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Traveling on Foot in a SHTF Situation

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Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from valknut79. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today.


Whether it’s an EMP or a CME that does your car in, or whether you find yourself locked down with martial law or in a controlled area, even a war-zone, you need to be prepared to travel the old-fashioned way: by foot.

Foot travel is something that is easily overlooked. Everyone can walk – most of us have been doing it since the age of 10 months – yet when asked to perform a simple five-mile hike, many would struggle without adequate practice. There is more to traveling cross-country than simply taking off on a jaunt down the street.

Clothing and Footwear

When you’re traveling on foot, you need to remember that you’re going to be exposed to the elements, and chances are that if you’re really going to go on a long journey by foot, you are going to need to bring a number of supplies with you. If this is a distance hike through the woods, you’ll want to outfit yourself differently than if you were prowling through city streets scavenging for supplies, but the principles remain the same – you need to choose proper clothing, footwear, supplies and gear that will fit the situation.

For any kind foot travel, your shoes are the most important piece. High-top boots are preferable to standard shoes in most cases, since you’ll get added layers of protection on your ankles, as well as some support for uneven footing.

For any kind foot travel, your shoes are the most important piece.

Waterproofing is an obvious feature in a good pair of walking shoes, but it’s possible to purchase any pair of shoes that you’d like and spray them down with a tent waterproofing spray like Nikwax. This will be less effective, but something’s better than nothing. You’ll want to check the tread on the bottom of your shoes before long journeys, or for trips when you’ll be traversing loose soils or treacherous paths. Like tires, when a shoe loses its tread, it becomes more slippery, and it’s easy to lose control.

One good option, especially for those in drier, rocky climates, is a type of shoe made by Vibram called Five Fingers. These are quite possibly the strangest pair of shoes you’ll ever lay eyes on, and they take some getting used to, but these are an ideal pair of shoes for any kind of hiking that involves climbing rocks or other sheer surfaces, or anytime you need to move quietly (these shoes are silent). The articulated toes allow you an incredible amount of grip on almost any surface. There are even people in the running community who swear by them as endurance race shoes, although they do generally caution new wearers to get used to these slowly. Not all styles of Five Fingers are waterproof, but the Bikila Evo is marketed for snow use, and has strong water resistance.

For clothing, consider compression socks and shorts as a base layer in any climate. These tight-fitting garments are now the go-to for athletes because they wick moisture, increase circulation, and can cause your body to generate heat faster in the areas that are compressed. This probably shouldn’t be your only layer, but it’s definitely a place to start, and they fit under any other piece of clothing you prefer. Many who make the switch to compression garments find that their muscles are less tired and achy the day after a major exercise which speaks to their usefulness on a cross-country hike or footrace.

One other consideration with clothing is to make sure that you’re covering your arms and your entire legs on any journey through forested areas, no matter the weather. Ticks and mosquitoes are a threat to your health, and the fewer exposed areas on your body they can find, the better off you’ll be.

Your backpack needs to be worn high and tight to your shoulders for the maximum leverage. Your back may be sore if you’re not used to carrying things this way, but it’s for the best. Slouching packs cause many more muscle aches in your lower back area. Pack enough that you can handle a variety of situations, but be aware that the more you bring, the more you need to move, and that can be a major detriment to your ability to handle longer distances.

How to Travel Long Distances

There are many variables to consider when you’re attempting a long-distance expedition by foot. The purposes and the scenarios you might encounter along the way, as well as the terrain you’re covering will all affect how your journey will progress.

If you need to stay hidden for instance, you’ll want to leave your flashlights at home even though you’re traveling in the dark. Staying towards the shadows, and progressing the long way around moonlit streets is essential. If you’re traveling across open areas, you’ll want to move from foliage to foliage, and you’ll likely want to stick to the outskirts of the copses of trees since you might make a good bit of noise stepping on fallen sticks and leaves that crowd the interior of these areas.

Hiking in darkness requires much more caution to avoid injury.

If you decide that you can walk on paths, more power to you. Walking uphill will put stress on your cardiovascular systems, so hopefully you’re in decent shape. Going downhill is where most people think they can relax, but of course, this is when most injuries happen. Shorter, more controlled steps are recommended, and if you are on steep inclines, it is generally recommended that you turn your feet sideways when planting to help your ankles find comfortable accommodation.

