Author of The Blackout Book and the online course Bloom Where You’re Planted
Lots of folks in the prepper world believe there are only two options when it comes to survival: bugging out or hunkering down. In fact, there are loads of gray areas that include a combination of those strategies as well as altogether different tactics.
It’s not usually fun to be stuck in an exceptionally long car ride, but when I went to Bosnia a few years ago, I was riding in a vehicle with Toby Cowern and a whole bunch of luggage for hours. The conversation we had during that ride ended up being life-changing.
Toby said, “People think there’s only bugging in and bugging out, but there’s a third option – being nomadic.”
As a person who has always loved travel, I craved new adventures and immersion in other cultures. But before this conversation, it seemed very much at odds with my self-defined identity of being a prepper. But Toby’s comment sparked inspiration and I’ve spent the last two years wandering around the world, making location decisions based on circumstances, learning new skills and languages, and becoming more resilient and adaptable than ever before.
The nomadic lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
Normally I’d put a disclaimer like this at the end of the article but in a valiant attempt to quell the chorus of people who read 3 paragraphs then vigorously object, question my sanity, and tell me they’re never coming back to my website again, I’ll write this segment first.
Wandering around the world with a few suitcases and a couple of dogs isn’t the life for everyone. Many people don’t enjoy going to their local Walmart, much less a third world country or gallivanting through Europe. And that is absolutely fine. Just as I wouldn’t recommend homesteading and raising all your own food for everyone, neither would I recommend a nomadic lifestyle for everyone.
But just because it isn’t for you doesn’t make it inherently flawed, bad, stupid, wrong, cowardly, or any other criticism you want to throw at it. Different does not always equal bad. In fact, I think a combination of many skills and lifestyle factors can help you be more flexible and give you a lot more options, depending on the situation that comes your way.
Being a nomad, bugging out, and being a refugee are all different.
Next, let me clarify that being nomadic and bugging out aren’t the same thing as being a refugee. I often see people say in the comments that no matter what, come hell, high water, or an alien invasion, they’re hunkering down because they refuse to be refugees. These folks see bugging out as becoming a “refugee” so I’m sure the idea of being deliberately nomadic is even more undesirable when looking at it without all the details.
Leaving an unsafe location does not necessarily make you a refugee.
There are many other reasons a person might relocate for survival/preparedness purposes. If you lived in downtown Portland or Seattle, where the heated protests have been going on for months, and you had the means to relocate to a different place until things settled down (assuming they do settle down) why on earth would you stay in a place where your building could be set on fire on any given night? If your primary home was hit by a natural disaster and recovery was likely to take months, would you stay there in a place without power and running water for all that time if you could just as easily rent an apartment elsewhere? What if you were in a country that was undergoing an economic collapse? I knew someone from Athens, Greece who rented a home outside the country during the worst part of the financial crisis, when supplies were difficult to acquire.
Someone who opts to relocate when things are beginning to look sketchy usually has resources as well. That could mean a secondary location, the money to rent and travel to a home elsewhere, financial security, or a job that could easily be done remotely.
What is bugging out?
Bugging out is generally about leaving your primary location for a secondary location because your primary location is not safe. Sometimes that location might be one that you own (the infamous “bug out lodge”) or it might be a hotel, a campground, or a friend’s house outside of the danger zone. Most of the time when folks bug out, it’s with the intention of returning to their primary location when things are safe again. There are all sorts of reasons one might need to evacuate: wildfires, hurricanes, chemical spills – the list goes on and on.
Bugging out is usually a deliberate action undertaken with a plan. A well-prepared person will have a few routes planned, some supplies in their car, and a destination in mind. They’ll generally have some resources – either supplies, money, or a secondary location. If you want more detailed information about bugging out, go here.
What is being a refugee?
I know people who have been refugees. Jose has written about it here, and Selco was also a refugee from his home for a period of time during the Balkan War. It isn’t a fun life. You are often treated badly by those where you end up because their resources are stretched then and they feel like you’re there for a handout. Unwanted guests and unwilling hosts are a bad combination for all involved.
In many cases, refugees have few to no resources. Many times, refugees are those fleeing war-torn countries or people whose homes were destroyed in battles. They might leave with only the clothes on their backs. At The Museum of Genocide in Bosnia, one display that particularly caught my eye and broke my heart. A mother had been bathing her two children when they had to flee and she wrapped one in a towel and one in a table cloth. These children had nothing else to wear until other refugees – who also had very little – managed to put together clothing and shoes for them.
People who have no option but to flee may also have no destination in mind aside from “anywhere that is safer than here.”
What is nomadic preparedness?
Then there are people who are nomadic. Someone who is deliberately mobile is in a yet different situation.
There are many different ways to live a nomadic lifestyle, but the basic idea is that you don’t have one fixed primary location.
For example, lots of folks living the van life or who are full-time RV-ers are also preppers. Having all of your things in a giant rolling bug-out bag gives you many of the advantages of a primary location and bug-out location, while keeping you mobile at the same time. It means you can more easily evacuate ALL your possessions in the event your current location is starting to look sketchy.
