Let’s just start this off strongly by saying that if you google “bug out bag”, everything the search engine returns for you will be bullshit. That’s right, I said it. It’s a bunch of armchair fantasies coupled with capitalist marketing. I’ll even go so far as to say that if the article you’re reading about it contains a bunch of product links it’s almost certainly garbage. To be fair, no one seems to come at the subject from the standpoint of the staggered collapse of industrial civilization. In this rundown, I will.
A Get Out Now Emergency is a reaction that occurs when you have no other options. If you have enough stability to make decisions, then this isn’t tailored for that. This kind of bag is distinct from others talked about such as a survivalist bag or a tactical bag. The armchair fantasies are plagued with unrealistic expectations - both in what to expect as well as what to carry. The more realistic and useful bag will include the things you actually can use and none of the things you don’t need - and the latter is a much lengthier list. Your home, especially if you’ve made any preparations whatsoever, provides far more comfort and security - and contains a whole lot more useful stuff than what you can carry on your back.
Though I’m older now, I did go to college for Outdoor Education. I have taken various NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and OB (Outward Bound) courses, did WFA (Wilderness First Aid) and WFR (Wilderness First Responder) certifications, and have led and co-led numerous wilderness expeditions, outdoor therapy, and environmental education programs for groups ranging from grade school to college. The last decade or more as an older adult I delved very deeply into global energy issues and geopolitics, leading me to the inescapable conclusion that industrial civilization was poised for collapse. Everything I said 5 to 6 years ago was going to happen is now happening, right when I (and a few select others) said it would. [If you’d like the whole backstory to the “why”, maybe start with this link.] Taken together, these two topics color my perception of “bug out bags”.
Effects will be unevenly distributed, but we can expect rising prices and frustration, deteriorating bank accounts and social order, and an increase in adverse weather events. This will lead to massive disruptions and shortages, an increase in confrontational violence and fear, and much more evacuations, refugees, and local emergencies. The effects of global collapse will be varied - they will not be consistent everywhere at the same time. People are far more likely to drive to a relative or friend’s house outside their usual area and “group up” or end up at a hotel/motel or a refugee camp, than they are to live off the land in the woods or fight zombies or whatever. That said, probably somewhere further down the priorities list than is usually reckoned, at some point it actually is prudent to get together a go-bag of some kind.
To be clear, this article is written by an American from a US-perspective. Your mileage may vary, as they say, if you are reading this in another country. I’m choosing to label it your GONE Bag (Get Out Now Emergency), in lieu of it being lumped into the same category as the ubiquitous junk being peddled under the usual title.
Alright then. Let’s get into the specifics. This will not be a product list, but I will throw in some examples and recommendations. Here’s an overview of the categories for consideration, in general order of importance:
This article is written for the average American. I myself am over 40, have two autoimmune disorders, and a wife and a 2-year-old. I have no delusions about carrying a 45-pound pack over mountains on weeks long expeditions like I used to. That’s not this article, and that’s not what this pack is intended for. It’s also not a tactical combat pack, though I do think at some point in the near future I could very well be walking a neighborhood security patrol or standing at a community security checkpoint. Again, this is not that article or that kind of pack.
Just remember this axiom: “As your weight goes up, your endurance goes down.” Despite your ability or mobility, the load will stress your body, increase your chances of injury, and cost you calories. For most of us it will increase our stress levels and shorten our tempers, make us grumpy and not as alert, and cause us to tire and get hungry much more quickly. We want a pack with the minimum amount necessary to get us to where we’re going and to be the core of what we need once we get there to procure more stuff. We want it to be light, easy and accessible, and primarily functional for survival for a short amount of time - a few days at most.
As for the type of pack, obviously you will use whatever you have. Ideally, I highly suggest a hiking-style backpack with a hipbelt and a 35-45 liter capacity for adults. If you have small children, you may need to be on the higher end of that so you can carry a few things for them. You may also want to have a smaller kids backpack with perhaps a 10 liter capacity for them to carry a few of their own comfort items, a change of clothes, and documentation in case they get separated from you. Notice that the capacity almost always refers to internal capacity only and does not include external mesh pockets or the capacity to strap things to the outside. In my examples below, the two adult packs have long, adjustable double loop straps at the bottom intended for a sleeping bag or pad (or whatever else you want to use it for) as well as deep mesh pockets and bungee compression straps (I usually strap a fleece or rain jacket onto that area - any kind of layer I'm going to be taking off and on a lot, depending on the activity and weather).
