Mythbusting: Bug Out Bag and Bugging Out

Bugging out means becoming a refugee. Join us as we break it down Barney style for those who don't understand just how dangerous bugging out is.

December 30, 2019


What if we told you you could order a kit online, pre-stocked, that would ensure you had what you need to survive any emergency?

We won't, because that doesn't exist... but plenty others will. More common is the professional voice who will describe what they carry so you can emulate it.

Today we're going to tackle two issues: how to spot bad advice, even when it comes from high profile sources, and why you need to drop "bug out" anything from your reportoire.

From the sanitized, politically correct recommendations of FEMA, to the misinformed search for validation eeking under the backdoor of right wing internet forums, it's easy to find information on the ubiquitous bug out bag. The concept has become a talisman against impending doom; having one ensures when the next big disaster hits, you won't be left high and dry like everyone else.

But who exactly is bugging out? There's a tremendous amount of information on what you'll need, but where are these people getting their information and how do we know it's worth listening to?

Here's some real talk:

Every dude working at Kinko's or T-Mobile who thinks "if only things would collapse so I can be who I'm meant to be" during their workout at Gold's gym is ignoring the fact that if they were as alpha as they think, they'd already be doing something important.

Disasters aren't an opportunity for you to live out a fantasy, they're not an opportunity to flex with your gun collection, and they probably aren't going to look like what pop culture would have you believe. The picture we chose for this article comes from Pitcher, Oklahoma. The residents there had to bug out. They didn't need AR15's or backpacks. They just had to load up and go before more of their children died of cancer.

Over the last few weeks, we've seen and discussed some *really* ridiculous packing lists and suggestions. We're not looking to put people down, but here's the scoop:

No one actually does what they're advocating. So we're going to tell you something and we want you to take it seriously before you actually need to:

You don't need a bug out bag, you need a plan.

Let's talk about why starting with a 'bug out bag' is as backwards as it gets.

Bad Info

I hate writing this one, because it's a disappointment when a page, channel, or personality you enjoy puts out information you know is bad. This isn't to target anyone specifically. The presentation in the link above isn't being used because the author is the worst example, but rather because he's got the talking points consolidated better than anyone else.

What we want to do is impart some ways to determine if someone is giving you good information or bad, so let's ask ourselves some questions:

  1. Is the person demonstrating the product's use, or the product?
  2. Is the product new, in it's wrapper, and in pristine condition?
  3. Does the host reason their decision with experiential evidence?
  4. Does this person have relevant experience with this specific topic? (That is to say, have they "bugged out" and used their gear to survive, or have they forced it into a situation recreating those conditions?)
  5. Does the host present material in a realistic fashion, or do they default to cliches, such as "if I have to bug out to the woods for a few days..." which, let's face it: No one does.
  6. Do they have incomplete kit? For example, a compass with no maps?
  7. Are they familiar with the gear they're demonstrating, or are they using their firestarter for the first time on their backpack?

Look guys, real talk - celebrity confers credibility, and the same guys who laugh when the Kardashians express their political opinions eat up the opinions of YouTube celebs who give their opinions on products that they've never used. We've got to continually audit context, relevance, and then question the experts.

So, no lie; we've used Sterno when huddled around a weak flame shivering in the snow. It's not going to cook anything or keep you warm. It barely keeps buffet potatoes above room temperature under ideal conditions.

We've used spring loaded ferro-rods. They break far faster than their magnesium fire-starter cousins.

Laying down on a garbage bag? Yeah. If you stuff it with dry leaves or paper for dead air space, sure. Otherwise, it'll just collect moisture.

The fishing kit? Ok, actually pretty cool. Oh, wait... "I don't think I'll ever use it."

Sigh. Then why mention it?

We get it. Content creation is tough, especially when you have good production value.

But guys, let's not lose the message for the polish. Again, we mean no disrespect and we encourage our peers to call us out if we're engaging in bad practice.

Bugging Out: Fantasy vs Reality

American's LARPing (left), and Croatians actually "bugging out" (right)

Talking guns and equipment is cool right up until people start using fiction to plan for reality. It often goes unnoticed, but there are plenty of modern examples of bugging out going on, right now.

