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Grab Bags

Whether you are at home, at work perhaps in a city office, working in the developing world, travelling overland in a desert, within the Arctic Circle, on business or on holiday, it is good practice to keep essential personal life sustaining supplies in a container readily available. This ‘container’ is known as a ‘Grab Bag’, ‘Bug Out Bag’ or ‘Get Me Home Bag’. As the name infers, whenever you have to move because of an emergency, the first and maybe only item you should take with you is your Grab Bag.

The term ‘Grab Bag’ infers a dedicated bag. In most cases this will be correct but in some circumstances, this may not be practicable and a few well chosen items in your pockets or a briefcase might need to be sufficient. The contents of a ‘Grab Bag’ should be scalable and reflect the risk profile of your circumstances, local area and region.

Natural disaster, extreme weather, fire or flooding, loss of utilities (power, gas, water), collapse of fixed and mobile communications, outbreak of disease, a terrorist incident, building, city or country evacuation, collapse of the public transportation network; these are all just examples of incidents that can and do occur. ‘Sod’s Law’ dictates that these incidents occur at the worst possible moment and without notice. When travelling overland, an incident may require the sudden evacuation or abandonment of a campsite or even your vehicle / camper. You may be left with whatever you are standing in; a Grab Bag is your lifeline.

In urban areas after a major incident, it’s important that you are able to look after yourself and not become an unnecessary burden to busy emergency services. In rural and remote areas your Grab Bag should provide the essential ‘tools’ for your survival and safety. Thereafter as far as it is safe to do so, you will be able to render assistance to others and help save or safeguard the lives of your family, friends, workmates, the public and minimise damage and loss.

It is good practice to routinely carry your grab bag, especially during any incident where there is a potential for escalation. For example, evacuation of your office following a fire alarm, or you come across a road traffic accident and decide to render assistance. Whenever emergency procedures are invoked, the equipment, food and clothing in your Grab Bag should be designed to sustain you until help can arrive or you can reach a ‘safe haven’. Typically in remote areas this may be for a period of 48 - 72 hours.

The contents of your Grab Bag should reflect the local environment. For example, urban or rural, take into consideration the climate, weather, remoteness, local risks and other circumstances. A Grab Bag must not be too heavy for the owner to carry for extended periods and should allow walking long distances possibly across rough terrain. As a guideline, the maximum target weight of a Grab Bag should therefore not exceed 10% of the carrier’s body weight. This is not always possible but is a good target. Where people are travelling together, some of the equipment maybe designed to support the group as opposed to an individual. Heavier Group items should be shared across the stronger / fitter team members.

The ‘Bag’

The choice of ‘container’ is for you to choose but a rucksack with a maximum capacity of about 30L is recommended (smaller is better if practicable). The size should also be compliant with aircraft cabin (carry on) baggage. A rucksack allows free use of the hands whilst being carried and does not require the grab bag to be left unattended for any reason whilst working. Ideally it should be manufactured of a lightweight but robust material. Dependent on the situation, it may be better for a Grab Bag to be of a non military appearance, although military ‘molle’ systems (pouches) are great for easy modular packing. A wide padded waist strap helps distribute weight on the hips. The straps and back should be well padded and include good ventilation. It must be comfortable and easy to carry for extended periods. A built in water bladder with a hose is also very desirable.

Core Contents

A modular approach to packing allows items to be rapidly added or removed. There are a number of core functions that you will require in any situation. These are:

1. Communicate. If you cannot communicate, then you cannot call for assistance or report your well being to your company or family. Depending on your environment and circumstances there are a number of different methods available.

a. Satellite. Communications independent of national infrastructure. Some handsets (or portable hubs) provide voice, text messaging, email, some (limited) internet access and tracking. Some also include a facility to request urgent assistance (panic button). Both the hardware and airtime is expensive so if in a group this might be a shared asset.

b. Personal mobile phone. A smartphone is a powerful tool providing its within an operational network that is not overloaded. In addition to voice calls, it provides SMS messaging, access to web based applications such as WhatsApp, mapping, email, internet access and a camera typically with video recording capability. Emergency ‘999’ services in some countries can use services such as SARLock to locate a mobile phone during an emergency so they can send help directly to the right place. When overseas, roaming charges can be expensive.

c. PMR radio. A great way to communicate internally with others in your Group or family. A PMR Radio is a licence free radio with a range of up to 10 kms depending on the environment. With a good clear line of sight between handsets ranges of over 16 kms (10 miles) can sometimes be obtained. It is recommended that this radio be used with a handsfree headset / earpiece. Relatively speaking PMR Radios are low cost. All members of your group should have one. There are no operating / airtime fees. Note: In some remote locations HF / VHF / UHF radios may also be appropriate. Operating licences are typically required so they are not addressed further here.

d. Power pack and charging cables / spare batteries. Solar charger.

e. For attracting attention.

i. Whistle.

ii. Signal mirror or ‘Lazerflare’.

iii. Pyrotechnics. Flares and coloured smoke. (specific applications).

iv. Coloured panels, dye’s.

v. Carrier pigeon?! Think outside the box. If necessary, its available and it works then use it!

2. Hydrate / Water.

a. Water bladder (camelpak type - 2L) with drinking hose.

b. Additional water in arid climates.

c. Portable water filter.

d. Water purification tablets.

3. Navigate.

a. Map and compass.

b. In a city, a street map. Public transport network diagrams and timetables. Guide books.

c. Mobile phone. Some have mapping apps and an internal GPS antenna.

d. GPS receiver. Ideally with a digital map. Altimeter and can also be useful. Ideally it should be compatible with the GPS in the vehicle and share a common dataset including planned routes etc.

e. Satellite phone. Can also be used to obtain a GPS position.

