How to Prepare a 'Bug Out Bag' to Survive the Next Catastrophe

Justin King
January 22, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) A “bug out bag” is a collection of supplies and equipment that is prepacked and ready to go in case you need to evacuate the area in which you live. If a natural or man-made disaster strikes, it would be handy to have the supplies required for survival already packed and ready to go, but the process of packing a bug out bag can be a little intimidating.

First, realize that you probably already have one; you just don’t call it a “bug out bag.” Examples:

  • If you live on the Gulf Coast, it’s the bag of supplies you have for a hurricane.
  • If you live in the Northeast, it’s the box of supplies for a blizzard.
  • Along the Rockies, it’s that bag of clothes and essentials you have ready in case there’s a wildfire.
  • In California, it’s that bag in the closet you prepared for the next earthquake.
  • In the Midwest, it’s your tornado preparedness kit.

The idea behind a bug out bag is to simply have one bag that will be capable of handling any emergency. The bag will help keep you alive in situations ranging from a flash flood all the way up to a total breakdown of society. It sounds expensive, but it really isn’t. Starting your bug out bag can be as easy as tossing enough nonperishable food, water bottles, waterproof matches, and medicine to last you a week into the backpack you have laying in the closet floor. Over time, you can add more items to increase your survivability and comfort during a disaster.

The best way to prepare your bag is to plan for the worst case scenario possible. The worst possible scenario is a complete breakdown of society locally (large scale riots), regionally (extreme weather), or nationally (a pandemic). Talking about it in these terms tends to scare people off from the discussion. It’s more fun to discuss it in terms of the inevitable zombie uprising. Everything you would need to survive an attack of the undead needs to be in your bag. If you can survive zombies, you can survive pretty much anything else.

Before deciding what items need to be in your bug out bag, you need to determine your strategy. There are three main strategies for bugging out:

Avoidance: You gather your loved ones, grab your supplies, and disappear into an unpopulated area. You try to eliminate contact with anyone outside your circle completely. In simplest terms, you have decided to go camping during a disaster. This requires the ability to live off the land once your supplies have been depleted.

Evacuation: Somewhere else is safe, or at least safer. You and your party are headed there. You must maintain your mobility above all else. If supplies run out, you will supplement your supplies by scavenging along the way.

Confrontational: You probably don’t have a family and are going to act out your favorite scenes from Mad Max. You will supplement your supplies in populated areas and you will take what you need by whatever means necessary because “might makes right.”

You will need to plan for one of the above strategies. In combat, everybody has a plan until the first shot is fired. A strategy of evacuation can quickly become a strategy of avoidance after a car accident. You need to prepare for contingencies as well.

What should be in your bag?

Random bug out bag contents
Random bug out bag contents

There are hundreds of checklists available online, but most of the checklists were prepared by survivalists who have extensive knowledge about how to survive in the field. When reviewing the checklists, understand that they are a guide to help you prepare your bag, not a shopping list. Everybody’s bag will be different. Due to the medical training of a family member, my bag has a field surgical kit. If nobody in your party knows how to use it, there is no sense in carrying it.

The Eldarbeast’s checklist: One of the more comprehensive one’s I’ve seen.

The Bug Out Bag Academy’s checklist: “75 essential items”

SHTF Plan’s checklist: If you’re more visual, check this out.

Bug Out Bag Basics

There are some items that should be in everybody’s kit.

Water: A person can only survive three days without water. Every kit needs emergency water supplies, tablets for purifying water, and bladders for storing more water when it is available. A LifeStraw is a wonderful addition to any kit.

Food: Without proper nutrition the body does not function as well as it should. While supplementing what is in your bug out bag should be a priority, there will be times when you will only have the food in your bag. Any non-perishable food that can be eaten with minimal or no cooking is perfect.

Fire: It doesn’t matter what climate you are in, you need to have the ability to make a fire. Waterproof matches, lighters, flares, and dry material to burn should be sealed in a plastic bag. Although a flashlight isn’t “fire,” this would be a good time to toss one or two in your bag with extra batteries.

Medicine: Some party members may need medicine regularly. A supply of needed prescriptions should be on hand. Additionally, every bag needs a first aid kit. Carry medical supplies that can fulfill the requirements of your level of knowledge of medicine.

The US Army Survival Manual is available at almost every bookstore and surplus shop in the country.
The US Army Survival Manual is available at almost every bookstore and surplus shop in the country.

Survival book: Bags are often prepared by the most trained person in the household. Survival manuals are often overlooked because “I graduated SERE school” or “I was an Eagle Scout.” As the most trained member of the party, you will also be the most likely to do something dangerous. If the most trained person dies, not only is there the personal tragedy, but now the party may not survive because they have lost their base of knowledge. The inclusion of a survival handbook gives the rest of your party a chance at surviving without you.  Here’s a .pdf version of the manual.

