Lookit: if you’re going to call it a “go bag,” make sure you know what you’re talking about. These are not go bags.
A proper “go bag” (also known as a “bug-out bag”) has to hold enough gear to protect and sustain you under uncertain conditions for no less than 72 hours. You can go all OCD parsing things out into modular A-, B- and C-loads if you want to, varying them by expected duration and mission, but that’s the nub of it.
Packing lists will vary by locale, terrain, and personal preference, and you’ll find ostensibly comprehensive and authoritative ones all over the Web. I have no intention of adding to them. If you’re serious about putting any such bag together, though, and intend to rely on it for real, please please please consider the following:
- You will need more socks than you think – like, double the amount. Two pair/person/day, at an absolute minimum. Polypro is acceptable, good ol’ fashioned wool arguably better. The old drill-sergeant saw is absolutely on the money: take care of your feet and they will take care of you. This is not the place to economize.
- I strongly recommend using dry bags, like these. There are many on the market, some better than others. The important things you’re looking for: transparent, hermetic seal, available in a variety of sizes. You will sort all of your smaller gear into these and you will label them with their contents and date last checked.
- Dummy cords. These are simply lengths of standard OD nylon para cord (“550 cord”) that you’ll cut to size, fuse the ends of, and use to tie items like your knife and your flashlight to tie-off points on the bag itself. Yes, some care must be taken to avoid entanglement, but this will keep you from losing these high-value items in the dark or in emergent situations. I cannot overemphasize the value of dummy cording: it’s saved my ass many times.
- My personal opinion? Forget anything with a battery. Hand-crank radios and flashlights are preferable.
- You’ll want maps of your area at multiple scales. In the States, you’re looking for USGS topo maps; in the UK, I’m pretty sure Ordnance Survey still makes the ones you’ll want. Laminate each, pop a hole in one corner, clip them together with a keyring or similar, dummy-cord a grease pencil to the ring and the ring to your bag.
- Don’t get fancy with knives, etc. Find out what operators recommend (or EMS personnel if for whatever reason you want to avoid the military resonances) and go with that – these recommendations will still be a matter of opinion, but it will be informed opinion. You want functional, not Rambo (and god help us, not Klingon).
- A couple of good, real, climbing-rated carabiners will always prove useful; if clanking is an issue for you, you can tape them down. (For that matter, a roll of subdued gaffers-type tape should be a part of any go bag.)
- Obtain copies of your birth certificate, passport photo page, driver’s license, deed of ownership or title, insurance policy, etc. Laminate these, seal them in a dry envelope, attach a strip of Velcro to the back, and physically attach it to the bottom of your bag.
- The standard-issue US Army poncho liner was the single best piece of gear I ever managed to lay my hands on, and I hear the Thinsulate ones are even better. It’s lightweight, highly packable and incredibly versatile, useful for many, many things, up to and including improvised shelter.
- I hate to be the one to say it, but this seems like sexy vaporware, not anything you’d want to rely on. Anyway, what do you need a sniper mat for?
- Do not be afraid to personalize your kit. I can tell you from personal experience that you will be infinitely thankful for the reassurance and psychological cushioning that comes from having some small and familiar comfort to draw on at difficult moments – an icon or fetish, worry beads, whatever. It shouldn’t be large or heavy, of course, but you’ll need something beyond iron rations to sustain you psychically in the event of your world turning upside down. I used to pack (don’t laugh) a faintly lavender-scented buckwheat-filled eyemask in my deployment bag. It was a tiny but concrete and verifiable piece of sanity, and it saw me through some very trying times in the field.
- This last bit is crucial, but surprisingly often overlooked: don’t spend a month and $500 at REI building up your über-1337 go bag and then stash it in the lightless depths of your closet; conversely, don’t raid it for camping supplies or Burning Man or what-have-you. Make it up once, store it in such a way that it’s handy to your most likely route of egress, and check it quarterly. You might even want to gin up a packing list, laminate that, Velcro it to the inside top flap, and then check your bag’s contents against it on a reasonably regular basis.
That’s about all I have to say on the subject. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, actually. Having lived through the Oakland Hills fire, I’ve seen how very quickly it can all go away, right down to the basic infrastructure. I definitely believe that everyone should be prepared to go wheels-up on ten minutes’ notice, and be capable of subsisting unaided for three days when they get to a place of safety. But it’s also all too easy to geek out on this stuff, to wind up inadvertently fetishizing disaster, catastrophe and heartbreak.
So try to remember that this isn’t about playing Sekrit Ninja. It’s about being able to take minimal care of yourself under circumstances that, however hard to imagine, are never all that far away from any one of us. Provide for yourself, and you’ll be that much more likely to survive with life, limb and sanity intact, and that much better equipped to care for the others who will surely need it. That’s it. No need to make a big deal of it.