What a “Get Home Bag” is and why everyone should have one.
Written by Stephanie Dayle.
A Get Home Bag could be a life saver if we are ever faced with a true disaster. Everyone who travels away from home on a regular bases should have one assembled and ready as part of their personal preparedness plans. Anyone can put together a quick Get Home Bag from items they already own and maybe a quick trip to the grocery store.
In this article I am bringing together my outdoor survival training from Search and Rescue with my experience hiking and backpacking to address the emergency preparedness needs of a “get home bag” for people who may be on a budget or not familiar with military style tactical gear. It’s very important to always be flexible in your emergency preparedness. Start with what you already have and what you can afford, then make improvements if desired as you go.
What is a Get Home Bag?
The common definition of a “Get Home Bag or GHB” is a simply a bag of supplies meant to help you make it back home if you become stranded somewhere. The way to use this bag is to take it with you where ever you go, usually in your vehicle. This is different from a ‘Bug Out Bag’ which contains the basic tools for living away from your home for an extended time.
The key to using the bag is to get back home as quickly as possible. Historically the longer an emergency lasts the more erratic and unpredictable people behave, therefore, the longer it takes you to get home the more danger you will be in. Most of us have loved ones, kids, and/or animals at home. Your unannounced absence in the event of an emergency may put your home and family at risk.
There is no “right way” to assemble a ‘Get Home Bag’ as bags will differ from person to person to suit their individually unique situations, so don’t worry about “emergency levels” or doing it wrong. Instead evaluate your situation by answering these questions, your answers will help you discover what should go in your GHB.
What type of emergency would cause me to walk home?
Carefully examine what natural disasters are a possibility in your area like earthquakes, volcanos, or forest fires. Also take into account weather related emergencies such as winter storms, flooding, tornados and hurricanes. Other emergencies include terrorist attacks, civil unrest or losing the electrical grid and maybe the use of your car. Make sure the items in your bag are customized to address those specific concerns but also recognize that the unexpected may happen as well.
Real Life Examples: In the winter of 2008 the Spokane area in Eastern Washington experienced a period of extreme snow fall where in some areas 22 inches of snow was recorded falling in 24 hours and an additional 10 inches fell the following day. Half way through the first eight hours of snow fall streets were hopelessly clogged with snow bound vehicles not equipped to handle the roads and 300+ accidents. People ran out of gas waiting in traffic, got their car stuck, while others abandoned their vehicles to go grab a bite to eat or to walk home further clogging the roads. Those still in their offices in town could chose to either wait in traffic, spend the night at the office or walk home. My GHB includes items to help me stay warm and travel in the winter.
On September 11th 2001, after the attack had occurred, public transportation was there but because of the attacks was shut down, blocked or otherwise unavailable in the immediate area, stranding thousands of people. Walking home or walking to access another mode of transportation were the only options. Everyone was also covering their mouths because of the dust and debris that was in the air. I have several lightweight N-95 masks in my GHB.
On average, how far do I usually travel away from home?
If you commute to work on a daily bases or drive to school – THAT should be your target average distance. Of course there are times when that distance is exceeded, but using the average is the general rule of thumb. If you are caught in a disaster further away from home than that, having any supplies at all will still give you a great advantage.
Real Life Example: I drive over 30 miles to work every day – so I have designed my GHB to get me back from that distance.
How long would it take me to walk home?
Common advice says the average person can walk about 3 miles/hour on flat, easy ground. Therefore if you can keep that pace up for 12 hours, you could potentially walk 36 miles. However any experienced hiker and/or backpacker would doubt that estimate. An average person who is not used to a carrying pack, who does not exercise on a regular bases, traveling over varied terrain can expect to cover 10-18 miles a day at the most. Using that traveling distance take an educated guess at how long it would take you to walk home.
Real Life Example: I exercise regularly and hike regularly, yet I fully expect it to take me two days get home if I were walking home from work. Along with being realistic with my travel times, I take into account I will be climbing nearly 2,000 feet in elevation on my way. It would be a long walk indeed. 2+ days is what my GHB is designed for.
What type of a bag makes a good Get Home Bag?
Again there is no right or wrong answer, but there are some guidelines that will help you create a life saving pack when combined with the above information.
- Choose a ‘normal’ looking backpack: Backpacks are commonly recommended because they are easier to travel with than one strap bags, and they free up the use of both hands. In a emergency you will want to look like everyone else, and avoid looking like a terrorist fleeing the scene, or a looter. Law enforcement may be on the alert for those who look “suspicious” so in an effort to avoid the wrong kind of attention, I avoid using tactical styled, black or camo backpacks for that reason. Personally, I also avoid neon colored brand name bags that shout “I have money, rob me!” Instead find middle ground by selecting something that looks boring and plain.
- Keep it small and lightweight: Even if it’s going to take you a couple of days to get home, keep your bag ‘under’ 15- 20 lbs. Keeping the bag lightweight will allow you cover more ground quickly. Backpacks are commonly measured for gear capacity in liters. Look for a bag that is 35 liters preferably smaller. Consider a bigger bag if you think your walk home will be longer than a couple of days.
- A GHB does NOT need to be expensive: But it should work without the zipper hanging up or the bag failing in some other way. It needs to function properly until you make it home, not until you die of old age. Backpacks commonly go on sale in the fall when kids are going back to school, that is a good time to look for one if you are on a budget. If you have older kids, one of their used backpacks may work if it is still in good working condition.
