When you have to bug out on a boat, it puts a whole new twist on survival. It is estimated that 80-90% of the earth’s population lives near a major body of water. When highways and city streets get jammed up, a boat may be your best way out.
Also, there are plenty of survival scenarios where a ship is sinking, or a plane goes down and survivors are left on a life raft. It is very feasible that your survival skills could be put to the test on the water.
When I really started to dive into this scenario, I came to the conclusion that this is not attempted because of the level of difficulty. Few survivalists are qualified to handle this type of test.
That is mostly due to a lack of knowledge and context on the matter. To help you in that regard, today I am bringing you a guide to help you get started with the concept of bugging out on a boat, and I will tell you about an actual ordeal I endured doing exactly that. Grab your life jacket and keep reading.
Table of Contents
Why Bug Out on a Boat in the First Place?
The first question that we need to answer is why on Earth you’d bug out on a boat in the first place?
The short answer is that it is the best choice or the only choice you have. The longer and a proper answer is “it depends.”
Once you’ve been in the prepping game long enough, or been through a few genuine scrapes yourself, you’ll start to realize that there is no one, true best answer in any given survival scenario.
Sometimes you make the best choice you can with what information you have. Sometimes your choices will actually be made for you. And then, of course, you might make a decision that will play to your strengths.
Bugging out on a boat is a great way to maximize certain skills or circumvent certain problems that are attendant with bugging out on land. At the end of the day, a boat is just a vehicle that has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and its own set of special risks, just like any other.
But, you can take this to the bank: when the apocalypse arrives or when modern society collapses, it is entirely possible that bugging out by boat might be your very best hope of survival, or at least avoiding the chaos that will be flowing out of the big cities.
The following sections will tell you more about what boats can do for you in a survival scenario, and also what shortcomings you’ll need to work to minimize.
Waterways Were the Original Highways
We need to clear up one thing before we go any further: you’re not necessarily bugging out on a boat just to live on the boat until things settle down, although that is one possibility we will talk about later.
No, whether you are traveling down shallow waterways, crossing large bodies of water or even taking to the open ocean the water can serve as your highway, and your boat your conveyance.
It’s all been done before, and for a very long time: waterways were the original super highways, and when people and societies needed to get some place quickly or move mass quantities of goods taking to the water was always preferable.
Today, of course, all major waterways are still heavily trafficked, but when you compare the amount of room you have on a river, a large lake or on the open ocean to jam-packed highways, freeways and interstates will become when things blow up, it’s no comparison at all.
The water might prove to be your safest alternate route when bugging out, and with the right skills, equipment and a properly equipped craft it could even serve as a refuge until things do calm down on land.
Advantages of Bugging Out on a Boat
Like every other vehicle, bugging out on a boat offers you advantages. Some are inherent to the boat itself, others come from the terrain that a boat lets you access.
Consider the following:
Most Waterways are Wide Open
One of the single biggest advantages inherent to traveling by boat is that your waterways, and virtually every circumstance, are going to be wide open compared to highways, interstates and even local streets.
If something truly terrible happens that clogs the roads with panicked evacuees, you might not have a thing to worry about as you are cruising down the river or heading out into the Gulf of Mexico.
This can allow you to make better time to your destination, and also buy you time to think because you won’t be surrounded by a panicked, teeming throng of people.
Boats Make you Harder to Reach
If you’re on a boat, and someone is going to lay hands on you, they either have to swim up to you, approach you on their own boat or start shooting at you. You won’t have any unknown knocks to deal with in the night, that much is certain.
Swimming at someone on a boat is typically noisy and is invariably slow. Likewise someone approaching you via boat is going to be easy to spot, even at night in all but the darkest conditions. Now, sitting there bobbing on the water makes you a fairly easy target for gunfire, but hopefully you are equipped so you can shoot back.
In any case, being on a boat makes it much more difficult for people to get to you and that can keep you safe from robbery or direct attack. Anchoring does make you vulnerable to being overtaken by pirates, however.