There are evacuations, which can be forced or precautionary, and then there are refugees. Let's talk about the differences.

An evacuation occurs before the problem. That's smart. When you evacuate, it's like de-escalating or being aware enough that no one picks you to victimize. Done properly, an evacuation is effective, coordinated, and minimizes the impacts of the disaster. Whether you want to evacuate or not, sometimes you have to. Therefore, it pays to do a couple things in advance:

  • Have a list hanging near whatever vehicle you'll use to evacuate. Use the list to delegate responsibilities, and check that you have necessary items that you do not want to leave behind. Keep it reasonable. You want to be able to load and leave in 15 minutes or less. Remember: Time buys options.
  • Practice. You'll hear guys advocate doing a bug out drill every so often. Here's a better idea: Just go camping. Time yourself, and hustle. Use your list, give people responsibilities, but put a recreational light at the end of the tunnel and don't stress everyone out. No one likes the dictator mom or dad who's forcing their weird prepping lifestyle on everyone else. Most people can get behind going camping and being organized.The skills cross over, and you'll be drilling a necessary skill in a fun way that's not going to put a rift between you and your family.

If you simply get out and light a fire on your own without dousing it with lighter fluid or gas and throwing a match, you can actually combine recreation and experiential learning. These skills come in handy if you're every caught in a situation where you're on foot with only what you can carry and they do one immensely powerful thing:

Experience takes the burden of survival off the pack and put it on you, where it belongs.

On the flip side of that coin, there's the refugee.

Let's talk about refugees for a second, because as of the time of this writing, they're actually a hot button political issue. The refugee is a person displaced by some circumstance outside their control and forced to flee their home for good.

"I'm never coming home" bag, or INCH bags are supposed to cover this.

How many refugees do you see with rucks, e-tools, pounds of ammo and heirloom seeds for a border crossing into a prosperous country? The answer is "never". Because this is literally the last resort. It's glamorous to consider what you might do in a massive disaster like a civil war, but regardless of how you feel from the safety of your computer desk, when mortars are falling, snipers are taking pot-shots at anyone caught on the wrong street, and military checkpoints are on the roads, just "bugging out" with everything you'll need to restart society is pure fiction, baby.

Think of bugging out as "reaction" rather than "taking action". It occurs when you have no other options - and that's a bad place to be.

People bugging out from Harvey. It doesn't look good for our heroes... There was also no gas at most of the gas stations.

Political punditry aside, if we objectively look at what creates refugees, it is "TSHTF". The shit hitting the fan. Whether it's El Salvador or Syria, droves of people are fleeing the ravages of collapsed governments.

So now is a great time to take stock of your view of refugees. How do you feel about droves of people who've lost everything showing up at your country's gates and wanting in?

If you fail to develop a cogent plan before you cultivate the belief that your INCH bag is good enough for some sort of calamity, don't be surprised if it's you living in a tent city outside the wall.

This will tie back in to our argument later, but suffice to say, if there's a collapse and your plan is to get out of the city and find a family in the country to live with, they won't be happy to see you. Notoriously missing is a review of how actual homeless people living out of their backpacks live.

Here's a look at what people fleeing war-ravaged regions carry (Forgive the article for claiming Iran and Turkey are East of Afghanistan, they're not), and here's one that's similar to my own from a hobo who lives on the road.

The Collapse Fallacy

If you've looked over the articles above, you'll see surviving as a homeless person or a refugee isn't glamorous. You're probably thinking "the stuff they carry is stupid", as it's mostly sentimental, personal care items, or common electronics.

Here's why: By the time you've decided to bug out, you've probably lost everything. If you have stability enough to make decisions, you don't end up 'bugging out'.

Your hierarchy of priorities when you're on the road narrow drastically to encompass mostly personal health and water. This is an austere existence, and it's obvious that the people in the article did not 'plan' to be refugees. If they had, they would likely have bags that were a little more comprehensive, but that doesn't mean that packing like a grunt makes sense.

The Hobo kit is a solid middle ground. It's a pack that's lightweight enough to carry on foot over extended distances, compliments his skills (fishing gear, multi-tool, twine), and each item is designed for a specific purpose.

