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Bug Out Bags – Everything you need to know about why and how!

What is a bug out bag and why would you need one? Join us as we provide some real world examples and answer those questions and more.
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As George Carlin once said – we all need a place for our stuff. During an evacuation that place is our bug out bag. Let’s look at the why’s and how’s of bug out bags. 

A Bug out Bag (BOB) is a tool that provides shelter, food, water, and security during the most extreme times of need. Putting it simply, a bug out bag is a collection of the gear critical to survival. A BOB contains the tools and supplies to get you through several days of personal or public SHTF. These days may see you on the road, on the trail, or in a hospital room. It should be as small and lightweight as possible and should be quickly accessible at all times.

Why Bug out Bags?

Show me a prepper worth his or her salt that doesn’t have a bug out bag, and I’ll show you a shocked devotee of “Doomsday Preppers.” Step one of survival is “have a bug out bag.” Step two is to “have a second.” Because “One is None and Two is One!”

All kidding aside, bug out bags have a big place in a prepper’s life and gear. A bug out bag represents a microcosm of our tools. It provides shelter, food, water, and security during the most extreme times of need. Don’t discount the small times either.

I’ve experienced a medical emergency or two. There is some comfort in grabbing a bag that sustains you for a few days while you wait for news in an intensive care unit. Fresh undies, socks, and a familiar brand of toothpaste can do wonders in times of stress.

For beginner preppers and seasoned preppers alike, bug out bags are best reviewed early and often. The myriad of articles available points to the vital nature of the topic. Likewise, the depth of the available literature emphasizes how bug out bags are specific to each person and situation.

If you are new to the survival mindset read on and we will open the world of bug out bags to you. If you are more seasoned, read on and we’ll hopefully enhance your state of readiness.

What is a bug out bag?

bug out bag

Before we get into the details of setting up, carrying, and using a bug out bag, let’s introduce the basics. 

Putting it simply, a bug out bag is a collection of the gear critical to survival. Narrowing the scope a little, a bug out bag is to sustain you for a limited amount of time. This is the time spent moving from one place to another while improving your survivability. 

For some, this can be a single day rucking to a bug out location (BOL). For others with a much longer trip to safety, a bug out bag resembles an infantry soldier’s pack.

At a minimum, a bug out bag carries the necessities of shelter, water, food, health, and security. This gear allows you to navigate the hazards of the post-apocalyptic world. All the while moving to a position of increased safety and security.

Bug out bags can be tricked-out military gear or gray man. The only rules are:

  1. that it holds all your gear, and…
  2. is comfortable

The options are up to you. You must, however, consider both use and environment before making your choice.

Next, a bug out bag needs to be portable. You don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars on the latest style of camo bag. Any bag that has the durability to last your trip and practice is sufficient. 

Finally, your bag is to be available to you in times of need. Many preppers will have several bags. One for the car, one for the house, a small one for work. Whatever you put together; it needs to be accessible. Your situation dictates where you keep it. Just keep it handy.

Let’s get into the details of BOBs. Remember this is one point of view. The nice thing about BOBs is how personal they are. Go into your BOB adventure with a sense of purpose focused on your needs and environment.

Why is it called a bug out bag?

Preppers name bug out bags after their purpose. In the prepper world, a bug out is broadly defined as an evacuation. You are escaping from a bad situation to a position of increased security and improved safety. Bugging out is not a decision taken likely. 

Bug outs start with threats. List out the threats that may cause you to leave your home for higher ground. Include natural disasters (fire, flooding, etc.), man-made disasters (war, EMP, etc.), social disruption (riots), or any one of a thousand things I won’t bother listing. The common thread is that if you stay your or your loved one’s safety is compromised. 

The goal is to recognize these threats beforehand and identify your bug out triggers. Your bug out trigger is the event or sequence of events that unmistakably signal “it’s time to leave!” If you ever find yourself with triggers tripped, Go! You put in the time to determine your triggers, don’t second guess them. 

