Is It Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Will Not Be Found

Even if your house is as visually obscured as this one (unlikely) other things will still give it away.

Some preppers base the security of their retreat on hiding it so that it won’t be found.

They glow with pride about how carefully they’ve chosen their retreat location, and its remoteness from main roads and likely off-road flows of people too.  They mutter about ‘OPSEC’ meaningfully, and talk about keeping an ultra-low profile, and won’t even tell you what state it is located in.

This is all good stuff and great to talk about, but it won’t keep you hidden.

We don’t mean to discourage any of these things, but we do mean to alert you to the fact that it is not possible to keep your retreat 100% hidden, all the time, from everyone.  Maybe careful measures will extend the time it takes for the first adversary to stumble across your retreat, but maybe also your location will be discovered by chance rather than by careful searching.

Sooner or later, you will be found.  And once one person finds you, he will tell someone else, and before you know where you are, everyone in the area will know about your retreat and come visiting.

We discuss the subject of Opsec further in our article ‘The Ugly Flip-sides of Opsec‘ and in that article we recommend you should plan on a controlled release of information about your retreat, on your terms, rather than suffer an uncontrolled exposure at some unknown but certain time in the future.  You should read that article too; for the balance of this article, we focus primarily on the uncontrollable ways in which your retreat will be found.

Some Location Giveaways

Here are some types of unavoidable give-aways that will draw attention to you and your retreat.  Your concern isn’t just the people who stumble across your location by chance, it is also the people who are drawn to it due to some sort of indicator that calls attention to it, even from some distance away.

For example, what will you do for heat?  As soon as you start burning anything, you’re giving off odors that in a de-industrialized rural area will travel a long way.  One more smell in the city means nothing.  But in the countryside, anything out-of-place that doesn’t blend into the natural smells – and particularly a burning smell, something we are instinctively taught to notice and fear, will be much more prominent and will be noticed from a reasonable distance.

You’re not only giving off smells, you might be giving off smoke too, providing a visible indicator pointing to your location and visible for many miles around.

Talking about smells we instinctively react to, what will you eat?  Even if you only cook ‘low odor’ foods (rice and beans, perhaps) those odors will travel a long distance, particularly if the person smelling them has his sense of smell sharpened by hunger.

Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask what you do about bodily waste, but let’s just say there’s a reasonable chance there may be some smells associated with that, too!

What about energy?  Will you have a wind turbine?  If so, won’t that be very obvious, especially when the blades are turning, indicating that it is still operating and being maintained?

Solar cells neatly lined in rows on your roof and kept clean of debris also indicate that rather than being an abandoned old shack, your retreat is a cared for location with added value sophisticated contents.

It is true that generators can run incredibly silently, but it is also true that the outdoors itself can be very silent on occasion, making even the slightest out-of-place sound, like a generator running, draw attention to itself.

Will you ever leave your house?  In the winter, you’ll be making footprints in the snow.   Will you grow any food in the summer – any type of cultivation or other landscaping will of course be obvious.  Will you ever go hunting – the sound of each rifle shot might be heard for miles.

Will you have 24 hour blackout curtains on all the windows – heck, why not just build your retreat with no windows at all, then!  If not, your retreat will be a beacon of light at night.

The Unavoidable Paper Trail that Leads to Your Retreat

Think about everything that has happened from the moment you bought the property.  Your purchase of the property has of course been recorded in the county records.  If there were any existing buildings on the property, those are probably already part of the county records.

Maybe you bought some unimproved land and built your own retreat structure.  Did you file building permits with the county?  Do you have utility connections (visible or not)?  Maybe even internet or telephone service?  Did you have any contractors do any work on your house?  Or building inspectors visit?  Did you get mail or courier deliveries at that address?  Do you have occasional deliveries of propane or firewood or diesel fuel?  Does a septic tank service company visit to pump out your tanks?

Even if you think you’ve done everything off the record, sooner or later, the county assessors will update their database and discover the improvements on your property.  Their staff know the areas they are responsible for very well, and if they find a new driveway that didn’t formerly exist, they’ll want to know where it goes.  If they happen to see a contractor’s truck going in or out of the driveway, they’ll doubly want to know what is going on.  Or maybe they’re just doing one of their two/five/ten year revaluations of all property in the county, and someone notices from an aerial photo the presence of buildings and clear indications of agricultural improvements on a block of land they had formerly categorized as unimproved forestry land.

