Starting Over: The Gear I Would Buy if I Had to Do it All Over Again

As best I can remember, I have bought seventeen backpacks in my life. Seven backpacking ones1, and a mix of ten book bags and assault packs2. Each time I bought something new, I upgraded in some way. I went from the Teton Sports Scout 3400 to the Texsport Wolcott because it carried better. Next came the Kelty Falcon 4000 because I needed more space and wanted greater versatility and modularity. I continued pursuing those goals in purchasing the Eberlestock J79 Skycrane II, which I eventually replaced with the Mystery Ranch Terraplane. With nine more liters of space yet coming in at 60% of the weight, I could not rationalize sticking with the Skycrane II no matter how much I liked it.

At the other end of the spectrum, I traded two Old Navy backpacks3 for a more durable canvas day pack; in the now-discontinued L.L. Bean Continental rucksacks, I sought to balance that durability with functionality — a balance I continued to pursue, and achieved, when I started buying the phenomenal GORUCK packs I use today. Time and experience not only led to better and more expensive backpacks, though, but outdoor gear in general, as well as activewear, firearms, computers, and everything else money can buy. This pursuit of excellence cost me a great deal of money over the years, and will continue to do so as I refine these systems going forward. My most recent additions, the 5.11 RUSH 24 and a Matador Freerain24 2.0, are prime examples of this. I bought both not because I needed them, but rather because I wanted to try something new.

It will continue costing me because I do not “set and forget” anything. There is room for improvement everywhere. None of the kits I own today, from the gear I keep in my car to my backcountry setups, are static. I change each to reflect my present knowledge of the best processes, technologies, and techniques at my disposal in light of the factors I do and do not control. In preparation for a long road trip, for example, I take time to select the best equipment available based on the number of people going and the unique needs of each individual; before going backpacking, I reevaluate my loadout to make sure I still have the perfect setup in light of the challenges I expect to face. This near-constant cycle of assessment, modification, and implementation gave rise to the iterative process that brought me from my first $60 backpacking pack to a $500 one, and then back down to the $315 one I use today; it brought and from an $18 book bag to one that cost me $295 — and it will continue to drive my spending habits everywhere else in the future.

While some might prize this journey as an invaluable learning experience, I do not. These cycles cost hundreds of dollars — dollars I could have put to better use elsewhere. Each successive iteration effectively made the gear of the one before it useless, and — by extension — the money I spent on it wasted. Why would I ever choose to use a lesser item when I could just as soon use a superior one? One could make the case that I paid for the knowledge gained in each evolution, but given the chance to do it all over again, I would choose to save $935 sticking with the Kelty Falcon 4000 in a heartbeat. I would save the money I wasted on nice jeans throughout the years by going straight to a pair of quality technical pants. I would, without hesitation, buy one good backpack instead of getting that same bag after buying seven others.

A recent article by “Stick”, What if I Had to Buy All New Gear!, prompted me to write this. He condensed years of experience and thousands of dollars into a single post listing the backpacking equipment he would choose now, knowing what he does today, having made all the mistakes he has along the way. I hope to do the same here, except rather than an ultralight hiking kit, I will write with a more tactical, preparedness bent and focus on my bug-out bag so that perhaps I can save some people the hundreds of dollars I washed down the drain over the years. Like mine, your wants and needs will continue to evolve as you do; as you gain more experience and become more exacting in your demands, you will have no choice but to revert to the same iterative process I went through to get where I am today. If I can help a few people skip over at least the initial steps in a few areas, though — to bypass the stages everyone will otherwise go through and waste their money on, on the road to better gear — I will call that a win. Before diving into specific recommendations, though, I want to make clear my operating parameters so that you may decide for yourself if the advice that follows fits you and your situation.

I have two main requirements for everything I buy. First, each item must fulfill its role regardless of the weather, climate, and operating environment. A jacket that does not insulate when wet, or boots that keep my feet dry in the rain but soak them in sweat in the sun, fail this test. Second, each item must serve my overarching goal of minimizing excess. I refuse to buy a backpack sized for the summer months knowing full well that I will need another for the rest of the year. Although at times I have no choice but to violate these rules, I do my best to keep them.

