Emergency Survival Kits

Power outages ... severe storms ... no worries! With a little planning, you can keep your family calm and safe during short-term emergencies.

family in storm

Keep your family safe no matter how severe the conditions by planning ahead and creating a short-term survival kit.


Content Tools

In today’s world of blackouts, big storms, terror alerts and global warming, many of us will experience significant disruptions in the flow of electricity or goods at some point in our lives. Having an emergency survival kit can be a big comfort and aid — maybe even a lifesaver — in such a situation. Stocking up on a few supplies, learning new skills and making an emergency contingency plan don’t have to take a lot of time or money, and these steps will foster peace of mind in turbulent times.

You can’t plan for all possible scenarios, but a wise person plans for the most likely possibilities and stores at least a few basic supplies for emergencies. The tips here will help you evaluate your needs and goals, and plan for short-term emergency situations (72 hours to one week). To help organize your thoughts and guide your actions, ask yourself the following questions before making your emergency response plans and survival kits:

  • What natural hazards are there in my area? Have I taken precautions to protect my home?
  • What is my regional potential for being caught in an earthquake, flood, hurricane or tornado?
  • How long might I be without access to utilities and supplies?
  • If the electricity goes out for an extended period of time, how will I cook, and how will I heat and light my home?
  • Do I have supplies and training to deal with medical emergencies if medical help is unavailable?
  • If I need to evacuate my home, do I have portable emergency supplies readily available?
  • How many people do I wish to store supplies for? What about my friends, neighbors and relatives?
  • Do I have pets that I need to provide for?
  • Do I have children or infants with special needs?
  • Do I, or my family, need prescription medications?

Survival Planning for Short-Term Emergencies

The following information on short-term planning will help you to prepare for emergencies when services are disrupted for periods of up to one week. Everyone should have enough food, water and other emergency supplies to last for at least three days, but preferably two or more weeks.

I suggest making these preparations as soon as possible. It can be difficult to focus on this task when skies are blue and nothing threatens, but it’s often too late if you wait until a disaster strikes or is close at hand. Just the threat of a major winter storm is enough to send swarms of people to local supermarkets to stock up on food, and if highways are closed to delivery trucks for one to two days, local market shelves can quickly become bare.

Short-Term Emergency Preparedness Checklist

  • Store at least one 72-hour emergency survival kit in or near your home, and keep a condensed version in each of your vehicles.
  • Determine a local meeting place with a large, open area (such as a park or school) where the members of your household can gather if you become separated and don’t have access to your home during an emergency.
  • Make sure all capable members of your family know exactly how and where to shut off the water, gas and electricity in your home.
  • Stash spare keys to your vehicles somewhere on the vehicle and an additional set of keys somewhere outside of your home (securely hidden).
  • Store at least a two-week supply of food (with a long shelf life) for your household, including any pets.
  • Store a combination of water, water treatment chemicals and water-purifying filters to provide potable water for your household for at least a week.
  • Keep a survival manual in each car with at least a first-aid kit, spare clothing and a water filter.
  • Get proper first-aid and CPR training for all capable members of your family. The American Red Cross provides first-aid training and assists with local emergency planning.
  • Arrange for an out-of-state emergency contact whom you can reach for communication. After an emergency, it may be easier to call long-distance than locally, or your family may be split up and need someone else to communicate through.
  • Locate your nearest emergency shelter (call your local Red Cross for this information). Practice the route to the shelter if it’s not conveniently located.
  • Make sure you have smoke detectors in your home, and change their batteries yearly.
  • Store your most important documents in one easily accessible location, preferably in a waterproof, flameproof box.
  • Discuss your emergency preparedness plans with all members of your household. Keep the discussion light and positive.

72-Hour Grab-and-Run Survival Kits

These short-term emergency kits should be readily accessible and cover the basic daily needs of your family for a period of at least three days. Please note that three days is the minimal recommendation — you should have at least a two-week supply of food stored in or around your home. You can purchase ready-made, 72-hour emergency kits from various survival supply outlets, or you can put together your own. (One advantage to building your own kits is that you get to choose foods you like.) Remember that all foods have some kind of shelf life. Rotate stores, and use them or lose them. Large families should probably divide up the stores between several small backpacks or plastic containers so they’re easy to grab and transport. Consider including all of the following items in your 72-hour survival kit:

Portable radio, preferably one that can work with dead or no batteries, such as a hand-crank radio, or one powered with both batteries and solar cells.

