I've been a prepper for over 40 years, starting back when we were called survivalists. I still have the .22 rimfire AR-7 rifle and Ruger Mk. II pistol bought in the 1970s, as well as other gear. I've also always had a bug-out-bag (BOB) in my vehicles, and still do today, even though I'm retired to my retreat.
Over the years, the contents of the BOB changed as new items came out or old ones were discontinued (or discredited -- remember the Aqua Timer?). My BOB got larger, as I was now packing for two and my bug-out location got further away. I still unpack and examine it every year and replace what's needed.
I've also made BOBs for my wife and interested family members and friends. Since Hurricane Katrina, I've had more inquiries about my kit. When I show it to them, some are overwhelmed by the number of items, the complexity of some pieces and the amount of knowledge needed to make the BOB items work together. For instance, everyone knows hand sanitizer keeps your hands germ free; most are surprised to see how it can act as a fire starter as well.
I found that most people want to know what to pack now, but don't know where to start or what to get first. As an answer to them, I've come up with a five-level system for BOBs. This is based on many writings in books and online, as well as my own experience. There are other BOB-level articles and I've consolidated everything I've learned over the last four decades into this system.
This is a work of personal opinion, based on both study and practice. It is done from the perspective of an urban/suburban East Coast resident, living in the temperate Mid Atlantic region. Other areas might require for some modifications, but not many, I would think. I've include some explanation for items listed; I advise my friends to research further themselves. I've also taught skills for those interested (most recently, showing that you can boil water in a plastic bottle). For the beginner, this system hopefully breaks down BOBs into bite-sized chunks and lets them get geared up to a basic level quick. As is often said, any preparation is better than none.
Let's begin with some basic concepts. A BOB is intended to give you the tools and supplies you need to get from point A to point B. In its simplest form, it would be what you'd need to get home from work, school, or the store. A more intensive situation might see you having to evacuate from your home to a friend or relative's home. You might just have to flee a dangerous situation (think of the videos of New Yorkers fleeing the Towers as they collapsed).
In order to create our levels, we'll make certain assumptions, beginning with your transportation options. All the levels assume you are on foot. While you may not usually travel on foot, the difference between driving home and walking home may be substantial, and the likelihood of a vehicle breakdown, traffic gridlock, or the lack of fuel can't be discounted.
I don't list carry bags for the levels. Each level should have its own carry bag, the type and size depending on your situation and needs. You should assemble the items first, and then find an appropriate size and style case for them.
All of the levels are cumulative; each level assumes you have all of the lower level items with you.
LEVEL 1 -- EDC
Any emergency kit begins with those items you want to have on your person all the times, referred to as Every Day Carry (EDC). These are the essentials you would never want to be without and they form the basis for all the other levels.
As numerous sources have stated, there are 3 abilities you will always need to have in a survival situation:
- the ability to cut things
- the ability to tie things together
- the ability to set things on fire
If you think about it, you could do all these things if you were set down in the wilderness with no tools at all. Rocks of certain types can be broken to form razor-sharp shards. Vines and bark can be braided to make cordage. And you really can make fire by rubbing two sticks together. The only thing you would need is knowledge and a lot of practice doing these things. Also a great deal of luck.
The knowledge part is crucial: you want to learn how to do these things, and others. Gear can be lost, broken, or stolen. Knowledge can't. Knowledge trumps gear, always.
These three basic actions, however, will be easier to do with some simple, small items you would always carry on your person.
The EDC level items are as follows:
- a knife;
- a butane lighter;
First, a knife of some type. It doesn't have to be big, it only has to be sharp. Depending on your situation, a good folding knife is likely the best choice. Pick one that has a blade lock. A multi-tool will work, as would a Swiss Army knife, although some models don't have a blade lock.
A butane lighter will provide you with hundreds of lights, and is much smaller than the number of matches you'd need to carry to light a fraction as many fires. They also are not as susceptible to moisture as matches. Matches are a 19th Century item; lighters are modern and better.
