So, what SHTF scenario should I be preparing for?
In part one, I cautioned you to be diligent to only follow the advice of credible prepping experts with real-life experience and a true understanding of human psychology in desperate circumstances. Before I can give my advice on the Bug Out/Survive in Place debate, we must first determine what scenario you are preparing for.
In my opinion, the most likely threat today is a natural disaster, like a hurricane or tornado or maybe a days-long blackout in a localized area. However, preparing for these things is common sense and being able to survive them does not make someone a prepper. Anyone can easily buy a few cases of water , two cases of MREs , and a few other basic survival supplies, put them in their basement, and be “good to go”. Most preppers, even if they lost all of their supplies in the storm, could easily brainstorm their way through a few days without food and water. (This would be a good example of where those wilderness survival skills could come into play.) Alternatively, they could literally just recline against a moss-covered tree stump and wait it out. It would be unpleasant and they’ll likely get really hungry while they wait, but the rest of the country will band together and the FEMA trucks will arrive in short order. This type of “prepping for natural disasters” is one of the main reasons why there is so much conflicting information on how to prepare for a total societal collapse scenario and whether or not to bug out.
So, what are the big threats that you should really be preparing for? I realize that the next points are debatable, but in my years of research today’s most likely culprits for a complete collapse of society, where you will need to put your preparedness skills to use, include the following events:
- A long-term grid-down event,
- A massive financial collapse, or
- A dire national or worldwide pandemic.
Now I realize that some of you have been preparing for nuclear war, biological warfare, global warming, food shortages, and many other scenarios for a very long time. I have researched those threats, and I do acknowledge there is legitimacy to most of them and would never judge you for wanting to prepare for them. My question is, what is the biggest and most likely SHTF threat, today? The world is constantly changing, and while prepping for all-out nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis made perfect sense, today there are more probable SHTF scenarios to be concerned with. This goes back to my point in Part 1 about most preppers “latching on” to the first SHTF scenario they learn about. In my opinion, the most dangerous of these threats is a long-term grid down scenario brought on by an EMP attack, a cyber-attack on the electric grid, a Carrington-sized solar flare, or a good old-fashioned physical attack on the electric grid. (Google the dry run attack a few years ago at the Metcalf Substation in California.) To some, it may be easy to dismiss the grid-down threat if you only research one of those four scenarios at a time. If you do your research and add up the risk likelihood from all four scenarios, a national grid-down event is likely to happen in our lifetime.
I have the research and documents to back up my assertion, but that would be too much information to share here. For now, let’s assume you have read about a grid-down scenario and you do believe there is at least some legitimacy to it. However, you believe that a financial collapse, pandemic, or (insert your SHTF Scenario X here) is more likely to occur in the near future. You are convinced, by God, that the dollar is going to collapse in six months and that’s what you are getting ready for. Great! You might be right.
But what if you are wrong? See, here’s the thing…. If you plan and prepare for a grid-down event, a financial collapse or pandemic will be a walk in the park. But if your plans strictly revolve around bugging in, boarding up your windows in town, gardening in your back yard, forming a security team with your neighbors, and fighting off the looters brought on by the coming financial collapse, and then instead of a financial collapse we end up getting hit by an EMP attack from North Korea or Iran, you and your loved ones are in trouble.
While I know that my next point is debated on a lot of prepping forums, I am going to solidly and firmly plant my flag on the following mountain: There is very little to zero chance of surviving a long-term grid down scenario in the city surrounded by tens or hundreds of thousands of starving and desperate people who will eventually search and loot EVERY single store, every single building, and every single house…even yours. When the on-demand food delivery infrastructure that most Americans rely on to feed themselves shuts down from lack of electricity, there will be no way to keep 300+ million Americans fed. It cannot happen, regardless of what the government or other prepping experts tell you! In today’s world, electricity is crucial to keeping our population fed. When the masses haven’t had a crumb to eat for weeks, there will not be a single rock left unturned in the city and surrounding areas during their search for a scrap of food. That includes the very rock you are hiding under.
But what about a pandemic or financial collapse? Do I still need to bug out? In the case of a massive financial collapse, I believe it may be possible to survive in suburbia. I can’t give you a definite answer to that question until the financial collapse plays out and we see how bad it really gets. (The most importantly question: does the food delivery infrastructure shut down?). By the way, neither should any other prepping expert give you a straight-forward answer to that question. I can assure you of this: if you base your survival plans around bugging-in and the situation becomes far worse than you anticipated or planned for, it is too late at that point to get out of the deadly situation you are in. I hear this a lot on forums: “I’m planning to survive in place, and if the rioting and looting gets too bad, then I’ll just bug out to my Uncle Charlie’s farm.” Sorry, you’ll be too late!