Rocky terrain is an obstacle that will require a good bit of experience. A fall or an injury in any less-traveled area can be deadly if you can’t get cell phone service (very common), and getting lost or finding your way into a predicament you can’t get out of is also a real danger. In these areas, an adequate map and compass is a must, as are good shoes, good fitness, and a good backup plan in case of emergency. This is the area where those Vibram shoes will come in handy – they’re lightweight, and can help you gain solid grip on surfaces. Bringing some rope or paracord is always a good idea, especially if you need to come back the way you came. Remember to set up your return routes ahead of time so you aren’t lassoing rocks on the way back.

Traveling for speed? If you’re going long-distance, then you need to practice light jogging for one minute, then walking for two, then jogging again. This can be especially burdensome with a backpack, but it’s the best method for getting to your destination with haste. Many beginners run until tired, but this will burn you out much faster, have you cover less ground, and it risks injury. If you can eventually work your way to an even amount of jogging and walking time, that would be a major benefit.

The question of water is a tricky one. You’ll need to balance your body’s need for hydration with your ability to handle taking on more water. One of the biggest mistakes I made early on was taking a dry mouth as a sign that I needed more water. Often, a dry mouth is simply an indication that you’re breathing incorrectly. Not only did I use water prematurely, but I also had a stomach-ache as I continued exercising with a full stomach. Learning when to drink and when to adapt is a key point of knowledge if you plan on seeing your journey through.

What You Can Do Now to Prepare

Long distance travel by foot is certainly a skill that must be practiced before it can be utilized effectively in a life-or-death situation.

There is really no way to simulate true traveling skills in a gym or in any sort of artificial environment like a treadmill. This may be good for preparing your body for repetitive physical exercise and exertion, you’ll find that walking soft dirt roads affects you differently than hard rubber surfaces. Pavement doesn’t give way the same way as the running track behind your local high school, and neither does dirt. Having a good basic level of fitness is essential, but a gym doesn’t do a good job of preparing you for life outside.

Load that bug out bag on your back and get out there!

In order to best prepare for any kind of foot travel, you need to be out in your natural environment. If you are a city dweller, then you should be walking and running on pavement, while if you’re from a rural area, choose paths or locations that mimic the kinds of places you might be traveling towards or from.

The best way to find out if you’re prepared or not is to load up your bug-out bag and see how far you can get. Borrow a suggestion from Teddy Roosevelt, who was famous for getting up early in the morning, choosing a direction, and walking in a straight line, taking on any obstacles as they came. You can always set up with your significant other or a friend the plan that they’ll pick you up if needs be.

If you’re out of shape, or simply not used to carrying a backpack when you go on your outdoor adventures, this might be a real wake up call. Even as a local gym rat, the ability to take obstacles in stride, and to think how I would actually use my skills and equipment to cross shallow rivers, surmount shoulder-height boulders, and make my way up hills while carrying gear tired me out much faster than I anticipated. It also exposed many holes in my EDC and bug-out bag load-outs.

Doing the Teddy walk once a month has been a lifesaver. I’ve learned the local terrain quite well, found a new natural water source I hadn’t discovered before, refined my EDC and bug-out equipment, and practiced a few skills that had to this point been theoretical. I’ve also trained to go much farther, and even made it 11 hours of constant movement once, enough time that I burned through a cell phone backup battery while listening to audio-books (my recommendation). This is an excellent way to start preparing for the realities of off-grid living or WROL situations, and is an essential step for any prepper.

  • Pablo

    Great article. My only concern is if you jog on a rocky mountain trail with a pack you are more likely to get injured. I’ve been involved with SAR for a number of years and have responded to trail injuries where people are moving too fast for conditions. In a SHTF situation that would likely be fatal because there would be no rescue or medical infrastructure in place. It takes eight people to carry a litter one mile, more for every mile there after. A good first aid kit with plenty of tape for ankle injury is a must. Plenty of water is critical. You need a gallon per day (is 8.5 lbs) and carry extra in case you need to hide or layup (due to injury) for a bit. I’ve planned my city escape route around ponds and other standing water sources as a back up.

  • Sideliner1950

    Seems like mostly good advice, but I just can’t get past one statement…you write the following:

    “If you need to stay hidden for instance, you’ll want to leave your
    flashlights at home even though you’re traveling in the dark.”

    You can’t mean that literally. Unless I’m missing something, I don’t believe any reasonable, thoughtful person should intentionally LEAVE BEHIND their flashlight.

