There are some essential items you will need in your bug out bag when it’s time for you to “bug out,” or evacuate your home in an emergency. To help you prepare your bug out bag, or BOB, I’ve created a checklist of the essentials you need to survive for up to 72 hours after you leave your home.
The essential items to include in your bug out bag checklist should begin with a high quality bug out bag, followed by a rain-proof backpack cover to keep the rain out. Next, since you will need clean air, water, food, and shelter during an emergency, you will need to either carry these, and/or carry ways to procure them. In many emergency situations you will also need things like items to keep you warm, a change of clothing, emergency lighting, first aid, backpacking tools, back country navigation, self defense items, some personal effects, and (last but certainly not least) a positive attitude.
In the rest of this article I go through all of this in more detail, in checklist form, one-by-one and talk about the items in each category. I will also give you my shortcuts and pro-tips as an experienced backpacker (which is essentially what “bugging out” is). I will also give you important information on how to pack your bag. Picking the right items for your bug out bag can significantly improve not only your chances of survival, but also increase your comfort during an extremely stressful event.
High Quality Bug Out Bag
First and foremost, you need to choose a high quality bag to pack your items in. Your bug out bag should ideally be a comfortably fitting backpack. For me, a backpacking backpack is the perfect bug out bag. Backpacking backpacks are designed to be comfortable when worn for long periods of time, and are large enough to carry the essentials. When shopping for a bug out bag, look for one with these qualities:
- Made of a durable, water resistant material
- Has wide, padded shoulder straps
- Has a hip belt (padded if possible). The hip belt helps distribute the weight of your bag off your shoulders and will help avoid rubbing blisters into your shoulders.
There are outdoor gear stores that will help you find a pack that is not only durable, but that fits you well, and it is worth it to go for an in-person consultation.
Rain-proof Backpack Cover
Many preppers leave this item off their list, but unless your pack is made of rubber (which would be heavy and uncomfortable) a backpack cover is truly an essential bug out bag item.
It is at the top of my list because even a light drizzle will saturate a pack if left out overnight. Many of the items in your pack will be useless if they are wet, so ensuring that your pack can do the job of keeping your things together and dry is essential.
Once you’ve chosen the right bug out bag for you, you can get down to the business of filling it up.
Now for the items that go inside the bag! These are grouped by four basic necessities every living thing needs to survive:
- Emergency water supply
Consider a wildfire. The smoke in the air can become toxic and loaded with carcinogens. The exposure might not kill you immediately, but why risk a multi-day exposure to that?
An N95 mask is a great addition to your bug out bag. They are incredibly light, and while we all know how uncomfortable masks can be when worn for long periods of time, they might help keep you cancer free. Who wouldn’t want that?
Remember that N95s are basically only “good” for about 8 hours. That is, after 8 hours the material is saturated with external particles and will need to be changed out. That’s no problem. Even a few masks won’t weigh you down.
Emergency Water Supply
Humans can live three days without water, but with your bug out bag, you’ll never have to go that long.
Water Bottles or Bladders
There are a million lightweight water bottles or bladders out there. Nalgene is a popular brand that comes in a variety of sizes and are BPA-free. A water bladder can also be a nice choice because they are collapsible once you use the water in them.
Keep in mind that water is very heavy, so the more you pack to begin with, the heavier your pack will be. The recommended amount of water to carry is one gallon per adult per day, and one gallon of water weighs about eight pounds.
Portable Water Filtration Device
Having a water filtration device will save you from having to pack 24 pounds of water on your back. And trust me, it’s worth it to get that weight off.
There are a huge variety of types of portable water filtration devices and they come in two basic types:
- Water filters
- Water purifiers
Water filters physically separate large contaminants like protozoa (such as those that cause Giardia) and bacteria (like E. coli). One of these types of filters is the Sawyer squeeze filtration bags (which I like and have used).
Water purifiers use some kind of chemical, like iodine to clean the water. Purifiers also kill viruses, and if you think you might need to gather water from a developed area, this might be a better choice than relying on a filtration device alone. Keep in mind that sometimes chemical tablets either leave a funky taste or take some time (an hour or more) to work.
One of my new favorite devices that knocks out protozoa, bacteria and viruses is the Steripen. It uses UV light to kill all three contaminants and works immediately.
Check out this video for more detail on how to choose a water filtration method.