If you go this route and have all your prepping plans, like off-grid power, roof water collection system, a large productive garden growing, and thousands of pounds of other supplies, like food, blankets, guns, ammo, et cetera all tucked away and hidden at your suburban location, you are not going to want to leave all the assets behind that won’t fit in your car! It’s not like you can take your massive prepper garden that you spent weeks of blood, sweat, and tears building and fold it up into a suitcase and throw it in your trunk. Are you really going to leave all that half-grown food behind? What if you used up most of your survival seed while planting the garden? What if it’s now too late in the growing season to start a new garden? Do you have the know-how to disconnect your off-grid solar system and hook it up somewhere else, or did a professional install it for you? You’ll likely have limited room in your bug out vehicle, especially if you have family members to take with you. Do you take your bulky solar power system or some extra food instead?
Most people will also cling to the perceived safety and familiarity of their personal home for as long as possible. Most that go with “survive in place unless it gets too bad” plan will stay in their home way too long. They will wait until they are forced to kill a desperate or hungry home intruder in self defense and can no longer deceive themselves into believing that it is safe for their family to stay in suburbia. If you wait till things get “too bad”, then travelling on the open road with your bug out bags or a vehicle laden with food and supplies makes you a target of opportunity.
So, am I saying that you have to bug out to survive a massive financial collapse? No. Yes. Maybe. What I’m implying is that it would be better to be safe than sorry. Isn’t that the whole point of prepping? If you designed your prepping plans around bugging out of the city to a safer location from the get-go, you won’t find yourself in the crappy scenario of sitting in your house while the city around you tears itself apart and wondering, “Did I wait too long to leave?” or “Is it too late to travel through town and get my family out of here safely?” That would be an awful situation to find yourself in.
Where I allow you a little wiggle room to survive in place during the early throws of a financial collapse, I won’t allow it in the case of a deadly pandemic. During a financial collapse, even during a rapid downward spiral, you will still have the ability in the initial days to hit up your local stores and buy extra food, ammo, gear, or other prepping items that you may need to survive. These last minute purchases may be of items that maybe you didn’t get around to purchasing beforehand or couldn’t afford earlier. Depending on the severity of the financial collapse, it may take multiple days, weeks, or months before businesses start closing or get completely looted.
However, during a serious and fast-growing pandemic, commerce will likely shut down much quicker. As the infection rate grows, more and more people will stop venturing out, even for work. The threat of contracting the virus and bringing it home to loved ones will override most people’s fear of losing their job. At first it will likely be the minimum wage employees that stop showing up for work. They have little to lose by risking their job at the local supermarket, sporting goods store, or gas station; they rationalize that they can easily find another minimum wage job after the threat has passed. To them, it’s just not worth it to run a cash register all day while standing face to face with potentially infected people. This will result in supermarkets and other stores quickly growing understaffed. At some point, the big box store managers will be under so much stress trying to make the understaffed store function despite long checkout lines filled with frustrated and angry people, they will likely throw up their hands and stop coming in to work themselves. Middle management typically has little vested interest in the store anyway, and it’s just not worth the hassle and the risk of infection. The only people with a real vested interest in that corporate store are the board members in some far-away city who can’t do anything about the situation anyway. This will result in desperate and sick people getting angry at all the stores they rely on now being closed, and the rioting and looting will escalate.
As the rioting and looting escalates during the early days of the pandemic, it will be splayed across TV screens around the country by a shameless media ecstatic to show the sensationalized coverage. As a result, more blue collar and white collar workers will stay home. Vitally important interstate truck drivers will see the never-ending video loops the media are playing and think to themselves, “Do I really want to leave my family alone and drive my food-laden truck two hundred miles away from home and into that insane city with all that violence?” I suspect a lot of them will start using up sick days and vacation days. As more grocery stores and gas stations close from lack of employees and the dwindling re-supply shipments, things will get even more chaotic. Add this to the growing number of people infected, and more people will question whether their job is worth the risk.
This applies to hospital workers, policemen, firefighters, and employees responsible for maintaining our nation’s infrastructure, like the electric grid, gas lines, sewer companies, and power plants. Please don’t think I am disparaging the people in those career fields. Like any other industry, it will just be a few at the beginning. But as the chaos and pandemic spreads, fewer of these people will show up for work over time. At some point the remaining individuals who are desperately trying to pick up the slack for their missing co-workers and keep our nation’s infrastructure functioning, will throw up their hands in frustration and head home themselves. No amount of forced intervention or government edict will convince someone to risk their life and show up for work if they believe it’s no use or the threat of infection is too high. There are exceptions to this rule, but there likely won’t be enough people risking their lives to keep these vital industries and our nation’s critical infrastructures afloat. Depending on the severity of the pandemic and how long it persists, I believe it is possible to result in rolling blackouts and maybe even a total loss of the electric grid throughout various parts of the country. That means a pandemic could result in the worst-case scenario of a grid-down event. Add that to the spreading illness and you’re in a world of hurt.
