Charity Bags: What Are They and What Are They For?

In the timeless fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper, Aesop (620 and 564 BCE) told the tale of the industrious ant that worked all summer to store the food needed to survive a potentially severe winter. The grasshopper, by comparison, ridiculed the ant for his unnecessary preparations as it sang and danced the summer away.

Of course, in the fable, the winter is indeed severe and ultimately the ill-prepared grasshopper begs for food. His plea lands on deaf ears as the ant survives and the grasshopper does not. Although this fable is well over twenty-five centuries old, it holds relevance to this day. ‘Ants’ continue to spend time and resources to prepare for potential disasters while ‘grasshoppers’ spend their time on other pursuits in the hope that disaster will not strike. However, those that prepare are not ‘ants’, and those that hope nothing happens are not ‘grasshoppers’, both groups in this case are people. Your personal ‘grasshoppers’ may be friends, close family members, or co-workers.

Artist rendering of The Grasshopper and the Ant
The Aesop parable of the Ant and the Grasshopper provides an object lesson in the value of preparation, but it does not account for the grasshopper becoming violent if denied any help or hope. (Photo Credit: Public Domain)

Charity Bags

A charity bag is basically a low-cost preparedness (bugout) bag to be given or traded away during a long-term disruption of services (generally over a month). Charity bags should be designed to offer a psychological alternative to desperate people asking for help that also
directs their efforts away from your location and resources. This article will go over what should go into them, considerations for backup purposes, and when and why you would want to incorporate them into a long-term survival plan.

three bug-out charity bags
Preparing a set of charity bags as part of a long-term survival plan provides additional options. Though such bags can be prepared very cheaply there is value in making them look valuable to those receiving them.

Charity bags are an emergency preparation option based on a few assumptions. The first assumption is that the disruption/disaster has turned from weeks to months and a return to services is no longer certain. The second assumption is that you have chosen to shelter in place and have prepared the needed resources to do so for yourself and your immediate family. The third assumption is that you have sufficient resources to support your family but have not stockpiled sufficient supplies to allow additional mouths to feed. Thus, adding additional people to your location would result in rationing and/or supplies running out.

There are methods you can take to reduce the chances of unwanted people seeking your help. Such options can include preparing to welcome those in need (building a larger backstock of supplies), trying to make sure no one knows to come to you (making sure no one knows you have supplies), or preparing a plan to deal with those needing help when it occurs. Even if you have prepared or concealed your preparations there may still be strangers or others who come to you looking for aid. In the eventuality of a long-term disruption, what is your plan for unexpected guests?

Although the callous answer may well be that if anyone comes onto your property during a long-term event they will be turned away with force, this may well not be the best response. There are numerous issues with this approach including three we will briefly discuss here. First, outside of truly permanent disruption of services (an Armageddon-level societal collapse), services will eventually return, including law enforcement.

As such, when possible we want to restrict our actions to those that would withstand scrutiny outside of a disaster. Second, the best way to survive any use-of-force encounter is to avoid it. Most government-sponsored evaluations of the impact of widespread and long-term disruptions (measured in months) expect there to be widespread famine, crime, and civil disorder.

people rioting at night
Most preparation is for shorter-term disruptions. But if widespread disruption stretches from weeks into months most experts predict famine, civil disobedience, and food riots. What can you do to account for this possibility in your planning? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Most people will look for a way to avoid direct conflict, and even the desperate and hungry will likely be open to a compromise when offered. If ‘grasshoppers’ are coming to you, it is best to assume they are also armed (~40% own guns in the U.S., and if there has been a societal collapse those ~400 million guns in the U.S. means that the percent of those possessing firearms is likely to be much higher). Having something you can provide for desperate and hungry people may well diffuse a difficult situation. Thirdly, and potentially most important is that those coming to you for help likely are not strangers, but people you know and care for.

prepping - woman training with firearms and food storage
Although you may have the supplies to outlast a disaster, by having such supplies you may also become a target for those desperate for help. Even in a disaster situation, the use of force should always be a last resort. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Best Laid Plans

Regardless of your plan, the need to balance resources with charity can easily become an issue in a long-term disruption of services. Charity bags primarily provide a way out of potentially hostile encounters with friends, family, or even well-meaning but desperate strangers.

