22 Go Bag Essentials (And How To Build You Own Bag)

It’s pretty common to mix up the definition of a go-bag and a bug-out bag, so let’s first discuss the difference between the two.

First things first, though: what exactly is a go bag?

open get home bag with flashlights and multitool showing
open get home bag with flashlights multitool sharpie and pens showing

A go-bag is a backpack that you carry with you with essentials for short-term survival. It is designed for 72 hours emergencies or less, and will help you survive long enough to get home or to another secure location.

Bug-out bags are generally used when you literally need to evacuate and leave your home. Bug-out bags have enough supplies to anywhere between 72 hours and one week.

When you’re thinking about putting together a list of things for your go-bag, it’s easy to gather too much and over-pack.

That’s why we’ve put together a list of the 22 essential things that you need to have. Start with those and be weary of adding too many extras.

Water

Next to air and shelter, water is the most precious of the survival necessities, and you’ll want at least a little bit that is ready to drink in your go-bag loadout.

There is just one problem, though: water is extremely heavy, and carrying all the water that you think you’ll need can easily add dozens of pounds to your load.

A better plan instead is to carry a good quantity in a large canteen, water bottle or bladder in your pack and then plan on sourcing and treating found water supplies using an emergency water filter or purification chemicals.

When it comes to water bottles and other containers, everyone has their preference so pick one that makes sense to you and your objectives. I prefer a steel water bottle for durability and versatility or a classic plastic Nalgene.

Food

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MREs, freeze dried food, high calorie food bars, and protein bars are among the favorite items for survival bags. Canned foods are not a good idea for a go bag as they’re too heavy.

This is actually one area where many people tend to overpack their go-bag. Keep in mind that the average adult can survive without food for up to 3 weeks if absolutely necessary.

This means for a 24 hour go-bag, any food you carry is for your own comfort or to provide an energy boost your body may need.

Focus on packing only lightweight food items that can provide the energy your body needs to keep going and are easy to eat on the go or with little preparation, rather than heavy meals that need to be prepared.

Any item that comes with bulky exterior packaging, like the aforementioned MRE, can be opened in order to reduce its overall size without compromising the freshness of the food.

That being said, you don’t want to go without food entirely, even though you won’t starve. Most people begin to degrade rapidly, mentally and physically, after missing too many meals.

The work of survival requires lots of energy, and you should have that energy on hand if you want to have the best chance of surviving.

Shelter

Shelter is one of those categories that is often overlooked when it comes to packing a go-bag.

You generally aren’t planning on roughing it out in the wilderness for any length of time, and most people will rely on their go-bag to get from Point A to Point B, wherever and whatever that is, as quickly as possible.

That being said, exposure is a common and certain killer if you are caught out in truly bad conditions.

Hypothermia can strike quickly and lay low even the toughest and fittest of survivors. Even direct exposure to blistering sun and heat can fry your brain.

One option is to pack a heavy duty tarp. You can use the tarp to construct a simple lean-to, or as insulation from the ground in a shelter made from natural materials and be better protected from the elements.

It is always a good idea to carry shelter materials as a just-in-case option.

Uberleben Zunden Ferro Rod
Uberleben Zunden Ferro Rod

Fire Starter

Fire starters are vitally important. Most people think to pack matches, particularly waterproof matches, but also don’t forget lighters, flint starter kits, and kindling such as dryer lint, cotton balls or some char cloth.

Consider that you may need to start your fire in less than ideal conditions. It could be raining, your bag could get wet, or it could be very windy.

You need to have enough materials with you so that you can make multiple attempts to start a fire or at least something reliable enough to spark no matter what the conditions are.

Something else to consider is that fire can serve as a highly visible signal for rescue at night and during the day.

Sleeping Bags and Blankets

You’ll need a sleeping bag or a lightweight blanket. Some packs come already equipped with the space to tie your sleeping materials to it.

When choosing a sleeping bag and blanket, comfort and quality is important, but warmth is the biggest factor.

Again, a go-bag is designed to be used for 24 hour survival, which means if you use a sleeping bag at all, you’ll only sleep in it for several hours or possibly overnight.

You need something to keep you dry and that is warm enough so you can sleep without the worry of hypothermia or frostbite setting in.

If you don’t want to deal with a bulk of a sleeping bag you might consider including a couple of extra large, thick contractor bags.

You can cut out the bottom of one of these bags before taping it to the top of another to make an extra large, extra long trash bag that can serve as an improvised sleeping bag when stuffed with dry leaves, crumpled newspaper and other insulating materials.

You should also definitely include an emergency or space blanket. These crinkly foil blankets might look silly, but they reflect a ton of body heat when wrapped tightly around a person, and you can even use them as a reflector for a campfire if you need it.

