3 Tough Decisions You May Have to Make When SHTF

Every prepper by virtue takes measures against the worst possible outcomes when preparing for a disaster. After all, we are not really worried about the little figurative bumps and dents or even fender-benders out on the great highways of life; we are worried about the 12-car pileup, barrel roll and final, spectacular fireball. And so we strive to prevent such an event, and mitigate it if we cannot.

Naturally we always foresee a more or less positive outcome resulting from our decisions at the moment of truth, and ones that will not be too tough in the making. We all get away. We all survive. Our old life and many, even all of our possessions may be burned to ash or swept away, but we all ride on to a more or less certain tomorrow of restoration after a period of intense strain, fear and weariness.

But what if things are far from simple, certain or clear? What if things come down to a handful of furtive choices? Or a classic dilemma, two choices each with unsatisfactory outcomes? What if you are left little choice at all, a take-it-or-leave-it situation? Any of these scenarios are more than possible, and what’s worse you may not have, or indeed will rarely have, all the info you require to make a truly informed decision about your response or plan, a decision in which the life and limb of you and yours hangs teetering in the balance.

In this article, we will look at a few basic situations that could occur when disaster strikes. These decisions will never be easy if you should find yourself thrust into one of these situations. So it is better now by far to consider them well and plan accordingly by their brutal reckoning than be paralyzed by fear and uncertainty in the heat of the moment.

What Should I Do..?

Before getting to our theoretical scenarios, take some time to ponder the following. As I mentioned in the opening article, you will rarely, if ever have the totality of the facts regarding any dangerous or risky situation. If you did, you’d be omniscient, and would not be in this predicament in the first place! No matter what the situation is, no matter how clear-cut it seems, some uncertainty and risk will always remain.

I make no promises that everything will turn out fine in any scenario. Words mean things: Disasters, SHTF, catastrophes are all dubbed so for good reasons. The threat to life and destructive potential from first, second and third order effects in any major event will be severe to enormous depending on dozens of variables.

I can, however, assure you that any of the following scenarios could manifest in a number of different disasters, and it is not hard to figure out why; disaster can strike without warning, situations rapidly escalate or shift and the fickle patronage of Lady Luck all play their part in how the cards are dealt. Some of these choices for a certain reader are really no choice at all due to temperament, morals, personal situation or something else. Others may truly agonize over a decision in the exact same circumstances.

Whatever your personal situation is, it won’t be too hard to imagine yourself in similarly trying circumstances.

#1 – When, and If, You Should Bug Out

More than a few of us think the decision to bug out will look something like this: Some sign or signal will herald greater disaster. Wait for signal to occur. Once signal perceived, enact bug-out plan. Wait out disaster. Fin.

In reality, when the balloon goes up it may be exactly that simple. Something happens that is bad enough we want to get out off the X and head to safe (or safer) pastures. And so we do. Unfortunately, it might not be so simple. We may not be confronted with an event that is so severe we should absolutely leave that at the same time leaves us unscathed and free to flee.

Quite the contrary: A significant portion of natural and man-made disasters will make travel difficult, even dangerous. Leaving too early may be jumping the gun, and still expose you and yours to danger enroute to wherever your designated bug-out location is. Waiting too long may see you overtaken by whatever it is you are attempting to flee from, or hopelessly mired in a morass of evacuating humanity. Either is definitely unsatisfactory, and dangerous.

An entire other set of real-life, no-fooling, disasters may add pressure slowly, or show signs of plateauing, even receding, before they hit our personal “line in the sand.” Severe weather systems, widespread social unrest or rioting and other natural disasters come to mind. This is a tricky situation: the situation may ebb and you’ll be fine, after a good scare and perhaps some discomfort and cleanup. Or it may suddenly intensify and shift in your direction. Now you are facing a high stakes race against the clock.

It is important that you finely examine your personal “triggers” for a variety of different scenarios. Do not play “wait and see” when lives are potentially on the line. Normalcy bias is real. Good luck covers bad procedures. When the line is crossed, act. Better a false-start and weekend getaway or “practice” bug-out than waiting too long for certainty that you may never get until it crashes into you with dreadful consequences.

Bugging out as a concept should not be undertaken lightly. For most, you will be leaving your home and all the advantages it comes with. This could be a bunch of food, equipment and other material provision in addition to home-field advantage or the support of neighbors and your community. You may trade these advantages for a chance at greater safety depending on the situation. That safety may take the form of distance, isolation or more favorable terrain for weathering the storm.

