The Best Civil Unrest Survival Plan

How to Survive Civil Unrest

Civil unrest can come at any time and be triggered by a wide range of events. Just look to American history and you’ll see many examples of it in action. And it hasn’t gotten better in the past decade either.

Anyone worried about their safety and sanity in these uncertain times should have a bulletproof civil unrest survival plan. I’m here to help you make one. By the end of this article, you’ll know what signs to look for, what you can do to prepare for civil unrest, and when you should initiate your civil unrest survival plan.

As a nice bonus, I’ll even cover some “what if” scenarios. I’d love to hear your thoughts at the end, too, so feel free to chime in.


The Best Civil Unrest Survival Plan

What is Civil Unrest?

Civil unrest is a complicated concept. It has a legal definition, but I don’t want to fall too far down the rabbit hole of legal jargon. In layman’s terms, civil unrest (sometimes referred to as civil disturbance) is a purposeful disruption of smooth and peaceful society by a group of three or more individuals. Think of events such as riots, violent demonstrations, and unlawful obstructions.

Many incidents of civil unrest happen as a result of national political events. However, some can be triggered by events on a smaller, more local level. What sets civil disturbances apart from normal reactions of the public is the intent and the scale.

If a group of three or more people reacts to an event in a manner that intends to cause public disturbance and violates any laws, it’s considered civil unrest. Peaceful demonstrations do not fall under this label, so events such as peaceful “sit-ins” aren’t considered civil unrest.

Some relatively recent civil unrest cases include:

  • The Los Angeles Riots (AKA Rodney King Riots): In the early 1990s this happened as a result of videotaped police brutality. Police officers were caught on tape ruthlessly beating an unarmed man. The officers were acquitted of all charges, and all hell broke loose.
  • The Ferguson Unrest of 2014: This resulted from the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Police response was criticized and lenient court rulings further inflamed citizens. The riots took place alongside peaceful demonstrations, blurring the lines for many involved.  
  • Donald Trump Protests from 2016 onward: Many of these incidents have ended in vandalism, assaults, and other violence, while others have proven to be peaceful demonstrations. Tensions continue to rise on both sides of the political spectrum.

The thing is, they didn’t start out as riots. People didn’t wake up and intend to cause harm. So, what happened?

What fuels civil unrest boils down to erratic and unpredictable human emotion. Emotional responses to what is perceived as scary, unfair, or disturbing news or occurrences can grip anyone. That emotionally charged response is contagious and spreads especially fast in larger crowds.

People Intent on Violence

Civil unrest is violence or disruption on an unlawful level—uncontrolled rage, basically. Whether that hostility is aimed at other citizens or authority figures, it’s still unlawful and it is a danger to you. But, with “herd mentality”, a small group of angry protesters can quickly snowball into a violent storm of destruction.

Civil unrest survival plans can keep you out of messes like this.

Authorities must watch all demonstrations closely for the telltale signs of a burgeoning riot. Because the people feel monitored and controlled, it can spark more resentment toward police and military (who may have been the reason for the discontent in the first place). Tensions escalate quickly from there, creating the perfect environment for a riot.

When making your civil unrest survival plan, it is imperative that you remember the emotionally “broken” people causing the problem. They will be uncontrollable, so you must find ways to control yourself, your environment, and your safety.

Possible Causes of Civil Unrest

Civil unrest can happen at any time and people are the real danger. Let’s explore some of the common causes of civil unrest and how it can affect your safety.

1. Reaction to Court Decisions

Famous court cases can be incredibly liberating or totally oppressive, depending on your point of view. When citizens don’t feel like their voices are being heard, or they believe justice has not been served, things can get ugly.

Take, for example, the Rodney King case I mentioned earlier. When the verdicts came in and the police officers involved were acquitted, people were angry. Whether you agree with their anger or not is irrelevant to this article. What matters is the way that anger manifested.

