April 8/17, 2009. I spent more than a day researching chainsaw stuff, and internet searches would be a lot easier if we could make up our minds whether it's "chainsaw" or "chain saw". Anyway, the saw I bought and stored almost five years ago is a Husqvarna 340, which are no longer made. Everyone agrees that Husqvarna and Stihl are the two best brands, but there's no consensus on which is better, and the debate seems to be purely cultural.

I had no idea there were so many chains. Here's a good reference, the Bailey's Saw Chain Cross Reference Chart. Pitch is the distance between links, and gauge is the width. Then there are variations in length, kickback resistance, and blade shape. Because my saw has a weak 40cc engine, I need a "low profile" blade that takes small bites of wood. The saw came with an H30 and when that wears out I'll replace it with an Oregon 95VP. Everyone agrees that Stihl makes the hardest, longest-lasting chains, but they're also more expensive and harder to sharpen.

To sharpen a chain, you can take it to a shop that has a machine, buy a machine yourself, or sharpen it by hand with files. Chainsaw ninjas can do it freehand, but the rest of us need some kind of file guide. There are two sophisticated bar-mount guides made by Oregon and Granberg, or you can get simpler guides including a Carlton File-O-Plate, or what I chose, a combination roller guide (pic). Both of them line up the files for both kinds of filing: you use round files to sharpen the blades, and as they get shorter, you use flat files to lower the depth gauges, the bits of metal that stick up in front of the blades to set how deeply they cut into the wood. Here's an excellent page on How To Sharpen a Chain Saw.

The best forum on chainsaw stuff is That link goes to a google page to search it. After a lot more research, I decided to get a premium Rockman helmet system from Bailey's, WoodlandPro chaps from Bailey's (because Labonville won't tell me shipping costs without collecting personal info), and Youngstown kevlar gloves from Amazon.

I also looked into vegetable bar oil, because regular mineral bar oil is toxic and I'd be splattering it all over me and my clothing and the land and breathing in tiny drops. Here's a good article, Vegetable Oil For Lubricating Chain Saws. I was wondering if I should get a $20 gallon of specially formulated stuff or just get food oil, and then I found this long thread on ArboristSite where one guy, Tree Machine, claims to have used off-the-shelf vegetable oil as bar oil for years with no bad effects. So I picked up an $8 gallon of canola from the supermarket.

By the way, with a few additives, you can even use use vegetable oil in your car engine! And I don't know why, but Paul Stamets's company, Fungi Perfecti, no longer sells bar oil with mushroom spores.

June 3, 2008. I was thinking of buying a few guns, maybe one for self-defense in a worst case scenario, and a couple for hunting deer and small game in the much more likely expensive food scenario, and maybe one to defend against a black bear that's been coming around my land. So I asked reader advice and spent a whole day doing research online, and here's some stuff I learned:

There is no "Complete Idiot's Guide to Guns," but the Wikipedia firearm page is good for beginners, and a great online resource is Chuck Hawks, who appears to do for guns what Sheldon Brown did for bicycles.

Caliber is only loosely related to power. The length and weight of the bullet, the size of the powder load, and the length of the barrel are also important. Here's a useful Wikipedia list of rifle cartridges. Notice how much bigger the .223 is than the .22LR, even though the bullet is only .003 inches wider.

Handguns take completely different ammunition than rifles, except the .22LR which goes in both. Also, because of the short barrel, the bullet doesn't build up as much speed or spin, so handguns are weaker and much less accurate. The advantage is that they're easier to conceal, easier to whip out if you get surprised, and easier to use against somebody who is very close and moving quickly.

Bowhunting is much harder than rifle hunting. A crossbow is easier to shoot accurately than a bow, but still suffers from limited range. If you're a subsistence hunter, you can get away with a much weaker weapon than a sport hunter, because you have more time to track the animals and get close to them.

Against a bear, a gun should be a last resort, and studies have shown that pepper spray is more effective at stopping an attack. If you have time to place a good shot, a .30 caliber hunting rifle will take down a bear, but if you're shooting desperately with a handgun you need giant bullets.

