Survival Skills vs. Subsistence Skills

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Author of Street Survivalism and the Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook

It’s always beneficial to define definitions, and even within the world of prepping this needs to be done. What are the differences between survival and subsistence skills? Do the differences even matter? Let’s delve into this, starting with the basics…

“Basic” survival skills are needed to provide the essentials (food, water, shelter, navigation, hygiene, communication, mobility, health maintenance, self-defense, etc.) for off-grid/grid-down and extreme SHTF survival events. If we’re talking about an EMP, a cyber pandemic, or attempting to get back to society after a failed Alaskan hunting trip, these are the skills we’re going to pull from.

During crises that result from economic downturns or crashes, such as recessions or depressions, a different skill set is necessary to generate income, to maintain or even improve ours and our family’s standard of living. I call this region subsistence skills.

There are scales and types of disasters, which one can learn about via our FREE Quickstart Guide on the Four Levels of Disasters.

What’s the difference between surviving crises vs. living off-grid?

I’ve always been an outdoors enthusiast and involved with activities requiring skills that are in one way or another related to prepping and survivalism – mostly as a hobby, admittedly. I love all that, and as a prepper, I can’t escape advocating and promoting the basics.

Yet my actual preparation philosophy and strategies are much more oriented towards crisis-surviving than off-grid living, or even disaster survival. Granted, a lot of this crosses over from one region to the next. But when it comes to prepping as a structured activity, I’m more focused on tightening the belt and becoming flexible than building a cabin in the woods or investing in a nuclear shelter.

Subsistence may not be as exciting as survivalism, I acknowledge. But it comes from reality, from living in a third-world country, and also from studying the past. Things don’t happen the same, but dynamics do repeat with alarming similarity, and we must pay attention.

It’s time for a reality check

Almost everyone can get along pretty fine without a lot of comforts, conveniences, and the abundance afforded by modern life and technology. But, we still must have the means to pay the bills and buy stuff.

This has nothing to do with becoming more self-reliant or improving our situation if SHTF, nor with storing and preserving wealth. It’s about everyday life. As long as there’s any semblance of law and order (and regardless of the regime), bills will keep arriving every month, and taxes will keep getting collected. We need to eat, warm our homes, use transportation and health assistance, and so on.

Very little of that, if any, can be paid with land, gold, crypto, or fine art. Maybe during a short period, and some stuff can be bartered, sure. But 99% of people still need some liquidity, whether as a reserve or income, to weather any crisis.

 What do you do when the standard of living drops drastically?

It’s a downward spiral with one domino topping the next: companies lose revenue, people are laid off. Consumption declines, businesses go bankrupt. More people get laid off. Debts get defaulted, poverty and homelessness increase, and so on.

This affects us in so many ways: our community, our city, the infrastructure. When Selco talks of small circles, he’s exactly right. This is the impact of larger events in everyday life and routine, and how we should deal with these.

Admittedly, when things hit the fan slowly, most people adapt. It’s not just preppers who survive, obviously. Humankind has a long standing tradition of overcoming disasters and crises.

Let’s take a glimpse of life during recessions and depressions

I still remember my mother hand-painting motifs on cloth diapers till late at night (disposables didn’t exist), baking cakes, and decorating birthday parties to help with the bills. My father, who lost everything in the 80’s stock market crash, had to dig into savings and work multiple jobs (when those were available), to make up for the vertiginous loss of purchase power.

He couldn’t afford private school for us anymore, so we went to public ones (here, those are usually worse). We cut all non-essential expenses and even rationed food. It was the same with most other families. Clothes and appliances would be repaired and used until falling apart – then they would become impromptu toys for the children. Parents postponed or skipped their medical and dental treatment to afford their kids’, or even to buy food, clothes, or a gift.

Everything big and small changed: routines, habits, consumption, work, leisure, relationships. It was a period of sacrifice that required fortitude, faith, and perseverance to stave off despair. As paradoxical as it may seem, though, life was hard but at the same time good in many ways. Shared hardship can bring the best in people, and get us a lot closer to each other I guess.