Not only that, you’ve probably heard of “digital nomads,” a term used in the online business world for folks who have an occupation that allows them to work from any place with an internet connection and who choose to frequently relocate as a way to see the world. That’s what I do these days. I have a bit of essential gear, my clothing, and I rent furnished places for a few months at a time in different locations.
Here’s an example of how this extreme mobility can apply to the survival world. Shortly before COVID erupted, I was in Europe and had been living the digital nomad lifestyle with great enjoyment. I had to return to North America for a funeral that January and then ended up canceling my return flight and settling in the United States during the first lockdown.
As you can see, all three of these ideologies are different.
What I’ve learned
I’ve been living a fully nomadic lifestyle for the past couple of years. I was always a person who enjoyed moving and acquiring different kinds of experiences. Even before I was officially “nomadic” I lived and prepped in cities, in the suburbs, in a semi-off-grid cabin in the Algonquin Forest in Ontario, Canada, and a little homestead in the mountains of California where I raised veggies, chickens, ducks, and a couple of goats.
Once both of my daughters became independent adults, I decided to live a little differently. I sold a lot of my stuff, divvied up a lot of my preps between my girls, and rented a small storage unit for the things I didn’t want to part with. Since this time, I’ve lived in five countries and visited five more.
Not only was this a dramatic change in lifestyle, but it was also a big shift in mindset. I went from being a person with years’ worth of food and shampoo stashed away to a person living out of a couple of suitcases with a very different emergency kit. I went from confidently knowing my way around to finding myself in entirely different settings every couple of months in places where I didn’t even speak the language. I went from having friends and family within a quick drive to being on foot or learning new transportation modes while making new contacts. I went from raising my own food to navigating entirely new supply chains.
Let’s just say there was a wee bit of culture shock when I first started out. When I look back at that point, I’m reminded of how Selco talks about the importance of adapting to new rules quickly. While my “new rules” weren’t matters of life and death, they were certainly matters of convenience and comfort. And in each place I visited, these “new rules” were always different than the last place that I had been. However, after two or three new locations, I realized that I was adapting faster and figuring things out more efficiently. Here’s how I set up a few preps in a short-term location.
I have learned how to communicate with people when we have no mutually intelligible languages, and even how to have a friendly laugh with strangers via a strange mix of miming, Google Translate apps, and pointing. I can orient myself in new places very quickly. I became far more fit because most other countries don’t have the same conveniences that the United States does. (And there’s a high price you pay for those conveniences – they may very well kill you one day if you’re not careful.)
All of this exotic travel probably sounds like it costs the moon, but it really depends how you do it. If you get hotels and room service everywhere you go, of course, it’s decadently priced. But if you’re smart, it doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive. I spend far less money now than I did when I maintained a stationary home in the United States. I rent places a month to a few months at a time that are furnished and utilities inclusive and most places have an otherwise lower cost of living.
I’m so much more adaptable than I was before.
I wrote a little more about my newfound adaptability here:
When you take your 2 pieces of luggage and relocate regularly, you become good at adapting quickly. When we’re at home, it’s very easy to get set in our ways and to demand a certain level of comfort. (Who among us has “my chair”?) We get used to sleeping in the same bed with the same pillows and the same comforter, so much so that it can become difficult to sleep anywhere else. We have our favorite mug washed and ready to go for the following morning’s coffee. We have our favorite store that contains our favorite brands of our favorite products.
We become creatures of habit.
And there’s nothing wrong with that – habits can help us become better, stronger, healthier people when our habits are wise ones. But it’s also good to shake things up a little from time to time.
Every new place I went to had different stores with different food items. The local customs, restaurants, and apartments all varied. Each time, I got a little bit better at adapting faster. I can sleep anywhere. My business is such that I can work remotely in any place I have a decent wifi signal. I picked up some important phrases, like please, thank you, how much, and where’s the bathroom as soon as possible once I arrived in a new place. I learned a new currency in nearly every country I visited and wrote down the formula to quickly convert it to USD so that I could understand what I was spending. I can eat whatever gets put in front of me and enjoy nearly all of it, even when I thought I had ordered something completely different.
I quickly learned that when in another country, it’s impossible to rigidly stick to your ways and still have a good time. This helped me pare down to my most important needs – wifi, a plug adapter, a safe place to stay, a Berkey water filtration bottle, and appropriate clothing for my setting. Everything else can be acquired quickly and easily…
…Moving into someone else’s apartment is often an exercise in discomfort – after all, there’s no place like home, where everything is ideal by your standards.
Much like Goldilocks, I’ve found beds that were too hard, too soft, and just right. I’ve slept on a sofa that was more comfortable than the bed which was in the rental. I have developed the ability to get comfortable enough to sleep just about anywhere – and that’s something that could come in handy.
As well, unfamiliarity itself can be uncomfortable.
When you’re someplace totally unfamiliar, with different restaurants, stores, products, and people the last thing you feel is “comfort.” You need to put in the effort to figure everything out and you have to get a general feel for the area. Some people find this puts them constantly on edge and unable to focus. It’s good training to learn to deal with discomfort while still staying sharp.
