10 Things Old Time Preppers Did That You Don’t

The argument between the older generations and the new is a never-ending one. The Old Guard constantly reprimands the new about how much better and easier they have it, and how much harder it was in their day. And it was the hard that made them better, dammit! Just ask them and they’ll tell you.

The fabulous, new and young are always completely self-assured of their supremacy, what with their youthful bodies, greater intellect and superior technology. The young have access to and court the best possible cutting-edge solutions for any given problem, free from the prejudices and inertia of the old timers.

For the latter, it is true: every generation builds upon the last in terms of skills and capability, and in doing so becomes the current paradigm of performance. Our toys and our technology was the stuff of science fiction just a few short decades ago. “The future is now, old man”, indeed.

Except some things fell through the cracks. Our massive body of knowledge and reliance on technological wizardry has made us victims of our frame of reference, creating blind spots that we don’t even know are there.

This is where the wisdom of our ancestors can illuminate and save us. As it turns out (and is always the case) they really do know a thing or two. In this article, we’ll be discussing 10 things old time preppers did that most of us don’t.

The More Things Change…

Preppers have to deal with many things today that would have not even been a passing thought to our forbearers: electronic and signals security, comprehensive identity theft, mass collapse events caused by things like EMPs or cyber terrorism, all kinds of technologically derived fears.

While there were plenty of social troubles that were cause for concern, our elders really weren’t facing the same challenges we are today: the ongoing Civil Cold War and subsequent cultural balkanization of America, infrastructural collapse, overpopulation, economic woes and recessions, homegrown and imported terror attacks. Yeah, sounds like they didn’t know how good they had it!

Things were simpler for them. They had to worry about keeping food on the table, wood in the stove and a roof over their heads. They didn’t have to face the instant implosion of society like we do today, and facing that from a myriad of angles, ready to strike at any time…

The More They Stay the Same.

Except that they totally did! If you couldn’t tell in the previous paragraphs I had my tongue planted firmly in my cheek: every generation has its own challenges, and every generation thinks the one that came before either does not know what they are talking about or broke the world and the one that comes after it sucks for a host of valid reasons. And the cycle repeats itself forever onward.

It turns out that the current crop of preppers living in our era does have their own challenges. But the ones that paved the way for us had their own, too, and more importantly they faced so much of the same things we all have to face.

To write that off or fail to acknowledge that is tantamount to blasphemy. Our prepping forefathers in many ways stared down the barrel of far worse than we have yet had to endure domestically.

Economic struggles, huh? Ever heard of a little event called the Great Depression? Social tensions? How about the borderline bedlam of the Civil Rights Movement and the attendant chaos in the 1960s?

Every kind of natural disaster certainly chugged right along back in grandpa’s prime, same as ours. Famine, drought, industrial disasters and chemical spills, the ever looming threat of war, you name it, and so long as it was not a distinctly Information Age threat our elders had to deal with it same as us.

Even if they were living in a comparatively idyllic time, good women and men who cared still took pains to be prepared for any eventuality that could see their quality of life decline. There were war fewer safety nets back then and for much of human history. Handouts from the government were not a strategy. Aside from family or the closest of friends banding together, your survival was largely on you.

The Good and Bad of Modern Prepping

Today we seem to have a specialized solution for every and any conceivable type of threat to our wellbeing. Every problem has The One Right Tool to take care of it, either a technological one or a specialized procedure. Prepping today can feel more like assembling a recipe than an actual exercise in holistic readiness!

This emphasis on specialization is a boon and a curse. It affords us an extraordinary degree of effectiveness and efficiency, but it dovetails (in a bad way) with Americans’ love of “hardware” solutions to problems: there is always an app, hack, gadget or trick to make the problem go away like mist on a stiff breeze. Deprived of our “one shot” fixes I have see a fair fraction of preppers become stressed out and flummoxed over relatively minor problems.

All the gear in the world will do little good if you do not have the training and experience to use it. Training and experience will count for nothing if you lack the will to persevere. Perseverance will not serve if you lack the courage to endure.

For all of our knowledge, and us younger “modern” preppers are undeniably more knowledgeable than our predecessors by any measure, we often lack wisdom and experience that they had in spades. Knowledge that they gained through sweat, toil and repeated, demoralizing failure after failure after failure.

What Our Predecessors Can Teach Us

They weren’t just Old School; people, they built the Old School! Those who came before us had to rely far more on grit, improvisation and sheer stick-to-it-iveness than many of us today. Their understanding of the fundamentals and how best to apply them was far, far more nuanced than ours.

After all, they likely only had exposure and experience with what they had access to in meatspace! There was no instantaneous download of the entire world’s knowledge back then.

