The Problem with a Single-User Bug-Out Bag

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Guest post by J.E.

Sometimes a single-user bug-out bag (BOB) is neither practical nor possible. Yet, most videos and articles are geared toward just that, one person, the Lone Wolf. Here’s another way of thinking about packing a bug-out bag.

Image: man with big backpack walking next to worman with daypack

My Prepping Background

I’m a lifelong camper/backpacker, hunter/fisherman, and was also a U.S. Army foot soldier. I’ve spent MORE than my fair share of time in the field. Today I’m a traveling consultant and spend months away from home.

In addition, my wife and I lived aboard boats twice in our lives. We’ve also full-time RV’ed with a 5th-wheel in the past. Needless to say, we know a thing or two about packing, prepping, water conservation, etc., Yet, I’m always interested in what other people suggest packing, especially for their emergency kits.

I’ve watched many YouTube videos and double-checked countless “packing lists” for bug-out bags, get-home bags, 72-hour kits, ditch bags, and vehicle kits. Most of them are pretty darned close in their contents.

However, I also feel that all of them are, at the same time, way off base!

The Problem with a Single-User Bug-Out Bag

The issue I have with almost every video and article on the topic of emergency kits is that they all have a single-user mentality, a solo BOB, if you will. Sure, each person should have and maintain their own bug-out bag, but there are situations where this isn’t practical or possible.

For us, my wife’s back injuries and surgery would prohibit her from carrying her full load. I’ve always considered myself a natural-born leader and tried to have some excess gear in my pack to help others. But, this realization about my wife’s physical limitations changed my ENTIRE approach to BOBs.

Perhaps for you, it’s children who cannot carry everything they might need, or some other situation entirely. A traditional solo BOB isn’t going to work. I would even argue a single person should reconsider the Lone Wolf mentality.

Instead, you need to think outside the box. Here’s what my wife and I did.

How I’m Working with My Spouse’s Physical Limitations

  1. Double the volume/capacity of my bug-out bag. My first bag was a 30-liter (72-hour) backpack. Now, I want to replace it with something in the 40-60 liter capacity.
  2. I wanted to halve the weight of all my “personal” gear. I can carry a pretty HUGE pack, as long as it’s not too heavy.
  3. Halve the volume of personal gear. My wife is one of those “more is MORE” kinds of gals. (I’m surprised I don’t have to include a pair of her favorite pumps in my BOB, too!) The smaller each item can be, the more items (gear) I should be able to carry, which increases versatility.

TIP: Urban survival may require you to take TSA baggage requirements into consideration.

Starting with the Backpack

All of the typical rules apply. I recommend something not too “tactical” to draw unwanted attention in the city and something not too bright to attract unwanted attention in the country.

As I mentioned, my goal was weight-saving volume. Therefore, I opted for a frameless pack. (I miss all those pockets of an external-frame pack, however. (When will someone invent a frameless pack with plenty of external pockets?)

There are TONS of backpacks out there to choose from. I searched for months to find the “perfect” pack. However, in my opinion, it doesn’t exist yet.

The closest thing I found was made by a company named ARC’TERYX. Specifically, their Axious 50 backpack. These folks specialize in mountaineering and climbing packs. This pack is the SAME WEIGHT as my previous 30-liter pack, yet offers essentially twice the volume/capacity!

Note: I didn’t opt to EXACTLY double my capacity. I figure many of the items in my current pack are already multi-user (fire starters, mess kits, etc.) So, I only needed to double up on a few items, not everything. Also, I believe most of us will continue packing until our packs are chock full o’ crap. (Remember those high-heeled pumps I’m trying to avoid rucking…)

It’s also a weight issue. ALL of our packs should be under 50lbs of weight so we can carry the darned things, AND so we don’t have to pay extra fees to the airlines when we travel with our packs.

Adding Sleeping Bags to the Mix

My next improvement was to lighten our sleeping bags. Again, I researched this pretty heavily. I researched military sleeping bags, cowboy sleep systems for “real” high-country working men, arctic bags, and more.

