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Rig life: What rural cops carry

In rural areas where a beat can cover hundreds of square miles and backup is far away, a cop’s patrol rig is a shelter, shed and toolbox

Rural cop equipment

Reader submission/Used with permission

Every patrol officer has a truck, or a car, or an SUV to load before beginning a shift. To some it’s a rig; to others, it’s a shop. Back east it’s a cruiser or prowl car, out west a more formal “patrol vehicle.” In rural and remote places where a beat can cover hundreds of square miles and backup is far away, that patrol rig is even more: a home away from home, serving as a shelter, shed and toolbox.

Dirt roads and long gravel driveways demand a four-wheel drive with a covered bed or a big wayback to fill. So, what goes in that rural cop’s wayback?

I thought I could answer that with a nice, neat “10 Things in a Rural Cop’s Wayback,” but after reading through a discussion on a FB page dedicated to rural officers, I ended up with 10 whole categories instead, of stuff that’s way different than urban cops carry. (Add your essentials in the box below and read dozens of suggestions from Police1 readers.)

Here goes:

1. Food and water

Not just a cooler with a prepped lunch, or snacks from the nearest convenience store, I’m talking MREs and bottled water, by the case.

Whether an investigation runs long, a SAR takes days not hours, or you’re patrolling a fire evacuation area, rural cops don’t get to just zip home for code, or pop into a Subway. Besides, little kids stuck at evacuation centers actually like those ranger bars, and Maple Muffin Tops can lure mules out of the roadway.

Rural cop equipment

Rural cops have been known to carry enough implements to open a small hardware store.

Reader submission/Used with permission

2. A Get-Home Bag, or BOB (bugout bag)

A good BOB has survival gear basics light enough to carry, including a water filter and fire starter – preferably an old school, bombproof kind that doesn’t require refillable fuel.

The list of essentials varies, but the short form is “‘If it’s not in there, you don’t need it” for an up-to-three-day walk home. A small town is one thing, but game wardens and deputies in remote counties must be ready for a breakdown far from help or even cell service.

3. A change of clothes

Better still, multiple changes including dry underthings and extra boots, bonus for traction cleats, a woobie and raingear.

Rural cops deal with the same detritus and body fluids as urban ones. Then they add mud, soot, manure, fuel spills, llama spit, ash and Cat 4 hurricanes to the mix, without the benefit of a nearby locker room. A change of clothes is a morale boost that can be a lifesaver after exposure to biohazards, toxins, or even just water on a cold, windy day.

4. Guns and ammo

Sure, urban cops have that stuff too, but not on the scale or variety rural cops carry.

Sidearm? Check. Extra mags? Check. Shotgun and shells? Yep, loaded slug-buck-slug, thanks, for managing anything from engine blocks to grizzly bears. (No, really.) Patrol rifle? Yes. Also, extra mags for that, plus boxes of extra rounds for when those run dry.

It’s not unusual for rural officers to carry hundreds of rounds. You can call the cavalry out here, but you’d better be able to manage till they arrive and that’s gonna be a while. In many places, rural officers also keep a .22 for putting down injured deer and smaller animals: larger calibers are unnecessarily messy and no more effective. Shot placement matters.

In ranchland, officers sometimes pack one little extra no urban cop would be caught with: the trusty Red Ryder for hazing cattle back behind fences. It won’t damage tough hide, but it stings a little, and cows don’t like it.

Rural cops equipment in car

The list of essentials for your bugout bag varies, but the short form is “‘If it’s not in there, you don’t need it” for an up-to-three-day walk home.

Reader submission/Used with permission

5. Animal things

Depending on where they work, rural cops carry not just a leash or gator stick, but also a bucket or feed sack, sometimes with a little sweet feed, sometimes with just some rocks to rattle. The point isn’t dinner but attraction and distraction for maneuvering errant livestock.

A halter, some rope, a proper lariat (one deputy told me, “I lassoed a pig once”) – all make the cut. Most officers add some dog treats, of course; even angry doggos respond to yummy things. Jerky and Slim Jims keep forever, dogs love them and bonus, you can eat them too.

6. Medical and rescue supplies

All cops carry a first aid kit, and the well-supplied ones have IFAKs and tourniquets too. Rural cops in rangeland take that a step or two further with veterinary first aid supplies as well.