Boats Aren’t Immobilized When They Run Out of Fuel
If a boat runs out of fuel, it isn’t truly a mobilized in most cases. You can always bust out the paddles, erect a sail or just drift on the current. This has problems of its own, sure, but it won’t fall out of the sky like an aircraft or sit there uselessly like a motor vehicle on land.
There are also many types of boats that are designed to be manually powered, such as canoes and kayaks, or wind-powered via sail.
All have particular advantages and disadvantages depending on your plan and your skills, and one of the biggest parts about learning to bug out via boat is maximizing your voting and seamanship skills.
Disadvantages of Bugging Out on a Boat
It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows just because you decided to bug out by boat. Other people are certainly going to have the same idea, and boats entail certain special risks unique to the mode of travel.
You must constantly work to minimize the following:
Risk of Sinking or Swamping
Boats keep you afloat, that’s what they do. But they don’t always stay afloat. Damage from exposure, a lack of maintenance, collision, running aground, being shot at and more can start letting water into the hull of the boat. When that happens, it will start to sink.
Without immediate repairs and remedial action, itself hardly guaranteed when out on the water in smaller vessels, you’ll be underwater and sinking fast in no time
When that happens, you can’t just get out and walk away like you would with a car running out of fuel or crashing. You’ll now be in an entirely new and extremely perilous survival scenario: drowning or being swept to sea! That, and much of your gear will be irrevocably lost.
Predictable Movement on Most Bodies of Water
Let’s face it. Unless you are heading out into the wide open ocean, and have the skills to handle such a journey, if you are taking to a river or lake people are going to know more or less where you are and where you are going.
If you have pursuers, they’ll be able to follow you easily enough in most cases. If you are on a closed body of water like a lake, except in the case of the largest lakes, generally people will have it some idea of where you will put to shore.
Speaking of, depending on the type of boat you are captaining you might not be able to get to shore just anywhere. Larger boats or those with a deeper draft will need better and bigger docks to safely come ashore. Smaller boats like canoes and kayaks can be put ashore anywhere that you can reach and pull them out of the water.
What is the Best Bug-Out-Boat?
As you might have already guessed, choosing the right kind of boat for your bug-out purposes is foundational to your success.
It is sort of a “yin and yang” equation: your objectives and your plan will dictate the type of craft that you choose, and the craft that you choose will also influence your other decisions concerning gear, route and more, influencing your plan.
A thorough discussion of all of the variables is enough to fill several articles all on its own, but the following list contains some of the best bug out boats you might choose along with their perks and flaws.
Kayak / Canoe
A great option for quick getaways down rivers and other calm bodies of water. Portage is easy compared to most other types if made of fiberglass. Very limited cargo capacity, relies on muscle power and precision maneuvers are difficult without a lot of practice. Low stability, difficult to sleep in and prone to tipping over.
Inexpensive, lightweight and adaptable option. Can be paddled or equipped with a motor. Larger versions have decent cargo capacity. Always vulnerable to damage. Generally easy to carry ashore and portage as required. Not suitable for rough water without considerable practice.
Large, stable boats provide room for plenty of people and a fair bit of cargo. Usually slow and difficult to maneuver. Aluminum typically used in construction, requires little maintenance.
Requires modest dock for soft, sandy beach for putting ashore. Not easy to effectively paddle or power with wind, reliant on gasoline or diesel engine. Only suited for use on lakes or calm coastal waterways.
Provides best and most comfortable shelter for survivors, basically a mini yacht. Ideal for long-term survival. Comparatively slow and clumsy when on the water, completely dependent on gasoline or diesel engine.
Great cargo capacity and ideal for extended bug outs staying on the water. Highly visible and conspicuous, will attract attention. Cannot easily be moved overland except by large and specialized trailer.
Ideal for high-speed transport down river or near land on the ocean. Larger types have adequate cargo capacity for necessities and several people. A great way to get where you are going fast as a situation is unfolding, but extremely noisy and highly conspicuous. Multiple engines means that these boats require lots of fuel.
Wind power never runs out, and sailboats can be as a small or large as desired, offering accommodations and cargo capacity dependent on their size.
