When You Have Nowhere To Go

OK, let’s assume that the worst has come to pass and not only is it unsafe to stay at home or go to your safe house, and you have no other viable choices.  The disaster is so grave that there is no government infrastructure you can rely on to come and “save” you or relocate you. You have no survival retreat of your own, your friends and family are dead or dying, and you have no destination to go to.  Perhaps the problem is a severe pandemic that is leaving dead bodies in its wake, or perhaps it is a period of lawlessness after an EMP strike that knocks out the electrical generating system for the entire region. What do you do?

Captain Dave’s answer is to camp in the wilderness until the trouble passes.

Let’s be clear that camping in the wilderness should not be your first choice.  It should not be your second choice.  It should be your last resort because it can lead to death in many different ways, including starvation and hypothermia.  Medical care will be non-existent, there will be no modern conveniences, and you will have no resources other than what you can bring with you and mother nature provides.  Finally, you may find over time that you move to a largely uncivilized life.  For example, living in a retreat off the grid you may sink back to a standard of living that was common in the late 1800s, before electricity and internal combustion engines.  Living a sustenance life in the woods, on the other hand, may reduce you to a standard of living more common in the 800s, or even 800 BC. So, consider carefully before you take this leap.

If you have no other choice but to retreat to a wilderness area, use the available information from the news media to identify where the worst problem lies and head away from it.  If possible, identify a state park, national park or wilderness area (the bigger the better) in the “safe” area and head to it, preferably by vehicle.  We generally assume that wilderness areas are wooded or mountainous, but other suitable wilderness area would be off-shore islands, islands in large lakes in Minnesota or Vermont, plains or anywhere with a low population density and where it would be difficult to find you.  Keep in mind that arid or desert regions — or anywhere without a source of water — are not as good choices.  Areas of extreme cold also prevent additional challenges unless you are experienced in this kind of environment.

I would also not suggest you leave your home for the wilderness if your only outdoor experience was two weeks of camp when you were in 7th grade.  Wilderness and primitive living requires skills that not everyone has.  It is made easier with tools that an urban apartment dweller may lack.  It may not be suitable for the elderly or for people with babies and toddlers.  Consider also the time you expect to be in the wilderness.  A couple weeks may be relatively easy.  A couple years could be deadly.  In other words, if you life expectancy is longer in a government shelter than huddled under a pine tree hungry and cold, pick the shelter.

Bring as much food, camping gear, and tools as you can fit into your vehicle.  Obviously, items for an evacuation to the seashore would be different than those for the mountains, but key items to bring would include:

  • Vessels to haul and store water as well as personal-size water bottles
  • Water filters and purifiers
  • Several ways to start a fire (matches, lighters, flint and steel, etc.)
  • Pots, pans and utensils suitable for outdoor cooking.  (Large pots for boiling water, cooking soup and other tasks are critical.)
  • Plates and utensils suitable for preparing food and for outdoor use (probably plastic or metal plates and cups)
  • Salt, pepper and basic spices
  • Tupperware and similar food storage containers
  • Freeze dried, dehydrated and canned food that is easily transportable and require no special storage considerations and MREs or other long term storage foods
  • Other foods should include flour, corn meal, pancake mix, and baking essentials such as baking powder and baking soda
  • Hand tools such as hatchets, axes, saws, shovels and knives
  • Basic non-powered woodworking tools
  • Sleeping bags and foam mats
  • Tents, tarps and rope
  • Sanitation and cleaning supplies, including dish detergent and hand cleansers
  • Personal hygiene products, from toothbrushes and washcloths to toilet paper
  • Several changes of clothing for each person
  • Rain gear and warm outerwear
  • Comfortable and durable shoes and several pairs of socks
  • Books on wilderness survival, primitive living, and gathering wild foods
  • A radio and batteries; solar power or crank radio is preferred
  • Walkie-talkie radios and solar chargers for the same
  • Light sources, including flashlights and candles
  • First aid kits
  • Fishing gear
  • Traps and snares
  • Firearms and ammunition

Get as close to your chosen location as possible via car, even if you have to resort to traveling on fire roads that are not open to the public.  In a serious emergency, law enforcement will have far worse things to worry about than you using a fire road.  (Having local maps is a big help. You can buy a big book of maps for your state and neighboring states at any major book store but do it before the disaster strikes.)

