Survival Backpacks – What Type of Bag to Use and How to Pack Like a Pro so You Survive for 72 Hours and Beyond

Over the last few years I’ve noticed the general public’s knowledge of and desire for a Go Bag (or Bug Out Bag) has steadily increased. People are becoming more aware of the dangers posed by man-made and natural disasters and are looking to minimise the risks these emergencies create. Having a survival back pack is an important part of any emergency response plan.Survival Backpack

Everyone needs a survival backpack or kit that can be grabbed in a moment’s notice should you need to evacuate. This could be evacuation from your home, work or from a situation that arises while you are out and about.

The fact that people are looking to be prepared for an emergency is great as the more people that are emergency ready the better.

Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that some people have taken the concept of a go bag and corrupted the concept of what they are for and how they are used. There is a lot of misinformation out on the web now regarding go bags and general survival strategy and tactics.

Some of the advice being so incorrect, that it could be end up being dangerous.

Survival Backpack

Go Bag vs Bug Out Bag

As part of my safety precautions working in developing countries overseas, I would pack a go bag. We called them “Go Bags”, “Grab Bags” or “Speed bags”. I have noticed the widespread use of the term “Bug Out Bag” as well as the term “Get Home Bag”. It appears to me that, in an effort to sound knowledgeable or come across as an expert people have started to break up the terminology into different sub categories of survival backpack. This has made things overly complicated for no reason, which I will explain further below.

I use all these words interchangeably if I ever write Go Bag, know that I mean the same as Bug Out Bag, Get Home Bag, Speed Bag and Grab Bag etc all referencing a survival backpack or kit.

How Do the Pros Use a Survival Backpack?

Let’s define what a survival backpack or Go Bag is designed for and the best way to use them.

At least how I used them and the professionals I worked with use them.  We’ll talk about how you can adapt them to your situation for civilian use, because at the end of the day, they are used for the exact same thing. Only we were taught by professional survival trainers what to pack and why, as we were going into possibly dangerous environments.

The application is the same.

I hope that by doing this it will help you plan for and pack the correct equipment that will suit your individual circumstances. I’ll talk about the general principles that you should plan around and how you can adapt these to your individual needs.

I’ll also go over the sorts of things you should look for when buying a survival backpack.

What do professionals classify as a Survival Backpack or “Go Bag”?

A survival backpack is a bag that is designed to be a grab bag or quickly accessible kit that contains all the important equipment you will need to keep you alive for around 72 hours. 72 hours being the general amount of time it would take you to get to a safe location or be rescued.

Also, your survival backpack has to be light and easily portable as you would carry them with you everywhere you go. You would not rely on being able to use a vehicle and may have to travel on foot so your bag had to be light.

The best survival backpack is a one that you carry around with you everywhere and has all the important items you will need to evacuate to safety.

Survival Backpack

What is a Survival Backpack typically used for? The origin of the Go Bag.

A survival backpack is used by people working in places where the situation could deteriorate to a point where they would need to evacuate quickly. This was typically people working in semi or completely hostile environments.  Environments where the local population or a significant number of them were not happy with you being there.

So, this could be spies or similar government officials and government contractors. People working on Capacity Building operations in third world countries where there was political instability (like the UN and NGOs). Or even private companies, like mining companies, sending representatives into developing countries looking to expand their business interests.

Basically people working where their physical security in in danger, the political climate is unstable and an element of the local population think of you more as an invader, a trouble maker who is going to upset their established power structures. The danger being that you could get isolated from your means of safety and support.

The 72 hour survival backpack was designed as a means to keep you going while you made it back to safety if something goes wrong.

These conditions were mostly looking at the human side of an emergency where civil or public order could deteriorate quickly and an element of the population could turn on these representatives. But they could also be applied to natural disasters as well. That being said, the most frightening and volatile scenario is most certainly the coup or uprising against you.

What circumstances would you need a Survival Backpack?

Basically any situation that you can think of where you will need to evacuate quickly. Applying the use of a survival backpack in the developed world that could be:

Natural Disasters:Survival Backpack

  • Hurricane
  • Tornado
  • Earthquake
  • Forest Fire
  • Flood
  • Tsunami
  • Urban fire

Man made emergency:

  • Civil Disorder (riot)
  • Coup
  • Pandemic
  • War
  • Terrorist attack

Think about situations where your everyday and emergency services could be cut off suddenly with no foreseeable time frame for them coming back online. Situations where you will need the survival backpack to ensure you can get yourself clear of the danger.

