Short guide to 'prepping' for global catastrophes

by kbog 8 min read23rd Mar 2020No comments


Prepping refers to personal preparations that you take to survive catastrophic events. It may be appropriate for Effective Altruists to spend small amounts of time and money on prepping, though not to the point of making it a full-on hobby. I’m not sure what the optimal amount is, but this guide at least provides suggestions for how to spend that time/money budget smartly. Feel free to suggest/criticize; I will update it accordingly.

Preparing your network

Community volunteering

A good way of mitigating catastrophes could be volunteering for local critical services. Potentially useful volunteer services include the neighborhood watch, hospital volunteering, and conservation corps.

It’s good to have some preexisting contacts and understanding of local volunteer organizations. Be ready to assist their efforts and fill in for missing workers in key positions.

It may be good to do at least a bit of volunteering in normal times, to understand the organization and be ready to rejoin in the event of a catastrophe. You might enjoy it and find it valuable anyway.

You can also take a reserve job in the military, police, firefighting, nursing or other services. Generally speaking, enrolling in these jobs has to be done ahead of time and is a more serious step with greater costs and benefits beyond global catastrophe situations.


Small industrial facilities can be useful for emergency fabrication. For instance, in the COVID-19 pandemic, independent groups are attempting to manufacture items such as PPE and mechanical ventilators.

Workshops include:

· Community workshops, such as Molten Metal Works in Los Angeles

· Schools with machine shops and similar programs, such as high school FIRST robotics teams

· Small industrial businesses like machine shops and 3D printing shops

· Homes of private hobbyists, makers, etc

Note that businesses and especially public workshops will often be unwilling to manufacture things that are regulated or restricted, like medical gear and weapons.

Make acquaintance with owners, and plan for access, supply, utilities, and security in the event of catastrophes.


It could be very handy to be familiar with someone who owns a pickup truck or cargo van.

Local EA groups

Local EA groups can select a person to coordinate catastrophe preparation among them. This person would keep track of people's catastrophe-relevant assets, skills and connections, would link people requiring assistance with others who can provide it, would advise people on what seems to be most needed in the community, and would promote commonality for things like radio frequencies and gun calibers.

Preparing your home

It is not worthwhile to purchase or rent an individual home or ranch to prepare for global catastrophes. It’s better to live in a smaller space and save the money for regular effective charities or initiatives to systematically improve civilizational resilience. However, if you or family members already find it advantageous to live in a house for whatever reason, then some preparations can be made to greatly improve survivability. Large group houses for Effective Altruists are pretty sensible in normal times, and can be prepared for resilience in catastrophes. Some preparations can also be viable for apartment dwellers.

The best locations for safety against pandemics are Australia, New Zealand, and Iceland, in that order, although moving has far larger costs and benefits besides this, so moving for this purpose is unjustified. It could be a good tiebreaker if you’re really unsure about moving for other reasons. But one could even argue that such risks are priced into the market and therefore we should ignore catastrophic risks when deciding where to live.

See Kearny’s Nuclear War Survival Skills for the construction and use of shelters to survive nuclear war.

See Marc and Dianna MacYoung’s tips for home security to protect against break-ins, which could be a major risk in the wake of any catastrophes. Basic modifications are likely more cost-effective than firearm purchases for protecting against home invasions. Geoffrey Miller suggests a number of simple items to deter and block intruders.

Solar panels are useful for independence from the electrical grid. Even if they are slightly cost-ineffective at reducing your electricity bills and carbon emissions in normal times, the added security in times of catastrophe may justify installation.

Copper surfaces tend to kill microbes, so it can be a good choice when installing doorknobs and other fixtures. You can also cover things with copper tape to get this effect. This is especially important in case of a pandemic, but ordinary infections may be very troublesome if medical infrastructure is down for other reasons.

If you plant a yard, it should be done with food crops. One approach is to plant low-maintenance fruit trees that will provide a small, easy and predictable food supplement. Another approach is to stockpile seeds and prepare the soil for intensive annual vegetables or grains in the event of a food shortage (but you would want to try this first to make sure you know what you’re doing). Of course neither of these will be sufficient for a sustainable food supply on a typical yard. Also, consider the risk that the water system will be disrupted in a catastrophe. You can irrigate with greywater but must safely evacuate blackwater.

Items that may be worth owning

Food and water

Long term food supply can be a good idea. It’s easy to simply buy large amounts of nonperishable foods ahead of time and maintain a rolling stock – you won’t be buying anything extra, but will always have an extra supply on hand. Be sure to include some enjoyable foods, not just staples.