Once it’s time to hit the road you may or may not have time to prepare. This is where the BOB comes in. Your BOB is sufficiently packed to get you through the first few hours and days of these emergencies.

Your BOB needs to be prepped and ready so that YOU are prepped and ready to meet any of life’s challenges. 

Who needs a bug out bag?

In my opinion, everyone! But then again, my view of the world relies heavily on personal responsibility.

If you are reading this you already have a BOB or you are interested in the benefits of having a BOB. A BOB provides freedom of movement during times of distress. This should apply to everyone. Sadly, however, not everyone views life that way. 

A BOB allows personal management of these issues with less reliance on support networks including friends, family, church, and government. Everyone should strive to be as independent as possible.

What should be in a bug out bag?

Mentioned above, a BOB contains the tools and supplies to get you through several days of personal or public SHTF. These days may see you on the road, on the trail, or in a hospital room. I tend to organize my preps according to the rule of threes.

Three hours without maintaining your body temp. Three days without water. Three weeks without food. Add in communications, security, and a few other items and you will have your bases covered.

In detail, survival needs include:

  • Heat and Shelter: The ability to keep your core body temperature at 98.6, traditionally this includes making fire and materials to keep you out of foul weather
  • Water: The ability to store water and convert water to a drinkable state
  • Food: This includes prepared and portable calories as well as the means to trap and gather additional food
  • Communication: This is optional but highly recommended – you may need to contact other members in your group to provide status or request help
  • Health and Sanitation: Getting sick on the trail can be at best an inconvenience, at worst life-threatening
  • Security: You need to be able to keep and protect yourself and your life-saving gear

Bug out Bag List

We gave a great article on BOB essentials here at Option Gray. Take a few minutes to read through it and compare each item against your own needs.

Do you really need a bug out bag?

Need one, no. But I reduce needs to the absolute essentials of life – water, food, air, and a comfortable spot in the woods to avoid the majority of the unprepared idiots in the world… 

I classify bug out bags just below “Needs” into the “Must Have” category. You need air, but you can get by in life without a BOB. That being said, for reasons of security I prefer life with a BOB at my side. It makes things a lot simpler.

It all boils down to personal security. It’s about being prepared. Preparedness comes in the form of materials, tools, and knowledge. A BOB provides materials and tools. You provide the knowledge. 

The nice thing is that with knowledge, you can improvise many tools and you can extract many materials from your environment. I know how to make and execute a bow drill and create fire. I can also identify a dozen mushrooms and plants that I can use as food, medicine, or fuel. 

Those skills in place I’d still rather use a Bic lighter to make a fire then heat and eat a can of Chef Boyardee. That’s why I carry food and fire supplies in my BOB. I’m a realist, not an adventurer.

A bug out bag tips the scales in your favor. Having critical gear on your back, the knowledge you have leverages your BOB gear. The synergy increases the probability of.

We’ve all seen the blog posts and videos on bushcraft and fieldcraft skills. Some of us have even practiced them. A dedicated few have mastered them. Raise your right hand if you’d prefer to depend on skills and snares for a meal rather than pop open a can of Mini Ravioli. I’ll wait.

A BOB provides that edge that may be the difference between success and failure. It provides the ability to thrive instead of just survive.

How long should a bug out bag last? 

Okay, time for more armchair discussions that people have religion about. Cutting through the arguments, I recommend a layered system. The reality is you don’t know how long your emergency will last. 

I’ve had two situations where I’ve needed a BOB. In the first scenario, I didn’t have one and the second, my BOB made life better. Neither would be considered a Hollywood-level bug out. But hey, that’s reality.

The first situation found me caught on a road, in winter, for 26 hours. This was before the light of survival shone on me and I was not prepared. A late March storm hit and we were in the middle of it…26 hours later we arrived home. 

We made it through in relative ease. We ate cold leftovers and I kept warm by draping my wife’s Easter dress over my legs. Not fancy at all, but it worked. Had I prepared with a short-term BOB I would have been spared the indignity of a pink lap blanket.

