Author of The Blackout Book and the online course Bloom Where You’re Planted
Based on the things I’ve learned from folks who have actually lived through survival situations and bugged out, I think that we need to revisit what bugging out really means and why you might use a bug out bag. If we understand the concept better, it’s easier to pack a bug out bag that will work for each of us personally.
3 kinds of bug-outs
There are at least three different kinds of bugging out:
- You’re never coming home again: This bug-out means you’re leaving and you don’t expect to be returning. It could be due to a rapidly approaching natural disaster that is likely to demolish everything in its path, like a wildfire, or it could be due to terrorism or genocide. It could happen at the last moment or you might have time to pack – it really depends on the situation. If it’s a last-minute thing, you might only have the things you can grab in your bug out bag. Sometimes you don’t even have time to grab that – it could be a situation in which a few seconds are the difference between life and death. When I visited a museum about the genocide in Bosnia, one woman told of leaving the house with her child wrapped in nothing but a hastily grabbed towel because the little girl had been in the bathtub when the family was hauled away.
- Bug Out with Warning: This bug-out happens during natural disasters and often (but not always) you’ll have a few days of warning. Some examples might be a nearby wildfire or an approaching hurricane. You can load up your vehicle with sentimental items and bring more than you’d ordinarily bring. The focus for this type of bug-out is often on the things you can never replace.
- Last Minute Bug Out: This bug-out occurs when you are fleeing danger that was unexpected (or at least unexpected at that moment. )This is generally considered the purpose of the bug out bags and get-home bags that most folks make. Often you’ll be making at least some of your journey on foot and you will want to avoid other people during the scenario that causes you to be out there. If you are feeling desperate enough to leave with only your bug out bag, they’ll be desperate too. And if they’re unprepared, your bag might look like a goldmine to them.
The focus of a bug-out bag isn’t to allow you to live in the wilderness forever. It’s a bag that will help you survive for a few days while you travel from where you are (danger) to where you want to be (safety).
Common mistakes people make with their bug-out bags
The most common mistake that I see with bug out bags is that people load them too heavy with stuff they won’t actually need. As I mentioned above, bugging out should not be running off to live in a hut that you’ll build in the forest. It should be a means of meeting your most basic needs while getting to a safer location. That being the case, you’re not going to have to pack everything you need for weeks in the wilderness.
If you overpack, you’re probably going to end up chucking your things on the side of the road once you realize that 50 pounds or 90 pounds or whatever your miscellaneous stuff weighs is far too heavy for you to carry for a long distance. As well, a bag that’s almost as big as you are will draw a lot of attention at a time when your goal is to be discreet.
You’re not going on a fun camping trip. This is one of the most common misconceptions I see in articles about bug-out bags.
After doing some mock bug-out training with at a survival course with Selco and Toby, we all realized we had prepped too much for “comfort” and not enough for survival. If you are in a bug-out situation during which you’re on foot, it’s likely you’ll strive to avoid interacting with other people. So forget the big tent, the air mattresses, and the tools to make a hearty dinner.
The reality of bugging out is this:
You’ll be on the move and sleep will be grabbing a quick nap. You will want a simple shelter and the ability to stay warm and dry. You’re probably going to be eating on the go, not sitting down around a roaring campfire for a full meal with your family. You’re not going on a fun-filled camping trip. You’re likely to be fleeing for your life.
You want things that are quiet, discreet, and simple. You’ll want the basic essentials, not all the bells and whistles.
People get too fancy with their gear. When I took Selco’s urban survival course in Croatia, my classmates and I discovered that a lot of the gear we brought with us was, quite simply, garbage. It isn’t that the designs were inherently terrible. It was more a case of, “This isn’t going to work how I need it to when I’m stealthily creeping around hoping to avoid the notice of people with bad intentions.” Here’s an article about the gear that worked and the gear that didn’t.
Most of us ended up off-loading a significant amount of gear during the course because it was unnecessary.
Most bags are far too heavy. The heavier your bag, the slower you’ll go and the more difficult it will be. It’s essential that you keep your bag as light as possible. Noting the mistakes listed here can help you to lighten your load. Items that multitask can help, and learning to use things you find in your environment can reduce what you carry in your pack even more. For example, if you have the means and sources to purify water, you don’t need to carry as much water. If you can cobble together a “stove” from rubble or stones, you don’t need a camp stove.
