The Bug Out Guide For Real People

The complete guide to bug out bags, bug out shelters, and bug out vehicles for REAL people (not Rambo and the armchair warriors that troll forums).

In the world of self sufficiency, many people use the phrase “bug out.” If you’re not familiar with this, it essentially means “evacuate.” It’s what you do when it’s no longer safe to stay in your current location, because of a disaster (flood, riot, earthquake, etc).

As is often the case on the internet, the practical case for bugging out is very different than the romanticized version that you see and hear people talk about on forums. Usually the armchair warrior version of bugging out involves tank-like vehicles, and doomsday bunker type fortresses in the mountains.

The Real Version of Bugging Out

As many of you know, my home town of San Diego, CA is frequently ablaze with wildfires. And just like all the other examples of real disasters, these experiences have taught me an important truth: REAL bugging out is not “heading for the hills.”

In fact, it’s a long way from that.

When disasters strike, guess how my loved ones in San Diego evacuate?

They drive across town to stay with friends and family members for 2 days. They go to the nearby high school with their sleeping bags. They go to churches, hotels, and other evacuation centers scattered around town.

My sister and husband evacuated in the 2014 fires… you know where they went with their baby? 21 miles away to the in-laws. An old college roommate had to leave his house in Carlsbad. So he took his family and went… to Encinitas (a whopping 10.4 miles away)

Nobody is driving off into the sunset with their guns and ammo.

Why is it like this?

Because life still exists. In fact, in the case of most disasters, life will still exist. You wouldn’t drive for hours to go stay up in a mountainous cave for a night, when there’s a hotel down the street letting folks stay for free.

Likewise, you wouldn’t hoof it to your bunker in the next state, when your sister’s place is 15 minutes away.

The Real Version of Bugging Out

San Diego residents take shelter from the wildfires at a nearby high school.

Bugging Out vs. Bugging In

One thing that people debate for hours and hours online is whether to bug out or “bug in” (stay put). Well, I recently came across this funny chart that’s entirely dedicated to helping people figure that out:

In reality though, the frequency and type of bugging out that has historically happened over the last couple centuries has been wildly different from the hype. Usually it happens in much quicker, much less-provisioned ways. And almost all situations are better if you have the option of staying put in your home (also called “bugging in”).

In 2012, I read an article on a site called Survival Acres (now defunct), where the author painted an interesting picture of what bugging out would really be like. I think his points make a lot of sense, and are pretty entertaining.

In particular, one paragraph in the article says:

You will be leaving behind your job (income), perhaps your family (wife, kids), your home (shelter), your friends (support network), your contacts (other people you know), your bank accounts (money), your credit (ruined), your retirement (pension), your property and everything you own (everything you cannot carry with you), your vehicles (except perhaps one, at least until the gas tank is empty), your future (prospects, employment, credibility, integrity). Don’t forget things also left behind, such as electricity, running water, Internet access, news and information, communications, telephone and even cell service, a warm, dry bed and other ‘essentials’, some more then others.

As human beings, we live in houses and cities with infrastructure, because that’s just the easiest way to survive!

Your Bug Out Plan

Nevertheless, it’s always smart to have a plan to leave your location if you need to. This could be as simple as loading the kids in your minivan and driving to your sister’s house on the other side of town. In addition, part of this plan should also include where you and your loved ones will meet up, immediately following a disaster

The following sections offer a brief look at some resources to help you in your bug out planning.

How I Recommend That You “Bug Out”

Ok, so what should your bug out plan be then? Fair question. Here’s what I recommend:

First of all, make “reciprocity” arrangements with strategically located family members and friends.

These are friends and family members who agree to let you come stay with them if an emergency ever necessitates it. In exchange, you allow them the same privilege.

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Ideally you would have a few different people that you could go crash with if you needed to. I would suggest having:

  • 1 friend across town (25-30 minutes away).
  • 1 a couple hours away
  • 1 out of state for the regional and large regional disasters.

Having these kinds of agreements set up doesn’t cost you anything, and it insures that you have a few options when things get crazy.

Many people have thought about arrangements like this, but they haven’t actually verbalized them with the other party. It’s risky to do this, because it’s essentially counting on eggs before they hatch. That friend may have 10 other family members thinking the same thing. Or communications may be knocked out when the moment of need arises.