My research finally ended when I discovered the Marmont Plasma 30 900-fill down sleeping bag. Each bag weighs only slightly more than one pound (1lb, 6oz to be exact.) Plus, they compress to about the size of a small coffee can. So, I can now carry two bags in less space and weight than most traditional sleeping bags. (These are expensive bags; you need to do your own research to find the most suitable bag for you at the right price point.)

Ditto for our ground pads. Instead of using military-style roll-up pads, or some sort of homemade pad via a reflective windshield sunscreen, we purchased a pair of Thermarest pads. Again, light-weight, and they roll up to about the size of a water bottle, thus occupying much less space than a military pad or windshield sunscreen.

Here’s a tip: Many of my “lessons learned” actually came from the videos and blogs of Appalachian Trail “through-hikers.” These people spend weeks/months hiking at various altitudes, through all weather conditions and seasons – with just the gear on their backs.

Finding a Tent that Meets My Goals

A new tent suitable for two was my next purchase.

When I had a solo mentality, I planned a more primitive shelter, such as a poncho/tarp set up as a lean-to. This would be minimally acceptable for the two of us.

Considering that my plans go beyond just myself, I have purchased a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL4 for my BOB. This tent is rated as a 4-person tent, but everyone who knows tent ratings will tell you to subtract one person from the rating. A 4-person tent is REALLY only suitable for three people.

Our only child is grown and away from home. So, technically speaking, we only need a tent suitable for two people, but I like keeping our gear in the tent. Thus, my desire for the extra space. At 4.5 pounds, with a ground square footage of roughly 50 square feet, this tent weighs less than most 2-person tents on the market and offers nearly twice the square footage! Plus, it has a roll size of only 6”x20”.

My main point about weight/capacity is that today’s high-tech products allow all of us to shave pounds and volume off our loads, cutting most of these measurements/weights in HALF from a decade ago!

Sure, we could reduce our packs respectively, but just as importantly, I would encourage preppers to increase their multi-user functionality.

It doesn’t take much to include items for additional people.

In addition to our lightweight sleeping bags, I still carry a pair of emergency Mylar safety blankets, too. Thus, I could support two more people, too.

And while I have rain jackets/pants packed for the two of us, I also have two old-school ponchos. If nothing else, this extra gear serves as backups to our primary gear.

Sure, single people might argue that they only need to prep for themselves. But, I would argue that this is pretty short-sighted, and they will respectively die alone. However, the next time I see a YouTube video by a married man/father that is “solo”-focused, I think I’m going to scream, “WHERE is the gear to support your spouse/kids?!”

What’s your situation? Does a single-user bug-out bag work for you?

Originally published July 12, 2012; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

27 thoughts on “The Problem with a Single-User Bug-Out Bag”

  1. I think all of are trying to find ways to improve our survival bags. This article is one of the first I have seen in a while with some new ideas for me to pursue. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  2. I am really happy to see an article like this. As a mother of two as well as having a husband with a SCI this has been a huge issue for us from a BOB standpoint. Due to my husbands SCI the weight of the gear (quite literally) falls on my shoulders. Its nice to see some suggestions for those of us needing to pack for more than just 1.

  3. Craig L Johnson

    Great ideas and now that you have pointed it out it makes alot of sense in your approach. Ty for the new insight.

  4. More! More! What else is in your bag? I love the specifics! Any suggestions on tenting options for a family of 7? (!)

    1. See “Part 2” for additional details/contents/advice.

      Seven-person tent: Sure, a large “family” tent is fine/fun for weekend outings when “car camping.” But, when it comes to rucking your own gear, a huge “family tent” is going to be too large/heavy someone to be carrying. Plus, all of your eggs are then in ONE basket. (If your ONE tent fails — everyone is homeless.)

      So, I’d suggest getting three or four of the smaller ultralight 4p tents, instead. This way, you have both privacy, as well as safety in numbers. If (when) one tent fails, the occupants can scramble into the other tents and still have shelter.

      Note: During my day in the Army, we were issued shelter HALVES (half a tent, one tent pole, one lanyard, and only half the tent pegs. We needed to buddy-up to create a “whole” tent. Your kids/family should be able to do something similar (share/divide the loads.) e.g. big kids ruck the tents, so the smaller kids don’t have to carry as much weight/capacity.)

