A Bug Out Bag Reality Check, by Stranger

I thought I would share some thoughts on my weekend bug out bag guerrilla camping trip. My purpose was to use my BOB in the manner in which I expected to have to use it in an emergency. My general plan has been to get away from people, camp with stealth, and wait for the dust to clear.  With this in mind I mostly want to put my gear through its paces and get my body used to the rigors of backpacking.

I live in central Connecticut.  I am a man in my 40s and have a dropped foot in a brace.  I am an experienced outdoorsman and feel quite at home in the woods, however it had been a few years and before my injury since I had been backpacking. The selected area was the east slope of a mountain in the Metacomet range (It is a traprock ridge only about 800 ft high).  The ground in this area is broken basalt, talus terrain. It is exceedingly difficult to hike on, especially with a 30-40 lb pack.  If you fall, the best you can hope for is a sharp rock in the knee.  So don’t fall – use a hiking stick.  This does have the advantage of minimizing recreational day hiker density. The conditions have been dry and the day (9/11/10) was clear and beautiful – just like 9/11 in 2001. The overnight temperature was predicted to be around 50, with a light wind and no rain until the afternoon of the next day.  A 19 year old former Marine friend of mine (“CJ”) and I got out a bit late: about 3:00 pm. We drove to the parking spot entrance to the chosen “wilderness area”. Our biggest issue was to enter the woods without being seen. Camping is not allowed here. We had been back in the area previously checking out a “dormer” on the slope that looked like a potential flat area (camp site) on the map, and also was far enough from the hiking trail not to be stumbled upon. I viewed the area with Google Earth to get an idea of the traffic on and around the site. I was particularly concerned about vehicular access to the site. I figured the worst we would have is an ATV rider, not a ranger or a cop. It being September the deciduous forest canopy gave us (some) cover from the air.

My BOB is based around a forest green Kelty Trekker external frame pack. I bought it mail order from Campmor for about $120. It has the usual 2 main pockets, plus 5 additional 1 qt. pockets and a map pocket on the top flap. I have a North Face mummy sleeping bag that I have used since Boy Scouts 30 years ago.  I have used it in winter weather down to 0 degrees F or so, so this is a piece of equipment that I absolutely trust. I also have a Thermorest self-inflating sleeping pad, wrapped around a Sven folding saw (don’t lose that wingnut!)  For shelter I choose a tarp. In my experience tents are too heavy, too fragile, and too visible. There are no poles to carry, and if pitched properly can give you 360 degree weather protection and a ground sheet. My tarp is aprox. 10’x12’, grommeted and cord reinforced on the edges, and it is earth brown. It was also inexpensive – about $10 at the dollar store. I carry a 2l pop bottle filled with water, and 2 additional 1l bottles of water. In addition I carry a GI canteen with steel cup and canvas holder. I have a Sweetwater water filter but for this trip I left it in the car as I intended to boil water for this short trip if I should run out of potable water. Surface water in the area is plentiful. Rations included Cliff bars, instant oatmeal, Ramen noodles, Tea and sugar, canned sardines, and cigarettes. (Sorry to say I’m still an addict).

Here is a list of gear:
2 Large black plastic 55g. trash bags (many uses)
Knit hat
Insulated leather work gloves (for working with a fire)
Extra socks
Inside another plastic bag:
Change of clothing, including another pair of socks
Polypropylene long johns
A towel and a washcloth
Rain gear: Advantage camo jacket and pants – at the top of the pack
A sweatshirt/windbreaker jacket with hood (it was that or a sweater)
First aid/personal care kit (inside a plastic nestle quick box)
            Lidocaine pad – for stings
            Gauze dressing sponges
            Bandage tape
            Antibiotic ointment*
            Tweezers (eyebrow type)           
            Nail clipper – don’t leave home without one
            Toothbrush & paste*
            Floss (a whole 100y roll – can be used for snares, fishing)
            Duct tape (wrapped around container such that it can still be opened)
            A muslin triangle bandage
            Medicine : Imodium, benadryl, ibuprofen
            Eyeglass repair kit
            A small bar of soap*
            Comb – even though I have no hair
            Sewing kit*
            Surgical scissors and fine tip forceps from a suture removal kit
Insect repellent*
Clip on sunglasses – the kind the eye doctor gives you so you can drive home after an appointment
(I need to add burn cream)
* indicates travel size/ hotel size

