The Problem with Most 72-Hour Emergency Kits

They’re supposed to be easy to find at home in an emergency, fully equipped and ready to grab-and-go.  But are they missing something?

Let’s be clear.  A 72-hour Emergency Kit, Grab-And-Go bag or Bug-out bag is a good idea.  You should have one for every member or your family.  In fact. many governments now recommend them.  You can buy them online or put your own together based on way too many lists on the Internet.  But you may want to stop and consider some critical questions before you assume a kit from the Internet is right for you or a list of items you come across online is going to be the best.

Why 72-Hours? 

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the average length of time for an emergency evacuation in 95% of cases is 72 hours or less.  That’s 72 hours or less away from the comfort and security of your home and all that it provides.   The assumption is you will then return to life as usual and everything will be okay.  And if you believe the statistics, that’s true.  But it can still be a rough 72 hours depending on a number of factors.

Here are some points to ponder:

1. Where are you going -really?

Most 72-hour kits sold online seem to assume you’re going to spend 72 hours across three days and three nights under a tree in the woods.  As a result, they fully stock you with tube-tents, space-blanket sleeping bags, magnesium fire-starters, and very expensive water-proof matches in addition to a folding hatchet, sometimes a machete and small shovel.  That’s a good idea in the woods, but what if your evacuation destination has you and your family on cots in a school-gym, a church basement or a fieldhouse at a high-school?

That’s a likely scenario for many people evacuated from cities and suburbs, and it’s why you need to stop and think a bit and maybe do some research before you assume any 72-hour kit will satisfy all of your needs.  Your local emergency management agency will probably have a website and phone number and you can always contact them to understand their evacuation planning.  But there’s a second question?

2. How are you evacuating?

“Grab-and-Go” kits assume a bit of panic in an evacuation.  It’s based on the idea that you’ll grab a backpack with supplies and quickly run out of the house (or walk) to a safe location.  That’s not always the case.  Sometimes you actually have a bit of time.  The good news is that you don’t have to assemble a lot of things in a stressful situation, but the assumption that you have it all under control and can simply run out the door without thinking should give you some pause.

If you are evacuating from an area in a vehicle your ability to carry and transport a range of materials and weights increases and you should have a checklist for packing the vehicle.  Tossing some 72-Hour kits in the trunk and flooring it might leave you wondering why you didn’t take the time to pack a few more things that are easily transported in a trunk or backseat.

This could include the standard recommendation of a full gallon of water for each person in your group for each day.  That’s 3 gallons of water each.  A gallon of water weighs 7.5 pounds.  3 gallons gets you to 22.5 pounds of water for each of you.  That’s a lot to carry in a backpack, but a car trunk can easily accommodate that load and more.

You should also consider some things that will never show up in a purchased 72-hour kit.  Prescription medicines unique to someone’s medical condition are a good example.

If you are evacuating on foot, the classic combination of 72-hour survival gear in a backpack makes all the sense in the world.  Everyone in your family should have one but remember -divide and conquer.

If you’re a family of 4 everyone doesn’t need to carry two tube-tents or any other redundant supplies.  Think about what you need as a group and make sure you consider increased or decreased supplies depending on age and body-weight of people in your group.  i.e.  An adult will need more food than a young child.  Mom could carry the first-aid kit in her pack while the kids carry some of the light foods and clothing for everyone.  Let Dad carry the water.

And speaking of water, you should have at least a quart of water for each person, but make sure you have the proper supplies for water collection, storage and filtering supplies to replenish your water.  That starts to get to another interesting set of questions related to priorities.

Prioritizing your Provisions

The average adult can live for weeks without food.  Few of us can survive 48 hours let alone 72 hours without water.  When you look at items on 72-hour kit lists either online or as a suggestion for assembling your own they have certain subjects to consider.  For some reason, water is rarely the first item on most of the lists.  It tends to land somewhere in the middle or grouped as a second-fiddle to food towards the top of the list and the recommendations vary.  We can’t survive long without water anymore than we can survive very long without oxygen.

With that in mind, here are some priorities in terms of mission-critical supplies for survival across 72 hours.

1. Water

  • At least a quart in a dedicated canteen or metal water bottle if you are traveling with only a backpack per person, and at least 3-gallons for each person if traveling in a vehicle.
  • Water collection items including a tarp to collect rainwater (a tube tent could work), a small pot or dipper that will allow you to dip water from a creek, lake, pond or river.
  • An advanced water filtration device like a ceramic water filter or a water filter with at least the basic filtration levels to clarify and purify water to some degree.
  • Halazone or iodine tablets to kill resident bacteria.
  • A small, boiling pot that will allow you to potentially boil water to purify it.
  • Some heavy-duty plastic bags that will allow you to store and keep excess water when you encounter it.

