Bugging Out Abroad, by J. in The East

For the preparation conscious world traveler, life abroad means a unique set of considerations must be made to the manner in which you travel/live abroad.  After all, the primary objective of the prepper abroad should be to get back to their family and home.  It was, at least for me.  My time living in Asia during the outbreak of Swine Flu brought the fragility of the infrastructure I was living in to the forefront of my attention and garnered in me an appreciation for the self reliant upbringing my parents instilled in me and made all too frightening the prospect of being trapped in a city more densely populated than any we in the States could imagine.  A global pandemic, socioeconomic collapse, natural disaster, .etc whatever the catalyst may be that destabilizes the normal functioning of society, the added stress of being so far from home means a prepper worth his salt needs to consider several factors during their, what I will refer to as an: Overseas Bug Out (OBO).

In flight preparedness:  I can remember going to the airport and meeting my dad directly at his gate coming back from a business trip.  Now I’d wager that TSA would tackle a four year old that walked past the barrier without getting fully scanned or without a boarding pass. The fact of the matter is that global terrorism and the protectionist culture have turned air travel into a disconcerting ordeal for those of us that like to travel well prepared.  Fortunately hours on airplanes to and from the far side of the globe have aided me in developing a rather comforting system, that is flight friendly.

Most airlines allow you to carry two pieces of baggage onboard. I would encourage readers to take full advantage of this, but I’d urge them to consider their organization.  I usually carry a shoulder slung briefcase and a watertight sling dive bag that I bought while in Thailand.  In the briefcase go the delicate tools that can’t be checked and aren’t vital to life i.e. can be abandoned.  This means computers, e-readers .etc.  This bag goes into the overhead bin.  I’ve never been a stickler about this.  I only book aisle seats, anything I need I can get up and grab.  The dive bag however is never out of my reach and within it I keep my flight survival system.  I try to stick to as many key elements of survivability as I can.  With of course the exception of a cutting tool I’ve found that most others are easy to get by with.  First the dive bag is a great choice, it’s relatively watertight, it goes on fast, I can synch it down quick, and I can get out of it fast.  Now I know the odds of surviving a plane crash are minimal but my kit gives me peace of mind. It’s better to have and not need.  In the bag goes my water container, always a stainless steel water bottle.  I like those made by Guyot Designs because of their wide mouths. I always make sure to get two bottles of water once I’ve boarded to fill my bottle up with, then it goes right back in the bag.  With it I can of course carry water, but I can also boil water in an emergency. 

I carry cover, usually a military poncho and an emergency space blanket. I’ve always wanted to spring for a nice lightweight tarp but the poncho serves dual purposes by being wearable so I’m okay with it. Tarps can be pricey, so save money where you can.  I keep a ferro rod as well.  It’s just a small keychain version, comes with it’s own striker it only cost a couple bucks so I’ve never been concerned with it getting taken, it never has, it’s on my keys, it’s harmless. In addition to this I carry a large tightly wrapped bundle of cordage.  The choice is yours really, paracord or bank line whatever suits you.  I also exercise redundancy in this aspect of my kit. My Luminox watch has a paracord strap I made for it.  In addition to those life support systems I keep a small first aid kit.  In it are bandages, Tylenol,  Benadryl, gauze, antibacterial creams, cleaning swabs, eye drops, and a signal mirror.  In the name of redundancy I also carry an additional watertight pouch within which I add communications equipment and backup batteries for my electronics.  In it goes my cell phone, GPS device, solar charger with compatible cords, batteries, passport and extra cash.  In addition are added odds and ends like a small pack of Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, Now in order to keep all of this uniform and not a bouncing, jabbing mess when I sling it I usually have everything wrapped up in a warm sweater or fleece but this fluctuates depending on the individual. A blanket would work too. 

In regards to on plane defense I’ve recently seen a rise in “tactical” pens coming into the market.  Seems like enough Kubotans were confiscated at security that people are now trying to slip them by in the form of pens.  I’m sure people have flown with them but frankly I’m not shelling out $15-$50 bucks for something to get taken away.  In my opinion carry a normal sturdy pen or to be honest I think you’re just as good with a tightly rolled up magazine but hey, I don’t like to stand out. I would encourage others to stay low profile as well. So no tactical bags for me, no tactical pens, just common sense and a little redundancy.