Folks use bright and colorful clothing and gear. If you hope to remain unnoticed, that cute, cheerful backpack is not going to help in your endeavor. Black, gray, navy, brown, and dark green can all be colors that make you harder to see. Also, consider things like reflective stripes and metallic fasteners – they can catch the eye even if the rest of your clothing and shoes blend in.
Think about the terrain you’ll be crossing when making a decision about what clothing and gear options will be best. You’ll choose differently for an urban environment than you would for a forested or desert environment.
People don’t consider how noisy their clothing is. Is your clothing noisy? If you want to creep around and not be noticed, then think about how noisy your clothing is. Things like rain pants and certain water-resistant jacket materials can make a lot of racket in an otherwise quiet environment. Test out your clothing ahead of time so that you know whether or not it will draw unwanted attention.
Tips for building a better bug-out bag
My bug out bag is a 40L Wayfinder by Eagle Creek, although the one on Amazon is not specifically for women. (Read on for the link to women’s bags.)
I use it regularly as an everyday carry bag too. I chose the 40L instead of the 30L because the 40 had waist and sternum straps, and because my 17-inch laptop fits in it. Obviously, the laptop fitting is just a bonus when I’m using it as an EDC. It weighs less than 3 pounds, has multiple pockets, and nothing too flashy to draw the eye. It isn’t “tactical” in appearance. It just looks like an ordinary backpack. This is the bag I use when traveling, too. I pick up my groceries, a bottle of wine, and a jug of water in it and walk home with my purchases far more easily than if I carried things in shopping bags. My bag has been in daily use for nearly a year and looks brand new still.
If you’re female, be sure to get the bag made for women – the comfort difference is very notable. You can find those on the Eagle Creek website. Whatever brand you choose, I recommend a bag with a waist strap and a sternum strap to help distribute the weight more evenly.
Think about the following things when deciding what to put in your bag:
What kind of weather will I be facing?
You’ll pack your bag differently in the heat of the summer than you would in the dead of winter. Be sure to make the appropriate seasonal changes. Sunscreen, cooling cloths, and electrolyte powders are good additions to a summer bag, A winter bag might include a hat, gloves, extra socks, a heavy-duty sleeping bag, and other gear to help keep you warm and dry.
How far will I need to travel?
Remember, your goal is not to blindly run away from the danger. You want to be headed toward someplace that is safer. So think about how far you’ll need to go and prepare accordingly. If you’re going very far, you may want to set up a cache (or even more than one) along your route. Go here for more information about caches.
If you’re traveling for more than a day or two, you’ll need significantly more food.
What can I eat on the go?
I see lots of folks loading down their packs with dehydrated meals. While initially, that might seem ideal, especially when you’re traveling with your family, there are some things you need to think about.
These meals will require a lot of water and 20 minutes of cooking time to prepare. Not only that, but most of those dehydrated meals only provide a couple hundred calories per serving and you’re going to need more caloric intake than that to keep you going.
You’re far better off with things you can eat that require no preparation, like granola bars, GORP, high-calorie ration bars, pemmican, commercial trail mix, or even peanut M&Ms. Remember, you want higher calories, plenty of carbs, some fat to satiate you, and something you can eat while walking.
What can I drink?
You should always, always have a method of water purification when bugging out. Good choices are the Sawyer Mini or the Lifestraw. If you’re in an urban area, the Lifestraw water bottle won’t draw any additional attention and has the same kind of purification qualities as the regular Lifestraw. I use the water bottle every day when traveling in foreign countries where I’m not sure if the water will agree with me and have never had an issue.
Of course, you have to find water to filter it. It’s a great idea to walk your route and see if there is water along the way that you can purify. In more arid locations, there may not be. If that is the case, then you’ll want to carry more water with you, even though it’s heavy.
What kinds of areas will I be traveling through?
Will you be darting around back alleys in the city? Will you be hoofing it through the forest? Will you be crossing a desert? All of these things require a different approach to your bag. You may be dealing with more than one type of area, and if so, you’ll need to take that into account. Here are some examples.
- If you’re in the city, you’re far more likely to meet up with someone due to a higher population density. You don’t want to look overly tactical – this will make others think your bag is loaded to the hilt with high-quality gear and goodies. You’ll want to look like everyone else to avoid undue attention.
