We Need to Rethink Emergency / Go / Bugout Bags: My Setup

Start with a charged phone with things like Apple Pay, and stored credit card numbers. Then add underwear.

When I posted about how I feel people think incorrectly about Bug Out Bags, I knew I was going to have to detail out my thoughts on more. I am reluctant to do this, as a bag like this should be highly customized to: where you live, what you know how to do/use, where you might go, what your plan is, and all that other good stuff. But, I also know it is hard to conceptualize a bag like this without actually seeing examples. So, at the end of this post I am going to detail how I have my emergency bags setup — for my entire household. It might be tempting to skip over the top and just get to the bag contents, but by doing so you’ll miss my tips on how to prepare a kit like this for yourself.

In other words: buckle up, get some coffee, this is going to be long — this is a guide, not a review.

Where and How to Start

Current get home bag in the back of my car.

Starting can be simple and cheap: pack a bag (any bag) as if you are going somewhere overnight — somewhere which you are unsure if you will have basics available to you. The starting list then:

  • Change of clothes, underwear, socks.
  • Chargers and cables
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste

Add to that:

  • Flashlight
  • Some snacks which don’t go bad for a long time.
  • Water

You can add more from there later, but if you have a bag with that stuff, you have a decent head start.

Read on to see why this is where you should start…

What is a Bug Out Bag?

I use two terms interchangeably: emergency bag, and bug out bag. To me they mean the same thing, but to others they mean specific things and there are more scenarios than you can imagine each with their own names. I want to really dive into why people get these bags wrong and not focus on what you should call such a bag.

21L Emergency bag for my wife.

Most people writing about this stuff online are building ‘I’m Never Coming Home’ (INCH) bags — not Emergency/Bug-Out bags. INCH bags are for the people prepping for full societal breakdown — either Zombies, nukes, CMEs, or EMPs — either way we are so royally screwed if that comes to light that you are barely in better shape no matter what your bag has in it — you really should be talking about bunkers if you think that is the likely thing you need to escape. INCH bags are so 2020, bunkers are all the 2021 rage.

But since you are reading this, I know that you and I are not headed out to the woods, as much as we are headed out to a possibly not great roadside Motel. You need a plan, yes. My plan is: Hotel/Motel, Oklahoma, Florida, or Arizona (family in each), or all the way up to WA if shit is really bad.

In other words: I am driving myself and my family to another place to stay, whether that’s a couch or a shitty motel I don’t care because my plan is to simply move away from whatever it is causing me to leave home. Since I am heading to somewhere to stay, I really only need to make sure I have stuff to be comfortable when I get there, and should I get delayed heading there. It’s not likely that wherever I take refuge is in a condition where the stores are also closed. They might be for a period of time, but they should be reopening soon.

There are very few scenarios where taking my wife and kids into the woods would be smart, or the best choice. And a bug out bag, at its core, is the bag to get you from one place to another place — from potential danger, to potential safety. It’s what you can rely on in that scenario. In the worst case it is the bag that you grab when FEMA shows up and says “one bag each” you have 2 minutes — then off you go.

My emergency bag, just under 27lbs.

I know I’ve lost all the ‘I am headed to the woods people’ and that’s too bad for them. Because heading to the woods is incredibly unlikely to ever be a good idea and I doubt even those well ‘prepared’ for such a thing would ever choose it. Nor would they actually be prepared for it. You can make it what, 4/5 miles with that massive bug out bag. I’ve carried heavy gear around, and really no matter how many knives you have, those knives don’t seem to help you move faster.

So what do you really need in your bug out bag, which isn’t for surviving in a dystopian Bear Grylls ruled world?

