It’s a regular weekday morning in your urban neighborhood, but then suddenly everything changes. As you get into your car to drive to work, you turn on the radio and hear officials announcing an emergency in the local area.
Maybe there’s an approaching natural disaster. Or perhaps there’s been a chemical or biological attack by terrorists, or an influenza outbreak is imminent. You listen closely to the information, take stock of the situation, and begin to consider your options. What will you do?
Some people don’t have to think long. Their Plan A, which has been cemented for years, is to grab their bug out bag and head for the wilderness. They take the steps necessary to pack up the whole family and begin driving toward the nearest trailhead, with hopes of living off the land and hiding from danger until the disaster resolves itself.
But is this the most practical plan? The debate is intense on myriad survivalist blogs. Some say it’s natural to go back to our roots in the event of an emergency, hunting and fishing and purifying water from streams. But many experts disagree, citing that this is more of a romantic notion than a practical plan. M.D. Creekmore, author of the popular The Survivalist Blog, says the idea of leaving the security of home for the unknowns of the wilderness has never sat well with him, and he cautions against making decisions based on “emotion, instead of logic.” He thinks that in most cases, there are better ways to survive disasters than heading for the hills.
Paul Purcell, the author of Disaster Prep 101 and a consultant who’s worked in risk management, executive protection, corporate security, and on anti- terrorism efforts with local, state, and federal government agencies post 9/11, agrees. He believes that the idea of heading for the hills has gained popularity primarily as a result of the “Man Against Nature” movement, and because it’s an independent, self-reliant way to respond to disaster. But when it comes to real life, his opinion is clear. “No emergency manager makes plans to evacuate a town into the woods in the event of an emergency,” he says.
The reasons are multi-fold. First off, when heading for the hills, there’s the big looming question, “Where am I going to go, and how will I get there?” Some survivalists have bunkers in remote areas, so that’s an option for them. But most people don’t. And especially for families living in urban areas, the wilderness may be dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away.
After authorities have announced the emergency, there will be thousands of people trying to escape the area, and traffic will become chaotic. Tunnels and bridges may close or clog. Major thoroughfares will likely look more like parking lots. In addition, traveling in public areas may expose you to unsafe conditions, a contagious virus, or make you vulnerable to robbery or injury.
If you do manage to get away and find a secluded spot in the woods, there are so many important things to consider, such as food. What will you eat? Bug-out bags typically contain rations for up to a week. But in a major disaster, you may have to be gone for much longer. When your rations run out, do you have reliable hunting, foraging, and fishing skills? Even if your answer is yes, remember that the wilderness areas are likely to become crowded, and fish and game may become depleted quickly, leading to territory battles, theft, and a considerable lack of sustenance.
Finally, it’s important to consider that when living off the land, nothing is within easy reach like it is at home. Real-life survival isn’t the same as a camping in an RV lot with electrical hook-ups, running water, and bathrooms with showers. People must consider whether they truly know how to brave the elements, build a reliable shelter, purify water, and stay warm. For example, what time of year is it? If it’s dead of winter, can you survive freezing temperatures and major snowfall? Most bug-out bags don’t include things like sleeping bags and layers of clothing. If there are children in your family, especially babies or toddlers, the reality of surviving in the outdoors is an especially important consideration.
Another problem with heading for the wilderness—something that Purcell considers a “hidden concern,” because it doesn’t always immediately come to mind—relates to the bigger picture; the fact that each of us are cogs in the fabric of our community and overall society.
“If all of the corporate or key people, or even the one person at the factory who knows how to work a certain machine, head to the hills, then that factory shuts down and it’s an economic disaster, because the fabric tears,” says Purcell.
Which was the case after Hurricane Katrina. After the ducts were repaired and it was time to pump out water, there was a long delay, because the pumping equipment was antiquated and the only people who knew how operate it were the technicians who lived in the local area. But no one could find them, because they’d scattered. It took a long time to track people down and get the water pumped out.