The first downside to doing this is that earlier purchases are costlier as a matter of discounting.

The other downside of maintaining a food runway is that you may waste money if you have to change your diet due to changing tastes or health situations, or if you have to move.

You can similarly maintain a runway of bottled water, assuming that you drink it in the first place. Other options for water supply are suggested by Geoffrey Miller, for both storage and filtration.


You can also maintain a runway for toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, condoms, razors, and other items. Men should have razors because facial hair can inhibit the use of respirator masks. Baby wipes are very convenient in case you cannot take a shower. Trash bags are very important. Disposable plates/bowls/cups/cutlery may be useful. Bleach or bleach-based cleaners can be useful. A drain cleaner such as Drano can be useful.

Nitrile gloves and surgical masks help prevent infections and contamination. Dishwashing gloves may be useful too. An N95 respirator can be useful against airborne diseases. Simpler surgical masks are also good. Glasses, sunglasses and full face shields can also help protect you against airborne diseases.

A commode and clear poly film may be useful in case you have to quarantine within a room in a shared house, but there’s little reason to plan for that until you know that a pandemic is actually coming.


Stocking up on your prescribed drugs can be very important, if you can do it. It can also be good to have a supply of nonprescription drugs. Thermometers help you reliably monitor fevers. It’s also good to have standard first aid kits/items such as bandages, antiseptic etc.


It’s good to have some means of resilient transportation: extra fuel if you have a gas or diesel car, solar panels if you have an electric car, a bicycle, and/or a wagon.


Consider getting emergency lighting, emergency communications, and emergency cooking and heating.


Good tools include a crowbar, a bolt cutter, a Morakniv, a lighter, pliers, drivers (hammer/screwdrivers/ Allen wrenches/drill) and fasteners (nails/screws), duct tape, strong glue, and a sewing kit. You’ll want basic supplies like rubber bands, wire, and office clips for making things.

You can also get more serious equipment for woodworking, metalworking, 3D printing, textiles and other capabilities. However, any of these would require a heavy investment proportional to their usefulness, given the low probability of a global catastrophe. If you happen to have an ordinary need for such fabrication facilities, you may consider global catastrophes to be a small reason to buy some extra stuff. But it’s generally not worthwhile for ordinary people to put together workshops just for the sake of catastrophe preparation. Better to focus on leveraging manufacturing resources in your local network.

For food, you might get fishing or trapping equipment depending on where you live, but keep in mind that animals might become scarce as other people similarly go hunting, fishing and trapping.

Make sure you have a fire extinguisher.

In the absence of firearms, self-defense is probably best done with mace/pepper spray, a tactical flashlight, or a taser. Bulkier items (suitable only for home defense or more violent situations) include the baseball bat, machete, spear, slingshot, bow and crossbow.



A major reason for owning a gun to prepare for global catastrophe is to hunt for food. Note however that the typical unskilled person would be limited to hunting small game like squirrels, birds and rodents, and that all game may be devastated by the spike in hunting and trapping which would likely follow a disruption of food supply. And if game reserves are limited, then hunting could be considered zero-sum exploitation of the commons.


Guns can be valuable for defensive purposes in the wake of a global catastrophe. This can involve both individual defense of your home and family, and collective defense with a large group.

Owning a gun can also increase your safety against home intruders in ordinary times, but this seems minor. In most neighborhoods, the expenses of a gun are likely much more than your expected losses from burglaries, let alone what you might actually save by arming yourself, and the probability of being killed in a home invasion is low compared to the probability of a gun accident or suicide.

Risks of owning a gun

Owning a gun can increase your risk of death or injury via accident or suicide attempt. Note: even if you are mentally stable now, that may no longer be the case in the wake of a major catastrophe! Consider whether you would be at high risk of suicide during times of widespread death and ruin, or the social isolation of pandemic quarantines. Highly neurotic and conscientious people may have difficulty adapting to the circumstances.

Gun choices

Here are what I would consider potentially appropriate gun choices for a typical person to own for prepping. I haven’t shot many guns and have only done so at practice ranges, so these ratings are rough estimates based on largely on conventional wisdom.

The hunting ratings assume someone with minimal skills, pursuing small game like squirrels, birds and rodents.

The outdoor defense ratings assume that it is unproblematic to open carry.

The ease of use is largely a matter of recoil. People who are decently fit and well-built should have no significant problem with most of these guns.

The cost is for a new item. You may be able to find a good used gun and save money.

