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Stockpiling food, water, and weapons on the off chance an apocalyptic event wipes out life as we know it isn’t generally regarded as rational behavior. This past December, however, the city auditor pronounced Denver’s government woefully unprepared to bounce back from a pandemic, terrorist attack, or other widespread emergency. Worst-case scenario: Hospitals will be overrun. Grocery stores and pharmacies will be picked clean. And—dear God, help us—iPhones will be dead. You’ll be on your own because, let’s be honest, the cavalry can’t save everyone.
While doomsday talk tends to conjure visions of sinew-snacking zombies, something as basic as the measles could wreak complete chaos on civil order (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently traced an outbreak in Minnesota to the anti-vax movement). Mother Nature, too, continually tries to kill us: The Waldo Canyon fire ripped through Colorado Springs in 2012, chasing more than 30,000 people from their homes. A year later, flooding along the Big Thompson River destroyed more than 1,800 houses and damaged another 19,000 structures.
Then there are the wild cards—asteroids, artificial intelligence, bioterrorism. During the nuclear age, even a bad day at work has the potential to take a few ticks off the world’s population total. In 1979, for instance, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs detected an impending Russian nuclear attack. U.S. bombers were scrambled, and the missile-defense system was alerted. Moments away from a U.S. retaliatory strike, a NORAD technician—unaware of the looming Armageddon because, we presume, he was jamming out on his shiny new Walkman—realized he’d mistakenly launched a training program.
We used to take disaster prep seriously. Situated in the killing field between NORAD to the south and missile silos to the northeast, Denver seemed certain to incur Commie nukes had the Cold War gone hot. So the Mile High City embraced vigilance: By 1973, the metro area had more than 700 stocked civil defense shelters that would dole out supplies and provide lodging if our comrades to the east opened fire. Then the federal government reallocated funds from protecting individuals to protecting “important” groups, like politicians (shocking!), and in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan got all peace, love, and disarmament with the Soviets. Those defense shelters sit unstocked today.
No wonder an increasing number of Coloradans are taking disaster readiness into their own tactical-glove-wearing hands. A rising subculture across the country, “preppers” and “survivalists” have their own vocabulary, gatherings, and marketplace. In fact, nearly 8,000 people descend on the National Western Complex in Denver every September for survival fest—more formally known as the Self Reliance and Simple Life Experience. Attendees will check out the latest in survivalist couture, discover how to build dwellings out of hemp, and learn about a bunker community in Colorado Springs.
Rather than condemn preppers as alarmist nut jobs, we decided to explore their best practices. Sure, some of what they’re doing might be considered overly vigilant—as in, you probably don’t need to bury a shipping container full of supplies in the sparsely populated San Luis Valley. By following their recipe for survival, though, you’re bound to be better prepared to persevere through the small-scale disasters that could interrupt daily life. And should a zombie virus ever escape from the secret military base under Denver International Airport—well, you’ll be ready for that, too.
Hasta La Vista, Denver
Mapping out the various threats that could cause doomsday in the Mile High City and how probable they actually are.
The most likely threat is something akin to the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people by 1919. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says 3,000 to 33,000 Coloradans could perish during the next similarly dangerous influenza outbreak.
From the Suncor oil refinery to the Marston Water Treatment Plant, there are 250 spots in the Denver metro area that use hazardous materials in large quantities. Twelve locations are so potentially dangerous, says Ryan Broughton, executive director of Denver’s Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, that a single malfunctioning part could affect up to 14,000 people.
We don’t want to name names, but Denver’s plethora of tech startups are using AI in everything from health care to home automation. If the robots decide humans are enemies, says Ashis Kumer Biswas, a computer science professor at the University of Colorado Denver, “you can’t expect what’s going to happen.”
Colorado Springs is a much more attractive destination than Denver (for nukes, anyway). Our southern neighbor is home to NORAD, which monitors enemies’ missiles. But if a nuclear bomb did strike Denver, 60,000 people would die within hours, according to a 2008 simulation by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Some believe a high-altitude nuclear blast—300 miles above the United States—would generate an EMP strong enough to knock out the country’s electronics, including the energy grid. The effects of an EMP aren’t certain, though. A Soviet test in the ’60s interrupted hundreds of miles of communications lines. But a U.S. trial in the 2000s only required a few cars to be restarted.
