Emergency preparedness from a Counterintelligence Agent

How much gear can you really carry in your bug out bag?

How much gear should be in your bug out bagOne of the biggest questions I get is how much stuff you should carry in your pack. I’ve heard a lot of crap out there. This should clear things up a little. Ok, maybe not but at least you’ll know my opinion. I have articles such as Your bug out bag list: A comprehensive look and 60 bug out bag gear items you probably don’t have but those are basically to give you ideas of what you may need, not how much of it. In theory, you should have everything that you absolutely need to survive whatever situation you’re in, plus any comfort items if you can afford to carry them – and not a single ounce or square inch more.

The problem is that you don’t really know what you’ll be facing so it’s difficult to prioritize, and you have to err on the side of caution. For example, in a perfect world, the goal should be to run out of water just as you have it available to you, but since you can’t possibly know exactly how much water you’ll need and exactly when you’ll have it available, you have to have extra.

Much better to end up having extra and not need it than the other way around, but that all comes with an opportunity cost. Every pound of one thing you carry is a pound of something else you can’t carry – and that something else may end up being more important to your survival when it’s all said and done. What this means is that most preppers do just like most corporations did several years ago and stock/carry things Just In Case (JIC). JIC means that you might need something so you’d better carry it. This isn’t so much a big deal if you have unlimited money, unlimited time, and unlimited space/weight considerations.

Even when stocking your home or bug out location, this isn’t the case. If you’re talking about what goes in your bug out bag, you actually have a very tiny amount of space and weight that you can carry. A general rule I’ve used after many deployments is to pack what I think I’ll need, remove everything I think I can find downrange (or camping), repack it, and do it again.

I usually end up with about half of what I start off bringing and end up using about 1/3 of that. In the end, that means that I brought along extra weight and took up extra space that was a complete waste, other than the peace of mind that I brought along knowing that I had it if I needed it. Currently, I carry a go bag that I use for a primary bug out bag and for operations with the Sheriff’s Office. It’s a shoulder bag so I can carry it without it interfering with my main bag. Also, if I had to cut sling and lose some weight real quick, I can leave the backpack and just go with the go bag. It’s half water and weighs somewhere around 16 pounds, depending on if I’m going out for search and rescue or whatever.

Basically, how much gear you should carry isn’t just based on how much weight you can carry, it’s based even more on how much planning you do and what skills you’ve developed.

You can only carry so much

It’s not just that a backpack can only carry so much stuff, although that certainly plays a factor. An even bigger consideration is how much weight you can carry. You’ve all seen the conventional wisdom out there about a pack being preferably 25% of your body weight. That’s crap. If you weigh 400 pounds, you certainly won’t be very spry with 100 pounds in your pack.

The average person can’t carry 25% of their weight up and down hills or for long distances either. A 200 pound man by this calculation would then be carrying a 50 pound pack. That’s also considering that he fills up his pack with the water he needs before adding anything else as well. Unless you’ve been training with a 50 pound pack for months in the terrain that you may be facing, you’re doomed to failure.

Just to put things in perspective, when I was heading out to Afghanistan several years ago, we had a 3-month trainup period where we carried 50-pound packs and armor to get used to them. I was in pretty good shape at the time and could run the two mile in about 14-15 minutes at the time. The problem was that my body wasn’t used to carrying the weight and even though we weren’t actually in combat yet, or even doing rough training yet, I cracked my third metatarsal on the top of my foot and was pulled from the mission – which sucked because I was a Platoon SGT for the unit and acting First Sergeant and had to be replaced. I didn’t have any problem the next time around but that’s because I learned my lesson and spent more time getting used to lighter weights before moving up.

Basically, if you haven’t spent the past several months working yourself up to 50 pounds, don’t plan on actually being able to carry 50 pounds when you really need it. Even if you can manage to do it in a survival/SHTF scenario, you won’t be able to do it very fast – and if it comes time where you have to run, you’ll be dropping your pack. Then what? So let’s assume that you’re going to start off with a more respectable weight of like 30 pounds after you’ve worked yourself up to it. Is that enough?

The most essential gear – water

Let’s assume you need a gallon a day of water and you’re planning a true 72-hour bag. Since each gallon is about 8.5 pounds with some sort of light container, that’s 26.5 pounds that you’d have to carry. My main pack at the moment is a CamelBak Bfm Backpack, but I just ordered a 5.11 3 Day Rush 72. It weighs 5.6 pounds. I’ve just maxed what I can carry and don’t have ANYTHING in my pack other than water if I go that route. I’ll go into this further in a future post but let’s just say that you’re planning on hiking or bugging out to an area that has water available to you in some form.