These are situations where your safety is in jeopardy just by being where you are and you are cut off from other means of support. Your very survival relies on one person, you!

How does a “Get Home Bag” fit into the picture?

A “Bug Out Bag” in its purist form is no different to a “Get home bag”. This is where civilians have taken the concept of a bug out bag and the popular use of these terms has changed the meaning to be slightly different to the original concept.

Remember what I said before, a survival backpack is;

“designed to be a grab bag or quickly accessible kit that contains all the important equipment you will need to keep you alive for around 72 hours. 72 hours being the general amount of time it would take you to get to a safe position or be rescued”

So, by this definition if you are away from home and cut off from your means of getting home then your bug out bag will become your get home bag. If you are at home and you need to evacuate, your bug out bag will be used again. The only difference being that if you are at home you should have access to a lot more lifesaving equipment. But as I have explained in “How to pack your go bag” your larger Third Line equipment or “sustainment load” should be packed separately in a larger bag. With the two bags being able to attach to each other.

Your smaller survival backpack should be carried with you everywhere.

What Time Frame Are You Planning For?

Start with a 72 Hour Bag…Survival Backpack

The best place to start when putting your survival backpack together is to pack as much gear as you will need to keep you going for 72 hours. For most emergency scenarios, this will be enough to keep you safe for the most likely situations you will face.

Get your 72 hour survival backpack squared away as a your number one priority. Only once this is done should you spend time building longer term survival kits.

As you start to plan for longer term survival you will need to use a larger survival backpack. If you pack your gear in line with my recommendation in “How to pack your go bag” you will maximise your survivability. Start with a smaller bag that will integrate with a larger survival backpack.

This is a flexible packing system which allows you to adapt to your situation and always have the most important items with you at all times.

What to Look for in a Survival Backpack

As with any survival equipment, quality is very important. You simply can’t afford to scrimp on safety equipment. Same applies here. You should always buy the best quality that you can afford. But as I will demonstrate later, you don’t have to spend a fortune to be safely equipped.

Thirty Liter Day Pack

You should aim to get a bag that has a capacity of around 30 liters. This should be enough to fit in all the essential items that you will need while still being light enough to take with you everywhere you go. Everything you need should be safely packed inside the pack.

Avoid having your equipment attached to the outside of your bag.

When you have items attached to the outside of your bag you risk snagging them on branches and debris. If everything is secured inside your bag, you can’t lose it. It is also quieter as you don’t have gear jingling around.

If you see someone with junk on the outside of their pack, know that they have the wrong pack for the job.

This 30-liter bag is your main 72 hour survival backpack also known as your second line bag.

Survival Backpack – Hook Points for IntegrationSurvival Backpack 

Another essential feature is to also get a backpack that can attach itself to a larger bag. Look for clips and straps that will allow you to attach the smaller 30 liter bag to a larger ~ 70-80 Liter bag. This larger bag will be your third line or sustainment load. This will be used should you need to deal with a longer-term emergency.

Travel packs with a smaller backpack already attached can be used as a readymade system. The only downside is that the smaller back pack is normally smaller than 30 Liters. But they are a good value for money option.

A good quality survival backpack will have multiple points and clips to use as integration points. There are many military grade bags that will have this integration system built in. They can be more expensive than a travel pack, but are more comfortable and adaptable for use as a survival backpack.

Good Quality ZipsSurvival Backpack

You don’t want to get a bag that has poor quality zips that break or get jammed up easily. A bag that has broken zips, particularly on your main compartments becomes just like an expensive garbage bag. You will then need to use straps, cord, pins or tape to secure your equipment. In an emergency, you don’t want to be stuffing around with poorly made gear and doing running repairs as you will have more important things to deal with.

Look for good quality hard wearing zips that won’t pull apart easily.

Made from Hard Wearing Material

Decent thickness of material. In a survival situation, you don’t want your back pack to get caught on things and rip. Survival Backpacks should have a fiber density of 600 denier or more or have some sort of treatment to make them stronger.

Look for a water proofing treatment as well. The bag doesn’t have to be totally water proof but any amount of water proof treatment is welcome.