The urban survival course I took with Selco and Toby in Croatia underlined this repeatedly – you need to learn to be uncomfortable and function anyway.(source)
I’ve become extremely adaptable and resilient over the past two years, and I’m nonplussed by things that I once would have found anywhere from mildly inconvenient to incredibly stressful. I recently mentioned something offhand to my daughter about “not having water that day” and she pointed out that I went 24 hours without running water and didn’t even find it important enough to mention in our daily chat.
Every place I’ve gone, I’ve learned something I can apply to either preparedness or frugality. I’ve picked up a little bit of Greek, some Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. Wherever I happen to land, I’m confident I can roll with it in a much wider variety of situations than before.
Pros and cons of a nomadic lifestyle in terms of preparedness
One of the biggest things I’ve learned during my nomadic years is that being prepared isn’t just about how much stuff you’ve been able to acquire. It’s about the things you learn, the ability to make personal connections, and the speed and efficiency of acquiring the things you need. But no lifestyle is “perfect” in terms of survival.
Here are some of the ways a nomadic lifestyle is beneficial to your preparedness efforts.
- You can acquire supplies quickly. Once you’ve moved around a few times you learn how to stock up fast with whatever supplies are available at your current location.
- You can go where the danger is not. As long as you go soon enough, you can relocate to a place that is less risky. Since this varies by disaster, a person who is nomadic is not tied to only a primary and secondary location. They have multiple options. I have contacts with apartments in countries around the world who I can reach out to by email or text if I need a place to land. Many of these are people from whom I’ve already rented.
- You learn to read the area faster. Going back to that discussion of “the new rules” when you are constantly relocating, you become a lot faster at reading the situation and fitting in with the local customs. This can help you learn to hide in plain sight.
- You are comfortable with discomfort. I can sleep on basically any surface, eat whatever is offered to me, and adapt to different standards of cleanliness with ease.
- If you can’t find what you need, you can create it. I can cobble together what I need in a massive variety of situations. I’ve made my own “cold medicine” with local brandy, ibuprofen, and antihistamines. I can make a reasonably effective electrolyte beverage from those little packets of salt and sugar at fast-food restaurants. I can create a water purification system out of easily located items and I can create an emergency kit just about anywhere.
- Bugging out is super-easy. If I had to bail quickly, bugging out is easier than ever before. I have my luggage, and I have a backpack. If I had an emergency in which speed was of the essence, my international emergency kit and my laptop could be grabbed in seconds and I could be out the door.
- You learn to get by with less stuff. I don’t have lots of clothing. I don’t have a wide variety of foods. I don’t have 20 different light sources from which to choose. I have one or two options for all necessities and this has helped me to greatly simplify. This article talks about my usual gear.
But it’s not all rose petals, sunshine, and exotic beaches. There are some cons as well.
- You don’t have the same tight-knit local network. I’ve lived in places in which I had a thriving personal network. I’ve written before about how it isn’t always what you know, it’s who you know. We’ve produced a webinar on the importance of community. If you are nomadic, it’s a lot harder to build this type of network and you have to be extremely valuable to fit in fast.
- You can’t build a thriving homestead. You know those folks who plan to just head off to an idyllic farm and live off the land when it hits the fan? You know how I often say that’s a horrible idea? Building a working homestead can take years of experience and hard labor. You can’t really start something like that after it all goes to heck. You need to start it while you still have a grocery store for backup when your garden gets eaten by the local wildlife and when your chickens die because you didn’t know how to keep them safe from predators. This stuff takes time.
- You can’t have years and years worth of supplies. Before I made the switch to nomadic living, I had years’ worth of supplies in every possible category put back. I can’t really drag around a whole one-year supply of food with me now, nor can I have large investment supplies like generators and the like.
- You may be limited with defense options. If you’re considering going outside the United States, it’s very likely you will not be able to walk around with a gun stuffed into your jeans. For some folks this is absolutely a no-go – they are not willing to adapt to the use of different defense items within the bounds of local laws, which change by location.
- You may not be comfortable. I mentioned this as a pro but it is also a con. For some folks, comfort and familiarity are a must. They can’t relax without it. They would be miserable constantly changing settings. It’s a very personal choice.
There are, of course, more pros and cons, but these are a few to consider.
It might be a viable third option for you, too.
The thing I want to express in this post is that the more options you have with regard to preparedness, the better off you’ll be. Depending on your financial situation, you may be able to have all three routes easily available to you. You might have a primary location that is also a homestead, a secondary location that is more remote, and the ability to simply pick up and go where the danger is not. That’s the best of all worlds.
If you’re not in that tax bracket and your income allows, you might find that living nomadically is a potential option for you, too. It allows you lots of freedom, adventure, and you’ll learn new things every place you go. I do still consider myself a prepper, just one with a smaller stockpile and who is constantly ready to roll.
A lot of folks outside our world think that being a prepper means that you’re tied to your bunker and that you are all but cutting yourself off from society. But those of us who think more flexibly know that it doesn’t have to be like that.
Is this something you think might be realistic for you? Do you have any questions for me? I’m happy to answer them in the comments.