You’re ready for “The Big One,” right? Earthquake? Hurricane? Pandemic? Terrorist or military attack? The end of the world as we know it? Whatever The Big One conjures up in your mind, no matter how much you’d prefer to avoid thinking about it, you’re better off confronting it now, when you have the most time and resources to prepare for it. Having survived two earthquakes (a 6.6 and a 6.8), a blizzard that snapped miles of utility poles and buried my house in snow, and a nearby volcanic eruption, I realize that disasters don’t just happen to someone else far away. They can happen to me, right where I am, as they did in California, Nebraska, and Washington earlier in my life, and as they can in Oregon, today. If The Big One struck near you, leaving survivors to fend for themselves for days, or weeks, or longer, would you be able to provide for yourself and those close to you?
The prices on that receipt seem unbelievable. But think about what it could be like in a disaster. Roads, train tracks, and waterways could be impassable, cutting your locale off from the outside world. Utilities might be available only sporadically, or not at all. Stores could be mobbed, and scarcity could drive prices sky high. If you could find food and other necessities to buy, you’d have to pay whatever people charged, and you’d have to pay cash. At some point, cash might not be enough. You might have to barter, to trade some of your valuable items for someone else’s. Some of the things you need to maintain your health and well being might not be available at all, such as prescription drugs, eyeglasses, hearing aid batteries, and medical care.
At the very least, preparing for The Big One means putting aside provisions that will enable you and your loved ones to be largely self-sufficient for a given period of time. Part of your preparation should entail acquiring skills that will be valuable to you and perhaps to your community. And preparation should also involve building relationships and coordinating efforts with others. You have a better chance of surviving if you combine strengths and resources with people in your neighborhood and community than if everyone “bugs out” on their own to attempt living off the land. Few are prepared for such a life. It could be worse than The Big One for them.
A 72-hour go-bag in your vehicle and a 14-day supply of water, food, and other necessities at home should be your bare minimum to prepare for earthquakes, storms, floods, and other emergencies that might cause short-term utility outages. A 90-day supply could allow you to “self-quarantine” during a “pandemic wave” or to be relatively self-sufficient in the aftermath of an earthquake or hurricane, until disaster relief services are up to speed. A 6-month to 1-year supply could allow you to survive an extended emergency period and to share and trade supplies with others. I have identified 50 items that most of us will want to have on hand in the event of an extended emergency, as well as a few related skills we could use:
1. Water is the most important of the 50 items. As a minimum, plan on a gallon a day per person, half to be consumed and half for other uses. Increase amounts for extended periods of hot weather or physical exertion. If you haven’t stored bottles or drums of fresh water, your hot water tank, which holds 30-60 gallons, could get you by for awhile. If you have advance warning of a hurricane or other emergency that might threaten your water supply, you can fill a bathtub with another 40-60 gallons.
2. Bathtub water storage kits (e.g., WaterBOB), consisting of a plastic bladder and pump, are available to make storing and dispensing tubs full of water easier and more sanitary.
UPDATE: Some survivalists suggest drinking the water from waterbeds, but this is not advisable, since it may have been treated with chemicals to inhibit algae growth and may contain other chemicals that have leached from the bed itself.
3. Water filters should be used to ensure the purity of any suspect water. Commercial filters (e.g., Katadyn, Berkey, Pur, etc.) are best, but in a pinch, a homemade filter can be constructed with layers of cotton batting, fine and large grain gravel, fine and large grain sand, and a coffee filter, over a container to collect the water. Adding a layer of activated charcoal granules will improve filtration.
UPDATE: I’m reminded that there are good alternatives to filtering water, such as adding a couple of drops of chlorine bleach per quart, or boiling water for one minute or more to kill microbes.
4. Food is the second most important item. The USDA recommends 2,000 calories per person per day. You can get by on less if activity levels are low, and you’ll need more if activity levels are high. The Coast Guard plans for 3,600 calories per day and the Army 4,500 for their active personnel. Food in refrigerators and freezers should be the first consumed to avoid spoilage. Once the power’s out, food will only keep in the freezer for 2-3 days. Everyday packaged and canned foods from the supermarket usually have the next shortest shelf lives, so they should be consumed next. If you store lots of these, you’ll have to remember to rotate them to avoid exceeding their expiration dates. Canned tuna and other meats have longer shelf lives. Emergency foods–bulk grains, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and other foods vacuum-packed and otherwise packaged for long-term storage–have the longest shelf lives, some as high as 5-10 years. And unlike everyday foods, they don’t have to be rotated. The amount of emergency food needed will depend on the number of people you expect to provide for, the length of time, the activity level, your storage capacity, and your financial means. Beware of claims from manufacturers, such as “6-month supply.” Some of these products have been found to provide only 500-600 calories a day, so they won’t last anywhere near six months in the real world. Do your own math. Don’t forget cooking oils and spices. And be sure to take into consideration family members with “special needs,” such as vegetarians, infants, the elderly, and those with food allergies.
