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How To Pack a Go Bag

How To Pack a Go Bag

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Be Ready! To purchase to the current issue of Be Ready!, click here.

The highly destructive and deadly tornadoes in Oklahoma, the superstorm that hit the NYC metro area and other events worldwide have provided us with copious examples of the need for individual readiness. You most likely won't have time to pack or purchase needed survival items when a crisis strikes. If something happens and you have to make a run for it, will you have what you need to survive?

Go Bag
A go bag is just what its name implies: A bag stocked with important items you can grab at a moment's notice and live out of several days if needed.

Enter the go bag: one kit (or levels of kits) that is always ready to go, just in case. Remember, knowledge alone won't cut it during a crisis situation. We need to back that up with proper gear to support basic subsistence needs, as well as specialized survival situations that we may face in a crisis. This means having an assortment of well-chosen gear and supplies to get you through an event.

Also consider that, as important as what you chose for such a go bag ensemble is how it's configured for what could be a situation of rapid/no-notice onset. It might be constantly changing, where you might face hostilities and may require either foot movement and/or shelter-in-place on your part. When it's "for keeps," you may have to rely only on yourself until help arrives. And that could take days.

What is a Go Bag?

A go bag can be a small handbag, three-day pack, or luggage item loaded with basic survival items. Its size and weight will be conditioned by the potential survival challenges you may face and the number of days for which you plan to subsist without assistance. Then there are factors which can complicate or expand your preparations: special medications or pre-existing medical needs by you or a family member, having small children or babies, physical limitations, weather extremes and the need for personal protective items.

Go Bag Contents

Navigation Essentials
  • Handheld compass
  • Maps
  • GPS (and spare batteries)

Have multiple types of maps. If you are traveling, grab all that you can at the airport or train station. It pays to have skill in using a map/compass/GPS combination. The REI-COOP stores conduct great classes on these.

Fire/Heat Essentials
  • Firestarters
  • Windproof matches
  • Candles
  • Tin foil
Go Bag
Careful packing can get days' worth of supplies into a small bag like the Mountainsmith shoulder bag at front. It then can be fitted in a large backpack.
Food Essentials

Meal replacement and energy bars. The most durable survival food that I have found in stores is the basic PowerBar Performance Energy type bar. It's compact and will not disintegrate/melt in one's pockets, even in high heat. I chose these in the early '90s after discovering they did quite well while crawling in my ghillie suit used for sniper training.

Additional favorites of mine are (a) Clif bar and (b) NoGii bars created by conservative television personality Elisabeth Hasselback and fit nearly any dietary restriction, including gluten-free needs.

Read the package to figure out how many bars that you will add up to a 2,000+ calorie per day diet. You can rotate these in and out of your kit for other uses.

Going beyond this, buy some dehydrated meals, such as by Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry. You will, of course, need water, a cooking container, and utensils to use these. The advantage is you can literally carry several weeks' worth of rations in this dehydrated form. More critical, of course, are potable water and electrolytes.

Water Purification and Storage Essentials
Go Bag
This water kit incorporates two methods for purifying water: boiling and chemicals. These will decontaminate most any parasite or other microbe known.

Boiling is a very reliable purification method, but not always doable. Plan for some means to store at least one gallon of water per person. Water is the one thing that you won't get very far without. This is perhaps the most important item, particularly if you are not able to acquire food for several days. But, you cannot live long without the basic electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc.) CeraSport Electrolyte Drink mix , Nunn, GU, and Cytomax are four examples of the top-of-the-line ones that I use. They are all used by top athletes and military special operations personnel.

The Oxylent packets and Emergen-C packets are also highly recommended to include in your Go-Bag. Any good bike store or running shop will have all of these as does the Vitamin Shoppe chain.


Self-Protection/Preservation Essentials
  • Multi-tool
  • Straight knife
  • Protective / ballistic eyewear
  • Shielding (plastic)
  • Defensive hardware
Signaling/Lighting Essentials
  • Survival whistle
  • High intensity flashlight
  • Keychain light, such as the photo microlight
  • White strobe light
  • Scarf or banner of international orange material
Medical Essentials

These should be packed and maintained in your go bag, but a basic first aid kit is not enough. So, spend the extra money on a kit to handle severe bleeding and other wound trauma. Some top suppliers: Adventure medical kits, North American Rescue, and my all-time favorite, Tactical Medical Solutions. Owned and operated by former Army Special Forces Medics, TacMed has educational videos on their website showing how to use many of the advanced medical items that they sell.

Along with your navigation training, plan on a good medical course. If anything, it's a great confidence builder and can give you piece of mind. But consider the reality that in exigent circumstances that you either may not be able to get to an emergency room and you will have to render emergency treatment on site. Proper training courses may also guide your purchases as to specific medical kit contents. In as little as a day, you can learn most of what you need to know.

Go Bag
Here is the basic sustenance portion of a go-bag, including a small stove. Note meal replacement and energy bars and the vital electrolyte mix.
Financial Essentials

Various denominations of cash and a few rolls of quarters and dollars may be a wise addition to the kit. If you already set money set aside, why not have some in the go bag?

Communication Essentials

  • Weather radio
  • Cell phones, adapters/chargers, and some way to power it all

Think ahead as to how you will facilitate communications. A weather radio is inexpensive and may be your only way to find out what is going on long past the point of losing power and the digital phone network. Recommended brands are the Eton, Grundig, and American Red Cross radios. Get one with a hand crank and solar charging panel and you are all set. A hard-copy phone list of your most vital contacts is a good addition to the comm kit.

