When to Bug Out: How to Develop a Complete Bug Out Plan

Should I bug out or should I stay home? That is a question that many people have asked themselves during an emergency or when they suspect one is coming. Knowing when to bug out (and doing it properly) could save your life and the lives of those that you love.

Although there is some debate about when to bug out, there are some situations when you definitely should. Those include natural disasters, your home being at risk of getting overrun, running out of supplies, and any other situation where you can’t stay where you are and remain safe.

Knowing when to bug out is a complex decision. Before doing so, you will need to look at your overall situation and determine if it is the safest option. Here is some information that you can use to determine whether you should bug out or if you should stay put. 

What is Bugging Out?

When to Bug Out

Bugging out has many different names. If you have heard the phrases “get out of Dodge” and “head for the hills”, they mean basically the same thing. All of them mean leaving your home because an emergency has rendered it unsafe.

If you bug out, you usually do so with the understanding that you may not return home for an extended period of time, if ever. You also bug out with the understanding that if you do return home, that it is unlikely to be in the same condition that it was when you left it. (Think about people who have to evacuate their homes because of a hurricane.)

On the other hand, bugging in is when you shelter in place at your home. This is done when your home is still safe enough for you and your family to remain in it. 

Bugging Out Should Be Considered a Last Resort

A lot of preppers think that bugging out should be their Plan A like it will be some sort of Red Dawn adventure. However, for most people, bugging in is a much better option. There are many reasons for this.

First, you know your neighborhood much better than you do your bug out location. You not only know the people there, but you also have an idea of what is normal and what is unusual. Having others to collaborate with, being able to identify strangers, and knowing the baseline for your area all give you an advantage.

Also, your home is probably where you keep most of your supplies. You may have to leave supplies behind, even with a properly planned and executed bug out. If you make a hasty exit, whether you are forced to or not, leaving behind precious supplies is almost a certainty.

Lastly, your home is where you and your family are most comfortable. A disaster will be stressful enough without having to uproot your family. Because of this, bugging out should only be done if it is absolutely necessary. This is especially true if you have young children or elderly family members who can’t take care of themselves.

All of that being said, there are some situations where bugging out is your safest option. But, what are the signs that you may need to bug out?

Signs that Bugging Out May Become Necessary

Signs You May Need to Bug Out

Before you can recognize the signs that bugging out may be necessary, you must have good situational awareness. Being aware of what is happening in your community and the world is an important part of being a prepper. Doing so will allow you to make informed decisions while others are still trying to figure out what is going on.

If you need to bug out, your timing will be extremely important. You want to recognize the signs early enough that you can decide to leave before everybody else. This will allow you to get ahead of the curve, making the whole ordeal much easier. You will be able to avoid massive traffic jams and some potentially dangerous situations. 

If you live in a large city beating everyone else to the punch is essential. Some cities, like Houston, have horrific traffic when everything is running fine. I don’t even want to imagine what it looks like during an emergency.

Some of the events listed below don’t necessarily warrant heading towards the hills when they occur individually. However, if several of these things start to happen at once or in quick succession, you definitely need to take notice.

These are warning signs that bugging out may become necessary soon:

Panic buying at stores

If you see people starting to descend on local stores like locusts, start getting your family and supplies ready to move. This is especially true if it is uncharacteristic for your area and time of year.

For example, I know that people where I live panic whenever they see snow in the forecast. We don’t have snow very often, so we have no idea how to handle it. Because of this, when I see bare shelves at Walmart when snow is on the way I don’t get too worried. However, if I saw this in the middle of spring or summer, I would be very concerned.

Lines at gas stations

If you see people lining up at gas stations you should definitely start paying attention. Runs on fuel occur for many reasons, including the economy, fear of war, and concerns that fuel will not be available in the near future.

If that happens in your area, try to find gas stations away from main roads that may not have as much of a crowd.

Lines at banks and ATM’s

When people start taking their money out of their bank accounts all at once, something bad may be about to happen to the economy. While bugging out may not be immediately necessary if you are in a smaller community, it would be wise if you lived in a population center.