UPDATE: Canned foods are safe to consume well past expiration dates, according to laboratory studies from various reputable sources, including the Food and Drug Administration and the National Food Processors Association. In one case, 100-year old cans of peaches, oysters, and vegetables from a sunken steamboat were opened and found to be edible and to contain much of the original nutrient value, although they had lost their fresh smell and appearance. Reportedly, some non-canned foods, such as oats and grain, macaroni, powdered milk, and potato flakes, can also be consumed decades after their expiration dates if packaged and stored properly.
UPDATE: If you’re just getting started stocking up on survival rations, some relatively inexpensive, high-calorie, long-lasting foods to purchase first include rice, dried beans, cornmeal, pasta, lard, and peanut butter.
5. Vitamins and other supplements can help make up for nutritional deficiencies in emergencies, but it’s best to take into account the need for a balanced diet when storing food and preparing to grow food in extended emergencies. (See item 38 below for the ten easiest-to-grow vegetables.)
6-8. Food preparation tools and supplies will be needed to supplement everyday ones. Make sure you have (6) a hand-operated can opener, and be prepared to use (7) a propane or white gas camp stove, or to cook with a barbecue, or over an open fire, or to use a solar oven, or to otherwise provide heat for food preparation that requires it. Be creative. Mix ingredients in plastic bags to avoid using bowls, which will only have to be cleaned. For example, instant pudding, powdered milk, and water can be mixed and served right from a bag, squeezed into paper cups or directly into mouths. It’s an emergency! Since you can’t refrigerate left overs, prepare only enough perishable food to be consumed at a given meal or on a given day. (8) Disposable plates, utensils, and cups work well in the short-term, but you probably won’t want to store large quantities for extended emergencies.
UPDATE: I’ve come across a very efficient design, the “rocket stove,” that can heat up a family meal with a few scraps of wood. Aprovecho Research Center of Oregon has distributed 600,000 of the stoves, branded as StoveTec. Almost all of them have gone to third world countries, but now they’re available here in the U.S. for $83-$130. Seems appropriate, since we are on the way to becoming a third world country, too.
UPDATE: A pressure cooker requires less fuel and less time than other cooking methods, making it a handy device for extended emergencies.
9. Cooking fuel, such as butane or white gas, will have to be stored for long-term emergency use. Barbecue briquettes are not practical for emergency food preparation, unless you have one of those little “beehive” stoves that concentrate the heat of a few briquettes. If you have a ready supply of wood where you live, that may be your best choice for fuel. People with wood-burning stoves will be popular during lengthy emergencies.
10. Fire-starting materials could include disposable butane wands, magnesium starters, or paraffin-cotton wads, but matches are cheap and can be purchased in shrink-wrapped boxes, perfect for storage.
UPDATE: I’m told that a cotton ball with a dab of petroleum jelly or a few drops of hand sanitizer (mostly alcohol) makes a good fire starter.
11. Plastic bags of various sizes will be invaluable for food, garbage, human waste (even a non-functioning toilet can be lined with a plastic bag), etc.
12. Tents might be your only shelter if a disaster damages your home or apartment. Get one big enough for you and your whole brood, or enough smaller ones to form a family encampment. Every tent should have a rainfly and a sturdy floor, which could be supplemented with flattened cardboard boxes or other materials. Additional canopies would provide outdoor work and play space that is sheltered from the weather.
13. Cots will get you off that cold, hard ground.
14. Mattresses, puffed up with air or foam, will make you more comfortable.
15. Blankets or sleeping bags? You already have the former, but I recommend that you purchase the latter, because they are more effective conserving body heat. You don’t need expensive backpacking bags. Inexpensive ones are fine, especially if you’re on a cot and mattress. Sub-freezing temps will require better bags, long underwear, or both.
16-17. Clothing and footwear for varied weather conditions.
18. Sewing kit with selection of needles and thread for repairing wide range of fabrics, from clothing to tents.
19-22. Tools worth noting separately include (19) a natural gas shut off wrench, non-sparking aluminum preferred, often available inexpensively from your gas utility, is needed to prevent gas leaks and possible explosions, (20) crowbars, for prying open doors and windows of damaged homes to rescue occupants, and in longer term emergencies to scavenge food and other necessities, and (21) saws, for cutting firewood, among other things. Round out your emergency tool kit with (22) other common household tools–hammers, pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, etc. Oh, don’t forget the most important item, duct tape. Better get a few rolls.
