The Best (and Worst) Survival Bags

Every serious prepper needs a survival bag. After all, what good does all that gear do you if you can’t carry it?

When choosing a bag, it must be tailored to the person and the environment in which it will be used. For instance, wilderness survival requires different tools (and, consequently, a different bag) than bugging out in an urban setting.

Is it really so complicated?

It doesn’t have to be. Let’s step back and put some common sense back into emergency preparedness. If you have a survival bag (any bag – even a zip lock bag) packed with a bare assortment of supplies scrounged from the back of your junk drawer, it is still better than nothing.

You don’t need top-of-the-line this or designer that to be a prepared survivalist. After all, survival is about resourcefulness and improvisation, not company logos. That said, buying quality will always be a good investment. It’s unnecessary, especially if you’re starting out in the prepping world.

So what survival bag to choose? There are so many different styles, accessories and ratings. And they can be expensive. How do you know what’s right for you?

6 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Survival Bag

  1. How will the pack be used? Does it need to withstand travel over rough terrain? How often will it be used? Every weekend or just for emergencies? Spending hundreds of dollars for a pack that collects dust may not be worthwhile.
  2. What is the survival time frame? In short-term survival, you can survive with less, but long-term survival requires room for quality gear and plenty of supplies. The pack needs to accommodate this.
  3. What equipment and tools will it need to carry? The size and weight of your survival gear will help you determine which packs will work. For instance, a good hiking backpack should be rated to carry 50 pounds. Weights like that would destroy cheaper bags.

    When selecting a survival bag, it helps to list the tools and equipment you’ll be carrying. When examining a bag’s features, you should easily see where all your gear will fit. Want help selecting survival gear? Check out the ultimate survival checklist here.
  4. Will you be on foot or in a vehicle? Any old bag will suffice when travelling in a car (or plane, or train or whatever), but surviving on foot means you’ll need a bag with an internal frame, good lumbar support, sturdy straps, 1.75-inch clasps or larger, an extra wide waist belt for weight distribution and room for attachments, like webbing or a MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) system.
  5. Are you bugging out and need to blend in? A giant neon-coloured pack loaded with gear is nothing unusual when hiking through a national park, but it will get you unwanted attention in urban bug-out situations. Read more on bug-out bags here.
  6. Who will be carrying the survival bag? Be realistic about your physical strength. If you are not in shape or are on the small side, size your pack accordingly. The same goes for kids. Do you know how whiny they get after walking around an amusement park or zoo for a few hours (or less)? They’ll want to help carry a bag initially, but sooner or later, you know you’ll be shouldering their weight.

Survival Bag Recommendations

Wilderness Survival Bags

There are two options to consider. If you camp or hike frequently, buying a good quality pack makes sense. These are the kind sold by sporting goods or camping stores.

They typically have a sturdy internal frame, are made of rip-stop nylon (tough and moisture resistant), and have gazillions of pouches and pockets to organize your gear.

Some higher-end packs (read: expensive) provide superior lumbar support, ergonomic straps and a lifetime warranty. Manufacturers like Gregory fit this category, but you’ll pay around $300. Teton makes a popular, more affordable model for around $80, but durability issues exist. There are even packs manufactured specifically for small-framed women. The creatively-named Arc’Teryx Altra 62 is a high-end bag designed to disperse weight evenly on the hips. It retails for around $450.

Outdoor packs like these are designed to carry the weight around your waist, not on your shoulders. They must have a quality waist belt and extra-wide clasps to handle the load. Try on the pack before you buy; remember that you’ll be carrying this for days, usually over rough terrain. Not a time to skimp on quality or fit.

Day Pack. The second option is a small survival bag you place in a day pack for impromptu excursions. Even if you only plan to hike a few hours on a well-blazed trail through a bustling national park, you still should prepare for the worst.

This does not mean you must pack the flares and emergency beacon, but at least include the basics. Pocket survival kits are not only good for tossing into a day pack, but they’re also great for automotive use too.

They contain items like a fire tinder, a flint fire starter, a compass, a knife, a flashlight, a whistle, a signal mirror, fishing hooks and lines, a sewing kit, a paracord, and wire.

SOL makes a pocket kit that retails for around $40 and comes in a waterproof plastic container (a good bonus). Though the included folding knife appears chintzy – the blade is short and not suited to the rigors of pounding or prying – it is still, again, better than nothing.

Using a zippered toiletry bag works well if you build your own mini survival bag. Enclose it in a gallon-sized zip lock bag or Tupperware container to make it water resistant. To really ensure your gear stays dry, vacuum sealing it will do the trick. But at the very least, enclose some fire tinder and matches inside an old plastic 35mm film case (remember those?) or a watertight screw top money holder sold at water parks.

Urban Survival Bags / Bug Out Bags

Survival in a bug-out situation is more than just braving the elements. Often, people – your neighbours, even the authorities and rescuers – can be your biggest threat. That’s why it’s more important to blend in rather than carry the best pack possible.

Think cheap. Bug-out bags are not designed for long-term use. They may sit for years collecting dust until they’re yanked out of the closet and tossed in a car trunk.

Most people will not be prepared. Look at your neighbours. How many of them would you expect to be ready for a disaster? The vast majority of people will panic and grab whatever bag is handy. You want to look like them.

Bug Out Bags to Consider

  • Travel suitcases (the kind with wheels).
  • Basic company duffel bags.
  • Simple bookbags are found at most big box clothing stores. Nothing high-end!
  • Little kids’ backpacks, especially those with cartoons or superhero logos.

Bug Out Bags to Avoid

  • Packs that are designed for wilderness survival and outdoor adventure, especially military-style packs.
  • Camel packs (you’re advertising you have water and, conceivably, many other essential supplies).
  • Packs with MOLLE straps or other attachments for gear displayed in the open.
  • Packs with camouflage, olive drab green, or bright red colouring (Many companies selling bug-out bag kits use bright red bags. They stand out – avoid them.)
  • Recognizably expensive, high-end, or designer bags of any kind (Don’t look like you have money.) Avoid briefcases for this reason too.
  • Laptop, tablet or gaming console bags. Anything that is recognizably designed to carry valuable gear (electronic or otherwise) is a bad choice.
  • Purses, satchels, slings, or any other bags with an open top. Keep your possessions out of sight.