No cell phone service

There are several reasons why cell phone service may become compromised. It may be something as simple as equipment failure, and not a reason for concern. However, it may also be one of the first signs that something really bad is happening. 

During an emergency, people can overload cell towers, preventing them from working properly. That happened during 9/11. Something like an EMP could cause widespread disruption.

Failure of Electric and Water Utilities

If the electricity and water utilities both go out, your locality is likely facing some pretty severe issues. This is especially true if no one can provide a good reason as to why it is occurring.

News of a potential emergency (check TV, radio, online, and community forums)

Having good situational awareness is an essential skill for preppers to have. Part of this is keeping track of news on both a national and local level. This can be done through television, radio, and the internet. Online community forums are excellent communication tools to keep neighborhoods informed and united.

Local television and radio stations stop broadcasting

I would be very worried if my local television and radio stations stopped broadcasting. If it was a few of them, I would take notice. However, if none of them were working, I would be getting out of town very quickly.

NOAA weather radio stops

NOAA weather radio is meant to keep people informed even during emergencies. If it stops working, then things are pretty bad. This situation, when combined with an absence of local radio, would warrant bugging out very soon.

Stores and banks are shut down

Anytime that you see widespread shutdowns of stores, banks, and other businesses, you probably want to get your family and supplies ready to move. If many businesses shut down over a wide area it is probably because they are no longer getting supplies. They could also shut down because operating them is no longer safe.

Stores stop receiving shipments of supplies

If trucks stop rolling, then society stops breathing. Most stores hold around 3 day’s worth of inventory and some receive new shipments every day. This includes grocery stores. They will not be able to stay open for very long without resupply, especially if there is a run on supplies, which there probably will be. 

If people can no longer obtain supplies, then things will get nasty fast. This is especially true if you live in a densely populated area. 

Garbage and mail services stop

Anytime that the garbage service and mail stop running for more than a couple of days, the situation is likely pretty bad. That means that there has been a breakdown at both the local and federal level. As far as garbage goes, it also means that your city will soon be overwhelmed with trash. This will make pests more of a problem, and, over time, can lead to disease.

People buying up plywood, 2×4’s, nails, and screws

This will likely occur before a severe storm, such as a hurricane hits an area. If you go into a hardware store and see people buying up plywood, lumber, generators, and fasteners (nails and screws), you need to start putting your plan in action. Secure your home the best that you can and start preparing your family to move if the time comes.

Ambassadors are called home and top leadership disappears

If our government starts to bring embassy workers home and our leadership becomes silent, something very serious is going on. The reason that these things would happen is they want to protect leadership and ensure that the government remains able to operate.

If the government starts to take steps to protect itself, we should take that as a sign that we may need to bug out to a safer location. Their first priority will be self-preservation. This is so they can continue to make decisions and maintain as much law and order as possible. In a really bad situation, most people will likely be on their own for at least some time.

Unusual police and military activity in your area

If you start to see an uncharacteristically large amount of police in an area or movement of military equipment, you want to start paying attention. These things could be indications that things could start to get rough and may even be precursors to martial law.

When You Must Bug Out

When You Need to Bug Out

While the situations listed above could mean that you need to bug out, the ones listed in this section definitely require you to do so. Failure to bug out when the following events occur will likely put you and your loved ones in extreme danger.

You are ordered to

First of all, if the government has to tell you to leave, you should have already done so. If a government agency is willing to order an evacuation, it is done because the risk to human life outweighs the damage that will be done to the economy.

HAZMAT Incident

Hazardous substances are a necessary part of our lives. We use them in our factories, to create power, and for many other purposes. If a hazardous material is released, staying nearby can result in severe health problems or even death.

This release could be caused by a vehicle accident, train derailment, or even an industrial accident at a factory. If you live near a nuclear power facility a potential meltdown would be of particular concern.

