Convoys - Configuration and Operation (Civilian)

For the purposes of a civilian prepper group, a convoy can be defined as a group of two or more vehicles (of any type) traveling together under common control from one point to another. There may be multiple way points. Not all vehicles may remain within the convoy. Some might leave at a predetermined point, and others may join. But all will be subject to a common plan of operation in order to maintain orderly and safe transit. Without the controls and rules that make up a methodology, the convoy risks breaking apart, losing track of vehicles or even disruption or destruction from attack. Therefore, a common control via a plan of operations is necessary to ensure safe passage from one point to another.

Convoy Structure

Who Leads?

The Lead leads, but he may not be in control. No matter the type or sophistication of communications, the front vehicle is the leader. You may describe him as trail blazer, point man, or lead element.

The Lead’s job description varies with the plan of operation. He is to observe and report, much like a scout. If he isn’t the convoy commander, he may need to operate independently if there isn’t time to hear back from Command. His job may include any or all of the following:

  • Inspecting and gaging road conditions – damaged surfaces,  incomplete repair work, detours, washed out or destroyed bridges, flooding, rock falls, fog – white out – dust storms – heavy rain squalls, traffic congestion, road blocks (of any type and makeup), etc…
    Any local and upcoming conditions that force a change in plans should catch his attention immediately.
  • Watching for conditions that might cause the convoy to break apart and become separated. If keeping it together is impossible for the moment, he needs to take action to allow stragglers to catch up.
  • Locating a place where he can reduce the speed of the forward end of the convoy, or to pull over to allow stragglers to rejoin.
  • Watch for elements scheduled to join up at a certain location.
  • Signaling for an immediate pull over, or even a complicated change or reversal of course to avoid hostilities. He and his immediate support may need to engage in defensive action to delay or halt a possible attack on the following elements of the convoy.
  • Identifies a safe zone for the convoy to pull over, or even two tandem zones into which separate elements might pull aside – within sight of each other. This may be for tire changes or repairs, servicing an overheated engine, personal “duties”, meal breaks or locating an overnight position where the situation calls for the rejection of one previously planned. (Yes, alternates should be preselected – but not all circumstances can be predicted.)
  • Sets the pace for the convoy, or a separate element, to keep to the schedule, to also hold the group together and not leave behind the slower vehicles.

The Lead may also take on other responsibilities as the scenario requires.

As you can see, the Lead may not be the overall Commander. The responsibilities of the Lead may fall on the shoulders of people on a rotation basis. A lot depends on the number of people involved and their experience levels. In a smaller convoy of say, three vans, the Lead and Command may be one in the same person.

Who’s in Command?

That depends. Let’s look at what a Commander is, first.

Command is the individual (or group) with overall responsibility for planning and operation of the convoy. His duties include:

  • Planning routes, alternate routes, stops and layovers
  • Directly overseeing organization – vehicle order and spacing, personnel distribution, stop schedules, etc…
  • Either directly planning defenses or working with an experienced individual to do so
  • Receiving and verifying communications within the convoy
  • Coordinating communication with outside entities either directly, or through a radio operator

Command may be mobile through the convoy, to supervise and communicate if radios are not present, or if radio silence has been declared. He might also be toward the rear, where he can see everything, control lane changes, make spot decisions. He will move about as the demands of his position dictate.

He may be subject to higher authority outside the convoy. Your particular group structure will determine this. For purposes of this series, the Commander is the sole authority and responsible individual. In either case, he is the man-on-the-spot, and ultimately responsible for the immediate welfare of the group and materials.


The Body is the reason the convoy exists, consisting of everything not committed to frontal and rear security. It is the section carrying the bulk of the people and materials needed for survival on the road, and the supplies being transported to the end point. The internal makeup of the Body may call for vehicles and personnel with defensive capability to be forward, with “softer” elements following. It may include a secondary commander, or even the commander-in-succession, so that the body can operate alone during times where a break up is needed.


Command devises the plan of operation, Lead executes transit and Overwatch keeps an eye on things from a support standpoint. He is the man of the hour in many cases. He backs up Lead during unexpected encounters, provides an extra set of eyes for Command and moves quickly to engage hostiles. He coordinates with the others but at times, takes action on his own. His duties are necessarily varied and subject always to improvisation.