If there is enough water proofing on the bag, it can be used as floatation device when fording rivers and streams. You also won’t lose all your belongings to the bottom of a river if you need to get across.

Good StitchingSurvival Backpack

Decent stitching is a must. The best survival backpacks have good stitching. This can be a way of testing the overall quality of the bag because it will potentially cop a fair bit of rough treatment. You do not want your bag to fall apart just when you need it.

Look for double stitching and signs that the thread hasn’t started to run.

Your Survival Backpack Needs Good Shoulder Straps

Comfort is an important survival criteria which is often overlooked. The best survival backpacks will have good quality straps with a good amount of padding. If you have to evacuate on foot you want your bag to be as comfortable as possible. Carrying even a light load can be uncomfortable if your straps lack sufficient padding. This will be noticed even more if you have to carry your bag for several hours, let alone days. Any extra padding you can get here is a godsend. You should always look for good padding and adjustment with shoulder and waist straps as this is where you will feel it if you have a poorly made or fitting bag.

The more comfortable the straps, the easier it will be to travel further distances if needed. Again, in an emergency you may have to travel a long distance on foot. The better your shoulder straps and level of comfort, the less breaks you need to take and the further distances you will cover.

Which can be lifesaving.

Waist and Chest StrapsSurvival Backpack

Like shoulder straps, your survival backpack should have excellent waist support. If your pack is properly fitted this is where you will carry the weight of your pack. Not your shoulders. Look for plenty of padding and mesh to allow your skin to breathe. You want to be able to draw the strap nice and tight and have the pack be comfortable.

Chest or sternum straps also help to keep the pack nice and tight against your body. Loose or ill-fitting packs will lead you to carry the bag incorrectly which will tire you more quickly. You also risk injury when carry several pounds’ worth of gear in a sloppy ill-fitting pack.

You should hardly notice that you are carrying your pack, regardless of its weight. Good waist and chest straps help you to do this.

Hydration Bladder

No survival backpack should be complete without a hydration bladder of some kind. They are an efficient use of space and enable you to stay hydrated without having to take your bag off. They also eliminate the need to carry water bottles on your belt.


MOLLE/PALS straps can be a useful feature in your survival backpack. But only if you want to add extra pouches to increase the size of your basic bag. Or add an easy access pouch for a trauma kit or a larger medical kit.

Otherwise they aren’t really needed. MOLLE was designed for military use so soldiers could attach separate smaller bags or compartments to their main pack and webbing. Things like a trauma kit or extra mag pouches. Things that they would need quick access to in a contact.

In a 72-hour bag for civilian use in emergencies, the only realistic use for MOLLE is to attach a trauma kit or to give your bag more capacity by adding extra pouches, for a sleeping bag or admin items for example.

It is far better to have everything you need tucked neatly inside your bag where it won’t get snagged on anything and lost. I know it looks all cool and “tactical” but you need to sit back think realistically about what you are trying to achieve.

Essentials to Pack in Your Survival Backpack.


You will need some sort of shelter from the elements. My personal favourite is the Australian Army Hootchie. They are lightweight, incredibly strong, durable and adaptable to multiple tasks. A simple tarp will also do the job but will be bulkier. Coghlans also produce a tube tent which can act as a decent budget shelter as well.

Fire lighting:

Having the means to start a fire is critical to your survival. You will need multiple methods on hand. You should also invest the time to build up your fire lighting skills without using matches.


The bulk of the weight you will carry is water. Bladders provide a practical storage solution. If you have a lot of water available, ie: rivers, lakes and the ocean, you can get away with carrying less. You will just need to make sure you have sufficient water treatment and/or filtration to deal with your circumstances.


High energy compact food is the best. You actually don’t need to eat for a 72 hour escape and evasion type scenario but you will deteriorate if you aren’t replacing your energy stores. Your decision making will be affected and you will likely take risks that you would not otherwise make. Also the morale boosting effects of food cannot be underestimated.

Multitool and or knife:Survival Backpack

You will need at the very least a decent knife like a parang or kukri. A multitool can be a useful addition as there are other gadgets that can be used as well.

Medical Kit:

A basic first aid kit and medicines should be suited to the environment that you will working in.


