The Risks and Hazards of Bugging Out

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Do you know the risks of bugging out?
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Editor’s Note: This article is another excellent read that has been generously contributed by Bolo.  Bolo’s latest is a companion piece to his earlier series on knowing when to bug out. One of his motivations for writing this article was a question from a reader named Stephanie. After reading the last series, Stephanie was looking for additional information about the hazards of bugging out. As he always does, Bolo has again provided an extremely detailed, logical and well thought out analysis of the risks of bugging out taken from his own real world experience.


In my last article, Hard Decisions: Knowing When to Bug Out, I addressed a sizable number of conditions that could help someone determine whether or when it was advisable to bug out after a SHTF event.  These are decisions that you have to make based upon your understanding of the situation, your level of preparedness and whatever threshold you have for risk tolerance.  In Pt. 1 of that article I described a person or group’s risk under bug out conditions as follows:

“Bugging-out means that you have no reasonable expectation of returning.  It means that sheltering in place in a post-SHTF environment has failed as a strategy and has become more dangerous to your survival than bugging out.  Rule of law may no longer be respected or enforceable.  It also means that no one can guarantee a safe route of passage or a safe destination.  Finally, it means that you have no guarantee of receiving aid; that acquiring essential food, water, shelter and security are entirely dependent upon your ability.  In other words, you are on your own.”

This article is a companion piece of sorts, but shifts the focus to the risks and hazards that you are likely to face once a decision has been made to depart.  The Prepper Journal has an outstanding collection of articles on this subject, and I particularly recommend these five:

The last (and most recent) article provides an excellent lead to the subjects that I will address below.

Risks and Hazards are Not the Same Thing

The word risk is generally defined as the possibility of meeting danger or suffering harm or loss.  The verb form means to expose oneself to the chance of injury or loss.  A hazard is defined as the source of the risk.  A simple example would be the risk of parking your car on railroad tracks while changing a flat tire.  The hazard is the oncoming train.  The potential risk is easily eliminated by finding a safer place to park, but the hazard will always exist as long as there are trains and candidates for the annual Darwin Award.

If you have waited until the risks of sheltering in place have become too great, you may be able to separate yourself from the most imminent hazards by bugging out.  It does not, however, mean that you can eliminate them or that you will not expose yourself to other unanticipated (and possibly greater) dangers along the way.

The principal reason is that you will be acting on incomplete information.  Certainly, the awareness of an armed group of looters moving through your neighborhood would be a compelling reason to consider bugging out, but it doesn’t speak to the conditions that exist between your front door and your intended destination.  Any knowledge that you may have had about your present locality, your preferred route or destination will have become unreliable within moments of the SHTF event.  To make matters worse, you will be introducing hazards by your own actions, whether you realize it or not.

Top Ten Risks

Bugging out, whether by vehicle or on foot, under the conditions described in my last article will not be comparable to a pleasure drive in the country or to an enjoyable day hike.  Instead, you will be stepping out into a world where more than 99% of the people around you are not remotely prepared to deal with or survive conditions for more than a few days, and where events will probably unfold in a highly fluid and chaotic manner.

Listed below are the risks that I believe are most likely to be encountered in a bug out situation.  I have tried to describe them is such a way that the hazard(s) are self defining.  Try to think of each item in the list as a category of risk.

1. Poor Preparation

The risk of being poorly prepared begins long before you make the decision to bug out.  That risk is sure to be compounded by hasty decisions made in the last moments before you decide, or are forced, to abandon your residence.

Have you ever left your wallet at home before running some errands?  It is an act of simple oversight with marginal risk.  Imagine the stress you would be under as you attempt to gather your family and essential supplies in the face of imminent threat.

When you step outside your door for the last time, will you have the material goods (food, water and purification, medicines, clothing, shelter and defense) that will sustain you – not just for the distance that you must travel, but also for the length of time it will take to reach your destination?

Are you prepared to hike out into the wilderness?
Are you prepared to hike out into the wilderness?

Can you hike cross-country for a distance of 50 or 200 miles under highly stressful conditions?  This isn’t merely physical preparedness; it speaks also to a basic understanding of routes and likely conditions that you will encounter along the way.

Sadly, we (including myself) will always be our own primary hazard when it comes to effective preparation.  The challenge of Prepping is frequently superseded by basic, day-to-day imperatives, economic or otherwise, that demand constant attention and that pressure us to defer thinking and acting on distant or poorly understood threats.  The unavoidable conclusion remains – failure to prepare falls squarely on our own heads.  Hazard avoidance can only be achieved by persistent attention to the fundamentals of Prepping.

