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.
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 colorful civilian 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.