Bugging Out Via Boat, by The Odd Questioner

Let’s look into the near future, when the Schumer has just hit the fan, or is just about to. You have no doubts that things are going to go heinously wrong, and not get better. Now what? The roads are likely jammed, even the rarely-used rural ones. Maybe rains have rendered the dirt roads impassable. You might be able to make it to your sanctuary/bug-out location/palace/bunker, but it will take more gasoline than you have to get there.

So – do you give up and resign yourself to be a walking refugee? Not necessarily. What about that big fishing rig you have trailered in your garage? What about all that boat of yours sitting down at the marina? So why not use that big river nearby to make your getaway?

I’m willing to wager that most preppers have, even in the extreme, carefully considered their car or truck, and have centered their plan around fitting everything into the back of the rig and driving down to your bunker, preferably far away from public highways and freeways. Am I right?
Now, if you live in most desert or heavily mountainous areas, this is probably not an option. However, if you live near a navigable river, this gives you an option that a lot of folks simply do not have, and you may want to at least consider it. Let’s look into this a bit deeper and I’ll show you why I think you should do so, and what to consider if you do decide to include boating in your escape plans.

Pros and Cons

Why to do it
Unlike moving around on a car, making your egress on a boat gives you a lot of advantages that you simply cannot get on dry land:

  • No traffic jams once you’re out on the water.
  • If your bug-out location is downstream, you won’t need a lot of gas to get there, if at all.
  • If you have a sailboat and know how to use it, and the river is big enough, you don’t need gasoline most of the time, and have a far larger range.
  • Even the most dirt-poor prepper can fill an old canoe full of supplies and get somewhere with it.
  • An earthquake can slosh a river around, but at least it won’t bury you or render your route completely impassable (now near/on the ocean? Things may get dangerous – especially with Tsunami threats, but inland you’re generally in better shape, and the greatest danger will likely be seasickness).
  • Everyone else in town will be too busy trying to drive out of town. If you plan it right, river egress will insure that you’re not going to be stuck behind sheet metal boxes full of anxious, panicked or near-panicked people all trying to get out of Dodge.
  • Unlike that mega-prepped off-road beast of a truck, the parts are easier to maintain and improvise if you have to, and if you have a sailboat, won’t require too much in the way of petroleum to keep maintained.
  • A good sailboat isn’t going to be disabled by any electromagnetic pulses.
  • If the boat is big enough, you can literally live on the thing for as long as you have to. It also gives you something really important: more room to store critical stuff!

With advantages, come disadvantages. To be fair, let’s cover the important ones. After all, our favorite law-maker Mr. Murphy loves to get out on the water too, so…

Why not to do it

  • If you own a motorboat and your bug-out location is far upstream, you’re going to need a whole lot of fuel to get to it. Fail to plan for this, and you’ll be out of gas and floating down river… right back to where you just escaped from.
  • You have to either insure that your boat is pre-packed, or you’re going to have to transfer everything from truck to boat once you get there – the latter is probably not going to be fun, and will be a huge calorie/energy burn-off.
  • If you screw up and wreck your car or truck, you can grab your stuff out of the wreck and still be able to take the vital items with you. But if you screw up and wreck your boat, odds are good that your stuff is going down with the boat. You can mitigate this somewhat (keep a small go-bag on deck within easy reach), but otherwise, if you wreck it hard, your stuff will either sink, or float down river for some other lucky guy to get their hands on.
  • If you fail to plan ahead, you might get stuck behind a dam, lock, or other river hazard. (I will cover this later).
  • If you fail to plan for alternative launch points, other folks may have the same idea, and that trusty old boat ramp you planned to use may be jammed full of people trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do (and at certain times of day/week/year, it may also be full of people trying to get their boats *out* of the water and get home). We’ll also cover this a bit later.
  • If you live on the coast, your efforts may be frustrated by Tsunami, debris, and other things that will totally screw your plans over. Not the end, but something you have to plan for.
  • If you live in an arid or semi-arid area, that river may be too low to safely navigate (or completely dry in places) during the dry season.
  • Getting to the river in a panic situation is going to be a bit tougher what with that big, heavy trailer back there and all. You’re going to have to be a bit more careful than all of the panicked and careless people around you.
  • It will take a lot more time to get from point A to B. Even a relatively fast boat won’t go much faster than the equivalent of 25 miles per hour (while this will be a lot faster than a car stuck in a massive traffic jam, it’s still pretty slow if you’re trying to escape a really bad situation).