The second event lasted 5 days. I found myself in the middle of a medical emergency where I had to rush to the hospital in support of a loved one. I didn’t sleep or eat a hot meal for 3 days. It ended up being 5 days before I returned home. 

One of the things that got me through was a small bag I kept at that ready. In the hospital, I didn’t need to make a fire or snare a squirrel for dinner. I did, however, need a change of clothes and a few quick protein bars.

I now keep several bags around. Two are proper BOBs and one I consider an extended EDC bag. The first is packed for a three-day bugout. This is the bag I grab first. It’s relatively light, packed with the essentials, and good to get me through 90% of what life will throw at me.

The second is a specialty bag I keep in my car. I drive +60 miles one way to work. If things go south while I’m there I’m stuck. I’m talking EMP south. No cars. No comms. Only my wits and the Nike-express will get me home. 

In this unfortunate event, I will have a 5 to 10-day walk home. This all depends on the societal situation. I have gear in the bag that will ease my journey as much as possible. With this bag, I have the ability to scale up or down based on my perception of the situation. More on that in the next section.

The third bag is my work bag. This is nowhere near as prepared as the other two, but it is with me for two-thirds of my life. Since I use it for work it is also subject to airline travel. This places additional restrictions on what I can carry.

Aside from work materials (laptop, charger, cables, batteries, notebook, etc.) I carry a few essentials. These include food (protein bars), medications (Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Imodium, Benadryl, and Caffeine gum/pills), trauma and first aid kits, maps, and COMMs gear. I’ll make it a few days with this bag, but it’s more of a tool of last resort than a complete BOB. 

Again, review your threats. A single day BOB will be much different from a five-day BOB. Over five days you will need to critically review and prioritize your gear. Balance your gear with the size and weight that you are comfortable with. Comfort carrying for days on end that is.

How big should a bug out bag be?

3 types of bug out bags

My recommendation is to make your bag as small as possible. If you go big, you’ll regret it. Either immediately or eventually. Secondly, if it’s too big you won’t keep it with you. 

Like a carry gun that you don’t like, if it’s uncomfortable, it’ll stay home. Over time, you’ll eventually stop carrying it and leave it in the safe. Then, one day, it won’t be with you when you need it the most. 

Additionally, the bigger your bag the more you will be tempted to fill it. By keeping your bag small you will be forced to do two things. First, you will take a critical eye to every supply and tool you pack. You must question if you need it or if you don’t. Most likely you really don’t need it.

Secondly, restricting your BOB size will force you to select items that are dual purposed. Choose between a neck knife, bushcraft knife, hatchet, and saw. The result will be a knife that you are comfortable doing detail cuts with as well as batoning firewood. Decisions like these will keep your gear to a minimum and your bag size to a minimum.

Where possible, don’t try to wedge your gear into a bag – select the bag based on the gear. Identify your gear then size your bag to fit it. However, before you make a purchase, load whatever bag you have, and take a hike. 

Once you get home see if you can reduce weight and still meet the critical needs of survival, then take another hike. Repeat this process until you have optimized your gear. Now you are ready to get a bag that fits it all.

How much should a bug out bag weigh?

I’m no spring chicken. My visions of lone-wolfing my Rambo-esq physique over one mountain after another are tragically long since gone. Now I look at efficiency and reality instead of testosterone-fueled fantasy. 

Camping professionals recommend carrying a maximum of 20% of your body weight. For example, if you are 175 pounds then your gear should be no heavier than 35 pounds. This includes pack, gear, EDC, hat, firearms, everything that goes above the waist. I view this as an absolute limit, and only for short bugouts. 

You are much better off with 15% or even better 10% of your weight. Every item in your pack adds ounces. Ounces add up to pounds. Pounds equal pain. 

A part of your gear selection exercise should be weighing each item and totaling the ounces and pounds. If you are over 15% then consider the cost and benefit of each item. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is this item essential to survival?
  • Is this item essential to comfort?
  • Is there a lighter substitute for this item?
  • Can I replace this and something else with a gear that will do both jobs AND reduce weight?

