Busting the Bugout Myth: Basics of Personnel Recovery for Preppers and Survivalists

In the same vein as the last post on ‘bugging out’ and a lot of the un-reality that surrounds it, the very real crossover skill of conducting a personnel recovery, or at a minimum, how to link up with friendlies, needs to be taught in lieu of the “look at muh bugout stuff!!!” that frequently goes on among rank amateurs. Building a bag and sitting it in the corner, or better still, pontificating on which “one gun and knife combo am I gonna use???” really does absolutely nothing for us if a) I have nowhere realistic to go; b) I have few if any relevant daily practiced skills; and c) I have no people who also have those skills to help me. Gear is nice and makes us feel good when we buy that new piece of kit (I’m an admitted knife nut, one day I’ll find the perfect Bowie) but equipment supports skill. Second, our gear is selected for mission; certain baselines may exist, but if I’m deer hunting I’m likely not dressed the same as if I’m coyote hunting, versus conducting a proper ambush (but then again I might, it would depend on how deniable I wanted to be). Third, I need to know, as do the others in my group, at a bare minimum, a healthy familiarity with the area I’m headed out to if I don’t want to become a victim of the wilderness before any golden horde can get to my sorry hide.

We Gotta Get Out of this Place

So the bottom dropped out and it’s time to git to gettin’, because badness. While that bailout bag (the actual term) is nice, if you haven’t realized it was time to go, before it was time to go, you’re chances of success are now diminished at least ten fold. But further, your E&E plan has to include an end goal. Where am I going and who is picking me up? You should have a spot previously agreed upon that’s out of the way and not in the middle of badness, with the only things being carried are a few simple items to ensure you successful get to where you need to go. All the fancy giant packs and bulky kit is silly- it makes you stand out like a sore thumb and immediately identifies you to both the golden horde and whatever authority structure is trying to contain it. You’re either going to look like one of the crowd or look like part of the problem.

tahrir.jpegPor ejemplo, I met Lara Logan once in Iraq, the reporter for whoever, they’re all the same anyway. She’s a tiny little lady and my team was tasked with outer security for her while they toured our AO (she was part of a larger contingent of press and Brass who, for those that know, is akin to a traveling circus) and while after 9 months a tiny cute brunette with a weird accent can be very distracting, and she was quite friendly, one thing that stuck out in my mind was the absolute lack of any and all situational awareness. Unfortunately later down the road she was brutalized while covering the Tahrir Square uprising, because she didn’t know it was time to go. While it was sad that this happened, it’s an example of the need to move along when the weather gets rough, before the storm gets there. The only thing that saved her was having a security team who did know their stuff, despite the official story of a bunch of women gathering around her, reacting quick enough and getting her off the X to a designated RV site.

Realistic Refuge and Getting There Alive

This leads me to the point most preppers get hung up on- the focus on going somewhere when things start to come unhinged, without much other thought than, “I’ve got a cousin out in the country”. Ok, so you do. And let’s say y’all got together and agreed that yes, badness will happen and yes, you can come out to the sticks and we’ll live out our days like the Waltons. For the sake of coherency let’s say the trip is feasible (no Cold Mountain-style cross-state or multi-state treks; there’s a reason it makes good stories, because the successful ones are few and far in between). It should be relatively short and in an area you are intimately familiar. If you’re living in the ‘burbs and think you’re gonna link up with cousin Jeff three counties over, with several small towns in between when things go tango-uniform you got another thing coming. But even if that is your plan, you’ll be far better off carrying a lot of stuff to barter for safe passage versus thinking you’ll muscle your way through it. But only having a realistic place to go doesn’t do us much good if there’s no one protecting it and we have no way of signaling our arrival without getting shot by the other folks cousin Jeff invited over.

So we can say, relating the military E&E stuff to the prepper/survivalist world, that our three county area we plan to move across is our Designated Area of Recovery. That means if we don’t show up in a reasonable amount of time after we’ve signaled we’re moving, cousin Jeff and his band of bubbas at least have an idea where you might be. A three county area is a HUGE space by the way, and him finding you in any area that big is a fantasy too, but I digress. Let’s change it to two counties, neighboring each other. You planned four routes with him, Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency. You planned all the inter-woven routes you might take if primary goes to crap and then you take alternate, and so on and so forth. You’ve taken a road map out and drawn a box around the entirety of the area that encompasses the routes (this is the Designated Area of Recovery or DAR), and realistically came up with Rendezvous (RV) points that in case it all fails, you’ll be hanging out for two hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, and 48 hours, each moving closer to cousin Jeff’s property in the sticks. Under duress you’ll become surprised just how far short distances get.

