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Elsewhere on Equipped To Survive you'll find a fairly extensive list of gear and supplies to possibly include in what some might call an "Ultimate" Disaster Preparedness Kit for your home and family. In this article we'll look at a very basic kit that would see you through most emergencies. By basic, we mean just the essentials and little more. Prudence suggests you'll probably want more and every kit needs to be adjusted to fit your own environment. If you live where is gets cold, you may want to add more stuff to keep you warm, for example. This is true no matter if you assemble your own kit or buy one of the many commercially prepared kits.
The industry over the years settled on 72 hours as a reasonable length of time for which you ought to be prepared. This is based on historical evidence that suggests that by the end of 72 hours, at least in first world countries, government services will normally be restored to the point that you can avail yourselves of them without major difficulty. What you are trying to prepare for is to be able to take care of yourself and your loved ones during the first hours and days when government and volunteer services may not be able to respond as fully or quickly as anyone would like. The reality is that it takes time to organize and marshall the equipment and people needed, you may well be on your own until then.
As a result of hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, many folks started questioning whether 72 hours is long enough. 72 hours is a place to start, but there are circumstances where it would be prudent to be prepared to be on your own for a week. If you live someplace where a large scale natural disaster is likely, and New Orleans certainly qualified, as does much of suburban California and other areas subject to hurricanes and earthquakes, you need to prepare for longer. If you live where government services are notoriously poor, and New Orleans again qualified in that regard, you need to prepare for more. If you live in a very large metropolitan area where evacuation could be a real problem and infrastructure damage more severe, someplace like Los Angeles or New York for example, you need to be prepared for more. If a disaster is more likely to arrive unannounced, such as an earthquake, compared to a hurricane where advance notice is likely, you need to be prepared for more. The larger the scale of a disaster, the less time to prepare and the more people caught up in the mess, the longer it will be before government can effectively respond. You need to determine what the circumstances would likely be for you.
This is a simple reality. It just isn't possible, in the real world, for large scale response to occur quickly, relative to what many people seem to expect. If you don't want to be one of those standing in lines for hours waiting for water or food or ice and complaining incessantly on TV, just make the effort to prepare. Too many naively expect the government to come riding to your rescue immediately. This isn't like dialing 9-1-1. It just doesn't work that way. Many of those who find themselves standing in these lines in many disasters could have prepared and did not. That's worse than stupid. If more people took some responsibility for their own preparedness, the available resources would get to those who truly need it much quicker. People who could do so, but fail to prepare not only screw themselves, they cheat everyone else as well.
There are numerous commercially prepared 72 hour kits for sale, which sell like mad after every major disaster. You can use this list to figure out if such kits really have what you need, but as always, be mindful of the quality of equipment and supplies included, not just what is there and the quantity.
The essentials you need to survive for the short term are water and shelter. Everything else is really a luxury. That's not to say there aren't significant advantages to having food and medical supplies and the rest, but in terms of priority, they come second after the most basic essentials.
Water is fundamental to your body's continued health. You can live and even function quite well for weeks without food, but even a day without water in many environments can disable or kill you. This is where many commercial kits are most deficient.
Virtually all commercial kits rely upon standard 4.227 oz. (125 ml) water packets. A few use far more sturdily packaged "Aqua Blox," that are 8.45 oz. (250 ml) or 1 liter each. I'd take these over the flimsy packets any day, plus they include a straw that allows you to more easily drink from them without waste. Most kits I've examined provide no more than 8.4 ounces of water per person per day, based on a 72 hour requirement, some even less. Actually, you may note that many kit manufacturers rate their supplies using provisional language such as "up to three days," because they know they're shorting you. To put that in perspective, that's only about a cup, half a pint, or about equal to half a large glass of water per day. That's enough to prevent death in most environments, but not enough to allow you to get done what you may have to do during the hours and days after a disaster. Oftentimes you're going to be strenuously exerting yourself.
