Many in the prepper community work hard to develop the skills and test the gear that they expect to rely on in a time of collapse. However, I am convinced that many more are “armchair” preppers. These “armchair” preppers are those who are actively involved in reading blogs (including excellent ones like this one, of course!) and purchasing supplies and equipment but never actually using them to verify that they will serve their intended purpose in a time of crisis. I am further convinced that this is nowhere more true than in the oft-discussed area of “bug out bags”.
Preppers generally agree that it is prudent to have a single bag packed and ready in the event of a dire emergency. The contents vary somewhat, depending on the purpose of the bag. An evacuation (bug-out) bag will likely differ from a “get home” bag. However, both are typically intended to serve the same fundamental purpose: to enable the user to sustain life for several days while traveling on foot. Of course, better modes of transportation are preferable, but the method of transport if all else fails is walking.
With this basic requirement in mind, then, many of the recommendations for bug out gear are suspect if not downright dangerous. If you are able to pick up a 40-pound bug out bag, add to it another 25 pounds of gear and supplies that are often excluded from the “dry” bag list (such as water, firearms, and ammunition), and carry that 65 pound load 45 miles in three days, you have my sincere respect and admiration. Also, I know an Army recruiter who would like to speak to you about a spot in the Rangers. When I was a lean, fit, 20-year-old youngster, I may have been able to do this, but I doubt it. Now that I am a less lean, less fit, fifty something man, I am sure that I could not. Despite being in decent shape (for my age), I could not manage more than a few miles a day with a 65 pound load and would almost certainly suffer debilitating injury due to strain, sprain, or fall.
Ask any serious backpacker and they will tell you that weight is key in long distance hiking. I did not believe this prior to my first backpacking experience. I purchased a medium-large backpack with plenty of organizing pockets. I cringe to think of the gear that I stuffed into it for an overnight trip. After all, what is a measly 35 pounds? I can carry that with ease. After six miles over relatively level ground, an overnight stay, and six miles back, I quickly realized the value of carrying less weight. Lightweight and ultralight backpackers will go to great lengths and, often, spend considerably more for gear that is a few ounces lighter after experiencing the toil (or worse) of carrying extra weight.
This raises the obvious question: how much weight can I carry? The answer varies considerably based on factors such as terrain, fitness, and so forth. The “rule of thumb” in the backpacker community is 25% of your body weight. In my experience, this should be refined to read “25% of your ideal weight, less the difference between your ideal weight and your actual weight”. For example, my ideal weight is 185 pounds. On that basis, I should be able to carry 46 pounds. However, my actual weight is 210 pounds, which means I carry 25 pounds of excess weight with me every day! If I subtract this weight from my calculated carry weight, I will begin to suffer if my load is much over 20 pounds.
The obvious response to this computation is simple: “lose some weight, you cow!” Indeed, you would be right, and I hope this realization will motivate me to lose some weight. Every pound I lose is one more pound of useful supplies or gear that I can carry. In fact, it is virtually certain that a disaster scenario would cause me to lose weight. Nevertheless, if I had to pick up my bug out bag today and walk 30 miles in three days, I would be hard pressed to do so with a total load out of much more than twenty pounds. Frankly, I do not believe my situation is all that unusual in the prepper community.
This weight limit greatly constrains what I include in my emergency bag. While a hatchet, a NATO trenching shovel, and a large, fixed blade bush-crafting knife would all be very useful, there is no way I could include all three without sacrificing in another and, likely, more critical area. While I might like to bring a SOCOM rifle, 300 rounds of .308 ammo, a Kimber 1911, and 200 rounds of .45 Auto, I may need to settle for a Kel Tec SU16C, four 30-round magazines of .223, a Ruger LC9, and two spare 9-round magazines. The basic principle is simple; if I attempt to carry more than I am capable of carrying on the day the SHTF, I will endanger my survival through a greatly increased risk of injury.
