Bugging out is a central tenet to prepping. You cannot count on staying where you are! The best laid plans, the most fortified location, all of it could be rendered moot, even dangerous in the wrong situation.
That could be from bad luck, a bad plan or just something you could not have predicted. No matter the reason, you need to get your BOB and get to safer territory, by foot if required.
But I have observed something of a disturbing trend among otherwise well-intentioned and motivated preppers. People are ready to bug out, with bag packed and set handily by the door and a destination in mind, but they don’t really know how they are going to bug out.
Sure, they know they have a long and likely arduous journey ahead of them, but aside from “get from here to there” that is all the advance work they have done on what is probably one of the most difficult and potentially harrowing phases of their survival plan.
That needs fixing, pronto. In this article, I’ll share some tips and hard-earned wisdom for practicing and executing a bug-out by foot.
Risks of Bugging Out
I’ll assume we are all more or less acquainted with why you’d be bugging out: some terrible disaster, be it man-made or natural, or the aftermath of said disaster has rendered your current habitation unsustainable or unsurviveable, or quickly exceeding your acceptable risk parameters.
You need to get out and get away, ideally to a pre-prepared or at least preselected bug-out location, or BOL.
Additionally, you can probably easily think of a half-dozen reasons that would make travel by motor vehicle either impossible or unadvisable, leaving the oldest mode of transport, foot, your best option.
Time to strap on your BOB, pick ‘em up and set ‘em down. Simple enough in practice. Simple, not easy. Chances are high that you’ll be undertaking significant risks by bugging out on foot.
You’ll be leaving behind everything you worked so hard to prepare that was supposed to keep you safe. Things like ample stored food and water, shelter, protection and so on.
If you are travelling any distance, especially along remote or scarcely traveled paths, you’ll be solely dependent on yourself to provide all of the above.
Consider also that you will be at risk of any natural disaster effects that sent you running in the first place. Lingering bad weather in the form of snow, wind, rain and more.
Smoke and flames from wild fires. Tainted air from industrial accidents or volcanoes. The list goes on and on. You will of course be at risk of running afoul of evil or desperate people through choice or circumstances who will want what you have, at any cost.
There is usually safety in numbers, and staying in your home, whatever it is, always gives you an edge on defense. You won’t have that any more when setting off on foot.
Your skills and the equipment you carry will be your lifeline, literally. Exposure is a constant killer of the unlucky and the foolish. Loss of equipment or inability to make use of your survival skills can be a literal death sentence when your survival is completely dependent on your ability to provide your needs.
I mean real needs: Air, Shelter, Water, Food and Security. The Wild will suffer not the weak or ill-prepared to live.
Even in ideal circumstances- you are as hardy as an ox, fit, skilled, trained and equipped, you might still run afoul of a mistake or misadventure and die. You can become lost in the woods you have “known” your whole life.
Underestimating your consumption of vital resources sees you dehydrate and incapacitated. A simple accident cripples you, far, far away from anyone who might hear you, and not one single soul in the circumstances knows where you are.
Urban dwellers are not immune. Cities will so often turn into centers of bedlam and chaos during SHTF events.
Escaping a city, or just to a safer side of the city, on foot can turn harrowing indeed, as you’ll be surrounded, hemmed in on all sides by desperate humanity. Can you negotiate the expanse of the concrete jungle to safety?
This and more is what you are up against. This will be no time whatsoever for winging it, figuring it out as you go or calling an audible. You must have a plan. You must prepare.
You must ensure that your plan remains valid and then be able to execute that plan rapidly and as safely as possible. Nothing else will do. Now that I trust I have disabused you of the hike-through-the-glen fallacy, let’s talk brass tacks.
Route Planning for Bug Out Success
Even if you know the way to your BOL like your own beating heart, you need to commit that route to a map. Trust me on this. Stress does funny things to the mind.
Beyond that, do you know by heart 3 or more separate ways to get to where you are going? I don’t mean sorta-kinda know. I mean know…
Didn’t think so. But you must, and you must have them committed to paper in case your mind takes a lunch break when you need it in its chair the most.
More on how you should map it out in a minute. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket, so you will not hang your chances of success on just one route.
When choosing alternate routes, account for things like seasonal changes, effects of weather, effects of time, likelihood of additional human traffic, and more.
Anything at all that could impede (or improve) your travel must be accounted for and noted. These routes need not be completely eccentric.
You might have two separate routes that begin along the same leg, fork off somewhere between, and hook back up later on to finish the journey. You might decide on completely separate, discrete paths.
You may even include one that detours well out of the way before doglegging back in to your destination in case of a danger in the area of your primary route.