23. Leather gloves, the ones designed for hard work, not fashion.
24-30. First aid supplies should include basic items and OTC medications common in most households, such as (24) adhesive tape, antibiotic ointment, anti-inflammatory and pain relievers (e.g., ibuprofen, such as Motrin or Advil) anti-diarrhea (e.g., loperamide, such as Imodium), antihistamine (e.g., diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl, also a sleep aid), decongestant (e.g., pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed), aspirin, antiseptic solution or towelette wipes, bandages (including a roll of elastic wrap and band-aid strips in assorted sizes), calamine lotion, cotton balls and cotton-tipped swabs, disposable latex or synthetic gloves, gauze pads and roller gauze in assorted sizes, suture supplies (needles and monofilament thread), petroleum jelly or other lubricants, safety pins in assorted sizes, scissors, soap or instant hand sanitizer, tweezers, thermometer, triangular bandage, and a turkey baster or other bulb suction device for flushing out wounds. Special items that the average household may not have on hand and thus worth noting separately include (25) a first aid manual from the Red Cross, American College of Emergency Physicians, or another trusted source, (26) aluminum finger splints and inflatable air splints for extremities, (27) QuikClot or CELOX blood-clotting products, (28) hydrocortisone steroid cream for rashes, (29) instant cold packs, and (30) sterile eyewash, such as a saline solution.
UPDATE: QuikClot and CELOX topical blood-clotting products were developed for military medics to stop bleeding fast. I prefer the sponges or pads to the powder.
UPDATE: First aid training, available at minimal cost from the Red Cross, community colleges, and other local providers, should be completed by at least one adult member of every household.
31. Prescription medications for ongoing conditions should be purchased in the maximum quantities possible, at least 90-day supplies, so that you will have them available as long as possible in the event of an emergency. Perhaps now is the time to look into alternatives to those medications–lifestyle changes, dietary changes, herbal and other natural remedies–to minimize the consequences of sudden, unplanned discontinuance.
UPDATE: Next item, Paracord, added per suggestion of reader.
32. 550 Paracord (nylon parachute cord with a 550 lb. breaking strength) has many uses “as-is” and even more when debraided (e.g., tie-downs, shelters, clothes lines, laces, splints, lanyards, etc.). Be sure to get cord with a 7-strand core, which can be extracted for many more uses (e.g., sewing thread, fishing line, floss, etc.). Throw a couple of 50 ft. hanks of the stuff in with your other supplies.
33. Light sources include battery-powered flashlights, lanterns, and head/hat lights. LEDs last a lot longer than incandescent bulbs. But if emergencies outlast batteries, you’ll be thankful to have put aside oil lamps or a box of candles. Just be careful using them anywhere near flammable materials, like tents. Wind-up and solar-recharged battery-powered lights should also be considered.
34. Electrical generators are popular amongst the RV set and others who may plan to carry on as usual during short-term emergencies, but in the long run they will simply run out of gas. If you have a lot of money to throw at power generation, you might consider solar power. Portable systems on wheeled carts can be moved around and the biggest ones are capable of providing 3,000 watts or more.
35. Batteries for the various devices in the household that use them should be stored in a cool location and then allowed to warm to room temperature before use. Lithium batteries are preferable. It is particularly important to keep a supply of speciality batteries, such as those used in hearing aids, on hand, since they will be the hardest to find in an emergency.
36. Radios that require batteries are fine for short-term emergencies, but to be prepared for long emergencies, you’ll need a wind-up or solar-powered radio. A radio with AM/FM/TV/Short wave/Aircraft bands would greatly extend your listening options, as would a Police/Fire/Emergency Medical Services scanner.
37. Solar charger for cell phones and other mobile devices. Power to your home may be out and telephone landlines may be down, but it’s possible that cellular service may still be available in some areas. I have a pocket charger that flips open like a clamshell phone to reveal two small solar panels capable of providing power to cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), handheld computers, etc. These little devices have way more computing power than the spacecraft we sent to the Moon. With the right applications they could come in handy during emergencies.
38. Seeds could allow you to grow fresh vegetables to supplement your stored food and to use in bartering for other items. Ten of the easiest vegetables to grow — assuming adequate soil, sun, and water — are tomatoes, carrots, peas, cucumbers, green beans, radishes, zucchini, onion, broccoli, and lettuce. Other favorites, including strawberries, don’t require much effort to grow either. Use “home garden” seeds, not the ones designed for commercial use, and get a head start on the season by starting plants as seedlings inside by a sunny window.
