Sometime around the late '80s to early '90s, I read an article in the now-defunct American Survival Guide magazine about the mountain bike as a form of survival transportation. That was a great article, ignoring such filler as the history of mountain bikes and delving right into the mechanics of what one should look for in the basic bicycle and how to outfit it for our purposes, and it struck such a resonant chord in me that I immediately began shopping for one of my own, using the criteria presented in the article to make my choice. Then I scrimped, saved, skipped my Friday-night Arby's roast beef sandwich, postponed bills, and bought myself a new Diamondback mountain bike.
At the time, I was living in an apartment near one end a medium-sized town, working third shift at a company only 2 miles from my apartment. To make it even better, there were two vastly different paths from my apartment to my workplace, and both were about the same distance. One was a paved route which took me through some back alleys and then out onto a relatively sparsely-traveled, paved two lane road. By that route, I could make it to work in about 6 minutes with a minimum of fuss. The other route made better use of the "all terrain" aspect of my bicycle, because it started out as a one-lane gravel road skirting a low, heavily wooded hill with no roads traversing it other than a couple of rough jeep trails. As this road got farther into the woods, it quickly deteriorated to a faint trail through a swamp before finally climbing up the side of the hill and becoming rocky and rutted. This road also passed a couple of abandoned old shacks that I would occasionally stop and check out, and I even camped in one of them once or twice. Needless to say, I generally took the paved road on the way to work, and usually on the way home too. But once in awhile, especially if it was "Friday", I would take the woods road home, and take longer than 6 minutes. A lot longer. In fact, sometimes I would take several hours, and then arrive home soaked, covered in mud and briars, and looking pretty much like a hound that has been out hunting all night.
My 1965 Jeep and 1978 Toyota pickup truck began sitting at home most of the time, relegated to those few occasions that I needed to haul more than I could haul on the bike, or travel more than about 20 miles. I certainly didn't need them for the 4 mile round trip to work, and as much as I liked having them, I also liked not having to drive them unless I just wanted to.
My job was such that I was able to work 12 hour shifts (by choice) for 7 straight days to get my hours in for the pay period, then take the entire second week off (which is why I put quotation marks around "Friday", above). This was wonderful, because it allowed me to head out on week-long camping, backpacking and mountain biking expeditions twice per month! I made the best of it, too. While working those long hours, I would daydream and plan survivalistic bugout exercises to embark upon, once the work week was over! I would plan various scenarios wherein, as the stuff hit the fan and other people panicked as they sat in gridlocked traffic on the highways, I was picking my way over a mountain trail to the east, or building a raft to cross the river to the south, with my heavily-laden steel mule at my side, carrying the basic supplies and equipment I would need to survive.
Sometimes, when my off week finally arrived, I would undertake such an exercise designed to simulate actually having to get outta Dodge, other times I would go out of town with other mountain bikers of my acquaintance, to camp and ride the trails in other areas. More often though, I would just put a full bugout load on my bike, head off down the trail through the woods that I described earlier, perhaps camp a night in one of the abandoned shacks, then continue on to the larger wooded areas surrounding the river, where I would build makeshift shelters and camp for several nights.
In my gear, aside from my ever-present defensive handgun, I had a Ruger 10-22 that I had converted to a takedown configuration. In its disassembled state, I could stuff this rifle into my daypack so that, during the brief time I was traveling through a residential area, there was no danger of the sheeple being alarmed by the sight of a rifle. My ammo of choice was Remington 40 grain hollowpoint subsonics. They had plenty of killing power on squirrels and rabbits etc, but lacked the supersonic crack of regular high-speed ammo, so that once I was in the woods, even someone only a quarter mile away would probably not notice my shot. I still like those, and don't feel underpowered with them. After all, my late grandfather used .22 Shorts to kill everything, up to and including an 8 point buck.
I learned a lot during that time, and I found that a mountain bike is an even better choice for a BOV (Bug Out Vehicle) than I had originally thought. Upon first consideration of a BOV, it seemed that the ideal would be my old Jeep Wagoneer, loaded with my camping and survival gear, and with the mountain bike tossed in back as a "scout vehicle" or whatever. In fact, this is a wonderful combination for a vacation, but it really has some drawbacks as a true bug out plan.
