I posted a link to an article which pokes a little fun at the bug out bag mentality, in doing so I knew I was going to get some questions — specifically whether or not I have a bug out bag. So, yes, of course I have a bug out bag — I’ve had one since 2012. Allow me to explain why I have one, why you should have one, and how to build one without having to read posts by people trying to survive a nuclear zombie apocalypse where everything is also flooded and people are generally trying to kill each other.
A tall order.
Why I Built My Bag
I built my bag when fatherhood hit me, when I realized that it was more than just my wife I would need to be there for in an emergency. It’s a baby, then another. They cannot, and likely will not, survive an emergency situation without me. I’ll go over what “emergency situation” means, but once I had little kids the thought of rushing out of the house with no time to grab anything but one bag — the utility of such a bag became apparent. It takes at least 10 minutes to get out of the house with the kids on a good day — and that’s with them dressed and “ready” to go already. So even if I had “time”, I would need a lot of this “time” to get out of the house with the kids anyways.
A bug out bag is relatively small and easy to build (though not necessarily cheap) and it felt like the least I could do for my family was to have one at the ready. Even if it wasn’t perfect — something is better than nothing.
Before we plow forward with this, there’s a few terms I should get out of the way so we are all on the same page. This, though, is only the subset of the terms you’ll find if you dive deep into this around the web.
- Bug Out: this is the general term for getting out of your place of stay. It doesn’t mean leaving in days or hours, it means leaving now.
- Bug out bag: when you need to Bug Out, you grab this bag, which should generally aid in your survival for the next 3 days or so.
- Bug In: Some shit is going on outside your place and for one reason or many, you can’t leave. So you have prepared to be isolated in your place for extended periods of time.
- Get Home Bag: most simply, this is a bug out bag for your car. As the name implies, it is intended to help get you home.
- EDC: Everyday Carry, the things you carry with you (often on you, but can be in a bag you always have with you) to aid in emergency situations or general life things. This usually is things like: knife, flashlight, watch, Altoids survival tin, and for some, a firearm.
- SHTF: Shit hit(s) the fan. The bad thing happened.
There’s a ton more terms, but for what I am going over those will do. Generally speaking then when SHTF you bug out by grabbing your bug out bag and hope you have your EDC on you already and are in your car so you also have your get home bag. See, we used all of them. Shit. Bug in. Now we used them all.
What the Bag is For
We really need to have a chat about what these bags are for, because like I said: you can get really crazy with this stuff. A lot of people seem to be preparing for a moment in time where they blink and society is completely fucking gone. Be it zombies, a nuclear attack, widespread panic and looting, or a biblical act of nature. These are all pretty insane and very low odds (at least for most people in first world countries) to be building this, but (and this is where lines get blurred) they don’t feel completely insane as human instinct outweighs the probability of these things happening. In other words it feels like these things could actually happen and that scares you into wanting to do something to be ready — to prepare.
The real reason you should build something like this is for twofold:
- Peace of mind. Quite simply, you’ll know that if the worst case scenario happens, you are at least somewhat ready to deal with it. Like the linked post said at the top of this article: it’s calming for many people.
- Natural disasters. For many of the scenarios people prepare for, you can see them coming often from a ways out. However, you often cannot see natural disasters coming — and they are far and away the most likely scenario.
It’s that second point I want to focus on and take you through a few stories I read recently, as well as some of the things I built my bag for.
The first story was of a man in Florida (yeah, I know) who had to evacuate his home on little notice because of a flooding situation. Think of a flash flood near you, or just not believing the water might reach you until the point when, yeah you need to leave now. This is an all to common scenario, and one in which you will want to know you have a bag to grab which will keep you alive. And you might think, I’ll just leave, but everyone thinks that — it’s harder than you might imagine.
Another story I read was a family who had lightning strike near their home during a storm. The power dipped and came back on, except in one room. Within 30 minutes the house was on fire from an electrical fire related to the lightning. Fire is a very real threat, even if your home is modern. Again, not a situation where you can’t just go to a hotel and be ok, but it’s a scenario most people are ill prepared for.
Another tragic story is one some long time tech readers might remember of a CNet journalist being stranded in snow with his family in his car. He perished trying to find help. They didn’t have the supplies or means to survive on hand. (This particular one is why you will find our family vehicle chock full of survival gear.)
And, if you are not yet thoroughly depressed, I live on the West Coast of the U.S. with many millions of other people and we are all at constant threat of a massive earthquake. No way to know when that might hit, or how hard. But you can be fairly certain that when “the big one” hits, you are going to be royally fucked and help won’t be coming any time soon.
Oh, also, wildfires. But I feel like I’ve made my point here.