Over the course of five days, Los Angeles suffered over $1 billion in damages and fifty people lost their lives. The riots were devastating. It is the perfect example of how a single court ruling can change the emotional stability of not just one community, but an entire nation.

That’s what you need to be prepared for. Any high-profile court case could trigger a similar reaction. Are you ready for it?

2. Political Motivations

No matter your political standing, it’s likely there are some topics that you are passionate about. When the opposing party passes laws that go against your personal ideals, it can enrage you. But how far will you let that anger go?

Some people can’t contain their emotional upheaval when it comes to political issues. Those are the people who incite riots. It doesn’t take much to start the avalanche of politics-inspired civil disobedience. And once it starts, it is exceedingly difficult to stop.

Watch out for hot-button topics being discussed in the political arena. Gauge the level of public dissatisfaction and fear, then be prepared to launch your civil unrest survival plan if things get too hot.

3. Terrorism and Foreign Agitators

I have only to say the phrase 9/11 to get massive, immediate, passionate responses from a roomful of diverse people. That date is forever etched into the memories of every American citizen. It was a tragedy that rocked our nation and shook us to our core.

This act of terrorism sparked many incidents of violence. Whether they were considered riots or not is up for debate, but there is no doubt that the foreign agitators responsible for the tragedy on that day are to blame for the ensuing violence and civil unrest in our society.

While you can’t predict foreign agitators and their actions, you can still be prepared for that possibility. As 9/11 showed us, we are not safe, even on our own soil.

4. Natural Disasters

Natural disasters have a way of bringing out the worst in humanity. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, you name it and humans have panicked over it.

Civil unrest as a result of a natural disaster often comes once the disaster has passed. There is always the messy aftermath to deal with, and it is often inept society leaders that fail to properly prepare for them. They also fail at caring for those affected by the disasters.

This can lead to widespread rioting, looting, and random violence. Your safety and survival will fall on your shoulders. Don’t be caught unprepared after a natural disaster. And definitely, don’t depend on politicians to help you pick up the pieces when a disaster hits.

5. Financial Collapse

Civil unrest due to financial collapse is not just a topic for fiction. When the money dries up, people are going to panic. In fact, there is already significant anxiety in the masses regarding doubtful financial stability in our country.

Financial collapse could happen at any time, with little to no warning. It could be as swift and devastating as a hacker attack on a massive scale. It could be as slow and sinister as a foreign entity draining our accounts right under our noses. The causes are varied, but the result is always the same.


Civil unrest due to financial collapse is becoming a popular topic among preppers and survivalists. We see the signs and we’re preparing. Are you with us?

9/11 has scarred more than the land.

The Role of Mob Mentality on Civil Unrest

Humans are the danger here. For civil unrest survival, you must understand human nature so you can make a plan to counteract it.

The biggest factor in civil unrest is the role of crowd mentality—AKA mob mentality, herd mentality, and gang mentality.

For riots to happen, you need people. But in everyday life, individual humans aren’t likely to cause problems on their own. Riots and violence happen when crowds of people gather and feed on one another’s excitement, anger, or other strong emotions.

It doesn’t take much to incite strong emotions in people. Once those emotions are ignited, it doesn’t take long to spread through a crowd. It’s just how humans are wired.

This is what you need to be ready for. Civil unrest is about unhinged humans rampaging and causing harm to others. Protect yourself.

Preparing Before the Unrest Begins

I could go on for days about the causes of civil unrest, but I’d rather help you prepare for the inevitable. Below is a quick, actionable guide to help you prepare yourself and your family for civil unrest survival.


Gear for civil unrest survival will be similar to the gear you need to survive any other situation. There are some great lists here on, so go check those out. Here’s a quick list to get you started though:

  • Food, water, and basic first aid gear.
  • Batteries, flashlights, and a small radio.
  • Laminated maps of the local area.
  • Survival knife or multi-tool and other basic survival gear.
  • Barter items.
  • Small arms or a lightweight melee weapon.
  • Everything packed in a backpack or BOB (Bug Out Bag).

