Table of Contents
Why you should trust us
I’ve been a dedicated prepper for 13 years and have spent over 2,000 hours on research and planning. I’ve been teaching others how to prepare for almost 10 years before starting The Prepared. I’ve had top tier professional training in many relevant fields, like emergency trauma medicine, firearms and defense, survival, and tradecraft. I’ve worked with state and federal governments on issues around emergency preparedness and disaster relief technology.
Over 30 hours of research went into writing this post so far. We talked with multiple experts, from survival experts to special operations soldiers trained to survive in the field. We personally researched 30 of the most popular bags on Amazon and various prepper forums before evaluating a dozen in person.
Principles of a great bug out bag
- One bag for “every” situation, not different bags for different situations.
- Always packed and ready.
- Blends in.
- Large enough to carry the minimum gear, but not large enough to be impractical.
- Tough, high quality materials that are tear and water resistant.
- Comfortable to carry for miles on foot over bad terrain.
- Front loading shells, not the top loading tubes.
These principles apply to the #1 priority bug out bag
The Prepared recommends a priority system for emergency bags, rather than splitting bags up by “72 hours”, “forever”, or “winter” type scenarios. So you have your #1 main bag, then a #2 bag, and so on.
The further down the line you go, the more you can be flexible on these principles. For example, my #3 bag is a large camo duffel bag that I’d only ever use if I was moving by car. We explain more in the emergency preparedness checklist for beginners.
Always packed and ready
It’s worth the investment to have a dedicated bag. Avoid the temptation to double dip by thinking “I’ll just use my hiking bag in case I need to leave the house.” Even if that hiking bag is appropriate, in order for a BOB to be valuable it must be completely packed and ready to go. Imagine if, right now, you got a 30 second warning to leave your house.
According to disaster response expert Phil Stein in Missouri, “I’m all for having less clutter in my home, but when it comes to the bag that might save my kid’s lives, it’s not worth skimping. I want to know, always and for sure, that my bag is exactly where it needs to be and is ready to go when I need it.”
You don’t want to be scrambling to remember where things are or putting things together.
Even if you live in a tiny studio apartment or a crazy house full of kids, this is nothing more than the size of a backpack that you can keep tucked somewhere out of the way.
Some people don’t invest in bug out bags because they think that if anything ever went wrong, they plan on staying in their house or “sheltering in place.” This is dangerous thinking because you can never predict what will happen.
Avoid flashy colors and camouflage. Personally, my #2 and #3 bags are camo, but my primary bag is flat black and looks like a normal hiking pack. If things are so bad that you only have one bag, then you don’t want to draw attention to yourself with a sign that says “I’m prepared!”
You may also need to hide the bag. Whether you’re hiding it in natural or man-made settings, the bright oranges and reds common on many hiking packs are tough to conceal.
Tough, durable, well-built
One of the biggest differences between a cheap bag and an expensive one is the quality of the materials and construction. Cheap bags have common issues like broken zippers, bad stitching, water leaking, etc.
We think it’s worth investing in quality when your entire life might depend on this one bag. The hiking and travel industry is established enough that it’s easy to find which companies are reputable and sell quality product.
Construction and materials must be tough. Some hiking bags optimize for weight and are made out of very thin material. A proper BOB should be made of ripstop nylon or a similar material that won’t snag and rip when you walk by a sharp corner or branch.
We like to see solid stitching and other general signs of a carefully made bag that the cheaper companies typically skip.
Comfortable and adjustable
You want to be able to carry up to 50 pounds on your back for miles and hours if you need to. But many people underestimate how important fit is for a comfortable pack. This is why staff at stores like REI are trained on fitment and they may even have special measuring tools.
The best bags are made for hiking. Luggage, duffel bags, canvas bags, purses, and school backpacks are not designed to carry heavy loads on foot over long distances and should not be used.
Most great bags have some kind of rigid frame, hip belts for load distribution, and lots of adjustments. For example, compression straps help keep the weight closer to your body and adjustment straps in the shoulders and hips help find your individual sweet spot.
Design and front loading access
Layout of organizational compartments and other design features make a big difference in the field. For example, many modern bags have a dedicated laptop sleeve. That’s just wasted space for a BOB.
Some bags throw everything into one pile while others unnecessarily over-compartmentalize so that each individual pencil has it’s own pocket.
We look for a balance of both. A main compartment that holds your larger or heavier items like food and smaller quick-access external pockets for things like knives and flashlights. Organization should be logical, fast, and easy to remember when you’re flustered or in the dark.
We would prefer to see lockable zippers on BOBs, but unfortunately they are rare. The bags with lockable zippers tend to be built more for travelers and less for field use.
