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  • The Pickled Prepper

How to Survive When the Grid Fails for Good

On Monday, I wrote about the possibility of a global war that knocks out power to the U.S. But the sudden failure of the North American power grid doesn’t have to be caused by a nuclear war. The same lack of power could result from an EMP, a CME (coronal mass ejection from the sun like the one that caused the Carrington Event), a cyberattack, or a coordinated attack on the grid by multiple terrorist or enemy sleeper cells. 

The sad truth is our electrical distribution system (the grid) is fragile and reliant on one-of-a-kind transformers and other pieces of equipment for which there are no spares. It is not a modular, plug-and-play system. And to make matters worse, most of those big replacement parts are made overseas, many in China.

So what happens when there is a continental-wide power outage? Well, that’s what we call a SHTF situation and you better be a prepper if you want to survive.

Of the above scenarios, the cyberattack is the easiest to recover from. Even in a terrorist attack, chances are that certain parts of the grid will bounce back quickly. In those two scenarios, there may be sections of the country that have power while others do not.

In the case of a nuclear war, an EMP or a CME, which will not only cause a national power outage but lasting damage up to and including the possibility of nuclear plant meltdowns, the outage will last longer. Years longer. When that happens, the result is death on a wide scale. The government has estimated that 90 percent of Americans would be dead one year after such an attack. It’s our job as preppers to be among the living. We’ll talk about how to do that in a moment. First, let’s look at what a loss of electric power means to our daily lives.

When Utilities Die, so does Convenience

The vast majority of our other utilities and our supply chain depend on electric or diesel fuel, and diesel needs electric to keep the pumps running, the pipelines flowing, and the refineries working. While backup power systems exist in hospitals, police stations, and even cell towers, they will run out of fuel and die in days or a week.

Here’s a list of when you can expect things to fail in a continent-wide grid-down situation, starting with those that will die first :

Credit cards/ATM machines/EBT

Most of these cards will cease to function immediately. Systems in stores will only work if the store has emergency power and a working internet connection. Plan on using cash to buy anything you need after the grid goes down.

Perishable food

Most grocery stores do not have backup power for their refrigeration. Fresh food will start deteriorating right away. Frozen food might stay cold for a day. Many stores will close. They will all get looted, sooner or later. 

Loss of cellular service

If an EMP or a CME has not disabled the cell towers, they will be running on emergency backup power. Most will stop functioning in 24 to 72 hours. Make any calls relating to bugging out or survival coordination right away. 


Most municipal water systems require power to purify and pump water. Backup systems will fail in a couple days. If you have a traditional well, it’s pump will also require power.


Most families have less than three days of food on hand. Some urban dwellers eat most meals out, get takeout, or buy food on the way home, so they have little at home. While early looters will focus on things that had value, the smart ones will focus on bringing home shelf-stable food, even if it is just dry cereal and a bag of rice.

The Internet

Critical points on the Internet backbone have backup power, both battery and generator. Your access may depend on your ISP’s local infrastructure, which means you could lose access almost immediately. If you don’t, expect to experience a deterioration of access as servers and cloud resources go offline over a period of several days and weeks before collapsing completely. 


While sh*t does roll downhill, it also needs to be pumped uphill. Most sewage systems and some septic systems require power. You may not notice sewage system failure if there is no water, but the last thing you want is for sewage to back up into you house. 

Natural gas

Natural gas systems must be pressurized to function. Depending on the time of year and consumption patterns the gas system may work for days, or it may stop working fairly quickly. Don’t count on it lasting more than a week. 

Let’s assume the power goes out and never comes back on. What do we as preppers have to do to stay among the living? Here’s the framework of a game plan. Use it as a starting point and adapt it to your personal situation.

Step 1: Assess the Problem

Your first step, and mine, when an outage hits is to determine if this a normal power outage, or if it is an abnormal one. 

Power outages are common on my mountain, but the majority last for only about four hours. They are usually caused by bad weather, fallen trees, or dropped limbs. As a result, we power goes out in good weather, we don’t know if the outage is routine or an enemy attack.

In the event of a normal power outage, cell phones will have signal, battery-powered radios will have reception, and other battery-powered devices with computer chips inside will still work. Likewise, our cars will start, and so will a generator. People with POTS land lines should still get a dial tone. Of course, this will also be the case in a terrorist attack on the grid or a cyberattack, but if all or most of these devices don’t work, assume the outage is because of an EMP, CME or nuclear device(s), which is an immediate sign this is a worst-case grid down scenario.

In a “normal” power outage, you can visit a web site and see where the power is out. Your utility may have an app or send you an email telling you when they estimate the power will be back on. This kind of information flow prevents fear and its daughter panic. It can also inform you of a broader, system-wide problem. The absence of that information, which would be caused by an EMP or other abnormal outage, should alarm you and may have dangerous repercussions.

Summary: Decide it if is a worst case outage or a normal one that will pass.

Step 2: Determine What Immediate Dangers You Face

For example, if the phones are down and radios are out, there will be no police, fire or EMS response. That means you are suddenly in a world without the rule of law (WROL) and no one will rescue you. You will need to protect yourself. It may be possible to increase your odds of survival by teaming up with others in a similar situation. Better to walk home in a group of five people than alone.

In the cities, no 911 also means looting will begin when night falls, followed by unruliness and violence.

