How To Pack Your Bug Out Bag For Survival

how to pack a bug out bag

Scared yet excited, Rick raced anxiously to retrieve the large bundle he had carefully hidden in the corner of his garage. This was the moment he had anticipated, and he was ready.

Several months ago, Rick had come across a video about Bug Out Bags (BOBs) while surfing the Internet; even with no outdoor or survival experience, he decided he needed one. Planning a personal BOB seemed like an awful lot of work, so in his panic he bought the most expensive pre-made bug out kit he could find. After dropping a whopping $3,000, he felt confident he was prepared for any emergency and left the pack hidden for 2 years. Now, he would finally get the chance to use it.

What happened to force him to bug out? It could have been any number of things such a natural disaster, civil unrest, viral outbreak, or some other type of event that throws society into a freefall ; but the ‘why’ isn’t what’s important. When you need your BOB, the question ‘why’ becomes much less important than the question ‘will’: will this survival kit keep you alive for 72 hours? Using Rick as an example, I’m going to take you through the basic steps in properly packing your bug out kit so that if (or when) you need it, ‘will’ won’t be a question – it’ll be a certainty.

how to pack your bug out bag

Choosing the Right BOB

No doubt you’ve spent months, maybe years, carefully planning out potential bug out scenarios and collecting the items you’ll need to survive should one of those scenarios pan out.

It’s now time to select the perfect bag for your kit. One of the key questions in choosing your bag is whether you select a bag big enough to hold all the items you need, or a bag that best fits your body and sacrifice some of your items if there isn’t enough room. The answer is: it depends.

What Features Should You Focus On?

The number one feature you want from your BOB is mobility. If you can’t move with it – what’s the point? Therefore, having a good fit is a must. To learn more about selecting the best bag for your situation and what to look for in terms of comfort and fit, please see our article How to Pick the Best Bug Out Bag Backpack for YOUR Survival Situation.

In addition to comfort, the pack must weigh enough to be carried wherever you need to go; this sometimes means paring down your items to only the most essential or packing more creatively.

With mobility as your number one priority, the best strategy is to find a bag that is most comfortable for your body type and tailor your items to fit in it. However, if you have a ‘can’t live without’ item that requires using a certain bag, you may consider packing your kit around your bag. Survivalist vlogger Envirosponsible provides a great example of such a situation in this video:

Let’s get back to Rick, our wannabe-prepper. Having simply bought the most expensive bag he could find, without consideration to how it would fit his body, he found his bag way too heavy. Additionally, not having tested the bag, he found that the straps dug into to his shoulders and made it almost impossible to walk for more than a mile at a time. Instead of being the life-saving asset he intended it to be, his BOB has turned into a hindrance.

Deciding What to Pack

There are myriad lists available online that can provide you with suggestions for essential bug out items, including broad-based lists such as this one from Survival Cache as well as highly specific ones such as our own Bug Out Bag List. You can even purchase pre-made bug out bags; if this is something that interests you, we’ve provided a fairly robust review of some of the pre-mades out there. However, keep in mind that no two kits are the same; the person who best knows what should be in your survival kit is you, and customization is key.

Bug Out Bag Checklist

Customize Your Kit

What you pack depends entirely on your own situation and location; check out our past articles on how to tailor your kit for an urban location or a wilderness location and see how they differ. Customizing based on your own situation is essential – a well-stocked urban kit could be useless in the wilderness, while a bug out kit perfect for California wouldn’t hold up for a minute against Canadian winter.

The most difficult part of packing is deciding what goes in and what stays out. You can never be 100% sure of what you’ll need should disaster strike so the best you can do is make educated guesses.

Test Your Gear

A great way to test your kit is to actually go and try it out. Spending time with your bag under non-disaster conditions will not only help you determine what is essential and what may be missing, but also allows you to test out your equipment and become more proficient with its use. A good adage to remember is that if you have two, you have one, and if you have one, you have none – always bring a back up.

Organize Your Bug Out Bag

Generally, your must-have BOB items will fall into the following categories:

  1. Shelter and safety / protection
  2. Water
  3. Ways to make fire
  4. First aid
  5. Hygiene
  6. Food
  7. Tools

The types of items you choose for each of these categories depends on your personal situation, but the greatest tool you can add to your bug out kit is knowledge. The more you know, the more useful your pack will be in an emergency situation and the less you will have to pack.

