Not one person could survive long term and thrive using an INCH bag, but a group could do it. This is the ultimate guide and gear list for your INCH bag. INCH stands for I’m Never Coming Home. An INCH bag contains only the essential items needed for a long term wilderness survival situation, nothing less, nothing more.
This is how it is different from a bug out bag. A bug out bag is meant for a temporal situation, whereas an INCH bag is meant for a long term scenario of months or years.
In 2016 I prepared and embarked on a six months survival expedition in the boreal forest. That adventure was a big reality check on wilderness living.
Who needs an INCH bag?
Who could manage to survive for a long time living off the wilderness using only what’s inside a INCH bag? It depends. The first long term survival principle to consider is if there is a location you could go to where you would find abundant fish, acorns, wild rice, seafood, or big game for example. Food is the name of the game. The realities of gathering wild foods are that it’s very different from recreational hunting, fishing, and gathering.
So if wild foods are very abundant in your area the next question is who’s coming with you? If you think you can handle the wilderness by yourself I’d say you’ve watched too much television. Have you heard about the rare solo hunter-gatherers of the past? Me neither.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t live on their own. They relied on others. Clueless people would say that an INCH bag is a young man’s game. An INCH bag would only make sense in a group context, yes being young would help, but only if you are part of a group. If you don’t believe this then ask yourself: what would you do to gather food after a month of semi starvation, if you broke an ankle due to being lightheaded and not thinking straight?
So far we’ve talked about having an area with abundant food and being part of a group to even consider the use of an INCH bag. Now we’ll consider your potential. Have you camped in a tent for more than 7 days straight? Have you hunted, trapped or fished before? Have you hiked 100 miles with a heavy pack? Do you hear the call of the wild? Are you slightly crazy? If you answered yes to all the questions then you could consider packing up an INCH bag, otherwise it’s a no-go.
To begin, you must realize the difference between short term and long term wilderness survival. In the short term the priority is being hydrated, avoiding exposure to the elements, self rescue, or signalling and searching for help.
Food procurement is the main priority in the long term! You still need a shelter, means to start a fire, hydration, clothing etc. But being warm and cozy won’t matter if you starve to death. Realize that long term survival is about FOOD.
You’ll have to trap, gather, hunt, or fish everything you eat. You will spend countless hours processing, cleaning and cooking food. So you need to be very efficient. Research what the local past hunter-gatherers did to forage. Focus on their staples. If you live near the coast it would have been seafood. If you live near the big lakes it could have been wild rice and fish. If you live near the rockies it might have been acorns.
Why haven’t I mention small game? Everyone says focus on small game for wilderness survival. Yes, for short term survival you can survive on snacks. You can live quite a long time off your fat alone. But I’ve researched what hunter-gatherer tribes ate and guess what? Their staples were anything they could catch in big quantities, as in drive off a cliff as many buffalo as you can. Or dam up that river with a weir and get thousands of fish. Gathering food is a numbers game, you need a ton.
You won’t make it catching a fish or two a day: how would you get through the winter! And if you check how many calories are in wild foods you will quickly realize that hunting 10 squirrels a day with your .22 won’t cut it.
Something else to consider is that wild foods are seasonal. They come and go, fast. Timing is everything and you must work hard and long hours. You hunt a moose; you stay awake for the next 2-3 days cutting and drying the meat. The berries don’t stay hanging in their bushes for long either. And the squirrels won’t wait for you to gather those nuts.
Redundancy and durability are two super important principles for assembling an adequate INCH bag. Redundancy means that if you lose your axe you can still make a long term shelter with a different tool. Mountaineers carry two pairs of gloves for a reason; they like their fingers. If your item is absolutely essential like a knife or a fire starter you must bring multiple ways of getting the job done.
Durability is also extremely important: there is no place for toilet paper, soap, or toothpaste in an INCH bag. If your consumable won’t last long term then why bring it? All the items must last at least 6 months of moderate abuse. Durability comes with a huge drawback: weight. This is why there won’t be space for your ham radio, solar charger, batteries etc. Think about the ultimate priority: food. Would you rather carry 200 extra fishing hooks and 300 yards of line or a radio? Make sure your gear is as simple as possible, and consider reinforcing its weak points. Sew patches on your pants, for example.
Practice with your equipment and imagine its use during long term conditions.
Something that is hard to foresee is how your gear would perform in a I’m Never Coming Home scenario. Specially a long term situation after being chronically stressed, exhausted, starved, and under-performing. Excuse my lack of optimism, but you must prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
When I chose my gear for my 6 months in the wild I didn’t pack many warm jackets, I brought some and thought it would be enough. No way, when you lose a lot of weight your body shifts gears and lowers its metabolism. So in addition to having less fat a.k.a. insulation, your body lowers its temperature. The sleeping bag I had, worked well for three months in the Pacific Crest Trail and my canoeing trip to the Hudson Bay. But it definitely didn’t keep me warm after being food deprived. I made a gear list article about what worked and didn’t.