Some of the core concepts of heading to the woods does apply, just in a different way: shelter, water, food, warmth — are the core concepts that still matter. But how you acquire them change. It’s far more likely that a phone will be a better source of finding shelter in a true emergency, rather than carrying a tent or fashioning a shelter out of nothing. It’s more likely that money will buy you food and water, than a stream and a rifle will do the same. And exactly where are going to craft a huge fire to warm up by when you are on a freeway full of cars with nothing but toxic things to burn? Sorry, a blanket or cozy jacket will be better suited for warmth in most scenarios.

Yes, a good tarp or emergency blanket could make for a nice bit of shade on a hot day while stuck on the side of the road, but is that what you are actually prepping for? Or are you thinking that you might need to fashion a shelter out of a tarp — seriously go watch Alone on the History channel to see just how hard this stuff is to do.

This is why I assume that my worst case is likely looking at a cheap roadside motel to sleep in, and truck stop food to eat — this is more likely than me in the woods, crafting a shelter while snaring a squirrel for dinner. (Or depending on how you feel, the worst case might be heading to in-laws to stay with them.) So, I’ve redone all my bags and made them into ‘get me to a damned motel’ bags.

That said, one thing where you might realistically need to survive in the outdoors is earthquakes. You can’t predict them, and they can cause utter devastation which could mean you don’t have viable shelter nearby, and would have to walk an absurd distance to get to a viable shelter. Thus building an in place shelter might be the best and only option in a devastating earthquake. I do not miss having to be prepared for earthquakes at all. If you live on the West Coast, you should be prepared to spend a night outside on a street, should housing collapse around you and you made it out, with your bag. Good luck.

The Core Things to Think About

So, having said all that, you need to back into what you pack. First: what would likely force you from your home in a quick manner and how likely is each — optimize for the most likely and down the list you go. Like I said, in Washington it was earthquakes. Perhaps in California it is wildfires. In the Midwest maybe it is Tornados. In DC it could be terrorist attacks. In some areas it could be civil unrest or war. But here in Houston it is most likely to be Hurricanes unexpectedly changing course, or flood waters rising higher than anticipated.

The idea is to have your bag packed such that you can make do for three days. Shelter, water, and food — in that order are going to be key. But it also doesn’t mean you need to assume nothing is available, which is why a charged cellphone is likely the greatest emergency tool anyone can carry at this point. You can use apps to find shelter, wallets to buy food and water (or Uber Eats). And you can call for help, even if that is calling friends and family who can help. “Dad, I am trying to get to X, could you find me a place to stay while I slog through this traffic?”

So the first item: get a hotel app and a food delivery app with your credit card details stored — or to be safer, setup Apple Pay with your credit card and make sure you can book/buy things in a few apps using Apple Pay. Then you really don’t even need to worry about your wallet, just your phone. Bonus points: store a photo of your IDs on your device in a secure spot.

Things like solar chargers are neat, but useless. By the time your phone will have charged with one of these, the emergency could well be over, and that’s assuming it didn’t happen at night. Cause, you know, solar needs sun. And thus the first focus of revising my bags after making sure my phone was setup, was to make sure they had charging cables, plugs, and battery backups in them. Nothing more. The scenarios where I don’t have a car which I can charge off of are rare for me. In Earthquake land, you have to be more prepared for the cold dark outdoors when the big one hits so a phone might not be my first worry.

Next, I thought, what if I have to go pretty far — I could need to catch a nap in a car or maybe it would be unwise to drive in the dark, so I might need to camp out in the car for a night. For that I want/need a blanket. So I bought good blankets for the bags. Then, I have young kids who do not do well when they are hungry. While you can go without food for quite some time — your hungry kids are far more likely to make you make bad choices before then, because they are hungry. So I put dehydrated mac and cheese meals in the kits, and protein bars.

Then a means to get and filter water, so that I can use tap water anywhere I find it. You don’t want to get sick because you drank water from the tap, and you don’t want to be in Texas in the summer without ample amounts of water to drink Done.