Footwear: In a survival situation your sneakers probably aren’t the best footwear. Most people don’t wear combat boots every day, but access to quality outdoor footwear is important. No matter what strategy you choose, you will need to be able to walk. Always have extra socks.

Field Knife: Survival knives can get expensive. You don’t necessarily need a Gerber, but you need a high quality knife and sharpening stone. Knives that have been in service a long time with the US military are good choices. A Ka-Bar or the Air Force’s survival knife are good choices and are common enough that you can even find them at Wal-Mart. A multi-tool is also an item that will always come in handy.

Shelter and clothing: This is another time when the person packing the bag needs to realize that they need to pack the bag to make the weakest person comfortable. Shelter and clothing items (tents, ponchos, gloves, jackets, etc.) need to be considered carefully. They are bulky and hopefully you will be dressed for the climate when you evacuate. There aren’t many times when you will be wearing shorts and sandals and suddenly have the need for cold weather gear. The strategy planned and the amount of space available determines how comfortable you can be. Remember, this is about survival. You will need some form of shelter and rain gear, though.

Maps and compass: Assume a worst case scenario and that you will not be able to use Google maps. Getting lost with no communication is not fun. Make sure you have maps.

Hygiene: While not technically survival related, personal hygiene items are small and add a huge amount of comfort. Toothbrushes, deodorant, toilet paper, and the like are definitely worth packing. Guys, if you’re doing the packing, remember tampons or pads.

Bags within bags

Bug out bags for kids: Children that are old enough to carry their own bag should be encouraged to do so, just in case they get separated. The contents of the bag should be fairly simple: seven easy to open food pouches that require no preparation (protein bars), seven water pouches or bottles, an age-appropriate cutting instrument, a whistle, a blanket, and a small first aid kit. Additional items that the child is capable of using could also be included. The child should know exactly what to do in the event of separation:

Three bags, a tactical vest, and two ammo cans for vehicles. The contents will sustain a family of four for one month without supplementing the contents.
Three bags, a tactical vest, and two ammo cans for vehicles. The contents will sustain a family of four for one month without supplementing the contents.

1)      Stop moving. Sit down and wait to be found unless in immediate danger.

2)      Blow the whistle only if they hear or see another party member.

3)      Eat one pouch per day. Drink one pouch or bottle of water per day.

4)      Wait for two sunsets before leaving.

If the child is old enough to read, it would be wise to include a note in the bag explaining the four things above again. The reason for allowing the child to move after two days relates to the most likely reason the separation occurred in the first place. There was probably some form of immediate life-threatening danger that triggered a fight or flight response. The child may have been able to escape a danger that you were unable to escape. If the child begins moving on the third day, he or she will have five days worth of food and water. Five days spent walking twelve hours per day at two miles per hour means that your child can travel over 100 miles. There is hope that the now orphaned child can make contact with someone who will assist them. The best advice about trying to navigate toward people to give a child is to find a stream and walk along the shore in the opposite direction of the current, unless it is mountainous terrain, in which case the child should follow the direction of the current. Walking upstream in the mountains typically takes you to a higher elevation which is less populated and colder. Almost all towns are near a water source. Following a water source like a stream or river long enough will almost always lead to people.

Bags for every family member: If every family member has a bag that contains the necessities above, it exponentially increases the group’s survivability. It also means that if a bag is lost or destroyed, the other bags will contain food and water. More bags mean more space for other equipment. If the whole family is living out of one bag, items will have to be sacrificed for space and weight.

Your vehicle: Almost all emergency scenarios begin with a car ride. A large military surplus ammo can in your vehicle that is filled with emergency supplies can greatly increase the amount of food, water, and equipment that is available. If the family has more than one vehicle, there should be a can in each vehicle. If you are separated and one of the few unannounced emergencies occur, you can meet up on the road. Until you meet up, everybody will have access to at least the supplies in their vehicle. Another general rule regarding your vehicle is to always keep more than half a tank of gas in it.

Special concerns

 Animals: While Polly the parrot and your kid’s goldfish will probably be written off, some animals provide benefits that are worth far more than the effort it takes to feed them. When primitive man lived in the wild, dogs became common around campfires. The benefits to the dogs are easy to see: leftover food and warmth from the campfire. Man’s benefit came in the form of an early warning about intruders. The dogs would bark and alert the humans to a possible threat. The annoying bark that happens every time the doorbell rings is a leftover instinct from thousands of years of learned behavior. In a survival situation, your dog will warn you about the presence of others. Some dogs, particularly those that maintain a pack mentality, will assist in the event of a conflict. Most dogs will be able to provide their own food if they are allowed to. They will also alert humans to water sources that may have been missed without them. It would be wise to pack away food for your dog to be eaten when it was unable to scavenge something for the day.