If you plan on approaching maximum weight be ready to practice, practice, practice. Your body will need to get used to this load. This includes muscles, your gate, and not the least of which, your feet.

Remember pounds are pain. One way to reduce pain is through knowledge. Can you gain skills that will allow you to reduce your gear count? If you have mastered the hand drill of making fire, then you can probably get away with a single lighter and matches. You can put aside the firesteel and numerous fire starters.

If your bushcraft skills are well-honed then you can get by with a single well-chosen knife and leave out the saw and hatchet. The list of skill/gear substitutions goes on. The more you have in your head, the less you need to carry on your back.

Where do you keep a bug out bag?

Now that you have your BOB or BOBs, where do you keep them? Find the answer in analyzing your life patterns. In short, they should easily accessible at all times. 

In my case, the number of bags and the placement of my bags is driven by three factors.

  • I have a long commute
  • I travel frequently
  • I have a primary home and a cabin in the woods

I work over +60 miles from home. The BOB that covers me for the long walk home is my trunk BOB. This is a full-sized pack and stays in my car at all times. I check it seasonally and keep it up to date. At work, it’s no farther than the parking lot. If I trek into the big city then it is as close as the parking garage. 

When I travel, I take my work bag. As I said above, it won’t get me home in comfort but it’s the best I have. Also, it saves me from scavenging as the first part of my bug out plan. I gain precious time getting off the ‘X’ then I reassess. 

Traveling I am rarely without this bag. I take it to all meetings. I have it within arm’s reach while in the hotel. I even place it under the airline seat rather than setting it in the overhead compartment.

When I travel internationally, I even take it to evening meals. My colleagues think I’m a bit touched for that, but they’ve gotten used to it.

Finally, my home and cabin bag is designed as a traditional 72-hour bag. If we have to grab and go it comes along. This bag is also my day hike bag and is equipped as such.

I take frequent walks in the woods foraging and just getting some needed dirt time. This is the bag that comes along. Since this is the first bag I’ll grab in an emergency it stays either in my bedroom or my office. 

Overall, some of the best places to store your BOB include near your bed or in your home office. A closet that you use daily (where you hang your coat and slippers) so that you see it every day is also a good choice. The trunk of your car is also good as long as you don’t bury it under a ton of other stuff. 

Avoid basements or that one hall closet that you hate going into because it is such a mess. Also, avoid off-site storage such as a rental unit or friend’s house. The only exception to this is if these are backup bags to your primary BOBs.

The key is to keep it accessible and keep it visible. Otherwise, it’ll become out of date and forgotten. Neither is a benefit to you in a time of need.

How do I practice with my bug out bag?

So, you’ve put together the perfect BOB. The BOB to end all BOBs. Uber-BOB.

How do you know this?

Practice of course! Practice makes perfect by finding all the little nits and annoyances. Only through use will you find out if your BOB is comfortable. Does it have pinch points? Does it have rub spots? Is it quiet?

The same goes for the gear. Can you make a fire in all environments? Do you have adequate water and food? Can you get out of the elements and into shelter?

You will answer these questions and more only by using your bag. 

Comfort is an easy one. Get out and hike! Log some serious miles. Fine the local hill and walk. Hop the local rail-trail and walk from sunrise to sunset. Even better wear it around the house. 

If you can do these activities in relative comfort and ease then you have achieved much toward the perfect bag! If not adjust and improve. Then do your tests again. 

The second exercise is performing a few mock bug outs. I used to go for a quick walk with a friend almost every weekend. We’d meet up early, hoist our bags, and log a few miles. The best part was that we would occasionally throw out a challenge. Make a fire. Make an improvised splint. Make a COMS contact.

Even if you don’t have a friend to push your boundaries, create your own challenges. Make a cup of tea or coffee on each trip. Bug out in all seasons. Have a spouse seal a challenge in an envelope to be opened mid-trip. Have a buddy text you with a challenge. Send photo proof of a completed task or you buy the next beer.

