Advice From a Prepper Mom on Surviving the Unthinkable

How a ‘survival mom’ who began storing food after the financial crisis prepares for the worst-case scenario

InIn the recent wake of the coronavirus, everyone seems to be stockpiling. Bags of rice, beans, and lentils are running low at stores from suburban Atlanta to Berlin. How and why and for how long we should accumulate food, and stuff in general, no one really seems to know. In fact, most of us admit that none of us really seem to know what we’re doing; we’re junior woodchuck survivalists — we don’t know who to follow, what to imitate.

In early 2009, as the economy tanked, Lisa Bedford saw her husband and the majority of people around her lose their incomes, their livelihoods, and their security. She decided to take action and self-educate, diving headfirst into survivalist studies, taking her homemaking to the next level. She’s now a self-taught pro: a survivalist, homeschooler, and urban homesteader who runs a popular survivalist website called The Survival Mom, which teaches other moms how to do everything, from making soap to evacuating one’s family from a hurricane.

GEN: When did you first start prepping and how did you first learn about it?

Lisa Bedford: I grew up a city girl in Phoenix and knew nothing whatsoever about homesteading. My family wasn’t Mormon so there was no concept of doomsday. I remember when Y2K happened — that really got my attention — and I felt the need to protect my family. Even then, I didn’t really get into food storage, but I did stock up on water and toilet paper. It all went to waste, which is ironic thinking about what’s happening right now.

I went on with my life for the next eight years. My husband’s company was connected to the construction industry and when the economy tanked in 2008 it was a significant loss for our family, especially in Phoenix, where there had been a real construction boom. His phone stopped ringing, literally. He was getting 50 or 60 business calls a day, and suddenly it was like a switch flipped and there were no calls coming in. I was worried and I knew he worried too. The value of our house dropped maybe $250,000.

So I started researching what I could do to be more proactive for our family, things I could do from my home. I really didn’t have any survival skills, so I started Googling and I happened upon this doomsday world and I just became addicted. There was a blog — it’s still around and active — called Survival Blog, that is pretty much the first and the biggest resource on prepping and survivalism. There were all these blogs and websites out there that would casually talk about food shortages, but this one is very extreme. The writer lives in Idaho, very isolated.

Here I was sitting in a Phoenix suburb, homeschooling two young kids and it terrified me, the idea of not being able to keep my family safe, so I began to put things in place. The first thing I did was put a vehicle emergency kit together [blanket, map, spare tire, jumper cables, etc]. I was surprised that, based on all the lists I had found, we had almost everything in the garage or in the trunk of the car or the glove box. My husband came home one day, and I had a full kit waiting for him. There we started food storage. I remember going to grocery stores and seeing signs for items that were 10 for $10, or 10 for a dollar, or something like that. We had two grocery carts, and I had a pretty good idea of what we needed.

But that’s how it started. My background was in education — I was a classroom teacher and then I worked in sales for 10 to 15 years — so it was a natural progression to start writing about all of this. One day I came up with the name “The Survival Mom.” I bought the domain, knowing nothing of blogging, and it took off.

What’s the difference between a homemaker and prepper?

Homemaking is about a normal scenario — but a lot of moms are going to start thinking about what if. That’s why we bundle our kids up too much sometimes when they go outside. You know? We’re thinking what if. So I think it’s a very natural progression; you begin to think a little more broadly. Instead of thinking, “What if my kids get too cold outside?” they’re thinking, “What if this snowstorm keeps us in the house for a couple of weeks and the roads are closed?”

The survival rule for that kind of thinking is the rule of three. If you have one item and it gets lost or broken, you have none. If you have two of something, and then something happens to one, now you’re down to one. The rule of three is that you have three of everything. It’s actually kind of ridiculous — you would have no room for the people in your house if you had three of everything — so you have three of each of the most essential things.

Are there tensions between men and women in the prepping community at large? Within a prepping family, even?

As with anything else, prepping men and women, husbands and wives, don’t always agree on the importance of prepping, and I hear that from both sides. Wives tell me their husbands aren’t interested and think it’s silly — husbands email me and ask how they can get their wives to understand the importance! Usually, the prepping spouse does what they can on their own.

When and how do you think people are sufficiently prepared for a given situation?

If you ask most preppers, they will tell you that no one ever really finishes prepping because life is always changing. When we began prepping, our kids were quite young, so our plans and even the foods we purchased for emergency storage were different than they are now.

