The Art of the Bug-Out Bag

I have a tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario for everything, but when it comes to some basic survival practices, not everyone is going to have to ruck a few klicks to friendly lines under fire, survive a lion attack, or plunge into a zombie apocalypse. Many people can get caught off-guard by the simplest of situations by simply imagining “it won’t ever happen to me.”
Maybe you’ll never get caught in an EMP blast, and the hordes of the undead aren’t going to rise (no matter how much I wish they would), but have you ever driven down the road and seen how many people get stranded on the side of the interstate?

Imagine your car breaking down on I-74 when you’re a 30 mile drive from both your workplace and your home. Maybe help can’t get to you right away, or you forgot to charge your cell phone. Maybe you’re stuck in the middle of a bad neighborhood, where a lone man or woman standing outside of a broken car looks like a wounded gazelle to the average n’er-do-well.

Now picture situations like that in the middle of February, and you’re wearing pajama bottoms, sneakers, and a jacket only warm enough to get you from the parking lot to the doors of your destination.
A bug-out bag is an essential collection of simple, low-cost materials useful in a variety of situations. Rather than attempting to picture and prepare for each individual danger you might face, a wise survivor will instead attempt to address basic needs common to all situations.
A human being will always need food and water (or a way of procuring it), heat, and shelter. Combine those with methods of signalling for help, a navigation aid, some additional doodads and tricks of the trade, and you can easily collect a small bag with essential gear.
Let’s start off with the bag itself. Keep in mind that this should be an item that you can stash in your car or in a closet by your door, and grab-n-go (or bug out) in a minute’s notice.

I prefer to use a Maxpedition bag. It’s tough enough to be used in Iraq, but it also has room for “tacticool” patches.

While having a large camping backpack with an external frame and five days of food and water might be great, it could reduce mobility, and it is easily noticeable. A small, plain civilian backpack or a messenger bag will work fine, so long as it is durable and has enough room for your equipment. Something smaller than your average carry-on bag on an airplane will be more than sufficient.
Keep in mind that this isn’t made for you to go into the woods, build a log cabin, sow crops, and live for years. It is made so that you can get more water and food for a few days until you reach safety.
Let’s get to those basic needs;
Food – Keep in mind that your body doesn’t need to eat nearly as much as the average American consumes in a day. You can go for over a week without food without suffering to many effects. Food, therefore, actually takes up less space that most of the other components. You should have enough to keep you alive, and have the ability to get more if you can.
Water – It is best to drink a gallon of water a day, but that much high quality H2O is much to cumbersome to carry. Instead, carry multiple containers that can be filled with water from various sources. Again, the item itself isn’t so much to sustain you right away, as to enable you obtain more.
Shelter – Just like before, you’re not carrying an actual shelter with you, but only a couple of ways to make some yourself. Rope is essential, and a small tarp or survival blanket is extremely handy.
Heat – Don’t carry a camping stove with you. Fuel tablets are all well and good, but they take up a lot of space, and you can only use them once. Better for carry something small, durable, and reusable. 
Items in my bag:

– Basic Food Bars and Crackers: I wanted something dense in calories and protein, but not particularly tasty. If I put food in there that tastes good, I’ll eat it in my truck when I’m just kinda hungry. If it tastes like a possum’s bunghole, but will keep me alive, I’m more likely to leave it there until I absolutely need it. Also, I can’t fit a Wendy’s Triple Decker in my bag.

– Wide-mouthed Nalgene Bottle: I never go anywhere without a full water source. While a regular bottle of water may be ok for a bit, it isn’t durable enough for protracted use. I prefer the Nalgene bottles, not only for their durability, but also because their mouths are wide enough where I can fill it with snow during winter to get water. In the cold months, a fresh, white snow is a great, if time-consuming water source. Having a couple of Nalgenes with snow melt has been a life-saver for me during mountain training.

– Iodine Tablets: Any water purifier will do, but I have the tablets. A stream in the woods may look clear, but it’s got the critters in it that will ruin your freaking day. More on that later. Iodine is good, cheap, and it doesn’t change the taste of the water too much. A survival straw or filter is also good, especially since you can keep reusing it.

– Small Tarp: A large 12×12 is bulky and unnecessary. A small tarp can easily be used for lean-to shelters, or simply draping them over a low tree branch.

– Survival Blanket: While I would prefer a down sleeping bag in the snow, these things are amazing. They fold up neatly enough to fit in your pocket, are the consistency of that fancy shiny wrapping paper you only use for fancy Christmas presents, and they actually keep you warm. In a pinch, they can also double as shelter material.

– 50+ Feet of Cord: If you want so really good stuff, get the parachute, or “550” style cord. Hint: It’s called “550 cord” because it’s tensile strength can hold 550 pounds.It has an outer nylon sheath that can hold a couple of hundred pounds, and smaller nylon threads inside. Use if for shelter, but keep in mind that you can cut a piece, take all the “guts” out of it, and you’ll have six additional pieces of rope. Use those thinner “guts” for fishing line, snare lines, or dental floss. Actually, don’t use it for dental floss. I’ve tried it, but it just gets caught in my teeth. Carry a carabiner actually made for climbing, and you’ve got yourself a great combination.

