If there's one thing every prepper agrees on, it's the need to have a bug out bag. But that's about where the agreement ends. What should be in that bug out bag is another story entirely. Not everyone is in agreement about what they should carry. In fact, other than some common items, there is little agreement.

Part of the problem is that everyone has their own idea of bugging out. When FEMA talks about it, they're expecting you to bug out to a shelter that they are running. When most survivalists talk about it, they're expecting you to live in the wild. Obviously, those two different plans are going to have much different requirements, no matter what you do.

This makes building a bug out bag a very personalized task. You shouldn't just take what someone else says and decide that will work for you. Better to make your own decisions, even if you use someone else's list as a start point.

Start with the Bag(s)

No matter how you're going to bug out, whether on foot, in a Bigfoot style pickup truck or an armored personnel carrier, you may reach a point where you have to abandon your vehicle and take off on foot. So, that should be a central part of your planning. Feet don't run out of gas, don't lose their radiator coolant and hopefully don't suffer mechanical breakdown.

So, whatever you do for your bug out bag(s) must be portable. For that reason, a backpack is a great starting point. Of any sort of bag there is, a backpack is definitely the most portable. There are also many different styles to choose from, making it possible to find one that is a good size for your needs.

A couple of points on backpack selection:

  • Avoid military looking backpacks, as they will send the message to others that you are prepared. Better to use one that's designed for recreational backpacking.
  • Always use a belt. A backpack belt will transfer the weight to your hips, rather than making you carry it all with your shoulders. Since your legs are the strongest part of your body, this will help to reduce fatigue.
  • The bigger the better. Just remember that you have to be able to carry all that weight. A good rule of thumb is to have your loaded pack weigh no more than 1/4 your body weight. Any more is going to be hard to carry.
  • It's worth the money to buy ultralight. In backpacking equipment, you pay for weight. The lighter it is, the more expensive. This applies to backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and cookware, along with everything else.

Okay, so that's your main bag. In addition, I'd recommend having a couple of duffel bags, which can be used to carry additional food, clothing and equipment. There's no way you can carry enough in a backpack to survive for an extended period of time, especially when it comes to food. But those duffels will mean that you need some sort of cart for them as well. You can't carry it all.

Even though I'm recommending those extra duffels, make sure that you carry your key survival equipment in your pack. That way, if you have to abandon those duffels or something happens and you lose them, you will still have your critical equipment.

The Broad Strokes

Basically, your bug out bag has to have everything you're going to need to survive. Even if you are going to head for a FEMA shelter or a nearby survival retreat, you will need to survive for the amount of time it takes to get there. You also need to be prepared to survive, if something goes wrong with your original plan. That means that your bug out bag needs to be able to provide:

  • A shelter or means of building a shelter, including tools
  • Clothing to keep your warm
  • Fire starting
  • Water and the ability to purify and carry more
  • Food, a means of cooking food and the ability to find more food
  • First aid and personal hygiene supplies
  • Self defense
  • Means of communication

That's a lot to carry, especially if you're thinking more than two or three days. Hence the need for additional bags. But you should be able to carry the essentials in your backpack alone.

One of the things that have defined bug out bags has been the idea of it being a 72 hour bag. As near as I can tell, that idea came from FEMA. But I doubt there are many survival situations requiring a bug out, which would only require you having to survive for 72 hours. That might be enough time to get into a FEMA shelter, but I personally have no plans to do that.


When we think of shelter in the wild, the first thing we usually think of is a tent. That's great, but it's also weight that you may not want to carry. ULtralight backpacking tents are available, if you're ready to pay the price. Another option is carrying some simple supplies, so that you can make your own shelter, using whatever is available to you.

  • Lightweight tarp - With a lightweight tarp and what you can find in nature, you can make a tent. Granted, it won't be as good as a commercial backpacking tent, but it will be lightweight and effective.
  • Parachute cord - Many people carry 50 or 100 feet, I say, the more the better. An extra hundred feet can make a huge difference.
  • Sleeping bag - Few people carry a sleeping bag in a bug out bag, but a good backpacking sleeping bag doesn't weigh much. In cold weather, this could very well mean the difference between life and death.

In addition, you're going to need some basic tools for building a shelter, as well as for survival in general. I'm going to list them all here, as most can be used for various purposes.

  • Good sheath knife - The most important survival tool you can have. Buy a good one, as it will get used a lot.
  • Honing stone - For use with your knife. Blades don't stay sharp forever.
  • Hatchet - Your basic woodcutting tool. Many people carry tomahawks today, rather than hatchets; but a tomahawk is designed as a weapon, not as a wood cutter. Therefore, it doesn't cut wood as well. It also can't be used as a hammer, which is another purpose that a hatchet fulfills.
  • Folding shovel - While not an absolute necessity, having a folding shovel allows you to dig a latrine, as well as digging a rain gutter around your shelter.
  • Machete - You may decide that you want a machete, rather than a hatchet. Both have their advantages. A machete can be used for cutting wood, as well as cutting other plants that might be in your way. They are great for cutting branches for laying over a shelter.
  • Saw - Many people carry a wire saw. As far as I'm concerned, they are next to worthless. The problem is that a wire saw won't last long. You're better off with a folding pruning saw. Not only will it cut better, but it won't break.
  • Multi-tool - A lot of people add a multi-tool to their pack. This is not an absolute necessity for survival, but it does give you a spare knife, as well as several other tools that you might find useful.

