In an Emergency Know Your Roads, Not Just Your Map

By Magi Clark who blogs at Half Acre Heaven.

We all know it’s important to know several ways in and out of our neighborhoods, but it goes beyond just looking at a map and saying, “Ah, there are three roads I can take.“

wild-road-deep-in-forest_w725_h4821I can come up with several instances, in recent memory, of unplanned road closures in my area which, had I not known the back roads, could have prevented me from getting home, or going out in the first place.

Under normal circumstances road closures are inconvenient. In a SHTF scenario, they can put you and your family in serious peril. That is why now is the time to make yourself familiar with your roads and back roads.

Start by getting yourself a good map. I like the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer.  There is one for each state, and in addition to the usual roads and towns, it includes topographical features, parks, campgrounds and hiking trails. We’ve used it for driving directions, finding campsites, backpacking and hunting. In a serious situation, however, just owning a good map will not be enough.

You should take your map now, and explore any routes you think you might use in an emergency. After that, explore the ones you don’t think you’ll use. You might be surprised to find you prefer one you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

For city roads you’ll want to know what sort of areas possible routes pass through. You should know in advance if your road passes through an area where you wouldn’t want to break down and have to walk. Some examples might include sketchy neighborhoods or areas without services.

You’ll also want to take note of traffic patterns and road conditions. Does your alternate route have a rush hour? A shady corner that is icy in winter? Huge potholes? Drive your alternate routes often enough that you can answer these questions. When you have your answers you can decide if you need to find a better route.

As you’re driving around, also take note of service stations, stores, rest areas, hospitals, police stations, fire stations and pay phones. Hopefully you don’t need any of them, but better to know where they are and not need them, than vice versa. You’ll also need to know what to expect once you get out of town.

It might seem like rural areas have fewer roads to choose from, but don’t be deceived. If you look beyond the pavement you’ll likely find several good options. County, Forest Service, and logging roads create a valuable network of emergency and alternate routes. Plus they can be a lot of fun to drive.

Again, you’ll want to drive these roads often enough to know what condition they‘re in and how heavily they’re traveled. Even remote roads can be more busy than you’d think if they pass through popular recreation areas. You’ll also want to know where roads meet one another, and what kind of terrain they cross.

Dirt roads can change quickly with weather and with the seasons. Is there a slope that gets tricky in rain? Is there a deeply rutted area, or a tree threatening to fall across the roadway? Sometimes you might find that a road on the map is completely overgrown, washed out, or otherwise impassable. Perhaps your chosen route is buried in snow for four or five months each year. Perhaps spring runoff turns the roadbed into a creek bed in April. Can your vehicle navigate that? Are you prepared to snowmobile, ski, or snowshoe if necessary? These are all things to consider when choosing your emergency routes.

While getting to know your roads can be essential to safety, it can also be fun for the whole family. City folks can make a “date” of visiting a new diner, or window shopping along your alternate route. Country dwellers can pack a picnic and take the kids berry picking.

Now get lost! You’re sure to learn a lot finding your way home again.

Read more from Magi at Half Acre Heaven.

There may be links in the post above that are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission, which does not affect the price you pay for the product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

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  1. says

    Thanks Gorges.

    One thing I’d like to add that I forgot to mention is to keep track of where you pass in and out of cell range. That way if you do need to call for help you’ll know where you need to go to get that call out.

  2. Chandra says

    It is a good idea to know the characteristics of the rural areas you will be traveling. For instance,on the plains you can take any back road and have a pretty good idea where you will end up. But in the Ozarks, following a random back road can end you at a dead end, or dump you miles from where you thought you would go. Often even on a different paved road than you were expecting.

  3. says

    A wonderful idea! I live in a little farming community near the mountains. There a so many little roads I need to know where they go and how they could help me in an evacuation. In the winter they wouldn’t be helpful (we get too much snow), but come spring I need to go exploring. Thanks!

  4. MadeOneUp says

    Be careful exploring the logging roads etc. in winter. Do it in summer first.

    Every year in our mountainous state, people die exploring alternative roads, logging roads etc. Conditions are harsher than they expect, they get stuck, there’s no cell service, and they either starve to death or they freeze trying to hike out.

    Some roads that are fine in summer are NOT fine at other times. Know which ones are all-season and which ones aren’t.

    • says

      Yes! For sure, do your initial exploration of back roads in summer. And of course always make sure you have your car emergency kit with you. Most of the mountain roads in my area are NOT driveable by car in winter. That’s one of the things to know before you count on it as an emergency route.

  5. Elsbeth says

    You might also want to take a compass. Confirming and watching what direction you are going on the road. One time we needed to take a detour and roads were not marked. Thought we were still going west and did not realize that after a 45 minute drive we were 1/4 mi from our starting point because we were changing direction so much on that little road. Was a nice drive, but not the direction we wanted to go.

  6. SingleMom says

    Our area has a lot of bike paths following the old railroad beds, which means that they follow the path of least resistance between several local towns. I wouldn’t recommend them for large cars (because of the trestles over the creeks), but they’re something to consider for an emergency situation. If I have to walk home from work someday, I can cut the trip almost in half by following the bike paths instead of the roads.

  7. Marine/NavyMom says

    The scariest time I ever remember feeling lost was following a map and going through construction around Atlanta at 3am. We were re-routed due to construction in the middle of the night. We were NEVER supposed to be in downtown Atlanta. I had a map and I knew where I was going…until I found myself in a car with 2 babies and an elderly relative and a large group of young men were walking into the street headed for my car!! I slammed on the gas and used my best defensive driving to get out of there – running several red lights and not seeing a cop for miles! I learned a valuable lesson that night. All these years later, I now know to only drive in unknown areas during the daylight hours. I also look at alternative routes BEFORE I drive cross-country with a car full of people depending on me to protect them. Just because it seems easier to drive at night with young children, that doesn’t mean it is a safe idea. You can’t always get second chances in life and you family is too important to take a chance with.


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