It’s a paradox that so many of America’s biggest cities are in the most geographically isolated parts of the country. Take Manhattan for instance. One in 38 people in America live in New York City, but the majority of the city is geographically bound by water, only tenuously connected to the mainland. In a major disaster—where the grid is down, terrorists have attacked the city or a global pandemic is sweeping across the nation—New York’s 8 million inhabitants will be depending on a handful of bridges to take them to safe harbor.
New York isn’t alone. Many American cities face similar geographical isolation. New Orleans, San Francisco, Charleston, Portland, Boston, Seattle. All these cities are surrounded by water on multiple sides. This is a risky situation to be in, and few have thought through their primary evacuation strategy, let alone a backup plan if once-reliable bridges and highways are made impassable.
Fortunately, the same conditions that make these cities so treacherous to evacuate by car or on foot make them ideal for evacuating by boat. Evacuating by boat has multiple advantages. Boats are faster than traveling by foot. And you can take them further afield from the civilized world because they don’t rely on oil and gas. They can also carry heavier loads than a person could by themselves. Perhaps best yet, they utilize nature’s own expressway: coastlines, lakes and rivers. Where New York residents evacuating by foot or by car have only a handful of bridges by which to reach upstate New York or New Jersey, a boat could be launched from almost anywhere, traveling across the river to Newark, up the Hudson as far as Albany or out to sea.
But the sea is not something to be trifled with lightly. It comes with its own set of challenges and obstacles. Specialized gear, navigational skills and an understanding of safety precautions while at sea are all considerations that need to be taken into account.
Since there is no way to know in advance what evacuation strategy will maximize your chances of survival, it’s best to be as flexible as possible. Rather than having a separate bug-out kit for every scenario, consider making your primary bug-out bag adaptable for whatever disaster might strike. After all, the basics that you need to survive when evacuating by foot are not dramatically different from what you would need in a boat. Make sure there is a checklist at the ready of what gear you’ll need for a boat evacuation so you aren’t relying on memory in a critical situation.
Start by examining the contents of your bug-out-bag. It should already contain a number of essentials that will be important for your coastal evacuation, such as a first-aid kit, shelter and a sleeping bag. Consider which items in your bag need to stay dry in order to be functional, and which could be salvaged if your boat flipped. Sleeping bags, clothes and first-aid kits all need to stay dry to function in a survival situation. Your cookware and sleeping pad will be more forgiving.
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If you are able, consider purchasing enough dry bags to hold the entire contents of your bug-out-bag or, even better, a dry bag large enough to hold the pack itself. That will minimize the amount of time you need to spend repacking during a bug-out situation.
You shouldn’t be carrying any perishable food with you in a survival situation, but your meals can quickly become unpalatable if submerged in a puddle of water in your boat. A Loksack, or other food-grade storage, can help to keep your food dry at sea, and smell-proof when you get to camp, keeping away any undesired critters, such as bears.
Also think about how you can pack your bug-out bag to maximize its flexibility. Simple tweaks could be a lifesaver during an emergency. Rather than keeping electronics or fragile items such as maps in a traditional stuff sack, consider securing them in a small dry bag, or, in a pinch, a freezer zip-seal bag. Another idea is to line your pack with a trash compactor bag. These are a great way to prevent water from getting into your gear if you need to bug-out by boat in a flash. Look around your home and consider what other household items could be utilized in a disaster. Finally, make sure that each member of your party has a life vest that fits properly, and secure a whistle to each in the event that you become separated.
Think hard about your specific conditions when choosing a boat. What kind of weather/tidal conditions are you likely to encounter? Will your boat be easily accessible during a catastrophic event? Will it be easily accessible to any unscrupulous neighbors? If you don’t live on the water, how will you transport it there?
Many rural and suburban residents already own watercraft that they use for sport or pleasure. These can almost always be readily adapted to a survival scenario—canoes in the Great Lakes region, white-water rafts throughout the Rockies, sailboats on the coasts—so take the time to consider how you can adapt the gear at your disposal to meet the conditions at hand.
