“American Blackout” Tips & Tricks for Survival

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In honor of National Preparedness Month, here’s a look back at a popular NatGeo special from 2013.

american blackout
When it first aired in 2013, NatGeo’s survival show, American Blackout, was a hot topic around the country. It definitely caught the attention of non-preppers from coast to coast. More recently, Ted Koppell wrote about the strong possibility of cyberterrorism taking out our power grid in his book, Lights Out. In our current fragile economy with unrest in so many different sectors, the last thing we need is a long-term, widespread blackout.

You may have read One Second After or Light’s Out, the novel by David Crawford, and had more than one or two panic attacks, but what have you done to prepare for this worst-case scenario and are your survival priorities in their proper order? How about getting started with these tips for preparing for a winter power outage:

  • With winter coming, a heat source that will keep you and your family warm enough to survive should be a top concern. This heater is highly rated and runs on propane.
  • Even on the coldest nights, you’ll need some ventilation if you’re burning wood in something other than a fireplace or wood-burning stove. You must have ventilation such as a window cracked a couple of inches if you’re using propane, kerosene,and butane.
  • Know your fuel’s dangers and limitations and have plenty stored. Butane, for example, freezes and can’t be used when temps dip below the freezing point. Wood requires several months, at least, to season. Propane is an excellent choice as a safe and can be stored very long-term.
  • Just as important as multiple heat sources is closing off the entire house except for the one or two rooms you’ll be living in. When the grid is down, it’s not feasible or reasonable to expect that you’ll be heating (or cooling, when summer comes) an entire house. Plan on living in the kitchen, if it’s large enough, or maybe the kitchen and a single adjoining room. Put up tarps and blankets in doorways to keep out as much cold air as possible. Putting up a tent for sleeping in is another smart idea for coping with very cold temperatures.
  • You’ll need sources of ambient and focused light. It’s easy to say that you’ll just wake up with the roosters and go to sleep when the sun goes down, but that will probably not be very practical. You do need light sources. This is the perfect time to stock up on high quality small solar chargers, solar batteries, and the lanterns and flashlights that use them. Also check out the Paqlite for an ambient light that doesn’t require batteries, ever. I have a few and keep them in the car, my purse, and in Bug Out Bags.
  • Once you have a plan to stay warm and have light sources, water is another very critical element. If you live in a cold part of the country, consider storing larger containers of water indoors to avoid freezing. Water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon, making even a 10-gallon container mighty hard to move once it’s in place. Have a reliable water filter like this one if your water source becomes tainted or you must use rainfall or water from lakes or streams.
  • Might sound crazy, but if you have small livestock and you’ll be living in sub-zero temps, you just might have to move them indoors if they are to survive the winter. And, if they don’t survive, you may not survive if you’re counting on them as a food source.
  • Food storage is a given and is usually the easiest piece to put into place, either for a power grid failure or a winter storm. Do store your food indoors, unless you want to end up with frozen cans and jars of food that may crack when frozen. This resource page will provide details for getting food storage in place.
  • Once the living area is warm enough, there’s a bit of light, and everyone has had a bit to eat and drink, then what? Store anything and everything that provide entertainment. I’m thinking really thick books with great story lines,such as those written by J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, and dozens of other classics. Lots and lots of writing/drawing paper, pencils, “How to Draw” books, and hours of music in whatever format is easy to store and can be shielded from the effects of EMP with a simple Faraday cage.

Top priorities? Warmth, light, water, food, entertainment, and a form of communication. We are so used to getting information as it happens, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which we might not know what’s happening across town, much less hundreds of miles away.