Choose lightweight, calorie dense food! Finding food that is lightweight, calorie dense, and even somewhat tasty is a breeze thanks to the surge in backpacking as a leisure activity in the last few decades. There are entire industries built around creating meals that are ready to eat.
I recommend a mix of hot food items and items that are ready to eat “as is”, like meal bars. Meal bars are convenient because you won’t have to stop to boil water, but there is a real benefit psychologically from a hot meal, which is why I recommend a mix..
You can still choose from the military invented “MREs” (meals ready to eat) and these can be purchased at military surplus stores. MREs are famously disgusting in taste although I have heard there have been improvements over the last several years.
Finding food that tastes good is a really important consideration because having good food will boost your morale. And, as I’ll discuss below, a good attitude is basically as important as the gear you choose.
Mountain House is a well-known backpacking brand but most of their meals will require at least some boiling water, which leads me to my next topic:
Jetboil has a terrific, small, reliable backpacking stove that would make a great addition to your bug out bag. The small stove allows you to boil water very quickly and easily and you don’t have to go to trouble of building a fire (but you should still be prepared to do that regardless).
If you’re not familiar with Jetboil, take a look at this video to see how it works.
I will include a fishing kit in my bug out bag essentials checklist for the purpose of letting you know it is an option. Fishing kits are sometimes listed as an item for your bug out bag, but I, personally, might consider leaving this one out unless you are a very proficient fisherman. It is hard enough to catch fish when you have the standard equipment and lures with you. Doing so with a string and hook sounds like a fast way to get frustrated to me.
Small kits are available on Amazon if you think this might work for you.
Backpacking Tent (or Lightweight Tarp)
Your tent is one of your most important bug out bag essentials. It is your number one defense against bad weather and is the best method of keeping yourself warm and dry. For this reason I recommend finding a tent that is specifically made for backpacking. They will be more expensive than your traditional car camping setup, but they will be smaller and lighter.
Backpacking tents come in a wide variety of designs. So here are some things to keep in mind as you choose a tent:
- Some tents are designed for a specific season. Be sure to pick an all-season tent
- Pick a tent that is designed for the number of people you’ll likely be bugging out with
- Pick a tent that is lightweight. While all backpacking tents trend lighter, shaving off ounces counts when you’re carrying something for multiple days.
If you’re looking to go ultra-light a tarp would be the bare minimum you should have with you. Look for a tarp that is lightweight and folds down small.
Sleeping Bag (or Emergency Blanket)
Staying warm is critical while outdoors and your sleeping bag is another one of your top most important essentials. Even summer days can have cold nights and a good sleeping bag truly is a lifesaving piece of equipment.
Like tents, sleeping bags come in a wide variety of styles with different types of insulation. The two main types of insulation are down and synthetic fill.
Down sleeping bags pack down smaller than synthetic ones, tend to be lighter, and are excellent choices for cold, dry conditions.
Synthetic fill bags will be a bit bulkier and heavier, but they will still insulate you fairly well if they get wet, which a down bag cannot do.
Again, if you’re trying to go ultra-light, at a bare minimum you should bring an emergency blanket. They pack down to about the size of a wallet and are quite warm.
A sleeping pad might be considered by some to be a luxury, but I’ll always have one in my bug out bag. The reason: you can loose a ton of body heat by sitting on the bare ground and a pad will help you sleep. And I don’t want to forego warmth and sleep during what is likely one of the most stressful events of my life.
There are several on the market that are inflatable, and pack down quite small. They are rated by how warm they will keep you with a system called the “R-value.” The higher the R value, the warmer you’ll be.
There are lots of types of sleeping pads, but for bugging out I would look for pads that are labeled as ultralight ‘air pads” (meaning you inflate it kind of like a pool floaty) or a “closed cell foam” pad, which kind of looks like a waterproof egg crate. The later is more durable than the air variety but both are lightweight.
Tools for Staying Warm
You will have your tent and sleeping bag to help stay warm, but you should definitely include a few other items to help keep you warm.
Reliable Fire Starter
Having a way to start a fire is essential to your bug out bag, but I want you to consider the following: I have been camping a million times without a fire, and been totally fine. Being able to start a fire in some instances can be lifesaving. For example, if you need to make a signal or if your environment is extremely cold.
But besides this I think the “need to make a fire” is overemphasized in emergency preparation circles. To me, having a fire is mostly about comfort. Not only that but burns from camping fires are very common—do you want to deal with burned hands in your emergency? What if your fire gets out of control? Do you want to add forest fire to your emergency?
