It seems like everyone is talking about bug out bags these days. You don't even need to officially be a prepper to have one. People from every walk of life and political persuasion are recognizing the need for at least a little bit of preparedness... that of having a bug out bag.

There are many articles around about bug out bags; articles in which the author tries to impose their ideas on their readers. But bug out bags need to be more personal than that. What works for one, may not work for another. Each bug out bag has to be custom built, fitted to the needs of its owner.

The reason for this is that not everyone has the same sort of bug out plans. That has a huge influence on what needs to be in the bag. People who are bugging out to a prepared shelter in the woods don't need the same equipment and supplies as those who are going to a FEMA shelter. Now will those people need the same things that someone who is planning on living off the ground needs.

So, the starting point has to be the bug out plan. That, in turn, has to take into consideration the individual's knowledge, strengths and abilities. It makes no sense whatsoever to bug out in such a way as to lessen your chances of survival. Rather, it's important to find a means of bugging out, which will reduce your risk and give you the greatest chance of survival.

What Kind of Bug Out?

So, let's start by talking about the different types of bug outs you may choose to do:

  • Bug out to a FEMA Shelter - This is, of course, what the government wants you to do. It allows the nanny state to take care of you, as well as keeping you under control. If you look at the suggest list for a bug out bag on FEMA's website, it only provides enough equipment and supplies to get you there, along with clothes and papers you'll need while in the shelter.
  • Bug out to a Friend's Home - If you have a friend who lives out in the country, you may be able to make an agreement with them that you will use their home as a bug out retreat. If you do that, you will probably need to build a cabin or park a travel trailer on their property. In such a case, all you'll need in your bug out bag is enough to get you to their home. So, some camping equipment may need to be included, but nothing for long-term.
  • Bug out to a Small Town - Another way of bugging out is to relocate to a small, rural community. In such a case, you won't need any more survival and camping equipment than you would need for getting to that friend's house.
  • Bug out to a Cabin in the Woods - This is the ideal for most people. The great advantage of bugging out to a prepared, hidden, survival shelter is that you can have everything in place to stay away from society. In such a case, you'll want to travel light and fast, so that you can get their quickly.
  • Bugging out to the wild - Of all the options available, this one is the hardest one to survive. The amount of knowledge and work required to live off the land, build a shelter and survive is enormous. That's not to say it can't be done; but it will be difficult. In such a case, you'll need to take as much survival and camping equipment with you as possible, more than you can realistically carry in a bug out bag.

As you can see, the needs can be quite different in these different bug out scenarios. So, before building a bag, it's important to decide what it is that you are going to do and where you are going to go. You should also consider alternatives to that, in case your original plan doesn't work.

Regardless of what you do and what plans you have, you should always make sure that your bug out bag has basic survival equipment. Even if you're going right down the road to your friend's house, things can happen. You might not actually make it to your friend's house before something else happens. Their home might be destroyed. It might take longer to get there than you originally expected, so you have to camp out somewhere overnight.

One of the easiest things to go wrong is for the highways to turn into parking lots. You've got to figure that at any one point in time, more than half the cars have less than half a tank of gas. If everyone is trying to get out of town at the same time, some of those people will run out of gas, blocking the road. Others will have their cars overheat. Unless people actually push those cars off the road, they will block traffic, slowing it down. If enough of that happens, then the road turns into a parking lot.

So, you could very likely end up having to abandon your car, taking off on foot. Hopefully, if you have to do that, you'll be able to get your car off the road, parked somewhere where it will be left alone. Then, anything you are forced to leave behind in the car might have a chance of still being there when you return for it.

The bigger problem in such a case is that you'll need to carry everything you're taking. Most of us can't really carry that much of a load, especially when you consider that we're talking about carrying it all day long. A 25 to 35 pound pack will be about all you can manage; women and children, even less.

Before packing your kit, take the time to walk through a few worst-case scenarios. How long will it take you to get to your survival shelter in each of those cases? What it you can't go to your principal location; how much longer will it take to get to your alternate? Be sure to think it through assuming that you're going on foot and not just driving down nice empty roads.

The Bag Itself

Let's start with the bag itself. I've seen all sorts of things recommended as a bug out bag. These include, plastic storage bins, children's school backpacks, rolling suitcases and duffel bags. While I suppose any of these would be better than nothing in an emergency, we're not talking about building a kit in an emergency; we're talking about building one while everything is good, so that it will be ready in the case of an emergency.