Summary: If it is an abnormal outage, you need to increase your situational awareness, be alert for crime and civil unrest, and take precautions to protect yourself.

Step 3: Take Steps to Improve your Situation and Safety

If I am at home when the power goes out and the cars stop running, I’m in much better shape than if I am shopping 18 or 38 miles away. Similarly, if you are in an elevator or on a subway when the power goes out and the emergency phones are down, then you are in an even bigger pickle. I can walk home; you have to extricate yourself from your position before you can think about getting home.

If step 1 leads you to believe this is an abnormal or lengthy outage, you should assess your short term safety and take steps to improve it. If you have a preparedness plan, kick it into action. This should include getting home, gathering your family or team, and getting ready to bug out to your retreat

For example, if you are at work when an abnormal outage strikes, your plan might include changing into footwear appropriate for walking, grabbing your get-home bag, throwing a few bottles of water into it and heading out. If it is close to dusk, you might be better off waiting and leaving at the crack of dawn because there will be more violence at night; that’s a decision you’ll have to make using your common sense and a feel for the local situation. 

If you leave your gun in the car or carry it with the chamber empty, this would be a good time to rack the slide.

Summary: After an outage, make sure you are not trapped or in any immediate danger, put your preparedness plan into action, and head home or to a pre-determined meeting point when safe to do so.

If you live in your retreat, you can skip the next step

Step 4: Bug Out

As other utilities and services fail, the situation on the ground will get worse. When people get hungry, they get desperate. You want to get away from crowded areas full of angry, desperate people as quickly as possible. 

Once you are home and together with your family and/or prepper group, you need to determine whether to bug out or bug in. Unless you live at your retreat, in a small town, or in a rural area, bugging out is recommended. For urban or suburban dwellers, bug in only if you have supplies and nowhere else to go.

If you have a plan to bug out, put it into action. Even if there is looting and violence in the city, it will initially be confined to pockets. You want to pass through the city and suburbs before those pockets spread. You want to get to the country before they put up roadblocks to keep out refugees. There is also the possibility that law enforcement, National Guard, or even active-duty soldiers will be instructed to take all citizens into “protective custody” and ship them off to the nearest refugee center “for their own good.” You want to avoid this at all costs. 

Don’t Become a Refugee

Only become a refugee if it is a matter of life or death. For example, if you need medical attention above and beyond what your prepper group can give you, then go to a refugee camp for treatment. Otherwise, being packed off to a refugee camp or FEMA center should be your last resort.

If the cars still work, then load up, fuel up, and head out. If you can let people know you are coming, do it so they know to expect you. When traveling with multiple vehicles, form a convoy, stick together, and communicate via radio. Drive as far as you can as fast as conditions allow. It is important to get to where you are going before the locals realize they are being inundated with refugees and take steps to stop it. You also want to beat the wave and avoid getting stuck in peak-evacuation traffic jams.

If the cars don’t work, then load up your bicycles and start peddling or prepare for a long march. Walking to your intended bug out location will not be easy or fast and will require all your skill and determination.

In the case of an EMP or CME, driving might not be an option unless you have an old vehicle without computer chips and electronic fuel injection. In that case, your journey may be like the scenario I described in March. Just focus on getting to your retreat. Glean when you need to.

Summary: Bug out as soon as you can and don’t stop until you get there.

Step 5: Address Immediate Needs at your Retreat

If you live at your retreat, reach it quickly, or are bugging in, take advantage of any calmness, if it exists, to make any last minute preps.

For example, we are well prepared, but I maintain a list of things to buy if I know the end is nigh. If my phone pings with an alert that says a nuclear weapon was used in Ukraine or China just launched missiles at Guam, I’m putting on body armor shoving an extra magazine in my pocket going shopping. With any luck, I’ll be at Walmart before most people figure out they need to do something. I’ll do the same thing in a continent-wide grid-down situation, only I will use my emergency cash and shop at mom-and-pop stores that may still be open.

My last minute purchase list includes fresh foods that don’t require refrigeration like potatoes, onions, squash, and cabbage; it includes canned foods like pasta sauce, peanut butter, beans, stew, and fruits and vegetables; it features dried foods such as crackers, pasta and baking mixes; and it has pet food and chicken feed on it. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some chocolate and other goodies end up in my shopping cart. 

Last Minute Preps

If you store items in a storage unit near your retreat, this is the time to pick some of them up. This is also a good time to fill your gas tanks, both the ones in your car and any gas cans that are empty. Gasoline pumps may require electricity to run, but they should be able to fill your propane tanks without it.

If you have water storage containers, fill them before the water stops running. Should you need to set up a water catchment system, do it before the next rain. If you store your magazines unloaded, load a few dozen and dole the guns out to those who can use them. Remind them of the safety rules and to keep the safety on and their finger off the trigger until they are on target and ready to fire. Establish the other rules of the retreat and communicate them to all involved.

Summary: Do anything you need to do in public before we reach the “nine meals away from anarchy” deadline.

If it is truly a continental grid-down situation that will last for many years, you need to shake off the old you that flipped light switches and opened refrigerator doors. The new you will be lighting candles and using a solar panel to recharge your precious rechargeable batteries. You need to wrap your head around this new paradigm and help other adjust because you could be in for a wild ride. The quicker you and your team accept this change for what it is, the better you will be able to respond and focus on survival.


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