Adjustments in mindset and lifestyle are a great part of crisis-survival

Preparing for a crisis doesn’t require hoarding freeze-dried food or over-spending in gear. Those are SHTF preps for extraordinary situations. Everyone should have some basic preparations in place to face disruptions and disasters. But during crises, life’s actually pretty ordinary.

Downturns can last many years, or even decades. Crisis mentality and preparation is something else. Think of it as a marathon instead of sprint. It’s about time to prepare for a “wartime economy”, as Jose put recently. Daisy also has a lot to say about that, and you should pay heed because what she has to say is real-life practical stuff.

For instance, I’m seeing a lot of people making plans for vacations, redecorating, or buying a new SUV next year. I’m not here to make accurate predictions or say what’s right or wrong. But I can’t help thinking these people are still living in the pre-2020 world mentality. What we do now will make a difference in the future.

Looking to prep? Start with your lifestyle

Each person and situation is different, so I’ll just tell what I’ve been doing since 2020 to illustrate my point in this. Overall, I believe it’s important to strike a balance and avoid anything too drastic or radical in either direction. So I keep living life as normally as the situation permits, while making adjustments that the context require.

  • We downsized to the minimum at the office. If there’s work, I’ll attend clients and do my job. One day at a time, short-term planning, no expectations. While the market is moving and there’s money to be made, I’ll keep doing my best as always.
  • I’m constantly striving to be as diversified as possible, and never depend on a single income stream. Since even before the pandemic I’ve upped my efforts in that field, adjusting strategies as necessary according to the situation. But always improving, always moving ahead.
  • Saving became even more important to create a buffer as large as possible. I’ve reviewed my expenses and made cuts in all areas. Listed and sold my unused stuff (opens up lots of space as bonus). Moved to a still-decent neighborhood to reduce living costs. I’m now bartering a lot of smaller stuff and services, as a way to sustain activities and hobbies
  • At the personal level, I’ve never been a TV addict but screen time is down to almost zero since 2020. An old movie here and there to relax and that’s it. Music is a necessity for me but it fits everywhere. Now it’s a lot more reading, writing, researching and watching videos, and listening to audiobooks and podcasts to learn something new and remain informed.
  • I keep socializing, going out for dinner and movies, attending friend’s b’day parties, etc. But all that is also down a lot now. The time gained is now used to build up and improve my health and fitness even further, to meditate, to learn a new skill.
  • Admittedly, I cut a little on my street survival training yet I still go out to practice and stay grounded. I still escape to wilderness as often as possible to balance it all out and relax (and not feel too domesticated). Also, working on my mixed strategies constantly (cold showers, sleeping on the floor, doing stuff without power or lights, etc.) to leave the comfort zone helps me tremendously.
  • Finally, I’ve been dedicating a lot more time and effort to help others and create awareness, through hard work, shared knowledge and positivity, while avoiding political activism and other dead-end, attention-drawing activities. Laying low and being as grey as practically possible is more important than ever.

Assess your abilities

Jose has been writing about his recent return to Venezuela, and constantly mentioning what people have to do to survive and thrive in a collapsed economy and society. Pay close attention because I can attest that’s what happens in reality during hard times.

Make a list of all the things you can do to generate or increase your income. Think of everything – a hobby, a passion, whatever – that can be turned into a job or a side job, directly or by way of teaching others something you know.

Do you like pets? Have a way with people? Kids, elders maybe? Can you repair cars, motorcycles, bicycles? Clothes? Electricity, plumbing, woodwork, mechanics? Perhaps foreign languages? Painting? Photography? Music? Dancing? Are you good at housekeeping, cooking, gardening?

It can be really anything. Be creative. Though many modern and “advanced” skills such as programming and other digital competences will be in high demand, there is always need for the most basic and essential things. Remember: this can be bartered for stuff and services you might need, even now (for instance, do a service in exchange for haircuts or car fixings, etc.).