Assuming that you're going to have to carry your bug out bag at some point in time, the most practical thing to use is a backpack. Not a children's backpack for taking to school, but a serious backpack; something that would be used for taking off for a week of walking in the woods.

There are several advantages of this type of backpack. First of all, it's the easiest to carry of anything mentioned. True backpacking packs have belts, allowing you to transfer the weight of the pack to your hips, rather than carrying it all with the shoulder straps. That makes it possible to carry a heavier load, as well as carrying it farther without tiring.

Select a pack that provides you with a good means of organizing the equipment and supplies you're going to be taking with you. Different people have different ideas about this, so I don't want to impose my ideas on you. Suffice it to say that you need some items easily accessible, so you want to be sure that the backpack offers that. It is also helpful if you can access everything inside, without having to remove some things to get to others.

Many modern backpacks have means of attaching things outside the pack, especially military-style packs. This can be advantageous, as you can put things like your coat, hatchet and machete on the outside, where they are easy to get to. Military packs now use the "MOLLE system" which allows the attachment of small pouches, like ammo pouches, to the outside of the pack.

Secondary Bags

I don't limit myself to one bug out bag, but in fact have secondary bags I take along. My most important equipment, such as survival gear, is packed in my main bug out bag. These secondary bags, which are duffels, allow me to carry along extra food, clothing, a larger first-aid kit, some better tools for building a shelter and even a sleeping bag.

Part of the reason for this is that I've built my bug out bag around the idea of having to live off the land. I can't afford a cabin in the woods and haven't yet found a friend with land out in the country where I can go. So, while I have plans for going to a small rural community, I also have plans for bugging out into the wild.

If you are able to take your car all the way to your bug out, then you can carry these extra bags along with you. But if you can't they'll have to be abandoned. That's why I have all my survival gear in my main bug out bag.

I also have a wheeled cart that I've built, which I can use to carry along those extra bags. It's talked about in the article "More than Just a Bug Out Bag." By doing this, I greatly expand the amount of equipment and supplies I can take with me, without overloading myself. Between my wife and I, we can easily manage the cart, even over rough terrain.

Start with Survival

I mentioned before that every bug out bag should contain the basic necessities for survival, regardless of your bug out plans. That means having what you need to build a shelter, get clean water, have food to eat and build a fire. If you can do those things, you should be able to survive, even if your plans go awry.

The trick here is going to be avoiding going overboard on the equipment and making your bug out bag too heavy. Once you start buying survival equipment, you can always find more that you think "you really should have." It happens to me too. Because of that, my bug out bag is probably a little heavier on survival gear than it needs to be. But then, I'm planning on living off the wild.

Unless you're planning on living off the land out in the wild somewhere, your survival gear only needs to be sufficient to take care of you for however long it takes you to get to your survival retreat. So, based upon the scenarios you though through earlier, you should know how long that will be. Add another 50% to cover unforeseen problems and delays and you should be about right.

Okay, so let's look at what survival equipment you absolutely must have:


We're only talking about a short period of time, so shelter needs are actually rather minimized. You can take this at several different levels:

  • A tent - for staying longer than a week in the wild
  • A tarp and some paracord rope - for making an emergency tent
  • A rain poncho - to protect you from the rain

You also might consider building a shelter from available materials. Of course, before you decide on that, scout out the area you'll be traveling through and make sure that you'll be able to find the necessary materials to make your shelter.

If you are planning on living in the wild, you'll need to make sure that you have the right tools to build a shelter. Don't depend on a wire saw and a tomahawk to build a log cabin. Your tools will give out long before you finish. Take a bow saw and a real axe with you, putting them in one of the extra bags.

Another thing you want to consider in the shelter area is a sleeping bag or blanket roll. If the weather is nice, you can probably get away without this. But if the weather turns cold, you will need it. A lot depends on the climate where you live and where you are going. While a sleeping bag is extra weight and bulk, good backpacking sleeping bags are actually extremely light.

Clean Water

Water is one of the most difficult things to take along in your bug out bag. The problem is that you need more water than you can carry. So, the best way to minimize this need is to plan out your route in such a way that you are following water. That way, you'll always have a source of water available. If you don't have a river you can follow, then a string of lakes, ponds and livestock tanks will have to do.

