The World of Bug Out Bags, by D.M. – Part 1

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To all who are reading this article, all is not well in the world of bug out bags! It is my hope that this article will:

  1. Address the common bug out bag problems.
  2. Bring new insight on items that a bug out bag should include but most likely do not.
  3. Save you money.

There is nothing like putting on a backpack filled with everything that you need to survive and thrive and setting off on foot. After more than 15 years of avid backpacking and other outdoor pursuits, one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned through hard experience is to try to be prepared! As to what you are preparing for, I will leave that up to you.

Many of you already have bug out bags or are reading this article to make one. As I write this article, I am bewildered by the immense problems I see with most bug out bags. I would like to say that all is not well in the world of bug out bags!

With so many choices and companies that call their product “the perfect bug out bag,” I have come to a vexing conclusion. Please don’t be mad at the messenger, but someone needs to say this to protect others. While some companies and stores are genuine in that they want to help you find a useful and practical emergency bag (B.O.B, I.N.C.H bag, or what have you), others are money-grubbers who are selling gimmicky and unpractical products that fall apart or are not suited for the rigors of a bug out bag.

I believe in God and hate it when people take advantage of others. My hope through this article is to point out some of the common bug out bag problems and to share some insight from a backpacker’s perspective.

The Bag

As a backpacker I am able to go out into the mountains for a week and have everything I need. My main backpack is about +/- 5,000 cubic inches. In the summer, I have plenty of room and usually cinch down the compression straps for short trips. When I go winter camping or mountaineering, I can easily fill the backpack all the way and sometimes need to attach, on the outside, a snow shovel, ice axe, crampons, hiking poles, and an extra sleeping mat. My pack has been very versatile over the years, and it disperses the weight so well that hiking 15-mile days through the mountains feels truly like just a walk in the park. Most people can’t say this about their bug out bags.

There are some very nice backpacks on the market today. However, it means very little if it does not fit your body type well. I remember trying on a backpack at an REI store. A worker there, who had a lot of experience, fitted the pack to my torso length and added 55-pound sand bags to the pack and let me walk around the store for about 40 minutes. After the walk, we both noticed that I needed a medium pack to fit my torso but a small waist belt. The worker swapped out a small waist belt from another pack, and now I had a custom fit pack. What service! More than a decade later, through heat, snow, mission trips, and porting, the pack is still working just fine. It even came with a lifetime warranty. Now that you have heard the sunny side of a good pack, let’s talk about the dark side of things.

Common bug out bag problems:

  1. Size problem: Most bug out bags are too small! Many companies show pictures of their bags open with amazing gear. They usually include a flash light, a knife, first-aid kit, MRE’s, high Tec electronics, firearms and ammo, room for one water bottle if you’re lucky, and some other small items. However, when I look at most bags I think to myself, “Where is there room for your sleeping bag?” Is there even room for a shelter (tent, hammock, bivy, or tarp)? What about room for a jacket or other clothing to keep you warm and dry from the elements? I believe it is safe to say that more people die of exposure than wild animal and zombie attacks combined each year. Most bug out bags are so small that even on a perfect day if you were to use that bag for a 10-mile overnight trip, you would most likely be miserable due to not being able to bring important items such as more than 20 ounces of water. I’ll list three examples of items that I feel a good bug out bag should have enough capacity for.

    Number one is a practical shelter. I have heard many say, “I am manly enough to not need a tent,” or that they don’t need to carry a shelter. However, they quickly change their minds after being eaten alive by bugs or having a snake or scorpion snuggle up to them for warmth. Some people say they don’t carry a shelter because they will just make a shelter out of trees and limbs. Take it from someone that has taught shelter building. It is no walk in the park! Even if you are good at it, it expends many calories to build one, and then you need to build another one at the next location all over again. It takes only three to five minutes to put up a hammock with bug netting and tarp versus two or more hours for a stick one that will most likely not be bug free or 100% waterproof. The last time I was teaching some friends how to build a stick shelter, I got 74 (that’s not a typo) ticks on me. I fortunately did not get Lyme Disease, but this story just emphasizes the value of carrying an extra 2-5lb shelter, not to mention saving you the aggravation of asking your wife to pull ticks off of you “where the sun don’t shine”.

