How Rural Is Your Retreat’s Region?

A classic map of population density, but much too simplistic to be used to help you determine the rural nature of a retreat location.
A classic map of population density, but much too simplistic to be used to help you determine the rural nature of a retreat location.

One of the most essential tenets of prepping is that you need a retreat that is in a rural area, away from population concentrations and big cities.

It is fairly obvious when a region has too dense a population; when it is too ‘citified’.  But how can one measure the degree of rurality (is that actually a word?) or ruralness (another word the spell checker doesn’t like) of the region you are considering for your retreat?

The simple approach has been merely to look at population density per square mile, on the basis of ‘the fewer the better’.  Here’s a typical population density map.  But this is indeed a simplistic approach, with several limitations.  It can be appropriate as a very quick first filter of the nation, with some regions clearly being eliminated for having way too many people crowded into them, but beyond that, as you start to become more exact in your evaluation, it becomes increasingly limited.

For example, having no-one else living around you for many miles is probably too much of a good thing – or, in this case, too little of a good thing.  As we’ve remarked in other articles in our series about choosing a location for your retreat, you should compromise between too few and too many people, either too distant or too close.  So you’re not seeking the lowest population density.  Yes, you’re seeking a low population density, but the key issue is the type of people around you, not just the number of people around you.

The people who are within half a day or so of your retreat should be reasonably self-sufficient, so that in the future, they’re likely to survive and contribute to the viability of the region as a whole.

There’s also a difference between a region with low population density because no-one can comfortably live there (ie the middle of the desert or the top of the Rockies) and a place with a low population density because the people who live there are all on 80+ acre farms.  A simple population density map gives you no clue as to why some areas are empty or very sparsely populated.

Clearly you want to locate yourself somewhere such that your neighbors are growing all the food they need, and some more besides.  That not only implies you probably could also grow more than enough food for you and the people with you, too, but also means that your neighbors may have surplus food to trade for other goods, or, in an emergency based on unusual weather or crop infestation or some other disaster interfering with your own crop yield, to share with you.

This distinguishes such areas from other places which might be tourist resorts, or ‘service towns’ that happen to be somewhere otherwise in the middle of nowhere, or possibly places with a seasonal retiree population.  These types of groupings of people are not self-supporting, and rather than adding value and survivability to a region, they detract from it.

Maybe you’re not really cut out to be a farmer, but maybe you have some other suitable skill to offer in exchange for food.  You’ll get more food in return for whatever you do if you are trading with people who have a surplus of food than you’ll get from people who are food poor.  Or maybe you’re going to raise chickens, and you will swap chickens and eggs for fruit and vegetables and meat.

Whatever your plan, it is best done in a region with already viable other families living there.

A More Exact Statement of Population Criteria

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.  So let’s first try to make a formal statement of what you’re looking for when considering population density and rural character.

You want to find an area with a low population density – perhaps less than one person per 5 – 10 acres (whether right or wrong, a convenient rule of thumb is you need at least an acre of reasonably arable land per person for food, then add extra land to adjust for unproductive land, roading, buildings, livestock that require an acre or more each as well, and so on).  With 640 acres in a square mile, this translates to a maximum of 64 – 128 people per square mile.

Depending on where the people are located within the county, you also might prefer not to be in an area with a density of 0 – 1 people per square mile (ie one person for every 640+ acres).

Now, to move on from simple population density, you want the region your retreat is located in to have a primarily rural and sustainable economy with productive farming.

Let’s look at some ways we can better understand the country and its different regions.

Distinguishing Rural from Urban/City Areas

So –  when is an area considered rural rather than urban?  It seems there are several different measures to consider.  Population density is one, but as discussed above, it has limitations and flaws.

Another simplistic measurement is distance from major urban areas.  There are others.

For perhaps the most outstanding and definitive review of issues to do with classifying areas as rural or urban, this paper published by Dr Gary Hart of the University of ND analyses over thirty different classification methodologies and, in a dry and academic way, has a lot of interesting commentary.

If you don’t want to read its 50+ pages, the key finding is that most methodologies are flawed.  Let’s look at the common weakness that applies to most measurement criteria.

The Problem of Measuring Data at County Level

One of the problems of most approaches to analyzing regions and their uses is that they are typically based on county level data.  The problem with this is that counties vary in size, and sometimes obscure a mix of wildly different social and geographical areas within the overall county.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest, Washington state’s King County (map here) extends from Seattle and its adjoining high density cities to national forest, mountains, and empty areas of minimal population density; in total comprising 2,307 sq miles.

In terms of sheer size alone, King County is bigger than 60 of the world’s entire countries, but as big as it is, King County is not even one of the top 100 sized counties in the US, and is only the third largest in WA.  In terms of population (2.008 million) King County is bigger than 95 different independent countries, but is only the 13th largest county in the US by this measure.

Clearly, a county the size (either physical or population) of this and many other counties is way too large for accurate detailed information.  The collected/average data for King County ends up reflecting nothing that actually exists in reality (just like the average American family has 2.5 children, but have you ever seen a half child?).  Its overall scores obscure a mix of regions, some of which are intensely industrial and some of which are intensely rural, some of which have high population densities and some of which have low densities, some of which are skewed strongly Democrat and some of which are skewed strongly Republican.

Sure, not all counties in all states are the same size as King County, and not all have such a blended mix of city and country components.  But the point remains that country level data is often too broad, obscuring substantial variations within the counties.

How do we solve this?  We can really only start to address this issue once we’ve started to narrow down our area of searching; there’s no easy/convenient way to do it on a national level for the first few rounds of evaluation and regional scoring.  But when we start to zero in on regions, we then need to modify the county level data and subdivide it into smaller geographical sizings.

As we go through the first few exercises, we need to simply keep our mind open to two essential and opposite facts :

  • There may be excellent areas obscured within an apparently unsuitable area
  • An apparently excellent area may have, within it, bad areas to be avoided

Truly there are equal parts art and science to identifying ideal retreat locations.

Read More in Part Two

Let’s continue with a look at three scientific approaches, and see how useful they may be for our purposes.  Please now click on to Three Examples of Identifying Rural Regions, the second part of this two-part article.

Please also see our more general series of articles on choosing and evaluating the best location for your retreat.

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