There are a number of important things you’ll want to include in your bug out bag, including extra clothing and the tools necessary to purify water, start a fire and tend to any wounds you may suffer.
But while these things are certainly important – if not imperative – items to pack in your bug out bag, it is important to remember that shelter is usually the most pressing need in any survival situation. Without it, you can die from hypothermia or hyperthermia in only a few hours. You may need to use a tent in some cases, but more and more survivalists are moving away from commercial tents, and instead preparing themselves to construct a DIY shelter.
NOTE: Clothing is your FIRST line of shelter. Always leave home wear adequate clothing for your location’s weather.
However, while space in your bug out bag is often at a premium, it is often a good idea to make room for a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag, as these will help keep you more comfortable while waiting out the weather. They’ll also allow you to get a better night’s sleep, which will help better prepare you for the challenges you’ll face the next day.
Tent or Tarp
You can rely on a tent for your shelter, but commercial tents take up a great deal of space in your bag, and they are often quite heavy. This not only makes your bag more difficult to carry, it can slow you down when you need to cover miles quickly. Instead, it is usually preferable to carry the supplies you need to make a tent in your bug out bag, rather than trying to fit a commercial tent inside.
However, there are a few scenarios in which a proper tent may be necessary. For example, it may be hard to construct a suitably insulated DIY shelter if you are stuck on a frozen tundra or high above the tree line. Therefore, you may need to pack a tent if you are likely end up in such a place. You’ll just have to consider the circumstances that you are most likely to face in a bug-out scenario and make the best decision you can.
Makeshift or Do-It-Yourself Shelter
There are a variety of ways you can make a shelter to help keep you warm and dry while out in the wilderness. Many can be constructed with only the natural materials you find around you, but it is very difficult to make a water-proof roof for your shelter from sticks and leaves.
Accordingly, you’ll almost always want to have some type of water-resistant material in your bug out bag, so you can make a shelter that will keep you dry (remember, being cold is one thing; being cold and wet is an entirely different matter). Some of the best options are detailed below.
A few of the best materials from which you can construct an improvised shelter include:
Tyvek – Made by DuPont, Tyvek is a paper-like material, created from high-density polyethylene fibers. Commercially, Tyvek is used to make a variety of products, including home wraps, envelopes and light-duty hazmat suits. But large sheets can also make excellent shelters for survivalists. Tyvek is very lightweight (you can make a tent-sized shelter from Tyvek for about one-fifth of the weight of a commercial tent), durable and it breathes well, which limits moisture problems.
Tarps – Tarps have been used to create makeshift shelters for decades, and they still deserve consideration by survivalists. Most tarps are made from polyurethane-coated canvas or polyester, and they are available in myriad sizes and shapes. Tarps are not as light as some other materials, such as Tyvek, nor do they breathe as well, but because they are inexpensive and readily available (tarps can be found in sporting goods stores, hardware stores and big box retailers, as well as online), they are a popular choice for many.
Cuben Fiber – Cuben Fiber is a lightweight, rip-resistant, non-woven material used for a variety of different applications, including yacht sails and kites. Made from ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene and polyester, Cuben Fiber has recently caught the attention of ultralight backpackers and survivalists. Cuben fiber can be used to create a shelter in the same ways that tarps or Tyvek sheets can, but their incredible durability makes them a great choice for those trying to survive in rugged terrain.
AMK SOL Emergency Shelter Kit – Made for those who don’t want to create their own shelter kit, the AMK SOL Emergency Shelter Kit contains everything you need to make a rain cover or lean-to shelter in a pinch.
The USA-made kit includes a 96-inch-by-60-inch, 2.5 mil survival blanket that serves as a tarp, four adonized aluminum stakes, four 96-inch-long lengths of rope, four glow-in-the-dark tensioners and an instruction manual. Using a survival blanket as a tarp helps keep you even warmer than many other tarp-like materials, as they reflect approximately 90 percent of your body heat back at you, thereby keeping you much warmer.
