Often looking into the past can help solve new problems. If roads become unusable for travel, or vehicles are not available we must start looking at new solutions, or old ones in this case. Paved roads as we have today are a fairly recent innovation. Even 100 years ago very few were paved and often subject to damage by rains, floods, and environmental conditions. Winding cattle trails, wagon tracks, and horse paths were the main travelways on land. And today’s roads can easily become dangerous and impassable during bad weather, earthquakes, and mudslides. But there is an alternative for almost everyone. Water! The continental US has numerous large rivers that for the most part are very navigable. There are also large chains of lakes that offer great travel options. If you look at any map of the US you will see larger cities and towns close to rivers and lakes. This is because [in the 19th Century] traveling by water often made more sense then by land, and trade routes and communities grew up around these waterways.
Traveling by water offers many challenges. The first being what type of craft to use. There are many commercially available sizes and styles and each is well suited for many applications. But lets look at it in terms of power. There are engine powered and non engined powered. Basically powerboats have some type of engine to provide propulsion. They can be gas, diesel, or electric motor powered. These can include shaftdrive, inboard/outboard, outboard, and jet drive, and typically are the faster and more powerful of all types. Sailboats and pedalboats are examples of non engine powered, and of course canoes, rafts, and kayaks are examples of human powered. Each type has advantages and drawbacks. Engines need fuel and maintenance but provide power for speed and moving heavier loads. A larger boat with no gas to run the motor is useless. A canoe can be used in shallower water, but usually can’t hold more than a few hundred pounds of gear with two adults in it. Sailboats need more room to be effective in tracking the wind and maneuvering, but don’t need fuel to move. So as with any piece of equipment assessing your needs will be crucial to picking the right boat.
In a situation where overland travel is limited, looking at waterways is the best alternative. You need to identify what travel routes may be in your area and start compiling maps and information on them. Water always flows downhill and depending on what side of the mountains you are on will greatly influence the direction they will flow. For example in my area of the southeast we have the bottom portion of the Appalachian mountain range. And there are rivers that flow from the center of the state all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and there are others that begin a few miles away that head all the way to the Mississippi River. The East Coast has the Intercoastal Waterway that is actually an inland series of interconnecting flows that you can travel North and South over the majority of the coastal US without getting into the open ocean. The Great Lakes have always been used as trade routes throughout the midwest and many areas of the lakes are still used to transport goods. Having the maps and information on dams, locks, and other travel hazards will be invaluable.
Once you have identified your waterways you can begin to decide on your craft. With so many variables I am not able to give you more than my own choices and reasoning in hopes it will give you a start in figuring out your own solution. I currently have 6 options for water craft. With a healthy interest in sport fishing I tend to always have several boats available to me. I first researched my local waterways. I have access and experience on the Chatahoochee River, and the Coosa River, as well as the Savannah River and Ogeechee River here in Georgia. I also have a boat stored on the coast for offshore fishing on the few weekends I’m able to get away. I have been fortunate to have canoed in a major body of water in almost every state from Maine to Florida on the east coast so there are many other rivers, lakes, and creeks that I am familiar with but the main ones for travel for me are decided by proximity, size, direction of travel, and ease of navigation. For example the Ocoee River in Tennessee is a superb white water river and is a blast to play around in a kayak, however it is limited in travel due to difficulty and the dams that control water flow. So for distance travel or to navigate it with a skiff full of supplies would be impossible. You want to find wider slower moving rivers as these will allow better navigation with a loaded down boat. For these rivers a wide bodied canoe is invaluable and can carry quite a bit of supplies. Also on many rivers there are long wide stretches that have very slow moving water and can actually be paddled upstream with little effort and can provide travel in both directions. I have two kayaks, two canoes, one john boat, and one 21′ offshore center console fishing boat. The offshore boat has a full compliment of safety gear and survival supplies. The reason for this is because getting in trouble 60 miles offshore is not the place to wonder if you packed some extra water or food, or is that pair of pliers in the tool kit or not. So that boat is fully equipped at all times. However with 250 miles of travel to get to it I spent more time preparing gear for the other boats. The kayaks are good for quick maneuvering or scouting ahead of a larger boat. My two oldest kids are getting better paddling the canoes and the three younger ones can ride in the john boat with the supplies. I have added two electric motors with 50# thrust and 1 deep cycle marine battery for each one. These have been fitted to fit the canoes and the john boat. I have added a solar recharger for the batteries. And have an additional jump pack for emergency power. The john boat is 18′ and is a shallow draft with fitted oars for maneuvering down river. This set up of “scout” kayaks, “transport” canoes, and a “storage” john boat, will in my opinion maximize my travel options while still being able to transport my large family with less effort than overland travel. I am only a few miles from a river large enough for me to make it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. And I believe if I need to travel out of my area for any reason that the remoteness of water travel will increase my travel ability and decrease my risk of exposure to outside influences.
I would like to add here that many states require a boater safety course before you operate a powered boat in local waters. This would be a great training class to take for everyone. Also for Coastal residents the coast guard has some great publications on navigation and using your boat safely. They also publish charts and booklets explaining what the markers, buoys, and lights mean for Navigational Aids placed throughout our coastal areas. If you do live on the coast and plan to use your boat as part of an emergency plan I would strongly suggest you sign up for and take the Coast Guard’s Captain’s class. This is commonly referred to as a “six pack license” and allows you to carry up to six passengers as captain on a for hire vessel, such as fishing charter boat captains have. The information you will learn in this class is incredibly important for anyone attempting to navigate in coastal waters. And as always obeying the rules and regulations on boating is crucial, and safety can never be underestimated on the water. You should have a PFD (personal flotation device), or life jacket for every person especially children. These need to fit properly and be in good repair for them to work so the first thing to do is to get a good Coast Guard Approved Life Jacket, the second is to wear it at all times out on the water.
The following are key elements of a plan to travel on water:
1. Examine routes and gather maps and information on the entire route including, hazards such as dams, power plants, locks, and spillways. These may be impassable and a plan to portage (go around) these obstacles will need to be made. Pay attention to seasonal changes such as high water in Spring or frozen areas in winter.
2. Never run rapids you have not scouted first. Stop before you get to them and walk down stream to check for the safest route.
3. Always have proper safety gear on each craft before beginning your trip. Including Life jackets, rescue ropes, and throwable flotation devices.
4. Use appropriate boat style for the type of water you are traveling on.
5. Practice using your watercraft to have some familiarity with your local waterways, and equipment.
6. Pre-pack your equipment for the most stable weight distribution without overloading.
With some minor adjustments your overland escape plan can be modified to include waterway travel and give you one more option in staying safe and prepared. As with any good plan it should include the variables but also allow for adaptability. So get out on a boat, enjoy the scenery, and use that time to get some practice in before you may really need it.