“Survival” gear:
            A mylar survival “blanket”
            A combo whistle, compass, and match safe, with strike anywhere matches
            Small fishing kit, including an onion bag net
            A Swiss army knife
            An orange Bic lighter
            A magnesium fire starter
            A plumber’s candle
            A film container filled with Vaseline soaked cotton balls
            A roll of spiderwire fishing line

Mess: a 2 liter stainless steel pot with lid and handle that folds up and over.
            A large spoon
            A small bottle of salt (makes all that wild food palatable)

Misc: A bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint 18-in-1 pure castile soap
            2 hunks of paracord
            A deck of cards
            A grease pencil and a small pad of paper
            Spare glasses
            An LED headlamp and extra batteries
            A small bastard file for sharpening tools

A repair kit with cotter pins for the pack and an extra wing nut for the saw
At the last moment I threw in a fleece stadium blanket and a couple of apples.
Note that most of the weight came from two categories:

  • shelter/bedroll
  • water

Other than my pack and clothes I also carry a walking staff made from an ash tool handle with a carriage bolt gorilla glued into the tip.  I also carry a Cold Steel Bushman knife, which incidentally fits on the end of the staff to use for self protection (Bears are back in Connecticut!). Oh, and don’t forget that in my pockets are: my wallet, car keys, a cell phone (turned off), a “Whittler” boy scout knife, also from my youth, and a disposable lighter (and another pack of smokes). I always wear an olive drab 1970s era boonie hat.  CJ wasn’t as prepared, and asked to borrow a cutting tool. I had two hatchets. The first is a simple camp hatchet with an orange fiberglass handle. The other is a hickory handled framing hatchet. He chose the framing hatchet. I don’t blame him: it is a pretty thing, like a tomahawk.

The woods in this area are fairly open: not a lot of underbrush. On the initial trail hiking was good. Probably 2 mph. Despite my best efforts, something was clanking in my pack. It wasn’t very loud, but bothered me after awhile. I think it was the spoon in the mess kit, or maybe a not fully filled canteen.  When we got into the hilly talus terrain, my speed slowed to less than ½ mph. I had to watch every step. Remember that I am handicapped. CJ had a much easier time, being younger and fitter. At one point I slipped and fell, but I was able to roll with it and was mostly unhurt. CJ stopped me from rolling all the way down the hill. Lesson: bring a partner. I could have been down and out, with a serious injury and no way out.

As we hiked I kept a lookout for wild edibles. Pot herbs were plentiful in the moist areas. There were lots of frogs, but most were too small, or were toads. Small frogs make great largemouth bass bait though: that is what the onion bag net is for. There were no squirrels to be found, and anyway I didn’t have a gun. There were literally tons of hickory and oak nuts, though. Their constant dropping made us feel like we were under fire J. At one point I made a huge find: about 20 lbs of chicken of the woods fungi growing out of a tree. I am a botanist by training, but not a mushroom expert, so I double-checked it’s identity with a photo-text message to a mushroom expert friend of mine – note that this option is not available after the crunch when the cell net is down! I am looking for a really good wild edible field guide that I can trust. I also saw a lot of bear scat and even a whole raccoon skeleton, which I didn’t touch for fear of rabies.

After an hour of bushwhacking my bad leg was taking a beating and had begun to hurt a lot. My pack was well balanced, but the straps still dug into my shoulders. The sternum strap helped a lot with this. CJ had no trouble with his pack, as he is a young former Marine. We had made it as far as we were going to go, and so began to look for a specific spot to camp. It would get dark soon. Almost like a miracle, up ahead of us was a natural Stonehenge: 5 or 6 truck sized boulders arranged in a semicircle. On the down-slope side was a relatively flat area for a tarp, and plenty of stones around for sitting on, building a fireplace, etc. There was no evidence that anyone had used this area, so it was “ours”.  It was nearly perfect. The stones provided cover from three sides, and as the downhill side faced nothing but deep woods, we had found a great “stealth site”. The biggest problem was that nowhere was there a spot that didn’t have a dozen head sized stones poking out. We cleared the area for a fire, and then worked at digging the worst of the stones out. I have a mini-shovel/spade that fits on the end of my staff also, but I had left it behind due to weight (mistake!). It would have made the stone clearing 10x less hard.  A back fill of leaves and forest duff would have to do for the unevenness. CJ built the fire pit and campfire while I pitched the tarp. Within an hour it was dark and we were sitting by the fire. A bit of petrol soaked cotton and a spark got our fire off great. The fleece blanket really came in handy as a butt cushion on those rocks. I smeared my pot on the sides and bottom with liquid soap (easier cleanup trick from boy scouts: the soot washes off, sort of) and put the tea on the fire.

