Should I Stay or Should I Go? How to Decide Whether to Bug Out or Bug In During an Emergency
By Daisy Luther
When disaster seems imminent, there’s one vital decision that preppers have to make: grab your bag and bug out or hunker down and bug in? The lyrics from the chorus of a song by The Clash sums it up – you’ve got trouble either way, but one way will be worse than the other.
Because this song is now stuck in my head, I thought it should be stuck in your head, too.
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
~ The Clash
If you are looking for far more detail on bugging out, check out The Bug Out Book, available instantly in PDF format.
Bug in or bug out?
First, some definitions:
Bugging In: This is when you shut the gate, lock the doors, and hunker down to weather the disaster at home with your supplies.
Bugging Out: This is when you grab your bug-out bag and you hit the road to go somewhere else because your home is not safe.
In all but the most desperate circumstances, my personal plan is bugging in. Being out on the road in the midst of a disaster means you’re a refugee. It means your supplies are minimal and that the things you’ve carefully stored over the years are very possibly going to be lost to you. The personal sustainability you’ve been cultivating at your home is also lost, including your garden, your livestock, and your water plan.
That being said, after the past few years we’ve seen in the United States, it seems to me that the possibility of having to evacuate has become more and more likely. What with the wildfires (and not just in California – we’ve seen them in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Carolina to name a few), the industrial accidents, the hurricanes, the floods, and even volcanos, it seems that disaster can strike anywhere. And it can strike in a way that makes it impossible for you to hunker down safely at home.
This is not a decision that’s engraved in stone. A while back, I wrote about the 3 steps to surviving any crisis:
If you are completely married to one, and only one, course of action, it limits your ability to perform the first step: accepting that whatever horrible event is out there, has actually occurred. You have to be adaptable if you want to be able to survive extraordinary circumstances. Disasters rarely go by a script, and your plan can’t either.
The variables to consider
The answer to this question is hard to come by. There are so many different variables, there can never be a one-size-fits-all response. Here are the major factors you have to look at.
Will you be safe if you remain at home? Bugging in is my first choice, but there are some situations in which evacuation is a necessity. Last year, during the King Fire, we were only a few miles from the evacuation line. Had the fire leaped that line, it would have been suicidal to stay home. If you live near an erupting volcano, same thing. Storms like Hurricane Katrina also indicate that evacuation is a wiser course of action. Chemical spills, fires, biological contaminants, and extreme civil unrest can all be good cause to get-the-heck-out. You have to be willing to accept that no matter how fantastic your survival set-up is at your home, there are some circumstances beyond your control that would absolutely require a bug out.
Do you have a place to go? Bugging out to the woods to live off the land is not a good idea for most people. While there are some folks that would be just fine, most of us would not. Are you going to go live in the woods with your children, your elderly mother-in-law, and your diabetic spouse? Even though it’s a stretch, it might work briefly in good weather. But what about when the snow flies? What about when your food runs out? What about the fact that every third prepper has the same idea and will be out there shooting at deer, thus rendering your ability to bag one nearly impossible? If you do get one, do you know how to preserve it with only what you carried out to the woods on your back? That list could go on and on. The point is, do you have a reliable retreat that is stocked with supplies? Do you have a friend in the boondocks to whom you can go? Is that friend actually expecting you, and have you ponied up with some supplies before the event to ensure that you are welcome? If you have your own retreat set up somewhere, what will you do if someone hostile got there first? If it has really, truly hit the fan, your best bet for bugging out is a well-stocked retreat location where someone in your group resides full time.
Do you have a way to get there? So, you have a retreat, an awesome little compound that is up the mountain, over the stream, and around the bend. That is a wonderful thing to have. But in a worst-case scenario, how will you get to it? How long would it take you to hike there, should the roads be clogged by fellow evacuees, or in the event of an EMP event that takes out the power, including that of most vehicles? Is it possible to get there on foot with the family members who will be accompanying you? How far away is your secondary location? If it is going to take you more than a week to get there on foot, your chances of making it to your destination with a family in tow are pretty slim. Your secondary location should be less than 100 miles from your primary location if you expect to get there in a crisis. A 25-mile range is optimal because it’s far enough not to be affected by localized disasters, but not so far you couldn’t make it on foot in a couple of strenuous days.
