If you were born in the 70’s or earlier you probably remember when the term Bug Out Bag was virtually unknown. Nowadays at least three out of four people you meet in a social context are likely to be familiar with the term. It’s a sign of the times in which we live.
However, we don’t hear a lot about the concept of varying the items in one’s BOB depending on whether it’s an urban or rural environment the person will be dealing with. I won’t spend time going over all of the items one should have in his/her pack as I suspect this is well covered ground for most reading this article (CLICK HERE to make your custom bug out bag list & have it sent straight to your inbox!).
Whether one is in the city, countryside, or deep in the wilderness, much of the pack contents should be the same. Much, but not all.
Choosing The Right Tools For The Job
I have read advice about the best items to select for a BOB as if the general environment where it will be used is irrelevant. In my view this is akin to having a handyman show up to your home with only a small tool box without telling him whether it’s a plumbing or an electrical problem he will be addressing!
As a cop working in the greater Los Angeles area for over two decades, I’ve spent some time observing the kinds of scenarios typically encountered when things go awry in urban and suburban environments. Some were accidents, while others involved intentional violence. The point is that all of these events are likely to occur during and following a major disaster, with two major differences:
- The effects of these incidents will be exponentially larger, and
- Any resources available to respond to same will be overwhelmed, and possibly unavailable altogether.
Worse yet, in my opinion there is likely to be a synergistic effect if the scope of the disaster is severe enough to severely impact the infrastructure (including police response). Those who live their lives as predators (i.e., gang members and others) will in all likelihood become aware of the lack of first responders far more quickly than the rest of society, and will take full advantage early on.
I would like to be proven wrong, and perhaps I will, but don’t count on it.
Disaster Planning: Know Your Environment
Making a Bug Out Plan that is specific to your locality is vitally important. You want to include the intricacies and potential dangers that are local to where you are going to be operating.
Urban Disaster Planning
If one should find himself/herself in an urban environment after a catastrophic incident that essentially collapses the infrastructure, the primary objective should be to get out of the heavily populated area ASAP. This is one of the major differences between bugging out through an urban area and doing so in a rural location. Time is a much bigger consideration in the former. With this in mind, one should prepare so that he/she can:
- Be equipped to determine alternate routes while on the move (or at least with little time to make route changes).
- Have the means to defeat the varied physical obstacles potentially to be encountered.
- Have the tools capable of extricating one’s self or others from confinement due to structural collapse, vehicle collisions, or other situations more common in urban disasters.
- Be equipped to create large holes in interior walls to facilitate escape from threats present inside the building.
- If escape/avoidance is not possible, have an effective means to defend against violent attack.
Rural Disaster Planning
Contrast the above with the typical priorities for a short duration rural or wilderness survival scenario, such as:
- Capability to process wood for starting and maintaining fire.
- Means to put together basic (short term) shelter.
- Less important, but worth mentioning, is the means to fashion additional crude tools (e.g., hunting devices) to aid in survival conditions should the scenario turn into a longer term one.
Urban (and Suburban) Pack Items
A map of the city where one works (as well as where one lives if not the same city) is imperative. Unlike as is often the case when traveling through rural or even wilderness locations, urban travel after a disaster can present fluid situations chock full of potential extreme danger requiring sudden and unexpected route changes. No matter one’s skill and/or type of weapons he/she may have, avoidance of conflict at virtually all costs is going to be the better option. And in the process of changing direction (perhaps multiple times as part of evasion), even the best of us can find ourselves disoriented. Pack a map! And have at least one (preferably two) reliable light sources to study the map during darkness. I have found that unlike when navigating through wilderness, a small inexpensive compass will suffice for city map work.
Unlike when hiking through wilderness locations, having/wearing high quality state-of- the-art gear while walking through heavily populated areas when the infrastructure is down is a mistake. Wearing the latest “tacticool” pack can be an equally big mistake.
Since two-legged predators will be aware of the increased opportunities the conditions have created for them, the less attention one invites, the better. I know from experience that many street smart bad guys have a surprisingly keen eye for quality gear, even when it comes to items they know almost nothing about.
