I think for a lot of people, talking about a ‘bug-out bag’ conjures images of ‘preppers’, hoarding weapons and canned goods in the conviction that society is on the brink of imminent collapse. Surely those of us of a more balanced mind don’t need to be worrying about ‘bugging out’?
Well, ask yourself two questions.
1. Are you absolutely certain that at no point in your life will you ever be forced to leave your home unexpectedly and at very short notice? Bear in mind I’m not just talking about major disasters (though those too) but even annual flooding, a gas leak, or a fire next door.
2. If that happened, are you absolutely certain that your government will immediately keep you warm and fed, with minimal delay?
If you can answer yes to both of those questions then maybe you don’t need a bug out bag, but you do need your head examined. People are forced from their homes, temporarily or permanently, all the time, due to small localised events like gas leaks and fires, or major widespread events like floods, storms or even terrorist attacks. It happens and it can easily happen to you.
Meanwhile, governments will not necessarily be giving you warm clothes and a hot meal in the first few hours after this happens. We’ve seen time and time again how bad governments in the UK, US and elsewhere are at looking after people in the hours and days immediately after a disaster. They even acknowledge in most disaster plans that people need to be able to look after themselves for the first 72hrs of a crisis. Sadly, most people don’t listen, or haven’t even bothered to read their local disaster preparedness plan.
When someone knocks on your door and says “you need to leave, and you need to leave now” will you be ready, or not? You may have a load of lovely warm kit in a cupboard, some bottled water and cereal bars in the kitchen, a well-used and not fully-refilled first aid kit in the bathroom, and a torch probably in the drawer in the hall unless it’s in the car and actually the battery is a bit dead anyway… but are you sure you want to be trying to round those up at 1 in the morning while a police officer is telling you to leave the building immediately?
So, if you’re still with me, maybe you’ve recognised that having a ‘bug-out bag’ isn’t just for sad conspiracy nutters living in cabins in the wood, it’s a responsible bit of basic preparation by anyone who wants to look after themselves and their family.
So what do you need in it? Well, first off, this is to get you through 72hrs. Not necessarily in luxury, but without unreasonable suffering or health risk. So, think what you need to survive for 72 hrs. Essentially it boils down to water, food and warmth. On top of that, light and first aid are close second-tier requirements. Anything else you might take (tools, etc) is really just a means of getting those things.
What you need:
I recommend a backpack for easy of carrying, and preferably something with multiple pouches so it’s easy to find things without having to take everything out. The main compartment on mine has a zipper which unzips fully on three sides of the bag, meaning it can be opening up completely to make it easy to find individual items.
If you’re preparing for a family, size and weight is obviously going to be a consideration. Ideally, a large backpack would be best. If you need to split it into two, that’s fine if you have two people who can carry them, but try to make sure equipment is evenly balanced across both bags. If all your food is in one and all your warm kit in the other you’re going to be in trouble if you can only carry one for some reason, such as because your partner is away at the time of the incident.
Humans need approximately 1 litre of water a day for bare survival, but between 3 and 4 to be reasonably comfortable and healthy. The biggest problem is that water is heavy and bulky – 12 litres of water, a reasonable requirement for a man for 72 hours, is 12 kg, which is a fair weight. My approach is to start with a base survival amount of water, for which I use long-lasting water pouches designed for ship’s liferafts, and have a total of 3 litres. In most cases that should be sufficient since the authorities will prioritise the provision of water. However, as a backup I have a water filter and iodine tablets, and several more litres of bottled water I can grab if the situation demands it or if, for example, I know I’m getting straight into my car so weight is less of a concern.
You’ll want around 6,000 calories per person to be relatively comfortable for 72hrs. You can survive on a lot less (hell, you can survive 72 hours with no food at all) but it’s possible to carry 6,000 calories in a relatively compact and lightweight form. I have about half of it in dense, high-calorie survival bars which taste like crap but will stop you starving, and and the other half in bits and bobs of freeze-dried stuff and bars. A lot of having this bag is going to be about maintaining morale and a decent level of comfort, particularly if you are preparing one for your whole family, so it’s worthwhile having things that are actually nice to eat, even if they’re a bit less compact, or require replacing more often due to sell-by dates. For the food and water I note the sell-by dates for everything on a bit of paper and tuck it into the top of the bag, that way it’s easy to quickly check what needs replacing when, without having to rummage through it.
Largely, this is about clothes. You want lightweight, compressible, but highly warm garments, and decent waterproofs, preferably including waterproof trousers. They don’t necessarily need to be super-technical and layering is less important than it would be for planning a hike or something. Personally, my bag contains a lot of kit that has been retired from my hiking wardrobe because it’s been replaced by something better. I can’t afford to have my best kit just sitting in a bag unused, but taking it out and using it is a recipe for it not being in the bag when you need it, which defeats the whole object. So it’s odds and ends of old but functional hiking gear so that I know even if I grab the bag in my pyjamas in the middle of the night, I’ve got enough stuff to stay warm.