Implementing Multiple Routes
In the military, there is a concept for planning communications that is called PACE. It stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency.
This allows multiple, redundant means of accomplishing the same thing, with the first two being the most efficacious, the third being a viable if less effective method, and the later being often the least desirable but still effective method that can get the job done.
You should endeavor to utilize a similar system for your bug-out routes. That way any kind of mishap or detour will not completely derail you and leave you stranded in a half-way posture.
Advance Work – You Must Know What You Are Getting Into!
Way too many preppers are guilty of phoning this in. They know the route, know where they are going and how to get there, yadda yadda. They’re “ready.” Yeah, they are ready alright, ready to get out there and get smoked out of their socks or get dead.
I’ll say this as succinctly as possible: If you have not actually traveled your routes by foot you do not truly know if they are suitable for use, period. A highway is awfully different by foot with a BOB on your back than cruising along by vehicle.
The woods you have played around near your whole life get a whole lot more menacing and confusing the deeper you go. A pleasure hike feels like a death march when you are heavily laden. The point is, you need to do dry runs, both to properly assess the route, and yourself.
Changing seasons or weather can make some routes more difficult to traverse, significantly so in some cases. The same may also completely close some routes or open others.
Time alone will have an effect, with rarely travelled trails becoming totally overgrown in short order. Old disused logging roads can vanish. Urban paths may disappear with construction or become dangerous due to declining neighborhoods.
If you aren’t scouting your routes, periodically at varying times and varying seasons, you are working off stale intel. Stale intel gets people killed.
Always remember that a route, even one made from stone, is not set in stone, so to speak. Your chosen paths will not stay viable seasonally or over time.
It is up to you as a prepper to periodically travel them, however long and arduous it might be, to verify them as best you can if you want to depend on them when the chips are down.
Marking and Mapping Your Routes
You’ll first need a map of whatever type and whatever scale makes sense to you for your objective and your area. If you are a city slicker, that will be a detailed road and block map of your town and perhaps a road atlas or map of the surrounding region.
For suburban and rural denizens that will mean a topographical map if you are heading over wild country. You can use home printed and assembled maps for this and you need not spend a fortune, but you must have a map that is durable to survive the rigors of SHTF survival and one that is, ideally, waterproof.
Now that you have your map, grab some markers, pens, pencils, anything that works for you. I like to use a variety of colored markers to indicate separate routes by type as well as other points of interest that we’ll talk about in a second.
Try to keep bleeding to a minimum, and it is in your best interest to make sure you can still see the details of the map below your markup, so choose your implement carefully. Make sure it cannot wash off the map easily, so that means no dry or wet erase, etc.
First select a color for your primary and alternate routes. I like to use a dark shade for the primary and a lighter shade of the same color for the alternate.
Mark them down carefully on your map. I use blue and light blue. You might choose to denote any short detours that could pop up with a dashed line of the same color coming off the main routes.
Since you have been diligently travelling your routes, you should know where potentially hazards and no go areas are. I use orange and red to denote no-go areas and hazards or potential bottlenecks respectively.
In a city, this might be hazardous industrial areas, a rough part of town or part of town soon to be made rough by whatever you are running from. In the country, this is ground that is dangerous or hard to travel through, swamps, steeper terrain etc.
Mark it with an orange border and a few thin slashes with a small note as to the nature of the hazard.
Obstacles, potential bottlenecks and other hazards directly on the routes should be marked up with your red pen, and a small note indicating what they are and the time frame they are most likely to be in effect, if applicable.
This can be trees that could fall and block your path, rockslides, bridges, river crossings and so forth. Situation ally dependent hazards I mark with brown.
This can be things like chemical storage plants, flood plains, or dense woods if I am facing a wildfire. Anything that is nominally not a problem but could be in the wrong situation gets noted in brown.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Any place will have places you can go along your routes that offer safety, or are at least safer, than others. In cities this could potentially be friends and family dwellings, out of the way places to rest, or potentially government and society installations like police and fire departments, hospitals, etc.
In the country, this is good places to make camp or natural shelters, access points for water, observation points, etc.
Don’t Forget the Compass!
Now that your maps are marked up and you have a real plan for getting to where you are going, keep your maps tucked away where you will have them with your BOB when it is time to bug out. Having the map is only half of a proper navigational system.
To reliably find your way in all conditions, you’ll need a compass too. For short overland forays or city dwellers a small button compass is adequate, but you’ll be best served going cross country by a good field or lensatic compass.
Be sure you learn how to use both properly to orient yourself and navigate to your destination. Don’t neglect redoing or updating your maps as conditions and your situation changes, either!
