rescue worker careers woman out of flood

Shelter in Place vs. Bug Out Guide for 2023

by Matt Collins

Disaster strikes, and you’ve got hours—maybe just minutes—to take action. Should you bug out, or should you shelter in place?

It’s a simple question without a simple answer: a complex calculation that requires you to account for numerous contributing factors–with potentially life-or-death consequences waiting for you on the other side.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a hurricane, flood, terrorist attack, or nuclear meltdown—it’s all just a matter of calculation, for better or worse.

So today, we will help you answer the age-old question: should I stay or should I go?

To do that, we will incorporate several existing MIRA Safety resources, referencing and summarizing a wide variety of previous research to give you the best possible understanding of your own chances for survival in various adverse conditions.

Bear in mind that we’ll link these different articles as they’re referenced, but we will also include a comprehensive recommended reading guide at the end of this article. Note that all referenced information is current as of the publication date.

So, let’s begin by evaluating each alternative, one by one.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Understanding Bug Out Strategies

  • 02

    What does “Shelter in Place” Mean?

  • 03

    Stay or Go Scenario #1: Hurricane

  • 04

    Stay or Go Scenario #2: Wildfires

  • 05

    Stay or Go Scenario #3: Civil Unrest

  • 06

    Stay or Go Scenario #4: Pandemic Part 2

  • 07

    Stay or Go Scenario #5: Airborne Plague

  • 08

    Stay or Go Scenario #6: Nuclear Meltdown

  • 09

    Stay or Go Scenario #7: Chemical Spill

  • 10

    Stay or Go Scenario #8: Cyberattack

  • 11

    Stay or Go Scenario #9: Nuclear Attack

  • 12

    Making the Call

  • 13

    Frequently Asked Questions

Understanding Bug Out Strategies

bug out bag contents

(Image courtesy of Adam Carvalho via Flickr)

You’re probably already familiar with the term “bug out bag.”

The concept stems from the conventional wisdom that, in the event of a natural disaster or other unforeseen calamity, it is often best to leave the area immediately. Regardless of whether we’re talking about a wildfire or even a dirty bomb attack, there are various reasons why you’d need to immediately evacuate your surrounding area. 

This preparedness strategy involves having a few prepacked bags with essentials that you can grab at a moment’s notice to instantly leave. That means no wasted time wondering what you should grab or where you left your spare keys–just a simple grab-and-go bundle that can help you survive the most immediate threats.

When you bug out, you’re not evacuating an area permanently (at least not necessarily). Instead, you’re taking critical measures to ensure you’ll make your way to safety. Typically, this entails packing seventy-two hours of necessary supplies. Remember that food, water, medicines, and even paper backups of essential records should all be in your bug out bag. We’ve already covered the details here.

Note that bug out philosophy is generally very “grab-and-go.” In other words, it’s picking the kids up quickly and making your way to take shelter at a minimum safe distance ASAP.

As a result, bugging out is a convenient choice in the event of wildfires. These conflagrations can spread rapidly, after all–cutting off exits and scorching the area around your home. Sometimes, you’ll have limited warning before a wildfire comes dangerously close to your property.

With that said, bugging out can be overkill for less immediate threats.

And it becomes more and more complicated if a disaster situation seems like it will persist for an extended time. After all, you’ll need more supplies, potentially a secondary location, and/or a stash where you can store essentials.

Another critical limitation of bugging out is travel. Though disaster scenarios can wreak havoc on infrastructure and transit systems, many overlook this fact. Bear in mind, then, that it’s not always safe to presume that you’ll have access to practical travel options.

These limitations are why the bug out bag essentially defines the practice of bugging out. While it makes sense to deploy when you need to immediately seek safety, you must be certain that you can reach your destination within seventy-two hours and won’t likely run out of resources while you’re there.

What does “Shelter in Place” Mean?

food pantry of mostly canned items

(Image courtesy of The Independent)

Sheltering in place is exactly what it sounds like: locking down your homestead and preparing to weather the storm.