Meeting Locations

If you have friends or family interested in staying with you, you need to set up an easily accessible meeting location. Even better, have three or four possibilities just in case the first one is overrun by rioters or is otherwise inaccessible.

You should also consider mapping out a route moving through each of the meeting locations on your way to your safe house. That way, you can be sure to grab everyone important on the way.

  • Many Points of Access: A suitable meeting location is one that can be accessed from many points. This is not necessarily the location where you will be hunkering down. It’s just your location for meeting up with everyone that you will be traveling with. That means having many points of entry is preferable so everyone can access it quickly. Long-term security isn’t a priority for a simple meeting spot.
  • A Non-Congested Area: Ideally, your meeting location will not be in the middle of a busy urban setting. If it’s impossible to avoid an urban location, choose a meeting spot with the lowest possible human traffic. Human traffic includes vehicles and foot traffic.
  • Make it a Resupply Point: Make sure your meeting spot is stocked with the essentials to support the number of people that you expect to be traveling with you and can be a great place to resupply before continuing on.
  • Keep it a Secret: Keep your meeting locations a secret. You should only share your meeting spots and safe house location with family and close friends who are also preparing. Keeping these locations a secret will ensure nobody loots your precious caches before you can get to them.

Evacuation Routes

During an episode of civil unrest, it may not be feasible for you to stay where you are. If it is safer for you to leave, hopefully, you have already planned a safe evacuation route. Once again, it’s better to have several options just in case your first choice is unavailable.

The best evacuation routes will avoid the majority of other people. Be sure to avoid major highways. Try to stay off the sidewalks and major thoroughfares. Looting and rioting often come with civil unrest, so stay out of retail districts and areas with lots of storefronts.

When planning your evacuation routes, make sure to make a plan that includes using your vehicle and also a safe walking route. Always travel light. The more gear you carry with you, the bigger target you will become. Carry only enough to get you to your fully-stocked safe house.

Get to Know Your Neighbors

Whether you’re bugging in or bugging out, you should make sure to be friendly with your neighbors. They may be in the building right next door or they may be three miles away, just get to know them.

You won’t need to agree on every aspect of civil unrest survival, but it’s good to know where they stand on a variety of topics. Feeling out the neighbors ahead of time can help you avoid potentially dangerous situations when society collapses.

One of the biggest reasons to get to know your neighbors is that you may need to ask them for help or just to travel across their land if regular roads become unsafe. By creating a friendly feeling in advance, your neighbors are more likely to work with you, not against you.

Be Ready to Protect Your Homestead

If you happen to live in a very secure location and won’t need to bug out, you need to be prepared to protect your home and your family. If you’re in the city, this may be as simple as securing your apartment. You may even be able to secure the entire floor where your apartment is located.

  • Fencing and Security: In suburban and rural settings, you may have a much larger area to protect. This can be done by fencing your property securely well in advance. Security cameras are a good idea. However, be aware that the power grids may come down, rendering your cameras useless.
  • Visibility Points: Make sure you have visibility points all around your safe house. If you have multiple people staying with you, it makes it much easier for you to station lookouts. On the other hand, if you’re by yourself, you can simply make it a habit to cycle between each patrol point.
  • Man’s Best Friend: You may also want to consider getting a dog if you don’t have one already. Dogs are a safe and efficient way to protect your livestock, your property, and your life. These loyal canines will alert you to danger and can often handle chasing off or fighting intruders. Rioters are less likely to enter private property if there’s a barking dog staring them down.

Communications During Civil Unrest

Cell phones and regular phone lines may only be available for a short time once the rioting begins. You will need to set up some kind of a communication system before SHTF.

Some options include:

  • Walkie-talkies and other short-range communication devices
  • Citizens Band Radio (CB Radio)
  • HAM Radio
  • Signs, marks, and signals carved or written on easily seen surfaces
  • Morse code—don’t laugh; this old skill could save your life!