Three particular areas of BOB gear deserve special mention. First, there are countless articles and reviews about bag selection, including many recommendations utilizing military surplus gear. Contrary to popular opinion, military surplus bags are almost never a good choice for most preppers. While they are typically durable and easily blend in for discrete travel, they also typically have two serious flaws– they are heavy, and they lack adequate structure to transfer the weight to the hips.
Experienced backpackers quickly learn that it is vital to carry the pack weight on the hips and not on the shoulders. Thirty pounds suspended from your shoulders will become very painful in a short time. Many military and military-style packs include a flimsy belt or, worse still, no hip suspension. Furthermore, military and military-style packs are HEAVY. The pack material is durable but heavy, and the variety of pouches, pockets, and straps, while useful for organization, add still more weight. Indeed, the most important specification of a pack intended for long distance hiking is the weight, but many military packs omit this detail entirely. A military ruck sack is typically 5-6 pounds, while a full-size pack can easily be 8 pounds, and it is very difficult to keep the total load under 20 pounds (or 25 pounds or 30 pounds) when the pack accounts for such a large proportion of the total allowable weight.
By contrast, I purchased a Mountainsmith Ghost model pack in 2003. It is a medium size pack, holding 3000 cubic inches (about 50 liters) and comfortably carrying up to 30 pounds (thanks to an excellent internal frame and very comfortable waist strap/pad) while utilizing a very durable nylon material, yet the pack weighs just 2 lbs 6 ounces. This is accomplished by a very simple bag design with a minimum of organizing options– two mesh water-bottle pockets and a very small zip bag in addition to the large main pack. While this pack is no longer made (the present Mountainsmith Ghost 50 weighs 4 pounds), it provides a blueprint for a more practical backpack for load weight conscious preppers.
The second area concerns food. An experienced lightweight backpacker would be horrified at the idea of carrying canned food, yet this is often recommended for emergency bags, despite the high weight to calories ratio. Even MREs are much heavier than alternative choices. Freeze-dried foods are expensive and contain relatively few calories, but they are very lightweight while a number of ordinary grocery food selections, such as ramen noodles, instant rice, couscous, pepperoni, and dried fruit accomplish the same thing at lower cost. In fact, since the objective is to survive for several days until another (and, presumably, a better provisioned) location is reached, it is entirely feasible to eliminate the weight of cooking gear (stove, fuel, pot, utensil, and so forth) and simply bring foods that require no preparation. Packaged protein bars or a simple plastic jar of peanuts and a box of raisins can provide needed calories at minimal weight.
The third area involves water. Though it is vital to survival, water is inherently heavy. Thankfully, water where I live is always plentiful, so that a modest amount of ready water together with the means to purify additional water reduces the amount of water I must carry in my pack. This differs in other regions, but the principle remains; water is heavy, but it is one of the most critical components of survival and must be accommodated one way or another in any emergency bag.
If you are skeptical about the premise of this article (that we should be extremely weight conscious when assembling a bug-out/get-home bag and, therefore, many of the recommendations by self-proclaimed “experts” are nonsense), there is a simple test. Just strap on that fully-loaded, 50-pound backpack (with extra weight added to simulate the effect of carrying items like weapons) and carry it 10 miles over likely terrain. If you can do so and are able to get up the next morning, capable of doing it again, then you are to be congratulated. You are clearly able to enjoy the benefits associated with having the extra provisions and gear. Many of us, however, would experience a rude awakening as to what we are actually capable of doing as opposed to our theoretical and untested assumptions.
Furthermore, this process will inform other decisions and preparations. Do you think you will bug out to the wilderness with a 20-pound pack and nothing more than your recollection of blog and video information about wilderness survival? Think again! You are far more likely to be starving in a week if you are not already dead from exposure. Instead, it may be necessary to be more careful to provision caches along the way together with a well-stocked destination rather than relying on what we can carry on our back. In any event, do not risk your life on assumed capabilities. Think and plan carefully. Then test your provision before your life depends on it.