Building a Bug Out Bag

No matter where you live in America, every region has the potential for disaster. Pick your state, choose your fate. Blizzard. Earthquake. Hurricane. Tsunami. Fire. Gridlock. Volcano. Flood. Add in the potential for man-made drama and you’ll agree that it’s wise to stop and think about these problem sets, and how to prevail during the inevitable follow-on effects.

What are YOU going to do in the event that you can’t simply drive home from work one day? Or, what if it’s not even disaster related? What if you’re simply stranded and have to walk home to survive? A well-equipped bug out bag, and some prior planning can greatly increase your odds of making it to safety.

For some, the topic of a “Bug Out Bag” or “72 Hour Bag” can be polarizing. Building and consistently carrying what I prefer to call a Go Bag is a personal decision that warrants some discretion. With so many experts and so much information already out there, the best advice I can give anyone is to do their own research before buying anything.

Know Your Environment

First, get smart on your region. Are you in a big city? Out in the country? WAY out in the backcountry? Somewhere between?

A detailed Area Study of where you live allows you to better analyze and predict what the first, second. and third order effects of a disaster will be.

An area study covers the following:

  • Area of Operations (AO) Overview
  • Area of Interest (AI) Overview
  • Route Maps of AO/AI
  • Physical Terrain & Weather
  • Human Terrain
  • Critical Infrastructure
  • Politics & Governance
  • Security & Law Enforcement
  • Economy
  • Threat Overview

These facts, along with your own personal skillset and budget should determine how you proceed. Keep in mind that the ability to grab it and GO, to leave quickly with the right gear, is the predominant concern here.

Remember, when the disaster strikes we’re only about three missed meals away from mayhem in most parts of this country. Ask anyone in Florida how people act before and after a major hurricane. Your ability to get home ASAP is critical. You likely have family or even a beloved pet depending on your safe return home.

Truth is, there is no magic “one size fits all” solution here, and many online retailers will attempt to sell you a readymade bug out bag with all the “right” Chinesium ingredients conveniently included. I strongly recommend that you avoid that rookie mistake, save yourself some money, and build your own purpose built bag. Start with the things you already have on hand and plan for survival.

Choosing The Right Bag

First, pick a good bag with strong, comfortable straps that you can easily carry. Keep in mind that you will probably be walking for hours or even days to get home. Backpacks in the 30-50 L range are my personal go-to for this purpose.

Outfitter Prometheus Design Werx makes excellent, top-shelf packs in the 24 L range, especially if you are trying to keep it fast and light, or if you are a smaller human. Their packs are hyper-focused on EDC efficiency with numerous well thought out refinements and excellent ergonomics. Waist belts are included with their packs and can be easily and quickly removed if needed.

As a primary Go Bag, their original S.H.A.D.O. (S.uspension, H.aul, A.ccess, D.urability, O.rganized.) pack in the 28 L size is my go-to for airline carry-on use and has served well for several years now. It’s a front loading, easy to carry design that has decent capacity, with the “gear trap” tail flap adding real utility for carrying extra clothing or equipment on the outside of the pack. Sadly, they no longer make this #unobtainium size but I’m hopeful that they will offer something in the 30 L (or more) range one day.

Keep your Go Bag with you as you commute, and especially if you are on a long trip. Use it on day hikes if you’re on vacation or out camping. Familiarity with its size, weight, and contents will enhance your confidence as well as your knowledge of any limitations. I’m also a big fan of Hill People Gear. Their Umlindi might be the ultimate for an “all around” Go Bag, and I’m on the wait list for one as of this writing.

Hill People Gear makes things in the USA and is renowned for innovation and quality.

One important thing to consider when selecting a bag is how loud is it? We’re not talking about Bluetooth speaker enabled, I mean does it draw unwanted attention? Does it look expensive? Is it brightly colored or does it present a modest appearance? I am a HUGE fan of exotic camo patterns and gear, but I recommend trying not to use anything camouflage for a bug out bag. I’d also avoid Road Cone Orange, Screaming Yellow Battle Chicken, or other obnoxious colorways. Unobtrusive is best when you are trying to go unnoticed and just get home.

