There's an ongoing debate among the prepping community about whether to bug out or bug in during a disaster. To be honest, I've straddled that debate myself, changing sides more than once. It's not an easy decision to make and there are a lot of factors that come into play. While I usually say that bugging in is better, there are exceptions. The question is, if we are forced to bug out, can we survive?
That's why bugging in is usually the better option. There are just too many things that make it hard to survive when bugging out. Even worse, if we are bugging out when a whole lot of other people are as well, our problems with survival are just that much harder.
The bigger problem however, is that most of us don't really know what's required to live in the wild. We assume that our bug out bag is enough and try to build it as if it will be. But surviving a bug out for a few days and surviving in the wilderness for a year are totally different animals. If all you have is your bug out bag, chances are you're not going to make it a year.
Setting the Stage
Let's take a look at what survival in the wilderness really requires. For the sake of this article, let's operate under the assumption of needing to survive for a year. It doesn't really matter why we need to survive for a year, we just do. Whatever the circumstances, we can't go back home until that year is done, whether it's because of natural disaster, war or a plague.
While we'll start out with a bug out bag as our basis, we're going to look at what else we'll need to add, in order to make it through the year. This may mean having more with us, than we can even think about fitting into a bug out bag. Personally, I don't think most of us could survive alone with what we have in our bug out bags.
To make it simple, we need to establish the landscape and climate constraints. Some locations provide us with much more of what we need to survive than others. Since we want to make this simple, let's use a setting in wooded mountains, with a stream nearby and game living in the woods. We're in a part of the country with a temperate climate and manage to bug out in the late spring.
Keep in mind that this is a rather benign environment to survive in, at least compared to something like surviving in the desert or in the Alaskan tundra. I've actually selected an environment that will provide much of what we need. Other places in the country won't be anywhere near as easy to survive in.
Throughout the year, we've got to keep track of our top survival priorities. Not only do we need to keep track of what we need to make it through that day, but also what we'll need to have in order to make it through the winter. Basically, all of our time is going to end up being occupied by preparing to survive the winter, when we won't be able to gather food or firewood.
I'm going to change what we normally refer to as our survival priorities slightly, expanding on it to make sure it is complete:
- Fire - to provide us with heat through the cold winter
- Clean water
Three of those items are there to keep our bodies warm enough to survive: shelter, fire and clothing. One of the greatest risks we're going to face is that of maintaining our body temperature in the winter and not succumbing to hypothermia. If we don't have enough of those, we're not going to make it.
So, now let's take a look at each of those to see how well we can do in finding what we need in the wilderness or make it from what we have in our bug out bag.
1 - Shelter
One of the first things we're going to have to work on, once we get to our bug out location, is creating a shelter. We will probably have something in our bug our bag that we can use as a temporary shelter, like a tent or a tarp, but that's it. Trying to survive through the winter in a tent or a temporary shelter isn't goign to work. You need a shelter that will hold in at least some heat or you're not going to make it.
Don't expect to build your shelter from start to finish, without stopping. You're going to have to do other things, while you're building your shelter. Remember, you only have three days worth of food with you, so at least part of your time is going to have to be spent on hunting and gathering.
The most obvious option is to build a small log cabin. That's what our ancestors did during the westward expansion. Of course, if you weren't living in the woods, that would be impossible. But trying to build a log cabin with the tools we have in a bug out bag is impossible. No wire saw is going to survive long enough to cut that many logs and cutting down trees with a hatchet or tomahawk is going to take a very long time.
So, we've just managed to find the first things that are missing from our bug out bag, a good bow saw and an axe. Those two tools would be the minimum we'd need to have, in order to build a log cabin. It would be better if we had an adze as well, as that would allow us to flatten out the upper and lower sides of the logs, before stacking them, so that there wouldn't be so many gaps to chink.
A froe would be nice as well, as it would make it possible to split shingles from logs, rather than using tree branches or sod to form a roof. Tree branches don't really work all that well, as they leave a lot of gaps, once the leaves fall off. For this reason, it was common to use sod for a log cabin roof in olden times.