If you are planning on staying in the wilderness long-term, you will probably need a better shelter than what you can build with this; something more along the line of a log cabin. In that case, you'll need to add a few tools to your extra bags:

  • Bow saw - For cutting down trees and cutting off limbs.
  • Full-sized Axe - For felling trees.


Few people actually put much clothing in their bug out bag, mostly due to space. However, some clothing is a necessity, especially for surviving long-term. While this may go into the extra bags, you should consider a minimum of:

  • Coat - This is an item which may change depending on the seasons. But remember, it might get much colder out there, than it is when you are bugging out.
  • Hat - Both to keep your head warm and to keep the sun out of your eyes.
  • Gloves - If you carry good work gloves, they not only will help keep your hands warm, but help protect them from injury as well.
  • One full change of rugged outdoor clothing - So you can change and wash what you're wearing.
  • Extra underwear and socks - They get dirty faster.
  • Rain poncho - Getting drenched in the cold is not a very good survival technique. In fact, it can kill you.

If you are taking extra bags along, you might even be able to up that to a couple of outfits. Clothing is light, so the problem is the bulk.

Fire Starting

Pretty much every survival instructor out there will tell you that you should have two primary and two secondary means of starting a fire. Ideally, they should be fire starters that will allow you to start many fires. Butane lighters are better for this than matches, because you can start more fires with them. However, they don't work well in the cold. Some of the best are:

  • Waterproof or storm proof matches
  • Butane lighter (keep it inside your clothing in cold weather)
  • Magnesium "metal match"
  • Ferro rod is very popular, but the metal match works better in that it gives you magnesium, which burns very well
  • Blastmatch - This is somewhat of an automatic metal match. Spring loaded, push down on it and it sends a shower of sparks.

One thing that multiple means does for you is allow you to have simple fire starters, as well as fire starters for wet weather. In addition, you should carry some sort of tinder that will work well in wet weather, such as cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly or some of the wet weather fire starting cubes that are available on the market.


You're going to need a gallon of water or more per day, just for drinking and cooking. There's no way that anyone can carry enough. So, your bug out plans are going to have to take into account where you can go to resupply your water. This may make your route longer, but if you don't take into account your need for water, you may never reach your destination.

It's obvious that you should carry as much water as possible, but you also need:

  • Straw-type water filter - This allows you to drink directly from a stream, pond or puddle, safely. Straw filters are cheap, so there's no reason not to have one.
  • A larger water filter - You can't refill your canteen or water bottle from a straw type filter, so you need a larger one.
  • Canteens or water bottles - You should carry at least two quarts of water, but have containers for more. Collapsible bottles are great, as they take up less room. Heavy-duty plastic freezer bags make good emergency canteens as well.

In addition to these obvious needs, I also carry:

  • A WAPI - Everyone knows that you can purify water by boiling it. The Water Pasteurization Indicator allows me to pasteurize it instead, using less fuel and taking less time.
  • Small bottle of bleach - Water purification tablets are a great emergency plan, but I don't like how they make the water taste. So, I carry a small bottle of bleach instead, along with an eye dropper. Eight drops will purify one gallon of water.

If you have those duffel bags and a cart to carry them, that's a great place for extra water. Take as much as you can, but don't overburden yourself.


The "standard" bug out bag contains three days worth of food. As far as I'm concerned, that's ridiculous. Unless you have a destination in mind, which you are sure you can reach within three days and you have a stockpile of food in that location, you're going to starve. Fortunately for you, you can live at least a few weeks without food.

I believe that a bug out bag should contain at least a week's worth of food, even if it is a reduced diet. However, it's hard to carry that much food in one backpack, along with everything else you need. This is one of those areas where the extra bags and cart are going to come in handy.

Make sure that whatever food you carry is compact and lightweight. Avoid canned foods, in favor of foods that are stored in foil pouches. You might want to avoid MREs or their civilian equivalent too, just because of cost. In addition:

  • Camp stove - Cooking over an open fire is great, as long as you have wood and stones available, wherever you are going to be. I happen to live in an area of the country where both are rare. So, I carry a small camp stove that will work off of sticks. Don't carry one that requires propane, as it becomes useless once you run out of gas.
  • Backpacking cookware - Good aluminum or titanium cookware is essential, so that you can cook the food that you are carrying. Don't forget some utensils.
  • Spices - Take some spices along with you, so that you can make your food more palatable. Don't forget salt, as that is necessary for survival. It's also useful for preserving meat, if you manage to kill any large game.
  • Fishing kit - Fishing is one of the easiest ways of finding food in the wild. Take along enough hooks, line, weighs and bobbers to catch yourself something to eat. You can always dig up worms for bait and cut a branch for a pole.
  • Wire for snares - If you know how to make snares, you can catch small game. I like guitar strings for snare wire, as they are strong, lightweight and already have a loop at one end.
  • Bow - While firearms are the weapon of choice, a bow is a silent way of hunting. You can also recover the arrows and reuse them, making it a great long-term solution. That might be something to put on your cart.
  • Edible plant guide - There are many edible plants that grow in the wild. Of course, you want to make sure you can recognize them. That means having a good guide with color pictures. Make sure that it is applicable to your part of the country.

