We could endlessly debate which threats are of immediate risk during a wilderness bug out. However, one of the most important is rarely discussed, avoiding injury. A quick sampling of Youtube videos or forum “bug out lists” quickly gives the impression that in the survivalist community, we carry too much weight. Many people plan to carry 60-70 pound packs for days at a time, while covering 15 miles per day. For some readers, this is feasible, but for most people, myself included, it is not. When talking about the dangers of bugging out, I often read about mudslides, wild animal attacks, bullet wounds, and a plethora of other comparatively unlikely events. Rarely does anyone talk about overexertion, and when they do, it is always in the context of physical fitness. Fitness is important; if you are not fit, it does not matter how many pounds of rice you have on your back. However, lowering your pack weight is one of the best ways to increase mobility, possible distance covered, and overall energy levels, all skills that should be high on our list. Every ounce does count; ask anyone who has gone on a long distance backwoods trip with 30lbs and then again with 35 pounds. The difference almost seems unbearable by day six. Every ounce you save is an asset towards your survival. Injury on a bug out makes you a liability for a group or a target for aggressors; it should be our number one priority to avoid it.
There is a large cultural difference between ultra-light backpackers and climbers on one hand and preparedness-minded individuals on the other. There is some overlap, but overwhelming, the climbers and ultra-light backpackers I have met have been gun-averse yuppies. However, these are communities that have a rigorous culture of shaving ounces and they have valuable things to teach us. Some things obviously do not translate (e.g. they do not have to carry guns and ammo); however, many things do. I have tried to provide some practical skills for shaving ounces off your pack. Yes, some of them are more expensive; however, simply saving the change in your pocket each day can make up the difference. Furthermore, a philosophy of weight vs. use can be the difference between life and death in the bush.
As a brief side note, stop buying military surplus. What? Blasphemy! We need to look at why we value military surplus items. The answer is, on face, simple. Military gear is made with two ideas in mind: price-point and durability. For many preparedness-minded individuals, the combination of rugged and cheap is too good to pass up; however, military surplus always comes at the expense of weight. If you have no plan to bug out or have a vehicle in your plan, weight is not as much of an issue. However, for backcountry bug outs using your own two legs or an animal (like sled dogs or a horse), we need to seriously weigh the price-point versus the weight. It is imperative, and literally a matter of life and death, that you are not buying military surplus merely to “look tactical.” Many of the tips explicitly compare military surplus items with alternatives in the civilian market. This is not because I have any qualms, per se, with surplus items; it is because we have to always compare value to weight and sometimes, surplus items just do not hold up. If it is all you can afford, by all means buy it, but understand the drawbacks. Surplus items are not the “end-all, be-all” of survivalism.
What a mess! How are you cooking?
Most of the pack lists I see legitimately have more pots and pans than I have in my kitchen. You do not need a frying pan, you do not need a one-gallon pot, and you most certainly do not need a Dutch oven. 95% of all foods that you carry on your back can be cooked in a 1-liter cylindrical pot, which also doubles as a cup. Your basic foods are freeze-dried food, which requires boiled water, and stews. Bacon and eggs should not be in your bug out plan, nor should peach cobbler. Lose the heavy mess kit with 18 various pots and pans and get one, single pot. You will be surprised that you never did so before. On that note, invest in a pot. Yes, invest. A 1-liter titanium pot is expensive, no one will tell you otherwise. However, I went through five “quality” mess kits before I plucked up the balls to drop the dough on one. It drops your whole mess kit to a fraction of a pound and it will last you a lifetime. I have met tons of people who will spend over $1,200 on a custom 1911, but would never spend $70 on a good pot. Their reason is that “it will last me forever.” Good point, I will almost certainly be able to pass my titanium pot onto my kids. Consider it a lifelong investment and save for a month or two if necessary. If it just is not an option, you still need to forgo the heavy mess kit and get one, solid pot that you can work with; of course, weight and durability are your main concerns. I am a big fan of stainless if you cannot drop the money on titanium, but I still think, after three years now, that it was the best $70 I have ever spent. On the utensil route, buy a cheap plastic set for under $3 that legitimately weighs nothing. I prefer hardened plastic to disposable options simply because they are more durable and cost virtually nothing; however, budget minded people may forgo the purchase altogether.
Foods: where you can make a real difference
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that your larder and your bug out plan need drastically different food choices. No food in your pack should have water in it; it doubles the weight because you are already packing water. Throw out the cans and find freeze-dried options. You do not need to spend $20 per meal on expensive pre-packaged food. Learn to freeze-dry your own food; it is actually easier than you think. If you do want to go the MRE route, strip them down. Excess packaging adds weight and many of the items will be doubled-up in your pack. Most of the items are unnecessary and while it may seem like nothing, every ounce counts. Lastly, expandable foods like rice and pasta weigh slightly more but pack tons of calories and cut water weight on a budget. All of this literally shaves pounds off your pack for essentially the same price.
