Is It Time to Bug Out? How to Know When to Go

Ask yourself these questions to decide if it is time to bug out

We’ve talked on this website about making the decision whether to Get Out Of Dodge or hunker down at home, but one vital question remains. Is it time to bug out? How do you know when to go?

If you go too soon, you may have left for no reason, causing yourself undue expenses, missed work, and making your kids absent from school. If you wait until it’s too late, you may not be able to leave because the situation has deteriorated to the point that you’re trapped.

So how do you make that decision? How do you know when is it time to bug out? Here are some factors to weigh.

Is It Time to Bug Out? These Signs Say YES. GO NOW.

Some situations unequivocally mean you should hit the road immediately without question. Is it time to bug out? If one or more of the following signs is present, it’s time to go.

  • Local authorities have issued a mandatory evacuation order.
  • First responders tell you to evacuate.
  • A wildfire is rapidly approaching.
  • Floodwaters are rising quickly.
  • You do not live in a home built to withstand extreme weather events, and a hurricane is inbound.
  • A toxic industrial emergency has occurred, and responders are wearing hazmat gear and using respirators.

If any of the above things are occurring, you need to leave and head toward safety.

Can You Leave Without Causing Expense and Difficulties?

What if the event may not be that serious? Then it’s really a matter of how inconvenient bugging out would be. If you will have to take time off work, resulting in a loss of income, that might be a reason to stick around and watch how things develop. Do you have children in school? Many schools take “truancy” very seriously, and parents risk fines or other punishments if their children have too many unexcused absences. Will you have to pay for meals out and lodging?

If you can go without costing yourself a lot of money or facing other repercussions, hitting the road early means that you’ll miss that terrible evacuation traffic jam. Can you visit a friend or family member and wait out the emergency?

Traffic jam on an evacuation route

Hurricane Rita 2005: Evacuation from Houston Photo Credit: FEMA Source: Wikimedia Commons

How Serious Is the Event?

Another factor to consider when wondering, “Is it time to bug out?” is the seriousness of the event. Is it likely to cause serious injury, illness, or death, or will it just be an inconvenience?

The riskier the event is, the more important it is to evacuate in a timely fashion. Don’t wait until the last minute when dealing with potentially deadly disasters like wildfires or hurricanes.

What Are the Authorities Saying?

Has your local government issued any type of advisory to the public? If so, what was the wording? Did they tell people in your area that evacuation was mandatory or strongly recommended? Are they warning you they will not send first responders to help if you refuse to evacuate? If any of these are the case, you should probably leave immediately. Being well prepared for evacuation with a bug-out bag will help you get ahead of the crowds.

On the other hand, if the authorities have not issued such advice, you’ll want to weigh your other factors before making decisions.

One exception to this: if first responders are banging on your door and telling you to evacuate, get your family and pets into the car and go immediately. They have their eye on the disaster and, through their training and experience, will issue valid warnings. By ignoring their instructions, you put not only the lives of yourself and your family in danger, but also the lives of the people who may be sent back to rescue you.

Bugging out just doesn't mean that you should run to the middle of nowhere

Do You Have a Place to Go?

Where will you go if you bug out? You need to have a plan well ahead of any emergency. This is especially true if you have pets or livestock. Most of us don’t have our own bug-out lodge, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of options.

  • Family and friends outside the danger zone
  • Hotels and motels
  • AirBnbs
  • Campgrounds
  • Public shelters (be aware that there can be some safety risk at public shelters and that pets are not normally welcomed)

Some communities that are prone to wildfires in particular have groups on social media where people outside the evac zone generously offer spare bedrooms and lodging for livestock to those evacuating.

The reasons your destination is a factor in answering the question “is it time to bug out?” are multiple. How long can you stay with friends or family without wearing out your welcome? How much can you afford to spend on lodging or campsites? Keep in mind, too, that you’ll most likely be spending additional money dining out during this time period. In many disasters, FEMA will pay for temporary lodging outside the emergency zone for those who cannot afford it.

What Are the Risks If You Get Stranded in Place?

What if you wait too long to bug out and you become stranded? Depending on the situation, this can be extremely dangerous. In most emergencies, there comes a point at which the official advice shifts from “mandatory evacuation” to “shelter in place.”

During the Creek Fire in 2020, more than 200 campers, hikers, and daytrippers found themselves suddenly and completely trapped when the wildfire cut off all exit routes after jumping the San Joaquin River. It was Labor Day weekend when the fire spread rapidly and unexpectedly. Those trapped by the fire had to take shelter in the lake. They were rescued over the course of four days by the Coast Guard, who arrived in Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters.

Hundreds of nursing home patients who were not evacuated in Florida died after Hurricane Irma struck. A dozen of the deaths were caused by heat-related issues when the storm took out the power. This prompted a study that concluded 433 elderly people died, both directly and indirectly, as a result of the hurricane. After Hurricane Harvey, a horrifying viral photo showed elderly nursing home residents in waist-deep floodwater.

If you become stranded, you may face extreme danger from floodwaters, sanitation issues, heat-related illnesses, waterborne illnesses, looters, fires, and subsequent crises. (Disasters are rarely isolated events and often have multiple emergencies that follow them.)

Is It Time to Bug Out? How Do You Make Your Decisions?

Have you ever had to decide whether or not to evacuate? What came into play when choosing when to leave? Do you have a bug-out story to share? (You can check out Brian’s bug-out story here.) Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

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