Can all of your family members make the trip? It’s important to have a plan, a backup plan, and a backup to your backup. Often, in a bug-out scenario, that plan includes a difficult hike over rough terrain. Have you thought about who you’ll be taking with you? If there are children, are they old enough to walk on their own for long distances or will you be carrying them? A 25-pound child piggy-backing on you will drain your energy very quickly, especially if you are going up and down steep trails. What about elderly family members? If you have a parent who is frail, has a heart condition, or has age-related dementia, bugging out on foot is simply not an option for you unless you can rig up a sturdy cart with knobby, off-road tires, and pull it. If you have family members that can’t make it under their own steam, you must plan for your on-foot-bug-out to take far longer than it would normally. That doesn’t make it impossible – it just means that you MUST take these things into consideration, in advance, and make modifications to your travel arrangements.
When to go
When to go is every bit as important as whether to go.
If you live in the heart of the city, civil unrest is going down, and the homes around you are getting burned to the ground by rioters, you may have missed your window of opportunity for easy evacuation.
If there are only two roads out and everyone else has decided it’s time to go, you may be too late to get out quickly. For example, places like New York City and San Francisco are accessible by only a couple of bridges. With the huge populations there, getting out of those cities would be nearly impossible if you wait too long to leave.
This all goes back to the three steps to survival: Accept, Plan, Act. If the situation has shown signs of going south in a hurry, you need to get a move on. If you are going to go, go early. You don’t want to be stuck in traffic, sitting in your car, when the hurricane hits. If the local government gives an evacuation order, that means that everyone else in your area is getting that order at the same time. The roads will quickly become impassable, as traffic becomes gridlocked and unprepared people run out of fuel.
Learn why you might need to evacuate, decide what to bring with you, figure out where you’ll go, and make a plan for every member of your family. The Bug Out Book will help you create an evacuation plan for any disaster. Grab yours here: The Bug Out Book
If you decide to stay…
If you decide that staying home and hunkering down is the best decision, then it’s time to commit to that decision.
You should be set up with the following (at the minimum – hopefully, you have these supplies and more):
- Necessary prescription medications
- A well stocked pantry – you need at least a one-month supply of food for the entire family, including pets
- An off grid cooking method like an outdoor burner, a barbecue, a fire pit, or a woodstove)
- Or food that requires no cooking
- A tactical quality first aid kit
- Lighting in the event of a power outage
- Sanitation supplies (in the event that the municipal water system is unusable, this would include cleaning supplies and toilet supplies)
- A way to stay warm in harsh winter weather
- Over-the-counter medications and/or herbal remedies to treat illnesses at home
- A diverse survival guide, a very thorough preparedness book, and a first aid manual (hard copies in case the internet and power grid are down)
- Alternative communications devices (such as a hand-crank radio) so that you can get updates about the outside world
- Off-grid entertainment: arts and craft supplies, puzzles, games, books, crossword or word search puzzles, needlework, journals (here are some more ideas to keep the kids entertained.)
Be prepared to defend your home.
Regardless of the reason you’ve hunkered down, when disaster strikes, vandals, looters, and thugs come out to play.
Defense is two-fold. You want to stay under the radar and not draw attention to yourself. Some of the following recommendations are not necessary during an ordinary grid-down scenario but could save your life in a more extreme civil unrest scenario or a situation that has gone long-term. It’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. The best way to win a fight is to avoid getting into that fight in the first place. Secure your home and lay low, but be prepared if trouble comes to visit.
Here are some tips to make your home less of a target:
- Keep all the doors and windows locked. Secure sliding doors with a metal bar. Consider installing decorative grid-work over a door with a large window so that it becomes difficult for someone to smash the glass and reach in to unlock the door. Install a door bar on your front and back doors.