- If you’re in a wooded area, you may need to blend into the look of the forest. This will change seasonally. You want to be able to move quietly and almost invisibly through the woods.
- If you are walking through the desert, you’ll want to protect yourself from creepy crawlies with sturdy boots and you’ll want to carry more water, as opposed to just water-purification devices. You’ll want to lean toward browns and beiges instead of black and navy.
Think about what you can acquire in your location. For example, in a city, it’s easy to find rubble or debris to set up a makeshift stove but it might be harder to find fuel for your fire. In a damp forest, finding dry wood could be a problem, so you’ll need an accelerant to catch the flame. In many areas, water is easy to find as long as you can purify it. In other areas, you’ll need to carry more water.
These examples are what I mean about each bag needing to be unique to your circumstances. There’s no one-size-fits-all for bug-out bags.
Some things to always carry in your bug out bag
You’ll 100% of the time want to have the following items in your bag:
- Shelter (this can be a tarp or extra-large rain poncho. I carry this one.) Don’t go too cheap on this – it will keep you warm and dry when your life depends on it.
- Weapon and ammo (if you live in a place where this is allowed)
- Knife (I carry a smaller one on my person and a bigger one in my bag)
- Water and water filtration device
- A way to communicate or learn more about what’s going on – your cell phone (with a solar charger), a hand crank NOAA radio, or another device
- A way to signal – a mirror, a whistle
- Something to eat
- A way to boil water (don’t forget the vessel)
- A way to light fires (matches, lighter, flint, etc.) – one reviewer suggests this fire starting supply
- Hand sanitizer and baby wipes
- Feminine hygiene supplies if needed
- TP – take out the cardboard tube and smash the roll flat, placing it in a quart-sized ziplock bag
- Bandaids or Moleskins to stop those blisters before they get out of hand
- Basic first aid gear like an Israeli bandage, a tourniquet, a triple antibiotic cream, alcohol wipes, etc. (Get more info on first aid kits here)
- Fasteners like zip ties and duct tape
- Essential medications like heart pills, epi-pens, psychiatric drugs, and diabetes meds
- OTC meds like calamine lotion, ibuprofen, and heartburn medication
- Some extra layers of clothing
- Don’t forget a map!
- A small flashlight
- Seasonal items: cold-weather gear, sunscreen, bug-spray, etc.
These are the basic items you’ll want to have with you. Only you can decide precisely which ones meet your needs.
One thing I want to talk a little bit more about is pain relief. If you aren’t accustomed to walking long distances or carrying a backpack of whatever weight yours is, taking some ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen can really help you keep going. Your muscles are going to be sore, your back may hurt, and you may suffer from various aches and pains. These pain relievers would be worth their weight in gold when you need to push through.
Make it personal
What you choose to fill your bag with is deeply personal and therefore, those checklists just don’t really work that well. I’ve written a detailed article about what I carried for my bug-out bag in Europe and the bag I have here in the US only has a few differences. (Namely a gun and ammo) Not including water or guns/ammo, it weighs less than ten pounds. But just because that kit works for me doesn’t mean that it would be ideal for you. I’m a minimalist. You’ll notice I don’t even have an emergency stove in my kit – that’s because, in almost any setting, I can create a makeshift stove from the things I find around me.
When creating your kit, what you need to think about is a) covering the basic needs such as fire, food, water, shelter, etc., and b) where and how you’ll be using the contents. Don’t let other people’s checklists make you feel like you’ve stocked your bag inadequately – you are the one who has to carry it!
There’s a lot more to discuss when talking about bug-out bags. Check out the following articles.
- Lessons from an Urban Survival Course with Selco: Your Gear and How to Pack It
- You May Be Surprised What Survival Products Worked and What Didn’t
- How to Build a Bug Out Bag FAST from Unlikely Places
- Seven Benefits of Waterproof Footwear in an Emergency
What do you keep in your bug-out bag?
Are you a minimalist or a maximalist when it comes to bug-out bags? How heavy is your bag? What are some things you keep in it that might be a bit unusual? Let’s discuss bug out bags in the comments.
Daisy Luther writes about current events, preparedness, frugality, voluntaryism, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, The Organic Prepper. She is widely republished across alternative media and she curates all the most important news links on her aggregate site, PreppersDailyNews.com. Daisy is the best-selling author of 4 books and runs a small digital publishing company. You can find her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.