INCH Bag Gear List
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A 70 to 80L backpack should be enough. If you want ultimate durability look for a military pack made of 500-1000 denier cordura nylon. It should be the last item you buy so you can see if everything actually fits in it. An external frame would distribute your weight better if your INCH bag is heavy. But your INCH bag shouldn’t be super heavy! Internal frame packs also work great. Having pockets on the hip belt is nice. Having a water bottle pocket at the side is also a great feature, although not great for bushwhacking.
An air filled or induction compass will not develop a bubble; a compass with bubbles is useless. Either a lensatic or mirror compass would be great for advanced navigation techniques. Waterproofness and impact resistance are important. Also consider an air filled button compass or two as back ups.
A watch is an optional but excellent tool to have. My Protrek solar watch has an altimeter, barometer, thermometer, compass, and a durable wristband. The wristband shouldn’t be made of resin like most G-shocks because they deteriorate quickly.
You should have 1-2 topographic maps (1:250,000) covering the entire area where you could be travelling in. And 2 or 3 detailed maps (1:50,000) of the most promising areas. They should be plastic, paper ones don’t last. Mark all the man made structures in that area. Gather intel on your wilderness location, draw trails that aren’t marked that you discover using satellite imagery. Notice traplines, cabins, and wild edible harvesting areas.
Tent or Tarp
Depending on how many bugs there are in your area you might want to bring a tent instead of just a tarp. A 3 season tent would last years if properly cared for and kept in a shaded spot. It could be your temporary shelter while you build a permanent one. It is worth considering the extra weight if mosquitoes would make your life miserable. If you choose a tarp consider a 10ft x 13ft silnylon tarp. They are 1.9lbs. You must really take care of your tarp, and be careful with fire. It would be a great component of a permanent shelter.
A down bag is more compressible and lightweight, but has no place in a long term situation. A synthetic bag is bulkier and heavier, but retains insulation much better when moist. A hybrid bag would be a good compromise. I really think a synthetic bag is the way to go for a long term survival sleeping bag. The important thing is to bring a bag rated to the lowest temperature you would encounter. If there is only one day in February when the historical average is -4°F, bring a bag rated to at least –4°F. Remember that it is one thing to winter camp with a full belly, and another thing is to winter camp for 3 months in a survival scenario. Also consider a two bag system like the Snugpak or US military bag.
Sleeping bags are designed to be used in conjunction with a sleeping pad, particularly their the temperature ratings. They are a must during winter. A closed cell foam pad like Therm-a-Rest Z lite would be the most durable. A durable inflatable sleeping pad like the NeoAir Xtherm could be an option too but it could delaminate or puncture in the long run.
You should try to use a magnifying glass as much as possible. Fresnel lenses are super light weight, but don’t last as long as a glass lens and they aren’t as powerful. So either bring a 6 inch glass lens or 3-5 credit card sized fresnel lenses.
A 1/2 inch ferro rod could start up to 10,000 fires. They are super durable and reliable.
Bring 2 or 3 full sized BIC lighters. Each of them can light up to 3,000 fires. And they are the easiest way of starting one. They could lose their liquid if they are pressed accidentally so tape the button to avoid this.
A shallow and wide 1 liter pot would be the most versatile. It should have a lid and a handle that won’t melt near fire. Either titanium, aluminum, or stainless steel would work. A titanium pot is light and strong but costs more. Aluminum could melt if left empty, and stainless steel is heavy. It shouldn’t be teflon coated inside; for it taints your food if it overheats.
A plastic spoon and a fork would be nice to have, and they don’t weigh much. Plastic utensils allow their use inside the pot.
Pack a wide mouth stainless steel, aluminum, or titanium bottle. It should hold at least 750 ml. A metal water bottle will not break if it freezes and will allow you to boil water in it if needed. Think about installing a bail handle to the bottle so it is easier to use over a campfire. Hydration packs are not sturdy and practical enough for an INCH bag.
If you will have to drink water downstream from civilization on your way to the wilderness you might consider bringing 50 tablets. Those could purify 50L. They can be used if you are in a hurry and don’t want to wait 7 minutes by a fire to boil some water. The long term way of treating water is to boil it anyway.
Either a takedown, recurve or a longbow could do. A 45 lbs survival takedown bow would be the most practical. A traditional bow is lighter than a compound, and you can fix it in the field. You’ll shoot instinctively, so you don’t need sights. Check my article on the best survival bows.
At least bring 6 carbon arrows. They are strong and light. They should be feathered if you will shoot off the shelf. I would bring 12 or 18 arrows.
Bring as many small game points as you have arrows and at least 4 big game points. Fixed broadhead arrow points would be more durable for large game. Tryr to maintain consistent grain weight across your different points.
