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You are the bug out bag

by Patrick Reynolds

Recently I've been waking up, getting the coffee going, looking out the window wistfully for a minute, and opening up the morning news on my phone with a sigh. Without doubt there's some crazy new tweet, ominous backroom deal, or depressing move to undermine democracy waiting for me there. A few days ago I woke up to the photos below.

On this particular day, the morning news was about overnight riots that happened in downtown Berkeley. These images are from about 5 minutes down the road from Kenzai headquarters. It's always a strange experience to see your local haunts on national media. It's even stranger when they're on fire.

Current political events have put everyone in a dark mood around here. Under the surface of normal life there's a sense that something is deeply wrong and everything we consider normal could quickly fall apart.

All of this rioting and social tension has gotten me thinking about doomsday prepping. When I watch zombie shows or post-apocalyptic movies, I realize that when society collapses, I'm not going to be a lot of help. I don't know how to build stuff, fix stuff, or kill stuff. I've been camping approximately twice in my life. I get lost in my own neighborhood.

This incompetence at basic survival is something I can deal with when it's just my neck on the line. But now that I have a family, I feel a certain responsibility to at least do the bare minimum to get ready for the coming social collapse. And that bare minimum seems to be assembling what the prepared dads call a "bug out bag."

A bug out bag is like an emergency kit on steroids. It's designed to sustain you and your dependents for roughly 72 hours, which has been identified as the upper limit on the time it takes emergency services to reach people in a large-scale disaster.

It turns out there's a whole subculture of survivalists who obsess over bug out bags. They huddle in dark corners of the internet and swap tips and tactics for surviving all kinds of apocalyptic scenarios. They get in long debates about water filtration systems, tents vs. tarps, and of course, guns. Page after page of guns. If you weren't paranoid before, reading these forums will definitely put you in a bad mental place.

"After all, at the end of the day, YOU are the bug out bag."

The interesting thing I notice reading these survivalist websites is how little focus is given to physical fitness. As I read about people getting their bug out bags figured out down to the gram, I wonder how many kilograms of excess mass they're carrying on their physical frame. I wonder just how physically capable they really are of living out their fantasy of surviving in an apocalyptic environment. After all, at the end of the day, YOU are the bug out bag. You've got to shlep your bag of bones and blood all over the terrain as the world collapses around you.

What kind of fitness routine prepares you for the realities of survival? After the Berkeley mini-riot, I've been thinking about this quite seriously. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly. You might be miles away from your perfectly prepared bug out bag. All you've really got is the knowledge in your head and the muscle on your body. What kind of fitness gets your body bug out ready? Here are my preliminary conclusions after researching and thinking about this for a few weeks.

Physical fitness

In a survival situation, cardiovascular health is the king, and bodyweight-based strength is the queen. When all hell breaks loose, your only concern is getting your physical body out of whatever situation it's in. This boils down to a few simple questions.

Can you sustain a run or at least a fast walk for 5 to 10 kilometers?

Adrenaline will only get you a few hundred meters. After that, it all comes down to how good your lungs and heart are at taking in oxygen and pumping it through your body. Every moment you're left gasping and trying to catch your breath is a moment you're not spending getting to safety. Maintaining decent cardio is the single biggest thing that will save your hide.

How to train: MOVE! Jump rope, go for walks and runs, swim, play sports. Remind your heart and lungs what their job is; to keep you moving no matter what! Don't just think that when an emergency strikes, adrenaline and your survival instinct will take care of you. I'll never forget watching footage of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and seeing out of shape people struggle up a steep hill, even as water was nipping at their heels. A lot of them didn't make it.

Can you efficiently move your body around three dimensional space?

Modern life tends to terraform your day into an unending flat surface. A person can leave their apartment, take an elevator to the ground floor, a taxi to their office, and an escalator to their office, and essentially have spent the whole time on a flat plane, despite moving hundreds of vertical meters. When all of these services aren't available, how capable are you of putting your body where you want it to be? Can you pull your bodyweight up and over an obstacle? Can you safely lower yourself from a reasonable height? Can you crawl under a tight space or squeeze through a narrow crack?

How to train: Spend the majority of your strength-building time on functional movements that use your own body as the counterweight. The classics, push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, chest dips, triceps dips, and v-sits, along with a smattering of full body movements like burpees give you the coordination and muscle integration that you need the most. If you're on a Kenzai program you've got this one sewn up!

Are you carrying dead weight?

You might tell yourself that carrying that extra 10 kilograms of body fat on your frame doesn't affect your odds of survival. After all, in the apocalypse, you'll have a few extra weeks of energy stored on your body while the skinny people starve! Sadly, this isn't how it actually shakes out. In real survival situations the people with a healthy low body fat do extremely well, while the overweight falter. Yes, if you're down in the single digit body fat range like a swimsuit model you're going to be in for a rough time. But very few people are hanging out at that ultra low body fat for much longer than a photoshoot. Many, many more are parked at 10-20kg of excess biomass that does them no good at all in an emergency. Carrying a lot of extra body fat on your frame is the equivalent of throwing a few cast-iron pots in your bug out bag. Maybe useful one day, but in the moment nothing but a liability that slows you down.