Now consider all of that for a moment or four… I’ll wait. Oh, and while you’re thinking, keep one big thing foremost in your mind: You only get one shot at escaping town. Screw it up, and you won’t get another. Now, let’s take a moment to think…
(…cue some pleasant interlude music here… at least five minutes long. Seriously. Thinking hard now saves having to do it at a bad time later.)
All done? Good. If you decided to consider your boat (or hey – get one), awesome… read on. If not, then feel free to entertain yourself by reading on anyway.
What to Consider First

Look at your route.  Are there any dams, locks, or low bridges along the way? How deep are the rivers, anyway? How wide are they? Do they have commercial traffic (barges, local cruise ships, cargo ships) on them? Are you going to pass or be in the way of the Navy or its bases (they may get touchy if you come too close to them)? Are there any well-known (and even not-as-well-known) hazards out there? Is there anything along the way that can foul your propeller (fishing nets, trotlines, heavy weeds/plants, etc)? Does any part of the route ice-up in the winter (and if so, how badly?)

Look at your entry and exit points. How close is your bug-out location to the river or waterway that you intend to use? How close is your boat (at home) to the location where you intend to drop the boat into the water? How many places are there nearby where you can launch your boat, with or without a boat ramp (remember, your boat is going to be rather heavy with all that stuff in it). Are you familiar with beaching a boat safely (well, at least long enough to get your family and all of your stuff off of it)? If you have it docked at a marina, you’ve saved yourself at least some trouble, but how close is that marina? Can you get to the marina in a hurry? Is the marina guarded well enough to pre-position most of your SHTF gear in it? How crowded is the marina, and how close is your boat to the jetty (err, marina exit)?

Look at your boat. How big is it? What is its maximum draft (depth below waterline when absolutely full)? What is the fuel efficiency if it has an engine? How fast can it go (remember, speed is measured in nautical miles per hour, or knots)? Can you put up a rain cover or other type of temporary shelter? Is it ocean-worthy? How much can you pack in there, anyway? What shape is it in – is it well-maintained? How much punishment are you sure it could take? (Note that I didn’t say “do you think”, but “are you sure”) How many people can you seriously carry along if you have it full of your SHTF gear? How much fresh water can it hold? When was its last tune-up? How quickly can you de-winterize it if you had to?

Finally, look at your own skills. Are you 100% familiar with your boat? Are you capable of fixing the motor if it breaks? If you have a sailboat, can you actually use it under sail? Could you launch it without using a boat-ramp? Can someone else (spouse, kids, etc) navigate/sail/fix the boat in a pinch?

What Kind of Boat?
I know… lots to think about. Take your time. If everything is still good to go, then let’s look at how to different types of boats will behave in a SHTF situation. I’m going to split this into a few different categories, so feel free to skip the ones that don’t apply to you. If you’re planning to actually buy a boat (for some other reason, I trust), then perhaps the following may help influence what else to look for in a boat beyond the primary reason (fishing, water-skiing, parties, etc).

If you have a sailboat, you’re actually in almost the best shape. As long as you can avoid underwater hazards that may break your keel, you’re good to go. Odds are almost 50/50 that a sailboat is kept at a marina, though a lot of this will depend on cost, size of boat, etc. You can trailer them, but launching will require a few extra steps.
A good first tip is to get to know (and I mean know very well) the prevailing wind patterns all along your intended route. Next, be sure you know how to actually sail, and keep your sails in top condition. An extra sail or two (and better, a kit to patch your sails with) would be an excellent investment.
If you have a boat large enough to be considered as a saltwater or ocean-going vessel, then your list of potential bug-out locations just got much larger. While I wouldn’t cross the Pacific in a 25’ sailboat, a sailboat that size can travel along the coastline in fairly good weather for hundreds, if not thousands of miles, depending on your supplies. You could conceivably get to South America with the thing if you had to, and East-coast residents could get to Canada *very* easily by traveling off the coast. If you intend to do this, just one thing – learn as much as you can about sailing and ocean navigation, and get your butt out there to rack up some experience doing it.
If your sailboat is trailered, you may want to consider launching it under various conditions well before a SHTF event begins in earnest. Sailboats with removable or retractable keels are more flexible.