Certainly, in the case of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or in other potential emergency scenarios, like if terrorists are torching every building in your town, evacuation can be a smart choice; the necessary response. But evacuation doesn’t have to mean heading to a remote area and hiding. Instead of escaping to a place where you can’t be reached or keep up with breaking news updates, Purcell suggests going to a hotel in a safe area where you have a standing reservation and a free membership card. These kinds of arrangements can be made in advance, so that you have a few places on your list with phone numbers.
Another option is to create a mutual arrangement with friends or family in an outlying area, agreeing that you’re welcome at each other’s homes in case of disaster. For example, Purcell suggests gathering a trunk of supplies and placing it in the attic of your friends’ home, as a way to “pre-set your nest.” They can do the same at your house. This way, you both bring your own supplies to the arrangement, creating mutual benefit. Creekmore also recommends gathering supplies for an evacuation bag that will get you “from point A to point B,” from home to your pre-arranged location.
But in response to the majority of emergency scenarios, in which evacuation isn’t necessary, Purcell and Creekmore emphasize that the best idea, really, is to simply stay at home, hunkering down until things resolve. Purcell reiterates that modern humans are pretty used to creature comforts and aren’t truly prepared to head for the hills, living like our grandparents did, without running water or electricity for a long period of time. Plus, humans respond best to crisis when they are surrounded by as much comfort as possible. “Preparedness is about lifestyle preservation as much as it is about life preservation,” Purcell says. “It should be simple and subtle; something that can be incorporated into the average lifestyle.”
For example, food storage is easy at home. And although some families insist on buying nitro packs or MREs, Purcell says this isn’t always a good idea, because what if, for example, your child eats something she hasn’t had before, has an allergic reaction, and needs to go to the emergency room. In the case of a disease outbreak, hospitals may be at capacity or overwhelmed with contagious patients. He suggests utilizing the assets you’re familiar with, storing more of the foods you normally consume, with an emphasis on comfort foods. “In crisis, stress is high, morale is crucial, and comfort food provides a sense of normalcy,” says Purcell. “Stock up a little bit at a time until you have four weeks of food in the pantry. Rotate it in with everything else so that the next thing you consume is the oldest, with the newest in back.”
For first aid and health, Purcell suggests foregoing an expensive surgical kit and other costly supplies and instead spending your money on a CPR and first aid class. These workshops are even free in some communities. Above all, he says it’s important to know your plan about how to care for the ailments of family members if cut off from the medical system, especially for chronic conditions like asthma.
He also suggests that if you have the time and insurance coverage, to stay current on dental and physical check-ups. That way, if something is developing and you need to be seen, you take care of it early, and it also gives you a current medical baseline and updated medical charts and records.
“In the case of a pandemic, you don’t want to have to drive you to ER,” he says.
There are also some simple ways to store water at home, which is much easier than purifying mass quantities in the wilderness. Of course, it’s possible the water supply will remain potable throughout the emergency, but in case it doesn’t, Purcell suggests taking empty two-liter bottles of soda or milk jugs, filling them almost to the top, and freezing them.
“Put them in empty spots in your freezer and fridge,” he says. “In a power outage, not only will you have lots of water, you’ll have frozen ice packs to keep your food cold longer.”
Finally, Purcell recommends focusing on how a survivalist attitude at home might help in a post-disaster situation. Although outdoor survival skills are useful, he also recommends investing in other skill sets, learning anything you can—medical, dental, automotive repair, utility repair, plumbing, electrical, cosmetology—which might be essential for yourself and your family, and also may be useful in bartering with neighbors. Since everyone will be in the same boat, he says that you’re likely to build bridges, and not enemies, through networking and trading with the people who live nearby.
“Home security and self-defense are important,” he says. “But I also stash cigarettes, Jack Daniels, tampons, and toilet paper—things that people are likely to want or need.”
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.