I’ve been asked by a friend to offer some advice on emergency preparedness. Initially I was going to respond directly, but thought that perhaps others could benefit from their questions. So for each question they ask, I’ll post it here and provide my advice. For privacy purposes they’ll be referred to only as GB. Let’s see where this goes….
GB: Oh hey, I was wondering if I could pick your brain now and again about emergency preparedness.
Culex: Sure! Ask away.
GB: I’m stepping up our preparedness. What do you recommend keeping in your bug-out bags.
First let’s start by discussing the reasons for a bug out bag and the different kinds of bags. For me, bugging out is a last resort. It means I’m giving up my home. Perhaps short term due to an evacuation, perhaps permanently due to collapse of society. I’d much rather get to my home and shelter in place than leave it, of course in some situations leaving really is the safer option. First I’d start with my Get Home Bag (GHB).
The GHB bag is designed to be with you at pretty much all times you’re away from your home and has supplies sufficient to sustain you while away and supplies and equipment to get you home.
Your location will, to a degree, dictate contents of the bag and also drive changes to your bag. For example, if you live in the Pacific Northwest you have different needs than the Pacific Southwest, or the South desert area or South Eastern states. New England states, the Midwest or Northern states again bring in different challenges. This just considers the US. Those in other areas of the world need to consider their locale.
Using New England states as an example, during summer your needs are quite different than during winter. Getting stranded in your car for a few days when the temperatures are comfortable is a big difference from getting stuck in subzero ice storm conditions.
Next, let’s consider where you will be going in your car. If you’re making a 90 minute commute, each day, in your car and you live in a highly urbanized area, like LA where your whole drive is “in the city”, your supplies will be quite different than if you live 90 minutes outside of Seattle or Buffalo or Fargo where most of your drive is in a rural or even wilderness setting.
Understanding what your locale and seasonal needs are and distances involved will help you start to plan your bag contents. First off, is there somewhere in your vehicle where you can effectively hide your bag? Some cars have hidden storage compartments or areas that a shade can be pulled over to keep the contents away from prying eyes. If your vehicle supports this then look for a bag or containers that will fit there. In my case an empty backpack collapsed down and a couple of Rubbermaid containers work well. You can see in the following picture, two containers with supplies and a backpack plus water, flares, fire extinguisher, fold up shovel and a first aid kit.
Next, let’s assume that you’ll use this bag to survive while stuck in your car and perhaps to attempt to then get home. Imagine walking home. A 90 minute drive could be nearly 100 miles. A good walker, with a loaded back pack, can probably expect 20 miles a day in optimal conditions. Are you used to walking 20 miles a day? With 20, 30 or 40 pounds strapped to your back? Do you have the footwear to do this? Dress shoes, flip flops or high heels most definitely are not the right footwear!
Are there places along the way you can resupply? Or stop for assistance? Stores that may be open? Note, for now we’re just assuming that YOU have an issue, not that society is gone. We’re also making the assumption that you can’t just make a cell call for help. Maybe no coverage where you are at or you forgot your phone or the battery is dead.
If I’m going to stay with my car and wait for emergency services (or family/friend) to come by and help I’d be considering at least:
- Warmth (layers, blankets, hand warmers, etc.)
- Hygiene (TP, sanitizer, zip lock bags, etc.)
- Required medicines (insulin, epi pen, etc.)
- Signs/markers (red cloth, flashing lights, emergency triangles, perhaps even fusees (flares), a “need help” sign)
- Spare batteries
- Medical supplies
- Something to pass the time (a book).
This allows me to stay with the vehicle for some days and deal with minor and even somewhat severe medical issues. As an example, I skidded off the road and totaled my car although I’ve only sustained relatively minor injuries, perhaps a fractured leg is preventing me from walking for help but is not life threatening.
I can stay warm, hydrated and avoid hunger. I can step (crawl) a short distance from the car to go to the bathroom when necessary and clean up afterwards. Markers (lights, flares) can be placed to help others find me.
Let’s assume a similar scenario, but I’m not injured and the road is rarely traveled. So it’s up to me to get to a more civilized area as it could be days until I’m missed.
I’d select similar equipment to the first example and I’d put it in a backpack so I can take it with me. I’d also include a good pair of hiking shoes/boots, a GPS and a decent amateur (ham) radio. Most small hand held amateur radios will also have weather channels, some have emergency beacon (flashing light) and/or flash light functions and while you need a license to use (transmit/talk) an amateur radio, there is an exemption for emergency situations. Granted you’ll need to learn a bit to effectively use and program it, but if you routinely travel to wilderness areas it can literally be a life saver just for the weather radio function alone. While there are a number of brands and models, something like the following is a good starting point.
