As a genre, steampunk is growing in complexity as rapidly as it grows in popularity. There's actually already sub-sub-genres in play. Generally, though, all of steampunk can be divided up into three categories.
The first category is what I'm going to call the "retro futurism" category. Yeah, I know that the term quite aptly describes most of steampunk, but that's exactly why I'm using it. The retro futurist steampunk is all about alternate history and development of complex mechanisms with steam power. Basically, it presents the question of "What if steam had become our primary source of power instead of gas/diesel?"
The second category I'll call "Other". This is where I'm going to lump all of the steampunk that exists in entire alternate realities, worlds, ect. It's the blend of steampunk and fantasy, where mechanical contraptions go on adventures with mages and conjurers. A perfect example of this is the Jackelian Series by Stephen Hunt.
The last category is the "Post Apocalyptic" steampunk. This variant features some sort of apocalypse that knocks society back to the steam age, or darn near it. There will be many elements of current society, but also elements of both future societies and past societies. A perfect example here is Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.
Personally, I find this last category kind of perplexing. Steampunk is generally described as retro futurism, but the post apocalyptic model is much more future retroism. It is really kind of like you took steampunk and cross bred it back with sci-fi. But it's not so much the origins of this sub-genre that I want to talk about, it's the apocalypse. Apocalypses (apocalypi?) have been getting a lot of press recently. Between this sub-genre, the zombie apocalypse, and TV shows like The Colony, everybody seems to be putting a lot of emphasis on surviving the fall of society. I'm quite ok with this, but I think they're missing something important.
As a Yooper, when shit ultimately hits the fan, my instinct is to get the hell out of the city. Getting out of populated areas as quickly as possible is the safest thing to do. After all, the U.S. is 82% urban, and the top 10 most populous areas alone account for over 70 million people. There are over 100 cities in the U.S. with population densities of greater than 10k per square mile. When the apocalypse comes, those are the last places that you want to be. Violence will be rampant. Martial law will be commonplace. People will not coordinate and form micro-communities, they will kill each other for survival supplies. The safest way to survive is to GTFO.
This brings me to the main point of this post. Real world survival skills are under taught and under valued. With our highly technological and highly urban society, few people can actually survive outside the comfort of public transportation and Chinese takeout. Since I was a kid, I've been taught (and taught myself) a great deal of real world survival skills. I think it's because I'm a Yooper and since we're already in BFE, it only makes sense for me to make sure I can survive if I get lost in the woods. So, I'm going to present a list of some skills that I've picked up over the years that will actually help you to survive in the event of an apocalypse, assuming you're smart enough to get the hell away from a city. The interesting thing is how parts of this list are typically "manly" skills, and others are "woman" skills. What it tells us is that, just like everything else in life, balance is key. It also tells us that you should surround yourself with Eagle Scouts as well as whatever the Girl Scouts equivalent is.
How to Fell a Tree
In a world after an apocalypse, three things are key to survival: food, water, and shelter. You should be trying to find these things as fast as possible. Felling a tree helps with two of them. Branches of trees can be used as clubs as well as as the shafts of spears. Branches lashed together and covered in foliage can make a primitive lean-to.
Felling a tree is actually pretty simple. Here's the trick. On one side of the tree, cut a deep V into the trunk, with the opening pointing in the direction you want the tree to fall. Make sure that the point of the V is well over halfway through the trunk. Move around to the back side of the tree. Now start cutting from the back side towards the point of the V. Soon, you'll hear some cracking. This is your signal to yell timber and back away. They tree will fall in the direction of the opening of the V.
The best way to fell a tree is with an axe. However, since axes are generally pretty big and heavy, a full size axe isn't necessarily the best idea. Instead, I recommend having a hand axe. My favorite comes from a company from my hometown called Marble Arms. Their belt axe is the perfect size to carry on your belt in a holster, but can also fell a sizable tree.
The bad news is that Marble Arms went out of business in the past few years, after over 100 years of making great outdoors tools. The good news is that, though they're becoming harder to find, you can still pick up their stuff for a decent price on eBay.
This is the first of the items on my list that fall into that "woman" skills category. I've learned to spin within the past few months, and it's a great skill to have. Not only is it very relaxing and very reasonably priced to get into (as long as you don't get a spinning wheel), but it's very very practical. Part of long term wilderness survival will be the ability to make your own clothes. To this end, most furs from animals with a soft undercoat can be spun into yarn. The obvious ones are sheep, goat, and rabbit fur. However, you can also spin the fur of dogs, cats, bison, yak, musk ox, ect. The fur of a musk ox is highly prized to spin and is one of the few fibers that you can actually reduce the price of by adding silk.
Being able to spin yarn only really gets you about halfway there, though. Once you can spin, you need to turn this new yarn into a wearable garment. The best way to do this is by knitting, which is yet another skill that is fairly quick to learn, but very difficult to master.
How to Purify Water
The most critical thing to have in a wilderness survival situation is a clean source of drinking water. Being a Yooper, I'm spoiled in this regard. When you're surrounded by the Great Lakes as well as inland lakes, rivers, and streams, a fresh source of water isn't too tough to find.
Once you secure a water source, it must be purified, even if it's fresh water. Let the water sit in a container for a while to allow sediment to settle to the bottom. Then pour the water through a clean cloth to remove more sediment and start the purification process. Next, you have to introduce some heat. The easiest way to do this is to boil the hell out of it. This will kill off most harmful germs and viruses. Another good way to do this is to pour the water into a PET bottle and allow the bottle to sit in direct sunlight for at least 6 hours. This will help to kill off bacteria, germs, and all of the other bad stuff, but isn't as effective as boiling.
When surviving in the wilderness for extended periods of time, you will get hurt. This is inevitable. However, treating yourself is the difference between life and death. Clean wounds thoroughly with clean water. Keep pressure on cuts and gashes with a clean cloth. Remember that tree branches can be used to create splints. I highly suggest taking an Outdoor Emergency Care course, and if you're in the UP, also take Winter Emergency Care. To find out where to take the courses, talk to somebody on the National Ski Patrol. My parents have been in the NSP for as long as I can remember. The skills they've learned over the years have helped out in countless situations, both on and off the ski hill.
Obviously, this list is minimal at best. I can go on for quite a while listing skills that are necessary for post apocalyptic survival that I know. Just to name a few more, you should know how to make a fire, navigate, mark your trail, hunt, clean your kill, tie a variety of knots, barter, ect. In the event of an apocalypse, the person with the most survival skills will be the most useful, as a result, they will have the most power. I cannot, however, stress how important it is to get the hell out of the city. Let those who are less skilled and intelligent kill each other off. After they've done so, you can go back into the city to get more supplies.
No matter what type of apocalypse you're surviving, there is one thing that you must, must, must have. It's important enough that it gets its own rule from Gibbs on NCIS. Never leave the office without a knife. I'll even expand on that. Never leave the office without a fixed blade knife with a comfortable handle and blade length of about 3"-5". This is the most useful tool that you can possibly have. While you're at it, make sure you have a few hundred feet of paratrooper cord, and Swedish fire steel, a Leatherman or other multitool, and a mirror. Don't forget to pack light. You'll need to move from place to place for the first few days until you find a good location to make base camp. You'll need to be able to pick up and move quickly in the event of animal attack, or if the zombies find you.
On second thought, you already are too far behind in the survival skills. If the zombies come, you're screwed. Just do me a favor and don't be upset when I don't stop and help if you've been bitten and I'm on my way to the nearest dense forest.