Of course, we might decide to do some other type of shelter, instead of a log cabin. If there is an unoccupied cave around, that would make an excellent shelter, saving us a lot of work. But even then, the cave would require some work on our part, to make it habitable and to seal it in.
Another option is to make an underground house, like a soddie. This would mean having a way of cutting the sod, as well as digging out the underground part of the shelter. That means adding a pick and shovel to our tool kit. Of course, even if we don't dig an underground shelter, we're going to need the pick and shovel for digging a latrine and a root cellar.
Expect it to take three or four months to complete your shelter. Fortunately, we're starting out in late spring, so we've got all summer to finish. Your tent or temporary shelter should last that long, but by the time you're ready to move in, it will probably be in pretty sad shape.
2 - Fire
We all know to carry an assortment of fire starters with us, as well as something that we can use as tinder to get the fire started. But we're not just talking about a campfire for a few nights here, we're talking about a year's worth of fire. While you might be able to keep a fire going for a full year, chances are, you won't. So, make sure you've got plenty of matches, lighters or whatever else you use.
The big issue here is going to be one of fuel. In order to make it through the winter, you're going to go through somewhere between six and ten face cords of firewood. That's a bunch of wood. So, you'd better count on starting to collect wood from day one and start building your woodpile.
Try to avoid gathering the wood that's near your homestead. Leave that there to be used in the case of emergency. You can call that your emergency reserve. Instead, bring your wood from farther away, hauling it to your cabin and then splitting and stacking it.
Oops, we just found some more stuff we need. Just like with building the cabin, that wire saw and hatchet aren't going to be enough for cutting firewood. Good thing we're already planning on bringing a bow saw and an axe. It would be nice to have a maul as well, since that will split the wood much easier than an axe will.
The other thing you'll need is something to haul the wood with. Maybe you're strong enough to carry felled trees back to your homestead by yourself, but I'm not. If you happened to come in by horseback, you've got a pretty good engine to move that wood with. But you'll need to build a sled or stone boat for the horses to pull. Trying to load fallen trees on a horse's back doesn't work too well.
If you don't have a horse, you're going to need something with some power; like a four-wheeler. Of course, that means having enough fuel to power it as well. So, in reality, the horse is better.
Try to stick to using trees and branches that have already fallen for your firewood. Not only does that help conserve the forests, ensuring that you'll have wood enough for several years; but that wood will already have started drying. That will make it lighter and easier to move, as well as helping it to dry faster, ensuring that it will be ready to burn in the winter.
Don't forget to build a fireplace in your cabin. The easiest way to do that is to build a fire pit in the middle of the room, with a smoke hole in the roof. While an actual fireplace is much nicer, it is a lot more work to build as well. You might want to put that project off until you see how well you do with all your other work.
3 - Clean Water
I stipulated that the shelter was going to be in a place where there was a stream available for water. But what condition is that water in? How clean is it? How dependable? Just because it is there, doesn't mean that you can count on having water all year long. Some mountain streams dry up in summertime. Others will freeze over in the winter. Some water may not be safe to drink.
Fortunately, your bug out bag has a water filter in it. But is that water filter enough to purify a year's worth of water? The average backpacking water filter can't. So you'd better plan on having a bigger water filter, one that can filter water that can be stored. That also means having some sort of containers to store that water in.
In olden times, they used barrels to store water. But making barrels has become a lost art. Even if you found out how to make barrels, you'd need to bring the metal hoops to hold the barrels together. If you had some strong, stiff wire with you, that would work, but you'd need some means of cutting it.
Collapsible water containers are a good choice for storing water; but it will take lots of them. Nevertheless, it would be a good idea to bring along at least a few, so that you can have some ready water reserve.