You should also know what I do and do not consider important when choosing gear. Above all else, I value quality. The generic fleece jacket I got for $40 will work just as well as the $215 one I got from Triple Aught Design at 50 degrees; caught in a freezing rainstorm, though, the latter meant the difference between risking hypothermia and getting across town unscathed thanks to superior material and a water-resistant coating. Just as stress highlights deficiencies in training, harsh environments do the same for equipment in the field. I also prize durability. Conventional backpacks with their lightweight fabrics are great for open trails, not for pushing through patches of brambles and dense underbrush. See rule #1: each item must fulfill its role regardless of the weather, climate, and operating environment. Versatility and modularity also ranked high on my priorities list. I do my best to avoid situation- or task-specific gear in favor of equipment that will fit many scenarios; see rule #2: each item must serve my overarching goal of minimizing excess.

Within reason, I do not consider price a major concern. Up to a certain point, which varies depending on the type of gear, more money leads to a commensurate increase in quality and functionality. Spend X for a given backpack, or 2X for one twice as good as the first, and so on. Beyond that point of diminishing returns, though, it takes significant amounts of money to make even minor gains in any area. It might cost 4X for a bag three times “better” — however you define that — than the first, 8X for one four times better, and so on. I have no problem investing more in my gear right up to that figure, but seldom go past it.

Weight, on the other hand, plays a significant role in my decision-making process. Although ultralight materials still cannot match heavier ones in terms of durability, modern textiles have come close to bridging that gap. As such, in many cases it makes more sense to accept the minor limitations lightweight fabrics impose for the increased mobility they enable, than to sick with gear I can toss around just for the peace of mind that engenders. Every item must still function regardless of the environment, as per rule #1, but by cutting weight in certain areas, I have made the journey much easier.

Use these two rules, and the factors that do and do not drive my decision-making process, to frame the recommendations below. If your priorities do not line up with mine, keep that in mind as you read through them, and adjust as necessary.

Shelter #

Humans can last around three weeks without food, about three days without water, but just minutes if exposed to the elements under the wrong circumstances. Although a lack of security poses a greater threat, the much higher likelihood of getting caught in bad weather makes this cause for greater concern, and the single greatest threat to your survival. It stands to reason, then, that in creating a system designed to get you from your home to a safe retreat destination in the wake of disaster, we would focus first on addressing this hazard with a robust shelter setup. This system has three parts: the structure you will rest in, the clothing that will shield you from the elements while you move, and the sleeping bags that will keep you warm when you stop.

The Tent #

I started with a lightweight hammock setup from Eagles Nest Outfitters that came in at 72oz and set me back $365, but moved on to the $235 Catoma Enhanced Bed Net System, or EBNS, because it matched my earlier system’s weight yet featured a much lower profile. At just 23 and 15.7 square feet of internal and vestibule space, though, respectively, this tent proved impractical for use in inclement weather and impossible to use with more than one person at a time. The fact that it relied on a tensioned fiberglass rod for its main structure made me uncomfortable counting on it long-term, and its unimpressive four and a half pounds did nothing to improve its standing.

Today, I use the $499 Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 mtnGLO. At 51.2oz, with 29 and 18 square feet of internal and vestibule space, respectively, it beats out both my hammock system as well as the EBNS in terms of weight and usable room. It also wins out on versatility: as a free-standing tent, I can set it up anywhere and in much less time than its predecessors, both of which offered less protection from the weather. I chose the mtnGLO variant because it came in light gray rather than the blaze orange of the original. Although not “tactical”, I feel this tent strikes the best balance between function and utility. I have no plans to replace it anytime soon.

Clothing #

Recall that everything I buy must fulfill its role regardless of the weather, climate, and operating environment, and that it must also serve my overarching goal of minimizing excess. These rules apply here as well. In order to create as versatile a clothing system as possible while also minimizing overlapping functionality, I chose to use a series of four layers. Layers one, three, and five stay in my pack at all times; I include two and four based on the season.

Like the Army’s Extended Cold Weather Clothing System and Beyond Clothing’s Axios Layering System, the setup I detail below does not include footwear or eye protection. These items exist outside of the layering model; I will talk about them at the end.

1. Baselayer #

This layer has one job: moving moisture away from my skin so that my body heat can cause it to evaporate. From the ground up, I prefer a $17 set of Hot Weather BDU Pro Socks from Wigwam. I have worn these for days at a time, covered tens of miles with them under a heavy rucksack, and even choose them for leisure travel. They let my feet breathe, dry fast, and have just enough cushion to feel good without compromising stability. I prefer these above all else.