Notice that no one needs a shovel to dig hasty fighting positions and there are no HAM radios.

Like our discussion on "Spheres of Violence", most of what we know about this topic comes from the military. However, even in Special Operations, *very* few people are ever out doing things entirely on their own. Those that do have years of training and experience that - let's be honest - you're not going to replicate even if you try really hard.

The good news is that disasters probably won't ask that of you. Despite what you hear from Navy SEALs who were "in urban survival situations" (which, no, you weren't), disasters and 'survival' situations don't really create nearly as much chaos as people would have you believe. They aren't direct threats to your life, but general conditions in which access to critical resources are compromised.

We've mentioned this before, but even Hurricane Katrina didn't bring about widespread violence over resources. Looting, yes... but it wasn't some unsurvivable blood-bath for most. The people who were the hardest hit were caught in a trifecta of problems:

  1. They were impoverished
  2. They lived in areas that were lower in elevation and more affected by flooding
  3. Their plans didn't address sheltering in place or mobility

Even for those stranded in the aftermath of Katrina, there wasn't a war over resources. Why? Well...

Quarantelli and Dynes studied this back in the 1977's and found results consistent with the NIH's study of Hurricane Katrina, which stated:

While there are isolated cases of antisocial behavior, which tend to be highlighted by the media, most people respond positively and generously.

We saw the same thing in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey, in which the 'Cajun Navy" rushed to aid their neighbors. Likewise, 9-11-2001 saw the U.S. population united to help in the aftermath of the attacks.

So while we're getting ourselves psyched to hold down the block and shoot our neighbors before bugging out to the country with some type A personality to live with people he talked to in a cafe, we should also consider the possibility that... well, things might normalize pretty quickly and that human nature isn't always quite that bad.

Bottom line: when people tell you how a disaster will be, and what you must do, stop, because it's hammer time.

No two disasters are the same, and no one person can tell you what will happen.

The Combat Lens

As with most things related to disaster management, most of the expert voices are prior military. Drawing on their experience 'surviving in combat', they give some overviews of how you can expect the situation to unfold... here's the problem:

Combat is a survival situation, absolutely, but so is scavenging for food and water for weeks on end.

What they are not, is equal.

One might be five pennies and the other a nickel, but they're not the same. This is the reason we came up with "Understanding Emergencies". To make a clear distinction between the types of emergencies and how they impact us. Surviving requires context, understanding, and preparedness.

Surviving in an urban environment is absolutely possible and because no two disasters are the same, it's critically important than we plan ahead so that we don't end up stuck in place with dwindling resources.

This means having the ability to shelter in place, or get out of your town if that's what the situation calls for. To do that, here's a basic plan and stick to it:

  1. Make a list of necessities that you can reasonably transport in your vehicle. This should include:
    Food - look for lightweight, freeze dried meals that are calorie dense.
    Water - Waterbricks are 3.5 gallons, and can be moved and stacked easily.
    Important documents such as social security cards, medical records, birth and marriage certificates, etc.
    Medical items such as antibiotic ointment, pain relievers, anti-diarrheal medications, foot powder, and hygiene items.
    Tools for protection.

    Delegate responsibilities for these items to your family members and use a checklist so you can quickly ensure they get loaded.
  2. Have a map, an idea of where you'll go, and enough fuel to get you there.
  3. Consolidate individual sustainment bags with necessities in them in case your vehicle doesn't get you where you need to go.

Keep in mind that openly carried weapons were often confiscated. As we discuss in Sustainment, have a plan for that. The disaster won't be a war zone, and chances are if you want to pass a checkpoint, you'll be asked to hand over your weapons. If you missed it in Sustainment, here is the law stating that officers are not legally authorized to seize firearms during emergencies. Consider printing this out.

So if we give some critical thought to loading ourselves down with guns and gear, what's our probable outcome if we do have to 'bug out'?

  • Well, if authorities control the roads, we might very well lose those our guns and/or ammunition.
  • The numbers suggest we won't be involved in continuous, rolling gunfights, regardless of what the experts claim.
  • Ammunition and magazines weight a *lot*; about a pound for a 5.56 magazine, 2 pounds for a 30 round magazine of 7.62x39 or 20 round magazine of 7.62x51.

