Dead or Alive: Survival Essentials for Your Bug-Out Bag

Dead or Alive: Survival Essentials for Your Bug-Out Bag

The term “bug-out bag”—more correctly, “bug-out pack” —will normally be heard in any discussion of disaster preparation. In simple terms, the bug-out pack contains items necessary to sustain you for at  least 72 hours while escaping an area that has become dangerous due to natural or man-made disasters.

First, there are several things to consider before you grab that pack and go.


Normally, if possible, it is better to shelter in place rather than leaving your home. Things can become so bad that it is necessary to leave, but that should be the last resort. Still, even if your plan is to shelter in place, having a bugout pack for each member of the family is highly advisable in case you are forced to leave.


If you must evacuate your home, consider who is in your group. Is it just you, or you and your family? Are there small children and elderly?

Why you are bugging out is also very important. Is it because there is widespread civil disorder that threatens to overrun the area in which you live? Or is there flooding that will submerge your house? In either case, some knowledge of routes out of the affected area will be important.

I live in St. Louis, which is basically surrounded by rivers. There is really only one highway that does not require crossing a river to leave St. Louis, so that route will be very congested if disaster strikes. Because we are on the New Madrid fault, there is a possibility that bridges will come down, so that one egress point will also be the only way of bringing in aid or supplies. The likelihood of blocked roads can make the use of a vehicle to leave the area where you live problematical. That, and the possibility you might be caught away from home when disaster strikes, are reasons that you want a bug-out pack in your vehicle. You might pack your vehicle with supplies, but you still need to be ready in case you have to leave your vehicle.

A vital consideration: Where are you going? If you have a cabin, bunker, campsite or other location away from the city, you need to know the quickest route and the alternate routes. You need to know how long it will take to get to your bug-out location in your vehicle, but you will also have to consider how long it will likely take if you have to walk or use a bicycle.


The environment in which you live will affect your bug-out considerations. Urban areas will normally present more problems during a disaster than rural ones, especially if civil unrest becomes endemic.

The colder the climate, the more planning for possibly having to sleep outside in bad weather must be undertaken. The tactical situation must be considered as well. Will you possibly have to fight your way out of your neighborhood?


When choosing the pack, keep in mind that it should be comfortable to carry, with straps that are wide enough to distribute the load. It should be large enough to carry all of your supplies, but not so large that it is too heavy or too ungainly. Normally, the fully loaded pack should not exceed one-third of your body weight and a bit less would be more comfortable. Buy a high-quality backpack with zippers that will hold up to use and stitching that won’t come loose.


1. Large pack with external pockets

2. Water, containers and purification tablets/devices

3. High-energy food

4. Weapons that fit in pack, ammo, spare magazines

5. First aid kit

6. Tools: knives, multi-tool, tomahawk, machete, folding saw, shovel, duct tape, cooking utensils

7. Fire-making kit: fire steels (ferro rods), lighters, matches

8. Flashlights

9. Radio, cell or satellite phone, solar or crank charger

10. Navigational aids: topographical map, compass

Pick a design with external pockets that allow you to access items that you will need a lot. Also, get a pack that is waterproof or, at least, has inner waterproof pockets to protect gear. Consideration should also be given to the dimensions and design of the pack. If you plan to stow a takedown or folding stock rifle inside the pack, it needs to be long enough to contain the rifle. Typically, an AK-47 with under-folding stock folded is 25.4 inches in overall length.

An M4 carbine with 16-inch barrel and collapsible stock will require a pack at least 32 inches high. Able to fit in a shorter pack, the Ruger 10/22 carbine breaks into the stock/action and the barrel. It will fit into a pack only 20 inches tall.


Since I’m already discussing weapons, let me make some comments about them and the bug-out pack. To have the pack completely ready to go, it is prudent to have a weapon and ammunition in it so that you can grab it and go. I’ve mentioned readily available rifles/carbines that can fit into a pack. The advantages of the .22 take-down rifle are fairly obvious—inexpensive, easy to shoot, ability to carry lots of ammunition, etc. For the Ruger 10/22, I would recommend at least three 25-round magazines, as well as the standard, flush-fit 10-round magazine.

