Editor’s Note: There is a lot of theory about what “get-home kits” should look like. I’ve read a lot of articles and had some very colorful discussions with folks who have great ideas about what should be carried on your person, in your pack, and in your vehicle, but their knowledge is mostly theoretical. Every so often, there is a good source of information — someone who actually knows about this type of kit from experience. One such source is my friend, John Brown.
John’s background is one I respect greatly. He was a NYPD Detective and was present when the towers fell. He was on the job during the millennium and during the NYC blackout. He’s been there and knows from actually using his gear and by witnessing what worked for others. As you read this article, understand his experience may be different than most, it may be different than yours, but it is ultimately valuable for all. You may not be a law enforcement officer, but you can learn from the lessons some paid for with their lives.
John’s kits have evolved since his days on the police force and what is represented in this article is what he currently carries. Consider his load out as you plan yours.
Car – Layer One
Many of us, if something happens, will probably be at work. Think of your bug-out bag as a layered approach. Your first layer should be your vehicle, your primary means of putting distance between you and the drama. I mention distance because a disaster or natural event has an epicenter. The further you move away from this, the more normal things become.
In the center of what’s going on, you may find the water has been turned off to prevent flooding from broken pipes. The power may be off to curtail fires. Without power, cell phones and Wi-Fi will certainly be affected. Something to remember though, this is in the immediate vicinity. A person living in Utah may have watched Hurricane Sandy on TV, but could not experience it as someone in NJ or NY. Disasters also have a time limit, so if you are stuck, it won’t last forever.
Pack – Layer Two
The next layer after your vehicle is your pack. Keep in mind, this is to get you home, not survive the apocalypse. I use a small North Face “Slingshot” pack. I have a rain jacket and pants with an insulating layer, usually a DriDown or Primaloft jacket. A set of Leather gloves and wool hat are there all year. I carry a flashlight on my belt so I have a headlamp that uses the same batteries. Two heat sheets, a small first aid kit, a few N-95 masks, a multi-tool, a fixed-blade knife, and a small personal kit are all carried, too.
As a retired detective, I carry my Glock 19 and three extra magazines. I carry a Sawyer Squeeze filter set-up with a few tubes of NUUN electrolyte tablets. Food, I may go without, but dehydration will make you do stupid things.
I have a small stadium seat to sit on. This is part of my “Mobile Shelter System,” more on that shortly. Food consists of two Mountain House “Granola and Blueberries” that just require water and a few minutes’ wait. With a few packets of peanut butter, honey wafers, GU energy gel and a few MetRx bars, I should be good. I have a titanium pot and lid, nestled with a Nalgene bottle. Usually there is one bottle on each side of the pack. I never forget my spoon either. I think the whole rig is about 25 pounds. Most importantly, I can carry it all day.
You will notice that there is no mention of large Alice packs, AR-15s, tents, sleeping bags, or 1911s in drop-leg holsters. These things live in the fantasy side of bug outs. I am a 9-11 first responder and didn’t see anyone carrying any of these. It’s just too much and you risk being arrested, robbed or possibly shot. You must remember that emergency personnel are going to be stressed as well. This is not the time to attempt to debate them on your constitutional rights. Try and remain as gray or invisible as possible. You have a goal to achieve — to get home in one piece.
Mobile Shelter Systems
I mentioned earlier about the “Mobile Shelter System.” Look at the whole situation. You have to walk home, maybe 20-30 miles through areas with no power and no phone. You may be alone on this trip. Now imagine that you walk for a while and are now tired. You set up your tent or hammock, organize your gear and crawl into your sleeping bag. A loud noise, maybe a gunshot wakes you. You unzip, look outside and see a group of less-than-pleasant people coming your way. They will find you if you attempt to pack up. The little voice you hear in your head, telling you that these don’t look like good people — you need to listen to that voice. It is there to save you. You get up, grab what you can and leave. Unfortunately, most of your gear is left behind.
Enter the “Mobile Shelter System.” You sit on your pad with your rain gear and insulation on, pack in front of you. Should you hear anything disturbing, you simply get up, grab your foam seat, put on your pack and off you go. You have lost nothing. If you need more of a shelter, add a military type poncho. While standing, it may be just knee length, but while sitting it covers you completely. Once again, if you need to leave, it goes with you.
