The Prepper Journal

Hard Decisions: Knowing When to Bug Out – Pt. 2

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series that was generously contributed by Bolo on knowing when to bug out. In this second article, Bolo continues laying out a large number of triggers that could signal to you that it may be time to gather the family, pack up your bug out bags and leave everything behind for your family’s safety. When that day comes will you know when it’s time to go? Will you be ready? If you missed it, you can read part one here.

What Are Your Bug Out Triggers?

In Part 1, we examined subjects that pertain largely to safety issues in your home and neighborhood, as well as commerce and certain types of services and infrastructures that you depend upon. In this concluding segment we will look at additional infrastructures and the conditions that may generally prevail throughout the area where you live. It is worthwhile to repeat that the more information you have, the more likely you are to make effective and timely decisions.

(15) Have news networks broadcast official advisories or orders to evacuate your residence, town or city?

  • Public safety warnings are an indication that government is (or was) operational at some level at the time of the announcement. Were these notices issued before you decided to bunker down? If yes, have subsequent advisories/orders been issued, updated or cancelled? Or have you heard no further updates?
  • Are the messages prerecorded statements on continuous replay or are they live broadcasts? In other words, is anyone at home at the station?
  • General orders to evacuate your area following SHTF are a clear indication that local government (at minimum) is not able to protect you from a recognized or developing threat. You are, in effect, on your own and a decision to remain in place may become increasingly untenable.
AM/FM NOAA Emergency Crank Radio with Solar Power Panel – Makes a great survival supply to have on hand.

(16) Can you pick up any AM or FM radio station on a battery/solar-powered radio? If yes, how far away is it?

  • If the local radio stations that you normally listen to are off the air, the area affected by the event could have a radius of 50 to 100 miles.
  • A few AM band radio stations have sufficient radiated power to be heard from a distance of several hundred miles when atmospheric conditions are favorable, or if you are on elevated terrain. If you are unable to pick up these distant stations then the affected area is at least regional in scale and may have affected most of the country.
  • If you have a spool of speaker wire (50 to 100 feet), you can rig an external antenna to a battery-powered AM/FM radio to extend your reception range. I have picked up radios stations (those with even modest radiated power) from distances as great as 500 miles using this technique. AM stations with very high power, such as KOMA (1520 kHz) can be picked up from distances exceeding 800 miles.
  • Your ability (or lack thereof) to pick up distant commercial radio stations can inform you of the scale of the event you are dealing with.

(17) Are you able to receive official alerts on emergency and/or 2-way radios?

  • NOAA weather reports are broadcast on six frequencies in the 162.400 to 162.525 MHz range on the VHF band. Bulletins are broadcast from nearly 1,000 stations around the country, but are issued from central locations, such as the principal National Weather Service facility in your area (which may not be in your state). For example, Wyoming presently has 21 NOAA transmitters, but broadcasts originate from only five locations, of which three are in different states (Montana, Utah and South Dakota).
  • Why is this important? If you are in an area that ordinarily receives NOAA broadcasts, but you are now unable to pick up the alerts, the transmitter station could be without power or the broadcast station may no longer be in service (or both). For example, broadcasts for central Wyoming originate in Rapid City South Dakota. The power outage that you are experiencing may cover a large region.
  • Transmitter coverage area is dependent upon station location, effective radiated power and terrain. For station locations, output power and coverage maps in your state, see:
If your phone shows no signal then all towers within your range are down.

(18) Does your cell phone or land line still work?

  • All cell phones indicate the strength of signal they are receiving from the nearest operational tower. If your phone shows no signal then all towers within your range are down.
  • Land line phones connect to a local central office (CO) which, in turn, is connected to a Point of Presence (POP) facility where calls and communications circuits are aggregated. If there is no dial tone then there is either a break in circuit continuity between your phone and the CO; or the Central Office is, itself, no longer operational.
  • By itself, the absence of dial tone does not indicate the scale of the problem (whether local, regional or national). A simultaneous outage of land lines and cell phones certainly indicates a severe localized failure, but it still does not tell you anything about the actual scale. The longer both types of communication remain inoperative the probability increases that the scale of the outage is at least regional.

