Against go bag silliness

Sigh. OK.

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.

7 responses to “Against go bag silliness”

  1. Daniel Reetz says :

    We’re both (ex)Mefites. Your post reminded me of this simple, realistic advice from someone who survived problems in Sarajevo.

  2. Tony Rooney says :

    I’m not sure exactly WHOSE comments I just read (“Against Go Bag Silliness”) or what/who they were a response to, but I want to express my appreciation for and resonance with whoever wrote them.

    I have definitively gone “over the edge” at times in obsessing and compulsing about “preparedness” to the point of making myself (and those close to me) miserable.

    However, not to take ANY action to reasonably prepare (given what looks to me like the virtual inevitability of eventual catastrophic disruption of our increasingly fragile little bubble called “civilization” by one calamity or another) seems downright childish and irresponsible to me as an intelligent adult male (who is obviously prone to run on sentences).

    So, here we have yet another life situation where “balance” (how boring — especially compared to the dramatic scenes from the proposed “suburban cannibal apocalypse” my mind is so frequently inclined to imagine) is the key.

    Although I surely haven’t FOUND that balance yet, I am at least remembering regularly that a focus on preparing for a possible catastrophic future that results in a closed heart/fearful state of consciousness is less than worthless. Said another way, the aim is to prepare just enough and in such a way that it contributes to an OPENING of our hearts in our current life situation (e.g., greater freedom from fear and worry NOW, partly as a function of feeling reasonably satisfied that we have taken reasonable action to reasonably protect ourselves and our loved ones).

    I heartily and emphatically agree with the author of the piece I just read that we will be “that much better equipped to care for the others who will surely need it” by virtue of our own preparedness. My corollary to this is that perhaps our greatest gift to others in such times will be a cool head and an open heart – and we clearly won’t be able to offer that if we’re desperate or dead.

  3. Lawrence says :

    The only thing I would disagree with is the socks. I used to be a socks fiend and carry out 8 pairs for a 3 day field problem. Eventually I was forced to severely downsize for an extended 2 week field problem (in the end we needed the room/weight for batteries, ammo, and food stuffs). I found you can last a very long time with 3 pairs of socks. A working pair you wear during operations (or business hours for non-military out there), a sleeping pair that will always stay dry, and an emergency pair in case something happens to the other two. At night to dry out the working pair just shove them in your armpits.

    I’m sure someone is going to disagree with this but just think to yourself what soldiers during the Civil War did. Marching all day and sleeping in the field for months at a time. I guarantee you they didn’t carry 60 pairs of socks in their rucks.

    As far as knives go on the same 2 week field problem I had a really good experience with the Gerber ASEK LMFII Survival Knife. I took a lot of flak for carrying around what was basically a bowie knife but it was well worth it. The handle can be used to hammer things, it’s heavy enough to chop with, and it’s definitely sturdy enough to dig holes with and skin and prep animals for cooking. Definitely my favorite knife.

  4. SG says :

    Great article. Great detailed advice and well written. Thanks.

  5. Gary Ray says :

    Thanks for the injection of sanity with this article. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole.

  6. Jim Schrim Founder says :

    i think these are some valid points all the way around. What folks need varies, I don’t believe in the whole 72 hour go bag. Bottom line is that if I am state side and things get to a point where I have to leave my house I want enough base gear to last a few days, a few weeks or even more. Core gear that will go the distance, you add what you need for your environment. We see it differently at Black Bear and we’ve built it differently, our products aren’t for everyone but I prefer the saying – “don’t ever bet your life on second best”. At the end of the day there are all different levels of skill and need out there. Many folks just don’t know where to start. Gear is 20% of the equation the other 80% is training and experience.

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