Overwatch might be following Lead as a matter of planning and practice. The pair of them can form an advanced scout team leading the Body by some considerable distance. Overwatch might move ahead of the entire convoy to stop and scout an area for several hours, looking to confirm dangerous or safe passage through a suspect area. In some cases, Overwatch may also provide Follow /Support duties where said position is unmanned, or take over in cases where F/S has been eliminated. His position is extremely flexible.

Follow /Support

Depending on the capabilities inherent within the convoy subject to personnel, training and equipment, F/S plays it loose and free from the tail. He /they is responsible for watching for trouble from the rear and providing support for Command. He also may include the convoy’s vehicle specialist, and medic. He is there to support the convoy’s human and material needs. If need be, he also provides a defensive capability. F/S may at times be made up of two vehicles, depending on the needs of the convoy.

The F/S vehicle might be specially outfitted to perform its role. It may be based on a short powerful 4X4 truck equipped with a winch, air compressor, high lift jack, expanded metal tracks (for vehicle recovery) and a decent tool collection. The better suited it is to retrieving stuck vehicles, and repairing damaged vehicles, the more flexible it is. For the convoy medic role, it may also carry a combat medic kit in additional to what every vehicle carries as its standard first aid kit.

Convoy Configuration

The physical makeup of the convoy can be so slight as to not warrant the label. What I am going to describe is a hypothetical convoy structure of 8 vehicles. It can be modified in size to suit your needs. The structural elements for this hypothetical bug-out convoy are tasked with a 3 day journey through familiar territory, and are not expecting any trouble other than a flat tire or road sickness. They are:

  • Lead /Scout
  • Body
  • Command /Overwatch
  • Follow /Support

The two front vehicles will be sharing Lead and Scout responsibilities. Each can handle both interchangeably. Though not expecting trouble, they are prepared for it. One is ready to peel away and assist at the rear if needed, leaving the other to handle Lead alone.

The Body of the convoy is made of 4 vehicles; two pickup trucks, a full sized van and a station wagon. These carry the bulk of the people and supplies. Persons carried include a number of children and youths. Most of the drivers are women and have some emergency driving training and experience.

Command is serving as Overwatch in this convoy. He and his passenger will serve as a backup to the Lead /Scout pair, but are positioned 7th in line, to keep an eye on the convoy from the rear.

Follow, serving as Support, is responsible for assisting stragglers if the convoy can not stop, provide rear security and carries the convoy’s sole medic.


There are three basic formations for a convoy: Close, Open and Dispersed. These serve many purposes.


Close formations are where vehicle spacing is tight. Never so tight as to created a rear-end hazard. If conditions call for the rejection of strange vehicles into the convoy order, it may be necessary to eliminate that space by slowing down and closing up. The braking distance of each vehicle or truck & trailer pair must be considered when setting a Close condition. The Close spacing is helpful in maintaining visual contact in fog and heavy rain, or when traveling without lights. It is also useful in thick traffic, where the convoy could easily be broken apart.

In certain rare conditions where the road is straight, visibility excellent and threats nonexistent, a Close formation at speed can take advantage of drafting. In this case, the vehicle spacing is very tight, within feet of each other. Advisable only if experienced and if the Lead can verify conditions by running quite a ways ahead of the convoy.


Open formations are necessary when traveling at higher speeds, to allow for braking distance. It is also advisable when moving quickly over uncertain road surfaces. It’s primary reason for existence is safety. The Open formation buys reaction time for following vehicles and allows stragglers to regain their position, and for emergency pull-overs when trouble occurs.


Dispersed formations are those where not each element may be able to see the one in front of him. Moving through a city with heavy traffic may result is an unplanned dispersal. This is one reason why each vehicle needs its own map, schedule and emergency briefing before leaving the staging area. An emergency situation that goes very bad might result in a dispersed convoy. Dispersal might be a necessary tactic to reduce the amount of attention the group draws transiting certain areas.

In most instances, Open is best. Each group should war game the possibilities and take into very serious consideration the performance capabilities of all vehicles and drivers in the convoy.

Leaving the initial point or any other stop should be done in a close formation. After verifying that the entire convoy can enter the road, Lead sets out at a pace that will allow the rest of the body to follow close on his tail. Once safely on the road, the formation can gradually pick up speed until the proper spacing for an Open formation has been reached. Lead must set the pace in order to maintain spacing that will prevent dispersal during the transition.

