In September of this year I took my JanSport Trail Series external frame backpack, aka “Go Bag” into a controlled field test. It was a 2-day, 1-night, hike and camp excursion into a rainforest in the Olympic National Forest in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. The purpose of my trip was to test my Go Bag as thoroughly as possible. What I learned surprised me and two days worth of practical experience greatly enhanced my previous two years of “theoretically” planning. The concept of a Go Bag for me is not “bugging out” or leaving my home for greener pastures. A home “bug-out” scenario is a whole different ball game and generally requires a different plan. Rather, a Go Bag for me is an emergency backpack which will help me survive at least a week if I am stranded without a vehicle and/or away from home in some sort of catastrophe or civil/environmental emergency.
The primary theme for this article is that there is always a way to improve a Go Bag or make it leaner. I went into this field test with a 40 lb bag and quickly found out that this amount of weight was too heavy for me. It didn’t allow for good foot travel without some significant exhaustion and muscle pain. Each person has their own limits for weight and comfort and I certainly found mine during this experience.
Although I endured the trip for a total of 12 miles, it was not without a lot of discomfort. I lugged my Go Bag plus a full water bladder, a handgun, extra cartridges, and two knives along a mostly flat path through the forest next to a river in great weather (~70 degree Fahrenheit afternoons, and shady). During this time, I learned several invaluable lessons about the importance of keeping a Go Bag light and practical. With the changes described below, I was able to reduce the weight of my Go Bag by over 7 lbs and at the same time improve its usefulness and the quality of the contents. In a ‘real-world’ emergency…..mobility and practicality are everything.
Night Vision Monocular: The concept of having “special ops” capability during an emergency on-foot situation is enticing but not very realistic. The unit I have (although smallish) was too heavy and too ineffective for practical use. The attached IR illuminator does help the night vision ability but the battery that powers it is an unusual type and always needs to be fresh….and mine wasn’t. In contrast, my 130 lumen, waterproof, AA battery, LED, adjustable power flashlight lit up the dark forest like it was daytime for a long distance – good enough for me to see what might be lurking out there. If at some point in the future, a small lightweight thermal sensing unit becomes affordable I might go that route. However, for the time being my philosophy will be if I don’t see it, I won’t worry about it.
Net Weight Change = -17.8 ounces
Socks: I wore regular white athletic socks inside my hiking boots and hauled in an extra pair along with a vacuum-packed pair of high-quality moisture wicking hiking socks ($15). I quickly learned that I didn’t need 2 extra pair of socks. The high-quality socks are the ones to keep in the Go Bag. The athletic socks were too light and caused a major blister. One pair of moisture wicking boot socks in addition to the ones I’m already wearing will do the trick.
Net Weight Change = -1.6 ounces
MREs: During the hike I packed in 3 A-Pack MREs (with heaters). Although these were relatively satisfying meals, I came to the emotionally tough conclusion that multiple MREs are too heavy and too wasteful [of space] for their survival value…..by weight. Some of the components in the MRE were not eaten and/or not used: old raisins, marginally edible cookies, plastic utensil, orange drink powder, salt/pepper, etc… Even though each little item was fairly lightweight, they were all wrapped in plastic and every extra ounce of weight adds up. I’ve spent a lot of money purchasing MREs and will continue to store them away at home for future use and to give to others but for Go Bag purposes it just boils down to the weight-versus-value comparison. Going forward, I will only pack 1 MRE and supplement it with other vacuum packed dry foods (eggs, chili, soup) that weigh less and keep the nutrition-to-weight ratio where it needs to be.
Net Weight Change = -43.4 ounces
Small (1” x ½”) Soaps Sheets: This is a ridiculous item and the silliest item I’ve ever bought for my pack. The moisture in the air and on my hands clumped the sheets together and an individual sheet was so thin it was only enough to clean about 1 finger. These sheets were hard to extract with wet hands and the small container is not waterproof and easy to lose in a big pack. This was certainly a ‘boneheaded’ idea so going forward I’ll carry a small bar of non-scented soap in a plastic travel case and call it good. Bears will alert on almost ANY scent (not just food) so using unscented or low-scented soap is very important.
Net Weight Change = +5.5 ounces
Water: DON’T pack bottled water. Fill what you are carrying from a jug of water in your car or from another source before you start. I filled a bladder for my pack before I left and again several times along the trail from streams using my Kuryakyn portable water pump/filter. I did have a couple small bottles of water in my pack that I eventually drank but I later realized that I shouldn’t have hauled them in. I also used the filtered water in my pack bladder for cooking. Don’t head out without some ability to carry & filter (or treat) your water.
Net Weight Change = -12.0 ounces
Cook Stove: One of my “luxury” Go Bag items is a small butane hiking stove that collapses into about the size of a tennis ball. Yes, I had to also haul a small canister of fuel but I won’t be making a change to my pack here – the stove is portable, fast, small, and lightweight. In a true emergency situation, I’d not use the canister fuel/stove combo unless absolutely necessary. In my opinion, this is one of those items that is still worth the weight to haul.
