Many preppers and survivalists have become fond of saying "If you didn't bug-out on 9-11, you'll never bug-out." Although I understand the sentiment behind the statement, I disagree with it. Despite the horrific events of that day, for most Americans it made little sense to bug-out, as it was obvious they were safe where they were at the time.
Sure, if you lived or worked in New York, Washington, or some big city that would be a likely terrorist target, you should have bugged out. But for most Americans, this wasn't the case.
On 9-11 I was living and working in a small town in western North Carolina, a couple hours away from the nearest big city. Terrorists seek maximum carnage and maximum publicity. The chances that a terrorist, even on 9-11, would fly a plane into a building in my particular small town was next to zero. I probably had a higher chance of being struck by lightning on that day. Frankly, this was the case for most Americans. Bugging out would have been a highly emotional over-reaction, unless you happened to live or work in a big city, like New York or Washington.
This perfectly illustrates one of the main points of this article. The answer to the question "When should I bug-out?" is an individual one, dependent not only on the big picture of what is happening nationally (terrorist attack, EMP event, economic meltdown, or whatever), but also on the smaller picture of what is actually happening, or is likely to happen, in and near your particular location.
Why You Should Bug-In If Possible
Bugging out should not be your Plan A, of course. The best advice for most people in most situations is to stay put. Bug-in (hunker down) where you are, unless and until it becomes too dangerous to do so. You don't want to face the open road during a highly chaotic and dangerous time unless you absolutely have to escape greater danger. In most cases, bugging out is a measure of last resort.
There are reasons most folks shouldn't bug-out too early. Needlessly bugging out will make you feel foolish and it will interfere with your regular life, making you and your family members more reluctant to bug-out next time (when the need might be much greater). Imagine having to explain to your boss that you missed several days of work because you panicked and bugged out over something that turned out to be nothing. Imagine your already prepper-reluctant wife's reaction to a false bug-out, or you teen children. A premature bug-out can create many problems.
Besides, bugging out means leaving familiar territory - giving up the home field advantage, so to speak. Most folks know where they live and work better than they will know some remote bug-out location. You know your neighbors, who to trust and who not to trust, better where you live. You know the layout of the land, where resources are located, and where the danger spots are, better where you live now than at some location you maybe visit a couple times a year. Simply put, your local knowledge will be greater where you live than where you'll bug out.
Also, if you are like most folks, your home is where you keep the bulk of your supplies, most of which you'll have to abandon if you bug-out, as there is going to be limited space in your car or truck. Don't underestimate the home field advantage that your giving up when you bug-out.
When To Bug-Out
But, despite all these reasons to stay, there may come a time when you have to bug out - when staying where you are at becomes just too dangerous. Maybe it is civil unrest, rioters and looters. Or, maybe a wildfire is sweeping your way. Whatever the danger, how do you know its time to bug out? This is where local knowledge and situational awareness meet to help you make an informed decision.
You will have to decide which is the safer option: staying put or bugging out. In a SHTF situation, both options will have dangers associated with them. And you'll face additional dangers on the road as you travel to bug out location. You'll have to factor those dangers into your calculations, too. Its not just "my bug out location is safer than my home, therefore I will bug out." Your bug out location may be safer, but the route to it may be more dangerous than staying home. In that case, staying may be your best option. Think of this decision process as an equation.
The Bug-Out Equation
If A > B and C, then D
If A < B or C, then E
A = Danger level of staying home (bugging in)
B = Danger level of staying at your bug-out location
C = Danger level of traveling from A to B
D = Bug-Out
E = Bug-In
A, B, and C are variables that you'll have to decide for yourself, using your local knowledge and situational awareness, which I'll explain below. Those variables will likely change constantly, so you will have to use your knowledge and commonsense to predict those changes in order to avoid bugging out too late.
Local knowledge is your understanding of where you live and work. You should also develop local knowledge of your bug-out location, and of the route you travel between the two.
Local knowledge is more than just knowing the roads, although that is a part of it. You need to know where the bad neighborhoods and high crime areas are, and how to avoid them. You need to know traffic patterns and where congestion is likely to occur. You need to be aware of road and infrastructure construction and how that may effect your route. You need to be aware of alternate routes. You need to know where resources are located - such as gas stations, grocery stores, rest stops, hospitals, camp grounds, and other places you may need. Most importantly, you need to know all these things without having to use GPS, google maps, or other technology that may or may not be available during a SHTF event.
You also need to know people - such as your neighbors where you live and where you'll bug-out. Have an assessment in your mind of how they will likely react during a crisis - will they be friend or foe. Do you follow the local news, or maybe listen to a local talk radio show? Have you talked to a local cop and asked questions about what areas are problematic when it comes to crime, potential looting, or other dangers? Get to really know your locations.
Situational awareness is simply being aware of what is going on around you. But, situational awareness done right is more than just paying attention to what is going on around you. It means paying attention, knowing what to look for, and how to assess (make decisions about) your surroundings.
For a full explanation of situational awareness and the OODA Loop (an important part of situational awareness). please see my article on the subject, which has been described as "the best guide to situational awareness available on the Internet" (shameless plug). In this article, I'm just touching on how you would use situational awareness in your decision making process of when to bug-out.
In a national emergency, such as what occurred on 9-11, most folks will likely tune in to cable news to keep up with events. This is probably a mistake, since what you need is an understanding of what is actually happening around you at your present location. As such, I suggest that a local TV station or news/talk radio station is a much better choice. This will give you up-to-the-minute information of what is actually happening around you, not just on the national level. In addition to local news and events, you'll also find out about school & work closings, road construction, traffic conditions, and instructions from state and local officials.
You'll also want to listen to the NOAA weather channel for your area, as well as monitoring local public safety bands (police, fire, etc.) to stay on top of what's going on around you. I consider a good emergency radio and a police/fire scanner to be essential preparedness gear. There are even apps for your smart phone that let you listen in on many local public safety radio bands.
Local Knowledge + Situational Awareness = Informed Decisions
Take your local knowledge (which must be developed prior to any emergency) and add your ongoing situational awareness to it, calmly assigning values to the current danger levels of A, B, and C from the Bug-Out Equation. Constantly update this assessment throughout the crisis to determine when you need to bug-out. But don't Bug-Out too late. This is where you need the equation and your decision making process to be predictive rather than just reactive.
In order to not bug-out too late, you need your assessment of the danger levels to not only be current, but predictive. In other words, you need to factor in not only current conditions, but future conditions as well. Local knowledge combined with experience will go a long way towards allowing you to accurately predict how dangerous things will get.
Hopefully you've been paying attention to how people in your areas react to emergencies and other events. How did things go down around you during the last hurricane? What happened if folks had to evacuate the area? What were the problem traffic areas? What other problems occurred, and where? During times of civil unrest, such as after certain police shootings, were there riots and looting near you?
Even if nothing has happened in your area, you can glean insights into human behavior watching what goes on in other communities during times of crisis. Combine these insights with your local knowledge to predict what will happen next in your community during a crisis. Predict as best you can when staying where you are at will become more dangerous than bugging out, then bug-out just before it happens. Simple, yet extremely difficult.
The Bottom Line
Bugging out is typically a measure of last resort. Yet, bugging out too late is also unacceptable. Bug-out too early or too late can be disastrous. In order to "thread the needle" between bugging out too early and too late, you need to figure out now how to make that decision. The Bug-Out Equation I present here is one method of thinking through and accomplishing this task.
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