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But if you’re purchasing a boat for the first time, consider both your limitations and needs. If space is a limitation for you (or if you don’t have sufficient inside storage space for a larger boat), consider an inflatable raft. These offer a number of advantages. You can easily store them in your apartment, next to your bug-out-bag and other survival gear, making it easier to “grab and go” when disaster strikes. They are lightweight, so even if you don’t live close to the water, you can still get your boat to the shore without an automobile. This is also helpful if you are traveling by river and need to portage (carry your boat and equipment) around either a physical obstacle (such as Class 5 rapids) or a man-made one (such as a collapsed bridge). If you do purchase an inflatable raft for your bug-out, look one for one with a reinforced hull made out of high-pressure fabric, such as the Explorer series from Sea Eagle.
Their size also provides flexibility during a bug-out scenario. A traditional boat may need to be abandoned if there is a portage longer than a few miles, or if it is necessary to travel by stealth for a section of coastline. But with an inflatable raft it’s possible to simply pack it away, attach it to your bug-out bag and disappear quietly into the woods.
Navigate To Safety
Gearing up and getting into the water is only part of the solution. Paddling out aimlessly into open water can end in tragedy. You need to have a safe zone ready and know exactly how to get there under a variety of conditions and with multiple people in your group.
Having the right maps is key to any survival situation. Don’t overlook it when planning your boat bug-out. Keep maps of your local waterways near your bug-out gear, and remember to include maps of the entire section of river or coastline that you may need to navigate to reach safety, not just the section that is within an overnight trip of your home. If you live in canoe country, you’ll need to know the best portage routes to reach your destination. If there is a white-water rapid along your route, be cognizant of how a rapid can change from a Class 2 to a Class 4 based on the time of year. Also, know your endpoint. If you’re traveling to a port, figure out in advance the best place to dock your boat. If you’d rather keep your movements clandestine, investigate river bends or ocean coves that could offer your desired level of shelter.
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Depending on where you live in the country, there may be risks inherent to bugging out by boat. Know what these are in advance so that you can make informed decisions about the best mode of travel. White-water rapids are found throughout the country, so if your water evacuation is along a tumultuous river, be sure that your boat is up for the challenge, and that you have enough experience to safely navigate through the rapid.
Likewise, be cognizant of predators that are specific to your local river or waterway. If you live in the Southeast, consider carrying an extra flashlight to watch for alligators at dusk. When traveling through the Great Lakes, be conscious of the dangers of rip tides. If you’re on the ocean, carry hydrocortisone cream in case of a jellyfish sting.
Start by talking with your family on how best to adapt your evacuation plan to a coastal evacuation plan should a grid failure or other catastrophic event make the roads impassable. Family members should know the most efficient way to reach any agreed-upon meeting place from any part of their day-to-day routine, including school, their place of business or relatives’ homes.
Each family member should be responsible for specific pieces of gear. This will help to focus younger children if they are faced with a stressful situation, as well as give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Older children can and should learn valuable skills, such as how to handle a boat on their own and basic navigation, so that they can serve as backup to any family member during a survival scenario. However, your family’s evacuation plan will be useless if you don’t practice. Like fire drills in school, these practices should be unannounced and feel as real as possible. This is the only way to truly find any flaws in your plan and fix them before a real disaster strikes. If any member of your family is uncomfortable with any aspect of the plan, you might want to consider revising it to ensure maximum survivability.
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It’s not a matter of if a disaster will strike but when. And when it does, you will likely have survival bags at the ready, packed with the essentials you’ll need for three days or more off the grid. Everyone knows the rendezvous point. You have a map marked with the route to safety. But if the roads are out, you need to be prepared to execute a backup plan. And for millions of Americans, that backup plan is a coastal evacuation.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Winter 2016 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.