In 1995, a brave and perhaps a little crazy 22-year old Cheryl Strayed started out on a solo 1,100-mile hike through the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert in California to Washington State. Cheryl had zero experience hiking or backpacking. In 2014, Cheryl’s memoir of the journey, Wild, was made into an Academy Award-Nominated movie staring Reese Witherspoon. Though I have not read the book, there is a hilarious scene in the movie where petite Reese is trying to put on her giant backpack filled to the brim inside and out of gear. The enormous and heavy pack tumbles her over and much like a turtle flipped over on its shell, Reese finds it extremely difficult to get back up. Out of necessity, Cheryl had to ditch items bought for the trip even before heading out, learning very early on that weight is key when packing a backpack.
Planning and Packing
Throughout her trip, she realizes she bought boots a size too small and loses toenails, did not plan well enough to procure drinking water, nor bring enough food. For the most part, Cheryl’s trip was somewhat planned and fortunately she was able to have friends ship her boxes of supplies. In a survival bug-out situation, we won’t have that luxury. We won’t be able to locate a pay phone, call Cheaper Than Dirt! and have them replace too small or worn-out hiking boots.
I’m no wimp, but neither am I accustomed to trekking miles and miles while carrying 80 pounds worth of stuff. How much weight we can sustain for long periods is priority. Therefore, the more items that have multiple uses or serve double and even triple duty, the better. For example, instead of a spool of paracord, make survival bracelets and wear your cordage. Alternatively, double-down with a survival knife or fire starting kit that also includes a basic survival kit.
Unlike, Cheryl, however, when we pack for bug-out, we ideally should strip down to the barest of essentials. That means no tent, no books and no bulky base-camp water filtration system.
Everyone has individual tastes, needs and budgets. There is not an exact formula to building a bug-out bag, but the experts will tell you, you need to have shelter, a way to start a fire, safe drinking water, food, first aid and basic hygiene and sanitation items. Because our needs, limitations and abilities are different, what goes in your bug-out bag is different from what goes in a man’s. The following list is here to guide women— single or partnered—on how-to pack a bug-out bag.
There is a difference in backpacks made for men and backpacks made for smaller-statured people. In my experience, men’s backpacks—those measuring 20 inches and larger make for an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable fit on my 5’5” frame. The shoulder straps are too long, set aside too wide and the waist belts hang too low. A good pack should fit you snugly and comfortably without straps that chafe your arms and a waist belt that fits around your waist or right above your hips. For me, an 18-inch bag with adjustable shoulder straps fits perfectly.
- Another important aspect to picking the right bag is one that withstands the weight of the gear inside. Look for a backpack with reinforced double stitching.
- Organization is key when packing a bug-out bag. The last thing you want to do is scramble around for your fire starter or first aid kit when the situation calls for it ASAP. Bags with multiple compartments will help you organize your most essential gear.
- A pack with MOLLE webbing is a bonus, as it gives you plenty of options to attach things to the outside of it, like a bedroll, first aid kit and magazine pouches.
- There are plenty of backpacks that are hydration-bladder compatible. These allow you to carry three extra liters of water you wouldn’t have room or space for otherwise.
- Hydration-bladder compatible
- Accommodates a concealed carry holster
- PALS webbing
- 3 compartments
- Hydration-bladder compatible
- Water bottle pocket
- Attached signal whistle
- Weighs 2 lbs. 2 ounces
- Hydration-bladder compatible
- Universal webbing
- Double-stitched and bar-tacked seams
- Compact 9”L x 13”W x 15”H size
Staying warm and dry is imperative to survival. It takes precedence over food and water. Though all circumstances are different, in most cases, exposure can kill you before starvation and dehydration will. Shelter will protect you from the sun, rain, cold, wind, bugs and other predators. Further, like a campfire, it provides a sense of security. Nature provides shelter in the form of caves, large fallen trees or rock overhangs. Further, with tools, cordage and a lot of gumption you can build a shelter from things found in the woods. However, to guarantee a roof over your head, it’s just easier to carry a shelter with you.
Top-rated survival shelters:
- Zippered side to create a one-man tent
- Includes stakes and guy lines
- Aluminized side for heat reflection, warmth and signaling
- Weighs 1 pound 12 ounces
- Offers full enclosure
- Weighs 3 pounds
- Water-resistant coating
- Includes poles, stakes and carry bag
- Constructed of highly-reflective, fire-retardant material that conserves heat
- Lightweight at 5.2 ounces
- Includes 14’ of suspension cord
- Easy set-up
The recommend daily amount of water for the barest of essentials is one gallon per person per day. A gallon of water weighs a little over 8 pounds. For three days of water that’s an extra 24 pounds that I’m not sure how’ll your carry. Finding and storing water as you go will be imperative.
