First of all, let’s talk about the democratization of, well, everything. Just because we say something is a certain way or because we want things to be a certain way, doesn’t mean it IS that way. The idea of bug out bags is not something arbitrarily generated by some bored person. Nor is the idea built upon some Mad Max, post-apocalyptic fetish. Most of it is based upon several sources. More than one of these sources is the US Department of Defense. They have manuals on dealing with the collapse of basic services on the municipal level, climate change disasters, and even “zombie apocalypse.” So, when I heard a noted SFF author online casually mention “bugging in” I rolled my eyes. Apparently, a friend of the author was a disaster preparedness expert and said that bugging in was a good idea.
I beg to differ. So, let’s dissect the idea of a “bug in,” and talk about why it is just a bunch of wishful thinking. First, let’s understand what “bugging” actually is. The term “bugging out” was believed to have originated during World War II. It was a military term that was eventually popularized during the Korean War. It was intended to imply a disorderly retreat or rout from action. The term was used more than once during the popular television show “MASH”, which depicted the unit bugging out due to the fear of being overrun by North Korean forces. The modern term has a similar connotation and has been adopted by a sub culture of people known as “preppers”. Preppers is short for “preparers”, people who spend a lot of time and resources preparing for real-world disaster scenarios. This includes everything from NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) attacks, to natural disasters. Some light preppers prefer to be mobile and so, prefer supplies and portage light enough to carry. This is called “bugging out”. The idea being that they simply remove themselves from areas affected by disaster or calamity. There are some people who believe that bugging in is a legitimate means of survival. Honestly, this is not only wishful thinking, it is dangerous thinking. If you live in a densely populated urban area, the decision to bug in could be costly. I don’t believe in arbitrarily trashing someone else’s position on anything without facts, so I have provided a breakdown below of why this notion is such a bad one.
Let’s start with an example: In 2003, the DC area was hit by a hurricane mid-summer. When I went to the grocery store two blocks away, the shelves were completely empty, except for some day-old Krispy Kreme. The local government advised us not to drink the water since power outages were affecting the municipal water filtration system. They also advised us that if we absolutely had to use tap water, it should be boiled for at least 15 minutes before consumption.
This example highlights three important factors, and really sums up about 80% of the overall problem. Unless you have some expectation that whatever dystopian disaster is about to befall mankind is going to get cleared up within a few days, the idea of “bugging in” is simply unwise. And let’s be honest, the idea that a disaster is going to simply blow over after a short period of time is completely antithetical to the very idea central to bugging out.
Most major cities and even their suburbs would immediately fall prey to the absence of infrastructure. In fact, the more sophisticated the infrastructure, the more at its mercy you will be when it fails. In New York, as an example, anyone there at the onset of a crisis will immediately have to worry about finding potable water. One does not simply walk down to the Hudson River with water bottles. And the city’s purification mechanism will have failed, exposing the entire population to dangerous microbial infections. Just so you understand how serious that is, each year, 2.2 million people (mostly children in under-developed countries) die from diarrhea caused by drinking dirty water.
How much water do we actually need to consume per day? Hydration science suggests we need to drink about 20% of our total body weight every day. However, this only accounts for whatever water we have excreted through the course of that day. It does not include the water that might be lost through exertion. An average-sized man (70kg) needs to consume about 1.2 liters of water a day just to remain sedentary. Now consider the added risk of biological or chemical contaminants from unpurified water. The more you drink, the greater the risk.
Food will become even harder to come by than water in the post-apocalypse. Large cities like New York rely completely on external sources of food. And whatever happens to be in the city at the onset of a crisis will disappear rapidly. Whatever you have in your fridge is all you will have for the foreseeable future. But, just in case you were thinking about staying, I’ve prepared some detailed options for you below.
If you have the stomach for catching and eating rats, they can help stave off starvation. But, their value as a long-term source of nutrition is questionable and possibly dangerous. Estimates regarding the rat population vary wildly, but most agree that there are more rats than people in New York. For the purposes of our thought experiment, let’s say that the population is around 30 million rats or roughly five rats to every person.