2. Setting Unrealistic Objectives

When you visualize an ‘ideal’ bug out route and destination, there is great risk in the assumptions that you introduce.  Any destination that falls within the event area (the size of which you cannot know in advance) may become unreachable as events unfold.  In other words, if your destination is 100 miles away, but the affected area has a radius of 500 miles, the conditions at your destination may be as precarious as those you are attempting to escape.  If a go-to place becomes a get-away-from area, you may not learn of it until it is too late – a classic example of jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Selecting a route and destination that exceeds the capacity of your supplies and/or the limits of your endurance may very well end in failure and harm.  If you can only carry a five-day supply of food, yet your route takes 10 days to actually complete, then you are already at risk.  Accept the fact that any optimism you presently have about an imagined rate of travel will not match the actual constraints of a SHTF/TEOTWAWKI event.  There are an enormous number of potential hazards that can slow or block your travel.

Accept the fact that it will eventually be necessary to abandon your vehicle and that you will be on foot for the remainder of your travel.  Plan and prepare accordingly.

  • Do not wait until imminent threat is upon you before leaving your residence.  The most reliable means of avoiding a hazard is to separate yourself from it.
  • Have more than one bug out destination.  Select an initial target that can be reached in a relatively short span of time; preferably requiring no more than five days of travel under the worst of conditions.
  • Select preplanned intermediate way points (between destinations) where the opportunity to resupply is assured.  That may require caching of supplies.
  • You may believe that you can traverse 25 miles of terrain in a single day while on foot, but plan on a substantially shorter distance.
  • Base your planning on the route, not the destination.  For example, if you can confirm frequent access to water along the way, you may be able to trade the weight of water in your backpack for the weight of other useful supplies.
  • Base your planned rate of travel on the least capable person in your group.

3. Exhaustion

Regardless of your current physical condition or that of your party, bugging out will place you under enormous physical and emotional stress.  You may have been forced to escape your home under imminent threat and the hazards that you face along the way may not end upon arrival at your chosen destination.

In addition to the physical and emotional rigors of bugging out, you should also consider the hazard of uncertainty.  Can I detour around the roadblock one mile ahead?  Can I find a place of shelter from the approaching storm?  Will there be fuel in the next town?  Does the group behind me pose a threat to my safety?  Issues such as these (and many others) will exact a toll on everyone.

Unless your group is sufficiently large to provide continuous security, sleep deprivation will affect everyone’s endurance and judgment.

4. Injury or illness

To my way of thinking, the risk of injury while bugging out is far greater than would be expected in ordinary, day-to-day living.  Cuts, sprains and broken bones would be the most likely hazards of activity on unfamiliar and difficult trails.  In addition, proximity to a constant stream of evacuees on a line of drift would bring a risk of confrontation over issues such as access to water, food, camp sites, or even medical care.

Apart from the discussions in #7 and #8, below, I refer here to illnesses that you (or someone in your group) bring with you.  High blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or any other condition that requires continuous medication can become debilitating or fatal when prescriptions run out and cannot be refilled.  This could easily be attributed to poor preparation (Risk #1), but the circumstances which prompt a bug out could exceed anyone’s ability to provide for or acquire necessary medicines.  A good example was the rioting in Baltimore, where seven pharmacies were stripped of prescription drugs (including more than 300,000 doses of opioids and synthetic narcotics) in a matter of hours.

5. Dehydration

I have seen articles where writers claim that you can survive without water for up to three days.  You may live in an area where that is possible, but I cannot personally imagine it.  In the region where I live, death from dehydration can, and regularly does, occur within a matter of hours.  Dehydration and hyperthermia are the principal reasons why Search and Rescue teams in the arid Southwest carry body bags with them.

Regardless of temperature, physical exertion increases your need for water.  Assuming that you can avoid dehydration with an intake of only one gallon per day (including water used in food preparation), a bug out lasting 5 days requires that you carry 41.5 pounds of weight – in addition to everything else you are carrying.  Imagine trying to find enough attachment points to strap 5 one gallon jugs to yourself while maintaining forward progress.  It simply isn’t going to happen.  If you expect to avoid this lethal hazard it is essential that you plan a route that assures frequent access to water.

6. Hunger or Starvation

Being well prepared and stocked at your residence does not translate to long-term survivability once you have chosen to bug out.

Let’s say, for example, that you have stocked sufficient food to meet the needs of four people for one year and that this is a combination of canned goods, bulk grains and beans, as well as dehydrated, packaged foods representing 2,920 meals.  To achieve an intake of 2,000 calories per day for one year, you will have stocked slightly more than one ton of food.

You will never be able to carry all of the water you need. Make sure you have water filtration options to make water you do come across safe for consumption.

Now, under imminent threat to your safety, you determine that bugging out has become necessary.  In spite of your best efforts, you realize that space and weight limitations make it is impossible to load more than 500 pounds of food into your bug out vehicle.  Doing so would compromise other essentials, such as clothing, portable shelter and personal defense.  Your one year supply of food has now been reduced to three months.

