Chances are you’ve heard the expression “bugging out” before. The concept is basically to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible when and if a disaster happens. As you can imagine, a “bug-out bag” is a pack full of essentials that you’ll want to have with you when stuff hits the fan.
So what should be packed in a bug-out bag? And are they essential? Let’s take a look at some details, and you can decide for yourself whether you need one, want one, and what to put into yours.
What is a Bug Out Bag?
A bug out bag is quite different from a “grab bag,” which is just a bag of stuff people toss together when fleeing from a burning building.
A bug-out bag is full of essential items that you have packed and ready to go in an emergency situation. It requires a fair bit of pre-planning but will be full of everything you need to keep you (and your family) alive if you have to get out of Dodge quickly.
Some people assume that these bags are only for a zombie apocalypse or Armageddon prep. However, those who have had to deal with unexpected natural disasters will understand how vital these pre-prepared bags can be. Considering that these disasters are becoming far more common, being prepared has never been a better idea.
Things to Consider When Planning Your Gear
When it comes to determining what to pack in yours, consider that these bags should provide you with the means to stay alive in your local environment. This means adapting what you pack into yours to suit your surroundings. A person who lives in Arizona will have a few different items from someone in Alaska, for example.
That said, the items you put into your bag will need to be multi-purpose. Ideally, you should have enough food supplies to keep you going for four to seven days. This gives you enough time to get to a predetermined safe locale.
Of course, depending on what kind of disaster you’re navigating, that might not be an option. As a result, you’ll need to pack items that will help to keep you alive. Assume that you might be roughing it in the wilderness for months, and pack essentials that will keep you warm, fed, hydrated, and defended.
Below are some essential items to consider including in your bug out bag. Of course, these are just essentials as recommended by survivalists, forest rangers, and the like. You need to do your research and determine what’s best to pack for yourself and your loved ones.
What Kind of Bag is Best to Use?
If you ask 100 different preppers this question, you’ll get 100 different answers. However, one constant answer across the board is to get the best quality bag you can afford. Cheaper bags might look cool and tactical, but they’re liable to rip at the seams when packed with heavy items.
Look for a good-quality hiking/trekking backpack that has waist straps. Those straps will do a world of good at distributing weight over your hips and lower back. Otherwise, your arms and hands will go numb from carrying all that extra weight on your shoulders for long periods.
As an example, look at the Zpack Arc Blast or Arc Haul packs. They have lightweight, durable frames, external mesh pouches, and pockets, plenty of places to clip extra items onto, and those oh-so-necessary waist straps.
Also, don’t purchase a bag until you’ve gathered all your items. This way, you can determine the adequately sized pack you’ll need to accommodate everything comfortably.
Should Everyone in the Family Have Their Own Bag?
Everyone who’s capable of carrying a bag should have one, yes. Make sure all adults and teens have packs that are well suited to their height and hauling capabilities.
If you have very small children, then you’ll have to get a large enough bag so you can carry their items for them. Alternatively, if they’re over the age of four or five, they should at least have a small pack for a few essentials of their own.
Kids under 12 shouldn’t be carrying more than about 10–15% of their body weight. Additionally, try to get them involved in the packing process. This will familiarize them with the contents and will teach them about smart choices.
For example, work with them so they understand that a coloring book and some crayons are a good idea because they’re light and don’t take up space, compared to a complex console gaming system.
Pack some simple essentials into your kids’ bug out bags. These can include:
- Snacks: Granola or protein bars, cheese or PB and cracker packs, dried raisins, mild pepperoni sticks, peel-able cheese sticks, fruit leather, etc.
- A smaller steel water bottle
- An extra set of clothes
- Lightweight thermal blanket
- Mittens or gloves
- Warm socks
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- Colorful Band-Aids in case they get scratches or cuts
- Hand sanitizer
- Lip balm
- Emergency whistle
- Pre-paid cell phone: Even very small children can be taught to dial 9-1-1
- Glow sticks
- A favorite stuffy toy
- A laminated card with emergency information and contact phone numbers
Older kids and teenagers can have more in their packs, of course. Those over the age of 12 can likely carry significantly more and can also be trusted with things like multi-purpose utility tools, matches, etc.
Of course, these packs need to be adapted to kids’ individual mental and physical capabilities. For example, a very strong 10-year-old might be able to carry more than an autistic 15-year-old due to possible sensory challenges.
Family members with special needs might need things like noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, etc., to keep them from getting even more overwhelmed in an already challenging situation.
