The Bug out Bag is one of the most flogged and flawed concepts out there. Learn how to sustain yourself with the right equipment instead of trying to bug out.
When people think about preparedness, it’s hard to imagine a more ubiquitous item than the backpack.
It’s got a variety of names; the Bug Out Bag, the INCH bag, the GOOD bag, the Bailout Bag, the Go Bag, the Truck Bag — all of which are designed to evoke images of some wandering, steely-eyed hero with their backpack and AR-15, striding across the post-apocalyptic wasteland with cities burning behind them.
One of our main goals is to get people to abandon the idea that emergencies look like that.
A far more likely vision is overflowing sewage, people sick and filthy with diarrhea, and travel of no more than a couple miles from your home for scraps being handed out by the National Guard. If you’re well provisioned, you won’t be going out much, and if you evacuated ahead of the problem, your pack will help you while you travel and set up when you arrive at your destination.
Your bag isn’t to keep you alive (that’s your job), it’s to sustain deliberate activity. It’s to facilitate your skill base and make those common tasks faster, safer, and easier.
If you’re traveling by foot with nothing but what you keep in your pack, you’ve failed and there’s a word for what you are: A Refugee.
Refugees don’t exactly have it good, and no matter what you pack, if you don’t have skill, mindset, and a plan, no bag will get you “bugged out”.
Katrina taught us that a firearm seen was a firearm confiscated, and for all the Molons to be Labed, the truth is if you end up at a police blockade with your tired children and wife, you’re going to hand over your guns without a fight.
Why a Backpack?
If you’ve been following ISG for any length of time, you’ll notice we pretty much always have backpacks. Given that we’ve taken such an extreme posture against the idea of the Bug Out Bag, “why” is a reasonable question.
To start, we don’t think you need a closet full of separate backpacks for different occasions.
If you’ve set up your EDC in a logical way, your backpack is going to take the items you carry for immediate, high-intensity emergencies (Type I), and expands them so that you can address the concerns of the protracted, moderate intensity emergency (Type II).
One of our major philosophical differences is that if you live the ISG lifestyle, you’re out camping, exploring, training, and gathering experience.
One of the fundamental lessons we’ve learned is that the stuff you need for emergencies is almost the exact same stuff you’ll want if you’re out enjoying nature or exploring. When you stop to think about it, this drastically simplifies your life, and puts your 2nd line in terms that most people can relate to.
What we want from our second line is:
- A way to address the Rule of 3’s: Shelter from the Elements, Clean Water, Calories.
- Items for medical and hygienic concerns, such as toilet paper, a toothbrush, a small first aid kit, and some items for trauma.
- Tools that facilitate acquisition; Sillcock keys, crescent wrenches, and other useful items.
- Tools for protection.
- Tools that expand our capability – power supplies, spare batteries, maps, compass, etc.
Our Backpack should address shelter, clean water, calories, medical and hygienic concerns, tools of acquisition and tools for protection. In other words: whatever you’re doing, your backpack should sustain your efforts.
Whatever you’re doing, your backpack should sustain your effort. So toss out the ‘bug out bag’, and start thinking in terms of “Sustainment”.
Military Roots, Citizen’s Tree
We often reference “lines” of equipment. Conceptually, this came from the military, and to the servicemember, 2nd line is often your fighting kit. In Spheres of Violence, we discuss at length why violence in the citizen’s world doesn’t look like direct action, and if we were to run around looking like it did, we’d probably end up inviting trouble. So, while more military styled kit may have some place in some emergencies, generally, we want to think of our sustainment bag in a similar way that the military thinks of a plate carrier – it’s to sustain us in the fight… but the fight is against more than just an armed enemy. It’s against time, the elements, and the unpredictability of resource scarcity. This is a bit counter-intuitive to a lot of our prior service readers, but it’s important that the things we learned in service don’t translate 1:1 to the citizen’s world, and reframing the concept like this can help.
As well, in Understanding Emergencies, we identify emergencies by how they impact us, rather than what they are. They Type II emergency is best addressed with the second line equipment, so lines of equipment roughly correspond to the types of emergencies.
If you’re ever faced with these type of situations, you do not want a cumbersome pack or kit that’s prone to snagging. In short, we want to balance sustainment with mobility.