First Aid Kit

A go-bag wouldn’t be complete without including a first aid kit. You don’t really need a huge kit, unless you’re packing for a family. A simple personal first aid kit, sometimes called an IFAK, is fine for a go bag.

It must include the basics such as bandaging, gauze, tape, burn cream, antibiotic ointment, and anti-allergy tablets. You can also buy a simple kit and adapt it to your needs.

Suture tools are great additions to any first aid kit for those times when you or someone else needs stitches from an unexpected injury.

Tourniquets are also a mandatory inclusion for any personal first aid kit. Extremity hemorrhage is one of the leading preventable causes of death resulting from both conflict, particularly gunfire, and accidents. 

No matter what you are carrying and how good it is, it will do you little good if you don’t have the skills to employ it when you need it.

Arguably, first aid and basic trauma care skills are among the most important and most likely to be used that any prepper could learn.

Make sure you get trained, practice and keep your skills sharp. You’ll likely have cause to use them at some point in your life.

Prescription Medications / Eyewear

Although this entry nominally fits into the first-aid entry above, these aren’t really emergency items for dealing with injuries and ailments so they are kept separate. Besides, not everyone needs them.

But, if you are the person who does rely on prescription meds for managing ongoing diseases or health conditions, or you need glasses or contacts in order to see you’ll want to have a dedicated backup set as part of your go-bag complement.

If you use glasses, keep them in a crush-proof heavy duty case and make sure you keep the lenses themselves updated as your eyes change over the course of your life.

The same goes for the contact lenses, but you’ll need to be very diligent about rotating and refreshing them as needed, and also including the solutions and other things needed to care for them.

Dust Mask / Respirator

It stands to reason that all sorts of natural and man-made disasters can cause destruction that will put plenty of particulates in the air, particulates that you don’t want in your lungs.

Even in situations where the air is not so tainted that you cannot breathe, you could be setting yourself up for lifelong ailments and disease if you don’t protect your lungs.

The perfect tool for the job is a heavy duty, high efficiency dust mask or a dedicated respirator with appropriate cartridges for filtering physical particles and hazardous fumes.

The latter is particularly important if you live in an urban area where such air quality hazards are even more likely.

Some folks prefer a full face gas mask, and you can make a case for them, but their size and bulk is not well suited for the compact nature of a go-bag.

three custom-made knives
Three bespoke custom-made knives.

Survival Knife and Other Multi-Function Tools

A knife is one of the most fundamental survival tools, capable of serving as a multi-purpose implement in the field or a last ditch but vicious close quarters weapon.

There are countless chores and uses you’ll have for a knife in a survival situation, so you’ll definitely want one as a dedicated part of your go-bag.

Fixed blades are commonly recommended for brute strength and certain reliability, but people who are packing light or want to keep the knife close at hand without strapping on a sheath can get by with a sturdy folder.

A good multi-tool is another worthy inclusion in your pack. You should not expect to be doing any major repairs or improvisations with one, but they are usually good enough to help you take care of your equipment or minor repairs when you don’t have access to a proper set of tools.

The pliers in particular often come in handy.

A thorough discussion of either item is beyond the confines of this article, but in general you’ll want one that is strong, corrosion resistant and easy enough to carry on your person.

three tactical flashlights
three tactical flashlights

Flashlights and Batteries

It is difficult to overstate just how important a flashlight is in a survival situation. Any major crisis or disaster that is worth the name is likely to knock out power in a localized area at the very least.

When night falls, or when you’re inside a large building without any power, things will become shockingly dark and bad things happen to people in the dark.

The ability to produce a useful amount of light on demand in order to navigate, work, orient yourself or defend yourself is absolutely paramount and the flashlight is your best all around tool for the job.

Choose a model that has a well-rounded profile of brightness, durability and battery life.

Additional options like adjustable brightness, low observable colors and other things can give you more bang for your survival buck.

You should also strongly consider including a headlamp into your go-bag loadout. Headlamps work a whole lot better than trying to hold a flashlight in your teeth, and are the perfect thing for navigating or working hands-free.

Of course, a flashlight is only as good as however long the batteries will last, so you want to include several spares for each in your pack, or a power bank if you are using a rechargeable.

hygiene items on pantry shelves shampoo shower gel mouthwash toothpaste etc
hygiene items on pantry shelves: shampoo, shower gel, mouthwash, toothpaste, moisturizing cream, lip balm, deodorant sticks

Personal Hygiene Toiletries

What kind of personal toiletries could you include? Think of everything you use on a daily basis, and determine how big of a crisis it would really be if you had to go without for 24 hours.

If you could live without it and your go-bag is already heavy, then get a mini version or decide to make do without in a crisis. Here’s a short list of basic toiletries to consider:

  • Toilet paper
  • Dental health items: Toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss
  • Bar of soap
  • Deodorant
  • Shaving Cream & Razors
  • Feminine products

While these items can get pretty bulky, check out the trial/travel size section of your local Walmart or other discount store, and grab some of these items at a low price and stock up.