    Number two is a sleeping bag for the chilly nights. In a disaster situation, good quality sleep is very important and is often overlooked. Remember that sleep deprivation is used in some countries as torture. It could be a sleeping bag, wool blanket, or other sleeping items, but when you are tired from high mileage, healing from an injury, or in a stressful situation, sleep is your friend. In many places there is a +/-20 degree differential from the day’s highs and lows. If it is a wonderful 75 degrees at noon, it will most likely be too cold for comfort at night (possibly much colder in higher elevations), and once you factor in wind chill, your sweaty wet cloths, and the many calories needed that you are most likely lacking to keep your body warm, a sleeping bag makes sense. Since this is often a bulky item, this shows the importance of having a bug out bag with adequate capacity. A helpful suggestion would be to get a sleeping bag that is water resistant. This will help block the wind-chill factor, keep your bag dry (a wet bag is not a warm bag), and at times the bag could also be used as a standalone shelter (just sew in bug netting) as a backup.

    Number three is a sleeping pad. Here is when many readers might call me a wuss, who has never slept on the cold, hard, and often rocky ground, like I have. Here are ten things that MacGyver might do with a sleeping pad that just might change your mind about the need for one:

    1. A sleeping pad prevents the cold ground from sucking away your body heat and helps prevent hypothermia (been there, done that, it is not fun).
    2. If you have back problems and ever plan to use your bug out bag overnight, a cheap eight dollar foam pad might save your back and expensive trips to the chiropractor later. I would like to add that the inflatable pads are very compact (the size of three apples) and more comfortable than my home bed.
    3. It can be used for splinting a broken leg or arm.
    4. If a tornado hits, get into a tub or low grounded area and pull a pad over you to protect you from hail or flying debris.
    5. By tri-folding a pad and then taping or tying it together, you can use it as an effective shield against an attack.
    6. Use it to insulate an injured person from shock.
    7. Use it as a collar to immobilize a neck injury or as a back board.
    8. It can be used as a windbreak.
    9. Some pads float so well that they can be used as a flotation device.
    10. Use it as a fan for starting a fire, convert it into a chair, or cut it to make a bowl, hat, clothing, protective body armor, or sandals.
    11. You can even use a marker and write important survival notes on it (like how many drops of bleach per liter for water purification) or draw a tic-tac-toe and a checker/chess board on it for entertainment.

    A sleeping pad is like duck-tape. Who’s a wuss now?

  2. Suspension system problems

    A backpack’s job is to carry a load. It’s ideal weight capacity, comfort, and how evenly it can disperse weight are all import factors many people forget. Here is a lesson that I hope everyone learns. You are special. Yes, you! A survivalist company is trying to sell you their backpack. Let’s say you are a six foot tall male with broad shoulders. Does it make sense that a bug out bag company will sell you a bag and then sell that same bag to a petite five foot tall female? Many of the military bags I have seen advertised have the one-size-fits-most methodology, which I highly disagree with. A backpack suspension system consists of many parts. However, I will cover the three main parts– the shoulder straps, hip straps, and backing (the parts that touch your back):

