Keeping Pack Weight Down If You Need To Bug-Out

bug_out_open_roadYou’re at home one night and the power goes out.  Hackers have taken down the grid and you need to bug-out to your sister’s house a hundred and twenty miles away.  Traffic is gridlocked and no one is driving anywhere anytime soon.  You decide to bug-out on foot with your pack. Six miles down the road, you’re dying from the weight of the pack.  It feels like you’re carrying a Volkswagon on your back because you’ve got so much stuff in it. There’s a lot to be said for sticking to the basics when you build your bug-out bag.

By Jarhead Survivor, a Contributing Author of SurvivalCache and SHTFBlog

Back in the dark ages (early 1980’s) when I was in the Marine Corps, a full pack for a basic infantry man ran about sixty pounds.  That was the canvas shelter half, poles and stakes, sleeping bag, food, mess kit, clothes, etc.  Lord help you if you were the machine gunner or radio man because that added a lot more weight to what you had to carry.

Stick to Basics

bug_out_roman_legionaries_marchingI remember going on forced marches for ten or fifteen miles and suffering because of the weight.  You eventually get used to it, but I wouldn’t say I ever came to enjoy it.  I soon learned what was important and what wasn’t and ditched the excess stuff.  Apparently this has been a familiar theme through the ages because during the Civil War soldiers started out with haversacks weighing forty to fifty pounds, but soon learned to drop the excess weight and only get by with the essentials.  I’d be willing to bet the same has held true for soldiers going back to the Roman legions where they were sometimes estimated to carry up to eighty pounds – a ridiculous amount of weight.  But then again, they were professional warriors and when they signed up it was for a much longer tour than four years like the average tour today.  Roman soldiers underwent conditioning marches that were brutally hard.  Vegetius wrote in De Re Militari:

To accustom soldiers to carry burdens is also an essential part of
discipline. Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry
a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and
to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions
they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their
provisions as well as their arms. Nor will they find this troublesome
when inured to it by custom, which makes everything easy.

Our troops in ancient times were a proof of this, and Virgil has remarked it in the following lines:

The Roman soldiers, bred in war’s alarms,
Bending with unjust loads and heavy arms,
Cheerful their toilsome marches undergo,
And pitch their sudden camp before the foe.

Lighten Your Pack

As you probably surmised from the title, this post isn’t about soldiers and their pack weight.  It’s about you carrying less weight so that you can bug-out effectively if it ever comes down to it.  Unless you spend every day hiking a sixty pound pack fifteen or twenty miles, the likelihood of being able to do so when the SHTF are slim to none.  From the section above I reiterate:

Nor will they find this troublesome when inured to it by custom, which makes everything easy.

Chances are good that you’d be stopping along the way and ditching gear, thus you really need to focus on packing just the essentials.  I’ve seen packs on Youtube and in blog posts that a Clydesdale couldn’t carry.  They’ve got everything in there from three changes of clothing to enough ammo to fight off the zombie apocalypse all by themselves.  And the kicker is that quite a few of those people are about fifty pounds overweight and the act of actually carrying it more than five miles would probably kill them.

The Essentials

So what exactly are the essentials?  This depends on you:  your skill level in the woods, your fitness level, your bug-out plans, your destination, and your mission plan.

hike_march_bug_outThe worst case scenario is a full scale bug-out, meaning that you’re taking off and you need to live out of your bag for a minimum of three days, but probably longer.  If you’re careful, you can probably get away with forty to forty-five pounds.   This includes a tent, sleeping bag, freeze dried food, a quart of water with water filter, spork, small cook pot and stove, fuel (unless you’re carrying a small woodstove like a Solo Stove), lightweight poncho, and other essential gear. If you buy the lightest gear (usually the most expensive too), you should be able to have a good kit that weighs in the forty pound area.  I hiked a piece of the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine and my pack weighed forty-four pounds when I started.  I spent a lot of time getting that pack weight down, but it was worth it.  I also spent weeks leading up to that hike walking the road with the same boots I’d be wearing and carrying the pack to get used to the weight.

Read Also: Get Outdoors!

Rather than run through all the scenarios, I’ll list out some of the things I carry in my everyday woodsman kit and why I carry it.  I’ve managed to pare the weight down to about twenty to twenty-five pounds (depending on how much water I carry) and I’ve found this to be an acceptable weight as I’ve gotten older.

Then again, I also have a lot of experience in the woods and feel comfortable entering the forest with what some might consider minimal gear. I consider my kit to be a GHB or Get Home Bag, meaning I’ll only carry it about 30 miles in a worst case scenario, which for me is walking home from work.  I like to move fast and light and not be seen if at all possible.  So rather than carry weapons I choose to leave that weight behind and avoid confrontation.  I suppose the worst thing is someone steals my bag from me, which means I’ll be that much lighter on the way home.