If you’re looking for new skills to learn, check out our Self-Reliance Manifesto here with more than 350 ideas for you.

The three-column list may help you better mitigate disaster

Back in 2008 when I got into prepping (thanks to the great financial crisis), I did a three-column list. In the first I put all the skills I was proficient in (for instance, stuff that I did professionally before or got paid to teach others). The “60-70% skills”, or abilities I had some prior knowledge, but wasn’t pro-level yet or confident enough to charge for went into the second column. The remaining skills went into the third column, stuff I had some interest in, stuff I started and abandoned midway, the 40-50% skills.

The skills on the second and third columns could be improved upon with relatively little dedication and some practice. So during the next couple of years I invested in taking some skills on the third column to 70% or more. If a recession requires me to diversify and become flexible, I can take those skills to about 90% in a relatively short time, and maybe turn some of them into a source of income.

I used this same method to improve my preparedness in a more objective and productive way too. But it’s highly effective for subsistence skills. You can adapt as necessary and develop your own strategies. 

Don’t forget your family, relatives, and community

During crises, everyone has to bring something to the table, or at the very least, not be a burden on others. Again, I’ll give my personal example: at eleven years old I was helping housewives in my condo to unload the car and carry grocery bags. At thirteen, I’d build kites, mini-crystal diode radios, and collect old newspaper to sell. Between fourteen and eighteen I punched in four hours daily at a bank after school, while my friends were playing soccer and chasing girls.

If I’m honest, I cherish all that and don’t regret my decisions in the least. It taught me the value of hard work, discipline, and abnegation – and having my own money too (plus a lot of skills). Today, I’m not even sure that would be possible. Since the ’90s, working is essentially prohibited for kids under 16 by law in Brazil. It’s an over-protective society that still can’t protect the youth from lower income brackets (who still must work to survive).

It’s good that we became able to afford that lifestyle. I don’t know if it’s good or bad with kids being able to focus on studying, socializing, and playing videogames instead of working, but it sure has a price – for them and for society. Regardless, during a serious recession or depression, or during wartime, everyone has to work to survive. If things get bad again, I don’t know how it will be for those who can’t flip this switch.

What about finance and the economy?

Back in the 80’s everyone had to know how to make the most of money. Inflation is back and already hitting hard everywhere, including America and the EU. The lower on the economical and social scale we are, the more it affects us, because essentials (home, food, energy, utilities, etc.) weigh a lot more for Joe Average than someone like Elon Musk or Bill Gates.

It takes some time for society to become aware and adapt to inflation, but people will wake up. Prices are escalating, but panic hasn’t set in yet because people don’t know what to make of it. Any shock and we’ll see how behavior can change, and how fast. Based on what I’ve seen (and lived), once this starts there’s no going back and it snowballs pretty fast, with people hoarding and running to hard assets.

Taxes also weigh a lot more for the common citizen. You might get revolted at this, but it won’t matter. The only way to change that is to become more educated and well-informed on ways to avoid taxes without breaking the law, which is exactly what the rich do with the assistance of (expensive) lawyers and tax experts. Search the internet, or find some orientation.

Stay liquid

The role of cash is controversial post-collapse, but I honestly can’t see why: history proves time and again that a liquidity crisis is always the first aftermath of any economical or financial shock. Social and geopolitical events can also trigger liquidity shortages as well. Few things are worse than having no access to your own money to pay expenses and bills.

When we hear “cash is trash”, it’s usually some big shot economist or fund CEO who has hundreds of millions or billions to manage for corporations, pension funds or other high-turn business over long periods. Middle class and poor people suffer with inflation of course, and no one wants to see their money losing purchasing power overnight.