Laws in different countries are always going to surprise you.  I once spent a summer in London with a pocket knife in my pocket everyday before I found out it was illegal.  Took me totally by surprise, to most of us it’s such a harmless tool we always carry for a variety of needs but it just goes to show you, you’ve got to plan ahead.  That being said, I never travel anywhere without a blade of some sort.  And not once has a blade been removed from my checked luggage, even big fixed blades. So you’ll miss your blades while you’re in flight but thankfully you’ll usually be reunited once you land.

This brings me into check baggage choices.  I’ve always opted for fast, man portable systems.  I don’t go for the big wheeling suitcases I don’t want to have to drag one of those in a crowded press.  So find yourself a sturdy hiking pack.  The realm of survival preparation leaves people the opportunity to be frugal in many places but your pack should never be one of them.  I sport a medium sized Gregory pack.  It has an amazingly flexible support system with a great amount of storage and extra pockets. Oh I love pockets! My other bag is a military surplus duffel bag.  The Gregory being faster and lighter is packed with all my essentials that couldn’t fly with me.  Clothing that suits a variety of weather conditions, MSR cook kit filled with fire making supplies i.e. large ferro rod and wet fire tinder, oatmeal packs and cotton bandanas, more cordage, night vision device, my knives, multi-tool, boonie cap, SAS Survival Handbook, extra pair of boots, and a bag of beef jerky.  And no, shockingly I’ve never been stopped or accused of espionage. All regular clothing goes into the big army duffel, it can be ditched in a pinch but it can also be carried with ease. 

What can be purchased locally:  My next point is what can you acquire in country?  Well that depends on where you are some places have more than others, some places all you’ll find are cheap knock off versions of name brand gear.  The fact is you’re only limited by your resourcefulness and ability to discern quality from junk.  I made some great scores while I was in Asia enjoying the excellent exchange rate.  I added a wonderfully compact mummy sleep system, a couple waterproof everyday carry bags,  some surprisingly quality knives, great rubberized binoculars, powerful flashlights with strobing features, and every time I traveled to a new country I made sure to purchase and prepay for a SIM card to pop into my international network cell phone to enhance my range of communication should the cell networks still be functioning.  Added with these were a healthy supply of international phone cards.  On a side note to this I’ve tried a variety of methods of carrying valuable documents and hidden cash with me while backpacking and traveling.  Belly bands are popular, as are ankle straps but I always felt like they were too well known and frankly uncomfortable.  I came across 5.11 Tactical’s holster shirt while Internet window shopping and it has by far been the best product for the job.  A sweat wicking t-shirt with pockets under either arm.  Within these pockets I would conceal extra cash, either my passport or a copy of it, or whatever I deemed important at the time.  Sometimes it’s just a safe place to keep something you don’t want to risking losing. Keep in mind that in many places genuine gear will be marked up in price due to the shipping costs from the U.S. or Europe.  A bargain conscious prepper would be wise to shop around and keep in mind it might be easier to buy online and have your family ship things over to you.

Getting compatriots involved: The Swine Flu outbreak generated an interesting reaction amongst the expats I was working with.  There was mild panic circulating disguised as sarcasm of course and interesting questions began to arise.  I saw it as a great opportunity to gauge my coworkers mindset concerning issues like disaster preparation and at the same time get a grasp of who I thought would make a good “OBO” group member.  Why? because traveling solo sucks, those of us versed enough in the subject know that.  I knew that If I had to get out of dodge and quick I didn’t want to do it by myself.  I didn’t think my language skills were adequate enough, and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough cash, kit, or support to do it solo.  So following the Swine Flu panic, I offered a topic up on our company web chat board:  “Zombie Outbreak! What would you do?” The way I see it people have to be approached delicately, no sense in getting yourself labeled the paranoid psycho right out of the gates.  Make it fun, innocuous, and then see who has a good head on their shoulders.  Follow it up with friendly chatting, bring the topic up at lunch or when the group is out sampling new restaurants, and eventually make it about something more realistic.  “We’re surrounded by 1 billion people that don’t speak our language and won’t take us in, they can’t even take care of themselves. What do you think?”  Let it go from there, my friends and I eventually developed a plan we were comfortable with, that wasn’t strict enough to not be adaptive to multiple scenarios.  As the veteran prepper it’s important that you remain the voice in the back of there heads urging them to make wise purchases, to keep their bug out bags prepped, and to stop digging into the emergency cash. I was much more comfortable after having found a group I could rely on. Thankfully we never had to put our plan into action, because an OBO in my mind is still a terrible crap shoot to have to endure. 

