Everyone has an opinion on what goes into the perfect bug out bag, and you know what they say about opinions.
Personally, I prefer to carry lots of gear and supplies, and I’m in excellent physical condition so I can do so for extended periods over rough terrain. Others prefer the minimalist approach. Which approach is correct? Both; it all comes down to your own needs and preferences, but there are a few essential items all experts can agree on.
- A durable bag is your first and most important item. All the gear in the world won’t save your ass if you can’t carry it because your bag fell apart. Your bug out bag should be constructed of thick material with heavy-duty stitching and reinforcement at all seams and stress points. An inexpensive but proven option is the ALICE pack, which was standard issue for our armed forces up until the 1990s. It holds plenty of gear, with a 2,350 cubic inch capacity, and is able to carry up to 50 pounds. Northface packs are an excellent choice and Camelbak’s military line is even better, but both are expensive compared to military surplus gear.
- Fire is important in any environment; it can combat cold weather, cook food, or even to treat unsafe water, but getting one started isn’t always easy. A lighter makes starting a fire a lot easier than any other method, but if it happens to get wet, it won’t work until it dries, so you need a few backup methods. Waterproof matches are an obvious choice, and a magnesium fire starter is inexpensive and can start a fire under nearly any conditions. A few other options are a 9 volt battery and fine steel wool, a concave lens, or a fire piston. (I’ll produce a video showing how to start a fire with these methods and more shortly.)
- Water is even more important than food, but at 8.33 pounds per gallon, the amount you can carry is limited by weight, so you’ll need a way to collect additional potable water. My bug out bag contains one gallon of water for each member of my family, along with a portable filtration system to procure more. The Katadyn Vario inexpensively fits this requirement, can filter up to two quarts of water per minute, and has a filter cartridge life of 500 gallons. If necessary, there are other means to procure potable water such as a solar still.
- Shelter may seem like an unnecessary luxury when forced to carry your own gear, but it could mean the difference between life and death in a survival situation. You don’t need to lug a dome tent around, but you do need a way to protect yourself from the elements. This could be a simple poncho lean-to, a more complex Mylar-lined A-frame, or something in between. The key is to carry a lightweight, waterproof material large enough to cover your entire body that can be used alone or along with local materials to provide protection from wind, rain, or snow, while keeping you insulated from the cold or shielded from the heat.
- A good knife is critical for cutting things, building tools, and even self-defense. A small pocket knife is part of my EDC, but my bug out bag contains a larger fixed-blade knife because sometimes, that’s what the job requires. Keep it clean, keep it sharp, and cover the blade with a light coat of oil to prevent rust.
- Food will give your body the energy you need to survive, but be sure to pack rations with a sufficient shelf life. I prefer freeze-dried food because its lightweight and has a 10–year shelf life. The downside is that it requires extra water and time to prepare, and if you don’t want to eat it cold, you’ll need a camp stove and cookware. Another popular option are MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) because, as the name implies, they’re ready to eat right out of the package. The downside is that they’re loaded with sodium, tend to cause constipation, and have a shelf life of only about 2 years. Canned foods are a last resort because they’re heavy and bulky, but if that’s all you have, it’s better than nothing—for now. I suggest trying both freeze-dried food and MREs to see which you prefer. Prepare for at least three days worth of rations.
- Twine, string, or paracord has many uses; you can make an emergency sling, rig a shelter, fix pack straps, create snares to catch food, and build a fire bow, to name a few. It literally has hundreds of uses.
- Unless your super powers allow you to see in the dark, you’re going to need a flashlight—I suggest a few. When I was in the Marines, I used to stash mini Maglites everywhere; in my pack, in my load bearing gear, and even one in my pocket. They’re great because you can beat the hell out of them, they’re waterproof, small, bright, and inexpensive. If you’re on a really tight budget though, you can always pick up the tiny LED flashlights at the dollar store; they usually come two or three to a pack and they are definitely bright, I just don’t think they can handle the abuse that a Maglite can. (I’ll probably test that out soon.)
- A first aid kit is critical because even a small wound or illness can lead to an debilitation or even death. Band-aids, gauze, medical tape, antibiotic ointment, alcohol wipes; anti-diarrhea medication these should all be a part of your kit—or you can just buy a ready-made first aid kit, which is exactly what I would do if I didn’t already have an extremely comprehensive kit myself; in fact, all that I’m missing is some QuikClot and a couple of IV bags.
- A survival guide is a perfect addition to every bug out bag. Unless you spend your life in the field, you don’t know everything there is to know about survival, and under pressure, you’ll forget some of what you do know, so reference material is always a great idea. A few that I would suggest are SAS Survival Handbook, Survival Wisdom & Know How, and 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. Be sure to store it in a Ziploc bag, ideally, you should double bag it.