A shotgun is the most useful all-around firearm. In some ways it's better than a handgun for self-defense, and depending on the size of the shot, you can use it against birds or deer or even bears. The common gauges are 12 (bigger) and 20 (smaller). Lead shot is toxic, but cheaper than steel shot and more effective because it's denser. Break-action (breech loading) shotguns are cheaper and much simpler, but with pump action you can shoot faster, plus the sound of the pump is intimidating.

A .243 rifle is good enough for deer, but .30 caliber ammo is more common and powerful enough for moose and bears. .30 caliber comes mostly in three types, .30-30, .308, and .30-06. Technically, they're all .308. .30-30 is the weakest, but perfectly good up to 100 meters, and it works in lever-action rifles which are faster. Here's a page on favorite deer rifles that may sell you on 30-30. .308 is very common for snipers and seems to be the best all-around. The only advantage of .30-06 over .308 is that it can drive heavier bullets.

If you want to buy some guns, here's the consensus: 1) No handgun. 2) A light .22 rifle, recommended brand Ruger 10/22. 3) A 12 gauge shotgun, recommended brand Mossberg 500. 4) Either a .308 or .30-30 hunting rifle, with either no scope or a 4x fixed magnification scope, which is cheaper and has better optics than a zoom scope.

In the end I didn't get any guns. All the gun folks said you need to practice a lot, which is great if you enjoy it, but for me it would be a tedious and very noisy chore. Note to survivalists: You are going to die. The most important thing is to be who you are in the time you have. So I got a crossbow, an Excalibur Phoenix, the best-buy model from the highest quality crossbow maker in America, plus a bunch of accessories including a varizone scope and a good shock and noise dampener. It's still illegal to hunt with it in my state, so it'll just be an expensive toy until they change the law or stop enforcing it.

May 17, 2008. Austin asks for advice on buying a bicycle:

After a few google searches I've been able to find nothing but sites that sell bikes which are way out of my price range and way beyond what I need. I'm looking for something I can both travel around my small town with and go 10 to 20 miles out of town on short term trips.

Getting a good deal on a bike is really hard! If you can afford it, you should go to a local independent bike shop or REI and get a low to medium price model, which might run you $700 after you get a helmet and lights and basic tools. I wouldn't get a super-expensive bike even if I had unlimited funds, because they're thief magnets, and then you either need a strong U-lock that won't fit around lampposts and trees, or an advanced cable lock that's so heavy it cancels out the benefit of the light frame.

If you can't afford a good new bike, you could get a crappy new bike from a big box store, but I recommend buying a good used bike. For that, you need to know what brands are good, which changes over time. Here's a bit I dug up in a forum post:

In 1975, Schwinn, Motobecane, Gitane, Mercier, Peugeot, Fuji, Colnago, Raleigh and Bianchi were the brands that dominated the road bike market in the USA. In 2005, at the Tour de France, riders will be riding on Trek, Giant, Specialized, Time, Look, Cervelo, Ridley, Colnago, Orbea, Pinarello, Opera, Cannondale, Bianchi, BMC, Scott, and others... Most bikes sold at a given price point are very similar in quality.

Also, you need to decide what type of bike you want. If you're buying new, I recommend what they call a "comfort bike," which is a lot like a "road bike" except your riding posture is more upright and less leaning over the handlebars. If you're buying used, I recommend getting an old road bike and replacing the drop-down racing handlebars with something higher, unless you're going to be racing. A mountain bike tends to have suspension for rough trails, and wide bumpy tires for mud or sand or snow, but both will drag you down on pavement. The easiest wheel size to get parts for is 700C.

I'm not going to get into recumbents and other unusual shapes, except to say that a "women's bike" has nothing to do with whether you're male or female. A step-through frame is a much weaker shape than one with a top bar, but it's easier to get on and off of, so it's better for less athletic riders, and if you're on a bike that's too tall for you, it makes it safer to ride. If you have short legs and want a top bar, you might try a "boys" frame.

A good local bike shop will make sure you get the right sized frame for your body, but if you're buying used you'll need to figure it out yourself. Here's an advanced discussion of frame sizing by Sheldon Brown. He died just a few months ago, but his site is still up and is by far the best bicycle resource on the internet.