First-aid kit with first-aid and survival handbooks. Include tea tree oil to help treat minor infections and fungal problems. Include 1 1/2-inch-wide cloth adhesive first-aid tape for taping heels and hot spots before they blister, or for binding wounds and sprains. Include at least one stretchy Ace bandage for wrapping wounds and sprained joints. Most preparedness and survival suppliers (such as Coleman’s Military Surplus, 888-478-7758, and Army Surplus, 866-540-0887) stock an assortment of first-aid kits, from simple to field surgical-quality.

Water (1 gallon per person per day) and water purification chemicals or a purifying filter. Retort (foil) pouches can handle freezing in a car trunk, but most other water containers can’t handle freezing without the potential for bursting. Three gallons per person is heavy (24 pounds), so I strongly suggest you include a water filter and water treatment chemicals. I recommend pump-type, backcountry filters, such as those made by Katadyn ($89.95) or MSR ($89.95), which are rated to filter out all bacteria and have a carbon core to remove toxic chemicals.

Supplement your filter(s) with purifying iodine crystals (or other chemicals), such as a “Polar Pure” water purification kit, to kill all viruses. Pump filters that are rated for virus removal have tiny pore sizes and tend to clog quickly (a clogged filter is worthless). Sport-bottle-type water filters are reliable, compact and inexpensive, but clog easier and won’t purify nearly as many gallons of water as pump-type filters.

A SteriPEN ($59.95) is a terrific gadget to include in your kit. This battery-operated, UV-sterilizing pen is pocket-sized and will effortlessly sterilize a quart or liter of clear water in seconds. Caution: The SteriPEN does not work effectively on murky water, because visible particles in murky water can shield pathogenic organisms from the sterilizing UV rays.

Waterproof and windproof matches in a waterproof container, and a utility-type butane lighter (large, with extended tip).

Wool or pile blankets (avoid cotton), because they stay warm even when wet, or a sleeping bag. Also, a heat-reflective, waterproof “space blanket.” Fiber-pile, mountaineering-quality sleeping bags are great if you have room (avoid down sleeping bags; they’re worthless if wet).

Flashlight with spare batteries, or a crank flashlight or solar rechargeable flashlight. I recommend a headlamp with LED bulbs. Headlamps leave your hands free for carrying and working. LED bulbs use a fraction of the power, are far more shock-resistant, and last far longer than traditional light bulbs.

Candles (useful for lighting fires with damp wood) and light sticks (emergency light if nothing else works or explosive gases are present).

Toiletries, including toilet paper, toothbrush, soap, razor, shampoo, sanitary napkins (also good for severe bleeding wounds), a pack of dental floss (for sewing and tying things), sunscreen, extra eyeglasses, diapers, etc.

Food for three days per person, minimum. Use foods you will eat and that store well, such as nuts, sport bars, dry cereals, military-type preserved meals (available at military surplus and survival stores), and canned vegetables, fruits and meats.

A Swiss Army knife, Leatherman or other stainless steel multitool knife with at least scissors, blades, screwdrivers and a can opener.

Local map, compass and whistle. If you have a parched throat or are in a weakened state, a whistle may draw someone’s attention and save your life. In smoke or fog, a compass may be the only thing pointing you in the right direction. The dial on the compass should glow in the dark.

Compact sewing kit with extra-heavy-duty thread. Should be strong enough to stitch a torn strap onto your backpack. (I never travel in the backcountry without a sewing kit.)

Towel or dishcloth. 

Knives, forks, spoons and other utensils. A camping “mess kit” (compact set of utensils) will work well.

Tent or 50-foot roll of plastic sheeting for shelter.

Extra clothing, such as long underwear, hat, jacket, waterproof mittens, leather work gloves, raincoat or poncho, and sturdy boots. Remember that cotton is cold when wet, but wool and specialty outdoor clothing (usually polyester) wick moisture and are warm when wet.

Entertainment for kids, such as simple games or a deck of cards.

Items for special needs (prescription medicines, diapers, extra glasses, etc.). 

Twenty-five kitchen garbage bags and lime or sewage treatment chemicals (preferably powdered) for garbage and toilet sewage. A few large, heavy-duty garbage bags can stand in for raincoats, ground cloths and shelter.

