Building a Bug Out Bag at the Dollar Store

We in the prepping and survival community have a tendency to get gadget crazy. There’s a temptation to think that our survival depends on the gadgets that we have. Of course, there are a lot of companies out there, working to satisfy that desire to have the latest gadget; some providing absolutely excellent products. But that doesn’t mean that we need them all or that we need to be spending all that money.

Most of us have a challenge fitting prepping into our otherwise stretched budget. So we need to find places to save money, wherever we can; making our prepping dollar go as far as we can. That also makes it possible for us to buy the best of those gadgets, making sure we have the gear that we need.

There are times when it makes sense to buy expensive products and times when it doesn’t. Paying more than you need for something isn’t necessarily going to help you out in the long run. I believe in a philosophy of paying the least that I can, to get the item that I need. That’s why I love the dollar stores.

Recently I was in one of our local dollar stores, as my wife was picking up a few things that we needed. While I was waiting for my wife, I decided to look around, with the idea of seeing if it would be possible to put together a complete bug out bag just with what I could buy in that store. While there are some things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get, especially in the tool department, I thought I could put enough together to work in an emergency evacuation.

Different people have different ideas about what should be in a bug out bag, so let me define my idea of one. To me, a bug out bag includes everything necessary to survive. In a sense, it’s a super survival kit. So I always see the bug out bag as something that will keep me alive in the middle of nowhere, as I am making my way to a more permanent survival shelter.

With that in mind, it has to meet all of my basic survival needs. Those are:

  • Ability to keep warm
  • Clean water
  • Nutritious, high-energy food
  • Means of starting a fire
  • First-aid
  • Communications
  • Self-defense

Of those seven categories, the only one I couldn’t do anything about was the last one, self-defense. Although I will have to say that in a pinch, there are a number of things in the dollar store which could be used as weapons. However, none of them would be things that I would chose to carry along with me.

Start with the Bag

The first thing that any bug out bag needs is the bag itself. Most prepper opt for a backpack, often a tactical one. Those aren’t available in your typical dollar store. However, you can usually find children’s backpacks; the kind that they carry to school. You can also find barrel bags (the kind of duffel many people carry to the gym). Those give you a lot of cargo space in an inexpensive package.

Ability to Keep Warm

Our most basic survival need is the ability to maintain our body heat. This particular need actually consists of three sub-areas: insulation (clothing), shelter and heat (fire). We’re going to deal with fire later, so let’s focus on the other two.

I always assume that the clothing I have on will not be adequate for survival needs. My reasoning behind this is that most of the time the clothing we wear is not rugged enough or warm enough. So I make a few additions to my bug out bag, to augment the clothing I am wearing:

  • Work gloves
  • Hat
  • Coat (in this case, a hoodie)

In addition, I usually keep a change of rugged clothing and shoes with my bug out bag, so that I can change quick or grab it and take it with me. That isn’t in my bug out bag, but is stored in a small duffel. Many dollar stores today carry at least enough clothing to be able to put such an outfit together, even if they don’t carry hiking boots.

Shelter is even easier to find in the dollar store. While they don’t carry tents, they often carry the next best thing, a tarp. With a tarp, some clothesline and some duct tape, you can make a descent tent. My dollar store had small rolls of duct tape, about 2 inches in diameter, which are ideal for a bug out bag.

Clean Water

Dollar stores don’t carry water purification systems, but they do carry the most common chemical purifier there is, chlorine bleach. For about a dollar, you can buy enough bleach to purify a lot of water, since it only takes 8 drops per gallon. I couldn’t find an eyedropper to go with the bleach, but a plastic drinking straw works well.

Obviously, I wouldn’t want to carry along a gallon jug of bleach in my bug out bag, so I found a small bottle, such as would be used for carrying makeup in a suitcase. That allows me to carry along enough bleach to last several days.

The other thing that’s needed here is something to carry water in. My dollar store had a wide assortment of sports water bottles to choose from. I decided that it would make more sense to carry two, as I live in a hot climate. I chose the nalgene bottles, even though they are more expensive, because the cheap ones supposedly can add chemicals to the water when they get hot.

Nutritious, High-energy Food

There’s a lot of food to choose from in the average dollar store. The trick is avoiding the junk food and going for the more nutritious things. I found:

  • Tuna and chicken “canned” in plastic soft packs
  • Applesauce in plastic cups
  • Granola bars
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Trail mix
  • Rice-a-Roni & instant mashed potatoes
  • Powdered orange drink (juice)
  • Instant coffee

Between these things, you can create your own version of military MREs. Be sure to include salt & pepper, as well as eating utensils, cups and plastic plates. It would also be a good idea to take along at least one saucepan, for boiling water and heating food.

Means of Starting a Fire

The handiest fire starter is available at any dollar store, as well as your corner convenience store. That’s the disposable lighter. I’d throw two in, rather than just one, to have a spare. You can also find wood kitchen matches at the dollar store. Dip them in melted candle wax and you’ve got waterproof matches. Wrap a couple of layers of toilet paper around the matchstick before dipping it, and you’ve got an even better fire starter.

My favorite “go-to” fire starter for wet weather or hard to light wood is cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, both of which you can buy at the dollar store. To make them, put a cotton ball in a bowl that you don’t really care much about. Then scoop up a glob of the petroleum jelly with the back side of a spoon. Work that into the cotton ball, using the back side of the spoon the whole time. Be sure to coat all the sides. These are easy to light, and will burn nice and hot for over three minutes.


There are lots of first-aid and personal hygiene supplies in every dollar store I’ve ever seen. Pick up an assortment of bandages and antibacterial cream to take care of minor cuts and scrapes. If they don’t have larger bandages, you can use sanitary napkins for those bigger wounds. Duct tape works as medical tape, if you can’t find any.

Don’t forget soap, antibacterial hand cleaner and some toilet paper. If you have a space problem in your pack, pocket packs of facial tissue works as a great substitute for a roll of toilet paper. The antibacterial hand cleaner will allow you to clean your hands, without wasting your limited supply of water.


Most dollar stores today carry throw-away cell phones, although they don’t all have them. Sticking one of these in your bug out bag would give you the ability to call for help. Be sure to buy a card for extra minutes though, as they don’t normally come with much.

Another good communications tool is a mirror. They’re bound to have one in with the ladies makeup. While it may not be shatterproof like a true survival signal mirror, it will work to signal your location to rescuers, if you need to.


Tools are some of the hardest things to find in a dollar store. While they will usually have a small tool section, it really doesn’t have much. But you might be able to find a pocket knife or inexpensive multi-tool, although it will probably be behind the counter. Considering that the knife is the most useful tool there is, that’s a valuable find in your dollar store.

I actually managed to find a machete in my local dollar store. While I doubt it was of the best quality there is, machetes are usually made of fairly soft steel anyway. Since they didn’t have a camp hatchet, this was a nice addition to my bug out bag.



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