Basics of Building a Tactical “Go Bag”

Thomas Pecora

For military, police, and security professionals, the career demands that we are prepared to respond to a variety of threats and that we have the right equipment on us or with us to adequately respond. Beyond the professionals, many “civilians” have taken an interest in their personal safety and want to be prepared. Their choice in equipment should fundamentally match those of the professionals.

From 1989 to 2013, I worked for the CIA in some very dangerous areas of the world providing both high and low-profile protective details in urban and rural environments. I learned, often the hard way, what tactical equipment was essential for my survival and the survival of the people I was responsible for protecting. I also found that this tactical equipment fit into several general categories.

How we carry our tactical equipment has been the subject of much discussion and there have been a variety of names used to describe the actual container we use to hold this gear. One of the most common terms used is “Go Bag” but over the last decade, as more average citizens became interested in personal safety and survival, they have begun using the term “Every Day Carry” (EDC) bag.

Basic Equipment
Regardless of what you choose to call your tactical gear bag, what you carry in it should fall into several general categories:

  • Medical
  • Communications
  • Navigation
  • Identification
  • Sustenance
  • Tools
  • Illumination and Signaling
  • Weapons and Ammunition
  • Specific Items
  • Miscellaneous

Medical: To prepare for threats ranging from criminals to targeted violence incidents (terrorists, active shooters, etc.) as well as the more common threat from vehicle accidents and natural disasters, the current “best practices” for both the US military and first responders is based on the Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) guidelines.  TECC addresses the most serious life-threatening injuries in tactical environments – sucking chest wounds (tension pneumothoraxes) and severe blood loss and no effective Go Bag would be complete without the latest in bleeding control equipment.  Everyone should have access to an Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) with bandages and tourniquets to treat gunshots and severe blood loss.

Communications: Modern communications devices are pure magic compared to what was available just 10 years ago.  Smart cellular telephones and satellite phone technology allows us to communicate to almost anywhere in the world. These devices have capabilities rivaling the computing powers of the equipment used on the Apollo moon mission.  The various applications (“Apps”) available for professionals and amateurs is astounding and they provide a myriad of tactical and medical information, as well as checklists and other guidance to help us survive life threatening events.  Basically, if you have the internet at your fingertips, you have access to most of the collected knowledge of the world.

Navigation: with the advances in GPS technology, our smart phones have built in navigation tools, both GPS based as well as mapping via cellular towers.  Additionally, if we have internet access we can pull up regular maps as well as satellite imagery.  However, as technology is apt to fail, it is a worthy investment to learn how to use paper maps and compass for those moments when there is no internet and you cannot get a satellite signal.

Identification: You should carry identification such as driver’s license, certifications, and any required permits.  Additionally, you should carry applicable medical alert cards noting allergies and other medication conditions.

Sustenance: You can last days without food but very little time without water. The Camelbak® brand was one of the first to truly adapt water storage to the types of packs and bags that worked with professionals. There are wide varieties of water storage devices available that can be adapted to your specific Go Bag. As for food, the GI’s in World War II had to carry heavy tin cans of food but in the modern military they have freeze dried foods in plastic containers that are light weight and nutritionally dense, allowing you to carry several days’ worth in your Go Bag.

Tools: Decades ago the Leatherman® was the gold standard for multi-tools (a small device with multiple tools that fold into the handle). Currently there are many choices in lightweight alloys with superior qualities. Whatever tool you choose should be able to cut, hold, screw, and open things. Additional suggested tools include a small folding pocket knife (such as a Spyderco®, Delica®, or Endura®) and a fire starter (lighter, survival matches, or a flint stick).

Illumination and Signaling: Small LED lights are great for close in work (looking at documents, etc.) but are not so good at longer distances.  They also last a long time on a battery and are very tough.  Tactical lights with high lumen output are extremely useful for searching, signaling, and for blinding an adversary so you can escape.  Head lamps provide a hands-free option for working in low or no light conditions.  Most use LED technology so they are light and have good battery life.

Orange parachute cloth is ideal for signaling for help and it folds very small and can be used for other purposes (first aid sling, carry bag, etc.). Infrared (IR) strobes and signaling devices are often used by military personnel as they are not visible to the human eye but can be easily spotted by night vision technology. Whistles are also great signaling devices as sound can travel long distances and will attract attention.

Weapons and Ammunition: The adage, “you can never have too much ammunition,” still rings true. You may want to have additional ammunition and magazines available as well as a cleaning kit and any necessary tools. These should be in your larger backup backpack.

Specific items: Besides the general categories, individuals should adapt their Go Bag gear to their activities (security officer, protective agent), as well as the specific threats in the environment (crime, terrorist, natural disasters).

Miscellaneous: There are some miscellaneous items that fall under the heading of personal preference.  I recommend keeping a laminated inventory sheet in an outside pouch so that you know exactly what is in the bag, where it is so that you get the right tool immediately, and when it needs to be replaced.

Bigger Is Not Always Better – The Size Factor
One principle that applies as much today as it did in WW II and the Vietnam War was the adage that “if you do not have it attached to you, there is a good chance you will not have it when you need it.” As much as possible, try to keep your survival items in your pockets, on your person, or attached to your body. Unfortunately, we cannot strap all of our gear to our body, especially if we are working a low-profile protective detail in an urban environment.

The next best thing is to get our Go Bag small enough so that there is a better chance that, in an emergency, we will be able to get to it, and carry it, while tactically reacting to a threat. In my personal experience, if I did not keep my Go Bag by my feet (when my primary position was not as a driver) I would not be able to get to it when reacting to a threat. I also found that big backpack type bags were not readily accessible and were often too bulky to carry while trying to tactically react to a situation (moving to cover, running, climbing, etc.).

Also, if the bag is too bulky or too heavy, you will stop carrying it. Then you truly will only have what you carry in an emergency. I found a middle of the road solution by having a larger backpack available (usually in the back seat or rear section of an SUV) which provided “additional” support materials (ammunition, water, food, medical supplies,). I set up this larger backpack so that I could slide my primary Go Bag into the bigger backpack if I had the time and opportunity.

As Benjamin Franklin so apply stated, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” By taking responsibility for your own personal safety, you are committing yourself to make the required preparations so you can survive.  Having the right equipment is a critical part of this process.  There are several common categories of equipment that have shown to be critically important in emergency situations.  Stock your Go Bag with these items, learn how to properly use them, and you will greatly increase your survivability if you face a life-threatening event.


PSC member Thomas (Tom) Pecora has over 30 years of experience in crisis management, personnel and physical security, and counter-terrorism. He retired as a CIA Senior Security Manager after 24 years of service including managing large complex security programs and operations in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the war zones. Today he is the Director of Pecora Consulting Services and provides consulting services in security vulnerability and threat assessments in Asia and the US, personal safety and crime prevention/avoidance, and executive protection guidance and skills training. Read his entire bio in the PSC Member Directory.  Contact him at [email protected]

He is the author of “GUARDIAN – Life in the Crosshairs of the CIA’s War on Terror” – a historical memoir chronicling his 24 years in the CIA in protective operations, counter-terrorism and security working in some of the worst terrorist hotbeds in the world.


Other articles by Tom Pecora:
Emergency First Aid For Gunshot Wounds

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