Pleasure Motorboats
This includes most boats – from bass fishing boats, to ski boats, to big and average sized pleasure cruisers… these are boats you’re most likely to find parked in a suburban garage (just note that pontoon boats are something we’ll shove out to its own category).
For these boats, depending on size, you actually have a surprising amount of room to store things – in, on, and around the boat. Your main concerns however involve three things: range, speed, and keeping the motor(s) in top condition. In river/lake conditions, you will be best served by going downstream as much as you can, in order to increase your range. If your boat manufacturer sells auxiliary fuel takes, look into getting them – but know that if/when you do, you’ll be cutting down your storage space, so keep that in mind and balance the two.
Unlike sailboats (which generally have small motors for navigation) you will have speed and maneuverability. You can get around situations and objects more easily, and can move along far faster; while not even half as as fast as an automobile, your top speed is not half bad, especially once you consider how slow the freeway speeds will be during a mass unorganized evacuation.

The smaller boats, especially the open-hulled ones, have more flexibility than most when it comes to fuel and engine power, but be sure to balance your fuel supplies against storage space, and be sure that the motor’s horsepower isn’t larger than the hull is rated for (your boat should have this information on the nameplate). Also be sure to not exceed the maximum capacity of the boat – open hulls will take on water quite easily.
Outboard motors are far more flexible than inboard ones, but otherwise the only real difference is in how much horsepower the motor(s) have, and the additional storage space an outboard motor will give you (as opposed to the space taken up by the engine if it’s inside the hull).
Overall, as long as your bug-out location is near water, and you can get your boat launched quickly, even if it happens during a mass panic, you’re in pretty good shape.

Pontoon Boats
You know what these things are – the big ‘party barge’ boats that can carry an amazing number of people (or stuff) per square foot. They usually have a lot of fuel, and can carry a lot of stuff. With their generally shallow draft, they can get into some very shallow water without getting hung up. They also have a lot of features that would make things relatively comfy in a SHTF situation: perhaps a propane grill, a refrigerator, something to keep the rain and sun off of you, etc.

But… while you may start thinking that this would be the best type of boat to have and use, the truth is going to be ugly… these are going to be the toughest type of boat to use when you’re busy bugging-out. There are three reasons for this: First, these boats are made for leisurely cruising, so they can be painfully slow when compared to most other types of motorboat, even at top speed (which in the Pontoon’s case will burn fuel at a horrendous rate). Second, even though you can get a whole lot of stuff packed onto one, it’s all contributing towards making the pontoon boat top-heavy – so you have to be a lot more careful about what you pack, where it all gets packed, and how you pack it. Third, if the water or the weather gets really rough, you’re in the greatest danger (next to a canoe) of getting swamped, and even in milder conditions, you stand a good chance of getting you and your stuff quite wet from spray. While tenting/tarping and similar accessories will mitigate this, the design leaves you quite exposed overall.

The good news is that these boats can be the easiest to launch and beach, due to their very shallow draft. If your route is fairly calm and relatively free of nautical traffic, you can pack a lot of things on one and get to where you need to go – so long as your destination is within range and you don’t go nuts with the throttle.

Canoes, Kayaks, and Personal Watercraft
Canoes and Kayaks are actually quite an awesome way to bug out if you think about it – you can get to places that no other boat can even hope to touch, and as a bonus, you can portage the canoe or kayak from one waterway to another. It also takes up very little room in your garage. Launching one doesn’t require a boat ramp, or even a trailer – pick any old spot of shoreline, throw it no top of your car or truck (with your stuff in the vehicle) and you’re good to go.