    Please, say it ain’t so!

    • Lance Allison

      Oh you have not met any of the Rainbow children, (a hippy Group ) that flood Florida every winter from Oct to April Staying in the Natural Park lands growing small crops for the next group that come behind them They by park rules two to four weeks then move on You be surprised to find out how NOT dark is the woods in the moon light I lived 90% of my life in Florida Water is easy just hang a dark sheet in the trees moisture will collect on the sheet and drain into a gallon pail / bucket Oh about survival in Florida it is very wise to Not depend on skills on the land The best people to can live will without a pay check are sailors / Naval Pilots who live WW11 and/or trained in Caribbean Sea. Coconuts trees Any nut tree are a Treasure in Florida

      • BobW

        I can’t figure out where you are going with that meandering nightmare of a response. Hippies grow food, so you don’t need a flashlight? WWII vets kick ass in the woods? The youngest legal enlistee would now be 93 years old.

    • Huples

      I think it is sound advice. The leader might have one or two for emergencies but give a human a flash light and they’ ll turn it on and it will blow opsec. Night vision and travel without light is possible with practice. Lots of practice

      • Bolofia

        Right on, Huples. There are several million illegal aliens and a considerable number of drug packers who successfully cross the southwest desert in darkness to prove your point. Most of my night activity in the bush is entirely in the dark. Once your eyes have adjusted it is not particularly difficult to move about, even with no moon. Having said that, I would never go out without having two flashlights: One with a low lumen red filter for map reading and radio communication (under a poncho or tarp), and the other with a high lumen output for signaling if everything else goes sideways. Turning on a flashlight will wreck your night vision for about a half hour.

        • BobW

          Heh. I used to freak my kids out by turning off the headlights while driving down back roads at night. I was demonstrating how the illumination the moon provides is more than sufficient to see the road (only for a few seconds). There’s an old army phrase I’m sure I’ll get wrong, but it something like “Rangers own the night.” That was before everyone had night vision devices.

      • BobW

        I’m not a fan of that theory. Noise and light discipline are critical elements of night-time ops. Teach your people the right way to work in the dark, not limit capabilities on the fear that they will fail.

        I’d be more concerned with the noise a 1/2 empty water bottle makes than my people turning on their headlights to see where they are going.

        • Huples

          Agreed Bob. But for a group not trained for bug out nor having prepped I’d not issue flash lights in shtf

    • Mark S

      Concur. The flashlight has many uses, including temporarily blinding a potential advisory, pulling your poncho over your head and reading your map (with a blue-green or red filter lens), etc. I may not use it, but I never go anywhere without it as part of my EDC and a spare in my pack.

  • Huples

    Great article but I will add a bit based on my experience racing ultra marathons for a decade.
    Hiking boots are heavy. Unless you use them frequently do not use them to bug out. Go to a decent running store and get trail shoes that are fitted to you foot type. Google this so you have some knowledge. Buy last year’s model not this year’s. This is all you need for any trail.
    Speed. Sound advice but anyone can run twice to three times as far as their longest run. If you do not jog do not jog in a bug out. Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome DOMS. Google it. It will cripple anyone who goes too far and too fast for at least two days.
    Do not push through muscle pain. Stop, maybe stretch (arguably good or a bad thing to do), rest. Take rest breaks for five minutes every hour. Do not take the packs off but sit down to have the ground take the strain. Increase frequency but not length of these breaks as you get tired.
    Vaseline. Crotch, thighs, arm pits, and nipples. Slap it on and reapply. Chaffing is horrible.
    Hydration. Drink a pint every hour or two. Monitor urine. Are you peeing? Is it clear? Is to huge and often? Use this to gauge hydration.
    Hope this helps those who take the article’s good advice to practice but never do until shtf

    • BobW

      Excellent commentary, Hup.

      I think I agree with the commentary on footwear. While I have an awesome pair of Merrill hiking boots, without thought, I always grab my Merrill “Moab” hiking shoes just about any time. They are lighter, don’t retain heat the way the boots do, and are a bit more flexible on uneven ground. The boots have their place. If I can I usually take both sets.

