How to Pack a Go-Bag: The Expert Advice that Could Save Your Life

If there's one thing that's certain in life, it's that uncertain times will come. Whether those uncertain times take the form of an unexpected natural disaster, a global pandemic or anything in between, the most important thing is that you and your loved ones get prepared for whatever comes knocking on your door.

Regardless of whether you live in a crowded city apartment, a house in the suburbs or a bunker off the grid, knowing how to pack a go-bag is an essential skill that plays a major role in your safety and the safety of those closest to you.

If you're curious about how to pack a go-bag, wondering what materials you need for your go-bag or just someone who likes to prepare for it all, the tips below from survivalists and preparedness experts can help ensure that you know what you need and that you have it all in one place for when uncertainty comes.

1. Prepare for 72 hours

Tent in a meadow with a go-bag in front of it

Alan Smith, a.k.a. the Prepared Survivalist, asserts that "A go bag is there to help you reach your bug out location so it typically has items to help you survive 72 hours until you get to your desired location. Because of that, there are a lot of items that may be useful to you and your specific situation. And in my opinion, the following are the must-have items for your go-bag."

He went on to list his essentials for a scenario that requires up to 72 hours of survival:

  • Water or some sort of purification system to help you survive multiple days.
  • Food for multiple days. Make sure it's calorie-dense so it won't take up a bunch of space.
  • Spare clothing. Depending on where you live, you need to pack for the type of weather that you most likely encounter. Pack clothing that will help you stay warm.
  • Hand crank radio or some sort of way to keep yourself informed.

He summed up his thoughts by simply stating, "I believe that these items cover the basics of survival."

2. Ask yourself the important questions

Map and compass

GL, the survivalist behind Great Lakes Prepping explained, "You first have to determine your own personal needs and objectives. Where are you going? Under what circumstances are you going there?"

GL went on to break down his essential go-bag items into five categories:

1. Tools

  • Multi-tool
  • Pocket knife
  • Folding saw
  • Disposable lighters (or matches)
  • Tiny sewing kit
  • Fishing line with some hooks

2. Warmth

  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Mylar blankets

3. Safety

  • Safety glasses
  • Earplugs
  • Pistol and extra magazines with ammo
  • Pepper spray

4. Health and sanitation

  • Tick-removal tweezers
  • Moist towelettes
  • Travel toothbrush and toothpaste

5. Miscellaneous

  • Extra charging cord for phones
  • Map of the area you'll be traveling in (in case there is no cell service)

GL capped off his must-have list by emphasizing the fact that the items above do not comprise a complete go-bag, but do cover the essentials. "My personal go-bag has a lot more stuff in it than what I've listed, but I guess those would be my must-haves for my particular destination and potential requirements."

3. Think versatility

person dipping a mug in a stream for fresh water

Matt from the emergency planning blog Easy Emergency Plan explained his process for packing a proper go-bag in detail. "There are so many options when building your go-bag, but I've found that it is best to focus on the essential supplies, which are water, food, first-aid, shelter, hygiene and personal security."

Matt's favorite go-bag items include but are not limited to:

  • Tourniquet
  • SAM splint
  • Compression bandage
  • Tarp
  • Paracord
  • Toilet bags
  • Foldup jacket (the kind that folds up into itself really small)

Matt also made it a point to note, "A go-bag needs to be light enough to carry, so you'll want to select gear that is as versatile as possible. The more uses an item has, the less you need to carry."

4. Cover the basics

red and blue first aid kids on a white background

Evan from Know Prepare Survive emphasized the basics in his response. His essentials include "a pen and paper, a good flashlight, a small first aid kit, a bandana, a small roll of duct tape, bottle of water (that can be reused), snacks such as nuts, extra cash, a lighter, pair of socks and medicine."

He believes that if you pack these in your go-bag, you'll have your basics covered. This frees you up to focus on more important things, knowing you have a cache of useful supplies to fall back on.

5. Make "Bob" your best friend

Survival items laid out on a wooden table

Daniel Kilburn, the consultant, author and coach behind Emergency Action Planning broke down his approach to packing a bug-out bag, or as he likes to call it, Bob.

"In evacuation situations, your Bug Out Bag, or 'Bob,' is your friend. It's important to consider what you'll need to make it through a few days away from home and how much weight you can carry."

Always prepared, Daniel encourages people to ask themselves the following questions when they pack their go-bag.

  • How much weight can you carry?
  • What time of year is it?
  • Are you evacuating on foot or by car?

Some of the most essential items in Daniel's go-bag include:

  • Three-day assault pack
  • Poncho
  • Dried meat, dried fruit, nuts and granola bars
  • Backpack trowel
  • Wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Gloves and N95 masks
  • Insect repellant and sunscreen

Daniel is always sure to remind people to pack as lightly as possible, "If you are evacuating with children or pets, their packs need to be of an appropriate weight for them to carry. Heavy backpacks can cause serious injury."

6. Start with the simple things

emergency preparedness essentials on a white background

The team from The Survival Doctor provided their three must-have items for any adequate go-bag. They say every go-bag should include:

  • Hand pump water purifier
  • Flint and steel
  • Emergency bivy

While they acknowledge that the list could go on and on, they're confident that the three items above can serve as a great selection of base items on which to build a go-bag that fits your specific needs. These are also good items to keep in the car as they don't take up too much space and are useful in a number of different situations.

7. Make sure to take care of everyone

Man with kid and go-bag in tow

When it comes to being prepared for it all, Diane Vukovic of Primal Survivor made sure to not forget about the kids, as well as the essentials.

For families with infants and young children:

  • Formula and bottles with disposable liners and nipples — enough for at least three days of feedings
  • Diapers
  • Baby wipes

A way to recharge your phone:

  • Consider a solar panel or hand-crank model so you are not reliant on the power grid

Copies of vital documents:

  • Driver's license
  • Health insurance cards
  • Prescriptions and medical records
  • A list of contacts with their phone numbers and addresses.

Diane also suggests, "To keep the documents safe, you can put them on an encrypted USB. You can also store them securely on the cloud so they will be accessible regardless of where you are."

8. Know where you're going and what you need to get there

fully packed go-bag on the ground

JJ Johnson from the American Prepping Academy explains that, when it comes to planning your escape, “You need to have a pre-identified location determined before you have to bug out."

Once you know where you're heading, it's time to pack your go-bag. JJ's basic recommendations are as follows:

  • A sturdy pack with the ability to add on pouches and integrate a water bladder
  • One to two meals ready to eat
  • Three to five days' worth of freeze-dried meals
  • Heavy-duty clothing in neutral or camo colors
  • Tent or hammock with rainfly
  • Waterproof map, compass and protractor
  • Ranger beads

It's important to note that these are just a few of the items JJ identifies as essential or important to have in a proper go-bag. If you want JJ's full list of recommendations along with in-depth explanations for the items, check out his Bug Out Bag 101 video.

Prioritize safety

No matter how you look at it, safety is the name of the game. When you pack your go-bag, make sure you're thinking about your personal safety and the safety of those closest to you in order to build the most useful bug-out bag for your specific situation.

Carson Sperry A native of the northern suburbs of Chicago, Carson made his way to the South to attend Wofford College where he received his BA in English. After working as a copywriter for a couple of boutique marketing agencies in South Carolina, he made the move to Atlanta and quickly joined the Rent. team as a content marketing coordinator. When he's off the clock, you can find Carson reading in a park, hunting down a great cup of coffee or hanging out with his dogs.

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