All of these situations present scenarios where a full and functioning infrastructure of government and help is in place, but the reality is that it might take days for that infrastructure to make it to you (in a best case scenario), and you’ll need to survive in the interim. These are also all realistic scenarios and likely unpredictable scenarios in my estimate so they could most certainly happen according to very sane scientists, and we likely will have little to no warning before they happen.
This is why the government itself recommends having an emergency kit in your home, which is just another term (we didn’t cover) for a bug out bag.
Keep in mind, 72 hours is the key for everything we talk about, but not the maximum by any means. In many areas the government might recommend having weeks of food on hand — it really just depends on what you are preparing for and how readily first responders can get to you.
What’s in My Bag
Ok, this isn’t a comprehensive guide, this is my list and you need to craft your bag to work for you, not just copy me. There’s a great primer blog post here on what to pack as well as a book from the same author which should cover you as well as anything else. Those are your guides, not this blog post by someone who is far from a survival expert. Keep in mind that what I have in my bag I know how to use, and the more knowledge and skills you have, the less gear you generally need. That said, don’t pack things unless you know how to use them.
I personally use the GORUCK GR2 (40L), which is a near $400 bag, as my bug out bag. I don’t think you can get a better bug out bag than this. It is overbuilt, and will last a lifetime. But, it’s not my only bug out bag, because I also use the GR2 when I travel. So when I travel, I pull everything from the GR2 and place it (I have all my gear in packing cubes, this takes about a minute) in the Aer Travel Pack, which is well built and holds the gear just as well (I mainly do this to keep stuff together, since I won’t need the bag if I am not home, but also so my wife can take that bag in addition to her bug out bag).
And since you are going to ask, my wife’s bug out bag is an old REI Traverse daypack we have from 2004. It’s been on many hikes with me and doesn’t show any wear, rock solid little thing. The one they make now is vastly different — if you want something lighter look at Osprey gear, it too is great stuff.
In a perfect situation I would have time to grab my favorite fixed blade knife and favorite folding knife (which I keep in my nightstand) in the ESEE 4 and the Chris Reeves Small Sebenza 21, and those would be tossed in the bag or on my person on my way out of the house. However, the reality may be far different and so I need to have some backups in the bag, and since I believe strongly the best survival item you can have is a good knife, I keep extras in my bug out bag.
The knives I store full time in the bag are:
- Gerber Bear Grylls Survival knife, partially serrated. I don’t love the partial serration, but this knife is as overbuilt as a GORUCK bag, and handles well. (That’s not true of all the Bear Grylls branded shit, so buyer beware.)
- CRKT M16: this knife just feels like it is built to survive the worst. I have many other pockets knives I might want instead, but if I am looking at what I think will last the longest in rough conditions, this is the one I pick — which I also never need to use outside of this situation.
You don’t need all these knives, by the way, but I already owned them all, so I might as well take a couple out of the drawer and put them somewhere they could actually prove useful to me. You really just need one fixed blade knife. And on that point look for something between 4-6″ in blade length and full tang, anything longer is useless.
- Miir Stainless Water bottle (can double as a pot to boil water in)
- Cheap plastic hip flask (not for booze, but as something smaller for carrying some extra water)
- SteriPEN, with water pre-filter cap for Nalgene bottles
- chlorine dioxide tablets
- Seattle sombrero
- Merino ankle socks, Icebreaker
- Nylon hiking pants
- Under Armour boxer briefs
- Under Armour long sleeve mock turtleneck
- North Face nylon button down shirt
- Wool watch cap
- REI Fleece/Leather gloves
These items are in a bag at all times, but not in my bug out bag, they sit next to it. My worst case assumption is that I didn’t have time to get dressed and awoke from a dead sleep. Maybe I didn’t have time to get dressed because of the urgency, or because by the time I got my family out of the door I was out of time. Either way it seems like it would suck to be stuck in the t-shirt and boxers I normally sleep in. I keep these in a packing cube which has a loop easily clipped on to the outside of my bug out bag. (I keep a carabiner in the MOLLE webbing on the outside of my GORUCK bags, specifically for stuff like this.)
Additionally, I keep two down jackets and one rain jacket right next to my bug out bag. Since I wear those jackets regularly, I can’t keep them packed, but they are next to the bag so I can grab them as I grab the bag. (Or so I hope.)
Some of the Other Stuff (not all of it)
- Topo maps of the area (print some here)
- Surefire Fury in Nylon Holster
- Microfiber Towel (something like this)
- 2-way radio (just one, other one in my wife’s bag)
- Assortment of CR123, AA and AAA batteries
- Knife sharpening stone (similar to this)
- Lockpick set
- UCO Micro candle lantern
- 6 feet clear tubing
- Nite Ize Figure 9
- 20lb fishing line
- mini roll of duct tape
- three carabiners, climbing ones, not that shit most people hang keychains from.