– Survival Matches and/or Lighter: Use these first. If you hold onto them for too long, you run the chance of them getting wet and/or breaking before you get a chance to utilize them.

– Flint and Steel: This is my favorite. It’s waterproof, extremely durable, and more reusable than matches or a lighter. I never start a fire now without using it, because it can be a tricky skill if you’ve never done it. Now that I always use it, if I have to start a fire, and I have matches, life is that much easier until they run out. My flint rod came with a steel “scraper,” but it’s junk. Use a knife to scrape the flint, and you’ll get a ton more sparks. Mine includes a magnesium block for those extra special ignitions!

– Cotton Balls/Kindling: To start a fire, you need something to catch the sparks and start a flame before adding more fuel to it. Cotton balls are the easiest kindling to use, in my experience. Just pull off a whisp of cotton, stretch it out in a bed of dried grass, and it will always ignite. Some guys like to cover the cotton balls in petroleum jelly, so that there is an easy fuel source there. You can put twenty in a ziplock bag, squeeze all the air out of it, and it takes little to no space at all. Just make sure to waterproof it too.

– Tampons: They’re essentially a bunch of cotton in a plastic, waterproof case. You can even keep matches and lighters in the case with it. Great source of kindling. An additional use for them is as a “bandage” for a gunshot wound. They’re ironically the same size as many gunshot wounds, and they’re meant to absorb blood. If you find yourself with some holes in your body, stick one of these babies in it, wrap it tightly, and find your way to a hospital.

None of this is a substitute for Combat Gauze, or any hemostatic agent, but it’s still one of those multi-use items.

– Multi-tool: Something with a blade, pliers, Philips- and flat-head screwdrivers, and a file. 

– Ammodium AD: Sometimes you get a bad batch of water, and in a survival situation, you cannot afford to get dehydrated by the Hershey Squirts. If you didn’t purify or boil your water well enough, you’ll need something to keep your body from dumping out all of those fluids until you can reach medical care. Trust me. Whether it’s the effects of a bad well in Afghanistan, or watching a teammate paint the side of a house brown in Fallujah, I know whereof I speak.

– Fishing Line, Hooks, Lures: Tie it to a stick. Grab some grasshoppers or crickets, and catch something to eat. In winter, you can use your tools to cut through ice. 

– Snare Wire: Learning how to create snares for small game (squirrels, rabbits, etc.) can easily be learned from Youtube videos and survival books, but make sure you actually try them before you find yourself running through a forest while starving. As a martial arts instructor once said, “Don’t let your first rep be the one that’s for real.” I found that simple picture hanging wire is more than adequate, as well as being cost effective.

– Razor Blades: Get a small packet, wrap them in electrical or duct tape, and you have a small, concealable weapon, a method to take out splinters, a way to skin small game, a tool for cutting dried leaves into kindling, etc. There’s no end to the uses for these things.

– Paper Clips and Bobby Pins: Useful for lock picking, making fish hooks, and keeping your hair pretty.

– Wire Saw: In the event you have to cut down a small tree, or split thick logs, it is not easy to walk around with a hatchet or a chainsaw. A wire saw is very small, and easily cuts through large amounts of wood with a little elbow grease. A slightly larger variant is an actual chain from a chainsaw with two loops at the end. These items can also double as a garrote in a pinch.

– A Really Good Knife: If you only have one of these, you can still probably do alright. It’s a defensive weapon and a tool. A survival knife should have a thick blade, a full tang, and a serrated portion of the blade. For a fighting knife, I prefer a double-edged dagger with no serrations (they catch on clothing), a survival knife needs to have more than one use. My favorite thus far has been my SOG SEAL Pup knife. After cutting all the crap off of the sheath, I can bend the belt loop forward to easily and comfortably carry it inside my waistband. Another great knife is the smaller KABAR knife. The full-sized version can be cumbersome, but that brand has been cranking out great variations of that classic design for a while now.

– Extra Ammo and Magazines: Some people might have a moral objection to carrying a gun, or even a knife. If you’re one of those people, 

     1. Why are you reading this? and

     2. Even though you’re thinking about making a survival bag, if you leave out a weapon, you’ve just decided not to survive.

I prefer to carry a pistol magazine and AR-15 magazine empty, with the rounds kept separate. The reason for this is that I already carry spare mags on my body, and if I keep a loaded magazine in this bag, I’ll forget about it. Keeping magazines fully loaded at all times hurts the springs inside of them, rendering them useless. You either have to unload the mags and let the springs stretch out again, or just keep them empty. For the AR-15 mags, I prefer the Magpul P-Mags, or any polymer magazine. They’re stronger, have a no-tilt follower, lighter, and I’ve never had one jam in a firefight or training.

 – Lensatic compass. While a GPS is ideal, it is also expensive. In addition to the cost, I would have to worry about carrying batteries, and the inevitable appearance of Murphy’s Law; If it’s electronic, it will crap the bed as soon as you need it.