As for underwear and a shirt, the two other items in this layer, I rely on Icebreaker for both. Their breathable, lightweight, and odor-resistant blend has proven its versatility in harsh midwest winters as well as sweltering southern summers. I take their briefs — $40 for a pair — and their Tech Lite T-shirt — $75 — with me every time I venture into the wilderness. Although some may shy away from wool in warm climates, Icebreaker’s lightweight wool-nylon blend does a good job of managing moisture even during high-output activities; and once it does become soaked in sweat, the odor-resistent wool does an excellent job of staying fresh.

Together, these five items total just over $130. Although I have at least one spare of each now, a change of clothes is unnecessary even in the harshest of environments. The extras come in handy during long, casual camping trips, but with the exception of some spare socks, I do not recommend that you spend your money on them for a bug-out bag.

2. Midweight Baselayer #

This second layer must continue moving moisture outward while also providing some insulation. I tried a few pricey products, but either found them not warm enough for extreme cold or not breathable enough for warmer weather. Instead, I went back to the U.S. Army’s proven Extended Cold Weather Clothing System. Now in its third generation, the long john-style second level has done an excellent job of keeping me both warm and dry in a variety of climates, even during high-output activities. A set of the “waffle” top and bottom — a name they earned for the nature of their construction — will set you back about $50 on Amazon, bringing the total up to $180 so far.

3. Outerwear #

Although even on a normal day I could walk around in Icebreaker’s T-shirt or the Army’s waffle top, I cannot say the same for the briefs or the waffle bottoms. This layer affords me the most basic level of protection from my environment, for use in warm weather or as an intermediate layer in cold.

It seems like every large apparel company makes a tactical pant these days. I have tried many of them, but I prefer a pair from the San Francisco-based Triple Aught Design. The Force 10 AC Cargo Pant has generous pocket space for magazines and other gear I need to keep at the ready, and also features the proprietary durable yet lightweight, breathable, and packable Amphibious Cloth. Several companies offer one or the other, but I have yet to find another that bring together both function and versatility so well. I love these pants. They will set you back $115, which takes our total to $295.

4. Insulation #

Although each layer must continue moving moisture outward, I look to this one for warmth first. Down’s inability to function when wet ruled it out for me back when I first made this decision, so I opted for a synthetic fill. Although nowadays advancements in water-resistant down treatments and synthetic insulation construction do a great deal to bridge the gap between these competing technologies, The North Face’s Thermoball hoodie and Mountain Hardwear’s Compressor pant — which set me back about $180 and $175, respectively — have yet to give me a reason to replace them. The jacket has kept me warm into the upper 30s with nothing but a t-shirt beneath it, and it excels as a lightweight mid layer in both warmth and breathability. I wait until the temperature drops into the single digits to break out the Compressor pant, but even then they have yet to fail me. When it does come time for me to replace these two, it will take a great deal of convincing to sway me from either one of them. The pair brings the clothing total up to $650.

5. Hardshells #

Severe weather protection comes in two flavors: semi-permeable softshells and impermeable hardshells. In exchange for a lesser defense against the elements, the former breathe more. This helps convey moisture from inner layers to the outside environment. The latter sacrifice some breathability for an impenetrable defense against the elements. I chose a hardshell jacket and pant because water will saturate a softshell over time. Given the uncertain nature of a bug-out scenario, I cannot say for sure that I will have the luxury of staying out of the rain, or that I will stay on the move long enough to raise my core temperature. I needed a guarantee that my shells would protect me from wind, rain, and everything else in Mother Nature’s war chest, and I found such a guarantee in Patagonia’s Torrentshell jacket at $130, and pants at $100.

I spent over $1,000 before going back to the Torrentshell jacket and pants — another example of a time where skipping the preliminary steps would have saved me a great deal of money. Lighter, more packable, and much cheaper than GORE-TEX-caliber fabrics, Patagonia’s H2No 2.5 layer hardshell laminate works as well as anything else I have tried. I suspect some company makes a better system, but the $650 I spent on Outdoor Research’s Furio Jacket and Arc’teryx’s Zeta LT Pant did not get me a 3X better weather defense. The Torrentshell jacket and pant appear to be the point of diminishing returns for me, and I have no issue sticking with them. Including these two items, the price of my clothing system goes up to $780.

