(EDITED TO ADD: In the light of comments to this post, and a few e-mails from readers, I've written a follow-up article to this one containing more information.)
A number of so-called 'survivalists' brag about their 'bug-out' locations - essentially a second home, stocked and equipped to permit them and their selected relatives, friends and companions to survive anything from a severe weather event to the end of the world as we know it. For most of us, this is nothing but a pipe-dream - completely unrealistic. If you're one of the very few people with sufficient financial reserves to afford such a retreat, plus the health, strength and mindset to make the most of it, and the human and other resources necessary to make it work for a year or more, good luck to you . . . but only a tiny minority of the population (certainly less than 5%, probably less than 3%) has all those resources.
Here are just some of the reasons why a 'bug out' location is unlikely to be viable for most of us.
1. You have to be in a position to drop everything and go when the time comes. For most of us, this isn't a realistic possibility. For example, if you have a job, your employer is likely to take a very dim view of your calling in one morning and telling him "Society's about to collapse, and I'm heading for my bunker. Have a nice day!" If society does, indeed, collapse, I suppose you won't have to worry about his reaction . . . but if society doesn't collapse (at least, not immediately), your chances of getting your job back are, shall we say, less than optimal. That goes double for getting another job in the present economic climate, particularly given the reference your former place of work will provide to other prospective employers! Apart from your job, there are your kids and their schooling; your present home and its rent or mortgage payments; your commitments to other family members and friends; and so on. Just think of all that's involved in cutting these ties at a moment's notice and disappearing in the direction of your secret hide-out. Think it'll be easy? Yeah. Right.
2. You have to be able to get to your bug-out location in safety. This is a whole lot more complicated than it looks at first sight. Consider these points:
- If there's any sort of warning of impending doom, a lot of people besides yourself will also be trying to 'get out of Dodge'. That means clogged, jammed roads, incredibly slow movement (perhaps measured in yards per hour, rather than miles), a much higher fuel consumption than your vehicle(s) normally achieve, and gas stations running dry under the unprecedented demand. Do you have enough fuel already stored (and stored safely) at home to fill your tank(s), and take enough reserves with you to ensure you can get to your destination, assuming at least double (if not three to four times) normal fuel consumption? If you don't, you're likely to be S.O.L. when the proverbial brown substance hits the rotary air impeller.
- Officialdom might seek to control or limit movement in a crisis situation. That major highway you planned to take to your hideout? It might be designated as a mass evacuation route, including contraflow lane reversal to allow for greater traffic flow in the 'approved' direction (which may be the opposite direction to what you need). It might be overrun with traffic diverted from other, now-closed routes. For that matter, if it runs through an urban area, rioting mobs might shut it down even more effectively than official action. I'd hate to have to take I-90 through downtown Chicago, or the maze of Interstate highways through and around New York City or Atlanta or Los Angeles, during a major social disturbance or unrest. Talk about an urban free-fire zone!
- Your travel may be a lot less safe than usual. Read my article about 'Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005'. A lot of people found themselves approached (sometimes very aggressively) by others during evacuation, asking for - even demanding - fuel, food, money or other assistance. There were attempts at theft, assault, etc. In a widespread emergency, it's very likely you'll encounter something similar. You'll need to provide security for your party while traveling, and have someone to keep watch while others are sleeping in a rest area or while your car's parked at a truck stop. If you're on your own, or in a very small party, this will be difficult - perhaps impossible.
- You may find your journey interrupted by local officials. In an extended emergency, it won't surprise me to see towns trying to save themselves from being overrun by refugees, on the (very reasonable) grounds that they have little enough in the way of resources for their own residents. Edicts from federal or state government agencies may not cut much ice with local officials who know they'll be the ones actually confronting the problem. They might just raise a sardonic finger to those official edicts, and divert traffic away from their towns. If you happen to need to go through their town to join another road, or get to your destination, or even just to use a bathroom . . . T.S.
