Satellite Imagery – A Bug Out Planning Tool

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Editor’s Note: This article has been generously contributed by Bolo. As in his other articles, Bolo shares incredibly useful tips that preppers can use to give themselves an advantage in a bad situation. If you are forced to Bug Out, will you have the most powerful information about your route possible? Will you be able to take detours, recognize risks and avoid pitfalls if needed? Bolo shares how you can use simple tools that are free to anyone along with GPS units to give you “eye in the sky” intelligence that could help you stay alive if you are forced to travel cross-country.

One of the most stressful situations you are likely to encounter in a SHTF event will be the struggle to get to a place of safety. This could be the not-so-simple matter of getting home, or the even more challenging matter of bugging out to a distant place of refuge. If you think about it, it doesn’t really matter whether your destination is 5 miles away or fifty. If you don’t have a clear understanding of how to reach your objective – that is, the routes and terrain (urban, rural or natural) that you will confront – then you are trusting to hope and luck; neither of which qualify as a strategy for survival.

There are several critical aspects to developing a get-home or bug out route, but the first two are planning and confirming. In other words, you have to identify and analyze routes, and then you have to gain a level of certainty that they will serve you reliably under conditions that will very likely be beyond your control.

If you were confronted with a traffic blockage during your daily commute, your first inclination might be to access a mapping tool on your smart phone to help you find a secondary route. But, if the grid is down your handy mapping tool will be useless. SHTF conditions, such as civil disorder, congested roadways, road closures, blockades, lack of fuel or weather conditions, could force you to abandon your preferred route. Without planning, you may have no idea about suitable alternatives – unless you have already researched and confirmed the alternate routes.

You can define, in advance, a primary route and a series of alternate routes that will give you the best chance to reach your destination if you have the right tools and learn how to use them. I am specifically referring to the use of Google Earth, which uses satellite imagery from Landsat. The value of this imagery is that you can examine surface features in great detail, locate roads and trails that do not appear on regular maps, identify sources of water that are not dependent on electric pumps, to name only a few benefits.

Let’s take a high level look at a hypothetical bug out route between an arbitrary point of origin “A” and a destination “B”.

1-Bug-Out Hi Level

In this example, the tan line on the left is a highway route that spans 65 miles between the origin and destination. This would be the obvious choice for travel, enabling you to reach the destination in about one and a half hours through mountainous country. But what if the highway has been barricaded at a critical choke-point and nothing is getting through?

The green lines show a secondary route that follows 2-track roads to the same destination. Taking the left leg of this route will span a distance of 54 miles, while the right leg will take 55 miles.

The blue line shows a 12 mile stretch of perennial stream flow that could be used if a bug out group was on foot. Several other route options are available, but are omitted for simplicity.

A thorough analysis of the river route with Google Earth will reveal that the gain in elevation is a steady 54 feet per mile over this distance. That is important to know if you are on foot. The green routes will show elevations that range from 2,200 feet to nearly 8,000 feet, with significant (+/-) changes in elevation over very short distances of travel. In other words, this is mountainous terrain and there is a lot of steep ground between A and B.

Let’s take a closer look a small portion of the 2-track trail:

2 -Identify Water

This image identifies just three of many sources of water along the route. It is important to note that only one of these sources appear on USGS Topo maps and two of them are not obvious, even with satellite imagery. So, why are they shown in the photo? They were identified by a detailed inspection of the route. Each source of water is tied to a specific GPS location. In fact, any location on Google Earth can be referenced using standard coordinate formats. The point is that you have to know where these important resources are located beforehand so that you can incorporate them into your route.

Sources of Game

Here is a closer view of the “river route,” which reveals useful information at a moderate viewing altitude

3 -Game Trails

This 2,000 foot segment of surface flow identifies just a few of many game trails, as shown by the yellow lines. Deer and other wildlife can be found here (and at numerous other locations along this stream) throughout the year. Trails are easily identifiable by zooming down to a lower level of “eye altitude.” Analysis of the imagery revealed the game trails, but knowledge of the type and abundance of could only be established by on site verification.