But we’re not there yet, and for most people, being prepared for a bigger market SHTF with bank freezes and ATMs not working can be more critical than losing a few % per month. During a liquidity crisis, cash is a lifeboat. It has been in recent collapses: Argentina 2001 or Greece 2011 (for instance) aren’t exactly old examples if we think of it.

Beware of price and wage controls

The government intervening heavily in the economy and the market is a clear sign that things are breaking down. It has never worked in history, except to add more fuel to the inflation fire and totally unbalance the production, supply and demand chains.

It happened in the US before, and many times in my country and others. Here, the government would send the police to supermarkets, agency officials to distributors and fabrics, to check production, distribution, profit margins, and to avoid withholding and concealment of goods. Wages were frozen too. I can’t even begin to express how destructive these things can be. I’ll let FA Hayek explain that for you instead.

Just threatening or announcing price or wage controls to try and keep inflation tamed will lead to immediate distortions and issues. Believe me when I say this kind of policy can cause products to disappear from shelves much faster than logjams, crop failures and other issues.

Rationing is real

It’s not only people who ration stuff when the economy is going bust or some other SHTF occurs. Merchants also have to ration the quantity of items sold to each client in order to be able to meet a larger number of people’s needs (because everyone will try to buy everything). And this sometimes occurs by government’s order.

The era of abundance is over. You may have the money, but that doesn’t mean there will be stuff to buy. Some stuff, sure. Not the quantity and certainly not the variety and quality people from advanced nations are used to have all the time. More money (currency, really) and less products means more inflation, too.

Energy may be rationed as well. During the 1970’s and 80’s there was an oil shock, and also an energy shortage. Everywhere it would be dim: streets, roads, buildings, places. Blackouts were commonplace. This can be seen in most 80’s movies.

There were periods in which people could only buy a certain quantity of fuel, and even police cars and ambulances would stop in the streets or had to stay parked in the garage. Stations would receive fuel and big “gas lines” would form instantly. Sounds like another world, but it’s just a matter of time. And make no mistake, it can happen again.

Food production matters

There seems to be a movement for self-sufficiency but it’s still small. This can really help alleviate and improve a family’s quality of life during hard times. Anyway, this is an area where I’m still learning and growing (pardon the pun), so I’ll just refer to the experts: my Organic Prepper colleagues, who cover this topic in much broader and more profound ways in their many articles and books. Enjoy.

What are your thoughts on what is coming next? Have you witnessed hyperinflation firsthand? How long until it hits the world at large? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

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  • We have unfortunately always been renters, so the kinds of infrastructure that an off-grid setup would require have never been options for us.
    Instead, we have prepped so that we can achieve a couple of things.
    First, we maintain an inventory that will allow us to remain in our home, hunkered down, for approximately sixty days. This provides time for whatever-it-is to settle some, and for the resulting situation to clarify. At that point, we can assess.
    Second, we maintain additional inventory that provides consumables of all kinds for more than a calendar year, such that in the event of a serious logistical interruption we will continue to eat and remain reasonably healthy.
    Of course, these stocks are also protected by arms sufficient to see off all but the most numerous and/or determined interlopers.
    We have also streamlined our lives, letting old friendships wither when proven valueless, ensuring we live in a remote, rural area that is far from the urban nightmare. We homeschool, too, to ensure our children are not touched by all the CRT nonsense before they are old enough to assess it on its merits.
    The above have been determined to provide us with the most valuable of preps, ‘options’. After all, the one thing your supplies give you is the ability to decide when you leave your house, whom you engage, what choices you can make, and which risks you take.
    We figure that, absent the most dire of circumstances (like an ELE situation), a year or so should provide enough time for the dust to settle and clarity to be found. Whatever community is left will at that time be very encouraged to work together; an adversarial stance would work to no-ones benefit.
    Given the nature of our resources, this is the best we have been able to come up with.

  • An excellent and Timely article.
    It is an important area in which to develop a skillset, as all countries seem to be moving in that direction. Some faster than others.
    But don’t fail to recognize that this economic direction we are all following. will probably lead to a world wide SHTF scenario. So do not neglect to prep for that also.