The best way to use a fire road or other path that is chained off is to park at the entrance and have part of your party stay with the vehicle.  Have a scouting party walk the fire road to ensure it is not blocked and is passable by your vehicle.  Make sure there is a place where your vehicle can turn around to get back out if you need to.  Scout for good camp sites well off the fire road and look for a place to park the vehicle where it will be hidden or can be camouflaged.

The scouts should also search for a place to set up your base camp.  It should be uphill from a water source, and not in an area that could be flooded.  A small rise is nice, as water runs downhill, and you don’t want it to run into your tent or shelter, but stay below the crest of any major ridges to avoid silhouetting yourself.  Make sure you are not under any trees with dead limbs that could drop on you.  Normally, camping in a clearing is advised, but you may wish to find a site that is better hidden and more defensible.  Also consider where you will dig your latrine and other sanitation issues.

If a suitable location is not found, the scouts return to the vehicles and go on to the next fire road.  If a suitable location is found for the base camp, the scouts return to the vehicles.  At that point, a bolt cutter should be used to cut the chain at the end away from the park service lock.  After your party has driven through, use your own lock to re-lock the chain.  This will allow you a way in and out without re-cutting the chain or leaving it down and inviting others to try the road.   Once you have passed through, you may even want to block off the road or make it look unused.  (Note that this is illegal and can get you in trouble, so do not do this unless you are in a post-TEOWAWKI situation and have no choice.)

Drive to the scouted site and park.  Camouflage your vehicle.  Set up the campsite, being sure to carefully erect your tent(s) as you may be there a while.  If you have multiple families and tents, space them out a bit to give each other privacy.  You want to be close enough to share a communal fire and mutual protection but far enough apart that you are not in each other’s laps.  For example, it would be nice to have a conversation in your tent without the entire camp knowing what is said.

Carry the necessary items to your campsite, but leave some items in your vehicle where they will hopefully be safe, dry and secure.  Food that may attract bears or other aggressive wildlife, for example, should be left in the car or tied on to a tree limb at least 20 feet off the ground some distance from the camp.

Once the camp is established, you will need to assign everyone duties.  Overall, you need people to secure the camp site, improve the camp, and guard the camp.  Others may be responsible for gathering food while still others for preparing it.  Someone should be responsible for overseeing the health of the camp inhabitants and to ensure good hygiene is being maintained by all.

Most importantly, no one should be allowed to sit around depressed or complaining.  Keep all hands busy so people are worn out by nightfall.  Everyone should have one or more of the following roles:


  • Establishes rule and procedures
  • Final arbitrator of dispute and decision maker.
  • Also a motivator and encourager as well as a dealer of discipline.


  • Maintains inventory of everything from matches and bullets to water  bottles and canned foods
  • Ensures nothing is wasted and that everything that can be reused is
  • Doles out supplies on an as-needed basis and prevents waste or unnecessary use

Medical Officer

  • Provides medical care and first aid in the case of injuries
  • Ensures prevention by enforcing good hygiene rules
  • Identifies threats to health and takes steps to prevent injury

Keeper of the Fire

  • Builds and maintains the fire ring.  May also:
    • Design and build a clay or mud oven in which items can be baked
    • Design and build a smoker to smoke game and fish for storage
  • Gathers and stockpiles firewood, from kindling to larger wood (don’t use green wood or pine trees which can impart a bad taste to the food)
  • Ensures that the fire remains lit and rekindles it from coals to preserve limited supply of fire starting materials

Bringer of Water

  • Transports water from the local source to the camp
  • Ensures water is filtered, treated or otherwise purified before use
  • Keeps track of water filter elements and when to replace them
  • Maintains and cleans water vessels, filters and bottles

Preparer of Food

  • Cooks and prepares food, as well as cleaning up afterwards. (See the section below on perpetual stew.)
  • Also preserves food through smoking, drying, etc.
  • May also butcher game and tan hides

Gatherer of food

  • Gathering wild food, from vegetation and mushrooms to fruits and berries, depending on your location and the season.  May also fish or hunt.
  • Husbands resources so that vegetation can grow back for future harvests
  • Notes location of out-of-season items for future harvest