The best cordage you can carry is 550 paracord. Paracord has a core made up of 7 strands of nylon twine, and each of the 7 strands is made up of smaller nylon fibers. The outer sheath is a woven mesh of nylon fibers as well. A 5 foot length of paracord could be disassembled to make 30+ feet of twine, as well as hundreds of feet of small strings that can used as fishing line, dental floss, sewing thread, sutures and for repairing gear. The easiest way to carry it is as a paracord bracelet or fob attached to a zipper, your key ring, or your knife.
Once again, you should have your EDC on you every time you leave your house, no matter how short your intended trip.
LEVEL 2 -- CORE
The situation is this: you are on foot, trying to get home, which may take you a couple of days. You are in a civilized area; that is, you are in an urban, suburban, or populated rural area. Civil disorder is non-existent or minimal. Some businesses are open, and items and services can be purchased, although it is not business-as-usual. The weather is not severe and you are dressed appropriately. Water is available, but it will need filtering to be drinkable. You have nothing worse than minor injuries and do not need medical attention. Basically, you need to walk home and can't/won't be able to get help doing so.
The Core level assumes you have your EDC items with you. Some of the Core level items you will also likely have on you as a matter of course, like a cell phone. Nonetheless, they are listed.
The Core level BOB includes the following:
- a map of the area;
- a poncho;
- a lawn & garden trash bag;
- a filter straw;
- a cell phone, with charger or extra battery;
- a quart sized ziploc bag;
- a bandana;
- 10 coffee maker filters;
- 3 energy or candy bars;
- a packet of tissues, or toilet paper;
- 1 pair of socks;
- $150 cash;
- small first aid kit.
The Core level kit will fit into a small travel bag, or one of the many gear bags made for outdoors or the military. Many women could carry all these items in their handbag.
The poncho gives you extra protection if it rains or is windy. It can be one of the cheap disposable ones. The trash bag acts as a sleeping bag; get in it and put the poncho over it. Get the thickest mil bag you can find.
A bandana (not a handkerchief) can function as a dust mask, a triangle bandage, a filter for water, a cleaning cloth and many other things.
The coffee filters are used to pre-filter water. Pour the suspect water thru a coffee filter into the ziploc bag. Drink the water from the bag with the filter straw. Don't use the bag to collect the suspect water; get an empty plastic water bottle and use that.
Changing your socks if they become wet will keep you going better than trudging through with only one pair.
Cash will allow you to buy things, even if the power is out (although some stores may not even take cash without the electronic cash register to record the sale). No bills larger than a twenty, and primarily carry fives and tens. Coins can be carried; stick with quarters and dollars.
The first aid kit needs some band aids, a small mirror (something in the eye) and anti-bacterial ointment. You will also want medication, including 3-days worth of any necessary prescription meds, OTC pain relievers (aspirin, Tylenol, Motrin), stomach upset meds (Pepto), and an anti-diarrheal. Include a few safety pins, and 1 or 2 sewing needles.
LEVEL 2A -- CORE+
While not as essential, you would want to add the following to the Core level BOB as soon as you can:
- a compass;
- gloves and a hat;
- a weapon.
If your daily footwear isn't good for extended walking, you'll need to have a pair of broken-in walking, hiking, or athletic shoes. These can be kept in a small bag in your office and your car, so they are always within reach.
The inclusion of a weapon should be carefully considered. We are talking about a low-level emergency at this point. Police are still on the job and would not be expected to suspend normal enforcement of weapons laws. Guns likely require a permit to carry; knives are usually less-objectionable, if they have a blade less than 4 inches long. A fixed blade is stronger, but a good-quality folder will do the job. The knife can be the same as your EDC knife, if that one is big enough for defense. Chemical spray may be legal for carry, but this varies by jurisdiction, even within one state. A stick that functions as a cane or walking stick may not arose suspicion.
