What’s In Your Go Bag?

Fill your go bag with just the essentials. (Picture courtesy of slgckgc via Flickr)
Fill your go bag with just the essentials. (Picture courtesy of slgckgc via Flickr)

Last week, on the cover of The New York Times style section, there was an article on “Go Bags.” As the article explains, the New York City Office of Emergency Management defines a go bag as “a collection of items you can use in the event of an evacuation.” The article then went on to note that demand for go bags on Amazon.com has led to the company doubling its inventory, conveying that more people are getting prepared (CDC take note: your zombie outreach seems to be working.)

But then the article, being in The New York Times style section, degrades into a ridiculous listing of things that shouldn’t ever be in a go bag (because they’re useless) but that style-obsessed fashion designers and others interviewed think are important to bring anyway. The list ranged from wine and blocks of cheese to a 30-year old pair of baby shoes (for sentimental reasons). The only useful things mentioned were expensive jewelry (light enough that perhaps it would be useful as barter if things remained bad for a long period), a note pad, and a bow and arrow (though a pistol would be far more portable—assuming you either have a permit or things get so out of control that permits are irrelevant).

But this article fascinated me not so much because its flippant silliness—honestly I wasn’t expecting much—but because of what I found when I searched on Amazon.com for go bags. I felt sadness that people were spending ridiculous amounts of money on a backpack full of dehydrated rations and disposable packages of water. One $39 kit weighed 7.7 pounds and was filled with juice-box-esque water containers, some emergency rations, a first-aid kit, some emergency blankets, and a few glow sticks. Seriously? $39 for a bag of junk that will get you through a day or two. Take an old back pack and fill it with an old water bottle, some iodine tablets, a swiss army knife, a pack of granola bars, some matches, and some fleece clothing and you’ll be better off. Though admittedly not much.

So I thought I’d provide my own list of what to include in a go bag if you’re really ever going to need one. But before I do that let me ask the question: when would you really need a go bag? Only if you have to leave your home within 10 to 15 minutes. If a storm is coming in 8 hours, you can take much more with you—fill up your car with stuff and drive off, or if you’re like me and have no car, at least take the train to a friend or relative’s home out of the path of the storm and bring a whole suitcase with you. But let’s assume we’re talking surprise flash flood, or raging wildfire, or riots triggered by Occupy DC gone terribly wrong. The torch-waving mob is heading toward you and you’ve gotta leave now if you hope to stay in front of it. What’s in your go bag? (Imagine that said by The Capital One Visigoths and it’s funnier.)

You go into your closet and grab the bag which has:

  • One change of clothes—ideally synthetic so that if it’s raining, you’ll still stay warm.
  • A hunting knife that will serve as the key tool of survival and a sharpening stone to keep it useful (these can be very inexpensive).
  • A Lifesaver Bottle, which can purify any water but radioactive water—and if that’s what you’re running from, most likely this go bag isn’t going to do much good. (And obvious note: fill your bottle and your belly with water before you go.)
  • A plastic sheet, 3’ x 3’—primarily for getting water from the ground through evaporation but could be used also for staying dry in the rain.
  • Some waterproof matches (with skill a bow drill and fire kit can replace these, but these will take time to make so it’s good to have some matches for the first few days)
  • A solar, hand cranked radio with flashlight and phone charger.
  • A bag of trail mix (regularly replaced so it doesn’t go bad)
  • A few very basic medical supplies—a small vial of antibiotic cream, a few antiseptic pads, a few bandages and gauze, moleskin, sunscreen, and some aspirin should be enough and lightweight.
Perhaps these go bags were so heavy the carriers abandoned them? (Courtesy of stepol via Flickr)

A search for go bags found that the city of San Francisco provides its own list, and they recommend including your prescription drugs of course, toothbrush and toothpaste, an extra set of glasses (you don’t want to be like Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”), essential papers: your passport, a copy of your insurance card, your account numbers and emergency contacts, photos of your family (for ID purposes), plus I’d add a map of your area and cash—as much as you feel comfortable setting aside in your home.

Add to that what you have in your pocket already—your cell phone. Along with your knife, it should come in very handy–if properly stocked with survival knowledge. There are apps that can help you identify wild edibles, and there are many books that will provide instruction on how to make primitive shelters, get water where there is none (e.g. with a plastic sheet), how to make a good fire, trap animals, forage for wild edibles, set a bone, all of which you can download as pdfs to smart phones (assuming you have one). Else take a copy of Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, and some select pages from books like When Technology Fails, Wildman Steve Brill’s Guide to Edibles, The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, and Where There is No Doctor.

Ideally, of course, you’re not just buying these books or downloading them to your phone but investing time into reading them and learning these survival skills now—just in case. They’re interesting skills to have and fun to practice, and most importantly could save your life, even if you are forced to leave your go bag behind.

This post was originally written by Erik Assadourian for the Transforming Cultures blog in December 2011.

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