Most of these tips come from Africa. One has to applaud the ingenuity of people who can use natural resources and scavenged objects to make what they need despite a lack of reliable electrical power, water scarcity and general poverty.
Some of the practices could be considered cruel, and depending on the particular laws of the country regarding building and hunting, may be illegal – but people need to provide themselves with shelter, water and food and make do with what they have available to eke out a living.
There are also many opportunists looking for chances to rob homeowners and we have a comprehensive section on security tips. We may find these tips and skills very useful when SHTF.
1. Pole and daga (mud) is a way to make traditional homes. They are often circular in shape but can also be rectangular. The poles are cut and planted in the ground to form the outline of the wall, then small branches are woven between the poles.
After this mud is used to create a wall, being hand packed onto the framework. Sometimes the mud is mixed with cow dung – the grass in it providing strength, and if there is money available some cement may be added to the mud for added strength.
The roof structure is made from poles and then thatched with whatever grass is available in the area – if people live in an area where the coveted long thatching grass is available they are lucky – if not, they have to make do with the shorter grass.
The roof must have a good overhang of about 3 feet to ensure rain does not get onto the mud walls and make them disintegrate.
2. Flooring is made with a mixture of cow-dung and mud, then smeared by hand onto the hardpacked earth. It dries to a smooth finish and actually does not smell unpleasant.
3. Floor coverings are made of goat or sheep skins.
4. When walking along people do not pass up any nut, bolt, screw or nail they may find on streets. They can be put to use at some stage in car repairs or home building.
5. Often you will see people collecting second-hand nails on a building site – they are taken home and hammered straight to use on repairing a home, making furniture, etc.
6. You will often see people collecting odd bricks and stones to make a stockpile of building material for use later in home building projects. A whole classroom was built with scavenged bricks at a school in a township.
The enterprising teachers informed their pupils that they were to bring a brick or a half brick to school each day. The pile grew and grew and the kids were ranging far and wide in their scavenger hunts, until they had enough to build the classroom.
7. A person will buy a block making machine, and make around 10 or so blocks a day until there are enough to construct a one-room house.
Once the person has a roof and place to stay building doesn’t stop as extra rooms are added when there are enough blocks, until the structure can house the extended family.
8. A home can be made from repurposed wooden pallets – even the roof is made from wood, if there is no money to buy corrugated iron.
The roof may be painted with bitumen to help waterproof it, but often an old tarpaulin is pulled over the roof to rainproof it.
9. Nothings is wasted – in some of the mjondolos, as shack dwellings in South Africa are called, you will see portions of road signs still bearing names of towns, which have been used to create a wall shack.
10. Aluminum cans are flattened out and nailed onto a wood roof in overlapping layers to create a waterproof covering, the joints sealed with bitumen.
Glass bottles can be used to make walls of homes, and a new initiative introduced recently is 2-litre soda bottles that are packed full of scrap plastic to create ‘eco bricks’ to be used in building homes.
11. To decorate pole and daga houses people will find different colored earth to make paint – red or yellow earth is mixed with water and elaborate designs are painted onto the houses.
They will wash off with prolonged rain, but as mentioned the eaves are quite wide protecting the walls, and paint designs are renewed each season anyway. This ‘paint’ is all natural and non-toxic.
12. Children are taught young to identify wild fruit that is edible, People can frequently be seen alongside the roadways collecting fruit as a snack on the way, or to take home. As they walk along the seeds are spat out and result in more self-seeded fruit trees.
13. When people walk around in the bush or in a town, they keep their eyes open and take note of where various fruit trees like guavas, paw paws, and mangoes have self-seeded, or where there are abandoned homesteads or farms with fruit trees.
When they are hungry and the trees are in fruit, they know exactly where to go for free fruit.
When fruit like papayas need to be packaged to take to market they are packed in a nest of soft grass so they don’t touch and bruise each other in the hessian sacks. No plastic is used.