Don’t advertise your cool gear if you can possibly help it. Wearing a pack is likely to draw at least some extra attention no matter what—this is largely unavoidable. But donning a pack that appears to be very used, or even dirty, is a better option than a brand new pack. And a “plain Jane” civilian pack is more likely to ride under the radar than a tactical pack. Ditto all of the above when considering the clothes you will wear during these conditions—especially shoes! Learn and practice your Gray Man/Woman Skills now to fly under the radar when a disaster strikes (Click HERE to learn how).
Large Knife VS. Tomahawk
On many occasions I have watched other first responders use a variety of tools when handling emergencies. I have also used some of these tools personally to gain entry into semi-fortified homes during the course of police work. Other than issued weapons (police) and medical equipment (fire department/paramedics) the tools used most often were those designed to defeat barriers typically encountered in cities (everything from car doors and windows to steel home security doors).
Although you might convince yourself you would not stop to help another in need if it delayed your bugging out from a dangerous environment, you really never know until faced with that scenario. Moreover, you just might need the means to get yourself out of a jam.
With the growing threat of terrorism and active shooter incidents, being equipped to create a travel path (breaking out a hole to crawl through) between a building’s interior rooms is a reasonable preparation. There are many scenarios that could prompt the need to bug out through an urban area—a massive terrorism incident is certainly one of them.
I am trying to make the case for not including a large knife in favor of a rugged tomahawk. Never mind that many “experts” insist on having a large hard use survival knife in any and all BOBs. A person is better off with an affordable tough tomahawk for urban scenarios any day of the week. And a suitable “hawk” can be had for about half the price of any survival knife capable of doing other than traditional knife chores!
Estwing’s Black Eagle Tomahawk fits this bill. It is not very attractive, and the workmanship shows only minimal attention to finish and fine symmetry, but I can personally attest to the tool’s capability. I have used the spike end to break car window glass, punch through heavy steel mesh and car trunks, as well as breaking a six-inch diameter hole in a cement cinder block (I encountered no steel rebar however). I have also used this “hawk” to pry apart two-by-fours fastened with 16D nails. After all of this, the business ends of the hawk’s blade are still not much worse for wear (cosmetic damage only). Does anyone think any of the better quality survival knives out there could perform these tasks without causing damage, or even breaking, the blade?
I once watched a fellow patrol officer show off his $250.00 tanto bladed knife by punching through the steel door of a typical gym locker. Worked fine. He repeated the feat an hour later to show off his new knife to another observer. This time it significantly damaged the blade’s tip. He was so angry we couldn’t talk to him for over an hour. Knives simply are not meant to be used to defeat steel, concrete, or even glass! Check out our article on Picking The Best Tomahawk For Your Bug Out Bag HERE.
I have no financial interest in Estwing, and there may be other equally well-performing hawks out there for a similar price (about $35 HERE on Amazon), but I have not found them. I have discovered far more expensive hawks but never purchased or tried them. And I have tried a couple of the lighter hawks sporting plastic handles, but found their performance lacking—seriously so! The only real downside to the Estwing is its weight. At 27 ounces it is admittedly heavy. The Becker BK2, a popular hard use survival knife, weighs about 10 ounces less, but the capability of the Estwing hawk makes it well worth these extra ounces in an urban environment.
I would feel adequately equipped If my urban BOB cutlery items were limited to a robust hawk and my multi tool (a must for any BOB, regardless of setting, check out our Guide for Picking The Best Multi Tool HERE). The former could handle any rough cutting tasks, while the latter’s small blade could deal with finer cutting chores.
If someone absolutely insisted on carrying another knife for more traditional cutlery chores, a Mora Kniv would fill the bill for about twenty dollars. And it’s doubtful the Mora’s extra 4 ounces (including sheath) would be noticed.
Finally, a hawk can be used for protection against a violent attack when all else fails. As for whether a hawk or a good knife would serve this purpose better…well, that really depends on the individual as well as the circumstances. After all, neither is the best tool for self-defense, for more reasons than one (a topic for another article). Let’s just leave it with the idea that a hawk can be used as an effective self-defense tool in a pinch.