Geography: Geography needs to be considered.  The first question you should ask yourself is: Uhhh, where am I? After you’ve sorted that out start thinking about avenues of escape.  What kind of terrain will you encounter? what are the other transportation resources at your disposal? what is the social and political condition of the neighboring countries? are you likely to find assistance beyond their borders or trouble?  and lastly will airlines be in operation given the scenarios you’ve considered?  If you have the foresight to see the bubble before it pops then hop on a plane and get home but if you’ve missed your window, make sure you have a contingency plan.  I counted on the airlines being grounded and you should too.  I figured the airports would be a nightmarish press of bodies screaming in dozens of languages from all over the world. 

That being said make sure you’re documented with the U.S. Embassy.  If like in my case there is no embassy in your city then contact your consulate. That’s all I had.  It was located on the top floor of a shopping mall. I wasn’t banking on them  being able to help, but nevertheless whenever you travel/live abroad make sure the State Department knows how to contact you, you never know. 

So considering airlines will be useless, trains, boats, automobiles, bikes, and feet. Likely a combination of those are what will do it for you.  Frankly you have to know you’ve got the drive for it. It won’t be quick and it definitely won’t be easy.  I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing would stop me from getting home.  I wasn’t going to be stuck there, I was going to get to my family.  Know that your group members are equally ardent because you’ll be relying upon each other for support.

Multiple routes:  I like having backups.  It’s something my dad always stressed to me.  Have a plan B and if that fails, C and D ought to get it done.  Like I said if one avenue shuts down you need to know how to access the others, because what’s the alternative?  Wait the crisis out?  no luck there in my opinion.  Our initial plan was to beat feet east for the coast and board a ship. Failing that, drive, bike, or hike our way south over a relatively simple route and not too demanding terrain to the coast where we’d find yet another large shipping port where we’d be able to find passage or cross over into other countries if need be. I wanted to avoid the north and west at all costs as well as the countries to the northeast, the further north I went the colder it got and the further west the more difficult the terrain and further we’d be from the coast.  Overall sea passage seemed like the best most viable option and I’d wager you’ll come to similar conclusions.  That being said there was a great likelihood that loads of people would have the same idea.  That is of course contextual because depending on the nature of the events the greater majority of the population may feel that they can simply wait things out.  I felt like it was going to be a, cross the bridges as I come to them kind of thing.  You have to be willing to adapt. What I did make sure of, was that my group members and I had plenty of cash in multiple currencies and as many barter items as our systems would allow.

Cash/barter:  Cash is king, war is an extension of politics and politics is an extension of economics, and the accumulation and transfer of wealth is the most commonly understood international language.  It’s an undeniable fact and it is important to have plenty of spare cash on hand.  Ideally I would’ve liked to have had some precious metals with me but I’ve never had the luxury of having those.  The way I saw it,  depending on the scenario, paper currency would still be carrying a value and there were always barter goods that I was prepared to trade in exchange for transport should inflation be high enough to render my cash worthless.  This included nice watches and jewelry, valuable electronics, labor, whatever.  In hindsight I wish I’d made the jump and purchased some silver or gold coinage, those will always carry value. I would definitely encourage future travelers to keep that in mind!

Personal protection: Being abroad can make this quite difficult.  As I’ve said before, edged weapons aren’t hard to get by with.  They may not be something you can carry around when law and order is still in effect in some places but when TSHTF you’ve got them.  Firearms are basically out of the question.  We have the luxury of having relatively easy access to them here in the States.  My experience abroad is that firearms are few and far between. Unless by some bizarre twist of fate you come across one,  then you’ve hit the jackpot. The likelihood however is that you won’t.  You’ll likely have to resort to the natural instincts that allowed man to survive for thousands of years before the advent of firearms.  You’re really limited only by your creativity and resourcefulness.  This is another reason traveling in a group is essential.  Strength in numbers is a fact. A fight is a messy and chaotic occasion and no matter how many times you’ve seen Jason Bourne drop a half a dozen guys, the reality of a fight is bigger usually wins so carry a big stick, so to speak.  Check out sporting goods stores and hardware stores if they’re available, anything man portable and powerful.  Make your choices based on what you’re comfortable with, be realistic.  You want force multipliers, not anchors.  Along with this goes the survivalist mentality.  In the back of my mind is the old adage, “don’t be where the trouble is.”  This means when planning your route of escape keep in mind, evasion.  Given the circumstances, interaction with people is going to be a problem regardless of their intentions.  You could be faced with violence.  Or even harder to handle, the possibility of coming across a fellow expat that is stranded and in need of help. Actually consider for a moment that possibility how would your opinion change whether they were male or female.  My conscience wouldn’t allow me to leave somebody hopelessly screwed, but bringing them along would suddenly decrease your carefully planned resources. Everything in situations like this will have a cost. 