First-Aid and Personal Hygiene

There's an excellent chance that you'll get injured sometime on your bug out. If you don't than someone in your party might. So, it's a good idea to have a good trauma first-aid kit with you. That should be something big enough for taking care of bullet wounds and broken bones. You're going to need more than just an adhesive bandage.

Take some over the counter medicines with you as well. You never know when you'll catch a cold. Being able to treat the symptoms will go a long way towards making it easier to do everything else you need to do, in order to survive. If you take any prescription medications, make sure you have a good supply.

Personal hygiene is an important part of maintaining your health as well. Keeping your body clean helps prevent the introduction of infection, as well as alleviating things like rashes on the skin. While bathing regularly might be difficult when you are in survival mode, you should take whatever chances you get.

The area of personal hygiene also includes disposal of human waste. Dig a small latrine, whenever you camp, so that human waste can be buried. Carry toilet paper or compressed toilet paper with you, so that you can keep yourself clean. This is especially important with women, who tend to use much more toilet paper per day than men do.

Self Defense

If you are forced to bug out, you can be sure that many other people will be faced with the same problem as well. While most of those people will be descent law-abiding people, few will be prepared. Then there will be those who are the natural predators in society. They won't care about being prepared, as they'll expect to live off of whatever you have.

If you aren't prepared to protect yourself from these people, you won't survive, no matter how much bushcraft and wilderness survival you know. Unfortunately, these people won't see your knowledge as being advantageous, but they will see your supplies as something to be taken. If you have to die in the process, that's no big deal to them.

Regardless of how you feel about firearms, you should be armed. Not only that, but you need to know how to use those firearms and how to use them well. You don't want to start shooting, only to miss the bad guy that's attacking you and hit someone else. Take the time to practice.

Firearms also give you the possibility of hunting, especially if you carry a rifle with you. A good rifle will make a huge difference when it comes to surviving in the wilderness. With it, you aren't limited to fish and small game, but can go after large game, hunting enough to last for a while. With winter coming, that's important.       

The big problem is that ammo is heavy. So, break up your ammo supply, carrying some on your person, some in your bug out bag and some in your extra bags. That way, you always have some, but also have it split up so that you don't have to carry the weight of it all.


You may think that communications aren't all that necessary and in one manner you'll be right. A survival situation isn't the time to be texting your friends and talking about what you ate last night. However, you also need some means of receiving news. Otherwise, you'll have no way of knowing when the crisis is over and you can return home.

A good hand-crank radio will solve that problem. A cell phone or ham radio will allow you to contact other people, letting them know you are all right and possibly arranging a meeting. If you have a survival team or a scattered family, you will probably want to contact them, so that you can all meet at some point.

In addition, you should carry some means of signaling for help, in case of an emergency. The classic things carried for this are a whistle and a mirror. Both can be used to signal rescuers. They are also lightweight, so that they don't add much to your overall load.

Make it a Family Affair

While your family may have one main bug out bag, carried by dad, there's no reason to limit it to just that. Each family member can carry something, even small children. If they can carry a backpack to school, they can carry a small one on a bug out.

Each family member should carry:

  • Their own clothes
  • Ammo for their firearms (if they are carrying)
  • Basic survival equipment - Especially fire starting
  • Some food
  • Some water
  • A water filter
  • Communications device

If you are taking sleeping bags along, then each family member should carry their own. Once again, if you buy good backpacking sleeping bags, they don't weigh much. So, it shouldn't be a problem to carry. In the event the group gets separated, that gives each family member the ability to keep themselves warm.

In Conclusion

If you notice, I haven't gotten much into specifics here, but rather only spoken in generalities. That's because I don't want to dictate to you what you should have. It's not my place to tell you what type of camp stove or what type of sleeping bag you need. You and I don't live in the same climate, don't have the same bug out plans and don't have the same health needs. So if you try to duplicate my bug out bag, you might not end up with what you need.

The other problem that happens when you follow someone else's plan is that you end up with equipment that you can't use. It wouldn't do the least bit of good for me to recommend a particular tool to you, if you don't know how to use it. You're better off finding something that you like, which matches the descriptions that I've given. You're after particular functions, not particular items.

Once you build your bug out bag, you should take a weekend off and go out in the wilderness with it. Do a dry run, trying to live as you would live if you were on a bug out, using the equipment and supplies that you have in your bag. That will show you whether you have what you need, or whether you need to make some additions.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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