A note on waterproofing: Many adult packs come with a rain cover, but they are 1) usually not very good, and 2) sometimes brightly colored. You can purchase better rain covers separately that are more muted in color, but be sure to get one sized for the liter-capacity of your pack. That said, rain covers are a first layer of protection; you must expect that in sustained rain they will "wet out" (allow water to seep through). Consider a rain cover to be only a first-level prevention measure - there should be at least two more water protection layers inside the pack if you are in an area or time of year experiencing frequent rain. The next level is what is called a "pack liner", which is a waterproof bag large enough to fill the inside of a backpack. Inside the pack, for organization purposes, people usually use differently-colored "stuff sacks". The next level for water protection is to individually pack the items you really can't afford to get wet into a compression sack specifically designed to keep ALL water out - called a "dry sack". Usually a sleeping bag and a dry set of clothes and socks go in there at the bottom of your pack. Again, these things are optional and the ideal - you do not need to prioritize this sort of thing all that highly in a GONE bag.
One last brief note on packs: The examples given here are the best "cheap" options. Clearly the cheapest option is to use whatever you have on hand. On the other hand, there are plenty of higher-end packs of the same general size if you are a gear junkie like me. If that interests you, I would highly recommend looking into companies such as Gossamer Gear, Mountain Laurel Designs, Six Moon Designs, or Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA). You can also get quite a lot of great accessories from them.
If there's one vitally important thing to include in your GONE bag, it's an extra set of clothes. When crisis hits, you could be in your work clothes, a t-shirt and sandals, or dressed up for an event or something. You will want a dedicated set of clothes, an extra pair of socks, and a good sturdy pair of shoes. In many conceivable scenarios - though not all - you may be able to simply hit up a local thrift store to acquire some cheap clothes. Churches and aid organizations may also have donation programs running. The only other non-obvious thing I might add to this category is a belt.
Go as minimal as possible in this category, while still covering all the basic needs. I recommend shopping in the travel section of your local stores for these items. A basic list would be a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste, a small bottle of Dr Bronners soap (can be diluted with water to last longer), a small pack of wet-wipes, small hand sanitizer, floss (surprisingly tough thread, can be used for other things than teeth), and lotion/aquafor/lip balm if you have dry or flaky skin. If you have small children, you're going to have to get a larger pack of wet-wipes as well as diapers (though remember that this is only for a few days - pack a cloth diaper or two for longer-term).
Some of this is potentially critically important. You're going to need documents, in every pack for every member of the family. Make copies of everything you normally keep in your wallet - that way if you forget to switch it over or grab it when emergency hits, at least you have something. That includes an ID, your insurance card(s), your social security card, etc. Identification may be required at checkpoints during a disaster, it may be required to get back home after the event has occurred, and it may be needed at any outreach or donation/aid program or refugee facility.
A passport, if you have one, is probably the best option. You don't normally carry it around anyway, so just tuck it into your GONE bag rather than wherever it currently is.
You may want to also include a backup credit card and a concealed carry license, if applicable.
Put some cash in here too. The amount is up to personal discretion, but prices are rising these days. I would suggest $100 in every bag - that should be plenty for this kind of a bag that is designed to get you through only a few days.
Possibly the most important thing to put in this category is a list of contacts - their relationship to you, and their phone numbers. If your phone is broken, lost, stolen, or just plain out of juice, you're going to need it. (And let's face it, you don't remember anyone's number by memory these days anyway.) If you have kids and they are separated from you, this will allow a good samaritan to contact you.
Speaking of which, you will want to include an extra phone cord and wall charger/adapter. You may also want to consider a small pre-charged battery pack like Anker so that you can charge your phone once or twice without having to connect it to an outlet. Keep your phone off or on airplane mode until you need it.
I suggest some of this go into a small dedicated waterproof pouch, inside freezer zip-lock bags. There are RFID-blocking pouches you can get as well if that concerns you. I use a cuben-fiber waterproof zippered pouch (from a backpacking company called ZPacks), two quart-sized freezer zip-lock bags, inside of a gallon-sized freezer zip-lock bag (with all the documentation folded so the important information isn't showing).
The absolute number one thing in this category is prescription medication. Extras, not the ones you have in your medicine cabinet at home. Rotate them out every month if you have to, but put a supply in your bag in case you have to grab it and go. Everyone's needs here are different, but this is an area you absolutely must take extra care of.
If you wear glasses or contacts, you'd better have an extra set. You can buy cheap glasses online for $100 - sometimes less. They'll be plastic and cheap, but they're better than nothing. If you wear contacts, in almost all cases you're better off getting glasses for your GOOD bag. Contacts are much more work, easier to lose, and require a lot more maintenance. (Can you tell I hate contacts? Still, I think it's solid advice.)