Natural Disaster

Despite our modern technology, we don’t stand a chance against nature’s violence. Some natural disasters, such as tornadoes, are best dealt with by sheltering in place. However, doing that in other natural disasters would get you killed very quickly. You should bug out if any of the following occur:

  • Severe Flooding
  • Wildfire
  • Hurricane
  • Volcanic Eruption

All of those natural disasters have one thing in common: Once they reach you, there is nothing that you can do to protect yourself from them. They have the capability to destroy your shelter, no matter how strong it may be, leaving you completely exposed.


If riots start to break out near where you live, bugging out would be a smart move. If it is a relatively small scale event (protests), temporarily relocating to a neighboring town may be sufficient. However, if the riots are due to hunger or widespread unrest, getting away from any population center would be the best move.

Local Disease

As I am writing this, the 2019-nCoV (Coronavirus) is spreading all over China and hotspots are appearing in other countries as well. Many of the people who are trapped in Wuhan probably wish that they had gotten out before roads were shut down.

I would definitely bug out if my hometown became a hot zone for a new disease. This would be especially true if it was one that was confusing doctors. If you bug out because of a disease, going somewhere with a very low population density would be the best choice.

Note: This only applies if your specific area is a hot zone and you may be able to reach a safer area. If the disease is widespread, hunkering down may be a better idea since you will likely face similar problems elsewhere. 

Transportation Stops

We rely on various forms of transportation, such as cars, airplanes, trains, and boats. If one or more of these methods of transportation start to become unviable, bugging out will probably be necessary. 

This is because, without transportation, there will be no way to resupply grocery stores and gas stations. If people can’t feed their families and have to fight over fuel, life in a city or even a small town will get difficult very quickly.

You are almost out of supplies

Another time that you need to bug out is when you start to run out of supplies. This is especially true if you live somewhere, such as a city, where producing food on-site and procuring it from nature isn’t possible.

You think Martial Law may be declared

If your police start to become more militarized or if the actual military shows up, martial law may not be too far off. When this happens, you will lose many freedoms, including freedom of movement. You will need to bug out quickly before roadblocks are erected that could prevent you from leaving later on.

Your home is no longer defensible

If you can no longer protect your home, bugging out will be necessary. This could be because riots are in your area or due to a breakdown of law and order.

Where to Go When You Bug Out

Bug Out Retreat

One of the most important parts of a bug out plan is knowing where you are going. Simply getting out of dodge with no end destination in mind will not go well. You will likely end up somewhere you don’t want to be.

Many people plan to rely on the government to shelter them during an emergency. Unfortunately, refugee camps can be one of the worst places to end up. First of all, everyone there will be stressed out and on edge. They can also quickly become epicenters for unrest and violent crime.

Regardless of where you bug out to, it should help you meet your family’s needs better than the place that you left. It should also be a safer alternative. Don’t leave your home for another bad situation that could be worse than the one you left.

A bug out location should also be far away from whatever it is you are trying to get away from. Locations too close to home will probably be affected by whatever made you need to leave. However, it should not be so far away that getting there will take a miracle.

Here are some ideas for places to bug out to if you have to leave your home.

A Personal Survival Retreat

Perhaps the ultimate prep is a fully-stocked survival retreat. This could be set up for just you and your family or for an entire pre-arranged group. A survival retreat should have shelter, plenty of supplies, and be defensible. 

When it comes to survival retreats, it could be something as simple as a trailer or cabin in the woods all the way to a vacation home with a bunker underneath.

A Relative or Friend’s House

For most emergencies, heading to a relative or friend’s house will be sufficient. However, it is best to work out an agreement ahead of time so they won’t be surprised when you show up. Part of this agreement should involve them being able to use your home as a bug out location as well, if possible.

Keeping a small amount of food and clothing at their house would be a good idea. This would allow you and your loved ones to have some basic necessities without having to depend entirely on your relative or friend.

Their home should be far enough away that it won’t likely be affected by the same situation you are trying to get away from.

Bugging out to a family member’s house is what my family will do. We have a relative who is willing to take us in and has property with natural resources. It would a suitable place for me, my wife, and our child to live temporarily and would also work as a long-term solution as well.

A Hunting Property

If you have hunting property that you own or lease, that may be a viable place to stay, at least short-term. If you have a travel trailer, you could bring it with you for shelter and pack it and your vehicles with supplies.

