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The CBRN Go Bag: Building a Survival Backpack

Disasters can happen in the blink of an eye.

In a panicked rush, there’s never enough time to find everything you need, put it together in a neat package, and escape from the danger zone. So how do you, as a concerned citizen, prepare for the worst when time is of the essence?

The answer is to have a go bag packed and ready so that you can be out the door and on your way to a safe location as quickly as possible. Having a go bag lessens the odds you’ll find yourself in a compromising position during an already dangerous situation.

But traditional go bag builds fail to consider the all too real and life-threatening risk of encountering chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents.

A true CBRN go bag incorporates all the supplies of a traditional go bag with added personal protective gear to protect you from deadly threats. In this article, I show you the essentials and break down various go-bag combinations to meet your needs based on budget, portability, physical ability, and the requirements of your immediate family members. I also explore possible scenarios in which your gear will make a vital difference to your comfort and odds of surviving.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • 01

    Questions to Ask Before Packing Your Bag

  • 02

    Core Components of a Go Bag

  • 03

    CBRN Gear for your Go Bag

  • 04

    Disaster Scenario 1: Domestic Terrorism and War

  • 05

    Disaster Scenario 2: Rioting Near Your Home

  • 06

    Disaster Scenario 3: Forest or House Fires

  • 07

    Disaster Scenario 4: Domestic Nuclear Accidents

  • 08

    FAQ

  • 09

    Conclusion

Questions to Ask Before Packing Your Bag

Depending on numerous variables, individual go-bag requirements can differ dramatically. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before deciding what type of go bag or bags to have.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of 5280)

How long do the supplies in your go bag need to last?

Some components of a go bag will last a long time, but items like food or medication are a different matter altogether. If you have a specific safe location, like a cabin or bunker, with more supplies, realistically estimate how long it will take you to get there with significant delays. During an emergency, travel times can be double or even triple, so be sure to give yourself a cushion of a day's worth of supplies, if possible. Many disaster kits are designed for 72 hours, so a 96-hour kit is a better idea.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Trail and Summit)

Consider whether you will need to walk. Cities can be challenging to get out of if there’s real trouble. Walking may be faster than trying to get out with a vehicle.

How heavy can your survival backpack be?

In reality, it’s generally a good idea not to pack too much weight in a single bag, even if your plan is to get to safety via a vehicle. If you have to abandon your vehicle, you want bags you can carry so you can keep some supplies with you at all times.

While a vehicle generally means that you can pack more supplies for a journey, be mindful of taking too long to evacuate. Although vehicles can cover more distance, they are much more susceptible to bottlenecks, such as traffic jams, and are typically reliant on clean roads.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of iStock)

Adding up the weight of what you put in your bag is wise. You don't have to be exact, but try not to pack any more than 20-25% of your body weight, especially if you’re not in the best physical condition.

How many people will you be traveling with?

Some gear and supplies can be shared, leaving room for other items. For example, a family can share a single first aid kit that takes up a lot less space than everyone carrying a kit.

Parents need to pack some items in their bag that their kids are unable to carry in their own bags.

Core Components of a Go Bag

The supplies listed below are recommended for a basic CBRN go bag. Additional or more substantial gear can be added for those who want to be prepared for a more extended situation. For an expanded bug out bag list, check out The Ultimate Bug Out Bag Checklist.

Water filter

Water is your first critical need for survival. You can go for several weeks without food but only about three days without water. The importance of clean water cannot be emphasized enough. Consumption of contaminated water is simply not an option as this results in illnesses that will slow you down during your survival journey.

Sawyer Mini with squeeze bag

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Section Hiker)

The Sawyer Mini is a popular choice because it’s lightweight, affordable, and rated to filter an insane 100,000 gallons of water (in ideal conditions). They can also be used with a hydration bag to purify water for a group. At under $25, they’re well within almost everyone’s budget.

Water filter bottle

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Prepared Choice)

If you want to keep it simple, a water bottle with a built-in filter might be the way to go. Lifestraw Go is a popular and affordable choice. Although the included filters do not filter as much water as a Sawyer Mini or some other Lifestraw products, they’re light enough that you are able to keep an extra filter in your bag.