Confronting such situations with force (and no offer of hope) is likely to result in escalating situations to violence, whether at that moment or in the near future. Additionally, in a survival event with no clear end in sight, resource management becomes necessary. That means hard choices of who can or can not stay with you. A preparedness bag ready to offer to those who arrive, but are not planned for, provides an easy answer. Hopefully, it will satisfy your morals, provide some direction and hope to those gifted, and reduce the need for confrontation. Another purpose of charity bags is to provide an additional buffer of supplies for your family if they are never used.

In our own situation, we have slowly built up needed supplies to supply our current family for up to approximately six months of full disruption. We have also identified a few individuals that know they would be welcome if they arrived in a disaster as long as they bring their own food and water. The remainder of the people we know, work with, or are family members would likely be turned away in a true long-term disruption.

The number of charity bags needed will vary from person to person and should be based on how many such encounters are likely. When we lived in an urban setting and my address was easily found by the hundreds of students who had taken emergency preparation classes from me, the need for many charity bags was greater. Now that I live in a much more rural area and most of the people who know I have supplies live in cities two or more hours away. My need for such bags is still there but at a much lower level.

What supplies should go into charity bags?

Charity bags can range from very cheap to moderately expensive. At the very minimum, a charity bag should be some form of fabric bag that will stand up to a few days of use, containing:

  • High-calorie canned/jarred foods (approximately three days or 6000 calories).
  • A can opener.
  • 3-4 liters (1 gallon) of water.
  • Very basic medical supplies.
  • Emergency blankets.
  • Most importantly, a detailed local road map.

Part of the goal is the psychological effect of offering what seems to have value to reduce the need for confrontation. Thus, a cheap drawstring backpack, bargain non-branded canned fruits, beans, peanut butter, a map, and two 2-liter water bottles could likely be assembled for ~$25. However, there is value in investing a little more.

I started my charity bags by searching for discount larger capacity tactical backpacks and found one that was under $20. Though they were a little more expensive, the bag psychologically communicates that it is a worthwhile gift. Similarly, I bought name-brand canned foods and peanut butter that I would gladly eat if these were folded into our own supplies. Twelve 12oz bottles of water went into each bag, again for the psychological perception that the person is receiving more. I also spent about $20 on each set to include a cheap survival kit: flashlight, knife, and first aid pack. I supplemented this with a couple of emergency blankets, a military-style can opener, a couple of lighters, and hand warmer packs. Although the total cost of these bags went up to about $80 total, they feel like ‘real’ bugout bags, and that was my goal.

bug out charity bag contents
Spending a little extra provides a solid psychological message of hope, and providing a map gives those gifted a direction to move towards.

The last item is, in my opinion, the most important—a detailed area map. I clearly marked on each map the location where I live, nearby survival shelters, Red Cross centers, and other locations intended to render aid. Additionally, I highlighted the easiest path with a written directions sheet to the nearest aid location using clear directions such as right and left turns and street signs.

The purpose of a charity bag is to allow you to be humane without severely impacting your own resources and reduce the likelihood of conflict. Perhaps most importantly, a charity bag can offer a direction forward, a place to go, and hope to those receiving it. If the person does not have a goal to draw them away from your location, supplying three days of food just delays a confrontation. The real goal is to ensure the supplies will be used to get them moving on to another location.

As with all emergency preparation, building up a supply of charity bags can be done over time. My original bags were packed in free totes I had picked up at various events, with recycled soda bottles refilled with water, cheap generic foods, and a computer-printed map to the nearest shelter. My current bags are more backup foods and various tradeable items. Just be honest with yourself regarding the need and number when preparing charity bags.

Additionally, make sure you are at a good place in your overall preparations and that creating charity bags makes sense. For instance, if you are still working on building up your own food and water supplies for longer than a few weeks, I would not worry about charity bags yet. However, if you have a decent set of supplies and a plan for 1-6 months of survival completed, charity bags are a great way to prepare for yet another potential eventuality, as well as build a little bit of buffer into your food and water supplies.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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