Many skills that are taught as “emergency preparedness” or “survival” skills that were outdoor or backpacking skills long before those movements ever even had a name. I have often advised beginners who are building their Bug Out Bags and making their Bug Out Plans to take up backpacking as a hobby for practice, training and education. I know as a backpacker myself, that there are many life saving and sanity saving skills that you can learn from the hobby. Not only that – it’s a life enriching hobby that I can place no dollar value on.
Bug Out Bags usually pertain to the theory of “Bugging Out” (leaving one’s home for hopefully a safer location in the event of an emergency). Some people say they have no intention or plans to “Bug Out”………okay………that is your choice but it’s always wise to have a plan B. I have no intention of dying in my house during a local wildfire nor a national disaster so I am prepared to get the heck out if necessary, I would hope you are too. Using my experience backpacking as a guide I know without a doubt that even if I didn’t have a running vehicle I could get to our “plan B” alive and realistically about how much time it would take me to get there.
Here are 7 things preppers can learn from the backpacking world and apply to their bug out plans:
1) Practice Make Perfect – Physical Fitness/Training
Most active backpackers exercise several times a week even if there is no trip coming up. Exercise and practice cannot be overstated, and while nearly all survival/preparedness experts say it, and nearly everyone agrees; only a small percentage of people actually do it – let alone train to travel a long distance on foot with a pack. The excuses are endless, only a few are valid. Exercise is like anything else in life, if you make it a priority it will happen. If watching movies, playing on the internet and gaming is a priority, that is what you will do.
Start an exercise program and take up day hiking if you are physically able. Start small, walking on the flat first for short distances then increase that distance and add weight and inclination (a few hills). If any problems arise – see your doctor ASAP before continuing. When you are feeling comfortable with exercise and hiking consider trying your very first overnight backpacking trip.
2) Be Realistic on “Bug Out Bag” (Pack) Size
Most backpackers are religious about their packs. A great deal of time and research is put into what size of pack is required for the length of the trip, the equipment being brought, and how it all fits. Usually they pick the smallest size pack, considering the length of trip because a smaller pack is of course lighter and easier to travel with. They also know the bigger pack you have, the more tempting it is to fill it up even if you really don’t need those things.
By simple trail and error many backpackers learn what size is right for them. It’s not uncommon for someone to purchase and then get rid of 3 or 4 packs before find one that is just right in fit and size. Many preppers think bigger is better so they go big not knowing that if the day ever comes when they will need to grab that pack and book it – they will only get a mile or so from their house before being overwhelmed by the weight, size and/or fit of their packs.
As a general rule of thumb a 50-60 liter pack is appropriate for 1-2 day trip. A 60-80 liter pack is appropriate for a 3-5 day trip and often makes an ideal bug out bag. A 80-90 liter pack is appropriate for a 5-7 day trip. Anything over 100 liters is considered an “expedition-sized pack” expedition packs are usually only used on extended trips where the large pack is only carried at a slow pace to a base camp. The large bag is then emptied and reorganized or a different smaller pack is used for trips branching out from the base camp. Often other expedition members like sherpas, or animals like llamas, pack horses, or sled dogs are used to help carry the load. Expedition sized packs are not ideal for use as “bug out bags” because they simply too heavy and too bulky.
Of course, each person will have different capabilities and comfort ranges, personally, I would never use anything bigger than an 75 liter pack because I know my physical limits, where as someone else may be able to go bigger. Would it surprise you to know that most thru-hikers (meaning hikers that choose to hike the entire distance of a trail as opposed to a section of it) of famous long distance trails like the Appalachian Trial and Pacific Crest Trail choose packs in the 65-75 liter range when they are traveling for up to a year at time with limited opportunities for resupply? There are good reasons for that, like weight and being able to hike many miles in one day. The goal here as a prepper is very similar in being able to get away from impending danger and covering ground in a timely manner – if a “Bug Out Bag” prevents you from doing this, what good is it?
Carefully research the style and size of bag you need for the length of time you will be traveling. Test out several varieties and styles of backpacks, you may find civilian non-tactical style bags much lighter easier to travel with than traditional tactical style bags. If you are female go to a sporting goods store and try on packs made for ladies. Test it out on an actual trip, not just on a walk around your community. Decide what you really need in that bag and what you can do without, be honest with yourself. Subscribe to some backpacking magazines to see what the industry is up to, explore the new products out there. Some may be of assistance to your Bug Out plans.