Small medical kit

I highly recommend the compact 299-piece First Aid Only kit in the little blue pouch. These are amazing little kits because they include supplies that many other compact kits overlook, such as trauma pads.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of First Aid Only)

I have this kit in my bag, but I added some tubes of blood stop powder, Benadryl Liqui-Gels, and ibuprofen. Most kits, regardless of cost or brand, need additional items added to create a custom kit that best suits your or your family's needs.

A week's worth of prescription meds

This is the bare minimum of prescription meds you should have in your bag. If you can throw in more, even better. This is especially important if you rely on meds for a major medical condition. It may be difficult or impossible to get your prescription filled during a disaster.

Easy to eat energy-dense rations

If you’ve packed for a backpacking trip before, more than likely you are already familiar with how easy it is to pack 15 pounds of food without careful planning. The typical food supply in a go bag is 72 hours’ worth, but you can pack more if you have room or are comfortable carrying extra weight. For a go bag, I recommend spending the extra money on freeze-dried food if at all possible because it minimizes weight and bulk in your bag.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Practical Self Reliance)

Freeze-dried food also has a 15–25-year shelf life, so you need not worry about your rations expiring for a long time. Quality and tasty food also help keep morale high, which is more important to survival than it is typically given credit for.

Hygiene kit

If you’re trying to keep it minimal, just pack the most essential items to keep yourself clean. This may be just a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and some shower or wet wipes. Alternatively, you can also purchase small hygiene kits designed for travel, which will add 1–2 pounds to your bag.

If you have a beard, make sure to add in a few good disposable razors in case you need to shave quickly to wear a gas mask. If you want a proper seal, you cannot have facial hair where the gas mask meets your skin. Remember...it will grow back.

Thermal bivvy and emergency blanket

An emergency thermal bivvy and a few mylar blankets will help keep you warm if needed. For most people, the plan is to get to another location where there is shelter. But for an extended bug out in the woods or somewhere similar, you want to add a tent suitable for 1–2 people.

Lighter and matches

(Image source: Image Courtesy of 1 Million Women)

A few Bic disposable lighters and some waterproof matches will take care of short to moderate term fire starting needs. While many survivalists pack a ferro rod and striker, I don’t recommend them on their own because they’re not the best for getting a fire going in a hurry. It takes some practice to learn how to use them.

If you’re not already comfortable with them or need something easy to use, stick to lighters and matches. Those who have a hard time using their hands may want to purchase push-button lighters rather than those with a wheel and flint.

Rain gear

A rain suit is recommended for any go bag. Staying warm and dry is critical. Many disasters involve water, but in any case, a rain suit protects your skin from airborne agents and particles. While rain gear can’t replace a good hazmat suit for major CBRN situations, it can protect against low-level threats and reduce irritation.

We, of course, highly recommend our M4 CBRN Poncho for both rain and CBRN protection needs.

Small or medium-size Flashlight

(Image source: Image Courtesy of The Firearm Blog)

Don’t pack a heavy flashlight or one that takes up a lot of space. A flashlight that uses common batteries or that can be charged via USB is desirable. The light should ideally be waterproof and impact resistant.

Whistle or other signal

Something small that can be used to signal for help or alert others to your location is a good idea. A mirror can be used, but many people just carry an emergency whistle.

Battery bank

Communication is important. While phone services may be limited during an emergency, there’s no doubt you’ll want to keep your phone charged. A battery bank with a built-in solar panel is ideal because it allows you to have at least a little power even if standard electricity is unavailable.

Method of Self Defense

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

In any given disaster scenario, individuals should be mentally and physically prepared for a potential self defense encounter. For tactical survival gear, many choose to carry a small to a full-size handgun, assuming space permits. On the other hand, one should also have a second, less than lethal method. Not every conflict requires the use of deadly force and your mental health will not be nearly as affected when using pepper spray over a firearm.

Entertainment

Getting to safety does not necessarily mean that there won’t be any down time for entertainment. As someone who has had to evacuate due to a disaster, I can tell you that there is a good bit of sitting around waiting for conditions to improve. It’s also good to have something that keeps up morale. I like a lightweight e-reader in a protective case for this. I can have thousands of books on hand and keep it charged with a tiny battery bank with a solar panel.

CBRN Gear for your Go Bag

Gas mask with filters

There are many gas masks and filters to choose from. It’s critical to choose a mask that fits you well and meets your unique needs. Young children, babies, and those with breathing issues cannot wear a gas mask by itself. Unless a child has the lung capacity to blow up a balloon on their own, they cannot wear a gas mask without a PAPR system.

