If you’ve seen the movie “Cast Away,” you likely can recall the scene when Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck, struggled to simultaneously hold onto a bag of emergency gear and his inflating raft as he was yanked to the surface of the water after escaping the sinking FedEx plane somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. As the story develops, you watch as he has to make do with jury-rigged gear. And the whole time you wonder what could have been in that pack and how could the story have played out otherwise. Instead of a figure skate, what cutting tool would have made his life easier? Instead of a dress, what fishing gear would have helped? How could he have signaled that ship? How could he have maximized his survivability while minimizing his effort? Through our field testing, we concluded some critical gear one should consider when constructing a “bail-out bag”

The Bag

The larger the transportation system, the larger the emergency kit. Remember this rule. One would not expect to carry the same emergency gear in a kayak as they would in a powerboat and vice versa. We used an 1,800 cubic inch duffle bag from Watershed Drybags that measures approximately 12 inches by 20 inches by 10 inches. This gave us enough room to pack effective equipment with some room to spare. If room allowed, we’d pack two identical kits or we would have additional bags prepared to increase our odds of survival. For this field test, the bail-out bag we used is about the same size of the bag Tom Hanks’ character was handed in the movie.

One benefit of using a bail-out bag like this is the ability to use it as an emergency float. It is not a US Coast Guard approved flotation device but in a real emergency, you won’t care if it is approved or not. As long as it helps to keep your head afloat. The inflatable valve on the bail-out bag allows you to blow extra air into the bag to keep the contents and you above water. Also, once you reach land, the bag itself can be used to contain potable water. If it can hold air, it will hold water.


What would cause a person to abandon a boat or plane? Chances are, it was damaged in some sort of accident. Anytime there is an accident, there is a chance for sharp objects, fuel, and blunt force trauma. All of these can be immediate threats to life and therefore should be prepared for. In any bail out bag, one must carry not only a first-aid kit for minor injuries but also a trauma kit to deal with severe hemorrhaging. This means one should have sufficient supplies to address bleeding out such as a tourniquet and hemostatic gauze.

Assuming your survival situation become prolonged, one should consider carrying vitamins to offset certain maladies. Most people know about the vitamin C deficiency that causes scurvy. What happens when the body is deprived of vitamin B1 or vitamin D? There is plenty of research out there to suggest a bottle of vitamins should be carried, just in case.

Signaling Devices

If you had time and the wherewithal, you likely were able to send out a distress call from your watercraft or aircraft prior to abandoning it. If you didn’t have the chance to alert others to your peril, you absolutely want to have the right signaling equipment with you to do so once you are in the water. Ideally, you would have a hand-held radio or satellite phone to communicate. But these are not always carried in smaller watercraft.

In the water, your bailout bag should be equipped with some sort of emergency light as well as an emergency whistle. Opening a bag to access a whistle doesn’t make sense when that bag may be serving as your flotation. In our scenario, the bailout bag selected featured SOLAS reflective taping that will catch a searchlight’s beam and reflect. For redundancy, one could attach a high-intensity chemical light stick from Cyalume for more visibility in the water. A strong LED Flashlight should also be carried for both signaling and general utility.

The best option is a small emergency personal locator beacon like the MicroPLB from Wireless Concepts, LLC. This device will alert a monitored network of your distress and start the rescue process. While costly, a personal locator beacon is the best option for emergency signaling. Assuming you are in a safe location, turn on your EPLB and wait. Aside from that, your bail out bag can be equipped with traditional signaling gear. These are flares, battery-powered strobe light, dye markers, signal mirror and whistles. Just as it is vitally important to communicate distress and location via radio as soon as possible, a strong signaling plan should be a priority in your kit.


We examined footage and testimony of countless long-term survivors from sea. In cases dating back to WWII all the way to the present, a major threat to health and safety was exposure. In particular, exposure to the sun and the magnifying effects of the rays off of water. For this reason, it’s important to include a good wide-brim hat, sunglasses, lightweight long-sleeve and long-trunked shirt, and zinc oxide sun block. It doesn’t take long for sunburns to set in. This is true especially closer to the equator. With this sun-blocking equipment, one could tuck their legs up into their shirt seated in a raft and block the sun from doing damage that can severely impact morale.

If your bail out situation takes you to shore, you’ll want to set up some form of camp. This can be fashioned from a good multi-purpose tarp. You can also use heavy-duty contractor clean up bags and a mylar blanket or two. Don’t forget to include redundant fire-starting equipment like matchets, ferro rod, and lighters.


Imagine the frustration of floating on water but being unable to consume any of it. Salt water is safe to cool off with externally, but not safe for consumption. In a short-term situation, it is wise to pack emergency drinking water in your bail-out bag. Just remember, a gallon of water weighs approximately 8 pounds. Packing too much will limit your mobility and ability to carry your bail out bag.