In fact, sheltering in place is commonly advocated for occurrences like storms—like when a major tornado is bearing down on your area. And in discussions of public health and pandemics, it’s synonymous with “lockdown” and even “quarantine.”

In contrast to bugging out, shelter in place strategies are far more flexible. That means the sky is essentially the limit, since you can take the initiative to prepare for just about anything. (Some folks are even buying old nuclear shelters and renovating them for modern living.)

If you and your home are not in immediate physical danger, then locking down can be a practical reaction to a wide range of threats and scenarios. After all, since you’re not living out of a bug out bag, and you’ve got all your homes’ stores and PPE to work in your favor, you’ve got more options.

The flipside is that you’ll need to prepare for this.

That means building your PPE inventory before things take a turn for the worse, which is not something everyone likes to think about. Indeed, it can be a tall order to prepare for dozens of potential catastrophes—something that takes time and resources.

Additionally, sheltering in place won’t always mean sheltering at home. Since you may be in your office when a nuclear bomb goes off just a few miles away, you may find yourself faced with whether you should shelter at work (without necessary supplies) or make the potentially dangerous trip home (but more on that in just a moment).

Note that we always advocate a modular approach to preparing for disasters. This means that there are only five key factors you really need to consider, and they become easier to digest when you break them down.

So, to successfully shelter in place, here’s what you absolutely need:

  • Food and Water: Ideally, you should prepare a two-week supply at the very least. Remember, too, that it’s best to store a variety of shelf-stable foods, including everyday canned goods, dry goods, and some MREs and dehydrated foods that can be reheated without access to electricity. Water, meanwhile, can be a severe challenge, since you’ll need one gallon per person daily. As such, we recommend storing as much of these supplies as your garage will bear. Note that a camping stove or propane-powered backyard grill can also come in handy to keep your meals hot if the power is out.

  • PPE: Personal protective equipment is a fact of life when it comes to disasters, and proper PPE can provide you with options and flexibility that may save your life. Accordingly, a full-face respirator or gas mask, a handful of suitable filters, and a few other pieces of gear (that we’ll cover in a moment) can make all the difference.

  • Meds and Supplies: Once again, you’ll want at least a two-week supply but ideally a few months’ worth of medication, supplies, and even backup medical equipment. This category includes the gear you need to survive once you’re fed and protected. That means everything from pills to toiletries, so don’t be afraid to stock up.

  • Paper and Plastic: It’s always a good idea to keep paper backups of your personal documents, copies of your license, passport, relevant financial data, and a decent amount of cash if possible. (Even silver and gold coins aren’t a bad idea.) You can also expand this category to include trade items and the safe storage of family heirlooms.

  • Emergency Gear: Whistles, flashlights, water purification tablets, an emergency crank-powered radio: this is the kind of gear every family should already have on hand. Don’t be afraid to stock up, as having a few backups can help. If your property is large, grabbing a few walkie-talkies may also make sense.

Remember: if you don’t have basic supplies like food and water, your home is no longer a practical long-term shelter. Likewise, if you don’t have emergency communications gear, you won’t be able to keep in touch with the outside world. And you won’t have much of a choice if you don’t have the necessary medication.

Bear in mind, too, that time is a significant factor in whether you should bug out or shelter in place.

Because if a threat lasts long enough, or if it’s immediate enough to put you and your family in danger, then bugging out becomes necessary.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at a few common disaster scenarios and whether it would be best to bug out or shelter in place when dealing with them.

And remember: these situations are strictly hypothetical–for now.

Stay or Go Scenario #1: Hurricane

Florida National Guard soldier in a flood

(Image courtesy of Florida National Guard via Flickr)

Picture it: in August 2023, a powerful Category 5 hurricane is predicted to land in South Florida.

Meteorologists warn that it will broadside some of the state’s most populous communities—many of which are right at the waterline and less than a mile inland. That means the potential for storm surges, high winds, and heavy rainfall poses a significant threat to life and property. As such, local authorities issue mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying and near the coast residents.

In this kind of situation, bugging out would be an absolute necessity.