Here are a few gas mask suggestions for people of all ages. For a more extensive guide to specific gas masks, check out our Gas Mask Buyer’s Guide and Children’s Gas Mask Guide.

CM-6M or CM-7M

The MIRA Safety CM-6M offers a wide view and comfortable complete face protection. It protects against all CBRN threats when used with one or two filters.

The CM-7M is suitable for those who want to use advanced optics or night vision systems with their masks.

PAPR System

PAPR stands for powered air purifying respirator. PAPRs allow people who otherwise couldn’t wear a gas mask to wear one. They also make wearing a gas mask for an extended period of time more comfortable.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Blue Syndicate Group and The Iridium Group)

PAPRs run on batteries. Many commercially available PAPR systems have a proprietary battery system. The MIRA Safety MB-90 keeps it simple by using standard AA batteries. That means you can have a ton of batteries on hand at a fairly low cost.

The CM-3M Children's Gas Mask includes a PAPR system that allows very young kids to easily breathe inside of a mask. A PAPR system is essential for children who do not yet have the lung capacity to wear a regular mask safely. The drinking system ensures you can keep kids healthy and hydrated without compromising their safety during a CBRN scenario.

Decontamination Tools

Specialized wipes or gloves designed to remove nuclear contamination are highly recommended for a major CBRN go bag. These wipes are made for one-time use and can significantly reduce overall exposure. We offer the MDG-1 Decontamination Gloves, a non-toxic, non-corrosive option that allows you to cleanse yourself and your equipment of chemical agents.

Gloves

You might want to have two types of gloves in your go-bag. Any glove is better than none, but butyl gloves are the best for total CBRN protection such as our the MIRA Safety HAZ-Gloves.

Hazmat suit (space permitting)

A full hazmat suit is great to have on hand but may be impractical for some bug-out bags or situations. If you evacuate using a vehicle, this is less of an issue because weight and bulk aren’t such a problem.

Geiger counter/dosimeter

A Geiger counter or dosimeter lets you know when radiation levels rise and what level you’re encountering. This is important because it allows you to know when to start taking precautions, such as taking potassium iodide tablets.

Potassium iodide tablets

When taken correctly, potassium iodide blocks the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. To be effective, it must be taken within 24 hours before or within 4 hours after exposure. That’s a pretty specific time frame, so you need to have your pills where you can get to them fast.

Fanny Pack CBRN Bag for Work or School

While you can keep a good bag in your vehicle, what if you can’t get to your vehicle? There are times you have to be away from your main supplies. Many people can’t keep a lot of gear in their office and have to park significantly far from where they spend most of their day. In larger cities, many people rely on public transportation. Having a comprehensive go bag in a car isn’t an option for them.

A few basic supplies to get through a CBRN threat can fit in a fanny pack or other small bag.

The MIRA Safety TAPR respirator and two filters weigh about 1.5 pounds and fit snugly in a small bag. Add some goggles, a few ration bars for energy, and a pair of disposable gloves, and you’re likely to be the most protected and prepared person in your vicinity.

A small kit gives you some protection while getting to your vehicle so you can get to a safer location or at least access any supplies you keep in your vehicle.

Disaster Scenario 1: Domestic Terrorism and War

On April 12, 2022, 10 people were shot while using the subway in Brooklyn. The suspect, Frank James, used smoke bombs to cause confusion and inhibit people’s ability to see and breathe in the confined space. In doing so, this allowed James to open fire on the bystanders without resistance. 

(Image source: Image Courtesy of New York Post)

This situation is one in which having a small CBRN kit, like the fanny pack kit described previously, would be a major help. This set up can can easily house a TAPR half-face respirator in addition to a P-CAN filter, the perfect combination of a concealable PPE kit that is purpose-meant to filter out light riot control agents or devices such as smoke bombs.

Additionally, there is always the possibility of all-out war breaking out in your region. We live in uncertain times, with the war in Ukraine and tensions between nuclear nations at an all-time high, there’s a lot of incentive to have a CBRN go bag.