    • True Mic, if the situation gets too ugly at one point it might lead to a real full-blown SHTF. Like a big war or something, maybe a large scale freeze in finance and trading that could take some time to return to normal and cause a real mess.

      If the sandcastle doesn´t collapse first, I´d guess “war” because it´s a huge diversion and at the same time a money maker for the elites. It´s been used many times before when the powers get trapped.

  • “Subsistence may not be as exciting as survivalism”
    “I’m more focused on tightening the belt and becoming flexible than building a cabin in the woods or investing in a nuclear shelter”

    These words resonated pretty deeply with me.
    Over the years we had popular names such as survivalists, then preppers.
    Now I see a new term in the making that is probably the closet to what I am – subsister

    One doesn’t need to have a cabin or bomb shelter to move from a subsiter mindset to one of a more survival oriented SHTF thought process.
    It’s a pretty large leap for most people to go from Joe Average straight to SHTF.

    Subsister fills the gap for those who want to be prepared, want to be resilient, yet may not currently have the resources, nor the inclination to have an off grid bunker in the woods.
    It provides a step in the prepping journey that most people may find simpler to execute and then evolve based on their own situation.

    One can learn survival skills as a base but then the application of those skills takes on a different approach.
    Lets take how to build a fire as an example. To me it looks like this:
    Survivalists: bow drill, fire plough, hand drill
    Prepper: ferrocerium rod, premade-bow drill socket, flint and steel
    Subsister: lighter, matches.

    Using that example it is very easy to spot how things are.
    A subsister would be “short term” prepared for a SHTF, the prepper would “medium term”, and a survivalist would be “long term”.
    Each level has its advantages, and disadvantages, but it provides a level of preparedness that Joe Average who sits in his gaming chair every night doesn’t have.

    Thanks to those in the “preppersphere” that only believe it has to be a SHTF type situation or nothing, many people forego being more prepared because of the constant barrage that you “must have this”, “must have that”, “you don’t have a bunker your dead”

    I think more articles need to be written, and paid attention to, at the “belt tightening, flexible” level so that people can achieve a level of preparedness that is comfortable for them without being inundated and in some cases intimidated by the ” SHTF or bust” types.
    Subsister articles may not be as exciting as SHTF surival as you suggest, but they will be infinitely more practical for those looking to be prepared.

    I think the idea of a subsister fits more into the “bloom where you are” philosophy because it allows one to grow, allows one to build their skills, and allows one to tailor their abilities to their situation.

  • What a great article. Most of what you´ve done I am intuitively already practicing. Especially the low time in front of a TV. I just download some movies to watch before falling sleep.
    And finally a couple of investments are returning. Once the Holidays are over, I will start a few ideas I had on standby.
    Way to go, Fabian!

  • “Let’s take a glimpse of life during recessions and depressions”

    our present system is a very late pyramid scheme – money printing is at a frantic pace (.4 of all dollars in existence were created just a year ago), and virtually every modern business model ignores normal business considerations and rather is based on increasing money supply and thus increasing debt. when this rolls over it won’t result in a recession or depression, it will be a total near-world-wide default and shutdown.

    imo the recessions and depressions will front the shutdown, but they’ll be temporary. that cabin in the woods might be the most flexible plan available.

  • Something I’ve thought long and hard about in our preps. The goal isn’t just surviving, the goal is to survive and “Thrive.”

  • When someone says survivalist, I think of that go it alone, lone wolf guy who prides himself on his survivalist skills and living such a austere life in the woods to the point of discomfort.
    I have yet met one that has a plan other than, “Survive today!”
    Tomorrow’s plan is the same as today’s plan.
    Survival skills are important, additional tools in your toolbox have no doubt.
    But it is not just enough to “Survive today!” We need something to live for.

