Where are you getting your prepping advice? Why?
Should I try to survive in place or should I bug out? This is a hotly debated question in the prepping community with many people firmly entrenched on both sides of the aisle. There are numerous articles discussing the topic, but most are only a handful of paragraphs that never really explain how or why they arrived at their recommendation. To answer the “Bug Out” or “Bug In” question effectively, we must discuss essential background information and context. I will break down the discussion into three sections: your source for prepping advice, what SHTF scenario you are preparing for, and how to bug out if you don’t have a survival retreat. So, grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair, and put on your seat belt as I get ready to challenge a good bit of commonly embraced ideas and “prepper theology” that are dangerous to you and your family surviving a long-term SHTF scenario. On a side note, if your idea of “prepping” revolves around getting ready for the next hurricane and storing up enough food and water in your basement to last a couple days until FEMA shows up, well… this article probably won’t apply to you.
Your plan to either bug in or bug out depends on what SHTF scenario you are preparing for. Some of them seem silly and unlikely, but most of the scenarios that could lead to a collapse of our society have at least some legitimacy. What should you be preparing for? Should you plan to bug in or bug out? These are the two most fundamental questions to wrap your head around before making any plans for surviving a SHTF scenario. When getting started, I always recommend my clients apply the age-old philosophy, “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best!” At the same time, you need to find a balance between the worst-case SHTF scenario with what is most likely to occur in your lifetime.
So what are you preparing for? Pandemic? Financial collapse? Nuclear war? Long-term loss of the electric grid? I have noticed that most preppers typically “latch on” to the first SHTF scenario they were introduced to and become overwhelmed by the thought of that event coming to pass. Consequently, they focus all their energy on preparing for that particular scenario. They think about how it would affect their family’s chances of survival and dive head first into the confusing Internet world of preparedness. A lot of them start by Googling the word “prepping” or by spending countless hours watching some popular YouTube prepper channel. Unfortunately, what follows is a long, confusing string of bad information, deadly advice, and Top 10 Prepping Tips from “experts” who, quite frankly, have no earthly idea what they are talking about and have no background in surviving a world full of starving and desperate people.
This is why I am starting the discussion by asking “Where are you getting your prepping advice?”. The source of your knowledge will literally make the difference between whether you live or die, should a total societal collapse occur. I see a lot of preppers spending boat loads of cash on the wrong survival supplies and, more importantly, on the wrong plan of action. Part of the confusion on “how to prep” comes from the plethora of prepping advice available at the click of a mouse. I’ve read many “how to” prepping articles on major websites and magazines that literally made me spit out my morning coffee and laugh out loud. I’ve also read over a hundred prepper-fiction novels, some of them extremely popular. Most of them I can’t even finish, due to instance after instance of unbelievably stupid actions the main character takes that he miraculously survives. My most common frustration with most survival fiction authors is how they very rarely explain with any believability how the main characters stay fed in the post-apocalyptic world they are living in.
In one such immensely popular book, the main character is forced to walk home after being stranded by an EMP attack in another state. He completes the journey over multiple weeks and survives out of his get-home pack that he had in the trunk of his car at the time. Nearly every day, the author explains how “Macho Man X” pulls out an MRE to eat when he only had a half dozen or so to start out with. Halfway through the story, I am screaming at the book, “How many freakin’ MREs does this guy have?!” It must be a miracle, like the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. This character has eaten nearly four dozen MREs over the course of his travels, and I was only halfway through the book. I couldn’t help but envision a Sherpa carrying nine MRE cases on his back, stacked four feet high over his head while following a climbing team to the base camp on Mount Everest. Is no one else picking up on these important discrepancies? How in the world does this guy have a four-and-a-half-star review average on Amazon? That is just one of a hundred things I could point out about this unnamed book. Unfortunately, this author has sold an insane number of novels in his never-ending series, and therefore he’s sold thousands of terrible ideas and recommendations to unsuspecting readers along the way.
