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How to Build the Best Bug-Out Bag, Emergency Kit, or Go-Bag For Your Family

If disaster strikes, it's smart to be prepared. Here, with assistance from survivalist Les Stroud, is how to build a bug-out bag for your needs.

We live in a world full of uncertainty. This has always been the case. But when you have kids, that uncertainty becomes less abstract and action is required. It needs to be met with the understanding that it’s on you to take the proper precautions to protect your family when shit hits the fan. There’s truth in that saying “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” There’s also truth in the saying “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” The act of preparing helps you feel a bit less worried about hurricanes, floods, super viruses, and other such events. You can’t control anything; but you can control how ready you are.

One way to ensure you’re ready: prepare an emergency kits or go-bag. Companies like Uncharted Supply Co., Echo-Sigma, and Emergency Zone have made small fortunes in recent years selling premade emergency kits for this very reason. Affordable, portable, and packed with short-term survival essentials, their sole purpose is to arm people with the gear they need to get out of town should a life-or-death situation unfold right before your eyes.

Emergency kits are also commonly known as bug-out bags. Borrowing military terminology, the moniker refers to when U.S. troops were directed to retreat (or “bug out”) with their vital survival gear during dire situations in the Korean War. Some other common nicknames used today include the battle box, 72-hour kit, go-bag, and INCH bag, the latter of which stands for “I’m Never Coming Home”.

Not necessarily intended for long-term survival, the modern-day bug-out bag emphasizes being ready to go with everything you would need should an unforeseen emergency evacuation arise. And while the concept of proactively preparing for a worst-case scenario can seem like a daunting task, it’s also incredibly important.

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“Throw away the thought that it can’t happen to you, because it can,” says Les Stroud, famed Canadian survival expert from the hit TV series Survivorman and author of such books as Will to Live and Survive! – Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere–Alive.

“Natural disasters and society disasters such as a loss of power are not going to stop happening — we all know there will be something happening again sooner or later,” says Stroud. “It takes such little effort to prepare, yet the payoff can be very profound, and even save lives.”

Stroud, true to his reputation, doesn’t believe in taking the easy way out and is not a fan of the one-size-fits-all, ready-made bug-out bag. Why? For the simple reason that the hands-on nature of putting one together yourself makes you aware of its contents. “People must become comfortable making their own bug-out bags through research and learning,” he says.

“There is no shortcut here, and there is no company that is going to put together a grab-and-go kit that is going to work for your own family’s individual needs,” Stroud adds. “Most people will purchase such a kit and never open it or go through the contents to make sure they all work well.”

So what does the proper bug-out bag contain? While an emergency kit for single guy in his 50’s will vary significantly from the contents of one prepared by parents evacuating with a newborn, there are certain items both need to contain..

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that you aren’t planning for a glamping vacation or a weekend family escape to the woods. These evacuation essentials are geared toward survival purposes. They’re intended to keep you covered during the first 72 hours after an emergency strikes. You’ll want to source items that are easy to carry, durable in unpredictable conditions, and most importantly, useful in keeping you and your family safe.

Here, with Stroud’s help, are some of non-negotiables that need to be included in a bug-out bag

What to Pack in a Bug-Out Bag or Go-Bag

There’s no shortage of online communities and websites completely dedicated to survivalism and preparedness. Popular digital destinations like The Ultimate Bug Out Bag Guide, The Prepared, and Ready To Go Survival are teeming with resources related to the topic, ranging from how-to-videos to in-depth gear reviews.

All of these sources keep updated master lists of everything you could possibly need in a bug-out bag. And a simple Google search for “bug-out bag essentials” will instantly return millions of results. But at the end of the day, only you can ultimately decide what needs to be included in your family’s survival kit. Personalization is paramount.

Stroud even brings it a step further, advising that every family member takes ownership of preparing for their specific needs.

“I recommend one bug-out bag per person,” he says. “Each family member, including all adults and any children capable of carrying, should have their own bug-out bag — personally designed — that they are familiar with.”

