Choosing A Retreat Property

When SHTF, Where Should You Go?

With economists from Nouriel Roubini to Martin Armstrong predicting major storm clouds for the global economy, many investors are beginning to see the specter of "counterparty risk" (also known as "default risk") rearing its ugly head. Having money in an account is one thing; actually getting your hands on the cash in the wake of a 2008-style bank meltdown or an MF Global fiasco is something else.

FDIC insurance notwithstanding, the simple fact is that if you have assets that are not in your personal possession, your access to them is subject to a great many factors over which you have zero control. Consider something as simple as a power outage. In a grocery store without electricity, Bill Gates' spending power would be limited to whatever he had in his wallet. Even then, most stores are so dependent on computers that they have no way to process sales without electricity.

Now, imagine something much more serious: a financial-sector collapse of the sort we narrowly avoided in 2008. With the "Too Big To Fail" banks bigger than ever,  and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation effectively gutted by Citigroup-written verbage attached to the 2014 Omnibus bill, the banking system is even more fragile and corrupt than it was six years ago. Whatever money you have in your savings, investment, or retirement account is just zeroes and ones in a computer somewhere, and if something goes wrong, what recourse do you really have?

This justifiable concern is why folks like Jim Sinclair and Craig Hemke have been, for at least the last decade, advising people to purchase physical gold bullion. The only problem with that advice is that, after peaking at $1,800/oz in 2011, physical gold has lost a full third of its value. This means that anyone who bought gold after 2010 is now upside-down on their investment.

If you're fine with just holding on to your gold coins until the financial system collapses, then the dollar-value of your bullion isn't much of an issue. If, on the other hand, you don't like the idea of buying into a depreciating asset that doesn't actually do anything for you, there are other options.

James Wesley Rawles, founder of SurvivalBlog, and author of a number of popular books on "prepping," advises three broad categories of purchases: "beans, bullets, and band-aids," along with arable farmland. Advice on tucking away enough food, ammunition, and medical supplies to last through a sustained emergency is more than plentiful on sites like SurvivalBlog, but the notion of purchasing property with the explicit idea that it will be a place to "bug out" when "TSHTF" is one that bears further discussion.

There are, of course, as many opinions about where one could best survive as there are people interested in surviving. Clearly, you want to get some land that's far enough from population centers to be reasonably secure, but close enough to wherever you live that you could feasibly get there under less-than-optimal conditions. In other words, if you live in Los Angeles, buying land in Nebraska is probably not the best choice.

The question then becomes, where's the closest, best place? I decided to take a systematic approach to evaluating different parts of the country for their survivability.

Here is a basic map of the USA. Population centers are shaded in orange. Canada and Mexico are blacked out, because if things are bad enough for us to want to head to the border, either those countries are going to be worse off, or the borders are suddenly going to become much more secure than they are now.

base_map

One of the scariest things I can imagine is a Chernobyl or Fukushima-style nuclear meltdown – either accidental or intentional. After Chernobyl, scientists were measuring significant fallout all over Europe and Scandinavia, and measurable levels of fallout over the entire Northern Hemisphere, so being a few miles out of town isn't going to get you completely out of the woods, but obviously the farther the better. Here's the same map, with all the currently-active nuclear facilities indicated by red dots. (Source)

2_nukes

As you can see, there are quite a few of them. Since there's no way to know which are more likely to have an accident or to be targeted by terrorists, let's plan on avoiding all of them. Here's a map that shows a fairly optimistic (i.e. small) fallout radius. Already, you can see that most of the East Coast is not looking too good. 3_nuke_fallout

Well and good, you may be thinking, but it's more likely that terrorists will set off suitcase nukes in major cities than try to break into heavily-secured reactor facilities. Okay, here's a map that shows similar fallout radii from the top 40 population centers in the USA. (Rather than city population, which doesn't take into account adjacent population centers, I've used TV markets as my reference for this.)

4_city_fallout

Really, it's not too different. Here's a map with both danger zones overlaid. You can see that really, it just tells us more of the same (although it does start to look quite unnerving).

5_all_fallout

So, looks like everything in the West is pretty safe, right? Not so fast. What are you going to do once you get your family – and whatever stragglers you've picked up – to your little hideout? Live on canned food forever? No, you've gotta plant crops and get ready to sustain yourself indefinitely. That means you need water. Unfortunately, here's the same map with the driest, most drought-prone parts of the country shaded orange. (Source)

6_drought

This certainly narrows things down a bit. But wait, there's more ... Without electricity and heating oil, what are you going to do when the temperature drops to freezing for several months per year? Here's the same map with the coldest parts of the country shaded brown. (Source)

Interestingly, the "American Redoubt" suggested by SurvivalBlog (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, and eastern Washington) is located almost entirely in this cold, dry area.

7_cold

Outside of a small area on the California/Oregon border, and parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and East Texas, things are looking pretty slim. There are little pockets that look appealing – parts of Kentucky, for example, but if you keep in mind that two-thirds of the US population lives within a day's drive of that area, it starts to look like a bit of bullseye. Not to mention the fact that TN/KY/WV are heavy coal-mining states, meaning that many of the mountains been strip-mined, polluting the water and irrevocably harming the local ecology. Thanks to the expansion of fracking in otherwise appealing states like Oklahoma, most of the other “safe” areas have similar issues.

Clearly, there is no single, best place to run to. While you might be overrun with looters outside Atlanta, you could just as easily freeze to death in Kansas or starve in Montana. Rather than obsess about a specific geographical location, it may be more worthwhile to simply find the best little patch of land you can, within a few hours drive of your home. Here are some basic criteria to consider:

  1. Water - Nothing is more important than fresh water. Although multiple wells are ideal, even a little creek running through your property will give you what you need to drink (be sure to filter it first) and grow some food.
  2. Privacy - If you buy a piece of land for a retreat, make sure that you can build a cottage or other shelter that is not visible from the road. Not only will this offer some defense against vagrants and looters, but it will keep you out of sight of meddling code inspectors and other bureaucrats who might want you to follow building codes and to get hooked up to municipal electricity and water.
  3. Distance - Not only do you need to be able to get to your retreat in the event of some kind of emergency, but you need to be able to get there to set it up for yourself - build a shelter, plant fruit & nut trees, etc. If it's more than four hours away, how often are you going to realistically go there?
  4. Neighbors - Buying property down the street from a sketchy trailer park or depressed small town is a bad idea. Look for an area populated by farmers and homeowners. Then, be nice to everyone you meet.
  5. Shelter - The "tiny house" movement has initiated a Renaissance of sustainable, low-cost house designs. Check out Tumbleweed Tiny Homes for ideas, or look at houses built into cargo shipping containers. Rather than deal with municipal utilities, consider using propane or - better yet - solar power.

Most of all, remember: something is better than nothing. Regardless of the emergency, cities are ALWAYS the worst places to be.

Key Points

  • When looking for a retreat property, assess nearby risks.
  • There is no perfect area, so focus on finding somewhere you can afford, and that you'd be able to get to in an emergency.

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