For as long as I remember there has been mild discussion and lively debate in the survival circles between those who feel you need a lot of "stuff" to survive a disaster and those who say you need minimal stuff but will fare better with "skills". I am someone who does much better when I have time to ponder things and work out the details for myself, sans emotional rhetoric. I do this because once I reach what I feel is a well thought out conclusion, it is very hard to convince me otherwise... and I really don't like to be wrong.
Having read scores of true survival stores, dozens of "post apocalyptic" and "prepper fiction" books, and reviewing the events of a couple recent high profile disasters (Hurricane Sandy (US east coast 2012) and Typhoon Haiyan (Philippines 2013)) I have come to some conclusions about this subject. Unfortunately my conclusions don't settle the dispute for me. Let's talk about that.
The true survival stories I read and the recent disaster events I reviewed (none of which affected me, personally) are all short term, localized problems. The effects on different people ranged from some people being isolated and without power for a couple weeks to others losing their entire homes and all their possessions. If you were one who lost all of his possessions, then having "things" would not be a lick of help to you at all since all of your stuff is now destroyed, buried under a ton of mud, or floating somewhere in the ocean. If you were isolated and without power, then having a generator and stocked pantry ("things") made it so you could make it through with relative ease. Similarly, if you cannot go anywhere and are without power due to a heavy snow storm, having "stuff" will be of much more help than having "skills".
Let's switch gears from recent events to things much more widespread and theoretical: disaster fiction. A couple years ago I got on a kick of post apocalyptic fiction novels and have slowed down a bit, but am still going. The disaster initiators of these books ranges from nuclear war of the 50's (On the Beach and Alas, Babylon); massive comet strike from the 70's (Lucifer's Hammer); to modern power grid down, economic collapse, political upheaval, or even a combination (One Second After, Patriots, Lights Out, 299 Days). Now, don't discount the fiction genre as a place to learn some things. One of the reasons I started reading this type of book was because I was curious about some different possible scenarios and what others thought might occur during those scenarios.
A common theme throughout almost all of the books (certainly all of those listed above) was a sense of community. Specifically, organized communities of individuals existing to help each other instead of acting as lone survivalists. Many of the books went into detail about how the community was organized and how it was defended to keep others out who may threaten the resources of that community. As time went on several of these communities found themselves lacking in people with certain important skills. Five of the books (Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven, Patriots by James Wesley, Rawles, Lights Out by David Crawford, 299 Days series by Glen Tate, Deep Winter trilogy by Thomas Sherry) contain protected communities where individuals or families that are passing by and looking for a safe haven are interviewed in search of skills that will contribute to that community. Those possessing helpful or needed skills found a place to reside that offered protection from the evils and violence of the outside world.
A recent podcast: Doom and Bloom interview with Charley Hogwood author of MAGS
really helped cement the idea for me that useful skills are a necessity. Charley wrote a book about building Mutual Assistance Groups. I have not yet read his book (although I fully intend to do so very soon) but one of the ideas covered in the interview was building a group of people with complementary personalities and skills. In the book he discusses how to build groups pre-disaster and post-disaster; how to find people who will be a benefit to your group and avoid people who will merely be resource consumers.
There are a multitude of posts in the Prepper blogosphere about useful skills in addition to a website dedicated to just that: learning useful hard skills- http://www.13skills.com/
Think about it. If you have a solid community, are you going to let in a sluggard who offers nothing in return or, with your limited resources, are you going to be looking for someone with a skill that will benefit your group? If you had such a group, what kind of skills would you need? A few on my list are medical, auto repair, metal and wood worker, security expert, gardener/permaculturist, food forager, food preserver, and herbalist among others. If two people come to my group looking for a place to stay and I have the choice between a medic and someone who only knows how to cook microwave dinners but knows what happened on every episode of the MTV reality shows, which would I choose? Or a choice between an auto mechanic and someone who worked in "customer service" but never took the time to learn a solid skill? What about a lawyer or an older lady who spent years gardening and canning her surplus? Some skills may be out of reach for the average person (doctor, military trained security expert) but so many useful skills are learned by your average Joe over time.
In a short term, more localized disaster, "stuff" is necessary. Choose your "stuff" carefully and always take into consideration what would happen if your "stuff" went away (burglary, house wiped out, etc).
In a long term problem, "stuff" will help you start, but you need "skills" to make it through.
So, both are necessary. Take into consideration where you reside, your bug-out location (if any) and what disasters are likely to befall you. If you haven't started prepping for survival during a disaster and don't know where to start, I'll offer some advice: pick something and do it. Yep... just choose something and get started. While you are growing your pantry or planting a garden or learning some herbal remedies read articles and blog posts from a variety of authors (don't get caught up in any given authors' biases). Maybe make it a goal to read one article or post each day to expand your view. Better yet, choose some "stuff" to gather (canned or dry food is a good place to start) and a skill to start learning. Frugal Squirrels and The Survival Podcast are both great forums to get help with skills.
Hopefully I have planted a seed in your mind about how you will make it through a disaster. Now... What Will You Do?