A backpack that is hydration compatible will carry a little over a half a gallon—enough to get you through a day while conserving. Fortunately, there are plenty of manufacturers that make water filters and purifiers—even ones that allow you to drink straight from the source.
Top-rated water filters and purifiers:
- Time magazine’s “Best Invention of the Year”
- Removes 99 percent of bacteria and parasites
- Filters up to 1,000 liters of water
- Extremely compact
- Allows you to drink directly from the water source
- Filters up to 20 gallons of water
- Allows you to store extra water in a backpack with water bottle pouch
- Filters and holds 22 ounces
- Removes more than 99.9% of Cryptosporidium and Giardia
Quite frankly, you just aren’t going to be able to carry enough food to eat three times a day. Pick high calorie, high protein foods to keep your energy up, especially if you are only eating once or twice a day. Your best bet is to get a freeze-dried sampler kit and pick your favorite entrees from there. Don’t forget to pack a metal cup for boiling water. Not only will you use this to boil water, but also to rehydrate and heat up freeze-dried food for a better tasting meal. To supplement the little amount of food you will pack, include a basic fishing kit in small bottle, such as an empty pill case, film canister or mint tin. Include hooks and fishing line. Or just get a traveling complete fishing kit. This is where a survival rifle comes in handy—a .22 LR will easily kill small game such as squirrels and rabbits.
Top-rated food for survival:
- 6-pouch variety pack
- 4.73-ounce entrees
- 10-year shelf life
New Millennium energy bars
- Each bar provides 400 calories and 8 grams protein
- Contains vitamin supplements
- 5-year shelf life
- Each meal provides 1,400 calories
- Includes heater
- Comes with coffee mix, cookies, spoon, jelly, matches, seasonings, hot sauce and wet wipe
Get fitted for the proper boot size to avoid losing toenails and risking infection. It is imperative you pack extra moisture-wicking socks. Rotate the pairs every day, airing out at night. Further, pack layers to stay cool during the day and warm during the night. Be smart about your packing and consider your local weather, climate and season. For example, if its summer in Florida, it’s a safe bet you won’t need a fleece hoodie and wool cap, however, you will want a poncho or rain suit. It will probably be necessary to repack your bug-out pack at least twice a year as the seasons change. Regardless of winter or summer, always include a poncho and lightweight, waterproof jacket.
When it is cold, create a base layer with moisture wicking, but warm fabric such as Under Armour Women’s Coldgear infrared tactical crew long sleeve shirt. Wear or pack a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face. A bandana is also useful for more than just keeping your hair out of your face.
Czech Army oversized poncho
- Oversized, 48 inches long and 106-inch circumference
- Fits easily over your backpack
- Elastic wrist cuffs
- Athletic shoe/trail boot hybrid
- Molded Ortholite foot bed cushions
- Rubber outsole with textured, high abrasion rubber toe rand
Shaving, makeup, deep-condition hair masks, moisturizing bubble baths and all the other girly things we use to make ourselves feel relaxed and beautiful will obviously be luxuries there won’t be the time, space or facilities for. However, poor hygiene can lead to illness. You will still need to keep your hands clean and take care of waste properly.
For a bathroom, designate an area at least 200 feet away from camp and never close to your water source. Dig a small hole 4 to 10 inches deep with a folding, compact entrenching tool. Cover the hole completely with dirt when you are finished.
For better organization, pack groups of items together in clear waterproof bags or boxes. For your hygiene and sanitation bag or box, store a small black plastic comb, ponytail elastics, travel-sized lotion, Chap Stick, bug spray, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, rinse-free cleansing wipes, a compact roll of toilet paper, dental floss, and biodegradable camping soap.