Have a look at, for example, this impressive site that records all details of every property in the entire state of Montana.  Chances are there’s a similar database either for your state or at least the county within your state, whether it be publicly online or not.

Other Problems

What do you say if meeting locals in the nearby town in terms of where you live?  Someone, and probably several or even many people, know that you’re out there, even if not exactly where – you’ll be the guy who lives somewhere up back of (some other place).

What about your travels to and from your retreat?  Have other people seen vehicles they don’t recognize (ie, your vehicles) in out-of-the-way places and wondered who you are and what you are doing?  Have you left tire marks, or do you have a formal driveway or some other indicator of a house on the property?

And so on and so on.  Will anyone else for 50 miles around you know about your retreat?  Unavoidably, and of course.

There are countless ways your presence will be inadvertently revealed, and your life will be a misery if you try to hide it.

The preceding examples show some things you have done or will unavoidably do that draw attention to your retreat.  But that’s not all.  Your retreat could also be found accidentally.

Accidental Discovery Too

We know that in a Level 2/3 situation, there will be an exodus of people from the cities.  Remember that for every rural dweller at present, there are about five or six city dwellers.  In theory, this suggests that the countryside might become five or six times more crowded with people than before, so this by itself increases the chances of someone stumbling across your retreat unexpectedly.

In addition to that, think of everyone you know who confidently says they’ll hunt deer or other wild game for food in a Level 2/3 situation.  Deer will rapidly become an endangered species, that’s for sure!  The woods will be crawling with hunters all eagerly looking for game to shoot, so if your retreat is anywhere close to any sort of hunting, expect an influx of hunters in your area.  Ditto for fishing.  Ditto again for any food bearing plants in the vicinity.  Maybe even for people seeking to fell trees for building materials or to burn.

There’s another potential source of disclosure too.  Google Maps, Bing, and other mapping providers are increasing the frequency of aerial mapping surveys, and the quality/detail of the images they post online.  Many counties have aerial survey maps online too.

Your retreat might be miles from anywhere, but that won’t stop a plane from snapping a beautiful aerial shot of your retreat from the air as it flies over doing a photo-reconnaissance sweep.  Your dwelling will be online for everyone, everywhere in the world, to see next time they open up Google Maps.

Okay, so this presupposes that Google Maps or any of the other online mapping services is still available in a Level 2/3 scenario – a dubious scenario, for sure.  But if your information is/was online, it is probably also printed out somewhere, and a more resourceful looter will access good old-fashioned printed county records to identify tempting targets to go hit.  If you were a looter, wouldn’t you consider an obscured out-of-the-way retreat to be more tempting than one close to three or four neighbors?

It also means that from whenever your retreat first starts to appear on these documents and online records, there will be a small but growing level of awareness of your presence, prior to WTSHTF.


Figure on being found, sooner or later.  You can not rely on remaining hidden.  Once one person finds you, expect them to share that information with more and more people.

Unfortunately, the more unusual your location, and the more creative you’ve been at obscuring it, the more ‘interesting’ it will be for people to talk about it, and the more curious they will be about exactly who you are and what you have.

By all means do all you can to extend the time until you are found, and hopefully to minimize the frequency of times you are found, but sooner or later, you will have uninvited ‘guests’ arrive unexpectedly.  You need to have a plan for what to do once the veil of obscurity is lifted from your location.

13 Replies to “Is It Realistic to Expect Your Retreat Will Not Be Found”

  1. Julia Morales (formerly DuFault)

    Hi David!

    I always enjoy reading your articles, and I realize you are probably mainly trying to keep people from being totally unrealistic in thinking they can somehow “hide” a total retreat from ever being found; but to me, this article is very depressing. It seems there is no possible way we (at least we of moderate means) can prevent hordes of hunger-crazed scavengers – or perhaps government agents, supposedly acting for “the good of the public” – from descending on any retreat we could come up with, stealing everything we have put aside and possibly killing us in the process. Although our current retreat has no mailing address, has only an unpermitted cabin which is pretty well hidden by foliage, and adjoins a national forest, you are perfectly correct that of course there are at least a few neighbors who would be aware of us directly, and any number of other people within 20 miles who might be aware of us in a general sense…and that when we get to the point of installing our off-grid power system and/or satellite internet, we could easily be located by any close scrutiny of Google maps (or who knows, a drone of some sort.)

