The concept of bugging out is great. You’ve got your gear. You’ve got food, water, supplies, and you’re ready to be able to survive if you ever had to with just the supplies on your back. Awesome!
Have you actually TRIED it yet? I strongly suggest you do, even for 24 hours. I’ve taken my new gear out three times so far; once for a vacation experience and twice for survival camping. Each and every time I’ve learned something new about myself or about my gear.
30 Pounds Is The Limit
Thirty pounds is the hard-limit set by most amateur hikers, campers, and backpackers. Keep in mind that they actually DO this four or five times a year so you should consider their advice as solid. Ok, my pack was 40.5 before I headed out for camping this weekend. I’m not an avid backpacker but I’m a physical laborer in good physical shape for my age, and able to out-work most people younger than me. Feel the same way? Don’t kid yourself. You’re not as athletically inclined as you think you are.
This weekend we intentionally picked a spot in the national forest with little to no manmade trails, no support system, and a location we had absolutely zero familiarity with. The idea was that if I broke down in that kind of location or was in an unfamiliar situation, could I navigate it with my gear?
The answer: yes.
Pictured above with me is Ghost, my search and rescue dog, and Chris Comeau, a friend, co-worker, and a guy that loves to hike and camp the woods of NC as often as his time permits.
We approached the weekend differently, so there are some caveats to what I’m going to share with you here. Chris came prepared to camp. I came prepared to bug out. The difference between the two is that I have a lot more survival gear than he does. He’s carrying convenience gear. I’m carrying survival gear designed to keep me, my SAR dog, and a rescued hiker or whomever, alive and healthy indefinitely, for as long as needed. It might be a weekend. It might be a week. It might be a month.
The second difference was that I KNEW this was a test, so I wasn’t in a real-life scenario, so I wasn’t about to abandon my pack or items just because they were heavy or unnecessary at the moment. If this were survival, I would have dumped some gear immediately. Since it wasn’t, I carried it all in with me and didn’t discard things along the way as unnecessary.
What did I carry in with me?
- My Bug Out Bag – if you want to see what’s in my bag, I did both a write up and a video on it earlier in the Survival series. Check them out here:
Building a Go To Hell Bag
Bug Out Bags: Overview
- My Everyday Carry Bag (EDC) – a Sabercat bag that is like a light version of a bug out bag,designed for one-two day survival necessities and immediate-response situations.
What did we learn?
So, what was our terrain? This is an important situation because you can’t always predict where you’ll be. I travel a lot so I could feasibly be ANYWHERE when it happened. The spot we chose, upon recommendation of a NC Forest Service friend of mine was W 35.913367 N 81.810166. Yeah, I gave it to you in GPS coordinates because it doesn’t have an address. That’s the reality of it. I knew there was water, possibly fishing, and that was it.
What we found ourselves in was the northern parts of Steels Creek, located in the Pisgah National Forest. We went here for a couple reasons. I could carry my dog, which I wouldn’t care about in a bug-out situation but for legal reasons it’s important that we comply with laws regarding that sort of thing. Also, I could carry a gun, for the same aforementioned reasons, though it is highly discouraged to do so by the forest service and other hikers. But in reality, screw them, ok? I ain’t going in the woods alone without a firearm no matter where I am, or what time of year it is.
So, back to basics here – weight.
My pack is 40 pounds, and there is another 15 pounds of gear in my truck I could optionally take depending on the terrain. My gun was in my EDC bag. My food was in my BOB. Grab both. Makes sense. Ok, now I’m at about 45 pounds. I have my dog. Maybe you’d have your child. Neither can carry much for long distances because they aren’t accustomed to it, so it’s actually good for me… I’ll have to do both. I put Ghost’s vest on her and load her down with the things she can safely carry.
First things first. Water. No one survives without water. I’ve got my Camelbak squished up and put away in a pack pocket. Let’s dig that out and fill it from the bottled water I carry in the truck, since I can’t carry that around with me too. Dehydration is the number one issue for survival. A one percent decrease in the body’s water level results in a 2% decrease in the body’s efficiency. That’s a fact. So if you get 10% low on water, you’re functioning at a BEST-CASE scenario of 80% of your norm, other factors not withstanding. Add that we’re going into what appeared to be some rugged terrain… with heavy gear, my water intake has to be almost double the normal to remain healthy. Ok. Fine. I filled the camelbak. I filled the 1.5 liter bottle I carry on my Sabercat. I drank heavily before we took off, and I need to carry water for Ghost.