That may sound like a lot of items related to water collection but without water you will not survive, and polluted water can rapidly make matters worse.  If you have any doubts, try going one day without any fluids and see how you feel.

2. Communication

Food tends to dominate the first and second priority in most kit recommendations, but this is about priorities not granola bars.  If you must evacuate in an emergency it is quite likely that many family members, friends and neighbors are not only concerned about you, but worried if not desperate if they don’t know where you are and how you are doing.  Think twice about how you’ll communicate and don’t assume you’ll be able to recharge anything if the power grid is down. 

  • Wireless mobile device. Most of us call this a cell-phone but wireless pad devices and even small computer notebooks can give you a channel to those you want to reach.  It’s possible that cell-towers will be down, but the Internet is highly resilient. (It was designed to allow communication in the event of total, thermonuclear war).  Wi-fi might be another story, but there’s a good chance a cell-phone will still work.
  • A small, solar panel designed to recharge a cell-phone or small electronic device.
  • A pre-programmed list of phone numbers or email addresses entered into your wireless device for key contacts and emergency organizations, so you don’t have to search for them in a stressful or challenging time.
  • The best approach for communication is to contact key people before you evacuate if you have the time and let them know your status, destination, estimation of how long you’ll be gone and any options for them to contact you in the future. You never know, if you go beyond the 72 hours you may be asking them to take you in for a while.
  • A battery powered radio and don’t forget your car has a radio as well. Sometimes it’s nice to get updates about events firsthand instead of relying on local authorities for official updates when their schedule allows.
  • A NOAA alert radio. These are battery powered and connected specifically to the U.S. Weather Service providing non-stop updates on weather conditions in your area.  If you live in an area subject to weather related emergencies this is definitely worth your consideration.

3. Food

  • It’s time to eat.  The standard recommendation is that you avoid foods that require cooking or heat.  You may have this ability, but don’t count on it.  You also want to avoid most foods that require refrigeration although some fresh fruits like oranges and apples can make it a couple of days without a problem.  But here are some facts to consider.
  • The average healthy and active adult requires at least 2,000 calories a day to maintain their body weight.
  • Children require less, but their nutritional needs are just as important. It’s simple.  If the kids are hungry, feed them. If they’re not, give them something they like to eat.  They might just be scared.
  • Food provides comfort and in a stressful time that’s a welcome relief.
  • Foods often recommended range from high-energy protein bars, to candy and fruit treats, durable proteins like salami, jerky or a hard cheese and even some of the durable fruits like those apples and oranges. Nuts are a great snack and are high in protein and calories from fat, and crackers go good with everything.  Canned food in easy-to-open, pop-top cans based on your personal tastes are a mainstay and   MRE’s or Meals Ready to Eat are a good pre-packaged option as well.  The rule is simple.  If you and your family like it and you can bring it with you -do it and eat it.
  • Ready to go 72-hour kits have an assortment of foods that may be similar, but just as many require a cooking step. This is not about eating like a gourmet three times a day.  You want foods for you and your family that you can come back to time and again over the course of the days to keep you going.  This could mean eating up to 7 to 9 small meals or snacks a day.  Think about it.
  • Local emergency services might provide food. Think “soup-kitchen,” but don’t count on it.

4. Light

If one thing is inevitable in every day, it’s that the sun will set and it will get dark.  Darkness is a bit intimidating, especially to children.  Darkness can also make the simplest tasks difficult.  Don’t get caught in the dark.  For 72 hours, any flashlights will do but an extra set of batteries are a good idea.   You may also find yourself in a shelter where sufficient light is provided, at least for a while.  But there are options.  Here are a few:

  • A hand powered flashlight that provides light as long as you pump the handle if your standard flashlight fails you.
  • A hand-cranked flashlight that allows you to power-up a battery with a small crank. These sometimes come combined with a transistor radio.
  • Candles or candle lanterns with a flammable liquid. This might be fine outdoors, but any municipal shelter indoors is going to have some hard and fast rules against open flames.
  • Cold-light or chemical light from glow-sticks that usually come in bright, light colors of green, orange and red. They only last a few hours but provide light and kids tend to find them reassuring.
  • The flashlight from your cell-phone assuming you have the easy ability to recharge it. Otherwise, save it for critical communication.
  • Obviously, a fire if you’re outdoors so make sure you have waterproof matches or a lighter or that magnesium fire-starter. You don’t need to overdo it, but a new, disposable lighter might be worth having regardless of your destination or location.