Bug-Out Bags for Pets
Our animal companions are members of the family too, so they’ll need to have their own set of supplies. Just like their human counterparts, they’ll need essentials like food, water, shelter, and comfort.
Dogs that are beagle-sized and larger can be outfitted with doggie backpacks. These are also known as “dog saddlebags” or “K-9 Bug-Out Bags”. Look for those that are waterproof, and evenly weighted on both sides. Into these side pockets, you’ll put things like:
- A few days’ worth of food, plus some treats
- Collapsible silicone bowls: one for water, one for food
- A small bottle of water
- Water purification tablets
- A small towel or washcloth
- Pet first aid kit
- Reflective emergency blanket
- A favorite toy
For little dogs, cats, rabbits, and other smaller animals, consider a front-carry animal pack. This way you can carry your friend close to your chest, out of harm’s way.
Just make sure that they’re fitted with a harness and leash that’s clamped to the carrier itself. A frightened animal will be tempted to bolt away to safety, and you might not be able to call them back or find them.
You’ll also need to consider how you’re going to keep these smaller pets fed and healthy away from home. Carnivorous pets can share animal protein with you if you’re hunting or fishing, but herbivores and seed eaters are likely to go hungry unless there’s plenty of vegetation to forage. Take this into account when packing your supplies.
What Should I Include in My Bug Out Bag?
Below are 14 essential categories for packing a bug-out bag. These can obviously be expanded upon or adapted as you see fit.
1. Personal Information and Emergency Contacts
When an emergency happens, you don’t always have the time to grab your belongings. Quite often, people have to take off with just the clothes on their backs. The beauty of a bug-out bag is that you’ve planned ahead for just such an emergency.
That said, in addition to food, clothing, and shelter, you’ll also need a way to identify yourself to the authorities if needed. Additionally, you might need to provide information to emergency teams if you’re unconscious. It’s also a good idea to keep contact info for family members, etc. on hand in case you can’t access your phone.
Keep all of these items in your wallet, inside a waterproof bag. Make sure they’re in a top or side pocket in your bag so you can access them easily.
- Government-issued ID: Passport, driver’s license, ID card, etc.
- Info card with your blood type, along with any allergies or vital medications
- Small notepad with key contact information: Phone numbers, home addresses, email addresses, etc.
- Optional: You can also have dog tag-like info pendants made for each family member. These are great options for emergency health and contact info. They’re also great for non-verbal individuals as vital information can be gleaned quickly and easily without frustration.
Water is obviously necessary for life. As a result, if you don’t have the means to collect and purify water, you could have a major problem on your hands. That is why you’ll want to consider packing a few items to help you along with this.
- A steel water bottle: You can boil water right in the bottle itself to purify it, which is great for saving time and fuel.
- Water filters or a purification system. Aim for a ceramic pump filter if possible, with an extra filter just in case the first one breaks.
- LifeStraw: If you can get one of these per person, that’s perfect.
- Water purification tablets: You can use these as backup options in case your filter breaks, or if you feel that the water that’s available needs some extra purification against pathogens, etc. Additionally, you can use these tablets to purify your pets’ water. Although dogs can drink water from streams and puddles, you never know what kind of contaminants might be present.
3. Food and Beverages
Food is another big essential necessity. So when packing your bug out bag be sure to include shelf-stable items that can fuel your body until you can make it to safety. Aim for a week’s supply of food, choosing high-calorie, high-protein, and high-fat items whenever possible.
These will help to keep you nourished and healthy as you make your way to a safe location. You might be able to go three days without water and three weeks without food, but it’ll wreak havoc on your body if you have to do so.
If you think you’re going to be out in the wild for a while, then try to ration some of these items to make them last. You can hunt and forage daily to help bulk out your food rations.
Consider including these items:
- Protein bars and/or energy bites: Highest protein and fat content available, especially with nuts unless you’re allergic to them
- Peanut butter packets: Look for the individual packs like those served at restaurant buffets. Alternatively, choose cracker and PB snack packs.
- Trail mix: Packed with sunflower seeds, various nuts, raisins, other dried fruit.
- Jerky: As high-quality as you can find.
- Pop-tarts: These are lightweight, fatty, and sugary and can be handy little treats if you’re trekking long distances. They’re also good as familiar comfort foods for small children.
- Dry mashed potatoes: They can be added to any meal for extra carbs.
- Instant oatmeal packets: Nourishing, warming comfort food.
