The Dirty Little Secret about Bugout Bags

Pete's Bugout Bg
Pet's bugout bag, 2 quart canteen and a hatchet.

There’s a shocking amount of stuff being written online about bugout bags, go bags, get-out-of-Dodge (GOOD) bags, survival kits, emergency packs, etc.

Maybe it’s on our collective minds because everyone wants to bugout from quarantine, or maybe it’s simply because the coronavirus has made people concentrated on their preps.  Maybe it’s people trying to promote their gear and make some sales. 

Inherent in this discussion of bugout bags is an endless pursuit of the perfect bugout bag and the best items to go inside it.  I’m I favor of healthy debate and discussion, and it’s interesting to see what people like and espouse, but don’t let theoretical discussion distract you from the ultimate purpose, which is survival. 

Put products you have used and trust in your bags.  If you are putting a fire starter in it, make sure you know how to use it and can actually start a fire with it.  Stock your bugout bag with food you have tried and will eat and clothing that you have worn and have tested so it doesn’t blow out a seam or bind when you wear it.  Use online recommendations as a starting point, not as gospel, and test your preps.

The Dirty Little Secret

I’m going to share with you the dirty little secret about bugout bags with you that are rarely acknowledged in these online discussions:

If you find yourself in a situation where the only
survival resources you have fit inside your backpack,
then you have failed.

That’s right.  Your bugout bag should be your last ditch resource, not the first thing you turn to.  You need to do everything possible from a planning and prepping perspective to avoid getting caught in a situation where all you have is your survival bag.

If you are relying solely on the contents of your bugout bag to save you, then you are either in dire straits or early in your prepper journey.  If it’s the former, that good luck; if it’s the latter, then this article will help point you in the right direction. 

When bush pilot’s plane breaks down and they are forced to land in the wilderness, they have far more resources than their emergency bag because their plane has survival supplies in it, a first aid kit, a radio, and they are probably carrying a personal firearm.  That’s the approach you need to take: Make sure your bugout bag just one component of a multilayered plan, not the entire plan.

The Layered Approach

What follows is my layered approach to emergency/survival equipment that you might need or use to bug out.  Use this as a guide and customize it to your situation, your comfort level, your needs, your environment, and the products or brands you like.  Here are the layers:

Layer one: What you carry on your person.  This might differ depending on whether you are going to work, to the gym, or on a weekend hunting trip.

Layer two: What is in your EDC bag.  (If you don’t have an EDC bag, think seriously about getting one.)  This is different that your bugout bag, something you can carry every day.

Layer three: The survival cache you keep in your car, truck, or other personal vehicle.

Layer four: Dedicated, transportable pre-configured bags or boxes of supplies. 

This is where your bugout bag belongs, but it also covers bags for different scenarios.  You might leave your bugout bag at home and  have a get-me-home bag you keep at work.  Another bag might be loaded with supplies for your dog and you only grab it if you are taking your dog with you.  Start with a single bag designed for bugging out, but be flexible and build up more bags over time for particular tasks and people.

Layer five: This layer is all the prepping stuff at your home that you would throw in the car or truck if you were bugging out.

Let’s take a deeper dive and explore each of these layers in greater depth.

Layer One: Your On-Person Every Day Carry

What you have in your pockets is the only survival gear you are pretty much guaranteed to have available at any time.  It should be sufficient to get you to the next layer, regardless of whether that layer is a pack in the next room, your car parked outside, the gear at your camp, or all your supplies in your home.

Every day that I put on my tactical or cargo pants, (which is dang near every day), I carry a cell phone, my wallet with cash and cards, keys, a large folding knife, a .38 revolver, two speed loaders, a tactical flashlight, and a lighter.  This allows me to call for help, defend myself, buy additional supplies (gas, food, water, whatever), cut something up, light somethingup, and access my car and home.  The only first aid components I carry every day are a few Band-Aids in my wallet.  (This habit dates back to when I had little kids who always got a scrape or booboo, but has continued because they have proved useful if you cut your finger or get a blister.)  Sometimes I wear a multitool.

If I am planning to go into the city, I might put a Glock and at least one spare magazine on my belt.  If I am going into the woods, I carry a fixed blade knife and either a .22 or a .45 pistol, depending on the purpose of my trip was and whether there are any bears about.

Whatever you choose as your EDC is entirely up to you and may vary from day to day.  For example, I don’t carry paracord, but I know people who do.  I don’t carry an inhaler or other medicines, but if you rely on something like that, I’d recommend having it handy.  It’s also OK if you don’t carry a weapon; that’s a personal choice. 