      One thing you MIGHT want to consider adding to your car-camping kit: A military-style lister bag or lyster bag (sometimes incorrectly called a water buffalo.) These are 35-gallon collapsible canvas bags with about six faucets/spigots around the base. You hang these bags from a tree, exposed rafter, etc. This type of bag can be filled once, and service your seven-person family for roughly five days (a gallon of water per day per person.) These bags are too large/heavy for a bug out bag. But, they are a great add to your mobile camping kitchen. The military issues one of these to every 50 troops. These lister bags can also be handy at your home during a disaster event (a centralized place to provide water for your family and neighbors.)

      Keep prepping.

  5. Good article, and makes a lot of sense. This also improves redundancy in case 1 bag is damaged or lost, or if you need to assist someone else other than a spouse/family member.

  6. My bug-out bag is going to ride on top of my bug-out bike trailer – one that’s made for carrying a dog (I have a Samoyed) and rated to hold 100 lbs. The trailer easily folds flat and can ride atop my SUV and the bike rides on a hitch-mounted bike rack. So few people are used to walking any significant distance at all, let alone while lugging a heavy backpack. Highly recommend thinking about what carts (golf, shopping, etc) you have and what you may want to purchase as part of your preps (such as a bicycle and bike trailer and bike rack for your car). You can go much further, faster and carrying more with a bike than on foot.

  7. Stealth Spaniel

    Oh Amy! You gave me a laugh!! 🙂 I have been racking my brain about what gear the spaniels could carry on their own-little dogs (28 lbs) don’t have much room for packing!! They do have their own bug out bag with extra leashes, water bowls, etc. I know that they make back packs for larger dogs-Shepherds, Rotties, etc. Maybe I can rig something up.
    I liked this article, it got me to rethinking my options.
    What type of bicycle trailer has room for a Samoyed-And folds flat? Wow.

    1. thesurvivalmom

      Maybe the solution would be to get a larger dog for each Spaniel and design a little saddle with saddle bags on each side for the spaniel to sit, astride the Rottie, Shepherd,etc.

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  9. I really liked the idea behind this article, that there needs to be more BOB prepping articles geared toward the family as opposed to the individual. I also liked the included items and rational behind them. The only two problems are that I have a family of 5: My wife and myself, one teenaged son and two toddler-girls; and since my wife is a non-believer in Prepping, my budget is ridiculously limited. For example, the Big Agnes UL line of tents for 3 or 4 people cost between $400 and $600 dollars. More than I can spend on my ENTIRE kit! Is there, perhaps, someone out there with Bug-Out Ideas for “The Man With Less”?
    Thank you for your article,

  10. Budget-minded bug out options:
    Tent: Consider buying (or “acquiring”) a roll or some sheets of Tyvek building-wrap, and using it to make your own tarp, or sewing it into your own tent. This stuff isn’t necessarily cheap. But, if you visit some new home sites, you might be able to get some of their leftovers “donated” to you for a case of beer? Or, you could opt for some nylon options to also make your own lightweight, family-style tarp-shelter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an “advanced” design. A simply shelter from the sun/rain/elements can be sufficient in a pinch. MANY of the low-budget Appalachian thru-hikers make LOTS of their homemade gear via Tyvek. They make rain suits, shells for their sleeping bags, booties/footies, ponchos, and tents/tarps. I’ve also seen them spray-paint the material (e.g. cammo or sand-colored.)

    Sleeping bags: Again, you COULD make your own. But, keep your eyes open for deals, too. Just yesterday, I saw a WOOT deal in their outdoor heading for TWO 50-degree sleeping bags for only $20 bucks!!!! That’s only $10 bucks per bag! Granted, these were narrow bags (e.g. for kids or skinny people.) And, they were summer-weight bags. But, they would have been better than NOTHING! And, when a small family huddles together, it will help improve the temperature ratings of the bags. Plus, you could add some sort of inner-liner or shell, or one of those inexpensive Mylar/foil emergency blankets to them, too! I think I mentioned that in addition to a pair of high-dollar down-filled sleeping bags in my/our bug-out-bag, I also carry a PAIR of these inexpensive Mylar emergency blankets, too. (e.g. to help others, or in case our down bags get wet.) So, these Mylar bags (alone) can become an “inexpensive” alternative to a high-dollar sleeping bag.