I was at 46 pounds before I started. Now I’m hovering at around 60.
Mmm.. that sucks.
What happened? In five minutes, 40 pounds became 60 because I didn’t consider all the scenarios. Fine. I’m stuck with it.
Now, here’s where reality kicks in. If this had been a REAL survival situation, I’d have done a few things differently.
- We were in a remote location, though one accessible to other hikers and campers, so maintaining a semblance of appearance is important. If I walked through the woods and came across campers wearing a boonie hat, fatigues, gunned up.. someone would likely call the cops. I also had SEEN water so for the sake of comfort I didn’t switch out into ACU pants. If this had been real survival I’d likely have stripped off my shorts, left them behind and put on my rip-stop pants and blouse. That would have removed about 1.5 pounds from my back and distributed it amongst my entire body.
- That would have given me access to my cargo pockets, gun holster, thigh rigs, and other gear. I’d move three pounds of firearm and ammo out of my packs and on to my thigh. I’d have removed almost 4 pounds of food rations and distributed them to my legs.
- Then I’d hike on.
Ok, so we’re an hour or so in. Based on the topo map I’ve hacked onto my GPS, I know we’re rising in elevation. We started out at 1300 feet and we’re at abut 1650 now. We’ve moved what must be two miles by now right? * checks GPS* Shit… we’ve accomplished all of .4 miles in lateral movement in the last hour. Elevation, even without a GPS is easy to calculate. The rock walls on the right are impassable and unable to be climbed even without gear, and my dog (or your child) would never make that terrain.
So we cross the creek, avoiding getting overly wet, and one of us scouts ahead while the rest remain still, conserving energy. No sense in tiring everyone if the path isn’t accessible ahead.
Ok, the path is navigable. Awesome. Move out.
A few hundred yards into the terrain there is a fork. Right or straight? Well right seems to parallel the river and based on our map we know there is a stream head two miles north of us. Let’s go right.
Wrong. Dead end with no way to navigate further without being soaked to our necks in water or risk falling in. If my dog falls in, her 8 pounds or so of gear becomes 15 when it gets water-logged. Neither my dog nor your child would do well in that scenario. Back up we go and take the other path.
We walk for most of another hour, up some serious grades, sometimes up to a 70% angle for a time, but never less than about 30 degrees of incline. We break occasionally. I sit with my pack on my back when I can, resting it against a tree.
Can’t dump gear here and can’t stay here. It’s not habitable. Got to move on.
We hike for most an hour and wind up at a beach area right on the shore.
Wow, this is nice! I’d love to just stay here and… no no no.. this is survival camping, not vacation. Let’s drop packs, rest, and scout up the river ahead. Chris takes a walk up the river bank. Josh climbs the right side looking for a navigable way to get to the top of this peak. I sit with Ghost letting her rest for a few minutes while I break a topo map, determine our location, and digitally scout options.
The mountain to the right has another 400′ of elevation and it’s a SHARP increase. That’s out. We can’t feasibly proceed that way.
The mountain to the left has about 300′ of elevation and it looks like, from my view at the creek’s edge, like it’s passable.
After 10 minutes Chris returns from scouting the river. More of the same ahead. Josh gives up and returns from the right side. No luck there. We either have to ford straight up the river knowing we’ll be soaked through to the bone and not knowing what lies ahead or if there’s even an area to stop for miles, or we try to hike up the left side. Scout it without packs or just go up together, having no other alternative? Well, it makes no sense to expend one person’s energy reserves twice when we KNOW the other ways are impassable, so we might as well go on up the left side and hope for the best.
At this point I’m tired. I’m very tired. “You ok, Tommy?
“Yup. I’m good.”
If they go, I’m going.
We proceed up the trail, backtracking a bit to try to resume an upward course that’s navigable. After fifty minutes… almost an entire hour, we are unable to move ANY more forward at all without an incredibly dangerous climb. Ghost would never make it. She’d have to be roped up. We’ve already had to climb over fallen trees, under trees so low we had to almost crawl to get our packs through, and so big that Ghost had to be picked up over them. Shit.
There’s one trail option left to the right a few yards back. Let’s try that one.