And if you have more time than money, you'll have to learn how to do repairs and maintenance yourself, possibly right away if you buy one in bad condition, and you'll need some tools, which I don't want to get into here.

The easiest place to find used bikes is Craigslist, but you have to know what you're buying. There are some nice people who fix up discarded bikes and sell them on Craigslist for fair prices, and there are also parasites who do nothing but buy low and sell high. If you want a much better chance at a bargain, go around to yard sales, but it could take you a while to find a bike that fits you.

You might also consider converting your bike to a singlespeed. Here's Sheldon Brown's page on singlespeed conversions. I ride a 1981 Schwinn Super Le Tour that's not terribly heavy but looks crappy enough to be theft-resistant, and I converted it to a singlespeed before I even knew anyone else was doing it, just because I noticed that I was using the same gear almost all the time and the shifters were a hassle. You get a nice increase in power without the derailleur friction, and the only time I miss a multi-speed is on long, empty flat stretches, where higher gears would enable me to go much faster.

Finally, for you barefooters out there, it's easy to bicycle barefoot if you put some rubber pedals on. I grip the pedals with my toes and get most of the benefit of shoes clipped to pedals, and none of the costs.

March 19, 2008. Rob asks for a list of my favorite field guides. The problem here is that you're going to need some regional guides, and I mostly only know my own region. For plants, I use Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest. The publisher of that one, Lone Pine, has lots of other plant field guides. Also I use an obscure old book, Trees, Shrubs and Flowers to Know in Washington by C.P. Lyons.

The best mushroom guide is Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, which is focused on California but works everywhere in the USA. You should supplement it with a regional guide, if you can find one.

For birds, I looked at a bunch of reviews and picked the Stokes guide, and I'm totally happy with it. It's not as pretty as some other guides, but you can get it cheap, it's very easy to use, and the size is perfect -- big enough to have good information and small enough to carry out of the house. And it matches the Stokes guide to bird songs, which has way more birds than the other audio guides.

Also I have both Mammal Tracks and Sign and Bird Tracks and Sign by Mark Elbroch.

November 19, 2007. Mike writes:

I recently crashed my truck and have had to bicycle everywhere. It is fucking liberating! I ride an old Trek steel frame fixed gear and yesterday did 40 miles. I am thinking that with energy decline, fixed gear/singlespeed bikes will be the easiest way to go because of less extra parts and complexity... but do you think that would work as a touring bike? Basically which do you think is a better apocalypse bike, a well done rigged out single speed or the more traditional geared type?

First, for readers who aren't bike geeks, "fixed gear" means the back wheel is locked to the pedals. Nothing beats it for maneuverability, but you would be mad to use it for touring, because your legs have to keep going all the time. At the other extreme is a bike with front and back derailleurs and twenty-some gears, and a freewheel that allows you to coast without pedaling. My bike is an old Schwinn Super Le Tour, looks worthless, but it's not terribly heavy, and I keep it well lubed and use smooth tires, so it's super-efficient. I stripped it down to a singlespeed but kept the freewheel, which to me is the best of both worlds -- I can coast, but I don't have to mess with gears, and I can really feel a boost in power and acceleration when the chain isn't bogged down by derailleurs.

I recommend starting with a multi-speed. If you enjoy using the full range of gears, keep it. If you find that shifting is a hassle and you spend most of your time in one gear, take all the shifting apparatus off, shorten the chain, remove the extra cogs if you can, and there you go! I use a 39:17 gear ratio that's perfect for city traffic and easy hills. I walk it up steep hills, only a little slower than riding in low gear, and downhill you can coast so gears don't matter. Where a geared bike has the advantage is on long flat stretches, because you can build up to a high gear and really move. So my advice for apocalypse biking is: singlespeed for city and mountains, multi-speed for riding across Nebraska, and fixed gear for playing bicycle capture-the-flag in the abandoned Wal Mart parking lot.