- glasses repair kit
- 3x Chem lights
- pack of Sugru
- Sea to Summit pocket hand wash
- storm matches
- hard sided moleskin notebook
- ballpoint pen
- SOG Battle Tomahawk thing (this is the single silliest thing I carry, but you also need to have a little fun with it)
- Emergency blankets (2)
- 50ft 550 Paracord
- 15ft of some light weight braided rope
- glasses cleaning cloth
- SOG Power EOD multitool
- Silva Compass
- County Comm Pry Bar
- ExoTac NanoStriker XL
- Custom made First Aid kit w/ First Aid handbook
- GR1 Field Pocket
- GR2 Field Pocker
- Shadow Pocket (medium)
- Tom Bihn packing cube
A couple of notes: you might notice I don’t have a pot on the list, I am torn on this, and thus don’t have one right now. I currently would use the water bottle as it is stainless steel and could be used to boil water in. Klean Kanteen is another good brand you can use for this, I already owned the MiiR though.
Also the Surefire is certain to be controversial among lighting nerds, as there are many other options. What I can say is that I trust this flashlight immensely. I’ve dropped this Fury off roofs, and it has barely a mark on it. I’ve soaked it, and I’ve used it to light up 50,000 square foot warehouses. So, sure, there are newer and cheaper options, but to me this is a bullet proof flashlight and honestly it is what I trust in a situation like this.
Bug out bags can be massively expensive to build, but they don’t have to be. I want to list out some alternative gear you can grab which is cheaper than what I have listed — I’ll also list some better and thus more expensive options I have been eyeing. So this is the budget list, as well as my upgrade list.
Also, remember that the fewer skills you have, the more gear you need. As you might notice there’s one box of storm matches and one fire striker (two counting the one built into the Bear Grylls knife) — I need nothing more than that because I am capable of starting a fire with a striker as I have done many times before. In my wife’s pack, she has a striker, but also a lighter and a few boxes of matches.
- Fire Striker: budget pick
- Survival Knife: budget, upgrade
- Backpack/bag: budget
- Flashlight: budget
- 2-Way Radio: upgrade (the ones I have really need an upgrade)
- Water Filtration: different
The ‘To Add’ List
As with any good bug out bag enthusiast there are items I want to add to the bag which will either just be additional stuff, or replace others. On that list (in no particular order) is:
The Firearm Debate
One of the biggest debates is whether you should have a firearm. I think most people answer this for themselves by whether or not they already own one. I am not opposed to having one, it certainly has uses, but I also don’t think you must 100% have a firearm to be well prepared.
There is, however, a debate over having a firearm for hunting or not. I think it is worth mentioning that if you cannot pack enough food in your pack for you to survive until you find help, or help finds you, then a weapon of some sort for hunting may be warranted, but only if you actually know how to use it. Otherwise you are just carrying something worthless to you, and dangerous to others.
In otherwords: if you live a ways from general society, then yeah you probably need something. But you probably already have something, which is why I find this debate rather tedious and pointless. But don’t go packing a bow and arrow if you don’t actually know how to shoot something with it. And don’t pack a slingshot, seriously that’s just not worth it.
My Car Kit
I also keep a small kit of items in my car, I am not a big believer that I need a whole lot in my car, as I would bring something close to my bug out bag on any car trip which would take me away from civilization. So I’ve streamlined the kit I keep in my car (I have a kit with a lot more gear in our family car. Basically as much crap as I could store in the storage footwells and cargo area compartments.)
Here’s what I keep in my car:
- 1 person Adventure Medical Kit (not a great option, I use it because it fits in the pictured spot)
- Tire pressure gauge
- Water key
- Pelican style hard sided case (chosen to protect the gear in it as it is moved around my trunk and smashed by luggage)
- In the case:
- Not pictured but in the car:
- Cheap Survival Knive w/ Fire starter
- Rain Jacket
- small (1.5″) fixed blade knife in my door pocket for getting out of a stuck seatbelt
Again this kit is made to make things easier on me if I am needing to do a quick repair, or walk home a few miles. Beyond that, I’d have a larger bag with me in the car most of the time since I knew I would be putting myself farther away from help.
Note on EDC
One thing left out, is that I usually always carry a small knife (above listed Sebenza) on me and wear a watch. I wouldn’t want my bug out bag to have only two knives in it, so my assumption is always that I will likely have another on my person.
Likewise, I think a watch is crucial to have, and it cannot be a smart watch — it needs a battery life measured in months. I rotate through 4 watches, and would be perfectly fine with three of those in a survival situation. If you don’t have a watch, you might think about getting one, just make sure it is waterproof and keep it in your bag.