This is a good option for people who can’t afford to buy large amounts of land. A potential issue could arise if the landowner arrives and wants to use it as a bug out location as well. This is something that should be discussed and worked out ahead of time to avoid potential conflicts.

Other Bug Out Location Considerations


You want to have at least 3 different ways to get to your bug out location. Routes may become compromised due to roadblocks, fallen trees, washed-out roads, and many other reasons. Having 3 planned routes will help you make sure that you reach your destination.

Backup Locations

Something could happen that would prevent you from being able to utilize your primary bug out location. It may not be accessible due to road conditions or it may be compromised by natural causes or people. 

Because of this, having a couple of additional backup locations is a good idea. Like your primary location, they should provide you and your family with a safe location and resources. You should have multiple planned routes for each backup location. 

Ideally, your backup locations would be in different directions from each other and your primary location. This will ensure that you have somewhere to go, even if travel in one or two directions is impossible.

When to Not Bug Out

Don't Bug Out

Leaving Is More Dangerous than Staying

There are times when bugging out will expose you and your loved ones to more danger than if you had stayed at home. Here are a couple of examples:

Pandemic: If a pandemic is affecting the entire country, there may not be anywhere to go. You would put yourself and your family at risk if you had to travel. Those risks could include greater exposure to infected individuals and crime.

Nuclear Attack: If a nuclear missile was launched, you wouldn’t have enough time to reach a bug out location. An ICBM can travel 10,000 km in around 30 minutes. Given the time it would take for the military to figure out a missile was on the way and disseminate that information, you may only have 15-20 minutes to react. It will be even less if the missile is launched from a submarine.

Because of this, it would probably be a better idea to shelter in your home or in a sub-level of a large building. Both options would give you better fallout protection than being out in the open. There will also be mass panic during this time, making travel even more difficult.

You don’t have anywhere else to go

Bugging out without a clear end destination in mind will almost certainly end in disaster. If you don’t have anywhere to bug out to, take the time to develop a plan before you set out. Take into consideration potential safe locations, how to get there, how long it will take, and the obstacles that you will face. 

This planning should have taken place long before an emergency happens. However, sometimes things go bad, even with good planning. If your bug out plan (and its backups) fail, formulate a new one before you head out into the unknown.

Doing so would draw attention to you

There are some times where attempting to bug out would do nothing more than draw unwanted attention to yourself. This could result in you being detained or becoming victims of violent criminals. You may lose your supplies or even your life.

Dangers of Bugging Out

The Human Element

No matter how well you plan your bug out, it may fail due to the people involved. Stress, lack of communication, and other issues could cause the whole bug out plan to fall apart. Because of this, it is essential that you involve your family members in the planning process.

You May Not Get There

One of the biggest dangers of bugging out is that you may not ever make it to where you are going. This could be because of problems with the routes, vehicle problems, or other reasons. 

Bugging Out May Take More Time Than Expected

Even if your bug out location is relatively close by, it may take longer than expected to reach it. Make sure that you have extra fuel and supplies in case you have to spend more time on than road than you meant to.

Other People

People outside of your family or group may prevent you from reaching your bug out location. This could be criminals who prey on people as they or traveling as well as police and soldiers who are guarding checkpoints. 

Road Conditions

You never know when you will have to bug out. Because of this, you have no way of knowing what sort of shape the road will be in when it happens. Roads may be washed out, covered in snow, or blocked by trees or other debris.

How to Ensure Your Bug Out Is Successful

A successful bug out will come down to one thing: how well you have planned it. You need to have backups for your backups to ensure that you and your family make it to your bug out location safely.

Have a Bug Out Bag

The most basic part of a bug out plan is having a bug out bag for every member of your family. Each bag should have at least 3-day’s worth of food and supplies as well as essential gear. Bug out bags should be kept ready to go and easy to access.

The primary value of a bug out bag is that it provides you or your loved ones with basic essentials for a few days, even if it is all that they had. Even if you had to leave in a hurry and couldn’t bring any more supplies, each person’s bug out bag should last them until they reach their destination.

