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The ultimate bug out kit

Emergency preparedness experts often talk about their “bug out” kit.  Just what exactly IS this bug out kit?

It’s a kit designed for quick departure for an unknown period of time and unknown reason.  Nobody markets the ultimate bug out kit because there is no uniformity to the real ultimate bug out kit.

Sacrilege, you think?

Nope, it’s plain and simple, a bug out kit, ultimate or not, has to be tailored to the person who will potentially use it.  What might be useful for me might be utterly useless to you, and what might be essential for you might not be very important to me.  Even with that said, we can look at some ideas behind a bug out kit.

For some people, bug out kits are designed for extensive situations and long term use.  In my case, the bug out kit is regarded as that truly emergency gotta-leave-now situation.  It’s the absolute bare essentials, and the thought is that it is ready to go with no more than five minutes to add additional materials to it.  It has to be ultra portable too, since I have no way of knowing what kind of emergency it would be.

That means it’s in my backpack.  That IS my bug out kit.  Sure I have additional items, but this is my absolute got-to-have kit.

So we start off with the backpack.  It has to fit the user.  That means the belt will adjust to their size, the shoulder straps are adjusted to their size, and it’s not too long for their torso.  There are an incredible number of packs available, and while an external frame pack offers more options in terms of tying things on and carrying heavier loads, the less expensive internal frame packs work just fine for me.  Choose one with well stitched seams of sufficiently sturdy fabric.  Most people prefer darker colors such as green, camo, olive, brown, tan, etc. for their bug out packs, as compared to the neon colors that climbers and hikers often choose.

Your bug out pack will then carry your essentials for living.  The core of those essentials are food, water, and shelter.  Additional ones are heat (in cold areas or for cooking food), clothing, medicines, and hygiene.  Some people like to also include money, comfort item (candy, Bible, etc.) and weapons for defense or hunting.

We’ll focus on the core right now, starting with food.

Food has to be portable, easy to prepare, and preferably neither bulky nor heavy.  It needs to be within budget too, and provide maximum nutritional value while also considering things such as menu fatigue and comfort.  Face it, we’re used to variety.  If we are faced with a week of the same thing every day, we start to stress, and in a bug out situation, we undoubtedly already have enough to stress over.  I happen to think actual military MREs are great, sealed in their own package to prevent weather and water from spoiling them, and have a pretty decent storage life.  They are easy to eat as-is, but can also be heated using a minimal amount of water with the included heater.  In addition, for most people with average caloric output, one “meal” will suffice for the entire day, running 900-1400 calories.  It’s packaged in a way that makes it easy to spread it throughout a day as well.  The problem is, they are not only fairly expensive, they are incredibly heavy and bulky.  To carry seven of them in your backpack, along with other minimal gear, I strongly suggest you had best be involved in a consistent physical training program and not too long in the tooth either.  My solution?  I mix and match my food, accommodating my budget, ability, and space.  I think it’s a good idea too, as it’s a case of diversity, and diversity can be a huge asset when faced with the unknown.

I strongly recommend at least 7 days of food in a bug out pack.  With most people’s physical abilities, we’re also confined to packs staying between 20-30 lbs too.  So what else besides 2 or 3 MREs?

For a lighter pack, I opt for Mountain House meals.  Try them before you stock up, and I’m serious about that.  I’ve eaten them, when camping or enduring emergencies.  They are  not all created equally, and my favorites aren’t necessarily your favorites.  I happen to despise their chicken teriyaki with rice meal, yet it’s one of their most popular meals.  (I thought it looked like barf, and tasted too sweet to be appetizing too.)  I really like their beef stew and their chicken breast with mashed potatoes.  Their blueberry cheesecake is better than most mixes designed for use in a home kitchen, even if desserts aren’t exactly “essential.”  Chili mac isn’t bad.  There are also other brands of freeze dried foods.  Sampling them means you and your companions can choose the meals that are most agreeable to you.  Meals come in single versions, 2 person, and 4 person, although not all meals are available in all packaging.  These meals typically have a fairly extended shelf life too, which means you don’t have to rotate them out of your pack that often.  I’ve also eaten meals that were long expired, and it didn’t cause even a digestive upset, although it might not have been as tasty as it would have been had it been eaten sooner.  The key is to keep them reasonably cool and dry, which means you don’t store your pack in the car continually, and certainly not in the shed.  (If you do keep it in your car, which might not be a bad idea, remember to rotate at least semi-annually, and replace ALL food, water, chemicals, medications, etc.)

So I’ve put in two MREs, and five freeze dried meals in my pack.  My partner has three MREs and four freeze dried meals.  Half of our freeze dried meals are two person meals. That means we’ve covered most of the seven day thing.   Now, we need to fill in  some food requirements.  So what do I choose?