More specifically, people in vulnerable zones at risk of flooding and storm surges must evacuate to higher ground or inland areas, where they can find temporary shelter in designated evacuation centers or with friends and family outside the danger zone.

Numerous recent hurricane experiences bear this out—especially the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction in New Orleans. In 2006, this once-in-a-century storm ripped the city’s levees and practically submerged lower quarters and surrounding areas in flood waters, reaching nearly eleven and a half feet.

Most of the local population evacuated to the Superdome. Though conditions there were less than perfect, they were far better than the alternative–which saw countless families staying in their homes to protect what little property they had. Subsequently, some found themselves stranded for days, while others needed rescue by emergency services. In many cases, that rescue took far longer than anticipated.

Bear in mind that if you’re not living in an area that will be directly hit by a storm, subjected to flood risk, or in the path of a potentially deadly tornado, there’s a better argument for sheltering in place. After all, sheltering in place can provide you with maximum time to prepare your property, and it can allow you to safeguard your possessions during and after the storm–but it may also mean living without electricity for days or weeks.

So when it comes to hurricanes, sheltering in place can sometimes be an option–but it’s generally better to get out of dodge.

Stay or Go Scenario #2: Wildfires

Massachusetts National Guard soldier fights wildfire

(Image courtesy of Massachusetts National Guard via Flickr)

The boiling heat of July 2024 gives way to massive wildfires that stretch across the Western United States.

Much like this year’s Canadian wildfire season, the flames reach far further than expected—engulfing up to ten times the usual area that is usually torched in the annual wildfire season. Most worryingly, one wildfire is particularly speedy, quickly consuming thousands of acres of land while approaching populated areas, including towns and residential neighborhoods.

In a scenario like this one, you should always bug out.

Remember that wildfires can grow and spread with near-unbelievable speed. And when they’re on you, you’re in a world of dense, choking smoke and searing hot flame. In almost every instance, rescuers will not have the opportunity to provide assistance in this kind of situation. That means it will be your responsibility to remove yourself and your family to safety.

In other words, this is not the time to think of your property.

For evidence of this, consult the following viral video from a recent wildfire, which shows the kind of hellscape through which you might need to evacuate:

As the situation unfolds, individuals and families evacuate to safer areas, such as community shelters, hotels, or relatives’ homes outside the immediate fire zone. Remember that it’s crucial to have an evacuation plan and practice it ahead of time to ensure a swift and organized bug out process. The same rule applies to volcanoes and any other disaster that feels like hell is spilling over into the real world.

In any of these situations, one potentially life-saving gear you can have on hand is the VK-530 gas mask filter. Providing a wide range of protection from CBRN threats, this Level 2 gas mask filter adds a critical layer of protection from dangerous smoke inhalation.

With the VK-530, you can transform your gas mask into a smoke hood to ensure access to clean air while you make your way to safety.

Stay or Go Scenario #3: Civil Unrest

Protest in Trafalgar Square London, with Socialist Worker flag visible

(Image courtesy of Pete Riches via Flickr)

As elections grow nearer in November of 2024, political rhetoric heats up. As such, violence spills into the streets, and multiple significant cities, from Baltimore to Saint Louis, are plunged into massive civil unrest. It’s the kind of widespread violence not seen since Los Angeles in 1992.

And just like the Rodney King riots, protests escalate into violence, leading to clashes between law enforcement and protesters. The situation quickly spirals out of control, with widespread looting and destruction of property. Before long, the cities grind to a halt.

For those living in the affected urban areas, bugging out to a nearby area would become a matter of personal safety, allowing locals to live their everyday lives without worry.

At the same time, this kind of scenario doesn’t strictly call for bugging out. After all, you would probably have time to make additional preparations, pack more belongings, and be ready to spend an extended period away from home.

Plus, in some cases, if the violence is relatively contained or the rioting is short-lived, it might make more sense to shelter in place and weather the storm.

Having a P-Can filter on hand generally makes sense for this kind of scenario. Commonly used riot control agents, these special filters offer protection from particle threats. That means if you’re in an urban situation where authorities are dispersing things like tear gas to control crowds, then the P-Can filter can help you breathe easily for up to twelve hours as you leave town.