Obviously you’ll want to carry some kind of filtration system such as the LifeStraw water filter or my current favorite, the Sawyer Mini water filtration system that I reviewed previously. If you plan your route, you’ll know where water would be available. Then, just like planning gas station stops, you just need enough water to get from one location to the next – and then a bit extra just in case. If you don’t plan your route, you’ll have to do some kind of research at least and make an educated guess. Unfortunately, water is something that you have to err on the side of having too much. At 8.34 pounds and 231 cubic inches per gallon, that’s heavy wiggle room.

By planning ahead with both your route and having some sort of filtration system, you can now reduce the amount of water you need to carry. For things like this, it’s usually better to go to information for hikers instead of military operations. Sectionhiker has a good article about carrying water. Here’s a good quote from an experienced hiker:

Nowadays, I carry a lot less water with me on day hikes and backpacking trips, and top out at 2 liters max. If I need more, I just stop and filter some. Granted I mainly hike in New England or on the Appalachian Trail where water is plentiful, but it’s something to keep in mind. I’m not suggesting that you drink less, but that you carry less:  I still manage to drink about 5 liters a day regardless of whether I’m day hiking or backpacking.

Now obviously, you’ll have to adjust that amount based on the environment you’ll be going into, the workload you’ll be doing, and the weather, but it seems to jive with what I’ve found over the years. I’d plan on having a gallon for every 8-10 miles of hiking you’ll be doing – per person. If you’ll have water available every five miles then you’d only need to carry a half gallon, plus some extra just in case. If you live in the desert like I do, it’s completely different.

How training can affect how much gear you need

In this example, we know that how much water you carry is determined by how much water you need to have on you between water stops. By carrying a filtration system, you drastically increase the amount of places that you can get safe drinking water. But what if you could increase it even further? If you’re like most people, you’d find a stream or a lake to get your water and then plan your route accordingly. It’s a good plan.

Unfortunately, where you’re going may not have streams or lakes close enough together to do this. If you spent some time training with a local survival instructor, you’d learn secrets of how to find water that isn’t so apparent, such as identifying which local plants require a lot of water to survive – or even which ones may hold water that you can access.

You need to at least spend some time reading books like the SAS Survival Handbook to get general ideas. With those, you can learn how to make water stills and use other methods to find or filter water. With the added training of an instructor (or at least a lot of reading), you can now find water in the places between streams and lakes. This drastically increases your chances of having water around. This doesn’t mean though that you shouldn’t carry water just because it’s available. First of all, knowing how to find water and actually finding it are not the same thing. Second of all, finding water takes more calories and time than just taking a swig from a bottle that you have on you.

Same goes for fire

What about other things, like fire? Obviously you can carry all sorts of fire starting gear, and I suggest you do have at least a couple different methods available to you like a ferro rod or just a basic lighter. If you knew how to make a fire with just things that you can find along the way, theoretically you wouldn’t have to carry anything. The difference with water though is that you don’t know what situation you’ll be in when you need to start a fire. Is it windy? Is everything wet? Is it super cold so your lighter won’t work?

Because of this, without any fire-making skills, you’ll have to carry several backups. The more you learn about making fires though, the less you’ll have to carry, and the more likely it is that you won’t be shivering all night or having to listen to your girlfriend, wife, or both yelling at you all night.

…And for food

After a few days (or sometimes even hours), your blood sugar can go wonky and you can get pretty slow moving and thinking without calories coming in. If you can afford the space and weight, bring something to eat. I keep a brick of SOS 2400 calorie emergency bars in my go bag and one in my main pack. Each brick is 2400 calories. I don’t really have to carry any more because I have fish hooks and other ways to catch/trap animals with what I have and I know how to make things if I need to. If I couldn’t do that, I’d have to bring more food along.

…And for shelter

Same thing goes for shelter. Depending on the weather, sleeping without some sort of shelter can get you killed. It doesn’t have to be all that cold, either. A steady rain in a moderate temperature can easily bring your body temperature down in the middle of the night into the danger zone. The problem is that most tents are WAY too heavy and bulky to carry along with your water and everything else. So what can you do? Well, in this case, you can trade some research time and some money and get something like an ultralight backpacking tent.

Obviously, that’s not and option for most people. Building a shelter from scratch really sucks, and it costs quite a lot in calories and time, but it may be your only option. By planning ahead on your route, you should have an idea of where you’ll camp and what local stuff you’ll have available to you (and an idea of the weather conditions). With that knowledge and some training, you should be able to make an adequate shelter to protect you from the elements. Also, you should be able to figure out a plan to bring some things like a poncho and a lightweight tarp that could enhance anything you build, if not just be whatever shelter you need.