The biggest downsides are exactly two: very (very!) limited space, and that paddle which you’ll be using constantly. You can mitigate that last bit somewhat – a quick sail rig and a keel-board lashed to a canoe can help things along if you know how to sail (or just plan your bug-out location downstream). A small trolling motor would make things easier, but know that using one eats away at your precious storage space, and that it will have a fairly limited range of just a few miles (maybe 10) at best. However, that first bit remains a constant – you can only pack so much stuff into that space, so you may want to focus on just the essentials. If you add more than one person to the trip, multiple canoes or kayaks are better than one, though keep in mind that you could get separated.

It is fairly obvious that your speed is going to be extremely slow, but you make up for that in maneuverability and in the number of places where you can go that the big boats cannot.

A Kayak would be pushing it on the bottom end, because you could, at best, [with a two-man kayak] fit enough stuff in there to be the equivalent of perhaps four or five go-bags (depends on how big that go-bag of yours is, but…)

Jet-Skis? Well, maybe, maybe not… but probably not. The Jet Ski is very fast as far as boat speeds go, but will run out of gas in just a few miles, and can carry perhaps a go-bag’s worth of stuff at best. It will also soak you to the bone with water – not a pleasant thought in the middle of winter. That said, if you really, positively, absolutely have to get (at most) five miles downstream in a hurry with only the things you can fit in a backpack, then I suppose you could do it. I don’t think I’d ever plan for using one, let alone relying on one for escape, though.

Other Vessels of Note
This is mostly a catch-all, but some other vessels that you might come across and/or have are things like…

* Houseboats (like pontoon boats, only bigger, a bit slower, but far more useful because of the amazing amount of storage you have, so long as you have the fuel and the water is deep enough). An awesome way to go in some SHTF circumstances, but since they’re mostly confined to larger lakes and very large rivers, the range is going to be fairly small (depending on the waterway, of course).

* Speed-boats (not the big professional racing rigs, but that backyard project type with the really big engine in it). Use it only if all other options (including by car/truck) are off the table. The speed is comparable to that of a car on a freeway, but storage is going to be very cramped at best – you’d be lucky to fill an old Beetle with the storage space. These boats are tough to handle at high speed during good times – it’ll be even tougher when you’re trying to evacuate in a hurry. They’re rather fragile and eat a horrendous amount of fuel, leaving you with a very short range.

* Catamarans (from the humble “Hobie Cat” to the big ocean-going ones). These depend on size, and if big enough (at least 20’ long), should be taken under the same consideration as sailboats. While a lot more stable than almost any other type of boat, it will have a wider footprint, which can get in the way on narrow waterways.

* Rowboats (that is, a common open-hulled boat that one or two people can pick up and move). Only if you have to – some models can handle some rather rough water (especially those specifically made for rapids), and can carry a moderate amount of supplies. However, it’s all manpower unless/until you put an outboard motor on the back or a sail and keel in the center.

* Inflatable/combo boats (that is, any type of boat that completely has to be inflated, or has inflatable components).  There is an advantage in having something you can practically launch from anywhere, yet hold a lot of gear. That said, you will definitely want to keep an air compressor handy when it comes time to get that thing inflated in a hurry. Also, you’ll really want a good high-volume air pump and emergency patch kits ready.  Mind you, unless it is big enough to hold the contents of a short pickup bed and has a motor, you may not want to bother. Note that these boats would be considered as strictly inland vessels.

Best Places to Consider a Boat
There are many areas in the United States where using a boat as a means of escaping town during an SHTF scenario would not only make sense, but would maximize your chances of survival.
In general, using a boat is excellent for consideration if…

  • You live within 2 miles of a navigable river or other open and navigable waterway
  • Your bug-out location is within 1 mile of a navigable waterway, and is down-stream (and in cases of ocean routes, down-current) of your starting point
  • You have more than one location or facility within this range from which to launch a boat, if it isn’t already docked in an easily-accessible marina
  • Your bug-out landing has a good spot to dock (or at least beach) the vessel temporarily (once the boat is empty, you might want to camouflage it, or jettison it entirely after stripping it for useful parts)
  • You can get to any of your launch points by multiple routes that are not heavily traveled.
  • The water route is not prone to constant flooding, or (in ocean cases) if you can get at least 5 miles offshore quickly in order to avoid Tsunami situations should one arise.