Accessories #

Accessories like a hat, gloves, and the like can make or break a clothing system. No matter how warm you feel everywhere else, numb hands and freezing ears will hamper your ability to carry out even rudimentary tasks during an already stressful bug-out. Up top, I chose a generic fleece cap for around $7. It does a decent job of keeping my head warm, but a great job handling moisture. I also like to have a simple buff on-hand as a shield against winter wind and summer dust storms. I snagged mine for about $15 and leave it in my pocket.

For my hands, I would not go anywhere without the $18 Minus33 Wool Liners. My fingers freeze even in thick mittens, yet these alone somehow keep them warm even at freezing temperatures. On most days, I can get away with just these; for days that I cannot, I also carry a pair of Youngstown Glove Company’s Waterproof Military Work Glove, which sell for $42.50. Once I get the blood circulating in my hands, these do an excellent job of keeping them warm and dry on their own or as a shell for Minus33’s liners.

Adding these items brings the cost of my clothing system up to $865. This does not include footwear and eye protection, the elements that exist outside of the layering model. I left out ear protection because I cannot foresee a use for it during a bug-out where you might never have to resort to violence, or will not receive forewarning if you do. In terms of eyewear, I prefer the $73 ballistic Wiley X Saint sunglasses. Having owned others from Wiley X, as well as a pair from Revision Military, these stood out as the best balance between form and function available given my desire for ones with replaceable lenses. I have no plans to retire the Saint any time soon.

As for footwear, I prefer simple combat boots. I would love to say a super technical shoe made walking tens of miles a breeze in any season, but walking tens of miles kind of sucks no matter what, and I have done it often and under heavy loads in these simple shoes. In temperate climates, a minimalist boot like the Belleville TR105 at $150 does great. I used to strap on a fifty-five pound rucksack and run four miles a day in them. In wet climates, I prefer a thicker sole to keep my feet out of water, and a waterproof lining to keep them dry when I cannot; the Garmont T8 Extreme at $200 fits that bill.

At $1,300 for clothing alone, with another $500 invested in my primary form of shelter, the running total for these items may already shock some. Keep in mind, though, what makes this gear worth its high price tag. This is my “go to war” kit. Not my camping or my hiking packing list, but the equipment I will rely on in a situation so dangerous that I rate my odds of survival higher bugging-out than staying put. These are not for lazy afternoons at the park; these are for the day disaster strikes and I need to get back to my family come Hell or high water, or move to our bug-out location while disaster unfolds around us. I cannot afford to worry about staying warm and dry in these scenarios, and I made this investment so that I would not have to. Bad weather? I don’t care. Civil unrest? I have my mission; I will find a way around them if possible, or go straight through them if not — and because I know I and my equipment can handle either course of action under any circumstances, that choice is mine and no one else’s to make. I have done everything in my power to ensure that when everything else fails, I will not. That meant a sizable outlay of cash on my part, but it also meant decreased odds of mission failure as a result.

Remember, too, that this system will carry you through all four seasons. Pack layers one and three during the summer, add two in the spring and fall, and toss in four for winter weather. You may find it helpful to include some other odds and ends, but these layers and the Big Agnes three-season tent will meet most people’s needs most of the time.

Also keep in mind that as much as this quality gear will cost you today, it could cost you a great deal more. I suggest you spend $500 on a tent now because I spent $600 reaching the verdict that I needed to drop an extra $500 to get my present setup. Total: $1,100. I also suggest you spend $230 on hardshells because I spent over $1,000 before realizing that I should just go back to one of my first system. These and everything else can be one-time investments, but only by your decision; they can just as well turn into a series of several expensive mistakes leading up to the decision you should have made at the beginning of your journey.

Sleep System #

I had the same requirements for my sleep system that I did for my insulating layers. Down’s inability to function when wet — at the time — once again ruled it out, so I opted for a pair of synthetic bags from Eberlestock. The $199 Ultralight model insulates to 40 degrees and comes in at 39 ounces, so I use this one during the summer; the $279 Reveille works to five degrees and weighs in at 64 ounces, so I use it in the spring and fall. During the winter I pack both, which together will keep me warm well below anything I face on the trail. Although taken together these outweigh most other items in my pack, only down has a better warmth-to-weight ratio, and I could not accept its trade-offs. For the foreseeable future, I plan to stick with these. Total cost: $478; adding that to the last figure brings the total cost of my shelter system — tent, clothing, and sleeping bags — up to $2,275.