Take the time to have the conversation now, before a disaster has struck.

Are Bug Out Shelters Actually a Good Idea?

So what about cabins and retreat properties? Many people talk about the concept of having a bug out location that they can flee to in the moment of need. I actually think it’s a great idea to have a bug out property IF:

    1. You can afford it
    2. It’s within a couple hours from your primary residence.
    3. If it can double as a vacation property.

So those are some big “ifs.” Which is why, at the end of the day, for a lot of people, a bug out property won’t make sense. But these criteria are what make a bug out property a good fit for real preppers.

If it’s in an undesirable location, or a place that isn’t comfortably liveable, than you’re not going to go up there and use it enough to justify having it.

If it’s too far or too expensive, it’s likewise not a good idea.

One of the ideas I came across in 2011, is the idea of using a shipping container as a bug out shelter. Although there are plenty ways to do it that are costly and time consuming, it is possible to build a bug out shelter from a shipping container that is fairly low cost and extremely sturdy.

What Are The Best Bug Out Vehicles?

Bug out vehicles are the vehicle you use to evacuate your current location. For most people living in Western Society, this is going to be their car. However, for people that do have special requirements (or the means), there are some alternative vehicles that can give you inherent advantages when it comes to bugging out.

Motorcycles, 4-wheelers, Razors and other ATVs can make great bug out vehicles. Because of their rugged lightweight construction and off-road tires, they are simply able to access more places than other cars are. This could come in especially handy if freeways and other roads become gridlocked with traffic. The downside to these vehicles is that they aren’t able to carry much (either people or stuff).

Recreational vehicles (RVs) are also another frequently discussed option for a bug out vehicle. Unlike motorcycles and ATVs, RVs have plenty of storage for people and preps. Because of their size and accommodations, they can also double as a bug out shelter. As soon as you get far enough away, turn off the engine and you’re home.

Bicycles and other human powered vehicles are also great ideas, because of their maneuverability and independence from fuel. There are obvious downsides as well, but depending on how far you have to go, and what kind of shape you’re in, they could be a really great option.

How About The Idea of a Bug Out Boat?

In the middle of my corporate ladder climbing career (which lasted less than 3 years), I read the story of a young boy who single handedly sailed the world in a 16 foot boat.

The book he later wrote of the expedition, titled “Dove“, is full of excitement, adventure, and brushes with death. He talks about the storms, the lazy days of sailing through the clear blue waters of the South Pacific, diving for his dinner, and sheltering on empty island retreats. And to top it off–he even gets the girl.

As I read this book of freedom, a spark caught inside me. Something about traveling on the power of the wind, outside the geo-political control of any country. I had to sail.

8 Advantages of Sailboats as Bug Out Vehicles

In the time since reading Dove, I’ve often thought about sailing in a different light too–bug out situations. The more I think about them, the more I like them. If you live near a body of water, sailboats make an awesome bug out strategy for a number of reasons.

Here are a few:

  1. Sailboat Bug Out VehicleShelter and vehicle all rolled into one (basically the ocean equivalent of a Winnebago).
  2. Powered by the wind
  3. Proximity to nearest food source–depends on how good your bait is
  4. Great way to evacuate a fire
  5. No traffic jams trying to get out of town (pending you can get to the boat)
  6. No infrastructure to crash down on you
  7. Fewer people to deal with period.

Of course there are downsides too:

  • Obviously, you’re screwed in a tsunami
  • Water all has to be desalinated
  • Cost–sailboat, monthly slip, maintenance, insurance, incidentals, etc.
  • Accessibility to your sailboat (stuck across town, problems at the dock, etc)
  • Piracy

All in all though, I feel like a sailboat is still a pretty good option for a potential bug out vehicle–especially if you live less than a 15 minute bike ride from a harbor (like I did).

My San Diego Sailing Lessons

I decided to take sailing lessons, and after 12 hours of instruction, I could dock under sail, tack, work both main and jib sails, and even knew the right of way rules for 5 different situations. I even sailed in the rain and 12 knot winds! Took the test and somehow managed to pull down a perfect score–100 out of a 100. Boom. I had earned the ASA Keelboat 101 certification.

