What’s in Your Go Bag?

By definition a Go Bag is created to care for emergency situations of unknown origin and severity.  Consider Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina as an example of situations anyone of us can find ourselves in with little or no warning.  As we have learned from those disasters, people in an urban or city environment are just as at risk as those in rural areas, maybe even more so. We as humans tend to get comfortable with our living conditions and can easily forget how disastrous it can be when infrastructure fails and there is no heat, electricity, or clean water. Our hope is that you take this advice and apply it to your lifestyle and environment as best you can, and hopefully you will never need to utilize the information or equipment. As the famous quote from Ben Franklin reminds us “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

We realize it is unrealistic to think a gym bag or backpack would be large enough to accommodate all the needs of every “what if” one can imagine.  The subject of this blog is to provide some guidance on the basics of a “Go Bag.”  From this template, you can modify or enhance based on the environment, threat or situation.

The Bag:

As a backpacker, I go to a pack type configuration as my favored option.  Any sturdy day pack of 30-35Liters is sufficient for the basics of a Go Bag with room to spare for your situational needs.  By choosing a pack from a reputable company that offers some features like robust suspension, hydration bladder compatibility and multiple pockets you are ahead of the power curve.  You just never know when you will have to be foot mobile so the better the load carry capability the more flexibility you have. For that reason, I do not recommend a gym bag or box of some sort (rubber maid, ammo can, etc).

First Aid:

I look at first aid as a three tiered system:

  • The first level is training and maintaining the Emergency Medical Skills required to work with emergency trauma and the requisite equipment.  Skills taught in Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Basic, Wilderness EMT or Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) style courses are recommended.
  • The second level is a trauma kit.  This kit would include a tourniquet (TQ) (beware of where you purchase these/knock offs are on sale on the net), occlusive dressings, nasopharyngeal airway, decompression needle, “Israeli” Bandages, shears and QuikClot.  This kit should be packaged in a pouch that is dedicated to trauma.  You don’t want to dig through a big bag full of “boo boo kit” bandages and ointment to get to your TQ.
  • The third and final tier is the aforementioned “boo boo kit” full of bandages, ointment, etc. We’ve covered first aid basics and recommend reading that as a starting point.

Water:

Purification of water when facing the unknown is critical.  I become obsessive about water when we hike (everything is linked to when do we get to the next source; caring for my filter like a newborn) and in an extreme situation the last thing you need is coming down with the Mung or other stomach funk that drains you, dehydrates you and eventually can kill you.  Another thing I am a believer in is redundancy so mixing into your Go Bag two of your preferred purification methods is recommended.  These can be a filter, SteriPen, LifeStraw, purifying tablets, or any of the other purification gadgets currently available.  Ensure you have equipment that will sustain you for a significant length of time, easy to use/practical and you have confidence in its function and maintainability. REI carries a wide variety of options, just make sure whichever option(s) you choose, you know how to use them properly.

A hydration bladder is a terrific option for a Go Bag and I recommend you consider adding one. They are virtually weightless when empty and offers hands free hydration options and ease the purification process. Camelbak, Platypus and Osprey have all engineered the bladders to be extremely robust and tough; however, I am a proponent of adding a Nalgene to your bag as well.  It can act as a waterproof storage container and will not puncture or crack under even the most extreme abuse.  The Nalgene also offers true extreme water collection in the use of solar stills, capturing rain, etc.

Fire, Shelter, Food and Signal:

Like purification, you have a myriad of fire starting options and as mentioned earlier redundancy is value add.  Both my partner and I have magnesium fire starting/striker style tools and we both carry dryer lint in a ziploc.  This is a terrific mix for starting a fire under almost any condition.  Like the medical piece, I do recommend you enhance your soft skills by YouTubing some basic fire starting methods (the primitive ones are good to understand as well) and practice on a day hike or in the back yard when the pressure isn’t on.  I also carry disposable lighters and waterproof matches.

Before meeting Melanie, I never slept in a tent while backpacking so I base my recommendations for a Go Bag on this experience.  A military style poncho (material is bombproof) or a tarp with 550 (para) cord and some lightweight bungees make a terrific lightweight shelter that provides a variety of options.  It can also be used as a litter and water collection point.  Dental floss with a small sewing need inside the case made it into my Escape and Evasion kit for Afghanistan.  It is virtually unbreakable, can be used to sew / repair materials and lash shelters together.

Supplementing shelter with good, multi use garments (waterproof/water resistant and insulating) are critical.  I recommend an Arc Teryx Atom jacket or like layer as the one go to.  Additional socks from DarnTough or Smart Wool are also a good add and can not only act as their intended function but as gloves, bandages or pot holders.  A pair of light trail pants, preferably with DWR finish, should also be considered.  As a bald guy, I always go with a wool watch cap.  We all know when your feet are cold put on a hat – enough said.  Wool and its synthetic brethren over cotton for its wicking and insulating properties is the best material. Wool not only insulates when it’s wet and dry, but it also repels odors, so you can wear the same base layers for days without grossing out anyone within 20 feet of you. Remember “cotton kills.”  Throw in a couple of space blankets as well, they can add extra warmth to a sleeping bag or be used as a shelter or windbreak.