Your absolute minimum goal should be a gallon of water per person per day, more in hot climates. Double that wouldn't be too much even in temperate climates and that leaves nothing extra for personal hygiene. This will allow you to maintain your full strength, so you can take care of yourself and others. I recommend 5 gallons per person per day as a reasonable amount that is also practical for most to keep available. If you do it yourself, it doesn't need to cost an arm and a leg.
Packaged water designed for emergency use generally has a minimum shelf life of five years, and it'll probably be perfectly safe for years longer. You can use commercially bottled water, but you should rotate your supplies based on the expirations date on the package. These days the expiration time for commercially bottled water is often a couple years.
If stored out of the light, it increases the likely safe storage period. You can always treat it before use, which we'll also discuss shortly. Water can be stored two ways. For shelf-storage, store containers in a cool (relatively), dry place away from direct sunlight. It's best if you can prevent freezing while in storage, unless that is your aim.
Water can also be stored in a freezer. If you lose electricity, the frozen water provides the added benefit of keeping foods frozen until power is restored. Leave 2 to 3 inches of air space in the top of containers before freezing to prevent the container from bursting as water expands during freezing. Some thin-walled containers may break regardless of the air space provided, so experiment ahead of time. If you store your water someplace where it could freeze, also follow these instructions. Never freeze water stored in glass containers. If you have a few days warning of a potential disaster, such as with a hurricane, fill up to 90% of the extra space in the freezer with water bottles and it can last for many days. You need to leave some space for the cold air to circulate inside.
Avoid the flimsy "milk bottle" style cloudy white soft plastic gallon or half-gallon jugs with the snap off caps, made from high-density polyethylene. It won't stand up to much abuse, the tops can pop off if dropped and if you're reusing these milk containers, you're never sure you get all the organic material out of that soft plastic. Some of the warehouse big box stores like COSTCO carry water in 2 1/2 gallon HDP containers, two to a box, that will work satisfactorily if you keep them in the box, but they aren't designed to be refilled.
Polyethylene terepthalate, more commonly referred to as P.E.T. or PET since most of us can't figure out how to pronounce it, is best for water storage. This is the clear or colored plastic commonly used for soda pop and many drinking water bottles with screw on caps. They can be rinsed thoroughly with hot soapy water and re-used. They stand up well in storage, are easy to carry and if dropped generally won't burst, nor will the caps pop off. Glass will break if dropped and adds weight, so I don't recommend glass.
You can also buy water containers from camping stores and departments or emergency preparedness stores and web sites. You'll see them in sizes up to 55 gallon drums, or even larger. In my opinion, better to stick with smaller sizes such as 2, 3 or 5 gallons maximum. Larger that that and moving or transport becomes a real problem. 5 gallons weighs in at nearly 42 lbs. Try carrying that very far. Small sizes also make it much easier to share supplies or apportion them. Finally, if you have a leak or contamination problem, better to lose a few gallons than 30 or more. Unless you're storing thousands of gallons, stick to smaller, easier to handle sizes.
So, how should you treat water for storage? In most cases, plain old tap water from most city water systems should be pretty much free of any disease causing pathogens. EPA standards for municipal potable water are pretty strict and most are regularly tested. Since you're essentially starting with virtually sterile water, what you're mostly concerned with is any bacteria that might be introduced during the filling process, as well as any odd bugs that got through the disinfection treatment and may just not be there in large enough quantities to normally cause a healthy person any problems. You want to make sure they don't multiply and create a problem given the time. The simple solution is to treat the water with chlorine.
While it is true that most public water supplies are disinfected with chlorine or chloramines and that such water may retain enough residual disinfectant to kill any pathogens that might be introduced, it's just so simple to make sure, that it isn't even worth debating,. Just do it.
To treat potable water for storage, use liquid household chlorine bleach that contains 5 to 6 percent sodium hypochlorite. Almost any brand of bleach will do, the standard is 5 1/4% sodium hypochlorite and those labeled "Ultra" are typically 6%.