Layer Two: Your Off-Person Every Day Carry

This could be gear in your purse, satchel, messenger bag, brief case, backpack or whatever you like to carry and is socially acceptable where you live and work.  You want your EDC bag to blend in so that everyone assumes you have some work and personal gear in it, and you generally don’t want it to scream “I’m a prepper,” or “I’m carrying enough gear to kill all of you.”

I have two versions of my off-person every day carry bag.  Both are backpacks.  One is my firearms-oriented bag. It includes reloads for my revolver and two or three extra magazines for the Glock.  If the Glock is not on my person, it is in the bag.  It holds another folding knife and a spare flashlight, but the majority of the contents are for tactical medicine or trauma, such as those caused by gunshots or an explosion.  That includes a CAT tourniquet, a SWAT-T tourniquet, QuikClot, an Israeli battle dressing, gauze pads, triangular bandages, EMT shears, sports tape, elastic wrap, and all sorts of small first aid items like a tweezer and ibuprofen. In the front pocket is food, which includes packets of mixed nuts, Power Bars, Snickers, and hard candies.  The bag also contains more pedestrian items, like pens, a small notebook, a list of important phone numbers, chap stick, hand sanitizer, cell phone charger, spare keys, and a small AM/FM radio that runs on AAA batteries and requires an earphone.  All this fills up only the first compartment, leaving plenty of room for work-related gear in the main compartment.

The other bag is my computer bag, and because I often fly with it, I am very careful to let nothing touch the bag related to guns, ammunition or anything else that might trigger the TSA’s sniffing machine.  It not only includes my laptop in its own protected pouch, but related gear like the power cable, Ethernet cable, encrypted USB thumb drive, etc. It contains a USB charger and cables for lighting and several USB devices.  It also has a few food items, some wet naps, a spare 18650 battery (which can be charged using one of the USB cables) and my travel wallet.  The travel wallet contains all my hotel, airline and rental car membership cards, one credit card, and $200 in cash for use in an emergency. The only key I store in it, is the key to the lock on my hard-shell gun case because the last thing I want to do is land in some city and be unable to unlock my guns.

If I’m heading out of the house, I generally take the first bag.  If I am heading out of town via an airline or into a controlled environment where weapons are prohibited, then I take the computer bag.  If my wife and I head out of town via car, I take both.

 In the back of my truck, I have yet another bag.  It’s empty, but its purpose is to give to a passenger – like my wife or daughter — so that they can take items from the truck’s emergency stash with them if we need to walk home due to some unforeseen emergency that disrupts traffic, like an EMP or serious earthquake. In a minor emergency, we have the phone.  In a major emergency that disables the car, we have our feet.

If you go to the gym, your EDC bag shrinks down to a fanny pack or other tiny bag that includes your, phone, keys, wallet and possibly a gun and light. Why have an EDC bag at the gym? because in an emergency, you want to be able to walk out and drive off in your car without the need to visit the locker room.

Level Three: Your Vehicle Survival Cache

I don’t plan on being one of those people you read about who follows a shortcut on their GPS and gets suck on a dirt road in a snow storm miles from civilization, but if I were, my truck carries enough supplies to be comfortable for days, set up a decent camp site, chop firewood, stay warm, signal for help, and serve my rescuers a hot meal when they finally show up.

My truck survival cache contains duplicates of many of the first aid and other items I have in my EDC bag.  It also has a big Cold Steel fixed blade knife, a folding shovel, a hatchet, a couple wool blankets, a tarp, plenty of bungee cords, tie down straps and other cordage.  It is well stocked with ammo, has a head lamp, an emergency beacon, battery charger, food, water, water purifier good for 125 liters, fire starter, etc.  It also includes automotive tools to make simple repairs, tow straps, a 12-volt air compressor, and a flat tire repair kit. 

Out of everything I stock, the tow strap and air compressor have come in the most handy, although there was one occasion in which I repaired my own tire.

If you own a pickup truck, keep your prepping gear in a locked tool box mounted in the pickup truck bed. It is secure, weather proof, holds quite a bit, and any law enforcement officers who pull you over will need a warrant to look in there.

Unless you take mass transit or Uber, then you probably have your car with you or nearby pretty much everywhere you go, so why not use it as an extension of your bugout bag?  Load it up with survival supplies.  That way, if you have to bug out from wherever you are, you will have a great deal of your preps with you.  You don’t have to duplicate my load, but some basics would be a good idea, (food, water, fire, shelter) and you can always add more in the future.  Who wants to walk away from a disaster with a backpack when you can drive there with a carload of supplies?  Even if you make it only halfway to your destination, that’s a huge advantage.  Then you can put on your bugout bag and walk the rest of the way.