Going UP a hill wearing 60 pounds is hard. Going DOWN moss-covered rocks at a 70 degree angle.. that will get your neck broken if you’re not incredibly careful. Your center of gravity is off because your body isn’t used to the weight being where it is on your back. Imagine leaning over on flat ground. Easy,right? Now imagine I slung another 60 pounds on your back in a jerking motion in half a second. You adjust your knees, ankles, and thighs automatically, trying to lean back with your toes, however now you’re balancing as if you’re almost a 300 pound man, not a 215 pound man. Your body can’t compensate as fast as you think it can. It can if you TRAIN for it, but we’re talking normal people here going through a little hike in the woods.
One by one we slide down on our haunches, passing our gear down to each other, forming a chain with our hands to catch each other if we should slide down. Josh reaches up to grab me to help if if I fall. “No.” I told him.
Josh is maybe 130 pounds, soaking wet, plus his pack weight. I weigh about 275 right now. If I slid past him and he reached to stop me on that small, rounded rock he’s standing on that I’m aiming for, and I go over the side, he’d never be able to stop my weight. I’d simply pull him over with me, probably landing on me, and then I’d hit the rocks below with about 450 pounds of weight on me. I’d rather have him standing with a rope over me, or able to jump down if he needed to. If I go over, I go over. If I don’t, no one has to worry about it. You have to consider these things.
We make all down to the rocks safely, scan left and scan right. Chris recognizes the area from his scouting session a bit earlier. “Hey guys,” he says, chuckling. “Look over there.” He points south of us.
At most, twenty yards away.. is the beach we were at an hour ago. A full hour of hiking and due to the terrain we made 20 yards of progress. That’s a shitty reality right there.
It’s almost 1800 hrs. Chris has already dunked himself at this point. His phone is dead. He’s soaked to the neck, and his pack probably contains enough water weight to be comparable to my own.
The smart thing is to set camp. We have almost three hours until dark. We need to find wood, haul it back to the beach, build a fire, and try to dry out gear so we can make a new approach tomorrow. Today we got a total of about 1 mile. Two outdoorsmen and one experienced hiker with all the right tools and more than your average amount of common sense and safety.. and we moved a mile.
The river is too shallow to be filled with fish. Too many falls and rocks every few feet and nothing over neck deep anywhere we’ve seen and even that is only in rather small pools you could almost jump across. Survival rations it is.
So, based on ONE day, what was the differences between real bug-out survival and practice?
In a real scenario, I would have made sacrifices right here that would have affected the rest of the trip.
- I’d have dumped one half of my sleep system to release weight. It’s never going to be cold enough to require that much warmth. -1 Pound.
- I’d have put on my battle rattle and worn my hardware instead of having it in my pack. I can’t swim wearing that much weight for more than a minute, but I already know the water here and that wouldn’t be an issue. That would have moved my thigh rig, ACU gear, vest, Kabar, Pistol and magazines onto my body instead of my pack. -7 pounds or so.
- I’d have dumped some of my water filtration systems. I don’t need straws, bags, and a water pump. I have a filter bottle and I’d have kept the pump. The rest would have been left. – 1 pound.
- We’d decide to either keep Josh’s camp ax, or my Ontario Machete, not both. -2 pounds.
- We’d redistribute some of my spare food to other’s packs. -1 pound.
- I’d wear my filter bottle on my belt, not my back -2 pounds.
- I’d have drained the camelbak and not worried about refilling it unless we moved away from a water source. -2 pounds.
- I’d toss my shorts from earlier consolidated our cooking supplies, and redistributed them amongst everyone. -2 pounds or so per person.
- I’d have tossed my Maxpedition Sabercat bag and kept only the bug-out-bag. Too much weight and no need for redundancy at the risk of injury in this terrain. -2 pounds.
Overall, just going by that list above I would have likely shed and left on the beach a total of about 20 pounds, a full third of the weight I had carried earlier. Since we’re practicing, I’m not willing to shed $300 in gear and supplies just to make the experience more life-like! Sorry! lol. That means I have to hike back with it all tomorrow unless we find better camping in this area.
Again, if this were reality, we’d have hiked back to the highway, walked the roads where we felt safe through the mountains, and made MUCH better time. Three guys and a dog in military gear walking up highway 181 wouldn’t have likely made a good impression though. Also, we wanted to experience what it would be like to have to make an overland march in that terrain. I know from the maps that the road would have eventually met up straight north of us about 5 miles. If I walked with my gear (assuming I’d shed the aforementioned weight) I’d have about a 20 pound pack and 20 pounds of water and I’d have been dry. The highway route would take about 9 miles to make the same 5 miles we could have made overland. However I know we can comfortably cover 2 miles an hour on foot, so we’d make it in about 5 hours. Call it six to include four fifteen-minute breaks for rest.
