Hunker Down or Bug Out: Your Guide to Prepping for Disaster or All-Out Chaos

Hunker Down or Bug Out: Your Guide to Prepping for Disaster or All-Out Chaos

It’s easy to think you’ll simply bug out when disaster is imminent: Just hop in the car, turn the key and rely on the trusty bug-out bag in the trunk to keep you alive until you again reach “civilization.” But how many days and miles will it take to reach a safe place? One? Three? Fifteen? That all depends on conditions that no one can predict. Therefore, staying home and sheltering in place might be the best choice—unless civil disturbance, flood, wind damage, etc., make it impossible to stay put.

How Is Your Intel?

When I worked in Washington, D.C., a good friend asked me what I thought of his bug-out plan if there were another terrorist attack. He said he and his father were considering buying land in the mountains of North Carolina to set up an emergency retreat.

Instead of giving an opinion, I asked him two important questions. How would his family get there? And how would he ensure that his remote retreat would not have been taken over by other evacuees who got there first? North Carolina is a 10-hour drive from Washington on the interstate, but during a mass evacuation, it might take that long to reunite with family in D.C. The trip to North Carolina would likely take several days over congested roads—if he could find sufficient gasoline to get where he was going.

The problem is having enough accurate information so you can leave before the roads and public transportation are either jammed or out of commission. In addition, most of us have jobs, which we can’t just walk away from every time we suspect a terrorist attack, a hurricane or a riot in a nearby part of the city. So, we’d need good intelligence to know the threat was real. Good intel can be hard to come by.

Although Hurricane Rita did not hit Houston directly, it severely damaged communities on the Texas-Louisiana border. A battery-operated radio is essential during an evacuation, because it tells you where not to go! (Photo: FEMA)
Although it was done in stages, the evacuation of Houston during Rita turned into an enormous traffic jam. (Photo: Show Me How)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are both good examples of how publicly available information can lead to the wrong conclusion. When Katrina first hit, the news media focused on New Orleans and the small amount of damage done by the wind and rain. Then, the levee broke, and within 72 hours, not only had the city descended into chaos, but it also became clear that the storm had crippled the entire region and that a nationwide relief effort was needed.

Rita was different. The governor and state emergency planners called for what they thought was an early evacuation when it looked like the storm was going to hit Houston. The storm changed course, and the evacuation became a massive traffic jam that clogged highways. Many people ran out of gas, and around 100 evacuees died of heat stroke or accidents.

“Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are both good examples of how publically available information can lead to the wrong conclusion.”

Remembering Hurricane Rita

Hurricane Rita made landfall as a category 3 storm on September 24, 2005. On September 21, a staged evacuation was ordered at 6:00 p.m. However, nearly 3 million people tried to leave, and the contraflow lanes took more time than anticipated to open for evacuation. The end result was a monumental traffic jam as people ran out of gas. Lessons learned? Contracts were let to ensure that gas stations would get extra supplies of fuel, and the evacuation plan was revised.

Hurricane Rita was a large, category 3 storm that threatened Houston. It turned north at the last moment but still caused the deaths of approximately 100 people in the Houston area due to the fact that the state-ordered evacuation did not go well. (Photo: NOAA)

Planning Ahead

What’s the solution? For my family and myself, it’s being prepared to shelter in place unless it becomes clear that staying home would represent more risk than bugging out in the family car or the authorities issue an order to leave. If evacuation becomes necessary, I’ve planned several things ahead of time. First, I know what to take. The cupboards might be full, but most everything I own will have to be left behind, and chances are that I won’t be able to return and recover any of it.

The sidebar below  contains a list of bug-out supplies that will fit in most family cars. These items should be prepared in advance and either pre-packaged (1- and 2-gallon ziptop bags work great) or pre-positioned for easy access.



When I first trained for evacuation, we were taught to assemble “bugout bags.” But the bag is usually the last resort. Chances of successful evacuation increase markedly with a full evacuation kit stowed in the car.

The contents of my kit include:

Author Martin Topper uses his CamelBack as a go bag, because its large pockets can hold all the gear he would need for surviving three days on foot. (Photo: Aimpoint)

A camelback pack with:

  • Dry food for three days
  • Matches in a waterproof match case
  • Two small first aid kits
  • Two ponchos
  • Emergency aluminum space blanket
  • Two compasses and a map
  • Several sets of latex gloves
  • Sanitary towels, single-use washcloths and glasses cleaner
  • Winchester multi-tool
  • Small, battery-operated radio
  • Insect repellent
  • Water purification straw
  • LED flashlight with extra batteries
  • Rope
  • Tissues

Car carry gear:

  • Pre-packaged personal financial information
  • Trauma kit with compression dressings and tourniquets
  • Several hundred dollars in small bills and change
  • Hatchet and shovel
  • Two tool kits with large and small tools
  • Rubber boots
  • AC/DC converter with 100-foot extension cord
  • MREs, bottled water and cold packs

Getting things pre-packaged and pre-positioned is only one aspect of evacuating to a remote location. First, and most importantly, evacuees must have a clear destination in mind. Unless you own a piece of easily accessible, remotely-located property or have relatives in the country who will be willing to take you in, you’ll need to identify specific localities where you might be able find shelter. It’s best to select several locations, because some might have been impacted heavily by the event you’re looking to escape.