How to train: We live in a stable world of cheap, unlimited calories available at any hour of the day. Life is good. And yet most people eat like they're already in the apocalypse, banking a few hundred extra calories weekly and padding out their fat stores. Resist this urge. Every excess gram of body fat is a potential liability. Eat clean and stay trim! Easier said than done, but no one said surviving systematic social collapse would be a walk in the park.

"In a survival situation, cardiovascular health is the king, and bodyweight-based strength is the queen." 

As far as I'm concerned, these three things - cardio, bodyweight strength, and healthy, low body fat - are the three physical pillars of short-term survival. A lot of doomsday prep people are into lifting heavy objects, citing the need to free yourself from overturned objects and tree branches and stuff, but I figure you'd have to be pretty damn lucky to come across an object that's too heavy to lift with your bodyweight skills, but just heavy enough that all your powerlifting finally becomes useful.

Mental fitness

Having a strong, functional body is a huge advantage, but it's nothing without a brain to make the most of it. I've never been in a real life or death situation, but I have been in some minor crises and have seen how some people thrive under the pressure while others seem to buckle and retreat into themselves. Here are what seem to be most important mental qualities to survive:

Can you take a complex task and break it into smaller, manageable pieces?

When social order disintegrates even something as simple as getting water becomes a huge undertaking. Will you be overwhelmed at the enormity of the situation you're in, or will you be able to focus on the few simple steps in front of you? Can you break apart and delegate tasks to your group so that everyone can contribute to survival in parallel?

How to train: Look at all the things you have to do in a day and try to distill them into the smallest possible action points. Even huge projects are just a series of small, relatively straightforward tasks that add up to more than the sum of their parts. Get good at zooming in and out, looking at your goals from both ground level and 50,000 feet. Without the big perspective you don't know where you're going. Without the on-the-ground perspective you don't know how to get there. When disaster comes, these project management skills you learned in your daily life won't suddenly leave you. Whether you're simply finding shelter or rebuilding society from the ashes, project management will be an important skill.

Can you tolerate physical discomfort, and more importantly, psychological discomfort?

We've become pretty soft. How many minutes a day do you spend not being comfortable? Not too hot, not too cold, sitting on a surface that's not too hard, hunger and thirst taken care of without much trouble. How would you react if all that was ripped away? But what's even more troubling is how psychologically soft we've become. Have you found yourself in a situation where you need to wait, but don't have your phone on you? It's an itchy, uncomfortable sensation, your brain casts around for something to occupy itself, and you quickly become fidgety and annoyed. When's the last time you just sat and did nothing, read nothing, talked to no one for 5 minutes? After all the explosions, there's going to be a lot of solitude and silence. Are you ready for that?

How to train: Dealing skillfully with both physical and mental discomfort is easy to practice. Meditate. When you meditate properly, you'll be spending 10, 20 or 30 minutes at a time sitting with your squirrely mind, and not jumping at every little thought that comes up. You'll also get to practice feeling soreness in your legs and back and being ok with it. Meditation gives you a chance reconnect with the inner stillness that we all have inside of us. I've spent a lot of time on the meditation cushion, and to this day I can slip back into the mindful, nonreactive state when I slow down and focus. But it's scary how much my mind has acclimatized to a state of constant stimulation. If I'm this bad a mental shape, I worry for people who've never meditated at all.

Are you tenacious?

We've done a good job in the modern world of smoothing over hardship and making sure no one gets too screwed over on a daily basis. Did you break your leg? You've got an ambulance, a hospital, and probably health insurance. A broken leg sucks, but it's not going to upend your life. Did your neighbor punch you in the face? You've got a police and judicial system that you can appeal to so that the wrong is righted. In a disaster these systems break down, and you're shoved back into the default state of nature; nothing is reliable and the world is trying to kill you. How quickly can you adapt to the utter unfairness of reality? In a survival situation everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Will you dust yourself off, adapt, and move forward, or will you lose hope in the face of a playing field that's hopelessly tilted against you?

How to train: You gain tenacity by making goals and doing what it takes to reach them. It doesn't really matter what the goal is. Maybe you want to start a business, run for a local office, or make money with your art. Every step of the way obstacles and hardships will be thrown at you. Your plans will be thwarted and you'll have to rethink your approach again and again. Working through those dark nights of the soul and coming out the other side still committed to your goal is what builds your tenacity muscle. At the end of the day, it doesn't even matter if you achieve success. Bad timing, bad luck, and bad actors can undercut the best of us. You gain tenacity through the trials of the journey, not the prize at the finish line.

"Will you dust yourself off, adapt, and move forward, or will you lose hope in the face of a playing field that's hopelessly tilted against you?"

Looking at all the physical and mental skill sets needed in a crisis situation, what's the one thing you could do to be more prepared? One activity checks all the boxes - take on a serious training cycle. Spend three months building muscle, burning fat, and sticking with a strict diet. Here's what you'll get out of it:

Lower body fat, higher muscle mass. You'll be moving less weight with more power. Your chance to extricate yourself from dangerous situations goes way up.