    There is no way we could possibly afford to completely surround our property with a concentration camp-style wall and barbed wire fencing, and no way we would have enough people or guns to patrol the property 24/7; and even if we did, as you point out, such arrangements would likely just point an even bigger arrow to our property, as anyone who noticed would immediately wonder, “Just what are they hiding or protecting in there? It must be pretty valuable!” Sure, a few dogs and a few shotguns might hold off the casual intruder, and being about as far as possible (for us and our circumstances) from any kind of town will hopefully pare the number of intruders down to a few very determined individuals or groups; but no way we (or presumably any of our rural neighbors) could hold off a large-scale, organized invasion…or even large numbers of would-be “hunters” who might decide to trespass on our property, despite the “Posted” signs.

    So what is the solution? Even if we were willing & able to travel to another part of the country to “join forces” with a like-minded community…wouldn’t the sheer size and type of structures of that community tend to attract attention, from others (aggressive groups) who might decide it would be a great place to take over and make their own? Or from quasi-governmental organizations who might decide that the community needs to cough up it’s “fair share” in the form of virtually all of the food and stores, in order to help feed the starving masses who did not prepare for themselves?

    Basically, it seems that for most of us, our only real hope is that a potential disaster be not too serious, or not last too long, or both. Long enough that things might become real uncomfortable for those who have not prepared at all…but short enough that the urban gangs and government “helpers” are kept occupied with the easier pickings in and close to the cities and large towns. OR, that by the time the aforesaid groups have looted all those areas closer in, there will either be so few people left that we only have to defend against the occasional straggler, or else the people left in those areas will have become organized and have come up with alternate methods of providing food and energy for themselves on an ongoing basis. It sounds like, if it ever comes down to large hordes of organized, “Mad Max” type violent gangs scouring the countryside far and wide for every last resource they can find, then it’s “God help us all.”

    • David Spero

      Hi, Julia

      And I guess congratulations, noting the change in your last name. 🙂

      You are correct – there are no easy answers and no guaranteed solutions, and shame on some people for suggesting there are. On the other hand, you also hint at the positive reality, such as it is. Most of the people we would have cause to fear in the future are going to be looking for the low hanging fruit and easy pickings, rather than choosing to wage a formal campaign against a hardened retreat with determined defenders.

      I think that large hordes of organized violent gangs are unfortunately a likely scenario – see the article for more on that. This adds further focus on the most practical response – the need to band together with the other people in your local area.

  2. Casey

    Good article. So if someone reeeally wanted to stay hidden, here are some other suggestions:
    -don’t prepare a regular living quarters beforehand; build it after the SHTF
    -find a very remote location, away from roads and main bodies of water
    -set up your location in a geographic spot that is not visible from many other hills, ridges, roads nearby
    -camouflage your location as best as possible, perhaps semi-subterranean
    -if you have to fetch water, place natural looking stones to walk on to not wear out a path
    -try not to establish paths in general (hard to do though)
    -don’t grow your garden in neat rows
    -use a suppressor when shooting
    -cook using a fresnel lens
    -use the fresnel lens to warm up large stones around, in, or under your shelter
    -teach your dog not to bark
    -put roosters in cages lined with soundproof foam

    • David Spero

      I’m sorry, but I consider this bad advice to the point of being dangerous advice, but have released your comment so others can see the divergence and diversity of opinion out there. I’ll toss off a few quick responses.

      Don’t build a retreat until after TSHTF? You’re kidding, right? So you’ll urgently relocate to an undeveloped lot, perhaps in bad/extreme weather, and then you’ll build what? With what materials? With what types of mechanical building equipment? Umm – isn’t prepping all about preparing for a future?

      Find a remote location? As I say in the article, there’s no such thing as a safe remote location. It will also make your first idea – building a retreat from scratch – even harder.

      A hidden retreat? How will you camouflage your solar cells, by the way?

      Cooking with a fresnel lens? Okay, so you’re suggesting to do all cooking outdoors, and only in strong sun and daylight hours? Besides which, won’t cooking food still release the same smells, whether it is heated by gas, electricity, fire, or sun?

      Line rooster cages with soundproof foam? Not even sure where to start with that suggestion!

      • Casey

        Aww really? OK…

        I agree that building a retreat beforehand is ideal, but you mentioned so many of the problems with the process of building it pre-shtf that would cause others to be aware, so I was positing the scenario of someone who really badly wants to stay hidden. But I am also thinking of the thousands of preppers who don’t already have a rural location and perhaps can’t even afford one.

