Should I Stay or Should I Go? How to Decide Whether to Bug Out or Bug In During an Emergency

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by Daisy Luther

Author of The Bug Out Book and The NEW Interactive Prepper’s Book of Lists

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?

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 amid 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, livestock, and 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 engraved in stone

A while back, I wrote about the 3 steps to surviving any crisis.

1.) Accept

2.) Plan

2.) Act

If you are completely married to only one course of action, it limits your ability to perform the first step. That first step is 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 causes 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, some circumstances beyond your control 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 some folks 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?

Also, what about the fact that every third prepper has the same idea and will be out there shooting at deer, 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?

Suppose you have a retreat, an awesome little compound up the mountain, over the stream, and around the bend. That is a beautiful 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 takes 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.

If you expect to get there in a crisis, your secondary location should be less than 100 miles from your primary location. 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?

Are there children 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 frail parent with a heart condition or 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, you must plan for your on-foot-bug-out to take far longer than normal. That doesn’t make it impossible. It just means that you MUST consider these things in advance and make modifications to your travel arrangements.

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. Getting out of those cities would be nearly impossible with the huge populations there 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.

Hundreds of vehicles line the interstate outside of Beaumont, Tx. Mandatory evacuation orders were made in east Texas near the Gulf Coast in advance of Hurricane Gustav’s landfall in San Antonio. FEMA is working with State, local, and other Federal agencies in a joint operation in preparation for Hurricane Gustav’s landfall. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEM

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, at the minimum (hopefully) have these supplies and more:

  • Water
  • Necessary prescription medications
  • 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 (if 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 or herbal remedies to treat illnesses at home
  • A diverse survival guide, a comprehensive 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.)

Keep yourself and your home under the radar

Regardless of the reason you’ve hunkered down, vandals, looters, and thugs come out to play when disaster strikes.

Defense is two-fold. You want to stay under the radar and not draw attention to yourself. Some of the following recommendations are unnecessary during an ordinary grid-down scenario. Still, they 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 see what you have or to 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 well-lit block, it is a beacon to others.
  • Keep cooking smells to a minimum. Especially if there is a food shortage or everyone 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 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.

Do what it takes to defend your home

If your property draws the attention of people with ill intent despite your best efforts, 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 protect yourself. First responders may be tied up, and the cops are not always your friends in some cases. 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 get it from your gun safe. 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

It should go without saying that you will have pre-emptively taught your children the rules of gun safety, so no horrifying accidents occur. In fact, it’s my fervent hope that any child old enough to do so has been taught to use a firearm safely and effectively themselves. Knowledge is safety.

Also, 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 where 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 the person can call for help. Also, there should be 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 on the tips for creating a safe room in an apartment to put it together quickly.

Always be ready for Plan B

Even if you plan 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, your house catches on fire, or floodwaters rise, 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.

To get a FREE evacuation checklist and guide to download, go here.

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 single “right” answer. Hopefully, the information provided here has pointed out the important variables that will allow you to make good decisions.

The most significant 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. (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.

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