Avoid any bleach that is labeled as smelling of wildflowers, "rain clean" or with any other scent. You really don't want wildflower tasting water, trust me. You want plain old bleach, period. Bleach has a limited shelf life and for best results you should use fresh bleach no more that a few months old. Add bleach according to the following doses using a clean medicine dropper. You can usually get one for the asking or for a nominal price from your local pharmacy.
The base treatment is four drops of bleach per quart or liter of water or sixteen drops of bleach per gallon or four-liter container of water. If you're going to store large quantities, then just remember that 15 drops equals 1/4 teaspoon, so a teaspoonful equals 60 drops, enough to treat 3 3/4 gallons. A five gallon water can will take about 1 1/2 teaspoons of bleach.
Stir the water, cover, and allow to stand for 30 minutes. Uncap it and you ought to be able to smell chlorine. In the unlikely case that you don't, re-dose the water, stir, cover and let it stand another 30 minutes. Once done, seal or cap each container tightly. Be sure to label it clearly and permanently as potable water and the date you treated it.
Remember, water weighs over 8 pounds per gallon, 8.35 pounds to be exact, plus the weight of its container. Make sure any shelves you store it on are up to the task.
Properly treated water has been stored for periods of 2-5 years with no problems, especially when stored out of the light. Min d you, this water may taste very flat after long storage, but you can improve that a lot just by aerating it. Simply pour it from one container into another and back and forth a few times to improve the taste. This also tends to dissipate the residual chlorine, further improving the taste.
I am often asked if the water from a swimming pool or spa would be safe to drink. The answer is generally, yes. If the pool or spa is properly maintained and sanitized, it's safe. If it's been sitting some time since last being treated or has been contaminated with dirt or other organic materials since then, well, some form of water disinfection may be in order. By the way, in earthquake country you cannot depend upon the pool or spa water being available. In some instances pools and spas have lost all, or nearly all, of their water.
I also recommend a water filter or water treatment product, as both a back-up and to supplement your water stores. There are numerous such treatments available. If bleach is available, just treat according to the instructions given earlier. But, as noted earlier, bleach doesn't have a long shelf life. My favorite specialized water disinfection treatment is Katadyn's Micropur MP1 since it is virtually tasteless. The Potable Aqua folks also have a similar product coming out. You can also use old-fashioned Potable Aqua, an iodine treatment. You can get rid of the iodine taste by adding vitamin C after the treatment regime is finished. Almost all the water treatments have limited shelf lives, so keep that in mind. See the Water and Food section on ETS for more information.
To hold water after treatment you should have plenty of water containers available from your stored water, but a collapsible water storage bag or something may also be handy.
As we said, you don't need food to survive, and many of us could do with an enforced diet, but you'll feel better and perform better with food to replenish your energy stores. Most of us will do quite well on 2,000 calories a day in such a situation, though you may want more if you anticipate heavy work or cold weather. A typical commercial kit will include about 600 - 1,200 calories per day. So, figure on adding to whatever is in a kit you might buy.
Complex carbohydrates are the best for this purpose, starches and the like. They provide long lasting energy and are easy to digest using minimal water. Packaged survival rations are heavily stacked in this direction, along with some fats. Protein is not as critical in the sort term and requires much more water to digest. Simple sugars, such as candy, aren't much use unless you're looking for a quick, short energy boost. You want sustenance, sustainable energy.
While rations provide the most compact food source and they have a minimum five year shelf life, there are plenty of suitable non-perishable foods in the grocery store and they taste much better than even the best emergency rations. Canned beans and similar staples are a time-honored survival food that will see you through and will last for years in storage. Make sure you have a manually operated can opener, and a back-up, to open these cans or any you might get elsewhere after a disaster. Nuts and trail mix also make good survival food, but generally don't have anywhere near as long a shelf life. Beware of some "power bars" that contain more sugars and protein than you want and avoid jerky as a primary food source. Unless you are assured of a reliable source of potable water, and any city source or a well using an electrical pump is not a reliable source, don't rely upon dry foods such as rice or pasta, or dehydrated or freeze dried foods.