Then I needed to contend with two other big problems:

  1. Traffic
  2. Night Time

Because when large groups of people are fleeing from something, traffic gets insane. So the actual biggest risk to me in my bug out, is being stuck during the disaster in horrible traffic. This can happen because things changed at the last minute and I didn’t leave fast enough or I unfortunately hit the road at the same time as everyone else. So I broke this into two issues and made sure to solve for both the best I can:

  • The first is to try and make sure that I can leave quicker than anyone else. Hopefully putting me in front of the traffic. That in itself is a multipart issue. This very bag helps immensely with the issue because it means I know what I need to grab when I need to leave fast. My goal is: get out of the house in under 15 minutes from the time we make the decision to leave. This I know we can do, and that’s faster than enough people to hopefully make a difference. The other part of this is making the decision to leave, and for each threat I need to make clear criteria with my wife, and stick to it. (e.g. if the cone is going to hit us, we leave. Or if the strength reaches Y, we leave.) Simple and clear, and unfortunately possible for us, because we have the means to be able to financially leave like this, even if it means taking unpaid time off. Each person has a different threshold for risk, but if getting in front of traffic if your goal, then your threshold should be clear and low. Don’t leave only when the order is given, you’ll be too late then.
  • But, none of that means I will actually beat the traffic. Which is why I pack blankets, and food in the bag. I might realistically be stuck on a shitty freeway needing to keep people fed so they don’t get crazy. There’s nothing I can do to mitigate that, but the one step I do take is to load Road Maps on my devices in offline mode for wide swaths of areas around me using GAIA GPS so I can try and find better routes. And I also carry paper road atlas’s should the devices fail.

The reality is, your only chance to beat traffic is to leave before everyone else, which might mean leaving for no reason. But, for me, that’s preferable to sleeping on a freeway during a Hurricane.

Ok, now let’s talk about the second issue: night. This has nothing to do with darkness and everything to do with sleep. Because I am going to sleep at night in life, and the only thing I stay up for are serious tornado warnings. I don’t know about anyone else, but the clothes I sleep in are not going to suit me well for a few days if they are all I have on hand. If that’s also you, you need to pack a full set of clothes. My minimum clothes setup:

  • Underwear
  • Pants
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Two pairs of socks.

This way the only worry is trying to grab shoes on the way out with my bag. Seriously, people need to pack more clothes. I don’t get it. I also pack a hat, and a rain jacket. Enough clothes to keep me warm on the colder Texas days, and durable enough to deal with me hustling gear into a car, and being gone for an unknown period of time.

Limiting What You Grab

There’s scenarios where you can’t take too much. The house is on fire, you are gonna have to act fast. Maybe a tornado is coming, you need to be faster. Maybe FEMA isn’t going to wait forever for you, better be fast. Those issues force your hand, and most people be ok grabbing their emergency bag if they have it packed and ready. But it has to be packed and ready to go.

Back to that scenario where I want to be gone in 15 minutes.

Bag of clothes and shoes which otherwise would have been donated, but they still fit. Now they are packed and ready.

People fail this because while they might have an emergency bag packed, they then run into “oh, I also should grab this” and they repeat that until the car is full and 15 minutes turned into an hour. I am not immune from this, and I do know the times I have had to leave quickly for non-natural disaster, but rather family emergencies issues, bring this to light every time. You grab too much of the wrong things, trying to be fast, and waste time or space doing so.

Thus I pack multiple bags, while also keeping other things ready. By doing this, if I have extra time, I already have stuff lined out and the order in which I grab it. I know it all fits, and all adds to comfort.