If you have a backpacking stove you should be able to provide essential food and water for yourself. So, yes, include a reliable way to start a fire, but don’t think of it as your only way to survive.
And when you go to choose a fire starting method, be sure to pick a reliable one. There are specialty fuels that burn well even when damp and come in waterproof containers.
Handwarmers can be a great addition to your bug out bag for times when you need to stay warm but can’t hunker down.
I’m a big fan of Hot Hands. My hands get cold and unusable really quickly in cold weather and these things are lifesavers.
Your clothing choices will be essential to your comfort and survival in a bug out situation.
One Full Change of Clothes
Even if you’re in a dry environment, if your clothes become sweaty, they can sap the heat right out of you. This might be a helpful thing if you’re in a hot environment, but in a cold environment it can be a shortcut to hypothermia.
My pro-tip for packing clothing is to roll them up rather than fold them like you’d see in the store. You can pack them tighter together this way. Even better, if you can find a small compression sack to keep clothes in, this will not only save space but help keep the clothes dry.
A waterproof jacket is an essential bug out bag item as staying dry is super important when it comes to maintaining your body temperature.
Hat and Gloves
Lots of body heat is lost through your head. Throw in a warm wool cap and you won’t be sorry. Additionally, gloves can be awesome not only for keeping your hands functionally warm, but also from avoiding scrapes from moving debris, broken glass or firewood.
Being able to see in the dark is critical during a bug out situation. It’s typically advised to have three sources of lighting in an emergency.
Headlamp and Flashlight
If I had to choose between a headlamp and a regular flashlight, I’d go headlamp all night long. If you have the space and want the extra weight, go for a small flashlight in your bag. But the utility of being hands-free during an emergency is priceless. Make sure you have a good headlamp and few extra batteries in your bag.
Chemical lights: These are like glow sticks on steroids and they are primarily used by the US armed forces. The military uses them for a variety of things like signaling to other troops or marking safe spaces to land at night. They can last for long periods of time (they are good for 4 years from the date of manufacture) and are bright enough to be seen from long distances.
First Aid Kit
There are awesome, pre-made first aid kits on the market, and this is another no-compromise must have in the BOB. Your first aid kit should include the following:
- Gauze pads
- Burn gel
- Antiseptic wipes
- Personal medications for three days
- Disposable gloves
- Instruction booklet
While you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to read the instruction booklet beforehand. Or better yet, take a first aid class.
This video is put together by a physician who enjoys backpacking. He has some great thoughts on keeping your first aid kit useful, but lightweight.
There are a few items that can be difficult to improvise on the fly. Thankfully, many of these items come in lightweight, collapsible forms for easy transport.
These come in all sizes and as the name suggests, have a variety of small tools, including a knife on them. Other common tools on a multi-tool include a flat-head and Phillips screwdriver, a wire cutter, a small saw, a pair of scissors, and a file. This tool is indispensable.
Small, Collapsible Shovel
This is a handy tool to have if you need to dig out a fire pit, dig out snow for shelter, or make a trench to divert rain away from your tent. There are collapsible and foldable emergency shovels on the market that are also quite lightweight.
10 Feet of Paracord
Paracord, like several other items on this list, was originally designed by the military as parachute cord. It is a thin but strong nylon rope that can be handy to have around for a variety of reasons.
Maybe you need to tie up your tarp for better insulation from weather or you need to attach something to your backpack. Paracord is also lightweight and is often sold as a woven bracelet that you can wear.
You may see paracord referred to as 550 cord, or p-cord, because it can hold 550 pounds of static weight.
This tool is especially helpful if you need to cut some firewood, cut meat, or make a small clearing to rest in. The come in collapsible designs which is nice because it means the saw automatically has a sheath you can’t lose.
Several Feet of Duct Tape
It can be easy to travel with duct tape because you can just take some and tape several times around your water bottle, and then peel it back off as needed. Duct tape can be especially helpful for covering sore spots on your feet.
Mini Sewing Kit
This may come in handy if your pack rips. After all, if your pack doesn’t hold all these handy items, it’s pretty worthless, right? Some packs and sleeping pads come with rubber or vinyl patches and an adhesive to fix small holes. This might be another good repair option.
This can be a small mirror or a whistle. Some backpacks come with a whistle on the chest strap, which I find convenient. Remember that the signal for an emergency is three of anything. Three blasts from a whistle, three light flashes, you get it.
