How to Make a Bug-Out Bag

Being a geek means more than just knowing everything there is to know about your favorite technology. There are racing geeks, car geeks, music geeks, and even survival geeks. Survival geeks pride themselves on knowing what to do in the event of an emergency, or even an upcoming zombie apocalypse. One thing survivalist geeks pride themselves on is their ability to get up and go with little to no warning. After all, when the end of the world is at hand, you don’t have time to pack your bags.

Enter the bug-out bag, also known as an AWOL bag, 72-hour kit, grab bag, GO bag, GOOD (Get Out Of Dodge), or more formally as a Personal Emergency Relocation Kit (PERK). This bag can be useful for a range of situations ranging from emergency evacuations due to inclement weather, zombie apocalypse, or even as a quick grab-and-go camping solution.

The idea is that you have an easily accessible bag at the ready so you can get up, grab it, and head out into the unknown and survive for a number of days without assistance or direction. The chances of you actually needing a bug-out bag is pretty slim, though in situations such as Hurricane Katrina where a bad situation suddenly made a turn for the worse, it could mean the difference between life and death.


Ideally, you’ll want to keep your bug-out bag somewhere you can access it very easily. One school of thought is that you should keep it in the trunk of your car, making it available to you while on the road. Another train of thought takes into account that your car may not be near you when you need it most, making the closet nearest to your front door a more ideal location. Wherever you decide to put your bug-out bag, make sure it’s a place you can easily get to in a time of unexpected crisis.

Bag Choices

One of the most important early decisions to make concerning your bag is the bag itself. Do you go with something large and bulky, or trimmed down and easy to store and move? Should you consider a consumer product or something built to military specifications? The answer to this is different for everyone, and should be based on what it is you intend to put in your bug-out bag.

For some general points, modular is always better. Camping bags as well as military solutions have a remarkable selection of modular bag solutions that allow you to add and remove external pouches, pockets, and other components to help you compress or expand your storage capacity as needed.

Storage capacity is typically rated in cubic inches. A good standard bug-out bag will give you around 1,800 cubic inches of initial capacity with what are referred to as MOLLE/PAL expansion straps.

This is a standard on which many external pouches and expansion pockets are designed to fit on the exterior of your bag securely. This looks like a series of horizondal straps that run along the front and/or sides of the bag with occasional vertical stitching creating sleeves on which pockets can be attached. Carabiners are also easily attached to MOLLE/PAL Spoints.

One option I enjoy is the H.S.L.D. 3-Day Combat Assault Pack, a modular backpack with plenty of storage room, expandability, and is durable enough to withstand extended use. The unit itself weighs 6 lbs., and important factor when considering just how heavy this pack will be once you get underway.

Another option for folks that want a little additional storage space is the CFP-90 Backpack System. This system comes with everything you need to store bulky clothing, camping gear, and plenty of supplies to last you well beyond three days. It is presently one of (if not the) largest backpack used by the US military. What I like most about this bag is the use of compression straps, making it easier to pack and compress your gear, making use of every square inch of capacity.

Bag Contents

The contents of your bug-out bag should depend heavily on the climate in which you live, needs of the user, and other personal preferences. Remember that you have no idea what could happen, so it’s usually a wise idea to plan for the unexpected in advance.

In general, you want to be able to survive on only the contents of the bag itself for at least 72 hours. This means you’ll need to pack first-aid supplies, food, extra clothes, and some system for water.

Water is heavy, especially if you think about how much of it you’ll need during a three-day period. For this reason, you may want to consider a solution that allows you to make use of existing water sources rather than depending exclusively on what you can carry.

One example of an existing water supply that is easy to carry comes from a company called Mainstay. This company makes portable drinking water that is stored in easy-to-pack pouches. When you need a drink of water, simply open the pouch and have at it. You can pack a few of these in a bag without overwhelming yourself with added weight, and the shape of the pouches makes it easy to integrate into your pack.