While planning all of this, y’all talked about how to signal one another. Some people call this near and far recognition signals, or verification of Bona Fides. The first RV he checks in the DAR is the 2 hour. What if you’re not there? He couldn’t raise you on the radio channels you chose (this is where that SOI comes in) so him and his bubbas get to the site. You left him a message telling him the direction you went and how many you have with you. One way we did this was by taking a piece of white cloth tape and drawing a circle for each team member still alive, with a slash in the circle signaling that person wounded and an X signaling KIA. Then there would be either sticks or rocks pointing in the direction we went, which would be the next RV. With any luck, you’ll eventually meet up with cousin Jeff and get back to the ranch.

You’ve also planned near and far recognition signals, which might be electronic primarily but if that fails, would be a set number of flashes of light via a headlamp or signal mirror, an American Flag held up over your head, or my personal preference, the blaze-orange VS-17 panel. You know what cousin Jeff drives and should have an idea of what is buddies look like, and they you, to prevent fratricide.

I’m going to reiterate three points here.

  1. Cousin Jeff and his band o’ bubbas are people coming to recover you on your ‘bugout’ to their location. You have to have them. Cousin Jeff also motivated them somehow to leave the safety of wherever and come get you. This states he’s the Leader. Respect it. His bubbas are likely more competent than you too and stuck their necks out to get you, so respect them also.
  2. The plan, and proper execution thereof, is critical. If you shoot off thinking “I’m gonna git to gittin'” without that plan (and how to do it right) you’re going to suffer a miserable fate. Read the Logan story again. Read any story in the headlines of lost hikers. Most of those stories don’t end well, and always with someone looking for them.
  3. I didn’t use a bunch of hypothetical “what if X or Y” nonsense. You don’t train for scenarios to accomplish the basics. The basics remain when even the best plans fail. The best plans are the ones that don’t stray far from the basics. Understand?

But, but, what if XXXX happens, and YYYY goes down and etc, etc????

You’re going to die, that’s what. Miserably, watching your loved ones or group or whoever is with you doing the same. End of story. Plan and re-plan. Rehearse then re-rehearse. Do it again and again until it becomes memory.

Daily Skills

So we’ve figured out now that we’ve got somewhere realistic to go and the basics of how we’ll get there with our hides alive. Good stuff. Hopefully we don’t die in the process. But we need those skills to back up our plan, and mostly, getting from A to B in a less than desirable circumstance doesn’t involve much running and gunning or shooting fast at stationary targets. You’re getting from A to B without getting shot in the process, so your best bet is keeping as low a profile as possible.

polaris.jpegThe first skill you need is knowing your cardinal directions without a compass, especially at night. Mic Chesbro wrote a pretty good book on doing just that a while back, among other topics. Daytime is pretty simple for anyone who’s not a complete idiot, but night time can get very tricky especially if you’re tired (you will be tired). The only way to get good at this is to do it regularly. Next, while rehearsing your routes, know the general directions of the roads or routes themselves. If you know that when you’re traveling down “Old Mill Trail” you’re headed due east, you’re a big step ahead. Of course this requires knowing the roads in your area and NOT relying on GPS. Always having a reliable compass (I carry an old lensatic tritium compass most places, and on my body in the woods, in my left hip pocket of my pants with the lanyard girth-hitched to a belt loop. Tied down, I can’t lose it, but if I did or it broke, I can still navigate) is critical, but sometimes stuff gets lost or broken leaving us with our baseline skillset.

Next, notice in the scenario I said road map and not topo map. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, topo maps are tough to use under duress unless you use them all the time and have been trained by competent individuals. Their purpose is to show terrain features first and everything else second. Now if you know what you’re doing, fine. But if you don’t, and if you know you’re not, or even more important you do but nobody in your group does, road maps are simpler, easier to relate to, and far more accessible if lost (try to find a UTM map in a gas station). I can still do intersection and modified resection on a small scale road map with a compass to find out where I am. Second, road maps don’t look out of the ordinary if/when I get caught. Topo maps instantly identify you as either someone official or someone with training. If you’re keeping a low profile that’s a bad thing.

Everything else is ancillary to these skills; no gear compensates for a lack of proficiency.