    Most prepers I know, have their base plan/supplies to get them through the bottle neck. Then assuming a full on SHTF, then implement their short, medium and long term plans. Example: Short term, plant the garden as soon as possible to augment or extend your supplies. Medium term, those biannuals you planted last year, over wintered and will come up in the spring. Long term, those fruit, nut trees, bushes, blackberries etc. you planted 5 or 10 years ago and are now producing.

    “Crisis mentality and preparation is something else. Think of it as a marathon instead of sprint.”
    I posted nearly that same comment in comments section of the Turkey article just the other day!
    I have read a number of comments about how depressing a post-SHTF world will be to the point of foregoing food. If you have ever been in a intense physically active situation for a prolong period of time (boot camp, multi-day long distance hiking/camping) lunch or dinner time is a big morale booster. Ones mentality of not just surviving but (as others have noted) thriving. How many preppers are in a job they hate? Their boss is a real horses arse. Some of the co-workers, idiots or that one creepy guy who keeps leering at you. For some, while them and millions of others standard of living may drop, their quality of life might actually get a little better.

    Look at how the COVID lockdowns have affect millions of Americans mental health. Mental health is going to be a big factor as much as food or the tacti-cool things. We are going to need distractions. We need to laugh. We need to socialize.

  • ” I’m seeing a lot of people making plans for vacations, redecorating, or buying a new SUV next year”


    All last year, folks got multiple stimmy checks. Including my family. We watched bunches of people get ATVs, tattoos, riding lawnmowers, new pets, and they went on long delayed vacations. “We DESERVE this” they all said

    Meanwhile, like a couple of blockheads, my wife and I used ours to pay down debts. WTF were we even thinking, right?

    And yet, I think it fits in with having to “change our mentality”, as the author puts it. Instead of waiting to change up how we do things, we got a jump on it right now. Kind of like starting a New Years resolution in October

    I don’t know how this crap is gonna end up. I just wanna still be alive and in my house with my wife and sons at the end of it all

  • I was a kid and young adult through the seventies and eighties so I do not need any training about surviving economic hardship, I have not the experience of a total societal collapse so that is where I put my attention. By the way the best person at that would seem to be Daisy herself, when you have to go through dumpsters to get enough food for your kids you have obviously experienced with dealing with poverty.

  • I’ve prepped enough to last me maybe a couple of months. But in looking at the long-term, I expect my present cash flow sources to dry up. So my present investments are in knowledge and tools, which I see as being more important than gold or silver. I’m not an expert in any field, but when almost every one else in this buy cheap/throw away culture knows little to nothing about making and repairing, I can see that my skills will be in demand, At the very least, I can barter what I make for what I need.

  • “One can learn survival skills as a base but then the application of those skills takes on a different approach.
    Lets take how to build a fire as an example. To me it looks like this:
    Survivalists: bow drill, fire plough, hand drill
    Prepper: ferrocerium rod, premade-bow drill socket, flint and steel
    Subsister: lighter, matches.“

    About 18 years ago I was working as a packer in the Brooks Range. The guide I was working under was an amazing man. Patient, tough, lived in the bush full time. Raised his children out there. Subsisted off the land, staked gold claims and guided professionally three months out of the year for his money. Outside of my father I respected (and still do) him more than anybody else I ever met.

    After a long day (16 straight hours) of hard climbing and hunting, we spiked on the bank of this small mountain creek and he told me to get a fire started for hot water and coffee. Eager to show off my skills I pulled out my ferro rod and some kindling and went to work. He saw this, came over, pushed me out of the way, dropped some ground pine in a ball next to my crap, dug a lighter out of his pocket and lit a fire.
    He looked at me and said “that’s what I wanted”

    Next day we were back up on the mountain surveying a band of ewes. He put down his glass and said “ practice your skills for when you really need them, but always take advantage of convenience when it’s there. A day is coming when you are going to need those skills, but you first need to learn to discern when to apply them”

    Wise man. And, boy-oh-boy, was he ever right.

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