Bring a bow hunting quiver or a belt quiver. Or make your own light weight bow quiver.
Gill Net or Cast Net
Depending on your area: lakes, sea coast, or river will be more prevalent. For a lake, coast, or really slow river a cast net would be better than a gill net. Gill nets are great but work better where there’s current; If there are rivers in your area bring one. Keep in mind that most are made from monofilament line; so they will degrade with time. I would honestly make my own with braided line for durability.
Strong and big hooks would last longer. Small hooks could break easily if a bigger fish gets hooked. Having barbed treble hooks would increase your chances of finding a hooked fish if your line is left overnight (illegal in some places).
Having a lightweight pack is important, but having a fishing rod could mean more food on the table, specially when travelling. The backpacking Emmrod fishing poles are the best for this purpose. They are compact, durable, and simple.
A 10m roll of duct tape should be kept for emergency use only. It can be used for attaching bandages, closing wounds, improvising a sling etc.
Israeli Compression Bandage
The best emergency bandage out there to compress a wound and close it to stop bleeding.
Pack different antibiotics for emergency use like cephalexin for example. Ask your doctor!
Suturing line and needle
Suturing wounds in the field is bad practice. But if there is no alternative, the wound has been cleaned properly, and you have taken preventive antibiotics: you could use a an absorbable suture and needle (3/0 or 4/0) at your own risk.
A fixed blade, full tang knife that is comfortable to use extensively would be best. I prefer a stainless steel knife because it holds its edge longer, but a carbon steel knife that is sharped more often would be great as well. Don’t choose a serrated knife; you won’t be able to sharpen it in the field using local materials.
Axe or Hatchet
Choose a 30 cm long survival hatchet with a sheath. A 60 cm axe is another option and would be great for shelter building, and felling trees, but they are much heavier. Your group should have both types.
Pack around 250ft of 550 type III nylon paracord.. Also pack 250 ft of 2mm cord for use when breaking strength is not important.
Duct tape, rubber cement, wire, epoxy, sewing kit, waxless dental floss, zip ties, and fabric for patches should be part of the small repair kit you’ll use to keep your gear repaired while you transition to using natural materials.
A packet of seeds could be worth it’s weight in gold. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, beans, squash, and carrots could add calories, nutrients and variety to your food. The Lykov family spent decades isolated in the Siberian wilderness, and their main food staple was potatoes.
This is the one electronic item that I would definitely take. A waterproof, rechargeable headlamp like the Zebralight would be super useful. I would take a few AA lithium batteries for it and only use it in the lowest brightness when I really needed it (2.9 lumens for 4 days, or 0.36 lumens for 3 weeks).
Think layers, think durable, and think versatile. Visualize torrential rain, snow blizzards, intense desert heat, -4°F cold, and wet muddy trails according to where you live. And don’t forget about winter! No cotton, no down; pack wool or fleece. Layer like special operations forces do.
Another reason to bring only the bare essentials is the amount of clothing you would need during a long term scenario.
The rain jacket should be made of 3 layered Gore-tex Pro. The best waterproof breathable membrane in the industry. Backcountry skiing jackets are ideal because of their durability. You could make do with other lower cost, 3- layered waterproof breathable membranes, but make sure the face fabric is at least 40 denier nylon or equivalent. The 3-layered construction ensures your jacket won’t delayer after weeks of heavy use. Having armpit vents would reduce moisture build up inside. You should minimize the use of this jackets because unfortunately Gore-tex is not the most durable material. Make sure you can wear all your winter jackets underneath this jacket, so that you can use it as your outer shell in winter too. Having a silponcho could also be an option.
It is super important to have strong durable rain pants. You might be bushwhacking, crawling, and repairing them. Waterproof backcountry skiing pants (non insulated) would be the most durable. They must have side zippers for moisture venting. Something around 80 denier to 100 denier would be durable enough.
Fleece or Wool Jackets
You should have a medium and a heavy jacket made of fleece or wool. I don’t recommend down because it loses its loft if it gets wet and if you sleep wearing it for many days. Besides wool or fleece is much more durable than the face fabrics of most lightweight down jackets. They are also cheap and you could even buy a good one at the thrift store. Do not underestimate the cold. Having two separate jackets allows you to have a backup and regulate your temperature by adding or taking one off to avoid sweating. This Mountain hardwear fleece jacket is very light.
Base Layers and Underwear
The top and bottom base layers are an integral part of your clothing system. They should be wool or synthetic. They will transfer your sweat to the outer layers. They help hugely to add insulation, specially underneath your pants. Don’t use cotton layers because when wet, they extract heat from your body much faster. Wool stinks less than synthetic layers. Follow the same guidelines for underwear, but make sure it’s durable: you might be bringing only one.