Weaponry #

Weaponry comes next because after exposure, a lack of security poses the greatest threat to your survival during a bug-out. It would take days to die of dehydration, by which time you should have reached your retreat location, but seconds for an innocent exchange to turn violent once the rule of law breaks down. Under the best of circumstances, even the best of law enforcement agencies take several minutes to respond to priority calls; with the world falling down around them, you will become your own first responder — whether you like it or not; whether you rise to the occasion or suffer for your lack of action depends entirely on you, and starts with the skills and equipment you amass now. Because this article focuses on gear, I will focus on the tools here.

Firearms and Ammunition #

When it came to choosing a firearm, I went with a platform I already knew. Having spent years training on M4-series rifles, I opted for an AR-15 from Stag Arms: the model 3T-M, which I upgraded with a single point sling for $30, bringing the total up to $1,189.99 before tax and the FFL transfer fee. I then added a Magpul B.A.D. Lever, $29.95, before attaching and zeroing my optic of choice, the Primary Arms ACSS 1-8x scope. I added a B.A.D. Lever because it streamlines magazine changes; I went with the $389.99 ACSS because it features variable zoom and a fantastic reticle that makes putting rounds on target, even at distance, a breeze. Together, these made for a lightweight weapon system capable of both close quarters battle as well as distance engagements; in other words, exactly what I needed for the uncertain scenarios I would find myself in during a dangerous bug-out. Although I do believe there is value in the versatility and durability of the AK platform, for instance, I do not feel its advantages outweigh the higher level of performance, greater accuracy, better modularity, and decreased weight M4-style rifles have to offer.

For storage, care, and maintenance of my AR-15, I opted for a $200 Pelican 1720 case, the $39.99 Real Avid .223/.556 Premium Maintenance Kit, a $12.95 bottle of M-Pro7 Gun Oil, and the $159.95 Leatherman MUT. Although expensive, I feel that $415 is a reasonable price to pay to preserve my $1,600 investment, and for a near guarantee that my rifle will function regardless of the scenario I find myself in before, during, or after a disaster. Together, my rifle and all its accouterments cost about $2,045, including the FFL transfer fee but excluding tax.

Although I do carry a concealed firearm on a daily basis, it plays no role in my bug-out strategy. Like a knife, I will have one on me at the onset of disaster; but like a knife, the presence of a much more capable weapon system — my rifle — obviates the need for this much less capable one. Use a handgun to fight your way to your rifle. My handgun of choice a GLOCK 21, has an integral role to play in my EDC kit and my get-home bag, but not here.

In terms of ammunition, although I sometimes shoot reloaded and steel at the range, I stick with Federal Premium Ammunition for use in a bug-out scenario. I pack 210 rounds in seven Lancer magazines, which I will move from my pack to my pockets and other accessible locations once I start moving. At about $0.35 per round, including shipping, I have yet to find a vendor that can beat, so I buy from there as much as possible. I got the Lancer magazines from LaRue Tactical at $14.99 apiece. Assuming you get 500 rounds to split between practice and your go-bag, that brings the total for firearms and ammo up to about $2,300, and the running total up to around $4,600.

Knives #

The knives that make it into my bug-out bag will do so by virtue of their presence in my pockets at the onset of disaster, as part of the gear I carry with me on a day-to-day basis. Although at one time I had specific blades set aside for this purpose, my aversion to bushcraft and the availability of a superior weapon — my rifle — obviated the need for dedicated go-bag blades. With that said, I will end up with some combination of the following: the $54 Cold Steel Voyager, for combat applications; the $165 Benchmade Triage, chosen as a rapid response tool in the event of a medical emergency; and the $20 Kershaw Shuffle, as a general beater I can trash without feeling bad about it. I rotate through these depending on the activity, so when it comes time to shoulder my pack for that long trek to my bug-out location, I will have one of them at my side. Setting yourself up in a similar fashion will cost about $240, although I consider this optional.

