In the event of a disaster or emergency, there may come a time when you need to evacuate. Whether war or social unrest or natural disaster is the greatest worry, some are beginning to suspect a time will come when they will need to leave their homes with nothing but what they can carry. The situation might be safer in the wilderness away from social and political chaos. Or the situation may involve being in a rural area but needing to evacuate to the city due to an environmental disaster like wildfire. Either way, you can take a lot of comfort in having at least your Bug Out Bag Essentials packed and ready to go at a moments notice and be able to survive if the worst case scenario ever plays out.
A Hierarchy of Needs
The Famous Psychologist Abraham Maslow once created a now-famous diagram of the needs of a human being. Starting from the bottom he said that none of the higher levels of needs could be met before the lower ones were met. The bottom (first priority) level of the pyramid consisted of ‘Physiological needs” Those 3 physical needs should make up the top of your Bug Out Bag essentials of food, water, and shelter. After all, this is a worst-case scenario bag!
The physiological needs a bug out bag provides is even more specific. They include Maslow’s basics, but they are further divided into orders of priority with fire added for good measure:
It makes sense that shelter is most important in colder climates and seasons, but I would say it’s just as important in warmer situations when shade and protection from bugs may be a concern.
You can do without water for a little longer than you can in a snowstorm without shelter, and you can do without food for longer than you can water. So the most basic physical needs have an order of priority in and of themselves in any Bug Out Bag and none of them can be missing from the top of any Bug Out Bag checklist.
So starting from these ‘big 4’ you can start simple building out and improving as you wish over time, but make sure not to miss any of the four.
A good example of really bare minimum shelters is plain plastic sheets. Now some people like to pack a tarp, but in all honesty, tarps are heavy. Ultralight tents are fantastic, but some ultralight backpackers are able to make do with just a sheet or two of plastic or nylon instead. You know that really thin plastic you can get to cover and insulate your windows in winter? It’s almost like saran wrap, and that is what they call ‘shelter’. It’s extreme, I know. They make up for the rest with a good sleeping bag or quilt, sleeping pad, and clothing. So you have to know you can go as light as an ounce or less for your basic shelter or you can go into the pounds and pounds. Personally, I like a tent that is very light but not that light. What I use is the Big Agnus Fly Creek UL2 which weighs just under 2 pounds and is big enough for two. So divided up, each person carries about a pound of weight each. You could go lighter or heavier, but that is personal preference. I like the convenience and sense of security a tent can give and I am ready to carry the extra ounces and bulk in my pack for that.
Now for the absolute worst case situation, you can go the ‘primitive’ route and it is good to have the skills to make your own shelter from the landscape of your particular region but I wouldn’t recommend it. That is what the bug out bag is for. Either way, a couple of things that are indispensable for shelter:
1. A good (foldable) portable hand saw. Especially useful for building longer-term shelters and fires. I like the Silky brand.
2. A good knife that can be used for batoning. Batoning is when you hit the back side of the knife with a piece of wood to split wood for kindling, even cordage or building.
Water is another thing you can go from very minimal to very fancy according to your own comfort level. At the very least you should have water purification tablets and a good lightweight container. From there you can find sand and make charcoal to create a filter system if you have to.
In addition, a good portable water filter is obviously going to be a time and energy saver.
If weight is not a consideration, if you are ‘bugging in’ or operating out of a car, I like the idea of water distillation. There are some really good off the grid and somewhat ‘portable’ systems out there. They can cost a lot compared to tablets or filters, but over the long haul, they have their advantages. They will never need filter replacement, and they hands down guarantee the cleanest, pathogen-free water possible in any situation….even for everyday use. They are as good and some argue even better than reverse osmosis filters. Water distillation is the only thing FEMA recommends for disaster situations like hurricanes, flood or earthquake AND FEMA DISCOURAGES the use of filters.
For more information see my article on the Basics of Water purification
And then Emergency Water Purification Systems
There are a lot of options for fire making that don’t take a whole lot of space and weight. A lot of survivalists seem to like using flint. I like to carry matches too just in case. In fact, I like to carry a whole lot of ways to make fire including a lighter due to the importance of fire and the difficulty of making one from scratch. It’s good to be redundant with fire making.
You can, and should, for example, carry cordage of some sort since it can also be used for many other purposes like shelter building, but you can also in the worst case scenario, use cordage to make a bow and drill fire. I don’t personally recommend that though since it takes a lot of practice. Sure you can look like a real expert and it’s really cool to make a fire that way, but in a survival situation, you don’t want to have to deal with something that takes that much fineness unless you are a true expert. Heck, I once saw a show where the guy who was an ‘expert’ couldn’t get a fire going with a bow drill made from a shoelace. It took him days for him to get a fire going that way and he was sweating and darned near in a panic by the time he got the fire lit.
On another show, I saw they brought in a bunch of “survival experts” and dropped them off in remote locations survival style to see who would survive the longest and one guy only brought a flint. While he lounged smugly by the fire he had made with it on the beach he suddenly realized he had dropped the flint into the fire where it had simply burned up. He only lasted a few hours and the boat had to come pick him up. Lesson: have multiple ways of making fire at all times.
It’s good to learn how to make a fire from scratch and practice as much as you can though. I have done it, but I never want to let it get to a point where I need to do it in a survival situation. Too many things can go wrong. The temperature, the humidity, the kinds of wood you need, the weather, finding tinder….the possibilities of failure are all over the place. That is why I carry flint, matches and a lighter and even some accelerant….If I could justify the weight and safety issues I might even pack a gallon of gasoline in my pack too, before I rub two sticks together to make a fire in the rain.