15. To dry maize in Zimbabwe, a circular palisade known as a Dara is made using local branches.
Then a lighter framework of criss-crossed sticks is fastened above the ground, and maize packed onto this, then another framework is created above that, more maize stacked and so on, so there is air circulating to ensure even drying.
Should rain threaten, a tarp or piece of plastic is placed over the Dara to keep the maize dry.
17. Children are taught from an early age to be accurate with a slingshot – a suitable small forked branch is selected and the inner tube of an old tyre used to create the sling.
Small pebbles are the ammunition. Children wander around shooting birds, which they roast on a stick over a small fire outdoors, or take home to the family.
18. A mortar and pestle on a large scale is made from a hollowed-out tree trunk and a pole is used to stomp the maize into a pulp ready to make porridge.
If the maize is dried out it is taken to a local mill to be turned into maize meal for a small fee then returned to the owner. Maize is the staple food in Southern African states.
19. Seed is kept from the various crops, dried, and planted the next year so there is no need to buy seed each season.
20. Bartering is returning as a form of trade in countries where the monetary system has virtually collapsed, but is not always fair – a novelty like a cell phone may be swapped for a goat, which is actually worth three times more than a cheap cell phone.
21. Peanut butter is made using a hollow grinding stone and a smooth rock. Some people have a small hand-turned machine for grinding the peanuts.
22. Honey is collected from wild hives found in hollow trees using a smoking rag to subdue the bees. The honey guide bird will lead people to the bees flitting ahead and calling as it benefits from honey comb.
Watch this video to see how a call handed down through hundreds of years is recognized by the birds:
23. All parts of a chicken are used. ‘Walkies talkies’ is the name for a dish of chicken heads and feet. It is a very popular and tasty dish – see how to make it here:
24. People make fish traps from split canes, or will make elaborate palisades in the river to direct the fish into certain areas where they can be caught.
Cages to trap fish are also made from chicken wire with the wire around the entrance hole left rough on the inside, so when the fish try to get out the rough wire touches them and they back away, remaining trapped.
25. A wild herb similar to spinach, called mfino is cooked with onions and some spices and served with maize meal porridge. The leaf is somewhat hairy like pumpkin leaves which are cooked in the same way as mfino.
26. People collect water from the river in small plastic drums, and cart them home in a wheelbarrow if they don’t have any motorised transport.
27. A person who owns a utility vehicle will collect big drums of water from the river to take back to the village. Often, a small fee is charged to cover the fuel and time.
28. No matter how small the home people install water tanks, if they can afford them, to harvest rainwater as they cannot always rely on government supplied water, and in rural areas there is often no organised water supply.
29. People rely on bleach – a teaspoon to 5 litres of water, or boiling water, for drinking purposes.
30. Very large tires are cut in half in Zimbabwe, then lined with plastic and used to store water in times of drought when every drop counts.
The tire is covered with plastic to reduce evaporation. Smaller tires are prepared the same way to make water containers for stock.
31. People create their own water filters, using pebbles and river sand.
32. Water is intermittent in many cities, and where people are closely packed this is problematic, unlike in the country areas where people can go to a river to collect water.
People who have the money will dig a well on their property.
33. Electrical power may be intermittent in cities, and non-existent in rural areas in many third world countries. People gather cow pats, like in ancient times, and form them into flat pancakes that are dried in the sun to make fuel for fires.
34. Once maize is stripped from the cob, the husks are stored and used to get fires burning well.
35. Solar panels are installed for power – the essentials being run are a fridge, a couple of lights at night and a TV.
36. Because of frequent power cuts some people have inverters connected to a car battery which will give a couple of hours of light, or TV watching at night.
37. Gas stoves, freezers and fridges are popular as power supplies can be intermittent.
38. Some people dig under the earth floors of their homes and create makeshift cellars to keep drinks and food cool – or at least a bit cooler than the ambient outside temperature which can be around 100 to 110 degrees F. The storage area is dug inside the home to prevent theft.