Lightweight Wire Cutters
Being able to cut through standard chain link fence could prove to be the difference between escaping a very bad scenario and falling victim to one. I can conjure up a half dozen scenarios where a person might need to escape a threatening situation, seek shelter, or simply shave off valuable travel time by cutting through a fence.
Chain link fencing is ubiquitous in virtually any urban area. Unfortunately, I have found multi tools fall short of being capable of cutting chain link in a reasonable manner of time and effort. Find the smallest/lightest tool capable of cutting chain link in one clipping action (Tekton makes a good pair, see them HERE). Bending or sawing through wire takes too long under most scenarios that would warrant cutting fencing in the first place.
Rural / Wilderness Pack Items
Knife vs Tomahawk vs Hatchet
You’re probably asking, “Didn’t he just cover this issue?” I did—for the urban setting. However, after spending a good deal of time in the wilderness (including several nights without a tent), both recreationally and as a search & rescue volunteer in the California Sierras, I prefer a good large knife in any environment other than an urban/suburban one.
Hundreds of years ago, the tomahawk’s philosophy of use was multi-faceted. Only one of these intended functions involved the processing of wood for structure building or building fire. The hatchet (hand axe), on the other hand, was designed for one purpose only—processing wood. As one could predict, the hatchet proved to outperform the tomahawk for wood processing, while the hawks performed better as weapons. I have tried many a “woods hawk” over the years, but in the end I have found quality hatchets of similar weight simply do better with wood chores.
Given the points made in the “Disaster Planning” section of this article, the hatchet gets the nod over the tomahawk for a rural BOB.
All of the above notwithstanding, I prefer a large survival knife to a hatchet for my rural BOB. The hatchet will almost always out chop a knife of similar weight, but this isn’t the end of the story. When it comes to cutting wood a small lightweight folding saw offers a better choice than a tool that chops the wood to the desired length. But the primary element of fire wood preparation involves splitting the pieces for fire building.
A quality knife with a 7 to 9 inch blade can be used very effectively to split wood using the “batoning” technique. And in my opinion it is a safer means of splitting wood than swinging a hatchet to accomplish the task. When “batoning”, only the piece of wood used to strike the knife spine is being swung through the air. The odds of a catastrophic accident are greater when using the hatchet for the job. This can be ever more the case when working in cold climates outdoors. As for the argument that “batoning” to split wood constitutes abuse of the blade, I call B.S. I have split at least a cord of wood over the years with my Ontario SP50, and other than destroying the black blade coating, the knife is still in great working shape. Check out this video to see how batoning works:
I know there are many (far more than hawks that can compete with the Estwing) quality large survival knives that can also perform well when it comes to wood prep. I would, however, urge anyone selecting a fixed blade knife for his/her wilderness BOB to go with a seven inch blade or larger. This makes splitting wood of three inches or larger diameter much easier than using a shorter blade. To see our comprehensive guide on choosing a fixed blade CLICK HERE NOW.
When travelling through areas where there are no street signs, or even no streets, a higher quality compass becomes very important. Land navigation where there are no streets is a skill that demands time and effort to learn. Knowing how to navigate through these types of surroundings using a topographical map is not for the novice! If at all possible, stay on a road, or at least keep the road in sight. In any case, a rural BOB should always include a high quality compass.
Fire Starting Kit
This should be a “no brainer”. When bugging out through an urban setting under circumstances where you might have to spend some resting hours in the dark, it might or might not be advisable to make a fire. Fire attracts the urban predators, while it tends to repel the four legged type.
Furthermore, having a fire in a location where there is no man made shelter available is uniquely important. In addition to heat and minimal light, it is well documented that a small fire can provide a significant psychological boost for the solo survivor/traveler.
Having established the greater importance of being able to create fire in a rural setting, ensuring one has the ability to do so becomes paramount. Having multiple means to create fire is a must for the rural/wilderness pack:
- Butane lighters (avoid the knock-offs and get the Bic brand)
- Storm Matches are a classic choice for experienced woodsman
- A Ferrocerium Rod is a good backup tool
- The Everstyke Pro is another compact, lightweight firestarter
Steel Water Bottle
Any BOB will include a container to carry water (I’m assuming this goes without saying), so why not have one that can also be used to heat or boil water? A single walled stainless steel water bottle like the Klean Kanteen (or similar design) products can be placed over open flame or coals to heat water.