Fill the Tank

Is your gas tank full? Make sure it is at all times. During civil unrest, gas stations will be hit hard. Keep extra gas on hand in a safe location, too. Be sure to change out the gas every few months so it doesn’t go bad.

Make a Backup Plan

Now that your civil unrest survival plan is complete, make a second one. I’m not kidding. Have a second plan in place in case the first one gets screwed. You can’t be too careful.

The best backup plans can be swapped out with your primary plan at any stage, so be mindful of your primary plan. Ideally, you can switch between them as needed to be able to cover every possible scenario.

Is Civil Unrest Coming? Signs to Watch For

I’ve already covered some of the situations that can trigger civil unrest, but there is a wide range of very bad things that can go down. It can be localized problems or widespread across the entire country—you need to watch the signs to figure out which it is.

Rather than looking at another list of specific scenarios, here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common signs that civil unrest is about to knock our collective rear end’s in the dirt.

  • Watch the news. While the news is known to sensationalize everything these days, it’s still wise to keep an eye on it. Look for increasing hostility toward or within any group, company, or specific area. If things get steadily worse, it may be time to initiate the first phase of your civil unrest survival plan.
  • Follow social media. Many preppers hate social media, but there is no denying that it is one of the fastest ways to get breaking news. In some cases, it’s even faster than official news sources. This is a first line defense against civil unrest, so watch the walls of your friends’ pages for signs of trouble.
  • Connect with other preppers. Whether you connect online or in person, preppers are likely to be your best source of solid information on festering discontent in the masses. I wouldn’t say we’re a paranoid bunch, but we’re usually more keenly aware of instability in the government and society as a whole.
  • Listen to police scanners. These will only tell you about local issues, but all civil unrest starts on a small, local level. An increase in police activity in any one location can signal impending civil unrest.
  • Pay attention to financials. This isn’t about your bank account, but keep money on your mind. When prices skyrocket without warning, or they dip stupidly low, this is a major sign of trouble in the markets. Businesses are banking on consumers blindly paying whatever they’re charged with no explanations; don’t be a sheep.
  • Pay attention to court cases and political posturing. Both of these aspects of government can piss people off without much warning. A sharp survivalist can spot the changes though. Look for hot-button topics, increasing hostility from opposing sides, and the level of propaganda from each side that pops up. News and social media help a lot here, so stay tuned.
  • Watch store shelves. Empty shelves in grocery stores and drug stores are a sign of impending trouble. This is a physical manifestation of human panic. Whether something is actually happening or not, it doesn’t matter. If the masses believe “the end” is near, they’re going to wipe store shelves clean. Remember: it’s the people you need to worry about during civil unrest survival.
  • Nationwide empty shelves are even worse. If the empty shelf issue seems to be spreading outside of your town, it’s time to lock down. The panic is spreading from your local area to the wider world.
  • Look for 24/7 newscasts on one topic. If you see constant coverage of some event interrupting regular programming, it’s likely to get much worse before it gets better. This is especially true if the stations are national or worldwide—that means it’s not just your local area being affected.
  • Follow your gut. Listen, you’re already a prepper, a survivalist, a planner. . . I don’t need to tell you that your brain is going to twinge when trouble is near. You already have the instinct to survive, so listen to it. Modern living may have softened your fellow humans, but it hasn’t softened you. Listen when your instincts tell you to take action.

Remember, isolated incidents are rarely isolated. Ramping up the danger is easy once a single riot has started. More people are likely to jump on board. Within days, or even hours, an isolated incident of violence can quickly turn into widespread panic and destruction.

Initiating Your Civil Unrest Survival Plan

You have the background, you understand the course of civil unrest, you have a solid plan, and you’ve seen the signs of trouble ahead. Now what?

Get that plan into action the moment you feel that tingle in your brain. If your gut is telling you that trouble is brewing, it probably is. Now, it may die down before it fully explodes, but would you rather be somewhere safe when it goes down or in the middle of the shitstorm when it blasts onto the scene?

