Bug-Out Bag: What to Pack for a Disaster

person promoting product for emergencies and survivalists
Creek Stewart, author of "Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag.".

WillowHavenOutdoor / Build the perfect bug out bag / Youtube screen capture

Natural disasters like the tornadoes in Oklahoma and Superstorm Sandy will be more common due to climate change, say the experts. Events like these may make you wonder if you’d be able to get yourself and my family to safety if a disaster were to strike. Could you evacuate your home with supplies — including important documents — at a moment's notice?

Perhaps you've caught an episode or two of "Doomsday Preppers" on the National Geographic Channel and laughed at the preppers and the lengths they go to for peace of mind. But all kidding aside, how prepared are you?

"I am not a doomsday vigilante that some occasionally associate with the topic," says Creek Stewart, author of "Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit," who agreed to answer our questions. "My philosophy is this: prepare for real disasters that happen to regular people on a regular basis."

Surprisingly, the emergencies Stewart alludes to are not associated with a global pandemic or collapse of our government. They're events like Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, wildfires, and the recent Oklahoma tornadoes. He believes that most of us are not prepared to deal with disruptions in the amenities (electricity, gas, water, and trash removal) we rely on every day. He points out that the average downtime associated with these events is 72 hours.

The "72-hour kit" is another name for the bug-out bag, and it's riding a wave of popularity. Even Pinterest — that online home for all things bucolic — has boards dedicated to the bug-out bag. And Uncrate, a “digital magazine for guys who love stuff,” did a popular feature on the bug-out bag.

Bugging out, in the parlance of survivalists, is making the decision to evacuate your home due to a disaster. Most of us are not prepared to evacuate, but we can get more comfortable with the idea if we follow some simple rules and tips outlined by Stewart.

To help prioritize what should go into a bug-out bag, Stewart points to the Three Rules of Survival, which presume that a person can survive for three hours without shelter in extreme conditions, three days without water and three weeks without food. A well-packed bug-out bag should include everything needed for these three days.

The bug-out bag essentials

Stewart refers to shelter, fire, water, and food as the "Core Four" of a bug-out bag. These are areas your bag must address if you expect to survive.

Shelter: You need a tent or tarp to create a shelter. According to Stewart, hypothermia is the leading cause of outdoor-related deaths.

Fire: You need matches, lighters, flint, and steel to be able to produce fire, which you'll need to regulate your core body temperature, sanitize water and prepare food.

Water: While the Red Cross suggests carrying enough water per person for three days, you can't really carry enough to survive for an extended time, so you need the ability to boil and purify water. A steel container to boil and hold water is essential.

Food: "In my experience, people tend to pack way too much food," writes Stewart. "Remember, we can live for three weeks without food, but ironically, most people start packing food first. My advice is to pack a handful of high-calorie energy bars. These are small, lightweight, and packed with calories. It's not about five-star dining; it's about surviving from Point A to Point B."

Is there one item that cannot be left out of a bug-out bag? "If I had to pick just one item, it would be a sheltering item such as an emergency survival blanket or sleeping bag," Stewart said.

More important items for a bug-out bag

After the core of your bug-out bag has been established, it's time to start filling it with the next level of items, things you're likely to forget to pack in an emergency.

  • Clothing: Pack enough clothing for three days.
  • Wet weather clothing: Rain gear to keep you comfortable and dry.
  • Source of light: A sturdy flashlight and batteries. A good flashlight can also act as a non-lethal weapon.
  • Identification: Your passport, driver's license, state identification card, and birth certificate.
  • Legal documents: If you need to evacuate your home quickly, you may need to prove ownership of your home or automobile at a later date.
  • Medications: Prescriptions and schedules.
  • Maps: A map of where you live and where you're headed will keep you on the right track. You can't rely on GPS from your phone if the battery is dead.
  • Radio: A solar/hand-cranked radio will help you stay abreast of developments and emergency announcements.
  • Phone chargers
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Water purification filters
  • First-aid kit
  • Emergency contact information
  • Blankets
  • Cash: Extra cash in small bills, including coins for payphones.
  • Personal hygiene items.
  • Comfortable, sturdy shoes.
  • Toilet paper.

Bugging out on a budget

Experts recommend packing a bug-out bag for every member of the family. The price of tents, tools, stoves, and water purification filters can make being prepared for an emergency out of reach for many. Stewart points out these large and expensive items can be shared. One bug-out bag carried by the strongest member of the family can store this gear. Things like extra clothing, medications, water, sleeping bags, and blankets can be added to the bags of other family members.

If you researching the topic of bug-out bags, you’ll notice no shortage of photos and mentions of guns and knives. Will you be trying to head to safety and survive or taking down a small army? Are weapons really a necessity?

"Unfortunately, yes. It is a statistical fact that violent crimes skyrocket during the aftermath and chaos following every large-scale disaster. Disasters simply overwhelm existing and established public safety efforts," Stewart writes. "The good guys can't be everywhere at the same time and the bad guys know it. In my opinion, one would be naive (and foolish) to not include some sort of self-defense tool in a bug-out bag. Pepper spray is an excellent item to carry."