There is a multitude of articles, books, and product sites that examine what should and/or can go into a “bugout” bag. Though I will mention contents (specifically the need to tailor these contents to your likely situations and skills) in this article, my purpose is broader. Although I strongly support the ideology of preparing a “bugout bag, I find many discussions to be lacking in what I think needs to be the primary question: should I bug out? Even the name of these bags, ”bugout” implies the desirability of bugging out. For this reason, I prefer the term ‘preparedness bags’ to reinforce that their use often may not be tied to the act of bugging out.
The term bugging out refers to a quick plan to leave your current residence or location due to a high level of perceived risk, to move to an area of lower perceived risk. This could be to flee an oncoming fire or other natural disaster to go to a location not under such threat. Many times, this may also be from a densely populated urban area (where over 70% of Americans currently live) to a less populated rural area (fleeing violence, shortages, infrastructural collapse). The question becomes, is bugging out the right move? We will first look at what are the advantages of bugging out, followed by the disadvantages, and end on a laundry list of considerations that need to be addressed before engaging in a bug out beyond having a bag prepped.
Advantages of Bugging Out
The main advantages of bugging out revolve around location and time. How much time do you have to decide and how much threat is related to your specific location? If the safety of your current location is too high of a risk, then bugging out is likely warranted. Thus, if your current residence is clearly under threat, leaving quickly and with sufficient supplies (a preparedness bag) becomes a clear option.
Additionally, many experts agree there is a 72-hour window in more densely packed urban areas during which leaving will be easier and undertaken at a lower risk. As the urban natural or societal threat increases over that 72 hours, leaving may become increasingly difficult to safely achieve. The problem of course is that hindsight is 20/20 and we can’t see into the future. Thus, the “better to bug out too early than not at all” mindset often drives many people’s bug-out plans.
Disadvantages of Bugging Out
The disadvantages to bugging out are many. First, though you may miss your bug-out window if you delay, historically true bug-out events are relatively rare. I lived in a large urban area during the food shortages, increased crime, civil disorder, and protests of 2020, but none of these events ever approached the need to bug out from our residence. The threat was present but did not outweigh the advantages of sheltering in place.
Your residence’s resources are the next consideration. Before you leave your home, recognize the advantages that will be lost bugging out. Even without services, your home provides shelter, space, a familiar defensible location, large storage capacity (food, water, medical supplies, clothes), beds, and some waste management and cooking supplies. The decision to bug out takes your entire residence’s resources and familiarity and reduces them to what you, your family, and (if included) your vehicle, can transport.
Considerations when Bugging Out
If you are bugging out, there is more to consider than just having emergency supplies ready to go in a preparedness bag.
- Where are you going to?
- How long will it realistically take to get there?
- Do you have the vehicle, gas, and additional supplies to get there?
- Will other people be flocking to the same location?
- Are there others already at this location and are they comfortable with your plans to relocate?
- Once there, are there resources and services needed for you and your family?
- Do you have the skills needed to successfully travel to your location?
- Do your family members also have the needed skills/physical abilities?
- Are there beloved pets that need to be brought along as well?
- Any medical issues, age-related issues, or conditions that must also be planned for?
- Do you have the proper vehicle if roads are less available?
- Do you have non-digital maps and the skills to use them?
Each of these questions could easily be an article unto itself but each needs to be considered prior to implementing an emergency bug-out plan.
Beyond these factors in the case of needing to flee, does your preparedness bag meet the needs of your bugout plan? How many days of food and water do you and your family (pets, friends?) need? Do you have additional gear ready to go? One of the tools that can help in this process is to make a checklist of items that need to be grabbed if bugging out. We do not perform well under pressure and one of the larger deficits in such situations is memory. Have a checklist of items (keys, extra fuel, extra clothing, money, cell phones, contact information, tools, gear, even family members, etc.) that can quickly be checked off prior to leaving.
Further consideration should go into where the preparedness bag is kept. You want to make sure your preparedness bag is stored where it is most likely to be needed. In our case, this is not in the garage, but in the vehicle that is most likely to be used for long-distance or poor-weather travel. Thus, our main bag lives in our primary vehicle along with other emergency supplies.
The primary point is that a preparedness (or if you insist, ‘bugout’) bag should be a part of a broader plan of emergency preparation. That plan should include the discussed variables and should include longer-term solutions to service disruptions for both sheltering in place and bugging out to a safer or more secure location.
Plans need to be tailored to your situation, skills, and family members. Our plans when we had a child and lived in a large city were different than our plans now that we live alone in a rural 20-acre location. There are still some situations that would result in a bug-out decision, but these are far less likely in our rural situation compared to our urban plans.
During an emergency, the better the plan and the more that plan accounts for all these variables the more likely a better decision will be reached. Are the advantages of sheltering in place outweighed by the realistic risks associated with the logistics of leaving?
I often jest in my self-defense classes that the wrong time to Google search ‘good civilian use of force lawyer’ is as the police and ambulance arrive after you have defended yourself. Similarly, the time to plan for emergencies is not as disaster strikes. In both cases, you want to make rational plans well ahead of the event, however unlikely, when you are not under stress. Doing so will allow you to better rely on the plans you fully thought through, once you find yourself in a stressful event. The result is to help you make a truly informed decision and make sure that if you bug out, it is because it is the right choice.