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Tactics & Training

Bug Out!

by Dan C. Johnson   |  September 24th, 2010 0

How to Survive When Disaster Strikes


To test his well-stocked bug-out bag, the author spent a night out in sub-freezing weather using only the supplies included. It is important to test your equipment and be familiar with its use.

In an amusing B-grade Sci-Fi flick titled “Tremors,” giant underground worms terrorized a small desert town. What is even more unbelievable than the giant worms is that Hollywood would produce a movie where one of the heroes is not only a gun aficionado but also a hard-core survivalist. Burt, played by Michael Gross, is a decent but decidedly paranoid and eccentric character who is often the butt of local jokes. But when he and his wife supply the townsfolk with much needed weaponry and kill one of the monsters that crashes into their well-stocked compound, one of the locals admits, “We’re not gonna be able to make fun of Burt anymore.”

Since the tragic events of September 11, we are all in more of a survival mode and considering “what if” scenarios doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. Even the most liberal among us are not as prone to make fun of survivalists anymore. While it may not be time to head for a remote compound, a few common sense preparations are certainly in order. Terrorist concerns aside, there are many types of disasters that can disrupt our life and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) recommends we all have a supply of food, water and an Emergency Preparedness Kit on hand in case of disaster.

The kit is what survivalist types often refer to as a bug-out bag and it is as good a term as any for discussion here. Besides, I’m too lazy to keep typing Emergency Preparedness Kit. If you were suddenly forced to evacuate your home, the bug-out bag contains items to keep you safe and comfortable until emergency services are in place. Even with natural catastrophes like floods and earthquakes, it usually takes up to 72 hours for emergency services to be implemented. So 72 hours is the minimal time frame in which you should prepare to be on your own.

In most cases you are better off if you can stay put in your home. If you do, the bug-out bag is still a convenient way to keep all your emergency supplies organized and in one place.

America is a vast and varied landscape with climate ranging from sub-tropical to alpine. Some of us live in huge urban areas where an escape to the country can take hours under the best conditions, others in rural areas or maybe even on the edge of wilderness. So, if you must evacuate, where you live and where you expect to escape to dictates what items you might need in an emergency, as does climate, population density, and other considerations. A bug-out bag for an escape to the wilderness will be very different than one for a move to an indoor emergency shelter.


Some useful tools to consider: The E-Tool From Glock is a lightweight folding shovel that packs away nicely. The Hunter’s Axe from Gransfors Bruks is hand-forged in Sweden and offers a good
compromise of size and power. A multi-tool is almost mandatory. Shown is the Crunch from Leatherman.

I live in a city in the southwest where there is plenty of open land beyond the city limits in every direction, mountains to the north and east and desert to the south and west. Since I live alone, have no children at home to worry about and enjoy camping even in harsh weather, I’ve decided I’d rather head for the hills than be crowded into an emergency shelter. Your needs may be different from mine. Still, I thought it might be useful to discuss the choices I made in putting together a bug-out bag for me and discuss why it works for me and why it might not work for you.

WEAPONS
Most survivalists prepare for the long haul and stockpile an assortment of combat weapons and large quantities of ammo. Nothing wrong with that, but we are concerned here with short-term survival and in most cases heavy firepower will not be needed. It is unlikely we will have to engage terrorists in our neighborhoods but riots and looting may be a concern where you live, and you can certainly prepare for it. Just bear in mind local regulations regarding carrying firearms and realize those laws will likely remain in effect. In fact, you are more likely to be searched in a disaster situation and probably less tolerance shown by law enforcement.

I opted not to pack weapons in my main bug-out bag for several reasons, not the least of which is I use my guns often and did not want to have to continuously go into my bug-out bag to retrieve them. You may decide to pack weapons in your main bag or not at all, depending on your circumstances. I keep a small second bag packed. This one is the mini-range bag from Bagmaster and is strictly for weapons and ammo. It holds a 1911 and a Marvel .22 conversion unit, along with a half-dozen loaded .45 auto magazines and two magazines for the .22 conversion. In the outer pocket is a 100-round pack of .22 ammo, a holster, and tools for installing the conversion unit.

THE BAG
In choosing a bag you should consider how much gear you need to carry and how far you may have to physically carry it. If a lot of walking is likely to be involved, backpacks are favored. Multiple bags are called for with families as all the adults and older children can share the load and the more people to provide for, the more supplies needed. You may even want to put together a special little bag for the smaller children consisting of new toys, games, and activity books they have not played with beforehand to help keep their minds off the situation. You can also pack some of their favorite packaged snacks.