Another way to store water is to dam up the stream and make yourself a pond. Depending on the terrain where you are, this could be easy or hard. You want to take a good look at the terrain you have to work with, checking how the slope is and especially where the low spots are. Water will always seek out the low spots, so you need to be sure that there aren't any low spots where the water could flow out of your pond.
In the wintertime, you can melt snow to provide yourself with water. But don't expect to melt enough snow in a backpacking cook set to meet your needs. You'll get about 1/10 the volume of water out of snow that you start with. A bigger pot will make this much easier. Oh, and, don't forget to stir the snow while you're melting it, or it will scorch. Yes, snow can scorch; the water doesn't taste good then.
4 - Food
Your bug out bag only has three days of food in it, or five, if you build it like I do. That's merely going to scratch the surface of what you need. Hunting and gathering is something that you're going to have to start doing the day you arrive.
As you're walking into your bug out location, keep your eyes open. You might see some edible plants or berries along the way. Gather them as you go, eating some and filling a bandana or bag with the rest.
Your food supplies are going to be limited to whatever is available and whatever you can carry in with you. That means hunting game, gathering berries and harvesting edible plants. Unless you are an expert on edible plants, you'd better plan on bringing a good book on the subject with you.
There are some things you just won't be able to get out in the wilderness, like flour, yeast and salt. You'd better bring a goodly quantity of those in with you, as well as a few other food staples; rice and beans come immediately to mind. Did I say something about a horse earlier? Hmm, you might need a couple of pack horses, if you can't get your truck in there.
Game will hopefully become a large part of your diet. Like with the wood, don't do your hunting close to your cabin. Better to hunt on the backside of the next mountain. That way, the game won't become leery of your home. You might be glad to see them wandering by your homestead in the middle of winter, when your food supplies start running out.
But without refrigeration, you're going to have a hard time keeping that meat until wintertime, unless you dry it and make jerky out of it. That means having a goodly supply of salt, as salt is a natural preservative. Unless you can find a natural salt lick nearby, you're going to need salt to preserve any meat you kill, whether you make jerky out of it or smoke it. You can also use salt to make salt fish, if your stream has a goodly supply.
The harder part of hunting and gathering is going to be the gathering. Our ancestors solved this problem by turning to farming. If you bring a supply of seeds with you, then you could spade up a garden and start growing some vegetables to augment your food stocks and the game that you kill.
Remember, the animals in the forest are going to see your garden as a great buffet, so you'll need to protect it. A good, stout fence around it should help a lot. A few traps and snares might be a good idea as well besides, that way you can add the animals you trap to your total food supply.
5 - Clothing
Most people have little to no clothing in their bug out bag. Of course, they've built that bag based on three days and you can wear the same clothes for three days without much of a problem. But I doubt you can wear it a year. You're going to need to wash it sometime and you're going to be dealing with different seasons. So, you'll need some extra clothing.
The biggest problem will be clothing to wear in the wintertime, when it gets cold. If you're leaving in the spring, you may not think of bringing your warmest winter coat. But you'll need it. You'll also need hats, gloves and scarves.
Once you kill a few animals for food, you can start the process of tanning the hides. That will allow you to be able to make your own clothes out of buckskin. Even then, you're going to need some stout thread and strong needles to make it with; unless you're planning on putting it together with leather thongs. That's even harder to do, increasing the amount of time that has to be invested in the project.
Don't forget bedclothes either. Even if you're planning on sleeping in your clothes, you'll probably want to have a thick blanket or two or a sleeping bag. That's something else to add to your survival equipment. Fortunately, it's light, even though it is bulky.
6 - Sanitation
The easiest way to pass on disease is what's known as the fecal-oral route. What that means is that bacteria and viruses that are discharged from the body of one person, get into the food or water supply of another. Many plagues of the past were passed on in this manner.
Proper field sanitation is necessary to prevent this from happening. Fortunately, the problem is fairly easy to solve, if you build an outhouse. The outhouse needs to be at least 100 feet from any water supply and should not be uphill from it. This may spread out your homestead a bit, but it's necessary.