For filtering natural water sources, Berkey makes a sports bottle with a powerful enough filter to make stagnant pond water safe to drink. It wipes out 99.9% of common toxic chemicals, microscopic pathogens, and heavy metals that makes some water potentially harmful to drink.

First Aid
First aid is an important consideration, if not the most important, in your bug-out bag. Because you would use this in cases of emergency, you have to assume that you may be administering first aid to yourself or others you find along your path. Finding a solution that is both compact and well-stocked can be tricky, but it is doable.

This pack I found on Amazon gives you a great array of essential tools in a pack that can be mounted on bags with MOLLE configurations. As such, it doesn’t impact your bag’s storage space at all, giving you more room to keep your essentials.

Consider your own needs, as well. Are there any special medications you take? If so, keep a few doses in your bug-out bag (make sure they haven’t expired) just to be safe.

Fire, Cooking, and Heat
Even though we live in the 21st century, we still have to consider what might happen if you’re trapped in the wilderness and you need to get a fire going to survive. Thankfully, modern conveniences have given us plenty of tools to get this done without needing to pile large amounts of gear in your bag.

A tactical fire starting and stove kit can compress very nicely in your bug-out bag and provide you with a convenient and easy way to start a warm fire, cook food, and all with minimal risk of starting a brush fire.

Alternatively, you can grab some all-weather matches and a waterproof match box at your local outdoor supply store that packs very well.

Food is important. In fact, it is absolutely required when you’re out in the wilderness expending excess energy hiking, searching for shelter, or simply setting up camp. Food is energy, and you need energy to survive in emergency situations.

Buying and selling military rations (MRE or IMP) isn’t particularly legal in many places, though you can find plenty of military surplus stores out there that repack them in a way that makes them legal and available to civilians. A standard meal ready to eat (MRE) pack will contain a multi-course meal that should give you enough calories to get through a day out in the field.

You can also find some portable heater packs that require a little liquid, water or improvised) to start a chemical reaction that heats the bag up. By placing the bag inside of the cardboard meal container, you can enjoy a warm meal without having to start a fire. Be careful, though; those heater packs expel hydrogen, which itself isn’t something you should breathe in enclosed spaces.

Camping supply stores sell great alternative food supplies including dehydrated food and freeze-dried solutions that can be easily prepared and eaten.

Meal time when out in the wild is important not only for keeping up your strength, but maintaining sanity. It gets boring out in the woods, and your mind can drive itself crazy as you deal with whatever situation put you out there in the first place. In addition to packing reading material and/or simple games, eating a good meal can take your mind of things and make life a little easier.

Clothes should always be loose and in layers out in the wild. You want to stay warm, but restrictive clothing can cause you problems. Pack clothes that fold or roll up easily, and provide the maximum function over form. You’re not going on a trip to look glamorous, you’re surviving. Pack accordingly, and you should be fine.

One trick I learned to maximize storage in a bag is to roll clothes rather than fold them. Pants, shirts, jackets, socks, and anything else you might wear can be rolled into tightly packed spaces that take up much less room than traditional folding methods. Again, wrinkles don’t mean a thing in the wilderness.

Always pack an extra pair of shoes. You never know when you might step in a puddle, or otherwise douse your shoes. If your feet are wet, they may give you problems. Pack as many socks as you can, but make sure you have an extra pair of shoes that will be comfortable and sturdy in the wild.

Blankets and Tents
Emergency blankets are cheap and easy to pack. Pack one. The reflective coating can signal for help, and the blanket itself was developed by NASA to keep humans alive in the harshest of conditions. It may be loud, but it could save your life.

Also, you may want to find a good soft polar fleece blanket somewhere that is large enough to wrap yourself in. When it gets cold outside, this can keep you warm and comfortable. It’s also easy to compress and pack, making it an excellent choice.

Tents are available all over the place, and if you can find one that compresses neatly, weighs very little, and promises to protect you from the harshest elements in your climate, you’re on to something. If you’re single, go for a single-person tent which is easy to carry and store. A two-person tent will keep you, your spouse, and your children (in a pinch) safe from the elements during the night.