Be sure to carry at least a couple of liters of water with you at all times, even if you are following a river. Something might happen which prevents you from having direct access to the river. In that case, you'll need water to drink.

In addition, you need to carry water purification supplies with you. I carry four different things:

  • A Lifestraw personal water purification filter
  • A Sawyer bag type water filter for refilling my canteens
  • A WAPI (water pasteurization indicator) - this allows me to heat water to purify it, without bringing it to boiling. That saves time and fuel.
  • Water purification tablets for emergency

That may seem a bit excessive to you, but redundancy is important. Without clean water, nobody can live for more than about three days. Unlike shelter, I can't substitute something I find in the wild to purify my water.


Everyone says that you should carry three days worth of food with you in your bug out bag. I disagree. I think you should carry as much food as you possibly can. Unless you actually get where you are going in three days and there is a supply of food at that location, you're going to be sunk if that's all you carry.

I think the idea of three days worth of food came from FEMA. But then, we need to remember that their goal is to get you into one of their shelters. Thanks, but no thanks. My basic bug out bag has a week's worth of food in it and I have three weeks more packed into my extra bags. Granted, it may not seem like the most attractive diet, but it will keep me going.

Basically, what I've done for food is to make my own MREs. You can find excellent guides for this online, so I won't bother you with the details here. But I will mention that you should ensure that everything is high calorie and lightweight. Avoid cans and opt for foil or plastic pouches instead. Many canned meats and packaged this way now, as "individual serving packs."

In addition to the food you carry, you should take the means of harvesting food in the wild. That will hopefully increase the amount of time you can survive, without going hungry. This would include such things as:

  • Fishing kit - forget the pole, just the rest of it
  • Automatic fishing reels - these are great; attach them to a tree limb, with the hook in the water. If a fish nibbles at it, it will set the hook
  • Wire for making snares - I like guitar strings for this
  • Bow and arrows - better for survival hunting, as far as I'm concerned
  • Rifle - instead of the bow, for hunting; the problem becomes the weight of enough ammo
  • Seeds - for planting a garden at your survival shelter

Don't forget some means of cooking your food, as well. I carry a titanium camping cook set. That may be a bit extreme for your needs. A simple cook kit will do for most cases.


Any survival instructor will tell you that you need two primary and two secondary means of starting a fire. That's because fire is so important to survival and you never know what problems you'll have in starting one. For primary fire starters, carry a butane lighter and some waterproof matches. For secondary fire starters, the absolute best are the magnesium ones, rather than the Ferro Rod (which is quite popular).

The other thing you need is some sort of accelerants. These are also called "fire starters," which creates confusion. What I'm referring to here is not the thing that provides the initial heat or spark, but what that ignites. You can buy commercial ones, like the Wetfire cubes or make your own from cotton balls and petroleum jelly. These are especially important in damp weather and when starting a fire with damp fuel.


No survival kit or bug out bag is complete without some tools. The question is, how much weight can you afford to proportion for tools? Since they are made of metal, they can be rather heavy and hard to carry along. Once again, a lot will depend on how long you're going to be living off of what's in your bug out bag.


In an absolute best case scenario, it's only going to take you a couple of days to get to your survival retreat. In that case, you really won't need much in the way of tools. In fact, I am confident that a good knife is the only tool that you absolutely have to have.

While it may not be considered a tool, pack a good tactical flashlight and some spare batteries. That way, you'll have something to use if you have to go looking for things that go bump in the night.


This is where most people fall. They can't really get to their survival shelter in two days, so they'll have to camp out for a few. In that case, you want to add:

  • A spare sheathe knife
  • Hatchet - some people prefer a tomahawk, but a hatchet is a better tool. The tomahawk is designed to be a weapon
  • Wire saw or manual chain saw
  • Multi-tool - handy for lots of things
  • Collapsible camp shovel
  • Spare flashlight and batteries

I also carry a machete with a saw back, which I find to be a very useful tool, but probably more than most people would want to bother with.