Please do some research on who you are getting your advice from. If the bio reads “…an experienced outdoorsman who loves to hunt and fish, [Author X] has had numerous articles published in [X prepper forum] and [X prepper magazine],” or “[Author X] lives off grid in the Great Northwest with his wife and nine children,” that means he can hunt and fish; it does not necessarily mean that he has the experience to tell you the best way to prepare for a SHTF scenario. It’s your and your family’s lives that are at stake! What’s the point of spending your time and money on prepping if you are following bad advice and doing it wrong? Most of the more “experienced preppers” reading this are vigorously nodding their heads in agreement right now. They are thinking back to when they first got started and something specific they spent a lot of time or money on. They eventually had to re-do or re-buy whatever it was, when they realized the original suggestion from “X Prepping Expert” was bunk.
Another bad place to get your advice is on the thousands of Internet prepper forums where everyone is an expert on everything. At this point, you are likely bypassing any semblance of reliable and experienced prepping advice. In fact, you are potentially subjecting yourself to some nameless, faceless, self-proclaimed prepper typing away at his computer in downtown Chicago. You have no way to verify the information you are reading and whether or not the person has actually done what he is recommending. There are exceptions to this rule, however. SurvivalBlog is one forum that does a good job of vetting its articles and authors. The main reason behind this, I believe, is because the website is run by James Wesley, Rawles. While Rawles and I don’t always see eye to eye on every aspect of prepping, he has still lived the prepper lifestyle for decades and has the life experience to back up his advice and recommendations. Most other forums seem to be run by people who are experts at Internet marketing that will post any story to get a Facebook share or another follower.
I will give you two examples of very bad prepping advice. Normally, I don’t drop names, but in this case I am going to make an exception because I believe this first guy is going to be responsible for tens of thousands of preppers dying (when their family’s food runs out sooner than they had planned). His name is “Frank Bates” (Google “Frank Bates Charlatan,” if you like). “Frank,” a pseudonym of course, is the owner and profiteer of Food4Patriots. If you have been running in the prepping circles for any length of time, you’ve surely clicked on a link that took you to one of his infomercials where he tells you that “the government is buying up all the long-term food and if you don’t act quickly, you won’t be able to buy any freeze-dried food in the near future.”
“Frank” is nothing more than an Internet marketing guru who has made a lot of money off those infomercials. The problem is, much of the information he is peddling is provably false or misleading, and it is designed to scare you so that you will “act quickly” to buy his product. It’s the oldest trick in the book for scam artists. If you have made a long-term food purchase from him, please realize that all he has done is re-labeled freeze-dried food from another company and made a quick buck off you. You could have purchased the same exact food from the original company for ten or twenty percent less. You also need to realize that the one-year food plan you purchased is only four or five months’ worth of calories for the average adult. I am bringing to light one of the biggest scams in the prepper industry: most long-term food companies are guilty of deceitful serving size recommendations to one degree or another. Never, ever, ever buy long-term food based off a freeze-dried company’s serving sizes or meal counts. The only way to purchase long-term food is by knowing your personal caloric needs (based on your height, weight, sex, and activity level) and buying your long-term food based on the food’s caloric count. But that’s an article for a different time.
The second example is a popular prepping author who wrote seven different prepping guides and books that were peddled online. The guy isn’t even a prepper. He admitted to having zero background experience in prepping and to just writing those books to make money off the “prepping craze”. He believes most preppers are crazy or gullible rednecks. Google his article called “Confessions of a Former Apocalypse Survival Guide Writer” and read it, if you’d like. He refuses to give his name or the names of the prepping guides and books that he wrote. He pokes fun at the entire “paranoid prepping industry” and boasts how he made money ghostwriting for another “prepping expert” who also remains un-named. The moral of the story here is that you need to be extremely careful where you are getting your prepping advice from, especially if you are new to the concept. Just like any other industry on the Internet, charlatans abound. Unfortunately, the prepping industry seems to be overflowing with them.