But remember, the go-bag is designed to keep you alive for 24 hours. So, while having things like deodorant, a razor, and shampoo may make you more comfortable, your life isn’t at risk without them.

If space is limited or the weight of your bag is an issue, leave the comfort items out.

As an all-purpose or strictly minimalist inclusion, a large pack of wet wipes can help you quickly clean up with no fuss and no muss.

As mentioned, hygiene might not be high up on your priority list under the circumstances, but keeping germs at bay is always a good idea and sometimes freshening up real quick is just the thing to keep your morale high, particularly when you have been sweating buckets all day.

Silica Gel Sewing Kit
Sewing kit with a few silica gel packets.

Duct Tape

Duct tape is truly a miraculous item to have when you need to fix something or improvise something.

Duct tape can hold a busted sole on a boot, turn a knife or a jagged piece of metal into a workable spear, keep damaged body work held together on a vehicle and much, much more.

You’ll always want to have duct tape as part of a well-rounded survival kit, but you might not necessarily want to carry a giant, heavy roll of it around. You have two options in this regard.

Either compress the roll into a smaller, flatter shape to save room or you can unwind it and then re-wrap it around another item in your pack, maybe your water bottle or even a flashlight, to be even more efficient.

Mess Kit

Camping dinnerware and utensils are recommended. Once you’ve bugged out and you’re ready to eat your meals that you’ve packed, you’ll need something to eat them with.

The most critical item in this category is a stainless-steel container that you can use to boil water or heat food if needed.

A simple camping mess kit will be fine. It doesn’t take up too much space and it’s lightweight.

You can save even more room by using at one piece, all-purpose utensil like a spork, a collapsible bowl and things of that nature. Don’t go crazy here: A large mug and utensils are more than enough.

Extra Clothing

Extra clothing takes up space, but they are necessary and extremely recommended. It’s important to have in case your original clothing gets wet or destroyed somehow, it doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in, even in moderate weather conditions.

One way to reduce the bulkiness of extra clothing is to vacuum seal them in bags. This cuts the amount of space it takes up in your bag by half, if not more, depending on what you pack.

Vacuum sealing your clothing also serves to waterproof it so you can be certain it will be dry when you need it.

Particularly important are socks and underwear, as keeping your feet and your groin area clean and dry will help to prevent annoying and eventually show stopping maladies that can occur when you are on the move, working hard and constantly sweating.

Dan’s Tip: At the very least, put your socks in a zipper bag to keep them waterproof. Do the same with all items that can get wet should your bag be left in the rain.

Another great inclusion is a sturdy set of gloves, either heavy leather work gloves or light technical gloves.

There will be many hazards out in the world that you’ll have to deal with in a survival situation, and if your hands get injured you’re going to have a hard time doing the things you need to do in order to survive.

Check your ego at the door, and protect your hands.

One other invaluable inclusion in the clothing category is a lightweight but reliable rain poncho. Getting soaked to the skin, especially when you were on the move, really sucks.

Worse, getting wet combined with falling temperatures and a stiff breeze will set the stage for hypothermia in a big hurry.

You can help prevent that unhappy outcome by keeping a poncho in your kit just in case you need to make tracks even when it is pouring.

Money and Personal Identification

When the chips are down, cash is king. Considering that much of the electrical grid is also likely to be down, and if that isn’t the case the internet could well be disrupted or clogged with traffic, electronic forms of payment are either going to be completely unacceptable or unreliable. 

Cash, contrary to the assertions of some doomsayers, will likely still be good for the entirety of the event.

Pretty much everyone, no matter their current status, has the expectation that things will get back to normal and when that happens cash will continue to be as good as it always has.

This means you can use cash to get supplies you desperately need, buy a favor or any number of other things the same as you would in normal times.

How much cash you keep in your go-bag as part of your survival supplies is up to you, but what matters is that you don’t raid that piggy bank prior to needing your kit.

Larger bills won’t get you far unless you plan on wasting money during a crisis situation because no one can make change for you. A variety of $1, $5, and $10 bills will be good.

Unless you plan on disappearing completely after a crisis, it’s vitally important to carry personal identification items with you.

Most situations are temporary, like a natural disaster or terrorist attack. In these cases, you’ll want authorities to be able to quickly verify your identity if you are stopped.

A driver’s license or state issued ID, passport, medical alert cards, concealed carry license and a living will, are some of the few identification items that should be packed.

12-inch static climbing Kernmantle rope
12 inch static climbing Kernmantle rope. Double braid composite construction. Tough polyester jacket with a nylon core.

Rope

You don’t need that much cordage to survive up to 24 hours, but it’s nice to have some. Cordage has an “infinite” number of uses, you cannot skip it.

