If you've been reading our publications long enough and taking preparedness seriously, you've probably got a substantial cache of survival gear and emergency supplies at your home. While the U.S. government's National Preparedness Month campaign is working to convince average Americans of the importance of stashing a few days worth of food, water, and medications, we shouldn't need to tell you this. Once you reach a certain level of preparedness, the important question is no longer do I have enough supplies to survive? Instead, it's which supplies are most important, and which can I do without?

This leads us to the delicate balance between mobility and capability in any survival scenario. On one hand, it would be unwise to cram your bug-out bag with 100 pounds of extra gear on the off chance you might need it, only to throw out your back after a few miles on the road. On the other hand, it's obviously foolish to face a disaster with nothing but a pocket knife and an overconfident attitude, assuming you'll be able to scavenge, improvise, or borrow whatever you need.

A large pack offers more room for supplies, but also slows your movement. (U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens)

In short, mobility usually means a decrease in the weight and bulk of your gear, allowing you to move quickly and escape or evade dangerous situations. Capability usually means an increase in the weight and bulk of your gear, ensuring you have the tools and resources to cope with a variety of situations. Go too far towards mobility and you'll fall apart if all doesn't go according to plan; go too far towards capability and you'll be a sitting duck as the rest of the world passes you by.

A lightweight pack improves mobility at the expense of reduced capacity for long-term gear. (Photo: Grey Ghost Gear)

Each of these characteristics is beneficial under different circumstances. For a short-term disaster — a destructive storm, for example — leaning towards mobility might be a wise choice. It allows you to grab your gear and get out of Dodge at a moment's notice, and react quickly to changing conditions. For a long-term disaster — such as a nationwide catastrophe or economic collapse — you'd want more gear, including extra food/water and backups for critical items. You might need to be self-sufficient for weeks or months, and resupplying may be difficult or impossible.

A disaster's duration is an important variable, but it's not always clear before the disaster happens.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell how long a disaster will last, or how much gear you'll need as a result. A major storm could pass quickly, or lead to weeks of infrastructure repairs and supply chain interruptions. For this reason, we've made this the subject of today's installment of our Survival Scenarios web series. As usual, we'll pose a hypothetical survival situation below, and ask you to make a difficult choice regarding how you'd face it. You can submit your answer in the poll at the end of the article, and see how other readers responded.

The goal of this exercise is to get you thinking about the decisions you'd make in a real life-and-death event. If that day comes, you won't have time to contemplate your choices.

Background Info

Yesterday, you began hearing reports of violent protests occurring downtown, about a 20-minute drive from your home. The city you live in has always been a political battleground, and it seems like there's usually some kind of demonstration or rally happening, so this isn't exactly abnormal. A large portion of the city's population bears seething resentment towards law enforcement, claiming they're corrupt and prone to excessive use of force. This sentiment reached a boiling point recently after an officer shot and killed a teenager — the official statement says he had a weapon, but circulating rumors claim he didn't. Regardless of what really happened, angry crowds have filled the streets.

This morning while preparing for work, you turn on the TV to reveal live footage from a news helicopter. You can see some of the protesters on the street are carrying guns, and a few are lifting them in the air alongside hand-painted signs as they shout their message of protest. The camera pans to reveal police down the block, some with shields and tear gas canisters, others behind barricades with rifles at the ready. You've seen protesters cause chaos and block traffic in the past, but this is definitely reaching a new level of tension.

Suddenly, the helicopter's camera jerks to one side and zooms towards a street corner. You realize several of the protesters are firing their guns, and police are returning fire. Most of the crowd scatters, but those that remain take cover to join the fight. This seems surreal, like a movie scene playing out on live TV. Within minutes, the newscaster reports incidents of violence in other parts of the city, including carjackings and arson. It seems this isn't an isolated event. It's spreading.

You get a text from your boss stating that your workplace (near the city center) is closing for the day, so you should “stay home and stay safe.” Things must be really out of control there for him to say that. You could easily lock up your doors and stay glued to the TV, but your girlfriend's condo is only a few minutes from your workplace — not good. You decide to grab some supplies and go to her house immediately, then stay with her until the chaos dies down. That might be a few hours, but it could be significantly longer if things continue the way they have been.

(Flickr.com/deadhacker | CC BY-SA 2.0)

Your girlfriend never really gave a second thought to emergency preparedness until you started dating, but she's been slowly accumulating some basic disaster supplies with your help. Still, she hasn't stockpiled much food and doesn't own any weapons yet. Knowing this, you'll definitely be bringing some of your own gear — the only question is how much.