3) It’s All About Weight
Backpackers are extremely aware of the weight they are carrying, to the point where it is not uncommon for them to know the exact weight of every single item in their pack including food and water. This is because through experience they have learned that they can travel faster, safer and more comfortably with a lighter pack vs a heavy pack. While there are some factions in the backpacking community like the ‘ultra-light group’ which take trimming weight to an extreme, most preppers could benefit from the weight awareness that even a casual backpacker has, and if you really want some great weight saving tips – take a peek at some of those “ultra-light” backpacking websites, they have some great ideas.
In fact, even backpackers who have gone on only a couple of trips have quickly learned exactly what they need to pack to survive and what they do not need. After you have carried a 40lb pack down 1800 ft into a valley and then put in another 5 miles you figure out real quick that some of those extras in your pack aren’t really worth it. What each person is comfortable with carrying is going to be different but as a rule of thumb for a 5-7 day pack (the typical amount of time a bug out bag is packed for) 30-40 lbs is ideal for a physically fit adult, or 1/4 – 1/5 your total body weight. If you want to travel fast, and if you aren’t used to carrying weight 20-30 lbs should be your range, remember it doesn’t matter if its comfortable when you are standing in your living room or during the stroll you took around the block, what matters is how it will feel, and how YOU will feel 10 miles down the road under a real load.
With preppers it tends to be all about the gear and weight is an after thought. “A folding saw that is a fire starter, ax, shovel and machete all in one? A folding metal stove so sturdy I could stand on it? Why not? Weight? What do you mean how much does it weigh? I NEED IT.” Sound familiar? Backpackers demand that their gear be multipurpose, durable AND light weight. Everything from sleeping bags to tents, cooking supplies, food, first aid kits to cooking stoves are all chosen for their quality, durability and weight, so now they have an entire industry of manufactures coming up with cool new innovative light weight equipment just for them.
A backpacker may look at the the saw, shovel, ax combo and know that lighter single purpose saw will keep then alive and work just fine, that his knife will work for a majority of the reasons why he may need an ax, and that the little trowel in his pack already covers most needs for a shovel and that all three of those items don’t add up to the weight of the fancy combo tool, besides one would still need to carry at least the knife.
Get a trusted book or guide on how to assemble a bug out bag (click here for one). Test out your bag on an actual trip not just on a walk around your community. Weigh everything in your bag, write all the weights down, then the bag itself empty and full. Evaluate it all objectively based on the above information. Research lighter weight items. Decide what you really need in that bag and what you can do without or store at a bug out location or in a cache along the way, avoid being too repetitive with uses and be honest with yourself.
Subscribe to some backpacking magazines to see what the industry is up to and what new products are out there that may be of assistance to your Bug Out plans, granted somethings will be of little use – others will be exceedingly handy. Take up the hobby of backpacking to gain experience with your pack and improve your fitness level.
4) Non-Digital Navigation Still Rules
If someone were to dump you off in the middle of nowhere with no trails, and only a nice compass and map (ok maybe a ruler), could you find yourself on the map, orient yourself to the map, and plot a course to safety? Most experienced backpackers prefer this method of navigation, why? GPS devices need signal, require batteries, are susceptible to weather and temperature damage, and they are heavy in comparison to a folded piece of paper and a fairly good compass. This seems like it would be no brainer for most preppers who habitually prepare for events which include the loss of global positioning satellites – and to some extent it is; a map and compass are common items on bug out bag lists. However having skills of combining and using the two items as a lifesaving tool are still lacking.
Here is a good place to start to learn those skills:
5) Camp Hazard Identification
Experienced backpackers are professionals at instantly sizing up camp hazards of all kinds like campsite location safety, local wildlife, weather, fire safety, hygiene, and equipment safety. Most have learned these things through experience, meaning they’ve made all the bad mistakes at least once or watched someone else do it. While alot of camp hazards can be read about and learned prior to going camping, what cements them into your brain and makes it second habit is going and doing it yourself.
A campsite should always be evaluated for dangers, when I am approaching an area where I’d like to camp I am thinking of what ifs. What if there is a strong wind? Will that tree fall on the tent? Am I so close to the trees that there is now a significant lightning hazard? If there is a storm, will that pretty stream flood and take the tent away with it? Is there an ant hill or bees nest near by? Am I in bear country? If so a spot at least 100 yards away to hang your bags will be required. Is that nice tent spot also a great warming area for snakes? Nothing like stepping out of your tent in the morning to land on a rattle snake that was just warming itself up. Is it too dry or too windy for a safe campfire? Often in my area, the answer is yes.