      The author’s comments on “5-finger” shoes kinda bugs me. I’d caution anyone using, or considering using them to do your research. Former co-worker swore by them. They required a unique walking/running style. Little to no insole, thin outer sole. They were the rage back in 2010-2011. Class action lawsuits, some form of recall, and possibly a buy back. The toe to heal movement required of the shoe should make this ‘no-go terrain’ for carrying any kind of weight. Their ultra minimalist construction should make even fan-boys unwilling to consider them for any survivalist situation. Lack of durability, lack of foot structure support (think arch support, ball padding, ankle support), lack of general foot protection are strong negatives. Like I said, one must conduct a thorough analysis of the pros and cons. There’s a reason Soldiers and Marines were tallish boots with ankle support, a good sole, and thick leather. If you think your bug-out isn’t going to be rough, you need to rethink your plans.

      There’s a reason I have every pair of serviceable army boots I ever wore in storage. They’ve been through hell, and are still fully functional. Concertina wire, mud, creek crossings, countless miles carrying my behind through woods, mountains, deserts, and jungles, and they’ve held up.

      • Huples

        Solid and fitted trail running shoes are fine and much lighter than most ill fitting hiking boots. For almost all surfaces they work fine and can be cheaper. I always suggested people use both and have the other pair in their pack. People convert to trail running shoes real fast once they realize how heavy boots are. Ankle safety is an issue if you do not train but the trade off in weight sucks. In my view

        • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

          I tend to agree with the trail shoe preference, and I wear them as my daily footwear for the most part. (no suits or anything even similar where I work, all techy nebbishes…).

          I also prefer them in the woods, but have serious issues with sole and ankle protection in the terrain I’d be hoofing through if shtf. I can’t count the number of hidden holes I have dropped into running my GH routes – even with my favorite boots I’ve come very close to twisting an ankle. The weight IS an issue, especially on longer pushes or when carrying a pack. The US army did a study years ago that concluded every pound carried on your feet was equivalent to four pounds in your pack. Anyone that has ever exchanged their boots for light hikers after ten miles or so is aware of the concept: one feels as if they could literally fly…
          So plan for and train with both.

  • JD

    Good article. My 2 cents. I personally would avoid the “fitted trail shoes” and stick with a good pair of boots. Waterproof boots. How do you know a nice groomed trail will be the only surface your traveling on? What if plans had changed and you now have to climb a rocky slope? What f you have to go through a swamp? Trail shoes are generally a low cut sneaker with an aggressive tread. They won’t hold up, give adequate ankle support, or protect your primary means of transportation at this particular point, your feet. Leave the fitted trail shoes for someone that wants to run ultra marathons, and get a good pair of waterproof outdoor/hiking boots. The tactical style boot is my favorite. Light, tough, plenty of protection and support.
    As far as traveling at night, it’s still tough, but a full moon does make traveling easier. However, on a moonless night, in unfamiliar terrain, without night vision, you are just kidding yourself. I’d like to see someone make it through a cedar swamp without falling, getting branches in the eyes, etc. you WILL need a light of some source. Having a red lens that goes over the flashlight will provide enough light to see where you’re going and not alert others of your presence. It also won’t ruin your night vision.
    When things get bad is not the time to find out all this stuff. Get out and train now. It is fun to talk about all this stuff, but actually getting out and learning what is what, is not only more fun than talking about it, you are more of a skilled person. Skilled=valuable. Unskilled=supply depot.

    • Huples

      Hi JD,
      I’ve been in trail runners in a lot of terrain and at night. Taking unskilled and untrained on rough terrain at night with or without flash lights would be a nightmare no matter the foot ware. Given last year’s trainers are cheap it’s worth an experiment and you can always use them in camp if you opt for boots. Real boots are very heavy and you absolutely need to wear them a lot before attempting a long and stressed bug out.
      Of course if you only have one pair of shoes due to poor planning then take boots but I have footware at the bugout pre positioned. Boots have a place for sure but I remain unconvinced they are of any use in a bugout.
      One thing is any shoe after about 30 miles needs to be rested for two days to let the midsole reform. Boots made of leather avoid this but modern books even military types tend to use plastic in the midsole. After 30 miles you are walking on concrete with modern midsoles
      I agree with a flashlight in some conditions and red light or green light is a must.
      One thing I’d like to know is head lamp or hand held? I always used hand held to point without moving my head. I find this more relaxing. Other runners always used head lamps and gated hand held. Again try both out and see what works for you.
      I’m overnight bug out camping at the cottage next month. Was hoping for nasty weather but its becoming hot up here again 🙁