A few more points from this movie (wish it was still online and available, but the lessons are good to remember):

  • There will always be more of “them” than of you. Whether we call them zombies, the Golden Hoard, feral humans, whatever — they outnumber those of us who are prepared, by a long shot. With that in mind, you’re left with 3 choices when faced with these people:
    • Hide and hope they won’t find you. In “American Blackout” (AB), it seemed to be the first instinct of most to venture out into the streets to find out what was going on. In reality, the mob scenes are going to be far worse than was depicted, making hunkering down, a pretty smart choice.
    • Run. The prepper father figures out quickly what has happened, its implications, and immediately has the family leave town.
    • Fight back. If there are more of them than of you, your only chance for survival is to band together with many like-minded folks, but the chances of locating each other and forming a cohesive, defensive plan in a short period of time is small. You’re better off either running or hiding at this point.
  • I’ve been advising people to always have cash on hand. When the power goes out, banks shut and lock their doors and ATM machines no longer work. You’ll be unable to make purchases with a debit/credit card. You may need to have enough cash for sizable bribes, so in my opinion, there’s no such thing as having too much cash on hand, unless it’s all in $100s.
  • In this movie, the blackout was caused by cyber terrorism. Vehicles of all kinds were still operational but traffic was quickly gridlocked. Transportation is an area of preparedness that isn’t talked about all that much, other than discussions about pimped out Bug Out Vehicles on survival forums.
  • Not knowing where loved ones are might be the most terrifying aspect of an event like this one. AB did an effective job of portraying this from the little girl wondering when her daddy will get home to the teenage boy who hasn’t seen his mom since the first night of the blackout.
  • If you can’t defend it, you don’t own it. The prepper family had some great plans in place as well as plenty of supplies. However, when their fenced property was breached, there was nothing else in place for protection, other than a few guns. Their only option was to either fight numerous neighbors or head to their bunker. They should have thought to have a second, more defend-able fenced perimeter.
  • The prepper family was not portrayed in a sympathetic light, but maybe that’s somewhat deserved. There are preppers and survivalists out there who are looking forward to the end of the world, thinking they will reign supreme from their fully loaded bunkers. The prepper dad was a jerk in spite of being well-intentioned.
  • Basic supplies are easily acquirable and affordable, and there’s no excuse for not having several light sources, food, and bottled water. However, AB is very realistic in showing the masses of people who did not have even a few basics on hand.
  • Everyone has to carry his or her own weight. For some reason, the Prepper Dad only had his son doing night patrol duty. Wife and daughter could have stepped in and taken on this responsibility as well.
  • AB portrayed the importance of having layers of supplies. When the dad of the pregnant wife goes off to find food, he’s only carrying a baseball bat. Now, many people have been bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, but that was all this guy had! If you’re thinking personal and home defense, go with the bat by all means, but have a shotgun and a handgun at least, and know how to use them.
  • You never know where you might find yourself in a true SHTF scenario, which makes everyday carry items even more important. Four college kids were stuck in an elevator but were able to combine resources and had their smartphones as flashlights, duct tape, and a well-equipped Swiss army knife.
  • Ingenuity trumps state-of-the-art “survival” supplies. The college kids fashioned a harness made of duct tape, belts, and some rope. Smart thinking.
  • An open flame should be watched at all times. It really doesn’t take all that much for emergency workers to become overwhelmed. If you store candles, have a plan for burning them safely and keep them away from kids and pets.
  • Helplessness is a horrible feeling, and reason enough to be prepared.
  • If nothing else, have a water BOB or two — one for each bathtub in the house. I’ve been comfortable with the amount of water we have stored, but after watching AB decided to make this additional, inexpensive purchase.
  • As one character points out, the upside to a grid failure is that bill collector won’t be calling anymore! Even in a worst-case scenario, there’s always a silver lining.
  • When the banks shut down and people are unable to purchase anything electronically, what will they use for currency instead? AB took place over just 10 days, and other than showing stores taking “cash only”, there wasn’t any mention of barter or the use of precious metals.

When, or if, the grid goes down, cell phone service and landlines will follow, along with TV and radio. It’s possible that some old-school HAM radios may be operational before anything else. For sure, reliable information will become as valuable as gold.