Yoga mats sound crazy here, but if you can’t find a good camp mat to sleep on (even in a tent) then these can help. Anything you can do to separate yourself from the floor is a plus. The earth has a way of sucking all the heat out of you, and it could lead to hypothermia if you don’t have adequate protection.

Other Considerations
Get a map of your region. Batteries are unreliable in the wild, and you will need a good map to help you find your way.

A compass is a must-have, and your iPhone compass doesn’t count. Get a camping compass from an outdoor store and put it in the bag. You never know when you might need it.

Pack a book or two to entertain yourself with. A game would be great as well, even if it is one only you will play. This keeps your mind occupied and off the situation at hand. People have gone crazy in the wilderness before, and you don’t want to be one of them. Aren’t there enough crazy zombies running around already?

Money is great, but precious metals are good, too. Pack a few silver ounces with you in addition to some cash. This will help if the absolutely unfortunate happens and you end up somewhere that doesn’t care for your currency. Precious metals have value all over the globe, and can be bartered with.

Bring a short-wave radio with you and extra batteries. You need to find out what’s going on in the world, and a radio such as this picks up signals all over the place, and will keep you informed on what’s going on.

Pack a good foldable saw. This will come in handy when you’re gathering wood, but also for other needs around the campsite.

Tomahawks are still used by US Rangers today, and are incredibly versatile tools to have with you in times of need. As both a chopping and hammering instrument, there is very little you can’t do with a good military-grade tomahawk.

Fishing line and hooks are handy if you come across a stream and need to fish for food. Couple this with a little packed spice (you can find spices for camping all over the place) and your camping stove, and you have a feast.

I always go camping with a tarp. Even though we have a tent, a tarp comes in handy in that area outside the tent that you may spend most of your day. It helps keep bugs away, protects you from the rain, and could serve as a makeshift tent itself should your primary one be damaged or lost.

Bring plenty of rope. Modern ropes can withstand a lot of tension before snapping, and care thinner than the ropes of yesteryear. Get a bunch of this, you may need it.

Flares, glow sticks, and emergency whistles are excellent tools for signaling for help. Pack some or all of these, as you may need them when the time comes.

Sunscreen is an essential thing to have. You need it, whether it’s cold or hot outside. The sun will burn you and make you uncomfortable after a day or two.

Flashlights are great, and if you have room for a portable lantern, pack one too. It gets dark at night, and you’ll need a good light to keep an eye on things. LED lanterns can burn for hours upon hours without burning out batteries. Crank lights are also good, as they don’t require batteries at all, though it can be a lot more work to keep lit.

There are plenty of other things I could mention here including paracord, zip ties, knives (obviously essential), and even toilet paper. Bottom line: Pack smart, and make sure the weight of the bag itself isn’t so much that you can’t travel. Keep things light and small.

Final Thoughts

Surviving during an emergency takes a combination of perseverance and preparation. Take a weekend out once a year and consider going camping. Become familiar with the process of tying a good knot, starting a fire, learning about berries and other wild fruit, and become acquainted with the tips and tricks of survival that have kept humans alive for hundreds of thousands of years.

There are several online resources you can check out to give you further pointers on this topic. One of my favorite being a Web series produced by Rant Media called Patrolling with Sean Kennedy. Another resource is Survival Cache, an excellent gear site for survivalists. You could also find a lot of great information at The Survivalist Blog.

What about you? What would you pack into your bug-out bag? Do you have one already? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

Image Courtesy of Rant Media

32 comments On How to Make a Bug-Out Bag

  • Dragon worthy! Enjoyed it.

  • Dragon worthy! Enjoyed it.

  • I have everything, and a whole lot more.

  • Matt…Bud
    Similiar to last nights NATGeo Preppers…….Just wanted to give you heads up……

    • No idea what you’re talking about, but thanks for leaving a comment. Is that a show or something?