Stay or Go Scenario #4: Pandemic Part 2

Pennsylvania National Guard military doctors test patient for Covid-19

(Image courtesy of Pennsylvania National Guard via Flickr)

It’s 2026 when the next deadly strand of Coronavirus emerges. But instead of killing just 1% of those it infects, this variant is lethal for 30% or more (putting it on par with the Bubonic Plague of the thirteenth century).

Though health authorities issue quarantine measures, the situation worsens as the healthcare system becomes overwhelmed. As such, individuals and families must consider bugging out to reduce the risk of infection and seek better medical facilities.

Suitable bug out locations might include remote cabins, isolated rural properties, or designated quarantine centers set up by the authorities. With a scenario like this one, it’s essential to realize that by the time most people start asking whether or not they should bug out, it will already be too late. After all, the potential for a military-enforced quarantine or rapid spread of a pandemic means things could escalate exceptionally quickly.

Simply put: this is the kind of scenario you’ll want to prepare for.

MIRA Safety Particlemax P3 filter

The Particlemax P3 filter will be your number one choice for dealing with known biological threats. These gas mask filters provide the highest possible respiratory protection from viruses and bacteria. They also come in 6 to a pack, and the CDC recently issued guidelines for reusing these filters if needed.

Stay or Go Scenario #5: Airborne Plague

But what if the next plague is not a form of Coronavirus?

As you probably already know, Covid-19 was transmitted via airborne particles and droplets that typically only linger for minutes. That means Covid-19 didn’t spread via fomites (i.e., objects around us, including door handles to car keys and countertops).

A pandemic of this nature could happen, however–making it an eventuality that you should prepare for.

In a situation like this, bugging out might not be the best idea. After all, if the pathogen is highly contagious and has a long incubation period, it will be risky to venture outside or gather in large groups.

As a result, it might be prudent–if not critical–to shelter in place. And once again, it will be based on key features like time and preparation.

Bear in mind that highly virulent threats can spread more quickly and easily, but they will also have the potential to run their course much faster than our recent pandemic. That means that with a few weeks of food, water, and supplies, you could potentially wait out the worst of the spread.


Adequate PPE, including gas masks and full-body hazmat suits, will provide additional options. Above all, we recommend having a few rolls of Kappler ChemTape on hand since you can use it to seal your home’s windows and doors in minutes. The same chemtape will seal the junctions of your mask, hazmat suit, boots and gloves. Remember: ChemTape is like the duct tape of the PPE world–it can do anything.

Stay or Go Scenario #6: Nuclear Meltdown

Nuclear plant

(Image courtesy of Kathy Macpherson Baca via Flickr)

It’s 2027 when America’s Chernobyl turns a wide swath of the Midwest into a fallout zone. In the grips of this crisis, nearly a million Americans suddenly find themselves at risk of exposure to massive amounts of radiation. As emergency services struggle to cope with the scale of the disaster, the immediate area is deemed uninhabitable.

This situation almost universally calls for bugging out to safer regions. More specifically, it requires a bug-out plan considering the distance from the contaminated area, wind patterns, and radiation dispersal predictions. (We’ve covered those topics extensively in the articles linked above.)

It’s important to note that if you’re not in the affected area, there’s probably no reason for you to bug out. As we’ve discussed, nuclear attacks and reactor meltdowns can massively disrupt local services, travel, and other infrastructure. That means highway traffic, for example, could be disrupted for hundreds of miles around ground zero. So if you’re not in immediate danger, stay where you are.

Either way, you’ll want to have some potassium iodide tablets on hand.

MIRA Safety potassium iodide tablets

These tablets flood your body’s thyroid gland with safe iodine, preventing the absorption of radioactive I-131 that is ejected into the atmosphere after a nuclear detonation or reactor explosion. Note that I-131 can travel for miles on the wind before coating your area in radioactive fallout.