Store food you like to eat when at all possible. It's difficult enough in a survival circumstance without having to force down food you don't particularly like. Also, a meal of food you like does a whole lot more for your positive state of mind that just something to fill your belly.
MREs, short for Meals Ready to Eat, the U.S. military's field rations, have made quite a name for themselves because they are so often handed out by authorities after a disaster. Each meal contains about 1300 calories. Some of them are even fairly tasty. Others, well, they leave something to be desired of in the taste or texture department. You can find reviews and information on the available menus on the Web. The best suggestion I have is to make sure you heat them up using the provided heater. They are safely edible cold, just not very palatable.
However, they have some significant drawbacks. One, they are expensive; sometimes very expensive as the price seems to vary significantly depending upon available supply. At best they are very expensive compared to alternatives, even if bought in bulk. Nor are they particularly compact or light. Also, their low fiber content can cause constipation for some folks, to the point of it becoming a serious and debilitating problem. In others it can cause extreme flatulence for some time. Shelf life varies with storage temperature, according to the official charts, three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit is the official shelf life, but some reviewers have tasted 5 to 10 year old MREs and reported they were okay, if not great. For all these reasons I'd put MREs at or near the bottom of my list of preferred preparedness foods.
Also, be aware that there are differences between military MREs and civilian packaged MREs. Technically, the companies that make MREs are prohibited from selling through commercial markets to civilians. So they make a different version for sale to the public. Some are very nearly the same, but others are quite different, including having far less food (and calories). Ebay is one of the best sources for MREs in case lots, if you still want some. Just be careful. Buyer beware and all that.
Since we're talking about a short term situation, don't worry too much about trying to provide a balanced diet. If it's really a concern for you, include a bottle of multiple vitamins.
If you have infants, that's a whole other set of needs you need to consider when it comes to food. Powdered formula requires water to mix it with, so be especially sure you have a reliable source and plenty on hand. Sterile containers and bottles for formula can also be a problem, so ensure you have adequate supply of disposibles or means to sterilize on hand. If breast feeding, keep in mind that stuff happens in emergencies and you may want to prepare for the bossibility that mom's breasts many not be available.
Don't forget the pets! They need food and water too.
We're not talking tents or RVs here, it's much more basic than that. A pair of large (33 gallon of larger) garbage bags per person will do in a pinch. These can serve as both improvised sleeping bag and poncho. For those living where it may get cold, a good wool blanket for each person will be most welcome. Mylar emergency "Space blankets," while popular and included in many commercial kits, have drawbacks and are not the best choice.
More effective would be a decent size tarp. The plastic, nylon reinforced tarps (most commonly bright blue) you can find at any hardware store will do very well in all but the coldest climates, no need to get anything fancier or more expensive. Be sure you have some rope with which to secure it; more on that later. Not quite as good, but still effective and even less expensive is plastic sheeting, available in a roll or often sold as drop cloths. Avoid the very thin plastic drop cloths, it should be at least a couple mils thickness.
For those living where it may get cold, a good wool blanket for each person will be most welcome. Wool is both warm and durable and fire resistant. Mylar emergency "Space blankets," while popular and included in many commercial kits, have notable drawbacks and are not the best choice. Of course, a good sleeping bag would be even better, though more expensive and bulkier.
Also related to shelter is clothing. Store at least one set of work clothes for each person and sturdy boots along with a few changes of underwear.
In many areas you'll want to be able to start a fire, so be sure to include some matches and a lighter. A lighter is easy to use, but they can leak, so you can't rely on one. It's best to have waterproof and windproof matches. Most hardware stores will have some, or you can simply get some "strike anywhere" wood matches and waterproof them with candle wax or nail polish.