Overland, that same 5 miles….. probably two days.
Crazy isn’t it?
Hard to believe it would take three grown men two days to walk five miles in ANY terrain you’d find in your back yard.. but it would
That’s what we learned this weekend.
First, we need to trim pack weight some more.
Second, the roads through the national forests of NC are a lot more hospitable than navigating the mountains directly overland. Slower and longer is actually much faster in the end.
My advice to you
Take your gear out and practice. We were only 118 miles from home, a distance that I could reasonably expect to find myself if I ever needed to have to make it home. Every time we go out, we learn something new.
Gear knowledge I learned this trip:
- I traded my self-inflating bedroll for one that was thinner (width wise) and MUCH lighter, made of foam material. It sucked. It got damaged easily, torn, and even the sand left permanent marks in it. Trees and briers did a number on it too. Toss it and go back to my other bed roll.
- Chris brought a camp chair, a small three-legged folding one. Josh and I didn’t. “We’ll just sit on the ground like we usually do.” Great thinking smartass.. what about if the “ground” is sand? That sucked, so we did a lot of standing and leaning, and sitting on other things, which just got them sandy too. Ok, fine. Bring a folding stool next time. Check.
- A tarp does a GREAT job of keeping sand out of your gear. Good to know. I don’t usually utilize one for that purpose, but I have now. A blanket wouldn’t have worked. The plastic tarp doesn’t attract sand and is easy to clean off. Glad I brought that. We didn’t need it for rain protection, but I learned a second use for it.
- My Grilliput does a good job as a grill, but not as a stove surface. It’s designed to cook meat or fish on, not to use as a stove top. (I’ll fix the slightly warped rods and won’t make that mistake again.)
- Military MRE’s rock. Civlian MRE pre-packaged stuff is absolute crap and no one should ever ever ever eat it.
A thought on food:
There’s a reason the military puts certain meal packs together for their MRE meals and more importantly, why they do NOT use other combinations.
I’ve been home for almost exactly 24 hours now. I’m INCREDIBLY glad I am. The things that crap does do your digestion… horrible. Powdered eggs, powdered cheese, powdered “taste good” stuff that’s made for civilians to camp with is 100% absolute pure shit and it will both dehydrate you and isn’t designed for actual survival food. If you want to find out how “survival food” works for you, I suggest an at-home experiment of eating it for one week, prepared with the ingredients it’s designed to utilize, which is mainly water. When you FINALLY come off the crapper, and you are able to sit comfortably again, come comment on how that experiment went for you.
The absolute most critical thing for you in a survival situation is food and water. If you eat things that don’t agree with you simply because you saw them on the camping shelf and they sounded like fun… you can die. I’m not kidding. You can die and you can die fast.
I had the unpleasant experience about two years ago to learn what rapid dehydration can do to a very healthy person. It’s a damned good thing my wife is a vet. In a little over seven hours I had expelled so many fluids from my body that I was unable to get off the floor of my guest bathroom. My muscles cramped so bad I couldn’t stand, so I basically pulled my head over the bowl to puke and hoped for the best. She bodily carried me to bed and then ran two entire bags of fluids (designed for HORSE-sized creatures) back into me intravenously, and slowly put electrolytes back into my system with Gatorade juice packs mixed 70/30 with water. It took me almost 24 hours to be able to stand back up. That happened in the comfort of my own home between 11 PM and 6 AM.
Prior to that I’d have never believed it possible for dehydration to hit someone as healthy as me… not like that. There’s simply no way I could fathom that possibility. I’d never experienced it. I went from feeling 100% fine to being unable to get my own feet under me in 7 hours. Now, I have. Had that happened to me on a trail, I’d have died. As it was, my wife is an incredible healer and thankfully I avoided a visit to the emergency room. Now I have a new appreciation for dehyrdation. I tell you that to tell you this – ANYTHING you think you’re going to eat in the field, you’d best try to eat now and survive on it. See how your body handles it. You’d hate to find out I was right fifteen miles back into the woods with no one around to drag you out or no time to do it.
Then, when you’re done with all that, go out and buy some actual MREs and Coast Guard rations to put in your pack instead and feed that mess to dinner guests you don’t like…