Because your bug out bag only has a finite amount of space, it is always wise to fill it with items that serve more than one purpose. Take ponchos, for example. They can be used to keep the rain or snow off your body, as is their primary intended purpose, but they can also be used to cover your pack, protect a wood pile from the rain, shield you from the damp ground, or they can be used as the roof of your shelter.
High-quality ponchos are water proof, and will keep you dry in even significant downpours, but note that sub-par ponchos are typically only water resistant. While you’d rather have a water-resistant poncho than no poncho, it always pays to select a premium product which will keep you dry when it matters most.
There are a number of good ponchos available commercially, but two rise above the rest and provide superior performance at a reasonable price.
US Military Surplus Poncho – Because they are not limited by some of the budgetary and design constraints as military contractors are, a number of outdoor and survival product manufacturers produce tools and supplies that far exceed the performance of military-issue items. However, the US military still produces some of the best ponchos available.
In use since the 1960s, the standard military issue poncho can not only be used to keep your body dry, they can be used to make several different types of shelters. Because these ponchos have grommets at the corners, they are easy to rig as a shelter with nothing more than a bit of paracord.
Hazard 4 Poncho Villa – A 21st century version of the classic military-style poncho, the Hazard 4 Poncho Villa provides everything that military ponchos do and more. These ponchos are constructed from a breathable, yet waterproof shell, and all of the seams are fully taped to ensure complete protection from the elements.
The entire poncho can be stuffed into its front pocket for maximum space-savings and portability, and it features the same type of grommets that military-issue ponchos do, so you can use it to make a rain canopy or shelter.
If you are planning on improvising a shelter when TSHTF, you’ll not only want a tarp or poncho – you’ll also need a few other supplies to make your shelter-building efforts proceed smoothly.
Paracord – Paracord is a versatile cordage material that can be used for wrapping tool handles, lacing your boots and tying a poncho or tarp in place.
Paracord doesn’t take up much space and it isn’t very heavy, so don’t be stingy – always bring more than you think you’ll need.
Trash Bags – While trash bags aren’t as effective as ponchos or tarps, they can keep you dry in a pinch. They can also be used as pack covers, to collect water or used as a ground cover. Trash bags are light, space-efficient and darn near free, so you can bring several of them in your bug out bag.
Mylar Blanket — Also known as survival or space blankets, Mylar blankets are always wise to include in your bug out bag. Not only will Mylar blankets keep you warm when used as intended, but they can also serve as a rain canopy or shelter roof.
Because they reflect most of the infrared radiation striking them, Mylar blankets will help keep you nice and warm, whether you use them as a blanket or canopy. Mylar blankets fold down very compactly and they weigh next to nothing, so there is no reason to leave them out of your bug out bag.
Stakes – A set of tent stakes are another good item to keep in your bug out bag. You can obviously use them to help set up your shelter and keep it stable in even the strongest winds, but you can also use stakes for a variety of other purposes if need be. You could, for example, use one as a makeshift digging tool, or you could use a couple to help set up some snare traps. Aluminum stakes aren’t very heavy, and they definitely provide a ton of value.
Bug Net – The most troubling animals you are likely to encounter in the wilderness are not bears, snakes or gators; rather, it is the tiny biting bugs that will cause the worst problems. Mosquitoes (and to a lesser extent other bugs) will be in full force throughout the spring and summer in most warm locations, and they are especially common around water sources. Not only can these blood-sucking bugs irritate you enough to keep you up all night, they can even transmit diseases, such as West Nile Virus and Zika.
Accordingly, you will always want to have a bug net in your bug out bag. Some of the toughest bug nets may even work for other purposes. You could, for example, use one as a net to trap small fish or game, or you could form the net into a tube shape, and fill it with leaves to make a DIY sleeping pad.
Sleeping Bag or Bivvy Sack
While a shelter will help keep you dry and a bit warmer, you’ll want a sleeping bag or a bivy sack to help protect you from the nighttime chill. Even the southern reaches of the United States can get uncomfortably cool at night (even during the summer), and this kind of exposure to cold temperatures will cause your body to burn extra calories and it will drain your morale as you spend all night shivering.
