When it comes to survival kits, you’ll get mixed reviews about the various types of kits (bug-out bag, get-home bag, car bag, etc.) and what should go into each of them. The truth is, there is no one single way to do a survival kit, and depending on the reason you are suddenly looking to a kit for the purposes of survival, different supplies will suit different needs.
Let’s discuss the most essential survival kit there is: the basic bug-out bag. The basic bug-out bag is stocked and kept with the idea of being useful if you should unexpectedly need to get away from your location and want to have all the basic necessities accounted for in one compact, carry-along package.
Different people take different approaches to stocking, storing and assigning responsibility for bug-out bags. In my household, each person has a bag with the basics in it so that each person could make do individually in a bug-out situation (although the kids’ bags are updated more often to reflect age-appropriate responsibility level and growing physical strength). We have all sorts of supplies on hand in the hopes of being able to handle any situation that comes our way—from brief power outage to outright disaster. Here is how I do the basic bug-out bag:
First things first: the bag itself
The importance of what goes in your bag is second only to the bag itself. Selecting a bag that is not too big for you to carry and not too small to be useful is key to creating a good bug-out bag. Duffel bags, backpacks, and even tote bags that close are ideal for use as all-purpose bug-out bags. As I mentioned before, we go by the “one bag per person” rule, so my husband uses a duffel, I have a zip-closure tote bag, and each of the kids has a small character backpack. In this way, no one gets bogged down with multiple bags and each person carries what he or she is easily capable of transporting.
Compact first-aid kit
It’s hard to envision survival without medical supplies. That’s why a compact yet comprehensive first-aid kit is the first essential that must go into every all-purpose bug-out bag. If doctors aren’t available and you become injured or ill, you will want to be able to tend your wounds competently. You can purchase pre-fab first-aid kits and add extras to them as you see fit to suit your individual needs. For example, if you use certain medications daily but are able to stash a surplus, this would be an ideal place to put them. I keep an extra bite kit tucked into my first-aid kit, since I live in an area where snakes and spiders are common.
A few good knives
Every bug-out bag should have a few good knives either tucked inside of it or strapped to it (although if you prefer, you can certainly just wear them on your belt). I am a firm believer in having a hollow-handle survival knife in your basic kit, because of the extra storage and versatile, multi-purpose uses such a blade offers. I keep waterproof matches, a friction saw, fishing gear, and a couple of bandages inside my knife handle, and it’s capped with a compass that has remained tried and true for many years, relieving me of the need to find other places within my bag to store such items. I also keep an itty-bitty folder knife and a Swiss-Army style multi-tool knife in my bag, so I have loads of blade types on hand. Your knife needs may differ, but these are the blades that I feel are most handy in a survival-away-from-home situation.
Guns and ammunition
If your survival kit includes guns and ammo, it’s best to keep at least one gun and its ammo in the bag or at least, very close at hand in the event of a bug-out situation. Whether you intend to use a gun for self-defense purposes or for hunting, you’ll want to have it easily accessible and have the ammo stashed neatly away with your other survival supplies. Like knives, gun preferences and needs will vary from person to person, and laws certainly differ from place to place. My personal baby—no laughing!—is a Ruger 10/22 with a sling. For now, it stays locked in a hard case yet easily accessible directly next to my survival supply closet, and in a bug-out situation I could sling it across my back and grab my bag and get the heck out of Dodge in the blink of an eye.
A means of purifying and storing water
Every bug-out bag should contain a device for storing and carrying water (a bottle, a canteen—whatever you prefer and are easily able to transport) and a means of purifying water from outside sources, since obviously a canteen, bottle, or other personal water supply is very finite. A variety of options are available, including filtered water bottles, bottles designed to create and store condensation, and purification tablets. I personally have several teeny-tiny bottles (seriously, they’re smaller than a trial-size aspirin bottle each) of purification tabs that I keep tucked away in my tote, giving me the ability to purify hundreds of gallons of low-quality water in order to make it potable for drinking and use in cooking.