In May 2000, Denver participated in a Congress-mandated drill called TOPOFF (short for top officials). The simulation explored what would happen if terrorists released an aerosol containing fatal pneumonic plague into the ventilation system at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Using contagion patterns, experts guesstimated that within four days the pandemic would have spread as far as London and Tokyo.
A humankind-endangering space rock probably won’t strike Earth for millennia. However, about 100 years from now, some “state-killers”—asteroids of more than 140 meters in length that could kill nearly 50,000 people, mostly via winds strong enough to level cities and pressure strong enough to rupture internal organs—will warrant careful observation, says Lindley Johnson, NASA’s heroically titled planetary defense officer.
The Things You’ll Carry
Baseline emergency planning means storing water and nonperishable food. Earning the mantle of prepper requires a bit more prepping. Specifically, you need to assemble a “bug-out bag”: a grab-and-go pack that contains all the supplies necessary to subsist for 10 days during and after an evacuation caused by a disaster. Jason Marsteiner, owner of Colorado Mountain Man Survival school in Cripple Creek, agreed to share the contents of his bug-out bag with 5280. We pared down his robust inventory (he’s a bit of a pack rat) to essentials and subbed in Colorado-made products.
Go Berkey Kit ($175), Berkey Filters
It’s difficult to outrun a horde—that’s the official term for a grouping of zombies—with gallons of water slowing you down. At only three pounds, this Pueblo-made filtration system is classified as a purifier because it kills 99.9 percent of viruses. With it, you can make like a deer and fill up from streams and ponds as you escape through the backwoods.
ApocaTips: Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink—because it’s been nuked? “If done properly, distillation [even without filtering] will remove radioactive particles from water,” Marsteiner says. (Check out fema.gov for distillation instructions.)
Lightweight Double Blackbird XLC hammock ($330), Warbonnet Outdoors
Rest anywhere (where there are trees) with this recently updated hammock system. The new design allows you to add accessories, such as the Evergreen company’s goose-down top and under quilts, so you’re adaptable to Mother Nature’s whims. Warbonnet also sells heavy-duty tarps to shield you from the rain and wind, making a tent obsolete. Plus, it’s great for your back: The setup weighs less than five pounds.
ApocaTips: “Wouldn’t you like to be able to keep going while others are choking on toxins?” Marsteiner asks. We’re guessing you would, so although a gas mask isn’t exactly “shelter,” we recommend you pack one.
Woodsman (starting at $220), Kifaru International
This Wheat Ridge–made pack checks all of Marsteiner’s boxes: It’s comfy (two pounds), durable (military-grade fabric), roomy (4,000 cubic inches), and—because survivalist style hews to versatile palettes that blend into both urban and outdoor settings—available in a range of colors.
ApocaTips: “You can also carry a waist pack to keep your more critical items in,” Marsteiner says. “No, I did not say fanny pack. I said ‘waist pack’—it sounds a little tougher.”
Firebiner ($15), Outdoor Element
Other than your neighbor with the canned-food collection, fire might be your best friend during TEOTWAWKI. You need it to cook, boil water, and survive cold weather. This souped-up carabiner, designed in Englewood, not only boasts a fire wheel capable of lighting tinder, but it also conveniently clips to your fanny, er, waist pack and features a blade for cutting fishing line.
ApocaTips: Always have cotton balls coated in Vaseline—“the best fire-starting tinder,” Marsteiner says—at the ready.
Jumpmaster 2 ($250), Spyderco
You’re no Rambo, who bested an entire police force with only his blade and fetching headscarf. But you do need to be able to eat when your food stores dwindle. “With a knife you can make anything you need to hunt for more food,” Marsteiner says. That includes the highly effective Paiute deadfall, one of the many traps Marsteiner teaches for felling prey such as raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits. (Note: Trapping is illegal in Colorado without a license, but this is the apocalypse—all bets are off.)
ApocaTips: It might be a little unwieldy, but Longmont’s Enerhealth Botanicals’ Survive2Thrive Pail ($290) has a shelf life of 10 to 15 years and comes with 40 days of grub, from millet to quinoa. (Sorry, nobody’s serving baby back ribs after the fall of civilization.)