Then there are other smaller things but no less significant like: learning how to read the weather, learning how to prepare your camp for the night in such a way that reduces the likelihood of accidents. Tripping over your own tents guy lines, and pegs can be incredibly annoying, cause sprains, bruises, scrapes, and possible broken bones. It’s a good reason to position them in such a way to keep them out of common traffic areas. Also learning where to locate the “potty” area in relation to camp and your fresh water source so that neither are contaminated is good to know. And lastly more campfire safety; if it is safe enough to light one, prepare an area for it that does not pose a danger.
For those who will find themselves traveling through urban areas in a bug out situation on their way to safety, the ability size up potential campsite hazards translates, especially if you have had the advantage of living in an urban area and already know the ins and outs of a city.
Ask yourself the above questions when you are preparing to stop for the night and make camp. Take up the hobby of backpacking and/or hiking to gain more experience. Explore some backpacking magazine subscriptions, websites and books to learn more about how to avoid camp hazards.
6) Learn to Improvise on the Go – Fire/Water
Backpackers have long since learned that it is nearly impossible to carry every drop of water that you are going to possibly need for a trip longer than a weekend. So they have become adapt at two things. Planning routes with known water sources and learning how to find water along the way, even in dry settings. Water is one of the heaviest things in your pack at nearly 2 pounds per liter it can really weigh you down if you carry too much of it when you don’t need to. Bear in mind I’m not suggesting that you drink less, but that you carry less: I still manage to use about 5 liters a day on any given trip.
They accomplish this through the intelligent use of an adequate water filter, water tablets, and even SODIS “Solar Water Disinfection” (click here to learn more about SODIS) by hanging a clear plastic bottle off the back of their as they walk. UV light purifiers are a sure thing but they are heavy, require more batteries, and can easily be broken. While I am sure some do, most backpackers don’t use a LifeStraw, while they aren’t bad to have – while traveling, water is collected in bulk for cooking, hygiene and for more travel across areas where there may be no water (all situations one may face while bugging out) as opposed to stopping for a quick drink, a pump filter works best for collecting water in bulk. In the interest of weight they also keep their water filtration choices down to two and avoid packing unnecessary back-up items. Usually a pump filter and water tablets (click here to read a great article about water tablets) are the choice. If both of those methods fail – there is still SODIS. LifeStraw devices are still great choices for Get Home Bags and for vehicle kits.
Plan at least two bug out routes – make sure there is accessible year around water sources along those routes (like lakes, rivers, creeks, etc…). Become familiar with the skill of purifying water and learn how to purify water using SODIS. When it comes to collecting water from unknown sources the rule of thumb for emergency preparedness is ALWAYS – better safe than sorry; purify your drinking water.
Learn to make do with only two light weight methods to start a fire. Many backpackers only pack one method because they have also learned at least one primitive method of starting a fire. Common choices are the lowly flint/magnesium stick and a bic lighter. Some people still carry around a waterproof container of matches but not too many. Some choose ultra light wind resistant lighters such as the Windmill Trekker that will light 1000 times in low or high elevations and in 80 mph winds.
While some backpackers carry fire starting tender – most do not. Learn how to find and collect dry tender even in poor conditions. While carrying some light weight emergency tender is not a bad idea there is no need to carry around the extra weight of “instant fire starting packets” if you have good established fire making skills in all conditions and you are familiar with your equipment – this goes back to practice makes perfect. Try to learn at least one primitive fire starting method.
7) Being Secure on Your Own
There is an element of character that can only be built by being out on your own away from an organized campsite overnight. The ability to feel secure and still get a good nights sleep even if you are by yourself, and the ability to stay focused and driven without any outside input is a learned skill for many. This is usually gained through experience and from education. I know many adults who are still secretly afraid of the dark.
Practicing being outside alone out at night is the best remedy for this. Most of society is accustomed to some sort of ambient ‘city’ light (or what the rural population calls ‘light pollution’) so that even when its dark out, if live in or near a city you can still see fairly well. For some real practice take a trip to the country side hundreds of miles away from city lights and experience what real darkness is like while letting your eyes adjust (and they will if you give them time and don’t reach for the flashlight or glow stick).
Research the animals in your area, know what is really out there so you are not fearing something that would never happen anyways. Take note of your surrounding in the daylight and then practice identifying them once it gets dark. This will prevent your mind and still adapting eye sight from playing tricks on you. Know that sound travels further at night, making unknown animals sound much closer than they truly are.
Staying focused and driven is a time management skill that experienced backpackers have down to an art. There is a promptness to waking up early – eating a quick breakfast that was planned the night before, while breaking down camp methodically. While it may seem like they are needlessly rushing the whole purpose is to get on the trail again as quickly as possible, so that they may put in as many miles as possible during the day. Similar routines are followed for camp set-up and dinner. Again practice in this area is priceless when the skill is applied to bugging out.