It’s still got to be portable, easy to eat, easy to carry, and have an extended shelf life of at least six months.  I package most items into zip lock bags, both for organizing them and for protection.  Granola bars, dried fruit, ramen noodles, instant rice, sugar, seasonings, tea bags, instant coffee, creamer, instant oatmeal, instant grits, instant mashed potatoes, powdered milk, individual sealed hard candies, and similar items are among my go-to items.  These are not primary sources of nutrition, but rather fill items for convenience while on the move, as well as to increase the calorie content for a hard day.  Some items, such as tea, coffee, cocoa, and hard candies, are comfort items.

Next comes the method of eating and cooking.  I actually pack this weird thing that is like a stubby spoon on one end and fork on the other, which is used by chefs for tasting in restaurants.  Mine was a gift, and purchased at an amazing general and hardware store that carries some odd ball items.  I’ve never used it, but I always include it because it is light, takes up zero room, and would work even if it isn’t ideal.  I also package a fork, spoon, and knife with the knife and fork enclosed in homemade cardboard-and-duct-tape sheaths, then the assembly sealed into a zip lock bag.  Next, is the all purpose pot.  It holds about three cups and was the big pot in a 2 man mess kit.  It has a lid, and the handles fold in.  It’s my cook pot and bowl, all in one.  It’s also a dishpan and wash basin.  It’s a dipper too.  They last a long time, but I have had them eventually develop a tiny pinhole which renders them useless.  I think it was a cheaper brand, like Texsport, that manufactured it, and the whole kits cost around $15.  The big pot is usually all I carry.  Each person needs one, and they don’t weigh much.  I also like to add a 6″ cheap non-stick skillet (cheap ones are thinner and lighter) when we’re backpacking, and ideally would include one in my bug out pack.  Skillets are better for things like corn cakes and pancakes, as well as for frying a bit of freshly caught fish.  If I want to carry oil, for frying something, I rinse out an emptied Mio container, let it air dry for at least 24 hours, and then refill it with vegetable or olive oil.  The container doesn’t leak, but oil does not have a very long shelf life, and nothing is nastier than rancid oil.  The oil, however, is useful for coating your skin to prevent cracked lips, for lubricating something in a pinch, etc. too.  You might want to include one of those containers filled with oil (the Mio container allows for pretty precise application) but remember to rotate it frequently.  We also include a cup, something non breakable.  We happen to carry enamel ones, which can be used to heat directly over the source, although they also cool the contents quickly, as well as scorch lips if  you aren’t careful when they are filled with hot liquids.

So we have food.  We have our cooking stuff.  Now, how will we heat things?

There are a lot of options.  We carry two.  One is in each pack.  The first is an emergency stove that is designed to burn anything from trash to twigs.  It’s great, but it does require a lot of fussing and won’t stand up to months of continual use.  It’s compact, since it folds up flat, and burns literally anything you can feed into the small firebox.  That’s our back up system.  I’ve used it a few times, and don’t recommend it for anything beyond basic heating of water.

The primary stove is a backpacking multi-fuel stove, which requires that we carry a bottle of fuel.  It can burn diesel, white gas, or unleaded gasoline.  We carry white gas in steel bottles.  I prefer stoves that allow the user to simmer, as well as just boil the heck out of something.  I’ve used a lot of types over the years, and I mean actually USED them, day in and day out.  This is one item that you want to be really familiar with if you are going to use it during an emergency situation so that you know exactly how to fill it, pump it up, release pressure, take it apart, light it, and clean it.  Try using it at home for a full week, and I’m not kidding.  If it won’t work at home, it is sure not going to magically start working in the woods or during an emergency!  Be familiar with the sounds it makes (some are noisy) and that way you’ll be aware of any problems when they first arise, preventing a lot of major disasters.  Typically, a bottle of fuel would last us three or four days, so we’d carry two 16 oz. bottles of fuel, with a third being added during cold weather season.

Besides the stoves, you will need reliable fire starting methods.  I recommend using a multi-faceted approach to this.  Include a name brand disposable propane lighter, water proof matches, some kitchen matches, and only add a fire starter if you have bothered to take the time to actually learn how to use it.  They are useless unless you’ve sat down for the hours of practice they take to actually manage to make a fire.  If you opt to carry a firestarter kit, don’t forget to add some kindling.  Nothing is worse than staring at wet wood and shivering.  Many people like to carry fire starters made with cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.