Even a trip to a-well stocked and curated library was a minor affair if one wanted answers: finding the right books, collating the information and cross-checking it then going off to apply it was a fair bit of work itself.

You couldn’t ask an expert on social media, or necessarily even reach them. The only experts on a given subject, if any, that our grandfathers and great-grandfathers had access to on a regular basis were friends or family, or the friends and acquaintances thereof.

The transmission of knowledge was much slower, and turning that knowledge into wisdom through experiment and experience was far more laborious. But also richer, and more nuanced.

If we do anything right, it will be to emulate their example, and go deep with our knowledge as well as wide. So you can start a fire. Great. Which among your local woods burns hottest? Longest? How well does it do when the wood is young, old or damp? Do you know how to tweak the setup of your fuel to achieve the desired effect? You better believe they did.

If you know what plants in your biome are edible, and what small game animals might be easily taken, do you know where to find either? At different times of year? What is the easiest way to find and take or forage for them?

Maybe you have a dozen state of the art modern guns, each a marvel and a monument to ballistic prowess. Cool. Our grandpappies had one or maybe two, likely.

Do you know your holds at various ranges? Do you know how your chosen load does in the wind? When was the last time you confirmed your zero at extended range, not just dialed at 50 according to the ballistics computer? I promise all of our older dudes did if they were serious about shooting.

The point of all this is to start drilling down and refining, really knowing what you know, instead of looking ever further afield in the infosphere for the next novel piece of information. It isn’t as fun, but it will count for the most when the chips are down.

The 10 Things Our Old Time Preppers Did Better Than We Do Today

In this section I am going to list 10 things that preppers from yesteryear did better than most of us do today. Now, you may have some of these things positively on lockdown. Good. But I’ll bet there are a few items on this list at least that you could stand to improve on. Read them, and find out.

#1. They Did More With Less

I’m not talking about simple improvisation, though that is part of what made the Old Guard so gritty. No, I am referring specifically to being more capable on less gear.

Next time you can, take a look at old photos and periodicals from eras gone by and note the size of the packs that they carried. And carried far afield for a long time! They weren’t always out on pleasure trips, I promise, and yet they went in with loads that would make some of the modern ultralight backpacking crowd jealous.

Instead of carrying a tent, they may have carried a simple tarp and cordage to secure it, even if it was heavy canvas. I promise you too that they knew a dozen ways to rig it expertly in any condition depending on the conditions.

They would not own a zillion specialized tools, instead relying on a smaller selection but knowing every conceivable way to employ them. They were often able to make use of minimal tools to bend the environment to their will, instead of being forced to carry an expedition-grade load of supplies and gear for basic life support.

We would do well to return our focus to skills and skillful employment of only the things we need rather than a slavish obsession with having something for any given occasion, just in case.

#2. They Produced More than They Consumed

Frugality has been sacrificed bloodily at the altar of modernity. Too many folks live paycheck to paycheck, only one bad turn away from disaster, be it an unexpected repair or health-related curveball. That means your food supply will last only as long as your money will.

Our elders were far better at producing, saving and living below their means, living with a surplus than we are. Back then, that wasn’t even thought of as prepping; that was just life!

My own great-grandparents for instance were religious gardeners and canners. One small backyard garden, and a neighboring patch on a plot of land produced enough vegetables regularly, all year long, that my own grandmother and mother to this day cannot ever recall a single time they ever bought canned veggies at the store, save around holidays for convenience alone. That is quite a testament to being prepared as a matter of course.

The same goes for your money. Are you saving? Really saving, as a prep, so that you have a wad of cash to solve problems with right now should you need to? Keeping a proper savings account is fine and well, but you will not be able to count on any electronic monies when things get rough. Get your finances is order: treat money as the precious resource it is.

#3. They Cultivated Real Support Networks

Compared to a huge and ever growing list of “friends” we have today, the generations of yesteryear were far more apt to form serious and deep bonds with people, bonds that meant you could count on them when the chips were down.

In decades past, you might not have anyone else to rely on besides your neighbors, family, and closest friends. In many places, there was not any such thing as emergency services. No one was coming to save the day if you and yours couldn’t.

It was essential, and comforting, to know that when you were in need, someone would show up. Likewise, when one of their friends was in trouble they would not even need to ask: the older generations would be there.

This is building and reinforcing of bonds that is mostly absent or greatly diluted today. Many of us think and say that we “have people” we know we could count on when the balloon goes up, but do we really? Can we really say we a have a tribe, or extended family of like minded people that we can go the distance with?

