Emergency Survival Kits

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Keep your family safe no matter how severe the conditions by planning ahead and creating a short-term survival kit.
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From a first-aid kit and wool blankets to a battery-operated radio and refills on prescription medications, there are several items you should keep on hand to keep your family safe in a short-term emergency.
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Leatherman's Juice CS4 has a screwdriver, scissors, blades, can opener and more ($58.99 from Amazon).
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A portable water filter, such as this Katadyn model, is essential to a good survival kit.
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MSR's protable, multifuel stove.

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.”