Your handgun may be concealed on your person during an emergency, but you may want to keep your rifle or carbine hidden if moving through an urban or suburban area. Choosing a pack that will conceal an AR-15 or AK-47 makes this easier.

I would also recommend at least 1,000 rounds of ammunition. For an AK or AR, I would recommend at least three loaded 30-round magazines. More magazines and ammo for the AK or AR would be better, but they take up space and weigh quite a bit.

If the primary reason for a rifle or carbine is to fight your way out of a dangerous area, then centerfire assault rifles are preferable. If the primary reason for the rifle or carbine is to take game and in an emergency be used for self-defense, then the .22 rifle is preferable. If the bug-out pack is smaller, then it  should contain a handgun.

I would normally recommend a 9x19mm weapon, as ammunition is lighter and easier to obtain, yet with proper loads is still quite effective for combat and, if necessary, hunting.

The Ruger 10/22 Takedown model easily fits into most packs.

Although there are various 9mm handguns of which I think highly, the durability of the Glock and its reasonable price weigh in its favor. The Glock 19 is an effective weapon that is still compact, so it would be a good choice. Once again, I would recommend at least three fully-loaded magazines with the pistol and 100 extra rounds of ammunition.

There are hundreds of other items that lend themselves to inclusion in the bug-out pack. Following are some of the most important.

A Ruger 10/22 Takedown rifle, magazines and ammunition may be readily carried in a bug-out pack. The compact weapon is excellent for taking small game.


You will not be able carry enough food and water to sustain you for more than a few days, so the assumption is that you will need enough to get you to your bug-out location or to an area where you will go into survival mode to obtain more. Water is heavy so that fact must, literally, be weighed versus your ability to find water. Some may choose one of the Camelbak-type packs with a built-in water carrying system. This doesn’t make the water any lighter, but it does distribute the load.


Some of those who prepare for disasters have pre-positioned caches of food, water, clothing, ammunition and other necessities secreted/buried along the route to their bug-out destination. This possibility of resupply stretches how long they can stay afield while moving towards a sanctuary.

Still, the bladder probably won’t be kept full and will have to have water put in. I’d plan on a few bottles of water. Typically, the half-liter bottles commonly used weigh 16.9 ounces, so six of those would be about 6 1/3 pounds, or about 0.8 gallon. If you live in a hot climate or expect to have to do a lot of walking, then an extra couple of bottles should be carried. Normally, it is better to ration yourself to a certain amount of water every four to six  hours and drink that entire ration at once rather than in sips throughout the day. Plans should also be made to find a source of water as soon as possible to supplement what you have when setting out. At a minimum, I would plan to carry water purification tablets and a couple of LifeStraw water filters. I also carry Potassium Permanganate in any survival kit. It may be used to purify water, for sterilization of injuries or as an aid in fire-starting. Various types of survival food packets are available that store well in a pack. Some of the high calorie survival/energy bars can supplement the meals to supply extra calories to burn if covering distances on foot.

Multiple flashlights should be included, including one headlamp, such as this SureFire
Maximus, which allows illumination while using the hands for other tasks.

Salt should be packed for flavoring and replacement of that lost with exercise. Other condiments can make emergency meals more palatable. Bear in mind, though, that these types of meals will require water to reconstitute. Eating utensils should be included and at the minimum a GI can opener in case you can scrounge canned goods. Rations may be supplemented with fruit or nuts obtained during the journey if they are available. Trapping or shooting small game or catching fish may be an option, but when initially bugging out, it would  normally be better to move fast and start adding to the larder when you reach your hunkering location.


A first aid kit is a necessity. It should be compact, but contain items to deal with cuts, burns and sprains. These would include bandages; gauze and adhesive tape; over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory meds; suture kit; Neosporin or a similar triple antibiotic; and Quickclot powder, gauze or sponge. Necessary prescription meds should be included as well.

Additionally, include hygiene items such as toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper, rubber gloves, Handiwipes, liquid soap and waste disposal bags. In the boonies or in an urban or suburban area after floods or other disasters, a supply of bug spray is important for health and comfort.