During the prepping craze that started in 2009 and continued for about six or seven years, some people did go overboard. They focused and planned for the most extreme survival scenarios and that led to things like nighttime nuclear war drills with their kids, or turning swimming pools into huge tilapia ponds. Some of this just wasn’t sustainable. Some people bought a lot of gold or guns, for example, but didn’t think about stocking up on the right kinds of food. Common-sense prepping isn’t a trend, and it’s not extreme.

What kinds of foods are best for preppers? What do you think is necessary and what is unnecessary to keep in the house? How do you feel about hoarding toilet paper?

Store food in the coolest place in the house, and never outside or in an area that isn’t either air-conditioned or very, very cool year-round. Know the enemies of food storage: heat, humidity, light, oxygen, pests — they will all cause deterioration of food flavor, texture, and nutrients. Begin food storage with a goal of two weeks’ worth of extra food, which should all be shelf-stable. This means food that can be stored at room temperature.

Start with regular grocery store food. It’s readily available, inexpensive (use coupons and look for store sales), and familiar. Get foods that are simple to prepare. Canned foods are good choices, even if they may not necessarily be your first choice right now. Also look for foods that are nutrient-dense and have enough calories. It’s not necessary to buy freeze-dried food in order to be well prepared with an emergency food storage pantry.

It’s a good idea to have paper products on hand, not just toilet paper. Extra cleaning supplies, over-the-counter meds for common ailments, and extra doses of prescription meds are all good to include. There really is no need to stock up on hundreds of rolls of toilet paper in the typical household!

What do you think about the food supply chain in the U.S.? What might make food scarce?

The supply chain for most food seems to be strong. The U.S. is the top producer of food in the world. We also produce plenty of toilet paper! Whatever shortages we’re experiencing now are due to the panic buying for specific products and then the production and shipping processes trying to keep up. There are all kinds of extreme situations that might result in food shortages or even famine, but something like that would be the result of a combination of numerous worst-case scenarios and cascading failure of many factors that contribute to our food production.

Do you ever think you’re being extreme with your preparations? Does your family?

My husband has been on board from the beginning, and so have our kids since they were so young when we began. To them, here’s nothing unusual that we have a bit of extra food on hand or that we sometimes pose “what if?” questions to them: What if the smoke alarm went off? What would you do? Or what if Mom was sick and there was an emergency?

As far as our extended families go, we really don’t talk much about what we do. The novelty wore off a long time ago!

Do you ever find it exhausting to think so far ahead all the time?

A prepping mindset isn’t always cranked up to DEFCON 1. Usually, when someone first becomes aware and motivated, they’ll do a ton of research, spend hours on prepping/survival forums and websites, do what they can within their budgets and abilities, and then slow down a bit.

When I first started prepping, and this was at the beginning of the economic recession that began in early 2009, it was overwhelming trying to think of everything I needed to do to keep my family safe. As I took action, I enjoyed the feeling of being proactive and with every prep, I knew we were more and more prepared for whatever might happen.

Do you think people are reacting appropriately for our current situation? Do you think there’s a divide between red states and blue states with the reaction to the pandemic?

I think trying to divide red vs. blue and come to any conclusions about attitudes toward this pandemic based on how someone votes is neither helpful nor accurate. Pick any “red” or “blue” state or even a small town or city, and you’ll find that people are people. What they believe about the virus and how it affects their actions has little to do with their political affiliation. I just don’t see any connection at all.

I do see generational differences in the general prepping community. Many of my readers over the past decade have tended to be in their fifties and older. Perhaps since their kids are older or grown and gone, they have more time and disposable income to put towards prepping. Or maybe as older people, they’ve learned the importance of not living by the seat of their pants.

With the pandemic, though, people of all ages are realizing the importance of preparedness, and some are trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

In general, Americans haven’t had a preparedness mindset for a couple of generations. A hardship for us consisted of gas prices going up or down or maybe a power outage lasting a few hours. As news and bizarre videos from China began filtering from mainstream media into social media, more and more of us became aware that something dangerous was happening across the Pacific, and suddenly people panicked. Very few actually had a plan, and taking any action at all made them feel as though they were in control. Why so many people focused on bottled water and toilet paper remains a mystery to me.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Award-winning journalist and author of Poor Your Soul and The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna.

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