Interaction will however be unavoidable and you need to be prepared for the chance that someone will want what you have.  Treat the encounter like you would a bear.  Be loud and on the attack, speed and violence of action may be enough to convince the predators that you aren’t easy pickings. 

Medical supplies:  Super sizing my standard kit of level 1 first aid supplies I made it a point to include additions like Moleskin for the blisters that were likely to occur, considering our plan was for a maritime escape we needed to consider sea sickness and nausea aid for us landlubbers.  In retrospect I wasn’t pleased with the medical supplies we had access to while living there.  They were mostly herbal and traditional remedies and looking back, I think the prudent thing to encourage future preparation savvy expats to do is take the time to learn what you can about the traditional remedies at your disposal.  The most I was able to glean was a variety of teas for stomach aches, allergies, and bronchial congestion.  I was thankful for the fact that I had brought things like malarial medication, antibiotics courses, and more western medical supplies.  And while the transportation networks are still up and running have the family send you some care packages from home.  I stocked up as often as I could. 

Orienteering: Last thing to consider is how you’re going to get from A to B.  It’s easy to say I’m heading for the coast or I’m heading south to grab a sea plane to…etc  but unless you have an intimate grasp of the terrain and roads,  you’re going to need a map and if you’re going to avoid hazardous areas of population density you’ll need a means of orienteering.   Invest in a quality GPS device and compass and take the time to learn how to use them properly.  I had the benefit of a great collection of maps from the local outdoors store. Maps are something you’ll generally have to pick up locally.  Odds are your local REI won’t have terrain or road maps for the other side of the globe.  Should you find your map is written in a language you aren’t familiar with, be sure you have a quality dictionary to speed you on your way.   Remember that easily followed routes like rivers and train tracks can be great guidelines along your route but conversely they can lead to potential dangerous encounters with other people.  Never forget that you are in a foreign country. Depending on the region, you may stick out like a sore thumb.  You may appear to be a target of opportunity to some.  You’re foreignness no matter how slight it may seem to you will be obvious to locals and they may to choose to try and take advantage of you because they know your basically stranded.

Hindsight:  As they say it’s 20/20.  looking back there are still several things I wish I’d of had with me or had purchased abroad.  Number one is silver or gold coinage.  They’re small and concealable and carry a lot of buying power. While I did have cover in the form of my poncho, a tent or an integral bug net hammock system like a Hennessy Hammock would’ve been nice to have.  My reluctance was in the prices I encountered. Genuine gear cost roughly double what it cost in the States and the only other alternative was the knock-off stuff which I wasn’t going to rely on.  I would’ve liked to of had a means of procuring small game animals. Fashioning a bow takes time, a slingshot or slingbow system would’ve been a great lightweight addition to my kit and would’ve double as a defensive weapon as well.

Lastly I wish I’d of had a better grasp of radio communications equipment but this will hopefully encourage others to do so.  I’d stress again for expats to take full advantage of “care packages” from home while the shipping system is still up and running.  I’d add to always be considering your kit and how it can be improved and share those ideas with your group members. Redundancy is crucial. Make sure you cross train with group members, share ideas and information, and take advantage of local martial arts classes together, circulate back up plans and contingency plans.  I’d like to think my group was pretty squared away for most contingencies but I never allowed myself to get comfortable.  The way I see it, if you’re comfortable you aren’t doing it right anymore.  Caution ensures careful consideration and a more open mind to adaptability. 

I’ve always encouraged people to spend some time overseas.  But keep in mind that being abroad during a disaster scenario is a complex and challenging situation to potentially place yourself in. While some of the ideas I’ve discussed in this are similar to techniques and methods that can be applied within CONUS, being abroad is made all the more difficult by language barriers, overall distance of travel, lack of resources, and lack of communication with home. 

Being abroad is a wonderful, educational experience and the truth is that you can never fully appreciate what you have here until you’ve seen what the 2nd World and 3rd World live like.  And in seeing it, you’ll become all too aware of how important it is have a way home.