14 Survival Tools for Your Bug Out Bag

July 31, 2013 by | 26 Comments

Most people new to the survival and prepping community often face one of two challenges in building their first bug out bag; they either try to pack far too much equipment and end up with a bag they can’t carry, or they become so overwhelmed with the task that they don’t build one at all.

Opinions differ on what belongs in a bug out bag, but ultimately, each bag is as individualized as the person carrying it because each person has different needs. There are several tools that are necessary for every bug out bag, leaving plenty of space for any individualized equipment, supplies, and medicine that you may need.

Backpack
The most obvious thing needed for a bug out bag is, of course, a pack. Many will recommend a heavy-duty military-style backpack, and while this thinking has merit, it also has drawbacks. In a true SHTF scenario, who do you think is going to draw more unwanted attention from two-legged predators and/or over-zealous law enforcement personnel; the guy with an ALICE pack or the guy with a civilian-style backpack? Personally, I have both styles, but in most cases, the civilian models will be more appropriate. The key is selecting a reliable manufacturer, and you can’t go wrong with packs from Northface. I suggest selecting an average-sized pack—an extremely large pack is going to make you a target because it’s obvious that you are well-equipped. Also, the larger the pack, the more gear you’ll tend to carry—unless you are in excellent physical condition and accustomed to hiking with a heavy pack, you’ll quickly wear yourself out.

First Aid Kit

Nearly everyone who talks about survival usually starts off talking about a firearm for self-defense. Look, I am 100% pro-2nd amendment and believe that almost every adult should be armed at all times, but the fact of the matter is that you’re far more likely to encounter a  first aid situation than a self-defense situation. Handling that requires first aid knowledge and supplies. Even with formal first aid training, I’ve found it far easier to buy a prepackaged first aid kit; it might cost a few dollars more, but the time you save allows you to focus on other more important things than pinching pennies.

550 Cord

There are nearly unlimited used for 550 cord (AKA—Paracord), the same cordage used to attach a parachutist to their parachute. A single cord has a tensile strength of 550 pounds (I know, who would have guessed, right?) and consists of a heavy outer sheath surrounding seven two-ply yarns. You can use this as-is for securing gear, suspending an improvised shelter, making a rifle sling, and anything else that requires strong cordage, or you can separate the individual strands to sew torn clothing and/or gear, improvise fishing line, create a snare, and anything that requires thinner cordage. 550 cord is lightweight, inexpensive, and takes up little space in your bag.

Emergencey Blanket

An easy way to prevent hypothermia is to wrap up in a Mylar blanket; it’s lightweight and has multiple uses. It keeps you warm in all but the most extreme environments, can be used to as an improvised shelter, can reflect heat and sun, can be used as a signaling device, or even to build a solar still. I recommend the ones manufactured by SOL because they are thicker than most and the backside is high-visibility orange. Your bug out bag should contain at least two, because Mylar is easily torn and melted. If you’re carrying gear for multiple people, such as small children, pack at least two per person.

Headlamp

Even if you’re accustomed to working in the dark, a flashlight can come in very handy but a headlamp is even more convenient because it frees your hands while providing plenty of illumination. Most models these days use ultra-bright LEDs which offer superior battery life and produce no heat. One of the biggest advantages of a headlamp over a hand-held flashlight is that the area you’re looking at is always illuminated, reducing your chances of tripping over obstacles or stepping unto holes at night. As with the Mylar blankets, if you’re carrying gear for multiple people, pack one headlamp per person. Packing an extra set or two of batteries is a good idea too.

Leatherman

I carry a small clip-on knife every day, but sometimes you need more than a blade, such a screwdriver, can opener, or pliers, so I pack a Leatherman in my bug out bag. It’s small, lightweight, and has multiple uses—I can’t tell you how often this single tool came in handy in the field during my time in the Marine Corps. And today’s Leatherman tools are built far better than in the past, so they stand up to serious abuse and even come with a 25–year warranty. It’s one hell of a product at a great price with superior customer service—you can get knock-offs for a little cheaper but I wouldn’t risk it.

