Packing Go Bags For The Whole Family
Hydration, calories, body temp. Those are the big three.
If your go bags have open hip pockets for water on both sides, use them, as in, store water in
them. It’s okay to just use some full, never-opened, store bought plastic water bottles. Or you
can opt for more durable water jugs from your typical gear outlet, but sanitize them, fill them
with clean drinking water, and put them in their pockets, on each go bag.
A few of that individual’s favorite protein or hiking bars go in, too. And that’s two of the big
three covered for at least a couple of days. Add in a couple of electrolyte packets and it’s
amazing how long the human body can last on those and just some water, provided you avoid
hypothermia or overheating.
Clothing: a pair of light, yet good shoes (like trail runners), two pair socks and underwear,
jeans or hiking pants, two t-shirts, a thermal sweater, an all purpose raincoat or jacket
and rain poncho, wool hat, pair of long underwear that can double as PJs. One emergency blanket.
Second Tier Essentials
Now it’s arguable the above actually covers the real needs of the most basic possible
emergency go bag. If a fire hits your home, and we’re still in the middle of sheltering-in-place,
and you’ve got time to at least grab a strap and sling a pack from it’s ready place, then these
basics at least mean you and your family go from whatever you were sleeping in (if anything), to
being able to show up clothed and not starving to whatever reasonably close shelter that will
take you in for a bit and let you clear your head to figure out what’s next.
But tell that to a mom whose child managed to get cut, or started showing a fever, and she
didn’t have any disinfectant, bandages, or acetaminophen...? She’s gonna say, “What in the
hell were you thinking?”
So we think a family of four should have three mini first aid kits and a more heavy duty one.
Perhaps the individual first aid kits only have the basics just outlined, or maybe a few added
supplies like butterfly strips, NSAID tablets, and any specific prescription needs for that
individual. On that, we don’t need to tell people how important their medicine is, but for those
with prescriptions of any kind, it requires additional maintenance and scheduling to store and
rotate additional supplies.
And since that’s come up, most of us tend to not only be go bag aficionados, but also preppers
at varying levels. Since this pandemic hit, a whole lot more people have suddenly figured out
what we’ve been asking people to consider for as long as we’ve been into this concept: rotating
pantry supplies from store to your own shelves and disaster prep kits through to the table,
bathroom, and medicine cabinet. Some things last for years, other things for months, and to
mess it all up the expiration dates are often inaccurate, but then also often just there to cover
liability. We’ve had some highly trained, professional individuals in the field of pharmacy tell us
that typical over the counter drugs remain safe and effective for years after their expiration date,
but are we absolutely sure that’s true? Not really. Even experts are wrong sometimes, and
every time we hear one study that’s supposed to be conclusive, another one seems to crop up
that contradicts it. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you try to rely on too much of anything
outside your own wits, and you can drive yourself crazy trying to maintain perfection and not
waste food and medicine.
“pack ‘em and leave ‘em sit”
This comes back full circle to something we addressed the first time we brought up disaster prep kits in general: very often the energy one puts into setting up go bags and other just-in-
case plans fade. It’s okay. We’d rather have you enjoy life and play with your kids than obsess over any refresh and re-supply schedule. Like how much in the grand scheme of things do you
want to worry about whether dried pasta ever actually goes bad, versus some canned tomatoes
you might one day use it for. If your kids grow out of the shoes in the go bags before you
remember to replace them, well, that’s life. That’s why we say the only tool outside of your mind
we ever recommend if you had one single solitary pick: the knife.
But while the energy is high for this kind of thing, and the times call for it, trust yourself to figure
out what you and your family need. If your go bag strategy is “pack ‘em and leave ‘em sit,” we
approve, and that’s one set of gear. If on the other hand it’s “pack ‘em at a much higher level of
prep, and maintain them,” that’s a different set of gear, requires the occasional replacement,
and we certainly approve of that, too.