Then, it’s time to consider water.  It takes a lot of water for a week, and few people can carry that much, since water weighs roughly ten pounds per gallon and we need a gallon a day per person.  That’s a lot of water!  I have a 1.5 quart canteen and two 1 l. water bottles with each backpack.  I also have water purification tablets, a straw filter, and a small bottle of chlorine bleach.  There is also a bag containing a few coffee filters for removing “the chunks” from suspicious water sources.  It’s not perfect, there are better filtration systems out there, but they are also expensive.  Over time, I have also learned that the glass water purification tablet bottles will get broken, so they are each wrapped and packed inside of a plastic soap container to protect them from impacts.  I don’t keep the bottles and canteen filled, and figure that into my five minute prep time for departure.  It’s about the only thing I’ll have time to do.  We also keep some bottled water on hand at home.

So we have food and water.  Next comes shelter.

Tents, for us, are both heavy and bulky.  We had to cut them out to save on space and weight.  We also live in the humid and often rainy South, with lots of trees.  Our solution for safe and dry sleeping is to use hammocks, ropes, and tarps.  It gets us up off of the ground, eliminating the need for actually sort of both dry and flat ground, and makes it easier to find a suitable place to sleep.  Forget the net hammocks, the backyard cotton ones, etc.  Buy a hammock made from ripstop nylon, aka parachute silk.  Learn how to set it up, and how to lie in it.  (You actually lay sort of diagonally, which makes your body flat rather than U shaped.)  Over the hammock, another line is run, and from this one, we can stretch a tarp to keep off the dew or the rain.  An 8×10′ tarp will allow for plenty of protection from the elements, whether it’s wet or wind.  Some extra line and possibly a couple of stakes will secure it further.  Practice setting it up.  Read forums on hammock camping for more details–it’s very popular with ultra-light backpackers as well.

So that’s rope, a hammock, four tent stakes, some cord for staking down the tarp, and some more cord for running the tarp line.  Now, you need to stay warm in cool weather, right?

There are fancy solutions that are both expensive and lightweight.  While they might be very efficient, I’m not willing to spend the money on them, mostly because we don’t have the really cold weather that other areas in the country get.  I need a less expensive solution than under quilts and expensive sleeping bags, as well as one that adapts to the changeable weather we’re faced with in winter.  Therefore, I have another multi-prong approach to the problem.  I use the following: a wool blanket, a micro-fleece quilted throw, a micro-fiber sheet, and an reusable emergency blanket.  The emergency blanket goes on the bottom, topped with the wool blanket folded in half, and half left hanging off of the hammock.  Next, the wool blanket is topped with the micro-fiber sheet, also left with half hanging off of the hammock.  The hanging blanket/sheet combo is then folded over onto the bed and topped with the micro-fleece quilted throw.  I sleep between the layers of sheet, which keeps the wool blanket clean and off of my skin.  In warmer weather, I eliminate layers.  Always remember to insulate UNDER your body too, or you will chill incredibly quickly in cold weather.  In fact, what you have under  you may well be far more important than what is over you, whether you opt for sleeping on the ground or on a hammock.

I also pack for unknowns in the weather department.  I always include several new “drum liners” in the packs, as well as yard sized trash bags.  These are useful for a lot of things, ranging from impromptu protection from rain to creating a rain resistant backpack cover.  The drum liners can become “sleeping bags” that will do a lot towards staying dry.  They can become the roof of a shelter in foul weather too.  I seal each new folded bag in a zip lock bag, with the size (drum or large) written on the outside.  They weigh very little and take up little space, as well as are not expensive.  Drum liners can also be a great ground cloth, or provide protection from a chilling wind, but they do not breathe at all, which can cause excessive moisture build up and another way to get chilled.

Okay, that’s food, water and shelter, as well as heat & cooking.  So what else should be included?

Clothing.  You want at least one full set of clothes, as well as something to sleep in during cold weather.   That means socks, underwear, pants, and shirt, preferably long sleeved, for your clothing.  You may want to add an extra shirt or sweater as well.  It’s a good idea to include several pairs of socks, since they can help a great deal on everything from morale to miles per day, if walking is necessary.  For sleeping, choose something seasonally appropriate, as well as something that can also serve you in daytime if necessary.  Sweats are good in winter and light cotton in summer.  Have a rain poncho, and a jacket appropriate for the climate too.  Assume you will be departing fully dressed, but include a lightweight pair of “camp shoes” as secondary foot gear.  Include a hat and sturdy gloves.  Here again, I recommend packing them into zip lock bags for protection against moisture.  I break them down into several bags, and include at least three pairs of socks.

Hygiene.  Okay, so you don’t need to worry about looking pretty in an emergency, but soap does a lot more than that.  Hygiene can be important when you are stressed and trying to stay healthy.  Include a wash cloth, a bar of soap sealed in plastic, a small micro fiber towel, mouthwash in a travel size, tooth paste, tooth brush, comb or small brush, hair ties, and for women, some sanitary supplies.  A travel sized bottle of hand sanitizer might also be useful, but these are apt to break down during storage, so make sure to rotate them out on your semi-annual inspection/rotation schedule.