Personally, I have a hard time avoiding military surplus gear. Mostly because that type of gear is purpose built for hard use and can be affordable as well as plentiful. It’s also what I’m comfortable using. So, since I suck at Gray Man things, I try to at least stick with solid earthtones like gray, brown, green, or black for my gear. I also prefer bags that are hydration bladder compatible. Being able to hydrate without stopping to fumble with a water bottle is nice.

Available online from a variety of sellers in used but good condition, the USMC surplus FILBE stuff is a GREAT value for a bug out bag for anyone on a budget.

This is my modified FILBE that started out at 35L and is probably closer to 50L now with the extra pouches added. It has a low enough profile to allow agile movement in thick foliage as well as urban settings and lends itself well to being tossed in and out of a vehicle. The larger main FILBE ruck is a great value as well if you need something in the big league 80L+ size, and these rucks are more than capable of surviving a long hike on the PCT or AT. I have both and highly recommend them.

Loaded out, this particular Go Bag can get heavy so it’s not for everyone…

Once you have a solid bag, the next step is to decide what to include in your BASIC loadout.

Choosing The Right Loadout

These 11 essentials are a solid, minimalist starting point for anyone to use:

  1. Navigation: paper map, altimeter, compass, GPS device, personal locator beacon
  2. Headlamp: LED type and spare batteries
  3. Sun protection: Sunglasses, sun protective clothing/hat, sunscreen
  4. First aid: A first aid kit
  5. Knife: Knife, repair kit, multi-tool, tape, rope/cordage
  6. Fire: A butane lighter and all-weather matches, plus fire steel and ferro rod. Tinder.
  7. Shelter: Tarp, plastic tube tent, or jumbo plastic trash bag.
  8. Extra food: Two meals per day minimum, can ration this food out to 6 days if needed.
  9. Extra water: And at least two ways to make clean water.
  10. Extra clothing: Warm gear needed to survive the night in the emergency shelter.
  11. TP: ‘Nuff said.

Note: Always remember: “Two is One and One is None” when it comes to essential, lifesaving gear. Water filtration, fire starting, knives, hats, lights etc. One of anything is a liability when it inevitably fails or gets lost, so always have at least one backup.

Now let’s cover some of the most important things that you need in more detail, but no particular order

1. Water:

One liter per day, per person is really the bare minimum while one gallon per person per day is ideal, so your Go Bag should have at least 3 liters of water. This number can go way up depending on environmental factors. To expand your capability or to survive longer than a couple of days you will need a water purification system. This can be as simple as boiling water, or a serious trail water filter (Katadyn, MSR, Sawyer etc).

For water purification tablets, I prefer to use chlorine dioxide type like Katadyn MicroPur MP1. It destroys viruses and bacteria in 15 min., Giardia in 30 min. and Cryptosporidium in 4 hrs (a microorganism that is the most common cause of upset stomach/diarrhea in untreated water in the US). Unlike iodine, chlorine dioxide does not discolor water, nor does it give water an unpleasant taste. It also doesn’t leave behind any by-products in treated water, unlike other more spartan purification agents like bleach or iodine.

How you carry your water is equally important. I prefer one-liter, clear wall Nalgene type bottles in addition to a hydration bladder (Camelbak, the Source, etc). If boiling water for purification is indicated, see #6 Basic Gear, Cooking, below.

2. Food:

For a basic Three Day Bag, backpacker type meals and energy bars can be sufficient. Backpack meals are freeze dried meals that you just add boiling water to. They are light weight and the ones by Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House taste great. They also last a very long time, but they need water. Surplus Meals, Ready to Eat (MRE’s) are great too and require no water, but they are much heavier. Canned goods work too, but again they are heavy to carry. Six meals can easily get you through three days on foot and can even be rationed out for a six-day stretch (or longer) if really needed.

