Bug-Out Bag 101: Planning and Packing

You’re sitting quietly at home, watching TV with the family, when something unimaginable happens. The “why” or “what” doesn’t really matter—what does matter is that you only have a few minutes to gather up your family and evacuate your home.

It’s uncertain what you will face or when you might be able to return. If this happened to you, would you know what to do? And more importantly, would you know what to take with you in those precious moments as you make your way out the door?

Hopefully your answer is, “Of course—my bug-out bag.” While many people recognize they may one day be forced to leave their home in a big hurry, few prepare for that moment. There is no substitute for a well-thought-out, well-stocked bug-out bag (BOB)—your life may depend on it.

The only thing worse than not having a BOB is having one that’s filled with cool-looking but impractical pseudo-survival gear (in other words, junk).

What’s in your bag?

Well-thought-out BOB strikes a balance between needs and wants. Managing space and weight is always a challenge, but circumstances, environment, and climate often dictate the supplies that end up in the bag.


BUGGING OUT

This is a survival term that refers to the act of leaving your present location in a hurry, typically under emergency conditions, and evacuating to a safer, more secure location. Bugging out can be as straightforward as running out of your home during a house fire and staying with a neighbor a few doors down, or as complicated as making your way to a remote retreat location under dangerous and difficult circumstances.

I’m not a big fan of bugging out. In my opinion, the entire concept is overrated, romanticized, and misunderstood. People who have little appreciation of the unforgiving harshness of a real disaster and its aftermath casually toss around the phrase bugging out, along with other meaningless banter.

The thought of leaving the relative safety of my home during a crisis, not knowing what I’ll encounter once I leave and not knowing how far I’ll need to travel to reach a safe destination, sends shivers down my spine. And trying to do this with really young or old household members in tow takes the risk factor, and the stress, to a whole new level.

Do not confuse bugging out with camping. In a true bug-out situation, you need calories to maintain your energy levels. Calorie-dense ready-to-eat meals are best. Choose carefully and rotate your supplies often.


In spite of what you may have seen on TV, bugging out will usually be your last resort, not your first.

Having said that, I think it’s important to mention that I have a well thought-out and well-stocked bug-out bag, as does every member of my family. I also have a bug-out plan and several back-up plans. All my supplies and BOBs are strategically staged for easy and quick access, and the contents of each bag are periodically rotated, updated, refreshed and adjusted to account for the changing seasons and circumstances. Finally, my plans are regularly tested, evaluated, and the results used to adjust my plans accordingly.

Comfortable shoes or hiking boots, extra socks, gloves, a hat, and change of clothes are musts. Pack according to the climate and keep all extra garments in a sealed watertight bag.


REALITY TV VS. REALITY

In an ideal world, the perfect BOB would have everything you need in a crisis and nothing you don’t. It would be lightweight, easily carried over long distances, and cool looking. It would be almost magical: stick your hand inside the bag and you’ll always pull out exactly what you need.

But as we know, nothing in life is ever ideal. In most situations, unless you’re on a reality TV show, you’ll need to compromise regarding weight, bulk, and practicality. And every situation is different. People who live in a rural area won’t pack the same bug-out supplies as those who live in a large city. (This is where the well-thought-out part comes in.)

An effective BOB must have a sensible starting point: the survival basics. In other words, things you must have to survive—food, water, first-aid/medical, sanitation/hygiene, security/self-defense, and in this case shelter.

Self-defense and security are always top priorities in any survival situation. Defensive tools in your BOB must be chosen with particular care, since weight and bulk matter. Quality survival knife serves double duty as a defensive tool.


THE CONTENTS

The contents of any effective BOB must provide the survival essentials for a minimum of three days and be customized to the individual needs of the owner, the environment, and the time of year during which it will be used.

Here are some basic items to pack in your BOB:

  • Supply of fresh drinking water, sturdy container(s) that can be refilled, and resealable plastic bags.
  • Portable water filter, water purification tablets, small supply of iodine and bleach.
  • Lightweight energy food, protein bars, MREs, snacks, hard candy, and gum.
  • Compact first-aid kit with a small supply of everything you may need, including at least a three-day supply of your prescription medications.