Escape From Denver
There’s no point in bugging out if you don’t know where you’re going to bug to. Follow our path out of the Mile High City.
Staging Area: Ruby Hill Park
You need a central spot for your family and MAG to meet and grab gear. Ruby Hill is accessible from downtown and eastern Denver via the South Platte River and Cherry Creek trails. Near the park, you’ll find plenty of self-storage sites to stash your bug-out bags and bikes. Yes, bikes: Worst-case scenario (i.e., what’s going to happen because everyone will drive their own cars), the evacuation of Denver will take 40 hours. So plan to flee by bike or on foot. Wait an hour for your group to arrive. After that, move on without no-shows—no exceptions.
Rendezvous Point: Chatfield State Park
Located south of Ruby Hill Park, Chatfield is far enough from the downtown madness but reachable within four to five hours on foot. Here, you can catch your breath and check news reports on your battery-powered radio: Will you be able to return within a few days? Or is the damage irreversible? Spend the night holed up assessing the situation and waiting for any family or MAG stragglers.
Out Route: The C-470 Trail
On bike (or by car, if the road is clear and you can “borrow” one outside city limits), head west on the highway-adjacent C-470 Trail toward U.S. 285 and your final destination: a predetermined refuge where you have permanent shelter, long-term supplies such as seeds for mountain-hardy crops like kale, and hopefully electricity.
The A Team
As with any hire, a vital question to ask when considering a prospective member for your MAG (see “Talk Like A Prepper” below) is: Will this person be a cultural fit? “Getting along with the group is just as important as someone’s skills,” says Pearre Cabell, who owns the Colorado Zombie Outpost store in Colorado Springs with John Quatkemeyer. But chemistry alone won’t get your squad through the evacuation and set up to live off the grid. So we assembled a crew of (super-friendly) Coloradans with specific but disparate abilities with whom we can’t wait to flee disaster.
Leader: Lori Robinson
The U.S. Air Force general led more than 2,000 airmen during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, so she can capably manage the egos in this tiny outfit. More important, Robinson now heads NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, meaning she probably knows all sorts of classified information that will surely be useful after doomsday.
Stockman: Von Miller
The Denver Broncos linebacker was a poultry science major at Texas A&M University. After school, Miller started a 60-bird chicken farm in his hometown of Dallas that, he told the Ringer website, will begin commercial production this year or next. And with Texas A&M being an ag school, Miller knows a bit about other livestock as well. Bonus: We bet he’s handy in
Hunter: Matt Wright
During his three stints on Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid series (most recently, this past March), Lakewood’s Wright foraged and ate tarantulas; caught fish using termites as bait; and hunted down a wild pig. Sure, he contracted flesh-eating bacteria that supped on his little piggies, but as long as we find him a pair of shoes—and perhaps a loincloth—Wright should keep our bellies full.
Farmer/Chef: Caroline Glover
Glover worked on farms in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Colorado before opening Annette, one of 5280’s 25 Best Restaurants in 2017. Not much will change for her after society’s demise, because Annette specializes in wood-fired (read: campfire) dishes—though the post-apocalyptic menu might feature more spit-roasted squirrel than the acclaimed chef is accustomed to cooking.
Carpenter: Ben Olson
We must have shelter, but there’s no rule saying dystopian digs need to resemble ramshackle lean-tos. Olson, co-founder of Fin Art Co. in Denver, has crafted furniture for some of the swankiest spots in town (including the new Ramble Hotel), has loads of experience working with reclaimed materials (an apocalypse must), and comes complete with TEOTWAWKI-trendy stubble.
Colorado is a popular setting for post-apocalyptic literature. Here are three of the genre’s best novels—and what you’ll learn from them.
The Stand by Stephen King
Synopsis: After influenza kills 99.4 percent of humans, rival communities sprout up in Boulder (the good guys) and Las Vegas (the bad guys).
Lesson: Even after the apocalypse, a trip to Sin City will probably get ugly.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Synopsis: A vampire virus escapes from a secret military installation near Telluride.