3. Clothing:

Your Go Bag clothes should be similar to what you would pack for a weekend backpacking tripI avoid cotton clothing; it holds zero heat when wet and takes forever to dry. Modern materials or even old school wool is your friend in the woods. Wool is desirable as it insulates even when wet. Merino wool is amazing, both warm and comfortable. Consider the following basic loadout for clothing:

  • A pair of sturdy boots or shoes (can be worn, or packed away to change into if needed)
  • 2 pairs of gloves (work type and warm type)
  • A pair of long pants (preferably not cotton blue jeans)
  • 2 Pairs of socks (preferably wool)
  • 2 Shirts (Maybe 1 long sleeve and 1 short sleeve for layering)
  • A Jacket that is both warm and provides some protection from rain and wind
  • Warm long underwear (extends your sleeping system)
  • A hat (boonie cover and a beanie)
  • A Shemagh/Bandana (unlimited utility)
  • Sunglasses

4. Shelter:

Hypothermia kills. So does simple exposure to sun and wind. If you are going to survive for 3 days or more in the open, you are going to need protection from the elements and a warm, dry place to sleep. You need at least:

  1. Some type of tent or tarp. Hammocks and tarps are fast light and excel in wooded areas.
  2. Cordage: 550 cord or some good rope and plenty of it. Heavy duty fishing line is multipurpose.
  3. A ground tarp for underneath your shelter to stay dry and/or a sleeping pad for insulation from the ground (Do not underestimate heat loss via conduction on cold ground).
  4. Some type of bedroll or “Ranger Roll”, but preferably a good sleeping bag. Just remember, you have to carry it so I practice the “pack light, freeze at night” minimalist approach here.

5. First Aid Kit

Trying to cover everything you need in a First Aid Kit is nearly impossible. Contents vary wildly due to geographic location, environmental risk factors, individual health and personal needs.

I highly recommend spending the money on a good Made in USA first aid kit. Suppliers to SOCOM like North American Rescue and Chinook Medical provide some of the best off the shelf professional grade solutions and are worth every penny. MyMedic and Adventure Medical Kits are also acceptable.

If you are on a budget, I recommend that you build your own first aid kit instead of buying one of those cheap, prepackaged first aid kits that claim to have 1,001 things for an emergency. My experience is that these types of kits are usually filled with fluff that makes for nice marketing, and not enough of what you really need for wilderness type trauma.

If you possess higher level medical skills and training, then you know that building your own “mission specific” kit is the norm. If you require medications, include that as a planning factor.

6. Basic Gear

Basic Gear sounds repetitive, but it is the category for the things you absolutely cannot live without. They don’t really fit well into another category: Things like a multi-tool, sewing kit, fish line & hooks, lures, snare wire, zip ties, trash bags, duct tape, binos, 12 hr candle, sunscreen, chapstick etc.

a. Rain Gear – Have 2 ways to stay dry in the rain. Poncho and Coat are good coupled with your shelter. Also blocks wind.

b. Fire – A bare minimum of 3 different ways to make fire. Fire steel/fire piston/lighter etc. With that you can get a flame, but you will have to actually build the fire up too: do you have tinder? You can use cotton balls soaked in Vaseline as tinder or you can buy something like Blackbeard brand fire starter that lights, even in water. Uberleben also makes excellent bushcraft gear. You’re also going to need something to cut your firewood. A high-quality hatchet and folding saw are priceless.

c. Cooking – Bare minimum here is a small titanium pot/large cup to boil water in for both drinking/purifying water and cooking. Titanium works GREAT over an open fire. If an open fire is contraindicated, a small backpacking stove like a Jetboil or MSR Reactor provides a top shelf, ready made solution.

d. Light – A high quality LED flashlight and a headlamp and a backup set of batteries for each. Bonus points if all of your electrical devices (lights, GPS, radio, etc) use the same batteries!