My perspective on first aid for your GONE bag is admittedly colored by my backpacking experience, and the fact that this bag is supposed to be for a few days at most. "Thru-hikers" of the Appalachian Trail - a trail that goes for over 2,180 miles (over 3,508 kilometers), through 14 different states, takes 4-6 months to complete, and has a total elevation gain/loss equivalent to hiking Mount Everest 16 times - have notoriously small first aid kits and do just fine. As an expedition group leader for various programs I had to carry a good bit more first aid equipment, but never used anything beyond the basics except once. A GONE bag methodology is one of simplicity and brief time limit. Accordingly, I don't recommend overdoing this category. Some gauze and bandaging material, a pair of nitrile gloves, a few bandaids, some antibiotic ointment, maybe some steri-strips. Add some over-the-counter medications (ibuprofen and acetaminophen), some laxatives and anti-diarrhea meds, and a few benadryl tablets and you've got yourself a basic first aid kit. You can either get your OTC medications at a gas station in the little single-serve packets or go to a craft section at walmart and get tiny ziplock bags. Throw in one of those tiny Victorinox Swiss army knives and you're good to go.
The last thing I'll mention for this section is an exhortation: Please, for your loved ones and yourself, get some advanced first aid training. Your basic first aid course is a good start, but I would highly encourage you to go further. And try to take all the various opinions with a grain of salt. Keeping a cool head and working the problem is worth more than mere knowledge of advanced techniques.
If you listen to the multitude, you're going to be bogged down with Mountain House meals, a full-on backpacking stove with fuel canister(s), and at least two Nalgenes (32 ounces each) full of water. You really don't need anywhere near as much as the armchair theorists tell you. You're certainly not going to be pulling out your camping stove and cooking your dehydrated meals in a disaster scenario where you have to Get Out Now. You need enough to get you to a resupply, which even in a bad situation shouldn't be more than a day or two. You need some snacks, and a liter or two of water, and maybe a way to filter water sources you find along the way. It's far more likely that you'll just pick up another bottle of water on the way, or get one from a donation center, or a hotel vending machine or something. This isn't the bag for a Red Dawn scenario.
That said, I do have some recommendations. Since this is a pack that will likely be sitting in your closet for emergencies, the packed food snacks need to be shelf-stable, durably packaged, and ready to eat (doesn't require cooking). Again, rotate this stuff out once in a while. I'll tell you from experience that even Cliff Bars are inedible after a year or so.
Backpackers overwhelmingly favor SmartWater water bottles - they are 1 liter, they are tall and skinny allowing them to easily go in the side pockets of a backpack even when the interior is packed to the brim, and they have an easy-flip cap. They also have the same threading as Sawyer water filters, another experienced backpacker favorite, allowing you to easily filter water. You can even scoop up some water, screw the Sawyer filter on, and drink right from it without bothering to pour it into a separate bottle. There are two Sawyer options, and as someone who has used both the Sawyer Mini as well as the slightly bigger Sawyer Squeeze.. get the Squeeze. The Mini takes a good bit longer to push water through, and, even more time-consuming, it requires backflushing after pretty much every use in order for flow rate to remain steady. It's just not worth it. Get the Squeeze, it's only $10 more (30 rather than 20), and definitely worth the extra 10. Either one are far better than the ubiquitous LifeStraw recommendations. They filter down to 0.1 micron and get rid of all bacteria, protozoa, E. Coli, giardia, vibrio cholerea, Salmonella typhi, and microplastics.
Generally, you need at least a liter of water per person, in whatever water bottle you can get ahold of. You're going to need something, and have a plan to acquire more. The key for food is that you need rations, not full-on meals in this kind of bag.
If you're a guy in the US, chances are fairly high that you carry around a pocketknife or at least know some that do. If you're into the whole "EDC" (every day carry) thing, you almost certainly have one and a flashlight and maybe even a small multitool on you at all times. For a GONE bag these aren't really high priority items, but they might be nice to have. I personally especially like the small swiss army knives since they have a small pair of scissors and tweezers. Those and the small knife actually come in quite handy for a lot of small tasks (cleaning, cordage, fires, fingernails, first aid). When I would go on long backpacking expeditions it was the only thing I'd carry. When I was leading bigger groups I usually added a Morakniv Companion (usually just called a Mora) or an MSR Alpine for kitchen tasks. I like to have these in bright colors after spending far too many evenings in the dark looking for which rock I put it on. The Alpine is a good bit lighter than the Mora, but the Mora is still very light for a full-tang blade and much sturdier (I've even used it to chop firewood). The Alpine also doesn't have a safety stop for your grip, so it's more suited to lighter tasks. Honestly you're not going to need any of this in a GONE bag, but people love their knives.
