts of the country, there’s only one harvest per year. That harvest would have to be enough to get through to the next year.
13. Use Everything – Don’t be Wasteful
Pioneers were masters of improvisation. Flour sacks were used for towels. A small barrel might become a chair. They let nothing go to waste as they found a way of using pretty much everything. That attitude would be a good one to adopt as we might find ourselves in a place where we need to do the same thing. Our society is wasteful now, but we won’t be able to afford being wasteful if resources start becoming scarce.
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