Now, if I’m walking for more than a day or so, carrying enough water with me will be very difficult. So, including a way to purify water I come across is important. Add a hiking water filter. Since I’m now walking for more than a day, the ability to stay warm outside of my vehicle becomes more important, critical in some areas. I’ll go ahead and add multiple ways to make a fire to my pack. Lighter, storm proof matches, some dry tinder, etc. Of course I already know how to, and have practiced, making a fire via different methods so I’m not just carrying a bunch of gear I don’t know how to use.
Since I am, again, walking multiple days to get back, shelter in addition to the fire would be good. In winter it helps contain heat, in summer it can keep the rain and bugs off of me. A lightweight 1 or 2 person hiking tent and sleeping bag appropriate to the season would be helpful. With my tent pitched and my fire going, it would add a lot to my comfort level to have a warm meal so a small pot for heating water to add to one of the various camping foods (Camp Chow, Mountain House, etc) would be useful.
For an urban situation the need to pitch a tent and start a fire is usually not required, but having sufficient cash to book a hotel room for a night or two and get some food is just as much of a survival and comfort technique as eating and relieving yourself in the woods is in a wilderness setting. As an example, a few years ago there was a major snow storm in the Midwest and people in Chicago got stuck on a major road and spent nearly day stranded in their car. They were less than a quarter mile from literally hundreds of buildings but conditions and visibility made it very dangerous to even consider leaving your vehicle after the first hour or two.
Regardless of my setting, some form of personal protection is worth considering. Wild animals in the woods, strangers will ill intent coming across you while waiting in your car on that rural road or questionable neighborhoods all present their own challenges. Pepper/bear spray, a knife, firearm or even just knowing a martial art or self-defense skill are all possibilities. It’s going to depend on local laws, and your interest in using (or not using) a particular item or technique. If you’re not physically able to perform most martial arts moves (weight, age, etc.) then other options are best considered. Perhaps a youthful indiscretion or just your local state laws make it difficult or impossible to carry a firearm. Again, look into other options. Things that are not obvious. A walking stick or cane might be an option. A pocket knife or multi-tool with a knife again is an option. Maybe not as fast to deploy, but still an option. Sadly there are people who will try to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune and being able to protect you and your family is important.
We’ve looked at most of the options for a GHB. Now you need to consider your likely distance you’ll need to travel and the environment and then start to build your bag up accordingly. Make sure you know how to use everything in it. Putting in a flint and steel for starting a fire is nice but only if you know how to use it. Trying to learn it in the middle of a stressful situation is not the time or place.
Make sure, if you expect to be potentially walking, that you have sufficient supplies for much more than your expected travel time as you never know what might delay or slow you. Lastly, be sure to adjust the bag seasonally. Putting a bag together in May in Minneapolis will be a lot different than the same bag put together in November. Make sure to change your bag contents as the seasons change. It also provides a good opportunity to review the contents (food, water, batteries etc.) and swap out anything that is approaching expiration.
Your next type of bag is the car kit. Many times this will be a GHB with a few extras (like the flares/fusees, fix a flat, etc.). It should also include jumper cables at a minimum and a jumper device if you have the money/room to add it. Be sure to check the charge on it monthly! For me, the car bag and the GHB bag are one in the same as I nearly always have my car with me. If I don’t I’m already a short walking distance to home.
Third is the Bug Out Bag (BOB) or Get Out Of Dodge (GOOD) bag, sometimes called an I’m Never Coming Home (INCH) bag. Look around and I’m sure you’ll find many other names for it. Some first responders will even have their Go bag with similar contents. Pick the acronym you like best, it doesn’t matter what you call it, the contents (and knowledge of how to use them) are the important part.
You’re going to follow a similar procedure to your GHB but in reverse.
You’re leaving your home. Why? Answer this question as many ways as you can. Here are a few thoughts. Some may apply to where you live, some may not.
- Hurricane approaching
- Wild fires approaching
- Mud slide danger
- Avalanche danger
- Near by out of control fire (neighbor’s house)
- Gas leak (natural, derailed/ruptured railway car, etc.)
- Neighborhood rioting
- Unsafe home (structural damage, tornado strike, vehicle impact, etc.)