- Local communities may decide to commandeer any and all supplies they may need to survive the emergency. This will likely be from local stores, gas stations, etc. where you might have intended to resupply yourself; and historically, it's sometimes included confiscation from travelers of fuel, food, firearms and ammunition, etc. (Transients don't vote in local elections, so their needs are less important, in local officials' eyes, than those of their constituents.) If officials don't do that, local residents may decide to do so on their own initiative. That's illegal and/or unconstitutional, you say? You're right, of course . . . but in an emergency, few in authority are likely to care about that. They'll be too busy coping with everything else that's going on. If you try to insist on your 'rights', you may end up getting arrested (or worse) for your trouble. 'Might makes right', as the old saying goes; or, to put it another way, you'll be 'farting against thunder'. Look at what New Orleans did to firearm owners during Hurricane Katrina. Think something similar won't happen again, in other places, despite laws to the contrary? I guarantee you, it will.
3. If your bug-out location isn't sufficiently remote, it can be reached by others besides yourself. Think about it. If you can drive 400 miles to reach your 'safe haven', your neighbors can do the same - as well as other, less desirable travel companions. You can bet that a whole lot of unprepared people will be heading for safety. They'll expect FEMA or other government agencies to help them when they get there. If that help isn't forthcoming (and perhaps even if it is), they'll have no scruples about taking whatever they need (or want) from others. Again, read my article about 'Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005'. It happened then. It can happen to you, too.
You may assume that you can defend your bug-out location against thieves and marauding looters. Have you had any military training in such things? If so, you'll be aware of the importance of having a 'fire team' (or multiple fire teams) sufficient to cover all access routes, reinforce each other as and when necessary, and have a sufficiently large reserve of personnel to rotate guard duty among them. I figure that the average house, needing to have its perimeter guarded against intruders and a sufficiently well-armed and -trained force available to drive them off if necessary, will need at least ten to twelve people to adequately protect it. Depending on terrain and environment, your home might need twice as many people to guard it. Do you have that many trained people available (trained not just to do the job, but to work together as a team in doing so)? Are they sufficiently well armed and equipped? Do they have enough ammunition? Not many of us can answer "Yes" to all those questions. We can work together with our neighbors at home to make up for individual deficiencies; but on the road or in a bug-out location, we may not have such neighbors available.
Quite apart from robbery attempts during or after an emergency, what about securing your supplies before an emergency? It's unlikely you'll have someone living 24/7/365 at your bug-out location (if you do, that's great, but it's also unusual). Locals are likely to be aware that you're keeping a lot of supplies there - it's amazing how much small-town and rural people know about the doings of their neighbors. In an emergency, you might arrive safely, only to find that all the supplies you'd so carefully laid in have been appropriated by 'borrowing neighbors' who got there before you did. This has been a frequent occurrence in other parts of the world, one I've encountered personally on more than one occasion. It can lead to conflict between the aggrieved owner(s) of the goods and the locals who've taken them - after all, in a survival situation, no-one's going to be willing to give up essential supplies. Since the locals are likely to band together for mutual support, you, the outsider, might find yourself holding the short end of the stick.
This may even extend to the outright 'annexation' of your bug-out location. What are you going to do if you arrive there, only to find another family or families already in residence, and refusing to move out? What if they're more numerous and/or better armed than you are? What if local law enforcement refuses to take action, referring you instead to the civil courts to obtain an injunction against the trespassers? Even assuming the courts are still functioning, such an injunction can take weeks or months to obtain, let alone enforce - and meanwhile you'll be S.O.L. (For that matter, local law enforcement may commandeer your buildings and supplies 'for the duration of the emergency'. It happened after Katrina. You probably don't live in your bug-out location year-round, so you're lower on their priority list than their families, friends and neighbors. You don't like that? T.S.) In an emergency, few people care about property rights and the niceties of civilized existence. It's all about survival - and in that sort of a mess, the strongest survive. The weakest go to the wall.