e. Survival Knife – The most often used and most versatile tool in your bag will be your survival knife. A quality, heavy duty American made blade is priceless. Also doubles as a personal defense weapon against critters of all leg counts.

f. Comfort items, money, etc – Small things like TP, baby wipes, a sliver of a soap bar (to save weight), toothbrush/paste, and some gum or hard candy can be a huge morale booster. It’s also a good idea to have some money stashed in that bag or on your person.

g. Navigation – A waterproof paper map of your area, compass, GPS device, and a personal locator beacon (Spot, EPIRB, ResQLink, inReach etc) are all desirable. Have more than one way to determine your location and your destination and ensure that you do NOT rely solely on GPS or electronic aids. Grids and satellites go offline, so the paper map and compass will always be the gold standard – know how to use them.

h. Communication – Knowing what is going on during a storm or emergency is critical. A compact, hand crank/solar type NOAA weather radio is worth considering. Consider a handheld HAM radio for two-way communication.
*Have a way to recharge your devices. I prefer a small solar panel in this role.
*Cell signal is never guaranteed so plan to NOT depend on your cell phone!

i. Emergency Signalling – Have a whistle and a signal mirror. Consider a lightweight orange air panel for high visibility if you need to be found.

j. Respiratory protection – Protecting your body is important. Hazards like viral infections, forest fire smoke or volcanic ash could be an issue. Add a NIOSH-approved N95 mask to your kit. It weighs nothing.

k. Water Purification. Get smart on water HERE before it kills you. I trust brands like Katadyn, MSR, and Sawyer.

A solid knife is mandatory!

7. Personal Defense

Being prepared to defend yourself is part of the survival mindset. Obviously, a firearm of some sort is best for this. Why? Because two and four legged animals don’t like guns. A .45 is good but a .44 magnum is better against apex predators, and .454 Casull settles all doubts.

This is a personal decision that carries great responsibility, so stick with what works for you and get training. Once trained, you must practice. If you are ever faced with an emergency situation you will rely on that training and your muscle memory to prevail.

8. Other Considerations

No list or reference is perfect because every family is different, with specific geographic and environmental considerations. Maine is as different from Mississippi as Arizona is to Alaska. Do you have small children, elderly parents or pets? If so, their needs may vary greatly and require their own special “bug out bag”. Weight can quickly increase beyond your ability to carry it for 12+ hours a day. We have a saying in the Infantry: Ounces equal Pounds and Pounds equal Pain. Choose wisely lest you turn your Go Bag into an anvil.

9. Waterproof Your Gear

Once you have everything, it’s time to pack it up. Using dry bags or even a heavy trash bag to ensure the contents stay clean and dry in any environment is key. A properly waterproofed pack can double as a flotation device when needed. Keep waterproof copies of ID and critical documents on your person.

10. Make a Gear List

Once your bag is complete, you’re likely going to forget what all is in there, or the expiration dates on any rations or medications. Having a gear list with the bag provides a quick reference and eliminates the hassle of needing to dump the whole thing out on the ground, yard sale style, to know what you have (or don’t have) onboard.


Lastly, take your bag outdoors and validate the entire kit. Carry it on a long walk. Adjust all the webbing to suit you. Camp with it. Spend at least a night or two outside with only the contents of the bag. Keep notes on what works (or not) and what you forgot to include. Delete anything frivolous to save weight. Annotate your gear list with any changes based on this real-world use.

Having a well thought out, routinely carried bag provides peace of mind and great utility. Houdini had his bag of tricks, why not build your own?

Full Disclosure: The gear featured here was privately purchased by the author. Our reviews are unbiased and never edited to keep brands happy. #IndependentMedia

Overland Expo West 2023

We are now 14 years into this Overland Expo thing, and based on the 2023 edition of Overland Expo West, enthusiasm for the event is as strong as ever. The original Overland Expo continues to be a gathering of community where folks from all over the world and all walks of life spend the weekend catching up, checking out the latest gear and vehicles, and attending classes on everything from Drones to Driving techniques.