There is one tool I would definitely recommend for a GONE bag though, and that is a flashlight. I would go with one small but powerful (150-250 lumens) handheld and one headlamp with a red-light filter. I'd also suggest that both run on AA batteries because they are the most popular and easily replaceable, but USB rechargeable will work for this type of bag in most cases as well - especially if you don't overuse it or have packed an Anker charger. Flashlights, like knives, are a deep rabbit hole of options and opinions. They also range from cheap crap to ridiculous sums of money. The most popular best companies out there for pocket flashlights are probably Surefire and Streamlight, and Fenix and Petzl for headlamps, but there are alternatives that are also good. These options range from $10-$30:
The only other things in this category I might mention in passing is a way to start a fire and a pair of scissors. Absolutely not necessary though. Just throw in a Bic lighter into your first aid gear and maybe some EMT shears. There's a lot of other tools that may be nice to have in niche situations and you can really weigh yourself down with unnecessary stuff. Resist the urge. Usually people don't though, and they have to learn through experience.
This isn't the bag for a shelter - a tarp or tent or hammock. Honestly you probably don't need to worry about this category at all. That said, I personally think it would be nice to have a sleeping bag or quilt. The problem is that the cheap options don't compress well and take up a lot of space, and they're heavy. You can easily spend $200-$450 on a decent option if you buy new. Fortunately there are deals and sales, and you can buy lightly used.
I'm not going to get into the unending details on choices - I could write an entire book on the subject. But for this kind of a bag, if you are keen on adding a sleeping bag/quilt to it (which again really isn't necessary and just nice to have), I can give a few suggestions on choices. I would look at Enlightened Equipment, Mountain Laurel Designs, and UGQ Outdoors for both synthetic and down bags/quilts around the $200-$300 mark (again, that's full price, new, which no one should really be purchasing). If you're buying one from a chain outlet like REI or Bass Pro Shop or Academy Sports there are very few if any good options. I'd steer clear of those places for this particular category.
Remember that if you want this option in your GONE bag, I'd highly recommend putting it in a dry bag compression sack. The best one on the market has been the same for over a decade: the Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack. Note though that there are different sizes, and without experience with different types of sleeping bags/quilts (not to mention adding a clothing layer and socks) it can be difficult to find the right one. I'd suggest buying two different sizes, putting your gear in it, putting that in your pack, and then returning whatever size didn't work as well.
I hesitate to even talk much about this category for a GONE bag. Firstly because if you're into this sort of thing you have already have likely planned for it. Secondly because storing a handgun, holster, magazines, and extra ammunition is going to add at least two and a half pounds to your pack. The third reason is that even in an emergency where you have to Get Out Now you're still going to have a few minutes to grab a few things (otherwise you're not even going to grab your GONE bag in the first place), and you should have easy and quick (but secure) access to your sidearm, holster, and extra mag, which you can either shove in the pack or secure on your person. I would suggest a can of pepper spray though, as a non-lethal option.
Bear in mind that survival is primarily not about stuff - not about cool gear you can buy. A reliance on stuff will lull you into a false sense of complacency and get you injured or even killed. It is absolutely ludicrous how many people simply buy cool stuff that helps ease their cognitive dissonance. There are numerous circumstances when you won't be able to get to your 'stuff' that you've so patiently acquired and spent all that money on. Or it could be stolen, confiscated, lost, or damaged. Inevitably, having the right tools for the job is far more desirable and efficient, but health, knowledge, and skillsets are much more important in a collapse scenario than stored 'stuff' that you have come to rely on and can't do without.
I hope this rundown has given you a lot of specific information that you can use to make yourself more resilient. I tried to be thorough and place a lot of emphasis on paring down what you think you'll need balanced with items and the mindset that will actually help.
The future is going to be far different than the past. The next decade is going to look vastly different than the last decade. This blog is about the transition.
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Physical Preps and Tools
Prepping Priorities - Physical & Psychological
2022 US Threat Assessment Part II
2022 US Threat Assessment Part I
GONE Bag: Get Out Now Emergency
Tactical Gear Considerations
Interview with Derrick Jensen
2020: A Marker For Collapse
Firearms And Our Future
Thermodynamic Failure: Phase 2
Firearms and Defense
Explaining Peak Oil
The Significance of Renewables
What Will The Future Look Like?
What Do The Experts Say?
Hope is Complex and Fragile
Personal Change Does Not Equal Social Change
Why Genesis 1:28 Doesn't Apply
It's Not About Running Out of Oil