For cooking, a camping stove with appropriate fuel can be very handy. A single burner will do fine in most cases. Or, there are numerous types of canned or solid heat such as Sterno and Esbit. Some have suggested just using their charcoal grill, but charcoal is heavy, bulky and needs to be protected from getting wet. Also, be aware that burning charcoal produces prodigious amounts of deadly carbon monoxide, so it should never, ever be used inside your home, apartment or even a temporary shelter. More than a few families have died by trying to use charcoal to heat a home or apartment or for cooking inside.
If you plan to cook, you'll also need at least one pot and some cooking utensils. Some eating utensils, a fork and spoon at a minimum for each person, will be handy in any case.
The sad truth is that most inexpensive family first aid kits and the first aid supplies included with most commercial 72 hour kits are woefully inadequate for anything beyond a few cuts and scrapes. Your best bet to find a decent pre-assembled first aid kit will likely be at an outdoors sports store.
However, you can put together what you really need at any supermarket or drug store. A good supply of adhesive bandages, not just a few, a quantity of large gauze pads and a large roll of adhesive tape, a few rolled bandages and at least one elastic bandage will serve as a good start. Some antiseptic, such as povidone-iodine, and antibiotic ointment will round out your basic supplies. Add some over the counter analgesics for the aches that are likely to accompany any disaster. Simple antibiotic soap, such as Dial, will almost always prove useful. You can use a plastic Tupperware-style container to hold it all, dry and secure.
The thing to keep in mind is that some types of disasters tend to create real injuries, or opportunities for injuries, not just small cuts and scrapes. You should be prepared to deal with something like a broken bone or a moderate size bleeding wound, at least for a period of time until help arrives. Generally, you'll want to be able to change out bandages daily. The point being, it takes a fair bit of basics such as bandages to be truly prepared; most first aid kits assume no serious injury and that a call to 9-1-1 will bring help immediately. In a disaster help may take a while to arrive.
If you or your loved ones require a personal medications, make sure you have it available for use in a emergency. This is one place where it aims to be even more conservative, keep a two week supply on hand. If you wear contacts, make sure you're covered with maintenance supplies, or replacements if using disposables. Whether wearing cotnacts or glasses, always have a spare pair of glasses.
For more information on what you might want to include, what works and what doesn't, check out our Medical Section or this list of recommended items for a home first aid kit.
A decent quality knife is the most basic tool you'll need (click for more information). Beyond that, a multi-purpose tool or a selection of screwdrivers and pliers will come in handy. A hammer or pry bar may serve to save the day.
Also, make sure everyone has sturdy leather, or at least leather palmed, work gloves.
The flashlight included in most commercial kits is usually the cheapest available. If you need a flashlight, you generally need it bad and it needs to work reliably. It ought to be waterproof, just in case. Invest in a decent quality flashlight, they cost very little more. We prefer LED flashlights for their generally superior ruggedness and reliability We have found headlamps to be the perfect emergency light since they leave you with both hands free. Some pocket or key-chain sized LED lights, like the Photons, come with clips that allow them to also work as a clip-on light, which is another way to accomplish the same ends. Best to have one for each family member.
A lantern can also be mighty useful for general area lighting, battery or gas both work find. Many prefer not to have to deal with flammables and the latest fluorescent lanterns work great.
Be sure you have spare batteries and a spare bulb if you still use an incandescent flashlight. LED lights have the advantage of not needing the spare bulb. Don't store the batteries in the light where leakage might cause the light to be unusable and remember to exchange them regularly. Dead batteries are one of the most common failings I find when I examine emergency preparedness kits that have been assembled with the best of intentions. One tactic is to change them out when you change your clocks, if you do, or every new year, that way you don't forget and they are always fresh. Use the "old" batteries that are still good in stuff you use every day, including your everyday flashlight. (click here for more information on flashlights)
Never use so-called "heavy duty" batteries. If your commercial 72-hour kit came with them, as most do, toss them out. These are anything but heavy duty. These are old-fashioned carbon-zinc batteries that have a very short shelf life and run down quickly.
At a minimum you want to use Alkaline batteries. These have a decently long shelf life, typically about five years, and will run your flashlights, radios and like for a good amount of time. It's best to buy batteries with an expiration date, that way you know for sure when to replace them.