The average person needs about 2000 calories a day to survive. Keep in mind this value is based on modern, “pre-apocalyptic,” conditions and does not include daily walks to the Hudson River or exertion from rat catching. One one-pound rat contains roughly 975 calories. This includes 100 grams of protein and 50 grams of fat. So, eat two rats a day and problem solved. Eating rats do present other challenges. Not unlike water, sewer rats (the variety most common to NYC) carry pathogens, many of which are likely to make you ill or kill you. Fortunately, cooking rat meat at high enough temperatures will kill most of those pathogens. You only have to worry about catching two 1lb rats per day. Or become a rat husbander. I understand they breed quite quickly.
The only alternative to rats, are pigeons. Unfortunately, there are only about 1 million pigeons in New York, so better to get in on that while you can. With a decent sized net, one should be able to catch quite a few in the early days. Though I would be careful, there are likely to be a lot of really desperate and really dumb people out with weapons trying to shoot them down. Lexington Avenue is likely to become a shooting gallery. Expect to rake in 600 calories per pigeon along with 80 grams of protein and 20 grams of fat per pound. Most pigeons weigh in at less than a pound of total body weight, so you can see why relying on them as a food source would be foolish.
There are always vegetables, right? Rooftop gardens are all the rage. Except one rooftop garden wouldn’t feed a single family for more than a couple weeks. And once winter rolls around, your farming activities will be reduced to the windowsill herb garden and that “Baby Yoda” chia pet you bought from that infomercial. So let’s look at other ways to grow food. You have Central Park. We can plant a community garden there and feed the whole city right? Wrong. The average person requires .5 acres to sustain themselves indefinitely with crops. This only includes growing food, not range land for animals. Central Park is only 843 acres, well shy of the number needed to feed an entire city. When you consider the park’s soil is questionable for decent yields, and one would need a dedicated security force to prevent theft, the cost of growing for sustenance becomes unmanageable.
Once again, assuming an equitable distribution of all the rats and pigeons (we won’t count veggies grown in the park since that number is absurdly low) in the city, you can expect caloric fulfillment to reach zero in about two weeks. If you add existing food stores from individual households and looted restaurants, you might get another week or two out of that. The bottom line is, without constant resupply, major cities and even most suburbs would run out of food within weeks.
The absence of water purification usually means the absence of electricity. If you don’t have power, you can’t heat your water or cook your rat meat. Building fires in apartment buildings is a remarkably bad idea and firewood is even more scarce than food or water. Most of that furniture you bought from the Swedish megastore is loaded with resin and other adhesives, which is toxic when burned. Even if your whole apartment is furnished with handcrafted Amish antiques, that would not last very long as kindling for cooking. And controlling a fire, and the smoke, in a closed environment is impossible. Think about how many other people in your building might be having the same idea. Even if you manage to acquire rat meat and water, making them edible is basically impossible.
Bugging in also relies on the idea of collective effort and collective protection. And there is some merit to the idea of safety in numbers. But not in the way most people think. Increased numbers do not mean increased safety. It simply means reduced risk. Water wildebeests don’t cross rivers in herds because they can collectively fend off an attack from a crocodile. They do so to obscure themselves in the herd and reduce the odds that they become the target. A single wildebeest has no chance of escape during a croc attack or a 100% chance of being attacked. A herd of 100 wildebeests reduces the chance of any one buffalo being attacked to %1. Keep in mind that one wildebeest basically has a zero chance of survival.
The way I’ve seen it discussed online, and in some interviews on the radio, makes it sound like a night of board gaming that ended with the arrival of the apocalypse. Everyone just turns into an extended sleepover. Whoever your neighbors happen to be at the time of this event, are who you will have to rely on to survive. The problem with this is you can’t pick these people. And despite the reduced risk from increased numbers in the water buffalo example, humans are much more complicated. There is no point in being in a herd if all of you are water buffalo. Any one crocodile or group of crocodiles can make quick work of a herd of buffalos. If you don’t have at least one person who is highly practical and has some confidence in their ability to survive, even do violence, then your whole group will die.
Once resources become scarce, some people will simply begin to prey on others. It doesn’t need to turn into a free for all. Small groups of people who lack compunction or remorse have historically demonstrated an ability to subjugate and exploit far larger groups. Counting on others outside of your immediate circle to stand up for you when this happens is naïve and foolish.