Before we even start talking about stuff to put in your backpack, we want to be super clear about something:
As your weight goes up, your endurance goes down. This is a non-negotiable fact of life, even if you’re fit and strong. We strongly encourage that you start with a target weight of no more than 20% of your bodyweight. As you start choosing items, look carefully at what they weigh.
We’re big on what we call “mobility” training.
Mobility is the ability to run, jump, climb, and fight in your equipment. Several members of ISG have lived under the rucks, both professionally and as citizens and we’ve had to maneuver and fight under the loads. If you can’t hop a fence, climb an 8′ wall, run a mile, and walk at least 6, your pack is too heavy for your level of fitness. Scale it back and start over.
Keep in mind that 20% added to your EDC can stack up fast. If you’re at 8% of your body weight for your EDC items, you can quickly be getting up around 30% of your body weight. Even if you’re fit and still mobile under that load, it will stress your body, increase the chances for injury, and costs you calories.
The Rule of Threes
Recall from “Understanding Emergencies” that a human can last 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. These are a useful guide, not hard and fast rules, but what we really want to impress upon the reader is this:
Your backpack is your sustainment and should act as a wall between you and the Rule of 3’s. It should address the added pressures of the Type II emergency; security, physical health care, and acquisition.
The first thing your pack should be able to do is address the Rule of 3’s:
- Shelter: You need to stay dry and isothermal (your temperature isn’t going up or down much). To this end, lightweight tents, lean-to tarps, even 55 gallon trash bags can offer some means of expedient insulation. It’s worth noting that ground pads do an incredible job of insulating you from the cold ground, and they make your rest more productive. Small tents and ultra-lightweight equipment is more important than guns. You’ll use this stuff every night (if you get out and train) or if the worst happens. Don’t scoff at the price of ultra-lite kit if you have a $2500 AR.
- Water: You should have a way to both carry and purify water. There’s been a big push towards camelbak-type bladders in recent years. That’s cool, but if you rely on *only* a bladder, you’ll lack a convenient way to boil water. Nalgene bottles and military canteens can be had with metal cups, that provide you with both a way to drink that keeps your mouth off your bottles (a good way to keep bacteria from growing in your water source), and allows you to heat water to kill bacteria.When it comes to purifying, *get a water filter*. Water is a non-negotiable, frequent-use consumable. The rule of 3’s says 3 days, but if we’re being honest, the splitting headache and cramps you’ll get after 16 or so hours of exertion without hydration is going to make your last two days of life miserable.
- Food: The goal with food is to have a layered approach: Fast calories (Jerky, power bars, candy, etc), Meals (Mountain House, MRE, or similar, stripped), and a method to procure your own food (which requires skill). Our general thinking is “fish first”. Fish are high in nutrients, typically more plentiful than game and easier to trap. For killing small game, don’t overlook the slingshot. Everyone talks about .22’s, or hunting with their battle rifles, but ammo runs out… Rocks are free. Tackle and a slingshot are light, and don’t take up much space. Another step up is archery. Don’t overlook developing some skill with a bow.
Hygiene and Medical
One of the most often neglected things we see in people’s bags is a way to clean their teeth, feet, and body. A pack of wet wipes isn’t enough; if you end up needing your pack to survive indefinitely (again, probably as a refugee), you absolutely will need to be concerned with lice, fleas, ticks, bites, and dental hygiene. We often forget, but the black plague killed a third of Europe, spread by the ubiquitous flea.
Have you thought about flea and tick repellant? Lice shampoo?
Another major concern when on the move is keeping your feet up. Even a reasonably short (15 mile or so) movement with a pack can leave your feet in rough shape if you’re not used to it. In inclement conditions in which people become reluctant to take their feet from their boots, immersion foot can occur (warning, graphic). Do you have Talcum powder to keep your feet dry? A few changes of socks?
A bed up off the ground and decent shelter can go a long way towards helping, but keep in mind that you’ll need a plan to keep disease to a minimum. In the extremely case of the Type III emergency, you can expect health and hygiene to play a major role in the die-off, if the event continues and compounds.
As we discuss in “Man’s Worst Enemy“, populations of scavengers and parasites increase, and populations of bacteria bloom in the wake of disaster, the indefinite timeline will challenge your resources. Add in a lack of sanitation for solid waste and cleaning methods, and the chances of diseases increases dramatically. Even hand sanitizer is going to leave some bacteria alive and heads up – the ones that survive eventually become the ones that reproduce.
