What to Pack in a Compact Go-Bag
A go-bag, also known as an emergency bag or a bug out bag (BOB), is a backpack containing a curated selection of gear and supplies to survive an emergency that forces you to leave your home.
Learn how to build a lightweight go-bag that contains everything you need during any type of emergency.
Choosing a Suitable Compact Bag
Before choosing the right supplies, you must select a suitable backpack. The central element of your go-bag is the type of bag you’ll use to store your supplies.
Standard go-bags are typically hiking, military, or tactical backpacks, with an internal capacity ranging between 40 and 60 liters. If you’re interested in building a compact go-bag, choose a model at the lower end of that size range (40-45 is a good starting point).
Once you know what bag capacity you want, look for backpacks offering the following features:
- Inconspicuous colors, such as olive drab, coyote brown, or khaki, or a camouflage pattern matching your local environment.
- A properly sized bag that fits your body comfortably.
- A sleeping bag compartment.
- Dedicated water bottle or canteen pockets, allowing you to save internal space
- A waterproof backpack cover (alternatively, constructed from 100% waterproof materials).
- Hip belt pockets for carrying items you want to access quickly.
- Gel-padded shoulder straps to properly distribute your backpack’s weight. Foam padding isn’t recommended because it wears out more rapidly than gel.
- Additional stability straps at the chest and hips.
Items to Bring in Your Compact Go-Bag
Although the composition of a go-bag may vary based on the type of emergency, you’re planning for and your personal preferences, each go-bag should contain a list of essentials that works in any situation.
Here’s a breakdown of the item categories found in most go-bags:
- Survival gear
One of the essential go-bag item categories is sustenance items: food, water, and ancillary tools to potentially help you refill your supplies.
A go-bag must contain enough food and water to last you for at least three days. To keep it as compact as possible, you should only carry enough sustenance for yourself.
Adding more food and water for a partner or other family members adds weight and bulk. Ideally, other family members should have their own go-bags and supplies.
Water is one of the most challenging supplies to carry in large quantities because it is indispensable for life yet incompressible.
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recommends an average daily total water intake of 3.7 liters (about 1 gallon) for men and 2.7 liters (0.7 gal.) for women. So, three days of water should be between 2.1 and 3 gallons.
However, packing this much water is impractical. Each gallon of water is about 8.34 lbs. Carrying 3 gallons of water also won’t leave you with enough space for your other supplies.
The best way to compensate for this issue is to know the lay of the land. Learn how to find your area’s natural bodies of water and rely on them as much as possible to refill your water reserves (or avoid tapping into them entirely). You may need water purification tools to ensure that the water is safe.
Recommended go-bag water items:
- 1 gallon of drinking water in the format of your choice (1-liter, 2-liter, 1-gallon bottles or hydropacks).
- Survival water filtration straw such as a LifeStraw.
- Water purification tablets.
The food inside a go-bag should be compact, ready to eat with little to no preparation, highly nutritious, lightweight, and a long shelf life. A typical go-bag contains enough emergency food to survive without supplies or resources for three days.
However, the best way to plan to replenish your resources for long-term emergencies is to learn to forage and sustain yourself from natural resources.
Recommended go-bag food items:
- Packaged food rations in soft, pliable bags, such as military MREs or civilian hiking food rations.
- High-calorie food bars like energy bars, granola bars, or protein bars.
- Instant oatmeal or grits.
- Trail mix bags with unsalted and unsweetened ingredients like nuts and seeds.
- Dried or dehydrated foods, including jerky, fruits, and vegetables.
Food items to avoid:
- Unless you have the space to spare, heavy and bulky items, such as canned food.
- Short shelf-life items.
- Sodium-rich items (salt is dehydrating, depleting your water reserves more quickly).
Go-bags should contain two categories of medical items: first-aid equipment and any prescription medications you might need.
A suitable first-aid kit (FAK) should be compact, lightweight, and easy to carry, such as an easy-to-identify pouch or section of your bag for quick access. Although there are many ready-made first-aid kits for camping, military, or tactical applications, the best FAKs are those you made yourself, carrying everything you need and nothing you don’t.
If you are on prescription meds, supplement your FAK with enough meds for three days. Check your meds regularly to check for expiration dates, replacing anything expired or about to expire.
In the context of go-bag supplies, the term “shelter” refers to ways to protect yourself from the elements other than your clothing.
Minimalist shelter items should include a portable survival tent, such as a 1-person emergency Mylar tent, and one sleeping bag, which should help you keep out of harsh weather conditions. You should also pack around 250 feet of paracord to use for lashing together a makeshift shelter. Paracord can be woven into a bracelet or lanyard for easy packability.
Other Survival Gear
Once you have sustenance, medical, and shelter items ready, you can complete your go-bag with various survival items to help in an emergency. Here are some of the most critical survival tools to consider adding to your go-bag:
- Portable battery-powered radio: Necessary for listening to the Emergency Broadcast System and other messages from the authorities.
- Survival knife: There are numerous potential uses and applications for a quality survival knife in an emergency, including hunting, dressing, self-defense, wood-splitting, and as a utensil.
- Local map: Although your smartphone may come with free map applications, a local paper map of your region is a lightweight, compact alternative that doesn’t require batteries to read.
- Portable stove kit: Prioritize mini camping stoves or minimalist folding stoves designed to burn solid fuel, as they are the smallest and the lightest.
- Fire-starting kit: Includes everything you need to start a campfire, even in damp conditions. This is necessary to keep yourself warm or cook food.
- Dedicated flashlight: Indispensable when moving at night or in low-light conditions.
- Compact lockpicking kit: Very lightweight and easy to carry, and a better option than bolt-cutters for bypassing locks.
- Spare batteries for the radio and flashlight.
- Solid fuel tablets for the stove kit.
Documents and Papers
If you need to evacuate your home due to a natural disaster, there is an unfortunate possibility that you won’t have a home to return to in the end. Consider keeping copies of essential documents in your go-bag, such as:
- Identification (driver’s licenses, passports).
- Vital records (birth certificates, marriage certificates, child custody papers, adoption papers).
- Household documents (deed or lease, tax documents, insurance policy documents, mortgage).
- Vehicular documents (title and registration for all your vehicles and VINs).
- Medical documentation (contact info, caregiver services, prescriptions, allergies, immunizations, special medical needs).
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