How to Survive Without a Bug out Bag

Where are you right now? Sitting on the couch, reading this on your phone? Reading it on your iPad in an airport terminal? Having a sneaky read of it at your desk at work?

a bug out bag crossed with red lines

Wherever you are I bet you don’t have your bug-out bag or other preps close to hand, do you? And at any moment that thing which you have been preparing for might occur, and now what? You are in a survival situation and you don’t have your bug out bag, what do you do now?

Just because you are unlikely to have access to your well-stocked food store, bug out vehicle, bug out bag, fishing kit, firearms or any other preparations you had made that’s not to say that making preparations for a potential emergency is pointless or a waste of time.

The thought and effort put into preparing a bug out bag, food storage and in practicing survival skills puts you in a better position than you would be otherwise even if that equipment you have prepared is out of reach.

The fact that you made preparations for an emergency already sets you apart from those who didn’t, from those who didn’t think it was necessary or who simply couldn’t be bothered. Even without your bug out bag or other preparations, you at least have the right mindset, and that is at least half the battle.

Mind Over Matter

There is plenty of evidence that surviving emergencies is more a question of psychology than physiology. So perhaps your survival depends more on your mental preparedness than the state of your bug-out bag.

In 1994, a light aircraft crash in the High Sierras stranded three men in the mountains. Despite injuries, the pilot of the aircraft struggled for nine days across the mountain to get help.

When rescuers reached the crash site they found the two other passengers of the aircraft, who had both survived the crash, had died in the meantime.

Their injuries though had been no worse, and in one case significantly lighter, than the pilots and they should have been able to arrange fire, shelter and food for themselves until rescue came.

The consensus amongst psychologists who specialize in these kinds of traumatic events is that some people when faced with this kind of life-or-death survival situation just give up.  But for those stories of people who have given up there are at least as many stories of great determination.

Stories of people like Joe Simpson, who in 1985 after a fall on the descent of his and climbing partner Simon Yates successful climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes dragged himself and his severely broken leg out of a crevasse and crawled for four days before he was rescued.

Or Aaron Ralston’s amputation of his own arm after a five-day entrapment due to a climbing accident in Utah in 2003. Or Amber Kohnhorst’s agonizing climb up fifty feet of rock steps to where she could be seen by rescuers in a helicopter after breaking her back in a fall in Arizona in 2016.

None of these people had bug out bags to rely on, many of them had lost their equipment or had very little to begin with but still they survived. Learn from their example if you are without your bug-out bag. Surviving in those situations is an act of determination and mind over matter, don’t give up and be positive.

Knowledge doesn’t weigh anything

Famous bushcraft and survival experts Ray Mears and Mors Kochanski have both said that knowledge doesn’t weigh anything. It’s also something that we can’t misplace, lose, or have taken from us.

Our knowledge is key to our survival, as much effort as we put into putting together a bug out bag we need to spend as much or more effort developing those skills which will keep us alive whether or not we have any equipment.

Our knowledge will allow us to find and identify safe sources of food, keep track of time, navigate, improvise and maintain tools, interpret animal signs and any number of other skills.

For this reason, when you are spending money on putting together the best bug-out bag money can buy consider saving some of that money and spending a bit of it on books.

Your well-stocked bug-out bag will only be available to you in an emergency if you are lucky whereas the knowledge you gain from your study of wild food, primitive technology, aboriginal skills, botany, wildlife, traps, tracking, and other skills can’t ever be taken away.

With that knowledge and a little ingenuity, there are plenty of day-to-day items that can be adapted to serve your purpose even if you have lost or have never got to your equipment.

Adapt, Improvise, Innovate, and Overcome

This knowledge you have, which is far more valuable than the equipment you may not have, might also help you as you begin to adapt what might at first seem useless to your survival needs.

Coke can become cooking stoves or containers. Plastic bags become transpiration traps to collect water. Natural plant fibers become rope and tinder for your fire lighting. Trash bags become shelters. Picture wire becomes snares. A shotgun shell with the shot removed can be stuffed with wadded cloth and used to start a fire.

