You don't need to be an end-times prepper to justify being ready to weather a disaster. Self-sufficiency, especially during difficult or dangerous times is one of the best gifts that we can give ourselves, and doing so needn't be complicated or expensive. One of the best ways to prepare for the worst is to put together a bug out bag, containing all the basics you might need to stay safe and reasonably comfortable in the event that you're forced to leave home due to an emergency. We're here to show you how to do it.
What's a Bug Out Bag?
Bug out bags used to the be the exclusive territory of survivalist and other paranoid types. But times have changed and keeping one in your home, car or place of employment is commonplace, these days.
To 'bug out' is military slang for leaving a place, quickly. So, a bug out bag is an emergency preparedness kit that you can carry on your back in case—you guessed it—you're forced to 'bug out' during a dangerous situation.
Why Do You Need One?
Because bad things and bad people don't care about your plans.
If you live in an earthquake zone, Tornado Alley or a chunk of the country that is routinely ravaged by severe winter storms or hurricanes, you likely already have an emergency preparedness kit for your home. That's great… provided you're at home. In the event of a natural disaster, a man-made one or civil unrest, you may have no choice but to evacuate your residence, for safety's sake. This is where a bug out bag comes into play.
Depending on your financial situation or living arrangement, you might not be able to afford or have space for more than one emergency kit. If that's the case, a bug out bag may be all you need.
Pick a Bag
You've likely seen the guidelines for pulling together emergency preparedness supplies that FEMA and your municipal government recommend. Typically, they suggest that each person in your family stash away enough food, water and other supplies to see them through 72 hours during an emergency. They talk up this three-day period because it could take emergency responders that long, at a minimum, to get their ducks in a row before they can provide aid in the wake of a disaster. If you're able to stay at home, you can stash your emergency supplies on shelves or in a closet. But if you're forced to leave your home in order to survive, those three days' worth of goods all need to fit on your back.
According to FEMA guidelines, each person should drink two quarts of water per day. That's six quarts over three days. As a quart of water weighs around two pounds, your pack will get pretty heavy, pretty quickly. So, you may want to consider selecting a pack with a waist belt to help distribute this weight, along with the heft of the rest of your supplies.
You'll want the bag you choose to be easy to organize, so that finding what you need, when you need it, isn't difficult. Some people like to buy bags with a lot of built-in organizational options. I'm not one of them. I prefer a carry system that has a few small pockets for often used incidentals and a large, central space where I can stash heavier, less frequently used items in packing cubes, or swappable storage pouches. This allows me to customize the inside of my pack to serve my needs, rather than be forced to compromise on how I organize my supplies, based on the layout of my backpack. Military-style bags are great for this, thanks to their MOLLE or PALS-style modular approach to carriage. But investing in one to use during a crisis isn't a great idea. Nothing broadcasts 'I HAVE GREAT EQUIPMENT YOU MAY WANT TO TAKE' like a pricey-looking tactical with tons of cool attachment points and a lot of pouches.
An exception to this tactical bag rule is to use one that doesn't look like it'd be at home in the Afghan countryside. The bag I use for example, is Arc'teryx's pricey, but excellent LEAF Assault 30 backpack. It looks very much like a traditional outdoor backpack at first glance. And as it's grey in color, it doesn't attract a whole lot of attention. Inside of the bag is where the tactical magic happens. The Assault 30 is lined with Velcro so that I can add or remove pouches, as needed. This allows me to use the Assault 30 as my day-to-day backpack, but then, as I keep everything for my bug out kit in individual pouches made by Velocity Systems, I can slap them into the bag and be out the door in under two minutes.
Finding a bag that's weatherproof, either by materials and design or through the use of a rain cover is a great idea as soggy clothing food and hardware make what's most likely an already awful situation, even worse. If you can't afford a rain cover, or can't find one to fit your bag, consider using a big black garbage bag to keep the water out. Alternatively, you can use dry sacks and ziplock bags inside of your pack to keep the weather at bay.
Keeping all of these points in mind, I recommend considering a light, large capacity trekking backpack—the sort of thing you might pick up for a pan-European hosteling adventure. Osprey's Farpoint 40 backpack is a great example of this. If you're on a budget, the Mountaintop 40 Litre Hiking Backpack with Rain Cover is worth looking at, too.
Food and water
It's a good idea to stock your home preparedness kit with lots of the shelf-stable canned foods and dry goods that you would normally eat. But that may not necessarily work for your bug out bag.
Canned goods can be pretty heavy and require a can opener to use. Foodstuff like crackers or cookies can be easily obliterated into crumbs and pasta requires a lot of water to prepare, which needs to be disposed of, as it's not very palatable to consume afterward. Instead, you might want to think about going with options that are lighter, take up less volume in your pack and don't require you squander your resources to in order to eat.
Energy bars are a great option, as they don't taste terrible, are compact and typically have a long shelf life. I like Clif Bars, as they taste like a treat, come in a number of different flavors. A less tasty, but more nutritious option is to invest in emergency rations, like these ones from by Datrex. These food bars come in sealed packages of 18, and each bar contains 200 calories. They don't taste great, but they're not terrible, either. Most importantly, they have a five-year shelf life, so you can pack them in your bag and forget about them until you need them.