First, regardless of one's feelings on the issue of the right to travel, if you are driving along in your private motorized conveyance and are either individually targeted by a cop or have the misfortune to run across one of the "your papers please" roadblocks that our wonderful, benevolent government is increasingly providing us with these days as part of their plan to secure our freedom and liberty, you had better have all your paperwork in order, your voluntary taxes paid, etcetera and smell for all the world like just another sheeple on his happy way to work, or you just might lose that conveyance and all your gear, and wind up in the local hoosegow.
Second, that Wagoneer (or whatever) needs fuel and oil, among other things, and running out of any of those things means it is going to stop wherever it happens to be, and go no farther. Also, a serious mechanical breakdown, gridlocked roads, or getting well-and-truly stuck could have the same effect: that of walking (or riding your bike) away from your prized vehicle and any gear you're not able to carry, and leaving it in a location that is probably not secure, meaning you might as well write it off as a total loss, because that is probably how things will turn out.
OK, but what's so great about a bicycle? Well, for starters, I can pick it up and carry it for short distances. That means I'm not gonna get too badly stuck, because I can just drag it out of the mud (or whatever) and carry it to solid ground if necessary. Also, if I come across a fence or pile of boulders or disabled vehicles that would stop motorized vehicles, I can sling that bike across my back and climb over. And if I find myself on a gridlocked highway, with a bicycle I can still get through.
Then of course there is the fuel situation. Yes, you will need to eat more to produce the energy you will be using, but that is offset by the overall improvement in your health and physical condition.
One thing I discovered during the time that I was bicycling everyday, was that my stamina quickly improved to the point that I was able to maintain an average speed of 10 mph, hour after hour without tiring. If necessary, I could ride 100 miles in a day, then get up and do it again the next day. At 100 miles per day, if you need to bug out, you can change the scenery and the situation substantially in a short amount of time. Even after getting out of the bicycling scene for a few years, upon starting to ride again I was immediately able to ride 20 miles in a couple of hours, without any difficulty. On the other hand, walking 20 miles would be a serious undertaking, even if I had all day to do it.
For shorter distances, 20 to 30 mph is no trouble to achieve, and I can do it quietly enough to vacate an area without anyone ever knowing I was there. That silence is another of the great advantages of a bicycle. If I'm bugging out, I can ride slowly down the road at 5 mph, more quietly than I can walk for any distance at the same speed, looking and listening for any danger I may be approaching, or that may be approaching me. If I do spot danger ahead, I can either hightail it back in the direction I came from, and/or leave the road and work my way around the danger. If that danger is a roadblock and I'm in a motor vehicle, they will be aware of my presence before I'm aware of theirs. I don't think that's a good thing.
Lastly, if worse comes to worst and my bike develops mechanical problems I can't fix right now, it still works as a cart to carry a greater load than I can carry on my back, as long as at least one of its wheels remains capable of rolling.
Oh, and don't forget that licensing issue. In most areas, the legal standing of a person on a bicycle is the same as on foot. There are probably some cities where that is not true, but I intend to avoid those places anyway.
We've covered why a bicycle makes a good bug out vehicle, so what should one look for in the basic bike, and how should it be set up?
First, it should be a mountain bike, rather than a road bike or a cruiser. Mountain bikes have tough frames that are designed for abuse, and the frame geometry is designed to make them maneuverable in rough or varied terrain. Also, their upright seating position is more comfortable for the average person than is a road bike.
It should be equipped with standard 26" wheels, rather than the more esoteric 29", because 26" rims, tubes and tires are easier to find. In most situations, a mild all terrain tread in 1.95 to 2.1" is best because it provides good traction in the dirt while still minimizing rolling resistance on pavement; but if you live off the beaten path you may want to consider a more aggressive offroad tread in up to 2.35" width, for greater traction and flotation.
The frame should be steel. Not the mild steel of some cheap bikes, but double-butted chrome moly steel. Chrome-moly, of course, is a strong steel alloy, harder and stronger than mild steel so the tubes can have thinner walls to reduce weight. It also has some springiness to "bounce back" from hard trail impacts. Double-butted means the wall thickness of the tubes is thicker near the ends where they are joined to other tubes, because that is where stresses are concentrated, and thinner in the middle where there is not as much stress, to reduce weight. A frame that is double butted will say so. If it says "double butted main tubes", it means only the main triangle is of double-butted tubes; that's good but "fully double butted" meaning all of the tubes, is better.