One of the biggest failure points in a bug-out plan is the prepper themselves. A lack of physical and mental preparation being the chief flaws of that particular component.
The good news is that you have ample time, now, to start remediating both. The latter and some of the former can be mitigated by simply scouting your routes as I have urged.
Nothing boosts confidence for any stressfully physical task like having done it before, rain or shine, strung-out tired or bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
You must not fall in to the trap of neglecting your fitness while depending on ever greater and more capable technological wonders of the early 21st century. When the rubber meets the road, literally, you will be sorely tested.
A good hike, even on flat land is taxing. Add some weight on your back and it gets much harder.
Now add rough terrain, elevation changes and even more weight, plus life-changing stress, and you’ll be taxed like you never have before.
Dehydration, exhaustion, blisters and cramping will all serve to wear you down and immobilize you.
The only prevention for any of the above is putting in the work now. You must maintain a high degree of muscular strength and aerobic capacity. Speed counts. You need to make good time to get where you are going if getting overtaken by events can mean peril or even death.
Make it part of your life to stick to an exercise regimen for general fitness and ensure you make rucking, or walking with your pack, a part of your workouts.
Carrying a load will work and strain muscles you never knew you had, and adds extra stress on feet and joints, so you must start toughening them up now.
Start light, slow and short, and gradually increase all three metrics as you progress. This is also the ideal way to test your BOB and yourself. Any major problems with stability, chafing or durability and the like can be detected and ruthlessly eradicated during practice before you do it for real.
Once you attain a good operational level of fitness that ensures you can both do what you set out to do and be reasonably sure of injury prevention, it is time to do a trial run of your route/s.
File a flight plan with a trusted friend or two explaining where you are going and when you expect to be back and a deadline that they should get an all-ok from you. Hey, laugh if you want, people get into jams and nearly die on easy day hikes all the time.
If you are going any distance or any time from home see to it that you have an insurance policy you can count on: file your plan, timetable and route. Don’t deviate from it! Now is not the time for improvisation. This will be the true test of your capability, mind, body and equipment.
Take along a little prepping journal or notebook and write down any useful observations, thoughts or feelings about the route, your BOB, your mindset and anything else that could stand improvement or meditating on.
Executing – Bugging Out for Real
As with all of prepping, after you have done all of this advance work, gotten fit, ran your routes, accounted for obstacles and implemented backup plans, you may be surprised to find that the real thing is easier than the practice.
At least that is what we hope for! Nonetheless, there are a few things you should add to your pre-bug out checklist.
1) You should always have your BOB packed and set handily where you can access it and don it quickly. Time may be of the essence.
2) Rotate any perishable supplies in your BOB as part of your usual ongoing maintenance checks. Things like food, water, batteries, etc. Check all contents for mold, wear and other degradation.
3) Never, ever, never set out with shoes or boots that you don’t know intimately and have broken in. Your feet are your way out. If your feet break down, you are stranded. Severe blisters and other hotspots can stop you in your tracks and leave your feet infected.
That happens way out somewhere, you are in it deep… Always have footwear that is plenty broken in but well cared for with plenty of life left as your go-to bug-out footwear. No exceptions!
4) Consider leaving a note or trying to send word to anyone who might be expecting you or heading to your place as their response.
This is a touchy subject, as some folks don’t want to leave behind anything that could compromise their backtrail or reveal their BOL. But with a little forethought and discussion with people that might reasonably try to come to you or reach you in a crisis, you can mitigate this.
You can label potential BOL’s or rendezvous points with numbers, or even nonsense names that are otherwise meaningless but easy for you all to remember.
You could direct your friend or relative who finds your note to your cabin near a clear-running river and cave system with a message like, “Chris, heading to Beaver Creek. Should be there in 2 days, 3 latest. Dated…”
This simple system can convey ample information so the people you care about can make their own intelligent decisions. If they arrive to find you not there, at least someone might be able to look for you, or have an idea of where you might have had to go instead.
5) Plan for pace and timing. You need to know about how fast you can move and for how long to calculate your rate of travel. When you have your ideal pace dialed in, try to stick to it.
Don’t double time it unless there is imminent danger as your risk of injury and exhaustion will skyrocket, potentially moving you further behind the eight ball.
Don’t sprint if running will do, don’t run if walking will do, and don’t walk if you can stay where you are. An abundance of caution is warranted in times such as the one you’ll be bugging out in.
Bugging out by foot is often central to many preppers’ emergency plans, but few give this risky endeavor the attention to detail and preparation it deserves itself.
Don’t let your bug-out plan be a one way ticket into despair and death. Start today and take the time required to ensure that you, your equipment and your on-foot escape plan will endure the chaos and confusion of a SHTF event.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.