I went down a many-subreddit rabbit hole looking at bugout bags, everyday carry setups, get home bags, and vehicle everyday carry kits — basically I started getting frustrated at the state of advice out there for these bags.
I don’t think people plan for emergencies correctly — they plan for the extreme, while missing the likely. So, today, I want to talk about what I see as the most crucial prep for anyone who has a car, or commutes somewhere for work (I mean like eventually, not right now, but now is a good time to prepare because you have ample time to find stuff in your house).
We are talk about a ‘get home bag’. The get home bag is like a bugout bag, but for your car. Or, to carry with you if you commute on public or shared transit. It is the gear you need to help you get home safely in the event of something extraordinary happening.
This kit is very simple: simply have the supplies you need to get home, should you need to find unorthodox means of returning home, like gasp walking home. Now, for those who already walk everywhere, congrats, you saved yourself some money, you can stop reading. But if you are like most other Americans you probably actually use a vehicle (whether your own, someone else’s, or a bus) to get to and from work. And this, in my view, is the most practical emergency bag you can have, make this before a bugout bag.
So, with all that said, let’s talk about what you should pack, what it should be packed in, and how to be realistic about when you might use such a thing.
We’ll start at the bottom and zig zag around. Why not.
There are two types of primary users: those who have their own car to keep the bag in, and those who will need to keep it on their person (because they take public transport or carpool). Each means there are slightly different scenarios which could cause you to use your bag. Here are some examples:
- Pandemic abruptly shuts down all public transport, or otherwise makes it unsafe to take public transport.
- Your carpool driver leaves without you, has their car stolen, or their car breaks down.
- A hurricane or big storm floods out your path to drive home.
- A water main breaks and floods the highways you use to drive home.
- The city is locked down for some reason (perhaps a protest) and cars are effectively quarantined.
- An earthquake/landslide/tsunami really messes up the roads.
- Tornados, or sharknados.
I am not worried about a societal breakdown, or hostile takeovers (which is what most guides will have you planning for), or something like that. Mother Nature seems like truly the biggest foe for this planning need. And indeed there have been times when my office had people worried about being able to get home, and I’ve only been in Texas for a year. I have seen storms flood roads, and an actual water main break. Waiting for that sharknado still though…
Further, I am not actually worried about needing to walk all the way home (for me that is 38 miles, but at least it is flat?). More likely I just need to physically get my self outside of some impacted (or flooded) area, from there I can grab an Uber and head home — this seems plausible. But so too does the idea that I might need to make a snap decision to stay in a hotel near work, because it isn’t safe to head home at the moment (which is a far better plan if you can do it, than trying to swim to a spot where an Uber can get you).
The bag is to accommodate these scenarios. So worry a little less about looting, chaos, and other popular reddit-hollywood movie type plots. If you are on the west coast, your biggest worry should perhaps be earthquakes. Here in Houston, it’s flooding.
What to Pack
Ok, this bag should be light to carry, and you don’t really need to worry about a ton of silly stuff. In fact you can keep this bag pretty trim, which will be great for your wallet. I would recommend this as a base set of items (as in: if nothing else, pack these):
- Comfortable shoes, something you can walk say all the way to your house in from the farthest point you normally travel. A cheap way to do this: use some work out shoes close to needing replacement, but not worn out completely. However, if your job requires appropriate footwear already, then you can skip this. (Work boots and sneakers both mean you don’t need to pack a change.)
- Water. Have you ever tried to get water when stores are closed? Just having had this happen during business travel is enough for me to carry a full 32oz of water in my bag.
- Change of clothes, if you don’t want to have a full set of clothes, at least carry clean socks with you. But I carry a pair of socks and a shirt. Socks to rotate out so my feet stay dry (did you learn nothing from Forrest Gump?) and a shirt so that I can stay cooler on the move.
- Food or snacks: depending on how much you really want to prepare for, at least a couple good energy bars are really going to help you out. Another lesson learned with business travel: snacks are amazing to have on hand.
