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What Is a Bug Out Bag? A Complete Beginner’s Guide

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Any prepper’s lifeline is a bug out bag, but it requires proper execution to be effective.

Packing a bug out bag is the most important step in getting it right, and this includes choosing what contents should go in it and where exactly to place them. What do you need in a bug out bag?

A bug out bag should include enough supplies to help you live in an emergency situation for up to a week. The contents of these bags should include supplies of food and water, hygiene and sanitation, shelter and bedding, first aid, and more.

The most crucial step in preparing a bug out bag is determining how many people it will serve, the weight of its contents, and the location of each item’s packing.

This guide can help you do just that with thoughtful planning so that you’re prepared for any type of scenario that comes your way.

What Is a Bug Out Bag?

bug out bag items

The most basic definition of a bug out bag is a backpack that’s full of survival supplies that you can grab at a moment’s notice in an emergency.

A bug out bag should be considered your lifeline, giving you access to everything you need to survive, including food, water, and medical assistance.

Imagine that you had to leave your home suddenly and couldn’t return for seven days or more, and you’ll get an idea of what might be required in one of these bags.

Not only should a bug out bag have the basics for survival, but survival in a serious situation or emergency is also important.

Consider the chance that there may be a war going on or the aftermath of a serious natural disaster, and then think about what else you may need to survive, like a first aid kit or weapons.

Finally, a bug out bag should be packed to suit your location, which may require some adjusting of what a standard contents list will include.

The chance that you’ll take your bug out bag far away from home and in another state altogether is minimal, so it should suit the precise environment and area you’ll be trying to survive in.

Choosing Bug Out Bag

The most popular type of bag for this purpose is a backpack because it is comfortable to carry on your back, allows for adequate weight distribution, and allows you to carry a heavier load.

However, there are numerous features and specifications within the backpack category, so make sure your BOB has the following:

Type of Backpack

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Hiking backpacks and tactical backpacks are the two most common types of backpacks used as bug out bags.

The difference is that a hiking backpack is more discrete, which could be a beneficial thing if you’re in survival mode and spotted by someone else.

A tactical backpack will be more practical for this type of situation, but if someone sees that you’re carrying it, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re prepared with survival supplies.


For obvious reasons, bug out bags highly value flame-retardant and waterproof materials.

However, you should also choose a material that’s breathable, comfortable, and durable.

Popular bug out backpack materials include polyester, nylon, and canvas, and most will utilize a few of them to make the best bag possible.


A carefully packed bug out bag will have each category of contents in its own designated area. Purchasing a backpack with pre-arranged compartments simplifies this process.

For a bug out bag, the best type of backpack is one with easy-to-access compartments on the inside and out, as well as options for attaching other pouches and accessories.


Hiking backpacks and tactical backpacks have been designed for relentless outdoor use, and they will always come with some form of waterproofing.

Choose a backpack that has some form of waterproof rating and includes either a top lid or poncho-style covering to keep everything dry inside.

You’ll want this outside coverage in addition to protecting the bag’s contents from moisture.


There’s no single size of bug out bag to suit everyone, so the best approach is to contact the manufacturer and see how it works with your size and fitness level.

Choosing a bag that’s lightweight but made of durable materials will enable you to fit more contents inside without having to sacrifice something you could need in a survival situation.

Avoid large or small bags and try some before buying.


You’re not likely to find a bug out back that’s luxurious and always feels like a dream to carry, but you can certainly try.

Some comfort-enhancing features to look for include compression straps that keep your backpack in place, padded straps to reduce strain, and hip belt pockets and straps so the weight doesn’t shift around.


A good bug out bag will have as many usable extras as it can fit on it, so look for one with features like hydration tubes, a water bladder, and a water bottle pocket. A MOLLE (Modular Light Weight Load Carrying Equipment) system is a must-have for a BOB.

This enables you to attach other items via hooks, so you can take more without stealing precious space from inside the backpack.

Pre-Made vs DIY Bag

diy bob

You’ll also need to decide whether to purchase an already assembled bug out bag or take on the more labor-intensive task of packing it yourself.