Two days after leaving your home you run out of gas and are forced to continue your journey on foot.  The number of meals that you can carry with you is suddenly reduced to fifteen days per person (a very generous assumption, considering the other essentials that you must also fit into your backpacks).  Upon arriving at your destination you find that conditions are no better than those you left behind; there is no food to be bought and you have been forced to abandon 96% of the reserves that you started out with at home.  Hunger is virtually assured and starvation has now become a realistic possibility.

7. Exposure

Bugging out exposes people to weather conditions that may not be dangerous under ordinary circumstances and preparations, but that can debilitate or kill if you are unable to cope with them.

Hypothermia can occur when the core body temperature drops below 95F, and it is not necessary that the outside temperature be below freezing for this to happen.

Elevated body temperature (greater than 101F) results in hyperthermia, and occurs when the body either generates or absorbs more heat than it can dissipate.  Extreme physical exertion under conditions of high external temperature and humidity can cause onset, leading to organ failure and death if not quickly and properly treated.

We usually think of mild sunburn as an uncomfortable inconvenience, resulting from an occasional, overly long outdoor activity.  But, in a survival situation where you may be outdoors for many days, extended exposure can be crippling and lead to infections that you are not prepared to treat.

8. Water and Food Borne Diseases

One of the most important benefits of a developed society is public sanitation.  It is the means by which cholera, typhoid and other intestinal infections are prevented.  Transmission is mostly from the fecal contamination of food and water, and is caused by poor sanitation.

In a post-SHTF, grid-down world, conventional sewage treatment will become impossible.  This is especially true if there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people moving along a common route in areas that cannot provide proper treatment of human waste.  There will be no Porta Potty services along your route of travel.  You must assume that every source of surface water (streams, rivers, ponds, etc.) will quickly become contaminated along lines of drift.  Plan accordingly.

9. Predation – Robbery and Assault

Contact with, or even proximity to, desperate or malevolent people may be one of the greatest risks anyone could face in a bug out scenario. By ‘proximity’ I refer to individuals and groups who are unable to separate themselves from people that are seeking to strip them of everything they possess.

I have seen common civility and respect for law evaporate in as little as 24 hours after a hurricane.  This, in spite of the fact that core government infrastructure still existed.  Imagine a world where rule of law has collapsed, enforcement is nonexistent, and the vast majority of people around you have no idea where their next meal will come from.  This is a recipe for predation where food, clothing, shelter and firearms would quickly become targets of opportunity.  If you have it, someone else will covet it.

I happen to live in the Southwest border region; an area where bandits – also known as “RIP crews” continually prey on human and drug smuggling groups.  They are savage opportunists with no regard for life and they have no respect for someone else’s property or possessions.  They aren’t even “desperate;” they’re just killers.  With apology for its graphic nature, the photo below illustrates what people are willing to do when you have something they want, when they have no respect for the rule of law or fear of apprehension, and when they can exert more force than you can defend against.

The hazards of running into the wrong people.
Real life hazards today of running into the wrong people. Imagine the increasing likelihood of this scene after a SHTF event.

If you must embark on a bug out route, the only practical solution to avoiding hazards like these is to set a course that keeps you as far from the line of drift as possible.  Situational awareness, evasion, knowledge of route options and strength in numbers will be the best methods for mitigating this type of risk.

10. Denial of Access

When individuals and communities reach the limits of their capacity or willingness to render humanitarian aid (food, shelter, clothing, medicines and other material supplies) they will begin to turn people away.  They will focus on protecting their own families and community, and it may happen far more quickly than you think.  Just as you were willing to barricade your neighborhood and home against looters before you bugged out, so too will they.  In effect, you risk being perceived as a threat in the same way that you viewed individuals and groups who attempted to enter your neighborhood.  Your ability to even pass through their community to your chosen destination may be denied to you.

In a recent and thought provoking article by Pat titled The Day After the End of the World, several time-based guidelines were suggested for assessing your condition; such as one minute, five minutes, two hours and one day after the event.  These are figurative time frames, of course, and are based upon where you happen to be at the time.  Importantly, Pat’s article emphasizes that you must be sensitive to the passage of time and its evolving effect upon the conditions that surround you.

Assuming that you’ve made a decision to bunker your family for some period, it remains necessary that you will have considered the distance and time which separates your residence from your bug out destination.  In my view, there are three inescapable facts:

  • The passage of time will render any knowledge you have about your route and destination increasingly unreliable.  Given sufficient time, what knowledge you had will become useless.  In my opinion, this will occur quickly.
  • The longer you delay departure the greater the probability that your preferred route and destination will be closed to you.
  • The more you rely on a single route bug out route, the more difficult it will be to reach your destination.