- Keep the curtains closed. There’s no need for people walking past to be able to see what you have or to do reconnaissance on how many people are present. If the power is out, put dark plastic over the windows. (Heavy duty garbage bags work well.) If it’s safe to do so, go outside and check to see if any light escapes from the windows. If your home is the only one on the block that is well-lit, it is a beacon to others.
- Keep cooking smells to a minimum, especially if there is a food shortage. If everyone else in the neighborhood is hungry, the meat on your grill will draw people like moths to a flame.
- Don’t answer the door. Many home invasions start with an innocent-seeming knock at the door to gain access to your house.
- Keep pets indoors. Sometimes criminals use an animal in distress to get a homeowner to open the door for them. Sometimes people are just mean and hurt animals for “fun”. Either way, it’s safer for your furry friends to be inside with you.
- Be ready for the potential of fire. Have fire extinguishers mounted throughout your home. You can buy them in 6 packs from Amazon Be sure to test them frequently and maintain them properly. (Allstate has a page about fire extinguisher maintenance.) Have fire escape ladders that can be attached to a windowsill in all upper story rooms. Drill with them so that your kids know how to use them if necessary.
If despite your best efforts, your property draws the attention of people with ill intent, you must be ready to defend your family and your home Firearms are an equalizer. A small woman can defend herself from multiple large intruders with a firearm, if she’s had some training and knows how to use it properly. But put a kitchen knife in her hand against those same intruders, and her odds decrease exponentially.
- Don’t rely on 911. If the disorder is widespread, don’t depend on a call to 911 to save you – you must be prepared to save yourself. First responders may be tied up, and in some cases, the cops are not always your friends. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some officers joined in the crime sprees, and others stomped all over the 2nd Amendment and confiscated people’s legal firearms at a time when they needed them the most.
- Be armed and keep your firearm on your person. When the door of your home is breached, you can be pretty sure the people coming in are not there to make friendly conversation over a nice cup of tea. Make a plan to greet them with a deterring amount of force. Be sure to keep your firearm on your person during this type of situation, because there won’t be time to go get it from your gunsafe. Don’t even go to the kitchen to get a snack without it. Home invasions go down in seconds, and you have to be constantly ready.
- Know how to use your firearm. Whatever your choice of weapon, practice, practice, practice. A weapon you don’t know how to use is more dangerous than having no weapon at all. Here’s some advice from someone who knows a lot more about weapons than I do.
- Make sure your children are familiar with the rules of gun safety. Of course, it should go without saying that you will have pre-emptively taught your children the rules of gun safety so that no horrifying accidents occur. In fact, it’s my fervent hope that any child old enough to do so has been taught to safely and effectively use a firearm themselves. Knowledge is safety.
- Have a safe room established for children or other vulnerable family members. If the worst happens and your home is breached, you need to have a room into which family members can escape. This room needs to have a heavy exterior door instead of a regular hollow core interior door. There should be communications devices in the room so that the person can call for help, as well as a reliable weapon to be used in the unlikely event that the safe room is breached. The family members should be instructed not to come out of that room FOR ANY REASON until you give them the all-clear or help has arrived. You can learn more about building a safe room HERE. Focus the tips for creating a safe room in an apartment to put it together more quickly.
Even if your plan is to bug in, you must be ready to change that plan in the blink of an eye. Plan an escape route. If the odds are against you, if your house catches on fire if floodwaters rise, if the levy breaks…devise a way to get your family to safety. Your property is not worth your life. Be wise enough to accept that the situation has changed and move rapidly to Plan B.
If you decide to go…
Nearly everything to do with bugging out needs to be done ahead of time. When the time comes to evacuate, you want to be able to put your plans into motion quickly and flawlessly, This reduces stress tremendously.
- Have bug-out bags prepared . They should contain all of your important documents in case you have to grab and go. This is the best bug-out bag article I’ve ever seen – it’s only 25 pounds and has everything you need to survive.