The third critical point is people. Having a good network, or at least knowing the people along the routes I plan on taking, is a huge step in the right direction. Most likely these people are going to know cousin Jeff or know someone who knows him and his family, which makes life SOOOO much easier when things go sideways. Knowing them, and being on good terms with them, is paramount to evading hostiles. If for nothing else, you may find their situation is better than Jeff’s, and now you’ve got a couple of strong points to ride the storm out. Community matters.

If you’re not on good terms with or know the people in the area you’re moving along, it may do you well to attend a flea market or annual gathering or two just to meet people. A familiar face can get you out of trouble among a worked up crowd leery of outsiders, especially if you’ve got some things to barter. If you’re neither familiar to them nor know anyone they may know, nothing’s keeping them from robbing you blind and leaving you in a ditch anyway.

Next is the recognition that cousin Jeff has some people willing to die under his leadership; they’re coming to get you when the world is sideways, after all, meaning that in one way or another there’s an incentive cousin Jeff’s got for his people to follow him. So no matter how much stuff you’ve got, or what you think you bring to the table in your opinion, they’re going to look at you and yours as the low man on the totem pole and the person they had to save, meaning they might welcome you with a bit of contempt until you prove yourself. If their risk turns out to be rescuing a bunch of complaining, skill-less anchors, no matter how much cousin Jeff loved you before, you’re going to find yourselves ostracized. So what it all boils down to is having community and being a worthy part of it.

Overall, you have to know that none of this can be done on your own. If your plan is “I got this and this, and a bag, I’m hitting the woods!” you don’t actually have a plan for anything other than an eventual miserable end. The community and what you bring to the table is by far more important than anything you can buy, and means the difference between life and death. So the most frequent attitude of “we got ours, screw the world” exhibited is a tremendously bad thing. In addition, personnel recovery is a difficult task even for those who do it all the time, but for those inexperienced or not even trying to do it right (as there is a large showing among prepper/survivalist/militia-types) will get a large number of otherwise well meaning people killed. And we don’t want that.

27 thoughts on “Busting the Bugout Myth: Basics of Personnel Recovery for Preppers and Survivalists

  1. Blackthorn

    Man, as always, you sum it up thoroughly and succinctly. It’s a very fine thing you do, sharing your real world, practical experience here and VERY much appreciated.

    Your narration of traversing a good long distance to get to Cousin Jeff describes my apprehensive expectation of what could be ahead of me, trying to get from work in Los Angeles across 65 or so miles of rough terrain crossing the mountains between work and home.

    I have gear with me always and such skills as I got from living in the bush some years as a Boy Scout.
    For sometime though, and as you point out so well, I know that my most glaring and possibly fatal lack is that of community, particularly through that hilly expanse.

    It seems unrealistic and certainly awkward to be introducing myself to strangers living at various waypoints before any upheaval.

    It’s a tough one and I’ll have to find a solution.

    Anyhow, as always, you’ve given me/us plenty to consider.
    Always useful and always appreciated.

    1. My suggestion is this- find a diner out of the way in the direction you’re planning on heading. Hang out there often, strike up a conversation. Eventually you’ll find somebody trustworthy, I promise.

  2. Regarding lost hikers and outdoorsman, what happened to Bart Schleyer should give anyone with plans to BO a gut-check.

    As always, outstanding piece, brother!

    1. lineman

      Might want to look for a different location to work and live at if at all possible…

  3. lineman

    Hey Brother here is a Bowie for you and it’s made right up the road from me..
    Damn good post Brother been trying to convey that to people for years now…I tell them there BO bag is just an illusion of security if they aren’t headed towards their retreat and if they have a family then its a false hope for them to even have it…Some people need a good slap upside their heads and this post did that hopefully it sinks in…

    1. Good Lord!!!!

      That thing reminds me of a cross between a Mineral Mountain Hatchet Works Bowie (Ted Frizzell is an awesome dude btw) and a Spartan Sword! Very cool.

      1. That’s seriously cool. The design, without the guard, goes back to the old Rifleman’s Knife. Those are the predecessors to the Arkansas Toothpick which I think most of us are familiar with- also very much like a Dirk but not double edged. Both the Bowie and the Toothpick evolved around the same time from the same ancestor.

        For me at least, the Rifleman’s Knife is just about the best ‘one tool option’ as it can get in a woodland environment. I’m actually doing a pretty in-depth piece about it which will get posted soon.

      2. lineman

        That is a much needed article as well Brother so will look forward to reading it👍

  4. Pingback: Brushbeater: Basics of Personnel Recovery for Preppers and Survivalists | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  5. Wombat

    I always get a laugh when city preppers talk about how they’re going to bug out across rural areas. They seem to imagine the whole of the wild as a glorified walking track, wherein feckless hicks do nothing but sit on the porch chewing tabaccy.