If our goal is to keep our overall weight at 20% of our body weight give a look at the following:

Average American Male: 196 pounds. (<40 pounds)

Average American Female: 168 pounds. (<34 pounds)

We've written extensively on the role of mobility in disaster situations, the post-disaster environment, and the fitness benefits more generally, but suffice to say, if you're the 'average' American, it's going to be tough moving with your wife, and 2.5 kids over more than a few miles.


The bottom line is that your bag is to sustain your efforts while you execute a plan. It's not going to keep you alive. You are. The bag will help bridge the gap.

If your plan is to "bug out", you've already failed. Use some common sense measures to ensure that you have the time to plan and act without being desperate. If desperation happens, you bag should help bridge the gap between the initial panic and a sensible course of action.

In short, your bag is for sustainment of deliberate activity, not "survival". That's what your brain is for.


ISG Team

Flavor Text

The Backstory

The idea of "bugging out" insofar as we can pinpoint it comes from the Korean War. I remember my grandfather, who was a Korea vet, singing the "Bug-Out Boogie" which would make PC heads explode... even in it's time it was forbidden by the Department of the Army. If you want to learn more about the phrase and how it came about, you can do so here. Just don't shoot the messenger.

In the 80's, John Millius flipped the script and bugging out was popularized in the wonderful documentary "Red Dawn", in which Jed and Matt Eckert and friends take to the woods to fight commies after their small town is invaded. They rustle patriotic, anti-communist jimmies everywhere, and for a quarter century now, they've inspired Bug Out fantasies across the innernet.

Here's the problem: It's a work of (awesome, commie-killing) fiction based on models of war and conflict that are now approaching 40 years old, against enemies who no longer exist. The concept of a Bug out Bag (BOB), or it's much larger and less practical cousins, the GOOD (Get Out Of Dodge) and the INCH (I'm Never Coming Home) bags, are right up there with "what gun should I have when TSHTF?"

join the pack

Get personalized training & consultation.


Latest articles


2020: Basic Training for the Decade

Here's to hoping for a safe, happy, and productive 2021 - while acknowledging that it was very likely the first in a series of very troubled years.


Mythbusting: Baofengs Radios

You see these radios everywhere; influencers trying to look technically competent post pictures of their Baofengs constantly. Why is that bad? Let's dive in.


The Definitive IFAK Article

The one-stop-shop article for what you need and where to get it. No marketed or paid-for premade solutions here.

Firearm Skills

Guns of ISG: The Makarov

In this article, we will outline below why we believe that the Makarov should be considered as a well-rounded compact EDC carry gun for OCONUS use.Enter the Mak


Bad practice: Is your spouse is a Liability?

The case of Mark and Patricia McCloskey have one dramatic lesson to be learned - if you're not discussing security with your family, you're wrong.

The Deep End

Spheres of Violence 3: The Universal Language

Those encouraging violence in our society are trapping us in a deadly game. We discuss the outcomes and consequences of the "Boys of Low Standing" and violence.

The Training Mindset

Here at ISG, we talk much on the topic of “mindset” as it applies to situations - here we discuss mindset as it relates to training.

K9 Emergencies 101: Bleeding Control

Your dogs get hurt, too. Learn to apply the skills and acquire the equipment needed for everything you'll want to keep your puppers safe from catastrophe.


Trust your Gut: Reading People

A tremendous amount of what we communicate is done without saying a word. We look at some of the things to look for when interacting with people.


Radio Communication 201: Short Range HAM Radio Operation

In this article, Drew breaks down the basics of short-range HAM radio, bands, and operations to better understand their pros and cons in the US and abroad.


Concussions, the Silent Epidemic

One in Four Americans report to having suffered a concussion, but not nearly that amount know what to do about it.

Level Up

Intro to K9 Emergencies: IFAK Composition

Dogs get hurt, too. What you need to patch them up isn't all-too-different from what you'd use on yourself, but the differences are important.

never miss an update.

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.