So, back to the quick hitting gear list. Add to the first minimal set: first aid kits. Mini ones for
each, but one heftier one with gauze bandages, scissors, tourniquets, and other items you can
find by doing a quick google search for first aid kits. But note well, it’s worth also looking up a
few professional emergency first aid procedure videos from real experts. A little blood isn’t the
end of the world, and a wrongly applied tourniquet for the wrong injury could cause someone to
lose a leg. We don’t expect everyone to go through EMT training, but there are some basics
everyone could know that make a real difference when it counts.
Did we mention knives? (in case you missed it, yes, one for every go bag unless you just can’t trust little Johnny. Just remember, each go bag should at least minimally work for that person’s survival, in case he or she gets separated from the group.)
Shelter for a Family
Now the question is bedding and shelter. Depending on which kind of emergency blankets you
might choose, they can serve. We have mixed opinions about those ultra thin emergency
sheets that look like tinfoil. The heat reflective properties we do respect, and there’s no doubt
they can make the difference. But there are some very small sleeping bags and camping
quilts that pack up extraordinarily tight, and they’re just more comfortable. As to pads, just
climb in your sleeping bag and lie on a wooden floor and tell us how important they are after
two-and-a-half minutes trying to catch some sleep. Bottom line is, if you’re just trying to survive,
any form of life-saving heat feels like a miracle, and you’d be grateful for it whether or not the
ground was soft. But one step up above basic survival and these questions come into play, fast.
A family of four, with two young kids? Well the truth is your go bags are just there to get you out
the door and to shelter, so you probably don’t need to pack for camping, but if you decide you
want your go bags to potentially carry you a bit longer, then consider the sleeping arrangements, and even options for tents. Most of our go bags don’t have tents, though some
of us are testing those newer little one person emergency pup tents made out of the same
reflective materials used in the emergency blankets.
The List Grows Like A Weed
You can probably guess already how much the minimalists among us have been shaking
their heads for over a page now. This rabbit hole hits very often when moms start thinking about
their kids. One splinter and they’ll wish they had tweezers (which should be in the bigger first
aid kit, are included in a lot of those old classic Swiss Army knives, and can be handy in a lot of
situations). One meal of protein bars and everyone will wish for hot cocoa or coffee. One
morning sitting in a shelter with phone batteries dead and a long line at the charging station, and
everyone will wish they thought of backup power, and entertainment. One sprained wrist and...
You can’t plan for everything, and even if you could, nobody could carry their whole house on
their backs. But if you’ve got a set of go bags, you may as well get close to filling them, as long
as everything you put in isn’t made of lead.
A mini sewing kit can patch up a pack, a sock, or even something more vital in absolute
emergencies. Duct tape has a million uses. There aren’t many backpackers around who don’t
bring a hank of paracord with them. Usually it’s to hang stuff so bears and other wild animals
don’t eat your food and shred your gear. But some extra thin, light, strong rope like paracord
can have as many uses as that famed duct tape. A few empty ziplock bags come in mighty
handy when some kind soul is handing out food. Put some toilet paper and wet wipes in one
and the whole family might just end up grateful. Surprising how much you miss a spoon or a
fork when you don’t have one. Water runs out fast, and backpacking purifiers are small, light,
and able to sustain a family of four, easily, from practically any stream you’ll be able to find. A
ferro rod for fire starting really works, packs light and tight, and all of these things fall under the
category of ‘won’t be missed until desperately needed.” But you see what the problem is? Too
many people pack their go bags as though they were camping. But every single thing you put in
has weight. This is one reason we avoid gear lists and prefer to talk about imagination and strategy.
At least we’re giving you the general ideas. And remember, the difference between making your
own go bag if you’re single, versus taking care of our family of four here, is that these extra
items that can be key, but must be considered lower on the priority list, are what you can start
divvying up among everyone. The kids will like being in charge of something, by the way. So, for
example, paracord is light, and small. A little five or ten foot coil of it can go in each bag. But
toilet paper? As light as it is, it’s bulky. Maybe one roll in each kids’ pack, and enjoy the chance
for some comedy at making a show of how extraordinarily precious, vital, and responsible must
be those entrusted with the carrying of the family TP.