Seychelle Straw

Carrying water sucks; it’s heavy, takes up a lot of space, and sloshes around unless your container is completely full. That’s why I prefer the ability to filter water on the go. Products like the Seychelle Straw help me keep my pack light because I can simply filter any water I find, eliminating the need to haul it around. I’ve looked at various systems, and this is by far the best I’ve found yet. It removes 99.99% of bacteria, viruses, contaminants and pollutants found in drinking water, while most competing filters are unable to remove viruses and pollutants, such as gasoline and other hazardous chemicals. And if you really want to cover all your bases, they even offer a version that filters radiological contaminates, but that’s overkill in my opinion.

Nalgene

Circumstances may not permit you to sit around casually sucking water from a stream, so a Nalgene bottle or two is the perfect companion to your Seychelle straw because you can collect 32–ounces (1 quart) per bottle and drink from them through your filter straw on the go. Nalgene is one of the most reliable brands of water bottles available today; they are BPA-free, impact-resistant, and can be microwaved and frozen with no damage. They’re also sized perfectly to fit the outside pockets of most civilian backpacks. I recommend always selecting the wide-mouth models because it allows you to break up the ice that forms at the neck. You can’t do this with a canteen or narrow-mouth bottle.

Strike Fire Starter

The ability to start a fire can be the difference between life and death. I advise everyone to have multiple means to do so, but a strike fire starter is one of the best options, because it lasts nearly forever, is almost impossible to break, and works even when wet. I produced a video showing a similar product (different manufacturer) being used to ignite a fire starting gel—but it can be used just as easily to ignite any source of tinder. When you run the scraper, a knife blade, or other metal object along the ferrocerium rod, it produces a shower of hot (5,432° F) sparks that rain down on your tinder.

Trapping Snare

Trapping is a great way to efficiently gather protein and calorie rich food without attracting unwanted attention or expending precious energy. All it requires is a few snares and some basic trapping knowledge. If you live in a suitable area, I also recommend supplement your trapping kit with a fishing kit. This will give you two automated means of catching food while you focus on other tasks. As with any other survival skill, this requires first-hand experience, so practice in the field before your life depends on it. But be sure to check with your local laws and regulation first.

Wet Stone

Your knife and other edged tools will inevitably become dull over time. At home it’s easy to grab another one out of the drawer, but in the field or on the move you won’t have that option, so it’s critical that you know how to properly sharpen them. Using a wet stone is far from rocket science, but it is more complex than just rubbing your blade across it a few times. Everyone should own a quality wet stone; ideally, a set of wet stones because there are varying grades of abrasiveness and you need to work your way from coarse to fine for an ideal edge. This ensures a long life for your edged tools. Also, while it may seem counter-intuitive, a sharp blade is safer than a dull one because it requires less effort to use properly.

Wise Food

Trapping, fishing, and even foraging are valuable skills, but they take time and energy. Ripping open prepackaged food, however, takes almost no time or effort. Depending on the type of food, it’s either ready to eat immediately as in the case of MREs, or requires little more than reconstituting with water, as is the case with freeze-dried foods. Rotate your emergency food to ensure it doesn’t go out of date, and only buy what you actually enjoy eating. A common mistake people make is to buy cheap food they don’t enjoy, thinking they’ll eat it in an emergency–they won’t.

Cookware

Whether you’re stuck in the desolate Alaskan wilderness, a mosquito-infested Florida swamp, or your own home, with the roof recently torn off by a hurricane, something about a warm meal in your belly always makes you feel a little better. This of course requires cookware. At home, I love using my big, heavy cast iron skillets, but I’m sure as hell not hauling them around in my pack. Lightweight aluminum is ideal, preferably anodized so your food doesn’t stick to it. A nested cook set gives you multiple options depending on what you’re cooking, while not taking up any extra space than a single pot.

Wood Stove

It’s a lot easier to cook if you have a stove. I avoid the type that use compressed fuel like propane because they can easily break, and the fuel cans take up valuable space, add weight, and once they run out, your stove becomes nothing more than dead weight. They are also more expensive, especially over their lifetime. I prefer the type of stoves that use naturally available fuel, such as wood, animal dung, and even dried grass. They are lighter, reliable, compact, and rather than packing and carrying fuel, you can collect it as needed. The construction of your stove is important; avoid aluminum and instead opt for heavy-duty steel or titanium.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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26 Comments

  • Robbie says:

    This article was very informative.