Net Weight Change = 0
Batteries: I packed 6 extra rechargeable NiMh batteries but learned within a few hours that all of the spare batteries were dead or weak. I forgot to recharge them before I left (I guess I was just too busy planning for the trip). The lesson learned here is that no amount of batteries will help if they are not fresh and/or you do not have a good recharging or replenishing strategy. From now on, I will only bring 2 extra rechargeable AA batteries and rotate them in and out of my pack to ensure that they are fully charged at all times. My approach to power requirements is that any electronic device I carry uses only AA batteries so I can use the same set of batteries across multiple devices if I need to.
Net Weight Change = -3.8 ounces
Charger: The cheap & inexpensive solar battery charger that I took with me on this trip has since been replaced with a better model. The cheap charger had too many wires to connect, it was not waterproof, contained cheap components, was too bulky, and it took too long to charge the batteries. My new one is a lightweight, flexible, efficient, fold-up solar array designed primarily for charging AA’s. This new unit only weighs 6.6 ounces WITH the 2 AA batteries and can charge them to full power in 3-4 hours in full sunlight. If you want to plan for relying on batteries for days or weeks without access to power….do not go out and buy a cheap solar charger like I did. Spend the extra money and get a good one.
Net Weight Change = -2.6 ounces
Tent: I purchased a 2-person tent for my Go Bag because I thought that I needed the extra room. What I learned was that it only added pounds to my pack and required a larger area to set up. At the end of the day, I let others in my party use my 2-person tent and I used a small, high quality 1-person tent which was lighter and smaller in profile. I had no problem fitting into it even with my lightweight portable Ultralite cot (2 lbs, 7 oz) and sleep sac.
Net Weight Change = -32.0 ounces
Insect Repellent: I had no idea how many bites and stings I received until I got home and was miserable for several days afterward. I had packed a small “tube” of repellent but didn’t use it enough, although even if used properly it would have only lasted 1-2 days. The lesson here is that more is better when it comes to insect repellent. In my opinion carrying a few extra ounces of repellent in the pack is a good idea. Sure, there are many “natural” solutions that don’t add weight to a pack, however getting all “Bear Grylls” and rolling around in the mud to protect my skin just doesn’t work for me.
Net Weight Change = +2.0 ounces
Communication: My Yaesu VX-7R Ham transceiver that I carried can operate at low power on a 2AA battery adapter and is also waterproof. With my low-profile, tree-drop antenna it is worth its weight in gold to me in an emergency situation. If you have a HAM radio license, a portable transceiver is one of those items I suggest you DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT. If you are not a HAM, a small pocket-sized waterproof AM/FM radio is still a very important tool to have with you.
Net Weight Change = 0
Fire Starting: I thought I had this part of my preparation covered in spades before this trial run but I quickly learned otherwise. My “waterproof/windproof” matches were hard to start and the striker component to my magnesium fire starter went missing. Although I finally got an occasional match to light, it really made me realize how serious this issue could have been in a real emergency. After returning home I went out and purchased an outdoor-rated micro butane torch lighter to use for my primary means of getting a flame going. This little unit is super small (1.1/2” x 2” x ½”), lightweight, refillable, windproof, waterproof, shock proof, and reliable. It uses a piezoelectric starting method so batteries and flint are never needed and will last 30 minutes (continual flame) on a full tank of butane. It cost me about $40 but I am betting that this is money very well spent. I’ll probably use this little gizmo on other occasions also. Obviously, if I find myself in a “Mad Max” environment, I’d likely not get the opportunity to find a butane refill bottle anywhere. However, 30 minutes of continuous hi-pressure/hi-heat flame will last months as long as I’m frugal.
Net Weight Change = 0
Utensils / Cook Set: One of the most obvious lessons I learned during this experience (other than that my pack was too heavy) was that the “boy scout” type cook sets are unnecessary where pack weight is a primary concern. This was one of those items I originally thought would be an “essential” Go Bag item but I have since changed my mind completely. It occurred to me during the trip that I could actually use a very large coffee cup as a cooking pan, a bowl for eating, AND a drinking cup. For utensils, my cheap plastic spork worked okay but it was flimsy and I worried that it would break over the long haul. I have since removed the cook set and the plastic spork and replaced these items with a ceramic coated X-large coffee cup, a titanium spork, and a hi-heat resistant mini-spatula.
Net Weight Change = -11.1 ounces
Other Food / Snacks: I tend to vacuum pack everything from clothes to food to whatever else I don’t want to get wet. So my trail mix and beef jerky packed into small individual sized packets worked well as snack food. I also purchased, packed, and consumed some high quality powdered eggs and some little beef sausages for breakfast – a winning combination for taste and weight-to-calorie value. Another home run idea was to pack some little single servings of instant coffee from Starbucks (VIA). However, my lesson learned in this category was to include a couple of those little plastic clip bag sealer clips for keeping the food fresh in the vacuum bag after it is initially opened. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about the bag clips on this trip but I certainly have them in my Go Bag now. Ziploc baggies are also good for this purpose but that requires taking empty baggies and then risking that they get lost, torn, or dirty.