By default, you'll have your carry gun, a 9mm with 10+1 and a spare 10-round magazine. You also have your typical pocket contents — phone, keys, wallet, folding knife, and flashlight.

Prioritize Mobility

Given the rapidly-accelerating nature of the chaos, you know that time is of the essence. You'll choose your transportation and gear accordingly. The quickest option is your motorcycle, which you often ride to work to avoid rush-hour road congestion.

Your bike offers a proven method of getting through downtown traffic quickly. (Flickr.com/tortxof | CC BY 2.0)

If you grab your go-bag, get on your motorcycle, and leave immediately, you can be at your girlfriend's house in less than 20 minutes — assuming there are no major traffic obstructions along the way. If there is traffic, the motorcycle gives you the option to cut between cars to find a faster route. If things get really bad, you can leave the bike and take off on foot in a matter of seconds. The lightweight backpack won't slow you down.

Your pack has the items you usually carry on a daily basis:

  • Change of clothes and a light sweatshirt
  • Travel toiletries kit
  • Emergency cash ($100 in various denominations)
  • Handful of protein bars, some beef jerky, and a water bottle
  • Mini headlamp
  • USB power bank with charging cables
  • Multi-tool
  • Individual first aid kit

Although this minimal gear should allow you to get moving immediately, remain maneuverable, and reach your girlfriend's condo ASAP, it has some downsides.

While you're en route, you'll be fast-moving but vulnerable — if you're forced to stop for any reason, the bike offers zero physical protection against an angry mob. You have barely enough supplies for an overnight visit, much less hunkering down for a few days. It's plausible that someone will try to break into the residence during the chaos, and your defensive capabilities are limited to a handgun with two magazines. Based on your girlfriend's meager food supplies, it might be an uncomfortable few days if this scenario doesn't end quickly.

Prioritize Capability

Your hatchback isn't anything special, but it lets you carry a lot more gear. (Flickr.com/octopushat | CC BY-SA...

The other option would be to take a few extra minutes to fill your car with gear and drive that to your destination. It's a small hatchback, but can easily hold enough gear to get you and your girlfriend through a prolonged period of civil unrest. You'll load the following, taking several trips between your house and garage to load it:

  • Your go-bag, as described above
  • Large Rubbermaid bin full of emergency food (canned meals, dry staples, and dehydrated single-serve pouches)
  • Three cases of water bottles
  • Duffel bag with boots, a week's worth of clothes, and toiletries
  • Family-sized first aid kit with a variety of medications and trauma care gear
  • Nylon belt with a Glock 17 and weapon-mounted light in an OWB holster, plus three 17-round magazines and an IFAK
  • AR-15 with weapon-mounted light
  • Plate carrier with rifle plates and five 30-round magazines
  • Two handheld GMRS radios with spare batteries

Freeze-dried meals will be preferable to scrounging through leftovers at your girlfriend's place.

This is almost certainly more gear than you'll actually need, but you'd rather have it and not need it. If multiple armed individuals try to break and enter the condo during the chaos, you'll be able to protect yourself effectively, and you'll have a spare pistol to give your girlfriend. Even if a firefight occurs, the plate carrier and substantial first aid supplies will increase your odds of making it out alive. You'll have plenty of food and water to stay cooped up for multiple days, and the radios offer a backup communication option (as well as a tool for listening to emergency broadcasts).

You hope you won't need it, but a long gun will greatly improve your ability to defend against armed intruders.

The downside to this plan is how much it'll reduce your mobility. Driving a car offers a bit more immediate protection from the mob on the street, but it's less maneuverable and more prone to getting stuck in gridlock. If you get halfway to the destination and end up boxed-in, someone could smash your windows and try to force you out of the car.

Also, this option will delay your arrival, so the situation could worsen by the time you get there. It's going to take a few minutes to load the car, and the same amount of time to unload it at your girlfriend's condo. She doesn't have an attached garage, so you'll be carrying these supplies from the parking lot — it'll only take a few minutes, but if the wrong person sees you unloading a bunch of valuable gear, it could lead to a confrontation.

The Decision

In this scenario, it's impossible to know how long the violence will last. It might be over within a few hours, or it may continue for days, with rioters looting for personal gain and destroying property to spite law enforcement. You always try to err on the side of caution, but there's only so much gear you can carry on your motorcycle. Loading up your car will provide more long-term survival capability, but will also take longer and reduce your initial mobility.

So, would you take your motorcycle and go-bag in an effort to evade traffic and reach your destination quickly? Or would you pack more gear and drive your car, ensuring you have the supplies you'll need for a prolonged disaster? Each choice has its benefits and risks. Consider them, then make your choice in the poll below.

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