If you want versatility go with a durable hiking shoe, if you want durability go with an urban leather boot. A third option for summer and fall is a sandal/shoe hybrid like Keens H2. It would take an entire article to talk about shoes. But I will just say that focus on durability and versatility. I encourage you to pack a second pair or an overboot for cold weather if you live north, for it is impossible to have a 4 season shoe that performs well in below freezing temperatures.
Another point on shoes is that they will not last more than a 1-3 seasons depending on the shoe. You better get used to barefoot walking and making your own moccasins.
I love Buff bandanas; they are awesome. You can use them in so many ways that I’m not going to bother listing them. Just know that 2 of them could turn into a balaclava or fingerless gloves. They are great for hot and cold weather alike.
After having my pants ripped so many times in the forest last summer. I bit the bullet and bought the Fjallraven gaiter pants. They are are hands down the best durable outdoor pants. I chose those pants because they are reinforced near the ankles, over the knees, and behind my butt. The fabric were the knees touch is the weakpoint of convertible pants, not the zippers. You could also buy some pants and reinforce the weak points yourself. The option of wearing shorts or jeans is great and many convertible pants have nice cargo pockets too.
Long Sleeve Shirt
A synthetic shirt that you can use with its sleeves rolled up would be invaluable. The one I have has mesh at the sides increasing breathability. When there are tons of bugs you can roll down the sleeves. It should be loose so that insects can’t bite through.
Bug Head Net
If there are many bugs in your neck of the woods a head net is a must. There are many lightweight options out there and they are easily repaired. You will appreciate having one.
Having a boonie hat or a cap would help you keep your head cool, literally. It also works in conjunction with the hoodie of your rain jacket to keep rain off or with your net to keep insects from biting through the net. The hat I have has mesh on the sides which adds breathability. There are some rainproof hats out there but I don’t recommend them because the waterproof membrane won’t breathe much and your head will get hot.
During fall you might want to have gloves on for the cold weather. Durable thin leather gloves would do the job. They can have insulation in the back of the hand as long as the inside of the palm is made of leather for durability.
You are going to need something to hold your pants, and keep track of all the extra weight you have lost. Besides it is handy to carry a knife or hatchet attached to your belt. Pack a durable but lightweight belt.
Look for durability, and keep in mind that you might have to do without. Pack one or two pairs of different thickness for hot and cold weather. Look for extra padding at the weak points.
Depending on your local climate you’ll probably need extra clothes for winter.
Modern snowshoes would be more convenient and durable than traditional snowshoes made in the field. If your area gets lots of snow then you should bring snowshoes, The MSR Evo are a great option and you can buy tails separately to increase flotation depending on snow conditions. Pick lightweight but sturdy ones. Mountaineering snowshoes are a great option if your area has mountains otherwise regular snowshoes would do.
You’ll probably need a third fleece or wool jacket for those long cold nights in winter. Follow the same guidelines as already stated above. You should be able to wear it on top of your other two jackets. Ideally it has a hoodie and it can be zipped and unzipped for temperature regulation. Having a synthetic insulated jacket would be another good idea depending on how cold it gets.
Neck Gaiter and Warm Hat
I have yet to discover a better system for keeping my head warm than a thick fleece neck gaiter and a thick fleece or wool hat. The beauty of it is that it works like a ski mask keeping everything covered except your eyes. But you can use them both the hat and the gaiter or only one of them, unlike the ski mask. Another benefit is that you can rotate the gaiter if it gets moist from your breath. You can’t do this with a ski mask.
You might consider bringing gaiters for the snow. Gore-Tex gaiters work great, but other fabrics would get the job done too. If you already have overboots or pants with loops to act as gaiters then you won’t need this item.
I love fleece pants, I wear them underneath my pants when it is really cold and they greatly increase my insulation. Avoid gym pants that are cotton. They are a must for winter camping in sub zero temperatures.
I already talked about having extra boots for the cold. They should be durable, and most importantly they shouldn’t constrict the blood flow to your toes. They should be roomy and should fit comfortable with thick socks. You probably will need two boot liners.
If you spend a long time outside in sub freezing temperatures you’ll quickly learn that big mitts are just the best option for really cold weather. Military arctic mitts are good. The back of the mitt can be used to wipe your face and nose, and they are long to keep snow out. Snowmobile mitts are even better.
If you area has blizzards having goggles that will protect your eyes from the cold and UV light bouncing off the snow is a good idea. Snow blindness hurts and paralyzes.
Something I haven’t talked about is transportation. I wouldn’t go into the boreal forest without some type of boat. The lakes and rivers are the trails of my area. And the main food supply is in the water. If I had to restrict myself to the contents in an INCH bag I would take a packraft that can handle some whitewater. Other ideas for transport in different areas are kayak for coastal areas, expedition canoe, or a cart.
Also check my article on realities of gathering wild foods if you are building an inch bag.