    Price: There are TONS of ways to save/redirect monies from everyday life, into our preps. We have converted most of our family/friend gifts, into prepper-oriented gifts nowadays. e.g. we give our nieces/nephews prepper items for graduating high school, or on their birthdays, or for Christmas/holidays. Thus, you aren’t WASTING money on non-prepper disposable items or gift cards that they waste. Also, try reading the blog about “one red paperclip.” This “kid” started with ONE red paperclip. He then traded-up ONCE per month, for only ONE year (e.g. 12 transactions) and ended-up with a free & clear HOUSE in the end!!! “What if” you started with a whole box of paperclips?!!! Or, started with something of more value (something you don’t want/need/use around your home anymore?) “What if” you were making one trade per week?!!! Or, multiple trades per week?!!!! “What if” you teamed-up with your spouse and kids, and THEY were making trades/deals/swaps, too?!!!! Not having enough $$$ isn’t an excuse! I started prepping when i was unemployed for over a year. I hunted the “free” section of CraigsList to accumulate ALL KINDS of stuff. Stuff that was either directly prepper-oriented (like six-gallon glass carboys for water and winemaking, wine bottles, plastic gas cans, camping gear, etc.) — or, items that I’d get for FREE, and then resell or barter into something else. You can also ASK for specific gifts from family/friends for the holidays. Instead of saying “don’t get me anything,” or “I don’t care what you get me,” and subsequently ending up with CRAP — BE SPECIFIC. Ask for EXACTLY what you want. e.g. “What we need — as a gift for the whole family — is this $600 dollar tent.” People may not be able to gift that to you? But, they might give you a card with cash toward it — instead of something stupid or unneeded. Then again, you would be surprised by how many people might actually give you EXACTLY what you asked for?!!!

    My first bug out bag included plastic forks, knives and spoons from fast-food restaurants. My first bug out bag had more items from the dollar store, than from the sporting goods store. (you gotta start somewhere.)

    The “primary message” of my posting, was to encourage people to think beyond themselves — beyond the solo bag. I realized that I could halve the space/weight of MOST my gear, and therefore ruck for two. Heck, I almost ruck for four adults now! You might have to get more creative than me, to ruck for a family of five?!!!

    My “secondary goal” withing my posting, was to encourage people to “think outside the woods.” Where did all the people who just evacuated from hurricane Issac go? Into the wilderness? No. They went to motels, shelters, friends/families homes, etc. I’m NOT saying that we shouldn’t be wilderness-savvy. I’m simply saying that MOST of our bug out events are to a different suburban area. Even if/when TSHTF, most people will probably break-in to vacant homes or commercial properties for a place to sleep for a few nights or whatever. Or, sleep in their cars and RVs or boats. Etc. The wilderness will not be the “first choice” for most families.

    Also, you don’t have to go out, and buy EVERYTHING at once — and make yourself go complete broke (or worse yet, in debt via credit cards.) Simply save a little every week, and it will add-up over time. But a little bit every couple of months, and work your way toward your goals.

    Peace, and keep on preppin’ !!!

  11. You are recommending a $400 Sleeping bag? Are you delusional? I don’t know anyone that would recommend investing that much into a piece of equipment in hopes to NEVER use it and have it sit in a closet.

    1. Nope. I’m recommending TWO $400-$500 sleeping bags!!!

      We use ours regularly (at least monthly.) We recently used them for an overnighter for a Parade. It was quite the party!

      Honestly, the price IS too high. I wish I could find similar-weighted, sized, comfort sleeping bags for LESS. I would LOVE to find a 1lb, 6oz bag for less!!!

      Again, keep in mind, that some of us have to ruck for two (or a family of little ones.) It’s NOT just the bag. It’s the weight and space that the bags save us.