For those with minimal survival training, packing a survival guide is a must (the SAS Survival Handbook is a solid resource). If you want to develop your survival skills, there are many resources available to you including Creek Stewart’s Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag, which has an entire chapter dedicated to developing the mental and physical preparedness needed to survive in a disaster scenario.

How about our friend Rick, how is he faring in his disaster scenario? Unfortunately, not too well. Since he didn’t bother to try out any of his gear, he found that he couldn’t even use half of the items in his bag. His $300 water filtration system? Completely useless without the knowledge of how to forage for water. Thankfully, he’s found one item he actually can use and that he desperately needs – aspirin. Unfortunately, it expired over a year ago.

Packing the Bag

When packing your BOB, much like choosing your bag, mobility is key, while utility is a close second. The organization of your pack cannot be haphazard and must be approached with the same methodical process as planning for your bug out kit.

However, keep in mind that the purpose of a BOB is not for a hiking or camping trip – it’s to save your life in an emergency. As such, you want to prioritize the packing of your survival kit slightly differently than you would a hiking or camping backpack while still keeping in mind basic rules for properly distributing your load.

A properly packed BOB is not only easier to carry, but can also fit more stuff. Generally, you want to keep heavier items further down in your bag and close to your back and vice versa for lighter items. The following is an example of a properly packed BOB from The Prepper Journal:

how to pack a bug out bag

In his book, Build the Perfect Bug Out Bag, Creek Stewart recommends organizing your items into three categories:

  1. Non-urgent
  2. Urgent
  3. Emergency

Your non-urgent items would go into the pack first. Non-urgent items are those that won’t be retrieved with a sense of urgency and include items such as:

  • Extra clothing
  • Bedding
  • Hygiene
  • Miscellaneous supplies

Your urgent items would be packed second, for easier access, and include items such as:

  • Shelter
  • Water
  • Food
  • Fire starting items

Emergency items are those that will need to be accessed within a moment’s notice; these items should be kept on your person or in easy to reach pockets of your pack. Emergency items include:

  • Communication gear such as radios, walkie talkies, or whistles
  • Self-defense gear
  • Flashlights
  • Personal tools such as survival knife
  • Foul weather gear such as your poncho

Within each of these categories, you should compartmentalize your items based on a system that will make it easy for you to find what you’re looking for in a hurry. When packing your items, look for creative ways to save space; some popular tricks include wrapping duct tape around a water bottle as well as packing items inside other items, such as your cooking pots.

how to pack a bug out bag

Keep your gear dry

Above all else, remember to waterproof your items; you can use professional grade plastic bags or simple Ziploc bags, just ensure your items are protected. Creek Stewart also recommends lining your pack with an industrial strength garbage bag as an added layer of protection.

Stay Low Key

While mobility and utility should be your foremost concerns when packing your BOB, it is also important to keep in mind safety. Don’t make it obvious how much gear you’re packing; in desperate times you don’t want to become a target for scavengers. The more your bag looks like a simple backpack and less like a survival powerhouse, the safer you’ll be. This is known as the Grey Man Principle.

Once you’ve packed your BOB, don’t toss it in a corner and forget about it. Your kit should be constantly evolving to reflect your lifestyle and location. We recommend a quarterly review to ensure the items you’ve chosen are still the best choices and that nothing has expired, leaked or been damaged. For tips on periodic BOB reviews and a checklist to help make sure you have everything covered check out our article, How Often Should You Update Your Bug Our Kit?


I bet you’re wondering how Rick is faring. As you’d expect, not too well. Since his store-bought BOB was packed more for show than utility, he had to stop and unpack his entire bag every time he needed something, slowing him down at critical points.

However, he doesn’t need to worry about his pack anymore; his flashy bag and expensive tools hanging from the side attracted the attention of less-prepared parasites who quickly took it off his hands. As it turns out, when SHTF, Rick would have been better off pocketing his $3,000.

Don’t end up like our friend Rick by letting let packing become an afterthought; put the same effort and analysis into packing your kit as you did into planning it. When disaster strikes, it won’t be the guy with the biggest BOB who wins, it’ll be the guy who best knows how to use his.