You may be tempted to buy an aluminum frame, but I don't recommend it. They are light, but they have "dead" handling qualities, without the springy, "alive" feel that makes a good steel bike so nice to ride. Also, aluminum will eventually fatigue and crack under hard use. Lastly, steel may be readily repaired by welding.
Suspension: pass. It is a fad; something foisted off on people because they don't know any better. I remember when the "Rock Shox" suspension forks first became available for downhill racers. For that application, suspended bikes may or may not have some small advantage; for everyone else it is a very bad idea. Why? Climb on one and start pedaling away: what is the first thing that happens? The suspension first settles, then starts bobbing up and down as you pedal. With every pedal stroke, you are lifting yourself and the bike; pedal harder and it gets worse. Now add a 100 lb load, and you will be lifting that too. The energy to do all that lifting and bobbing is coming from you, and then it is dissipated as heat from the suspension. If you adjust and ride your bike properly, your body is working within an efficient range of motion, and if the geometry of the bike is correct, the energy thus produced is efficiently converted to forward motion. Why would you want to throw away a percentage of that energy to create heat and wear in a suspension? And wear it will, too: that suspension is not only something that wastes energy and unnecessarily complicates the bike (not to mention making it heavier), it is also another thing to go wrong: something that will eventually wear out and cause problems. I've never yet worn out a rigid fork.
As for sizing the frame of the bike, there are entire books on that subject, but suffice to say that it should be large enough that you can ride it vigorously on a tight trail without interference between the handlebars and your knees, but small enough that when you stand astraddle the bike, you have about 4 inches of clearance between your crotch and the top tube. The best thing is to ride it around through varying terrain, and see if it feels "right" to you.
Oh, and make sure the frame has as many threaded lugs as possible for mounting racks, packs, pumps, bottle cages, etc. You will miss them if you don't have them.
As for finding such a bike, go ahead and look at the local bike store and tell them exactly what you are looking for. They may actually have something like that, or more likely they will have a hardtail that is close. A hardtail is a rigid frame with a suspension fork. At the very least you can ride it to see how the frame fits you, and a good bike shop will almost certainly work with you to get a rigid fork; either a special order delete option from the factory or by swapping out the fork right there at the shop. Or, you may decide to just go with the suspension fork after all.
Another reason for going to your local shop is to touch base just to see what's available and maybe start building a relationship with them, and then hit the thrift shops and flea markets to see what's available out there. You may just luck upon a super high quality, full rigid bike that is a few years old, for next to nothing. Some people actually throw away excellent bicycles just because they are old, don't have suspension and need a little maintenance. Their stupidity can be your gain. As an example, a couple of years ago I bought a fully ridable Giant Iguana at the Goodwill store for $20, and I have ridden it many miles and continue to ride it now. That wasn't a top of the line bike in its day, but it was about a $400 bike. It is an ideal bike to base the bug out bike on, and in fact has replaced my old Diamondback for that purpose.
Even if you do decide to buy a new bike, you may be able to buy a cheap bike or two at the flea markets that will yield a few spare parts, a spare frame and a rigid fork.
Having looked at the bike itself, let's cover some of its equipment. First, brakes: I would avoid disc brakes. They are simply unnecessary; another case of "OK, now what can we sell the masses on?". I mean, they work great, but so do V-brakes, and cantilevers for that matter. But disc brakes are heavier and more complicated than necessary, more to go wrong, and they are expensive. The best brake for a bicycle is a V brake. A modification and optimization of the earlier cantilevers, they are light, simple, and I have seen them for as little as $10 for a set of new ones, and those ten dollar brakes were as nice-looking, as light, and worked even better than the $400 Grafton cantis I remember lusting for, way back when. I remember the first time I ever rode a bike with V brakes, and marvelling at the fact that I could stand it on the front wheel with one finger. If you don't have brakes yet for your homebuild, or you are buying a new bike and deciding on options, or the old flea market relic you bought has crap brakes, buy V brakes and get the local shop to show you how to set them up properly. If you have decent cantilevers, put some new pads on them and read up on how to set them up properly, and they will be fine. There is nothing wrong with good cantis, and I certainly wouldn't dump them.
