The Monday Morning Prepper: 10 Essentials for your Emergency Bag (Part 1 of 3)

Few bits of kit are as debated and discussed in the prepper community as the emergency bag. Alternately known as the “Bug Out Bag”, the “Get Home Bag”, and the less delicate (but perhaps most accurate) title “SHTF Bag”, a well-equipped emergency bag is a staple of prepping and a great starting point for the beginning prepper.

As I mentioned previously, prepping covers a lot of territory, and it’s important to tailor your emergency bag to your specific goals and needs, as well as being within your budget. Fortunately, getting started isn’t hard. There are some basic items that should be part of any emergency bag. These items will not only serve you in any situation, but can also be the foundation on which to build your bag’s load out. This week, we’ll look at 3 “C’s” — Carry, Cover, and Cutting.

#1 — Carry — A bag (duh, right?) Sorry to be Captain Obvious, but this really is an important place to start. The bag you choose will not only determine how much gear you can pack, and will also play a role in how well you can handle some situations.

The first question you need to ask yourself is what do I need this bag to do, and under what sort of conditions do I need it to hold up? An inexpensive bag is not necessarily a bad idea. The one I keep in the trunk of my car is a $20 backpack from Wal-Mart. It’s rarely exposed to the elements, and if I ever break down somewhere and have to hoof it to a nearby town, I only need it to stay together for a few hours to a day or two. If it is the worse for wear after that time, well, it has served its purpose.

That same $20 bag would be a disaster (no pun intended) if I were prepping for an extended period outdoors in the wake of a hurricane or other natural disaster. My $20 bag wouldn’t hold enough gear or be particularly comfortable for long treks. Not to mention I wouldn’t bet on it holding up to the sort of abuse it would likely take in such a situation.

So, as always, focus on what you need from your bag, and go from there. For rugged/long-term scenarios, look for a reputable outdoors or wilderness supply outfit. Skip store brands here. For less extreme scenarios, a decent quality backpack will often be plenty. Look for things like good stitching, the quality of the bag’s zippers/buckles/snaps and so on.

#2 — Cover. Getting caught outdoors can suck. Getting caught outdoors without some sort of protection from the elements can really suck. Always have some sort of personal cover or shelter (preferably both) in your emergency bag.

One of my must-have items here is a rain poncho. Ponchos aren’t expensive, and having the ability to stay dry is crucially important. Beyond being a miserable experience in itself, being soaked through from rain or from making your way through a wet forest or field can lead to hypothermia in cooler weather.

For the cost and space conscious, emergency ponchos are a great alternative to the standard poncho. Often selling for less than $1, weighing an ounce or two, and no larger than a deck of cards, the emergency poncho is accessible to any budget or space requirement. They are little more than thin plastic sheeting with a hood, so don’t expect them to last more than a use or two, but they will keep you dry when it counts.

Another must have for me is the emergency space blanket. These are loosely based on the space blankets used by astronauts back in the heyday of NASA space flights. Emergency blankets are a sheet of plastic with an reflective aluminized coating. They work by reflecting the user’s body heat back at them, helping to maintain body temperature in cold weather.

Emergency blankets, like ponchos, are not expensive. They start around $1 for the thinnest and lightest versions (about the same size and weight as an emergency poncho), and go up to around $15 or so for thicker, more deluxe versions. It’s worth it to buy better quality here, but even the cheap ones can make a significant difference on a cold day.

While not necessarily essential, a square or rectangle tarp is an extremely useful bit of gear if one wishes to prepare for the possibility of needing to shelter in place outside. With a tarp, some rope or other line, a few tent stakes, and a little practice, one can easily set up a personal shelter for nearly any weather situation. Dan over at Coalcracker Bushcraft has a wonderful video on ten different shelters you can make from one tarp. He even has a separate video for a prepared tarp set up. I’ve used the latter, and even a klutz like me can set it up in a couple of minutes.

The downsides to tarps are they can be a bit bulky and hard to handle. A lot depends on the type of tarp you buy and how much you want to spend. A plastic tarp will run you less than $10, but once unfolded, they can be a pain to fold back into something even close to as compact as they were in the package. Oilcloth tarps tend to fold up more easily, but are more expensive. Super high-end tarps can be had that are light, compact, and durable, but can be more expensive than a good backpacking tent.

