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Red wine and a perfectly-seasoned steak, scotch and a cigar, a few close friends and a round of cold beers. Alcohol pairs well with many things in life, but does it really pair well with survival scenarios? Unless you plan to get liquored-up and forget your troubles as society crumbles around you, drinking it during an emergency shouldn't be your first thought.
In the 411 column titled “Drinking Contest” in Issue 17 of our printed magazine, John Schwartze addresses the realities of alcohol consumption in a survival situation. While alcohol can cause you to feel less thirsty, warmer, and more relaxed, it also masks your perception of the real effects it's having on your body: dehydration, decreased core temperature, and loss of coordination. These effects may not be dangerous if you're sitting on the couch at home, but they're catastrophic in a survival situation when wise choices and quick reflexes are essential.
Now hold on — don't go pouring all the booze down the drain when disaster strikes. There are many alternative survival uses for alcohol that make this substance an extremely valuable commodity. Even if you're not ingesting it, booze can aid your survival efforts in a variety of ways. In order to help you consider these alternate uses, we've compiled a list of a few of our favorites.
While you may understand that drinking your sorrows away during an emergency is a bad idea, there are many others who will certainly not hesitate to do so. Also, good alcohol is time- and labor-intensive to produce, and breweries, distilleries, and wineries will almost assuredly cease production after a disaster. This means that even if paper money becomes useless as a commodity, alcohol is going to become rarer and more valuable as time passes. If you've got a stockpile of top-shelf booze, you can trade some for other items you may need.
If you've ever felt the sting of rubbing alcohol on a cut or scrape, you'll know that highly-concentrated alcohol kills germs. However, don't go thinking that you can simply pour some light beer on your wound — you'll want the strongest stuff you can find. Isopropyl “rubbing alcohol” is typically at least 70% alcohol by volume (ABV), so look for something approaching that figure. For reference, “100 proof” alcohol contains 50% ABV, so you'd ideally want to find 140 proof (70% ABV) or higher for disinfection purposes. Cheap grain alcohol like Everclear (190-proof or 95% ABV), whiskey, or moonshine can be very effective as a disinfectant.
In the days before aspirin and other pain pills were commonplace, alcohol was often used as a rudimentary painkiller and/or sedative. However, it shouldn't be used in large quantities or for serious medical issues — “the large doses of alcohol needed to produce stupefaction are likely to cause nausea, vomiting and death instead of sleep.” A glass of alcohol can keep your mind off minor muscle aches and pains, or it can be used as a numbing mouthwash to temporarily dull a toothache. (If tooth pain persists, see a dentist. If no dentist is available, you may need to deal with the problem yourself.)
Alcohol also works well as a flexible ice pack. Just pour some vodka in a sealable plastic bag, and place it in the freezer — the alcohol will prevent the bag from freezing solid.
Alcohol makes for a good cleaner and degreaser around the home. Cheap vodka can be used to clean glass, polish chrome, kill mold, and deodorize clothing or shoes. As we mentioned above, high-proof alcohol also kills bacteria, so it can be used to wipe down surfaces if no other cleaners are available.
Oily and sticky substances can be naturally dissolved by alcohol. This is why denatured alcohol and rubbing alcohol are often used to remove paint, adhesive residue, and grease from surfaces. Drinkable ethanol alcohol can be used for similar purposes, though it may not be as effective due to its higher water content. If you use your booze to clean a metal object, like a firearm, bicycle, or tool, be sure to dry and oil it thoroughly afterward to displace residual water that might otherwise lead to rust.
Also, since poison ivy and poison oak cause rashes by leaving an invisible oil on your skin, scrubbing your skin with alcohol can prevent these rashes.
All sorts of annoying pests are attracted to the scent of beer, so it works well as bait in traps. If you have a cockroach problem, a piece of bread soaked in beer can be placed into a Vaseline-lined container. Roaches will go to the beer, but won't be able to climb back out. Snails and slugs in your garden will also be attracted to beer.
Booze has many uses in the kitchen. If you're feeling fancy, you can use it in a sauce or marinade for meat, add flavor to a dessert recipe, or even flambé your dish (carefully). Alcohol is also great for making natural flavor extracts, which you can add to other recipes in the future. Vanilla, lemon, orange, mint, and other flavors can be captured by soaking in alcohol for 5-6 weeks.
Aside from being used in food, alcohol serves as a heat source for cooking and boiling water. Check out our previous article about how to make an ultralight alcohol stove. Alternatively, an alcohol lamp can be used for lighting or sterilizing tools. A quick spritz of high-proof alcohol can help you get your campfire going, too.
In a worst-case home-defense scenario, you can even add a rag to a bottle and make a Molotov cocktail. Just don't burn your house down in the process.
Even when all the booze is dried up and you run out of survival uses for alcohol, the containers can be re-purposed. Glass bottles can be cut into cups or glasses, and plastic bottles can be turned into cordage. Wine corks can be sliced up and formed into a cork board, or can be ground up finely and used as moisture-retaining mulch for your garden's soil.