Living in the Wild

If you're going to live in the wild, then your major consideration is going to be building a more permanent shelter. That's where you're going to need some real tools. You just can't build a log cabin with a wire saw and a hatchet. So, in addition to the tools mentioned above, I'd add:

  • A bow saw - If you don't have room for a bow saw, you could carry the blade and make the bow out of a branch
  • Full-sized axe
  • Larger shovel
  • Small sledge hammer

This is obviously adding a lot of weight and bulk. In all cases, you could carry just the heads and cut your own handles out of tree branches, if you have a space problem. However, that doesn't help you a lot with the weight. Nevertheless, these are about the minimum tools you'll need for building any sort of long-term shelter.

What Else do You Need?

Now that we've covered the basic survival equipment, there are a lot of other things you should consider. How much you carry of these things will once again depend on how long you're going to be trying to survive off of your bug out bag. Weight is always your limiting factor, so you'll want to be sure to plan things out well.

In a group, such as a family, some things can be split up. One family member might carry one tool, while another carries something else. One first-aid kit is enough for the family, so one person can carry that. Even some of the survival equipment can be split up that way. There is no reason to carry more than one bag-type water filter, even though everyone should have their own straw filter.

First-aid Kit

This is probably a bigger first-aid kit than you really need. However, it's what I carry. I do that, so that I can help others, as needed.  

  • Rubber gloves
  • Adhesive bandages - cloth are flexible and work better. I also carry cloth knuckle bandages, which are great
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Butterfly bandages - used in place of sutures
  • 3" x 4" Bandages - for larger wounds
  • Sanitary napkins - great for large wounds and cheaper than bandages
  • Cohesive medical tape - sticks to itself, not to your skin
  • Israeli bandage
  • Sam splint - foam backed aluminum, which is formable by hand. Can be fit to any shape to make a quick splint. Much more comfortable and better than using sticks.
  • Ace bandages - for use with the Sam splint
  • Tweezers - for getting out splinters
  • Eye loupe - for use with the tweezers, my eyes aren't as good as they could be
  • Medical scissors - for cutting away clothing or bandages as needed
  • Hemostats - for closing off a spurting blood vein, before the person bleeds out
  • Tourniquet - the kind that can be operated one-handed, in case I have to use it on myself

Personal Hygiene

Personal hygiene is one of those areas where everyone should carry their own, just to keep them separated. 

  • Toilet paper - don't forget this one
  • Personal hygiene kit - contains toothbrush, toothpaste razor, soap, shampoo and deodorant
  • Insect repellant
  • Waterless hand sanitizer
  • Sewing kit
  • Spare pair of prescription glasses

Communications & Electronics

  • Disposable cell phone with cards for extra time
  • Signaling mirror
  • Whistle
  • Hand-crank FM radio - for getting the news
  • Solar battery charger - to charge my phone and tablet


  • Compass
  • Binoculars or Monocular
  • Maps - topographical and road maps of the area
  • Tablet - Contains survival books, including edible plant recognition
  • Miscellaneous plastic bags
  • Duct tape - useful for a world of things
  • Paracord - like the duct tape, very useful; you can't have enough
  • Small bungee cords - for holding things to the backpack, if needed

As you can see, we've gotten to a rather lengthy list. However, you may not need some of these items. Once again, what you actually need depends a lot on what your bug out plan is. The longer you will be out in the wild, the more you need to take with you. Even so, before adding something to your bag, ask yourself how you would use it. If you really can't answer that, then you might just want to leave it behind.

Of course, you should never take any piece of equipment with you that you don't know how to use. Taking a bunch of wire for making snares, but not knowing how to make those snares, is a waste of time, money and energy. Better to leave the snare wire home and concentrate on things that you can use.

You also need to consider what you will do for self defense. As far as I'm concerned, every member of your party that is able to bear arms should. That means knowing how to use them and do so responsibly. I like the idea of a long arm and a side arm for each person. The side arm is for self-defense, both from two-legged and four-legged predators. The long arm is for hunting and general survival. A good mix of long arms would be advisable.

The problem with guns is the weight of the ammunition. That's why I like bows. At least with a bow, the ammunition is reusable. However, not everyone can use a bow effectively. To be honest, I'm not that good with one. So, my rifle is an important part of my bug out bag.

One way to save a bit on the weight of ammunition is to communize calibers. If everyone in your family or survival team uses the same caliber pistol, you can share ammunition. The same goes for long guns. While that won't increase the overall number of rounds you have, it will help to ensure that you can use all those guns for the most possible time.

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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