Lesson: Colorado is a great launch point for fictitious government-induced pandemics, Cronin says, thanks to its remote locales that aren’t too far from major cities.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
Synopsis: A widowed super-flu survivor living at Erie Municipal Airport with his beloved canine searches for human connection in a world with very few humans.
Lesson: It’s lonely out there in dystopia. Having a dog helps.
So I Married a Prepper
My spouse’s growing interest in survivalism seemed completely practical—until it didn’t.
It all started with a novel published in 2009 entitled One Second After. My mom, dad, brother, husband, and I all found the post-apocalyptic tale’s premise—that strategically delivered EMPs could fry the energy grid, destroy all electronics, and plunge the country into literal and figurative darkness—disturbingly plausible. Over the years, we’ve talked about it numerous times, taking bets on which of us would die first and debating what we’d miss more: rum (my dad) or coffee (my husband) or ice (me). None of us, though, have really prepared for a catastrophe we all agree could happen. None of us—except my husband, Matt.
It was subtle at first. He’d suggest we fill a prescription we probably weren’t going to use. Couldn’t hurt to have some pain meds stored away. Then came a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio and a water purifier capable of removing bacteria and viruses. When he suggested stockpiling a few months’ worth of food supplies and extra ammunition for our three firearms, I agreed it was probably prudent. After all, most Americans get catastrophic medical coverage, just in case. We all wear seat belts, just in case. Parents get their kids vaccinated, just in case. Was this any different?
You’re probably screaming, Yes, you lunatic, purchasing a Faraday cage is wildly different than buying health insurance. That’s fair. But it’s not like we sold our Wash Park house and moved to an off-the-grid cabin in Saguache County. I ultimately decided that so long as I didn’t find brochures for survivalist conferences or real estate flyers for undeveloped land in remote areas of Colorado in the junk drawer, we were still on the right side of normal.
Then, in early November, Matt began building a portable solar-powered generator from components he’d ordered online. Tinkering with the project seemed to make him happy, so I didn’t mention that I thought DIYing a power source in case of a GDE (grid-down event) might put us squarely on the road to Crazytown. I’m glad I didn’t, because when I finally decided to ask him why he was doing all of this, he told me it’s because he wants to be able to protect me and our family and friends when the SHTF (I’ll let you figure that one out). Plus, not only does the suitcase-size generator have enough juice to run a space heater for a short time—perfect for (nuclear) winter in Denver—but it can also power up the freezer long enough to fill a cup with ice. —Lindsey B. Koehler
When it comes to outbreaks, the only sure prevention is abstinence.
If a highly contagious epidemic breaks out (even if it’s on another continent or on the other side of the country), don’t be afraid to practice a little “social distancing,” advises Dr. Richard Hansen, former state epidemiologist and chief medical director for Colorado. For example, instead of shaking your friend’s possibly disease-riddled hand, give her a pleasant elbow bump. Far from rude, the gesture says, “Let’s keep me virus-free so I can help make your slow, painful death as pleasant as possible.”
You don’t (necessarily) need a physician in your MAG to survive the apocalypse. But you should spend a little time at medical school with Dr. Todd Miner, who teaches wilderness first aid for civilians at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “What we teach in these classes would be applicable to the apocalypse,” he says, “although it’s just as applicable to a weekend picnic where something goes wrong.” To help you prepare for the former, Miner provided basic medical techniques people should know before exploring the outdoors, and we matched them to scenarios our apocalypse squad might encounter.
Situation: While attempting his trademark speed rush into a rival MAG’s backcountry camp, Von Miller sprains the knee he injured during the 2017 season.
Equipment Needed: A Sam Splint, a device made of thick aluminum wrapped in foam; sammedical.com
The Procedure: Find a cold mountain stream and submerge the sprain. Once the swelling has subsided, use the Sam Splint to provide cushioned stability to the joint. Padding, Miner says, is almost as important as stability; using noncushioned sticks to provide stability rubs the skin raw and creates infection-attracting ulcers.
Situation: While preparing a meal of chicken liver pâté (a delicious holdover from Annette), Caroline Glover severely burns her hand.