Shifters: whatever you have is probably fine. I started with Rapid-Fire pushbutton shifters and loved them, then Grip-Shift became all the rage and the next new bike I bought came with that. I wasn't crazy about the Grip-Shift but they work, and that bike still wears them, so they are OK. These days though, given the choice, I prefer old fashioned friction shifters. They always work, are dead simple, and allow me to adjust each cog's engagement by sound, even if my cables are getting stretched out.
Wheels: What you have is probably OK, but if not or you just want to optimize (which is a good idea; a good wheelset can do wonders for the riding quality of your bike) I recommend Shimano Deore LX hubs, 36 spoke for strength, plain 14 gauge stainless spokes, and a good quality aluminum rim that is designed for use with V brakes (most are). Sun CR16 used to be a good but affordable rim, but Sun has probably replaced it with a different part number by now. Mavic also makes good rims. All that info is out there on the 'net, and it's really out of the scope of this article anyway, so let's move on.
Cog cassette? Aftermarket steel Deore compatible. They are cheap, functional, and much heavier duty than the light aluminum jobs. Rear derailleur: again, Deore LX. BTW, the reason I am going with LX and not top of the line XT and XTR components is, that top of the line stuff gives up ruggedness for light weight; and they also tend to be cutting edge and not necessarily backward-compatible. LX is excellent quality, very smooth and reasonably light, while still being rugged, affordable and backward-compatible.
For the crankset, chainrings and front derailleur, whatever you have is even more likely to be fine but if I needed to change (old used bike with heavy, short steel crankset, for example) I would again go with Deore LX, 175 mm crank arms, and cheap aftermarket steel chainrings.
On to accessories. I would put a standard luggage rack on the back, and another on the front. This will not only carry gear, but can also be a mounting point for lights, radio antenna, or whatever you need. You need to mount a pump of course, and also a tool kit containing at least one spare tube, patch kit, and tools to work on every part of the bike. Two water bottle cages are better than one, so you have plenty of water available while riding.
In addition to the bicycle-specific tools, remember that this is a bugout bike, and should have its own bugout kit permanently mounted so it is ready at all times, and also to allow you to work out any bugs and get accustomed to its handling qualities with a full load. If you are reading this, you probably already have a pretty good idea of what should be in your bugout kit, and that is a subject for another article at any rate, but I will say that it should contain a small axe, shovel, and heavy-duty wire cutter. Probably a hacksaw, too. Why the metal-cutting tools? Use your imagination.
Lights: personally, I wouldn't buy "bicycle lights". I think the ideal solution is a small, 7 amp/hour or so, 12 volt gelcell battery mounted on the front rack, and used to power a small LED light pointed down at the road, also mounted on the front rack. I would probably make it a red LED to preserve night vision, and just have a momentary pushbutton to I can turn it on only as needed to see where the edges of the road or trail are. I would also have a clip-on, hand held automotive type spotlight that I could use to light up whatever I need to. The battery would also be used to power radio equipment and whatever other 12 volt accessories I need. I would have one of the standard 12 volt, 6 watt bicycle generators that work by rubbing the side of a tire, for charging the battery. These can be had for about $15 from online bicycle equipment shops.
You can also get a front hub that has a built-in generator, and that would be another option; but I'm more partial to the standalone generator for its low cost, simplicity and ease of replacement.
You will probably notice that I didn't cover lights for visibility. That is because I don't ride in traffic, especially at night. I've seen those people, covered with reflectors and lights, riding down the road at night. I've also seen the news stories when they get run over and killed anyway.
In fact, I remove all the reflectors from my bikes, because I don't want to be seen by a sweep of a spotlight. If I must travel on a road when it has traffic, I do so as a pedestrian, walking my bike well off the road.
I think that pretty well covers it. The last bit of advice I can give is, now ride the thing! There is nothing wrong with having one or more other bikes for different purposes, and to ride them most of the time, but I recommend taking the bugout bike for a nice long ride over varying terrain at least once a month, and once a week is even better. Push its limits, and yours, so you know how to handle whatever comes up, should you ever need it for the real deal.
Be sure to set one up for every other member of the family, too.