        You could live in tents at first, then perhaps intermediate shelters and eventually a cabin or perhaps, by that time it would be safe enough to move back to a small community somewhere and live in a regular house. You can use the natural materials around or bring some materials with you or take trips to a nearby community and see if you can get materials to use. You wouldn’t necessarily need mechanical building equipment. If you could have it, that’s great, but if not, then you’ll just be like billions of humans who managed before us. I’m not talking about building a fairytale resort in the mountains. It’s survival, not lifestyles of the rich and famous preppers.

        Yeah, a remote location. No place is 100% safe, but there are plenty of places where people could survive in a remote location and almost avoid other humans.

        Yeah, hidden. Solar panels aren’t necessary. Camouflage via things like natural building materials, partially dug in, camo netting, camo paint, bushes sounding your location, no windmills either or anything that sticks out and has an unnatural look. It all depends on how dense the vegetation is though.

        If someone is as paranoid about this as I was hypothetically suggesting, they could use a fresnel lens like that to avoid smoke and flames, although flames can be hidden easily. It’s not a part of my plan to only cook using a fresnel lens, but a person could.

        What’s wrong with lined rooster cages?

        Thanks for your response though. I really like your blog so far.

        • Julia Morales

          I guess my outlook is somewhere in between you two guys, so I’ll throw my two cents in. While I agree it would be nice to have everything all prepared before a disaster hits, for many of us who don’t have large amounts of funds to work with, “prepping” is going to be an ongoing thing, doing a little at a time, as much as possible probably for the rest of our lives, but definitely right up until “whatever” happens. So, depending on how far we get, we may end up doing most of the work on our “shelter” afterwards…not by choice, but because in real life we need to maintain that job in the city in order to come up with the funds to buy our land, building materials, supplies, etc., all while still maintaining some kind of residence close enough to commute to work. When we decided to try to buy some land, we had to take all sorts of variables into account: max acreage vs. price; as far as possible from a major town or city but still close enough that we can get out there to work on it at least on the weekends [it would be hard to do many home-made improvements on a property we could only manage to visit once or twice a year]; as far out in a sparsely settled area as possible, while still being just below the “snow line” [because above that, not much grows except rocks and pine trees]; a good mix of open ground with enough wooded area to provide sufficient fuel; and so forth.

          I agree it is a good idea to get on good terms with the neighbors, for mutual support, protection, and general community spirit. On the other hand, I tend to subscribe to the “hide in plain sight” philosophy: anybody aware of the property is going to be aware that someone owns it, and probably that there is a small cabin and some sheds up there. What they don’t know or see, is that along with some of the rest of our prepping supplies, there are solar panels hidden in the sheds, which can be put up fairly easily once we actually move out there. (So while of course they will at that point be visible to someone passing close enough and looking down from the next ridge, if all power and/or internet is out this would hopefully delay discovery by those perusing satellite images.)

          When we DO start building our larger structure, we hope to put quite a bit of it underground, lined with concrete block and/or poured concrete (hubby is a concrete contractor from way back). If we do it right, hopefully we can get most of the “hole” dug into the side of a hill in a short amount of time (still debating whether it’s better to dig during the day or at night: the satellites aren’t likely to be taking pictures at night, but on the other hand the neighbors will sure be wondering what’s going on with the backhoe & spotlights…but then again, they’re likely to wonder what’s going on anyway, when they hear a backhoe during the day.) Then, keep the hole covered with plywood & camouflaged with dirt, branches, etc. whenever we aren’t working on it, basically try to minimize the likelihood of “construction” getting picked up by the satellites. Once all is done, probably put a very small, unassuming “cabin” or mobile home above ground, to cover the actual entrance to the underground “cave” house, and also to explain why people are moving about & parking vehicles in that area. But in the meantime, until we are ready to start, I hope to start stockpiling concrete mix, block, etc. in various places about the property; because as you say, not likely we can count on Home Depot being able to ship more supplies after TSHTF…or for that matter, having funds available to buy things anymore, once all the electronic banking gets shut off.

          Agriculture will probably be a mixture of aquaponics or greenhouse (hidden inside structures which can be built at the last minute, if the materials are already there), and permaculture, with fruit-bearing plants mixed in with the wild shrubs, trees, etc. Given the abundance of heat in the summer months where I live, a “partial shade” area is not necessarily a bad thing for growing edibles.