- Earthquake aftermath
- Mandatory evacuation
- Volcano, possible eruption
For those living in other parts of the world things like war and insurrection are a possibility. Think Syria right now or Kosovo in the past for example.
Notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is in the “tin foil hat” category. They’re all events that can and do happen. To many people. Nearly every year. The majority can occur somewhere in the US and literally all have happened at least once and most many times just in my lifetime.
Now, consider for the events that you came up with for your area (from above and the ones you thought of), what the impact to you and your family might be. How long will you need to leave? Might you not be able to return home? If your home is washed away in a flood or destroyed in a hurricane or wildfire, then you’re not returning to it. On the other hand perhaps a gas leak forced you to evacuate, crews show up, fix the neighborhood leak and the next morning you get an all clear to return. Those are two situations with very different outcomes.
A base bag will handle the immediate need to leave. It has your “72 hours” of supplies. If you’ll be gone longer or potentially not have a home to return to, then you can layer on additional bags and supplies.
If you’re never coming back (home destroyed) then consider what else would you want to take. If it’s a localized event, neighborhood evacuation due to gas leak, the local hotel will probably be a good option. But if it’s hurricane Katrina and hundreds of thousands of people are evacuating, then what?
Where do you go?
Once again, consider the events and decide where and how you will deal with each reason for leaving home. Keep in mind some reasons will be known for days (hurricane forecast) while a tanker train car carrying chlorine may derail, rupture and require, literally, an immediate evacuation. Having a basic bag ready to go on a moment’s notice is important. For the situations where you might not be coming back, a list of extra things to take is important, although this too can be somewhat mitigated but not needing to take everything. Let me explain.
If you are leaving the house and there is a good chance it won’t be there when you come back, what do you want to take? Important papers? Family pictures? Computers (or at least backups)? I’m sure you can add some items to this list. Personally I’m not worried about the stuff as that’s what I have insurance for. It’s the non replaceable items that concern me. How can I get all my important documents and mementos ready to go in a short period of time? Or even worse, what if something happens when I am not even home to get them? Can you say house fire?
First, I got a good encrypted memory stick (more on this later). Then, I went around the house and did a short video of each room and the items in it. Now I have a record for the insurance company if I have to file a claim. Be sure to update this every so often as your items change. Next I got out all the important papers (passport, car titles, house information, bank documents, etc.) and took high quality digital photos of each. Optionally you could scan these on a computer if you have that capability. Last step was to empty out the wallet/purse of all the cards, IDs, etc. and lay them all out so I could take digital photos of them too. This included drivers license, insurance cards, medical cards, credit cards, etc.
Now I’ve got all of these files which I put on the encrypted memory stick. Why? If they’re sitting on my PC at home and it’s destroyed they do me no good. If it’s stolen I’ve given the thief everything they need to steal my identity. Stored on an encrypted memory stick means it can go with me at all times (which it does) and it’s encrypted so if I lose it or someone steals it they can’t access the contents. I’m only out the memory stick itself which is easily replaced. So I now have a copy of all important documents with me at all times. My encrypted memory stick is on my keyring and if I’m not home my keys are with me. For the technical savy, there are options to use software to encrypt a normal stick, and those are good if you understand how to do it, but it’s beyond the scope of this answer. For the rest, just buy an encrypted stick (or two) and save yourself the hassle. True it is quite a bit more expensive than a non encrypted stick, but the risk (and cost) of identity theft is not worth going cheap.
Besides the above items I’ve also taken a digital picture of each physical family photo we have in the house. That old black and white photo of great grandma has no insurance value, yet may be priceless to you. Worst case the photo is destroyed with the house but you still have a digital copy that could be printed and framed in your new home.
If you’re really thinking you’ll have realized that having the one digital copy, while good, is still a risk. Have multiple copies. One for each adult in the family. Or give one to a trusted relative to keep for you. It’s encrypted so they can’t get to the contents. Even better, if a relative is also smart enough to also be doing emergency preparedness, then you can hold a backup encrypted memory stick for each other. Just like with your supplies, review at least yearly if not quarterly to ensure the information is current.
So, my BOB is going to have similar items in it as my GHB but would also include additional things like the encrypted memory stick with my important information. If I’m leaving on foot vs. leaving in the car it makes a big difference too. Being able to drive means I can add a lot more food and water to my kit. A common approach is to create a BOB that you can grab at a moment’s notice for urgent immediate evacuation. Then have one or more Rubbermaid containers pre-filled and ready to go. Finally have a list of “just in case” that, if you have the time, you can run down the list grabbing the additional items. You’ll want to, of course, have done a trial run to see that all the containers and extra stuff fit in your vehicle and to get a feel for how long each part of your plan takes to implement.