My bug out bag is made by Eagle Creek. It is well-made, has a lot of space, and doesn’t stick out like a lot of tactical packs. I have had it for about 10 years, so my specific model has been discontinued, but you can find one similar to it by clicking here.

Make a List of Supplies

If you need to bug out, you want to be able to take as many of your supplies with you as possible. Make a list of the supplies that you would want to take with you and use it as a packing list.

Organize Your Supplies

Any supplies that you want to take with you should be organized and easy to load up. You could use plastic totes to store and transport food and other essentials.

Practice Your Bug Out

Practicing your bug out is a great way to check your plan for weaknesses. These could be issues with your travel routes or how many supplies you are taking. An emergency is a really bad time to discover that your vehicle can’t fit everything you wanted to take with you.

Be the Gray Man

If you have to bug out, you want to blend in as much as possible. Drawing attention to yourself could cause you problems from criminals, police, and desperate people.

Maintain Your Vehicle

You have a much higher chance of making it to your bug out location if your vehicle is in good working order. Basic vehicle maintenance, such as keeping up with oil changes, will make a breakdown less likely. Also, be sure that your vehicle’s tires are in good shape and that you have a spare. Many new cars don’t come with them, so don’t assume you have one.

Have Meetup Locations

If an emergency happens suddenly, your family may be spread between several different locations. If both spouses work and they have three kids with a wide age range, the entire family could be in 5 different locations. Your bug out plan should take this into account and include solutions for this problem. 

Bug Out Bag Essentials

As stated above, a bug out bag is an essential part of your bug out plan. Below are items that you should keep in your bug out bag at all times:

  • Three Days of Food (Non-Perishable)
  • Spork
  • Steel Cup (For Boiling Water)
  • 1/2 Gallon of Water
  • Steel Water Bottle
  • Water Filter
  • Multitool
  • Fixed-Blade Knife
  • Tarp (Shelter)
  • Emergency Bivvy
  • N95 Dust Mask
  • Safety Pins
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Fishing Kit
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
  • Spare Socks and Underwear
  • First Aid Kit
  • Medications
  • Matches
  • Lighter
  • Firesteel
  • Tinder (Cotton/Lint)
  • Candle
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Pencil
  • Waterproof Paper
  • Paracord
  • Sewing Kit
  • USB Powerbank
  • Extra Magazines and Ammo for Weapons
  • Bandana
  • Gloves
  • Poncho
  • Hat
  • Jacket
  • Ziplock Bags
  • Garbage Bags

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the Bug Out Bag Checklist. You can use keep it in your prepper notebook. I even included space where you can add your own items as well.

Bug Out Supply Checklist

Your bug out bag should help you get through a few days of trouble. However, taking additional supplies and gear with you should be done if at all possible. Doing so will allow you to remain self-sufficient and comfortable for a longer period of time.

The size of your vehicle, as well as whether or not you have a trailer, will limit how much you can take with you. Because of this, you may not be able to take everything on the list. You may also be pressed for time and not able to get everything.

In either of those situations, food, water, shelter, and defense should take priority. While LED lanterns and cookstoves can make life more comfortable, they aren’t necessities. Focus on the items that you keep you alive for the longest period of time.

Here are some items that you should bring with you when you bug out:

  1. Food Storage
  2. Water Storage
  3. Water Filtration Gear
  4. Weapons and Ammo
  5. Lightweight Cookware
  6. Cook Stove
  7. Cook Stove Fuel
  8. Propane Heater
  9. Propane Bottles
  10. Sleeping Bags
  11. Sleeping Mats
  12. Clothing
  13. Knives, Axes, and Machetes
  • Hand Tools
  • Power Tools
  • Garden Tools
  • Fishing Equipment
  • Candles
  • Oil Lamps
  • Batteries
  • LED Lanterns
  • Flash Drive with Documents and Photos

Click here for a downloadable PDF of the Bug Out Master Checklist. This is different from the list above. You can use keep it in your prepper notebook. I even included space where you can add your own items as well.

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