(19) How many hours or days have passed since you saw or spoke with law enforcement personnel in your area?

  • If you have been sheltering in place for several days and not seen or spoken with law enforcement officers in your neighborhood, it is possible that your locality is not immediately threatened by civil disorder. However, it could also mean that all available police are busy dealing with public safety issues in other portions of your community. The worst possible scenario is that they have bunkered down or bugged out to protect their own families.
  • If it is possible to do so safely, quickly reach out to local police. They would want to know current conditions in your neighborhood, even though they may not be able to provide direct protection. Of all people who you may come in contact with, local police are most likely to know current and evolving situations and to be sympathetic to your situation.
  • The national ratio of police officers (in the field) to citizens generally ranges between one and two per 1,000. Frankly, a SHTF event and its aftermath could easily overwhelm law enforcement resources. They may be busy protecting fire fighters who are trying to prevent arson caused fires from reaching your neighborhood.
  • If local police have been augmented by officers from outlying communities, Sheriffs Deputies, state DPS officers or National Guard, this may indicate that civil disorder has become an imminent threat and is moving in your direction.
  • The protracted absence of law enforcement in your area is not, I think, a very good sign. Without phone service, police will not be able to respond to 911 calls for help. Without radio communications, they will not be able to communicate with each other.
  • The total and continued absence of police presence in your area, especially without augmentation by external law enforcement resources, may indicate that local authority, including the capacity to govern, is not assured. It worst, it could indicate a collapse of local or state government.
  • You must consider the degree to which your continued safety in residence is dependent upon local law enforcement.
When was the last time you saw a fire department vehicle or ambulance in your immediate area?

(20) When was the last time you saw a fire department vehicle or ambulance in your immediate area?

  • If you have no water, the fire hydrants in your area will also be dry. This would require engine companies to pump water from wells or local lakes or rivers. Their ability to respond to and suppress fires in a timely manner will be degraded, to say the least.
  • Where is the nearest FD station to your residence? If local 911 emergency services are not working, can you safely determine whether the station remains staffed and operational?
  • Are there areas in your community where firefighters are requiring the protection of police? Are there areas where the fire department can not, or will not, enter for reasons of safety?
  • In the absence of fire department protection, civil disorder takes on an entirely different dimension. No rational distinction can be made between a looter and a potential arsonist from the perspective of safety. (Think Baltimore and Ferguson.) If you and your local fire department are unable to suppress a fire, and uncontrolled fires are already occurring in your community, you must consider bugging out.

(21) Have strangers stopped at your residence seeking food, water or shelter?

  • Countless acts of compassion and charity occur around us and across the world every day. Sadly, so do acts of violence, brutality and savagery. Regardless of your capacity to aid refugees, you should at least consider trading assistance for information. Where are they coming from? How long have they been on the move before reaching your area? Where are they headed, and why? If you want to think of that as a transaction, it might be worth allowing them a safe place to rest, an opportunity to refill a canteen, or a meal. From a purely selfish standpoint, information that you might obtain from refugees will provide useful information about conditions in your region. Importantly, what you can learn from these poor souls may also save your life. A map and a box of stick pins can help you visualize the scale of the SHTF event that you are facing. Did the last passers-by depart their home (perhaps from a distance of 100 miles) five days ago? What route did they take? What conditions did they witness while en route? Have they encountered hostile actions? Are they barely ahead of armed gangs?
  • Information that enables you to objectively assess current or pending threat conditions is invaluable; it may be vital in determining if/when you will need to bug out.

(22) Have all battery-powered electronic devices (laptops, cell phones, two-way radios, GPS units, etc.) ceased working?