As is tradition, I logged 10’s of thousands of steps walking around the vendor booths, moseying through the campgrounds, dropping in on classes in both the classrooms and driving area to try and capture a sampling of everything that is Overland Expo. In no particular order, here is a selection of cool stuff from Overland Expo West 2023.

Black Rhino / Axial – Booth engagement is a thing – how do you draw folks walking down the aisle into your booth? I think the Black Rhino crew figured this one out by partnering up with Axial RC to make a RC crawling course where the fastest time won a set of wheels. Scale RC cars are pretty neat, and this sixth scale Axial rig had my attention.

TRED – TRED Outdoors had a some properly burly screw-in stakes and their new line of vehicle leveling products on display. Hit their website for all of the details on their new leveling products which look well made and well thought out.

ARB – The folks at ARB have been busy working on everything from the new 2024 Tacoma to a host of other products for other platforms. The new summit bull bar pictured for the 3rd gen. Tacoma looks brilliant, as do the new Ford Bronco bits like the compressor mount and JACK mount. ARB is expanding their rack offerings with new platform and bed rack options.

74 Weld – Speaking of impressive Toyota parts, 74 Weld had their portal axle kit on display, which makes stuffing 37’s on a 3rd gen taco an easy thing. The kit uses OEM geometry, and provides the gear reduction to maintain factory ratios. Plus, you get disk brakes on all four corners.

LEXUS – It’s always interesting to see which OEMs are going to show up at Overland Expo on a given year, and 2023 marks Lexus’ first appearance at the show. GX / LX Overland builds are verymuch a thing, so it’s always good to see an OEM recognize what their customers are doing.

GMC – AT4X all of the things! GMC is applying the AT4X treatment to all of their truck platforms from the Canyon up to new new Silverado HD. In partnership with AEV, these rigs are turn key with fancy shocks, lockers, and real armor so you can just load them up and go have fun. A detail I appreciate is the ability to remove the steps from the rock rails shown on the Canyon AT4X.

EQUIPT – The Paul May isn’t scared of a little electronics work in the rain, and I happened to catch Paul in the middle of installing a new control board in a National Luna fridge. This retrofit control board adds Bluetooth control to most all National Luna fridges (check with Equipt for your specific model), so NL owners do not have to shell out for a new fridge to take advantage of the company’s latest wares. Equipt also had Eezi-Awns new sword hard shell root tent on display.

AT Overland – The Aterra Truck Topper and Aterra XL Camper we’ve had the opportunity to check out at Desert Rendezvous made it’s official debut at Overland Expo. The Aterra Topper is a particularly appealing option for anyone who is interested in a slide in camper.

GOOSE GEAR – The new Park Series from Goose Gear is a DIY interior system for Subarus and Toyota Rav4s – and it looks just as awesome as any other Goose Gear system. Goose Gear also had their new interior for the Scout Tuktut on display as well.

Dometic – Dometic is continuing to press headlong into the Overland-o-sphere with a new roof top tent and inflatable shelter system. The TRT 140 roof top tent uses air poles instead of aluminum to save a little weight up high on your vehicle and the HUB 2 is the inflatable version of an EZ-UP. Color me interested to see how these new products work.

Overland Kitted – The folks who have been the US importer for MAXTRAX have launched mounting systems for MAXTRAX recovery boards, and other externally mounted accessories (rotopax shown for example). They’ve also got the lastest from InDeFlate – a digital two hose unit.

Kakadu – New to the US market, this established Aussie brand has some great kit on display like their 1P and 2P sleep systems. They were also showing off a very interesting shower system and based on the specs and initial impressions it all looks very good.

Surefire – Piece of the sun in your pocket maker Surefire had a couple of their new Turbo EDC lights on display at Overland Expo. The EDC2 and EDC1 lights are specifically designed to project light to extreme distances and can be powered by 123s or rechargeable 18650 cells.