Medicine #

I prioritize medicine after weaponry because I believe that those with the ability to take a life must also have the ability to save one as well. That includes more than just life-threatening injuries, though, because almost anything could become lethal in a post-collapse world without modern medicine: you must prepare to handle simple and complex injuries ranging from minor cuts to hemorrhaging wounds, and from a run of the mill choking incident up to and including such dangers as a tension pneumothorax. Again, this article focuses on gear, so I will focus on the tools to get those jobs done here; I will leave the skills to another piece.

Blowout Kit #

Just as the layers of my clothing system allow me to fine-tune my loadout based on the situation at hand, a series of medical kits do the same while also creating critical redundancy in this crucial area. The first, a small blowout kit, stays with me no matter what. Comprised of the now-retired Leatherman Squirt S4 attached to an LRI Photon Freedom light, a CPR face shield, QuikClot Combat Gauze, a sterile non-stick sheet, a pair of nitrile gloves, a SWAT-T tourniquet and a mini marker for marking the time I put it on, a sterile surgical pad, a Nasopharyngeal Airway tube, a Water-Jel burn dressing, a decompression needle, and a pair of HyFin Vent compact chest seals — all in a small canvas bag I can fold in half and attach to my belt — this setup covers the three leading causes of death on the battlefield, and then some. As of the time of this writing, piecing together a similar system will set you back about $150.

I prefer this setup over other, similar ones for two reasons: first, it covers the three leading causes of death on the battlefield — extremity hemorrhaging, tension pneumothorax, and airway obstruction. Most focus on hemorrhaging, some also include tools for bypassing airway obstruction, but almost none tackle all three. It also gives me some middle ground to work with when dealing with situations that do not merit a tourniquet and combat gauze, but do still require immediate attention; things like heavy bleeding from a non-life-threatening wound, for example. I designed this pouch to tide me over until I can get my patient to professional care or the next layer of this system, my first-aid kit; in the wake of disaster, it will give me enough time to get to the trauma kit in my bug-out bag.

Trauma Kit #

My trauma kit stays in my bug-out bag at all times so that I can grab it at a moment’s notice, confident that it has everything I need to stabilize and then care for a casualty for up to seventy-two hours. It consists of three elements, the first of which augments my blowout kit and contains a SOFTT-W tourniquet, two H&H Primed Gauze packs, an 8“ Israeli abdominal emergency bandage, a 6” Israeli emergency bandage, two NAR Hfin chest seals, a decompression needle, and a Nasopharyngeal Airway tube. I store these at the top of my medical bag, for quick and easy access. They will set you back just over $90.

The second part of my trauma kit, the first-line care kit, focuses on the leading cause of death on the battlefield: extremity hemorrhaging. In order to cut down on space, I keep only the bare necessities on my person at all times; this fills in the gaps. It consists of a 6“ elastic wrap, a package of rolled gauze, two triangular bandages, an H&H sterile cravat, four tampons, a roll of adhesive wrap, two sterile non-stick sheets, two burn dressings, two 6”x6“ gauze squares, two 5”x9“ combine pads, two 4”x4“ squares, two 3”x8“ and two 1”x2.2" Manuka honey-impregnated adhesive pads, two 3M Tagaderm dressings, two pairs of nitrile gloves, and an emergency blanket. These will set you back about $60, thanks to the fact that most are little more than packaged cotton.

The third element of my trauma kit focuses on treatment post-stabilization, until I arrive at my bug-out location. As such, it contains things like band-aids, moleskin, various over-the-counter medications, electrolyte capsules, caffeine tablets, cotton swabs, alcohol and iodine prep pads, antimicrobial soap, colloidal silver gel, white petrolatum jelly, bacitracin packets, manuka honey, hand sanitizer, a SAM splint, medical tape, antiseptic wound wash, and several tools: a razor blade, a 5.5" straight hemostat, a Leatherman Raptor, tweezers, nail clippers, and an irrigation syringe. All-told, this will cost more than any other part of this setup: the total comes in just shy of $300. While almost half of that went toward tools, the silver lining to this high price tag is that most of the other items come in bulk packages, so you can spread that $300 between several kits.

First-Aid Kit #

I do not consider my first-aid kit an integral part of my bug-out bag; it exists to handle minor, everyday injuries that do not warrant professional medical attention. I keep it out for all to use, replenish it every once in a while, but have little interaction with it most of the time. Behind the basic band-aids and antibiotic ointment, though, I also store items more suitable for a trauma bag so that this, too, can play a role in a disaster scenario as a means of resupply for my blowout and trauma kits.