      By contrast, our car-camping two-person bag weighs-in at nearly 15lbs. It’s the size of a queen-sized bed. It’s canvas outside, and flannel inside, and WONDERFULLY comfortable. It’s also good down to minus 25 degrees. Since it’s a two-person bag, it’s also FUN to share!!! Best of all, it’s roughly $200 bucks (e.g. $100 per head.) But, I wouldn’t dare try to ruck that sucker (plus all of our other gear.) Heck, the bag alone is nearly the size of my/our bugout bag.

      Again, if you and your family are all healthy, and can each carry our own gear, then you can get away with a much cheaper and larger sleeping bag, tent, etc.

      But, if you are rucking for 2+, how much would you pay for a bag that’s HALF as light, and HALF the size — especially when you gotta bug out FAST!

      Based on the rule of thirds, shelter is your number one priority (e.g. a quality tent, and a quality sleeping bag.) Do you REALLY want to cheap-out on your number one priority/asset?

      Some people might suggest only rucking ONE sleeping bag, and sleeping in shifts. That would reduce weight/space, too! Plus, provide that someone is always standing watch on guard duty.

      How much is $900 worth of sleeping bags? A double-shot, tall, nonfat latte at Starschmucks is $3.50 each. Times five days per week, that’s $17.50 per week. That works out to $910 per year — year over year over year. So, just skip the Starschmucks for ONE year, and a person can buy a pair of high-end sleeping bags. Heck, I know people who have lost more $$$ betting in Vegas.

      These bags weren’t the FIRST thing I bought. I carried heavier bags for nearly three years before upgrading and down-sizing with these new bags.

      So, I don’t think I/we are delusional. And, “yes,” it IS an “investment” (in an asset) — as opposed to a SPEND on a liability.

      We aren’t regretful owners of these new bags. We are PROUD owners of them!!!

      We are going camping again next weekend to test out some other new gear, too. Yes, we will be sleeping in our new bags AGAIN. Practice, practice, practice! Don’t leave your bags to rot in the closet. USE them. ENJOY them.


    1. We have owned a few of these styles, and they indeed SEEM to be a good idea. Unfortunately, after less than four weeks worth of everyday use, ours have failed (miserably.) We have WANTED these hybrid wheeled packs to work so much, that we have purchased multiple models/manufacturers over the past few years. But, ALL of them weigh too much, and FAIL MISERABLY after only a few weeks of use. e.g. less than four flights of baggage handler abuse, or less than three weeks being dragged throughout the streets/sidewalks of Europe.

      The better option is to buy a folding wheeled cart. They seem to be a bit more rugged and purpose-built. But, I don’t know that the extra carry-weight is worth it? I prefer only packing our bag/s full enough to indeed carry, as opposed to overfilling them and resorting to dragging them. I feel a backpack is much more mobile, than a dragged bag.

      The issues with the hybrid bags have been varied (I think tit’s because they don’t do any single role right/perfectly.) So, they are half-life at ALL of their rolls. e.g. wheels have broken/seized, zippers and seams have failed, and most frequently, the handles fail/break. (I assume because the handle is the fulcrum point for handling all the weight when they are being dragged.)

      The same has been true for an equal number of rolling laptop bags, too. Maybe I’m just too hard on my gear?… But, when you have to literally LIVE out of your bags/cases for weeks on end, quality makes all the difference in the world.


  12. Wow.. We are just building our bug out bags and this has give us some amazing options and more to thank you about. Thank you so much for this amazing article.. Now on to part two.

  13. I love that you expanded beyond the “Lone Wolf” bug out bag mentality. Even if everyone in your group has their own gear, you must have some overlap or must compensate for those in your group who can’t shoulder a heavy load (children and older folks).

    I agree on the Marmont Plasma 30 sleeping bag, everyone should have a dependable, proven, and light bag that they can pull out and know that it’s going to do the job it claims, without adding a ton of weight.

    Another great post!

  14. There are people on here who are living as frugally as possible. Not having money, a car, enough to eat, etc…. Stuff happens. Even with all the great resources out there, some people just have to make do.
    Personally, we are planning to bug in, but our bags are ready in case of evac. I live with my mother & 8-yr-old grandson, & both are onboard thanks to an emergency situation, but I do most of the work on it, even being disabled. My main concern is that, if we did have to leave, how would we take them with us?! Mom & I both have health issues that prevent (supposedly) our lifting heavy items, though we tend to get stubborn & try it anyway! Neither of us can walk very far. I just pray that I can teach/have him taught enough to survive if something ever happens to us in a SHTF event!
    Thanks for the great article! Has given me some ideas!

