When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to get out of Dodge, a decent respect for the integrity of one’s spine demands that every item in your bug-out bag be submitted to a candid evaluation. Forgive me for cheekily paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, but it does make a point that every preparedness minded individual needs to consider: if and when you need to get out fast with only the items you can carry on your back, what are you going to take, and what are you going to carry it in?
The first major consideration that you need to, um, well, consider, is the type of pack you will want to select (If you already have a pack and know how to use it, then, please, skip a paragraph.) There are two types of packs popular today: internal frame and external frame.
As the name implies, an internal frame pack has a rigid metal frame buried deep within the bowels of the pack. Internal frame packs are designed to perform well on rugged and treacherous terrain. They ride close to the body and are heavily padded for comfort. The actual stowage space on an internal frame is the long, narrow pack body. All your goods are accessed from the top, which can be a problem if the item you’re trying to find is tucked away in the bottom corner of the pack.
An external frame pack is essentially a metal frame with hip belts, a pack, and some convenient nylon mesh pockets attached to it. External frames are designed for easy access and a large carrying capacity: if something won’t fit in the pack itself, just lash it on to the frame and off you go! The drawback of external frame packs is that they tend not to be nearly as self-contained and well balanced as internal frame packs.
The selection of a pack really depends on your personal preference, and the environment that you anticipate you will be carrying it in. As I live near mountainous terrain, I favor an internal frame configuration. Go to a local sporting goods shop and try on a couple of different packs to find one that fits your body and the climate.
After you’ve selected your pack and figured out the straps and buckles (can’t help you there, every pack is different.) you will need to determine what to pack. Camping stores offer plenty of fun-looking, lightweight gadgets like origami snapware and ‘backpacker’ camp chairs. Resist the urge to buy these. Your pack will be quite heavy enough just carrying the essentials.
The human body needs three elements to survive in the outdoors: these are, in order of importance; water, shelter, and food. When you pack your bug-out bag, focus on these three essentials.
Water: Without water, even the toughest individual would be dead in a matter of days. Pack three means of purifying water: a hand-pump filter, preferably an easily cleaned ceramic model, water purification tablets, and a fuel efficient backpacking stove to boil water for drinking, cleaning, and cooking. Of course, you can usually build a fire to boil water with, but you may not always have the time or energy. Always, always filter water before drinking, it may look clean, but if it’s not [free of microorganisms], you could wind up ‘running’ out both ends.
Shelter: In most climates for most of the year you will want to have a tent along. Most backpacking tents are sturdy enough for hiking and camping in spring, summer, and fall, but are inadequate in heavy snow or cold-weather conditions. My advice would be to have two tents: a lightweight, well-ventilated backpacking tent for summer situations and a heavy duty ["four season"] dome tent for winter. Change the tents and clothing in your pack, seasonally.
Food: You will be limited in how much food you can carry, regardless of the size and weight of your pack. My personal favorite is Mountain House freeze-dried food. Pound for pound, freeze-dried food weighs less and tastes better than any other backpacking food I have ever used. An additional bonus is that, being dehydrated, all you have to do is add water, swish it around and eat it right out of the pouch. I have experimented with many other kinds of food over the course of my backpacking career, and none has matched the convenience, weight, taste, and portability of freeze-dried food.
For food preparation, consider carrying a lightweight stove. You can survive without one, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Some models of stove can run on multiple fuel types, and if you are planning on roughing it long term, a flex-fuel model is a smart choice.
Personally, I use the Jetboil, because it is self-contained, lightweight, easy to clean, and very, very fuel efficient, which is good, because it runs off of a specialized fuel mix.
If you want to eat the food you prepare, bring along an insulated metal mug and a fork/spoon/knife combination utensil. Do not, under any circumstances, pack or buy origami eat ware. Although it is lightweight, it is also ridiculously flimsy. So, unless you want to be eating out of your bare hands, go with a good old fashioned mug and spork.
Some items are not absolute essentials, but are very, very nice to have. The first and most important nonessential item is camper’s toilet paper. Some locales, especially in the west, lack herbage with soft, fluffy leaves, so unless you want to use pine needles (very strongly not recommended.) or hay (again, from personal experience—don’t try it.) bring along camper’s toilet paper, which is essentially super-absorbent toilet paper on a streamlined roll. Supplement this supply with natural substitutes whenever you can.
In that same vein, bring along a sturdy plastic garden spade to bury your waste with. Make sure you store this shovel in a sealed plastic bag.
A tough, sturdy plastic tarp is another useful nonessential. A tarp can serve as the footprint for your tent, or you can use it as a ground cloth to sleep out under the stars in nice weather. Bring along a spool of medium-weight nylon cord so you can use the tarp as a cooking fly or to augment your tent in heavy rain.
A sturdy, closed-cell foam sleeping pad will make your nights much more comfortable. Avoid generic brands if you can, because they tend to be much thinner and are more prone to tearing. I have a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad that has lasted me for five years and is still in good shape. Although inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable than foam pads, they tend to leak, and are generally more prone to failure.
Another item that should probably be an essential is a good knife. A sharp cutting tool is essential to human survival. Bring along a sharpener that is effective and that you are comfortable using. If you are planning on making a fire, a hatchet is also useful, but not essential.
Well, that’s it. This is all the essential gear that you will need for your bug-out bag. Remember, these are the essentials. You will want to pack other items in order to fill out your bug-out bag; things like ammunition, a slingshot, and duct tape (of course.) After you assemble your pack and gear, make sure that you go on at least one week-long trek, so that you can practice packing and carrying your bug-out-bag. Keep your bag packed and ready if you don’t live at your predetermined retreat site. You may be carrying it sooner than you think.