This list is by no means exhaustive but it’s the mind-set that is important again. You need to imaginative and thoughtful if you are going to survive with limited equipment, everything you see needs to be carefully evaluated for its usefulness, junk and trash are no longer to be thoughtlessly thrown away as junk and trash might be all that you have.

Combining your knowledge with a practiced ability to adapt and improvise will provide you with almost any equipment that you might have lost with your bug-out bag.

How many uses can you think of for…?

Shoelaces; these can become the string for a friction fire bow, or prussic loops to help you ascend a rope. They become even more useful if you replace your original laces with 550 paracord or climbers accessory cord.

These upgrades mean the cord you can improvise from your laces is stronger and gives you the option to gut the cord for the finer strands inside.

The thin inner stands that make up the 550 cord are thin and strong enough to use as fishing line or can be used to make nets and once removed they still leave the outer part of the cord intact and strong enough for most tasks.

Curtains, carpets, rugs, and upholstery; just because you had fancy waterproofs and a down jacket in your bug out bag doesn’t mean you need to be cold without them.

In September 1993 Mike Legler, an airline engineer, crashed his float plane while beach combing in Alaska. He was stranded in the Alaskan wilderness for nine days after a thorough soaking in a lake where his aircraft was lost.

With only the contents of his pockets he made fire and dried his clothes and later found a small abandoned cabin and used a roll of carpet he found there to fashion some makeshift outer garments to keep himself warm.

Batteries; can be used for lighting fires. For example, shorting out a 9V battery with wire wool or a car battery with a pencil will get your fire lit in no time.

Watch; your watch can be used not only to tell the time, which is important in an SHTF situation but can be used as an improvised compass.

This might be important if you are away from an area you are familiar with, or if you need to navigate to a bug out location (we’ll come back to this shortly) without whatever maps you may have stashed in your bug out bag.

To use your watch as a compass lay it flat on the palm of your hand and point the hour hand at the sun, before noon your next step will be to measure clockwise between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position.

Halfway between those two points is South. In the afternoon do the same thing except measure between the hour and 12 o’clock in a counterclockwise direction, the halfway point is again South.

This method only works in the Northern Hemisphere and during daylight saving time you will need to use 1 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock. In the Southern Hemisphere, you need to point the 12 (or 1) at the sun and take the halfway point between that point and the hour hand as North.

Trash bags; as well as making improvised rain coverings trash bags have a host of uses. Stuff them full of leaves and they become an improvised pillow.

Dig a hole and line the hole with a trash bag and you can boil water in that hole with rocks heated in your fire if you don’t have a cooking pot. This is still one of my opening demonstrations when teaching survival skills to help people get in the mindset of improvising and making do.

These examples are of course not exhaustive but having a few tricks like this up your sleeve will make a huge difference to your chances of survival whether you have a bug-out bag or not.

Remember that a bug-out bag is just that, it’s a bag that gives you the essentials to help you leave somewhere that is dangerous or about to become dangerous.

It’s not designed to contain everything you need to live indefinitely or to recreate your life pre-SHTF it’s designed to get you out of danger perhaps to a pre-prepared location where you have cached equipment and supplies.

The Bug-out Location

In an emergency having somewhere you can aim to get to that you think will be safe is an important part of your overall preparations for a survival situation. This may be a property you own or somewhere out in the woods that you think will be safer than ‘home’ when SHTF.

You might have cached tools, equipment, and supplies here and ultimately the function of your bug-out bag is to get you to this location. The supplies you hide here should be stand-alone so that if you arrive without your bug-out bag you will not be disadvantaged.

So if you find yourself without your bug out bag, and I’m convinced that the chances of this happening are much higher than most people who put a lot of effort into their bug out bags are willing to admit, it’s not the end of the world because you just need to make it to your bug out location.

Ordinarily, your bug out bag would get you there but without it, maybe your house was destroyed and with it your bug out bag, maybe it was stolen or lost in a river crossing and all your left with is the contents of your pockets.