4. If your bug-out location is sufficiently remote to be secure against such risks, and you've managed to reach it safely, your short-term survival may be reasonably secure. However, in the medium to long term, things are a lot more shaky. If the societal and technological infrastructure we take for granted are removed, you'll have to revert to a 19th-century mode of existence, involving hard physical labor, no electricity, no modern medical or dental care, much less sanitary living conditions, etc. Under such circumstances, the chances of disease or serious injury are greatly increased, because many occupations use tools that pose risks (e.g. cutting firewood involves axes and saws; digging holes involves picks and spades; etc.). You'll need to grow your own food, barter for essential supplies, load your own ammunition (unless you've got a regular arsenal stored somewhere), figure out how to obtain, train and care for animals and animal-drawn vehicles for transport, get hold of good-quality leather and make it into saddles and harness, and so on. Most of us are unable to even imagine such a lifestyle. We certainly don't possess all the skills needed to successfully make the transition to it. (To understand it better, see the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. They're a vivid portrayal of such a lifestyle.)
Furthermore, most of us haven't accumulated anything like all the supplies we'll need to cope on our own for extended periods. You may have enough food for a year or more, but what about clothing? Footwear? Essential medications? (Many of us, including myself, face serious illness or death unless we take prescription medications regularly.) Educational and reading material? Fuel for heating and cooking? What happens after you've cut down and burned all the local trees - do you have the ability and the means to get more firewood or other fuel from further away? (For that matter, cooking over an open fire is extremely limiting in the longer term, and a decent-quality wood-burning kitchen stove costs thousands! Do you have one? Have you learned how to cook with it? It's a lot more complicated than it looks.) Those are just a few of many points to ponder.
On the whole, I think the idea of a special bug-out location is greatly overrated. I think the best option for most of us will be to shelter in our homes until conditions improve, subject to the understanding that our living conditions may make this impractical. Let's look at a few scenarios.
- If you live in an apartment block, you won't have room to store many emergency supplies, and you'll be at the mercy of every idiot in the building who decides to light a fire for warmth or cooking. Can you say 'high-rise fire'? I thought you could. Even in a not-so-high-rise building, flames can spread very rapidly, and evacuation routes can become impassable. In a widespread major emergency, the fire department probably won't be able to reach you in time to rescue everyone trapped in the building. If you live under those conditions, you'll be far better off if you've made arrangements to stay with friends in a safer location.
- An urban megalopolis such as the cities and surrounding communities of Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, etc. is a terrible place to be in an extended emergency. Such urban sprawls contain hordes of people, all of whom are going to descend like vultures on any and all available supplies. Your chances of getting your share are slim to none until such time as order is restored - and that may be too late if you don't have adequate reserve stocks of your own. You'll also have a hell of a time getting out of town, having to extricate yourself from among millions and millions of desperate people. All roads may be blocked for days, perhaps weeks, even possibly months. If I lived in such a megalopolis, I'd do everything in my power to move somewhere else as quickly as possible. Even the thought of being trapped among so huge a mass of humanity gives me the shivers! If you have no choice but to live in such a place, build up as much as you can in the way of emergency supplies. In an emergency, hunker down for the duration. It's effectively your only option. Make sure you're prepared and equipped to defend your family and home against the inevitable attempts at looting.
- If you're in a suburban home, you've got room to store one to three months' emergency supplies, and most of what you need to be moderately comfortable is already at your fingertips. You'll lose access to almost all of it if you evacuate, and it'll become fodder for looters. Sanitation may be a longer-term problem, as will any urban unrest that spills over into your area. If an emergency goes into its second or third week, evacuation may become a more attractive option, if the roads are still open - if they're not, you and everyone else will just have to work through it together - but realistically, most emergencies don't last that long.
- If you're in a smaller town, this may be the best possible survival situation. Locals will know each other; you're likely to have a fairly extensive skill set available from people who work with their hands (mechanics, carpenters, farmers, hunters, etc.); and given the more friendly, less impersonal nature of most small towns, you'll have a community that's naturally cohesive. For medium to long-term survival and security, it doesn't get much better than this.