February 23, 2007. Guest post from Patricia: How to get a college education and not sell yourself into bonded servitude for the next 10 to 25 years:

1. Choose a large state, or state-related university. You can always transfer "up" closer to the end, if you want to have a Big Name School on your piece of paper. State schools have a wide variety of programs, normally well respected, and they always offer much cheaper tuition to in-state students. Make sure they offer tuition to employees! Almost every one at least offers half, usually 100% to staff for undergraduate course-work in any field, regardless of your job on campus. They employ hundreds and hundreds of people in relatively low-paying, low-competition, high-security, good benefits, staff jobs. Positions may or may not be low stress [stay clear of anything medical!] or have much slack time, but they will have lots of paid holidays, no overtime, and paid vacation and sick days, and offer affordable health insurance.

2. Move to the cheapest place you can find on a good bus line to campus.

3. Start trying to land any type of employment with that university. Most big colleges have their own temp programs, which can get you in the door, and also earning some money, quickly.

4. Watch for a good full or part-time staff level position that looks like you could do it without too much effort. When you get one, begin school one or two classes per term, until you are sure about what you want to do there. If you are in no hurry, you can take your time and earn your entire degree this way, and never go into any debt at all.

5. If you want to finish faster, see if you meet the conditions to be declared an independent student. If you do, you have a much better chance of getting grant money from your state government. Grant money is free, but you often have to be quite poor to qualify.

Note: Some states, like Georgia, offer part or full tuition to all their high school grads who keep a certain grade average if they want to attend a state school full time. This is more or less how higher education works in the rest of the industrialized world -- you pay for room, board and books, but the classes are free to any citizen with good scores.

February 21. Chuck asks about surviving anomie:

For the next three months, I'm going to be unemployed for the first time in my adult life (I'm 24), and I find myself not just feeling anxious about so much unstructured time, but actually dreading it! My reptilian mind can't help but think of the next three months as one where I'll be a "slacker" and a "leech."

If you could give someone in my situation three pieces of advice, what advice would you give?

1) Learn to cook. The best way is to think of your favorite food, and learn to make it, or something similar, with healthful ingredients. In my twenties I ate a lot of waffles and nachos.

2) To avoid getting stuck circling around in your own energy, it really helps to hang out with other people, or better yet, to live with other people as equals, like in a shared house or apartment.

3) Take care of the little things. Practice paying bills and washing dishes immediately, until it becomes a habit.

4) Try to remember the way you saw the world when you were a little kid, and practice it. This will help with the guilt, since kids never feel guilty about playing, and it will also keep you from getting too spiritually stagnant.

January 3. Mike asks for my top ten essential survival tools. Of course, what's essential depends on what you'll be doing. But I can tell you my ten favorite survival tools, in no particular order. You can get them all for about $800.

January 2, 2007. I asked readers for advice on buying foreign currency to shelter my savings from the dollar collapse. Kevin was especially helpful. Basically there are two ways to do it. You can get an online currency trading account with someone like FXCM, or you can order cash in hand through someone like eZforex. Kevin comments:

Physical possession of foreign currency is very expensive. The companies that handle this screw you two ways, with a transaction fee, and with retail rates that are several percentage points away from the underlying rate.

I don't see much practical advantage of cash in hand, since in a crash so severe that you couldn't retrieve money from an internet account, you also couldn't do anything with foreign cash. For that scenario, several readers recommended silver -- here's a good page on survival coins. Kevin writes that he lost faith in metals because...

speculators are able to trade futures contracts with face values that bear almost no relationship to the underlying supply of the metals, and anyone with dollars can trade these contracts with leverage. So, if the value is determined by who is able to speculate with the most fake leverage, what's the actual value of the commodity? The criminal financial system has turned all "investing" options into rolls of the dice.

I can imagine a collapse scenario in which cash is worthless but you can trade silver coins for food and services, but if things get just a little bit worse than that, even gold will be worthless, because it has no value beyond cultural agreement. Ryan comments that it's very likely people will be using alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco as money. Dmitry Orlov has written about how vodka was more valuable than cash in the Soviet collapse.

Also, some of us don't feel good about the spiritual space of hoarding precious metals. Gold is incompatible with a healthy society. It goes hand in hand with selfishness, disconnection, and zero-sum competition. It's impossible to share it and very difficult to give it away. At the other extreme are tools and skills and information, which are more valuable the more you share them! We need to think beyond staying alive, and choose survival strategies that will grow into the kind of economy and society we want to live in.

2006 Advice Archive