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In whatever situation you might find yourself, your pack is your last line of defense. Perhaps you will be driven from your home because of a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood or earthquake. Maybe it will be something more sinister—violent riots or an armed insurrection. Either way, gearing up properly should help keep you alive.

Whether you call it a “bug-out bag,” “survival pack” or simply your “pack,” this one item can make the difference between life and death. What you carry says a great deal about how prepared you are to handle multiple situations.

GEARING UP PROPERLY WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE GEAR

gearing out properly with a fully equipped bugout bag

The author’s pack, set up and ready to go. He really ikes this pack, because its MOLLE webbing allows him to rig items on the outside, where he can get to them easily. A Gerber StrongArm knife and a medic’s pouch are right where the author can get to them quickly.

When gearing up properly and shopping for items, you need to use your head. There are all sorts of “must-have” products out there—but there is a big difference between “need” and “want.”

In each case, you need to ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” “Is there one piece of gear that can serve more than one purpose?” “Is buying that one multifunctional item less expensive than buying two separate pieces?” Keep in mind that this pack is meant to be carried, and that means you must figure out whether any item is worth the extra weight.

Always purchase the very best value you can afford. I have found that the best product for my needs isn’t always the most expensive. When everything is done properly, the money spent now will save you time— and more money—in the long run. When I started putting gear together some 30 years ago, that is just what I did. I had to start slow, purchasing one item at a time.

WHAT I CARRY

I am not preparing for a camping trip with my buddies. By gearing up properly it means my pack is sufficient to see me through until 1.) I’m rescued; 2.) the situation improves and I can return to a safe area; or 3.) until I can secure additional resources. My pack is always with me, no matter where I go. What I carry will differ depending on the situation. My gear for “wild” environments will be different than what I will carry in an urban environment.

What always stays the same is my basic gear. My pack always contains a way to start a fire, build a shelter, and provide food and a means of obtaining water. I also carry some way of defending myself, along with a first aid/survival kit. I make sure that some of these items serve multiple purposes. Remember: Weight is very important. Your pack should be small enough to allow you to move quickly yet large enough to hold your gear. My first pack was the best I could afford at the time, and it served its purpose. (I have since upgraded to a Blackhawk! Ultralight 3-Day Assault Pack.)

If you are at a point at which you are relying upon your pack to survive, you need to compare risk versus reward. The more weight you carry, the more calories you burn and the more water you expend through sweat and heavier breathing. The more strain you put on your body, the more food and water you will need, so only pack what you need and are able to safely and efficiently carry. For example: A thick-bladed knife takes up less room and weighs less than an axe, yet it performs most of the same tasks. Set a weight limit for yourself, and stick with it. If you do have room to work with, always carry more water.

FIRE

Gearing up properly means carrying fire-making tools like lighters, matches and tinder.

It is wise to carry wooden and paper matches, butane lighters and a friction starter of some sort. You never know when one of these items might fail.

Fire starting: I carry more than one way to start a fire. A great deal can be said about primitive ways of fire starting, and I think everyone should know how to do it. But in a survival situation, I’m more concerned about staying alive than earning a merit badge.

In my pack (and also on my person), you will find three butane lighters (which are really inexpensive and weigh almost nothing), as many books of paper matches as I can find (these are usually free) and a box of kitchen matches. I also carry a Sparkie friction-type fire starter. And I put the matches in resealable plastic bags to keep them safe from moisture.

Stoves: There are times when a stove works better than a fire: Maybe it is late when you get into position, or perhaps you don’t want the attention a fire can attract. For those occasions, I carry a biomass stove called the Solo Stove. It is the Titan model, and it only weighs 16.5 ounces. Because it is a biomass stove, you don’t need to carry fuel. It runs on twigs, pine cones or anything else you find laying around.

This Solo Stove is perfect for a pack. It can boil water in just a few minutes. It is also ultra-light and uses available biomass fuel.

WATER

You cannot live without water. Securing water is probably the most important thing you need to do. Whenever I am gearing up properly, I carry as much water as I can, usually in Hide-Away collapsible flasks. Water is heavy, and a canteen takes up space, even when empty. These Hide-Away collapsible flasks take up virtually no room and have no noticeable weight when empty.

When I run out of water, I obviously need to find more, but most water sources are questionable. If I have a fire, I can boil water to make it safe to drink. I also carry water purification tablets.

However, when it comes to water, my most valuable tool is my filtration system. There are many on the market, and most of them are pretty good. I carry the Sawyer Mini. This system takes up very little room in the pack and has no noticeable weight.

FOOD

Some of the food the author includes in his pack

We all need to eat, but food equals weight, which is detrimental when gearing up properly. Leave the cans at home. Freeze-dried food, meat sticks, jerky and energy bars are the way to go. I carry enough food to see me through for five days. The freeze-dried food takes up very little room and only weighs a few ounces per meal.

Food will need to be rationed. I usually plan to eat one meal per day—filling in the gaps with what I can find along the way and with the jerky and meat sticks. You will constantly be burning calories, and you will need to replace them. In a survival situation, you need to always be searching for alternative food sources, but the food in your pack should keep you going until you can secure more.

SHELTER

The need to secure shelter should not be underestimated. No matter what environment you find yourself in—urban or “wild”—the materials you need in order to secure some sort of shelter are available. To help me with this task, I always carry some sort of cordage (either paracord or a spool of clothesline) and a heavy-bladed knife.

Cordage has so many uses that it should be a must-have item in your pack. Whether it is paracord or clothesline, it can help you erect a shelter, bind splints in case of an injury or make snares to provide food. Don’t leave home without it.

Don’t get caught up in all of the hype when choosing a good, thick-bladed knife for your pack. Too large, and you have added useless weight; too small, and it can’t do the job. Think this one through and get the best one for the job. My knife can chop, cut and split wood. It can also serve as a means of self-defense.

FIRST AID KIT

A Blackhawk! medical pouch is with the author all the time. He also carries a tourniquet. This is very important to have, because you might only have a few seconds before bleeding out.

As an indication of gearing up properly, I’ve actually had to use my first aid kit more than a few times, usually helping other people. My kit has everything I need—from bandages to pain medication.

You can buy a ready-made kit or make your own (as I did). Making your own can save you money and will ensure that you have what you need and want. I pack my medical supplies into a small Blackhawk! medical pack that either sits in one of the larger pockets on my pack or is strapped to the outside.

BEYOND THE BASICS

These are my basic items—but what about those things that constantly change, depending on the environment? This is where you really need to think.

It is always good to carry a light source of some kind. However, remember the weight factor. Flashlights can be heavy, and they require batteries, which add more weight. Flashlights also require you to hold them. I like to keep both hands free. For that reason, I carry a Bushnell Rubicon rechargeable headlamp and a PowerSync solar wrap. The solar wrap can keep my light charged—and charge my cell phone at the same time. Its total weight is about 12 ounces.

Cold weather means carrying warmer clothing. And what about wet weather? In order to cut down on weight, I always carry a few large trash bags. A few knife cuts, and you can make a windbreaker or poncho.

WEIGHT

With just the basic items I need for fire, food, water and shelter, my pack weighs in at 15 pounds. I have limited the total weight to 30 pounds. That additional weight can include more water, more food and clothing. Remember, you are in survival mode. You might need to move quickly. Gearing up properly means shedding as much extra weight as possible.

Obviously, you should set up your pack as you see fit. Take care of priorities first. Keep weight in mind. If you can keep these things in perspective, you will have a bag whose contents will keep you alive—and that is what survival is all about.