39-40. Garden supplies and tools needed for the above include (39) fertilizer and implements, such as spades, trowels, hoes, gloves, and wire cages or stakes to support tomatoes and other vine veggies. You can use raised beds protected by chicken wire to discourage rabbits and other moochers from stealing your harvest. Hanging baskets with buckets can be used to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, strawberries, and other fruits and veggies upside down. Why not get (40) a book on backyard vegetable gardening and plant a few items this year, so that it will be easy to scale up your garden in the event of an extended emergency? If there’s some vacant land in your neighborhood, perhaps it could be used for a garden to be shared by several families. Parks and golf courses may be re-purposed for community agricultural use during extended emergencies that stretch into many months or years.
41. Toilet paper and paper towels are bulky to store, so it’s not likely that you will have enough to last through an extended emergency. A world without toilet paper may seem primitive, but our ancestors got along without the stuff until the mid-nineteenth century. The Farmers Almanac had a hole punched in it so that it could be hung up and recycled as toilet paper. As I type this, I can see seven phone books and a hundred paperback novels. They could delay my family’s descent into a the dark ages. As for paper towels, lay in a supply of fabric dish towels to replace them.
42. Sanitary napkins weren’t available until modern times, either. If supplies run out in an extended emergency, perhaps women will return to using rags, which can be washed and reused. By the way, sanitary napkins can also be included in first aid kits for use on wounds. They’re clean, absorbent, and compact.
43. Baby items. If you have babies, you know what they need and how much to keep on hand for emergencies. What I said above about washing and reusing sanitary napkins applies to cloth diapers, as well.
44. Toiletries, such as toothpaste and toothbrushes, razors and blades, hair brushes and combs, soaps, body lotions, antiperspirants, and other such items don’t take up much storage space, so you can lay in a long-term supply. But if funds are scarce, they might be better applied towards higher priority items, such as food, which nourishes the inner you.
45. Aluminum foil is handy for cooking and storing food, for making things like solar ovens and reflective window panels to reduce heat from the summer sun, and for use as a barter item.
UPDATE: The “tin foil hat” crowd recommends aluminum foil to protect one’s brain from electromagnetic psychotronic mind control transmissions. Actually, an MIT study concluded that tin foil hats are more likely to amplify transmissions that enter through one’s unprotected face and neck and bounce back and forth through one’s brain off the foil, like a pinball. To achieve full protection, one’s head would have to be removed and completely covered with aluminum foil, like a baked potato. The risks of this approach would seem to outweigh the benefits, but I don’t claim expertise in such matters.
46. Gasoline or diesel fuel is best stored in the fuel tank of a vehicle. Since it may not be possible to obtain fuel during an emergency, vehicle tanks should not be allowed to go below the three-quarters level.
UPDATE: Those popular 5-gallon plastic gas containers many people keep in their trunks or garages are not safe for anything but temporary fuel storage, since gasoline is highly explosive and plastic is easily ruptured. Gasoline degrades after a few months of storage, anyway, so unless you add fuel stabilizer, the contents of such containers may be useless in emergencies.
47. Bicycles are likely to be useful in an extended emergency, since fuel may not be available for autos and trucks. Bikes can be equipped with baskets, trailers, and other accessories to make it easier to haul stuff around. Whether you dust off an old bike or acquire a new one, be sure to keep the moving parts lubricated and the tires fully inflated. A spare set of tubes and tires should be included in your provisions. Puncture-resistant or run-flat tires should be considered.
48. Cash is king in an emergency. Since banks may be closed and ATMs may be out of service, you might wish you’d kept a wad of cash, cleverly hidden, at home. You’ll have to decide how much, based on whether you’re preparing for a short-term, a longer term, or an extended emergency. Gold and silver coins may be useful, if you think fiat currency might lose a lot of its value. Almost any of your supplies could be used as barter, so it’s worth laying in extra quantities with that in mind.
49. Guns are not appropriate for people who do not know how to use them and who have no inclination to do so. But if you think it would be prudent to have a firearm for protection, and you’re willing to take some time prior to an emergency to acquire the right weapon and to learn how to use and maintain it, then by all means go ahead. And be sure to get a lot more ammunition than you ever think you’ll need, because you can always use it for barter.
50. Pet food and care items are important to those who consider pets members of their family. They will have already taken food, water, and other needs of their pets into account in the above provisions. In an extended emergency, however, the well-being of humans may be at stake. When it comes to my family, if difficult choices have to be made in allocating limited supplies, I will give priority to my own species.
UPDATE: Click here to download a free PDF guide to surviving for 72 hours from the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. The suggested emergency supplies would make a good “go-bag” to keep in vehicles.
NOTE: Much of the above was drawn from a previously published post on the main page. This content is updated regularly.