  • This question is not about whether you forgot to charge your personal electronic devices; rather, were they working before the event, but not after? Change out the batteries to confirm if they will operate. If they are still inoperable you may be seeing the consequence of an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP).
  • If you were planning to take or use any of these tools when you bug out, they may now be useless, and it is too late to learn how to build a simple, but effective, Faraday Cage that would have saved your gear.
  • The loss of public power can be compensated (for a time) by using portable generators or solar voltaic systems. However, if your personal electronics have been rendered useless, you must determine how it will affect your decision to shelter in place versus bugging out.

(23) Can you start the engine on your vehicle(s)? Are any vehicles moving – anywhere?

  • To my knowledge, the simultaneous failure of all motor vehicles can only indicate that an EMP event has occurred. It would be accompanied by a widespread failure of the electrical grid. Any device that relies on computer chips will likely cease to operate if they are not EMP hardened. With the possible exception of military, this would presumably include any aircraft in flight or on the ground, and any commuter rail systems that rely on electricity.
  • An EMP event means that you will be on foot while bugging out. As indicated by #22 above, you will also be without electronic communications and navigation devices unless they were protected in advance.
  • How would an EMP affect your bug out plans? Would the loss of motorized transportation and communications accelerate, delay or terminate your departure? Why?
Mass evacuations are a recipe for massive traffic jams.

(24) Are nearby major traffic arteries blocked by abandoned vehicles?

  • Mass evacuations are a recipe for massive traffic jams. Although the nearest Interstate highway may be a significant distance from your residence, nearby major traffic arteries may first become congested and then blocked. Accidents and vehicles running out of gas will merely compound the problem, eventually forcing people to strike out on foot. If such an event has already occurred and you have been sheltering in place for days or weeks, you need to remain informed about traffic conditions. For example, are vehicles being cleared by tow trucks, or have conditions remained unchanged?
  • Obviously, the longer highways remain unusable, the underlying situation remains unresolved. If you decide to bug out, you must accept that many thousands of people are well ahead of you and many thousands more may be behind you.

(25) When is the last time you saw or heard the sound of a helicopter or other aircraft?

  • The federal government can, in cases of national emergency, order the grounding of civilian and commercial aircraft; as happened on 9-11, 2001. You may recall that eerie period of several days when there were no contrails in the sky or private aircraft practicing touch and go landings at local airports. If you are able to observe or hear aircraft in flight, it will be important to determine whether they are civilian, commercial, public safety, medical evacuation, military or “other.” The distinction is important because it can inform you about the situation in your area.
  • A prolonged absence of civilian and commercial aircraft almost certainly means that a national security threat of some type has been declared. Conversely, the resumption of this type of traffic indicates an improvement over previous conditions.
  • Commonly seen rotary wing aircraft (other than privately owned) are generally composed of law enforcement, medical evacuation, public safety, commuter taxis, radio/TV traffic reporting and non-military federal agencies (such as Border Patrol, DEA and FBI, etc). That is a wide array of groups, but all of them could be mustered for support service in times of emergency. If you are seeing (or hearing) helicopters in your area it will mean that government is functioning at some level, but it does not mean that conditions are safe or normal.
  • Military aircraft are easy to identify by sight and sound. If transport aircraft, such as C-5, C-17, C-130 variants and Ospreys are operating in your area, you may reasonably infer that supplies or troops are being transported to or from an airport in your vicinity. If you are seeing heavy lift rotary wing aircraft, such as CH-53, Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters, or smaller UH “Huey” helicopters ferrying troops or supplies, there may be tactical military operations in your area. The presence of attack helicopters (not previously seen), such as Apache and Cobra, especially if they are carrying ordnance, may mean that our military is engaged in countering acts of lawlessness or aggression.
  • At the most extreme, a complete and continued absence of traffic, regardless of type, could mean that air traffic control systems (such as FAA radars) are not operational or that the aircraft themselves have become inoperable.
Coming to a town near you?

(26) Have roadblocks or checkpoints been established on public streets or highways your area?