  • Hunts game.  May also fish
  • Runs trap line
  • May also serve as a scout, butcher and/or tanner


  • Ensures the camp is set up to withstand local weather conditions
  • Sites and digs latrine
  • Builds and improves shelter from locally available materials
  • Builds furnishings, tools and weapons from locally available materials


  • Scouts the surrounding area for threats, potential food sources, etc.
  • Relays information on food to Gatherers and leads them to food sources.  May guard gatherers while they work
  • Seeks out additional or better camp sites, should it be necessary to move or establish a second camp or to split a large camp into two.
  • Identifies defensible positions near camp and evacuation routes, should it be necessary to leave the camp site
  • Ensures any approach by the road is secured

Obviously, this is quit a list — ten jobs.  Does this mean you have to have 10 people?  No.  One person can wear multiple hats.  Perhaps the keeper of the fire is also the preparer of food.  Maybe the gatherer is also the scout or the trapper.  Perhaps some jobs – such as food preparer and bringer of water — rotate from day to day.

While some jobs, like preparing food, keeping up the fire, and checking the trap line must be done daily others can be handled less frequently.  For example, the entire group might spend the morning of Day 1 gathering firewood, the morning of Day 2 and 4 gathering wild food, and the morning of day 3 washing clothes and bodies and cleaning up the campsite.  Then the cycle can repeat. Obviously, there needs to be flexibility as weather or a successful hunt may disrupt one day’s plans.  The day after a large kill, for example, might be largely dedicated to preserving the food and preparing the hide for tanning.

This also brings up the question of how many people does it require to survive in a wilderness camp site. The minimum recommended number is four able bodied people.  Two adults with two young children is not enough for long term survival unless the adults are highly skilled and practiced and are very well prepared.  Two adults with children 12 or older are far easier, as are larger family groups.  While it is possible to have two or more families, they must be compatible and have skills that complement each other.  One family totally relying on the other will often not work as the less skilled group will feel that they are getting the “bad” jobs while the high skilled group (who probably supplied the bulk of the food and survival goods) may feel that they are being taken advantage of.  So choose your survival buddies carefully.

How long do you have to live in the wilderness? That depends on the scope of the emergency.  The hope is that the problem will pass and you can emerge from the wilderness and return to civilization, preferably before winter (in the North) or summer (in the deep South and South West).  If not, you need to gradually turn your camp site into a homestead by building a cabin.

Remember, you are in the wilderness to escape disease, death and destruction and that the hope is this will be a temporary escape, not a permanent one.  Certainly we don’t want to start rebuilding civilization in a tent in a wilderness area.  But if the problem lasts more than a few months, you should consider building more permanent structures, such as a wood cabin, and then domesticating animals and planting crops.  As this is not easily done in a mountainous region, you may have to come down from your wilderness camp and, after careful scouting, take over an abandoned farm or house in a valley or in the foothills.

Remember that hunter gather cultures were usually nomadic because they would consume all the resources of one area.  (This is one reason that you may want to scout out other camp sites.)  Establishing herds and flocks of domestic animals relives much of the burden by providing a more continual source of food, fiber and leather than hunting.  Being a primitive hunter-gatherer living in a tent is a difficult, dangerous life.  Being a primitive farmer living without electricity and power tools is not easy, but it is a huge step forward with an improved level of survivability.

Cabins and Shelters

Many parks have primitive cabins and shelters along major trails that can be reserved for use by hikers and campers.  These may seem to have advantages over a primitive wilderness site.  For example, they are more weather hardy than a tent and may have a wood stove and a nearby water source.  The problem is that you are unlikely to be the first and last person to have thought of this cabin.  That means it may be occupied when you show up.  Or, once you occupy it, someone else may show up and want it. Every day you are in a cabin or shelter that is on all the park service maps, you have to be prepared to defend yourself.  Preferring to avoid conflict rather than seek it out, Captain Dave recommends avoiding these cabins and shelters in favor of a wilderness site.

Similarly, well known caves on maps should also be avoided for the same reasons.  However, if you find a cave or abandoned mine that is not a tourist attraction, you should seriously consider making it your base camp.