New to preparedness? Go camping with your go-bag, even if it’s just in your back yard

If you’re one of The Prepared’s many new readers whom COVID-19 has woken up to the importance of preparing for the worst, welcome.

You may have already started on the project of building a go-bag emergency kit. Maybe you’ve even pulled the trigger on a pack and filled it with preps. However far along you are in building your kit, you’re not actually prepared until you’ve tested your gear.

I relearned this newbie lesson the weekend before last. My oldest daughter and I went on a little camping trip without leaving our property. We live on 17 acres of land, and about half of it is wooded, so we headed out into the wooded part and set up camp on a Saturday afternoon.

I brought my go-bag, an overstuffed Goruck GR2 40L, and she brought hers, a (discontinued) Goruck Echo. We thought we’d do a little field testing of our packs and loadouts for the first time. We didn’t do the full living-out-of-the-pack thing. Instead, we brought along a tent and some other supplies that we wouldn’t be able to take in an on-foot bug-out. But that’s ok. The goal was to just get a little practice and to learn some things, not to simulate a bug-out.

My Goruck GR1 with first-aid kit attacked, and my daughter’s Goruck Echo.

I’ll share some of what I learned with you from that one night outdoors with my pack, not because these lessons are directly relevant to your own preps, but so you can see how valuable this exercise can be.

Note: I bought all the gear in this review with my own personal money — the packs, the multi-tool, the axe, etc. There is some review gear in the packs that I didn’t buy, some of which was bought by The Prepared for me to review, and a few items that were sent my manufacturers. But all the stuff actually covered in this article is from my personal supplies.

The gear:

Why you should test your loadout

Before I get into my lessons learned, I want to take a moment to make the case for testing your complete go-bag loadout. Brand-new preppers, this is for you.

Here are some reasons to test your kit:

  • Don’t wait until an emergency to understand how things work.
  • Find out what’s going to break.
  • Find out what’s not working so you can improve it.
  • Learn what’s really working well so that you don’t unwittingly change the wrong things if you end up tweaking your kit.
  • Customize our standard recommendations so they work for your specific needs.

That last reason is easy to overlook. Our entire staff spends a ton of effort making our lists as comprehensive as possible. That may give the impression that you won’t need anything other than what we’ve recommended. But there’s a crucial caveat for using our lists. Our lists will get all people most of the way there, and most people all the way there; but they can’t get all people all the way there.

So test your gear, if for no other reason than to learn which of our recommendations will need some fine tuning in your case.

Pack a pillow

I can’t sleep without a pillow—I just can’t. Even before this, I knew it, but I neglected to put my inflatable camping pillow in my bag. And I neglected to do that because “pillow” isn’t one of the items on our standard list. I just didn’t think of it. Unfortunately, none of the other pillow-like candidates I had in my bag (clothing and a tarp) would work well enough for me to get to sleep.

I managed to improvise a workable solution to this problem by rolling up my spare clothing and stuffing it under my inflatable sleeping pad near my head, so that the pad bulged up and worked sort of like a pillow. That way, I made it through the night, but it wasn’t great.

I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt my chances of getting a good night’s rest in a high-stress bug-out situation. So in my particular case, the pillow is worth a few extra ounces. Anything that helps me get more rest so I can think more clearly and reduce my stress levels.

Lesson learned: I really do need a pillow under my head if I’m going to function the next day, so I have to stash the inflatable camping pillow in the go-bag and leave it there.

Go-bags for myself, my wife, and my oldest child. I’ll pick up similar packs for the other two kids this year.

Bag design matters a lot

I standardized my family on the Goruck bags for a few reasons:

  • If all five of our packs look roughly similar and we lose one, we can easily describe it to anyone else. We’ll just point at one of the other bags we have and saying, “it looks just like this, but with these other colors.”
  • We can spot each other from far away with these distinctive and relatively rare packs.
  • The Goruck reputation for quality is still holding strong (even if the community’s impression of their warranty and customer service has slipped).
  • The packs unzip fully and lay out flat, so no rooting around in it required.

This last item—the flat layout—really shined on this short trip. In the dead of night when I needed to get something from the pack, it was simple to unzip it and go right to the item. No matter how deeply buried it was, I didn’t have to remove anything else from the bag.

Because I didn’t have to remove even one other item from the pack to get at anything I need, I also didn’t have to set my gear on the bare ground and either get it dirty or risk forgetting about it and losing it there.

My daughter’s instinct, trained on normal school backpacks, was to unzip only the top of the Echo and dig down in it for stuff. But by the end of our little overnight I had coached her out of that habit and had her using the pack properly. It made such a massive difference in overall campsite orderliness and sanity that I’d say the bags were worth it.

Lesson learned: As spendy as the Gorucks are, I was ridiculously pleased with the experience of using them in the field. I’m glad I took our pack review’s recommendation and stayed away from the top-loaders.

A hatchet plus multi-tool is a powerful combo

Yes, this hatchet is too “operator,” and no, I do not care. It is awesome and I love it.

I’m a big knife guy, in both senses of the phrase. I’m big into knives, and I like big knives. But on this little outing I decided to try out something I had been thinking about for a while, namely leaving the fixed-blade in my pack and carrying only a Winkler tactical hatchet and a Leatherman Free K4 on my person.