5. First-Aid and Prescription Medications

  • Just about all pre-assembled 72-hour kits come with a first-aid kit. You can also buy one if you’re assembling your own kit.  The size and items of the kit are up to you depending on your assessment of what your needs may be, but prescription medications are another story.  
  • Prescription medications can be the most important first-aid requirement for some individuals. If you or a family member are diabetic, require an inhaler for asthma or other breathing conditions, prescription meds for chronic conditions or meds as a preventative measure for recurring conditions you don’t want to leave home without them.  Make sure you also have all necessary equipment like glucose test strips, syringes for medications that require injection or other items related to any prescription treatment.  

6. Clothing 

This isn’t so much about having a new outfit to wear everyday but necessary clothing you may need if you or someone in your group gets wet, or if the weather changes suddenly from a temperature standpoint.  Regardless of what you may have pre-packed in a stored, grab-and-go bag make sure you’ve ready for the time of year.  The odds are good you’ll be dressed for the weather when you evacuate but weather can be volatile.  In fact, it may be extreme weather that’s causing your evacuation in the first place so think about the following:

  • Plenty of socks and a second set of shoes if your feet get wet.
  • Stocking caps, gloves and a scarf if the temperature shifts.
  • Rain-gear such as a small, lightweight poncho or a more robust rain-suit if you are in an extreme weather area.
  • Right-sized clothing for every member of your group.
  • Hoodies for all, especially the kids.

7. Shelter and bedding

This is a tough one.  This gets back to one of our initial considerations.  Where are you going and how?  If you’re evacuating in a vehicle a full-sized family tent with sleeping bags will probably fit.  If you’re backpacking it with a 72-hour kit you might need the tube tents and space-blankets but maybe not.  Then of course there’s that destination question.  The standard prepper’s mantra is “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”  The challenge is finding the room for everything you may fear, and you should always wonder how bad things could get in 72 hours.

What about durations beyond 72 hours?

It happens.  All too often.  Puerto Rico is still without power and clean water after a hurricane that took place months ago.  Parts of The Big Island in Hawaii is under a widespread evacuation due to the recent eruption of the Kilauea volcano.  Some people in the New Orleans area still haven’t returned to their homes after Hurricane Katrina, and wildfires continue to threaten many parts of the Northeast, West and Southwest.

All of the people in these areas are facing evacuations measured in weeks, months, and even years if not permanently.  The critical thing to consider is that some of those people may have assumed they were only in for a 72-hour evacuation.  Here’s what to think about -just in case:

  • Are there critical documents you will want to keep in the event that you don’t return to your home? This would include insurance policies, wills, bank and investment information, titles and deeds to properties, Social Security cards, registration for vehicles, checkbooks and anything else you would have a difficult time replacing from a legal or documentation standpoint.
  • ID’s including driver’s license, passports, all credit cards, medical insurance cards and other critical identification. There’s a good chance you’ll already have much of this in your wallet or purse, but do you have everything?
  • Jewelry and items with significant sentimental value. How much you carry is up to you, but can you live without some things if you never see them again?

8. Personal items

For some reason, a toothbrush, tooth paste, floss and mouthwash show up at the top of many lists.  Get real.  No one’s going to suffer greatly if they have to go three days without brushing their teeth.  On the other hand, there are some women who will tell you that three days without tampons can be very stressful at certain times of the month.  Think ahead.  Oh, and unless you’ve never experienced leaves and grass or an empty cardboard toilet paper tube as a substitute for toilet paper you might want to pack some toilet paper as well.  Here’s a short-list and you can add as much as you want depending on your personal needs.

  • Soap
  • Pocket-sized hand-sanitizers
  • Toilet paper or tissues.
  • Glasses and sunglasses
  • Extra cash (if the grid is down your credit cards are just plastic)
  • Utensils for eating. (This could be a folding pocket knife with a fork, spoon and knife as attachments)

The 72 Hour Bottom Line 

If you buy a pre-packed 72-hour kit, that’s great.  But take the time to not only look at the items inside but think about what you need to add or maybe replace if you are fairly confident of your destination.

If you’re in a vehicle for your evacuation you can think bigger, but the 72-hour kits will give you a good foundation for most of what you might encounter.  Any vehicle is a great safe-haven in an evacuation.  Assuming you have access to a steady supply of gas your vehicle can provide heat, air-conditioning, light, reclining seats for sleeping and the relative security of doors that lock.  Just make sure you have those unique items you or your family might need like prescription meds that simply won’t show up in a pre-packed kit.

With any luck you and your family will get through a 72-hour evacuation with nothing worse than a lot of stress, a good dose of exasperation and a great sense of relief.  The quality of that relief will have a lot to do with how well you planned, anticipated and prepared before any unforeseen event.



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