  • Diane Clifford says:

    Thanks great info

  • Excellent items. I have a life straw as well as water bottles that filter the water. I also keep with mine Potable Aqua Water Treatment Tablets in the event I have to treat the water. Without water everything else is irrelevant.
    As for fire, I always have handy, 5 different ways to start a fire. Waterproof matches, flint, magnesium, even a magnifying glass, lighters etc. You are right, having a fire could be the difference between life and death.

  • Al says:

    Great article! My only suggestion would be to exchange the Seychelle Straw for a Lifestraw. According to the literature I read, the Seychelle Straw Advanced ($16) is good for 25 gallons of water and has few ratings and little information. The Lifestraw ($19) is good for 1000 liters which is about 10x the amount of water (about 264 gallons) and has over 220 5-star reviews on Amazon.

  • james bowie says:

    Thanks for the info, I have most of the stuff needed then some, don’t like that straw! I use I better one, a good filter canteen is a must,for MREs or most foods you need to add water, plus have a drink hot or cold you need a lot of water! ALUMINUM FOIL FOLDED UP HAS LOTS OF USES. a plastic bag over leaves will also give you water, so a few of them is helpful.(good luck) have fun! Make fires when ever you go camping the hard way!!!! Then when you need it you’ll know how!

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      I’ve done a lot of research and this appears to be the best straw out there. If you’ve found something better, I’d love to hear about it.

    • Jason says:

      You only need water for heating MREs and hydrating the include drink powers. The food can all be eaten without additional water. Although if you look it from a dietary perspective, due to the lack of fibre, it’s best to drink a lot of water when eating MREs. With regard to a better way to filter water, while it’s more expensive and bulky, an MSR MiniWorks filter is probably the way to go.

  • Claire says:

    THANK YOU for this. I’m in the later category (or I was until I read this article)…’Too overwhelmed to do anything at all!

  • Jack says:

    pack a handful of coffee filters, lots of uses.

  • Pat says:

    a few construction grade trash bags can be invaluable, so many uses!

  • Carla Hessaa says:

    Thank you! I also was in the “too overwhelmed to do anything category” but this has given me a good direction to start now…thanks for the suggestions from the other people as well!

  • Morgain333 says:

    Great list. My bag is packed but I think it is over packed since I’m only packing for one now! Spring is a good time to go through your bag and get it warm weather ready. And don’t forget your pet – they still need to eat and need water even if you are bugging out!

    • Keith Arnold says:

      Thanks for remembering the pets. If you’re a big-dog owner, you have some added advantages, too! My two Huskies can actually carry some gear of their own without complaint (recommendation: don’t let them carry food, or they’ll help themselves to it…), and properly done, they’ll go on forever. They’re great companions, and my guess is that if highwaymen see a group of backpackers with a couple of big dogs, they might decide to waylay someone else instead…

  • Louise says:

    Great info, it’s nice to know that I am carrying the right equipment. I still carry two stainless steel water bottles with me (1 Qt each), I appreciate that they are heavy, but I want to have water with me in case I have trouble sourcing some. I also carry a pie tin, which can be suspended over a pot of steaming water (or heated vegetation)and the tipped tin drippings make for some good distilled water.

    I see that I need to practice some trapping, since I have not done it before.

  • tabitha says:

    Sooooo, i have to be careful with which backpack i choose, because it could make me a target. BUT, a firearm isent worth the bother to carry because i am not likely to need to defend myself? Not a good start…

    Buying a pre-packaged first aid kit sucks, flat out… you get some band-aides, a single dose of bedryl, tylenol, or ibuprofin, a couple of small gauze pads, a couple of wet wipes, a couple of packets of burn crap, and a seriously crappy set of plastic tweezers… coupled with a lack of basic first aid knowledge, this is a recipe for infection and death. Simply taking a basic first aid class is better than having those pre-made kits. Unless you are talking about the $100+ kits. I built my own from the ground up. Certainly not perfict, but i can do way more with it, than a store bought one.

    I have a headlamp, but the batteries are kind of a pain to find sometimes. I always keep a pair of mini-mags with. AA’s are plentiful, they are simple, rugged, air and water tight, have a spare bulb, can be used as a weapon in a pinch, comes with a belt sheath for easy carefree carrying, and if it does fail, can still be used for storeage of small objects.