Finally, a camp shower is a lightweight piece of gear that can go a long way towards improving morale and hygiene.
We’ll touch more on sanitation in its own article, but suffice to say, you need to make sure your pack is addressing these problems.
Take care of your feet (change and dry your socks and dry/clean your feet daily, even if you only have a few pairs) and clean your teeth. A folding toothbrush and some mouthwash won’t take up much weight or space.
Acquisition can mean a variety of things, and we won’t get too deep into it here. The bottom line is some very simple tools can aid you in acquiring things in a post-disaster environment that have been abandon, or rendered inaccessible to others. A simple coat hanger, siphon, screwdriver, pick set, spring punch, and door shim can go a long way in securing your ability to get critical resources. If you’re resourceful and skilled, these tools can take up a minimum of space, and open a lot of doors, figuratively and literally.
A good pry bar also goes a long way. Even stubborn locks can usually be persuaded by a combination of the tools above and a decent pry bar. As far as pry-bars go, the “Cats Paw” really can’t be beat for opening up stubborn doors. It can be had at any hardware store for under $20 and will open most doors. Multi-use tools like the Gerber Downrange Tomahawk have found a place in our team’s gear. Just remember that doors that are locked are usually done so for a reason.
Be intelligent about how you approach such situations, and remember that making enemies is always bad for business.
If we’re honest with ourselves, you scrolled past all the stuff above and honed in on Protection. Don’t do that. But protection is a serious discussion that needs to be had.
So important that we don’t advocate keeping it in your second line, for the most part. It should be on your person, and the sustainment bag should keep you in the fight. Like acquisition, this subject is touchy, so here’s what we’ll say on the matter:
- Don’t neglect interpersonal skills, and “managing unknown contacts”. There are excellent force on force classes available, such as Shivworks ECQC.
- Rifle ammo goes a long way if you do your job, pistol ammo does not. Get some training in managing the collapsed urban environment. If possible, find a way to make money living in them.
- Pistols can be carried more places with less ‘signature’.
- Don’t neglect driving skills and security while on the road.
- If you have a rifles, you should probably have friends… with rifles.
- If you’re arranging your equipment in sequential lines, you should be able increase your posture to include ammunition carrying equipment that doesn’t interfere with your other lines of equipment. That means you don’t have to change where your first line is situated if you pack smart.
- Don’t forget non-lethal problems. CS and smoke can be useful in dispersing crowds, masking movement, or signaling.
- If you do carry a pistol, carry spare ammunition and magazines. Stop training to drop them; if your in a real emergency, those are the only thing keeping your pistol from being a single shot. Worry less about being fast and more about finding cover and working the problem correctly. Train to retain, at least part of the time.
Remember a couple things:
2. The goal with protection is to head problems off, and if absolutely necessary, respond with a surprising and overwhelming amount of violence. If you’re going to guns, you’ve failed. It’s now a measure of damage control to see how little you can lose. Be smart, use awareness, interpersonal skills, and tactics to make the situation bend in your favor before it breaks over the chaos.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the chance of needing a fighting rifle to hold it down is really, really low. You should be spending 80% of your range time training with your pistol, and keep sharp by running some drills out to 300 with that rifle from time to time. Fighting in general is a high risk, low probability event, so consider it, get good, but be realistic, and try not to let your guns and gear define your plan.
Special Purpose Equipment
Apart from our main equipment, there are times when we know that an objective will require that we have special equipment that we ordinarily don’t need. When this occurs, give thought to how to split the equipment among your group. Often times, it’s sufficient to keep this stuff as vehicle equipment, as well.
Communications: Communications generally don’t need to be as elaborate as others would have you believe. Even in emergencies, cell towers go up pretty quickly. Short of HAM radios, short range FRS/GMRS radios can allow some communications. When greater range is needed, however, greater skill is required. That said, there are times when handhelds are great; when traveling by road in a group, for example. For more on that, check out our article on introductory radio communications.
Often times you’ll hear that a HAM radio is a necessary addition. What’s not mentioned is that HAM operation is a very technical skill that requires some dedication to use properly. They’re excellent when used by a HRO who knows their stuff, but if you’re not committed to learning the radios, they’re not much better than a walkie talkie, and the Baofeng radios that are often seen are (outside of some very niche, specialized roles) generally a very poor choice for a HAM radio. Said another way, don’t try and shortcut a solution to HAM radios – it’s a skill as much as an item.