Traditional long cylinder bags are great for specific types of hiking and camping where it’s fine to be slow and you take everything out at once to set up camp. But a bag that primarily opens from the top means you have to dig through all your gear to get to what you’re looking for.
So we look for bags that can lay flat and zip open, giving quick access to anything.
Ask anyone who tried backpacking around Europe or Asia with one of those top loaders and they’ll tell you how quickly they got tired of having to pull everything out just to find a pair of socks at the bottom.
While you’re at it, ask them if they overpacked – 99% will say yes and they wish they had a smaller carry-on sized bag.
The right size: 45 liters or “carry on” size
A common mistake is going too big. I’ve backpacked around the world and I have never met a traveler who said “I didn’t bring enough stuff!” Without fail, people overpack. They end up hating their bag because it’s too big and it hurts to walk even a few blocks.
Prepping can be frustrating because you always want to have more. “But what if we need ABC item in case XYZ happens?” You can never be 100% ready for 100% of situations. We focus on finding the right balance of sanity, investment, using one item for many applications, and covering the majority of scenarios – all while being practical and usable.
A BOB should be roughly the size of an airplane carry-on bag. Backpacks are described by their volume, so that means roughly 40 to 50 liters or 2,500 to 3,000 cubic inches.
We think the sweet spot is around 45-50 liters for average or larger sized adults, and perhaps down to 35-40 liters if you’re smaller or have other physical considerations. We’ll publish a separate review of children’s bags in the future.
How we’re testing
We’re still doing research and field testing on more bags before publishing the official review. But since we’ve made some quick pick recommendations in the meantime, we wanted to explain some of our testing methods.
We started with wide research on Amazon, REI, Cabelas, and other outdoor and prepper sites to identify the top candidates. After reading specs and reviews on over 30 bags, we reviewed about 12 of those bags in person. Many bags would be quickly disqualified for one of the main reasons explained above. Of those dozen, four (so far) have been worth actually field testing.
This guide doesn’t cover the gear you put inside the bag, but to test real world results we used the following kit to represent the common items people put in their BOB:
- Water. Rigid 23oz water bottle (filled) with integrated filter, backup filter, collapsible canteen, and purification tablets.
- Food. One MRE, one 3,600 calorie block, one Mountain House pouch, three packets peanut butter, one ultralight camping stove with butane tank and pots, spork.
- Fire. Stormproof matches, firestarter, and lighter.
- Heat. Three survival blankets and an insulated outer layer.
- Shelter. 8’x10’ tarp.
- Light. One battery powered and one crank flashlight, candle, three glowsticks.
- Communication. Portable ham radio, signal mirror, whistle, flares.
- Medical. First aid kit in 6”x10” pouch, medication, tourniquet, combat pads.
- Hygiene. Camp soap, camp toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer.
- Navigation. Laminated map, compass, binoculars.
- Tools. Field knife, multitool, 30’ cordage, zip ties, small duct tape, safety pins.
- Self Defense. One pistol with holster, ammo wallet, backup knife.
- Field Guide. Compact book with guides on various survival techniques.
- Documents. Laminated copy of personal records, emergency contact info, etc.
- Clothing. Hat, sunglasses, socks, and hiking pants and shirt.
- Misc. Cash, small paper pad and pen.
We packed each bag with the same gear and took note of how logical the packing and layout was. When packing the bags, we put the most important items in the most accessible places. So the lights and knives etc would go in front or side pockets.
The main compartment would have the heaviest items at the bottom and the lighter items like clothing towards the top. We packed the tarp and poncho above the rest so that if any water did seep in, it was protected.
Once loaded, we tried storing the bags the way you would ideally want to in a normal home. Do they easily lie flat on a closet shelf? Do they sit upright on their own? Our favorite bags had handles and loops that were easy to grab, even with gloves on, ideally from multiple angles like from the top or the side.
We then checked for fit with three different people. They are: 1) Male, 6’5”, 240 pounds. 2) Female, 5’6”, 145 pounds. 3) Male, 5’7”, 155 pounds. We looked for ease of adjustment, overall comfort, and how wide of a range of body types could find that comfortable fit. The large male has back problems and rounded shoulders. The woman has a pear shape and large bust. The average sized male is skinny with a runner’s build and high hips.
The bags we’re testing in person, and the few bags we’ve made quick recommendations on here, all go through a fully loaded two mile test hike over rocky mountain trails and flat urban areas.
We periodically stop and run through different scenarios based on our personal expertise and training. For example, we would pretend it started raining, a person was injured, an aggressive person was threatening us, or we were ready to stop for the night at dusk.
To test toughness, we used blunt objects like rocks and sharper objects from our multitool to try and snag or rip the outside.
To test water protection, we simply took water bottles and poured from above and “windy rainstorm” angles with movements to try and simulate spray or rain.