I’ve actually be struggling quite a bit with how to talk about survival watches because if you search around you just end up with tactical watches. So I’ve been trying to figure out what a good watch is here. There’s a massive amount of considerations, but the first is: mechanical or quartz?
Quartz is more accurate, but mechanical will require no batteries. Then again, we are talking about a bug out bag to help you survive for a few days, not a Walking Dead situation. So either should be fine, right? The batteries likely won’t die, and the mechanical watch likely won’t get too far off from accurate.
So I think the mechanical versus quartz argument is made more clear if you don’t care to wear a watch and just want to pack one, then you want quartz so it is always read to go.
You’ll also want a strong watch, so something more dive quality. Honestly I could go on for another 300 words about this stuff, so we will skip ahead.
I have a couple mechanical watches which will work well for these situations — while they might be nice, they were built to last. I also have an MTM Special Ops watch which has a rechargeable battery that lasts 4-5 months — that’ll work too. Since I have been digging into this a bit more, here’s my list of what I would buy, and the order I would buy them — I should also note I tried to only pick watches I would also wear daily which are waterproof and look durable.
- Smith & Bradley – Springfield Field Watch
- Lum-Tec – Combat B33 GMT
- Smith & Bradley – The Ambush PVD
- Venator – Reticle Stainless Steel
- Maratac – Red Crown Mid Swiss Quartz Pilot Watch
Either way, get a watch — because you will want to know how long you have been going about something to make a smart determination of whether to keep going. It’s all to easy thinking you have been walking for hours when it was minutes, or you’ve been walking for minutes when it was hours.
Breaking It Down on a Smaller Scale
Now that I have gone over this massive list of shit that you are now worried about buying, I want to break this down on a smaller scale for people, because I think there is a really good practical mentality with this stuff. The Boy Scout motto is apt: “always be prepared”.
While I don’t have a dedicated “get home bag”, I do have minimal gear I take with me for different things.
For instance, in our cars I keep a knife, glow sticks, flashlight, emergency blankets. Those things are small, unobtrusive and likely insanely helpful even if I am only dealing with a flat tire. They are also all very inexpensive to stow in the car, so there’s no worry of them being stolen.
When I go on hikes through the large state park by the house (not a green grassy park, but a wooded area with cleared trails) I take either a small hip pouch with a knife, flashlight, and a quick snack for the kids — or a take a small backpack to carry some water for them to drink, and maybe some sting ease should a bug get them.
Kids add multiple levels of unpredictability to any situation, from them having an accident in their pants, to them tripping you on a trail. Because of that I don’t like to be in a wooded area with sparse population without a few items to deal with emergencies – even though I still have cell reception — I’m not calling 911 because my kid shit her pants, or got stung by a bee, or is thirsty/hungry/tired. Packing just a few pounds of stuff can mean that while I look over prepared for my walk, I am able to make the experience far more enjoyable for everyone. Also, it’s a nice way to burn a few extra calories while being out with the kids.
There’s nothing wrong with a general bug out bag, it’s a smart piece of gear to have and setup, but don’t go too far down that rabbit hole. I will say, keeping a flashlight with you at all times is far more useful than you might imagine — you’ll be surprised — it’s like having a knife in your pocket, the uses just abound.
With that said, all of those kits above could easily just be a small gear bag you take with you out of your bug out bag — thus giving you more utility out of the stuff you buy. It doesn’t have to just sit in a bag in the corner of your house — you might as well use it.
Tips to Reduce Cost
As I mentioned a few times you can certainly build these bags on the cheap, and over time. A few of my pro tips for you is to regularly check a few sites:
- Huckberry: I’ve bought tons of gear from this site, and they are a really good source for some items. Particularly bags and EDC type gear. Use this link to sign up and you get $10, and I get $20 whenever you buy something from the site. I’ve bought a lot of stuff from them, very good site.
- REI Garage: Formerly the outlet part of REI, they have items being discontinued or just needing clearing out. If you know exactly what you need, this is a good place to keep an eye on. Also become an REI member and sign up for alerts at your nearby store, they often have garage events at the store (first come first serve) and you can score amazing deals at those.
- The Clymb: This is a camping/adventure focused deal site. Their shipping can be a little slower than other places, but I’ve had some really good deals here. Keep an eye out for knives, stoves, and lanterns on this site — they tend to have great buys on those. Use this link and we both get $10 when you buy stuff for $50.
- Massdrop: I really love Massdrop, and it can be an amazing place to get the one item you really want at a discount. They almost always have an amazing selection of flashlights, among other things. Use this link to sign up and they occasionally send me a box of goodies for the referrals.
For everything else, Amazon is your best friend.