  15. Overlap is common for backpacking. A little practice at that and you’ll quickly learn what loads to split up.

    Personally, 50 liters is the minimum I’d chose for a multi-day pack. I know someone with a 45 that can’t carry more do to her health and her husband picks up the rest.
    I suggest a 65 liter to 75 liter pack. That’s pretty typical for 4 days or more backpacking and gives extra room for bulky clothes in cold weather or just extra clothes for an emergency. All my gear fits inside my pack including sleeping pad.
    Buy in the fall when the big sales hit.

    Deuter, Osprey, Gregory, and ARC’TERYX are high on the comfort list.
    The new Kelty’s with the Perfect-Fit suspension are also nice.
    The newest Jansports have had good reviews and Campmore has regular sales on them for under $100. My Deuter was $130 new.

    I have used a Thermarest for 20+ years and my new one was $50 ish new on closeout. I’ve even seen cheaper. Don’t buy too short of sleeping pad or you’ll get cold easy. Sleeping bags have the thinnest insulation on the bottom.

    My brand new Kelty Ignite 0 DriDown bag was around $200 from REI after sale price and using my dividend. That’s warm enough for any season if you know how to make a snow cave. Just be prepared to keep a down bag dry.

    A 20 degree 550 down bag is good for at least 3 seasons and will be much cheaper. It won’t pack like a 900 fill bag but it will pack better than synthetic fill bag and last longer.
    My last 20 degree down bag was $145. It was still good but I passed it on to someone else.
    Good synthetic mummy bags can be had under $50 but don’t expect a long insulation life. They will also have one or two additional pounds of weight. Be suspicious of any synthetic bag that is too light.

    The cheap foil emergency blankets are useless. Get one of the reinforced tarp like ones instead. They can be tied up as a shelter/heat reflector, put under a tent if there is snow for a little warmth, add a few degrees to a couple sleeping bags if put on top, and it’s still small enough to fit a day pack for emergency shelter.

    I use a Kelty 3 person tent that was $99 new on ebay, or a bivy if I’m solo.

    To shop on ebay, pick several models you are interested in and search ebay for them regularly. Sooner or later you’ll find a deal on a new or used one. “used once” tents show up regularly so don’t buy anything that has damage. I wouldn’t buy a used sleeping bag or Thermarest. New packs can be discounted by 30%-40% on closeout so don’t spend too much on a used one.

    Total weight of my pack with two weeks of freeze dried food for two is under 40lbs fully loaded.

  16. I love the article but what about a version with budget variations? I can NOT spend $400+ per sleeping bag. YIKES! Thanks.

    1. The Survival Mom

      Just research to find the type of sleeping bag that will meet your own requirements. Yes, $400 is a lot but that’s what this writer found that fit his own specifications. 🙂

  17. Not sure if anyone will reply, but worth a shot.

    I am new to the prepping mentality, and am struggling creating our BOBs. I am not sure if I need to basically duplicate the bags for my husband and I (with a couple things changed out per preferences), or if we use the bags to divide and concur the load. If we get separated, that would mean though, that only one of us might have a much needed item. BUT, it would cut down on costs and allow us to pack much more. Prepping for the house and car are so much easier than these two little bags!

    1. The Survival Mom

      I’m glad you’re asking so many thoughtful questions! If you were stranded on your own, what are the most necessary supplies you would need to survive and get help? Certainly things like a small water filter, high calorie energy bars, a good knife, etc. Each bag should contain those but do think “bare minimum”. Then, begin to think of extras that would make survival easier and prepare you for a longer-term scenario. Those are things you could divide between your bags. So, both your ideas can work — just think critically about the contents, buy the highest quality gear you can afford, and then practice using it.

  18. These tips are great especially the one with lightweight bags because the lighter you carry the longer you go. appreciated

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