What is a Bug-out bag: Survival 101

Building a bug-out bag for everyone in a survival group is integral to being ready for disaster. Each person in your group should have survival gear pre-staged in a bag so they can grab it and run out the door. The ultimate goal of having a bug-out bag is to move away from danger as quickly as possible with the materials needed to survive 72 hours or longer.

The bug-out bag is used to escape danger with the gear needed to survive. Hazards include natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, and dangerous events like civil unrest.

What is a bug-out bag?

A bug-out bag is a pre-packed bag that contains survival gear needed to escape danger on foot. The pack typically contains shelter, fire-starting equipment, emergency food, a single-walled stainless steel cup for boiling water, basic first aid, a water filter, navigation tools, and survival food.

No one-size-fits-all bug-out bag exists because climate, geography, and circumstances vary. That said, every bug-out bag should provide shelter, food, water, first aid, and the ability to maintain core body temperature.

I’m writing this article because I’m in the middle of building a bug-out bag. My intention is to build an ultra light bag that weighs less than 25lbs. I may not adhere to every suggestion in this article because, money.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

Let’s look at things to consider when building a bug-out bag and the available items found inside a backpack made to survive an emergency.

Bag Weight

The best bug-out bag is ultra-light and weighs 20% of your body weight or less. A heavy bag slows you down, burns calories, and increases water requirements which means you will burn through supplies quicker and have a higher possibility of physical injury.

A couple of years ago I hiked the Vermont leg of the Appalachian Trail. Most of the hiking was straight up or straight down. Talk about nieve, I started out carrying a heavy pack and two gallons of water. I quickly shed everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. My ankles and knees were trashed and took me a couple of weeks to fully recover from this trip. Granted I was hiking in the mountains but If I had been trying to run from danger in this scenario my heavy pack and physical injuries would have slowed the process.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

8 Goals Of Bugging Out

The gear packed in a bug-out bag should allow you to accomplish these 8 goals.

  1. Cover ground quickly
  2. Put distance between you and danger
  3. Navigate from point A to Point B
  4. Maintain Body Temperature
  5. Provide water to stay hydrated
  6. Provide calories for energy
  7. Provide for treatment of injuries
  8. Survival

Stealth

Plan your bug-out bag so you can stay stealthy (hidden) if the survival scenario requires it.

There are two modes of foot travel in a survival situation, permissive and non-permissive. Choose bug-out gear to survive both scenarios.

Permissive environment: it’s not necessary to stay hidden. It’s ok to start a campfire, make noise and walk out in the open.

Non-permissive environment: It is necessary to stay hidden. Everyone and anyone could be a threat. The survivor depends on clothing and shelter to keep warm and eats calorie-dense food like SOS survival bars that don’t require cooking.

Avoid starting fires in a non-permissive environment. They give away your position.

Redundancy

Redundancy in a bug-out bag means having more than one way to perform a task needed to survive.

Carry gear that provides more than one way to complete a survival task. For example, carry multiple means of starting a fire, various methods of cleaning water, and have more than one knife blade made from carbon steel for fire-starting.

What Is In a Bug-out Bag?

Everyone’s bug-out bag will be a little different. There are advocates of carrying a 65lb pack with all the bells and whistles, but I prefer the ultra-light bug-out bag that aligns with special-warfare survival tactics and long-distance hikers.

Tip: When planning what to put in a bug-out bag, consider the time of year, climate, terrain, and the most likely distance traveled, and if bugging out in a vehicle, have a bag dedicated to bugging out on foot.

What Is In a Bug-out Bag?

The Bugout bag typically contains shelter, fire-starting equipment, emergency food, a single-walled stainless cup for boiling water, basic first aid, a water filter, navigation tools, a knife, and survival food bars.

Two is one, one is none.

Navy Seal Mantra

This article contains Amazon affiliate links, so I make money for beans and bullets at no additional cost to you if you purchase. It is appreciated.

15 Items In a Bugout Bag

#1 Backpack

Pick a comfortable bag that doesn’t look too tactical so you can blend in with your surroundings and not look like an infantryman in a full battle rattle.

What is the ideal size Bug-out bag?

The ideal size of a bug-out bag is between 24 and 35 liters. If the bag is too small, you won’t be able to fit all of your gear inside. If a bug-out bag is too big, there is a temptation to load too much weight.

A good resource for anyone building a bug-out bag is through-hikers of the Appalachian Trail (AT).

The average ultra-light bag used on the AT is between 15 and 25lbs.

That is pretty impressive when you consider a completed through-hike is 2,190 miles.

When I hiked the Vermont leg of the Appalachian trail I was out of shape, but the hikers who started in Georgia and blazed past me were in unbelievable shape. I mean some of these hikers were covering over 20 miles per day in brutal terrain. One thing was obvious, seasoned through-hikers learned to shed gear. Some of these backpacks being worn were smaller than my teenage daughter’s school backpack.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

#2 Sleep System

Keep a sleep system in your bug-out bag to maintain Body temperature by including something to sleep under, something to sleep on, and something to sleep inside.