The ones who work near water often add a life jacket and even a ring buoy. If someone’s in a fast, cold river, they’ll be way downstream by the time specialized rescue arrives; a floatie and a hundred feet of rope can give them a chance.

7. Paper maps and a compass

GPS is not your friend out in the boonies, and Google doesn’t know the difference between a freeway and a Forest Service road that hasn’t been graded or plowed in a year.

Road maps, fire road maps, topo maps and a working compass never lose service or need batteries. Updates consist of scribbled addresses and notes in the margins.

8. Body bags and old sheets

Rural cops acknowledge the sad reality of mortality in all its forms and the fact that there are no specialists in the country. If there’s a recovery to be done, they’re on deck; the bags with handles simplify a long trek. The sheets grant dignity while awaiting the coroner to those who die out in the open.

9. Tools

So many tools. Depending on the terrain and the size of the patrol rig, rural cops have been known to carry enough implements to open a small hardware store – or at least, to make do when they can’t get to one.

They carry fire extinguishers, Halligan tools, machetes and chainsaws. They carry bolt cutters and folding shovels. They carry extra batteries for every device on their belts and in their pockets. They carry bailing wire and barbed wire for fence repair, and wire cutters to free the livestock and wildlife that broke the fences in the first place. They carry tire chains, floor jacks, bottle jacks, and come alongs. They carry portable jump starters and compressors, and they carry tire plug kits. Even if you have a spare, it’s perfectly possible to have more than one flat tire in the middle of nowhere. Fun fact: tow trucks won’t drive out to you on dirt roads, and no one can come to you at all if you don’t have radio or cell phone coverage.

10. Toilet paper

It’s not glamorous, but I saved it for last because you really, really don’t leave home without it. Urban cops know where all the safe bathrooms are in their beat. Rural cops know there probably aren’t any, at all. So, a couple of rolls of mountain money, sealed in a coffee can or bucket lined with a plastic bag are a must.

Extras include a trowel, kitty litter for the bottom of the bag, extra bags (use those grocery bags, but double up because they’re flimsy), paper towels, baby wipes and hand sanitizer.

No matter how extensive the list, there’s always something to add. What’s in your wayback? Share in the box below.

Police1 reader suggestions,

  • Extensive medical gear, extra ammo, spare rifles/handguns, various knives and flashlights, transport restraints, lockout kit, bolt cutters, cooler with water/Gatorade, throw rope, livestock wrangling supplies, protein bars, non-perishable snacks and powdered drink mixes, miscellaneous hand tools, Fix-A-Flat, small gas can, jump pack/cables, spare batteries of various sizes, IR lights and SO MUCH MORE. This is what I can rattle off without emptying my cruiser. We cover 530 square miles and serve just under 9,000 citizens in my very rural county. The closest hospital is an hour away in any direction. There are no gas stations open after midnight and only three take debit/credit at the pump.