Route Hazards

4 -Armed Camp

The warning symbol shown in the above image shows a (very real) area that needs to be either bypassed or approached with caution. Once again, you cannot determine that kind of knowledge by simply looking at a map.

An even lower level view of this segment also reveals that you could be hiking in waist-deep water if your route is confined to the stream. I have hiked this area numerous times and know that spring–fall seasons produce a deep canopy of tree cover along this stream. I also know that water flow can be fatally high during heavy monsoon and winter storms. In other words, a photo image is worthless if you cannot apply direct knowledge to the route.

The next image continues with a portion of the green 2-track route, but includes anecdotal information about ways to identify potential navigational hazards that can lead to wasted time and fuel.


5 -Road Hazards

Beginning on the left, I have placed a warning symbol that shows a dead-end 2-track road. The center hazard symbol indicates a trail that needs to be avoided because it leads in a direction that adds distance (and time) to the route. I could have added a dozen or more hazard symbols along this portion of the trail to identify 2-track roads that need to be avoided. Why go to the trouble? You may want to share your Bug Out album with other members of your group, and they may be hours or days behind you. Importantly, they may not know the route as intimately as you do.

There is another vitally important reason for sharing your bug out route: It says “This is where I will be. If I get pushed off this route, I will always strive to get back to it. Look for me there!”

The next image shows a hiking trail that can reduce travel distance by several miles if you are on foot, rather than in a vehicle. As you can see, it is rendered with a 3D perspective that provides a better understanding of the terrain.

6 -Foot Trail

I have annotated the starting elevation of the trail (lower left) and the elevation at the crest of the mountain. There is an overall gain of 1,120 feet to the crest, followed by a drop of 806 feet where the trail joins up with the 2-track road on the right. Route distance is 2.65 miles versus six miles on the 2-track road.

The last image, below, shows the level of detail that you can obtain. In this instance, the “eye altitude” above a frozen water catchment is 370 feet. A portion of the bug out trail is shown along the bottom of the image.

7 -Close Up View

From a practical standpoint it is possible to maintain excellent image quality on Google Earth to as low as 300 feet above the deck. Images begin to degrade below that level, although you can do some very good analysis at lower levels once you gain experience with the tool. Remember however, that at very low viewing levels, the field of view will be limited. For example, at an eye altitude of 300 feet, you will be viewing an area that is approximately 350 feet on the east-west axis by 250 feet on the north-south axis. If you intend to build a photo library using such a low-level, the 55 mile route would require more than 1,100 images! That is entirely unnecessary. All you really have to do is work at an eye altitude that provides the level of detail that you are comfortable with. There will certainly be instances where you want to zoom in on an important location or feature, but that shouldn’t be necessary in most cases.

It is important to understand that satellite images are not depicted in real-time. Google Earth updates individual image panes periodically and could be anywhere from a few weeks to two years old. Is that important? Not really. Highways, county roads, forest trails and buildings don’t move and they certainly don’t disappear between image updates.

As you do the research to build your own Bug Out library, don’t worry about the image date that will be displayed at low levels. Google will update it when they have some economic reason to do so. And when they do, I guarantee that nothing of importance will have changed.

Getting Started

There are only four things that you need in order to develop a bug out library of images:

  • A home computer with Internet access
  • A downloaded copy of Google Earth (it’s free)
  • A method of transferring images
  • A smart phone
Pre-load your routes of travel for various bug out routes into your GPS.

Beyond these basics, all that you need is the motivation to learn how to navigate Google Earth. There really is no limit to your ability to annotate important information. Any location or feature that is important to your safety and survival can be identified and documented on the image.

Leveraging Value

Once you have built your library, I would urge that you incorporate a fifth item to your survival tool bag, and that is a handheld GPS device. The value of this unit is that you can pre-load important coordinates from the bug out routes that you have developed from satellite imagery. The images on your smart phone will be static; that is, you can view them, but you cannot interact with them.

As I’ve said in previous postings, there are many ways that you can get pushed from a desired route. Regardless of the distance, a GPS unit can tell you precisely where you are, where you want to be, as well as the distance and direction of travel required to get back to the preferred route on your smart phone library.