Lithium batteries are even better, they typically have a ten year shelf life, work better than alkaline in the cold and also weight about half less. These are only readily available in AA and AAA sizes, plus the small coin -cells, so that should point you to a AA or AAA-cell flashlight. It's always nice to be able to standardize on a single battery size, if you are able, and AA is probably the most widely used in a variety of battery operated devices and AAs are readily available anywhere.
A battery operated AM/FM radio is a must in order to stay informed. There are also models available that will work with a hand crank if the batteries are dead, and some also include a built-in solar charger. Again, make sure to keep fresh batteries on hand.
While the cell system may go down initially or will be quickly overloaded, it will be a priority to get them back up and running. However, if you have no power to charge your cell phone battery, it may soon become useless. So, some alternative means to charge your cell phone may be a good idea. The Sidewinder is a crank style charger that's probably the best know, but there are others as well. You can also get AA-cell powered rechargers, some that allow you to install fresh batteries and some that are only good for one shot.
Here's what could be a useful tip. While cell systems are often overloaded during emergencies, text messaging using your cell phone can often get through when a voice call will not. It uses much less bandwidth and the system can fit a message burst between voice traffic.
Don't forget your identification, money and critical important papers. Take originals or store copies of: Driver Licenses, Social Security cards, Medications with Name and Dosage (copy of prescription or label is best), Immunization cards for children, insurance documents, name and phone numbers of insurance agent(s) and main offices of insurance carrier, family and friends out of area that you can depend upon in an emergency, names of lawyers (to sue insurance companies), copies of deeds, titles and inventory list of belongings (a video record could be useful), Spare Keys to house, cars, safety deposit box, etc. Money can solve a lot of problems in the days and weeks immediately after a disaster. You should have no less than $100, plus a roll of quarters, but if there is time, such as with a hurricane, a few thousand in cash will ensure you get priority with any contractors afterwards. ATMs often run out of cash and don't get replenished as quickly as you'd like.
Always have at least two solid Credit cards and at least one $25 minimum pre-paid Calling Card.
Toilet paper is always in short supply; make sure you have plenty. For that matter, a porta-potty is another excellent nicety to have at hand. Make sure to include your personal hygiene items such as toothbrush and toothpaste, for example.
There are few things that cannot be fixed with a little wire, rope and duct tape. Every basic kit should have plenty of all three, especially duct tape. Aluminum foil is also very versatile, make sure you get the heavy duty kind.
Blackouts, especially in urban areas and for the elderly, can present a real problem in the summer due to the heat. A simple manual operated, old-fashioned fan could make all the difference and is easy to pocket, which a piece of cardboard or similar improvised fan cannot be quite as easily. If you face such a situation, consider a battery and/or solar power source and/or inverter to run a small electric fan.
Some other items that would be useful include a sewing kit and lots of safety pins for repairing clothing as well as writing paper or pads and pencils.
Some means of entertainment could be very nice to have, and if there are children in your group are probably essential to maintain your sanity. So include things like books, games, personal electronics, with lots of spare batteries of course and the like. If you are of a spiritual bent, spiritual materials such as a bible or Koran might also be a good inclusion.
There is really no end of stuff that you could include, much of it a good idea, which is what that larger list is all about. But, these basics will see you though in most situations and you won't break the bank assembling them.
You can store most of this stuff in a five gallon pail or two or three, which are waterproof and will stand up to plenty of abuse. However, they aren't very portable, you may want to include a back pack as well. Just in case you need to travel on foot, you can take along some of your most critical supplies.
Make sure you replace items with limited shelf lives when appropriate. You've gone to a fair amount of trouble assembling this stuff. Make sure it's able to be used if you ever need it.
Finally, don't rob your emergency kit when you need something for non-emergency use. You'll never remember to replace it and it won't be there when you really, really need it.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
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First Published: September 29, 2001
Revision: 04 August 27, 2006
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