Let me say up front that many of you won’t agree with my philosophy on firearms and that’s fine.  I live in Maine and in the area I’ll be walking through, people are unlikely to cause me problems.  If you live in the city and carrying a big pack loaded with shelter, water, and food makes you a fat target, then you’ll probably want to consider carrying a gun as protection.  Again, this all comes back to your situation and threat assessment.  But keep in mind that guns and ammo are heavy, so choose wisely.

To survive a night or two in the wild here’s what I carry for the basics:

  • Military Grade Poncho
  • Survival Knife
  • Firesteel and Lighter
  • Three Freeze Dried Meals (minimum)
  • Small Flashlight
  • 1 Quart Steel Water Bottle and Filter
  • Pot Set with Homemade Alcohol Stove and Four Oz of Fuel or Small Woodstove
  • Small Plastic Cup and Five Coffee Packets
  • Multitool
  • Map and Compass
  • Bandana
  • Titanium Spork
  • Gloves and Hat in Cold Weather
  • Sleeping bag/Wool Blanket
  • Notebook and Pen

This pack weighs between 20 and 23 pounds depending on the extras I put in.  If you’re going to rely on the above kit as your guide, other things you’ll  need to add to the list:

  • Experience in the wilderness/bushcraft skills
  • Much time spent evaluating and using each piece of equipment
  • Overall physically fit (weights and aerobics four to five times a week)
  • Skill with map and compass

Wilderness Survival Skills

packing_light_gear_minimumThe more you know about wilderness survival the less gear you have to carry; however, the longer it will take you when you have to set up camp.  It’s a trade off and you need to be able to judge yourself and the situation in order to make the best decisions.  A few days ago I took the following kit into the woods and made a shelter using no tools whatsoever.  I used two trees to break sticks to length and used fir boughs for insulation.  I used a lighter to get the fire going, but that was the only man made item I used.

Related: 15 Ways to Start a Fire

shelter_fire_camping_out-2It’s important that you tally up your knowledge, experience, and skills in addition to the gear you’ll carry. All of these things are important when trying to figure out the best way for you to bug-out. It’s also important to weigh your weaknesses.  For example:  if you’re overweight or otherwise not able to carry a pack for a long distance, you’ll need to make alternate plans.  Bugging in might be your best option, so instead of preparing to leave, you plan for an extended stay in your home or apartment.  But I digress.


In order to get your pack weight down you need to focus on the essentials.  My advice is to lay out everything you could want, put it in your pack (if it will fit) then take it for a walk.  If you can do three to five miles with that weight without much trouble, congratulations!  You’re probably going to be ok.

If you find yourself struggling after a mile or two, take your pack home and start going through your gear and eliminate stuff you don’t need.  Got a big flashlight that holds four D cell batteries?  Get rid of it and get a small halogen light that uses a couple of Triple A’s.  If you’re walking alone and have a three man tent, ditch it for an ultralight single man tent. That will save you five or ten pounds right there.  That’s the kind of mindset you need to bring to your gear.

Visualize what a camp out will look like and keep that thought in your head as you go through your stuff.  Always challenge a piece of gear.  Some of it will pass the test, but some of it won’t.  Don’t be afraid to cut back. I believe that speed in getting out of an area will be vital and it’s hard to do if you’re chained to a sixty pound pack.  After all, we’re not Roman soldiers!

Do you think a pack should have everything and the kitchen sink, or do you think a minimalist mindset is best? Let me know in the comments below. Questions?  Comments? Sound off below!

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23 comments… add one
  • E. Scott Pickens February 24, 2017, 7:09 pm

    Gear/GHB/BOB. TEST,TRAIN,Test,Train,Test,Train..REPEAT.

  • irishdutchuncle February 25, 2017, 3:20 am

    you’re being kind…

    acording to the old weight charts, I’m closer to ninety pounds overweight.
    (and when I dieted down to 160, I still had a belly)

    how do you feel about hydration bladders, vs a canteen or Nalgene bottle?
    (I just added an MSR Miniworks water filter to my kit)

    • phoenix February 25, 2017, 8:23 am

      personally,I carry both. hydration bladder for drinking and 2 military canteens for cooking and collecting water. metal canteen with cup and stove for boiling water,plastic canteen for collecting water in the field. i use a sawyer mini filter and it fits perfectly on the canteens.

      • Jarhead Survivor February 25, 2017, 9:29 am

        I carry a setup very similar to that one, Phoenix.