Net Weight Change = +1.0 ounces
Sleep Sac: A normal full-sized sleeping bag is too heavy of an item to carry in an emergency hiking scenario especially if you already pack a “space” blanket like I do. However, I felt I needed something more than just a tinfoil sheet so I purchased and hauled a “sleep sac” for my field test. The sleep sac compresses to about 1/3 the size of a regular bag but when unfurled fits a regular sized person and is good down to about 40F. In fact, I actually packed my sleep sac inside of my Go Bag because it is small enough to fit and I want to make sure it stayed dry. This trial run was my first chance to see how the sleep sac worked and it worked well on all accounts. A winter scenario however might be a totally different ball game.
Net Weight Change = 0
Entertainment: At the end of our first day my party found ourselves sitting around the campsite (no open fires were allowed) after dinner in an awkward “down-time” moment that seemed to last forever. Our bear-line was up, tents made-ready, food and utensils cleaned and put away and we just sat there without much to do. I have since purchased a set of full plastic playing cards for this type of contingency.
Net Weight Change =+4.2 ounces
GPS: Carrying some sort of tracking device is always a good idea if you can afford the extra weight. During my hike, I found that using my DeLorme PN40 not only reported my speed, distance, track and ETA but it also gave me something fun to do when trudging along on the trail. My only concern was battery usage. Its two AA batteries died on the hike out the next day so now I know that checking my GPS screen every 15 minutes is WAY too frequent for that type of scenario. I also learned that even with a 40 lb pack on my back and a blister on my foot, I was hiking at 2.5 to 3.0 MPH which gives me a good reference point for the future.
Net Weight Change = 0
Rope: I actually added a little weight to my pack after this trial and bought a better rope (stronger and longer). For the trip I had packed and carried a small bundle (15’) of 3/16” rope not wanting to burden myself with something heavier. The trail and camping spot on this hike were located in bear country, but fortunately the park service had already installed bear wire systems so using my own rope was not required. If it had been required I would not have had enough rope to do the job properly. I really needed at least 30’ of rope to get my “smellables” out of ‘bear reach’. The thought also occurred to me that the rope I was carrying did not have enough load capacity to suspend my own weight had I needed to do that. The lesson learned here: don’t spare the money or the weight when it comes to rope and having too much rope will only hurt if you’re bungee jumping.
Net Weight Change = +6.3 ounces
Clothing: Planning a hike into a rainforest naturally triggered me to haul my thin rubber raincoat and waterproof hiking boots. On this particular trip I found I didn’t need either of these items. Additionally, I forgot that I had already stashed away a small plastic poncho in my Go Bag which would have worked fine in a rainy situation. This for me was a lesson in redundancy and why it is so important to memorize every last item that I’m hauling. For urban Go Bag scenarios, a good pair of running shoes might be a much better idea than big ‘ol hiking boots. Since I live near the mountains, I’ll keep the waterproof boots and the raincoat in the trunk of my car but they won’t be ‘normal’ pack items. My raincoat and boots were not usual go-pack items for me so they didn’t actually add or detract from the weight of my Go Bag.
Net Weight Change = 0
Weapons: For protection I carried a full-sized 10mm Glock (G20) with an extra 15-round magazine, a 12” survival knife and a large pocket knife. In retrospect, I didn’t need the pocket knife and the extra magazine. In a life-threatening situation, if I can’t kill it in 16 rounds forget about another magazine. If I can’t kill it with a survival knife after shooting at it 16 times, the pocket knife won’t do me any good anyway. Keeping it real, I’ll only carry the 10mm Glock with 15+1 rounds and the survival knife from now on. I could get by with a lighter, less powerful weapon but I don’t ever want to haul something that may not do the job. My Glock 20 can do the job no question about it. On a side note, carrying bear spray for trekking through the woods or mace for trekking through suburbia is always a good idea. Here is my rule of thumb for self defense in order from first to last: 1. Walk away slowly (avoid the confrontation) 2. Use your brain for alternatives (i.e. hide or stand still) 3. Use a non-lethal deterrent 4. Use a lethal weapon as a last resort only if your life or the life of someone near you is seriously threatened.
Net Weight Change = -18.7 ounces
Aside from being a great outing and just having a little fun and camaraderie, this Go Bag trial was an invaluable experience and I’d recommend the same for anyone looking to optimize their preparations. For the record, this article doesn’t speak to everything I’ve stuffed into my Go Bag (first aid, duct tape, fishing kit, cot, tarp, etc….). I simply reported on the items that I felt I learned the most about…… good, bad, or otherwise.
Total Go Bag Weight Change = -7 lbs. 12 ounces
My next go bag trial will likely be an overnight urban session in the wintertime where the conditions are radically different from this field test.
JWR Adds: I do not recommend using tall, high-riding backpacks for Bug Out Bags/Go Bags/G.O.O.D. kits. Any pack that extends more than a few inches above your shoulders greatly limits your peripheral vision and makes you vulnerable to attack from behind. This explains why Patsy Packs are so rarely used by military forces.