Helpful resources for you:

american blackout

27 thoughts on ““American Blackout” Tips & Tricks for Survival”

  1. Entertainment is one of the things people tend to forget about, but it’s really important in passing the time and keeping spirits up. In addition to things that need light like cards, books, etc. it’s fun to look up and learn some of the old parlor and campfire games that can be played in the dark or with minimal light. Songs that everyone can sing along to are good to know.

  2. Several decks of cards and a copy of Hoyle,jigsaws, legos ,boardgames are all good forms of entertainment.

    Putting your solar lights (or candles) in front of a mirror will greatly enhance the amount of light they will give off.

    If you live in a questionable neighborhood, then blackout curtains will help with security, and will also help your house retain heat.

  3. I like the idea of needle work as well. It can be done by fire light and the yarns keep you warm while you are working on them. Crayons and coloring books are nice, since they can be used for light and warmth when project is completed.

  4. I write this from Ontario Canada. I have searched through my cables tv guide for the time and channel you stated to no avail. How can I watch this or get a copy of it? I have seen some of the promos for it and wm really intrigued.

  5. As for the heat: “Mr. Buddy” heaters have a wide variety of products. There are two radiant heaters which are approved for indoor use. I have been contemplating which one to buy. I am looking at these for the following reasons:

    1. These models run on propane.
    2. Both models can run on a 1lb. ‘camping’ bottle of propane, or (by using a coupling hose also manufactured by the company) can be attached to a 20lb. bottle. These are the bottles used for any standard propane grill. (20lb. bottles must remain outside, however).
    3. MOST IMPORTANTLY, both of these models are equipped with a low oxygen sensor, which will shut off the heater when safe oxygen levels are not met.

    One of the models advertises that, on low setting, the heater will operate for 110 hours when used with a 20lb. bottle. They are available at your local hardware stores for $80-100.

  6. Great review! I randomly had a cameo in this movie… the dude taking a bucket shower! haha

    They contacted me a while before and asked, but I had forgot. And because I “appeared in the film” they flew me out to the premiere at Nat Geo headquarters in DC haha all for a 20 second clip!

    I think one of my biggest preparedness take aways from the movie was the importance of communication. In the case of the son home alone and the husband/wife especially, not being able to communicate or meet up was a real issue.

    overall a pretty good movie with some thought provoking stuff in it.

  7. Capt. William E Simpson - USMM

    The ideas in the article are great, however, they may only be relevant if you are located in a truly safe location during a short-term event. Please understand, that there is a huge difference between a temp. power outage as we sometimes experience of days, maybe weeks, and a ‘Grid-Down’ event that is a very long-term event that can last months and possibly years (according to the U.S. Government). Please accept my invitation to consider these articles in this regard:




    Cheers! Capt. Bill

    Capt. William E. Simpson – USMM
    Twitter: @NauticalPrepper

  8. I finally got to watch this last night on YouTube. The reality if the situations was rather real and at times I was on the edge of my seat. I’m a rather new prepper and am learning survival skills because I know something like this can very well happen in the future at some point. I want to try to be as prepared as I can. The hardest parts for me to watch was the family with the new baby. I have a 3 month old baby girl myself and I know I’ll need to do everything I can to protect and provide for her as much as I can.

  9. How about crossing entertainment that is also productive. We Americans have gotten so far way from basic survival skills outside a technological society.

    Shaving arrows and smashing Pennys into arrowheads is not work if you do it at a pleasant pace.

    I wonder if there are any MP3 players that can be hand cranked.

  10. Well, in the Midwest we are having our own version of the blackout. The day after I viewed “American Blackout” we lost power and now after yesterday’s storms we are without power again. Our schools and work are open and have power so we are warm during the day. We run the fireplace and generator which does most of the house, minus water heater, oven, etc . . . from when we get home until bedtime. Our well pump runs OK on the generator so we have cold water. I passed a couple on the way home from work scooping up buckets of water from the creek. Glad that is not me ( though it is way down on the list of ways to get water!). Hoping to make dinner on the electric frying pan tonight.