You can get by with using this method (though not as perfectly) if…

  • You live within 5 miles of a navigable river or waterway – just plan for it, and know that you may be delayed if you have to move quickly.
  • Your bug-out location is within 3 miles of a navigable waterway (because you and your fellow refugees are going to have to carry all that stuff from the boat to your bug-out location)
  • Your bug-out landing is upstream, but comfortably within the range of your boat’s fuel supply (just remember to keep the tank full, eh?)
  • You have at least two ways and two places where you can launch your boat, or the marina is at least somewhat easy to get to
  • Your bug-out landing has at least a halfway decent place to tie the boat off to shore until you can empty it
  • You can at least get to any launch point without having to use or cross a major road or highway.
  • The water route is at least free from flooding most of the year, or (in ocean) you can at least get several miles offshore quickly if an earthquake is reported.


 Anything less than these conditions and you will have to do a lot more research –perhaps a car or truck may be a better option, but you’ll have to determine that for certain on your own.

Example Scenario – How to Research
Now that we’ve touched on a few subjects, let’s put it into perspective, and do a scenario which can be useful.

I live in Portland, Oregon metro area. Let’s say that I can get to the Willamette River in very short order if things go bad. This gives me a couple of options for bug-out areas that could never be reached normally via car or truck (at least not easily – we’re kind of surrounded by mountains and rivers here). Let’s do some research…

One option would be to go up the Columbia River a bit (by way of the Willamette), take a turn up one of the many somewhat navigable rivers that pour into it, and find a new home in Oregon or Washington State, and have all the gear I need to settle in reasonably well. Exploring that option, I find that I can only go as far upstream as the town of Bonneville, because there’s a huge hydro dam sitting in the way. They have locks for commercial barges, but a hard and fast rule is that you must not rely on such things to be open during a SHTF situation, so that’s about as far as I can reasonably get upstream. So – I can go that far upstream, it is navigable by both motor and sail boats. Since the Columbia River is positively huge and fast-flowing, ice is pretty much not going to be a problem in most years. On the other hand, since the river is huge and fast-flowing, I’m going to either need a sailboat (the winds usually blow right downstream, so it’ll be tacking all the way up), or a motorboat with a *lot* of fuel. If I had a motorboat and found this option worth pursuing, I’d take a trip by boat to see just how much fuel it burned. If I burn half my fuel before I got even halfway there, then I can mark the point with GPS, and then calculate my useful range when I get home. With a sailboat, fuel is no longer a problem, but with all that tacking, it’s going to take a long while to get to that point – possibly more than a day. (Bonus: Do it during the spring and you can have a go at all the salmon coming in from the ocean).

A second option would be to go downstream, maybe go up a tributary on the way down, and make my new home somewhere in Oregon or Washington in the countryside. While definitely easier on the gas (for a motorized vessel), I still have some looking around to do. A disadvantage is that there are a lot of small towns on the Oregon side of the river. Also, the further downstream I go the more large ocean-going cargo traffic I’ll meet up with (either going to or coming out of Portland, or various ports along the way). This means I’ll have to keep a sharp eye out for foundered ships blocking the channel if the SHTF situation causes ships to try at turning around where they really shouldn’t.

Something else to consider – I could go all the way out to the ocean by floating downstream, then have a go at a coastal town along either the Oregon or Washington coasts (both of which are sparsely populated). I have only one real big problem: The Columbia Bar. It can swallow vessels far larger than anything I can afford. (There’s a very good reason that it is nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Pacific”) I can however get across it if I think ahead and know what times of the day that it is safe to cross it (during the incoming flood tide – this means getting some tide charts and keeping a good eye on the clock). Once out on the ocean, if I really want to (assuming my boat is big enough to do this – larger sailboats only would be the best advice at this point), I can go down the coast much farther than up it, mostly due to the prevailing currents along the Pacific Coast. I don’t want to go too far down, because mid or southern California isn’t really the place I want to be for a bug-out situation. Going up the coast can put me deep along Canada’s coastline after a couple of weeks, or Washington State in a few days. I do have to remember one thing, though: If I bug out along any coastal destination, going up a smaller river and getting inland would be a smart idea, preferably far enough in to mitigate any Tsunami effects.