Conclusion

Each of the topics described above represent an existential risk when bugging out; yet the hazards of continuing to shelter in place may become such that you are left with no alternative.

I have long held a bias toward bugging out if certain trigger points were reached, but this bias is based upon having acquired skills and resources over the years that largely offset the first eight risks described above.  Realistically, there is nothing I can do to eliminate the hazards of Predation or Denial of Access – they will exist regardless.  Do I want to get into a firefight with a gang of thieves?  Not hardly.  My sole objective would be to quickly get my family to a place of safety using a route that avoids these hazards.   Like anyone else, I would protect my family to the uttermost limits of my capability, regardless of the means necessary or consequences to myself.  Simply stated, avoiding hazards is risk mitigation.  And to me, that means having an intimate knowledge of routes and a level of preparedness to bug out before threats such as these have time to materialize.

As a result of this thought exercise, I have actually lowered my threshold to become more sensitive to the risks of Predation and Denial of Access, in spite of the fact that my locale and destination are much less susceptible than the urban areas you may have to contend with.  Would I ‘want’ to bug out?  Absolutely not; but if circumstances dictate, I intend to be in front of the predators and roadblocks.

I cannot speak to the specific conditions that you might encounter in a bug out situation, other than to encourage everyone to give serious thought and preparation.  I hope that the risks described here and in my companion article will be useful.

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EgbertThrockmorton1
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EgbertThrockmorton1

Once again, another stellar article from Bolo. Well written and the hazards are well-defined. We MUST know what faces us individually or in our own family groups PRIOR to making the decision to leave. That decision to leave, should(as Bolo has oft pointed out) already be written in stone so that when “it” occurs, the decision has already been made. While my wife’s current state of health means that bugging in IS the main necessity, that may change for the positive later. At present, we have to bug-in, so we are planning to be the family’s main fall-back position, as… Read more »

Bolofia
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Bolofia

Thanks, ET1. If your place of residence is the primary “go-to” location for the rest of your family, then you will have the resources to provide a needed level of security. That would be far more difficult to achieve with only the two of you. Certainly, I cannot speak to the conditions between their front doors and yours, but I will always maintain that it is better to be in front of the golden horde than behind it. As Pat indicated in his article, minutes and hours count. Regarding the RIP crew photo, that incident (2 bodies on the ground… Read more »

EgbertThrockmorton1
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EgbertThrockmorton1

I look to see the cartelitos actually having their shoot-outs here in the Estados Unidos very shortly. It will make the cross-border raids of Pancho Villa time, seem like mere horse back picnics.The sheer audacity of the cartels all along our border states is far worse than most people even realize. The media certainly does not report the level of violence that is occurring on THIS side of the border. Check your six often Bolo! Keep your powder dry, things are fixin’ to get intense in your area shortly. I am sorry to say that. The current administration refuses to… Read more »

Kenn
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Kenn

I reside in the CG area, & I can confirm that you & ET1 are not exaggerating. The Sawtooth Mts. south of CG were great for winter hiking, etc.; not anymore. Border Patrol vehicles a-plenty are seen everyday, but danger in the area you mentioned & others still exists. I discovered references in a 1980s issue of National Geographic to problems of the porous U.S./Mexico border, so it’s merely an example that the situation isn’t new, but it IS escalating.

Bolofia
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Bolofia

Kenn, Well said! Very few Americans are aware, much less comprehend, the conditions that exist in the border region of any SW state. Fewer still understand the challenges of the Border Patrol – tasks that are made nearly impossible by this present government. I’ve had drug load trucks come within 15 feet of me at night, flushed load trucks out of the brush, and been in situations where we had to call in BP helicopters to hunt down and apprehend smugglers. At best, U.S. sovereignty of the border regions is a contested matter. My own view is that the cartels… Read more »

LWJ
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LWJ

Bugging out would be nigh impossible half of the year. Without the plows to keep roads open, your not going to get very far, unless you invest in sled dogs..

Bolofia
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Bolofia

Well said! Post-SHTF conditions could mean there would be no snow plows and no road graders or front loaders for removal of road debris after landslides or mud flows across roads. Primary evacuation routes would be clogged with abandoned cars anyway. I have backpacked in snow conditions a few times in steep mountainous terrain, where we measured our progress in hours per mile. I can’t imagine trying to trudge through deep snow for days on end, but then, i’m a desert rat.

tman
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tman

As a college student in a large apartment complex, I would try to make my way back to the family home. Luckily if I had to abandon my vehicle the route home is heavily wooded land with few populated areas. Reason 9 is why I would “bugout” to my Bug In location, so its more like a get home scenario, but the distance is long enough that I would face several days by myself.