Your approach to this will depend on how serious you are about prepping and survival, as well as what specific contents you require to feel satisfied that your bag can help you handle anything.

Pre-packed bug out bags have seen a huge boom in popularity recently, as people want something reliable that they can keep aside for a rainy day without the hassle of having to assemble it.

These bags cover all of the basics, including food rations, filtration systems, and first aid kits, but if you want something specific or would prefer to select the individual items separately, it’s not a good fit.

A DIY bug out bag is the best choice for those who take survival prep seriously. You will have the ability to personally select all the contents of the bag, ensure its quality, and avoid wasting space with unnecessary items.

Of course, it takes a lot of time and probably more money, so you’ll have to weigh up the pros and cons of either option to see what’s right for you.

How to Pack a Bug Out Bag

rolled clothes on backpack

One of the most overlooked parts of packing a bug out bag is the organizational aspect and where everything is placed.

You can have the world’s largest bag with the biggest cubic inches of all, but if you don’t know where to put everything and why it should hold that space, it’s a waste.

A bug out bag needs to be organized so that you can reach items when you need them and in a potentially short amount of time.

In addition to having them placed in your bag for optimal comfort and weight distribution, you’ll also need to think about what you might need to reach for first and how easily you can reach it.

You can carry items you might need to reach quickly elsewhere, such as on the outside of the backpack or on a utility belt. This includes a cold steel shovel, radio, knife, or anything else you might want easy access to.

Inside your bug out bag, you can keep items like a tent and sleeping bag at the bottom, as there’s little chance you’ll need to reach these in an emergency.

Above that, you can store food and cooking gear, and closer to the top, you’ll want items like a first aid kit, map, and rainponcho so that they’re easier to access in a short amount of time.


Although there is varying advice out there about the best weight for a bug out backpack to be, it’s generally agreed that bags like these should be no more than 1/4 of the user’s weight.

However, this also depends on the person’s weight and their stamina and strength, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Comfort and Balance

Knowing how to comfortably pack a bug out back so that there’s less stress on your shoulders and back is essential.

A backpack’s weight distribution should be such that the heaviest equipment is at your back and in the center, with the lighter stuff at the bottom. This gives you more stability and keeps the heavier stuff in place, which means less fatigue, better posture, and easier portability.


To keep them safe, the bag’s contents should all be waterproof in one way or another.

That could mean covering the backpack or waterproofing individual compartments and contents, so you’ll have to decide.

Must Have Items for a Bug Out Bag

For a bug out bag to be truly effective, it needs to have all of the essentials that you could require to survive if you were dropped in the middle of nowhere without help for days on end.

In light of this, here are some essential items that every reliable BOB should possess:

General Tools

This is one of the most detailed areas of contents, with a range of multipurpose tools that can help you protect yourself, find food, and help in emergencies.

Among your list of general tools, you’ll need a mini shovel, multi-tool, paracord, crowbar, duct tape, axe, and a crowbar. These items will be useful for digging trenches, fishing and hunting, fixing broken items, creating traps, and breaking into somewhere for shelter.


A bug out bag should hold enough water for you to survive for a week, with one gallon per day being the recommended amount for an adult.

The best method for carrying water is to use a bladder system, either already included in your BOB or available as an accessory. These bladders make it simple to carry and protect the water from outside contamination.


water filter system on table

In addition to having fresh water supplies in your bag, you’ll also need a water filtration system.

This will allow you to clean any water source so it’s free from contamination. Once cleaned, you can immediately drink it or replenish your empty water bladder with fresh supplies.

At times, air filtration may be required, so bring a dedicated air filtration mask with you. These masks will filter out dangerous particles and give you oxygen that’s clean and safe to breathe.

Fire Starters

Some form of fire starting is required, so you can build a fire with minimal effort and even in poor weather conditions.

With access to a fire, you can provide warmth for yourself, cook food, boil water, and send a signal for assistance. To cover all bases, include a packet of waterproof matches and a firestarter in your bug out bag, and test them regularly to see that they work.


