Disasters aren’t relegated to fault lines and Tornado Alley. Climate chaos is already affecting most of the world and the United States is no exception. Extreme storms, tornadoes, blizzards, and flooding are all affecting regions long considered “stable”.
When we are unable to help ourselves, we become a liability to others, and as more of our friends encounter difficult and dangerous scenarios, we know we can no longer assume “it won’t happen to us”. I highly recommend a versatile 72-hour emergency kit in your home (and slightly different kits for your vehicle).
Why 72 hours? During disasters, local governments are often overwhelmed and rely on state and federal aid. On average, it takes 72 hours for that help to arrive, and if you aren’t in the worst of the worst situations, you might have to wait even longer. You might have some utilities restored quickly and others might take weeks. Planning for 72 hours is a bare minimum.
Don’t be intimidated by the cost. Make a wishlist. Buy an item here or there. Get a bigger item at tax time. I’ve spent 2 years putting kits together in some cases. It takes as long as it takes, and it’s better than not having one.
Lastly, actually build the kit and keep it together. I recommend getting your storage first, so you have a place to plunk new items as they come in.
Here are my suggestions for kit items that will help you in a wide variety of scenarios:
This 5-gallon bucket becomes the storage container for your kit and turns into an indispensable portable toilet in an emergency. It’s easy to curtain off for privacy, or even place in your bathroom if you have access. Water can be shut off in all kinds of emergencies, and when it is, you’ll be looking for places to do your business.
Tip: Line the bucket with a sturdy trash bag, put down a layer of cat litter, do your business, and sprinkle some cat litter on top.
Don’t forget: Throw at least one garbage bag and a spare roll of toilet paper in the bucket! A pack of baby wipes wouldn’t hurt either.
With no running water to wash your hands, you’re going to want some baby wipes to care of the things you can see, and some hand sanitizer to take care of the things you can’t see. A communal bottle by the toilet is ideal, and if you pick up a 6-pack, you can hand one out to everyone. You’ll use them more than you think.
From treating wounds to handling food to unexpected cleanups, you are definitely going to want to control what you touch when the water is off. One box should get you and your group through a hard 72 hours.
Stinky armpits might not make you popular, but they won’t hurt you for a few days. A dirty mouth, however, can make for hard company and cause health problems. For both sanitation and morale, I recommend stowing some tooth powder and floss. Powder, specifically, because it will keep far longer than paste. You can forget about it until Doomsday and it will still be minty fresh and cleansing. Don’t forget to grab a spare toothbrush for everyone you expect to be with you!
As soon as you lose power, take as much ice as you can salvage from your freezer and put it in your cooler with items from your fridge and freezer. A 50-quart Coleman cooler claims it can retain ice for 5-days (though you probably need a substantial amount to get that much time), but the use of a cooler will help you get more mileage out of your emergency food stores, and might just keep you from losing valuable groceries before your power comes back on! It will take up some space, but you can use it to store your dry food until you need it.
Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate setting aside some emergency water. Do this first, and do this if you do nothing else on this list. I recommend 2 gallons of water per adult per day, for drinking, hygiene and miscellaneous use. You likely won’t use that much. Good.
There are plenty of emergency water storage containers on the market. You can also just store unopened gallons from the store. A case of bottled water usually has about 3 gallons. Do the math for how many people you expect to have. Double it if you can. There’s a good chance people around you are going to need water and be unprepared.
If storage space is an issue, you can stow cases of water almost anywhere, even in a small apartment. Stacked in your water heater closet, under the bed, under your shoes in the closet, you can stick a gallon jug under every sink in the house. Don’t be afraid to tuck them away, just remember where you put them. Don’t be afraid to write it down and put the list in your bucket. If you’re panicked, the last thing you want is to be struggling to remember where your water is.
Do yourself a favor and skip ’emergency food’ for a 72 hour situation. Set back shelf stable food that you actually like. Peanut butter, crackers, jerky, fruit snacks, oatmeal, dry cereal. Throw some gum or hard candy in there. Throw in a treat for each day (candybars, Twinkies if you really want to forget about this kit). Don’t underestimate your food, check on it once in awhile for expirations, and if you can’t store it in your toilet bucket, you can keep it in your cooler until you need it.
Here is a great page with more info and examples.
Talk to your doctor about maintaining an emergency supply of your medications. They will most likely sympathize and help you if your prescription isn’t prone to abuse. Failing that, there are other ways for people to stockpile medication. It’s a big internet.