If you are lacking space in your go-bag for this, find a paracord bracelet to wear or wrap a long length of paracord around the handle of your knife or around your canteen.

Paracord is the accepted and universally beloved prepper standard when it comes to cordage, but if you don’t need its incredible strength you can save some weight and bulk while taking care of most tasks using much lighter and thinner accessory cord.

Weapons and Self Defense

This seems to be one concern where people tend to go off the rails.

Being suitably armed to reliably protect yourself is a highly variable concept, and some folks won’t feel armed unless they are carrying a carbine or shotgun with hundreds of rounds, where others feel entirely safe carrying a pistol with a single spare mag or speedloader.

My preference is to carry a firearm that I can always keep on me and always keep concealed. There are simply too many situations where a visible firearm is going to attract the wrong kind of attention and get you into more conflicts than it is likely to stop.

This could be from police or authorities, fellow survivors or even malicious criminal actors who are looking to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends.

Of course, having something that is useful on the defensive spectrum between “bad language” and “lethal force” is also a good idea, and for that reason nothing beats pepper spray.

It isn’t a get out of jail free card, but you are far more than your rights to use pepper spray to shut down a personal space invader who is winding up instead of shooting them when they aren’t presenting an obvious lethal threat in kind.

Remember what I said earlier: it is highly likely that things will, at some point, go back to normal, and you need not think that anything you do in the chaos of the event will not be uncovered and you’ll eventually be made to answer for it after the smoke clears.

As always, it is far better to avoid a fight entirely or use non-lethal force whenever possible.

Notepad and Pen

Often, overlooked, the notepad and pen are an extremely important combo to include in your go bag. Why? There will be times when you need to map out an area, write directions, write a note, take down the address of a shelter or contact information for a friend or relative, or even simply draw a picture.

If you didn’t pack these items, you’ll be forced to utilize your memory which may be stressful in a crisis. Pack a “write in the rain” notepads and a couple of pens.

Cell Phone Kit

Despite the fact that you should not rely on advanced electronics when the chips are down, the facts are that cell phones are likely to continue to function, even in a reduced capacity, in all but the most devastating incidents.

Accordingly, because they are so useful for various forms of communication, pack in tons of useful information and helpful apps, and generally help make modern Life possible this list assumes that you have a cell phone and keep it on you.

But what you’ll need to keep in your go bag or a cell phone kit to support it, including a variety of chargers and power adapters, cables and potentially even a compact solar charger.

The idea is that you’ll be able to top off your phone when and where you can no matter what the power source is in order to make use of it continually or on an as needed basis.

hand-crank AM/FM radio and lantern
hand-crank AM/FM radio and lantern

Solar and Hand Crank Radio

A small solar or hand crank radio is important to help you keep up with what’s going on in the world during a crisis. These radios are small, inexpensive, and can take up little space.

When most other forms of communication fail or are temporarily knocked off line, you should be able to depend on radio and a network of broadcast stations to get important information out to the public.

Federal, state and local governments all have contingency plans in place to transmit on a pre-designated radio stations in times of crisis, and even in the event that these stations are offline or degraded, a legion of civilian amateur radio operations can step in to keep the signal transmitting.

What are these compact, hand cranked radios is a great inclusion because they are not dependent on batteries and will serve to keep you abreast of the situation at large.

Maps and Compass

Whatever your situation, and wherever you are starting off at when the balloon goes up, you should not assume that you’ll know “the way” or even be able to recognize “the way.”

You also shouldn’t count on Google maps or any other technological navigation aid to see you through. 

Damage, disorientation and other intangible factors can add up to see you lost in a big way when you can least afford it.

Consider that seriously destructive events might literally alter the landscape and Rob you of your ability to navigate via typical landmarks and signs. 

In such a case, you’ll be glad you have a compass and reliable maps to help you orient and pick out a path to reach your destination.

Final Word

There you have it. This list of 22 go bag essentials is an excellent starting point for you. You can always add more to this list to fit your own needs, but keep in mind that the more you add the more weight you add also.

A go-bag is supposed to help you move quickly and efficiently to travel from wherever you are when the crisis hits to a safer location. If your go bag is too heavy, then it completely contradicts the purpose.

pdf icon

Oh, and if you want a PDF checklist of this list that you can print out, you can get it here. There’s even some extra space left to add your own go bag items depending on your needs.

3 thoughts on “22 Go Bag Essentials (And How To Build You Own Bag)”

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve been getting overwhelmed looking at “prepper” blogs who are trying to pack weeks worth of goods into a bag.
    I only have so much space in my backpack so I needed a good list like this to keep me focused on essentials.

  2. I am handicapped and elderly. My bag needs to be as light weight as possible – any suggestions. I would probably go with my son’s family – they are next door, have 4 young children.

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