With a ten-year shelf life, these precious tablets will be practically impossible to find after a nuclear event. Since it only costs a few dollars to stock up on these immediately, we highly recommend doing so.

Stay or Go Scenario #7: Chemical Spill

chemical spill

(Image courtesy of Patrice Lehocky via Flickr)

On February 3, 2023, a massive train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to massive fires, plumes of smoke visible from miles away, and something authorities called a “controlled release of vinyl chloride.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of derailments, spills, chemical plant explosions and chemical spills are likely to keep occurring—and more frequently—as America’s infrastructure becomes increasingly dilapidated. That means failing bridges, railways, roads, and power grids could potentially trigger the next major industrial disaster at any time.

For those in the immediate area, sheltering in place will be necessary to avoid exposure to the toxic substances and their potential health effects. (Residents of East Palestine reported being able to smell and taste the chemicals in the air after the disaster.)

As a result, it’s wise to seal off your home with ChemTape, close windows and doors, and shut off ventilation systems to prevent the entry of contaminated air. Alongside this, monitor local news and emergency alerts while operating according to your emergency communication plan.

The upside of this kind of scenario is that damage will likely be limited in scope, and authorities will likely work fast to ensure the area is safe for its residents.

Stay or Go Scenario #8: Cyberattack

Rami Malek as a vigilante hacker in the TV series, Mr. Robot

Rami Malek as a vigilante hacker in the TV series, Mr. Robot (Image courtesy of Virginia Sherwood/USA Network)

In mid-2028, a group of unknown hackers unleashes a massive cyberattack, targeting critical infrastructure systems in a central metropolitan area. This includes disruption of power grids, communication networks, and transportation systems.

With your city facing widespread chaos and uncertainty, it might prove unintuitive to shelter in place.

But access to functional transportation and communication in this scenario would be limited at best. And panicked locals would likely be thronging to the city’s exits—which is a recipe for disaster.

As a result, evacuating might not be a feasible option for many residents. During this situation, individuals ought to rely on their pre-prepared emergency supplies and alternative power sources like generators, while staying informed through battery-operated radios about the situation and any updates from authorities.

Stay or Go Scenario #9: Nuclear Attack

Mushroom cloud

(Image courtesy of Atomic Archive)

The unthinkable finally happens in 2029, and the use of tactical nukes quickly degenerates into an all-out nuclear war between Russia and NATO.

It’s the nightmare scenario of nightmare scenarios—something that could very nearly mean the end of humanity. We’ve covered this topic extensively in multiple recent articles, focusing on everything from probable targets to survival strategies for the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon.

The answer to whether you should bug out or shelter in place for a situation like this is highly complicated. Though we’ve covered it in detail here, it’s worth reiterating that the aftermath of a nuclear attack should be seen as a series of different phases with different potential threats over time.

To recap, the first fifteen minutes after a nuclear attack offer a brief reprieve for those outside ground zero and the thermal blast radius. This is the brief window after the explosion and before the fallout spreads.

Following a nuclear blast, anyone in the immediate area should use these fifteen minutes to find the best shelter available. Remember: you’ll want as many walls as possible between yourself and the outside world, as a shield against gamma radiation. After those first seventy-two hours, the worst of the fallout will be over, so you won’t need much in the way of supplies to survive.

After that, radiation levels will drop sharply, and travel will become less dangerous.

Making the Call

(Image courtesy of North Carolina National Guard via Flickr)

Whether you should stay or go will not always be an easy decision.

Some significant disasters will require you to evacuate the area immediately, a wildfire or hurricane evacuation alert. But it won’t always be so easy to make the call.

When you’re not sure, it becomes a cost-benefit analysis. Consider: have you made sufficient preparations to hunker down for a few days? What about a few weeks? What are the chances that staying home will put yourself and your family at risk?

If you’ve made sufficient preparations, and got the proper PPE and a solid supply of essentials, then you’ll have a relatively flexible set of options. If not, you’ll want to reach for a bug out bag and get ready to head out of town.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does shelter in place mean?
What is a bug out bag?
What is the best bug out bag?
What to put in a bug out bag?