Stronger heart and lungs. There's no shortcut to better cardio. A training cycle ensures you're getting it done every day.

Better immune function. When you're eating right and exercising often, your body is able to recover and heal more efficiently.

Discipline and tenacity. You don't just wake up disciplined one day. It takes practice. Training gives you small but meaningful stakes to practice with. Resisting the urge to skip workouts or go off diet trains your tenacity and gives you the reward of looking and feeling great.

Tolerance of pain and boredom. Working out is a process of taking your muscles to a point of painful fatigue over and over again. This toughens up your mind and is a good antidote to the soft, overstimulated life we're all living now.

Accepting setbacks. Yes, things will go wrong. You'll blow your diet at a holiday party. You'll miss a workout because of a family emergency. You'll be stuck in a business hotel with no place to exercise. But you'll learn to dust yourself off and move forwards. One bad yesterday doesn't spoil a training cycle, as long as you wake up fresh and commit to getting it right today.

"Training gives you small but meaningful stakes to practice with."

Digging deep into a nutrition and exercise plan is about so much more than swimsuits and abs. It's one of the most accessible ways to see what you're really made of. And I'm constantly impressed that when you scratch the surface, most people are made of some pretty tough stuff. If you're currently rocking a training program, feel good that you're building the ultimate bug out bag, your own body. And if you're not on a program, make a plan and get three months of solid training in sometime this year. You don't have to go hard all the time, but it's immensely good for your mind and body to get serious and knuckle down at least once a year. Either with Kenzai or without it, make a plan and stick with it.


So, at the end of the day, no matter how well you've prepared your body and mind, you still need a bug out bag. How do you make one?

First, invest in a sturdy pack. The rule of thumb is that at its heaviest, your bug out bag should be 20% of your bodyweight, with 15% being preferable. You'll need a pack that's easy to strap on and carry as walking is a strong possibility when things go bad.

What goes inside the bag? In order of importance:

Water. You'll need at least 1 liter of water per day per person, so for a 72 hour bug out bag you need at least 3 liters of water on hand. You can invest in a water filtration system if you think you'll need to find your own water sources after those 3 days.

Food. At Kenzai we rail against the casual consumption of energy bars, as they completely blow up your diet. In a survival situation however, the caloric density of an energy bar is second to none. You can also add freeze dried meals that just require some water if you want to branch out.

Shelter. People underestimate how important having some protection from the elements is. A lightweight tent or just a tarp could save your life.

Clothing. Sturdy boots. Good trousers. 2 pairs of socks. 2 shirts. A jacket. A hat. Long underwear if your climate demands it. Throw in a few bandanas as well, as they can be used for all kinds of things like signaling a vehicle, making a sling for an injury, or gathering wild plants.

"Keep building up your knowledge base slowly, and remember to make it fun."

First Aid Kit. A bug out bag first aid kit is about more than bandaids. In a survival situation you can deal with some scrapes and cuts; it's mobility traumas like blisters, sprains, broken bones, or frostbite that can cause the most problems. A bug out first aid kit should emphasize no-nonsense quick fixes for these problems: medical tape, gauze, superglue to seal up wounds and cover burns, and lots of sturdy bandages.

Essential Gear. A poncho. 3 different ways to make fire (lighter, matches, and a flint). A small pot to boil water. A camp stove and fuel. 2 flashlights and backup batteries. Lightweight nylon rope. A survival knife. A weapon that you're comfortable using.

There are even companies that sell pre-packed bug out bags, but the more you can customize your bug out bag to the most likely disasters you'll be facing the better. Here's a typical example from the prepper community.

Even as you pack your bug out bag, there's something else you need to be filling up. Not your water bottles, not your medkit, but your brain! Putting in a small effort to hardcode basic survival info to your long term memory means that no matter where you are when disaster strikes, you're equipped with the power of knowledge. I'd recommend the SAS Survival Guide; it's comprehensive but concise, and light enough to fit in your bug out bag if you need a cheat sheet.

But the real fun of learning survival information is that it doesn't have to be a boring textbook experience. These skills are straightforward and immediately applicable. In fact, you can learn one right now. Let's finish this somewhat bleak lesson off on a positive note by making a clear, life-affirming addition to your knowledge base. Let's learn to tie the most useful knot for adventure and survival- the bowline!

All you need is 1 minute and a piece of rope, string, or even your smartphone charging cable to practice with, and you've acquired a lifelong skill that will serve you well. Consider it the first small investment in a new field of survival knowledge. Let's learn from our favorite Australian Youtube channel WhyKnot!


Boom! Just like that you've gotten a little smarter about how to take care of business when things go south. Keep building up your knowledge base slowly, and remember to make it fun.

The great thing about getting physically and mentally prepared for disaster is that there's no downside. The worst case scenario is that nothing happens, and you're stuck with the side effects of your prep work; a fitter body, a clearer mind, and an action-oriented life that gets results!

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