Here’s a basic example of what I mean:

  1. Emergency Kit (kept in nightstand, to grab in case of fire). Life won’t be great if all I have is this, but I won’t be stuck anywhere in the house trying to get to my kids if I have this, and once I get out, I know that it has enough to get me through a bad night.
  2. Bug Out Bag, if I am leaving I better grab this if I can. I’ll be fine if I have this. Not great, but fine.
  3. Emergency bags for each family member tailored to them. If we can grab these three bags, then everyone has stuff they need to be comfortable enough.
  4. Clothing bag: has more clothes for me, my wife and kids. If I snag this, I can get everyone in comfortable enough clothing for a few days. Part of this is to be packed before we go, as I am really the only one right now with dedicated emergency clothing.
  5. Electronics travel kit, packed for my regular travel, will add to charging and cable kits.
  6. Tool kit, packed with stuff to repair simple issues with the car, and to help get unstuck if needed. Includes cargo straps if stuff really gets wild.
  7. Bottled water, still wrapped up together, a Hurricane prepping staple. Easy to grab and put in the car.

I know where all this gear is, and can easily and quickly load it in the car. And I can do that while my wife and kids are stuffing more clothes into a bag, or grabbing other items important to them. But once loaded, we can all leave knowing we will be fine.

The Bags

Let’s talk about the part any good Brooks Review reader wants to know about: bags.

There’s a debated idea that you should practice grey man techniques with your emergency bags — meaning your bag should blend in with those likely to be around you. But what people really mean when they say this is that you should not use bags with MOLLE or PALS webbing, nor should you use bags with camouflage patterns. To which I say: what blends in more than camouflage?

Anyways, this thinking is bullshit. First: have you ever been somewhere when an emergency is going down? No one gives a shit about your backpack because there’s a literal emergency. Likewise, have you ever been in an airport? Did you gasp and say “oh my 77% of the men in here have tactical looking backpacks!” Probably not. Because the truth is, at least in the USA, tactical backpacks blend in very well.

This stays in my nightstand for the worst of cases, a house fire.

The grey man theory is great if you are a CIA operative, or if you are roaming around an almost post apocalyptic world I guess? Surely you would want that type of bag if it was post apocalyptic. Otherwise, ignore this shit.

You should simply get the bag you like the look of the most, that has enough capacity, carrying capability, and which fits your budget for a bag you hope to never actually use. Get the bag you want, not the bag you think reddit wants you to have.

And, if you can’t afford something good, but a good thing that is used. You can find insane deals on bags if you buy them used online r/edcexchange, r/geartrade, r/manybaggers, r/onebag, r/goruck, and eBay are all fantastic places to get really good gear for cheap.

For capacity: you need it to hold your stuff, and that’s really that. I would focus more on how comfortable it is for you to carry. I run a multi bag setup: primary and then a secondary bag with clothes and comfort items, and lastly another large bag crammed full of my camping shit in case a Walking Dead scenario does present itself.

Your primary bag should be a comfortable backpack of some kind. Likely you will want something bigger than 30L, but my wife’s bag (which I made for her) is 21L so really anything will work. Here’s some options:

  • GORUCK: The GR2 40L or 34L (affiliate link) is what you want, if you think you are going to mostly take the car, or carry it less than 10 miles in a day — these are indestructible bags and work great for living out of. The downside is the cost and weight. They can be carried for miles and miles, but you need to be accustomed to carrying weight on your shoulders first, as the hip belts don’t offer a ton of relief if you add one.
  • Mystery Ranch: The Komodo Dragon (38L), or Ravine Pack (50L) or Terraframe (50L), or Terraplane (82L). These will be super comfortable, durable, and offer a wide range of looks and features. If you want something you intend to wear and maybe use as a hiking bag — if you are serious about needing to possible escape into the woods — these are the bags I would start with.
  • Hill People Gear: both the Aston House Backcountry (48L), and the Qui-Ya Backpack (100L). I haven’t used their gear, but I hear the harness is really nice for moving over long areas. These are kind of a blend between GORUCK and Mystery Ranch.
  • REI: Flash series, 55 most likely. This is my budget pick. I have had one for years and they are solid bags, which work well and could be used for backpacking easily as well. (Don’t stress about unpacking your emergency bag so you can use the bag when you are not at home. Because you aren’t at home to use it if you wanted to.)