The Escape Plan
Now a few other thoughts. Where do you keep them? For some, space under the bed doesn’t
work. It’s too narrow or already filled with other stuff. Some kids’ rooms would have to give up
too much to leave a pack in a corner of the closet that never really gets touched, and some kids
can’t resist exploring what’s not to be touched anyway.
That said, it’s better if each individual knows the escape route, and has the reflex to grab the
one strap they’re responsible for, and go. In a previous email we mentioned the father who
wondered whether in a real emergency, when his go bags weren’t ready, would he have had the
time to heave his preparedness chest over the railing of his deck. But when his go bags are all
set, he keeps them in that same chest. They fill up half of it. And the whole family knows, if the
fire alarm goes off, it’s out of bed, to the chest, grab your strap and get out, either the usual way,
or flip the emergency ladder over the balcony and go down it. For other families it might be go
bags have their perfect spot in each members’ rooms. Those of us who are parents, of small
kids and particularly teenagers know just how likely it is any of them would actually remember to
grab the strap, and we plan accordingly. Some of us pack the parents bags in the assumption
the kids won’t remember to grab theirs, and it all just comes down to trade offs for limited space,
keeping things light as possible, and most of all being ready to sprint and not die by taking extra
seconds when the fire is closer than you think.
Escape ladders, by the way, are commercially available and also easy to custom make.
And you may have noticed by now, any pack that is supposed to work as a go bag, no matter
how large or small, if it doesn’t have a quick snatch strap right where you can grab it with one
hand and heave, then don’t buy it. Most of our go bags, by the way, are about the size of a
typical airline carry-on, and all have shoulder straps and removable hip straps. Not tiny,
but not nearly as big as the typical backpackers weeklong+ one. That said, some of us are
single, don’t plan on airline travel for such an emergency, and their go bags are indeed just full sized backpacks, stocked and ready to go at all times.
Technology and Other Items To Evaluate
Now we haven’t even gotten into the different theories we have always been kicking around,
about just what does the modern individual in the information age actually need for a true
emergency preparedness bag. None of the above involve your laptops or phones, but for some
individuals, especially pre COVID-19, they felt they could have a small case with backup power,
plug adapters, extra cables, and even an emergency laptop they never use. From anywhere in
the world they can get their work done, transfer money, and buy basic essentials. We’re fully on
board with that kind of thinking, but this pandemic has demonstrated all over again...if an
emergency is big enough to require your go bag, then it might just be big enough to make
technology and ready cash secondary to raw, fundamental survival.
But since we’re getting lower on the priority list anyway, a few more thoughts. We recommend
either an e-reader with a great battery, pre-loaded with even greater books, or at least one
good book per pack. Any other light, packable, entertainment specific to the individual isn’t a
bad idea. One of the moms here makes sure she has a small, but surprisingly versatile craft
packet, which she uses on planes to great success with her kids every trip they take. It has patches of materials, wires and beads, paper and small pencils, mini scissors, and tiny tubes of glue.
And lastly, backup documents. Official copies of birth certificates, state ID cards, proof of
permanent resident status, etc. You may even want to consider storing your passports in the top
pocket of the Mom’s or Dad’s go bag whenever they aren’t in use.
Now we could fill up another few pages on gear ideas, plus weighing the pros and cons of each.
We live for that stuff. But guess what? Those things are fun to discuss when you’re in the right
mood. Your family is unique, and your ideas and thoughts are, too. More than one of us
think a knife on their hip and a backpack full of books is all they really need. The rest of us
assume they mean along with the clothes they’re wearing, but believe us when we tell you,
that’s not always a given with some of these minimalist types.