You will need to get updated with events as they unfold around you. If you get isolated a radio with the appropriate emergency channels can be very useful.

A mobile or cell phone will be a no brainer but remember to pack a device charger. A solar charger is a great addition as you’ll always be connected. Unless the network goes down.

Your Survival Backpack Should Have These Items as a Minimum

  • Shelter – Tarp or Hootchie or a hooped bivvy
  • Light weight sleeping bag
  • Survival Kit
  • Fire kit
  • Medical kit
  • Water bottle/bladder
  • Compass
  • Maps
  • Whistle
  • Flashlight
  • Radio
  • Signal mirror
  • Knife
  • High energy food


Ready Made Survival Backpacks:

Building Your Own Bag from Scratch Can be Time Consuming and ExpensiveSurvival Backpack

A readymade bag can be a good option if you don’t have the time to put something together or if you are daunted by the thought that you may forget something important. They can also be a good option if you just want an emergency bag handy to give you peace of mind while you get other plans in place.

Building a survival backpack can be a time consuming and expensive exercise. Firstly you need to make sure you have all important items that you need. Then you have to source all the individual items, researching and purchasing each thing, which can take time.

If you just want to get something straight away so that you know you’re covered a premade survival backpack can be a good option.

Firstly, you get a survival backpack that is ready to go so you know you have the minimum of essential items. Then if you want to customise or add or change items more to your preference you can do so later.

You can take advantages of sales and get your preferred items cheaper than you may otherwise pay if just went out and got them straight away.

But at the very least you have the peace of mind that have survival backpack ready to go that will get you through a 72 hour emergency situation.

A Premade Survival Backpack Can be Cheaper

Buying a premade survival backpack can be more cost effective than sourcing the items yourself individually. Bag makers putting the kits together can buy items in bulk and get them cheaper than you can as an induvial. They can pass on these savings to you. But you need to look at each individual bag and check that you are getting what you pay for. Some bags get bloated with unnecessary and expensive equipment that you really do not need.

If time and money are an issue a great way to make sure you get quality survival backpack is to get a good quality basic premade model and add custom items to it later.

Making Your Own Survival Backpack

If you have the time and money, nothing is more satisfying than putting together your own survival backpack. As you work through which items you need for your kit, you engage your brain, thinking through the scenarios that you are likely to face. This exercise cannot be underestimated as you go from a reactive victim to a proactive planner. “if this happens then I’ll do this…” Preparing your response to incidents is a critical survival factor.Survival Backpack

Just make sure your strategies are sound and you check in with people that know what they are talking about. Avoid armchair experts at all costs. If someone can’t provide you with a real tangible example of why you should do something a certain way, take everything they say with a grain of salt.

Redundancy is key

Whichever way you decide to go make sure you incorporate redundancy in your gear. For important survival equipment, you will need to have multiple backups in case your first option fails. Never rely on just one item or technique. Having multiple fire lighting techniques, shelter options and water storage can be the difference between survival and perishing.

Pack items that serve more than one purpose

Because there is always a limit to how much gear you pack in your survival backpack, try to pack items that serve more than one purpose. A shemag, for example, can be used for multiple things which is why they are such a great thing to pack. They could be used as protection from the sun, a bandage, basic water filter, dust mask, cordage, rag or signal flag.

Always think before you add an item to your kit. Is there something else that can also do this job as well?

The Verdict

Your choice of survival backpack and the items you pack will come down to several factors.

  • The environment you are operating in?
  • What natural resources are available to you?
  • The emergency are you planning for?
  • What is your worst-case scenario?
  • How long would you expect to need the survival backpack?
  • What is your mode of transport?
  • How fit are you? Are there any medical conditions you must plan around?
  • Do you need to care for other people?

Without knowing your exact situation it is impossible to provide more clarification on what you should pack. Other than the absolute essentials listed above.

Packing a survival backpack is a personal thing and no two bags are exactly the same. As I mentioned, when I started I used a 40L bag that was bursting at the seams. I now use around a 25L bag. If I go somewhere that I’ve never been before, I will naturally pack more.

The important thing is to have a go bag of some description. Whether you start with a premade bag or make your own from scratch, you’ll be ahead of the game when disaster strikes.

Still lost? Drop us a line and give us some information on what you are planning for and we’d be more than happy to point you in the right direction.


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