The hatchet didn’t make it. After cutting tent stakes and cutting a pole for the tarp we decided to take turns throwing it at a dead tree. On the second throw the handle cracked right off the head of the axe. Lesson learned: don’t throw your hatchet unless you have a clue what you’re doing, and the axe is up to it
One nice thing about the big stones was that at night they blocked the light of the campfire. From the top of one stone I had a great view of the area, and was not blinded by the light of the campfire. The stones did have a lantern effect though; sending beams of flickering light out across the forest as it slipped between the rocks. Very cool, but it gave away our position. A bit of work (piling stones, brush) and the area was almost invisible to casual observation. From not too far off the tarp even resembled another giant stone, as they were about the same size and color. Inside the ring of stones the firelight and heat was reflected back into the campsite. Our fire was built inside a large ring of basalt stones. These proved to be excellent in retaining the heat of the fire throughout the night and into the morning, as basalt contains a lot of iron.

After dinner and tea we settled down to sleep. Everything hurt. The first time backpacking of the year really lets you know which muscles you need to work on. Even though we were deep in the woods, we could hear the sound of the freeway miles away. Sound really carried on the hill. Overnight my Thermorest pad deflated. This is why I was doing this, to check the reliability of my gear. I guess I will invest in a closed cell sleeping pad.

I woke to the sound of a motorbike.  Wouldn’t you know they were heading right for us? I was surprised that we only had about 30 seconds between first hearing the approaching vehicles and when they passed by. I guess our stealth site worked, because the three bikes passed by only about 50 feet away from our site (on an uphill trail I hadn’t seen the night before) and did not appear to notice our camp. If we had had I fire going I am sure they would have noticed, but we only used the fire after dark, to hide the smoke signature. Then again, they weren’t supposed to be there either! I am sure that a ranger or a search team would have been able to find us easily, but after all, we were in Connecticut, not Quebec. The woods are only so deep here.

After policing camp and returning it to its semi-natural state, the hike back was a bit easier, as we were going downhill, and didn’t have the weight of water or food to carry. In a bug out situation we would have been carrying both, but this was just an overnight trip. In addition, we wouldn’t have been heading back to the car, but deeper into the wilderness, so there is a morale issue here too. I was looking forward to a nice chair and a bath, after TEOTWAWKI those creature comforts would be gone, at least for the foreseeable future.

So what did I learn? First of all, be sure you have equipment that you know how to use and can trust not to fail on you. Know where everything is in your pack: this makes it easier to find in the dark without a light. My burden was not excessive, and well distributed, but after an hour or so of humping it over a mountain I was ready for a break. I need to stop smoking. Not only will cigs be unavailable or extremely expensive after the crunch, but the carbon monoxide load they cause reduced my endurance greatly. Practice! Those skills you read about won’t do you a bit of good if you haven’t practiced them. Have you really ever made a fire without a lighter or matches? The first time I tried fire by friction (in the Boy Scouts) it took hours for me to get the hang of it, and that was with a pre-made bow and drill set. What about cooking over a fire? Accidentally dumping your pot in the fire happens a lot unless you know what you are doing. Finally, bring some burn cream. You will need it! When I got home I was able to repack my kit, but this wouldn’t have been the case if it wasn’t a practice trip.

My goal of this essay has been to encourage the armchair survivalists out there – you know who you are – to get out in the woods to practice woodcraft skills and evasion, and especially to condition yourselves to the hardships of living out of a BOB. Don’t think you have it all covered because you have $2,000 worth of camping equipment in the trunk of your car. Body conditioning is hard work. Remember, you are going to have to carry all that stuff at some point, so it better be worth the weight. I am beginning to understand that bugging out into the woods may not be a viable option in the long term. I guess that I need a retreat! – Stranger