Two Letters Re: Minimum Safe Distance From The Big City for Retreat Locales?

Dear Jim,
My thoughts on retreat location, or living location (Ideally the same place) are as follows:
From recent disasters (Hurricane Katrina, the Kim family, others), I see that most people are bound by societal rules of the road to stick to the Interstates or major highways, and to trust gadgets, without learning the mapping and math behind them.
The worst places I can think of to live are the nice country houses one sees from the freeway. These are certain to be looted in a major disaster. US highways aren’t likely to be much of an improvement.
However, as one steps down in route priority, concealment becomes easier. There are state highways here that are first plowed, well-maintained and wind indirectly along the same routes as the main ones, but are virtually unknown. Certainly, these are programmed into navigation computers, and will be used if the main roads are clogged or down, but they are less visible, and locating off one of them on a county or local road adds more distance, while minimizing actual off-road disaster driving.
I have to disagree on one mile from a freeway being dangerous (except on very flat, bare terrain). I don’t believe most city dwellers, even starving mobs, will divert that far into the “unknown.” Even if they do, they will be dispersed, and the prepared individual will have the home terrain advantage, with fence, ditches, etc. As long as one doesn’t present as a target, one won’t be taken as one. Like any bully or petty thug, mobs will want easy pickings. There’s a segment of our society that projects the belief that being strong causes one to become a target. This is the same mentality that won’t touch firearms to avoid “escalating the violence.” However, historically, a defended stronghold of unknown content and capabilities is the last place an unorganized mob will approach. Most criminals diverted by firearms are not actually shot; a simple discharge is sufficient. The attacker has to weigh risk of death vs chance of food/loot. Does the attacker know you have stockpiles of gear and food? Or are you likely just a guy in a cabin with a sleeping bag and a rifle? One might be worth dying for, the other is not, and the odds are a gamble at best.
There’s also the consideration of whether or not one is a lone household, or has neighbors for mutual defense. It doesn’t take much crossfire to make a very unpleasant situation for attackers. Small towns beyond suburbs I believe will be fairly safe. People have shown a reluctance to evacuate even in the face of credible advance notice of a disaster and orders to do so. Any surprise collapse will hinder them worse–no outside help will be forthcoming–and any slow decline will follow examples we’ve seen–most people will stick around and do little, and the observant ones will make what plans they can. Given that, any mob will be on foot, or using periodically looted vehicles with little attention to survival gear. There could even be a Mad Max-type scramble with every member of the mob taking their own Mercedes or BMW, just for “status.” This will not be an efficient, trained, prepared or well-fed fighting machine.
There will be a potential threat posed by veterans or others with training who didn’t plan ahead, but recall their old lessons. At the same time, these people will be more amenable to negotiation, and, if they have useful skills, could be assets to a survivor community. There will, of course, be a small subset of bad apples.
Still, at more than fifty miles from a city, I don’t expect mobs in the hundreds. Dozens could be possible. Off the main routes, especially once maps are scarce and electronic routing down, that density will drop. As with any other threat, it can’t be eliminated, but it can be minimized.
Something to consider is the visibility that preparedness features like greenhouses, gardens and water tanks offer. Situating them at a small distance could be inconvenient, but offer an additional layer of protection.
Once we reach 100 miles from major cities (Assuming we’re not in the sprawl of the Northeast US, Southern California, Ontario Peninsula, Southwest England or other urban clusters), we’re looking at 20-30 days hiking time for untrained people on foot, and vehicle-born elements will be seeking to stay near fuel sources or centers urban enough for familiarity and possible loot. Certainly, further is better, but as noted, it’s helpful to live in one’s retreat, or not too far from it. Looking locally to myself, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati are poor choices for areas to live. However, while Fort Wayne, South Bend, Terre Haute, Evansville, Bloomington and Champaign-Urbana are not great either, one can be 30 miles from one of them, quite rural, and still within commuting distance of a good job, while being hundreds of miles from the major cities. This allows access to the benefits of society while it lasts, and distance from any collapse. Depending on the disaster, the smaller towns could remain safe (terrorists are unlikely to use a nuke on Bloomington, IN, for example) and become recovery centers themselves.
As to threats, I’ve downgraded nukes considerably in my plans. With an ongoing reduction in the size and range of national nuclear weapons, and increased trade and interdependence, the threat for attack and fallout comes down to what terrorists can deliver in a truck or chartered plane. I can’t imagine that such a device will be terribly efficient or potent. This of course also means it will be dirty. There will be fallout.
Therefore, east (downwind) of major centers like Chicago, Cleveland, NYC or Philadelphia are to be avoided. The less “household name” the city is, the less likely it is to be a target–consider that recent events were in NYC, DC, London, Paris…very visible “flags” of their respective nations. I’d always try to avoid downwind, but cities in the Western States (except perhaps Denver and Las Vegas) are far less likely to be targets, and have more room around them.
An additional note is that it’s a good idea to have some spare sick or vacation days (if your job provides them) that one can periodically use when things look bad, or for an occasional surprise practice session. – Michael Z. Williamson


This is the first time I’ve really disagreed with you in the short time I’ve been reading your blog. (I’ve been reading it for a few months). You stated 300 miles from any major metro center. Well I’m from St. Louis and while my bug-out-retreat is well outside of the city, 300 miles would bring me up to Chicago from St. Louis. That is a lot of space. People are not going to drive 100, 200, or 300 miles to rape and pillage in areas that they are not familiar with. Especially in this country when everybody has a gun. It will remain to be seen. – Regards, Zac

JWR Replies: That “safe distance” radius was based on my estimation of a worst case WTSHTF type situation, if and when law and order has completely broken down and there has been a massive involuntary exodus from the big cities. In my recently released book Rawles on Retreats and Relocation I refer to this departing mob as the Golden Horde. Under such circumstances, virtually everyone living on a line of drift that is within 300 miles of a megalopolis can expect to see refugees passing by their homes, and possibly some looters. Take a map of the United States and schoolboy’s drawing compass and start drawing 300 mile radius circles around any city of 800,000 or more, you will soon see that anywhere east of the Missouri River there will little more than multiple overlapping circles. If my prediction is right, then this does not bode well for easterners. Everyone has their own “comfort zone,” with a perceived safe distance from major population centers. I found that mine was way out in the hinterboonies. As they say in the car commercials: “Your mileage may vary.”