- Flavored fish pouches: Fatty options like sardines or salmon are better than low-fat tuna, but get whatever you can.
- Dry beans: You’ll need to cook them, but they’re little protein bombs.
- Instant dry noodle soup packets: Just add boiling water and you have a meal.
- Freeze-dried camping meal pouches: Many camping and survival stores (and websites) have a wide variety of meals to choose from. You can also find gluten-free, vegan, and other specialty diet options.
- Salt packets: No salt = no flavor, and that makes challenging situations even more difficult.
- Bouillon cubes or powder: You’d be amazed at how far these can go for adding a bit of extra “oomph” to survival food.
- Whole milk powder (or non-dairy equivalent): A bit of high-fat milk powder goes a long way.
- Instant coffee singles or hot chocolate packets: Not only are these comforting, they’ll also warm you up and provide you with a bit of extra energy.
- Emergen-C packets: These will add flavor to your water, plus much-needed vitamins to help keep your immune system strong.
Try to keep canned goods to a minimum, and choose ones with pull tabs whenever possible. Yes, you’ll have can openers on hand, but pull tabs make life a lot easier (and food prep a lot quicker). Additionally, try to choose dry goods over canned items. The extra liquid and metal that cans have to offer will add up to significantly more weight in your pack.
When packing all of your food and drink, make sure that you have the tools needed to prepare it. We’ve covered cooking pots and utensils in the “tools” section later, but consider the items that you need most on a day-to-day basis.
- A cup and or bowl: You’ll use these for eating food and drinking just about everything other than a protein bar. A kuksa or other handled cup is ideal, and you can attach it to your bag with a carabiner instead of taking up space inside it. Alternatively, you can choose nylon or other lightweight material.
- Eating utensils: Reduce weight on these as much as possible by choosing durable nylon or wooden pieces.
- Can opener
- Steel wool scrubber to clean the pots
As an additional note, ensure that all the items you pack are safe for all family members. If one of you has food allergies, then avoid packing anything that could make them ill. You may need to share food and ingredients, and it’s best to avoid poisoning anyone.
If you have a large enough pack, you can also consider taking along a portable stove. Rocket Stoves and JetBoils are great, though you’ll need to pack fuel for them. This will take up extra space and will add more weight to your pack.
In contrast, the BioLite stove is fueled with twigs and other locally gathered materials. As an added benefit, it’ll charge your phone or Ipad while also warming your food.
Clothing is another necessity that requires significant consideration. You’ll have to be careful not to overpack in this area while still making sure you have what you need. Depending on where you live and how long you think you’ll be roughing it you might also have to contend with a variety of different conditions.
Below are a few suggestions that can be adapted to individual needs and situations. Remember that layering is always a good idea, as you can add or remove them as necessary to regulate body heat.
- Hiking Boots: This is assuming that you’re not wearing them when you bug out.
- Hiking or running socks that prevent sores and chafing
- Heavy woolen socks: These will keep your feet warm even if they get wet. Keep one pair with your boots, and one pair somewhere else, preferably inside a zipped plastic bag.
- Cargo or convertible pants: Waterproof, if possible
- Thermal long underwear, if you’re in a colder climate
- Undergarments: A few changes of underwear, and sports bras for women.
- Lightweight T-shirts: Short- and long-sleeved options.
- Medium-weight shirt: Cotton or flannel
- Woolen pullover or zip-up sweater: Again, this will keep you warm even if wet
- Woolen hat
- Gloves or mittens in cold weather
- Work gloves
- Waterproof rain poncho
- Large cotton scarf or Shemagh
If you wear glasses, be sure to pack an extra set along with your wallet, ID, and medications. Additionally, keep them in a protective hardshell case so they don’t get crushed as you travel.
As you may have noticed, shelter extremely important aspect of survival. Make some plans as to places you can head to in an emergency situation. Establish clear protocols for how you’ll get there, and mark out routes on maps.
Then make sure that everyone in the family has a copy of that map, and that they know how to read it with the help of a compass. Do some trial runs ahead of time if possible so everyone knows how to get to these places.
If it’ll take you a few days to get to these spots, or if you need to camp outside for a while until you can get to better shelter, you’ll need to pack at least some of the following:
- Tarp: Can be used to rig up an effective, waterproof shelter quickly and easily
- Poles: See the tools section below
- Nylon cord or rope
- A sleeping bag: Aim for something that’s both as lightweight as possible, and as warm as you can afford.
- Sleeping pad: Great for additional comfort, if you can handle the extra weight. If not, pine needles make a great sleeping layer.