      • JD

        And I remain unconvinced that trail shoes are a better choice in a bug out situation. Look, I own a pair of salmon trail shoes. Yes I do use them, when I’m shooting competitively at a match. And they work well for that. I can see that they would work well for a run in the woods. But a bug out would not be a leisurely jog in the woods. They provide zero ankle support and zero protection. Why doesn’t the military wear trail shoes if they are better? Having to wear a pack which could weigh anywhere from 10-50 pounds, depending on one’s situation, I want all the support and protection I can get for my feet. Yes, one would be a fool to wear brand new boots on some kind of bug out without them being broken in. That’s just common sense.
        You mention 30 miles, lol, there is a very very small portion of the population that can walk 30 miles in a day let alone move through off road terrain with a pack. I would think 10-15 miles would be more of a realistic distance. I’m sure I’ll get some self proclaimed experts commenting here how it can be done, and that it’s not actually that hard. Yeah, ok. I live not far from a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, and I hear and know people who think 15 miles a day is the goal. Usually by the second day they’re calling their wives to come pick them up as they grossly over estimated their skill level. I’m not saying 30 miles a day can’t be done. But in order to do those numbers you have to spend time training to achieve that goal.

        • Huples

          Hi JD,
          For me a bug out us A to B ASAP. 2 to 3 miles an hour is slow on most terrain. Using planned routes and caches 30 miles a day is very achievable day one and 20 the next. If you pick a route through uncut bush and in hilly terrain then okay it’s impossible but why would you do that? Train tracks, hydro ways, bike, walking paths, ridges (not on the top), etc.
          Now I’d travel at night and sleep during the day but that’s a whole other perennial prepper argument lol.
          Training should be 5 to 10 mile route march with packs a week minimum. You can go three times your longest hike when it is a real event.
          I did 50 miler on that trail in under seven hours. It is hard but in that area I’d be using an inflatable boat a lot.
          So boots or trainers use them in practice and try both types is the take away I think.
          Each pound of weight is bad in a fast trek. Use Vaseline everywhere 🙂

        • The Deplorable Cruella DeVille

          I tend to concur with JD – i prefer my boots, and my own personal speed of advance when bush-whacking is at best 2 miles per hours, so 10 – 15 miles daily seems about right. I’ve actually trekked most of my GH routes on foot, with a cell app that tracks rate of travel, and other parameters. On the utility right of ways I can chug along at three miles/hr indefinitely, planted fields it’s up to four. But in the bush around here you will not find nice clear forests where you can stroll through the tree trunks and admire the squirrels and deer. It’s all second/third growth, with lots of miserable underbrush, fallen trees everywhere, small streams that are always running across your plotted course, old barbed wire fencing, hidden holes just large and deep enough to rip an ankle to shreds. I even came across a fallen in house basement that must have been 100 years old, with field stone walls, laid dry, and an unprotected dug well that would have been a death trap. So train, train,train, and always be very aware of your path and surroundings.

          • Huples

            I agree but feel you should have easier routes preplanned and cached especially if moving with family. One mile an hour and exhaustion after 5-6 miles if bush whacking with kids and untrained adults. I’ll stick with my heavy duty trail runners but people should try both if they have not already decided. I’ve managed fine with them but had major problems when using hiking boots due to the weight and lack of flexibility.
            Good discussion all round on this one

  • Sideliner1950

    Well said. I agree with you. Thanks for weighing in and saving me the trouble.

  • EgbertThrockmorton1

    My bugout footwear IS my everyday footwear. I’m old school, I prefer ankle support, arch support and love good sturdy trail boots for my EDW.(just coined a new acronym)
    Having to bugout on foot, means we would become instant refugees, and I do not care to EVER be a refugee at all. Our prepping walks, get longer each week, winter weather permitting, and we measure our paces to match the slowest person in our party. Going cross country, is far more difficult than most people realize, and when in the military, we stayed off the trails for obvious safety reasons.
    While all the posters have good suggestions, each of us lives in a different social and geographical demographic, and those differences need to be taken into consideration.

    • Bolofia

      ET, you should get an award of some sort for coining a new term. My EDW is also bugout footwear (boots), as well as tactical pants.

  • Lance Allison

    Again here in the moon lit night Vets showed me..The Flashlight will only forces your eye to focus only in the lighted area / Simple food crops can be started left under other bushes within six weeks will be ready to be harvested as well as other herbs /weeds to grow