This larger trauma kit for the car contains a variety of materials needed to treat severe bleeding, as well as everyday cuts and bruises.

Second, once you know where you’re going, how are you going to get there? I would try to stay off the interstates, although secondary roads might also be crowded or even blocked by trees or debris, as were a number of roads in Virginia after Hurricane Isabel.

“ … my personal planning horizon for sheltering in place is about two weeks.”

Shelter in Place

When you think about all the things that can go wrong during an evacuation, sheltering in place at home seems to be a no-brainer. That’s not always the case for city dwellers. During the Florida hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, there were news stories about elderly people living in condominiums who found themselves stranded on the upper floors with no power, no air conditioning, no way to open the windows and many flights of stairs between themselves and relief supplies.

Fortunately, there’s a way city dwellers can mitigate many of the problems that come with sheltering at home in an urban area. It involves developing good relationships with your neighbors. A lot of things that one or two people can’t do alone can be done in cooperation with others.

I had the privilege of living with a Navajo medicine man for the better part of two years in the early 1970’s. From the moment I moved in, it was clear that many elements of the day-to-day operation of the Navajo system of subsistence horticulture and pastoralism required the cooperation of a number of the medicine man’s kinsmen. When living at the subsistence level, or when sheltering at home during a disaster, redundancy is the key to survival, and that’s why you need to develop cooperative relationships with your neighbors.

Spare ammo in bulk packages can save quite a bit of money, and bulk packages leaves more space for other survival equipment. (Photo: Florida Gun Exchange)

What will you need to survive at home? That’s a good question, because what you’ll need depends on how big a disaster you’re expecting. Has the power grid gone down? How long might the outage last? Other than living in a sheep camp on the reservation, the longest I’ve been without power in a city is eight days after Hurricane Isabel. (Fortunately, I’ve kept most of my fieldwork gear, and we quickly pressed it into service. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but we managed until power was restored.) Given this, as well as what I’ve learned from various sources about disasters in other parts of America, my personal planning horizon for sheltering in place is about two weeks.

Pre-packaged meals are ideal for including in your bugout kit. They provide balanced nutrition and are often calorie-rich. (Photo: Florida Gun Exchange)

Other friends of mine store enough food and supplies for a year. Many of them live out West or in more remote locations of the East. If I still lived back in northern Arizona, away from major population centers, I’d probably extend that preparation period to at least two months. How much you stockpile for sheltering in place will really depend on the amount of time you reasonably expect it will take for assistance from private relief organizations, your state or the federal government to reach you.

Home Must-Haves

Let’s look at the types of supplies you should have. One of the first things most people think of is a firearm, and I have to admit that the experience of Los Angeles’s Koreatown residents during the Rodney King riots and the experience of people living in Homestead, Florida, after Hurricane Andrew both bear witness to the fact that firearms can be important in a disaster. An AR, AK or M-1 carbine would be my first choice, along with a couple of handguns and about 500 rounds for each gun.

This AKM 247 from Inter-Ordnance is a good choice for both security and hunting.
Dr. Topper’s AKM247 has an E0Tech and Crimson Trace Railmaster Pro light/green laser combination for shooting under all lighting conditions.

Food and water come next. Remember, water will be needed for sanitation, as well as drinking. Ten gallons can go very quickly, so fill as many large jugs as you can, and don’t forget to add the proper amount of bleach—⅛ teaspoon (8 drops) per gallon—to each jug to keep the water fresh.

This life straw is one of the fastest ways to obtain fresh drinking water when you’re bugging out. (Photo: Black Hills Ammunition)

A large, well-insulated cooler is also important for perishable foods from your refrigerator. With cold packs and ice, you should be able to keep food fresh for a couple of days and help your canned goods last longer. A charcoal grill or camp stove will allow you to cook outside. We have both, along with a supply of charcoal, lighters and white gas. And regarding sanitation: A good supply of 33-gallon trash bags will be vital to store trash and help prevent disease.

Large, rugged, high-end coolers such as this Yeti will keep ice frozen for up to a week. (Photo: Florida Gun Exchange)

Finally, don’t forget medical supplies, tools and batteries. I have a trauma kit in both cars that have everything in them, from dressings to antiseptics. This allows me to provide first aid for most minor injuries and stabilize ones that are more serious. We also keep at least six weeks of prescription and over-the-counter medications on hand. As for tools, I have several tool kits pre-packaged and an axe, hatchet and chainsaw for clearing debris.

A small multi-purpose tool can be very useful. It’s a must for a go bag. (Photo: Winchester)

Finally, there are multiple fresh batteries for radios, lights and other tools that require electric power plus an AC/DC converter that will allow me to run a 110-volt line off of my car battery in case I need to run power tools.

Bug-out Or Hunker?

In the end, each disaster is unique—as are the problems that each affected person faces. On the whole, it’s probably better to shelter in place at home. However, if you can’t stay home, being prepared ahead of time will give you the best chance of safely evacuating.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.

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