– Vitamins: Not necessarily a full bottle, but you don’t want to get scurvy and have your head rot from the inside out. You never know how long you’ll have to go without food, and vitamins can be a great supplement, as well as being compact and light. My only issue has been that I often get stomach aches if I take multivitamins on an empty stomach.  

– Pain Medication: In a survival situation, pain is most definitely not weakness leaving the body. Sometimes it’s just pain. A sprained ankle or sore back can sap your energy and morale, making you slower and more vulnerable. A few IBU’s can take care of that problem, enabling you to get from Point A to Point Hospital.

– Epinephrine Pen (Epi-Pen): If you’re allergic to anything, this is already a must. Allergic reactions narrow your airway while dilating your blood vessels. This is why people going into anaphylactic shock have red skin and can’t breathe. Epinephrine reverses that by dilating the airway, and constricting the blood vessels. An adult dose will be 0.3mg, and a child dose will be 0.15 (in case you think you might be stranded with your children). Jam the sucker into the meaty portion of the thigh, and let it work it’s magic. Do NOT use it if you’re not having an allergic reaction.

– Bandages: In a survival situation, even the smallest cut can become infected. Keep them covered up. I have 2×2 and 4×4 gauze pads, medical tape, bandaids, and some QuikClot. If you have access to decent medical equipment, pressure bandages are great too. Gauze also works great for kindling for starting a fire.

– Hand Sanitizer: Sanitize cuts as soon as you get them. Clean your hands after skinning and cleaning small game. Cleanliness may not be next to godliness, but it is next to survival-ness.

– Alcohol Wipes: Better than hand sanitizer, but they get used up quickly. Use them sparingly.

– ACE Wraps: If you sprain your ankle, tying it up with an ACE wrap will enable you to move more easily. It can also double as a very think form of rope.

– Tourniquets: I usually carry a tourniquet on my body at all times, but a couple more wouldn’t hurt. I prefer the basic CAT Tourniquet, though I know others who like the SOF-T variant. They’re vital in stopping heaving bleeding in extremities. Don’t try to put one on a head wound.

– Golf Pencil and Paper: Maybe it’s just the military man in me, but I never go anywhere without a writing utensil and a paper source. I prefer the “Rite in the Rain” notebooks for their durability and ability to write on them…you know…in the rain. You can use them to write messages to anyone who might be looking for you, write down a journal to keep your sanity, or just start drawing range cards. While they also sell pens that write on wet paper, I prefer a simple golf pencil. If a pen breaks, you don’t have a pen anymore. If a pencil breaks, you now have two pencils. Shavings can also be used for kindling. 

– Pencil Sharpener: Small and easily used. Sharpen your pencil, or use it on any skinny sticks to create more firestarting material.

– Duct Tape – Wrap a strip around your golf pencil instead of carrying a bulky roll of it. If you can’t think of reasons to have duct or riggers tape, you fail as an adult.

– Bible: I know. I had to plug my faith in here, but seriously, you might be stuck somewhere with nothing else to do but read. It’s not like you’ll be able to watch Netflix on your phone for days on end. In a desperate situation, you can use pages as fire starting material. I’d start with Leviticus or Numbers. That’s why I love the Bible; it has over a thousand pages for me to utilize! All my heathen buddies can have fun with their 30-page Havamal.

– Carabiner: Once I had to use 550 cord and a carabiner to repel my entire team and their gear down the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. I’ve never been without one since.
– Cash AND Credit Cards: The amount depends on your means. Don’t carry a pimp roll if you can’t pay your electric bill, but I recommend always having enough cash to buy a tank of gas, get a hotel room, or buy a bit of food. Break open some stitching on your bag and sew this into it for safekeeping. The credit card is a true for-emergencies-only item, but use it to get what you need to survive.
– Flashlight and Batteries: I have a really nice Surefire flashlight that is well-nigh indestructible and BRIGHT, but I keep that close to my nightstand. This basic one is compact, tough, and can be used for a variety of reasons. It’s not just for illumination, it can also be used to signal rescue aircraft or search parties.

– Lip Balm: Gotta stay smooch-able while you’re evading hostile forces.

– Toothbrush and Toothpaste: I read an account of a Vietnam veteran who was in a POW camp for years. He said that, of all the tortures he faced, the worst was his tooth infection. Screw that.

– Baby Wipes: I’m just so accustomed to using these for toilet paper and the quick “bath” every now and then, that I just can’t imagine life without them.
Extra stuff to take:

– Extra Medication

– A “Black” Phone


– Signal Mirror

– Electrolyte Tablets

– Steel Canteen Cup

*Side Notes*

I got everything but the bag and the magazines from either a local drug store, or the nearby Gillman’s hardware store.

You don’t have to break the bank to make one of these, but you should ask yourself how much your survival is worth to you.

If something needs waterproofing, I use ziplock bags.

Most items here can be used for more than one thing.

With everything put together, it was all still significantly smaller than a small backpack. Mobility is definitely not and issue.


This is Coffey, signing out.


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