Probably the most common question prepared people ask of each other, and experts, when detailing their personal strategy for coping with a major disruptive event is “Bugging in, or hunkering down?” Stay or go? Run or hide?
It is certainly a good question, as both approaches have intrinsic merit depending on the situation. But where more than a few people go wrong is their “either-or” approach. One should not depend on an inviolable response to any given scenario, as changing situations or unforeseen circumstances may flip your script entirely. If your plans hinge only on one response, your lack of flexibility may result in tragedy, or a grueling exercise in endurance.
What is best instead is treating staying put or bugging out procedures as what they are; possible solutions to a given set of problems. It is fine to default to one as preferential, but you should have alternate and contingency plans in place to make use of the opposite should the situation dictate. In this article I’ll discuss a general set of circumstances that are best suited to one or the other, as well as considerations for dealing with events where you choose to bug in, for instance, but later have to flee in case it worsens.
Situations like this happen more than you think. Don’t fall too in love with the idea that you’ll always run off to your secondary shelter site, or no matter what happens you’ll just lock the door behind you as you descend into your well-stocked basement bunker.
Stay or Go: The Basics
Context is everything: the reasons why someone dealing with a disaster or crisis might need (or want) to flee their current location for another one are varied. Conversely the reasons that they might choose to hunker down and take their chances are likewise many. There is no hard, bottom line answer, and you should not expect anyone, including me, to give you that answer if they do not have total knowledge of your circumstances, anticipated threat and desired outcomes.
The threat itself is a major factor: some incidents are best avoided, not endured, especially if the onset is slow or detected early. Others may occur so quickly that your best chance for survival is to hunker down and wait for it to blow over. The presence or lack of family or other people under your care will be another significant influence. If some are not easily moved or have special requirements, bugging out may be difficult or impossible depending on mode of travel and what those requirements are.
On the other hand, a well-stocked and hardened home or similar location may easily endure the majority of natural or manmade crises with hardly a ruffle. If kept hidden and secret from prying eyes, you and yours may be able to ride out even a prolonged event in relative comfort.
There are too many variables, human, material and otherwise to even begin to list them. Instead we’ll discuss a few of the major considerations that will help you make an informed, intelligent decision so that you are not overtaken by indecision, or worse, lack of preparation when the fateful day strikes.
Bugging in, hunkering down, shelter in place, whatever you want to call it, is a response to a crisis event broadly defined as staying where you are. The context for most preppers meaning your home or other property you occupy or frequent. For most, this is the home, or another nearby parcel of land or property that has been prepared ahead of time with supplies, shelter and is generally well known to you.
Sheltering in place as a concept is often espoused because of home field advantage: you and your family already spend the majority of your time here, so why not make your home your castle? You certainly know the lay of the land, routes of ingress and egress, and will have opportunity and ability, funds permitting, to lay in supplies and equipment enough to deal with any scenario that may befall you.
A sufficiently hardened structure can deal with many natural disasters and with good planning repulse or conceal you from man-made ones. Staying put in such a structure is a huge advantage over those who are taking their chances in non-fortified or stocked buildings, or those who were possibly overtaken trying to flee a crisis.
The problem with staying put as a rule no matter the scenario is that the scenario gets a vote, if you will! Severe weather events will destroy or severely damage even sturdy structures that are not very specially constructed to deal with them: tornadoes, hurricanes and their subsequent flooding, fires, mudslides and avalanches, all will make light work of your shelter and stockpile.
Destruction resulting from rioting and rampaging humans is another concern and much harder to cope with owing to the nature of the threat. A tornado doesn’t think, but people do, and there is little in the way of passive defenses that will deter motivated humans for long. Encountering a hardened structure or door may only convince them that the prize inside is worth it. Their propensity to light fires is another grave threat to any building or shelter.
Despite this, sheltering in place makes sense much of the time. Many disasters may brew up quickly enough that risking being caught in their zone of effect trying to flee is not worth it, and staying put, along with your supplies, can at least ensure you have a better chance of survival and in the aftermath have a leg up on the poor, ill-equipped sods who did not prepare as wisely as you did. You may yet have to flee your home in the wake of a disaster, but taking the time to both harden and provision it, even if only a little, is time well spent.
Bugging out is prepper parlance that generally refers to grabbing your pre-packed bug-out bag for the purpose and heading for the proverbial hills. The “hills” in this instance being a secondary or even tertiary shelter or fallback location you have (ideally) prepared ahead of time with additional supplies and equipment to enable survival in an ongoing crisis. For some people “bugging out” simply means fleeing the affected crisis zone for greener pastures and their BOB is a means to sustain them until they get there.
Bugging out is advocated conceptually for two main reasons: First, some really bad things herald their arrival by days or weeks, or take time to escalate to truly disastrous intensity and so there is no reason not to flee from them, at-home preps be damned. The second reason is you should, in theory, be prepared to get away from population centers in the event of any major crisis, the idea being that desperate survivors may target you and your stash if discovered.
The above is undoubtedly true, as many disasters, be it a hurricane, severe blizzard, brewing civil unrest or approaching wildfire leaves plenty of time to load and go. Where people go wrong is waiting too long to see if it will be “bad enough” to warrant the expense and inconvenience of evacuation. Normalcy bias is real, and even skilled, prepared preppers have fallen victim to simple waiting to see “what will happen” when prudence dictates they should grab their packs and leave. No one wants to be thought of as cowardly or as having jumped the gun, but it is far better to be thought overly cautious than eulogized or trapped in a deteriorating situation.