Be creative but challenging. Push your limits in a safe and fun way. Make sure to include rewards as they will keep you coming back for more. But most of all just get out and do it. Find the weaknesses and improve on them!

Bugging in versus bugging out

Another fireside topic among preppers is the bug in and bug out debate. I know a few stalwarts that refuse to accept bugging out as a viable alternative. Hmmm. What if your house catches fire? You gonna go down with that ship?

I advise creating a threat matrix and setting up a trigger for bugging out. Your tolerance for threats will dictate those triggers. However, once tripped you must go.

Bugging out is not to be taken lightly. You are leaving your supplies. You are leaving familiarity. You are leaving your refuge of many years. This is all true. What is also true is that it is no longer safe. You have already determined that your best chance for survival is to leave. 

I cannot list all the reasons to go. That is dependent only on you, your assessment of the environment, and your tolerance for, and ability to manage specific threats. What I can say is that the world is filled with reasons that your home will not be the best chance for survival.

Dedicate time and thought to your home and the situations that would make you leave. Do not be anchored to the concept that bugging in is the only option. Mentally rehearse a bug out. Mentally prepare you and your family for a bug out. Through these exercises, you will break through the fatal pause or the analysis paralysis associated with this tough decision.

When should you bug out?

Let’s look at a few practical examples of bugging out. From the mundane to the extreme they do exist. 

One of the first items on my threat matrix is an illness. I know it’s not the stuff of prepper fiction, but I can guarantee you the threat real. For the duration responding to illness can be the end of your world. I’ve had to pack up and leave at 1 am due to illness.

I grabbed my bag and raced to the hospital. Glamorous or not, it happened. It was the end of my world as I knew it at the time. The world stopped and I had to act. That action took me out of normal life for five days and changed me forever. 

From personal emergencies to local emergencies is the next logical step. Let’s consider a localized extreme weather event. This can include flood, ice storm, tornado, or fire. In each case, the threat overwhelmingly presents itself. Considering fire, if you stay, you will die. It’s that simple. 

The other events are not as dire, however, survivability increases as your distance increases from the threat. Each summer, people in the mid-west have to pack up and leave due to the threat of a tornado. With minutes notice they grab their essential gear and leave the comfort of home. 

That may be to a well-equipped storm shelter or a hotel in the next county. Regardless, the essential components of a BOB make the transition a little easier. How many towns have we seen that now no longer exist due to a few seconds of tornado activity? This is SHTF for every one of those families. 

Looking at today’s headlines social disruption can also lead to a bug out decision. The residents of Ferguson, Minneapolis, Berkley, and Atlanta have all thought about bugging out lately. The good news is that the damages caused by rioters have been limited. But it doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to envision more widespread looting and lawlessness. 

The last example at the extreme of the threat matrix but is devastating to think about. The threat of the complete collapse of the electrical grid weighs on every prepper’s mind. Whether it be from CME, EMP, or cyber-attack, the threat is real. Much has been said from both inside and not outside of preppers circles about the damage this will cause.

It is estimated that within a year of such an event over 90% of the population of the United States will perish. The deaths will be due to the lack of water, food, and civility that such an event will cause. The only way to survive is to flee population centers. Your greatest option for survival is to isolate yourself from the unprepared masses until the initial wave of death and destruction is over.

One last recommendation. When it is time to go, be sure to be gone before everyone else. Executing a successful bug out requires skill, preparation, and timing. You need to go before everyone else has seen the light. Roads will be clearer, people will be more passive, and your trip will be safer.

Conclusion

Much has been said about bug out bags, and I just added a few thousand words more. Levity aside, a well-constructed BOB brings peace and mind to you and your family. Knowing what is in your bag. Knowing how to use your bag. Having the skills and plan to properly bug out. Knowing when and where to bug out are all keys to survival when life goes sideways. 

Take some time to evaluate your threats and fill your BOB or BOBs with the tools to get you to the other side. Most of all practice with your BOB! Build the kind of confidence that comes with training and flawless execution.

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