Building a Bug Out Bag – Part I

Building a Bug Out Bag – Part I

Prepography reader MG asked for some help putting together an intro to prepping class for his church and one of the easiest places to start is with building a Bug Out Bag.

What is a Bug Out Bag?

Before we break into our discussion bag selection and the contents of your Bug Out Bag let’s define it:

A Bug Out Bag is a grab-and-go container that has everything you’ll need to survive for up to three days (72 hours) if you have to suddenly leave your home.  Bug Out Bags are also referred to as 72 Hour Bags, 72 Hour Kits, Go Bags, Emergency Bags or Emergency Kits.

Andrew's Get Home Bag & Bug Out Bag

Andrew’s Bug Out Bag

Having a fully stocked Bug Out Bag for each member of your family gets you to Preparedness Level 1 and is the minimum level of preparedness recommended by FEMA and other Federal Government Agencies.  Hopefully, becoming self reliant for the first 72 hours is just the start of your preparedness journey but even if you don’t take any additional steps, building a Bug Out Bag will help you survive a number of local disasters that can affect you and your family.

As previously mentioned, a Bug Out Bag provides everything you need to survive for up to three days without additional supplies.  One of the challenges is to do this in a configuration and weight that you can carry (or wheel if you have mobility issues) unaided for great distances if necessary.  Each person in your family should have their own Bug Out Bag if they are capable of carrying anything…however you may need to cross load some or most of a small child, disabled or elderly family member’s ‘preps’ into other family member’s bags.

A Bug Out Bag is distinct from a ‘Get Home Bag’ in that a Get Home Bag is designed and organized to help you get home during your travels.  A Get Home Bag may have many elements in common with a Bug Out Bag and can be used as the basis for your Bug Out Bag with add on ‘modules’ to turn the Get Home Bag into a Bug Out Bag.

There are premade Bug Out Bags available and you may be tempted to just buy one and avoid all the work of building your own, but I encourage you not to for the following reasons:

  • Premade Bug Out Bags are expensive
  • Premade Bug Out Bags often use inferior items and you don’t want to trust your life to something that’s cheaply made
  • Premade Bug Out Bags are unlikely to fit your needs.  They are basically one size fits none.

You should build your Bug Out Bag yourself with items you choose, and know how to use…items based on your needs, your family’s needs, your capabilities, your environment and your financial resources.

In addition to being a good place to start your preparedness journey, your Bug Out Bag is also the failsafe to any other preparedness efforts you make because when it comes down to it, you may be stuck with nothing but the clothes (and Bug Out Bag) on your back.  This last line of defense is also the best place to start your preparedness journey.

What a Bug Out Bag Isn’t

Here are a couple of items that are often confused with the Bug Out Bag:

Get Home Bag:  As previously mentioned, Bug Out Bags are similar but slightly different than Get Home Bags.  Think of Get Home Bags as Bug Out Bag-Lite with some of the more valuable, heavier or private information (to protect against identity theft if stolen) left out.  A Get Home Bag may be used as the primary ‘module’ of a Bug Out Bag with augmentation of additional items.  This is the way I have chosen to build my Bug Out Bag but may not be appropriate for you.  If you take this approach, make sure to keep the additional items that turn your Get Home Bag into a Bug Out Bag in another container or bag that can go into or strap onto your Bug Out Bag.  A stuff sack works well for this.

Bail out Bag:  A Bail Out Bag is a bag that you grab as you’re forced out of your vehicle with a few survival items and typically lots more ammunition.  This is a bag that soldiers and Marines typically carry in combat zones but I also know of similar bags carried by some law enforcement officers.  The cops grab theirs for extended assignments outside their vehicle or for situations like the running gun battle known as the North Hollywood Shootout.  Don’t confuse a soldier’s Bail Out Bag with your Bug Out Bag.

Why Have a Bug Out Bag?

There are a number of situations both small and large that could force you from your home.  If you have a properly stocked Bug Out Bag you can comfortably survive small inconveniences and get a survival head start for bigger situations.  Something as local as a house fire, local evacuation (police standoff in your neighborhood, wildfire, etc.), ice storm, or train derailment with chemical spill can force you out of your home for a few days.  There are also all the regional or national disasters more commonly referenced in preparedness and survivalist planning articles.  Read more about reasons to prepare and situations that lend themselves to having a Bug Out Bag from our article on Why Prep.

Additionally, even if you don’t have to bug out, your Bug Out Bag gives you the ability shelter in at your home for a longer period if necessary.  Civil unrest, rising flood waters, or even a snowstorm could strand you in your home.  With your Bug Out Bag you’ll be able to eat, drink, keep safe (if you include security items in your bag) and keep warm for at least three days…but generally much longer if you factor in your home’s resources as well.

Who Should Have a Bug Out Bag?

Short answer…EVERYONE.  Even though everyone may not be able to carry all of their own ‘kit’…anyone who can carry a Bug Out Bag should and cross load what they can’t carry into anther family member’s bag(s).  The very young, disabled or elderly should carry what they comfortably can…but you may have to carry some or all of their emergency gear for them.