While pasta and other foods that require boiling to prepare are bad options, freeze-dried foods, which require you add water to them in order to rehydrate them, are a great idea as the water you use to prepare them isn't thrown away afterwards—it winds up in your body where it belongs. What's more, as they don't contain water, a freeze-dried meal, like the ones made by Mountain House, weigh next to nothing and take up a small amount of space. You'll need to boil water in order to prepare these foods. While there are more compact options out there, I favor investing in a Jetboil Flash Personal Cooking System. The Flash weighs 32 ounces and comes with a cooking cup that can hold a litre of water, a burner, a sip-through lid, an insulated cozy with a built-in handle and a collapsible tripod to keep it standing up while you're using it. When not in use, the burner and tripod store inside of the cooking cup, with space left over for a can of cooking gas.
As for water, I like these water pouches from Datrex enough that I recommend them every chance I get. They're pliable, making them ideal for stashing away in a backpack and have a long shelf life so you won't have to do anything to keep them potable. And, as they come in individual 125ml servings, you can keep track of how much fluid you're consuming per day. You can pick them up on Amazon in cases of 12, 15 or 128. You may also want to consider carrying a water filtration and purification device like the Lifestraw. Simply place one end of the Lifestraw in a puddle or container of the dirty or contaminated water and suck on the other end. As the water is drawn through the Lifestraw, it's filtered into a potable liquid that's safe to consume. Magic.
You'll also want to consider throwing in a few treats, too. Hot chocolate, tea and coffee are good options as they provide warmth and allow you to take in your daily allotment of water in a flavorful way. Chocolate bars and other treats that don't require refrigeration are great for providing energy while boosting your morale in a bad situation, too.
Have a pet? Don't forget to pack enough food and additional water to see them through, too.
Warm and Dry
A camp stove like the Jetboil can cook your food, but it's not a substantial source of heat. For that, you'll want to rely on fire, mylar and warm, water-resistant clothing.
Let's talk about clothing first. You've got closets full of it right now, so I'm not going to try and convince you to buy anything else unless you need to. I will, however, make a few suggestions. At the minimum, you'll want to pack three pairs of underwear and three to four pairs of socks into your bug out bag. This is for the purpose of keeping things clean, which helps both with morale and keeping illness at bay. A sweater made of a quick-drying material or one that will still keep you warm, even when it's wet is a must have as well. You'll also want to consider including a weatherproof garment in your bag, be it a disposable rain cape or a waterproof jacket.
I mentioned mylar—it's the stuff that they make space blankets out of. It is your friend. When used as a blanket or shelter, mylar keeps you warm by reflecting your body heat back at you. When not in use, a mylar blanket like this one or an emergency shelter like the S.O.L Emergency Bivvy weigh next to nothing and take up a very small amount of space in your bug out bag—that's two things that mylar has going for it that a bulky, conventional sleeping bag can't match.
Finally, there's fire.
Depending on where you're forced to take refuge, you may not need to or may not be able to light a fire (emergency shelters tend to frown on it.) But when there's a need and the opportunity presents itself, you'll want a reliable way to get the flames going. A Swedish Fire Steel uses magnesium to create a spark that can touch off kindling in any weather at any altitude. That it's inexpensive is icing on the cake. You may want to consider packing a hatchet in your bag for creating kindling, as well. If you do, it can also be used for defense or to extricate yourself or others from debris.
Most people have a smartphone, these days. But in the wake of a disaster, there's no guarantee that the cellular towers in your area will be operating or that the power needed to juice up your handset will be available. A compact solar panel, like the Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus can recharge small USB-powered devices using nothing more than a bit of sunshine.
In the event that your smartphone has no signal, you'll want to consider packing a radio along with you to keep you informed of where help can be found and whether or not there are any new hazards that you need to look out for. The Eton Scorpion II is a rugged compact AM/FM radio that can also pull in NOAA weather radio signals and provide alerts for your area. What's more, its rechargeable battery can provide a small amount of power to your smartphone. And as the Scorpion II can be charged back up via USB, hand crank or its built-in solar panel, you'll never have to worry about running out of power. Did I mention that it has a built-in flashlight? Because it totally does. The Scorpion II's light may not be bright enough to make you want to forego packing a headlamp, but it's definitely a nice bonus.
Health and sanitation
In an emergency situation where resources can be scarce, using water to bath instead of drinking it, isn't a great idea. These extra-large bath wipes from Sea to Summit allow you to clean effectively clean yourself without wasting a drop of liquid.
You'll want to be sure that you're set for toilet time, too. Packing a roll of toilet paper is an absolute must. If you're a woman looking to prep for the worst, you'll want to consider packing a GoGirl to make urinating outdoors a little bit easier. And you'll certainly want to ensure that you pack any sanitary products you'll need.
During an emergency, medical care may be hard to come by, due to the fact that first responders are unable to safely travel the disaster area or because the hospital in your area may simply no longer be serviceable. With this being the case, you'll want to ensure that you pack a first aid kit and know how to use it—we cover this topic, in full, here.
It's also of vital importance that you ensure that your bug out bag include any prescription medications that you can't go without. In most cases, your physician will be happy to provide you with a script for extra meds.
This list should get you started on building a bug out bag that'll see you through some pretty ugly times. But there's always room for a few extras—and there's no end to the online opinions on what those extras should be.
A lot of peppers advise including a substantial stash of cash in your bag. But not everyone has the disposable income to facilitate that. Having copies of important contact numbers, banking information and scanned copies of your state and federal identifications isn't a terrible idea, either. Don't be afraid to add to or subtract from this list as you see fit—a bug out bag is meant to provide you with peace of mind and security during unthinkable times. Which form those things take is a very personal decision.
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more.