So who should I trust?
Now, I realize that it seems like I have just painted the entire prepping industry as a bunch of idiots or scam artists. That really isn’t the case. The truth of the matter is that most legitimate prepping experts are honest, upstanding people who have spent years prepping and truly want to help others follow in their footsteps. However, a lot of them just plain don’t know what they don’t know. They have spent years following bad advice and forming opinions on recommendations from other prepping experts who also don’t know what they don’t know.
One of the biggest problems is that the term “prepping” is used to encapsulate a wide array of SHTF scenarios. A lot of these writers are purely focused on short-term solutions for minor inconveniences to our way of life (like preparing for a natural disaster). Some even travel around the country putting on seminars and have hundreds of thousands of followers on YouTube. While I strongly recommend researching the person’s background and qualifications as a prepping expert, I also recommend you research what type of SHTF they are suggesting that you prepare for. A prepping expert whose entire thought process revolves around how to survive the next hurricane is NOT going to offer relevant guidance on how to survive a long-term grid down scenario. His advice will assume that phones, Internet, banking, food distribution, hospitals, the military, and your local police will still be functioning as normal, and his position on looting or rioting will be that it will be mostly contained to the inner city.
Regardless of where any expert falls on the SHTF spectrum, the answer to the question of whether to Bug Out or Survive in Place comes mainly from the on-demand food delivery infrastructure in this country. Can America keep its citizen’s fed under “X” SHTF scenario? Are people going to start starving? The vital take-away from this entire article is this fact: Once people begin starving, they become desperate, and the playbook for surviving such a scenario changes dramatically. This is a key point that a lot of prepping experts don’t understand.
In honesty, most preppers have done little research into and never fully wrapped their heads around what American society will look like in a serious SHTF collapse situation. They began their prepping journey with an incomplete and incorrect understanding of what type of world they are even preparing for. How can you make plans to prepare for something that you don’t understand?
Most prepping experts are Americans. They grew up in the greatest land of opportunity, and the vast majority have never experienced true desperation or starvation. At the flick of a switch, their lights always come on and with the turn of a faucet, clean water flows endlessly. Their life experience and knowledge base of a world in societal collapse is severely lacking. Most “prepper experts” have never been to third-world countries experiencing a famine. They don’t understand that if the same food shortages were to happen in America, the response from the public would be drastically worse than the famine in Mogadishu or the current food shortages in Venezuela. They have likely never seen the effects of true hunger or starvation on America’s shores, and have probably not studied the human psychology behind it.
I highly recommend everyone reading this to research the various works of Philip Zimbardo for a better understanding on the utter insanity and evil atrocities that will ensue when people are desperate and starving and when the laws of the land are a moot point with no functioning law enforcement. Zimbardo is a world renowned social psychologist; his life’s work revolves around studying how good people can turn evil. (You may be familiar with his work during the 1970s—the Stanford Prison Experiment.) His main focus since then has been studying the atrocities that average and everyday people can commit when there is no law and order, or when they are driven to desperation. It will likely have a radical transformation on your overall preparedness plans.
The other prepping experts you need to be careful of are the cross-industry “Wilderness Survival Experts”, who sometimes don the prepping label as well. Don’t get me wrong: learning wilderness survival skills is a vitally important tool in your prepper’s toolbox. Knowing how to start a fire in the rain and build a shelter is very important, and they are life skills that most Americans have lost over the last fifty years. I am not saying that all wilderness survival preppers are wrong, but if their advice is to bug out to your nearest National Forest and live off the land with the skills they are teaching you, then I say, “Run, Forrest, RUN!” The wise point of that advice is the fact that they promote fleeing the major cities after the SHTF. Where they go wrong, however, is their plan to survive off the land like the Legend of Mick Dodge. If you plan to follow their advice and become a “Lone Wolf,” I can assure you there is a 99.9% chance that you are going to end up dead, period. I’ve personally “lived off the land” in the mountains of Washington State for a month straight in January with six feet of snow on the ground. That was during the initial phase of my military training to become a SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) Instructor. I was a budding expert in wilderness survival at the time, and I still lost fifteen pounds during that single month. (That’s a lot for a lean nineteen-year-old in peak physical shape.)