Additionally, remember to consider your pet’s needs when making your Bug Out Plans.  Planning for your pets is important, but don’t make the mistake of jeopardizing your or your family’s safety for the sake of a pet if time is of the essence.  I’ve even heard of preppers outfitting their pets with doggie backpacks to allow the pets to carry some of their own kit.

What Type of Bug Out Bag Should You Have?

I’ve already mentioned the word ‘carry’ several times in this article.  The word ‘carry’ is a key distinction here because you have to consider that in a worse case scenario you will be walking with your Bug Out Bag (you know about the EMP threat, right?).  I’ve seen some articles encouraging people use tubs for their Bug Out Bag…you may well want to augment your Bug Out Bag with tubs of food, water, security items, etc…but that’s not a Bug Out Bag…you must be able to transport your Bug Out Bag without mechanical assistance!

When selecting your Bug Out Bag there are some key considerations you should keep in mind:

  • Size & Weight:  Your Bug Out Bag should be big enough to carry your kit but not so heavy (once loaded) that you can’t carry it for lengthy periods of time and distance.
  • Comfort:  Most Bug Out Bags are backpacks but that doesn’t have to be the case.  If you do select a backpack make sure that it has broad, padded straps, a comfortable waist strap and a preferably a chest strap (which connects the shoulder straps across your chest).
  • Alternatives to Backpacks:
    • If you’re a minimalist…maybe all you need is a satchel (again get a padded strap).
    • A bicycle enthusiast might use bicycle pannier (you put the panniers in the car and the bike on the back until you have to abandon your vehicle.
    • A motorcyclist or ATV enthusiast might use saddle bags.  Make sure it’s something you can carry if need be though.
    • If you can’t comfortably carry a backpack, you may consider some type of wheeled duffel bag but make sure to choose a bag with large wheels as they work better over uneven terrain.
  • Appearance & Operational Security (OPSEC):  There are wonderful, cheap military surplus bags out there that will meet all your storage needs and give you the ability to strap all kinds of military surplus pouches to the outside…buy one for backpacking if you want… but I suggest you stay away from these for your Bug Out Bag.  In a bug out situation there may be a breakdown in the rule of law…and desperate people.  Unless you’re traveling with a large group of similarly attired and obviously armed folks where you look too strong to attack… you’re likely going to make yourself a target by looking too prepared in a small family group.  Stay away from Tacticool, camouflage and matching bags unless your family is definitely going to be part of that huge group I mentioned.  Instead, buy or use bags that are in earth tones which match your environment and won’t look out of place.  Maybe you live in an area where a camouflage backpack fits right in, but if you don’t, avoid them.
  • Organization:  Select a bag that lets you organize your gear in a way that makes sense for you.  There are bags with multiple compartments to help you keep your stuff organized or you can use a bag with a few or even one compartment and use lightweight stuffsacks to organize your gear.  Regardless of the type of bag you choose, the goal is to know what you have and where it is so you can access it quickly and easily.  When packing my bag I try to organize my gear by frequency of need and importance of the item.
  • Cost:  You can spend a mint buying the right bag or use something you already have in the house.  If you’re building your first bag I suggest that you go with something you already own because you’re going to change your mind once you start thinking about, packing and practicing with your bag.  If you’re on a tight budget, try not to buy a bag until you’re sure (through trial and error) what you want in a bag.

Where Should You Keep Your Bug Out Bag?

If you use the modular Get Home Bag/Bug Out Bag system then keep your Get Home Bag in your car.  If you don’t travel by car then you’ll likely need a separate Get Home Bag and Bug Out Bag and won’t be able to use the modular system.

The Bug Out Bag (or Bug out Module that marries up with the Get Home Bag) should be kept packed and ready to go in a relatively secure area (for example, don’t leave it in an unlocked garage) that you can grab and go on your way out the door.  This could be your coat closet or even a locked garage.  If you do choose to keep your Bug Out Bag in the garage, make sure to consider weather effects on your kit.  Water will freeze (but it should be in a freeze proof container and high temperatures will degrade even the best storage food over time.  Another option is to keep your Bug Out Bag inside a safe room if you have one.

Final Thoughts Before We Begin Building a Bug Out Bag

Building a Bug Out Bag is process that involves a number of trade-offs.  Come to realization before you start that you won’t be able to carry everything you want to have with you.  You have to decide which items are the most important and which items give you the most capabilities.  Be prepared to make tough decisions.  Also be willing to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills.  You can reduce weight as you build knowledge and skills.  For example, I used to pack an edible plants book in my Bug Out Bag ‘just in case’ but now I’ve removed the book as I’ve become familiar enough with the contents that I don’t feel like I need it anymore.

Check back with Prepography the rest of this week as we further explore Building a Bug Out Bag and make specific recommendations for what to pack…and as importantly, what not to pack.  I am going to leave you with one final thought on weight from the great military historian Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall…he was talking about battle load for our fighting men but the concept of avoiding excessive weight applies equally well to today’s topic.

On the field of battle man is not only a thinking animal, he is a beast of burden. He is given great weights to carry. But unlike the mule, the jeep, or any other carrier, his chief function in war does not begin until the time he delivers that burden to the appointed ground…In fact we have always done better by a mule than by a man. We were careful not to load the mule with more than a third of his weight.

Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, 1950

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