The most basic tool needed is the multi-tool. I would include one of those from Gerber, SOG or others, as well as a Swiss Army Knife, one of those with lots of blades. I also would include at least a couple of combat/utility folding blades. I use those from Benchmade and Cold Steel a lot. I also still use one of Al Mar’s original SERE knives he designed for Special Forces escape and evasion training. At least one heavy-duty sheath knife is also very useful. I have various favorites, but my longtime go-to blade has been the Randall Model 18 Attack-Survival. I’ve been using one for most of my adult life and still rate it highly for survival and combat.

Many experts recommend a camp ax for the bug-out bag, but I prefer one of the current military-quality tomahawks. The tomahawk can function as a light ax but also is a devastating close-combat weapon. I also incorporate a Golok, a Malay type of machete for hacking branches, limbs, etc. The SAS thinks highly of the Golok as a survival implement. I agree. Because I use a survival knife with a saw and have one on my Swiss Army Knife, I do not include a folding camp saw, but one would be a good choice. I do like to include a Gigli saw, which is very compact but cuts well.

Bug-out pack along with an AK-47, spare magazines and a Kangee T-Hawk.

A folding shovel—many recommend the one from Glock—is another tool that will help in building shelter, burying remains of a fire or waste and myriad other tasks. A roll of duct tape has countless uses, many that you can’t foresee.

The Extrema Ratio Avio is a folding knife that can convert to a fixed blade and comes with a compact survival kit.
Other blades Thompson uses include the Kizlyar fixed blade at left, the Al Mar SERE above right, and various Cold Steel and Benchmade folders.


If the weather is cold and/or you need to cook food, you may have to start a fire. As a result, one or more fire starting steels should be included, as should a couple of lighters and waterproof matches. Small candles will help when starting a fire. My Swiss Army Knife has a magnifying glass, and I’ve actually started a fire using it. Small, powerful flashlights are also a necessity. At least one should be of the headlamp type to allow hands-free  performance of tasks. Another should be a light that can be mounted on your weapons. Buy the longest lasting batteries you can and take along extras.

GoalZero, which makes excellent products, offers the Toch 250 Flashlight that has a built-in USB charging cable, built-in solar panel and a hand crank. The USB port allows the light to be used to charge a phone or headlamp. A few light sticks can also be useful for illuminating an area quickly before entering it without identifying your  position, as with a flashlight.

There are various compact, lightweight sleeping bags that will keep in body heat and keep out rain or snow. A compact tube tent also packs well. A poncho that converts into a shelter does double duty as rain gear and shelter. I would include 100-feet of paracord, which can be used in building various types of shelters.


The basic rule of clothing choice, especially if you might encounter varying conditions, is to take items that may be layered. I like a light Gore-Tex jacket with a hood, which with a sweater and shirt underneath, has kept me warm in freezing weather. Extra underwear and socks are important. Wool socks actually do better when wet than ones of nylon or other synthetic material. If likely to encounter cold weather, a stocking cap to wear under the Gore-Tex hood is also advisable.


A compass and topographical map of the area through which you will be traveling will allow you to travel by the most direct route that is tactically sound. A survival whistle and signal mirror are useful—if you want to be found.


A compact radio will allow you to keep up with what’s going on around you and where you may be headed. To keep in contact with family members or friends, you will want your cell phone or maybe even a Sat phone. The cell phone will likely be on your person.

Compact solar chargers are available from REI, among other outfitters, to keep small devices running. There are even charging systems based on a solar panel on your pack. The GoalZero Switch 10 is versatile and comes with a rechargeable flashlight. Its weight is only 1.26 lbs. To stay simple, there are wind-up phone chargers.


What goes in a bug-out pack is highly personal, but many items apply to everyone and every situation. Choosing items for your personal bug-out pack should be done after making a list and revising it again and again, as you consider your options. Also, there are other items that you may need that will most likely be carried on your person such as cash, identification, medical records and a notebook full of contact numbers and other data.

The nice thing, too, about a bug-out pack is that it isn’t just useful in a doomsday scenario. If the power is out for 24 hours due to storms, some of the items may be useful or necessary. They can always be replaced when you get to the store.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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