All weapons require training and practice. You should familiarize yourself with any weapon you put into your kit. If you have a gun, you would include enough ammunition to reload it once (total of two full load outs).
LEVEL 3 -- EVACUATION
At this level, you face a greater emergency, one that requires you to evacuate where you are. This could be your workplace, your home, or a public area. You are on foot, in a civilized area (not in the wilderness). Stores are not open where you are, but may be where you are going. The weather is not severe and you are dressed appropriately. You have no major injuries. You may be on your own for up to 7 days.
The Evac level assumes you are carrying your EDC and Core level BOB.
The Evac level BOB includes the following:
- the Core+ level additions:
- a compass;
- gloves and a hat;
- a weapon;
- ID & essential papers;
- $150 cash;
- 3 changes of underwear;
- 3 pairs of socks;
- a N100 dust mask;
- a canteen with cup & cover;
- a metal spoon or spork;
- water purification tablets;
- additional food;
- 2-3 butane lighters;
- a radio;
- advanced first aid kit.
The items that were additions to the Core level BOB are now essential. You will need the compass to make sure you are following your map. This is a skill you should practice beforehand. All items listed are in addition to the prior levels items (i.e., $150 cash in addition to the $150 in the Core level).
Additional clothing will become important in a week's time. Extra socks and underwear will keep you healthy and clean, particularly if it is raining or wet. Goggles and a mask will help you get out of an area filled with dust or smoke.
You will want to have identification, including more than just your driver's license. You will want insurance information, a credit card, telephone numbers (not just in a phone that may die). These can be paper copies in a wallet; you might want to also have electronic copies encrypted on a small jump drive.
A military-style canteen with a cup can be had at any surplus store. The canteen should be filled with water and refilled every 6 months or so. Some covers come with a pouch for water purification tablets. The cup acts as a cup or a pot to heat water in.
More energy bars will help, but for a week's trek, you'll want more kinds of food. Include canned meat, coffee or tea, bouillon or soup mix. You want things that don't need cooking, just the addition of hot water.
You'll want to have 25 ft. or more, of paracord.
You can add a couple of twenty's to your cash, and balance out the rest in paper and coin.
The radio should be a unit that gets AM, FM and weather channels. A radio that operates on several power sources (battery, crank, solar, 12v, 110v) is best.
The advanced first aid kit would include a triangle bandage, tweezers, scissors, scalpel blade, gauze pads, gauze dressing, tape, more medication (allergy, nausea, topical cream). You can buy a pre-made kit, but it should be augmented.
If you didn't bring a weapon in the Core level kit, you need one now. If you have chosen a firearm, include a total of 40-50 rounds of ammunition.
You will not be allowed into a public shelter with a weapon and may have to surrender your entire kit. It is unlikely you'll get it back. If you must use a shelter, hide your kit outside somewhere and hope it's still there when you leave.
LEVEL 4 -- WILDERNESS
We're now talking about staying alive completely removed from civilization. There are no stores, or houses, or any other habitation. You are on foot, the weather is variable. You have no major injuries. While this may seem unlikely, we have read in the news of such situations, usually involving stranded motorists, or people on wilderness excursions.
It would be reasonable for the wilderness hiker to have all of these items, and more, when heading out on an excursion. Most people who head out on long car trips, however, won't prepare as thoroughly. You should not make a trip through remote areas without these items.
The Wilderness level assumes you have EDC, all Core level, and all Evac level items with you.
The Wilderness level BOB includes the following:
- a tent;
- a wool blanket;
- a sleeping bag;
- an axe, or saw;
- a full fishing kit;
- a rifle, with 100 rds. of ammo;
- a fixed blade knife;
- 2 gallons of water;
- a firesteel, plus tinder;
- a mess kit;
- sharpening stone.
This level of survival will require you to live in the open for an extended period of time, perhaps weeks. You will either need shelter, food and water, or the ability to make or procure it. You will certainly struggle if you have not learned wilderness survival techniques and practiced them.