      • irishdutchuncle February 26, 2017, 3:49 am

        my CamelBak has the same thread as the water filter I just got, and MSR also makes a bladder that fits. I don’t know where I’m bugging out to, yet,
        so I haven’t determined which streams I’ll try to filter from…
        I may need to carry more water weight than I’d like to. (especially if I’m not traveling by myself)

    • Jarhead Survivor February 25, 2017, 9:28 am

      I’d say whatever works best for you is what you need. I have two kits that I generally go into the woods with. One very minimal: canteen with canteen cup, lighter, compass, two dehydrated meals, plastic fork and spoon, and a few other small items. This kit weighs about seven pounds and I carry it in a map case.

      The other kit is bigger and is what I consider my GHB, and it weight about 20 lbs. It has the above gear and a few extras like a military grade poncho and some other stuff.

      A hydration bladder is good because empty it doesn’t weigh much and if it’s full you’re using it.

  • Mr. Gray February 25, 2017, 8:03 am

    I travel on business, up to 375 miles from home. I’ve put a LOT of thought into my GHB because it could take me more than a month to walk home.
    It was painful to take my tent out of my bag, but it removed a lot of weight. I figure on building a simple shelter every day.
    I cut my fishing kit by about half.
    I cut my clothing by 2/3.
    I couldn’t bear to leave out my gun/knife. My gun is a Glock 21 (heavy) and my knife is a Buck 124 – also heavy, but durable and versatile.

    In a situation where I’d be forced to walk up to 375 miles I have to figure that the country’s gone to hell so I included 20 oz of silver. More weight, but maybe I could trade it for food/shelter.
    My fire starter is two small containers of Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, each wih a disposable lighter.
    I also included my binoculars, which I consider indispensable for scouting for trouble.
    So I included a good bit of weight which I felt like I must have.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 25, 2017, 9:31 am

      Sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into your kit! Good for you. If you ever need it for real it’ll pay off for you. One good thing is that if you need to you can always dump gear as you go, so if you’re feeling weighed down you can always dump a little more stuff and run if you have to!

      • Mick Barker Sr. June 21, 2018, 8:02 pm

        And a trade off, instead of dumping gear, if you meet with any other person, possibly trade off the extra weight, that way you gain instead of losing.
        Another thought. Cache the extra weight in the case you return that way for some reason.
        Marine Force Recon ’79-’91

  • Augustus February 25, 2017, 8:37 am

    I purchased a camping hammock which let me put my Eureka Solo in the BOB. I use a wood burning stove that charges my phone. I have a large selection of freeze dried as I camp often. I live near large wooded areas that lead to expansive state land. That said, I stay in great shape. I run, cycle (I have a cargo bike for a backup escape vehicle), and do yoga. I can carry forty pounds all day at around two miles per hour. Outdoor skills and aerobic fitness are essential. I am 60 years old and do not plan to slow down. Next time ask about my long term plans.

    • Jarhead Survivor February 25, 2017, 9:32 am

      Sounds like you’ve covered all the bases, Augustus! It seems that you and I have a lot in common.

  • Sideliner 1950 February 25, 2017, 1:04 pm

    You write, “This pack weighs between 20 and 23 pounds depending on the extras I put in.” Good job.

    You also write, “In order to get your pack weight down you need to focus on the essentials.” Agree that bag weights should be kept down, but not to the exclusion of contingency items such as a relatively comprehensive IFAK w/daily meds, some duct tape, a TP Kit (TP, nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer, small tube of petroleum jelly), etc. I bring up these items because I don’t see them mentioned anywhere.

    Interesting that you eschew the company of a firearm. Perhaps there are no wild predators to fear when bedded down for the night in Maine…not so in different places across the country…a man on a hike was killed by a black bear in New Jersey(!) a couple of years ago. Here in the Sierra Nevada range there are several predators to fear, including black bears, the stray wolf, packs of coyotes, but most notably mountain lions, which boldly and famously make appearances in residential areas (our back yard once, and on a local trail twice — so far.) We find evidence of their large game kills (deer especially, and the occasional canine) everywhere in our local hills. They concern me more than black bears. Either way, I welcome the company of my pistol and ammo, and gladly bear the extra weight.

    • Jarhead Survivor March 1, 2017, 11:31 am

      Good point about the extras you list and I do include those in the 20 lb kit.

      As to animals here in Maine, yeah, we have black bears, coyotes, and some other things, but I’ve been camping out for over 40 years and never had a problem yet. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen sometime of course, but so far I’ve been lucky. The closest encounter I had was with a moose and she wasn’t too interested in me at the time. I’ve seen bear, but they always turn tail and run in the other direction. So like I said, lucky so far!

  • OldIron February 26, 2017, 8:32 am

    After reading I went down and brought up my pack a swedish military steal frame 35 liter and well it was 30 lbs. Dug though my hunting pack and swapped out gear and bang 24 lbs,next went the 4 bottles of water all freeze dried food and now it’s 20.4. The weight is now light enough to ad a two quart canteen 22 and extra socks. Thanks for your time be good or don’t get caught.

