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Emergency go bag: What to pack if you need to leave home ASAP

In the event of a wildfire or other natural disaster, it's important to have a bugout bag ready to go.

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An example of a good go bag.

Alina Bradford/CNET

Wildlife season is here -- and more than 650,000 acres in the United States have already burned so far. Experts predict it's going to be another tough season for wildfires and other natural disasters. If you live in an area where one or more natural disasters is prevalent, it's important to be prepared

Once thought of as a security blanket for conspiracy theorists, a go bag or bugout bag is now considered an important piece of safety gear to have on hand. Government officials even recommend having a go bag ready at all times. 

The idea behind the go bag is simple. If an emergency happens, you grab your go bag and... go. It contains items to help keep you safe until you can return home: your phone, medications, important documents and even outdoor survival gear like portable water purifiers. Here's everything you need to know to put together your own go bag.

Read more: Wildfires, tornadoes, floods, intruders: 4 ways your phone can save you in an emergency

Why you need a go bag

If you're lucky enough to have some kind of weather warning, you may have more time to evacuate. But many disasters are so damaging because they're sudden. At a moment's notice, you may need to flee your home to find new shelter because of:

  • Earthquakes
  • Wildfires
  • Tornadoes or hurricanes
  • Tsunamis
  • Flash floods
  • Mudslides
  • Ice storms
  • Zombie apocalypse (just kidding... maybe)

What kind of bag is best?

The city of Chicago, no stranger to strong storms, recommends that each member of your household have their own go bag. If you're the parent of small children, however, you can use one big bag to hold everything you all need.

Remember, the best kind of bag is one you can carry. Don't get a huge duffle bag unless you're very strong and can heft it. If you're driving, you want a bag that will fit easily in your car. You don't want one that's so big you'll have to leave one of the kids behind to take it with you.

A hiking backpack with various pockets is your best bet. Make sure it's made from a strong canvas material and has a strap that secures around your chest. This will take some of the strain off your back if you need to walk a long way.

Also, look for a pack that has a water reservoir you can fill with drinking water. These are often called camelbacks or hydration packs. A water-resistant pack can help keep your items dry within, though you can also line it with a plastic garbage bag as well.

The Sandpiper of California bugout backpack ($100) is one example. 

Make your water, don't carry it

Though many experts recommend having a three-day supply of water at home in case of an emergency, evacuating with that amount of water can be impractical -- especially if you don't have a car. The alternative is keeping a device in your go bag that can turn water from ditches, streams, ponds and other water sources into clean drinking water. 

Some options are the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle ($37) or the Liberty LifeSaver ($125). Both can be clipped to the outside of a go bag so they don't take up precious room in the pockets.

Be warned, though. Many emergency filtration devices like these need to be prepped with drinking water before they can be used as a filter for yucky water. Be sure to read the directions and prep your bottle before clipping it to your go bag.

Get lighting that lasts

Batteries may be in short supply in an emergency. That's why it's a good idea to put a lighting system in your go bag that can be powered by a renewable resource. 

The ThorFire LED Flashlight ($18) can be powered by sunlight or a hand crank. A solar or crank flashlight that doubles as an AM/FM radio is a good choice, too.

Read more: Best flashlights: Rayovac, ThruNite, Olight and more

Other essentials

Water and light should be at the top of your list, but there are plenty of other things you should toss in your bag:

  • Nonperishable food: Meals ready to eat (MREs) are a popular choice, but freeze-dried items work too. Just be sure they're light; provide a lot of calories and protein; and have a shelf life of months, if not years.
  • A good multitool that includes a knife, pliers, a can opener and other tools.
  • Paracord, also called 550 cord, can hold up to 550 pounds and is compact, so choose it instead of regular rope.
  • Carabiners: These metal loops with a spring-loaded latch have a million and one uses, like latching gear to the outside of your go bag.
  • A whistle to signal others if you need help and can't yell.
  • Something to start a fire with, like a lighter or matches.
  • SPF sunscreen for sun protection.
  • A poncho and a change of clothes.
  • Your family's prescription medications for a week and copies of your prescriptions. You'll probably want to toss these in the go bag as you leave, since keeping extras in your bag will be impractical for most people.
  • A small first aid kit with bandages, antiseptic, painkillers and gauze.
  • Personal care items such as soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products and so on. Put these items in waterproof baggies.
  • Your extra house and car keys.
  • A warm blanket. Put it in a plastic bag, use the hose on your vacuum to suck the air out of the bag and quickly seal it to save room.
  • A recent family photo for identification purposes, also in a plastic bag, to keep it safe from moisture.
  • Cash in small denominations and coins.
  • A regional map and a compass so you can find your way without a phone when cell towers and GPS are down or busy, or you've run out of battery.
  • Paper, pens and tape to leave messages for others.
  • A dust mask.
  • Copies of important documents such as insurance information, IDs, proof of address and passports, all in a waterproof plastic bag.
  • Your family photos on a USB drive. This one is optional, but I like the security of knowing I have some of my family's precious memories with me.
  • Pet supplies such as a leash, collapsible water bowl and food.
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