However, sailing is an intricate skill and difficult to master, and larger boats are best serviced by a crew of at least two. Can be flexible, but should be equipped with backup gasoline or diesel motor. Quiet, but a sail, obviously, is extremely visible from a long way away.
My Bug-Out Boat Exercise
I complete several survival challenges every year to prepare myself for various scenarios and test my skills. For this test, I spent three days and nights on a boat on open water. No joke.
I planned my challenge for the hottest weekend of the year and spent almost six months preparing. It was a life changing experience.
Let me break it down for you. You are all alone in a small motorless boat or life raft. You are on the open ocean and there is no land in sight. It is 100 degrees during the day but still cold enough to kill a man at night.
You are surrounded by water that you cannot drink, and your only real food source is the fish in the sea. It is daunting to think about.
The record for the longest time any person has survived on a life raft was 133 days during WWII. That being said, I can tell you that three days was plenty long enough for me!
Choosing my Survival Gear
One of my first decisions was determining what supplies to take with me…
I wanted it to be minimal to simulate a quick escape by boat or having to sift through debris for supplies. In fact, this was the shortest list of supplies I had ever taken on a survival challenge. I hardly had to take a pack at all. I did take my knife as I have that on my belt at all times.
I took a small survival bracelet which has paracord, a fire steel, a compass, and a whistle because I also carry this with me pretty much all the time. I always keep a few fish hooks in the bill of my hat.
I normally carry iodine tablets in my pocket when I am in the bush, so I had those. I was also thinking that in most life raft scenarios you would have access to some thicker cordage, so I brought some climbing rope.
I had my normal clothing, shoes, and ball cap. The only piece that was unique was a shemagh. This is basically a giant bandana, but you can make one out of any sheet of thin cloth.
Finally, I had a water bottle with me. Other than the climbing rope I could have carried everything on my person, so it is very feasible that this gear would be with a prepared survivalist a life raft situation.
Day 1, Dealing with the Elements
On the first day, I set out at 9 am and the temp was around 95 degrees by the time noon hit. The sun was zapping me, but I had my hat on so my first order of business was to get a bed built that would be either insulated or up off the water.
I was completing my challenge in an old leaky john boat with no motor, so it had the potential to be very wet, cold, and uncomfortable during the night. I really did not have enough materials to make an insulated bed, so I had the idea to wrap the rope tightly around the crossbeams of the boat.
This created a makeshift hammock to keep me off the floor of the boat. If you have anything insulated like large sheets of Styrofoam, it can be a good insulated option for a bed.
Shelter is normally a major priority, but I really did not have any building materials. With daytime temps reaching close to 100 degrees and nights getting down to about 50 degrees, I really just needed to have a way to control my body temperature.
Without shade I would need protection from the sun. I had no sunscreen. Normally I would smear mud on my skin but I was too far from the shore, so clothing was my only option.
It is not very comfortable, but many desert dwelling people stay completely clothed in the heat of the day. I had a long sleeve shirt and pants, so the last item I needed was the shemagh.
This three foot by three foot bandana can be wrapped around the head, face, and neck to completely cover any skin that could be burned. It worked perfectly.
If you are on the ocean, driftwood may be used to build a shelter and give you some shade. On a river you should have no problem finding materials. My solution was not ideal, but it would have to do.
Staying Warm at Night
Keeping warm at night was a different story. I broke one of my cardinal rules during the day and allowed myself to get wet. It was so hot I was actually dumping water on my clothes to try and cool them off. I drastically underestimated how cold I would get at night.
I cannot say that I was hypothermic, but it was not fun. From that point on I forced myself to stay dry and up off of the wet floor of the boat. I even took off my sweaty shirt and dried it just before dark to help out. If you are in a rainy climate, some overhead shelter might be even more pertinent.
All I could think of was getting comfortable and getting some sleep, but the cold was starting to get to me. The colder I got, the more I noticed my body aches. The bed was functional but the corners of the crossbeams were jabbing into my neck and legs. It was a long night of shivering and waiting for the sun.