- Have a list. Make a written checklist that you can easily access. You might include the location of items that are packed away. Decide on these things now, when you have the time to calmly think about what items are the most important. When we got the first evacuation alert during the King Fire(a notice that evacuation was highly likely within the next 24 hours), a woman who lived down the street was wailing and sobbing as her husband tried to pack up their vehicle. She was rendered absolutely useless by fear. Meanwhile, my 13-year-old was fulfilling her list while I fulfilled mine and we quickly made an orderly stack of important belongings, then turned on a movie to beat the stress. Had our area actually been forced to evacuate, those who panicked would have either been the last to leave, or they would have forgotten important things as they left in a disorganized rush. It’s important to decide ahead of time who packs what, and for each person to have a list. Sit down well before disaster strikes and make an evacuation plan with your family. Here’s a list of things to pack if you have time.
- Get organized. All the lists in the world won’t help you pack quickly if you don’t know where things are. One change we made after the fire is that all of the items we deemed precious enough to pack and take with us are stored in one area so that we won’t have to look for them when seconds count. Another friend ran into the issue of dirty clothes: he actually had to evacuate with hampers of unwashed laundry. Having your home tidy and organized (and your laundry washed and put way) will help your packing go smoothly in the event of a sudden evacuation.
- Have multiple evacuation routes planned. Don’t rely on GPS, either – have physical maps on hand in case you need to set out on foot.
- Have a destination. Please don’t think you are going to go deep into the woods and live off the land. It’s one of those movie-of-the-week ideas that will get you killed.
- Keep your vehicle full of fuel. If you have to evacuate, lots of other people will be hitting the road too. When you’re stuck in traffic, you don’t want to be worried about your fuel gauge dropping to the empty mark, leaving you stranded in a dangerous situation.
- Get fit. If you aren’t in shape, bugging out on foot through the mountains isn’t going to go so well for you. When is the last time you hiked even 5 miles? Did you have a pack on? How much did it weigh? There is a large contingent of armchair preppers who have this idea. However, they don’t exercise regularly. This is a classic recipe for a heart attack, by the way. Extreme over-exertion. High-stress situation. High-sodium, easily packable food. Out-of-shape person. A few miles into the journey, particularly if it includes a steep climb, the person will experience a pounding heart, dizziness, and faintness, as the body tries to shut down to protect itself from the unaccustomed demands. If the physical stress continues, the heart won’t be able to keep up with the demand to pump blood. This can endanger not only you, but the people making the trek with you. What if you have a heart attack halfway up the mountain? What if you have an asthma attack? What if you injure your out-of-shape self? Who is going to help you? If the situation is bad enough that you’re bugging out, you aren’t likely to be airlifted to a hospital for medical care. (Here’s a guide to getting in shape, prepper-style)
These actions are not last-minute actions. No matter what Plan A is, you need to have all of the above components in place long before any potential disaster occurs.
So….all of this and I didn’t answer your question
That’s because there is no answer.
Hopefully, the information provided here has pointed out the important variables that will allow you to make good decisions should the need arise.
The biggest part of preparedness is being able to adapt to the situation at hand. For us, bugging in is our Plan A. That doesn’t mean we have disregarded Plans B and C, which are bugging out to a friend’s place by car, followed by bugging out to the same friend’s place on foot. We also have a second location should the first one be unavailable, which I suppose would be Plan D.
Don’t just make one plan. Make at least 3. Try to figure out the shortcomings of all of your plans and solve those issues ahead of time. Whatever your plan is, strict adherence to one course of action is extremely dangerous and short-sighted.
You may get through life never needing to evacuate or hunker down, but if you do, the speed at which you make your decisions could be pivotal in saving the lives of your loved ones.
About the Author
Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, gun-toting blogger who writes about current events, preparedness, frugality, voluntaryism, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, The Organic Prepper. She is widely republished across alternative media and she curates all the most important news links on her aggregate site, PreppersDailyNews.com. Daisy is the best-selling author of 4 books and lives in the mountains of Virginia with her two daughters and an ever-growing menagerie. You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.