That’s the basics of what should form the core of your carry, but of course I take it to a great extreme. Here’s my load out:
And here’s what all that gear is, as well as why I carry it:
- Randolph Engineering Sunglasses: These actually aren’t in my bag, because I already have another two pairs of sunglasses in my car, but I put them in for this photo because it is important to think about protecting your eyes. Both for sunny environments, but especially for snowy environments.
- Honey Stinger Snacks: I have no clue if these are better in any way than other snacks, I just know they are what I have on hand. The waffles are super good and I recommend them, the gummies taste not good. Either way, I am not trying so much to manage hunger, but blood sugar. I know from all my years hiking that a good set of sugar snacks is key for me.
- Triple Aught Design shemagh: I am a huge fan of shemaghs and you can get them cheap on Amazon. I had this one on hand, so I packed it. Uses for this are: scarf to keep me warm, scarf to keep the sun off my neck for cooling, towel, blanket, pre-filter for gross water.
- Aulta watch: you just need any watch, doesn’t matter, but should be quartz with at least 100m water resistance. I bought this one on clearance for $40 when they seemed to be going out of business. I recommend you stick with this. The key reason for the watch is so that you don’t get lost, and can motivate yourself. Meaning, if you head in a direction you are unsure of, note the time and if you need to turn around, you now know how long to walk back to the point you turned off. That’s basically how tons of people get lost, is when they try to find where the trail was. Lastly, not knowing the time can be very disorienting for people.
- SERE Compass: for navigation, this little guy weighs nothing and costs almost nothing. I broke the last compass I had in the bag with it just sitting in there, so this is a new add for me. And a good reminder to regularly check your gear.
- First Aid Kit: lots of bandages, triple anti-biotic ointments and alcohol wipes. Additionally, I have allergy medicine, Advil, chapstick, blister pads, and sunscreen in this little pouch. Tailor it to what you know how to use, and what you think you might use.
- Sawyer Mini Water Filter: this is a $20 piece of kit, and I own at least 4 of them, they are in all my emergency kits. Just one of them, could filter water to last you the rest of your life. They are fantastic, I keep it in a ziploc so that it stays protected. Never underestimate your need water, especially in hot environments. And even in a hotel scenario, I would still use this to filter the tap water — though those NFC enabled vending machines sure do make it easy to buy $4 bottles of water. (Edit to add: I’m told if these freeze with water inside them they are no longer effective. If unused, you are fine if they get to freezing temps.)
- Ben’s DEET: I just assume this is the best brand out there. But bugs suck, might as well try to keep them off you. After one hike about a decade ago where we were non-stop being attacked by mosquitos — never again shall I endure such needless annoyance. (Edit to add: yes, I know you have opinions on bug repellants, especially strong stances on DEET. That’s why I didn’t link to anything.)
- 32oz Nalgene: is there a more trusted brand of water bottle? I chose the smaller opening on this one, so it is easier to drink from on the move. You just want something that you can trust it can take some bumps, and where the lid won’t fail.
- Benchmade Mini Griptilian: I really am fortunate to have enough pocket knives that I can put one this good in my emergency kit. This is the only knife in this kit, which may surprise you. But the reason for it is simply because I rarely carry a locking blade with me to work, so I want something a little more robust in a possible emergency. But I can’t really think of a scenario on my way home which would require more knife than this.
- SureFire 6PX Pro: this one is an older model I have had for a decade or so. SureFire isn’t well loved by the flashlight nerds, but that’s mostly because they are seen as behind in tech. The reason they are behind in tech, is because SureFire has a core belief that gear should never fail (they provide a lot of lights to military and as enforcement). That’s why I choose their lights for most of my stuff: this light will never fail, while giving me all the power I need. Three things I mean about never fail: water resistant (get it as wet as you want), durable (I have dropped these off roofs on accident, still work), and they don’t bleed the batteries dead. Most of the ‘enthusiast’ lights I own will slowly drain the batteries while they are off. I have yet to see that with SureFire. That alone is reason enough to have them in emergency kits.
- GORUCK Tote Bag: this is no longer sold, but any sturdy tote bag is a good idea. It will allow you to easily carry things you might find along the way, or gross stuff you don’t want in your bag — like wet socks.