It is well beyond the scope of this article to teach anyone how to use Google Earth. That is something that you must do for yourself. My objective is to illustrate what you can achieve with this remarkable tool once you have learned the basic navigation skills. The bottom line: There is no reason to be lost or uncertain about your position relative to a desired route.

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11 Comments on "Satellite Imagery – A Bug Out Planning Tool"

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Good solid advice for all of us. Flat maps, topo maps and sat-maps are all a necessity now. Especially when one is in unfamiliar areas.

Central European Citizen
Central European Citizen

I am just wondering how long will the GPS (or GLONASS) systems be available in a massive SHTF situation. I assume that both will be shut down or jammed for public users. Paper map, compass should be primary navigation tools I would consider smartphones, gps devices as luxury items.


Good point, and I’ve wondered about that myself. The constellation of GPS/GLONASS satellites is relied upon for navigation by all commercial aircraft worldwide, as well as ships at sea. It would be hard to imagine that someone would simply “turn off the switch” to the global economy by deactivating these satellites. A solar coronal mass ejection could degrade the performance of some portion of the satellites, but that has not happened in previous CME events. I think, on the whole, that GPS would still be available.

Central European Citizen
Central European Citizen

As far as I know we were lucky with recent CMEs as their directions have not cross Earth’s orbit at all, and our planet was on the other side of the sun. Regarding GLONASS/GPS, basically these are military applications and public could access only the non encrypted, and not too accurate channels, so there is possible to switch them off, albeit I agree with you that the chance is slight. But, I would prepare for the worst and expect the best…


There are alternatives, albeit far less convenient. If an important location on the satellite image is given an associated set of coordinates, then you can still determine where you are (relative to that point) by consulting a topo map, which has a coordinate grid. I’d much rather use GPS, since it is far simpler, faster and more accurate.

With respect to the US fleet of GPS satellites, commercial and civilian users obtain the same level of accuracy as the military. This has been the case since mid-2000.

Central Europen Citizen
Central Europen Citizen

Bolofia, thanks for the info, I did not know that military/civils have the same accuracy.

Here a simplest car map could be sufficient, with a compass. as thge area is so populated, 40-100 person /km2. if walk 4 miles to any direction from any location of my country I will find a village, a homestead, power line, some road or railroad, with 4 more mile I can find a bus stop.

Almost the same true for the Alps in Austria, or any part of Europe.

I should have added the following link to the article as an aid for converting GPS coordinates: There are three primary methods for displaying a location. These are Degrees – Minutes – Seconds (DMS) Degrees – Minutes and Decimal Minutes (DMM) Degrees and Decimal Degrees (DDD) If I told you that my location was at the lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I could also say that you will find me at: 36D 11M 50S North by 112D 03M 11S West (DMS) or, 36D 11.8333M North by 112D 03.1833M West (DMM) or, 36.197222D North by 112.053055D… Read more »
As is usual of late, I’m late to the game. I want to say how simple and outstanding this article is. Bolo’s idea, as presented is very similar to how the military conducts missions worldwide. This is a prep no one should be without. All it costs is a little time and gas to grossly improve a person’s ability to move from the fort to a BOL. In the old days, we used a map and compass, and were able to accomplish a lot. With the availability of satellite photography, our ability to conduct a route reconnaissance is exponentially easier.… Read more »

Thanks BobW. I still have a ton of USGS 7.5 minute maps, but they are rarely used anymore. I could use them as a backup if every other form of reference failed, but I have acquired a pretty intimate first hand knowledge of all potential routes that I might need to use in a bug out scenario. And that’s the whole point of this article. Google Earth is a terrific tool for research and analysis, but you still have to put eyes on the ground.

In my way of thinking, this is a fundamental component of prepping.

Robin Sadler Pogue

I’m looking for advise on the best way to keep in communication with my child who will be 20 or so miles away if SHTF happens. Hand held ham, satellite radio etc. My plan is for her to have hers stored in a Faraday box and mine stored at my house. I will need to guide her safely to our house. I’m thinking the no electricity scenerio. Thank you for your advise.

Pat Henry


I think your best bet for that type of range is a Ham radio. Something like the Baofeng BF-F8HP with the right type of antenna would be able to reach that distance. It requires some practice and training though, but it’s very possible.