Route Plan

Before route planning can take place, the planner should commit to establishing multiple backup routes. As the plan takes shape, designate local alternates where possible.

The Route Plan should not depend upon memory, though if it is possible to commit it to memory, certainly do so. Maps serve to solidify and clarify the route, and eliminate questions that may arise in transit. You may chose to mark-up commercial maps directly, draw your own in semi-scale, or use a see-through, dry-erase overlay.

On the map should be the IP, SSs, OVs, SPs and EP.

Initial Point – The point of departure for the convoy. Other elements may join up along the way, but the originating body containing the Commander leaves from the IP unless otherwise designed. It is helpful for all elements to assemble in one area to reduce the time needed to bring each up to standard on protocols.

Service Stops – Any stops made for refueling, eating, bathroom breaks and resting. Included in these are checks to ensure loads are locked down securely, inspections for fluid leaks, tire pressure checks and general service such as windshield cleaning and trash collection. They should be scheduled

Refueling needs to take place in a safe area, and should be mandatory for any tank that is at or below 1/2. Proper cans and nozzles are required to prevent dangerous situations. The least fuel efficient vehicles should be expected to drive some of the Service Stop requirements during the planning phase, or to take advantage of other scheduled stops in safe areas. Check that they are on schedule.

Overnight – The final stop for the day, where camp is setup. An alternate location for each OV is important, as seeking one in the dark and hoping for the best is foolhardy if it could otherwise be avoided. The Overnight needs to include enough area to maneuver the convoy’s elements into a guard and /or emergency exit position, and to allow for a proper staging for an orderly and close pull out the next day, if possible.

Separation Point – Any point along the journey at which elements are scheduled to part ways with the main body for alternate destination or missions. This can be done on the roll with an orderly dispeersal, but if there needs to be a physical transfer of any sort that was not accomplished at the previous SS, Lead will need to find a location suited for it.

End Point – The end of the journey. The EP area needs to allow for a transition from road to EP smoothly and without bunching up. The arrival may not be a peaceful one, and switching to a defensive posture will be quicker if vehicles are not prevented free movement by a bottleneck of some sort at or near the entrance. At the EP, the convoy will break up into it assigned order and, hopefully, life will continue as planned. If no advanced guard is present, Lead should clear the area quickly and then return to the entrance and set up. Command and Follow may need to adjust position within the convoy depending on any threats.

Route Information

Information important to the continuity of the journey should be on the Route Map, whatever its form.

  • Road /Highway names and numbers, including where one road has multiple route numbers
  • Distances, in miles, between major points
  • Locations of population centers along the main and alternate routes
  • Truck stops, isolated refueling stations, hospitals and veterinarian clinics
  • State Parks, RV parks, camp grounds and available public areas if known – large enough to handle the convoy’s entrance, maneuvering into overnight positions, turnaround and exit
  • Cache locations, encoded if necessary
  • Key terrain and road restrictions – rivers, lakes, passes, steep grades, bridges, tunnels, railroad crossings

Departure Checklist

  • Designated drivers, backups (if available), and support identified. Plans for driver /alternate swaps at Service Stops. Each driver should have a trained map reader with him. Does not have to be an alternate driver.
  • Route Info Maps or Notes distributed
  • Radio freqs and changeover protocol notated
  • Defensive weapons stowed as required
  • Vehicle limitations discussed
  • Fuel levels checked
  • Safety Kits (accident and medical) in each
  • Loads packed well and secured, interior and exterior

Review Mobile Procedures

  • Chain of command and succession-of-command
  • Communications methods and procedures
  • Convoy vehicle order and personnel assignment
  • Vehicle speeds and spacing for various highways and stops
  • Key start and stop times, including refueling and eating
  • Weather conditions and their affect at times of day
  • Service Stop schedule, procedures (including parking intervals and fuel handling) and responsibilities
  • Procedures for rejoining convoy if separated
  • Security and safety procedures while under way and at stops
  • Terrain considerations, their affect on transit, alternate course and defense
  • Recovering damaged vehicles and supplies
  • Medical emergency procedures

Part Two of this series will deal with methods of operation and will include some scenario-based suggestions and thoughts.

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