Books

Book review: A TV survivalist offers his guide to self-sufficient living

“Homestead Survival: An Insider’s Guide to Your Great Escape”

By Marty Raney; TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House, 2022; 187 pages; $20.

Followers of Discovery Channel’s reality TV show “Homestead Rescue” will know that Marty Raney, along with two of his children, star in the show, which features them traveling the country to help solve problems faced by “homesteaders.” The series, which has run for nine seasons, spun off into a newer series, “Raney Ranch,” which follows his own family’s life near Alaska’s Hatcher Pass.

Raney, who has also appeared on other TV shows, including National Geographic’s “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and has worked as a logger, mountain guide and contractor, has now compiled a guide for those who share his dream of leaving urban life behind to build what he calls “a simpler, better life of self-sufficiency.” As he states in his author’s note, “At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, an urban exodus began. Tens of millions of people began fleeing crowded, troubled cities in search of less stressful, healthier lives in the country.” His claim of “tens of millions” fleeing may be overstated, but it’s certainly true that the romantic notion of living in the country has long been a staple of American life. Whether it’s a simpler, better, less stressful life might be questioned.

“Homesteaders” in the book’s context refers to any people who have sought back-to-the-land lifestyles. “Off-the-grid people” and “survivalists” are considered to be homesteading, as are those who want to raise or hunt and gather what they eat. Often, the people Raney describes are in family groups, isolated by choice, rather than in community.

The televised Raney has proven himself to be a charismatic character, and that same quality of personality comes through in his book. “Homestead Survival” is chatty and informal, presenting its author as eager to share his life experiences and desire to help others understand how they, too, can find that “simpler” life. The practical advice he offers is embedded in his personal life stories and examples of others who have, with his help, solved their homestead problems.

Raney begins with describing his response to the 2018 Alaska earthquake and his acute awareness of just how unprepared most Americans are for disasters of any kind. He expands on parts of his life that gave him the skillsets that qualify him “to travel anywhere to help anyone with anything.” Throughout, he drops in specific anecdotes: the time in fire-prone Idaho when he promoted defensible spaces and metal roofs, the time in Tennessee when he put up a yurt with in-floor heating, and the time in Montana when he got three landowners together to build a pond for sharing scarce water. He claims to have helped more than 60 homesteads in 30 states.

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The guide is organized into 15 chapters for easy reading and for locating specific information. Chapters cover “the homestead mentality,” “how to fund your homestead,” “first, find your land,” drinking water, fire and flood danger, building a home, tools, power, gardens, livestock, and so on, ending with “when it all grows wrong.” This last chapter chronicles his own home burning down, related to frozen water pipes and a too-hot stove fire resulting in a chimney fire.

Much of the book’s content will be commonplace to most Alaskans, who likely already know the pleasure of sitting on a piece of blueboard insulation in an outhouse. They probably don’t need to be told that chain saws are essential tools on a homestead and that an excavator can be very handy for clearing land and building roads but should be driven cautiously. Or that insulating a home is better than “chopping wood from dawn to dusk.” Homestead-wannabes who’ve never seen a chain saw or thought about what it takes to raise goats or whether, even in a city, they might want to invest in a generator or solar panels, could get a good start here.

Some examples of Raney’s ingenuity are less commonplace and are at least fun to read about if not emulate. Raney is an enthusiast of shipping containers, stating that homes made from them “are not only affordable … they are robust, sturdy, and look good too.” He devotes several pages to their virtues, advice on turning them into homes, and his example of converting one in Nevada to a tiny home where its residents rode out a fierce duststorm. Elsewhere he shares plans for building a “rocket stove tub,” essentially an outdoor bathtub heated by a wood fire that sends heat through stovepipe beneath the tub.

Raney seems to sincerely believe that the homestead life is the ideal for everyone. Obviously, though, very few people actually want to do the hard work involved, however much fun it may be to dream. It’s much more comfortable to watch, from a recliner in a warm home, television people hauling logs and digging trenches. Even in Alaska, we can’t all hunt, fish and garden to fulfill all our food needs. In his hunting chapter, Raney encourages his followers to adopt “a subsistence-hunting lifestyle.” The more people who do, he argues, the more likely that land will be preserved, that animal herds will be managed and culled responsibly, and that hunting will be “a positive thing” supported and promoted by local communities. That is an argument that might be argued with, even in Alaska.

In reading Raney’s guide, one more qualification becomes clear. In many of his “homestead rescue” episodes, vendors provided materials free or at a great discount, presumably for the publicity of being associated with the show. This was true of the Tennessee yurt and the concrete for its foundation and floor, among other projects. Such advantages don’t normally come to the ordinary person trying to build an ordinary self-sufficient life.

HORIZONTAL WHITE SPACE “Homestead Survival: An Insider’s Guide to Your Great Escape”

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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