    I need a newer/better Leatherman.

    Gonna check on your straw thingy. Right now i have a Lifestraw for on the go and a Katydine for bug out.

    I have yo-yo’s and such for fishing, but i need to acquire and learn snares badly. I have lifeboat rations and survival tabs. I like them well enough. But, who knows how long i will like them with out some kind of supplimental food.

    Nothing really beats those ferro rods for fire. I have been also buying “sparkys”. Its a ferro rod with a kind of built in striker. It allows you to light your fire one handed. Great if your other hand is injured and cant strike your ferro rod. And they are only about $10. There is a bit of a learning curve to use them efficiently. But once you get it, its easy. They can also be used in close quarters combat as a stunning/blinding weapon.

    • Jeremy Knauff says:

      Your firearm should be on your body, not in your bag.

      If you’re going to criticize the first aid kit, you should look at what’s in it first.

      You complain about the headlamp needing batteries—what do you think your Maglight uses?

      A ferro rod as a weapon? Really? Good luck with that.

      • Keith Arnold says:

        I’m going to Jeremy on the firearms, but I’m with Tabitha on the first-aid kit. Most of the commercially available kits are loaded with piddly bandaids and single-dose antiseptics and burn creams. I’d put more trust in a kit I assembled myself. Be warned, the good kit you build yourself is likely to be bulkier than the travel kit you can stuff into a glove compartment, but it will be more useful (special note: take time to consider the special needs of your group. I have a diabetic in mine).

        I prefer a small, light handheld flashlight to a headlamp; they’re more flexible. I picked up a couple of very light ones with solar charge panels built in that are wonderful. I keep them in a south-facing window when not in use so they’re always fully charged, along with an Eton radio with a solar charger and a hand crank.

        I could see using a ferro rod as an auxiliary weapon; some of them are about the same size as a Kubotan. I never could get the hang of the Kubotan, but someone who knew what they were doing would be another matter. If you do, Tabitha, my hat’s off to you.

  • Shaun D Huckaby says:

    Have any of you heard of the poppin’ storm kettle kit? Its from the u. k. And it will boil water in a few minutes, with a handful of combustible material, (sticks). While you’re boiling water, you cook your food on top. A little expensive, but well made.

  • Dan Kidder says:

    Check out the Sawyer Micro Filter.

  • Indy says:

    Great list Jeremy – appreciate the info on the different brands, as well. I’m interested in hearing if you or anyone out there has used the BioLite Camp Stove – if so, what was you experience? I’m considering purchasing one….

    • teotwawkiandifeelfine says:

      I’ve used the camp stove. It’s a neat little unit. I went camping back in beginning of Summer and took it to be tested then. It seems to be a bit top heavy, the tripod legs help a bunch. I kept forgetting my firestarting skills so I kept having to fool with the fire. Once I got it going I cooked some eggs and bacon on it in a cast iron pan in about 15 minutes. After the fire is going, the fan kicks in automatically then if if’s going well enough, you can kick the fan to high. This is what I cooked on.
      It ate dry 1″ x 9″ sticks of beech in about 8 mins on high, about 12 mins on low. It is hard to light as it is not a rocket stove, no external holes, but with a little work it ‘fired’ up fine.

      The top grate isn’t great (haha), I’m thinking of making my own for more stability. It certainly is overkill for a cup of coffee but nice for a meal for one.

      As to it’s charging, it charged my Samsung Note, my iPhone 3, my Lenovo ideaPad Tablet all fine (One at a time.) The iPhone took longest, it took about 3 hours to charge. My wife’s iPad would not charge from it for me. Not near enough juice for my laptop, but I could charge a battery pack I have and used that to charge the laptop. Yes, I camp with electronics. No camper, but I still want music or voices at quiet times.

      All in all, it was worth the money to me, but I plan on using it when times get bad as needed. I only camp long term for 2 x a year, Spring and Fall and that’s a week at a time, so it’s not a necessary item for camping, I’d prefer a regular rocket stove for that, but as a prep, I can justify it 🙂 (least to the wife who NEEDS a fan anywhere.) If you camp a lot, as a charger it’s great, as a stove there are better for less. Hope this helps!

      Note, I use the high fan setting also when I am done, to fully burn the leftover and make it safe to dump just ashes.

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