- Tent: A wonderful option if that’s a possibility.
The ability to stay warm can mean the difference between life and death in some situations. This is particularly true if you’re in a colder climate. As an added bonus, fires work wonders to keep predatory animals at bay.
Having the ability to create a fire also means that you can boil water and cook food. Having extra light on long, dark nights is remarkably helpful as well.
Keep all of your fire-making supplies in waterproof bags. In fact, try keeping them in a plastic zip bag that’s tucked inside an oilcloth. Additionally, have a couple of fire-making kits in different areas of your bag. For example, keep one in the top pouch for easy access, but another set in your first aid kit, and/or tucked into a pair of socks.
- Waterproof matches: Try to get the strike-anywhere kind.
- Lighters: Disposable lighters are light, but they run out quickly—make sure you have a backup option for when their fluid runs out. Alternatively, if you’re using a refillable metal lighter like a Zippo, make sure you take along a container of fuel in a larger zip bag.
- Ferro rod: These are also known as “eternal matches,” and are basically flint strikers. You can use them to create sparks, which will catch on really dry, flammable tinder.
- Waterproof storage bags to store your fire equipment
- A warm blanket: If you don’t want a heavy woolen blanket to weigh you down, aim for a reflective survival blanket and a lightweight synthetic one. You can double these up for extra warmth, or use one as an insulating bottom layer.
7. Health and Safety
Your health is of the utmost importance when it comes to staying alive in an emergency situation. Illness and injuries happen and can even be inevitable when you’re roughing it for a while. Make sure to pack items you’re likely to need in case things hit the fan. Below are some of the items you might want to pack along these lines:
- A well-stocked First Aid Kit: You can get a pre-made one, or assemble one of your own. Just make sure it has alcohol and peroxide wipes, medical tape, some non-stock adhesive gauze pads, burn treatment pads, and medical gloves. Although they’re not common to most pre-packaged options, a suture kit can be invaluable for sewing up moderate cuts when you’re not able to get medical attention. Just make sure to practice a fair bit ahead of time so you don’t mangle the injured party in a crisis situation.
- Painkillers: These can make all the difference in the world if you’re dealing with injuries in a survival situation. Headaches, toothaches, sprained or broken limbs, or even menstrual cramps can make a difficult scenario absolutely miserable. Pack a variety of different pain relief medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen, and learn when to use which ones.
- Children’s pain and fever relief medication, if applicable
- Polysporin or other triple antibiotic topical ointment
- Insect repellent
- Sunscreen: You can get burned in both summer and winter, so be prepared.
- Chest salve: Ideal for any kind of chest complaint, including asthma attacks
- Another survival blanket
- Band-aids of all sizes
Keeping yourself clean won’t just do wonders for morale—it’ll keep you in good health. Everyone has their own needs and preferences when it comes to personal hygiene products, but the following items are pretty essential for just about everyone:
- Hand sanitizer
- A small towel or washcloth (one per person)
- Toothbrush and toothpaste: Choose a small collapsible toothbrush and travel-sized toothpaste
- Soap bar
- Solid shampoo bar
- Nail clippers
- Hairbrush or comb
- Toilet paper: Keep it inside a waterproof zipper bag
- A small compact mirror
- Feminine hygiene products: Try to aim for menstrual cups and washable pads rather than disposables.
- Baby care essentials: If you’re bugging out with infants or toddlers, you’ll need disposable diapers as well as washable ones, as well as wipes and diaper rash ointment.
Tools are of extreme importance in a survival situation as well. You can go as old school or new school as you’d like. I will say, thanks to modern technology, you don’t have to rough it nearly as bad as you would have years ago. Here are a few items for your consideration:
- A high quality, mid-sized axe, and a whetstone to keep it sharp
- Collapsible saw
- Trekking poles: You might have relegated these to Uncle-land, but they’re pretty much invaluable. They can be extended to use as tent poles or collapsed as makeshift splints if anyone breaks a leg. You can use them to lean on if you sprain an ankle, or use your rope to transform them into a travois. Just strap them onto the outside of your pack, and you’re good to go.
- Solar charger
- Survival knife (and a backup somewhere else on your person just in case you lose the first one)
- Multi-purpose knife/tools: Leatherman and Swiss Army knives are great, though there are other options available that are equally good.
- A roll of gorilla tape or other high-quality duct tape
- Cooking pot and utensils: Choose options that are as lightweight as possible.