The fact is that nuclear weapons could reach practically any major city in America. If you live anywhere near a major urban area, chances are you are in a high-risk zone if nuclear weapons are ever deployed.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of NPR)

A gas mask with the right filter can protect you from harmful chemicals and radioactive particles so you can get to safety. The MIRA Safety NBC SOF-77 filter used with any gas mask that accepts a standard NATO 40-mm threaded filter is a great way to protect yourself. This filter is a fully rated CBRN device, that will protect the user from inhaling toxic industrial chemicals, chemical warfare agents, and even radioactive iodine found in fallout. For complete head to protection, you'll want to combine this filter with the CM-6M as well as with the MIRA Safety HAZ-Suit, HAZ-gloves, ChemTape, and CBRN boots.

Disaster Scenario 2: Rioting Near Your Home

Riots and instances of civil unrest are likely to happen more often given the current economic and political situations throughout the world.

If you read the news, you’ve seen the riots caused by inflation and food shortages.

International supply chains are in shambles, and recent sanctions and the lack of production due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and surrounding areas have only added to the problem.

Ukraine and Russia account for 1/3 of the world’s wheat production. Continued unrest will be devastating to the food supply in countries that depend on wheat exports.

Ukraine and Russia account for about 60% of the world's production of sunflower oil. Prices have already risen. Get ready for even more increases as the war continues.

Should food shortages and prices increase, we are very likely to see riots. Add to that the likelihood of civil unrest for various political or ideological reasons, and the potential for riots in urban and suburban areas increases.

Don’t fall for the fallacy of thinking that the suburbs or smaller cities are safe. Plenty of riots have occurred outside major metropolitan areas. Ferguson, MO, is a suburb of St. Louis with just under 21,000 residents. Charlottesville, VA, is even smaller.

When riot control agents such as CS gas are deployed by law enforcement, these have a nasty habit of seeping into the ventilation of houses and apartment complexes. This was quite commonplace during the Hong Kong 2019-2020 riots.

Should your home be caught up in the midst of such chaos, a full-face respirator, and a properly rated filter become indispensable for survival.

Disaster Scenario 3: Forest or House Fires

Over the years, we have seen the frequency of forest fires increase rapidly. This was especially the case during 2020 all over the west coast of the United States. A severe enough forest fire can easily spread into suburban neighborhoods and cause house fires.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Wildfires can move very fast, so you need to have a go bag packed if you live where the risk is high or on the rise.

A MIRA Safety gas mask with a DotPro 320 Gas Mask Filter provides protection from light smoke particles and burning chemical fumes. This is a lower cost option in situations where radioactive particles are not a concern.

Protecting yourself from toxic fume inhalation as you make your way to safety is essential. Remember that smoke levels can escalate in severity quickly. If you already have respiratory issues, a few smokey days could make it that much worse.

Disaster Scenario 4: Domestic Nuclear Accidents

The United States came close to nuclear disaster when the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant started emitting high levels of radiation. This could have quickly escalated into a major meltdown.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Independent.ie)

We don’t have the best system for storing nuclear fuel rods that have reached the end of their usable life. At one point, the idea was to store these rods at Yucca Mountain, but that project was halted. Instead, we store spent fuel rods in cooling ponds at nuclear power plants throughout the US. These cooling ponds rely on water being continuously pumped to keep them cool and to keep water from boiling off and exposing the rods. If the power fails and the diesel backup generators run out of fuel, this could result in a catastrophic meltdown.

As many nuclear plants are located near densely populated areas, you can see that the risk of exposure is much higher than any of us would like to think.

Very similar to the aforementioned nuclear attack scenario, your CBRN go bag should include either a CM-6M or CM-7M gas mask, HAZ-Suit, HAZ-gloves, ChemTape, CBRN boots, NBC-77 SOF filters, and even a PAPR system. Altogether these items will provide a full-bodied solution that will protect you long enough to escape nuclear fallout.

FAQ

Can I wear a gas mask with facial hair?
Can’t I just buy an army surplus mask and filters?

Conclusion

CBRN bug out bags aren’t just for people worried about a nuclear apocalypse. Industrial accidents, fires, civil unrest, and general chaos can erupt practically anywhere given the proper conditions. As discussed, you can easily add PPE supplies to an existing go bag as you can afford them. For those preparing their survival plans, do not forget to read instructions for proper use and maintenance of any CBRN supplies.

Remember that despite all the fearful rhetoric, it is possible to survive a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack if you are prepared. While a major part of the equation is having the right gear and supplies, the other factor is educating yourself and your family on how and when to use what you have.