Cleanliness helps to control disease as well. Your mother didn't tell you to wash your hands before eating just because she didn't like dirty hands. There's a very legitimate health reason for that. Washing removes germs from your hands, so that you aren't putting them into your mouth.
We have to realize that there are bacteria in everything around us. Taking the time to keep clean is one way of preventing that bacteria from getting into our bodies and infecting us. So, even in a survival situation, personal cleanliness is important.
Fortunately, soap can be made of wood ashes and animal fat. It might not be the world's best soap, but it will clean. If you want something better than that, you'd better plan on brining it with you.
Bring a good first-aid kit as well; something that is big enough to take care of several large injuries. The chances of making it through a year without injury is extremely slim. If you have a good first-aid kit, you can take care of those injuries, increasing your chances of surviving without the injury becoming infected. A single infected injury can be enough to kill you.
7 - Self-Defense
The last area you need to concern yourself with is self-defense. There are dangerous animals out in the wild. While they will usually avoid man, a hungry wild animal can't be counted on to leave you alone. It might just attack, especially if it catches you in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mother bears can be counted on to attack anyone who gets between them and their cubs. They are highly protective of their cubs, so you must always remain vigilant. If you see a cub, steer clear and immediately start looking for the mother.
But the biggest risk you face isn't from mountain lions and bears, it's from two-legged predators. There will be others who are trying to survive, just as you are. Not all of them will have your skills, your tools or your willingness to carve yourself a home out of the wilderness. Some percentage will be quite willing to kill you, so that they can steal what you have. You must be ready for them.
This means having weapons and enough ammo to fight it out. I'm not going to get into detail about that here, as I just don't have enough time. But make sure that you have enough ammo for a prolonged fight, even if that means getting another pack horse to carry it. Have more weapons than you need, as well, so that you have something you can use if your main weapon breaks on you.
Once your log cabin is built, it will make for a pretty good fortress, if you build it with that in mind. Of course, a lot will depend on how many people you have with you, to help you defend it, versus how many are in the attacking party. You have the advantage as the defender, as long as they can't smoke you out.
Make sure that you have an escape route from your cabin. This could be a tunnel or simply a well-covered exit route. That way, if you come under attack, you can get one person outside to outflank them. Properly done, one person working alone, who knows the wilderness, can wreck havoc on an attacking party, even breaking up the attack. But they have to be someone who knows what they are doing, how to move quietly through the woods, how to shoot accurately and who has excellent situational awareness. Otherwise, they will be captured, leading to the downfall of your survival team.
As you can see, trying to survive in the wilderness for a year requires much more than what you can carry in your bug out bag. Travelers in the old west went from town to town and ranch to ranch, never more than a few days in the wilderness at a time. That way, they could replenish their food stocks and get things that they would need.
Pioneers made do at times without some of the things that I have mentioned. But they did so by trading for those items. If they didn't have enough salt, they would trade with someone else for it. Salt licks were fairly common back then, so people could gather salt from the wilderness. You can't count on that today. Likewise, there isn't as much game available or will berries and edible plants that you can count on.
Even so, few of those people went into the wilderness alone or with only what they could carry on their horse. Mountain men had a string of pack animals with them, carrying their tools and supplies. When they came out of the mountains, those animals were carrying their furs. Pioneers and settlers went by covered wagon, carrying food, clothing and tools with them. While they may not have had some of the equipment that we have available to us today, they traveled in a way as to be fully self-sustainable.
You can do that to, either by using pack horses or a well-packed pickup truck. Just remember that you might not be able to get to your destination in your pick-up, if the roads are filled with other people bugging out. You'll either need to beat them out of town or have a route where you can avoid them.As you can see; none of this is easy. That's why I and most other survival instructors will recommend that you plan on bugging in, unless you have a prepared bug out retreat in the wilderness. Few of us are actually able to do what I've talked about in these pages. But by planning and preparing ahead-of-time, it can be done.