First aid kit.  Forget the prepacked versions.  Most of them have a lot of crap you don’t even know how to use, let alone will use.  They are also too bulky and heavy.  For this operation, you’ll stick to what you know and can use.  Mine usually includes the following: prescription medications for 10 days (don’t forget to rotate these regularly), aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen  generic benadryl, salt, anti-diarrhea pills,  a dozen fabric adhesive bandages, some gauze, some adhesive tape, hydro-cortisone cream, muscle rub, insect repellent   and cold remedy pills.  I’m no medic, and I don’t need a huge kit that I don’t know what to do with anyhow.  If it is worse than what we can manage with this stuff, we will need help anyhow.  This covers our basic issues, and is the same things we use at home.  Larger groups or stronger backs may want to add alcohol and hydrogen peroxide to the list.  I include first aid kits in both of our packs.

Comfort.  These are not essential, but they are really handy and comforting to have.  We include a notepad, pencil, pen, micro lantern, flashlights, spare batteries, and a deck of cards in ours.  Cards pass time when you are forced to sit tight and wait.  Light makes the nighttime far less intimidating, and easier to prepare food or complete other tasks.  Pen/pencil and paper allows you to take notes or leave notes for someone else.   For others, it may be spare glasses, a Bible, a favorite book of poetry, or some other small item.

Extras.  Someone in your group may want to add some of these things to your packs, you may want to add one or more to your own packs as well.

  • compass–these will help if you have to cross country, and reduce the chances of becoming disoriented and going in circles or wandering off in the wrong direction.
  • Magnifying glass-not only useful for examining something, they can be used with sunlight to start a fire.  They come in many sizes and can be either round or rectangular.
  • folding shovel–very useful if you need to dig for any reason, far more efficient than merely using a digging stick.
  • axe/machete–can cut wood, shape wood, create walking sticks, and other items.  In close contact, it can become a useful weapon.
  • Larger pot–for a group, a single large pot can be useful when preparing hot water or cooking larger quantities of food
  • belt knifewith holster–useful and handy for ease of use for cutting many things
  • hand gun with holster & spare ammunition–protection, signalling, hunting
  • rifle with spare ammunition and shoulder strap–protection and hunting, far more accurate for hunting
  • bow and arrows–silent hunting, if user is familiar with its use
  • binoculars–useful for looking for things in the distance
  • mirror–useful for signalling over distance
  • whistle–useful for audio signalling, carries better than just yelling
  • para-cord–useful for a lot of things, from running a line to building a snare
  • fishing kit–who wouldn’t appreciate fresh fish if they are hungry?
  • compact sewing kit–stuff tears, needles and thread can fix it
  • duct tape–the magical fix it stuff of the world
  • tube of super glue–it works for a lot of stuff, from sealing a cut to re-attaching something
  • silicone glue–waterproof glue, fixes almost anything that super glue and duct tape doesn’t.  even can reattach a shoe sole.
  • cell phone–communication can be useful, if it works
  • cash–whether it’s silver coins or twenty dollar bills, money talks…sometimes.  Try a mixture of denominations.
  • maps of local area–whether they are highway or topo maps, they can be useful to find…or avoid…something, whether you are on foot or in a vehicle
  • extra tarps–nylon tarps are quieter, lighter, and more compact, but they are also more expensive.  A spare tarp can be worth more than gold if it is needed, as well as being an item useful for trading for something else you need.
  • sleeping bags–in cold weather, some people prefer these
  • sleeping pads–some are compact and light, easier to transport than multiple layers for a pallet bed roll.
  • tent–some people like walls that surround them.  They come in a variety of sizes, prices, configurations, and weights, as well as colors.  Choose something that blends in rather than something in neon colors.
  • two way radios–very useful especially in larger groups, it allows for communication for up to 3-8 miles, depending on the models chosen.  Make sure you have spare batteries or a charging method.
  • Rechargeable batteries with solar charger–this can really help with battery usage for a longer bout of emergency state
  • camera–record images for later

Use your head, and try using your gear for a practice weekend.  Figure out what works…and what doesn’t.  Seriously, just go camping in the woods somewhere with it and test it.  If you can’t survive overnight with it, it obviously needs to be changed!

Remember, don’t make it too heavy.  You may need to walk for hours, day after day, carrying this.  If it’s too heavy to carry, trim it down.  Choose lighter items, share weight with your companions, eliminate non-essentials.  Practice wearing it, even just around the house.  Try walking in the park with it a few times.  Be honest with yourself, and assess whether or not it is actually reasonable for the wearer, whether it is yourself or someone else.

Next time, it’s going to be a child’s bug out pack!

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