A low-sustained boom rumbled across the city, shutting down the power and shaking the buildings. People run from my office building in a genuine panic. I may not be sprinting for the exit, but I’m not wasting time either.
My smartphone has no reception or connection. When I reach my vehicle, I discover all roads leading away from my office as cars litter all of the roadways. No one knows what’s happening, and everyone is freaking out.
While fear simmers below the surface, I feel composed and ready for the challenge ahead. I open the rear hatch of my SUV, flip up the compartment to my spare tire, retrieve my ultralight-get-home backpack, and set off on foot. Immediately, I begin scanning my options, knowing no matter what happens, I have a plan, and it’s a good one.
We’ve all played this scenario out from time to time in our heads. The world crashes while we’re at work, and we have to find our way to safety, which for most of us, is our home.
Instead of worrying pointlessly about this scenario, act on it. Plan out and pack your ultralight-get-home bag. Give yourself the peace of mind to know you have some control in an uncontrollable situation. Your driver education teacher taught you, or should have taught you, always to have an escape route. You’ll need more than that escape route when faced with an issue that drives you to walk home. You need survival equipment and a plan. With the proper supplies, you can focus all your mental energy on survival.
For me, like a lot of people in this pandemic, the answer is easy because I work from home. But what if I need to get to my parents’ house 90 miles away? What if I need to get to a friend’s house 30 miles away?
When packing your bag, the adage, “two is one, and one is none,” serves us all well. As with everything, expect Murphy’s Law to reach fruition. Pack batteries, matches, lighters, and other sensitive items in individual waterproof bags or vacuum seal them. A good vacuum seal machine offsets its cost quickly. Go ahead and make that investment.
Vacuum sealing also allows you to maximize space with a mylar blanket and winter clothing.
As with anything, our differences make us who we are. Since we all come in different shapes, sizes, and fitness levels, take what advice and thought you would from this piece and customize it to your situation. The overall goal is to keep the weight of your get-home bag as low as possible. When weighing your options, determine what is required for you and what is not. Once you’ve narrowed down the necessities, get the lightest and smallest option possible. Consider your health and your abilities. Kick your ego out of the way and focus on survival.
I didn’t write this article as a claim to be the foremost expert on the ultralight-get-home backpack. Instead, I want to provoke thought in those who are heady enough to prepare for the worst-case scenario. I intend this article to reinforce the preparations you’ve already made and maybe even give you a new idea or two to consider. We’re all different, so all of our bags will contain various equipment. The important part is not the differences but what we can learn from each other.
Here are the questions you need to ask yourself:
If we’re trekking home on foot because of a natural disaster, then we don’t have to have to avoid people. Chances are you can sleep in a hotel or someone’s house on your way home. But if something forces us to walk home, then preparation is essential to survival.
Distance is not the only factor to consider. It’s widely thought a person can cover 20-30 miles in a day. However, if you need to negotiate mountains, bodies of water, and avoid people, then your miles per day are limited. Negotiating obstacles and laying low could cut your miles per day to seven or lower. When you’re factoring the distance, err on the side of pessimism. Map out a few different routes. Look for utility rights of way or recreational trails.
Drinkable water is the most critical aspect of survival because of the body’s desperate need for it. Dehydration quickly leads to headaches, muscle cramps, and a host of spiraling symptoms on the way to death. Because of our need for water, we live around places where it is plentiful, but not always drinkable. Bring along a stainless steel bottle to boil water in as well as water purification tablets and a mini water filter. Pack a camel-back bladder to ease hydration while you’re on the move. For good measure, pack some electrolyte tablets to boost your hydration if needed.
Since you’re not sure how long you’ll be out there, pack a couple of MREs and some dehydrated soup. Add a couple of sporks in there as well. MREs, dehydrated soup, and possibly some protein bars should give you enough food to either get you home or round up some flora and fauna.
Research the edible and non-edible plants in the area. If you need to learn the importance of knowing the difference in wild berries, give “Into the Wild” a read.
Find out what kind of wildlife lurking in your area. Squirrels, dove, and fish are all good to know about for protein purposes in many parts of the country. Pack an emergency fishing kit and learn a bit about making animal traps. Both should provide a relatively silent method of catching and killing food.
Bears, catamounts, and boars, on the other hand, are good to know about for your safety. Most of these animals will steer clear of you well before you know they are there. Urban expansion, however, is shrinking their habitats more every year. The loss of their habitat does encourage some animals as they seek their sustenance. Tread lightly and keep your eyes and ears open.