Get to Your Safe House

If you need to travel to your safe house, try to leave before all hell breaks loose. If you can’t get out before things get bad, use one of your alternate routes to get to safety.

Be sure to bring your BOB, map, and flashlight. Don’t forget your weapons. Humans are unpredictable; always be ready for the worst behavior in a riot.

Stay in Cover

While you travel, or if you must be away from your safe house, stay in cover. Look for nooks, crannies, and small spaces to conceal your presence. Never stop in the open to look at a map, check your phone, or look at your compass.

Avoid Roadblocks

Roadblocks aren’t always made by police or other authorities. They can be made by dangerous criminals looking to loot all you have. Avoid them at all costs.

Police may search your vehicle, ask invasive questions, or worse. It’s best to take backroads and trails whenever possible. Unfortunately, even backroads may be blocked. These are mostly gangs in disguise as police or SWAT. Don’t be fooled, and don’t engage. The moment you see a roadblock on a backroad or trail, get out of the area.

You may need to drive a safe distance away, then hoof it on your alternate route.


Get your security in place the second you get to your safe house. First, personal security should always be a priority. You can’t help your family if you’re dead. Second, friends and family should be secured and everyone in their place. Third, get your homestead locked down.

Follow that order, and do so swiftly, and you’ll have a better chance of surviving civil unrest.

Assign Duties

You don’t know how long you’ll be locked down, so be sure everyone has a job. Rotate positions so everyone is familiar with the workings of your bug out location, and make sure everyone has a chance to eat and rest.

If you’re alone, don’t neglect your personal health and hygiene while you handle your patrols and daily routine. You need to stay sharp.

Make Your Homestead Look Uninviting

You want to discourage looting, so make your homestead look uninviting. That can mean looking ransacked already, or it can mean looking so well fortified that only an idiot with a death wish would come near you.

Be warned that if you decide to display your defenses, you may be inviting trouble. Once again, these are people who aren’t thinking straight and often have nothing to lose. They may take the challenge.

Watch for Trouble

Whether you stay in or you must go out, watch your surroundings. Even if your safe zone is pretty low key and mild, you never know when that crazy is going to spread your way. Watch for unusual behaviors or things out of place.

If you sense danger or you feel uneasy, get back in your hole and dig in deep. The wave may be knocking at your front door any moment.

Don’t Let Strangers In

Never allow anyone into your safe house for any reason. They may look like a helpless young mother and two kids, but they could be the “trojan horse” the looters send in first. It’s never worth your own safety to allow anyone into your safe house that wasn’t already expected.

Aside from the danger of allowing a crazy person inside, you’re also inviting possible contagions and illnesses, injuries, and upset of your plans. These new people weren’t included in your plans.

Like anything, use your gut, but it certainly isn’t a bad thing to err on the side of caution when it comes to deciding who to let in to your safe house.

Discourage Loitering

If you must turn people away, it’s likely they’ll attempt to stick around close to your safe house. This is bad news. They’re targets, which means people will come looking for them. It’s akin to leaving a slab of raw meat on your front porch when a pack of wolves is nearby.

Do not allow squatters on your property. I’m not advocating violence against people, but you need to find ways to deter squatting. This is where fencing comes in handy and loud guard dogs.

Keep to The Plan

It can be tempting to change the course of your plan at the first sign of problems, but most issues will be resolved naturally and without trouble. In general, it’s a good idea to stick with your plan and stay on course. Don’t let small upsets derail everything you’ve planned for.

Don’t Be Afraid to Switch Gears

I know, I literally just told you not to change the plan, but sometimes it’s better to make a new plan on the fly than to run head first into oncoming traffic. If the situation is dire—such as an out of control fire or your home already overrun—it’s okay to change plans and get moving.

Trust yourself to see the difference between a small upset and a major problem, then adjust accordingly.

“What if” Scenarios

All the planning in the world can’t prepare you for every situation. I’m doing my best to cover as many as I can, but sometimes life likes to throw something truly insane your way. I’m not a psychic, so I can’t imagine them all.