- Can openers: Keep one with your cooking utensils and one in a completely different location.
- Fishing line and hooks
- Nylon cord: At least 20 feet, coiled and tied neatly
- Carabiners: You can use these to clamp additional items to your bag, lash your pet’s leash to your belt, secure a shelter tarp into place, or a million other uses.
In the event of an emergency, electricity becomes a luxury. With this in mind, you’ll need an alternative light source while traveling to a safer location. As a result, consider the following items for ideas on alternative light sources:
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Portable solar-chargeable lantern
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Candles: One emergency tin candle per person.
Most of us communicate with friends and family members around the world on a daily basis. As a result, we take this ability for granted and panic when and if we’re suddenly cut off. Make sure you have some way to stay in contact with others while out on the road or in the bush.
However, if a catastrophe happens, communication can become difficult. Keep this in mind while packing your bug out so you have ways to communicate, as well as keep up to date with local news reports. Some items that can help you do that are:
- A Prepaid cell phone with a crank or solar charger
- Emergency hand-crank radio
- Small ham radio
- Walkie talkies
12. Self Defense
Sadly, when chaos hits, people often panic and make bad decisions. If you’ve made preparations and others haven’t, things could get ugly. Never assume the people you encounter will have your best interest in mind.
Nobody wants to be robbed of their few possessions or killed because someone else failed to prepare themselves.
Consider personal protection for yourself and your family when packing your bug out bag as well. You may want to include some of these items, depending on legality in your area and/or availability:
- Pepper spray
- Handgun, along with ammunition and cleaning tools
- Rifle, along with ammunition and cleaning tools)
- Bow, with arrows, replacement arrowheads, and at least two replacement strings
- Machete, if you don’t have a survival knife
13. Travel Essentials
In an emergency situation, you could just be trying to get to a safe location such as a Red Cross disaster relief station. Alternatively, you could be traveling in the woods or to a bug out shelter for a longer duration.
Either way, you’ll need some items to help you get to where you’re going. You might also have the opportunity to get in touch with people and/or restock at way stations en route. With this in mind, you might want to consider packing a few of the following items:
- $2 worth of quarters
- A good compass with a mirror on the back
- A map
- Gold or silver coins
- $500 to $1000 in cash (small bills)
- An emergency whistle
- Pad and pencil
- Outdoor watch (military or survival style)
Quite a few random items don’t really fit in any of the above categories. Yet, you might still definitely want to consider adding them to your bug-out bag. However, that is all about your personal preferences:
- Sewing kit
- Face mask or bandana
- Large plastic garbage bags
- An e-reader preloaded with survival books: Make sure it’s always fully charged, and pack a solar-powered charger cord with it.
- A local guide to edible and medicinal wild plants. If you’ll be out in the woods or somewhere rural for a while, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with items you can forage for. Unless it’s the dead of winter, you can likely find several wild edible species to add to the soup pot.
- Something precious to you that you can’t bear to leave behind: Most of us have at least one thing that has significant sentimental value to us. When you’re planning your bug out bag, keep in mind that the stuff that’s going in there might be the only items of your current life that will travel forward with you. You might not have space for your great-grandfather’s portrait, but you can pack his pipe. Or some letters your partner wrote you when you first started dating. Things that are lightweight and don’t take up much space, but will mean a lot to you if you have them with you.
15. Something to Do
As an aside, another thing to consider is to pack some form of entertainment. This is also known as “something to do.” Few things can dampen morale, like sitting around feeling stressed and having no way to channel that energy.
This is especially true for young people accustomed to always having computer games, movies, or other toys around to keep them occupied. Have some fun and productive things to keep every family member engaged.
This will depend on a combination of individual preferences and not adding too much additional weight to each bag. For example, my partner might pack a deck of cards or his spoon-carving knives, while I always have knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn with me. Similarly, kids might stay entertained with spool loom kits or mini-travel games.
Packing one printed book per person is also a good idea. Make sure they haven’t been read before and that they’re subjects that the people are interested in. If you’ve ever been forced to read weird books at your grandparents’ place because there was nothing else to do, you’ll remember how excruciating that can be.
It might hurt, but consider ripping off the cover if you choose a hardcover to save yourself some bulk and weight.
Again, these are all items that you could consider adding to your bug-out bag. Some items are more for convenience and less about necessity, but preparation is very much about individual preference.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of prepping all this stuff yourself, you can buy a premade bug out bag instead. Then you can just add a few extra items that you really want to take along with you.