- Outdoor Research Ironsight Gloves: these are not for keeping my hands warm, but actually for protecting them. They are very grippy. These are pricey gloves, I got them for a deal, I recommend these if you have to buy some. Regardless, I would rather not have to use bandages on my fingers and palms, so I carry these.
- Outdoor Research Echo Shirt: just a light tee, which is durable and fast drying. Something to change out of my button down if I actually needed to walk home, or to sleep in while at a hotel. Any synthetic shirt would do fine here. I would pack more, but my normal work clothes are plenty solid for walking home, see here for info on why.
- SOG EOD PowerLock: a multi-tool is often more important than a knife for more situations. I love this one, but SOG is hit an miss with quality (according to nerds online, I have not experienced it). Get a Leatherman instead. The one I linked to should be good enough.
- Rite in the Rain notebook and Space Pen: for on the go last will and testaments, or other things if you prefer. I loathe Space Pens, but at least you know they are always going to work, and this one is never really going to break.
- Gorilla Tape 1”: that’s what is in the white thing, I keep it in that so it doesn’t melt on my other stuff. But this can repair a ton of shit.
- Paracord: I keep about 30’ chunk in this bag. It goes with those aluminum stakes you see and the emergency blanket, which would allow for me to build a makeshift shelter if shit really gets crazy. More likely: I could replace a broken shoe lace.
- Outdoor Research Sun Hat (discontinued): I can tell you a few things about this: it’s ugly, it works, and it is needed. I don’t have a baseball cap in here, because Texas is hot and the sun is hotter. I want the sun off my body. Any hat that you can crush down into your bag that has a wide brim would be fine. I had this one from my hiking days. If I were to buy now, I would buy this, because why not. #YOLO If you want a baseball cap, I dig these.
- Merino Wool Socks: I keep a thicker athletic pair in my pack so that my feet have more padding than my normal dress socks. Ideal for comfort.
- INOV8 Shoes of some sort: don’t love these, don’t hate these, don’t wear these. So they found their way here. Just put any decent sneakers with some life left in them here. I bought these on a clearance sale. For colder weather climates, go with some older boots.
- Chem lights: so I don’t need to use the flashlight, or if I am walking at night so cars could see me. Hey I could use the paracord for hanging these too!
- Large garbage bag: because if I have to go through deep water, I would like my gear to stay dry and this bag is big enough to put the backpack in. (Remember, my most likely threat is flooding.)
- Nitrile Gloves: for the sticky stuff in life. Or, for the pandemic. You choose.
- Silcock key: for water. I actually have a ton of these from my property management days, but it is a good item to keep. Basically water faucets on the exterior of a commercial building don’t have a handle to turn them on and off, this tool is what you use to do that. You can do this with your multi-tool, but I have broken three multi-tools doing it with those, and you fuck up the faucet. Be kind if you are going to borrow water, get a silcock key.
- Lockpick: not recommended. Mostly will get you in trouble, stay away.
- Zip ties: this is mostly for gear repair, if a plastic buckle breaks these things are awesome.
- BIC Style lighter: never a bad idea to have one. Can’t really see a use for it though.
- Extra batteries for flashlight. My light takes two CR123 batteries and each will last about 90 minutes with heavy use on full brightness, so I carry 4 extras. Should last me enough to get home, plus I almost always have a small flashlight on me. (That battery case they are in is from Triple Aught Design, but they are not even listed on their site anymore. I think the preferred carry method these days is a Thyrm Cell Vault, never tried one).
- GR1 Field Pocket: to organize a lot of the smaller stuff. Big fan of these, as they are durable, easy to carry, and can mount to other things.
- Some Chinese made KN95 disposable mask. No clue, our family sent us a bunch of these at the start of the pandemic. What I really like is that they are all in sealed, heavy duty, and resealable bags. Seems prudent to pack.
Ok, so one note on all of this: I based this on complimenting what I already have on me. There’s other stuff in my car in other places (like sunglasses), but also in both my briefcase and other bags, there are battery chargers. I highly recommend carrying some kind of battery backup charger for your phone, as that is a crucial tool in any emergency, don’t forget the charging cable too.
