Our schools teach reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic, but they don’t necessarily teach actual life skills. How many people come out of high school without the knowledge to so much as balance a checkbook, even if they can do basic calculus? There are a lot of basic skills that we need just to make our lives easier and be more self-sufficient as grown-ups (yes, today I am pretending I’m an adult – don’t worry, it’ll wear off). When you start looking at homesteading and/or prepping, these skills go from useful to critical. So here are my top ten most useful skills to learn whether you want to prepare for the end of the world as we know it, or maybe just get to work on time without feeling like you’ve been through a TEOTWAWKI.
Whether you’re sewing on a button because it popped off right before a big meeting or making a new outfit from scratch, knowing how to use a needle and thread gives you more options. You don’t have to be Vera Wang to learn to sew, or even have a sewing machine. Hand sewing is easy – although you can get fancy, really just knowing three stitches (straight/running, blanket/overlock, and back) will take care of most applications. You can extend the life of your favorite clothing by doing simple mending, which can save you money as well as keep you from having to throw out something you love. Sewing, like most of the skills on this list, is scalable. Once you learn the basics you can use them to make so many different things – leather harness, feed bags, shoes, upcycle or tailor clothing from the thrift store, not to mention the “fancier” stuff like embroidery. Knowing how to repair and make your own clothing will stretch your budget and your options.
If you can’t make a grilled cheese when you’re in the air-conditioned, electrified confines of your home, how are you going to feed yourself or your family if things go bad? Learning to cook isn’t hard (yes, there are nuances, but I’m not saying you have to get into molecular gastronomy). It does take time, patience, and attention to detail. When I first moved in with my husband twelve years ago, my idea of cooking was buying those boxed meals that had a can of filling and powder that you mixed with water to make biscuit topping, all of which you dumped into a dish and heated in the oven. Now I can roast a chicken, steam veggies, and even bake a pretty decent carrot cake – all from scratch! It took practice and watching LOTS of YouTube videos and reading of cookbooks. (A big shout out to Mr. WPW who never turned his nose up at anything I cooked even when *I* wouldn’t eat it. I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to get through the many failures without his support.) Learn to cook from scratch because as transportation costs rise, our food production is shipped to China, and other factors make it harder to find healthy food at the grocery store, you can buy whole foods from local producers and turn them into delicious, nutritious dishes. It also costs a lot less to make your own – especially if you do big batch cooking and then freeze things in portion size for later eating – and is much healthier with less salt and all the unpronouncables that are in processed foods.
This is one of my passionate spots, so I’ll try not to soap box too much. Money, you see, is something that terrifies me. I actually keep our checkbook and do our bills BECAUSE it scares me so much – I have to face the sweaty palms and nervous stomach knots at least once a month when I balance the checkbook. Why do I find it so scary? Because it’s so doggone important. Yeah, money isn’t everything, but it’s what allows us to live the lives we want to live – it’s a tool. Money is something in particular that we’re NOT taught in school. How many high schoolers graduate knowing calculus, but not how to balance a checkbook or what their credit score means or how to file their own taxes? According to creditcards.com, the average college student has $906 in credit card debt and in total Americans have over $950 BILLION in revolving (mostly credit card) debt. Zacks.com says that the average American family only has about $6,000 in savings. Suffice to say that between excessive debt and low savings, we’re not prepared for emergencies. Whether it’s a job loss or a full-on economic crash and depression, would you be able to continue to pay your mortgage for six months? Or your property taxes? Learn to live within your means, set up a budget, and stick to it. That doesn’t mean never go out or have fun or splurge, but it does mean splurge with money you have, not money you don’t have, and definitely not with money designated for other purposes. What it does mean is manage your money, save for a rainy day, and be responsible about it.
Keeping another critter alive
This may seem like a weird thing to add, but hear me out. Whether you’re talking about chickens or other livestock, spouses, or that most scary of creatures: kids, it takes a lot of work to keep someone other than yourself alive and well. As obvious as it may seem, they have different needs, wants, and priorities than you do. A chicken doesn’t care if you have a wedding to attend over the weekend, it still needs to be fed, get fresh water, and wants to go out and dig for bugs and grass and such. If you have never had a pet before, go out and get yourself a goldfish. They’re pretty easy, but they have the same requirements that any other animal will have – food, a safe environment, and yes, care through their life and up to their death. (As my farm mentor Sandy says, “if you have livestock, you have deadstock”!) Having a goldfish will at least introduce you to the concept of responsibility for another living soul. If you’ve already gone past the goldfish level and have moved on to a cat or dog or even offspring of your very own, congratulations! You’re in the advanced class. Having animals or other dependents changes the way you see the world – it enhances your empathy and it limits your options and it expands your heart, and probably a number of other things. I will say that if you’re looking to homestead and you don’t already have pets, well, give ’em a go. Animals and homesteads go hand in hand. (I am particularly partial to chickens, but let’s move on lest I spend the next three hours bending your ears about chickens!)
On-demand fire is one of the greatest achievements of humankind. From Prometheus to modern-day space shuttle rocket launchers, we humans have used fire in more ways than you’d ever think. But an astounding number of us don’t know how to make or safely use fire anymore. (Heck, until I was in my mid-twenties and doing historical reenacting, I didn’t either!) Fire is a tricky ally, one that you have to understand and respect. In power outages one of the biggest dangers is people either using candles for light or trying to light fires in houses without fireplaces. (As a side note, if you’re going to use alternative heat sources like space heaters, make sure you’re also learning about carbon monoxide and how to prevent dying from it!) Learn the fire triangle: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Learn both to start and to extinguish fires – and it is always a good idea to have a couple of fire extinguishers around (though you want to learn how to use them properly – an unlearned prep is a useless prep).