Stuff to Do
You might find yourself having little to do but wait around for a very long time. You might have access to all of your stuff, and you might not. Throw a poker deck in your bucket at the very least, but small indie games and a paperback you haven’t read from the used bookstore will go a long way, especially if you have to evacuate.
Hopefully any disaster requiring your kit will mostly amount to inconvenience, but when things are chaotic, injuries are likely. Whether you’re hurt in the event, cut your thumb on a can lid, or encounter someone seriously injured, a quality first aid kit is a must-have. Basic kits should be versatile enough for most problems, but a trauma kit and training are even better.
The SP8 Survival Machete is a saw, a prybar and a surprisingly good machete all in one 16″ tool. The prybar could be helpful for any kind of debris or obstruction situations, while the saw and machete will handle anything short of a chainsaw-sized job. Small trees, branches and wood debris won’t hold you back with one of these in your kit.
While this tool might be master of none of its trades, it’s certainly a jack of all, serviceable and can take an incredible beating. I’ve field tested this machete, and it’s a go-to when space economy is a priority.
For most of the items in your kit, off brand will do just fine. You don’t need expensive gloves or name brand wet wipes. You can eat store brand peanut butter. One area where I strongly suggest you not skimp is your multi-tool. All tools are not created equally, and if you use a shoddy multi-tool, you’re going to have a shoddy time. Ergonomics, materials, selection of tools, ability to deploy those tools one-handed and use them at length; these are all factors to consider when using a multi-tool. This tool will be your faithful sidekick during a disaster. Don’t go cheap.
If the sticker shock of a quality tool makes it hard to justify leaving it in a bucket in your closet, consider making it part of your everyday-carry! It’s worth it! I recommend a Leatherman Wave Plus, but virtually any Leatherman or high-end Gerber multi-tool will do.
“Man, I really wish I didn’t have a roll of duct tape right now.” – no one, ever.
Hand-Crank/Solar/Battery Flashlight/Radio/USB Charger
This little guy from Running Snail was designed for worst case scenarios. When things are bad and you’re afraid, one of the worst possible feelings is not knowing what’s going on.
Many people don’t realize that the U.S.’s radio infrastructure is alive and well and maintained for emergency use, between federal programs and networks of independent radio operators.
This device runs on AAA batters or a rechargeable Lithium-Ion that can be charged through hand-cranking or solar power. If you’re lucky, you can get some FM radio to break the monotony, or tune into AM or NOAA weather alert broadcasts. It also has an LED flashlight that can transmit and SOS signal. Incredibly worth the $30 price tag.
I’m no mathematician, but a pair of 36-hour beeswax emergency candles should keep you continuously lit through a 72 hour emergency. Just go easy on your eyes with that paperback, okay?
Don’t forget a pack of Bic lighters. Scatter a few around and put one in your bucket.
While most of the above should fit in your bucket (except, perhaps, your food and water), there are a few items that while no less essential, might not apply to everyone, might take up more space than you have, or just might take a backseat due to cost:
Wool blankets are shockingly warm, tough and dirt resistant. More importantly, wool keeps its heat retention properties even when wet, which means that unlike your stockpile of house blankets, your wool blanket will be there for you when things are really, really bad. It can keep you warm when you’re dry, and alive when you’re wet.
100% wool can have some issues with durability and washability, but an 80% wool/synthetic blend seems to be ideal. They aren’t cheap, they aren’t soft, and it will probably smell a little like mothballs, but you will name a child after this blanket if you ever have to go through a disaster with it. (And Arcturus is honestly a great name, for any gender.)
Imagine that you live somewhere that gets -30 in winter, and a blizzard knocks out your power for several days. Now go buy a kerosene heater. And some kerosene.
While likely not a survival necessity over 72 hours (assuming you have proper water storage), you might find yourself desiring hot water. Oatmeal, coffee, even sterilization if you’re in real trouble. This is substantial and can be used safely on your stove top (just set it on a baking sheet for stability).
Don’t forget to buy some smokeless fuel tabs!
I almost put this one under Tools, except: a) it’s expensive, b) the radio has a USB charger that will definitely charge your phone to emergency use levels, and c) you may not even be somewhere with access to bright sun after an emergency.
That said, while these solar chargers are by no means instantaneous (you’re looking at a slow trickle charge in all but the brightest summer sun conditions), they’re certainly better than nothing for protracted power outages. If you have the money and want the piece of mind, then tuck one in your toilet bucket.