The popular idea today is one of the lone wolf badass surviving against all odds in the face of doomsday. Spoiler Warning: that almost always ends with the lone dude or gal dead.

Our forefathers knew how important genuine community was as a hedge against disaster.

#4. They Didn’t Advertise, Boast or Babble

There is a precedent why so many of the popular heroes of yesteryear were terse, taciturn and laconic. They were! They didn’t run their mouths about every single facet of their lives. Hell, you could not get most of them to speak at length unless it was absolutely necessary and even then, don’t count on it.

Far from saving energy, air and effort, this economy of speech ensured that nothing of value (and ergo potential liability) was ever transmitted to those who were not strictly inside the “walls” of family and friends.

Far be it from just good social conduct, this was protection against possibly being targeted by someone who would not hesitate to steal from them or worse. We have all heard the pithy saying “Loose lips sink ships!” It’s true. It is also true that “Constant yapping is bad for prepping!”

Shut up about you land, your stash, your guns, and your plan. Don’t talk, text or post about it. Just shut up. If you must discuss it in an academic context do so anonymously online. Tell only the people who absolutely need to know that you trust even unto death.

If you think that the Chinese whispers won’t eventually, somehow, reach the wrong people you are crazy. It will, and that is bad enough in kinder times; it could be terrible in the middle of a SHTF situation.

The old timers had this one right.

#5. They Stayed Fitter

There is little denying that Americans are as fat as we have ever been but unfortunately we are probably not as fat as we will be. The obesity and physical frailness epidemic is reaching critical levels, and for most of the older generations that this would have been totally unacceptable.

Part of the problem is, once again, an over-reliance on labor-saving technology and the other is our typical diets being somewhere between abominable and God-awfully terrible.

You can talk a really good game about being ready, but if you are so overweight and out of shape that you cannot engage in laughably light exertion without becoming compromised you will be food for the wolves. The Old Guard knew the body was the first weapon and the first tool, and tried to take care of it accordingly.

I’ll give you that the “standards” of life back then made it much easier without having to think about it quite so much, but we don’t get the luxury of excuses and pity parties as preppers. But the coke down and get the weight off!

#6. They Focused on Quality

Ever wonder why so many people have treasured tools, guns and other heirlooms in their families that still see use to this very day? It might just be because our predecessors were wise enough to buy the good stuff so it would last, providing both more value for their hard earned dollars and assurance that it would work, and work and keep on working when they needed it. Now we get to enjoy and use the thing they were wise enough to buy way back in those dim years.

Note I didn’t say, “Things were made better back then!” although surely some things were. We make incredible stuff today thanks to our advanced materials and ridiculously precise manufacturing and fabrication methods.

No doubt if we would spring for the good stuff our descendants would enjoy the same opportunity we did, but regrettably Americans are all extremely addicted to “as cheap and as disposable as possible.”

I am not saying you need to buy the very best, most expensive of anything, but I am saying you need to start improving your economy by sharpening your eye for quality. Just like our elders did.

#7. They Dealt in Experience, Not Theory

In generations past, cheap talk was held in even less regard than it is now. Theory was fine if you already had the experience (and plenty of it) to ground it in reality, but if you ever stepped to been-there done-that guys from my grandfather’s era you would get bounced out of the room on your head. Speculation was as dirty a concept as diarrhea.

You either had, or you hadn’t. If you hadn’t, the way to enlightenment was by doing, and that’s it. A short planning or “head-shed” session was acceptable, but that was all. You were expected to do, learn and adapt. Being wrong, even failing was not so stigmatized in a way like it is today, when it is mere talk and general knowledge that is so closely tied to status and regard in our wasted culture.

He who does more is worth more. Our predecessors didn’t sit around all day talking like boys with big dreams to be pursued when they grew up. They did stuff! We must do the same.

Close the laptop, shut off the tablet and kill the TV. Head out for that hike, scout that route, work your defensive tactics, plant the garden, learn the skill, sharpen your mind and train your body.

Like the shoe commercial says, just do it!

#8. They Took the Initiative

Our honored ancestors did not lead by committee. They just led. They led their families and their closest groups because it was on them. Leadership is a skill, and one well worth developing, but it is also partly a result of your bearing, attitude and intent.

There will not be any time in an emergency for second guessing, hemming, hawing and talking things out. Most herd animals only need something to follow in order to get moving. They make lots and lots of noise in the meantime, but make sure that leader is you.

Start being decisive and being firm now. You can train people into an expectation. They should expect that you are in charge, that you are the one worthy of following when life and limb is at stake. They don’t have to like it, they just have to do it, so make sure you are someone worth following as a leader.