In addition to the general must-have survival elements, what should parents evacuating with kids in tow bring? Consider the below list a starting point. While there’s bound to be some crossover in the lists below, use your best judgement when curating each bag. Include any additional items that you feel would be absolutely necessary, and engage your kids in preparing their own bags so they’re familiar with the contents.

Bug-Out Bag Essentials for Babies

  • Diapers: Diapers are so lightweight, it’ll be easy to bring enough to last a 72-hour period. The absorbency of diapers also helps them come in handy as cold or hot packs when emergencies strikes.
  • Dry formula: Even if your baby is still breastfeeding, you’ll want to make sure to keep a healthy supply of dry formula packets on hand, just in case.
  • Bottle: Bring a bottle should you need to resort to using dry formula (plus, you can use the nipple as a pacifier, or store other items inside the bottle for extra protection).
  • Pacifier: Because a pacified baby beats a crying baby.
  • Antibacterial wipes While these can be used for the whole family, they’ll come in handy for a quick baby bath or other sanitation purposes.
  • Baby carrier You’ll want to be able to use your hands and carry your baby comfortably.

Bug-Out Bag or Go-Bag Essentials for Children Ages 3-6

  • Snacks: Food may be scarce, so be sure to bring some of your kid’s favorite snacks along. Bonus points if the snacks also pack a jolt of energy or nutrition.
  • Oral hygiene supplies: keeping to some routine habits, even in extreme situations, can help instill a sense of normalcy and independence―plus, healthy oral hygiene habits never hurt.
  • Multivitamins: your child’s diet can be severely challenged in an emergency, so stash a daily vitamin supplement in their bag.
  • Study walking shoes: terrain may be rough, so plan to pack a durable pair of walking shoes (that fit their ever-changing foot size) which can stand the conditions you may face.
  • Thermal blanket: A light, metal-coated space blanket is ultra-lightweight and designed to retain heat in colder temperatures. It can even be used as a make-shift shelter.
  • Ear plugs: depending on the scenario, ear plugs can help drown out frightening noises during the day and ensure a more sound sleep at night.

Bug-Out Bag Essentials for Children Ages 6+

  • Gum or hard candy: Whether they’re leveraged as an energy-booster or a pick-me-up when morale is low, you’ll be glad you brought a handful of sweets.
  • Pedialyte powder: Children aren’t the best at communicating when they’re thirsty, so avoid dehydration with a few packets of this electrolyte-infused powder.
  • Books: we’re not talking heavy, hard-cover books, but the mind can weaken faster than the body in times of stress―so keep a favorite paperback close by.
  • Other mind-occupiers: should boredom set in, it’s not a bad idea to have a deck of cards, coloring book, or other such extras on hand.
  • Emergency whistle: Kids six and older can let curiosity get the best of them, so arm them with an emergency whistle in case they get separated from the family.
  • Walkie-talkies: When whistles won’t cut it, or the family is planning to temporarily split up, a pair of walkie-talkies will definitely come in hand.

Additional Bug-Out Bag or Go-Bag Items to Keep in Mind

  • Power bank: pack a fully-charged power bank or two to keep cell phones and other necessary electronics charged. Ideally, you want a solar-powered bank that can be refueled via sunlight.
  • Document protection: during periods of uncertainty, it’s imperative to keep your family’s important documents (like birth certificates, social security cards, and passports) with you at all times, so invest in a waterproof document pouch for when you’re on the go.
  • Super Glue and duct tape: in an evacuation scenario, you never know when you’ll need to take a page from the MacGyver playbook (plus, Super Glue and duct tape can be used in a range of medical emergencies).
  • N99 masks: These face masks are effective at filtering out 99 percent of non-oil-based airborne particulate matter, including most pollution, bacteria, and viruses.
  • Extra money: In emergency situations, cash is king. Five-hundred dollars in small bills is a good amount.
  • Sunscreen: Because sun exposure is likely in emergency situations.

This covers the basics. The point here is to get you thinking about preparing and taking an active role in considering the worst. Luck, they say, is where preparation and opportunity meet. While it’s good to hope that the opportunity never arises in this case, you’ll be thankful to have prepared if it does.