For food, we as outdoors people understand the virtue of high calorie nutrition in small packages, and this holds true for both hiking/camping and emergency situations.  Refer to Melanie’s extensive discussion on the subject here.  Adding fuel and a Jet Boil to the Go Bag to accommodate the dehydrated food recommended is a good idea, but realize that it will be difficult to sustain (fuel) in a protracted situation/incident or extreme environment. Depending on the length of emergency, consider food alternatives and rationing as part of your planning.  Adding a titanium/lightweight pot to your bag will assist in mitigating this longer term risk. It can also act as a water collection receptacle and signal device (bang on that joker). Lightweight is key here, remember you may be carrying your stuff for unknown distances over unknown terrain. Ramen noodles are light to carry easy to cook, and high in calories. The tuna salad kits they sell are great too and come with crackers to help give a nice balance of protein and carbs.

Light is a terrific signal device. Travels incredibly far and in modern flashlights comes in bombproof, light packages.  I am a huge fan of Surefire, having employed one in combat under a variety of conditions.  With an investment of a little over $100 one can have 600 lumens in a package a little bigger than a roll of quarters (buy extra batteries too).  A good light like this can also scare animals, act as a striking device and blind a ne’er do well. Additional signal devices in small packages include strobe lights, “Glow” Sticks and a signal mirror (Walmart ones are about $5).  With some of the 550 cord you bring, you can tie a “Glow” stick on one end of the string and create what we call a “buzz saw,” by swinging it around in a circle over your head.  Perfect to signal rescue aircraft or foot mobile search parties.  Of course, the ultimate signal device of the modern age, our cell phones will always be with us in a bad situation.  Add to it a charger with multiple recharging usage and a solar panel if possible.  It is always good to consider that in many situations cell service or even electric may not be an option so cell phones are a terrific tool, but not one to rely on.

And without a phone how will one find their way? Waze isn’t working you say?  Land navigation is a critical skill to us as backpackers, but we even lean on technology with GPS use. Remember our brains and a Silva Ranger don’t use batteries.  Have in your Go Bag maps of the area at the least and a good solid compass and like medical skills, you need to seek training on this perishable skill. If you live in an area prone to certain types of natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.), you should plan ahead and choose at least two places you could evacuate to if necessary and know how to get there by car and by foot.

Weapons and Tools:

Now when I thought to write about this subject I wanted to lean heavily on our backpacking roots and avoid the “Doomsday Prepper” feel that many Go Bag articles lean toward.  That being said adding a firearm to a Go Bag does provide protection from animals (two legged kind included) and can put meat on the table so it should be considered within the packing list.  You can debate on type and caliber all day and like any tool there isn’t one “go to” firearm for every situation.

Training in the safe operation of the weapon selected is paramount.  After that an understanding of its capability and having it “zeroed” (where you aim is where the bullet will hit at a determined distance) is next. From there I advise you become proficient with your selection with realistic practice.  Shoot against a time standard with paper targets to record your shots and progress.  Shooting beer bottles in the lot out back isn’t going to cut it here.

A good knife is important too.  A heavy, fixed blade knife can be used as a striking tool, firestarter and overall cutting tool.  It can be used for protection and skinning game as well.  I do suggest staying away from the “Rambo” foot long pig sticker.  Gerber, K Bar and Benchmade all make variants that balance size, weight and utility.  A sharpener is always a good add and is light weight.

A folding saw and multi-tool should round out your tools for the Go Bag.

Mindset:

The Go Bag has the equipment you need to stay alive, but if you don’t know how to implement that equipment, you are still at risk.  The most important thing you have is your training and knowledge.  Throughout this blog, I reference a need for training in medical skills, fire starting and firearms training.  Sustained training in these type skills can easily be the difference in a bad situation.  Overall mindset is important as well.  Realize that you are planning for contingencies involving worst case scenarios of various origin.  You may be called upon to make choices and do things that are well outside of your comfort zone, even as an avid backpacker and outdoors person, and realize that you can’t “set your clock” on the incident that prompted you to go to the “bag.”  You need to be prepared for a protracted event of unknown origin.  It’s tough.

Also consider not only your tools and skills, but your role as a leader for your family and loved ones.  Do they know the plan?  Have you selected and communicated rendezvous points in case of a situation?  Think about our days in elementary school during a fire drill.  We assemble at the flag pole for a headcount and NO TALKING! Have a plan that is clear, concise and communicated.  Collect your party at the rendezvous and then implement your overall plan applying your skills and Go Bag.

Another important consideration is to think about your pets. If you plan on evacuating by vehicle, ensure that you have crates for your pets, and bring leashes for all dogs. Take their needs into consideration and make sure you have food and water (and bowls!) for them as well as yourself and your family. TurboPup makes meal bars for dogs (our dogs have tested them and love them!), which are a great thing to consider for your canine friends.

If you choose to take this information and build out your Go Bag try and have fun with it.  Consider being a minimalist.  How much can I get in this bag of value?  What training would apply?  Get your kids involved and consider having a survival themed camping trip   Think about things like The Walking Dead and how they overcome certain challenges and what obvious challenges they ignore (as is the luxury of being a TV show and not real life). Keep it fun and educational for yourself and your loved ones and practice often. You’ll definitely be glad you did if disaster ever strikes!

Stay safe.

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