Your Thoughts?

Do you have a trick to pack your bug out bag as efficiently as possible?  Do you know of any major mistakes that should be avoided?  Let us know in the Comments Section below, thanks!


Chris Ruiz

My name is Chris and I created this site to help ordinary people prepare for the uncertainties of the modern day world. I believe that a well-prepared society is the best safeguard against any natural or manmade disaster.

10 comments on “How To Pack Your Bug Out Bag For Survival

  1. one thing that i rarely see that i feel is worth mentioning when it comes to bag size is to leave some space. It takes some self control to not overpack, but i highly recommend using a large bag (i use a condor 72 hour pack) and packing it like a small/medium bag. This leaves you some extra space for anything useful you may find along the way be it food, water, a tool, etc… im not saying to go scavenging, but having a little extra space available for whatever you may find isnt a bad thing.

    I also tend to keep some additional supplies along side my bugout bag, including extra food, water and some gear that while not necessarily essential, could be very useful. these are usually either packed in the bag or stored right with it. these are non essential items, so if it is a situation where speed is key, or it will only be a short excursion, they can be easily discarded. but they are there for a situation where they WOULD be needed. much better to have it available and decide it isnt worth the weight, then be scrambling around trying to find what you need.

  2. fantastically written! only thing is, once again, the colour of your bag wasn’t brought up when discussing how to stay low key. i thought our friend “rick” was an amusing, yet pointed, way of showing an example of what not to do. that was brilliant.

  3. When I first packed my bug out bag, it was soooooo heavy and I didn’t get it because my bag wasn’t even completed yet. Then I repacked it, putting the lightest things on the bottom and the heavier items on top and it was suddenly ten pounds lighter which was amazing. I’ve also adopted the bags in the bag style of packing. So I have ditty bags that I have assigned to different ‘kits’ so I just have to pull one thing out of my bag instead of a whole bunch of things. I also switched from a tactical backpack to a hiking pack which makes me feel more comfortable. I’m definitely NOT a person who believes you can rely on bush crafting skills or a bug out bag alone. I like learning as much as I possibly can just in case I need those skills, but I won’t go out without a bottle of water and some food in my bag. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you. 😀

    1. Hey Belle,
      Really glad you enjoyed the article and it sounds like you have a smart system for organizing your kit!

  4. I love reading about BOB’s. I was glad to find out that it’s okay to constantly make changes! My situation is probably different than most people. My goal is to bug home. I live in a rural town in the Mojave Desert so my biggest concern is water. Water is heavy and takes up a lot of room. My last major change to my BOB was removing the freeze dried food and replacing it with life raft food bars. They are highly nutritious and are designed so that water is not necessary with it. I still carry A LOT of water!

    1. Hey Roger,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, BOBs should be updated as needed, I suggest setting a reminder in your phone or calendar to check and update it quarterly to make sure nothing is expired and that you have season-appropriate clothing packed.
      Sounds like you have a good plan to bug in given your location, good thinking!


    2. I’m familiar with the Mojave, and it’s heat. Since water is a big problem, here’s a trick I learned from the Apaches. Instead of drinking large gulps of water, take a drink to quench your thirst, then hold the next drink in your mouth while you’re on the move. It takes more mental practice than you might think, because you have to communicate without speaking. (if you’re alone it’s less of a problem), but it’ll help keep your throat from going dry. hope that makes sense and helps!

  5. I loved your tip to keep your gear dry. It’s important that you use everything you can and keeping it dry is a good way to ensure you can still use it. When I pack my back, I’m also going to pack everything in waterproof containers to ensure I don’t forget to do it.

  6. The whole “grey man principle” is a deeply flawed idea. In a real bugout situation, the color and style of your pack would not matter. At all.

    Anyone carring ANYTHING would be looked at as a potentional target to people in need of food or gear. A far more effective plan would be to quickly move to a location where you could avoid other people altogether. It doesn’t matter how “tactical” you look or how low-key. You’re going to be a target.

    1. they’re probably thinking in scenarios where you have no choice. Like having to go into a town for supplies ie; anything you can scrounge to help, also you may think you’re secluded but the guy 1000 feet from you thinks so too!

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