Water: How do you carry it?
Most of the conversations on water deal with how it is procured. However, an equally valuable conversations needs to happen around how we carry it. This is where surplus can be handy; you need one or two 1-quart plastic canteens. Surplus canteens are great for this; they are cheap, durable, and relatively lightweight. However, you need more water than 2 quarts. Collapsible plastic water reservoirs are a great way to save weight and space as you move through water. Unless your pack has a purpose-driven holder for a Camelbak type system, I would forgo it to avoid the extra weight of effectively carrying it. Canteens are tried, tested and relatively lightweight. Use cordage to hang the canteens over your shoulder to get the weight off of your hips. All of this seems like a worthless endeavor for a few ounces; however, empty canteens are wasted weight and have fewer uses than an empty, clear water bladder.
Sleeping systems, not sleeping bags
Where do you live? Before you pack your sleeping system (and I use the word system intentionally), you need to analyze the weather. Prepare for the worst; however, if it rarely freezes where you live, you do not need a sub-zero bag. Over packing for the climate is a surefire way to add on unnecessary weight. Sleeping bags are a big investment but the technology has come a long way in recent years. I finally decided to trade in my 8-year-old mummy bag for a newer model and was shocked by the weight, and price, advances that have been made in recent years. I bought a new bag for half the cost; it weighed ¼ what my old bag did and compressed into about a fifth of the size. That is serious value for the dollar and online shopping can be your friend on this front. Lastly, consider your entire sleeping system. A tent and pad might add weight over a tarp but cut weight off of your sleeping bag. Research how your entire system works together. A heavier pad may wash out the weight instead of going 15 degrees colder on your bag and give you added comfort. If you live in alpine or plains environments, a tent that cuts the wind can literally shave pounds off of your sleeping bag. Do not just say, “lighter is better,” but understand how the system works together.
Guns: where everyone has an opinion
This is where I tread into dangerous ground. Everyone has an opinion and thinks their gun is best for the job. I will merely try to offer some guidelines; however, when thinking about carrying a gun, there are two main factors only occasionally discussed: total gun weight and total ammo weight. I have hiked around with a steel-framed, full-sized sidearm and will never do it again. You may love that 1911, but know your abilities. If by day six you wish you had brought something else, that is bad news. Some people have no problems with hiking around with a 70 lb pack and another couple hanging on their hip; I am not that person. I get fed up with it and you should know if you would as well. For rifles, switch out wood stocks for synthetic to cut pounds. I’m confident with my .270 Winchester but if you want to go with a semi-auto, explore your options. Consider a carbine and lose the fancy accessories like laser dots. These seem like nothing but after a week they seem like a lot more. Secondly, consider ammo weight. A .416 Rigby packs a punch but the thought of lugging around ammo for it makes me shudder as I type this. You may love your .45 but consider how much ammo you could carry for the same weight with a 9mm. The obvious caveat is to pack what you shoot well; backcountry hiking with a gun is always a compromise. I have a friend who cannot shoot anything other than his 1911 any better than my grandmother can shoot a .416 Rigby (do not ask me why; he can shoot someone’s finger off with the 1911 while drunk and blindfolded). That would warrant the extra weight; however, understanding what you shoot well is coupled with understanding the weight drawbacks of a certain caliber. “Stopping power” should not be your only consideration.
Caching: make your time easier
Let us hypothetically say my bug out plan included a 100-mile cross-country ski trek through unplowed snow. Carrying 7-10 days worth of food is a lot of weight but you need the food nonetheless. Creating multiple cache points full of some food, water, ammo, and emergency medical supplies can cut weight and strategically increase your options. Have multiple bug out plans with multiple cache points along each, giving you versatility. This cuts weight off your pack for the immediate time and gives you adaptability. These do not need to be $1000 worth of food, water, and ammo, simply a resupply along the way.
Make friends, even different ones
Climbers and ultra-light backpackers often will not share your desire to plan for a WROL scenario. However, they love the outdoors and shared trips can help you build valuable skills. I learned my technical rescue skills from anti-gun climbing and SAR friends, not from my survivalist friends. You will be surprised what kinds of people the outdoors can bring together, even with different political views. They also value saving ounces and have some amazing tips to add. Lastly, many of them are budget minded and gear focused. That means that they love new gear but often have to sell old gear to pay for it. Being first in line for top-notch used gear pays off in the long run.
The first thing you will learn when you get into the ultra-light backpacking game is how fast saving an ounce or two here and there saves pounds. You will never be able to hike with a 50 pound pack again knowing what you know. I have focused on the “biggies” where I see mistakes made in the preparedness-minded community. There are thousands of other ways to save weight, from stoves, to clothing, to pack style. However, I feel this has been a good introduction.