I dislike the term “go bag” because it’s often not accurate. Sometimes, they are used in “go” situations; other times, in “return” situations; and, sometimes, they just haul stuff around.
What are called “go bags” are really just gear hauling bags – better referred to as “ready bags.” They are distinguished from paper grocery sacks and generic gym bags by 1) their sturdy materials and construction; 2) their suitability for traversing rough terrain (urban or wilderness); and 3) their compartmentalization and organization optimized for some tactical gear or purpose.
Ready bags are also well-suited for many law enforcement and first responder activities:
- Non-covert activities – Evidence processing at narcotics busts, for example, requires a reasonable-size kit and a way to store and transport it; scene processing gear, ditto. You can think of many other examples: search and rescue, medical care, and so on.
- Surveillance – During these boring law enforcement assignments, you will probably need several pieces of special equipment: an NV scope, binoculars, electronic monitoring devices, and so on. A typical ready bag to hold and transport these items will be sturdy enough and compartmented enough to make it a far better choice than a generic duffel bag. If getting to and from your surveillance position involves being seen, then your gear bag should be discrete, as well.
- Demonstrations and civil unrest – At these events, cops are often embedded and need to hide in plain sight. They also have to carry dedicated gear: lots of cuffs, recording devices, maybe OC, and so on.
- Active shooter response – In these events, every available sworn person needs to grab his/her response bag and head to the scene. In this bag are magazines, trauma kits, door chocks, chalk/markers, and a host of other items.
Pick Your Disaster
In addition to the above law enforcement uses, off-duty ready bags of this sort sometimes go by cutesy names for disastrous events:
- Bug Out Bags (BUGs) – These are meant to store all the essentials which you’d need if you had to leave your house/office/etc. on literally a moment’s notice. If you live in tornado or wildfire country, these are a good idea. On the other hand, natural disasters like hurricanes and floods usually happen with enough notice to evacuate in a civilized manner.
- Get Home Bags (GHBs) – These units are meant to be with you or in your vehicle when you’re away from home. They contain the essentials you need to return home should you break down or are otherwise prevented from driving there. If you regularly traverse long stretches of terrain which can suddenly get snowed in or which sees no other traffic, these can be a good idea. But, if you live anywhere near a town, they probably aren’t necessary; although, a good first aid/trauma kit in your vehicle definitely is.
- Zombie Apocalypse Bags – These are meant to get you somewhere safe if total societal breakdown occurs. Now, this could definitely happen; it has on a regular and predictable basis throughout history. But, in most places in the United States and Western Europe, this is unlikely to happen suddenly. On the other hand, in urban areas you can experience citywide riots within minutes, so something like one of these bags is reasonable to have on hand.
- EDC/Emergency Bags – Every Day Carry bags are meant to be with you all of the time, keeping all the gear which you regularly use and might need in an emergency close at hand.
One mistake which many people make is to confuse a ready bag with a wilderness survival kit. An urban get home bag, for example, will require very few wilderness-type items.
Ready bags appropriate for all of these situations come in three basic configurations: backpacks, sling packs and messenger bags (lumbar bags are usually too small for this purpose). Backpacks can carry more load and are more comfortable for long treks, but are harder to access. Sling bags ride on the back, go on easier and you can access them without stopping or taking them off, but they put all of the load on one shoulder. Messenger bags ride on the hip and shoulder and are the easiest to access, but probably the least comfortable for heavy loads or long stretches and are not easy to run with.
You Look Marvelous!
Ready bags can also have a tactical look or not. By “tactical look,” I mean a military color (black, grey, tan, green, or camo) and with PALS webbing on the outside. Tactical-looking bags by the major vendors are generally of high quality and their PALS webbing makes them modular which is one of their main benefits. On the other hand, to genuine bad guys, they stick out as “shoot me first” target indicators and as such are best suited for obvious law enforcement tasks or applications where blending in isn’t an issue, such as maybe a get home bag. For an EDC ready bag or a civilian active shooter response bag, something more low-key is a better choice. Civilian vendors such as JanSport®, North Face®, Timberland®, Kelty®, etc. make a lot of packs every year, so they know something about how to do it and many of these packs are well laid out for organizing tactical and emergency gear. If you think that they won’t hold up as well as a special “tactical” bag, well, consider that every day many of them are loaded up with heavy school books and tossed, dropped, thrown, and generally abused by teenagers who aren’t known to be gentle on anything. Also remember that these same “civilian” vendors often make special packs for military units.
How Big Is Yours?
Focusing just on backpacks, you want to choose the right size for your application. If you choose too big a pack, you incur a clumsiness which you don’t need. On the other hand, you want to make sure your pack is big enough to carry all it might have to. A pack over 30-35 liters (1800-2100 cubic inches) tends to look large on most people in a civilian setting and may attract attention.
Packs may or may not have supportive frames which distribute the load and help transfer the weight to a belt. Small packs usually have no support; some midsize packs have a polymer (usually HDPE) frame sheet or metal stays. Larger packs usually have more elaborate suspension systems. An appropriate frame can make all the difference in comfort when the load exceeds 20-30 pounds.
Duty Cycle and Max Stress
There are two significant questions you should ask when making choices from among the alternatives described above. First, what features or durability will you need if the bag is used in a reasonable worst-case scenario? Second, how often will the bag be used (which relates to durability)? That is, will it be used on a regular basis or will it be “transported much and deployed seldom”? If your bag will be used often and hard, then you want top-shelf; if it will be seldom used and/or gently, then you have more options.
Items You May Not Have Thought Of
There are lots of lists of contents for any, and all, of the “ready” type bags available on Web sites and in print magazines and blogs. Remember, though, what you need depends a great deal on the needs and capabilities of you and those under your care. Everyone has an opinion and I don’t want to add yet another list here which, in any case, would be relevant only to me in some specific situation. Instead, what follows are just a few items which aren’t often thought of which you may want to consider for your bag, depending on its purpose:
- Nuclear fallout alert if you live near a nuclear plant;
- Pry bar – Think of getting out of a crashed subway car;
- Bright bandana for signaling, as well as 1000 other uses;
- Wool cap for warmth, particularly at night, even in the summer;
- Sharpie® and Rite in the Rain® for note taking and message leaving;
- Satellite Phone – Cell coverage isn’t everywhere and the system may be down;
- Extra glasses – You have to see things (clearly);
- Soap for cleaning wounds, grime/grease off hands and for general morale; and
- Pain meds – OTC and prescription (ask your doc for a couple of tabs).
Ralph Mroz was a police officer (part-time) in Massachusetts for 20 years, seven of which he was assigned to his county’s drug task force. He has taught at a number of national, regional and international law enforcement conferences. Ralph now has three new books available on Amazon: Street Focused Handgun Training (Volumes 1, 2 and 3), as well as two newly republished books: Defensive Shooting for Real-Life Encounters, and Tactical Defensive Training for Real-Life Encounters, which are also available on Amazon.