Make seasonal adjustments to your get-home bag as the seasons change. You need to check all your equipment routinely for maintenance purposes. Make those checks at least seasonally to ensure the upkeep and appropriateness of the articles.
Pack rain gear, even if it’s a non-rainy season. Make sure that clothing is waterproof and not merely water-resistant. There is little worse in this world than experiencing the difference in those two terms in the real world.
Obviously, the colder it is, the more clothes you’ll need. Regardless of the season, make sure you have a pair of durable pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a full-brimmed hat to keep the sun at bay. If you don’t happen to wear comfortable-waterproof shoes every day, keep a pair handy either in your car or in the office. Comfortable shoes around the car and office don’t necessarily translate well to the woods.
A first-aid kit with gauze, varied bandages (including ace), and sanitizing pads is another must for your get-home bag. Include moleskin, an N95 mask, a bandana or two, and a blanket. Add a pain reliever, an incontinence medication, and a foot powder or spray.
Also add in toiletries such as toothbrush, toothpaste, eye drops, and contact solution. Thoroughly analyze your day-to-day life to ensure you’re covering all the bases. Vacuum seal a roll of toilet paper for obvious reasons. You won’t need soap and deodorant, but you must have your blood-pressure medication, for example. An effective bug spray could also save you from a world of discomfort. A few nitrile gloves, as well as a pair of work gloves, are also a healthy addition.
If possible, two firearms are ideal. Your everyday conceal/carry pistol is handy and helpful in a close range emergency. For my purposes, the Sig Sauer P938 with an inside-the-pant holster is perfect and versatile for any clothing or situation. Only a metal detector or pat-down reveals I have it on my person. But if you need a bit more range, you need a bit more gun. We’d all like a rifle on our shoulder traipsing through the forest, but if that’s not feasible, keep your 40 caliber, or similar pistol, with your get-home bag. If you need to fire one bullet, chances are you’ll need to fire at least a couple more. Find the right balance of ammo to give yourself backup rounds, but not overburden your pack.
Plan on overnighting in the wilderness. If you’re lucky, you have a safe house or two to where you can sleep. If not, you have options. Tents are an obvious choice for sleeping outdoors, but not practical in this application unless you don’t mind the extra weight. A more straightforward solution is an earth-toned tarp. The dimensions depend on your preferences, but 8 feet by 4 feet should provide plenty of room to sleep under without getting soaked by rain. If you can tolerate it, the best solution to lighten your load is to pack a couple of large contractor garbage bags and use your creativity. The garbage bags could also come in handy for a variety of other purposes.
A working compass and a topographical map are potentially indispensable. Keeping track of the plan will keep you out of harm’s way and on your route efficiently. A good pair of binoculars could help you identify landmarks or dangerous situations ahead.
Find ways to get out to this route while things are calm. You might even find places to stash some goods to lighten your pack.
With the potential of smartphones losing connection, a scanner/two-way radio will provide you with the latest information. Pack a wired earbud to listen without being detected.
For night vision, a headlamp and a small flashlight will suffice. Chances are you’ll have little need for a lot of candle power.
Pack a solar-powered battery with adaptor cable to keep the radio and smartphone charged. An energy stick or two is another small item that could pay big dividends.
Paracord’s infinite uses make it a necessity. Its applications include first-aid functions, trap setting, tent rigging, and a host of well known life-saving, or life-easing purposes. Fifty feet ought to satisfy your needs for this bag.
Pack the appropriate knives. For forging overgrown areas, pack a machete. The machete could also be useful for creating shelter or gathering kindling. At a minimum include a Bowie knife and good multitool. A portable sharpening implement will prove handy as well.
A folding camp saw, and a mini pry bar could also ease the burden of your trek.l
You have all the items, now all you need is the backpack. The backpack needs to be durable, at least water-resistant, have several compartments, a waist, and sternum strap, and hopefully somewhat breathable or wicking. Try a few out to ensure you get the one best suited for your build.
Always be on the lookout for newer, lighter, and overall better gear and philosophies. There’s no need to break the bank on a whole new survival gear set, but if a deal pops up on a two-way scanner that’s half the size of your current one with better range, buy that sucker.
Keep in mind this is an ultralight, get-home bag. Tailor it to your needs, making this bag as light as possible with only the absolute necessities. A seven-mile trek over relatively flat ground does not require seven days worth of MREs. Be stingy, but smart with your packing.
While obsessing does not help to ease your mind, your preparation does. Picture the world around you going crazy while you purposefully and casually slink into the safety and serenity of the woods. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs . . . you’ll be a Man, my son!”