Day 2, Dehydration and Food
Almost as soon as the sun rose on my second day I regretted its presence. It was even hotter that the day before. Now the real challenge of the situation arose. By early afternoon I was already feeling the effects of dehydration…
I happened to be floating on fresh water, but it was not safe to drink. In this situation, I was able to use both fire and the iodine tablets to purify the water. Iodine tablets work well, but take 30 minutes. This can be an excruciating wait if you are dehydrated. In a salt water situation the challenge is completely different.
Sea water cannot be purified by conventional means. Because of that rain water is your easiest source. In a rainy climate use any plastic you can find to collect water when it rains. If there is no rainwater to be had, you have to get creative.
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My next focus was food. I decided that fishing was my first priority and felt a trot line was a good option. A trot line is simply a long line with several baited shorter lines attached.
I unraveled the cordage from my survival bracelet and shoelaces and attached the hooks from my hat with a fisherman’s knot. I added some random scraps I found in the boat and cast it out.
Spearfishing is another option and was my next project. I did find one longer branch that was drifting about. I used my knife to smooth it out and split one end twice giving me four points.
I shoved small sticks in the gaps to spread the points and then sharpened them with my knife. This four point spear allows you to cover more surface area when you strike.
After drifting about for a while, I noticed there were no large fish towards the surface. I did see several large frogs swimming about and that became my new target.
I could have gone for a swim to find fish deeper in the water, but the water was weary of the murky waters, and I did not want to tip my boat trying to climb back in. Hour after hour passed as I made strike after strike with no success.
Finally, just before dark I skewered one and pulled it onto the boat. Now I had a reason to build a fire…
The Fundamentals Get a Lot More Complicated on a Boat
If I was desperate I could have eaten the frog raw. However, they carry parasites and I did not want to take the chance. I needed something to insulate the boat from the flames of my fire if I was going to start one. I found shallow water with some rocks and used those to line the bottom of the boat.
There were a few twigs towards the front that were still dry, and I still had some cordage to fluff up and burn. I also cut the blunt end off of my spear and split it up to burn. Now I needed tinder and luckily I noticed that mice had built a little next under one of the cross beams.
Animal nests are typically super dry and make great tinder. With a few strikes of my fire steel I had a little fire large enough to cook the legs of my frog. I quickly butchered it, skinned, it, and shoved the meat on a stick. After a few minutes I had a dinner that looked a bit like chicken wings. I was thankful for the calories and protein.
Day 3, Thinking About Rescue and Mindset
Being alone on a boat or raft is largely a challenge of the mind. In my case I had about 30 square feet of living space to move within. This is roughly the size of a shallow closet in a house.
How often do you find yourself completely isolated from other people and stuck in a confined space? It could drive a person mad. Keeping your prepper wits about you is paramount.
I split my time between self-amusement and self-reflection. I highly suggest the former. Anything that you can do for fun is a good idea.
You can also employ some of the same techniques suggested for kidnapping victims. Keep your mind strong and alert by challenging it however you can
Unfortunately, I spent just as much time stuck in my head. You end up scrutinizing every decision you have made. You think that maybe you should have used your resources differently or maybe you should have cleaned your water differently.
Regrets start to develop about the items you brought with you or even the situation that put you in this predicament.
Signaling for help is a priority that may apply to your situation. If you are simply adrift, this is your best chance of survival. However, you likely have limited supplies with which to contact help.
Try your cell phone as soon as you can, but conserve the battery for when you get closer to land. Anything shiny can be used to reflect light to passing boats.
The whistle on my survival bracelet makes a sound distinctive enough to be heard from a long distance. Flashlights or laser pointers can be used to signal and are often waterproof these days.
On the end of day three I was excited to head to land. I learned a great deal during this process. In a situation where you bug out on a boat, you have to be creative and extend your resources. Many of the normal rules of survival have to be adapted for this situation.
Whether you are headed to a specific location or you are simply adrift, every single move has to be contemplated. When on a boat the water can be a provider, but it can also mean your demise.
This is the paradox of Mother Nature. In the end, you will find that the water is an element to be worked with, not against. The real adversary is yourself.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.