  11. We are on day 4 of no power. Even with the generator that runs much of our home, we are starting to get stressed and impatient. It is nice that our schools and jobs are still open, but I think trying to keep up with all of our normal responsibilities in addition to dealing with our outage adds additional stress. It might be easier if we didn’t have to go to work and school and prepare for final exams and band concerts and music lessons this week on top of trying to figure out how to run the hot water heater long enough to take showers.

    People think having a generator solves all the problems, but it comes with frustrations as well–keeping enough gas, dead batteries, tripped breakers, and trying to determine which is highest priority (freezer, heat, hot water . . . ). Plus the constant roar of the generator grinds on the nerves after awhile. We also have a fireplace, but yesterday’s wood was really smokey for some reason making the house smokey and giving me a headache.

    I know I am in much better shape than those without generator and of course those who lost their homes in the tornados, and I really do feel spoiled for complaining. I want people to know that even when you are prepared, days without normal power get stressful. We are on day 4, of an anticipated 7 day outage. It is our 20 year wedding anniversary. (We celebrated the day before the storm thank goodness!). I am going to try really hard to not be grouchy this evening after work.

    I thought I was prepared. We have 2 generators, water storage and a Berkey, grill with extra gas tank, fireplace and outdoor fire pit to cook on. We have at least 3 months of food, lots of first aid supplies and knowledge, oil lamps, battery lanterns, flashlight, and lots of candles in glass jars. Monday I was pleased with how things were going. I was proud that I could start the generator, build a fire and make dinner. It gets old quickly. I suppose in time, we would adjust to this different way of living, but I really just want my old life back!

  12. Hang in there CJ!! I’m about 100 miles north of you and wishing you the best!! Glad you’re prepared. I’m only in the beginning stages of my preps and reading the list you’ve just posted has helped me tremendously, so thank you!

  13. David M, I have seen hand cranked MP3 players. Do not remember where, but Real Goids, Lehmman’s and Survival Guide are three likely catalogs to check out.

  14. For entertainment value games that have variation on play require imagination and teamwork tend to be a good way to pass the hours. Forbiden Island, Dominion, Settlers of Catan, Apples to Apples, Paper & Dice RPGs, all offer a variety of entertaiment without the need for electricity. Unlike most classic games some of these new ones put all the players on the same team so the family/group has to work together to win. This is a nice variation from older style games which pitted everyone against one another.

  15. Thanks Chandra! Power came back on day 5. We cheered! For the next 24 hours I was so afraid it would go back out, but it didn’t and life returned to normal as we got to do laundry and vacuum again! 🙂

  16. I got a cheap 4″ desk type fan that runs off a 110v or USB plug/ I have a small solar/battery pack designed for recharging cell-phones or other battery-packs. The fan can run both a battery pack and the solar charger while charging. Set up in a small 2-person tent it provides excellent ventilation.

  17. Pick up a good quality generator ASAP. Save up your money for a few months, if necessary, but make having one or even two generators a top priority. Also get a small cooking grill that works with the small propane bottles (keeping a window cracked open a bit), and buy a Can Cooker (we got the Bone Collector version from amazon) and you can cook whole meals in one can to feed LOTS of people in just 40-60 minutes and the leftovers will go a long ways, too.

  18. If you have a child that plays a musical instrument (mine play the violin and the viola), don’t throw out their beginner instruction books or copies of old sheet music. I was going to clean up the clutter and then I realized this stuff might come in handy. Not only will there be music to help lift moods, the older kids could help teach!

    Maybe pick up a used guitar and a beginner’s guide…

    Of course that means stocking up on rosin, extra strings, etc., I think it would be worth it!

  19. If your child plays a musical instrument, don’t toss out their beginner instruction books and old sheet music. Stock up on extra strings, rosin, etc.

    Or pick up a used guitar and beginner’s guide.

    Music (in its natural form) will be a welcome distraction and can be passed down…and it will improve morale.

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