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When SHTF, you want to be prepared. And there’s no better way to do this than by putting together a bug out bag. What exactly is it? A bug out back is simply a portable kit filled with everything you need for survival. The best bug out bag should allow you to survive for a minimum of 72 hours (ideally, you should be able to survive with them for much longer). Can you buy one? You absolutely can. But they can be quite expensive, and sometimes won’t have everything you need for survival. I’ve found that it’s better to build your own. In the following guide, I’ll show you exactly how to do it.
Many people confuse “bug out bags” with “72-hour bags”. But they can actually be very different. As its name implies, a 72-hour bag is designed to keep you alive for three days (typically, long enough for help to arrive). They’re perfect for when you’ve gotten lost in the wild, or if your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
I believe that your bug out bag should be designed to help you survive for longer than 72 hours - ideally, you can be prepared to survive several weeks, which can be shorter or longer depending on the environment. The best bug out bag won’t be equipped the same way as a 72-hour bag, in my opinion (although some experts may say differently).
I’ve divided this article up into two parts. In the first, I’m going to review the best outdoor backpacks on the market. After that, I’ll show you exactly what to put inside your bag to optimize your chances of survival. Everyone has their own style when it comes to putting together the best bug out bag. I’ll be showing you mine. Remember, every bag should contain a few universal “core” elements. Your “secondary” elements will depend on your geographic location. With that said, let’s get started.
Part 1 – Choosing The Best Backpack
Think about how inefficient it would be to carry your survival tools by hand. You simply wouldn’t be able to maximize your load. That’s why having a quality backpack is so important. But you shouldn’t settle for just any old backpack.
You need something that’s durable, comfortable, and that can fit a lot of stuff. Remember, you never know how long a survival situation is going to last. The best bug out bag should allow you to survive indefinitely (or at a minimum, for several weeks). We’ll start by comparing two types of backpacks: tactical and hiking.
Tactical Backpack vs. Hiking Backpack
Although they may “look” the same, hiking and tactical backpacks are very different. I don’t think that either one is “better” than the other. It really depends on the person. Both backpack types have their pros and cons. To make the best choice, you’ll need to understand all of these. Otherwise, you’ll have a difficult time putting together the best bug out bag possible. We’ll start with discussing the pros and cons of hiking backpacks, then move on to discuss the pros and cons of tactical backpacks.
Hiking backpacks are designed for comfort. Considering that hikes can occur over very long distances, this makes sense. Hiking backpacks are also relatively light compared to tactical backpacks. If you’re going to be traveling many miles, where fatigue starts to play a role, then hiking backpacks are probably the better option. But where they thrive in comfort they lack in organization and space.
For hiking backpacks to be so light, companies remove various pouches and compartments which can be used for carrying extra gear. Since these bags have been slimmed down so much, you’ll have much less space to work with, making it harder to build the best bug out bag. If you’re an older person who can’t manage a lot of weight, then this may actually be an advantage.
If weight isn’t a concern, then tactical backpacks could be the better choice. This is especially true if you appreciate storage and organization. Although these backpacks tend to be on the heavier side, they are extremely durable, and can be carried through harsh terrain without worry of tearing. The primary benefit to picking this style backpack is that you can attach magazine pouches and utility packs directly to the bag itself using a MOLLE system.
WHAT ARE MOLLE PACKS?
The downside to buying a tactical backpack is that they’re heavy. If you have back issues, this is definitely a back you should avoid. Older people should probably avoid this type of bag as well. With that said, if you do decide to buy a tactical backpack, make sure that it’s a real tactical backpack (not a fake). There are hundreds of cheap Chinese knockoff bags that aren’t very durable. If you buy one of these, it’s likely they won’t stand the test of time.
7 Features to Consider When Buying a Backpack
By now, you should have a clear understanding of the differences between hiking backpacks and tactical backpacks. But if you’re going to build the best bug out bag, there are some other factors to keep in mind. Specifically, I want to show you 10 features to watch out for when buying a backpack. They include:
- Hydration Bladder Compatibility: A hydration bladder is a type of hydration system that can attach to your backpack. It’s basically a reservoir of water that comes with a long, flexible tube. It will allow you to drink water without using your hands. When putting together the best bug out bug, I highly recommend getting a hydration bladder (also known as a “Hydration Pack”).
- Padded Shoulder Straps: The shoulder straps are the main point of contact between you and your bag. As a result, it should be comfortable! Otherwise, the straps will wear away at your skin, causing a rash (which could get infected). Trust me- the moment you lift up that 40- to 50-pound backpack, you’ll be glad you purchased one with padded shoulder straps.
- Hip Straps: While your shoulders will take the brunt of the weight, you can help lessen the burden by getting a backpack with hip straps. Both tactical and hiking backpacks are available with hip straps that allow you to carry some of your bag’s weight with your hips and thighs. There’s also an added benefit to consider: some hip straps come with pockets so that you can carry additional items.
- Sternum Strap: A sternum strap is nothing more than a strap that holds both shoulder straps together. While simple in design, it can make a huge difference in lessening the amount of weight you feel on your shoulders. When building out the best bug out bag, this is a must-have feature.