Boiling water is a dependable way to kill any pathogens (chemical contamination is another issue). I once used a heated steel water bottle as an improvised hot water bottle to ward off hypothermia in a snow cave. Not sure if it was literally a lifesaver, but I was sure glad to have it. Make sure to remove the cap before heating water to avoid a pressure build-up and the subsequent likely explosion.
My experience has convinced me that for urban applications, escaping the locality as fast as possible should be the key objective in a SHTF scenario. Sheltering in place, even for a short time is likely to be catastrophic. In my view a robust tomahawk, coupled with a good multitool and small wire cutters, is close to the perfect set of BOB tools—but this could be surpassed with a new invention at any time.
For rural/wilderness environments, night travel is far less desirable and sheltering through the night(s) becomes a priority. Creating fire and crude shelter is paramount for the wilderness trekker under any circumstances. For this application, a large survival knife becomes the tool of choice, edging out both the tomahawk and hatchet in the versatility and safety categories.
The very fact that those reading this article have probably already put together a bug-out bag at all places them way ahead of most. Having a readily accessible BOB, even if not perfectly constituted, is 90 percent of the game in itself. However, it’s still a good idea to evaluate equipment choices every so often, keeping a philosophy of use mindset while doing so.
For more info on this topic you can check out these articles:
- How To Customize Your Bug Out Bag For An Urban Scenario
- 5 Essential Urban Survival Tips To Keep You Alive
- How To Build Your Wilderness Survival Bug Out Bag
- Getting Started With Bushcraft
Do you have an item that is a “must have” for your urban or rural bug out bag? Can you think of any other big differences between what you would pack for these scenarios? Let us know in the Comments Section below, thanks!
About The Author
Frank LaFlamme spent almost a quarter century in law enforcement in the Los Angeles area serving for three local agencies as well as an assignment with the DEA Los Angeles office. His assignments included uniformed patrol in one of the most violent areas in California, narcotics investigation, gang enforcement, robbery and homicide investigation, high risk warrant service, and a terrorism liaison officer position. Upon retiring, Frank volunteered as a Search & Rescue “ground pounder” with a sheriff’s department in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Yosemite National Park. Additionally, he started a small disaster preparedness consulting business called F& D Consulting. In 2014 he published a novel titled EMP Los Angeles (an Amazon best seller for a while, CLICK HERE to see it), a raw and gritty cautionary tale of a post EMP attack Los Angeles.
4 comments on “Urban Vs Wilderness Bug Out Bag: Choosing The Right Gear”
Good article. It’s nice to see someone with real world experience discuss the differences between gear useful for urban vs rural scenarios.
I really have not given any serious thought to a tomahawk, and you make a good argument for one.
We did think a bit about a good pair of wire cutters, especially for my wife’s GHB, for going through chain link fences if she is caught at work during a major earthquake. A truly bad quake is low probability here (biggest on record on Oahu is an est. 7.0 in the late 19th century), but if one did happen, being able to get through a fence might be critical as she is not capable of going over one with her disabilities.
I agree entirely on the virtues of a great big knife vs a hatchet. I am an aficionado of the 11″ KaBar Cutlass Machete for chopping and batoning. Not so convenient for processing food because of the deep belly, but I’d rather compromise that than on processing wood. It would also make a decent defensive weapon, perhaps without being quite so strong a LEO magnet like something along the lines of an Ontario Marine Raider knife might be.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience! The tomahawk is a fantastic tool for bushcraft work, give one a try next time you are out in the woods. Here is our guide on choosing a tomahawk in case you were interested: How To Choose The Best Survival Tomahawk
As for the 11″ KaBar Cutlass Machete, that looks like an awesome blade!
Frank, I loved your book and have been hoping for a sequel.
This was a great article! Items well thought out.
I work at a County hospital near where your character experienced the EMP.
Live in Westchester. With SAR in Malibu. Know the whole route!
Would love to meet you!
Thanks for the kind comments, all. I apologize for not checking these responses and comments until now. I encourage you to contact me at my email address: EMPAUTHOR@GMAIL.COM.