Here are some options for some secondary bags. For me these should be duffle/shoulder bags, some to look at:

  • BAD Bags: These duffle bags are a great option for a secondary bag. Well made, simple design — great prices.
  • Tom Bihn: Yeoman Duffel (affiliate link) this duffel has survived so many checked luggage flights I can’t even tell you. It’s like a black hole of space. Simple, no frills, useable big bag.
  • The North Face: Base Camp Duffel. I have had one of these for 20 years now. It is only just now starting to have holes worn in spots. A classic for a reason. Added bonus that it will keep your stuff dry whether you set it down in water, water is spilled under it, or it is raining out. People love these bags for a reason.

That’s it. As you can see the primary bag should be not too big, and still comfortable to carry. The secondary should be large and functional — I advocate for it to be a duffel. You need the bag to fit your plan, and nothing else.

Be Realistic

Where are you going, and why are you going there? What will you need to get there, and what will you need when you get there? These are the questions you need to answer to build the proper bag.

I suspect for most people you really need a phone charger, toothbrush, food, and some cash. You have those four things and I bet you’ll be fine. Maybe toss in some clean underwear… I don’t think a knife is going to be particularly useful for driving to Motel 6, but I’ve been wrong before, just carry one anyways.

Too many people forget things like brushing teeth, buying food/water, and charging their devices. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to drink water from the tap of a roadside motel, nor do I want to trust filtering a water source near main roadways as it is likely just run off.

My Bags

Here’s what is in my bags, but you do you.