- Water Resistance: This is a very important feature that a lot of people forget. The last thing you want is to get your stuff wet when you’re trying to survive. It makes everything that much harder. You shouldn’t even have to debate about whether or not you need water resistance…you absolutely need it! If you don’t get one, it will be that much harder to build the best bug out bag
- Zippers: Believe it or not, this is a very important tip to keep in mind. To prevent fraying, you need zippers that are highly durable. Also, pay attention to the size of the zipper. If the zippers are too small, or if they’re made from a cheap material, I would avoid that specific backpack. Otherwise, you’ll end up with frayed zippers that will be difficult to open (which is the last thing you need in a survival situation).
- Back Padding: The last feature I would keep in mind is whether or not the backpack has back padding. If there’s not enough back padding, the material in your bag rubbing up against your back can be very uncomfortable. This is why it’s important to try on the backpack before committing to buying it (or at the very least, read reviews on people who’ve already bought it to see if the back padding is suitable for your needs).
Building the best bug out bag starts with choosing the right backpack. Once you chosen between the two styles above (tactical or hiking), then you’ll want to go a step further by keeping this 7 considerations in mind. Your bag doesn’t necessarily need to have all these features, but the closer you can get, the better. Now I want to show you some of the best outdoor backpacks on the market today. Let’s take a look.
The Best Backpacks
TETON SCOUT 3400 BACKPACK
The Teton Scout 3400 Backpack is quite possibly the best bug out bag you can buy. With mesh lumbar support, durable zippers, and comfortable shoulder straps, you won’t be disappointed. Until you put it on, you won’t believe just how comfortable it really is.
This backpack features a safety yellow rainfly that will stay concealed until you need it. To protect your gear and pack, simply pull it out. I also like the fact that the main compartment on this backpack closes very securely. When trying to put together the best bug out bag you can, this is a solid option to consider.
May 2019 Update: This is still Amazon's #1 Best Selling internal frame backpack. With over 2,000 reviews (68% of which are 5-star, and another 22% of which are 4-star, this one is worth your consideration.) Click the image below to check it out.
HIGH SIERRA TITAN 65 BACKPACKThis internal frame backpack offers 65-liters worth of space, an adjustable top lid, and even a sleeping bag compartment. The first thing you’ll notice about this pack is that it’s very ergonomic. The signature ERGO-FIT technology that’s built into the bag’s shoulder straps is super-useful when traveling long distances. The best bug out bag should also be lightweight and made from durable fabric- which is exactly what the High Sierra Titan 65 Backpack offers.
The bag features dual mesh pockets that are capable of holding 1000 mL water bottles, as well as zippered pockets for quickly accessing important items. Not to mention, you’re backed by a reputable brand, High Sierra.
OSPREY ATMOS 65 AG BACKPACK
The Osprey Atmos 65 AG Backpack is a versatile option that will seamlessly contour to your body. For venturing off into the unknown, there’s no other bag I’d rather have. It’s a continuous weave of ultralight mesh that extends from the hip belt to the top of the back panel. Basically, it will make for a more comfortable fit, and provide you with more unrestricted movement while hiking. There’s no doubt that this can come in handy when putting together the best bug out bag possible.
SANDPIPER OF CALIFORNIA LONG RANGE BUGOUT BACKPACK
There’s not much to say about the Sandpiper of California Long Range Bugout Backpack other than it’s awesome. It will provide you with the ability to carry your gear for days. The bag’s main compartment is able to handle all of your organizational, communication, and hydration needs.
Another reason why you can use it to build the best bug out bag is because it comes with a padded lumbar area. When traveling long distances, this is a feature you’ll really come to appreciate. The bag features multiple areas to tie down attachments, and you can even mix in your MOLLE pouches for additional customization. Overall, it’s a solid option in my opinion.
5.11 TACTICAL RUSH 72 BACKPACK
Although last on this list, it’s still on par with the best bug out bag on the market. The RUSH 72 Backpack features everything you could ever want or need in a bag. Firstly, it comes with two large compartments as well as a compression strap system. These are designed to provide you with expandability (useful if you have a lot of gear).
The front of the bag comes with an organizer panel as well as a pair of zippered mesh compartments. The main compartment comes with three mesh zippered pockets, as well as a cinch pocket that’s relatively large. What I love most about this bag is that it’s waterproof. The bag’s 1050-denier nylon material is built to last while the zippers and plastic clips will be able to take a beating. Building the best bug out bag just became a whole lot easier with the 5.11 Tactical Rush 72 Backpack.
Part 2 – Bug Out Bag Essentials
By this point, you should have a good understanding of your backpack options. Now I’m going to show you what you need to place in your bag to help you survive. This is where most people fail. I’d much rather have a cheap bag with the right items than an expensive bag with the wrong items. With that said, let’s take a look at what items you’re going to need to build the best bug out bag possible.
Of course today you can find numerous "ready to go" bags - much like the Rescue Guard one you see to the right, which is equipped with emergency supplies for up to 12 days.
