The Walking Dead vs. Real-Life Survivalists: How to Prep for The Zombie Apocalypse

There's no denying that Rick Grimes made a lot of mistakes. Here's how experienced preppers would judge The Walking Dead on its survival accuracy.

The Walking Dead How to Survive
Photo: Sarah Shatz | AMC

According to a 2019 YouGov poll, 14% of Americans have a zombie apocalypse plan of some sort. Even the CDC provides zombie apocalypse advice, including having one gallon of water per person per day, stocking up on food, and choosing a rallying point for family members should everyone get separated in the mad rush for safety. That concept of preparedness has infiltrated popular culture like a walker in an unguarded camp thanks to The Walking Dead and other pieces of zombie media. Being ready for whatever life throws your way is no longer just for paranoid, reclusive mountain men. 

The survivors on The Walking Dead are from all walks of life, across a wide spectrum of ages, races, nationalities, and ability levels. As such, all could have benefitted from a bit of advice from experienced experts in the field of survival. So, Den of Geek reached out to a pair of preppers and asked them some questions about just how the various groups on The Walking Dead have fared in their quest to navigate the end of the world. 

A man based in the Great White North who chooses to be known only as “Canadian Prepper” of the Canadian Prepper YouTube channel and Canadian Preparedness, sums it up succinctly. “I don’t think there’s one prepper who doesn’t know about The Walking Dead.” 

That’s an advantage preppers in our world have over their fictional counterparts. We know what zombies are, and we have ample opportunity to prepare for them. In the world of The Walking Dead, no one knew what a zombie was until they showed up, which took pretty much everyone in that world by surprise.

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However, to Scott Hunt of Practical Preppers, those of us in the non-zombie world have good reason to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, whether it’s earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, civil unrest, or one of the many more mundane emergencies encountered in the modern world. 

Getting Prepared

“As Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,’” Hunt says.

Hunt holds a Masters of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and takes surviving more seriously than your average person with a stocked cellar. Hunt and his family were featured on Season 1 of National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers. He later became a consultant for the show. Now he is a sustainable living design engineer specializing in off-grid water and energy systems. His popular YouTube channel, Engineer775, allows him to, in his words, “help others prepare for the worst type of events and make them as sustainable as possible.”

Hunt’s focus is on solar power and water access solutions, but given his experience with prepping and homestead farming, he has a lot to say about just what mistakes the survivors on The Walking Dead have been making throughout the show’s run. 

The mistakes start, logically, at the very beginning of the show. 

“I think there were a lot of mistakes initially made during the outbreak. For one, hardly anyone living in the city had any sort of ‘preps’, and those living in rural areas only seemed to have basic things like a few canned goods, maybe a well, and a few arms to protect themselves with,” Hunt says. “I think having a simple bug-out bag would have saved a lot of people. If you are like many of those living in Atlanta in season 1, I would advise you to have a ‘bug-out plan’ and ‘bug-out bags’ for you and your family. It does seem like a scary thing to imagine, but we advise people to think ahead, always.” 

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The Walker Threat

For Canadian Prepper, part of thinking ahead is being ready for problems before they happen. Detecting threats before they can detect you is the best form of operational security in the zombie apocalypse. 

“Having a 24/7 lookout is the most important thing, being very vigilant with that and not wavering at all. If there is somebody who’s spying on you, they’re going to wait for one opportunity where you’re not paying attention.” 

Even if the threat is more walker-based, having a lookout is still of crucial importance. 

“You’re talking about a bunch of reanimated corpses who could come at any time. There’s no time that they’re going to prefer to attack. It’s just going to be whenever,” Canadian Prepper says.

Canadian Prepper emphasizes the concept of preemptive security, in addition to the active lookout. 

“Almost every single time it seems like the zombies surprise people. It’s like, do you guys realize you can just get some string and some tin cans? As the survivors evolve, you’d think that they would develop better perimeter alarm systems whereby they would be notified if there was a potential threat on the horizon.”

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As important as the lack of forethought, for Hunt, is a lack of bodies on the line. If you want to move into a fortified town, you have to have the security needed to keep the town safe. This isn’t an individual camp problem, but like the lack of tripwires and lookouts, a series-long issue. 

“The communities the main groups choose to settle in have all had issues with visibility, security, and manpower. It seems like every compound they encountered, there were never enough people to keep it safe from marauders or walkers,” Hunt says. “If you are taking over an abandoned compound, you must make sure you can secure it.”

The People Problem

Those big walled compounds, like Alexandria and Hilltop, have a lot of natural advantages, but they have one huge problem: they’re big targets. However, Canadian Prepper feels that having a big target, if properly defended, isn’t necessarily a negative in terms of a group’s survival chances. 

