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Photos by Michael Grey
Whether you’re preparing a bug-out, get-home, or general survival bag, much of the focus on assembling a survival pack is on what gear to pack. While there’s little doubt that packing the right equipment (along with having survival skills) plays a big part in giving you an edge, there’s another important factor that often gets overlooked: knowing how said gear should be packed. Anyone who has ever carried a heavy load can attest to this.
Packing a go-bag is a simple concept, but don’t take its simplicity lightly. It’s essential to properly organize the contents of your survival backpack — or any backpack for that matter — to help your body maintain peak performance, especially over long durations. We’ll cover several rules of thumb that should be applied to any pack preparation.
Keep it lightweight! Weight is arguably the biggest enemy when it comes to outfitting a BOB. It’s all too easy to shovel stuff into a backpack, causing it to almost burst at the seams. No matter how big or small you are, your goal should be to carry only what you need and what you can really use in a real-world situation. Carrying every little doohickey miracle survival gadget will probably hurt you more than it’ll help you, so be mindful of what you choose to pack.
Gear that you can replace with knowledge and well-practiced skills will save you unwanted weight in your bag. For example, do you really need a folding knife, a fixed blade, a machete, and an axe all attached to your pack?
Also remember that tools that have multiple functions can save weight by replacing a few dedicated single-use tools. But be mindful that some single-use tools are better than multi-use ones, so you’ll have to make the call.
The major rule of packing a BOB is to keep it balanced when it’s on your back and hips. A balanced go-bag should feel stable, as if it were a part of your upper body. You want its contents to be packed tight, without any load shifting on its interior or exterior. To do this, cinch up its compression straps to keep everything in place and to help keep unexpected load shifts from throwing off your balance.
Obviously, you’ll be packing from the bottom upward, but what items go where? A general rule of thumb is to keep things you need to access often in easily accessed pockets or areas, while placing things you don’t need to reach as much at the bottom. When not in your pockets, your flashlight, navigation tools, and self-defense weapons should be placed in quick-access pouches, while infrequently used items, such as a sleeping bag or extra clothing, are stowed in the bottom of the backpack.
Live hard for more than a few days and you’ll likely reconsider stowing sleep gear and warming layers in the depths of your pack. This means dumping the gear above it and repacking a yard sale every morning. On longer outings, it’s better to use the lash points on your pack and some webbing to secure sleep and snivel gear for easy, daily access.
We want to build a comfortable backpack to carry — a key to doing that is to have a BOB with a balanced center of gravity. Therefore, you’ll want to situate the heaviest items, such as water, food, tools, and the like on top of the bottom layer, close to your spine. Placing the heaviest gear in the vertical center of your backpack helps it from feeling top or bottom heavy, allowing you to be more nimble.
Common sense will tell you that it’s best to keep frequently used items at the top and on the outside pockets. Items that you might want to consider for top billing may include sunglasses, sunscreen, map, compass, flashlight, headlamp, snacks, a small first-aid kit, toilet paper, and rain gear. Bigger accessories that may not fit into a BOB very easily (think a machete, trekking poles, or a sleeping pad) should find their way into external pockets or be strapped on with your backpack’s external loops or add-on compression straps.
It’s a good idea to lay out all of your contents before proceeding to organize them. This way you can visualize everything that’s going in and piece together the puzzle in a deliberate way. It’s also a good idea to keep the following tips in mind when organizing your gear:
Compartmentalize: All this preparation could be useless unless you can find what you need when you need it. A messy pack won’t do you any favors when you’re in survival mode. Stuff sacks are a great way to organize different “departments” into one location. You might have a “kitchen” sack for your portable stove, fuel, and eating utensils and a “medical” sack for your medicines, for example.
Fill the Gaps: When packing your bag, look to see if any items have extra spaces you can fill up too. Perhaps a cooking pot or mug has extra space in it that you can stuff to save exterior space or to help protect fragile items.
Quality, Not Quantity: Make sure you have gear that you can depend on. High-quality gear goes a long way — we believe firmly in the “you get what you pay for” principle. After all, this gear is meant to save your life.
Practice Before Packing: Make sure you’re familiar and comfortable with your chosen tools and equipment. Don’t just buy something and stuff it in. Practice using it, and figure out if its effective for you before it makes the cut.
Two is One, and One is None: Invariably something will go wrong —after all, you’re in a disaster situation. Spread out the risk that a single item might not perform its function when you need it by sourcing tools and gear that have overlapping capabilities. For instance, a hand-crank flashlight can provide light and be able to charge your electronic devices, while a solar-powered radio can act as a back-up charger.
Cover your bases with the following categories of gear and supplies when outfitting your bug-out bag. Items from each category should be customized for your individual needs as well as region.
You want to keep low-usage items at the bottom of your pack and heavier items close to your spine. High-use items should be kept up top or around the outside of the BOB. The pack’s exterior and interior compression straps should be cinched tight to keep everything in its place.
If you find yourself on the move for hours or even days at a time, you’ll be glad that you packed your bug-out bag properly. A balanced setup helps keep you on your feet and on the move, which can be a lifesaver in itself.