          As far as roosters, plenty of people have chickens & other livestock in the local area, so sounds might not stand out that much. But I’ll admit, I’d be curious to know how well that “foam lined rooster cage” actually works…I’m not crazy about being woken up by that blasted rooster, either!

          PS, I love Casey’s phrase “lifestyles of the rich and famous preppers”, that is so true: I see all these super expensive concrete mansions being built up in the “view” areas…on tiny little lots, too small to grow much even if it would survive the dense shade between the granite & pine needles. And the guy on TV who was so proud of his state of the art electronic defense system…which will be absolutely useless once he runs out of fuel for his generator, or somebody shoots out the cameras …while he starves to death locked in his “safe room” in the center of the house! IMO, if I was a marauding scavenger, I would be thinking, “Hey, let’s go check out those big, rich houses up on the hill…I bet they have LOTS of good stuff!” But hey, the more they look at those guys, the less they’ll be looking at little old me…”Nobody here but us foam-wrapped chickens!”

        • David Spero

          I’m glad you like this blog – so far. 🙂

          The thousands of ‘preppers’ you refer to – those who are actually unprepared and who don’t have a rural location will become marauders, and the enemy of the sadly much fewer number of people who have prepared and who do have somewhere to retreat to.

          You say you’re talking survival, and indeed you are. That’s an entirely different topic than prepping. Prepping is about trying to preserve some continuity of comfort and safety and security. Survival is when you’ve lost all of both and are, exactly, struggling to survive.

          To suggest that you don’t need solar panels puts you very definitely on the survival side of that definition. Preppers need solar panels, because they want to have some energy to massively improve their lives post-WTSHTF. Solar panels are the easiest and best approach to renewable energy generation for most of us, and a life without energy doesn’t bear thinking about.

  3. Casey

    If a person were to bug out to the wilderness instead of a pre-made retreat, it would eliminate all the paper trail and possible nosy neighbor worries. I know you don’t like that idea though. It probably is better to have a retreat pre-made if possible.

    Another major giveaway would be worn out footpaths, especially to and from your water source. However, depending on the terrain, by the time paths get worn out, most people will be dead. For people who have to fetch water daily, I would recommend having a series of rocks or logs you can step on to get down to the water.

  4. Casey

    If you know where to look, I think there are a few (just a few) places in the US to where you can bug out and never be found. Just get far away from major population centers, far from major bodies of water, far from small bodies of water if you plan on catching all your rain or if not, then about 1/8 mile from the smallest year-round body of water you can find, 2 miles from a paved road, and 1/2 mile from a dirt road. If you search for a place like this, you will almost always end up in a national park or national forest. That’s ok. At least you won’t have to deal with a potential property owner. Rangers will probably have left their posts. Additional things can help too: subterranean dwelling, hidden survival garden, dakota fires, dry wood, cooking via solar oven or fresnel lens, camouflage your camp as much as possible, don’t locate your camp with land overlooking your camp, no noisy animals, no noisy humans, ditch any vehicles far from you, try to avoid wearing out a path to the nearby stream/lake.

    It’s not fullproof, but it will severely limit the people who come across you. HOWEVER, THE PEOPLE THAT DO HAPPEN TO COME ACROSS YOU IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS ARE LIKELY PEOPLE THAT YOU WILL WANT TO FORM AN ALLIANCE WITH. Think about it, most likely they are out there hunting or fishing. They’ve already made the upright decision that they will not use their gun to attempt to kill and steal from people. Rather, they’ve decided to strike out to provide form themselves. They are the go-getters, the ones not relying on others or stealing to survive. Thieves and gangs would never go to a location that rural, because there are easier targets. You might even run into other preppers out there with a similar mindset. So, if you have extra food and seeds, you can help the small handful of strangers that come your way to get started on their own settlement. Teach them to identify wild edibles too.

    If bugging out to the most rural location possible results in a trickle of people finding me, I would much rather prefer that than hundreds or thousands coming across me if I were located off a normal rural country road. If Code Green has 200 people, I think you can handle it, so you’ll be fine, but for others, good advice might be–the smaller your group, the more rural you want to be.

  5. Casey

    I’m such a dummy. I must be going around in circles on the internet. I’ve been here before. Thought I remembered commenting on one of your blogs long ago. haha gosh.

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