This combo ended up working so well for me that I’m annoyed that I hadn’t tried it sooner.

I used the hatchet for “big knife” chores like chopping, rough carving, and shaping wood. The Leatherman I used for light cutting, food processing, fine carving, and whittling. These two tools went together like peanut butter and jelly. I didn’t once feel the need for a bigger knife (though there was a point at which I was kind of wishing my Leatherman had a saw blade).

I still would not recommend skipping the fixed blade, but I’m definitely going to do more of this hatchet + multi-tool combo in my future outdoors trips, just to see how it works out.

Lesson learned: This hatchet/multi-tool combo seems to work for me in my particular area, so I won’t be as shy about trying it on a higher-stakes outing like a hunt or a serious camping trip in the bush.

Every little bit helps

You don’t have to do a full-blown practice bug-out, or anything even close to it, to get in some quality time with your kit and figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Even a little backyard tent camping can teach you a ton about your loadout.

I actually learned a lot more that I haven’t put into this post. (I’m saving that material for the reviews of specific pieces of gear that I got to test during this outing.) But overall, I felt something like, “Wow, this stuff all works together pretty well! I could actually get by with this pack if I had to.”

The exercise left me with a positive feeling about my kit and lowered my overall stress level a bit. From a mental health perspective, there’s a lot to be said for knowing that your bag really is ready for everything. It’ll carry you through anything from an unexpected night in a hotel all the way down to a few days in the woods. And in this crazy time especially, we all need every little bit of mental security we can get.


    • SeaBee

      This is an excellent piece whose advice will go largely unheeded, I fear. Most folks will balk at the idea of “practicing” with their go-bags, under the sense of “Oh, I’ll just take my bag but find a place to stay (motel/hotel/whatever)” However, considering the combination of COVID plus human displacement due to natural disasters (see, for example, Michigan’s recent dam breaks) or, worse, acts of terror, it seems both highly unlikely and definitely undesirable to shelter amidst large groups. I can easily envision situations where folks are bugging out from urban or suburban areas and simply can’t find a (safe) roof under which to huddle. You’ll want to feel comfortable–if not confident–in your ability to navigate a night or two on state land, parks, etc. Plus, the practicing should be fun and a good excuse to play around in the woods 🙂

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      • John AdamaStaff SeaBee

        Well said. All we can do is encourage people to practice and repeat as many times as needed: you are not prepared until you’ve actually used your preps!

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    • hikermor

      An excellent piece – practice makes perfect.

      Years ago, doing search and rescue (SAR), I learned to keep my gear in a backpack, organized and ready to go.  Sometimes we had hours to respond, but often the call was urgent – respond immediately!  Over time, i refined my gear, learning what worked and what did not.

      You most likely will have to make seasonal adjustments.  What works for mid summer will not do for winter.  If you live in the western US, with mountain ranges, you might be required to deal with very cold conditions up high, compared to warmer temps in the valleys.  It is easier to pull gear out of your pack, rather than adding to it at the last minute.  I was on operations where everything I carried was used.

      Use your equipment.  You need to know that it works, and what its quirks are. A critical situation is no time to be unwrapping a new, shiny gadget.

      My day pack is within reach, fully set up.  i no longer do SAR, but you never know.  We had to evacuate a year ago because of an approaching wild fire, and my pack was the first thing in the car, followed by lots of other stuff.  If I had been required to walk, the pack had basic, fundamental items that would have seen me through.

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      • Clark Thompson hikermor

        As a former EMT and SAR I totally agree. I keep my gear in plastic bins, one being  a cold weather bin that has the heavy bag, parka, Sorels and other winter gear. Keeping an inventory sheet taped to the bin is good practice: I put anything that expires in pencil. 

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      • Gideon ParkerStaff Clark Thompson

        Organization is key to quick deployment and rotation of gear. Valuable skill to master.

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    • MarcusAurelius


      Have you walked any considerable distance with the GR2 fully loaded? I really, really want to buy one, but for walking any distance with any weight, the lack of a load-bearing hip belt has prevented me.

      I think of the 26L GR1 / 34L GR2 as more EDC packs or very practical, minimalistic go bags as opposed to backpacking bags. The 40L GR2 just seems like it wouldn’t be comfortable after a few miles.

      Just thinking out load (that was an intentional pun).

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      • Jon StokesStaff MarcusAurelius

        I have not, and in fact I’m assuming I’ll be miserable. However — and this is a big one — I have three small children (ages 7 to 11) who would be tagging along in any on-foot bugout, and they are veeerrryyyyy sloooowwwww and complainey. So they, and not the pack, will almost surely the the limiting factor on any on-foot bugout’s ability to rack up daily mileage. 

        Once the kids get older, I may consider switching to something with more support. Or not… a lot of people do long distances and rucking challenges with the Goruck packs and seem to do ok.

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      • MarcusAurelius Jon Stokes

        Oh, man, I totally understand about the kids. So much so, in fact, that I think we ought to have some topics / guides / blog posts about how to prepare a family from a disaster.

        The first 47 seconds of this Warrior Poet Society video makes the point pretty hilariously.

        I mean, as much as I have thought about packing all of this camping gear into my 60L Kifaru, with a wife and two kids under seven, the only way we are “bugging” anywhere is in a car on the way to a hotel or a friend’s house.

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