Do-It-Yourself Nuclear Urban Bugout Strategies

How and when people take cover in the event of a nuclear attack is critical. Most people in American cities would have no idea what effective shelter would look like and where to find it, let alone know enough to make an informed decision about whether the smartest thing to do is even to take shelter or to flee. General advice that you may want to take shelter would be of limited value. That is why I urged the Homeland Security Department to develop a civil defense plan – including especially a plan for providing authoritative, localized and specific information to people affected by a nuclear attack.– – U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, chairman of the Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee.


Definition of bug out

intransitive verb

1: to retreat during a military action; especially : to flee in panic

2: to depart especially in a hurry
bugout  \ˈbəg-ˌau̇tnoun

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

In the survival/prepper community, there is much discussion about “bugging out” after a disaster or social collapse of some kind. Survivalists or “preppers” will go so far as to set up bugout retreats – places to hide away after a major disaster.

And if you care to look, you can find endless online discussions about “bugout bags” and what to include in them. Most are certainly far more elaborate than the simple 72 hour emergency kits governments so frequently advise.

Yet most of these bugout kits are not devised with a clear understanding of the risks or even how a modern-day nuclear attack from a major world power is likely to progress (different from a crude, small-scale  terrorist nuclear detonation and its likely targets). Charging off, out of your town or city, immediately following a large-scale nuclear attack on US or perhaps even Canadian military targets (the most likely nuclear targets these days) might not be the wisest thing to do. That is unless you are prepared to spend days digging an expedient underground shelter as described in Nuclear War Survival Strategies and unless there is enough time before the attack starts to complete the construction.

Evacuation of cities was the Canadian government’s civil defence strategy for a time in the 1950s. But with the advent of Soviet ICBMs which could reach North America in well under an hour, the general idea of evacuating major cities fell by the wayside. Instead, home owners were encouraged to build fallout shelters in their basements, And then in the 1960s, both the US and Canadian governments developed plans to use existing urban structures that offered sufficient radiation protection as makeshift fallout shelters.

For today’s resident of a modern city, this is still a realistic personal strategy, especially if one brings along enough water, food and other items to “camp” for a few days in the basement or upper floors of a large building. (While there would be complete chaos if the entire population suddenly set out to do this in a large city without a lot of advanced government planning and organization, it is a reasonable do-it-yourself strategy given that most people today choose to completely ignore nuclear threats. And it’s certainly better than no personal fallout survival plan.)

The cost of putting together a “bugout bag” specifically designed for this kind of nuclear emergency would be quite small,  certainly compared to the costs of building your own fallout shelter, for example. (See the Rad Resilient City from John Hopkins.)

In North America, there are sound reasons not to leave the city immediately after a major nuclear attack. (See below on specific EMP threats.) Based on expected fallout patterns and prevailing winds, clouds of radioactive fallout could easily blanket the countryside for many hundreds of miles making it as lethal as your own city streets. And whether you traveled out of the the city in a vehicle or on foot, trying to find rapid protection from fallout radiation in a rural setting might prove far more difficult. Old army manuals for soldiers do detail seeking makeshift protection in rural settings, as shown here, for example. But in a built-up city, there typically is much more immediate protection to be found. Therefore, a personal strategy of seeking refuge in a makeshift “community fallout shelter” makes a lot more sense for those city dwellers who don’t have enough protection in their homes..

Remember, it is the first hours after a nuclear detonation that are by far the most lethal. This is when you need to be behind think walls or in the deep basement of a large building, not driving across the countryside in your car (which offers very little protection). Even a few extra minutes of outside exposure may be a concern.

Few people (apart from many of the wealthy) want to invest in their own personal fallout shelters, preparing for an event that hopefully will never occur. But it is still possible to have a workable plan in case of a nuclear attack, especially as such an attack is now most likely to focus on military targets rather than cities directly.

Therefore, for most people, the initial concern will be the radioactive fallout that could blow across the country. And “camping out” for 2 or 3 days inside a building or structure that has a high enough Protection Factor (PF) is an excellent way to protect yourself and your family. In many cases, this would offer more protection than a hastily made expedient core shelter in a home basement.

Until such time as governments invest time and resources into again creating community fallout shelters, you are on your own in finding a safe spot for you and your family. Hence, the the need for a packed, ready-to-grab-and-go nuclear bugout bag. Such a specialized kit would leave out many of the typical items preppers or survival experts tend to include in a general survival bugout or GO bags. Instead, you need to bring enough water and ready-to-eat food to last several days, as well as warm or seasonal clothing, for buildings may have no power, heat or air conditioning. And while there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to what to include in such a kit, here’s a generalized list of what you might consider. (Remember, you do have to be able to carry the bag on your back, so there simply isn’t a lot of room for all those “just-in-case” items.)