Ultralight camping

I’ve found that hikers are a much more reliable source when it comes to bug out resources for things like this than typical military sources are – especially camping hikers. They bring what they need with them and find everything else along the way. If you want to expand your prepper knowledge and skills beyond where they are right now, find yourself a hiking group and a camping group to go out with on occasion. Then when you think you really know your stuff, find an ultralight backpacking group and get ready to get schooled. Ultralight camping was made popular by a guy named Ray Mears in a book he wrote in 1992 called PCT Hiker’s Handbook, which has been updated and is now titled Beyond Backpacking: Ray Jardine’s Guide to Lightweight Hiking. That pretty much revolutionized current thinking and started an entire new genre in outdoor activities.

You may have heard of Ray Mears but have you heard of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood? In 1955, she was the first woman to hike the 2100+ mile Appalachian trail – and did it in one season – at age 67! What’s also amazing is that she did it while wearing Keds sneakers and carrying an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain which she carried in a homemade bag slung over one shoulder. Think she’d have a problem making it to her bug out location?  What was her philosophy on what to take?

“Make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages… most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail”

If you want to read the story, check out Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail.

This all equates to less space and weight you need to carry

Obviously, the more you train, the more you can carry. Just remember that the more you carry, the more calories you’ll burn and the more cost you’ll incur. Just because you can carry something, doesn’t mean you should. Also, if you’re depending on a thing to get you through a certain situation and that thing breaks, gets lost/stolen, or won’t work in the particular situation you find yourself in, you’re gonna be outta luck. If you’re just starting out prepping – or you’ve been doing it for a while and haven’t trained your body to carry the weight, you’ll have to reduce the weight of your current-day bug out bag until later.

That’s right ladies and gents, unless you’ve spent the past several months working up to the weight and terrain you need, you can’t carry what you need to be carrying – so you need to redo your bug out bag until you can.

Don’t do like most people and fill it with what you think you’ll need and just work up to being able to carry that weight. You can’t carry it like that today – don’t pack it like that today. By adding planning and skills training to your physical training, you’ll have the added benefit of eventually needing less gear a year from now than you would if you just do physical training, making you much more likely to survive a disaster or SHTF scenario. As your skills and endurance improve, you can adjust your gear to suit what you can carry – but not beforehand.

If you want to see what I’ve packed in my bug out bag, check out How to build the ultimate 25 pound bug out bag.

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About graywolfsurvival.com

I am a former federal agent and military veteran who has deployed to combat theaters in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan and have almost three decades of military and military contracting experience.

My goal is to help families to understand how to intelligently protect their family and their way of life against real threats, without all the end-of-the-world doomsday crap.


  1. One consideration that often gets overlooked is the pack itself. You can carry more weight a lot more comfortably and with less risk of injury if you have a proper pack. Personally, I’d recommend one designed specifically for backpacking, which are almost always designed to allow your hips (instead of just shoulders) to take some of the weight, and to be comfortable and ergonomic over long distances in challenging terrain. It also is more likely to be organized in a way that makes packing and unpacking less of a pain, I’ve found. If you go somewhere like REI you can get fitted for different packs and try them out, and it makes a huge difference.

    Most people I know either have a military type pack (probably covered in camo) for their BOB, which in my experience tend to be heavier and make you look like Rambo, which is not exactly great for OPSEC if you want to train with your pack and are not actually military, although they do have the advantage of being made of more rugged material than a lightweight backpacking pack–which is yet another reason why you should always pack duct tape. I also find most military packs to be harder to organize & pack/unpack repeatedly than a backpacking pack, but that may just be what I’m familiar with. Or some people just have a normal school type backpack, which holds approximately nothing and is terrible to carry with any kind of weight. If you’re wearing a backpacking pack, you can tell people you’re training for a section hike or a thru-hike in some national park or whatever (which in my case is often true).

    I thru-hiked the AT & PCT with packs of base weight 16 and 23 pounds, respectively (base weight doesn’t include water and food), which is pretty light. My pack was heavier for the PCT because the terrain was unfamiliar and more rugged & isolated than the AT, and I was more worried about injury & navigating/not dying in the snow (I’m from Texas). If I hiked it again, I could go lighter, since I know what I’m doing now. Familiarity with your route really does make all the difference.

    You can save weight & money on shelter if you learn to make tarp tents and if you dress intelligently–lots of layers, including a base layer (usually wool), an insulating/fleece layer, and a waterproof/windproof layer. NO COTTON if hypothermia is a concern (which it should be, even here in south Texas).

  2. Survival Sherpa says:

    I practice a lot of bushcraft skills which would come in handy in a get of dodge situation – hopefully – They can’t hurt. The thing about bugging out that most fail to realize it the amount of added stress, physical, emotional, and any other type you’d like to add.