#9. They Didn’t Complain

Complaining should be verboten for you from here on. It sure was not tolerated back in the day. A complainer was often derided as a ratchet-jaw or worse, a person who did nothing but squeal about problems without offering any solutions.

Complaining wastes time and brain cells, and seriously frays the nerves of anyone within earshot, especially the poor victim who is the targeted recipient of the gripe-fest.

Don’t give in to the urge to complain! If you must make a complaint, make it a point of principle to always offer a solution, fix or request with it. A pregnant complaint just hanging out accomplished nothing, and diminishes the complainer while making those who hear it surly.

Oh, this is terrible! Oh, this sucks! Oh, the government/those people/this situation is just the worst and making my life bad. So?! So what?! It might all be true, 100%, but if you aren’t going to do something about it don’t complain about it!

In a group situation, negative emotions are infectious, but so are good ones. Make sure you are releasing the right ones into the atmosphere.

Our grandparents weren’t whiners, and we shouldn’t be either.

#10. They Knew How to Fix It

This was just another part of life for our grandparents that is seen as something of a specialist skill today. They were highly resourceful, and that resourcefulness extended to keeping their things in good repair. Much of the time it was “fix it yourself” or do without. That is the kind of no-fail self-determinism that we could use today!

Aside from creating mountains of waste, draining your resources and creating a dependency, relying on others to fix your stuff deprives you of an opportunity to grow and improve as a prepper.

I’ll tell you, most things, even gear and appliances that require “specialist knowledge” to work on can be easily understood by most folks with the right info and introduction. Here’s the best possible time to put this good ol’ internet to use and get to learning!

Find a tutorial, or even an amateur video of someone who went through it before you and was kind enough to film their trials and travails so that others may learn. Give it a try. The worst thing that happens is you make things a little worse and maybe have to hand a repair man a bag of “spare” parts.

Be the handyman (or gal) that your elders were! It is a skill that can save lives in a SHTF situation.

Conclusion

We have a lot going for us as preppers these days, but we are also missing out on a few things thanks to our reliance on technological superiority.

While we may think our ancestor preppers are hopelessly outdated and quaint, now, their lives and lessons actually have much to teach us about the art and science of self-reliance. Take a look over the list in this article and you are bound to find at least one entry that will make you reflect on your capabilities.

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About Tom Marlowe

Tom Marlowe
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.

8 comments

  1. Avatar

    If Prepping is your hobby then you will be better prepared than most. If Prepping is your way of life you should already be better prepared than everybody else. The majority of the population will adopt a lifestyle that prepares them to be unprepared! “The Ant and the Grasshopper” Aesop, comes to mind. Great article. Regards

    • Avatar

      Max,
      That is exactly the way I look at it…I’m taking some people on a “practice” bug out… They are going to learn that even a practice bug out sucks. They are going to learn that eating MRE’s isn’t what is going to keep them alive. What happens when they run out? Now what do you eat?

  2. Avatar
    Matt in Oklahoma

    We ain’t all gone neither. We were called survivalist not preppers. Wasn’t till the Klinton era that it became a “bad” name.
    Good article so get in shape and I don’t mean yoga shape I mean calloused hands (but doing yoga is still good) and understand you can’t buy your way out of this. You gotta put in the work and live it.

  3. Avatar

    GREAT ARTICLE!
    It is better to be 10% prepared than it is to be 5% prepared. So i keep on looking for improvement. And i like these comments also!

  4. Avatar

    Much of what we call old time prepping, is what they called everyday life.

  5. Avatar

    I am basing much of my reserve food supply on the coconut trees that are so common in South Florida.
    Cococnuts take a bit of work to clean but are very nutricious.
    Beyond that I have a 22 with lots of reserve ammo for shooting squirls.

  6. Avatar

    Tom,
    Thanks for good article. I liked how you stuck with the non-tangibles; these are the attitudes and skillsets that come from daily use. I do find it strange how often i state that “my grandfather was doing it right.” They also tracked, fished, trapped, butchered, planted/harvested, and raised animals better and lived healthier! We stand on the backs of giants for knowledge, but, despite our info access, we also need to be ready to face those giants physically, mentally, and spiritually ourselves.

  7. Avatar

    Hi Tom, Gary here. Like what I am reading. Like to hear someone telling it like it is without worrying if somebody does not understand because it is like a new language or is insulted because it is not “THEIR” truth…been living, training, practising and teaching the kids what I learned from my Dad/G’dad so it does not get lost.
    Knowledge is a sort of Power over others, if you know more than the others, you will never be happy living under them.
    Live free from fear. Learn SOMETHING new every day! Be good, GP

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