I’m going to mention hydration first because, quite frankly, this is the most important thing to remember when putting together the best bug out bag. First and foremost, know that the human body can only go 72 hours without water (you can go several weeks without food). For this reason, you need to make sure that all of your hydration needs are met. To do this, you’ll need the following:
- 3 Liters of Drinking Water
- Water Purification Tablets (Minimum of 3)
- Water Filters
- Water Bottle (Collapsible and Regular)
It’s crucial that you maintain the ability to filter/purify water. Why? Because your initial water supply is going to run out pretty quickly, especially if you’re exerting yourself. Having a water filter (like the LifeStraw) and water purification tablets will allow you to turn any water source into safe drinking water.
Once you’ve taken care of your hydration needs, it’s time to worry about food. It’s fairly obvious, but make sure you pack foods that won’t spoil! Dehydrated foods are great for this since they last a long time. When building the best bug out back, make sure you bring metal cookware and utensils rather than plastic ones. They’re simply more durable and resistant to heat. Here’s a list of foods and food-related items to put in your bag:
- Can Opener (This is a biggie that people tend to forget)
- Canned Food
- Energy Bars (Get ones with a lot of protein for energy)
- Silverware (It’s not sanitary to eat with your hands)
- Dehydrated Meals
Remember, don’t go crazy with the food. You can go a lot longer without food than you can water. Plus, depending on where you live, food will be easier to come by than water (you can kill wild game for example). MREs and protein/energy bars tend to be relatively cheap when you buy them in bulk. And if you buy a dehydrator, you can stockpile dehydrated foods at home.
You can’t build the best bug out bag without adequate first aid equipment. Survival situations are extremely unpredictable. You never know when you’re going to become injured. Even small cuts can become infected (and lead to death) if you don’t take care of them properly.
Make sure that your first aid kit contains the basics:
At first glance, it may seem like a lot of items. But trust me- you can never be over-prepared for an emergency first aid situation. You can buy a first aid kit readily assembled, or you can put one together yourself (I prefer the first option). To build the best bug out bag, don’t skimp out on first aid items!
MyMedic is a huge supplier of custom First Aid Kits and they are lauded by numerous organizations that got my attention. Numerous branches of the United States Armed Forces use them, as do emergency personnel and law enforcement. Take a look at what they have to offer here.
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To further personalize your bug out bag, you’ll want to think about the kind of clothing you’re going to take. Obviously, the clothes you bring with you will depend on your geographic location. As a general rule of thumb, make sure that you have a selection of clothes for each season (swap them out as you move from season to season). Also, the best bug out bag should have a minimum of one set of extra clothes. The last thing you want is to be exposed to the elements with wet clothes. It can quickly cause you to go into hypothermia (which can kill you).
To make it through a survival situation, you need to be well-rested. But this can be near impossible if you don’t have a shelter, or at the very least, a sleeping bag. You should always separate yourself from the elements as much as possible when you sleep. To do this, consider packing the following in your bug out bag:
- Wool Blanket
- Sleeping Bag
There’s really no need for a pillow in this case. They take up a lot of space, and they’re more of a luxury than an actual necessity when trying to survive. The tarp can be used for when it’s raining, while the wool blanket can be used for when it’s cold.
The best bug out bag should come with a few essential hygienic items. These include:
- Hand Sanitizer
- Tooth Brush & Toothpaste
- Toilet Paper (Super Important)
The toilet paper is important because you won’t have anything to wipe with otherwise. The toothbrush and toothpaste can reduce your risk of tooth infections. If you go too long without brushing, you’re more prone to bacterial infections, which can be deadly if left untreated. Hand sanitizer and soap are for keeping your hands clean, particularly before you eat. Shampoos and conditioners aren't necessary since they’re not very practical and only take up space. Remember, you only need things that are going to help you survive.
Other Important Items to Consider
Finally, let’s take a look at some other important items that you’re going to need when building the best bug out bag:
- Ignition Source, Tinder, and Water Proof Storage (Purpose: Making Fires)
- Survival Knife, Machete, and Multi-Tool (Purpose: General Camp Maintenance)
- LED Headlamp, Candles, and Batteries (Purpose: Lighting)
- Emergency Radio w/ Hand Crank and Cell Phone (Purpose: Communication)
- Compass and Local Area Map (Purpose: Navigation)
- Rifle, Handgun, and Pepper Spray (Purpose: Self-Defense/Protection From Animals)
- Sunglasses, Duct Tape, Binoculars, Fishing Kit, and Re-Sealable Bags (Purpose: General Use)
Best Bug Out Bag – Bottom Line
While building the best bug out bag requires a lot of work, it’s definitely worth the monetary and time investment. As the old saying goes, “It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”. In this particular case, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The best bug out bag will allow you to stay alive when SHTF.
- Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit (by Creek Stewart, on Amazon)
- 75 Bug Out Bag List Essentials (Bug Out Bag Academy)
- How I Build My 25 Pound Bug Out Bag (Gray Wolf Survival)
- 50 Items You Forgot To Put In Your Bug Out Bag (Urban Survival Site)
This post originally published March 1, 2016; updates added May 2019.