Layer Four: One Bag to Rule Them

Yes, I admit it, I have a bugout bag.  It contains mostly food, water and shelter.  Specifically, it contains a Katadyn Hiker water filter and several sports bottles, water purification tablets, two pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, a pair of pants, a couple T-shirts and some outerwear.  It has several days’ worth of food, a mess kit, paracord, a lantern, a cheap bush-crafting knife, fire starting gear, maps, a poncho, some bungee cords, and other wilderness-related survival items.  It contains a 3 liter water bladder and is stored near a canteen and a hatchet.  (See the opening photo.)

If I had to run out my back door and hide in the nearby woods for a few days, this bag would work just fine, assuming I can still actually run with 65 pounds on my back; I think the best I could hope to do is to lumber into the woods.   Seriously, for a man my age with my history of back problems, this bag is too heavy.  If I actually had to walk any distance with it, I’d have to dump some items pretty quickly or rig up some kind of drag and pull it behind me.  For instance, if I don’t bring an AR-15, then I don’t need 10 loaded magazines.) My wife’s bag is 23 pounds, which is a lot more reasonable.

Why is my bag heavier than it should be?  Because if I’m leaving my house, then I’m probably driving.  And if I’m driving, then I’m tossing this bugout bag and all my other bags into the backseat and about 1,000 pounds of other gear in the truck bed.  Because a I said earlier, there is no reason to live out of your bugout bag except as a last resort.

Layer Five: Everything you can fit into Your Car

I have a large metal tool cupboard in the garage that locks.  Inside it, I have a selection of items I can throw into the back of the truck in an emergency. This includes .50 caliber ammo cans of ammo, cases of MREs, boxes that hold canned food and rice and beans, extra flashlights and 18650 batteries, and even a spare pair of sunglasses.  Also in the garage, but not locked up, are useful items like the chain saw, a few 5-gallon water containers, and gasoline cans.  All useful if you need to bug out and have 30 minutes or more notice.

Bugout Food
Pete has two pre-packed boxes of food to grab and throw into the car or truck in a bugout scenario. They contain canned food and food in retort pouches that are easy to re-heat or even eat cold.

We can get to our bug out location on a full tank of gas, but having an extra 10 or 20 gallons means we can get there even if we’re stuck for hours in traffic. It also means we have spare fuel if we have to take the long way or to use once we get there.

I recommend that you own wheeled luggage or a large turnout or deployment bag with wheels.  If you need to bug out, shove as many clothes into your luggage as you can.  This will be easily transported to your car and if you somehow end up in some public place – like a hotel of a refugee camp – you’ll be better off than the people who crammed everything into plastic trash bags.  I travel enough that I can pack for a three day trip pretty quickly.  Packing clothing and toiletries for a bug out situation will be similar, just more intense.

Bugging out vs Bugging in

Why people evacuate their homes:  A forest fire or a hurricane spring to mind. Maybe a train derailed and a cloud of poison gas is blowing towards you.  Or perhaps the nearby nuclear plant is melting down.  What you decide to take with you when you go might differ in each situation and depend largely on whether you will be able to return and the odds that your house is still standing if you do.

Just as your bugout bag should not be your only survival gear, bugging out should not be your only option.  Unless you already have a pre-selected, well-stocked bugout location, it is often preferable to bug in rather than bug out.  Whether that is true in your case or not depends on the emergency you face, your situation, your location, your capabilities, and your supplies.  If possible, make those decisions ahead of time so you don’t waste time dithering. If you need to  bug out, it is better to do so early than be caught up in the last wave when the roads are crowded and the gasoline pumps empty. 

If you have a predetermined bug out location — a place you own or where friends or family will welcome you regardless of the situation — then bugging out may well be your best bet.  You can pre-position supplies there and your bugout bag can help get you there.  But hopefully you’ll be able to drive most of the way!

A Bag is a Good Start

If you’ve already made or purchased your bugout bag, you have an important piece of the puzzle, but don’t stop there. Preparedness is achieved by putting layer on top of another layer of preps.  Layers give you a fallback position if you have failures, (and you will have failures).  For example, you might forget something.  You might be miles from home when an important item breaks.  Things fail to work at the moment you need them most, which is why preppers say, “One is none and one is two.” 

Redundancy is a good thing.  Having multiple survival bags or pools of supplies is a good example of redundancy.

How to Afford the Layered Approach

Unless you are the rare wealthy person who has decided to suddenly become a prepper because COVID-19 scared you, then you probably cannot afford to prep all your layers all at once.

But that’s OK, you don’t have to.

For most of us, prepping is a journey. Take your time.  Think things out.  Work through different scenarios in your head or with your spouse or partner, if you have one.  Budget a bit each month towards prepping.  Start with some basic food stuffs and work up from there.  In a year or two, you’ll look back and be shocked at how far you’ve come.


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