When planning a sleep system, pick gear that maintains body temperature by blocking wind and insulating from the cold ground.

My sleep and shelter system aren’t worked out yet. Currently, I’m using a somewhat lightweight tent and an inexpensive sleeping bag. The problem is the tent weighs 4 lbs which are too heavy when considering the total bag weight. My sleeping bag is claustrophobic and too short for me. Stay tuned for an update.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

5 Sleep System Options

  1. Sleeping Bag
  2. Bivy Sack
  3. Military Modular Sleep System
  4. Military Poncho & Poncho Blanket (Ranger Burrito)
  5. Wool Blanket

#5 Fire Starting

Fire can be seen and smelled miles away. Depending on the situation, you may or may not want to light a fire. Have an excellent layered clothing system, sleep system, and shelter to stay warm without lighting a fire. Also, include some food that doesn’t require cooking, like an SOS survival bar.

Build redundancy into your fire-starting system and have lighters and a Ferrocerium rod to have a backup. A Ferro rod will start thousands of fires if you don’t lose it, but it takes skill and is more challenging to use in wet weather. When possible, use a Bic lighter to start your fires.

6 Fire Starting Kit Options

  1. BIC Lighter
  2. Ferrocerium Rod
  3. Tinder Box
  4. Water Proof Matches
  5. Long Burning Candles
  6. Backpacker Stove and Fuel (MSR Pocketrocket)

#6 Clothing

Choose Quick drying-wick away clothing, and dress in layers so you can remove and replace clothing depending on the physical exertion, climate, and weather.

5 Goals of Clothing For a Bug-out Bag
  1. Choose a three-layer system of clothing to don and remove items
  2. Include layers that wick moisture away from the body
  3. Pick a layer that retains body heat with insulation
  4. Choose a layer that blocks wind and rain
  5. Minimize pack weight by choosing lightweight gear

Tip: The U.S. Army manual considers clothing a survivalist’s primary shelter, so take it seriously when planning a bug-out bag

To learn more about layering survival clothing and the different types of materials, read the Ready Squirrel article, Survival Clothing Guide: Layering For Survival.

#7 Hydration

A bug-out bag should provide an ability to stay hydrated. When packing your bag, include a method to carry water, clean water, and boil water.

The goal of survival on the move is to resupply water from natural sources like rivers, streams, or lakes.

Water is heavy at 8 lbs per gallon, so it’s too heavy to carry in large quantities.

4 Hydration Options

  1. Single-walled stainless steel or titanium cup for boiling water
  2. Water Bottle or Water Bladder
  3. Water purification tablets
  4. Backpacker’s Water Filter

#8 Food

When hiding, eat no-cook food. Choose food that doesn’t need to be cooked or that can be made with boiling water. High-calorie SOS survival bars are a good option.

Best Food Options

SOS Survival Bars

SOS survival bars were created for life rafts on ships. They have a certified shelf-life of 5 years and provide 3682 calories per package. They are one of the best foods in a bug-out bag.

Amazon|SOS Food Labs

Mountain House Backpacker Meals

Mountain House freeze-dried meals have a shelf-life of 30 years. To make ready to eat, open the package, pour in boiling water, and wait 10 minutes. If you go with mountain house meals, consider getting a long-handled titanium spoon to keep food from getting all over.

Amazon| Mountain House Store

#9 Shelter

Shelter protects you from the elements, especially wind and rain. Pick a shelter that is lightweight and easy to put up and take down. Also, you can incorporate the shelters below with natural materials to enhance insulation and comfort levels. Following are some excellent shelters you can use.

Shelter Options

Military Poncho

The military poncho is a rain jacket that keeps the bug-out bag dry. It seconds as a quick and adequate shelter when combined with a paracord.

Amazon| USGI Store

Camping Tarp

A camping tarp

Amazon

Ultralight Tent

If you want a one-and-done shelter bugging out the tent is the best option. Weighing in a 2.5 pounds, this is a pretty lightweight tent.

Amazon| Mier Store

Camping Hammock

A camping hammock is a good choice when moving through wooded areas but avoid this kind of shelter in winter-like weather or barren terrain.

Amazon| East Hills Outdoors

#10 First Aid Kit

A bug-out bag usually includes a first aid kit. Carry a kit you are qualified to use to treat injuries ranging from a splinter to a sucking chest wound. To save some cash, build a first aid kit instead of buying one pre-made.

Basic First Aid Kit

A lightweight first aid kit includes, at a minimum, supplies necessary to disinfect cuts and insect bites and treat common disorders like headaches.

Some preppers have the skill and knowledge necessary to treat severe trauma. I do not have this skill, so my first aid kit is basic.