    • Jarhead Survivor March 1, 2017, 11:28 am

      Thanks for reading, OldIron. Glad you got that pack weight down. Hope it helps you out.

  • BobM February 27, 2017, 11:16 am

    In the old days, the wilderness hikers would go so far as to cut tags off tea bags. The saying then was “worry about ounces and pounds will follow”.

  • Roger February 28, 2017, 7:52 pm

    The problem with only bringing the minimum amount is that you’re wide open to the curve balls that life loves to throw at you! For example, you headed to your sister’s house a hundred and twenty miles away, since most people seem to focus on 72 hour kits we’ll assume that you have three days worth of food. If you can walk twenty miles a day consistently (and this is a pretty good amount off the roads, most trails aren’t a straight line) you’ll get through in 6 days, rather hungry I would think! Now, you find your sister’s house is a smoldering ruins, her location unknown; haven’t you just buggered yourself by putting all your eggs in one basket? You may not wish to carry a firearm, that’s your choice, but that means you may have to hide from any other people you see (especially if they’re armed), there goes your twenty miles a day. If you have a meeting (accidental or otherwise), those person(s) may take all you have, including your life! Also, a firearm gives most people the best chance of hunting in the woods, unless you’re a very skilled archer or master trapper (which takes time and a very large area) your best bet is a rifle! A .22LR is probably your best choice because will you really have (or want to) take the time and effort to process a large animal while on the move and trying to avoid other probably hungry people. Yes, a .22LR isn’t my first choice for a defensive weapon but it is lightweight, as is the ammo and relatively cheap and accurate beyond the range of most handguns, and with a combo gun like a Savage model 42 (.22LR/.410) a wider range of game is possible and don’t underestimate the close range effectiveness of ‘000’ buck or slugs! Natural shelters are great but time-consuming (cuts into your travel time) and some area may be very sparse for building materials, a tarp at least large enough wrap completely around is IMHO a must. The area I live in is fairly dry so I carry a total of 5 quarts of water, few things will slow you down faster than dehydration! GLAHP!

    • Jarhead Survivor March 1, 2017, 11:27 am

      Hey Roger – valid points and no arguments with your reasoning, which is why I said you need to make that determination for your own personal situation.

      Again the whole thing comes down to how much weight can you carry and for what distance? If you can hump 65 lbs twenty miles a day go for it! (And you’re an animal!) Most people won’t be able to do that distance or weight, and what I’m advocating here is to carefully think about each piece of gear you put in your pack. It won’t do you any good if you have to chuck something heavy on the move, but like I mentioned in the article it won’t hurt anything either.

      The reason I don’t carry a firearm is that my planning all revolves around getting home from work (30 to 35 miles) and I’ll do anything to lighten my load. If I saw some iffy characters I don’t mind ducking into the woods to get away from them. I’d just as soon avoid a firefight if I could anyway.

      Bugging out from home to somewhere else is a whole different can of worms! That’s a whole other blog post though. But I’d still do everything I could to keep my pack as light as possible.

  • Roger March 3, 2017, 9:58 pm

    Jarhead, Semper Fi! I think you’re missing my point concerning a firearm! What if you successfully get home and it’s no longer there, then what? All you’re carefully hoarded supplies may be feeding a pack of two-legged animals. A firearm (even the humble .22LR) is a great equalizer, everyone knows that guns are dangerous. If you’re a person who suddenly realizes that the SHTF and to survive you’re probably going to have to take what others have, with or without their OK. Now, do you go after the seemingly soft target (grandma pushing a shopping cart) or a potentially lethal one (hard-eyed ex-Marine packing artillery), easy answer isn’t it! After SHTF, nice guys die first! Why start (or restart) at the bottom of the food chain if you can start a few rungs up? Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, we are all animals, the difference is that some are sheep and others are wolves; which will you choose to be? GLAHP!

    • Jarhead Survivor March 4, 2017, 10:07 am

      Ah, I did misunderstand your statement, Roger. Hmm, a good point that I hadn’t really considered. My wife and kids would be home and she’s probably a better shot than I am and would be protecting the kids, so she’d give them a run for their money.

      It is a good point though and maybe I should reconsider at least a pistol with a couple mags in my bag. Gives me something to think about. Thanks!

      • Steven R March 14, 2017, 9:13 am

        One should apply the cost/benefit of weight to a pistol also. A polymer 380 micropistol is less than a pound loaded. Fits comfortably and innocuously in a pocket. Larger calibers with bigger magazines the magazine itself can weigh more than a pound each. A pound of pistol and mags is worth the price for almost any situation.


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