Rechargeable glow stick tied to your BOB in a conspicuous location helps you locate your bag in the dark. Remove glow stick from outside the bag and put it in an interior panel when you leave your location.


  • Potassium Iodide tablets (Iosat, Thyrosafe or Thyroshield).
  • Masks (N95 minimum) with face shield, and nitrile gloves.
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent.
  • Soap, small hand towels, toilet paper, antibacterial gel, and disinfecting wipes.
  • Travel toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss.
  • Compass and map of anticipated travel area(s). Clearly mark the locations of police and fire stations, hospitals, natural water sources, and other places of interest, including areas to avoid. Know how to navigate using these tools.
  • Extra clothes, hat, gloves, and walking shoes/boots.
  • Moleskin to protect sensitive parts of your feet when walking long distances.

Water becomes an issue soon after bugging out. The average person needs no less than one gallon per day, more under heavy exertion. Carrying that much water is not practical. Potable water filter allows you to consume suspect water without having to boil or otherwise treat it.


  • Plastic tarp, rain poncho, bungee cord(s), Mylar blankets.
  • Multi-tool, large and small knives, compact folding shovel.
  • Fire starter, waterproof matches, lighter(s), and tinder.
  • Whistle and signal mirror.
  • Solid or gel type stove fuel and small, compact stove.
  • LED flashlight/headlamp (hand crank/solar), extra batteries, light sticks.
  • Radio (hand crank/solar) and extra batteries.
  • Roll of duct tape and sewing kit.
  • 550 para cord (100 feet minimum).
  • Firearms, extra magazines, ammunition, pepper spray, baton. Comply with all applicable laws and get proper training.
  • Hard copies of important documents (passport, driver’s license, social security card, and concealed weapons permit).
  • Memory stick, flash drive, or portable hard drive containing scanned copies of legal and financial papers.

Bottled water is always your first line of defense. BOB should contain small supply of bottled water for emergency use.


  • List of contact information, phone numbers, addresses, etc.
  • Pre-paid calling card. Pay phones are uncommon now, but some still exist. After a disaster, cell service may be compromised or your phone may be lost or damaged. But some landlines may be working.
  • Cell phone, hand crank, or solar charger.
  • Pad of paper, pens.
  • Cash (small bills and coins), no less than $250. At least in the early stages of a crisis, cash will be king, and having some may help get you what you need.
  • In colder climates, add weather-appropriate clothing and accessories, gloves, hats, boots, hand warmers, insulated sleeping bag, etc.

Heavy-duty book bag with sturdy padded straps and multiple compartments is ideal for a BOB in most urban environments. Keep first-aid kit handy for quick deployment.


THE BAG

For the bag itself, look for a heavy-duty book bag with sturdy padded straps and multiple pockets or compartments. Stay away from military- or tactical-looking bags, since these will broadcast that you are carrying supplies and possibly firearms. You don’t want to call attention to yourself or your bag. Black is a great color for blending in. Black book bags are everywhere, and no one takes a second look upon seeing one.

Look for a bag with exterior and interior compartments to make it easier to pack and segregate the supplies. Pack and stage the supplies in your BOB according to how and when you anticipate needing them. You don’t want to unpack your entire BOB every time you need something.

Have a system for packing related items together, or at least close to each other. I prefer to have my first-aid kit and medical supplies in the most accessible spot, since I may need to get to them quickly. I also keep cash in several different pockets. If I need some cash, I don’t want to pull out my entire stash for all to see. Same thing with food and water.

Scan all personal and business data and store it in a password-protected flash drive or portable hard drive, ready for the legal and financial reconstruction phase after the crisis.


WRAP-UP

“Grab and go” may be your main activities during a sudden, unexpected disaster. If you must leave home with no notice, be prepared to grab your fully stocked bug-out bag on your way out the door.

Richard Duarte is the author of Surviving an Urban Disaster: A Quick Start Guide, and Surviving Doomsday: A Guide for Surviving an Urban Disaster. He’s a practicing attorney and survival and firearms enthusiast who currently teaches and consults in the areas of urban survival planning and preparation. For the latest preparedness news and updates, connect with Richard on www.quickstartsurvival.com.

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