Choosing to flee or evacuate entails risks and complexity all its own, as you will have to account for multiple routes to your destination, the distance, mode of travel and needed equipment and provision to sustain you either en route or when you arrive. You will not be able to take advantage of the ample and redundant supplies you have stashed at home. If traveling by motor vehicle, you must account for the range and carrying capacity, both of people and needed supplies.
Knowing all possible routes and detours to your path is essential, as departing anytime but at the first sign of trouble will lead to major traffic delays and gridlock. If there are any passable “off the map” roads or paths your vehicle can navigate you would be well advised to use them. If you choose to go by bike or by foot, the arduousness of such an endeavor will preclude all but the firm and reasonably fit from making it. Any supplies will be limited by what you can carry on your back and in your hands. Only the most skilled can truly “live off the land,” do not assume you will find resupply or provision on the way unless you have emplaced it yourself.
Bugging out is an essential strategy for avoiding trouble before it strikes or before it worsens. But doing it properly is more than just grabbing your pack, climbing in the Bronco and hitting the trail. Executed sloppily or after lackluster planning, you may find yourself in a worse situation than the one you were fleeing. Nevertheless, whatever your initial plan is, have a plan in place to leave and leave quickly should a situation mandate it. Sometimes you will have no choice in the matter.
Any plan to include sheltering in place must have accounted for initial and follow-on effects of the crisis in question. If you are preparing for a natural disaster, be sure your dwelling can withstand it without destruction. If total destruction of the dwelling is likely, you are best served by evacuation unless something like an underground shelter is a viable countermeasure, as with a tornado. Even then, flooding is a major hazard for any kind of subterranean existence. Rubble may trap you inside your shelter. Think this through before committing to any kind of below-ground bunker.
Do you have the tools and skills necessary to affect rudimentary repairs to your house in the event it is damaged and no longer weather proof? Have you taken pains to store your food and other provisions in such a way as to minimize the chance of spoilage, dry rot and other harmful effects? Have you been rotating food and batteries, and testing generators and so forth as needed? You still have much to do if you are staying put.
In a populated area of any size, you must consider the strain that long-term lack and desperation will inflict on people’s minds; other people may very well become your biggest threat, and will certainly be a drain on your resources if you let them. If someone is going without while you are not, and they learn about it, this may lead to poor relations, thievery or worse. Security will be paramount.
This is less a concern for those who live in very rural or remote areas, but word travels, and if some dirtbag has learned that Joe Public has a nice stash of guns, food, medicine and more on his homestead he will file that info away for future reference in the event that society crumbles. Your meticulously prepared stash may become the first stop on his shopping spree.
If you are planning to bug out, you must plan every component of the evacuation. Know where you are going and have at least 1 contingency location in case the first is unreachable or compromised. Learn at least 3 routes to each location, including off-map paths if applicable. Know who and what you are taking with you. If traveling by vehicle, practice loading the vehicle in as short amount of time as possible, and pack it smart. You definitely do not want to be unloading half the truck to get your jack or spare tire in the event you have a flat, or be digging for essential supplies if the vehicle should become immobilized.
Planning in Totality
As I mentioned above, there will be much you have to take into account before making the call to batten the hatches or hit the road. You will rarely have all the info you need to make a truly well informed decision. Risk will always remain: you take big chances and little ones. Usually nothing comes of the little ones. You may be faced with a situation where your window of opportunity to leave is closing, but still possible. Say a hurricane, for instance.
You have reason to believe that many roads are impassible, either from damage or gridlocked traffic. Which is the greater risk? Staying put and enduring, possibly, the full brunt of the storm in all its fury, or potentially getting stuck out of doors entirely in an attempt to get away from the worst of the weather? Take another situation, one city-dwellers may become increasingly familiar with: rioting and mass violence. If an enraged, massive group of people are ransacking and burning your town, and drifting your way, should you button-up and hide where you are, or try to slip out with your bag on foot and get away from the violence before it reaches you?
Now, take the above scenarios and sprinkle on a few family members. Now perhaps one of them is sick, or already injured. Perhaps injured badly enough that you must risk getting medical assistance. Do you split your group, leave a few behind while you set out for needed aid, or put all your eggs in one basket and go together? That depends on the skills and abilities of your group, as well as the overarching situation. A trip through the tornado-ravaged remains of a town is far different than one that has been subjected to a nuclear attack or major chemical spill.
It is up you to weigh all of the risks and factors in totality and then make a decision to stay or go. These are only a few passing examples. You can probably think of a dozen more off the top of your head. Start planning now for the most likely threats and circumstances based on where you live, then go down the list to “least likely” from there.
If it is a tornado or severe storm warning, shelter in place or take cover. You’ll have time for little else. If a wildfire is approaching, or some other slow moving disaster, have a hard push-off line where you will act, say a certain number of miles from your property, or if it reaches “x” area we leave. No more waiting, no more talking.
This is good policy from a statistical standpoint but also a practical one: some end-of-world or end-of-society level scenarios are so bad, so extreme in their effect that, tragically, a great many of us will probably die no matter what we do. If you are preparing for a gamma ray burst, mega-volcano eruption or some other true catastrophe, fine. But don’t lie to yourself about your chances, and don’t let a mundane, daily disaster sneak up on you.
Hunkering down or bugging out is not a stylistic choice, it is not merely a preference for dealing with a certain problem. You may have some leeway in your chosen response to a given crisis but other times your response will be dictated for you. You must be able to implement both strategies to survive dynamic and dangerous conditions no matter what they might be.