Both the AR15 and the AK47 are good platforms; the AR15 is reputed to be less reliable, but in reality the difference is very small especially if the gun is well-maintained. The AR15 is more widely used in the United States, so it seems better due to the commonality of parts, ammunition and knowledge. For details on acquiring and using such a rifle, see the “How To Win The Fight” video series. For one specific $500 AR-15 build, see this video.

Gun users often recommend the Ruger 10/22, but we exclude it because it is more expensive than the Marlins and its customization options are not important for people who aren’t gun hobbyists with extra cash. More expensive pistol and pistol-caliber carbine brands than Hi-Point are excluded because there is insufficient evidence that they are substantially superior for practical purposes. Pistol calibers larger than 9mm are excluded because there not good evidence of additional stopping power and there is too much of a tradeoff with recoil, capacity and expenses, especially for novice users; law enforcement and military applications most frequently use 9mm for these reasons and it is probably best to trust their judgment. The Mosin-Nagant, though praised by some people as a cheap emergency weapon, is excluded here for being slow, heavy, oversized, overpowered, and inaccurate.

Gun manufacturing

Guns would be much more useful in the wake of a global catastrophe. It may be much more efficient to merely retain the capacity to construct them on relatively short notice. A mechanical workshop with ordinary equipment can produce single-shot weapons and ammunition if you have decent skills, but 3D printing is far more likely to be feasible for a given person.

Matt Parlmer quotes all-in startup costs for the FGC-9 printed pistol at $500, with components for each successive pistol being around $100. Acquiring components at the time of a global catastrophe may be very difficult. The equivalent commercial item would be the Hi-Point C9 at $160 each, which is also more durable and probably more reliable. So you may as well simply stockpile commercial guns if that’s feasible. But 3D printing could be better in cases where gun laws are too restrictive or are expected to become so in the wake of a global catastrophe. 3D printing equipment and supplies can of course be useful for other purposes as well, both before and after a global catastrophe.


Ammunition must be stockpiled. Ammo reloading requires little in the way of tools and skill, but for a normal person it is cheaper and smarter to just own a few more boxes of ammunition. Ammunition reloading or manufacturing capabilities can be developed in the wake of a catastrophe if necessary.

Ammo purchases are likely to surge whenever there is much sustained suspicion of a crisis, so ammo will either be unavailable or expensive. Therefore it’s better to just own the right amount of ammo ahead of time.

Shotgun owners may consider owning less lethal ammunition. It is definitely preferable in theory to avoid unnecessary killing, but there is extensive controversy about whether it is effective and wise to use such ammo. If you have a single-shot shotgun, it definitely seems bad to rely on anything but the most lethal round for self-defense. In a pump-action weapon, it may be okay to load one or several initial shots with less lethal rounds, as long as you are aware that they are still quite capable of causing lethal wounds (especially if proper medical treatment is unavailable), are less likely to stop the threat, and may not be perceived by law enforcement or a judge/jury as being much better than using lethal ammunition.

Body armor

Armor may be a worthwhile purchase. For activities in the event of a global catastrophe, wearing body armor for long periods of time could be a socially acceptable and worthwhile precaution, although the weight would be a downside. Note that in the absence of proper medical care, even a mild bullet wound could easily prove fatal.

A basic Level III vest, good to stop typical rifle rounds (and any handgun rounds), is $280. A basic Level IIIA vest, good to stop nearly any handgun round, is $175. These could be better uses of funds for defense compared to upgrading to a more powerful and sophisticated weapon, though buying body armor without owning any firearm seems like a poor use of funds.

For protection against other weapons besides firearms, consider stab vests, cut-resistant gloves and sleeves, trauma padding, safety glasses, a bicycle helmet, and a jockstrap or pelvic protector.

How important is defense?

I’ve suggested many firearms and other defensive items, but don’t get the wrong impression from that. Most of the death from global catastrophes tends to be from things like disease and starvation. Contrary to popular perceptions, mass panic and social breakdown are not the default response to catastrophes (Norwood 2014, Mawson 2014).

So in my opinion, one probably shouldn’t spend more than 40% of one’s prepping budget on items for defense, and most people should probably spend less.

Books and documents to own

· Maps of local area

· Locations of nearby acquaintances, hospitals, food markets, hardware/home improvement stores, drug stores, bicycle shops, auto mechanics, machine shops, fishing shops, and gun shops

· Instruction manuals for any complex equipment that you may use

· Kearney’s Nuclear War Survival Skills

· First aid guide

· Oral rehydration solution recipes

· Copies of your medical records

· Guide to local edible and poisonous plants

· Books on stoicism, resilience, mindfulness

· Something to read for fun