The last bit of cover I would definitely recommend is a big trashbag. A 55-gallon contractor-type “drum liner” type is ideal, but good brands of the bigger garbage bags made for home use are useful, too. A good-sized trash bag can be a poncho, a tarp, a ground cloth, even a mattress. Best of all, they can be almost free. Set a couple aside from your normal purchase, or ask the janitorial staff at your work if you can have one.

#3 Cutting — knives and other cutting tools. I think this is one a lot of people just starting out might not see as important. Especially people prepping for an urban or home setting emergency. It’s easy to dismiss the idea of a knife as something you’d only need out in the woods.

There’s some truth to that, but only some. A good knife is one of the most useful tools a person can have — opening packages, cutting lengths of rope or line, preparing food, starting a fire (the spine of a knife can be an excellent strike for a fire rod), first aid, etc. There are an almost infinite variety of knife types and brands to choose from for the beginning prepper. Keeping it simple, let’s start with the importance of understanding the difference between cheap and inexpensive.

Never buy a cheap knife. Ever. A cheap knife is worse than useless. Not only will it not do the jobs you need it to do, it can be dangerous to the user.

As an example, one time I bought a $2 pocket knife from Wal-Mart (I forget the brand). The blade was not particularly sharp and was made of some low grade stainless steel. That was not unexpected. What did come as a surprise is that the blade was attached so poorly to the handle that I could wiggle the blade side to side almost a quarter inch each way. If I had put any real pressure on the blade, I’m quite certain it would have snapped free and flown into my hand or back into my face. So in an emergency situation, I would have not only been without a knife, I would have been without an knife and probably injured. Do not, do not, do NOT buy a cheap knife!

Now, there is a difference between buying a cheap knife and buying an inexpensive knife. A decent knife does not have to cost $100+ There is a place for those knives, and yes they perform great. You might want one of those more expensive knives, and more power to you. A really good knife should last as long or longer than their owner. If you can buy the best, then by all means, do so!

There are budget-friendly options, however, that make a decent knife affordable to almost everyone. The trick is finding which knives are garbage and which are good buys for the money. I have a couple of budget suggestions for the two most common types of knives: folders and fixed blade.

Folding knives are knives that have a blade that well, folds. This includes your basic pocket knife, multi-tool knives like “Swiss Army” knives, and more exotic fare that aren’t really relevant to prepping (switchblades, Butterfly knives, etc.) Folding knives have the advantage of being light, easy to carry, and handy for most light tasks. They aren’t really suited for the heavier work a fixed blade knife handles.

There are plenty of useful reviews and guides on line to help you pick out an affordable pocket knife. One I often carry and like quite a bit is KA-BAR’s “Bob Dozier Folder”. It’s not a fancy knife by any means, but it’s well-built and rugged. I’ve used mine on everything from trimming drywall to cleaning fish, and it keeps taking the abuse without complaint. The blade is a pretty decent quality stainless steel (AUS-8, for those keeping notes). It requires sharpening more often than a more expensive “tool steel” knife a professional might use, but it sharpens eaesily and will taken a nice edge without too much effort. Prices vary, but I got mine for less than $30 a couple years back.

Fixed blade knives are equally self-explanatory. The blade doesn’t fold into the handle and is generally sturdier than a folding blade knife. A really good fixed blade will handle nearly prepping task you’d care to throw at it and handle it well.

One of the things you want to look for in a fixed blade knife is a full tang blade. That simply means the metal of the blade extends all the way down the handle in one piece. A full tang blade is stronger and can handle more and harder use than non-full tang blades.

Many fixed blade knives don’t have a full tang, but have what is called a “rat-tail” tang. The blade is attached to the handle by a thin piece of metal (i.e. the rat-tail) that is riveted or welded in place. Chances are the knives in your kitchen and silverware drawer are of this type. There’s nothing wrong with a rat-tail tang in those circumstances.

For the knife in your emergency bag, though, you probably want to steer clear of this design. It simply isn’t as sturdy as a full tang and more likely to fail after repeated hard use. Some very cheap “survival knives”, like the ones with the hollow metal handles that contain fishing line and a few hooks, use this design. Buyer beware.

A decent budget-friendly fixed blade knife I like is the Morakniv Companion. It’s about $20-$30, and comes with a cheap, but useful plastic sheath. It’s not quite a full tang, running about 3/4’s the way down the handle, but it is quite sturdy. Again, maybe not the knife for a professional, but solid overall. The blade is made from Sandavik, another pretty good stainless steel that takes a keen edge, and sharpens easily.

Next time: Choosing a good light source, making fire, and threading the needle.

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