My last option would be to go upstream on the Willamette River, but sniffing along that route, I can only go as far as Oregon City – where there will be a really large waterfall waiting for me to block any further progress. Since Oregon City is somewhat heavily populated (it is often considered to be still within the general Portland area), any point along this route is likely to be full of refugees too, so this option was cast aside.

Some other bits I want to think about (and you can use anywhere!) are as follows:

  • No matter where I choose to bug-out, it will pay big-time to get to know the locals there now, while times are still relatively calm. Simply showing up and moving in is likely to make a lot of folks angry. Best idea is to get to know folks in at least two locations, and perhaps buy land at the most likely point. Recon and research is always a good thing, no?
  • If I have a big enough sailboat, I could definitely do this. Sailboats are cheap, and don’t eat gas. A 26’ coastal sailboat in good working condition can be had for as little as $6,000 in this area (the cost of a usable off-road rig), and is reasonably ocean-worthy in a pinch if it is classed as a cruiser-type boat. I can pack it with my missus, the dog, a lot of supplies (most sailboats of this size sleep 5-6 people and have an enclosed cabin and head), and be good to go for at least six weeks before I would have to refill the water supply (if I’m careful with it). I could reasonably get to Lower Canada with it, or anywhere along the Oregon or Washington coasts. Upstream along the Columbia would be no problem, at least anywhere below the aforementioned dam. [JWR Adds: True “blue water” capable sailboats are much more expensive.]
  • If I do get a sailboat, I’m going to have to learn how to use that thing, and how to use it well. This will require time and training. The good news is that this part can be really fun, and well-disguised as a family hobby.
  • Maps, maps, maps. Here, on the way, at the bug-out point and the trail(s) to get to that bug-out point.
  • As with any boat, you gotta have good, working equipment, and maintenance.
  • I want at least two good routes to get to that boat if I have it tied at a marina, and at least three routes and places to launch it if I don’t.
  • If I can get a few fellow preppers to also think and act along the same lines, we can have a small flotilla that can carry a whole lot of stuff – enough to create a new community practically anywhere, which gives us the ultimate flexibility to meet the situation.
  • While illegal to use in many jurisdictions, a hand-thown fishing net may not be a bad idea – a practical one takes up only a little bit of room when balled-up. In my neighborhood, springtime + net stands a great chance of providing fresh Chinook salmon along my area of the Columbia River. I’ll have to learn how to use it, long before any SHTF event arrives.
  • The Columbia River has a lot of unpopulated islands along the route. There are lots of potential places to tie up and call home (though a few have roads running over or through them, so I’d have to be picky and get up a short-list).
  • Before I get too carried away, do I go trailer or marina? A trailer gives me flexibility, at a cost of time. On the other hand, a fully-stocked boat in the garage is a lot more secure than one tied up at a marina.
  • The onboard first aid kit had better have a lot of Dramamine in it, and other anti-seasickness medication. Mental note: eat a couple on the way to the boat. Better yet – get my sea legs on long before any SHTF situation. Escaping a city full of panicked people would be the absolute last place and time to be too busy vomiting out over the side, instead of focusing on navigation and security like I should be doing at that point.
  • Once at the bug-out location, I’d be better off having a truck (and perhaps a small trailer) waiting there for me, so I can run the couple miles up to it, drive it back to the boat, and load everything up for one trip. The missus can be waiting back at the boat with a shotgun if needed.
  • I think this should be enough to kick-start your mind and lead you where you need to go, no?

As you can see, it will take a bit more preparation to bug out by boat than you normally would by truck or Jeep. On the other hand, there are the advantages of less traffic, the ability to carry a lot more supplies along with you, better security (it’s harder to steal from or attack a boat anchored offshore than it is to raid a bunker or encampment), and even have a mobile bug-out location if you find just the right unpopulated spot or island to tie up and call home for a while. The costs can even be just as low as that of a usable 4×4 truck, if you know how to look.

However, it’s obviously not going to work for everyone. For the people that this idea will work for, it makes for a very viable. Just do your research before you warm up to it, let alone commit. Even if it’s a virtual trip along your neighborhood waterways on Google Maps, do the research. Like anything else, more than one plan will make for a better chance of survival, long-term.