One really good accelerant that can be carried safely is cotton balls, or cotton balls dipped in Vaseline. There are lots of good videos that explain how to do that on Youtube,
So bottom line, practice making fires with sticks and flint for fun and wisdom, then practice other more convenient ways and pack those in your bug out bag.
Now food is something where you just have to carry as much as you can and have tools to procure more as needed. For some, that means having a gun to hunt or portable traps. For others, it might mean just having the knowledge of local edible forage foods or both.
If you are going to carry a gun, you have to know it’s going to be a big commitment of energy to lug it around. If you just want to hunt small game a lot of people would be happy with a .22 caliber rifle and these can be found in foldable lightweight styles as well. Some people think that they will need a gun for protection and to go after bigger game which would require a larger gun. But again you should really try to get the lightest gun possible with common types of ammunition. In the end, a gun is just a really big heavy piece of metal so put a lot of thought into a decision to carry one.
For myself, I like the idea of a gun and a shotgun is very common and versatile as far as the types of things you can load into it for various purposes.
As far as having one for protection or self-defence, I would say that if you are in an area where you need to use one to fend off criminals, then your best option is to get out of the area, hence the term “bugging out”. Its really up to you though, since even the woods has its dangers. I once saw an article that made a lot of sense to me at the time and still does, where the author argued that for a city dweller to bug out to the woods was tantamount to suicide. First of all they have no practice in that environment and second and most importantly, there will likely be thousands of others out there just like them competing for any game meat around. Many of those people will have much better skills having lived right around or in those woods all their lives.
One note about cordage again is that some companies have made handy and stylish accessories like bracelets made from cordage useful for survival and some will add fishing line and hooks into the weave. As an avid fly fisher myself, I have always thought fishing would be a good option if it came down to survival. However, I have, just through sheer hard lessons learned to never go fishing planning on eating the days catch. Always take a can of beans just in case you don’t catch anything because if you don’t you won’t catch anything. I don’t know why the world works that way. It just does. I suppose as much would be true in a survival situation as well.
While I like the idea of taking along some of my highly prized and delicately tied flies with me in a bug out bag, I know that there are some technical problems with that. For example, most forms of fishing that involve a hook will also involve a rod. Just a line and hooks won’t do it or at least make for a lot of work. One ultralight rod idea I like is the Pen rods and reels which are very light and compact like a “pen” and also the Tankara telescoping fly rod (if you must fly fish your way through the apocalypse). Make sure you have some lead weights for the hook because while as a fly fisher I don’t like to admit it, 90% of all fish feeding behavior happens near the bottom of lakes and streams. Also, be ready to skip the fly and put a piece of meat on that hook. you’ll catch more. And yet even then rods and hooks are not going to be the most effective way of fishing when you absolutely must eat. Knowing how to make and use nets and traps will be the best option, but please note this will be for lawless times when your life depends on it. Practice rod and hook fishing, but be ready with a net because in an emergency life and death hungry bad luck situation you might even be wishing you had packed some dynamite to go fishing with. Consider it an axiom of life: fish are psychic and they won’t come around when you are fishing while hungry and desperate. The same is true for hunting and dating lol.
So there you have the bare Bug Out Bag Essentials. Make sure the “big 4” are on your checklist as major headings and then fill in around them as you like. Make them as light and high quality as possible and try to make them redundant. For example, you can skip a pillow and use your bug out bag instead. You can have a tent but try to have other sheets ground sheets, and flys to supplement for more comfort in case of failure. As was mentioned earlier, carry as many different ways of making fire as you can safely manage, but know how to do without.
Now there is one last thing that is not commonly used in a hierarchy of needs, which is why I didn’t include it, and that is air. We take air for granted, yet in a disaster situation, a bug out situation, a ‘grid down’ situation, very often we don’t consider how the air might be affected. For this reason, I would list air at the top of a list of 5 since we can do without shelter, water, fire, and food for a lot longer than we can without air. Consider that radiation can travel for thousands of miles on a particle of dust, or how forest fires are raging more and more every year. This year in the town where I live in British Columbia, we were at one point during the summer surrounded on all sides by forest fires according to the local news. And it was because of that, the weather forecaster said he could not tell us exactly where the smoke was coming from. And we were at level 7 in terms of danger from particulates and smoke. We had two evacuation alerts this year, one for flood in spring and one for a fire in summer. There are a lot of reasons to carry a good gas mask in your bug out bag but you can start with a simple filter mask and that will cover a lot of situations. I’m not talking about the flimsy dust masks. They are making some really good ones these days just for everyday carry, for emergencies and to filter out pollution. They are light and don’t take up much room in a pack.
In future articles, I hope to add more items and ideas that will help fill out the bag with specifics comforts, but with just this much you can at least know you can survive an emergency and travel light if you need to be on foot.
Here is a checklist of the essentials for your Bug out Bag minus the masks:
Groundsheet for insulation
Water purification tablets
A funnel can make things very handy. A folding coffee filter holder can serve two purposes
A light pot or large cup to cook and boil water in.
(if possible a water distiller)
An option if you are planning on cooking with pots and pans is a small foldable fire box to set them on. I like to use a single larger titanium cup to do everything in.
As much as you can carry
Tools of procurement, like guns, portable spring traps (including net and net making material), and fishing line with hooks. And if foraging in an urban environment, consider a set of lock picking tools.