My first-aid kit consists of the following, in a mid-size EMT pouch: several sizes and types of band-aids, wound closure strips, a bottle of New-Skin liquid bandage, an emergency blanket, two manuka honey pads, two sterile non-stick sheets, two 3M Tagaderm dressings, two 4“x4” gauze squares, two 2x2 pads, moleskin, two Water-Jel burn dressings, a package of rolled gauze, a 4“ Israeli emergency bandage, 6” elastic wrap, two pairs of nitrile gloves, various over-the-counter medications, electrolyte capsules, caffeine tablets, white petrolatum jelly, bacitracin packets, manuka honey, hand sanitizer, cortisone cream, cotton swabs, antimicrobial soap, alcohol and iodine swabs, medical tape, antiseptic wound wash, tweezers, nail clippers, and a roll of adhesive wrap. Unless I have to rush out the door at a moment’s notice, I can toss these and any other supplies into my bug-out bag to reinforce the bare necessities I keep there at all times.

Account only for mission-critical medical kits — that is, the blowout and trauma kits — adds an extra $450 to our running total, bringing it up to just over $5,050.

Water #

My water system consists of four pieces: 12 125ml DATREX emergency pouches that guarantee at least 1.5L of clean water, no matter what; a Sawyer Mini filter for particulates; Aquamira treatment drops for bacteria; and a Source 3L hydration bladder. These items set me back $27 (I bought a case of 64 sachets at the time), $20, $13, and $31, respectively. I also used the Source Quick Connect adapter and a Camelback replacement tube to integrate the Sawyer Mini so that I could fill my reservoir without filtering it first, which now occurs between the reservoir and the drinking tube. I paid $12 and $5 for these two items, respectively; you can now buy a similar package for $50.

Short of chemical contamination, this setup guarantees at least thirty gallons of clean water and only set me back $108. If I find a good way to include an element that meets NSF/ANSI 53 requirements or better, I will upgrade it to account for metal and both organic and inorganic chemical impurities. Given the present state of portable water purification and filtration technology, though, I have no plans to change any part of this system anytime soon. Including this gear brings the running total up to $5,150.

Food #

I had an infinite number of possibilities for food in my bug-out bag, but chose the Tac-Bar emergency rations for several reasons. For one, they contain twice as many calories as MREs in a smaller package and at a similar weight. Common unprepared meals in the backpacking community weigh less, but have an even lower calorie-to-volume ratio than MREs. Going with Mountain House or one of its competitors would have also forced me to pack a stove and utensils as well, further increasing my pack’s size. These emergency rations won out in every category — even taste; they taste like a sugar cookie — and so Tac-Bars, as the healthiest and overall best product of them all, earned their spot in my bug-out bag. The entire package, which contains enough food for five days along with 10 water purification tabs and a small survival kit, retails for $69.99.

I do not plan to change this element of my bug-out bag anytime soon, even if the distance between me and my retreat changes. A three day supply of Tac-Bars weighs in at 58.2oz and contains 7,500 calories; nine Mountain House meals, along with a lightweight Jetboil Sol, tips the scale at 58.23oz and contain 6,870 calories. If I ever have to plan for a bug-out lasting longer than seventy-two hours, each extra day would cost me 19.4oz if I chose Tac-Bars, but only 15.74oz in freeze-dried foods — but this ignores the 630 calorie deficit in the latter, which I would have to account for with a fourth meal at around 4.5oz. All in all, emergency rations win out on every front, and only raise the running total to $5,225.

Energy #

I divide energy into two sub-categories: lighting and fire gear. For the former, I chose the $39.99 Petzl TACTIKKA+ headlamp because it features three white modes and a red light, runs on a rechargeable battery, and weighs in at a paltry three ounces. Although not the brightest lamp I own by a long shot, I needed something unobtrusive in both size and beam — not a large, blinding torch or a headlamp with an external battery pack. The TACTIKKA+ fit that bill at a modest price, and comes backed with Petzl’s great reputation for building reliable gear.