Equipment Needed: Water and nonadhesive gauze
The Procedure:“I hate burns,” Miner says. “Burns are really painful, and they are easily infected.” Douse the area with water, which is up to 25 times more effective than air at absorbing heat, to curtail the damage and clean the wound. Then wrap the burn in gauze to protect it from air, which can be very painful, and deadly germs.
Situation: While hiking to a shelter, the group is overtaken by a blizzard. Matt Wright, who really should have been wearing clothes, suffers frostbite in his foot.
Equipment Needed: Water, a large pot, fire, and recombinant tissue Plasminogen Activator (r-tPA) medication
The Procedure: Submerge the foot in 100- to 102-degree water for 30 minutes, which is going to hurt. Bad. But if there’s a chance the extremity could refreeze, don’t thaw it; freeze-thaw-freeze greatly increases the chances of amputation. If you find some in an abandoned hospital along the road, an r-tPA injection (typically used for strokes) into the artery at the site of the injury will force blood back into the foot.
Situation: While leading a raid to acquire Wright’s r-tPA medicine (that foot does not look good), Lori Robinson takes a bullet in the leg from an enemy platoon.
Equipment Needed: A bandana, a zip-close bag, and water
The Procedure: Ten to 20 minutes of pressure to the wound should stop the bleeding. If it doesn’t, turn a bandana into a tourniquet. Miner recommends using only drinkable water to clean the wound (antiseptics can kill healthy cells). So fill the zip-close bag to the top, cut a small hole in the corner, and fire a strong stream into the wound to clean it of debris and germs. Again, it’s going to hurt.
New Denver, Population: 5
Welcome to the Apishapa River Valley, cradle of Colorado’s rebirth.
About five years ago, Colorado Homestead Properties, a real estate brokerage in Aguilar (not too far from Trinidad), began marketing many of its listings as survival properties. “Aguilar and the Apishapa River Valley are good for preppers because they’re remote,” says Kerry Campbell, owner of Colorado Homestead. “You have to get off the highway and come into the canyon. Otherwise, you don’t even know we’re here.” Now, survivalists generate about 25 percent of her business. Campbell and her husband have gone so far as to bury a shipping container underneath a house—reinforced with rebar and concrete behind secret doors—so a client could hide his cache of food, weapons, and other supplies from zombies (no, not the undead; preppers sometimes use this term to describe civilians who didn’t prepare for TEOTWAWKI). We inquired about something more turnkey, and Campbell didn’t disappoint us: The 40-acre plot she selected (on the market for $379,000) possesses everything a prepper needs, providing not only a secure shelter during the apocalypse’s initial panic, but also a stable base from which to relaunch civilization.
The property sits eight miles from I-25, 15 miles from Trinidad, and 20 miles from Walsenburg—in other words, the middle of nowhere. Unwelcome guests would have to navigate a knot of backcountry roads before reaching the private drive, which is 1.2 miles long and fortified by a locked gate.
The Sun Still Rises (Hopefully)
Should the electrical grid fall, the complex’s 15 solar panels are capable of generating 3,600 watts—more than enough to power the typical American home, which requires an average of 1,025 watts.
In Full View
No marauders will be able to sneak up from the south or west, as the main house has sweeping views of Greenhorn Mountain, the Spanish Peaks, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. For added security, there’s even a hidden crawl space.
Well To Do
Although the site has its own water pump and 1,200-gallon concrete-walled storage tank, the well collapsed and needs to be re-drilled. That’s OK. With Twitter and Instagram no longer monopolizing our attention, we’ll need something to fill our days.
There’s a huge fenced garden for vegetable (or, you know, marijuana) production. You can grow your arugula in the on-site greenhouse come winter.
The Apishapa River Valley is famous among hunters for its elk: beautiful, noble creatures that taste delicious.
Talk Like A Prepper
IFAK (n) ī-fak: Acronym for Individual First Aid Kit; a collection of personal medical supplies and tools deemed necessary for survival in an emergency
MAG (n) mag: Acronym for Mutual Aid Group; preppers in a geographic area who discuss and plan for TEOTWAWKI together
Bug out (v) bəg au̇t: To leave one’s location due to dangerous conditions and relocate to a safer environment; see also Bug In (v) To barricade oneself in one’s current location, often for several days, to wait out a disaster