However, some of these “what if” scenarios might help you in your own weird situation, so read on!

What if I’m stuck in the middle of a sudden riot?

These things can explode out of nowhere, so this is a real possibility. If you find yourself in the middle of an angry mob, work your way to the edge as quickly as you can. Avoid any physical confrontations, and don’t get into shouting matches with people. Avoid eye contact—the mob has reached its crazed state and you will not be able to reason with anyone.

I hate to say it, but avoid authority figures at this stage. They won’t know you’re not a rioter and you could find yourself in cuffs before you get to your bug out location.

What if my car breaks down on the way to my safe house?

You’re going to have to walk. Hopefully, you’ve planned for this possibility and have a few walking routes already mapped out along with a bug out bag in your vehicle. Obviously, you can’t plan a car breaking down, but a good prepper will always have an awesome map on hand and will have planned out several walking escape routes on their driving path. If you haven’t done so yet, do it now. Go on. . . I’ll wait.

What if my kids are in school across town during a riot?

This is an especially tough situation, and I hate to even think about it. The fact you are separated from your kids and they could be in danger may push you to dive in and try to rescue them. You’re a parent and you are going to do what you think is best. Besides, you aren’t going to take my advice as gospel anyway, right? So here’s my opinion.

Don’t do it.

Presumably, the school is already locked down tighter than a frog’s rear-end. The kids are safe. Police are probably already surrounding the building and it is very unlikely any bad people will be able to get inside. Those same cops may stomp you into the ground if you try to get inside.

Stay in your safe house. Keep your eyes on the news. Listen to the radio. Resist the urge to go to your kids. This is probably the most difficult situation, but I can’t stress this enough.

Stay away. They are safer in that building than they would be out in the riot, trying to get back to your safe house.

The only exception I could see to this rule is if the school is requesting parents get their children and have a safe pickup zone of some kind where you can retrieve your children. If you do have to go, do your best to figure out where the civil unrest is occurring, and avoid those areas at all costs on your route to get your children. Use your judgment here, but make sure you stay safe.

What if I’m at work when a riot starts?

Assuming you’ve included escape plans for your work location, get your rear end in gear. You have your BOB, right? Grab it and go if it’s safer to do so. If you can’t get out safely, grab your BOB and find a safe location inside your building.

The best thing in this scenario is to get your personal safety locked down first. Be sure to scout out defensible locations in your building well before SHTF so you only need to get to it.

The moment it’s safe to leave, book it!

What if I’m on campus when civil unrest breaks out?

Many campuses have plans already in place for a large scale disturbance such as civil unrest. Check with your dean, the security office, or other school personnel to find out what the safety procedures entail. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

If you don’t like their plans—let’s face it, “authorities” often fail at planning—then you should create your own action plan to get out.

If you’re stuck on campus with no plan, like if you’re just visiting, look for a safe, inner room that you can lock yourself in. Hopefully, you have some survival gear with you. Stay put, stay away from the windows, and keep quiet.

What if my safe house is overrun by looters or rioters?

If your defenses don’t hold and your safe house is no longer safe, get out. You should already have an escape plan in place for this scenario. Don’t try to be “brave” and face down an angry mob. Just get out.

Ideally, you’ll have a backup location already in place. If not, or if this was your backup location, your BOB should have enough supplies to keep you safe while you scout out a new safe spot.

Final Thoughts

It should be fairly obvious by now that every situation listed here could have been survived simply by being prepared in advance. All it takes is a few minutes each day to add to your civil unrest survival plan.

Get your maps, your gear, and your creativity in order. Imagine likely scenarios for your area, and make a plan to survive it. What are the hot-button topics on a local level? What are the big problems facing your state? What about the country?

Your plan should change according to the ebb and flow of society. Humans are volatile and unpredictable, but they’re only human. Use what you know about human nature to make sure you survive the next episode of civil unrest.

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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