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The bug-out bag: your insurance policy

I got used to go bags and bug-out bags while I was in the Army and was transferred to Germany. My wife and baby daughter came along as dependents. I had a go bag stowed in our car so I could respond to an alert, regardless of where I was. It included a set of field gear, underwear, three pairs of socks and my field boots, plus cigarettes, candy and coffee. It was the 1950s, the height of the Cold War.

Mike Saylor

My wife was instructed to make up a bug-out bag. If the "flag went up," dependents had to be evacuated. Husbands would not be available to assist them, so wives had to prepare food, clothing and other essentials to sustain themselves and their children for three days until they reached safety.

To facilitate rapid evacuation, there was to be one bag per dependent. If the flag went up, dependents would be taken out of Germany by some means within three hours. The bags had to be ready. Had war started, I doubt that those plans would have succeeded, but that's another story.

If you resist the temptation to draw to that inside straight, sure enough the next card will be the one that would've filled the straight. The best way to ensure rain is to wash your car. And the weekend you thought would bring bad weather so you canceled your boating plans was, of course, magnificent.

Thus it follows that if you want to avoid the perils of a disaster afloat, make up and carry a bug-out bag. Being pessimistic optimists, we always carried one. Our theory is that it's better to have and not need than need and not have. Remember, bug-out bags are not only for long-distance or offshore cruisers. A simple day outing also can have unwelcome surprises.

The bug-out bag for boaters provides the means to help you survive a disaster on the water. Our bug-out bag was a water-resistant container with flotation to support 50 pounds. Ours came from ACR, and other companies also make them.

The bug-out bag should include food in sealed packages (mostly energy bars, candy and chewing gum); first-aid supplies, including sunscreen; hats and long-sleeve shirts and trousers to protect against sunburn; and fleece jackets and watch caps as a defense against hypothermia, even in warm weather.

Also pack a water-resistant flashlight, a signal mirror, dye marker for the water and hand-held flares and hand-held rockets (both from Solas, of course). The flares and rockets are required, so they're easy to incorporate. Signal mirrors, whistles and dye marker are inexpensive no-brainers that don't add much bulk. Local charts should already be in the boat (hopefully, waterproof or in water-resistant carriers). You already have binoculars, chemical lights and a water-resistant hand-held VHF. We also had a hand-held GPS and an EPIRB.

Most of the supplies that go into a bug-out bag are already on the boat, but it makes sense to have your emergency gear in one place. The bug-out bag is a logical place for it. These bags have straps or pockets that accommodate many of the items I've mentioned.

You've probably noticed we didn't pack drinking water in the bag. You can buy packaged water, but we always used gallon milk jugs secured to each other through their handles and then secured to the bug-out bag by nylon webbing.

Jugs of drinking water are less dense than salt water, so they float when full. When sailing in fresh water, we filled the jugs to three-quarters so they would still float. Our first-aid supplies - Lou being a practitioner - included inflatable splints; bandaging material and tape, including self-adhering tape; antibiotics; antibacterial materials; and painkillers.

This was a routine packing, which we had in the boat regardless of the extent of our planned time on the water or the anticipated distance offshore. Doesn't it sound like a lot of stuff? Yeah, it does seem like overkill, but accidents can happen anywhere at any time and you can't get out and walk when you're on the water. You never know when some drunk will run into your boat or when an accidental fire that you can't put out will start.

Maybe there's a leak that your pumps can't handle. Of course, nothing moves water faster than a scared crew with a bucket, but that may not be enough and you could feel as if you're losing the boat. This is especially true if there are children or passengers who are less than competent on board. Accidents can happen, even when you're close to shore and in local waters.

The point is that you don't know how long you'll be in your dinghy or life raft. Sure you can open the throttle and zoom to land if your dinghy has an outboard. However, what if someone is injured or in shock? What if you're too far offshore?

Almost everything in a bug-out bag is stuff you already should be carrying on your boat. First-aid supplies are available in prepackaged kits. Choose the one appropriate for your type of boating. Also, some of you bring along four-legged family members. Remember to consider them when fitting out your bug-out bag.

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.