Kelty – It’s always interesting to see how established outdoor brands approach the overland industry, and Kelty had an appealing selection of gear on display. Their Backroad and Sideroad awnings are great options for affordable, packable shade that work with SUVs, trucks, or vans, and their multi-seat chairs are always a win.

Rollercam – The company that reinvented the cam strap now has a solution for anyone who can’t remember a trucker’s knot, or anyone who likes an easy to use solution for tying stuff down. The Roperoller works just like the Rollercam, and is a game changer for anyone who has struggled to guy something off.

Zero Breeze – A/C for Overlanding is officially a thing. It will be interesting to see how this segment of the market fares in the coming years.

Tembo Tusk – The company known for the Skottle actually started off as a fridge slide company, and their latest product is a tilting fridge slide. As always, the Tembo Tusk crew were throwing down on their Skottles all weekend serving up all sorts of food.

Total Chaos – If you’ve heard about how some older Toyotas had issues with their lower ball joints suffering a rapid unscheduled disassembly – here’s your fix.

Arctic Trucks – The legendary Icelandic manufacture of vehicles that have driven to both poles of the planet is now established in the United States. Having watched videos of these trucks in action for so many years, it was a treat to see one in person and nerd out with the folks from Arctic Trucks USA.

RUX – Bags are a dime a dozen – everyone makes them, so how do you stand out? You make bags like Rux. This Canadian manufacture uses RF welding to build some extremely well thought out bags that are absolutely worth checking out if you like well made, highly functional, durable gear.

Polaris – UTVs are officially overland vehicles. Polaris’ new line of Side-by-Side / UTVs have all the farkles, enclosed cabs, heat, A/C, and a price tag that makes some mid-sized trucks look like a deal.

Step 22 Gear – Step 22 gets a crisp high five for making custom laser etched patch labels which work great on all of their awesome bags or any other place you need a label. Their bags and mounting panels like the Reef shown here continue to impress with their design and attention to detail.

Deep Cycle Systems – Another example of more awesome from Aussieland are DCS batteries. Featuring shapes and sizes that can fit in the voids left in many vehicles and high charge / discharge ratings, these batteries look awesome.

2024 Tacoma – Toyota pulled the cover off of the all new 4th generation Tacoma at Overland Expo. Two models were on display – a PreRunner which initially had a gigantic snow plow of an air dam that mysteriously disappeared shortly after the launch, and the Trailhunter which is directly targeted at the overland crowd. Let us know in the comments what you think about the new Taco!

Classes – Overland Expo has classes on everything: From the expected offerings like driving, spotting, and recovery, to more wildcat offerings, there hundreds of hours of courses availible so the challenge becomes picking the courses that interest you the most.

Cool Rigs – It’s always a treat to get to take a walk through the campgrounds at Overland Expo. Here you’ll find a spectrum of setups as unique as the people that use them. To a person, everyone I chatted up about their camping setup was more than happy to talk to me and generally stoked to be out actually using their gear. It just goes to show – it doesn’t matter what you drive or where you sleep, but that you’re out there actually doing the the thing.

THE BIG PICTURE – Early in 2023, Lodestone Events announced that they had been acquired by Emerald Expositions – the company that puts on industry trade shows like Outdoor Retailer. Yet from a boots on the ground perspective, not much has changed. Overland Expo continues to be run by the same small crew of passionate folks, and many of the familiar faces can been seen making the event run. Time will tell how this new owner changes the heading of their latest acquisition. Despite some classic Flagstaff spring weather (it rained hard on Friday), the show saw plenty of attendees, and the venue seemed to be mostly full of vendors.

Speaking of vendors, most all of the familiar brands were there, and while there is a trend of new names continuing to sell the same Chineseium with their stickers on it (recovery gear and roof top tent cloners I’m looking at you.) there continues to be cool and new things coming market – you just have to seek out the quality kit. One thing that hasn’t changed is that there is no shortage of cool stuff on display. If you attended OXW 2023, let us know about your experience in the comments!