How to Build the Best Bug-Out Bag
Wildfire? Hurricane? Apocalypse? In this uncertain age, everyone should be prepared to escape in a hurry.
In the FX’s new series The Old Man, starring Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, and Amy Brenneman, Bridges’s character—a CIA defector living off the grid—has to leave home fast when an assassin shows up. He grabs his bug-out bag and splits, eluding danger, and that got us thinking: Shouldn’t we all be that prepared? You don’t have to be in hiding to make self-sufficiency a priority. If you need convincing, just consider the recent rise in wildfires, hurricanes, and catastrophic floods.
Or take the advice of Shane Hobel, survival expert and founder of New York’s Mountain Scout Survival School, who says you shouldn’t wait for a specific threat to start building a robust emergency kit.
“Being prepared is being responsible,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less.” If you get surprised by a natural disaster or a family emergency, it’s smart to have a grab bag— pre-stocked with about a dozen essential items—that you don’t have to think twice about.
“If something bad happens, the safest thing is to assume that no one is going to come and save you,” Hobel explains. “You’re responsible for you and yours. Having a go bag for each member of your family is a vital piece of assurance.” That way if something does go sideways, you’ll have what you need to give you and your loved ones the best chance of success.
“Your kit should be no heavier than what you can carry comfortably,” says Christopher Huttleston, a retired CIA officer who spent more than two decades doing intelligence work before he was brought on as a technical consultant for The Old Man. He helped inform key pieces of the plot, as well the scene in which Bridges’s character grabs his own bug-out bag and hits the road in a hurry.
Huttleston also suggests having a regimented, consistent way of packing—and knowing exactly what’s in the bag at any given time.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re on the run, your gear is very important to that outcome,” he says. “You need to know what’s in each pocket and be able to find things right away, without lights, in stressful situations.”
Huttleston recommends packing a bag for each member of your family or household, too. Each bag should be packed the same way, and everyone should be familiar with the layout.
Mistakes to Avoid
“The worst thing people do when they panic is forget their bag,” Hobel says. “That’s happened.” Other mistakes include having an incomplete bag—maybe you’ve been taking things out of it without replacing them—or a bag that’s too heavy for efficient movement. Hobel adds that many of his students forget to include personal documents as part of their emergency kit.
“Make sure you have copies of your passport, birth certificates, deeds—anything you can use to prove who you are and what you own,” says Hobel. That’s in addition to credit cards and cash. In The Old Man, you’ll see Bridges’s character grab all these things, kept in carefully labeled, waterproof zip-top bags.
Finally Hobel recommends writing down the phone numbers of friends and family—anyone you might need to reach in a tough spot. “That’s something most people forget to do,” he says. And it’s even more important these days, as few people memorize numbers stored in their cell phone.
How to Build the Best Bug-Out Bag
Yes, you can buy premade bug-out bags online. But Hobel says you should make—or at least customize—your own. “A premade kit is what somebody else thinks you’ll need in a survival situation,” he explains. “It’s better to put your own kit together based on your individual skill set and needs.”
That said, every bug-out bag should include the essentials. So it can save time to start with a kit that has all the basics. Right now, you can even win a free one—along with an escape to a luxury “safe house” in Joshua Tree, California, at Wander Joshua Tree—in a sweepstakes inspired by FX’s new show. The ten-plus items in the custom prize kit were inspired by the list below. Hobel and Huttleston recommend building your own 48- to 72-hour bug-out bag with high-quality products like these, because in an emergency, you need stuff that works.
Choose a backpack that has at least 20 liters of volume (a larger pack might be necessary, depending on conditions). Look for external pockets and a comfortable waist belt in case you need to cover some distance on foot. A pack with a slim silhouette—like the Black Diamond Nitro 26—also helps when moving fast, Hobel adds.
First Aid Kit
Your kit should contain any personal meds, including an EpiPen or inhaler, as well as bandages and other first-aid basics, Huttleston says.
Whether you’re in the wilderness or in a natural-disaster situation, water is critical for survival. “Don’t skimp on filtration,” Hobel cautions. Also make sure you have a means of carrying treated water with you, like a LifeStraw Peak Series filter with reservoir.
MREs are an easy, nutrient-dense choice, says Huttleston. “You can survive on one per day, and you don’t need to add water or anything to them,” he says. Any portable, shelf-stable foods that you know you like will do.
Hobel recommends carrying several different means to start a fire—like a lighter, some paraffin-soaked cotton balls, and storm-proof matches, for example. “Fire also provides signaling and protection,” he says. Besides, if your filter gets lost or damaged, you’ll need to boil water to purify it.
Pack a multitool with a serrated blade, which works better on nylon, paracord, tarps, and other materials found in urban environments. “Serrated blades are designed for man-made materials, whereas a straight-edge blade is better for the woods or a forest environment,” Hobel says.
Your shelter system starts with the clothes on your back. Wool or silk clothing, rain gear, and a wool hat and gloves are must-haves. After that, Hobel recommends bringing a tarp and paracord, a Tyvek bivy sack, and a wool blanket. That way you have several packable, versatile pieces to work with.
Nothing saps morale faster than frying in the sun. Besides, a good sun hat can double as a disguise if you’re, you know, on the run from the bad guys.
Waterproof Phone Case
If you plan to rely on your phone for communication or navigation, keeping it safe is paramount. A waterproof pouch could be a lifesaver.
Solar-Powered Battery Charger
Though Huttleston hasn’t deployed into the field with a portable solar charger, he recommends one for anyone who might have inconsistent access to electricity.
Walkie-talkies can help you keep track of your loved ones in an emergency. As with all your electronics, be sure to choose options that can recharge via your solar setup, or run on batteries that are easy to scavenge for (AA and AAA).
Navigation is critical in any emergency situation, and an electronic GPS’s ability to store waypoints makes it indispensable in the wild and in complex urban environments alike.
Flashlights are great, but Hobel prefers a headlamp for its hands-free capabilities. The best kinds include a red-light mode, which lets you operate in the dark without compromising your night vision and without being seen from a distance.
Basic Hygienic Necessities
This is one of the most overlooked components of a bug-out bag. Getting sick can turn a bad situation worse in a hurry, Huttleston warns. Always pack toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a little soap.
In The Old Man, Bridges’s character flees with his dogs, and it’s a good reminder that if you’re in danger, so is your pet. Pack dry food, a water bowl, medications, and a leash.
To learn a few more CIA tricks and off-grid survival tactics, tune in to FX on Thursdays to watch The Old Man. Stream on Hulu. And be sure to enter FX’s The Old Man Safe House Sweepstakes for a chance to win a luxury escape to Joshua Tree, as well as your own fully stocked bug-out bag, inspired by this article. The sweepstakes closes June 28, 2022.
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NO PURCHASE OR DONATION NECESSARY TO ENTER OR CLAIM PRIZE. NEITHER A PURCHASE NOR DONATION WILL INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING.
Sweepstakes open to legal residents of the United States who are at least eighteen (18) years of age at the time of entry. Void where prohibited. Sweepstakes ends 6/28/2022 at 23:59:00 PT. See Official Rules at prizeo.com/fxtheoldman for odds, terms, and other details.