Now I realize that a few of you reading this are feeling pretty livid towards me right about now. You are sharpening your knives, about to go off on me in the comments section below, explaining how you were left on the roadside as an infant and raised by a pack of wolves or other wildling creatures. It…doesn’t…matter! I still hold to the belief that you will die. Most people that claim these skills on the Internet forums have never actually done it, or they did so in a controlled environment. Even “if” you could prove to me that you had the necessary background to survive and “live off the land” in some wilderness area for an extended period of time, you are not taking into account that the other 99% of Lone Wolves running around the mountains post-SHTF don’t have our skillset.
While you are successfully surviving, the woods will be chock full of unprepared yahoos who fled the big cities and are totally desperate and starving. At some point, you will need to build a fire to cook the occasional squirrel you snare or to warm your hypothermic body; the smoke and light from your fire will bring the other starving Lone Wolves like a moth to a flame. At some point, they will stumble across your camp, or you will stumble into the crosshairs of someone who is so desperate that they will kill you with their deer rifle from a distance, long before you see them, just on the off chance you might have a morsel of food in your pack. At some point, the hungry masses and the rural folk who live around your forest will have killed off every living creature in the woods to feed their family. Your idea of surviving the SHTF next to a fire with venison on a spit will evaporate.
I could go on for hours about the hundreds of scenarios that would get you killed while living off the land post-SHTF. The biggest take-away here is that while you “may” have the ability to survive in the wilderness for a long period of time during normal times, in a post-SHTF world, with starving and desperate people running around the forest, those wilderness skills are not going to save you. Again, the prepper experts that will lead you down this path are offering advice from their personal life experiences of a “surviving in the woods during normal times” mindset. They’ve never wrapped their heads around what life looks like after a SHTF scenario, or more importantly, what their favorite forest bug-out-location is going to look like.
The last piece of bad prepping advice I see often is to grow your prepping slowly when working on a budget. That advice typically goes something like this: start preparing for a hurricane first and then slowly work your way up to surviving the bigger threats. That’s great if you have all the time in the world to slowly build your preparations and you know nothing big will happen until you are done. While I realize that most people are working with a limited budget, your plans for survival should not revolve around your budget. Now listen… I do not mean you should cash in your kid’s college fund. What I mean is that you need to set up your plan of action first to survive the worst-case scenario, taking into consideration your limited supplies. If you start out by preparing for a hurricane and something big happens, you might not have time to re-evaluate your current situation and put in place a better plan of action to deal with it. You are stuck surviving a total collapse scenario in the city with a couple boxes of MRE’s and some candles.
The other problem with this philosophy is that you could get stuck in the small-minded, hurricane prepper community. The websites you visit to help you prepare for these minor situations typically don’t have the needed experience or mindset to help you get prepared for anything bigger. The more you read their advice and recommendations, the more you will begin to believe that the “survive in place” mentality will actually work for something big. Again, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Don’t prepare for the least and die if it’s worse.
So, before you jump on board the prepping train, even if you’ve been on board for years, please do some research on human psychology. That way, you will have a much better understanding of true human nature and people’s true response to starvation and desperation. You’ll know whether “prepper blogger X” knows what he is talking about or is just offering suggestions from his narrow, pre-SHTF life experience and mindset. Think about who you are getting your advice from, and then ask yourself, “Why?”
Jonathan Hollerman is a former military S.E.R.E. (Survival) Instructor and best-selling author on preparedness. Hollerman is a full-time Emergency Preparedness Consultant specializing in Survival Retreat Design through Grid Down Consulting.