There are small phone and device chargers out there that would fit well in your bug out bag.
Back Country Navigation
If you think you’ll be needing to travel to a place far outside the area you know well, you’d do well to include these items.
Map of the Area
Ideally this will be a topographic map, a map that shows the contours of the landscape through the use of scaled lines. If you need to travel in the back country at all, this is definitely what you will need.
Make sure to purchase a quality compass, and also include a small instruction sheet on how to use it. They are not as intuitive as you might think, and there’s nothing worse than the panicky feeling you get when you’re turned around.
Here is a quick video on the basics of using a compass.
A GPS unit, if you want to spend the money, could be an excellent investment for your bug out bag. They are often fairly intuitive to use.
Defending Yourself While Bugging Out
As we’ve all seen on the news, sometimes emergency situations can become violent. For this reason, some consideration to defensive weapons might be wise. As with so many of the other items in your bug out bag, knowing how to use your products well is imperative.
Pepper spray is classified as a weapon in some states; it is that effective. For this reason, it is extremely important that you are familiar with how your product works, and even how it feels so that you can grab it quickly and immediately point it in the correct direction.
Pepper spray is a convenient self-defense tool because you can protect yourself from a distance and you don’t have to be stronger than your opponent to use it; you just press a button. Just remember to consider wind direction when you use it.
You will already have this as part of your multi-tool, which adds one more “use” to the multi-tool’s list.
Knowledge of Local Wildlife
Many inexperienced campers and backpackers fear wildlife as their number one threat in the back country. This just isn’t necessary. Tripping and falling is far, far more likely to cause you injury. Simply look up what types of wildlife you think you may encounter in your tri-state area, and learn how to avoid encounters and what to do if you do see a wild animal.
At some point you will likely need to re-enter society. Make sure you can prove that you are who you say you are!
Keep a copy of your driver’s license, passport, birth certificate and Social Security card in your bug out bag. You may need these if you need to request a new credit card or establish a temporary change of address. Keep in mind it is a good idea to have the originals on hand if you can. Often you will need the originals if, for example, you need a new copy of your drivers license.
This can include titles, proof of insurance, deeds, medical alert cards, contracts, or anything else that shows that you own your property.
Addresses and Phone Numbers of Friends/Family
I certainly don’t know the phone numbers of most of my closest friends and family. If my phone died I’d be sunk if I needed to reach them. Avoid this problem and write them down.
You may also want to keep the contact information for your doctor or lawyer as well.
Cash and a Copy of Your Credit Card
Keep a store of extra cash in your pack in a Ziploc bag to keep it dry. A few hundred dollars just in case could be a lifesaver. Additionally, I would recommend keeping a copy of your credit card or memorizing the number.
A Positive Attitude.
The final item you must always have in your bug out bag: A positive attitude. Regardless of what is in your bag, if you have a terrible attitude at the outset of your experience, you’re basically dooming yourself to fail.
There are a myriad of inspiring stories out there about people who survived primarily because they kept a positive attitude. In fact, a positive mental attitude or PMA, is so important to the success of wildland firefighters (whose entire job is basically to bug out for a living), that it is something their crew bosses monitor and actively try to maintain.
Yes, needing to bug out will likely be a stressful experience, but if you follow the advice in this post, then chances are: you got this.
How to Put Your Items in Your Bug Out Bag
There is a strategy to how you put your items in a bag and that strategy is primarily to put the heaviest items in your pack closest to your body.
Having the heavy items close to your body will help with your balance and comfort.
Water is often one of the heaviest items you’ll carry and for that reason most backpacking backpacks have a pocket towards the back of the pack for a water bladder to fit in.
Pack your lighter items like you sleeping bag towards the bottom of the pack.
This video perfectly explains how to pack a backpacking pack (which is exactly how you should pack your bug out bag).
Can I Buy a Premade Bug Out Bag?
Yes, you can buy a premade bug out bag. This may take the hassle out of buying each of these items individually. Just be sure you go through your bag when you get it to make sure it has everything you think you’ll need.
Premade bags tend to cost upwards of a few hundred dollars but some bags are designed for multiple people (from two to five), which could help save you money in the long run.
Above I have given you a checklist of my top bug out bag essentials. However, having a bug out bag that works in your emergency is all about being prepared with your personal needs in mind. I hope you use this checklist as a starting place to get your bug out bag prepared, but always feel free to add and subtract items as you see fit.