A basic first aid kit needs to be included in your hygiene and sanitation supplies. A basic first aid must include:
- Antibiotic cream to prevent infection
- Bandages of different sizes
- Allergy medicine such as Benadryl and an EpiPen
- Essential prescription medication
- Pain reliever and anti-inflammatory
- Blister relief
Top-rated first aid kits:
- Weighs less than one pound
- Includes 14 pieces of moleskin and a SAM splint
- Developed by Yosemite Mountain Guides
- Weighs less than one pound
- Includes blister kit
- Dr. Weiss’s Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness and Travel Medicine included
- Weighs 8 ounces
- Includes burn cream and a cold pack
- Two electrolyte tablets included
The S&W M&P 15-22 is accurate, lightweight, reliable and easy to use. Rimfire ammo is notoriously dirty. Thousands of rounds have been through mine without a cleaning and just a handful of malfunctions due to bad ammo means I depend on this rifle. Add sling swivels and a sling—make your own from paracord—and a red dot and you have a reliable varmint/small game hunting rifle. It is lightweight at 5.5 pounds. Carrying it over your shoulder won’t be too much of a burden. Keep it loaded, and stash at least four more full magazines in your backpack or attached to the MOLLE webbing on your backpack. The M&P 15-22’s magazines hold 25 rounds, so one in the chamber and four back up is 125 rounds. Remember… ammo is heavy, so you can’t pack a whole lot. Use it wisely. In case of repeated failures, keep the smallest bottle of gun lube in your pack. For most problems I have encountered with the M&P, a squirt or two of lube has fixed it right up. Besides the rifle, I also recommend a sidearm worn on a holster on your hip. I like the 9mm SIG Sauer P938 or the Glock 43. The .380 ACP Ruger LCP is also extremely popular for concealed carry. Ammo is heavy, so again, use sparingly. Load at least four magazines for your handgun and attach to your pack’s MOLLE webbing or keep them inside a designated spot in your backpack.
Whichever firearm you choose, know how to troubleshoot problems, field strip it, clean and maintain it, as well as put it back together.
Top-rated handguns for self-defense:
- Thin and compact
- 3.25-inch barrel
- Holds six rounds
- 2-inch barrel
- Holds 5 rounds
- Weighs 12 ounces
- 3.1-inch barrel
- Holds 7 rounds
- 3-dot sight system
Knives and Blades
Besides a good, sharp sturdy survival knife and multi tool, you will want an axe or hatchet for chopping and splitting firewood. Axes are not necessarily lightweight, but good luck getting good-sized logs for a fire with your survival knife or multi tool. An axe or hatchet with a sheath can be tied to your pack with paracord or MOLLE straps. Alternatively, a compact hand axe can be strapped to your belt much like a gun holster.
Top-rated knives and blades:
- Axe edge blade with hammer
- Weighs 1 lb. 8.6 ounces
- Black Kydex Sheath included
Gerber Bear Grylls survival tool pack
- Multi tool with scissors, pliers and knife-12 tools total
- Includes flashlight and fire starter rod
- All fits in included sheath
- High-carbon, stainless steel blades
- Lifetime warranties
Even though these items lack a lengthy description, it is just as imperative that you pack them as the rest of the gear on this list.
This is the most important piece of gear you need. Because fire starters are lightweight, compact and virtually take up no room, I highly recommend more than one source. In my bag is a cheap BIC lighter, magnesium bar, waterproof matches and a foolproof fire starting kit complete with tinder.
Top-rated fire starters:
- Ultimate Survival Technologies Magnesium Fire Starter With Striker
- Zippo Emergency Fire Starter Kit
- UCO Storm Proof Matches
Headlamp and Flashlights
Extra batteries for your light
Top-rated signaling devices:
- Gerber Bear Grylls survival bracelet with whistle
- SOG Knives Tool Logic SFB
- Ultimate Survival Technologies StarFlash signaling mirror
Click here to read more on signaling.
Top-rated navigation devices:
- Silva Polaris compass
- U.S. Military lensatic tritium compass
- Silva Ranger CLQ compass
Click here to read more about navigation.
Mess kit/Camping stove
Top-rated camp cooking gear:
Don’t let this list get daunting—think of it as a lot like packing for a primitive camping trip…very primitive. The idea behind bugging-out is to get you from point A to point B safely. Think in terms of immediate survival, not as if you will be living like this long-term. Further, your bug-out bag isn’t necessarily limited to in preparation for a serious apocalyptic situation, but should be at-the-ready in case of a natural disaster, accident while exploring the great outdoors or simply a vehicle break-down while road tripping.
Knowledge, determination and the right mind set will get you a long way.
For more help on prepping and survival read these other articles written for women by women:
- Fishing Basics
- A Single Woman’s Guide to Why You Should Prep
- You May be More Prepared Than You Think
- Camp Like a Champ!
- Bugging Out With Kids
- A Woman Needs a Man Like A Fish Needs a Bicycle… You Too Can Survive SHTF
Ladies, what’s in your bug-out bag? Share your tips, recommendations and experience with other women in the comment section.