What do I Need to pack in my Get Home Bag?
Keeping in mind your situation and location, address these baseline items. This does not have to be expensive backpacking or tactical gear, you are not going on a camping trip nor are you getting ready for military deployment, this advice builds a bag for the average everyday person who finds themselves stranded in an emergency. Click on the blue text to find this equipment!
Shelter: Consider emergency ponchos, tarps, clear plastic sheets, or even a bivy as an emergency shelter in your get home bag. These items are small and light – while not luxurious they can be combined in different ways to make a quick improvised shelter that will be better than nothing. If you are more than a two day walk from home, you may want to consider a lightweight one man tent and a lightweight sleeping bag.
An emergency bivy should not be considered a sleeping bag, it is at best an emergency shelter. They are best used this way in conjunction with emergency blankets or tarps.
Rope/Binding: Include at least 50ft of rope in your GHB. 550 cord is small, lightweight and it will support 550lbs of weight. While not suitable for climbing it has many other survival uses, it is the preferred cordage in many survival kits, but having some rope regardless of type is better than no rope. 50ft will be sufficient for most people (unless you have cliffs to scale or crevasses to cross on your way home, in which case, your needs are beyond this article).
Food: Look for energy dense easy to prepare food. Energy bars and meals bars are great for this purpose and they are light weight. MREs are nice but they tend to be heavy and in all honesty you can live on meal bars for a few days if you had to. Other inexpensive food ideas include; instant oatmeal, packets of tuna, and jerky.
Water: Recent studies show women need around 2 liters of water a day and men need around 3 liters of water a day. The need for water will increase with physical activity so pad your numbers on water and include a way to collect and purify more water. The average water bladder holds 2-3 liters of water, the average water bottle holds a quart. Once you get past 3 or 4 liters of water it becomes difficult to carry all of your water needs for extended periods of time, for this reason in addition to actual water that is ready to drink, pack a way to collect and purify more water. Most backpacks come with water bladders these days, if yours doesn’t you can purchase one and add a bladder to it.
Chlorine dioxide water tablets or drops (if you can find them) and iodine tablets are a lightweight inexpensive option for purifying water. Water filters, even the smaller ones, are usually bulky and expensive, however a water bottle with a built-in filter may be an affordable option for you.
Clothing: If your average commute is the daily trip to the office you need to pack a change of clothes, including footwear, in your bag. A suit and heels will not get you home quickly. Make sure this change of clothes is suitable to the time of year and weather in your area.
First Aid: Make or purchase a small lightweight first-aid kit, not something that you could perform field surgery with but something that you could take care of minor to mild cuts and blisters with. Some OTC (over the counter) drugs like ibuprofen for sore muscles and headaches would also be handy. Adventure Medical manufactures great little light weight, water proof, inexpensive medical kits if you don’t want to make your own.
Protection: On contrary to popular belief, this is does not have to be a be a gun. Personally, I don’t count my concealed carry as GHB ‘protection’, and I would certainly never put it zipped up inside of the bag – what good would it do me in there? This could be pepper spray (which is also highly effective on animals), a knife, a taser or one of the many other alternative protection devices on the market. An additional thing you might want to consider in this department is a little extra ammo for your concealed weapon, if you do carry.
Light: You never know at what time a day you could become stranded having a source of light is a must. I prefer headlamps over flashlights as they keep your hands free, but if all you have is a mini-flashlight, throw that in your pack along with some extra batteries.
Fire: Again, while the purpose of a GHB is not to go camping, having a means to start a fire will make you that much more prepared if your situation goes from bad to worse. No emergency kit is complete without at least two ways to start a fire. I prefer matches in a water proof container and fire steel.
Navigation: While GPS is cool and easy to use it may not always be available if something like a solar flare has taken out your car, it will have most likely rendered your GPS useless. Maps and compasses are still king of the non-electric navigation world. Have one of each in your bag and know how to use them.
Knife: Last, but certainly not the least a good quality knife should be included in every GHB. This does not have to be a$200+ survival knife extraordinaire. For a get home bag find at least one good quality pocket knife, you can of course pack something better or in addition if you want this is merely a baseline. A gas station pocket knife may break on you when you really need it so spring for a well known good quality pocket knife if you can and save the big bad expensive survival knife for your Bug Out Bag.
Don’t stress about packing enough gear to make it through any conceivable disaster. If you have the above base items covered in your get home bag you will have a great advantage over the average Joe on making it home. Of course there is always more you can add to your bag if you want or need to increase it’s effectiveness! Click Here For a Printable Detailed Get Home Bag Check List!
Each person in your family should have their own GHB, avoid sharing items or carrying items for other family members if at all possible, this way if one person becomes separated from the group they would still have everything they need to stay alive in their bag. At least twice a year swap out winter gear and clothes for summer gear. At least once a year swap out the food and water in your bag for new stuff and clean the water container with a light spray of diluted bleach. Try using holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving to remember to swap out seasonal gear.
Keep the bags in your vehicle where ever you go, don’t worry about repacking it for each trip to town so that it is just perfect for the distance that particular day. This is what matters: that you have a bag full of supplies that will help you make it back home whether you are a few miles from home or a couple of days from home.
Is this bag going to help you fight zombie hoards or repel an invading force while allowing you to rendezvous with a prepper tactical team to plan your next offensive? No. But it will allow the average person to make it home, safe and alive in a day or two in most circumstances.
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