In a long-term survival situation, having the means to collect water and treat water is essential. Platypus water bladders pack down but can hold liters of water. A good lightweight metal water vessel like the B.O.T. from Vargo allows the survivor to boil water and carry water sealed. The contractor bags carried for shelter can also be used to fashion a rain-collection basin. Salt-water can be boiled. The steam coming off the pot can be trapped and condensed on a sheet angled overhead and positioned to collect into a separate container. To help with water collection, a dry sponge can be added as well. If money is not a concern, a small and portable mechanical desalinator can be packed. The sticker shock of over $1,000 for this device will turn most people away.


There is no debate. A cutting tool is essential in an emergency kit of this nature. The question becomes, “which blade is appropriate?” Our suggestion is a stout 5 inch fixed blade. Folders are broken knives pinned together and inside of a bag the folder’s benefit of compact carry is an attribute that is more liability over asset. A good fixed blade will be less likely to break and be much stronger should it be needed for hard use. A large chopping tool such as a machete or hatchet can compliment a kit if reaching land is a strong possibility. Otherwise they are impractical on the open ocean as there will be little to chop.

Even if the knife carried is packed dry, once it is used in a saltwater environment, it will begin to rust unless you carry a rust-resistant blade. Spyderco’s SALT series of blades along with Mission Knives Titanium knives are excellent choices. There are plenty of other companies at various price points to satisfy the knife/tool requirement for your kit. If your plan includes an inflatable raft, you may want to consider packing a blunt-tip blade or a small cutting board for wild-caught food processing.


Prioritize communication over food. The job of the emergency personal locator beacon should alert rescue to your position long before the wasting effects of starvation kick in. Rescue, however, could take multiple days to reach you. Depending on the amount of work necessary to construct a shelter and deal with the elements, your body will require offsetting the caloric deficiency metabolizing your last meal and fat stores creates.

Space inside the bailout bag will be limited. So it is necessary to maximize the allotted room. Calorie-dense food options like Datrex food bars are popular additions to emergency kits like this. These food rations have a very mild taste. They allow the survivor to consume something edible, return calories back to the body and psychologically work against the gravity of the situation by providing emotional food. Caution should be exercised in eating these rations though. Without supplemental water consumption, digestion can be painful.


Assuming your survival situation becomes long-term at sea, you will want to have the means to gather food. The most practical and obvious method is fishing. Inside a bail-out bag, space will be too limited to carry a fishing pole. This limitation has reoccurred in many historical survival at sea true stories. A good compromise therefore is a Cuban yo-yo fishing reel. Held in one hand and cast with the other, the yo-you will protect your hand from getting cut by line should you hook into a large fish that puts up a good fight. Make sure to pack a large fish hook to create a gaff for fish retrieval. Just remember the puncture hazard if you are in a raft.

Some real survivors have told accounts of catching sea birds that land on their raft. A small slingshot with some marbles will easily dispatch this potential food source. Just remember, while fish can be consumed raw. Birds should not be. The slingshot band can also power a shaft (perhaps fashioned from salvaged materials) much like a Hawaiian sling. Other food gathering options for your bail-out bag may include automatic fishing reels and various packable nets.


Fire-starting gear should always be carried even if you are stuck on the water. While a large campfire is not an option in a raft and adrift at sea, it may be a possibility if you reach land. Also, a ferro rod should always be carried even though it will disintegrate when exposed to saltwater. If they are carried in a protective case like those offered by ExoTac, or stored in a watertight case, they become more practical. Remember, anything carried should have multiple purposes and a ferro rod can not only work to start fires but also be used as a signaling device at night. One firecraft addition to a bail-out bag should be a dedicated emergency candle. With the ability to use up to 3 wicks at a time, this type of candle can be used to boil water in relative safety in confined areas.

Miscellaneous Bail-Out Bag Gear

Once the basic survival priorities are met, one should think about the additional items that can be carried to increase survivability and utility. Cordage in the form of paracord, Kevlar thread, bank line or spare fishing line cannot be overrated. A repair kit with various tapes, glues and cable ties can be useful as well. A set of synthetic cut-resistant gloves will help protect your hands and a merino wool handkerchief or neckerchief like those from NxN have a million and one uses. Obviously, the remaining contents of the kit are up to the end user to decide. Weight and space considerations never go away and one should always ask, “is it necessary to have? And “is it nice to have?”

We tested this bail-out bag in warm water conditions. The difficulty level increases in cold water when donning a survival suit first is an absolute necessity. When fighting off hypothermia is the primary concern, simply surviving the water is 99 percent survival. Also, we had the luxury of not having to suffer through abandoning ship or bracing for impact during a water landing. Every scenario is different and just as the contents of the bail-out bag will vary, so will your training and preparation for the most likely scenario you will encounter.

This article is from the summer 2018 issue of Survivor’s Edge Magazine. Grab your copy at

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