Power Production: Field expedient power is largely a matter of storage and access. Our experience with using solar has been underwhelming, and as of the time of this writing, we’ve used battery banks like the Anker and Aukey to great effect in both training and real world emergencies. That said, solar can occasionally be a useful item for a small group to carry, especially if their goal is to use it for communications. Often times, a HAM radio can reach pretty far with a good line of sight and repeater network. As such, keeping a good 40W panel with your team could get a charge on a HAM radio and get a signal out. Likewise, it can serve to charge cell phones, pads or laptops, GPS devices, and probably most importantly: flash lights. These can be a huge asset in gathering information during a disaster, so having the option (especially at home or in the vehicle – which we’ll discuss in “Third Line”) is wise. Be able to live without your phone, though.
Bivouac/Overland: Our strategy for traveling out of our sustainment bag isn’t comfort. It’s more about being resourceful and using the environment to our advantage. However, if you have other people to consider, or a larger group, A couple small tents or shelters can go a long way in terms of getting good rest, which is absolutely a part of health and hygiene. When it comes to bivouac equipment, shelter, water, food, and security equipment can be spread across the group to increase the group’s efficiency. This is especially useful in overland travel with a group, in which sanitation, waste, food prep and dishes, and cooking all become group tasks. Overland Travel is its own topic, and will be discussed more in depth.
Rappelling: Most of the time, for short drop and emergency rappels, an eXo descender on one member, and a rigger’s belt, figure 8, and some gloves will get you over the obstacle, but occasional for larger terrain features it’s good to have purpose build dynamic rope. Like medicine or communications, rappelling is a technical skill that requires incredible attention to detail and experience to be done safely. That said, keeping a rope with some rappelling gear can keep your options open, should you need it.
Conflict: Our policy on conflict is simple. Avoid it. However, it can be necessary to ensure greater capability if things get bad enough. During natural disasters, communities often come together for a common defense, and this might mean shouldering a pack and rifle. If so, it’s a good idea to pack 3 magazines or so or some specific tools, such as armor. As with the others, if you intend to show up for a common defense, you better be competent, mature, and dependable.
No talk about backpacks is complete without a list; we’re hoping that now that you’ve got the reasoning, you’ll be able to beat us to the punch.
Either way, the following is a partial packing list to use as an example:
- -32 oz Nalgene Bottle with Stainless Steel Cup (Titanium is good, but man will it burn you…)
- -Katadyne Vario (or similar) Water Filter
- -Siphon Hose
- -SOL Bivy
- -55 Gallon contractor bags x3
- -USCG smoke
- -Spare Mag (Pistol) x4
- -Locking Carabiners x2
- -Non-locking Carabiners x2
- -Figure 8 (or Rescue 8)
- -Wire Hanger
- -Pocket Chainsaw
- -Fishing Kit (hooks, sinkers, line and bobbers)
- -Snare Wire
- -Allen Wrenches
- -Crescent Wrench
- -US Map (Local area as needed)
- -Pocket Knife
- -Fire Starting items (Lighter, flint and steel, etc)
- -Full Grain Leather Gloves
- -Spring Punch
- -Note Pad with Pens
- -Coleman Burner or Jetboil
- -Paracord, 50′
- -Food, MRE x4 (stripped to cardboard, which can be used for fire starting)
- -Clean socks, shirt and underwear x3
- -Ground pad
- -Folding cot (optional)
- -Spare parts
There ya have it.
This is an example of the types of items we’d look for for camping, exploring, or getting away from trouble on foot. The total weight for a setup like this is about 20 pounds, so you’ll be able to maneuver, set up small camps, move light and quickly, and blend in, if done properly.
This list isn’t going to teach you the things you need to know. You’ll still need to learn to run a trot line, scavenge for stuff to make sound traps, and how to set up a decent lean-to, but if you’re serious enough to still be reading, we’ve got your back.
PS We’re attempting to reintroduce some of our core content as blended media – with videos and/or podcasts to accompany the written articles. Unlike many venues, we’re not actors, we’re not endorsed or sponsored, and we’re not taking ad money – what you see is what you get.