A tactical diaper bag.
A tactical diaper bag.

Babies: As any mother will tell you, babies need a lot of stuff. Take a look at a typical diaper bag and you quickly realize that Infants require special attention because they cannot eat the same food as other party members and they require other items that wouldn’t normally make it into a bug out bag. Formula already comes in sealed cans and has a shelf life of about two years. By the time the formula you buy for your newborn goes bad, your child will be able to process real food. As a general rule of thumb while babies are still drinking formula, they require about 25 ounces of water per day.

Stockpiling medicines: There’s probably a federal law against this in the United States, so don’t do it. But for readers that are in countries that haven’t prohibited medicine, know that most studies show that pills are typically effective years beyond their “expiration date.” So all of those pills in Grandma’s medicine cabinet probably still have some use. What you need to know about expired meds:

The Department of Defense conducted a study that determined many medicines in pill form retain 90% of their potency after the expiration date.

The only known instance of toxicity resulting from expired meds was pre-1963 in tetracycline. It caused severe kidney damage. That formula is no longer in use in the United States. If a pill is improperly stored, it may become contaminated by something else.

Medicines that are biological in nature such as insulin or an EpiPen do actually expire according to the studies.

Liquid medicines also quickly degrade after the expiration date.

Also, many common human antibiotics are also used to treat animals. You can buy these antibiotics over the counter without a prescription for your pet. Even though they are the exact same antibiotic humans take and would provide the exact same effect when given in the same dosage, you can’t do this because it’s illegal. The author truly respects law and order and would never recommend that somebody stockpile fish antibiotics to use in an emergency. That would be wrong. Don’t do it. However, for those readers with fish that are in desperate need of medical attention, please note you can even order the antibiotics online from a company with a lab in the US that has a pretty decent privacy policy. Ciprofloxacin is a broad spectrum antibiotic mainly used for bacterial infections.

Remember, the author is not a doctor. You should thoroughly research each medication you plan on stockpiling.

Barter material: Many people recommend purchasing gold or silver coins for the purpose of trading in a survival scenario. With the price of precious metals likely to skyrocketing during a large-scale emergency, it would probably be best if you just remember to take your jewelry. Other items that can be used to barter are: ammunition in common calibers, infant formula, medicine, water purification tablets, and “luxury” items like instant coffee or toilet paper.

Firearms: If you choose to have a firearm in your bag, remember to pack cleaning equipment and lubricant. The type of firearm you select should match the terrain you will be operating in and the strategy you would like to adopt. If you plan on adopting an avoidance strategy, in which hunting will play a major role, you should probably have a scoped rifle. If you plan on an evacuation strategy, it would be best to have something concealable that packs a punch like a .45 pistol. Just remember a firearm is a tool like any other, you must pick the right tool for the job. A firearm’s usefulness is determined by how well you can employ it.

How to pack the bag: Packing the bag is a chore itself. The key thing is to remember to keep emergency items accessible. Food can go at the bottom of the bag. When you have stopped to eat, you probably aren’t in a hurry. Your first aid kit should be at the top. Once the bag is packed, pick it up and shake it. Did you hear any clanging sounds or jingling? If so, repack the bag or stuff articles of clothing into the bag to eliminate the noise. Remaining quiet is a key element in remaining alive.

The next security check to be completed is taking the bag outside at night and shining a flashlight at it. Does anything reflect the light? If so, blacken whatever it is that could give away your position with a permanent marker or spray paint.

The inciting event: In most cases, you will have some warning prior to the need to bug out. It is worth the ten minutes in most cases to fill a trash bag with all of the food, drinks, and medicine in the house. Take anything you have time to grab. Once you leave, it may be quite some time before you return.

The survival mindset

The key element in surviving a disaster is not what equipment you have, it’s developing the ability to see what things could be instead of what they are. The easiest way to do this is to grab an item at random and think of as many uses for it as possible. The trash in your car can be used to build a fire without matches or a lighter. Items that you would normally throw away can become critical life saving instruments of survival. Waste nothing.

In survival situations it is extremely important to commit yourself to your own survival and to completing whatever mission you have assigned yourself. Without a mission, people often fall victim to apathy and complacency which often leads to their death.


Everybody needs to be prepared for an emergency situation. You don’t have to be a “prepper” or a “survivalist” to realize that horrible things have happened in the past and will happen again. A little bit a planning on your part can save your family’s lives.

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Author’s note: Nothing above should be considered medical, legal, moral, ethic, or any other form of advice whatsoever.

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