Fifty feet of heavy-duty nylon string or light rope.

Record of bank numbers and important telephone numbers.  

Spare checks and cash. Keep some money in a bank that has widespread branch locations so its records won’t disappear in a severe local disaster (even temporarily), leaving you with no bank account access.

Optional item: A compact stove with fuel, such as one of the MSR multifuel stoves ($149.95).

This article is an excerpt from When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein (Chelsea Green, 2008), a comprehensive guide to the sustainable living skills you need to take care of yourself and your family in times of emergency. This excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Supplies and Preparations.” 

matthew stein
1/26/2011 4:25:40 PM

It is true that dipping matches in wax makes them waterproof, and I did use this method as a child. They do work, but since the wax acts as a lubricant it can be difficult to strike wax covered matches. You can also buy commercial waterproof matches, and a windproof lighter (a hot wire sitting in the flame reignites the flame instantly each time the wind blows it out), that are good items to stock in your emergency kit.

1/26/2011 1:43:42 PM

I've heard that dipping matches in wax makes them waterproof, and that you scrape off the wax when you're ready to use them. Is this true? Wonderful article, by the way.

matthew stein
12/13/2010 12:16:49 PM

All of KeithK's comments are spot on. A lot of "survivalist theory" like starting fires with magnesium and flints, or a bow and drill, look great on paper but are a real hassle, and practically impossible if your tinder is damp, and definitely impossible when wet. I always travel in the back country with a couple butane lighters, and they are recommended items in my grab and run kits. Candles have come in handy for me too, and I don't find them worthless.

keith karolyi
12/9/2010 9:04:50 PM

I disagree with the suggestion to chuck the candles from your bugout bag. They've come in really handy for me when I was out in the field. You can either use the pre-packaged ones called "tea lights" or make your own by pouring wax into something small like a metal bottle cap that has had a wick put into it (pick up wicks at just about any craft store in the candlemaking section). Several of those can easily fit in a pocket. Having a skill like making fire with a flint and steel, bow drill, or fire piston is great but save that skill for when you have no other means to create fire because it is either a BEAR of a lot of work to use them (bow drill, fire piston) or an exercise in frustration (flint/steel, magnesium firestarters). Don't work hard, work smart. Small butane lighters are cheap and pretty reliable and you can carry several all over your gear bag

matthew stein
9/5/2010 3:48:54 PM

As to colloidal silver, it is slow and cumbersome for purifying drinking water, but I always travel with one for use in fending off the onset of viral and bacterial infection. On more than one occasion, colloidal silver has worked when antibiotics failed. Could very well be a lifesaver, so I for one would not "chuck" my colloidal silver generator. As for starting a fire with flint and steel. It may be a valuable skill to have, but it is extremely difficult with dry tinder and ideal conditions (no wind etc) and pretty much impossible with wet wood and tinder. On one particularly soggy childhood back country trip, we were able to get a fire going with wet wood only through the use of a candle and lots of patience. Since that particular trip, we always brought a compact gas powered camp stove on our back country trips, and never chose to rely strictly upon camp fires for our cooking needs.

7/21/2010 7:31:57 PM

A great source for info on these (I call them Bug out bags or BOBs) is a place called ZombieSquad.com (the name is a joke- they don;t really believe in zombies). They have a lot of information.

matthew stein
7/14/2010 7:59:55 PM

Lots of good comments. I will address several of them in different comments, since the comment size is a bit limited. Sturdy walking shoes and athletic socks are always needed. Consider wool socks, which stay warm when wet, if cold weather hits your part of the country. Spare gas and a back up generator are good to have on hand when the power goes out, and yes it is a rare gas station pump that will be working when the power is out!

todd reece
6/28/2010 11:02:20 PM

Wonderful comments... Packing a kit is very necessary, but practice and drilling is most important... Where are you to meet if such and such happens? Is a 72 hour package enough? Do all cars have a kit? Are all car kits rotated with weather appropriate kits? Do you know how far it is to meeting places? how long it takes in traffic? how many back routes there are to your meeting place? Do you have a LONG DISTANCE contact ph number that every will call to get updates and to chk in? Local interchanges are often down due to call volume. Emergencies are just that..... Emergencies... times that are, by definition, not normal and stressful. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If it is to be, it is up to me. 2 sayings that will save your life.