I am not saying that a pandemic will result in a grid-down event. I am just saying that it is a very real possibility, depending on the severity of the virus and how quickly the government can find a cure for it. So, if you decided to survive in place for a pandemic and it grows seriously out-of-control, it may be too late to travel; however, travel will be limited for different reasons than the financial collapse. First, there will be a rapidly growing number of hungry and starving people as the nation’s infrastructure and on-demand food delivery systems shut down. While the risk of getting the virus will mean less people out and about coordinating ambushes on travelers, you still run a big risk of contracting the virus during your bug out. You waited too long and there are just too many people infected now. Anyone with whom you cross paths on your travels could lead to you or a family member getting infected.
Second, you need to do some research into the government’s response to pandemics. They have strict plans in place to try and slow the spread of a serious pandemic. Those plans include shutting down means of travel. You may get stuck in a quarantine zone against your will, especially if your initial plan is to bug in as long as possible. Remember, the government will not announce when they are going to quarantine your town, so you won’t get a heads-up to leave beforehand. In my opinion, for a massive pandemic, it’s best if your initial plans revolve around bugging out and getting away from the mass population areas as soon as possible.
On a side note to the second point, please don’t assume you are going to four-wheel your way around a military roadblock like they did in the classic movie Red Dawn  or evade your way through their lines at night, on foot, with your bug out bag. With today’s drone technology and their forward looking infrared cameras, it’s very unlikely that you will be successful in sneaking your family through the quarantine lines. If captured, you could end up in an overstuffed holding zone of other captured escapees, and this could significantly increase you and your family’s risk of getting infected.
So now I’m just going to come out and say it. In the aftermath of a long-term SHTF scenario where there is even a risk of widespread food shortages, you need to bug out (away from mass population areas) and do so quickly. I’ll explain how to do so in Part Three. But for now, please promise me to get off the “Urban Prepper” websites. The term Urban Prepper is an oxymoron. Those two words go together like a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a severe case of jock itch! Those urban prepper experts will tell you that hitting the open road and travelling from place to place like they do in The Walking Dead  is a really bad idea. It is a straw man argument. I actually agree with that statement. No one is telling you that bugging out and wandering around the countryside is a good idea, least of all me.
Some urban prepping experts will tell you about all the abundant resources that big cities have to offer for scavenging. What hogwash! You put a few million, or even tens of thousands, of starving people in a small land area and they are going to pick that place clean in no time! You aren’t the only one who is going to be scavenging for rapidly disappearing food sources. Ninety-nine percent of the surviving population will be doing the same thing as you. The idea of scavenging for survival in some city should scare the living crap out of you. It’s understandable to me how some people might store up a lot of food in their suburban basement and believe they can ride out the storm by hiding and keeping their head down. I disagree with that plan, but I can understand their thought process. If you don’t have long-term food stored up and your plans involve sneaking around the city at night scavenging for your food like everyone else, you’re a special kind of stupid. You think that’s too strongly worded? I don’t think so.
I don’t care about how many guns you plan to carry, your hand-to-hand combat skills, or the fact that you think you have perfected the foolish “grey man movement” techniques, you’re still going to die eventually. You’re in a city full of starving people who are wandering around day and night desperate to find the same stuff you are looking for. They are going to be raiding the same distribution centers and stores you plan to hit and fighting with you over every scrap of food. Sure, you might get away from an ambush a time or two and maybe kill off a few of your attackers, but eventually you’re going to get yourself shot in the back from some dark second story window. Some Holocaust-skinny dude who’s too sick now to leave his house and join the scavenging parties just shot you from a distance on the off chance that you may have a scrap of food in your pack. Heaven forbid you have a family at home depending on you to bring food back. On one of those scavenging trips, you’re not going to make it home, and that’s a fact, Jack!
Some prepper experts will try and scare you into surviving in place by insisting you are better off in the suburban location you know well than hitting the open road. They’ll explain how dangerous it will be to wander around the countryside post-SHTF. That’s true, and I would never advocate for aimlessly wandering around post-SHTF, like they do in the popular movie The Road . However, you must realize that trying to survive in town surrounded by thousands of desperate and starving people will be much harder to do than surviving in a remote location. Before making a final decision to survive in place, it is imperative that you are only doing so if your current residence is already in a remote location. Do some research and see how well your home location fits in with survival retreat considerations. Very few locations are perfect, but if you are not checking off more boxes than you are leaving blank on the survival retreat checklist, you need to seriously reconsider staying in place.
There are far better options on the table for someone, even on a tight budget, than just riding it out in town waiting for a large band of looters to kill you and take all your food. I will be discussing these options in Part Three. In the meantime, remember to scrutinize the source of your prepper advice and determine what SHTF scenario you are preparing for.
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.