Although I have no intention of building a fire during a bug-out, I still keep a small fire-building kit in by go-bag. If I fall into a river in the middle of winter, for instance, and have to choose between succumbing to hypothermia and risking compromising my location with a fire, I will always choose the latter. For this type of event and other, similar emergencies, I rely on a large ferrocerium rod and a snack bag full of cotton balls soaked in white petrolatum. The white petrolatum — a more refined, medical-grade variant of petroleum jelly — makes the cotton balls waterproof, and keeps them burning for between five and ten minutes once I light them with the ferrocerium rod. I have found this combination more reliable than even a lighter and almost as compact, and thus have no plans of changing anytime soon. All told, this kit will set you back about $12; together, both come in at just under $52, bringing our total to $5,275.

Odds & Ends #

These last few items don’t fit into any other category, and so they form their own. Within “Odds & Ends” falls the Rite in the Rain 980T Tactical Field Book, a $40 waterproof notebook, pen, and cover trio I keep on-hand to make sketches and take notes, and the $19.99 McNett Tactical Field Repair Kit. Whether a buckle breaks on my backpack, my tent tears, or I rip a hole in my rain jacket, this little kit contains everything I need to make repairs on the go. Given the type of environment and the circumstances in which I will put by bug-out bag to use, I consider these tools important. They bring our total up to $5,335.

Gear Storage #

I store everything in my backpack of choice, the [Kelty Falcon 4000( A two-part system, it consists of a large, single-compartment pack that offers top and front access, capped with a detachable, three-pocket lid I use to store my medical supplies. A front pocket runs the length of the bag, offering easy access to essentials like wet weather gear and my hydration system. Everything else goes in the main compartment that — depending on the season — I sometimes line with a heavy trash bag for an added layer of protection against the elements.

At 6 lb 14 oz, the $315 Falcon 4000 will not win out against many other packs if it comes down to an ounce-for-ounce comparison. In exchange for that added weight, though, Kelty used durable nylon to build a sturdy backpack capable of carrying heavy loads under the harshest of conditions — something few other companies can say for their products. But although Kelty designed the Falcon 4000 as an expedition-class hauler — and as such, it functions well in the winter when carrying all the added gear that environment demands — it still manages lighter loads well thanks to a modular design and handy compression straps that transform this bag into a much smaller package whenever the loadout allows.

I stuck with Eberlestock’s $24.95 rain cover, a holdover from my time with the J79 Skycrane, for the Falcon 4000. It fits well, brings the total for this gear storage system up to $340, and the running total up to $5,675.

It took me three years to perfect my bug-out bag, but much more than $5,700. I spent over $1,200 on hiking packs alone. I filled an entire storage trunk full of extra medical supplies. I bought several large storage bins to hold gear that no longer makes the cut for my first-line kits. I did all of these things not because I set out to, though, but rather incidentally along the way to perfecting my setup. If you feel like shuffling totes and digging through piles of technical clothing on a daily basis, I suggest you mimic my approach: buy whatever you think will get the job done, learn what keeps it from functioning as you expected, and repeat that process until you, too, have spent four figures on a capable “go to war” kit. If you want to have enough equipment on-hand to outfit several bug-out bags and then some, this is the route for you. If, on the other hand, you value your space and your money, learn from my mistakes: skip steps one through five, shell out the cash for quality gear in the first place, and save yourself a great deal of time, energy, and money in the long run. It’s your call. Knowing what I know today, that is the choice I would make — but at the end of the day, the choice is up to you.

 In order, a Teton Sports Scout 3400 for about $60 from an Army-Navy surplus store, a Texsport Wolcott External Frame Pack that I paid around $100 for rather than the absurd $510 list price, a Kelty Falcon 4000 I found for about $215, a Tatonka Skill 30 I got for $60 in the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, an Eberlestock J79 Skycrane II I bought for list price, a Mystery Ranch Terraplane on sale for about $300, and a North Face Phantom 50 I snagged at 70% off.

 In order, two generic book bags from — if I remember correctly — Old Navy, a canvas day pack from the aforementioned Army-Navy surplus store, the L.L. Bean Waxed Canvas Continental Rucksack, the discontinued L.L. Bean Continental Rucksack, the GORUCK GR2, the discontinued GORUCK 15L Hydration Ruck, a GORUCK GR1, a 5.11 RUSH 24, and a Matador Freerain24 2.0.

 Yes, they sell backpacks — and at the time, much better ones than they do today.