6/25/2010 5:59:31 AM

A gas powered edger (the ones used for edging lawns in suburbia) can be used on gas pumps (or any other pump with a wheel type pulley) when the power is out. Just takes a belt run from the drive pulley on the edger and over the drive pulley on the gas pump. We did this during Hurricane Celia back in the 70's. The edger can also make a simple 12 volt electric generator by attaching a single wire GM alternator via a v-belt to the edger motor. It'll run 2 or 3 1 million candle power lights, a small 12 volt cooler and a radio. Or hook up an inverter for low wattage 110 power. I have a wireless air card and a mobile 3G router that can be used with this rig for internet communications during emergencies. For those who depend on a water well for drinking water an alternate power source is needed also. Look at solar, a hand pump or even a dip bucket designed for modern water wells. Lehmans has them as do other companies.

joshua rank
6/25/2010 12:25:30 AM

www.multipureusa.com/jrank has great water filters. NSF certified to reduce the widest range of contaminants. Solid Block Carbon filters down to .5 micron including cysts (giardia, etc.). They also has a pre-assembled 72 hour emergency kit you can add to if needed, for less than $100

6/23/2010 10:26:04 PM

For those who are against firearms, should consider a good slingshot. It is very good on small game in a survival situation. Each person should have a personal kit with the minimal items they can carry in a fanny pack or neck pouch.

6/23/2010 12:54:02 PM

I don't know if it is political correctness, or just an indication of how wimpy our society has become, but something is always missing in these "survival kit" recommendations. There are never any references to a means to defend yourself and your family against those who would rather take what you have than to prepare for the emergency themselves. Back in 2003 when hurricane Isabel tore up central Virginia, we were without power (other than our small generator) for almost two weeks, and had to run off people, many times at gunpoint, who were attempting to steal our food and our generator. One fellow killed one of our goats inside our barn. I held a handgun on him until the police arrived, one and a half hours later. Funny thing is, if he would've asked we would've gladly shared with him. Sure, we all like to think the best of our fellow man, but the truth is that there are folks who are not our race's best representatives, and we need to protect ourselves from them. Remember that in extreme situations the police, National Guard, etc. are very busy too, and cannot always drop what they are doing and come to our aid. In these situations, we are our own "first responders". To think otherwise and still consider yourself to be "self reliant" is self-deluding.

karen isaacson
6/23/2010 10:06:57 AM

1. Remove ipecac; no longer recommended for home use, not likely to be of use in an emergency situation. 2. Add coffee filters to water purification; gets out the 'big chunks'. 3. Chuck the colloidal silver generator. No time to use, just extra weight 4. Replace solar recharge flashlight with hand cranked. No worries about trying to recharge in the dark [like in the middle of winter]. 5. Chuck the sewing kit. Glue a piece of felt inside the lid of a dental floss container and stick a couple of heavy needles in it. Has a cutter built in. 6. Chuck the candles. Learn to make fire with a flint and steel, fire piston or other non-flammable means, and carry tinder with you. 7. Add in 100' of paracord. Stronger than string, more versatile for small things like lashing than rope. 8. Record of bank #s and important phone #s IS NOT ENOUGH. You need to be able to prove who you are as well, and document losses if necessary with a thorough home inventory. Google 'emergency documents' for sites with suggestions. 9. Instead of 25 kitchen-size garbage bags, consider [for females] a standing urination device, and for everybody, some WAG bags. 10. Add handwarmers and if desired, footwarmers [the kind that you stick in your pockets/shoes]. Practice before you need to, and ‘what if’ different scenarios including different routes to destinations.

george works
6/23/2010 9:09:50 AM

I've always found disaster preparation to be time and money well-spent. I'd add a few things to this list, if appropriate to your situation. 1. Sturdy walking shoes and athletic socks, and selected destinations that you can walk to, in case roads are blocked or there is no fuel. Practice walking there occasionally. 2. Consult your doctor about some basic prescription meds that he may recommend to supplement your first aid kit. Know how and when to use them. 3. Have occasional family disaster drills appropriate to your situation to test your plans and your family's knowledge. 4. Keep your car's gas tank at least half full. Gas pumps run on electricity and don't work in disasters.