A small tent will keep you from having to create shelter every day if you are on the move. A wool (or other warm material) blanket and a sleeping bag appropriate for the climate will keep you warm inside the tent.
An axe will allow you to construct any sort of shelter or furnishings, given a source of wood. You'll need a larger knife, capable of handling tougher work.
Snares, or snare wire, and a fishing kit appropriate to your area, will give you the ability to gather food while doing other chores, or even while you're sleeping.
If you have chosen a handgun for your defense weapon at the Core + level, the rifle will function primarily to provide food, as well as signaling, and will also give additional protection. The rifle should be sized to the region you are operating in and the game available.
Two gallons of water will last a few days, and the container will allow you to carry more water, once you have located and sterilized it. Rather than using your filter straw, you should use the water purification tablets and boil any open water you find. A mess kit allows you to boil water, and cook and eat food.
A firesteel produces a shower of hot sparks, even in wet conditions. These are enough to ignite dry tinder. You may have to replace the tinder you carry with natural materials you find.
Regular use of your knives and axe will dull them, making them dangerous to use. Sharpen them regularly with a stone, steel or other device.
LEVEL 5 -- TEOTWAWKI
The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). Too much to write out every time, even the acronym. Some refer to it as SHTF, for "Schumer Hits The Fan". I'll just use Fan" to describe this sort of event.
Most folks think of a fan event as the result of a nuclear war, an asteroid strike, or the ever-popular zombie apocalypse. A kit for this level doesn't actually exist. There is no way you can store, carry and maintain everything you would need to survive the rest of your life with no outside assistance. Of course, if life is (mostly) wiped out by a pandemic, there'll be plenty of stuff lying around. But if you made it, so did others.
In reality, a fan event would be incredibly intense, but local. Think of the hurricane in Haiti, the tsunami in Indonesia, or the earthquakes in Mexico, Turkey, or the Philippines. Extreme weather in the USA isn't a good example, as we are so large that help usually arrives within days, if not hours (Hurricane Katrina being the worst example). Your Evac, or Wilderness level kit would get you through that, at least in this country.
Still, there is the remote possibility of a global fan event that changes all the rules, for everyone. In that situation, there're few places to bug out to, and the idea of a Fan level BOB is silly. Still, in the event you have somewhere to go, and to keep this article complete, I'll give you my idea for a Fan level BOB. Basically, you have everything to survive in levels 1 through 4. To prepare for Fan level, you need tools that will allow you to evade, escape, or fight.
The Fan level BOB includes the following:
- battle rifle, plus ammo;
- additional ammo for handgun;
- optics for the rifle;
- night vision device;
- suppressors for handgun and rifle;
- tools of a trade.
The military equipment and weapons will help keep you alive in a Fan event better than commercial available versions. Real military equipment and clothing is better quality and more rugged than what you get in the store. Our army doesn't wear khakis and sneakers into combat for a reason. Get real mil-spec clothing and equipment where you can.
Staying out of sight is a better option than trying to survive a firefight, however. Optics and night vision equipment will help keep you apprised of what's ahead (and behind) so badness can be avoided. Suppressors are legal now, and would allow you to take game without drawing attention.
Let's face it: if you're alone in this situation, it's a question of when, not if, you'll stop surviving. Your only hope is to join a group, the larger the better, and try and make a life for yourself. The skills you've learned preparing for levels 1-5 will be a start. Unless they already know you, an established group will likely only take you in because you have value to them.
Medical, construction, electronics, farming, you'll need to have some skill to offer to a community that's probably patched together from the remains of the surrounding area. Having a trade. and having the tools necessary to conduct that trade, will go a long way to making you a priority for inclusion in a community.
The even better answer is, of course, to start or join a group now. If you find like-minded folks, you can all begin learning the skills necessary, as well as acquiring the tools and equipment you'd need in a Fan event. That will give you the best chance of not just surviving, but living to an old age.