Fast KitMain BOB 25.7lbsSecondary Comfort 11.9lbsGet Home 16.4lbs
Goal: grab in case of fire in the house.Goal: what I take if I can only take one thing. Ideal to combine with Fast Kit.Goal: more clothes, shoes, and extra chargers and such. If there is time, this goes with me.Goal: shit, I need to walk home for some reason.
Mystery Ranch Full MoonGORUCK GR2 40LTom Bihn Road Buddy Duffel 36Mystery Ranch 2-Day Assault
– Aloksak– Emergency Contact CardRight Pocket– Outdoor Research Echo Half Zip
– Lip Balm– Locking Carabiner– INNOV8 F-Lite 240 Shoes– Outdoor Research ironsight Gloves
– Mini SharpieSimple Side PocketLeft Stash Pocket– Rite in the Rain Notebook
– Chem Light 2x– ITW Web Dominator– 25ft Paracord– 3x Honey Stinger Waffles
– Parker Jotter– GORUCK Bladder HangerLeft Pocket– 3x Honey Stinger Energy Chews
– Field NotesInner Top PocketSimple Pocket LWestern Rise Versa Hat
– Rite in the Rain– Mechanix Gloves– OR Seattle Sombrero– INNOV8 F-Lite 240
– Lighter– G-SHOCK GD-350– 10x Chem Lights, Green– merino wool socks
– Casio MDV-106– Contractor Garbage Bag– 8x Soak Wash– Outdoor Research Echo T
– Bandana– Lens Cleaning Cloth– 50ft Paracord– Sawyer Mini
– Nite Ize S-Biner #4– aLoksak w/ $60 cash– Flushable Wipes 60ct– 32oz Nalgene
– Heavy Plastic BagFront Inner Flap Mesh– 2x Camping Bowls w/ lid– GORUCK Tote Bag
– Titanium Tweezers– GORUCK Shemagh– 2x Sporks– Small Homemade First Aid Kit
– Lock PickFront Inner Mesh– Chopsticks– Triple Aught Design Shemagh
– Match Book– Ziploc with 2x Merino Wool SocksMain Compartment Lid Pocket– REI eVent Rain Jacket
– Tencious tapeFront Inner Top PocketMagpul Daka Pouch– Ben’s DEET
– Emergency Card– Wet Ones Wipes– 4x USB wall plugs, small– Leatherman Sidekick
– Anker Battery Pack and Lightning Cable– Pill Case (Advil, migraine, anti-histamine)– 10W USB Wall plug– Chem light
– SOG Powerlock– Ultrathon Lotion– USB Cigarette Lighter adapter– 2x 6” Zip Tie
– 18650 Battery– Lip Balm– 3x USB to Micro USB CablesBOND/Lochby Organizer
– Pill Case (Advil, migraine pills, anti-histamine)– Chewable Pepto Bismol– USB to Lightning Cable– Benchmade Mini Griptillian
– Armytek Wizard Pro– Nuun Tablets– USB to USB C cable– Disposable N95 Mask
– Bradford Guardian 3.5– 1” Roll Gorilla TapeMain Compartment– Bullet Space Pen
– Armytek Barracuda Pro– Microfiber Cloth– Manzella insulated gloves– 4x AA batteries
– SERE CompassFront MainTom Bihn Packing Cube– Aulta Quartz Watch
– $40 Cash– Arc Teryx Rain jacket– Banana Republic Merino Wool Crew Neck Sweater– 1” Mini Gorilla Tape
Back Top Mesh Pocket– Under Armour Boxer Briefs– SERE Compass
– Jungle Blanket Stuff Sack– OR Half Zip Merino/Poly– 25ft 550 Paracord
– Extra Glasses– Stance Socks– Chem Light
Back Bottom Mesh Pocket– Beyond Clothing Grid Fleece T-Shirt– Lighter
– Platypus 1L collapsible Water Bottle– YAthletics SilverAir Merino T-Shirt– Lock Pick
– 2x Honey Stinger ChewsTom Bihn Packing Cube– Reylight Pineapple
– 2x Honey Stinger Waffles– OR Ascendant Jacket– Contractor Garbage Bag
Back Main Compartment– Ministry of Supply Chroma Denim Jeans– Emergency Blanket
– SnugPak Jungle BlanketTom Bihn Packing Cube– 4-way Silcox Key
– 3x Mountain House Meals– underwear for wife & kidsMatador Pocket Blanket
– Thunderbolt Sports Ranger Pants– Black Diamond Headlamp
– Outlier NYCO Oxford Blue– Wet Ones Wipes
– ExOfficio Give-n-Go Boxers
– Wool&Prince T-Shirt
– GORUCK TacHat Mesh
– SureFire Fury w/ Nylon Holster
– Oakley Flakjackets in Hard Shell Case
– Miir Stainless Steel Water Bottle 1L
– CountyComm EOD Breacher Bar
– Bison Belt
– Sawyer Mini Water Filter
– 4x KN95
– Topo Maps on waterproof paper
– Bradford Guardian 5
GORUCK Simple Pocket
– Homemade First Aid Kit
Triple Aught Design Context Organizer
– 100ft 550 Paracord
– 14x 6-inch Zipties
– Sea to Summit Titanium Spork
– Dawson Machine Works Ceramic Sharpening Rod
– 6ft Kevlar Cord
– 8x CR123 Batteries
– Sawyer Spray Sunscreen
– Silva Engineer Compass
– Leatherman Supertool (Original)
– Lockpicks
– Pencil
– Benchmade Griptillian
– 2x Chem Lights
– Technicians Screwdriver
– Lighter
– Exotac Nano Striker XL
– Exotac Waterproof Matches
– Space Pen Bullet
– Field Notes
– Rite in the Rain Notebook
– Nite Ize Figure 9
– Space Blanket
Hygiene Kit in 1 Gal Ziploc Bag
– 3x Toothbrush
– 3x travel toothpaste
– Contact Solution
– Contact Case
– Dental Floss
– Purell
– Toilet Paper
Charging Kit
– USB Wall Plug
– USB-A to USB-C Cable
– Lightning Cable
– Micro USB Cable
– Credit Card Sized Battery Backup
– Lipstick Battery Backup
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