“You could take the Oceanside approach where you hide out in the woods, but your development is going to be arrested to a certain level. People are still going to be able to find you. A couple years into that universe, people are going to get a good nose for things. It’s not going to be a bunch of city slickers walking around. It’s going to be a bunch of seasoned survivors who are going to be able to smell out a community. You’re not going to be able to hide that.” 

Hunt adds: “You do not have a lot of choices when you are looking at the complete fall of humanity. A gated community has an advantage over the walkers and human threats. It is the more realistic and safer choice when your options are limited.” 

However, certain characters held onto their hope a little too firmly for Hunt’s taste. 

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“I would tell Hershel to not lock up the walkers in his barn! I know he did this out of a hope that a cure would be found, but in his hopefulness, he ended up endangering the whole compound and forcing everyone to leave the safety and security of the farm. We believe if they were able to stay at the farm, a lot of loss would have been avoided. It is best in an apocalyptic scenario to lay low and stay where it is safe as long as possible.”

The loss of the farm meant a lot of disadvantages for Rick and company. The group lost a secure, isolated place with arable farmland, a supply of water, fences and wires, and good concealment from those that might prey on their weakness. That loss of food production, and the food storage when the farm went up in flames, brings Hunt back to the most important resource in the post-apocalypse, food. Specifically, the lack of it. 

“One of the least realistic things was the lack of starvation mentioned throughout the show,” Hunt says. “This might be an extremely unpopular opinion, but the fact that Rick held Negan as a prisoner, instead of using him as food, is unrealistic when you are looking at a worst-case scenario. Obviously, it is unethical to starve the actors, but I feel like it was very unrealistic to not show the struggle of just feeding the characters every day and the lack of supplies they would have encountered since they had no food storage or a sustainable way to grow food for very long. Not to mention, the walkers had completely depleted the wildlife in the area, so that was another issue for our characters. Short answer: we don’t totally blame the compound of cannibals.”

The true threat to any community in this world isn’t really the walkers, but people like the cannibals of Terminus. Humankind, according to Hunt, would quickly be the most dangerous opponent for Rick and his team to square off against once they learn the ways of handling walkers. “The show did a great job of transitioning into the man versus man struggle; the show steers away from walkers being the main threat to other humans being more of a concern. This is very realistic in any apocalyptic scenario.” 

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

For Canadian Prepper, the best defense for preserving the future of humanity from lawlessness and brutality is to look backwards. “I would go for an approach which is tried and true throughout history: making a castle. All castles have lines of sight. They’re not pressed up against forests for a reason. They’re surrounded by plains so that you can see threats coming from a great distance. The threats are going to come, but at least in that position you’re going to be able to fortify and defend. You don’t want to give a threat cover, and that’s exactly what you would do if you were smack-dab in the middle of a forest. Yes, you are concealed, but at the same time, a forest fire could take out your whole community.”

However, the human threat, according to the Practical Preppers team, wouldn’t be nearly as charismatic in reality. 

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“It is easy to throw metaphorical stones at the characters from the comfort of our living room couches, but we still think this is something worth noting. We were surprised that no one had challenged characters like The Governor before he gained too much power and became extremely dangerous.” 

That shift from strongman leadership to democracy is a positive one for the survival of humanity, according to Canadian Prepper. 

“I noticed that in the earlier phases of collapse, it’s a very dictatorial society. It’s the Ricktatorship, where one guy is kind of the main leader. Like The Governor or the gangs, there was always this centralized leadership, but as time goes on, groups become more democratic, and you see that happen across various communities. Negan was kind of the last authoritarian ruler: democracy prevails, that whole liberty wins subtext. You could say there were some political undertones there, because I do think that democratic societies are more evolved.”

Hope For Tomorrow

Perhaps one of the reasons why The Governor was never challenged was because, quite frankly, he was one of the better politicians left after the fall of humanity. Like Rick at the prison, or Deanna Monroe in Alexandria, or King Ezekiel at the Kingdom, The Governor was someone people could rally around because he offered the the most important thing after the apocalypse second only to food: hope. A strong, charismatic, forceful leader is always going to be easier to follow than a government by committee, particularly when hope is in short supply. 

“The most realistic thing The Walking Dead characters did worth praising was that all the survivors mentally were able to see hope in a hopeless situation,” says Hunt. “I feel like some of us would have thrown in the towel the second the CDC blew up. It seems like throughout the show, our stronger main characters always had something to cling to. Rick still had faith in humanity, Gabriel had faith in God, and Carol had faith in Rick and Daryl.” 

Throughout The Walking Dead, the show’s survivors have continued to evolve, from a rag-tag group of argumentative people camping around a recreational vehicle to a full community with agriculture, democracy, and education. People are not only surviving in this universe, but thriving. The days of picking over the ruins of the old world for survival are over; a new world is dawning, and the hard work of the survivors has created it. 

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“The fate of the species is in your hands,” Canadian Prepper concludes. “You’re not just surviving for yourself. The human race is depending on your success.”