    1. Shoulder straps

      The first issue to deal with is how many straps? I have seen bug out bags that cost a pretty penny and look very cool with only one strap, which is essentially a sling backpack. I highly advise against this type of pack. I have a Timbuk2 messenger bag that I used to carry daily with me with essential and emergency items. It worked real well going in and out of the car and office. However, once you add a water bottle, first-aid kit, flashlight, jacket, food, and other essentials, it became a real burden to my shoulder, and I found myself shifting shoulders throughout the day. I discovered I was not able to comfortably carry the bag long distances, like I could with a two-strap bag with the same weight. I must also address the dangerous side to sling packs. I remember in high school getting myself a nice sling backpack for school, only to find out that when I rode to school on my bike or jogged that the weight in the pack would sometimes slide the pack from my back to my chest and rub my neck raw. When leaning down the strap would sometimes slide from my shoulder and dangerously hang on my neck. To make matters worse, after a half semester, I visited the doctor and found that my shoulder was now two inches lower on the side I carried the bag. After money spent on a new bag and having bad posture for years, I can confidently say the cool factor of one strap is not worth it to me. Go with two straps. Please take note on what type of straps they are as well. If the shoulder straps are thin or unpadded with heavy loads, the straps could cut into and blister the shoulders badly. As you are most definitely aware, there are anatomical difference between males and females; I just don’t know why some companies don’t understand this. A good female pack will have curves in their straps to curve around their bust line and thus be more comfortable. Males have broader shoulders than women, so a good pack will have the straps a little more spaced out than a female spec one.

      Now, let’s talk about one of the biggest bug out bag problems. Most bags only have shoulder straps, and this is a dilemma. When you have 30-40+lbs of gear on your shoulders that is not distributed elsewhere, your back arches more, and you will likely have back pain or soreness. Many people who buy a bug out bag, fill their bag up and walk around their house with it on and say, “This is a great backpack.” My challenge for you would be to take it on a day hike of 10+ miles and then see how it feels. Your thoughts might change after that. This is just food for thought. Have you ever seen a backpacker with a fully-loaded backpack on the trail with only shoulder straps? They usually don’t, because it is so uncomfortable and unpractical. This is why hip belts are so important.

    2. Hip belts are so important I don’t understand why many companies don’t add them on. They serve two main functions. One is to keep your pack against your back and lumbar area and from swinging laterally as you move. The second and main function is to bear most of the vertical weight of the pack onto the hips, thus dispersing weight through the shoulders and hips. I have seen many bug out bag companies add little dinky straps, which do address the lateral swinging; however, in no way is a one- or two-inch webbing strap going to harness most of the pack’s weight onto the hips comfortably. Take a look at modern-day backpack hip belts. They are thickly padded, memory foamed, reinforced, and wide to distribute the weight. I believe this is the secret to being able to carry a heavy pack comfortably. Very little weight is actually placed on one’s shoulder straps on a good backpack. When shopping for a bug out bag, try this test: Fill the bag up as much as you can in the store, place it on you, and then loosen the shoulder straps all the way on a bag. If the bag slides down your legs and is not mostly or completely held up by the hip straps, move on to another bag. Remember hips don’t lie. You have them, so you might as well use them.

      A nice addition to having a thick supportive hip strap is that there are many accessories you could attach to your hip belt. I usually carry a big knife on one side, a large water bottle, and a firearm in a pouch on the other side. This makes for very easy access to these items.

    3. Backing

      I am going to address all parts that touch your backside in this category. First, is it the right length for you? As I have mentioned earlier, a good backpack is one that fits your body type well. A pack that fits a long torso, say a six foot tall person, will not fit a short torso, one of a five foot two inch person, unless it is adjustable. A bug out bag company that advertises their bag will fit you (or anybody) and you don’t see different torso adjustment options is a company that is NOT being honest with their customers.

      A very important question to ask yourself about a bag that you might have to trust your life on and wear for miles is what your back is actually touching. Some packs have thin fabric backings with no padding against your back. This might seen harmless, until you put oddly shaped or pointy items in your bag. You might feel like you are being tortured with jabbing devices being prodded into your back. You also run into the risk of objects ripping holes into the fabric. I would highly suggest a pack that has a firm backing. If you live in a hot climate or you sweat a lot, there are packs that use mesh channels to circulate air between your bag and your back. Some companies have developed ingenious ways that keep your pack completely off your back, thereby greatly reducing sweating and the amount of water you need to consume when water is scarce.

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