To facilitate all of these categories, considering keeping all or most of your camping gear prepped in your primary vehicles along with three-to-five days of clothing. Instead of packing your inclement weather clothing away, have some of your best items packed in your car.

The most essential bedding, shelter, cooking supplies, hygiene and clothing items can all be compressed into a backpack or duffel bag and live in your trunk indefinitely. If your actual go bag pack is too small, then put your bedding and clothing in compression stuff sacks and attach them to your go bag with snap links and/or shock cord. These lighter weight parcels are also ideal if you have to give women, children, or the elderly something to carry.

More for the Go Bag
  • Great footwear (running shoes or hiking boots) and best socks that will facilitate walking for miles.
  • Outerwear--rainwear, a great sweater or fleece, warm hat/gloves/scarf
  • Toilet paper & hand sanitizer
  • Heavy duty tarp
  • Roll of duct tape
  • 20 to 100 feet of 1-inch tubular nylon with carabineers
  • More of: water Bottles, candles, matches, and energy bars
Go Bag
These bags were chosen to be low-profile, for domestic and oversea flights. Once purchased, they were packed with more advanced wound trauma items.

Packing the Go Bag

Major considerations for contingency kits include:

Packaging of the items that you choose. The go bag or container should be durable, water-resistant, expandable and able to handle heavy loads. You may want to consider putting the items in a low-profile, non-military looking luggage or camping item that does not draw attention when in public. During a crisis or even martial law, the "tactical" look could mean getting singled out.

Some of my go bag ensembles are set up to be either carried on or as a checked during commercial air travel. These and the items that I also carry during outdoor sports and overseas work all fit within other packs or luggage items, often completely out of view.

Consider having a separate, smaller, "quick draw" go bag carried within your luggage, backpack or portable evacuation kit.

If you are choosing backpacks and shoulder bags, there is no shortage of great brands available. My favorite, all made by American companies, are:

  • Eagle Industries — This company was one of the pioneers that most others followed and I have been using their products for over 23 years.
  • Mountainsmith — pure "civilian" models and colors, and top of the line in everything that they do.
  • GoRuck — these are high durability packs with a slicker exterior built by a company formed by former U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers.

All of them make bags that will hold a hydration system. Mountainsmith, Battlelabs, Maxpedition and others make smaller lumbar type bags or shoulder bags. A lumbar pack may be the best choice if you are on foot or a bike, and often a backpack can be worn on top of one. A great product line for purpose-built go-bags is the Mission Go-Bag series from SO Tech.

Go Bag
Survival in winter requires warm and rain-resistant clothing. Most of this compresses into the small stuff sack shown and snap-linked to the boots.

Portability of the package that you put it in. Consider how long you may be able to carry your survival items while on foot. A well-made framed backpack will pay for itself in crisis situations. If the bag has the ability to attach additional items to it, then this is more preferred, as you may acquire other items along the way. Ideal is an internal framed backpack with both a padded hip belt and contoured shoulder straps with chest strap.

And about go bag size. A general rule of thumb is to have a bag or pack that you could either easily place on your lap if seated. But, if you could not carry the full bag for some reason, then have it packed in such a way that you could break out all or some of the contents and begin placing them in pockets and all over your body. This might become necessary because you have to use the go bag to haul other items, had to conceal them, or were not allowed to carry the full bag with you.

Modularity of the individual items versus other kits and preparations that you have. You may want to consider having a set or various levels of Go Bags and evacuation kits. To keep costs down, you may also find that some items that you are already using for hiking, sports, or various hobbies have a crossover or dual-purpose value for survival and the go bag. Consider the following three modules or levels for carriage of survival gear:

Level 1: Survival/On-Person

Placing survival items in your pockets and/or belt pouches. Here is a great one — take that range vest and fill it with your go bag contents. This way, if you have to grab 'n' go in the night, you just wear it. I wore exactly such an ensemble during a lengthy overseas trip in plain clothes in the upper latitudes. It was a photojournalist vest from the Banana Republic store worn under a heavy wool coat. It worked like a charm and was always there. There was nothing to carry or pack.

Go Bag
Here's an international travel/airline-compliant Go-Bag used as a carry on. It packs electrolytes, trauma kit, lights, power, compass and space blanket.

Level 2: Survival/Carried Go Bag

This may be the complete go bag or centerpiece of your survival ensemble. It goes in the car, on vacation, and it with you or close at hand. Whether it's a laptop case or a backpack of some kind, this might be what you are living out of for a while.

Level 3: Survival/Carted or Stored Items

This is your larger car-based kit or one that you keep ready to go at home. It's intended for a real evacuation and to cover you for days or weeks. It has more food, water, clothing, power sourcing, temporary shelter items, toilet paper and hygiene items, and other sustainment items. If you are into camping, then why not keep a compact camping stove with or near your contingency gear? A multi-fuel stove is the most versatile option.

Have it with you: A go bag that is sitting back at your house when you need it won't do you any good. When the stores are closed or their shelves have already been stripped bare, what you have on you will be it. As one of our Colonels in Special Forces once told us before a trip, "Bring it with you, as it's all you're probably gonna have anyways."

It's important to get used to having the items with you and close at hand. At times of elevated risk or approaching bad weather, have the go bag closer to you wherever you are.

As informed citizens, we plan as though we will be faced with a variety of survival challenges in the one or more crisis situations that await us in our lifetimes. If you take anything away from this piece on go bags, then follow this time-honored mantra:

"It's better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it!"

J. M. Peterson is a former Army Special Forces soldier with service before and after 9/11 overseas both as an SF troop and government contractor. He has served as an instructor at Smith & Wesson Academy and is now an adjunct instructor for Centermass Training Institute.

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