Invest in a few items of clothing specifically designed for camping and hiking.

Materials should be breathable, durable, wick away moisture, hand washable, and quick-dry. Avoid materials like denim, cotton, and khaki, as they don’t perform well in the outdoors over long periods of time.

When temperatures drop, layer clothing so that you can easily strip off items on the go and bring your body temperature down.

Included in the clothing list are a quality pair of hiking socks, a bandana, gloves, shirts, singlets, shorts, long pants, and a jumper. If you’re really keen, you can rotate the clothing once every six months to ensure you have the right attire for the upcoming seasons.


During a survival situation, the chance that you’ll be moving around when the sun goes down is high. You’ll want a few options for staying illuminated and active, including a flashlight and headlamp for hands-free lighting.

Carry a few crackable chemical-grade light sticks in your bag for up to 12 hours of illumination and signaling for help.

Hygiene and Sanitation

A few basic supplies to keep you clean in survival mode will come in handy, but there’s no need to go over the top.

A small travel-sized toothpaste and toothbrush, soap, and hand sanitizer can provide you with everything you need to keep hygiene up and have excellent sanitation practices.

First Aid

first aid items

A ready-made first aid kit is an easy way to get the essentials, or you can create one yourself.

Within the kit, you’ll find basics like painkillers, antibacterial wipes, bandages, antibiotic ointment, burn gel, gloves, and more.

Be sure to include first aid instructions in some form, as you may need to refer to them in a survival situation to ensure that you know how to treat any medical emergencies.


Shelter is essential for comfort, safety, and warmth, no matter where you are or the conditions outside. The three key parts of shelter are a tent, a sleeping bag, and a space blanket.

During an emergency, having a tent as your form of shelter will be a godsend, and a lightweight sleeping bag will provide you with somewhere that’s comfortable enough to rest. A space blanket is a metal-coated sheet that retains body heat and can keep you warm in cold conditions.

Navigation Tools

A smartphone with GPS is never reliable in a survival situation, so you need to go back to the basics.

A map of your state and nearby states is required, as well as a compass that you’ve spent time learning how to use. If you can afford it, a standby GPS system may be helpful, but you should never rely on this as your sole navigational assistance.

Types of Bug Out Bag

The standard bug out bag is there to help you survive in an emergency situation for at least 72 hours and up to seven days.

This is considered the most comprehensive bag and the largest, with people storing it at home somewhere easily accessible so they can be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

A get-home bag is another type of survival kit designed for just 24 hours of use, filled with contents that can help you get back home if you become lost, like a more compact and portable bug out bag.

If you’re hiking or visiting a place you’ve never been before and want to be ready for the worst, this might be helpful.

Others like to keep a car bug out bag, in a similar size to a get-home bag, with supplies that would allow them to survive for the night if their vehicle breaks down or they need to pull up somewhere for the night unexpectedly.

You can keep this stored in the trunk of your car, the back seat, or just take it with you if you’re traveling somewhere far away from home or going on a road trip.


The overall cost of a bug out bag can vary dramatically from person to person.

Each prepper will have different contents inside their bag; the quality of their bag will differ; and they may favor certain items over others that could change the price.

Generally speaking, you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars to assemble a bug out bag using a quality tactical backpack.

In addition to the initial investment in the bag and its supplies, you will need to replace or upgrade things as time goes on. The expiration date on certain medicines, foods, and water supplies might pass, or you’ll want to add or remove items to meet the needs of your family or household as it changes.

As a standard rule, you should review the contents of your bug out bag once every 12 months. Go through the checklist again and mark everything off, test the items that need testing, and replace anything that might have expired.

This is also a beneficial time to do a dry run with the backpack and see that it’s still functional and has no damage to it, as it’s not something you want to discover when you’re miles from home in a survival situation.


A fully equipped and carefully packed bug out bag is all the peace of mind you’ll ever need, even if you hope you never have to make use of it.

This is one thing in life that requires absolute precision, planning, and ongoing maintenance, but your very life could depend on getting it right someday.