39. Car tires are cut up and re-purposed into sometimes very stylish sandals that last a long time and are impervious to the thorns so common in the rural area of Africa. Watch how it’s done:
Mechanical Repairs and Creations
40. If there is no welding helmet available, a brown beer bottle held in front of the face will shield a welder from getting arc eyes in backyard repair shops.
41. If there are no jumper cables and a car with a flat battery needs to be started, the battery from a car that starts easily will be brought and connected to the flat battery terminals using two spanners. The extra power fed through the spanners soon has the other vehicle started.
42. Old flat leaf car springs are used as a source of steel for making machetes, hoes, and other implements.
43. A makeshift bellows is created from an angled pipe with a small hole in one end. A large plastic bag is placed over the open end and someone sits capturing air in the bag and forcing in methodically through the pipe to blow onto a charcoal fire.
The metal becomes red hot and the ironmonger will hammer the old metal recycled from scrap into new items. This child has already learnt the skills for iron working:
44. A makeshift lathe is made from a small motor, recycled from some other piece of machinery, a belt and pulleys plus a few other salvaged odds and ends, and then wood is turned to make small bowls and cups for drinking.
45. A hand saw can be made from a suitable piece of scrap metal; an angle grinder is used to cut teeth then wood is fastened on either end as handles – two people can then fell trees.
46. If a mechanical oil seal is leaking on a vehicle it gets taken out carefully, the spring inside around the rubber lip can be removed and slightly shortened, to increase the pressure on the rubber to stop the oil leak.
47. On older vehicles (in third world countries vehicles are made to last a very long time), a cracked rotor which is throwing the spark and preventing the vehicle from starting can be repaired using ladies nail polish.
Surviving in the City
48. All offcuts of wood are collected – they can be made into tables and chairs or used as firewood. People will take home a couple of pieces a day to create a stockpile until they have enough for whatever project they have in mind.
49. People in 3rd world countries aren’t afraid to ask if they see something that someone doesn’t appear to be using. Chances are the person will give it to them. If the person asking is mechanically minded they can fix it, then sell it or use it.
50. City locations often have ground that is unused – weeds grow in the small open patches behind industrial buildings or along the driveways.
Many workers on the premises get permission and use the ground to plant maize, pumpkins and other vegetables – they will usually have supplies of seed saved from the homestead.
The bonus is that factories have good security so no one is going to steal the produce in the night, a common problem when making enclosures near rivers for vegetable lots.
51. Homes are perimeter fenced so people cannot get to the windows or doors easily to enter and steal:
52. Doors are kept locked and people have security gates with a slam-lock mechanism, so should a person get into the property while the owner or family is outside, they can run inside and slam-lock the security gate.
53. People who can afford it have their homes covered with CCTV cameras and/or motion detecting sensors, as well as a panic button, all connected to a security company control room, which will send out a patrol vehicle should any of the sensors be triggered, or the panic button pressed.
54. First floor balconies often have burglar guarding, something like living in a birdcage, but it is necessary in certain neighborhoods to prevent people scaling the wall and entering via balconies.
55. Inside homes, there is often a security gate in the passage between the living area and the bedrooms. The theory is that thieves can help themselves to the TV and other electronic goods while the occupants at least are safe behind the security gate, and it gives the homeowners time to call for help.
56. All large glass window panes should be covered with burglar bars – it’s too easy for someone to smash a large fixed window and enter that way.
57. All sliding glass doors and other glass doors are usually required to have security gates fitted otherwise insurance companies will not be prepared to insure the contents of the home in countries with high crime rates.
58. People keep cell phones charged, and next to their beds at night. Landline phones are usually cut by criminals so there can be no calls sent out for help.
59. People form community policing forums, and are connected via an app on their cell phones so they know immediately if someone is in trouble, or notes suspicious activity.
60. As a general rule drive with car windows closed and doors locked in cities, to avoid smash and grab robberies at traffic lights, or when parked and still seated in the car.
61. Wear your seat belt – it’s a legal requirement but can also save you from being pulled out of the car quickly by hijackers, giving you a few seconds to put the vehicle in gear and escape.