The grab and go bag is just that. Something you can pick up as you leave. Every additional layer will involve staging, loading and perhaps even gathering first. Very doable when you have days of notice, not so much when emergency services are ringing your bell and insisting you need to leave immediately!
Now you might think that this is all well and good for a rural situation, but I live in San Francisco or LA or Miami or New Orleans. Why would I need to worry about this? If I had to evacuate I’d just go to a hotel. Big earthquake or hurricane anyone? It is fine when you and your neighbors have a localized evacuation but when a major metro area is evacuating and/or has no power or services in the aftermath (for days, weeks or even months), you’ll be quite happy that you have food, water and comfort to help see you through the event’s immediate aftermath and perhaps even until you can relocate if necessary.
A few other points to consider.
Each of these present various challenges. If you have an infant then your kits need to include diapers, formula and such. Elderly, perhaps unable to get around or suffering from dementia, will present many challenges in addition to just keeping track of the medicines and helping them get around. Need to leave? What about Fido or Mr. Furball? Your BOB should then include food and water for them too in addition to bowls to feed them. A leash and/or carrier will be quite helpful. Don’t forget to include their important papers (vaccinations, rabies shots, etc.) in your documentation on your encrypted memory stick.
Speaking of documentation… a good part of your BOB should be a binder or folder with a series of important notes. Multiple ways to evacuate in multiple directions. If you live in Kentucky you might want to consider how to leave in all four compass directions with multiple routes for each direction. Coastal residents usually can eliminate one or more directions unless a readily available boat is an option for you. I think we’ve all seen the pictures and videos of the highways being completely packed with cars which are not moving when a major evacuation occurs. Have other routes including “back roads” and “side streets” planned out.
What happens when your teenage daughter, who just got home from school is faced with a police officer pounding on the door insisting on an immediate evacuation? Dad is just about to leave the office and Mom is flying in that night from a business trip. Does your daughter know what to do? How about where to go? Is there a plan for the family to meet up elsewhere? What if that elsewhere isn’t an option? Is there a backup location?
Sit down with your family and discuss. Come up with a plan. Don’t expect to just somehow coordinate, on the fly, with your cell phones. Even if everyone has them and they’re working, the system itself may be overloaded and not functioning. Besides, everyone who didn’t prepare and think about this first will be trying to use their phones.
“If we have to leave, we’ll all try to meet at the library parking lot across town. If that is not an option (bad weather, larger evacuation area, it just isn’t safe, etc.) then we’ll meet at Aunt Sally’s house in the next town over. If that is still not possible then we all work our way to Grandma’s house two counties over.”
Hopefully by now you can see that much of a Bug Out Bag isn’t about stuff but about being prepared for the various reasons you might have to leave/get home and the various needs along the way. The stuff just then helps you implement your plans for the given situation. Careful consideration and discussions with your family can help determine just what might happen, where you might go and what stuff you might need. With that said, for the equipment junkies I’m including a list of items you might want to consider for your bag. I freely admit I don’t have all of these in my bags and don’t intend to either. I’ve looked at my situations and made choices that I feel best fit me and my family. When you are making these same decisions and selecting stuff for your bag, keep in mind size and weight. Experts advise a gallon of water per person per day. So a 72 hour (3 day) bag would have 3 gallons of water in it. That’s about 25 lbs and we haven’t added in the other supplies and the pack itself. So your six your old is going to strap on a 30-35 pound pack and hike 15 miles that day with you?
Consider your locale and weather conditions. In general the order is Safety, Air, Shelter, Water, Food. This may be different than you’ve seen but look at it this way:
You’re changing a flat tire and get hit by a passing car in the dark. Happens in seconds, you’re dead. A few flares would have helped provide for your safety.
There’s a fire in the house. You can’t get out and suffocate long before getting burned. An escape plan would have kept you breathing.
Driving on a rural road in a blizzard and you hit a patch of black ice, skid off the road and wreck your car busting out the windows. In three hours (or less) the cold can kill you. Finding shelter can save your life.
Same situation, rural road in summer, something fails/breaks on the car and it stops running but is perfectly usable as a shelter. You can go about 3 days, tops, without drinking.
