As I've mentioned before, backpacking is one of my hobbies. I don't get to do it nearly as often as I'd like, so when I do make it out into the woods, I want to have a comfortable, worry-free, trouble-free experience. That means I keep my gear in good repair, and have a practical plan for every foreseeable need. I also live in Florida, where hurricanes are an annual threat. "Survivalism" is becoming more mainstream around the country, but it has always been that way in regions prone to natural disasters. We have all heard plenty of stories from Katrina, Andrew, Hugo, etc. that make a convincing case for always being prepared.
Preparedness can mean a lot of different things to different people in differenct places. However, since I'm a relentless engineer, I have an uncontrollable urge to squeeze efficiency out of any task I undertake. The entire point of this post is to discuss the crossover between packpacking and disaster survival. I like multi-purpose stuff. Having my backpacking stuff ready and operational means that it is no longer just "backpacking gear"; it is also a perfect "Bug-Out Bag". It makes sense: If I can survive a week in the wilderness with only the contents of my pack, it will also come in handy surviving natural disasters as well as other times when civilized society breaks down and you have to rely on yourself, and yourself alone, for survival. Even though my setup is intended for solo use, adding another person really only requires another sleeping bag and more food (and ammo.) This is ideal, because in a moments notice, I can have everything I need to survive in my car or on foot, alone or with someone else.
The BoB contents discussion is an old one. Everyone has their opinions about it. Most survivalist-type folks I know are in the "I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it" camp. They tend to have 200lb packs, and enough canned food to last a year. Not me. I prefer Ray Jardine's line: "if I need it and I don't have it, then I don't need it." I believe being able to find solutions to new problems without adding extra gear is imperative. You will always encounter problems you didn't prepare for, no matter how much crap you strap to yourself. Your ability to improvise is as important as your gear... however, that is a discussion for another time.
I mentioned that I like to be comfortable while backpacking. There are some comforts (including the comfort of not carrying 80lbs on your back) that never need to be sacrificed. At the same time, surviving when things go pear shaped requires mobility. Sometimes you won't have a mode of transportation other than your legs. Likewise, when you are on foot, extra weight might slow you down when you need to be fast. That means I need to know I can survive with only the things I can carry with me, and carry with me only the things I really need. As a backpacker, that's easy. Literally the only thing I need to add to my frame pack to turn it into bug-out gear is ammunition and a firearm. Since I already have a sidearm, I can simply grab a rifle or shotgun (if the situation demands it) and extra ammo.
The "what guns/ammo for your BoB" discussion has been done to death. I'm only going to discuss my backpacking gear in this series, but from the perspective of a survival situation. I am making a few assumptions about the circumstances of the survival situation. First and foremost, I am assuming that you need to survive without "normal" services. No electricity. No running water. No communication. You may be able to hunt/gather/scavenge food, but you will definitely need a few days rations to start with. I won't make assumptions about the nature of nearby people, because there are too many variables there. I do personally recommend carrying some type of self defense everywhere you go, but any more discussion on that topic would fill many books.
Everything marked with a * I consider optional. These are things I often leave at home when backpacking, because they simply won't be needed. Sometimes I substitute optional items as well. For instance, sometimes I just bring a tarp instead of a tent. Sometimes I just bring a bivy sack instead of either of those. However, these items are always kept with my backpacking gear, so if my pack becomes my bug-out bag, they are coming too. Many items that would normally serve only one purpose for backpacking may serve entirely different purposes in a survival situation. That tarp I set up for cooking under during inclement weather could very well become my sole source of hydration during the aftermath of a major disaster. Everything else on my list is what I bring on a normal backpacking trip lasting from a single night up to a week (or more). It is easy to stretch the use of consumable supplies like food. From a survival perspective, my 3-day supply of luxury backpacking food could easily become two weeks of survival rations.
I'll start with a list of must-have items. This series will be continued, and the following necessities will be covered:
- Basic Needs
- First Aid
- Other Miscellany
- Packing Gear
This is what you need to have in a survival situation, no matter what. It isn't surprising that this also holds true for backpacking. You'll notice I leave out things that other people say are "required" like a first aid kit and a flashlight. Neither of those, in my opinion, are "must have" items. They are certainly things I keep in my pack, but you can make do without either of them if you need to. You can have light without a flashlight (hint: fire.) The two most common items in a first aid kit, bandages and antiseptics, can be improvised. Even in my must-have list, the only one that can't be reliably improvised is a quality knife. Everything else I carry falls under "nice to have". This first list contains all things I keep handy at all times, even (especially) when I am away from home.
- A strong, sharp knife - I recommend high quality folding or fixed-blade knife with half-serrated blade. Folding knives are lighter because there is less metal and no sheath, but fixed-blade knives are far less likely to fail. That being said, I've never had a quality locking, folding knife fail. Some people prefer multi-tools. Those are heavy, but otherwise fine as long as the main knife blade locks.
- Means of creating fire - You need something that won't fail if it gets wet. Matches and cigarette lighters are just fine, but get a fire-steel too. They are inexpensive, light, and take up virtually no space.
- Water container - To be mobile at all, you have to be able to carry water. Nalgene bottles are ideal because they can hold boiling water, and they are virtually indestructible.
- Means of purifying water - If there is a chance you will be somewhere that clean, drinkable water is unavailable for longer than the water you can carry will last, you need to be able to make stream/lake/river water potable. Boiling is the best and easiest way to do it, but that requires fire and a suitable vessel. Chemical treatment is the easiest in a pinch, and Iodine tablets are cheap. When possible, I personally prefer a pump-style backpacking filter (with Iodine as a backup.) It is bulky and prone to failure, especially in sub-freezing temperatures, but it is normally the fastest way to get drinkable water.
- Compass - This clearly applies only if you have to be mobile in unfamiliar territory. I tend to assume mobility is an important part of both backpacking and survival in general, so I always have a compass ready. Of course, having it isn't good enough. You need the knowledge/ability to use it too! At a minimum, you want a liquid-filled, freeze-proof compass. Ideally, you want something that you can use in conjunction with a topographical map to get true/useful headings.