62. Be fully aware when stopping at traffic lights late at night for people on foot – one will approach form one side while the others will sneak up from the other side and attempt to take the vehicle. Also, be aware of cars pulling up alongside you, as the hijackers my pile out and rush your vehicle.
63. When arriving at home check for suspicious looking people. If you think you are being followed then drive past your property and to the nearest police station.
Most hijackings take place in drive-ways when people are distracted while busy opening gates, getting children out of the car, or unpacking groceries.
64. Install remote control gates so there is no need to get out of your car when entering your property, and do not exit the vehicle until the gate is securely closed behind your vehicle.
Hijackers will often drive in right behind a vehicle so the gate won’t close. This could have been avoided by checking for other vehicles nearby before entering.
65. If you have a firearm be prepared to carry it at all times. Far too any people have been ushot with their own firearms that were not on their person.
66. Try to avoid engaging with robbers, as they are usually armed with illegal guns and are dangerous. Know that many people carry knives, and a sharpened bicycle spoke slid between the ribs and into the heart is a lethal weapon carried by some.
67. If at a stop street someone points to a “flat tire” or tells you your light is broken do not get out of the vehicle to check. Drive to a safe area, making sure you are not followed and then check. This is often a ruse adopted to get you distracted and out of the vehicle while accomplices hijack it.
68. Have electrical fencing installed above your perimeter fencing. The electrical fencing should have a back-up battery in case of electrical outages.
69. Razor wire at the top of a fence will prevent people getting over, and is often used as a back up to electrical fencing. Unless the fencing is a solid wall with a good foundation, also install razor wire at the bottom, otherwise burglars simply cut and wriggle under the fence.
70. Thieves can make their entrance through the roof – removing tiles or cutting through the roof covering. If this is a possibility then razor wire around the edge of the roof will act as a deterrent.
71. Burglars often chose stormy weather to target homes as usually the dogs will be inside, and sounds will be muffled by the rain. Be extra alert during bad weather.
72. When there is a power outage be extra alert as robbers tend to attack homes when security lights don’t come on, and electrical fencing and alarms may be compromised.
73. Install solar-powered motion detector lights, so they will work even if there is a power outage.
74. Ask your alarm company to set up beams across front, side and backyard areas so you’ll know if someone is trespassing.
Some criminals practice running through back yards and climbing fences so it becomes almost a nightly occurrence until they have lulled homeowners into thinking, it’s just these crazy teens, and have let down their vigilance.
This is done to familiarize themselves with routes and what dogs may be encountered. When they decide to rob, they won’t be seen on the road near the house they hit but will emerge about 10 houses down into a back lane or side road, where a getaway car will be waiting.
75. A robber’s trick is to ask a homeowner for a glass of water. As soon as the homeowner turns to fetch the water accomplices hidden around a corner will rush the house and tie up the owner and ransack the house.
Do not open the door to people you do not know – they shouldn’t have been able to get past the perimeter fence anyway.
76. Warn elderly parents, teens and other people who may be at home when you are at work that you will tell them if you are expecting any repairmen and give them the name of the repairman and company.
Criminals posing as electricians, plumbers, etc get access this way by claiming the homeowner asked them to check something, or wants to install something and they need to take measurements.
Have you been into a 3rd world country? What lessons did you learn there?
Traveler, photographer, writer. I’m eternally curious, in love with the natural world. How people can survive in harmony with nature has fueled my food safety and survival gardening practices.
At the age of 12, I found a newspaper advertisement for a 155-acre farm at a really good price and showed my parents one Sunday morning. They bought it and I happily started planting vegetables, peanuts, maize and keeping bees with the help of the local labor. Once I married wherever we moved it was all about planting food, keeping chickens and ducks, permaculture and creating micro-climates. I learned how to build wooden cabins and outdoor furniture from pallets, and baked and cooked home-grown produce, developing recipes as I went along.
Over the years on numerous trips to wild places and cities I’ve learned all sorts of survival hacks, but there is always someone out there who can teach you a new trick so I remain an eternal student and forever humble.