In bad situations adrenaline, fear and darkness will all prevent you from getting your eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Expect to only get 20 to 30 minutes at a time. When tired, move off the road where you are to a reasonable distance and just sit down. Eat, rehydrate, take stock of yourself. Are you injured? Cramping? Check anything that needs to be addressed. Don’t forget to try your phone from time to time. The initial cell towers may be shut down, but the further away you are, the better chances of finding the next operational one.
All Is Fair Game
Your goal is to get home. Remember this phrase. “MAXIMIZE ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES.” A food store that is open is a resource. A cab ride or a working landline is a resource. Try to remain as close to 100% as possible and restock as you go.
Now, what should you keep on your person for lack of a bag? I’ll quote a friend of mine who said, “camping is what’s in your pack, survival is what’s in your pockets.” I carry my pistol with an extra magazine, a Swiss army knife, my phone and flashlight, a lighter, some cotton in my wallet, along with the tube of Vaseline “lip therapy” that makes excellent tinder, all on my person.
I wear boots or shoes so if I have to walk, I’m not suffering. Sometimes I have a single Heat Sheet in a cargo pocket. This is my daily load out and I am confident I could get by in most places with it. Sometime if you get a chance, look up Grandma Gatewood. At 67 years old, she walked the entire Appalachian Trail alone. Her gear list was, shall we say, minimalist at best. An excellent read on getting by with little.
Besides the personal drama, you cannot let your guard down. Darkness is when the pred-ators come out to take full advantage. I remain aware of them, like a zebra when lions are around. The zebra doesn’t hate the lion — they each know who is who. Common sense, for the most part, will keep you out of trouble. If it looks bad, it probably is. Predators, by nature want their conquest quick and painless. They can’t afford to get hurt and when confronted may look for easier prey. They are looking to take advantage, not get hurt or shot.
Tested When America Was Tested
My own experiences are blended throughout this article. I am a retired NYPD detective of 23 years. My original pack carried my paperwork and cop stuff, along with things to clean up with. A police uniform and armor may make you sweaty and uncomfortable. A book to read and a small towel meant the world to me.
I lived the part with what you have in your pockets while in uniform in Times Square during the biggest non-event in history — The Millennium. I had Power bars and extra ammo tucked in my vest just in case. There was a collective sigh of relief when the big screens stayed on after midnight.
A lot of my current pack is based on being a 9-11 first responder. The N-95 masks would have been a great help with all of the particulate matter in the air. The van I drove to the site was covered in ash within 15 minutes, almost like a snowstorm. All I had was a bandanna in my pocket. It wasn’t much use as I live with the aftermath daily — permanent lung damage.
Get-home bags are very personal to me. If you haven’t put one together and adjusted your life for the “just in case,” why haven’t you?
With all the backpacks, duffel bags, fanny packs and man purses on the market, the process of narrowing them down can be daunting. The bells and whistles many come with can distract us from the reality of what we need. Here are some questions you can ask when considering what to use for an emergency preparedness pack:
How far will I have to travel and will this backpack be comfortable?
Does this backpack allow for the secure carry of the gear I plan on carrying and gear I may pick up on the way?
Can I access the tools on my person easily when I have this bag on my body?
How easily can I run, climb, crawl, and move with this bag?
Does my bag fit into the landscape? In other words, does it look like everyone else’s?
Will my bag withstand being dragged, pulled on and potentially abused? Does this bag have any provisions for attaching bulky items to the exterior?
How much organization does this bag provide? Does it have pockets to separate essential gear?
Does purchasing this bag impact my budget and prevent me from purchasing other equipment and training?
Will this bag work in more than one emergency?
How would it have helped people in past emergencies?
Gear is meant to be used and your emergency pack is no exception. Gear is also replaceable whereas your skills are not. During some of the most dramatic emergencies covered on the news, emergency bags have been improvised out of blankets, tarps and assorted fabrics in a moment’s notice. While should be able to do this, you should be prepared so you don’t have to. Ask the right questions of the bag you intend to carry, consider the answers, and you’ll be prepared to deal with the emergency you anticipate.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the How To special issue of American Survival Guide.