Fortifications are also pointless in this scenario. George S. Patton famously said, “Fixed fortifications are a testament to the stupidity of man.” Being a rabid racist does not mitigate the fact that not only was Patton a strategic and tactical genius, but he used that genius and the aforementioned axiom to great effect during WWII. Unless you are heavily armed and have exceptional knowledge of engineering and fortifications, they are a foolish endeavor and will only sap existing food and water resources more quickly.
Using the New York scenario again, most people live in apartment buildings, which on the whole, are fairly indefensible structures. Marauding bands will likely see them as giant storehouses of food and people. Each apartment is only as safe as the most vulnerable apartment in the whole building. Once people get into one, the whole building becomes compromised. Single-family homes and brownstones are indefensible and there is no point in attempting to fortify them. What it comes down to is how secure can you make an apartment block? And this is where Patton’s logic comes into play: Once you are sealed up inside, how will you get food? Water? Medical supplies? Anyone with sense will only need to wait for you to leave to acquire one of these things. And once one person is caught, the rest of the building becomes compromised. Once you create fixed fortifications they essentially become your tomb.
Movement is life:
The reason why people have bug out bags is that they understand that movement is life. This isn’t just some line out of “World War Z”. It is commonly held orthodoxy among UN personnel when investigating war crimes and the WHO when investigating infectious disease outbreaks. Getting away from the locus of an outbreak is common sense for most people. Running from any other existential threat is also common sense. When you look at all the other factors such as the absence of food and potable water, and lack of basic services, one would think bugging out would be a no brainer. Here are a few tips you can follow to avoid being a victim.
Move toward freshwater sources. Despite New York city sitting on numerous rivers and estuaries, there is a reason why the water and sewage authority exists. Moving toward the origin point of rivers is the best way to get fresh water. Be mindful of textile plants, or livestock farms whose runoff has the tendency to contaminate water.
Some suburbs may be acceptable places to hole up. Tight-knit communities have little reason to pick up and leave. Older houses may use well water. And many suburban areas are near lakes, streams, and ponds so water and food may not be an immediate peril. The movement is life notion is not one size fits all.
Develop a rudimentary understanding of hunting and snaring. The further you move from the city the more plentiful animals for healthy eating will become. A hunting rifle or a weapon that can be used to hunt will be useful for hunting. Basic snares are great for snagging small animals like rabbits, squirrels, and possums. In addition, a basic knowledge of dressing animals will help reduce waste when preparing them for consumption. Others will have the same idea so you have to be smart. Killing larger game is ideal since it can feed a lot of people for an extended period. Most of the time it is too much to ask, but learning to cure meat cannot only extend the life of hunting spoils, but it can also turn food into currency. New economies will rely heavily on bartering.
The most important thing gained from bugging out, is the distance from threats. Moving will pose safety challenges so it is important to move in numbers. When it comes to airborne pathogens it is important to move away from the locus of the outbreak. If an area is quarantined, and you are inside that quarantine, likely you will never get out of it. Mass infections are not all that dissimilar from herd immunities,; they rely on proximity and the presence of the disease to spread. Cities with their dense populations and numerous means of transmission dramatically increase one’s likelihood of being infected. Staying in one place will also guarantee that those who want to find you, will. Best not to stay in one place.
There are common complaints about the cost of bugging out. Preppers spend a lot of money to be ready for the end of the world but those are the extreme cases. The idea of putting wads of cash into a duffel bag is pointless. Cash will be worthless in most cases. Feeding and protecting oneself should be the ideal goal when assembling a bug out bag. Beyond that, it is up to the discretion of the individual based on their family and their needs. Stocking up on meds that may be hard to find might be a good idea, as well as any other supplies needed for someone with extra medical needs.
To conclude: Whether bugging in or bugging out, food and water are going to be in short supply so be smart. When committing yourself to anything that is not immediately increasing food supplies or security is a waste of calories. The new metric for a post-apocalypse is caloric. With the democratization of everything else via the web, google searches on prepping and bug out bags should yield a lot of results. People love to talk about their preparations and are often more than willing to share. If you hear or read something that sounds suspicious, then ask someone online. It isn’t hard to build a consensus for yourself with a bit of research.