    Reality. Expect by day one for every bridge and bottleneck to be blockaded with heavy machinery, covered with proficient snipers, and able to be reinforced by a quick response team of twenty men or more. Country people are all where they need to be, can’t throw a rock without hitting a gun or a 2way radio and have plenty of food, so they have literally nothing better to do with their time than regulate who may and may not pass through their AO.

    The good news is that if you make friends with people along your evac route then not only will they give you a pass on the roadblocks but they’ll probably toss you in a car and ferry you to the other side of their domain, because country folk are just like that. Hell, they’ll probably radio ahead and tell the next roadblock over to expect you and help you out.

    But city preppers are unfortunately obsessed with buying stuff rather than making friends. It’s riddled throughout survivalist mantras that involve buying a plot in the sticks and shooting anyone that waves at you from the bottom of your drive, because the one thing their city-bux can’t buy them is a buddy who’ll help them when money isn’t worth shit.

    They’ll find out the hard way.

    1. anonymous

      Another way to get in the good graces of rural landowners is to lease hunting rights, but make a point of helping out the land owner when livestock or crop work is done. Proves to them the ‘city slicker’ ain’t all bad and you become much more known to them. Learning some new skills also makes the experience worthwhile. Make sure you are very polite and considerate of their wives and female relations as well, that certainly does not hurt your chances.

      1. Blackthorn

        *anonymous- Another good recommendation and I thank you. I’ve managed to do that with some folk who raise buffalo, helping them out with one of my favorite creatures.
        BTW, there’s a difference between a city slicker and a guy who has to work in the city.
        I’m sure you already know that.

  6. No One You Know

    The article and advice, as usual, are spot on and full of welcome information. Thank you.

    As to Bowies, I had this guy brew me up something special a while ago.


    Never looked back. 😉

  7. Daniel K Day

    ” He couldn’t raise you on the radio channels you chose (this is where that SOI comes in) ”
    What is SOI, please?

      1. Behind the Curve

        Sure wish Dan Morgan 76 would start posting again. I still check by to occasionally to see if he’s issued the next chapter of the Patrol.
        Thanks for keeping Brushbeater going, I enjoy reading your work.

  8. Good stuff as always. I too stress all the time, as you have, that first and foremost, if you’re leaving, you HAVE to have some place to go TO. The local national forest/woods doesn’t count. Otherwise, it is probably smarter to develop a plan to make things work where you are. Another big point (as you mention) is advanced notice. Ideally we want to know about something happening as far in advance as possible. We should be already implementing our plan(s) by the time the rest of the population figures out or is being told something is going wrong. This requires paying attention to a lot of current events and such, even things that seem conspiratorial/tin foil-ish. Doesn’t mean you have to believe everything lock stock and barrel, just take things with a grain of salt, file it away as a mental data point, and don’t be too quick to dismiss things. Yesterday’s conspiracy theory is today’s reality. It’s all about stacking the odds in our favor as much as possible knowledge/info wise.

  9. Thisisme

    I have been reading your blog only for a short time, so I’m bottom feeding here. I haven’t come across much about a fall back option if bailing on the home 20 is eminent. This is more for small groups to the lone star type. Having a concealment bunker or cache to hide until the dust settles, so you can bail out more comfortably, or look to retake your mainstay hacienda. For me its easier to dig a hole now than to puke through my eyes after one mile carrying a 4 pound kitty cat and my girlfriends panties. Even with my half brain, its plain to see your squared up and hoping to get your thoughts on this. You have my respect and attention Scout. Thanks again. I’m putting together a Bible out of this shtuff.

    1. There’s a whole lotta hypothetical going on here.

      The two options are a) react to contact (defend) or b) retrograde (leave aka ‘bugout’).

      “Retaking” anything is a losing cause. Once you’ve lost it, without having overwhelming numbers of people and supporting fire, it’s gone. Expect casualties if you do go back. Do it by yourself? You’re going to get killed. Period.

      Also keep in mind that darting into a hole is not a winning option. If that hole is nearby your place (getting overrun in this case, and <1mi as you imply) then what's keeping the overruners from strolling right up, dumping a can of diesel down the breach, and lighting it on fire?

      So then your better bet is building a community around you, knowing the basics of terrain (including people) and knowing when things are looking sour.

      Just like the 'bugout' myth, the bunker one is even worse.

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