  • For purposes of this discussion, a roadblock is comprised of portable devices used for the temporary closure of a road and is normally accompanied by flashing yellow lights mounted on collapsible saw-horses and signage that says “Street Closed,” or “Road Flooded,” etc. A roadblock can be quickly set and removed by highway crews or police. A checkpoint is, in effect, a roadblock that has been set to stop and interrogate travelers. Checkpoints may be for a variety of purposes, but in a SHTF situation, they could be used to screen individuals, check for (or confiscate) weapons, or provide directions to hospitals, food and shelter. In other words, a checkpoint would likely be manned by armed law enforcement or military personnel.
  • If roadblocks are being set up in your area, it may be to channel vehicular and/or foot traffic along a desired route – one that enables police to provide some measure of control and security. Checkpoints may not be nearly as benign. If at all possible, determine in advance their nature and purpose before you bug out. The purpose of both types will help inform you about current conditions, as well as any alterations necessary for a successful bug out route.

(27) Can you see smoke from structure fires in any direction?

  • The sighting of any fire, whether far or near, should be of concern in the aftermath of SHTF. If you are bunkered in, your view to the horizon may be measured in blocks (or even feet) rather than miles.
  • Without public communications you may have no awareness of the cause (such as looting/arson), and you may have limited warning of the extent or direction in which fires are moving. It is essential that you have a plan for responding to the threat of fire, regardless of its cause.

(28) Are you hearing the sound of gunfire or explosions?

  • If the answer to question #1 was no and the answer to this question is yes, then you have probably reached a situation where bugging out is no longer safe and sheltering in place has become even more dangerous.
  • Is the gunfire sporadic or sustained? From your vantage point, is it concentrated in a small area or is it widespread? Can you reliably judge the distance and direction of movement? Can you reliably judge the amount of time you have to depart your home?
  • A lot of factors can work against your ability to detect weapons fire (particularly small arms) at distances greater than one-half mile. Terrain and urban structures can block the transmission of sound. Weather conditions (especially rain and buffeting wind) can muffle distant sounds.
  • Your preferred route of departure may have become blocked. Do you have more than one route from your dwelling place that can provide cover while you put distance between the threat and your family?

(29) Has martial law been declared?

  • If martial law has been declared, your constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, including freedom of movement, may no longer exist in the eyes of government. The supervision of law enforcement by the judiciary will have been suspended. Without redress, you can be forcefully removed from your home. You may be forced to surrender your property (real and personal), including any food stocks, firearms and ammunition that you possess. Section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress in 2012, effectively repealed the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. As a legal matter, the declaration of martial law is no longer limited to the threat of invasion or rebellion, or by a threat to public safety, as required in Article 1 Section 9 of the US Constitution.
  • The question you must resolve is whether the implications of martial law, as well as the conditions and justifications under which they were imposed, represent a direct threat to continued safety and survival as you shelter in place.
  • An important consideration is whether you believe that a declaration of martial law is something that you are willing to comply with. For it to be effective it must be enforceable. Are you unwilling to comply?

(30) Are police or other government personnel conducting house clearing operations in your area? Are people being forcefully removed from their homes?

  • Depending on conditions, you may have little or no warning that citizens are being systematically forced to vacate their residences.
  • If uniformed teams (police/military or unfamiliar paramilitary units) are moving house to house through your neighborhood, the question may not be whether you will be forced to leave, but if you can depart with your possessions ahead of a forced removal. Bugging out may be the only option you have to avoid “resettlement” to a place other than your choosing, and at the expense of your freedom. If operations of this nature are occurring in your area, you may have very little time to make a decision.


Making a decision to shelter in place after a SHTF event is not as straightforward or simple as you might have expected. Importantly, deciding to abandon your residence – a place that you hoped would provide a base of supplies and relative safety – is no easy matter either. Nor should it be. Hopefully, an objective analysis of the conditions that you may one day have to deal with will make you better prepared for any eventuality.

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