Make a Plan. Build a Kit

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on emergency/disaster preparedness that I decided to write in the wake of the Oso landslide. I have completed a wide range of emergency response training and certification including front- and backcountry emergency responder and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and have researched the topic of disaster preparedness extensively. I wanted to synthesize some of what I have learned over the years to help others gain a basic level of preparedness for the inevitable disaster that we hope will never come.

See Part 1 – Getting Ready for Disaster here

Making a plan (or several plans) should be one of your first priorities for disaster preparedness. Since disasters can strike at any time, you need to be prepared with a plan and supplies no matter where you are.


Think about what you will do if you are:

  • At home
  • At work
  • Commuting
  • Visiting friends or family
  • Traveling out of town

Your fully stocked emergency kit at home and your carefully mapped evacuation routes from your neighborhood won’t do you any good if you’re stranded at work.

Three Levels of Emergency Planning

Disaster plans can be very simple or quite detailed. You can start out with just the basics and then add on as needed or desired over time. Here I’ll outline three levels of disaster planning with examples of some of the steps you could take. Each level builds on the previous ones and will increase your resilience in an emergency situation. Keep in mind that these are minimal suggestions for building up a bare bones level of planning and preparedness. You may want to add on to this depending on how thorough you want to be.

Basic Plan

These are things that you can do today to help keep you and your family safe.

  • Choose a safe meeting location outside of your home (and make sure everyone in your household knows about it)
  • Choose a safe meeting location outside of your neighborhood (in case it is inaccessible)
  • Designate an out of state contact person for everyone to check in with – in a disaster local phone lines may be down or tied up, but a call out of the area can get through. Text messages can also sometimes get through even when phone calls can’t.
  • Make an emergency contact card with phone numbers for family members and your out of state contact and keep it in your wallet

Intermediate Plan

Add these steps to get up to the suggested level of emergency preparedness.

  • Plan escape routes from the buildings where you spend the most time: home, office, school, place of worship, etc
  • Plan several evacuation routes from the areas you frequently go – pay attention to bridges, tunnels, overpasses, or other potential choke points
  • Establish a basic 72-hour kit (see below) for your home, office, and vehicle
  • Identify your local hazards

Advanced Plan

If you want to be really prepared, here’s what you can do short of building a bunker.

  • Build up a 1-2 week or longer supply of food and water
  • Talk to family and neighbors about emergency preparedness. Create a list of communal resources such as tools, provisions, or special skill sets
  • Acquire additional items for your disaster kit that would be useful in extended emergencies
  • Get emergency response training

For a more detailed step-by-step guide to emergency planning, see FEMA’s Basic Preparedness guide here (pdf).

Building a 72-Hour Disaster Kit

After a moderate-sized disaster, it can take emergency and relief services several days (though sometimes much longer) to get in and provide help, so you need to be prepared to fend for yourself for at least that long. A 72-hour kit will help you bridge the gap between when a disaster hits and relief becomes available. Your kit should be consolidated in one location and easy to transport in case you need to evacuate. You may want to use a backpack, 5-gallon bucket, or a plastic tote.

If getting all the pieces together seems overwhelming, just focus on the higher priority items and get one or two things at a time. You can keep adding to your kit slowly over time.

Here is what you will need:

  • Food that requires minimal or no preparation – examples include freeze-dried food or MREs. For convenience, we got some of these Mountain House 72-hour meal kits. They have a 10-year shelf life and they’re also great for camping. Also keep in mind that food already stored in your home can be used to get you through emergencies, though it may not be as transportable if you need to evacuate.
  • Camp Stove – oddly, this is something you don’t see on a disaster prep list, but personally I wouldn’t go without one. This MSR Pocket Rocket is tiny, lightweight, and runs on commonly available isobutane-propane canisters. You can use it to cook your food or boil and sterilize water. A camp stove saved our butts when we lost power for over a week a couple winters ago!
  • Water – minimum 1 gallon per person per day. Replace any water that you store yourself every 6 months; if you store bottled water, keep it sealed and follow the expiration date.
  • Water purification – filter, iodine tablets, or unscented bleach. My favorite is the MSR Miniworks ceramic filter for ease and no chemical taste.
  • LED headlamp with extra batteries – LEDs will give you bright light and long battery life while a headlamp will keep your hands free. I love my Tikka Plus 2 headlamp because it is bright, compact, lightweight and has a strobe feature for signaling and a red light for preserving night vision.
  • Lighter and/or weatherproof matches – I always like to have a few different methods for fire-starting available
  • Poncho or rain gear – a poncho can cover a backpack or other supplies you are carrying, but can also get in the way and make it hard to maneuver
  • Warm socks, hat, and gloves – without heat or shelter, exposure can set in easily
  • Basic first aid kit – you can buy a pre-made kit for convenience, but you can often put together a better kit for less money yourself.
  • Portable shelter such as a tarp or tube tent
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Extra prescription medication
  • Food and supplies for babies or pets
  • Blankets or a sleeping bag
  • Cash, including small bills and change
  • Copies of personal identification and important documents in a waterproof bag or container
  • Emergency contact numbers and a local street map
  • Extra eyeglasses or contacts and solution

There may be other items that you will need or want to include in your emergency kit, see this list for other ideas.

Once you have your main 72-hour kit put together for your home, consider building similar kits for your workplace and vehicle so you can be prepared wherever you are. You can also continue adding on to your kit to extend the length of time you can be self-sufficient. FEMA pushes the 3-day preparedness message because they know that people struggle with doing that much as it is; “off the record” though, they say that people should actually be preparing for something more like 3 weeks. So it’s hard to be over-prepared.

In any case, keeping even a basic emergency preparedness kit supplied and ready can make the difference between life and death or can turn a miserable situation into a livable one.

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