And just like that, I was on my way to becoming a salty veteran.

Do Sailboats Really Make Sense as Bug Out Vehicles?

While I was able to get my ASA certification, I am still yet to completely decide if and how a sailboat will factor into my bugout plan. After doing a little more research, I found a few articles on talking about some more of the pros and cons.

One good observation that a reader brings up is the issue of maintenance while bugging out. Modern sailboats rely on many fairly specialized parts and tools to function properly. Winches, buckles, pulleys, radios, and navigation equipment all play a substantial role in the navigation of a keelboat. If these were to break, it could require some difficult and creative improvisation.

Another thing that he touches on more in depth is the issue of piracy. Depending on what country/area you are in and where you are bugging out to, piracy could easily become a factor–particularly if you are relying on the sailboat as a long term bug out strategy.

Still though, it’s hard to ignore the positives.

If I had the money for it, I would’ve definitely done it while I was living in San Diego. I was in the middle of an urban sprawl, with really no in/out access route that wouldn’t be jam packed with traffic in the middle of an emergency. My wife and I had no kids, we both had bikes, and it would’ve literally been a 15-minute downhill bike ride to the San Diego Harbor.

Mock Bug Out Exercises

Many people in the space will do “mock bug outs” with their survival kits as a means of practicing. Usually they will come up with a scenario or some rules for the mock bug out, to make it a little bit more realistic and useful as a planning exercise. I myself did a pretty cool urban mock bug out when I lived in San Diego, and have since done a few more bug out exercises in the mountains of Utah.

Bug Out Bags

Bug out bags are a topic entirely unto their own. The internet over, you’ll find gear snobs debating which pack is the best, how much food and water you need, how light it should be, and everything else.

Since this is the guide for us normal people however, the simplest, best way to think about your bug out bag is that it needs to include supplies that can tide you over for a couple days after an emergency situation.

Your bug out bag should include food, water and water purifiers, extra clothes, first aid supplies, and emergency sheltering equipment. It’s also a really good idea to include things like prescription medication.

One really valuable thing to include that many people don’t think of is an encrypted thumb drive with scanned copies of all your personal information on it. This means documents like: birth certificates, titles to your house and cars, insurance policies, social security, passports, and more. Some people may not feel comfortable putting all of this information on a thumb drive even if it is encrypted, but I highly recommend it. Alternatively, you can keep a thumb drive like this on your keys, so that the information is closer to your person.

If you want to see the complete list of what I recommend you include in your bug out bag, check out my complete survival gear page here.

My Sandpiper of California Bug Out Bag

One item of particular importance to your bug out bag is the actual pack itself. In December of 2010, I got the Sandpiper of California Bug Out Bag. Because of its “crowd favorite” status, many people are already very familiar with this bag, but in case you aren’t, here’s just a few of the reasons why the Sandpiper bug out bag is so likable:

  • This pack is HUGE! A full 3280 cubic inches when expanded
  • Giant main compartment, plus 2 smaller pockets for optimal organization
  • Aluminum back stays to prevent disproportionate sagging/collapse and keep the load balanced
  • Hydration compatible
  • Straps and belt tuck away so that you can carry the Bug Out Bag by the side handle like a duffel
  • Molle compatible for external attachables
  • Lifetime warranty

This bag is loaded with features, and comes in WAY less expensive than a lot of it’s competitors. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.

If you want to see what I recommend you include in your bug out bag, check out my complete survival gear list.

What’s The Difference Between “Bugging Out” and “Relocating?”

It should be noted that bugging out is not relocating. These are 2 distinct and different things. A bug out is temporary, whereas relocating is permanent. In 2014, I interviewed my longtime friend Fernando “Ferfal” Aguirre, about his 2nd book, which covers these differences in detail.

Ferfal was born and raised in Argentina, and witnessed firsthand the chaos of the 2001 economic collapse. In more recent years, he permanently relocated his family to Northern Ireland, to begin a new life there. His book describes the mindset and preparations that are necessary for bugging out, or a permanent relocation.

Final Thoughts

If I stepped on your toes a little, good. It’s not my goal to make you feel bad about yourself, but we keep it real around here. it’s important that you be real about the preparations that you’re making.