Choosing a Bag
A great thing about this, is that it is in a bag, and who doesn’t love talking about bags. The first thing I will tell you is that this really needs to be a backpack, and one that is comfortable. You don’t need to go to any other extreme from there, so worry less about getting the perfect bag, and just use something you have.
That said, in case you happen to be able to read this site without also having a bag surplus, here is some guidance and bag picks for you.
First you need to sort out how big of a bag you want to carry. I suggest something between 21L and 30L. What size will depend on how much you want to pack, and your physical size. If you are a smaller person, choose and smaller bag so it fits you better, a larger person might want something bigger so the bag fits them right.
More than anything else, a proper fitting bag is going to get you a lot farther here than something expensive that fits poorly. One other consideration for a larger bag: will you need to add anything to it before you head out? Personally, I chose a larger bag so that I could toss in clothing I might have on hand but don’t want to wear (like a jacket), or maybe even extra water, food, a work laptop, or even my briefcase all together. I wanted the option for all that.
I also suggest you ignore common advice about colors (people say to keep them muted) or about tactical bags (people say this makes you a target) or about camo prints (though, illegal in some areas, weirdly). I am hyper aware of the bags people are carrying, as I like to wonder why or how they chose it — this is my life — anyways I can tell you that there is every type of bag being worn by every type of person.
I’ve seen tactical slings worn on people with suits and ties on. I’ve seen camo prints being carried by women in dresses. I saw a guy bring a 60L hiking backpack in bright red on a bus while being dressed business casual — I am still working through my feelings on this. I have seen more branded SWAG than I care to reveal. More wheeled bags being drug through puddles than you could fathom.
Aside from basically me, not many people care what you carry. And I’ve put this to the test, only twice has anyone commented on one of my bags, and usually those were people wanting to know where to get one.
In other words, get over yourselves. On a regular day no one cares about your bag. And in an emergency they really are not even going to notice. Sorry to burst your bubble. Maybe people who plan for full civil breakdown will care, but ok.
Ok, again, you probably have an old bag laying around that you are not using, which will work perfectly. But, if you commute and want something ideal because you use it everyday, or you just got cash burning a hole in your pocket.
Here we go:
- GORUCK GR1 or GR2: You knew this was coming. This is the best of the best. I don’t keep one in the car right now simply because I didn’t have one I wanted to dedicate, nor am I sure I will. Anyways, all sizes of the GR1 are fantastic, and great for commuters. I have taken these all over and never has anyone worried about it. The GR2 at 34L is a great bag for this type of stuff, and I have seen people carry bigger bags, but it is still a big bag so unless you need to carry gym clothes, stick smaller.
- Mystery Ranch 3 Way Briefcase: First, I don’t have one of these and have never used one of these. But if you commute and want not a backpack for most days. This is the only convertible bag I would go with. It is expandable too and I think a good option. Surprisingly, only $150. (I have one coming to review, but won’t have it in hand by the time this publishes.) This is the bag I would pick if I were commuting in public transport, and then would take a GR1 on the days the weather was bad.
- Tom Bihn Synik 22L and 30L: great bags, more organization and basically as stealth as you get. These bags don’t look expensive, but with the internal frame sheet are insanely comfortable for long use. Great stuff, highly recommended. Hold up in torrential rain too, as I tested unintentionally. This is for those of you who don’t like the tactical look of GORUCK gear.
The bag shown in the pictures for my kit is the Tom Bihn Shadow Guide backpack. It has the same straps and internal frame sheet as the Synik line (very good straps, great frame sheet which is moldable), just bigger with less organization. It’s a great bag, but discontinued. They make a standard guide bag now, but I am not a fan of the colors.
One Last Thing & a Recap
Ok, one last thing: don’t let this bag become heavier than roughly 10% of your body weight. Otherwise it’s too heavy to carry very far.
So to recap: pack shoes, water, snacks, and maybe some clothes. Use any bag you have that seems reasonably sturdy and fits you well, and you probably want a battery backup charger.