4. Shelter

a. Poncho; or

b. Bivi bag. A breathable (Goretex or equivalent) waterproof bag large enough to contain you and your sleep system (see below).

5. Medical.

a. Personal First Aid Kit

b. Prescription medication (and copy of prescription). Anti malaria prophylaxis where necessary.

c. Copy of spectacles prescription

d. Mosquito repellent and head protection

e. Sunscreen / lip balm

f. (‘Sharps’ Kit)

g. (Group First Aid kit)

6. Snacks

a. Trail mix (mixed nuts and dried fruit) / biltong (dried meat).

b. Energy bars / chocolate.

c. Freeze dried food / soup.

7. Clothing (vacuum packed)

a. Base layer, underwear and socks

b. Hat, gloves

c. Shemag or Buff (neck warmer)

d. Duvet jacket

e. Waterproofs

8. Personal Admin

a. Ziplock bag with toilet paper.

b. Wet wipes.

c. Covid facemask and hand cleanser.

d. Zipped RFD pouch:

i. Passport, ID Card and travel documents

ii. Travel Inoculation Record Book. Yellow Fever Certificate.

iii. Insurance documents

iv. Vehicle registration / Carnet etc

v. Driving licence / Identity card(s) etc

vi. Cash / Credit / Debit / Pre paid currency card(s)

vii. Keys

viii. USB Stick with key data / information

ix. Others ………

e. Wash kit. Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap / body wash.

f. Sewing kit. Include sailmakers needle and thread.

g. Fishing traces and hooks. Snares.

h. Sunglasses.

i. Paracord.

j. Tank (Gorilla) tape. Local repairs and can be used to ‘stitch’ wounds.

k. Waterproof matches.

l. Notepad and pencils (‘Rite in the rain’).

m. Multitool.

n. Personal Emergency Plan (maybe stored on USB and / or mobile phone). Should include Pre Planned Responses (PPR’s) for the consequences of key risks and Emergency Contact Numbers.

Additional Modules

Depending on circumstances these include:

1. Sleep system

a. Sleeping bag or quilt. The type will depend on the climate you are in (3/4 season). It must pack small. Buy a sleeping bag suitable for you in the lowest temperatures you are likely to encounter. (A down bag with a zip down the front for heat control works well.)

b. Sleeping mat (Inflatable type). There are many mats on the market. Look for one that’s easy to inflate with deep sides (comfort) and a high thermal protection value. It must be light and pack small.

c. Bivi bag. A breathable (Goretex or equivalent) waterproof bag large enough to contain you and your sleep system.

2. Shelter

a. Tarpaulin; and,

b. Hammock (with ‘tree huggers’); or,

c. Tent. A 2 man lightweight tent provides a good compromise (weight and space) for you and your equipment.

3. Cooking kit

a. Fire. Waterproof matches / fire steel / fire lighters / lighter. Ability to light your stove and / or a camp fire.

b. Stove. The type of stove is a personal choice. A gas stove with a small burner that screws into a gas cartridge (such as the Pocket Rocket by MSR) is a good solution and typically boils water a couple of minutes faster than an alcohol stove. However, the alcohol stove is simple and does not require gas cylinders to be carried. Fuel can be readily found in most places. It boils 1L of water in about 10mins. (The stove will burn for about 25 minutes per fill). A wood burning stove may also work where fuel is readily available.

c. Spare fuel. Either a gas cylinder or a robust bottle of denatured alcohol / methylated spirits. (0.5L should be sufficient for up to 2 people for 3 days).

d. Windbreak. Whichever stove you choose, a windbreak will improve its performance. You could shelter behind a wall or rock or use your Grab Bag, but a small lightweight folding windbreak is a useful addition.

e. Cookpot / mug. Ideally with a lid and large enough to store most of the contents of your cook set within. Use a sponge or cloth to prevent items rattling when carried. Typically manufactured in aluminium but titanium is durable and lighter.

f. Pot gripper. So you don’t burn your hands! Aluminium, leather or silicone handles are available.

g. Long handled spoon and / or spork.

h. Tea and coffee. The beverage of your choice (without milk and sugar?)

i. Cleaning kit. Small kit to clean the cookpot and stove after use.

j. A cloth bag to contain the cookpot and most of the cooking kit.

4. Special equipment. Some areas introduce risks that may require specific equipment. For example areas prone to avalanche.

5. Firearms

a. In some countries licensed firearms can be carried for personal protection and self defence. If lawfully carried, its important that users are trained and competent. A firearm should not be drawn unless you are willing to use it.

b. Tazers. Products designed to stun or disable attackers using an electric shock. Check that the law in your country allows their use.

c. CS, Pepper and ‘Bear’ sprays. Personal and wildlife protection sprays are available and can be carried if required and their carriage and use is lawful.

Note: Firearms and Tazers can present unwanted complications at border crossings.


There is of course a real dichotomy here. You never want to have to use your Grab Bag, but if you do ever need it, then it must be effective. Outfitting a comprehensive Grab Bag with quality equipment can be expensive, especially when communication equipment is taken into account. However, if you invest progressively in quality equipment most of it will last a lifetime! Most of the equipment can be used to support adventure activities if you are so inclined so it won't be a wasted investment.

Resist buying ‘tat’; it will let you down when you most need it. For further information and equipment suggestions please follow the link Emergency Response; new Visitors please register. For assistance to develop your Grab Bag please contact

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