- An isolated family on a farm or in a bug-out retreat somewhere is vulnerable to more numerous intruders, and to accident or injury that strands them far from medical help. On the other hand, if they have sufficient skills, equipment and supplies to sustain an independent existence, they should be OK until one or more of those commodities runs out.
Despite all the negative factors I've identified above, the time may come when we have no choice but to evacuate our homes and 'bug out' to a safer, more distant location (even if that's only a nearby parking lot or open space, so as to escape a fire moving through an urban area). In that event, rather than invest in a very expensive fixed bug-out location, I strongly recommend a different solution. Buy a travel trailer large enough to accommodate your family (perhaps adding a large tent that you can pitch next to the trailer to provide extended accommodation). Make sure it's well equipped for an extended stay. Buy a pickup or heavy-duty van to tow your trailer, and load the towing vehicle with any and all supplies that can't fit into the travel trailer. The combined storage space will probably be sufficient for at least two weeks' essential supplies, if not a month or more. If a second vehicle accompanies the towing vehicle to carry additional family members, even more supplies can be carried. (Make sure you safely store enough fuel at home to top up the tanks of all the vehicles you'll be taking along, plus at least one tankful apiece to take with you, to fill up on the road.)
This solution offers several advantages.
- The trailer can be used for holidays, giving you experience in how to use it, and providing low-cost accommodation for your family.
- It can serve as an extra bedroom, or office, or store-room, while parked at your home.
- If you live in earthquake country, a tremor may render your home uninhabitable, but it's unlikely to cause much damage to a trailer riding on its own suspension. You'll be able to 'evacuate' to your own back yard and live in the trailer while recovering what belongings you can, and waiting for better accommodation to become available.
- The towing vehicle can be used as a second family vehicle during normal times, yet be available for an emergency when needed.
- You can go anywhere in an emergency - you're not restricted to heading for the place where all your supplies are kept, because you've got them with you.
- The trailer can be parked in the driveway or on the lawn of friends' homes, giving you a temporary place to stay. If you 'wear out your welcome', you can move to another location with minimum fuss and bother. There are many RV parks out there, or you can park at truck stops, in supermarket parking lots, or anywhere else that's available.
- Security is much less of a problem with a travel trailer. If you don't like the look of an area, drive on until you reach somewhere safer! If necessary, drive a few miles out of town, take a farm road off the main highway, and park out of sight of other traffic. This drastically cuts down on the number of people needed to provide adequate security while the rest of the family sleeps. You might even be able to park outside a police station or military base, if permission can be obtained from those in authority. This can become a very important consideration in an extended emergency.
- If your home town or city becomes uninhabitable for some reason (as New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005), you have basic accommodation, clothing and supplies already with you to make a fresh start somewhere else. You won't have to compete with everybody else for FEMA trailers or hotel accommodation.
- The cost of a decent used large travel trailer, and a medium-duty pickup or van to tow it (also used), will total anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000, depending on how big and/or luxurious your needs are. That's probably a whole lot less than the cost of a dedicated bug-out retreat! You'll also get some immediate and ongoing benefit out of that expenditure, in that the trailer and its towing vehicle will be available to you year-round.
- If you own a bug-out property, you can use the travel trailer as housing on it rather than build and/or maintain a seldom-used home there. You can dig a cellar or erect a (relatively cheap) storage building to cache some emergency supplies there, or rent a truck and ferry your supplies to the property along with your travel trailer and family when an emergency arises. (Since returning the truck is likely to be problematic in a full-blown emergency, it might end up staying on your property as a mobile storage unit!)
This solution can work even for single people or small families, or those on a tight budget. They can buy a small, relatively low-cost pop-up camper or compact travel trailer. (From personal experience, I particularly like the small trailers made by Scamp and Casita, although I regard them as very over-priced when new.) Many such vehicles don't need trucks to tow them - even a compact car can manage the smaller ones, provided it can be fitted with a suitable towing hitch. They can't carry as much in the way of supplies, of course, but one or two people don't need as much as a large family or group. If a small trailer's not large enough for your whole family, carry a tent inside and erect it next to the trailer at your camp site.