None of that is guaranteed when you bug out when the SHTF. If the travel is easy you are either on vacation or not going far. You may arrive at your destination or get lost, immobilized, detoured or worse. If you are forced to hike or march out, you will be far more vulnerable to exposure, injury and other threats. Your bug-out location itself may or may not be intact and unoccupied when you arrive. The variables are many. The point is you must carefully weigh all variables, assess the risks and then, win or lose, choose to stay or flee.

#2 – Risk Rescuing Others – or Not

In a really dire situation, everything you do (or don’t do) will involve risk, perhaps even lethal risk. Nowhere is this brutal arithmetic crueler than when the time comes to place yourself, and possibly your loved ones, in harm’s way in order to render aid to someone else or rescue them from a bad situation.

The person in jeopardy may well be a stranger, and that is stressful enough to consider, but few will be prepared for the anguish that comes with having to decide whether or not to help a friend or another family member. Before you boldly proclaim it is not a decision at all, consider a few likely scenarios.

Perhaps your loved one is across town or near the epicenter of a major chemical or biological weapon attack. All modes of communication are down, choked with traffic. You, and the rest of your family, are safe and sound. Do you leave your family to fend for themselves while you go on a desperate search for your missing loved one? Do you risk exposure or infection from an invisible and hard to defend against threat?

How about a major flood event? You rolled the dice on staying and it turns out you came up snake-eyes. You and yours are safe enough on the roof of a building, but the raging flood waters are carrying cars away, some with people still in them. Other sodden souls cling to light poles, debris, and anything else attempting to keep their heads above water. You cannot hear them over the roar of the water and driving rain, but their eyes scream for help just the same.

Do you risk the murky water to help them? Can you keep both of you afloat? An exhausted swimmer, in their panic, may try to drown you. If you die who will take care of your family? Can you live with yourself in the aftermath knowing you did nothing, even if ethically your priority is to your kin? You should endeavor to know yourself before encountering such a decision.

Who else will you place at risk when you stick your neck out? Will you always attempt to help a soul in need? Will you place the needs of your kin and kith ahead of strangers? Or will the law of the jungle be the sole arbitrator of your decisions? Make sure you find out.

#3 – Hand Out Supplies or Keep Them

Some disasters will not reap a terrible toll in human life. At first. But their second and third order effects will lead to severe impacts on society and life itself. A massive EMP is a good example. In the wake of such an event, life will not be the same for a long, long time. Anything that disrupts the fragile clockwork of modern commerce will see throngs of unprepared people missing meals. One old maxim states that society is only three missed meals away from total anarchy. When the trucks don’t show up to restock those bountiful grocery store shelves things will turn ugly quick.

Not for you, though. You prepared. You saved. You stored, stashed, cached and canned. You have a mountain of food, enough to feed your family for at least a year. You have nearly that much water, rationed sparingly, and triple-redundant catchment and processing systems. You have guns, fuel, generators and more. You are an icon of true, holistic preparedness, and stand on a cliff of readiness that the lesser, soon to be starving hordes could not, or would not surmount. Well done. You and yours will survive for some time to come.

There is but one problem. Your neighbors did not. Bob and Mary. And your friend Tim’s sister and his niece. And of course your older coworker John who takes care of his ailing mother. They aren’t prepared. What is on their pantry shelves is it for them.

So what will you do? Every can of food, every jug of water is one less for your family. Every hungry mouth you take in means an additional strain on supplies meant for you and your family. Those people have people of their own who they would not see go without. And you have so much… Could you not spare a little more?

Once the stash runs out, you are all in the same boat, only this time it’s going down quickly. There are too many people in any given population center; communities are completely reliant on commerce to keep bellies full, and local crop and animal resources will be rapidly depleted when groceries stop stocking food. Once the comparatively meager supplies of food to be had in and around town are expended things will start to get dicey.

If you double the number of people drawing food, water and anything else form your stash the length of time it will support life is cut in half. That is of course assuming rates of consumption remain steady. You can ration to extend this duration, but times of exertion will call for more calories and water, decreasing it. It isn’t fair, but that is cold hard math staring back at you. Any of us would feed the world if it was within our power, but it isn’t. If your choice is between hanging on to your supplies to ensure your family is cared for as long as possible or cutting that time back to help the needy and ill-prepared, what will you choose?

Either choice could come with a mountain of regret and a heavy heart, but it is a choice you’ll have to make.


When the SHTF, decisions will not always be as clear and obvious as they seem in practice or in theory. Real-life, hard, harsh choices may need to be made. If you are the leader of your family or group, you will need both clarity and strength to make them. Take time now to introspectively probe and explore your values and beliefs so that these tough decisions will not be made even harder by doubt.