Note: If you live near a nuclear power station and suffer an EMP attack, then there are other factors to consider in your strategy calculations. Many nuclear reactors would likely melt down without electricity to cool them. And unlike the expected radiation from a nuclear weapon, the radiation from a plant meltdown would probably remain dangerous for an extended period of time. Millions of people would be displaced from areas around the nuclear plants as the radioactive cloud spread. This could require a serious re-evaluation of a city-based buy-in strategy. (See this US military report outlining this information.)

Urban Nuclear Bugout Bag

The purpose of this urban nuclear bugout bag is to provide the essentials to camp out or squat for a couple of days or longer in a basement or other protected area of a large building or structure. The bag literally needs to be something you can just grab and go with, as a nuclear attack could suddenly come at any time with little or no warning. And it is the first minutes and hours after the fallout begins to fall that are by far the most dangerous. (Remember the 7/10 Rule:  Generally, fallout from most nuclear detonations loses roughly 90% of its radioactivity in the first 7 hours after detonation and an additional 90% for every 7-fold increase in time: 90% in the first seven hours; 99% in 49 hours (two days) and 99.9% in two weeks.)

Here’s what I personally would include in a urban nuclear bugout bag:

  1.  Any required personal medication – at least a 2 week supply.  A list of family physicians, important medical information, and the style and serial number of medical devices such as pacemakers.
  2.  Radiation survey meter / dosimeter and good supply of extra batteries for these. (These are so vital to ensuring personal safety, they are worth investing in despite the small likelihood they will ever really be needed. At one time [1976], the US government was suggesting just this approach, not just in government established shelters, but also for people finding their own shelter like here. )
  3.  Potassium iodide tablets for 10 days per person. (Note: People should take potassium iodide (KI) only on the advice of public health or emergency management officials. There are health risks associated with taking KI.)
  4.  Flash light / headlamp with extra batteries
  5.  Cash/ ID / Copies of vital personal papers and photocopies
    of important family documents including home insurance information.
  6. Water (8 liters or more). Next to a survey meter, this is the most important thing to bring. Skimp on food before you skimp on water.  – There may not be immediate access to water where you end up. Or the city water system pumps may not operate without power. So having enough water is more important than food. You can go three weeks or more without food, but only 3 days or less without water. I would carry a couple of 2 litre bottles in my backpack and then also carry a couple of 3 or 4 litre jugs of water, one in each hand. This would be for one person. (Note: Old FEMA guidelines for fallout shelters called for a minimum of 13.5 litres (3.5 gallons) of potable water for each shelter occupant. This would, they said, would be sufficient for drinking and basic cleanliness for a period of 5-6 days.) 
  7. Ready-to-eat food that will keep without refrigeration. Dried fruits, nuts, jerky, emergency survival rations  etc. are a good choice. They have real nutrition for the weight and will keep for long periods of time.
  8. Battery powered radio and extra batteries (to hear government announcements. Remember, the Internet might well be down if there is no power.
  9.  Phone and charger (in case the cell network is still up and operating)
  10.  Pen / pencil / notebook
  11.  log-log graph paper (for fallout prediction, a skill taught on the Radiological Defence course).
  12.  Radiac calculator (use of this is also taught on the Radiological Defence course
  13.  Small first aid kit
  14. And of course, a large backpack to carry it all.
  15. General items:

  16. Sleeping bag and sleeping pad (so you actually can get some sleep)
  17. Clothes for the season. (Remember, there many be no power due to an EMP and this may mean that heating or cooling in your shelter building may be off for the foreseeable future.)
  18. Small bar of soap (in case there is running water available). Also toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste (to feel human).
  19.  Hand sanitizer.
  20.  Roll of toilet paper
  21.  30 Zip-lock bags (wash rooms may not function even if you have access to one, so you may need to deal with your own waste in a rather crude manner)
  22.  Small P-38  can opener –  (military issue) Even if you don’t bring any canned goods, others may have, Plus these are so small that they are worth having with you in case you can’t go home after leaving the shelter.
  23.  Cheap plastic disposable poncho or plastic raincoat with hood (to help keep fallout particles out of your clothes and hair when outside while fallout is falling). Alternatively, a small light-weight folding umbrella.  (Of course, these also work for rain.)
  24.  Water purification tablets and lightweight purification filter (in case you need to utilize rain or other water for drinking after the water you bring is finished. Even coffee filters would remove most fallout particles so you don’t drink them. But you would still need to also purify water to make it safe to drink. )
  25.  Multi-tool with knife
  26.  Small clothes brush (for brushing off fallout dust from clothing as people enter the shelter space)