If your budget is really tight (as mine is), an even lower-cost solution is to buy a small cargo trailer. A 5'x8' or 6'x10' single-axle enclosed trailer with a one-ton freight capacity can be purchased new for under $2,000 from some manufacturers and dealers (use the Internet to shop around); used trailers can be cheaper still. You can tow such a trailer with a medium-sized car, a minivan or a light truck. It can carry up to a couple of months' supplies, plus a tent, inflatable mattresses and sleeping-bags. With it, you're almost as independent as with a travel trailer, provided that the weather isn't too bad and that you can put up and take down a tent as required. (You could even put a mattress on top of your supplies in a larger cargo trailer, and sleep in it.) I suggest it's worth paying a bit more for a quality unit - there are some very poorly-made cheap cargo trailers out there. An added advantage of this solution is that when the trailer's not in use, it provides useful additional storage at your home. For example, I store my reserve gasoline supplies in my locked trailer and park it away from the house, which minimizes the fire danger to my home.
If even a small cargo trailer is too costly for your budget, buy a utility trailer. They're offered by outlets such as Wal-Mart, Lowes or Home Depot for a few hundred dollars. If you want to save even more money, buy a used one, or a low-cost kit to build your own. As an example, this kit from Harbor Freight costs only $220 at the time of writing, although for that price the quality won't be outstanding. This larger kit isn't much more expensive, offers twice as much surface area, and folds for ease of storage when not in use - you can stand it against the wall of a carport or garage. (Note the user reviews about assembly and operation.) Add a plywood deck with some tie-down points, a few tie-down straps and bungee cords, and some weatherproof containers [such as, for example, these Rubbermaid units] - or alternatively, build a do-it-yourself cargo box out of 2x4's and plywood. (Remember to paint or seal the plywood on all sides, including the screws, otherwise rain, dust and dirt will soon weaken it. Paint-on truck bed liner [I've had good results with Herculiner] is a good choice for this application - in fact, I'd paint the frame with it as well.) With a tarpaulin to cover your load and protect it from dust and dirt, weather, prying eyes, etc., such a setup will allow you to tow up to half a ton of fuel, food, water and supplies, which is a whole lot better than nothing!
If you already have and use a powered recreational vehicle, it makes a perfectly usable bug-out 'home away from home'. However, if you don't already own one, I don't recommend buying one for that purpose. There are several reasons.
- Such RV's are typically very fuel-thirsty. In a situation where fuel supplies may be disrupted, this is not a good thing.
- They're less flexible than a travel trailer, in that you can't leave the trailer (and family members) in a safe place while you take the towing vehicle to look for supplies or fill up with gas.
- Maintenance can be a problem, as many larger RV's require specialized spare parts that only an RV dealer will have. If there's no such dealer in the area where you find yourself, you may have problems keeping your RV mobile.
- An accident or breakdown in an RV will disable both your transport and your accommodation, whereas if a towed trailer is involved in an accident, either the trailer or its towing vehicle may survive in usable condition, even if the other vehicle is severely damaged or destroyed. You can use the surviving vehicle while trying to repair or replace the other.
Finally, if you're bugging out in the direction of friends, make sure they're willing to accommodate you! See my 'lessons learned' post for my experiences in that regard. You may be rather less welcome than you expect if you haven't made prior arrangements.
Those are just a few thoughts on the subject. Your mileage may vary. If you have interesting and useful ideas of your own, please share them with us in Comments.
(Final disclaimer: I've not been paid to sponsor, advertise or promote any product mentioned here. I don't do that. If I mention a brand name, it's because I've used it and like it, and therefore recommend it from personal experience.)
(EDITED TO ADD: In the light of comments to this post, and a few e-mails from readers, I've written a follow-up article to this one containing more information.)