Bags should be water-resistant and possibly even waterproof if you live in a very wet climate. I mentioned bags first but they should likely be the last item chosen. First decide what you need to carry, stack all the items together and then decide what size and number of bags you need. How to distribute the supplies among family members warrants careful thought. For instance, you may decide to have one bag for food and cooking apparatus, another for clothing and shelter, and one just for first aid and miscellaneous gear. But then if family members are somehow separated or a bag is lost or damaged, none of you will have all that you need. It may be unlikely that this will happen, but you have to consider every possible scenario and make the best choices you can. Each choice will often mean a compromise.

I chose a Bagmaster Pro Gear Bag over a backpack because I like the easy accessibility of the duffel-type bag and didn’t consider it likely I would have to carry the bag very far. I live close to the edge of town, and I’m confident my 4X4 can get me out of the city even if I have to resort to some creative cross country driving.
If I am wrong and do end up traveling on foot, the shoulder strap works pretty well and I feel I can manage.


The Fundamentals first aid kit from Adventure Medical is one of the most up-to-date on the market. If space is an option, a smaller kit may be called for.

WATER
Other than in frigid conditions where freezing to death is a major concern, water is the most important element of your immediate survival. Yet we tend to take water for granted. Americans just assume when they turn on the faucet, the water will flow. Even if you decide you don’t need emergency survival gear, one thing everyone should do is lay in a supply of emergency water. It doesn’t cost anything. You can simply fill some empty milk jugs with water and add a drop of bleach to purify it. This works fine for storing water in the home but milk jugs are not made as sturdy as they once were and are prone to leak if moved around a lot such as in a vehicle. If you store water in your vehicle, use a heavyweight plastic container. They are inexpensive and will assure the water is there if you need it.

Ideally, each person should drink at least a gallon of water a day but FEMA recommends you plan on a minimum of two-quarts per day per person. You can survive short-term on less but you will still need a fair amount of water to go three days without dehydrating and without some water you will not survive 72 hours.

If you have to evacuate, water is bulky and heavy and you could easily fill up your bug-out bag with even a minimal three-day supply, so it is best to include only a very short-term supply in your bag. I’ve packed three of the prepackaged four-ounce emergency water packs in my bag and made other arrangements for my sustained needs. Since I hope to evacuate via vehicle, I keep a five-gallon water can in my 4X4 and as an extra precaution included an MSR Mini-Works water filter in my bag, plus a small bottle of iodine tablets.

Water can be readily found in most parts of the country, even in the desert thanks to windmills and livestock tanks, but little of it is safe to drink without purification. Small water filters like the Mini-Works were designed for backpackers and will remove harmful bacteria and protozoa and any sediment. They will not remove viruses however. This is not usually a problem in the US but for extra caution you can treat the water first with iodine tablets and then filter out the sediment and iodine. Water treated this way is as pure and sweet as any you’ll find in a bottle at the supermarket.

FOOD
You can easily survive 72 hours and longer without food but it is uncomfortable to do so and both your physical strength and mental processes will suffer. Packaged fatty foods like sausages and beef jerky take up little room and offer quick energy, but if you feel confident of a good water supply, freeze dried foods are your best bet for more substantial meals. Some of the meals designed for backpacking are quite good and well balanced or you can find suitable packaged foods at the supermarket. The packaged pasta dinners are good. Some call for milk but I have cooked a lot of them with just water and can tell little difference. If you take the time to look around your local store, you’ll find a multitude of suitable packaged foods to stock your bag.

You will of course need a pot for cooking and preferably a portable stove. You can cook over a campfire but some of the compact stoves on the market are very small, much more convenient, and can also be used for emergency short-term heat. I have the MSR Superfly model that weighs only 4.5 ounces, yet will boil water in less than three minutes. One feature I especially like about this stove is the Multi-Mount technology. It is the only butane stove that fits almost all makes and types of self-sealing butane canisters.

When choosing cookware, the first impulse might be to pick as small a pot as possible to save on space. But I use a two-liter pot with lid designed for camping. It is large enough to come in handy for filtering water or as a wash pan for personal hygiene since I can store the stove and other items inside it, there is really very little if any space sacrificed. Don’t forget to include cooking utensils. If you smoke or have a caffeine addiction, an emergency is no time to quit. Withdrawal symptoms include nervousness and impaired reasoning, not what you need in a high-stress situation. So be sure to include some of your favorite vices in your bug-out bag.