However, a proper sleeping bag can be a bit heavy and bulky, relative to the amount of warmth they provide. Accordingly, many survivalists prefer to make a sleeping bag from a survival blanket, which is much lighter and takes up less space than a sleeping bag. A bivvy sack is a different story though, as most good ones are water proof and designed to be used when a tent is not available. This means that they basically eliminate the need to build a shelter at all.
There are a number of survival blankets and bivvy sacks on the market, but the two detailed below clearly represent some of the best of the bunch.
AMK SOL Escape Bivvy – Historically, bivvy sacks suffered from a serious problem: They’d provide suitable protection against the rain and snow, but because they were waterproof, they’d also prevent the moisture from your body from escaping, which means you ended up wet anyway. However, the AMK SOL Escape Bivvy sidesteps this problem entirely, by using a proprietary breathable fabric, that keeps the rain and snow out, while still allowing the moisture inside the bag to escape.
The bivvy is also designed to reflect your body heat back toward you for maximum warmth, and the drawstring hood helps keep your head warm through the night. Yet despite all of the benefits this bivvy provides, it still weighs very little and collapses into a very small package when not in use.
AMK SOL Survival Blanket – The AMK SOL Survival Blanket is like a traditional, Mylar survival blanket on steroids. Made from vacuum-metalized polyethylene, this blanket reflects about 90 percent of your body heat like traditional survival blankets do; but, unlike most other survival blankets, the AMK SOL Blanket will not rip into a million pieces if you nick it on a branch, and you can even repair any small cuts or holes that occur.
It is also much quieter than traditional Mylar blankets, which will also make it easier for you to get a good night’s sleep. The blanket’s bright orange finish will help ensure you don’t lose it, and it will also help rescuers spot you from a distance.
Sleeping Pads and Bedding
While a sleeping bag, survival blanket or bivvy sack will help keep you stay warmer than usual, you will still struggle to get a good night’s sleep if the ground is particularly cold, hard or uneven. In such cases, you’ll be glad you included a sleeping pad in your bug out bag. You can make your own bedding by stuffing leaves or some other type of vegetation under your shelter or bivvy, but this requires a significant investment of time and energy, and this will never provide the same type of comfort and warmth than a commercial sleeping pad will.
The following sleeping pads are great options for including in your bug out bag, and they will help you stay warmer and more comfortable throughout the night.
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite – The lightest and most compact closed-cell mattress in the entire Therm-a-Rest line, the Z Lite is one of the best sleeping pads available for survivalists and preppers. Made with heat-trapping dimples and an accordion-style design, the Z Lite folds flat instantly, unlike the sleeping pads of years gone by, which would tend to curl up at each end.
The foam materials used in the upper layers of the sleeping pad are very soft for maximum comfort, while the materials in the lower layers are much denser, which provides the support you need to get a good night’s sleep. If you like the Z Lite, but you’d prefer an even warmer sleeping pad, consider the Z Lite Sol, which also features a reflective aluminum coating, which helps reflect your body heat back toward you.
Nemo Equipment Cosmo Insulated 25L Sleeping Pad – One of the warmest, yet most portable pads in the Nemo Equipment product line, the Cosmo Insulated 25L Pad provides a great way to stay warmer while you sleep, and it will also provide much better comfort than the hard ground will.
An inflatable pad, the Cosmo Insulated 25L collapses into a very small and lightweight package, yet it is still easy to use, thanks to the built-in foot pump, which makes inflation easy. The interior of the pad contains a layer of PrimaLoft for improved insulation, and the built-in head baffle means you don’t have to bring a separate pillow. This particular model is 76 inches long and 25 inches wide, but Nemo Equipment makes a number of different sizes to suit your needs.
Stocking your bug out bag requires you to balance needs and desires that are often at odds with each other. As referenced above several times, this often means choosing between things like weight and warmth. Just be sure to think through the likely survival scenarios you are likely to face, and try to make the best decision you can.