What has it got in it’s “pocketses”?

-Gollum ‘The Hobbit

So if you are caught unawares when an emergency situation strikes, what do you have in your pockets right now?

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geoffrey s edc
My daily EDC, the contents of my pockets except for the SOG power assist multitool which goes in a small belt pouch.

Because you are likely to be left with nothing but what is in your pockets having a robust ‘edc’ system is important. While a lot of time is spent discussing ‘edc’ it is really a very simple concept; it stands for everyday carry and is just an acronym for what you carry around with you on a daily basis.

Most of that will be the contents of your pockets but it might also include a few items in your vehicle or a bag depending on how you normally spend your day.

These few items can make all the difference but it’s not practical to carry a whole survival kit in your pockets so think carefully about what you carry.

A knife is a must but do consider local laws before you choose your pocket knife for the day, could you use more than just a blade though, would it be useful to have access to screwdrivers, pliers, awl, saw, or other tools?

If you think any of these things would be useful consider carrying a pocket knife with multiple tools or a multitool instead of, or as well as your pocket knife.

A lighter or matches will be essential as will a flashlight, a small case of band-aids allows you to treat minor injuries, and a wallet survival card might provide a few extra survival aids.

The wallet card I carry is produced by Readyman and contains a saw, fish hooks, snare collars, arrowheads, and needles but takes up no more space than a credit card.

The rest of the contents of your wallet might be largely useless from a survival perspective but half a pencil should neatly fit in there and that might come in handy.

Your EDC will also normally contain your cell phone, which let’s face it short of the collapse of civilization is actually going to be our first resource in an emergency if we can summon help to whatever predicament we find ourselves in then we are out of danger so consider packing an extra battery for your phone.

Having spare cash on your is always useful as well, it’s not a survival situation if you’ve got enough funds in reserve to stay at a hotel, not all survival situations are the zombie apocalypse remember and perhaps the time you are most likely to need a bug out bag is to get a change of clothes from if you suffer a house fire.

Ultimately, your bug-out bag gives you things that will make survival more comfortable rather than possible so if it really is the end of the world and you don’t have your bug-out bag, get ready for some cold nights, some busy days foraging and some hard work turning whatever you can find around you to good use as you head for your bug out location.

Remember people have done it before and you can do it again. Prepare a bug-out location in advance, carry a few basic necessities as your ‘edc’, stay positive, improvise, adapt, innovate, and decide now that you will survive.

2 thoughts on “How to Survive Without a Bug out Bag”

  1. It’s the MacGyvers that survive.

    You make a good point about having a well-stocked bugout bag…somewhere else…when you need it. I saw that flaw my own plans a couple years ago. Got a nice little bag packed and in the truck. Since I spend most of the day at work, away from my truck, I decided to break things down to more portable portions.

    In the laptop bag are items like cree flashlight, water filter, $1 rain poncho, first aid items, etc. I’m usually within a few steps of the laptop bag. But not always.

    So, I also look to the pocketses. Sometimes, downtown, I’m not near my laptop bag. I made up a “survival wallet” from a nylon, zippered wallet. It contains a bic lighter, button compass, button flashlight, 6′ of paracord, water purification tabs, a mini-altoids first aid kit, etc. Other pockets have knife/multitool.

    If I’m out of the house, I have the wallet on me. It even clears TSA so I’ve had it with me on business trips.

    As you say, better to have a little gear with you, than a pile of gear you can’t get to.

  2. Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to EDC, as most of our clothes either do not have pockets, or purely decorative ones; and it is easy to get separated from our purses in a true emergency.

    In my purse, I carry a multitool/knife, mini flashlight, and a wallet size multitool. My zipper pull is one of those paracord grenades with the fishing kit, etc inside. So, as long as I have my purse, I’m ok – but what happens if it’s stolen, or I’m in the restroom – you get the idea?

    On occasion I can wear a paracord bracelet, but only if it matches what else I’m wearing.

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