SHELTER AND CLOTHING
What clothes you need depends on the region and time of year. Winter clothes are bulkier and require more space, so if extreme cold is expected, you may want to consider a separate bag just for the needed clothing. I managed to pack what I needed for the relatively mild winters in my area into my main bag by using layers of relatively thin high-quality clothing. This is one area you don’t want to cut corners. Cheap cotton long johns do not provide the degree of protection needed.

My winter bag contains a set of polypropylene long underwear that offers excellent heat retention in a very thin layer when worn next to the skin. If needed, I have a set of Ullfrotte wool/polyester blend underwear to put on over the polypropylenes for added warmth; some knee-high wool-blend socks and a wool pullover also from Ullfrotte; gloves; a stocking cap; and an extra shirt round out my winter wear. I see no reason to pack a coat in the bag since it takes up a lot of room and, if it is winter, I am certain to have one handy anyway. Some type of rain gear is advisable. Here in the dry southwest, I feel I can get by with a lightweight emergency poncho. Better gear may be needed where you live.


Freeze-dried foods are lightweight and take up little space. The MSR Superfly stove fits inside the cookware with plenty of room left for storing other small items.

Shelter depends on your predicted survival scenario. If you expect to stay in the city, you can usually find shelter of some sort, but since I have opted to head for open country I included a Eureka one-man backpacking tent in my bag. It folds up very compactly and provides good shelter from wind and rain.

I keep a sleeping bag in my truck at all times but wanted something in my bug-out bag in case my vehicle is not accessible. Space blankets are an option but I sacrificed a little more space in the bag for a Thermo-Lite Emergency Bivvy Sack. It is of the same material used in space blankets but designed as a sleeping bag to keep out the cold. It folds up compactly into the stuff sack provided and requires little storage space.

FIRST AID
There are a number of good first aid kits on the market. Some are just basic ointment and bandages while others offer supplies for more serious injuries. Adventure Medical Kits, designed for serious wilderness expeditions,
are among the most technically advanced. I chose their Fundamentals kit for my bag. It is a rather large kit, but my reasoning is I will be on my own out there and want to be able to properly treat any injuries. Plus, if I should pass some injured people on my exodus I will certainly stop to offer help. This kit has a good assortment of bandages plus splints and even a biohazard kit. It also contains a comprehensive first aid manual. If you are on any prescription medication, be sure to add a supply to the first aid kit. You might also want to add some over the counter products such as Excedrin PM to ease aching muscles and help you sleep once you are in a secure location.

TOOLS
Every kit should have a good knife and a multi-tool of some make. Beyond that, it depends on what you expect your needs to be. Since I likely will be camping, I included a Glock E-tool and a Gränsfors Bruks Hunter’s Axe. The E-Tool is a lightweight folding shovel that requires little room in the bag yet could certainly come in handy in an emergency. It even has a saw that stows in the handle. The Hunter’s Axe is of course for cutting firewood and, though I didn’t deem it an absolute necessity, it fits neatly on top of my bag thanks to some Velcro straps and thus doesn’t take up any room inside.

MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS
There are a lot of other items worthy of consideration. For example, a good map and compass if you are evacuating by road. Main routes may be blocked or congested requiring some detours. My bag includes a detailed geographic map of the area that shows not only minor dirt roads across the desert but stock tanks and springs where water may be found.

A good light source is essential. I packed a powerful four-cell AA flashlight plus a Lightwave 4000 LED light for sustained use. Candles or a small backpacker’s lantern are also worthy of consideration. Be sure to include extra batteries, bulbs, and fuel if needed.

Here is a checklist of other items you may need:

  • Money
  • Copy of insurance documents
  • Portable radio
  • Survival manual
  • Liquid anti-bacterial soap
  • Toilet tissue
  • Matches /lighter
  • Sunblock/insect repellent
  • Pen/pencil/paper
  • Rope/twine/cord
  • Towel/washcloth
  • Duct tape
  • Signaling device
  • Portable heater
  • Pre-paid phone card

You should repack your bag every six-months and rotate food items to keep them fresh. Spring and fall are the best times as you can pack clothes and other items suitable for the upcoming season. All members of the family who are old enough should be involved and know what supplies are packed, where they are and how to use them. It can actually be a fun family project. The most important element of survival is common sense and a cool head. Consider carefully every possible scenario and plan for it. Don’t go overboard and pack more than you can reasonably carry, but try to include everything you need.

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