      • Translation – the National Geographic channel aired Doomsday Preppers last night. Basically a reality show about a bunch of apocalyptic nutters.

  • I was in a house fire and I was not able to grab anything. I lost everything I owned. There was not enough time it happens way too fast and sometimes you are not able to think clearly.However,  I DO think this is a good idea for the future.  #BugOutBag

  • Might be an idea to pack the SAS survival guide.  Its small, and can tell you everything you need to know when you need to know it the most.

  • Waterproof matches and a lighter.

  • Yoga mat? No. It takes up too much room. At camping stores you get a self inflating mat. It packs way smaller. We use them for canoe tripping with portaging.
    Tarps do not keep bugs away. They attract them. Bugs won’t get wet under a tarp. They like to stay dry too. Bring bug repellent, hat, sunglasses. Why waste space with a story book? Bring a book on edible plants. Fire starter cubes. You need the rope to tie the tarp up to trees and bring a tennis ball so you can put it on the top of a stick to hold the center of the tarp up. We are wilderness canoers.

    • Appreciate the tips. I’ve found a tarp to be a bit easier to keep free of debris and bugs than the pine needle bed that our local state park provides. The biggest threat there is what’s under the pine needles that you don’t know you may be sitting on. A tarp, in my experience, makes it easier to discover what’s crawling in your camp. As stated before, It’s also a lifesaver if your tent springs a leak. 

      This is just my experience, and I’m no expert. I’m just an occasional primitive backback camper.

    • Note: I did say “if you can’t find a good camp mat.” 🙂

  • Sounds like “The Walking Death” or the Brits coming back.

  • It’s always smart to be prepared, even if you never need it. Even if it’s not the apocalypse, many people are faced with evacuating their homes for natural disasters or other reasons.

  • You forgot the fake passports and pistol…
    Good read man, it can be fun to assemble things like this
    And who knows when you might need it.
    My tip, add gastrolite salt replacement and intestinal sedatives to the med kit.

  • That was an awesome article. Thank you for it. 

  • Did you have to put that “zombie apocalypse” nonsense in there? 😎

  • You might consider a weeks supply (7 tablets pro person-half that amount for children) of potassium iodide. Depending on the emergency it might be a life saver. 

  • Ahh. I watched it for the first time late last night after seeing the comments. It seemed like an interesting show, but it focused on the extremists rather than the basic essentials FEMA recommends every house abide by. 

  • After the big tsunami hit Japan a couple years back, I spent a week wrapping vials of it in bubble wrap to ship to folks in the U.S. that were convinced it would save them from the inevitable fallout heading towards the coast. Thankfully, that fallout never happened…or so we’ve been told. DUN DUN DUNNN

  • Left out the pistol intentionally. Part of me doesn’t trust a firearm in a tightly-packed bag which will undoubtedly sit dormant in the trunk of your car for months on end.

  • I have split up my solution to emergency situations in three parts, first is the most compact parts which I always carry with me wherever I go (a Swiss army knife, small but long water and heat-resistant rope (currently household rope for oven use), storm-proof lighter, duct tape, cellphone, pens, a small hardcovered notebook, and some other odds and ends). Should keep you alive with effort and ingenuity.
    Second is a compartment in my backpack containing tools for repair and electronics work and some survival gear (a folding Japanese saw and thicker nylon rope, planning to add a first-aid kit, emergency blanket, purifying pills, and some other stuff). Should keep you alive with some more ease.
    Third is loose items next to the entrance door, that I can fit in the main compartment of my backpack if I empty it (like a tent and some tarp and an alcohol cooking set). Should keep you alive without having to spend as much effort in making a camp.

    If I get enough warning, I go and buy some Snickers bars, I found that I can get by a whole day on a single one of those (unless I expend too much energy of course), and I fill up some water (water is of secondary importance to me since I live in Sweden, we have streams and plants that you can get clean water directly from, your mileage may wary).

    My backpack is an old but very sturdy consumer-grade Samsonite in the Not Trendy line.

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