Food and a way to cook it
Speaking of cooking, you’ve got to have food in your bug-out bag. I have discovered the joys of pre-made MREs (meals ready-to-eat) that require a cup of water and some boiling time. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that when I first became interested in survivalism and disaster preparedness I wasn’t always thinking things through, and I had a whole bag full of canned goods that was just unbelievably heavy, loud, and downright unwieldy. The canned stuff has been banished to the bug-in supply area and now my bug-out bag has handy-dandy (and most importantly, compact and lightweight) packets of MREs that carry a 20-year shelf life—unlike those pesky cans which I have to rotate out every one or two years. Each packet contains four servings of food, which is one for each member of my nuclear family. In a bug-out situation, you don’t want to count on game being plentiful, nor on scavenging always working out smoothly. It’s better to be prepared and have some food of your own to start with.
You’ll also need something to cook this food—and any food you come across—in. I have a compact mess kit that is made of aluminum and nests together in a neat little eight-inch package when not in use. With the twist of a wing nut, it opens up to reveal a frying pan, a cooking pot (with a metal handle so it can go over a fire), and a cup/bowl. I also keep a fold-away spork in the bag (and the kids have ones that came with their Happy Meals—who says fast food is useless for survivalists?).
You’ve got to have a means of making fire. I keep a magnesium fire starter in my bag, as well as the waterproof matches I mentioned earlier that stay tucked into my knife handle. Some people prefer to use batteries and aluminum foil or keep a bit of flint to strike with a knife. Whatever you choose, it’s best to opt for something that is long-lasting (so a book of standard matches is out) and dependable. I do have a Zippo-style lighter, as well, but in a situation where lighter fuel may be painfully finite, I prefer to be prepared with my little magnesium fire starter.
Compact shelter and clothing
The clothing you choose to keep in your bug-out bag should be carefully considered. What sorts of climates do you expect to encounter? How far from your home base will you possibly range? Use the answers to these questions to pack clothes, sleeping gear, and/or a means of compact shelter into your bag. I have basic sturdy canvas pants and long underwear stashed in my bag, as well as several pairs of socks, a beanie cap, some gloves, a sweater, and a few tank tops. This way, if I needed to get out fast, I could grab my jacket, my rifle and my bag and just boogie. Roll those clothes up tight (you can even use a vacuum-sealing bag to get them extra-super compact for storage) and tuck them away.
If you want to carry a bedroll in your bag, that’s a fine way to bring your sleep gear with you. I take an extra minimalist approach and have loads of Mylar “emergency blankets” stashed in the main compartment of my bag. These can keep you warm when it’s chilly, as well as acting as jackets or tarps or making a makeshift tent (with the help of some sticks). I’m all about multi-purpose wherever I can find it, and I think these Mylar blankets do the trick. One drawback is that they are space-age shiny, so they may not be ideal for staying hidden—at least not straight out of the package.
When it comes to versatility, I can’t sing the praises of paracord enough. This amazing multi-taking lightweight material can help you build shelter, start a fire, mend clothes, catch fish, secure belongings, and probably billions of other things. It is tough enough to be entrusted with being used in parachutes (thus the name), yet light enough to carry with ease. Stash a skein of paracord in your bug-out bag as-is, or weave it into a piece of jewelry so it’s on your person at all times. My kids each have paracord bracelets and my husband and I keep woven-paracord “fobs” on our keychains. However you choose to transport it, paracord is another bug-out bag must-have for survival.
When you’re away from home and surviving on the road, you will find binoculars to give you a good advantage whether you’re in the wilderness or in the city. Being able to see what’s headed your way (or what you are headed towards) from a distance can mean the difference between life and death when you’re living out of a bug-out bag, so I strongly recommend that everyone keep a spare set of binoculars in their basic survival kit. You never know when you’re going to need them!
Although you could probably get away with using a knife as a shovel in many situations, why dull the blade unnecessarily? A compact folding shovel is designed for digging and, when stored, takes up no more than five inches of space from tip to toe. These handy little devils may not be capable of excavating a mineshaft all by themselves, but they can work wonders if you need to bury something or dig down for a protected fire pit. A compact shovel is another bug-out must-have, and with its slim profile, you won’t have to sacrifice a lot of room in your bag to make this a welcome addition to the bag.