    Comfort and non-essential items:

  27.  Extra pair socks and underwear.
  28.  Fleece sweatshirt for pillow/ towel, warmth, etc.
  29.  Light-weight reading material
  30.  Cup / plastic eating utensils
  31.  Playing cards
  32.  Ear plugs (you may need to sleep when other people are making noise)

 A Few General Survival Kit Items for Later

Personally, I would also include a few basic “survival items” for use after emerging from the shelter. It’s possible I might not be able to go home right away.  But I would keep these to just a few small key items so they wouldn’t significantly reduce the amounts of water and food I could carry.  And it is important that you can carry your bugout bag a reasonable distance. Your cars might not work at all following the EMP emitted by nuclear weapons.

  1. Lighter and Ferro rod (for fire making)
  2. Whistle (for signalling)
  3. Compass (for direction finding)
  4. Couple N95 filter masks 
  5. Leather work gloves (blisters are a pain, literally)
  6. Small, lightweight pot for boiling water and cooking once outside shelter space. (Can also serve as a survival kit container.)
  7. Solar battery charger (Some of the batteries I’d bring would be rechargeable)
  8. 50 feet Paracord (lightweight, but a lot of survival uses)
  9. A small, light-weight belt knife (this can be used to split firewood, build makeshift shelters in wooded areas, help prepare food and is generally the number one survival tool carried by bushcraft survival experts)
  10. Small light-weight pry bar.
  11. Small roll of duct tape.

Note:  A small stove isn’t included in the bag because in closed shelter spaces, ventilation and carbon dioxide build up is already problematic. Old FEMA guidelines specified 500 cubic feet per person in a non-ventilated or gravity-ventilated shelter space to keep carbon dioxide below dangerous levels. Even a small alcohol stove uses up oxygen and produces CO2. This is why you don’t want to include any food or drinks in your bag that need to be heated or cooked.

P.S. If anyone thinks the above ideas and preparations are a little excessive, consider this: A number of years ago, the US government produced a booklet for federal employees entitled A Federal Employee’s Family Preparedness Guide. This included the following section:

Prepare an Emergency Go Kit
Often during an emergency, electricity, water, heat, air
conditioning, or telephone service may not work.
Preparing an Emergency Go Kit ahead of time can
save precious time in the event you must evacuate or
go without electricity, heat, or water for an extended
period of time.

You should consider including the following
items in an Emergency Go Kit:

  1. At least a 3-day supply of water (1 gallon per person
    per day). Store water in sealed, unbreakable
    containers. Replace every 6 months.
  2. A 3-to 5-day supply of non-perishable packaged
    or canned food and a non-electric can opener.
  3. A change of clothing, rain gear, and sturdy shoes.
  4. Blankets, bedding, or sleeping bags.
  5. A first aid kit and prescription medications (be
    sure to check the expiration dates).
  6. An extra pair of glasses or contact lenses and
    solution (be sure to check the expiration dates).
  7. A list of family physicians, important medical
    information, and the style and serial number of
    medical devices such as pacemakers.
  8. Special items for infants, the elderly, or family
    members with disabilities.
  9. A battery-powered radio, flashlight, and plenty
    of extra batteries.
  10. Identification, credit cards, cash, and photocopies
    of important family documents including home
    insurance information.
  11. An extra set of car and house keys.
  12. Tools such as screwdrivers, cutters, and scissors,
    duct tape, waterproof matches, a fire extinguisher,
    flares, plastic storage containers, needle
    and thread, pen and paper, a compass, garbage
    bags, and regular household bleach.

Steve S. of 21st Century Nuclear Survival adds:

Bugging out really makes sense only if:

1. You have a lot of advance notice that a nuclear war is coming, and the notice is based on reliable, independently verifiable information.

2. You have somewhere safe to go. A place that is not a target and will either not receive any fallout, or only minimal amounts of same.

3. The place you’re going to has food, water, shelter and other essentials that will be available on an indefinite basis.

4. The attack has ended, the danger posed by fallout has ended, and the roads out of your city are passable.

5. You have sufficient fuel, food and other essentials on hand to make the trip to your refuge without having to stop along the way to obtain or replenish any of these items.

6. The route to your refuge is not likely to be heavily travelled by other refugees, some of whom may try to steal food, fuel and other supplies.

7. Staying where you are after the attack and fallout have ended will not be safe and you must leave.