Amazon| ASA TECHMED

#11 Survivor Cord

Survival Paracord is excellent cordage used for shelter building and to create valuable items for the camp, tie gear down, and a thousand other uses. This paracord is unique because it holds 620lbs, and the paracord strands can be separated to provide a fishing line, multi-purpose wire, and a waterproof fire starter.

Amazon| Titan Paracord

Learn about paracord, read the Ready Squirrel article, 29 Uses For Paracord in a Bug out bag.

#12 Navigation

Navigation tools are an integral part of an excellent bug-out bag because knowing where to go, how to get there, and how to change direction is vital in a survival situation. Avoid using hand-held GPS or smartphones for navigation because towers, satellites, and power may be out long-term.

3 Land Navigation Tools For Bugging Out

#1 Map

Maps are integral to a bug-out plan and should be in every go-bag. A good map allows survivalists to create alternate routes, avoid danger, find water, locate supply caches, find railroads, determine elevation and avoid high population areas.

#2 Compass

It’s over-simplified, but reading a compass lets, you know what direction you are heading. It is the most crucial instrument in land navigation. The compass is significant if trying to find or avoid a specific location.

#3 Pace Beads

Ranger beads allow you to track how far you’ve walked based on your stride and help keep track of distance based on the user’s stride.

#13 Head Lamp

Headlamps are better than flashlights, excellent because they are hands-free and cast good light in whatever direction the head turns.

Look for a simple, lightweight headlamp with color modes, so you can use a red or green light at night when you need to stay hidden. These colors are less visible than white light.

Don’t forget extra batteries.

Amazon| Black Diamond

Fixed-blade knife

Scott’s Customized Morakniv Sloyd Knife, with Milk Paint, a carved handle, and a homemade deerskin sheath.

As part of the bug-out kit, a fixed blade knife is used to button firewood, cut paracord, skin game, aid in shelter building, and make other tools from natural materials.

Choose a carbon blade with a ferrocerium rod (to create a spark) because carbon is easier to maintain in the field.

I carve a lot of spoons and bushcraft items so I roll with a carbon steel Morakniv blade. Moras are inexpensive, easy to sharpen and take a sharp edge.

If you plan on doing any wood buttoning I suggest getting a thicker heavier blade with a full tang.

Scott, Ready Squirrel

Weigh the pros and cons. The thicker knives are more rigid but aren’t as effective when doing detailed bushcraft carving. I also have the Morakniv knife below. It is built like a tank.

Read the ready squirrel article Best Type of Survival Knife to learn more about picking a survival knife.

Amazon| Morakniv Store

#14 Multi-tool

Keep a multi-tool in your bug-out bag but know that it will not be the best tool for the job. A multi-tool is used in an emergency toolbox that allows the survivalist to get the job done.

What can you do with a multi-tool?

Multi-tools allow the user to cut wood, skin an animal, and fix other tools. A multi-tool can also be used with found objects that might help you survive. The multi-tool also builds redundancy by providing one or more knife blades, pliers, wire cutters, wire strippers, knives, saw, spring-action scissors, rulers, can & bottle openers, files, and screwdrivers.

Ultimately, pick a multi-tool that has the tools needed.

The Pros Leatherman Wave Plus Multitool is the one I have, and I’m happy with it.

  • Quick access to tools
  • One-handed tool deployment
  • Strong locking mechanism
  • Bang for your buck
  • 17 useful tools
  • Carry options (clip or belt pouch)
  • Everyday Carry Friendly
  • Balanced size

Cons Leatherman Wave Plus Multitool

  • Blade-steel is not top of the line

Amazon| LEATHERMAN Store

#15 Weapon

I can’t imagine creating a bug-out bag without a firearm. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice. From my point of view, an excellent bug-out weapon and ammo caliber are relatively lightweight and concealable.

I don’t see carrying a rifle when bugging out on foot. Some preppers and survivalists swear by them, but I feel they are too on blast, and the combination of the weapon and ammo is too heavy for my liking.

I carry a SIG 365XL 9mm because it is small, easily concealed, and easily deployed. I waffle back on carrying a .22 because I can take 500 rounds, and it’s relatively lightweight. Then the question is whether to take a rifle like a 10/22 or a lightweight pistol or revolver.

Tip: When bugging out in my Jeep, I will have an AR (5.56) Semi-auto Rifle, 9mm pistols, a 10-22, and ammo.

To learn more, read the Ready Squirrel article, .22lr vs. 9mm for a bug-out bag.

Contingency Plan

Have a plan and a backup for that plan. Things change, so you may have to change the route or destination. You don’t have to go on foot, but you might have to. Who knows. A bug-out vehicle could be a car, jeep, canoe, sailboat, bike, or motorcycle.

Have a well-stocked house, well-stocked bug-out location, and extra gear in your bug-out vehicle. The bug-out bag is for a worst-case scenario.

To learn more about bug-out bags, read the Ready Squirrel article, 16 elements of a bug-out bag.

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