Most people can go a few days without food just fine. It might not be comfortable but it isn’t life threatening. Of course diabetics and a few others have differing needs and might shuffle the order of this list.
So, without further comment, here are some items to consider for your various bags:
- Bag – probably a backpack for most people, find a good one
- Multi tool – knife, pliers, screwdrivers, mini saw and more
- Knife – dedicated quality knife
- Water – at least some in your bag
- Water Filter – ability to replenish your supply from practically any source
- Life Straw – small portable filter allowing you to safely drink from practically any source
- Snack food – energy bars, trail mix, hard candy, jerky, etc.
- Ready to Eat food – Camp Chow or Mountain House are two good examples
- Pot – to heat the water your ready to eat meal needs, can also boil water to make it safe to drink
- Utensils – to eat your meals, disposable or spork or multi too with eating utensils
- Can Opener – for any canned food you may have
- Change of Clothes
- Extra Socks
- Extra Underwear
- Hiking Boots/Shoes
- Winter Clothes
- Hat/Gloves/Scarf/Ear Muffs
- Bar of Soap
- Toilet Paper roll
- Hand Sanitizer
- Tooth Brush
- Tooth Paste
- Bug Spray
- Feminine Products – additional uses for tampons include penetration wounds, supplying tinder for starting fires and can be used as a water purifier. Google for more
- Cotton Balls – use with Vaseline as fire starter
- Wet Wipes
- 550 Paracord
- Fishing line
- Collapsible Fishing Pole
- Hooks, Sinkers, Bobbers, etc.
- Mosquito hood
- Tarp – make shift shelter, wet ground liner, dragging an injured person, etc.
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Rain Poncho
- Signal Mirror
- Topo/Wilderness Maps
- Camp Ax
- Hand Warmers
- Pocket Chainsaw
- Collapsible bowl
- Camp Stove
- Hiking Pole
- Hand Crank Radio/Weather Radio/Flashlight
- Amateur Ham hand held Radio
- Batteries – optionally rechargeable with solar charger
- Portable Solar Panel – usually provides USB charging
- Head Lamp
- Kindle/E-Reader – loaded with survival books and other books to occupy your time when stuck waiting
- Cell Phone – with charging USB cable
- Baby Food
- Small Toys – keep them occupied, maybe trucks or a couple dolls or small Ziplock bag of Legos
- Hot Chocolate packets – Comfort food for kids, also energy boost
- Kool Aid packets
- Baby Wipes
- Adult Diapers
- Pet food
- Vet records
- Folding Shovel – digging “bathroom” hole, digging out from snow, etc.
- Waterproof Matches
- 9 Volt Battery and Steel wool – great fire starter, google it
- Glow Sticks
- Sewing Repair Kit
- Encrypted USB Drive (see above)
- Emergency Plan/Binder (see above)
- Emergency Blankets
- Glasses/Reading Glasses (if critical to seeing, definitely more than one pair
- Duct Tape
- Zip Ties
- Trash Bags
- Ziplock Bags
- Bungee Straps
- Rubber Bands
- Safety Pins
- Playing Cards – some survival decks including survival tips on each card
- Defensive Equipment (see above)
- Fire Extinguisher
- Road Flares/Fusees
- Battery power flare lights/triangles
- Fix a Flat
- Jumper Cables/Portable Jumper
- Medical Bag – mine are always red
- Assorted Bandaids
- Antibiotic Ointment
- Gauze Pads
- Surgical Tape
- Coban Wrap
- Ace Bandage
- Foldable Splints
- CPR Mask
- N95 or better Mask
- Pain Killers
- Anti Diarrheal
- Tourniquet – consider the CAT version
- Halo Seal – for punctured lung
- Suture Kit
- Quick Clot – or Celox
- Trauma Shears
- Nail Clippers
- Nitrile Gloves
- Lip Balm
- Liquid Bandage
- Non Refrigerated Insulin pen
- Other required medications
- Magnifying Glass
- Gauze Roll
- Burn Cream
- Alcohol Pads
- Anti Itch cream
- General pills (Tylenol, Excederin, Advil, etc.)
The above list is by no means comprehensive and the items you choose from this and your own lists should be selected based on your area (urban, rural, wilderness, combination) and also based on your experience and understanding of the item. For example, having a suture kit is only useful if you know how to suture. Improperly closing a wound can seal in infection turning a serious situation into life threatening.
For more details on medical kits, see my medical kit page.