Gardening (or farming, which is really gardening on a bigger scale and then selling what you grew) is way more than just plopping a couple seeds in the ground and waiting until you can harvest your food. It’s a complex subject with lots of nuance – how deep do you plant your seeds, how do you handle pests, is your soil the right pH (or even, what the heck is pH?), and on and on and on. Now, not to scare you. Gardening is lots of fun and there’s plenty of easy-to-grow stuff. You can scale gardening up from simple container gardens on your windowsill up to multi-acre gardens. But the more productivity you want, the more variety you want to grow, and if you really want to learn to feed yourself or your family, it take some learning and a LOT of practice. This is the fourth year I’ve had a garden and the first year I’ve gotten any measurable amount of produce from it. (Last year I got two zucchinis before the chickens got into the garden and devastated it! Before that the deer ate everything down to two inches high – except the tomatoes, where they ate the ripe ones, left the unripe ones and then came back and ate them once they ripened! One year I had seedlings growing and ready to plant, got crazy busy at work, and never got them in the ground. These are just a few of my *ahem* challenges in the past.) Even though I’ve gotten a ton of green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers, I’m still not getting as much as I’d like. I’m fighting squash bugs and Japanese beetles (ate our potatoes to nubs) and some kind of wilt on my peas. So, learn to garden now when you can do it for fun and to supplement what you can buy so if you have to do it later and rely on it to feed yourself and your family, you’ll have gotten your worst mistakes and learning curve out of the way. Not to mention that fruit trees, asparagus, and a few other things require *years* before they actually produce. So plant now, eat later. (I’ve specifically referenced growing fruits and veggies here, but a lot of this applies to raising animals for meat, too. It takes time to learn the nuances, find resources like decent butchers or learn to do it yourself, etc.)
Understanding your car
This is the item on this list with which I have the furthest to go. FWIW, I do have a book in the to-be-read pile on the subject, but… well, cars aren’t my natural milieu. Of course, that’s exactly why I added them to the list. I’m not suggesting you become a certified mechanic, here, but it can do you a lot of good to at least understand basic car maintenance. First, you’ll know when you can do something yourself and when to call in the big guns. Second, you’ll understand what the mechanics are talking about when you go in. Third, you’ll be more likely to know whether or not the mechanics are trying to rip you off. Plus, if you can do some basic maintenance like changing your own oil you can save a lot of money over the life of your car. Not to mention how incredibly valuable having auto skills would be should something happen to make it (even more) exorbitantly expensive to go into a mechanic’s shop. We have two cars – a gas and a diesel. We have a full-size tractor – diesel – and a lawn tractor – gas. I want to learn about both kinds of engines so I can service them. I have changed the oil in my little tractor Ol’ Bess and it was liberating, though a bit intimidating at first.
So you’ve learned to grow it, and you’ve learned to cook it, but do you know how to put up food so it lasts for a year or more? There are lots of different ways to put up food – canning, curing, dehydrating, freeze-drying, freezing, and cold storage. Some of these are easy for the home preserver to do, some not so much. Freeze-drying for example – home units cost upwards of $3,000! But, dehydrators can cost as little as $20. Canning is one of my favorite ways (actually have chicken stock cooking on the stove that will be canned later this afternoon). It’s easy, once you get the hang of it, and there are a ton of reputable references online. The National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia is THE place to go for reliable information on canning and other preserving techniques. I’m also a fan of Canning Homemade (aka SB Canning) and Living Homegrown (plus they have a great podcast) as they’re both run by Master Canners. Preserving food you grow (or food you buy that’s on sale) is a great way to save money, too!
Walking (or other mobility)
Every year when the first major snowstorm hits you hear the news stories of heart attacks. People who are sedentary the other three quarters of the year go out and do heavy labor slinging wet snow and then keel over. It’s going to be the same should our cars suddenly not work, whether it’s because gas becomes seriously expensive or an EMP strands us all. Do you have the physical capability to walk home from work? (Or, if you’re not conventionally-abled, do you have a way to get home? If you use a powered wheel chair, can you get a manual one and work it well enough to travel, for instance.) Make sure you’re physically able to get home – or if you’re planning on bugging out that you can get to your back up location even if cars aren’t working. Start by just getting moving – even 10 minutes a day – and increase time or speed as your stamina increases. Once you can walk a mile or three, try doing it while wearing your bug out bag.
This list just scratches the surface of the skills you’ll need to keep yourself alive and thriving in a tough situation, or what you’ll need to know if you want to start homesteading. A blog post won’t be able to do much more than give you a jumping off point to start your own research. I know I’m constantly learning more about how to raise chickens or sew clothing or any number of other things. Read books, blogs, and of course EXPERIMENT. Use the skills you learn and continue to improve. The time to learn is now when things are (relatively) normal, not when things get tough and stressful.
You’ll notice that I didn’t include weapons on this list. While there are situations where weapons and understanding weapons can come in handy (hunting, having to put down a farm animal, a complete TEOTWAWKI), for most things I think they escalate situations rather than deescalate them. I have a weapon, I practice with it and I do feel it’s important to have, but would I be less prepared without one? I don’t know. I certainly don’t feel that weapons skills are absolutely critical – diplomacy or sneakiness might be more useful. This is one thing that you’ll have to figure out whether it’s important to you or not.
What do you think are the most critical skills to have?