  • I patrol in remote Owyhee County, Idaho, in desert, canyon and mountain county where backup can be 100 miles away. In addition to a lot of what’s been listed, I carry a sleeping bag, wool blanket, foam pad, Bic lighters, matches, Ferro rod, Vaseline-soaked cotton for fire starter, punky wood, tinder Sterno and propane stoves, flashlight with SOS capability, binoculars, leatherman, long underwear, sweater, heavy coat, log chain, handyman jack, full-size shovel, mess kit with a spork, canned Dinty More Stew, canned beans and tuna, cowboy canteen, water purification straw and tablets, paracord, Lofty Wiseman survival manual, mirror, compass, map, 5 AR mags loaded and 1 box ammo, 6 .45 pistol mags loaded and 1 box Ammo, bushcraft knife or Kbar, MREs all primarily in a go-bag and survival pack. I have to get out alone if I’m going to get out of snow, rainstorms, wildfires, thunderstorms, etc.
  • Paradise Police Department in CA, location of massive wildfire: Tow rope, cable winch (come-along), 40v chainsaw (no gas smell and I recharge the battery every week), wildland fire gear (fire shelter, Indian backpack water pump, Nomex coveralls with gloves and hood, gas mask), climbing/rappelling gear, Tyvek suit and booties, .22 rifle for animals and snake shot for rattlesnakes, cell signal booster, flare gun, smoke grenades, bear spray, a mini first aid trauma kit that is easy to pack and a big first aid kit with enough stuff to set up a mass casualty aid station, a lithium battery angle grinder, halligan tool, sledgehammer, ax, animal lead, empty sandbags and a shovel, basic tool kit, flex cuffs, trash bags, baby wipes...
  • Flashbangs! When SWAT is an hour or more away, we may have to make an entry in a critical situation.
  • One of the new small jumper battery packs for times you cannot get close enough to another vehicle to jump-start it. They are not much bigger than a couple of packs of playing cards. Also, a fire blanket as extinguishers run out. A blanket can smother multiple small fires back to back.
  • A 2-ton hydraulic jack and two different 4-way lugs; rifle, shotgun, small pistol, 7 mags for rifle, bandolier for shotgun, one spare mag for small pistol; 5 MREs and 2 gallons of water; spare gas can (empty); treats and water for my K9 along with his gear (vest, harness, two muzzles, bite sleeve); Camelback, athletic shoes, department t-shirt; spare batteries; boonie hat; spare sunglasses.
  • Bullwhip, rifle, lariat, Snickers, two-quart thermos bottle, socket set, hatchet or axe.
  • At least 2 old-style road flares, can also be used as fire starters in a winter emergency.
  • RTIC cooler with ice, water and meal bars; 5-gallon jug of gas in case; bugout bag with a three-day survival kit; shovel; 500+ rounds of ammo for 12 gauge, sidearm and patrol rifle, already in mags and in a drop leg pouch that can be attached in a split second; extra pair of clothing, including coveralls, winter boots, winter mask; and always a full thermos of coffee.
  • Extra boots, shotgun, rifle, 7 extra magazines for pistol, 15 for rifle, three boxes of buckshot, .22 cal pistol, unlock kit, AED and med kit, rubber boots and raincoat, tool kit, jumper cables, plate carrier and a good boonie hat. Plus all K-9 gear and water for the pup.

  • Rain gear, K-BAR, extra socks and underwear, a woobie, spare boots, dry shirt and pants, TP, wet wipes, and a couple of 30-gallon trash bags. I try to keep at least six bottles of water and three MREs on hand.
  • Not too much of a rural county here, but there is definitely something I keep in my patrol car that was given as a Christmas gift from a supervisor. Walmart sells a tool kit for like $20 that I feel can’t be beaten. It’s a Hyper Tough 116 piece toolset that I’ve used in a pinch at my house instead of running out to my tool shed and have used countless times on the road. It has a screwdriver with just about every bit you’ll need as well as pliers, wire cutter, socket wrench, a hammer and other tools. I’ve switched cars, shifts and whole units before and each time I do I make sure that the tool kit is with me along with everything else.
  • Camp stove with extra propane, coffee grounds, bouillon cubes and percolator. There is something to be said for hot coffee, a hot cup of broth, or a hot meal when it’s freezing cold.
  • An ax. Chainsaws are nice but my ax has never failed to start.
  • Two shovels: one for them, and one for me to dig their car out of snowbanks.
  • Winter bivy gear: warm clothes, pac boots, shelter, sleeping bag.
  • Ghilie suit.
  • Wildland arson investigation equipment.
  • People-tracking kit to include pack, food/water, note pads, map and compass, ammo, radio batteries, rifle plate ballistic carrier.
  • 10# sledgehammer for doors, locks, etc; bolt cutters; axe/saw for clearing roads; winch and hi-lift jack and other recovery equipment.
  • Leatherman, John Wayne can opener, waterproof matches and first aid kid.
  • I don’t carry a Daisy Red Ryder for loose cows but I do carry a slingshot. I’ve never run out of rocks. A multi-tool is a must, along with a tire patch kit and small air compressor. I also bought a grabby tool for snakes. You might be surprised how many people want the snake removed but not killed.
  • Working around Mt St Helen’s after the big blow, I always carried a food box. I stocked it with dried soups and such, as well as lots of water. I spent the night in my rig once and also got stuck in a whiteout with our radio tech replacing an antenna. Was sure nice to have something hot to eat, even if I had to melt snow.
Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.