For warmth it’s probably reasonable to also take some stuff for starting a fire. Personally, in an urban scenario you’re unlikely to have the need or opportunity to be starting fires, but a few waterproof matches and a lighter weigh so little it’s crazy not to take them. More importantly, I have a couple of compact army-style camping stoves, giving me the ability to heat water and food. That’s a huge morale booster but also a good way to keep warm if it’s extremely cold. Besides, I’m British, and if my whole street goes up in a gas explosion and I’m sitting on the beach calling my insurance company, the first thing I’ll want is a cup of tea.
Finally, you need to consider some kind of shelter. At the very least, an emergency bivvy is a lightweight and highly packable option that will keep the wind and rain off, but it’s not going to be particularly comfortable if you end up sleeping outside for the full 72hrs. Adding a sleeping bag will make it a considerably more attractive prospect, but it needs to be something small and lightweight or else you’ll practically double the size of your pack and make it too heavy and unwieldy. Personally, based on my urban scenario, I don’t bother with more advanced shelter like a mini tent or a poncho, but if your plan involves ending up well away from towns or any form of artificial shelter, you’re going to need to consider something like that. A military style tarp with bungees is a fairly small and lightweight option with plenty of flexibility, and can be rigged up in such a way as to keep the rain off a whole family of five, or to make an effective tent for one or two.
A torch (flashlight… hello Americans), or better still two or three torches, are a must-have for reasons that hardly even seem worth explaining. A head torch is a bonus, but handheld ones are fine. Spare batteries and potentially even bulbs are worth having, bearing in mind that they could be sitting in the bag for years before ever being used, and it’s a real fucker when you need it and nothing works.
Cylumes are also a worthwhile addition – they don’t run out of battery or have bulbs go dead, and they are a useful way of marking areas and also signalling. In fact, tying one to the end of a piece of string and spinning it over your head makes a highly visible disk of light that is a recognised signal for helicopters and other S&R assets.
A basic first-aid kit is a must, but this is one of those things where I would actually go well above and beyond. In the kind of scenarios I have this bag for, it is possible I could be one of the first people on scene at a mass-casualty event, or have to give self-treatment while waiting for overstretched medical response, so I have additional items like CAT tourniquets, first field dressings, burn dressings, and celox to help treat the kind of traumatic injuries that could result from an explosion, fire or terrorist incident. All I would caution is not to take stuff you haven’t been trained in the use of.
You should also include, if you are able to get enough of them to spare, 72hrs worth of any essential medication, bearing in mind the need to monitor use-by dates as closely as with food.
If you do end up having to suddenly leave your home, you may or may not remember or be able to find your wallet. The point is to assume you’ll take nothing but the bag, so you need to try to reproduce some of the most vital items from your wallet in here: some cash, perhaps a credit card that you wouldn’t otherwise use, and if possible some ID that you can afford to leave in the bag and not use, such as an expired passport.
As I’ll explain below, I personally don’t see a huge value in carrying lots of tools, but it’s down to your individual preferences and circumstances. What is worth having is a decent folding knife, some scissors, string (or better, paracord), a whistle, a compass, and some duct tape. Sadly, it’s hard to know what you will want until you want it, but useful, practical items like these are worthwhile.
What you probably don’t need
This next section is a bit controversial. So, look – your assessment of what you need depends on what your assessment of the risks are, the kind of scenarios where you expect to need the BoB, and your intended survival methods. If you assess that there is a high risk of a serious break down of law and order, over the long-term, or your plan is to make for the wilderness and survive then fair play to you. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong because what do I know? In that case, sure, maybe you need some serious survival tools and, if you live in a jurisdiction where such a thing is legal, means of self defence. Crack on. All I’m saying is that the following items probably aren’t worth fussing about if you’re looking at the bug out bag in the same way as I am; mitigating a relatively high-likelihood need to be away from home comforts unexpectedly but for a limited period probably not exceeding 72hrs and in the context of a national government which is still functioning, though local services may be strained and slow to respond.
Self-defence: I’m not really even going to touch on this because a) any item intended for self-defence is pretty much illegal by definition in the UK and b) I’m honestly not talking about the kind of events where personal defence is a serious consideration. Like I say above – if you assess the risks differently then take what you think you need, but for gods sake be aware of your local laws and don’t assume that they’re necessarily going to be waived just because of whatever event has prompted you to use the bag.
Serious survival tools: A knife is always useful, scissors are always useful. Once you go much beyond that you have to ask what are you seriously carrying it for? In what scenario do you expect to have to chop firewood, construct a shelter or hack your way through dense jungle, and is that scenario really probable enough to justify putting a machete into your bag? Make that call for yourself I guess but, for me, the BoB is not intended to equip me for wilderness survival, so it doesn’t contain that sort of equipment.
Who here has some kind of BoB prepared? If not, why not? If so, share pictures or contents in the comments and I’d be very interested to see what other people choose to pack in theirs.