    As for water and food, carrying enough water for 72 hours on my back would not work. In my neck of the woods we happen to have many streams and rivers between us and our BOL 100 miles away. We plan to filter when situations allow on our way.

    My bushcraft kit and my bug out bag weights are totally different. I use an ALICE pack for bushcraft which forces me to pack less and depend more on skills to make up for gear. Our BOB’s are something my wife and I train with for functional fitness purposes. 3-4 times weekly. Very useful.

    You’re right on about the survival shelter, Scott. Available resources differ from region to region – even within my own state (GA). A debris hut in my neck of the woods burns more calories than I’d want to spend on a bug out situation. Shelter always stays in both my bushcraft kit and BOB. I’d be apprehensive and scared to face bugging out in your climate since I’m in the eastern woodlands and have no experience in your region. Need to plan some cross training in other climates/landscapes to up my skills.

    Enjoyed the article, man!

    Keep Doing the Stuff,


  3. Cody Forehand says:

    I really like this article. It breaks it down Barney style and you know us Marines. Barney Style is a must. Not many people realize how heavy a pack can get. I remember 2nd phase of boot camp at Edson Range, Camp Pendleton. They got us off the bus and laid out all our gear. Two seabags and rucked us over to the supply shop for our alice packs and field gear. Once we all had our packs and our gear they had us carry our Packs and seabags and force rucked us all over the Camp showing us everything there was for about a hour. I never felt so heavy and burdened in my life. My whole body hurt by the time is was done and that was just a hour. It felt like the entire afternoon. Eventually we got used to the weight but I’ll never forget that day. Ounces equal Pounds!!!

  4. dragon5126 says:

    the very first thing you pointed out was the most important, I just wish you would have worded it in a way that would have been more point blank. “MORE THAN ONE BAG” it isn’t a bug out bag, its a bug out KIT. Back in my youth, as a boy scout, we did things like cut the handles off our tooth brushes cut our bath towels down to one half or less, and similar things to reduce weight and space so that we could carry food and water on our backs. Thanks to the end of the Vietnam war and the inception of the 100% volunteer Military I was denied the ability to enlist or be drafted, (I couldn’t even sign up for the draft as the selective service was suspended in 1977) Talk about Irony

  5. TrailingSpouse says:

    If I may add – or emphasise – a few things:
    1. The contents of your pack will be mission specific. For sure there are generic items – knife, water, lighter etc. But packing to keep every contingency covered is all very well except that these options equals weight. And its impossible to predict all the scenarios (although it would be foolish not to brainstorm them, and think through what kit might be needed). Buggin out at the first sign of a problem in a 4×4? Well you can take the kitchen sink if you want. But the most important thing you can take with you is your training – it doesn’t weigh anything.
    2. Backups and spares are all very well – but again they weigh… Try to get quality items. There’s no reason they will just fail, and if they do – improvise. Learn how to make things… You don’t need two knives, two lighters. You MAY need a tourniquet – you WILL need water.
    3. When speed and agility become essential – could you afford to drop your pack? You might have to. What if everything was in that one huge bag and now its gone? Wouldn’t maybe an assault pack be better? What if you have to sprint? Climb a drainpipe? Crawl through a small hole? What if you have to carry someone – your child, an injured friend?

    By the way, great website Graywolf – best prepper site I’ve seen 🙂 Thanks for all your hard work.

  6. Why is this written as if the only Bug Out is into the woods? Some of us will “Bug Out” from one city to another. Some of us have no desire to be in the woods, but we may have to hump ten miles with a pack from DC to Northern VA!

    • Because this will help regardless of where you go. If you don’t need the stuff, leave it. What happens if you get stuck along the way? What if your car breaks down and you HAVE to walk 10 miles?

      • Really_Old_Guy says:

        I might add: Great! You have a Plan A (to go from one city to the next one close by). But short-sightedness is a good way to put your life (and the lives of your loved ones–in tow–in danger of losing their lives). What is your Plan B: Plan A isn’t going to work because your intended city is no longer habitable? For that matter, what if your Plan B and Plan C aren’t going to work either? What if the “woods” that you detest is your “only viable option” for the foreseeable future?

        Every good plan will eventually HAVE to be modified (every military man knows this) because of some SNAFU, lost equipment, lost leadership, changing climatic conditions, looter band ahead, bridge washed out, or whatever.

        There’s nothing quite like: “Dang! I wish I’d have thought this through more thoroughly!” or “I wish I’d have thought of that possibility!”

        It’s gonna happen. Think through a couple dozen scenarios and you’ll be soon reconsidering what goes into your “bag of last resort.”

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