6 thoughts on “3 Tough Decisions You May Have to Make When SHTF”

  1. Bugging out is something I have prepared for although it is not my first choice in almost any circumstance I can envision. Exceptions would be a fire in my apartment building and possibly a Cat 5 hurricane is certain to hit Orlando head on.

    Rescuing others. If it involves a water rescue, unless I am wearing a good PFD, I’m not doing it. I am a poor swimmer at the best of times and was lucky to pass basic swim quals in the Marines. Almost anything else is a possible as I have done numerous rescues as a paramedic and police officer. It will be a judgement call at the time. However, if doing a rescue endangers my family, I won’t be doing it.

    I’m not a youngster any more, so physically demanding evolutions are pretty much a no go. I’m more likely to perform a support role than a primary.

    Handing out supplies depends on what and to who. I’m not very excited at the thought of handing out stuff to even family except #1 daughter, her husband, and of course, my granddaughter. Some first aid stuff and expertise is a maybe depending on the safety circumstances at the time.

    • Zulu 3-6,

      I have done numerous rescues as a paramedic and police officer. It will be a judgement call at the time. However, if doing a rescue endangers my family, I won’t be doing it.

      Your background definitely gives you an edge as does mine in some circumstances. I think we make a good pair to comment on this. The prepared and aged city apartment dweller and the aged rural homesteader. When you mentioned fire, as a Bug Out indicator, I assume you mean the building you live in is on fire, and that would be one of mine also.
      I think the author must look at everything from a city dwellers perspective, so it’s good to have someone with your insight commenting on the subject, since I haven’t lived in an a apartment in 42 years or in the city in 36 years.

  2. While I may not always have the whole story, keeping an eye on the horizon and your finger on the pulse of current events can help a lot.
    I belong to several organizations that give me some information that may not always be available to the masses, or when it is, may be misinterpreted by those who report it without understanding. I often get confidential information that can give me insight into things that are going on or at least the planning of those who do such things for a living.

    #1 – When, and If, You Should Bug Out
    Natural events are monitored by network of people and communication in which I am involved so the only real scenarios that would cause a Bug Out instead of a Bug In would be a structure fire or a noxious gas cloud that is upwind and headed my direction. Wildfires and floods are basically impossible at my location.

    #2 – Risk Rescuing Others – or No
    With my CERT training and our local MAG / CERT teams we have skills and equipment to handle some rescues; but, the training to know when and when not to which may be the more important thing.

    #3 – Hand Out Supplies or Keep Them
    We have plans for charity and will hand out beans & rice in #10 cans with cooking directions or some food in pull tab cans including small Dollar Tree chicken salad and crackers packages. We have all the water we can use and way to get more.

    There is but one problem. Your neighbors did not. Bob and Mary. And your friend Tim’s sister and his niece. And of course your older coworker John who takes care of his ailing mother. They aren’t prepared. What is on their pantry shelves is it for them.

    That’s the nice thing about rural living. All of our neighbors carry substantial amounts of food and fuel as part of the lifestyle, since running out of toilet paper is at least a 15 mile round trip in the day time and more like 30 at night. Rural folks, whether they call themselves prepper or not, are natural preppers by necessity.
    My immediate neighbors are also heavily medically trained.
    I really don’t know what city dwellers do; but, that’s thankfully why we have folks like Zulu giving their perspectives.

  3. Thank you, Charles, for this article. These are very big decisions that we will all face at some point. I would add that it would be wise to discuss these decisions with one’s group or family now, in advance, so that when the time comes, you’ll be ready for action. It’s best for your group or family to be united in how you will handle these decisions.

  4. Well living in northern Komradfornia We have been doing more bugging out than I prefer. However we did not bug out cause we had nothing better to do. A elder in my church lost his house a couple or few years ago ,it is hard to remember cause they have been so many in the past few years. He and his wife moved to Paradise and guess what happend. Burned oout . two hapend to them. They are getting of that burning stuff. They got out by the skin of there teeth.
    As far as rescueing people I would as long as I can do so without getting killed. Unless of course if they are Raiders fans.
    As far as giving sup
    plies it will be a bag of beans and rice and a gallon of water.

  5. those decisions are simple. How about “use up vital meds on somebody who probably wont make it?” How about “abandon this person who can’t keep up, or quietly kill this person who’s screaming in pain, endangering the rest of us”? How about “what to do with this group member who’s brought along people we hadn’t planned upon? What if women and children camp out at your place, too weak/sick to move on”?


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