The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all provide emergency-supply checklists, those lists can be intimidating in their breadth and their specificity. In reality, for the most part you can assemble an emergency kit out of stuff you’d use anyway and may already own. There’s never a bad time to get prepared for a crisis by stocking up on gear and organizing it so you know exactly where it is when you need it most. We did 120 hours of research and tested nearly 100 different products to come up with 30 products that will be indispensable in case of a natural disaster, and helpful in everyday life, too.
If you’re starting from scratch, picking up these 12 essentials will get you a best-on-the-block kit at a price affordable for almost any household (about $300 as of this writing): a long-term, heavy-duty water storage container, water purification tablets, energy bars, a quality first-aid kit, a reliable emergency radio, face masks, an excellent lantern and headlamp, a backup emergency candle, a whistle, a power inverter for the car, and a sturdy container to store everything. In addition to 18 other pieces of gear that would be useful in any disaster scenario, we’ve also outlined a few important considerations to keep in mind for specific disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires.
Of course, disaster prep is about more than just buying stuff. Develop a simple communication plan with your family so you know where to meet and who to call (ideally, someone out of state) if power and cell service go down. Find out if a comprehensive emergency-training class is happening in your area (you can attend at no cost). Participate in community events such as the ShakeOut earthquake drills coming up on October 15, 2015. Take a first-aid course. Mark your calendar to review and refresh your emergency kit once a year. And then sleep easier knowing that you’ll be ready to take care of yourself and your family if disaster strikes.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- About preassembled kits
- Health and hygiene
- Light and heat
- Communication and power
- Additional disaster-specific considerations
Why you should trust us
Kalee Thompson is a California-based science journalist who has reported extensively on natural disasters and survival skills. She has written about earthquake risk and wildfire tragedy for Popular Mechanics and discussed drought and power grid failures for Popular Science, where she is a contributing editor. Thompson has participated in National Guard and Coast Guard survival-training exercises and investigated the physical and psychological aspects of cold-weather survival in her nonfiction book, Deadliest Sea. A proud graduate of Los Angeles’s CERT program, she recently loaned out her living room for her block’s first Map Your Neighborhood meeting.
Seamus Bellamy is trained as an occupational first-aid attendant and comes from a family that includes a former deputy fire chief and a number of fire paramedics. He spent close to a decade as a site medic for a number of high-profile organizations in Ontario and British Columbia, Canada. He also spent four years working as a health and safety and training-design manager in the security industry before coming to work full-time as a journalist.
About preassembled kits
The easiest way to feel prepared for an emergency is to go to your local big-box store and pick up a ready-made emergency kit. Unfortunately, after studying the contents of a dozen such kits online and getting four to rip apart in person, we can say with certainty that none of them are worth your money.
The ones we looked at, priced from $69 to $200, were each designed to sustain two people for three days following a disaster, and they contained several dozen individual items ranging from basics such as water and “food bars” to protective gear like ponchos, survival blankets, or a tarp. But the key safety gear you need—a radio, a flashlight, and a first-aid kit—were universally of poor quality, far inferior to our picks of the Midland ER300 emergency radio and the Black Diamond Spot headlamp, for instance. Many kits contained products we know are no good, like cheap collapsible water containers, junky multitools, and off-brand duct tape. Meanwhile, the gritty, block-like food bars weren’t anything you’d want to eat unless you were actually on the verge of starving to death. Even in a bad quake or a once-in-a-decade storm, you’d be better off with a big jug of water and a handful of granola bars or energy bars.
Certainly, having a premade bag is a lot better than having nothing. But for the money, it won’t be half as good as a kit that you assemble yourself with careful consideration of your own family’s needs in mind. —Kalee Thompson
“You can never have enough water when a disaster happens,” said Jeff Edelstein, who spun SOS Survival Products off from his dad’s California hardware store 25 years ago. FEMA recommends a three-day supply—a gallon per person per day. That’s generally enough to cover drinking water and basic hygiene needs. If you’re caught unprepared, know that the typical home water heater contains 32 gallons of potable water. The water in your toilet tank, which is replaced after each flush, is also generally safe to drink. But ideally, you won’t have to resort to that.
After talking with a half-dozen disaster-preparedness experts, we think FEMA’s three-day recommendation is unreasonably modest—especially for people in earthquake country. As Edelstein told us, “ten days after the  Northridge quake there were 12,000 homes without a fresh water supply.” And that was a relatively localized, 6.7-magnitude earthquake. Scientists fear that a massive rupture along the San Andreas Fault could damage the aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water to Southern California, and that “repairs may take weeks to 6 months or more.” The dreaded Cascadia megaquake in the Pacific Northwest could also leave millions of people without services for months or longer. We’ve seen that floods and hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy can cause massive utility disruptions and contamination of municipal water supplies. Given those risks, and the relative ease of storing water, we think that stockpiling a 10- to 14-day supply is a reasonable goal if you live in an earthquake zone.
You could just stock up on bottled water, but that’s expensive (three 24-count cases of bottled water—a 10-day supply for one person—might cost about $25) and potentially wasteful (most bottled water generally has a two-year shelf life). The do-it-yourself—and free—option is to fill old soda bottles with tap water. Avoid using recycled milk or juice containers, which are more likely to harbor bacteria. The easiest and best way to ensure an adequate and easily transportable water supply is to get some dedicated containers. —KT
Rigid water containers made of blue polyethylene consistently perform better than opaque collapsible ones for both storage (they offer more durability and leak resistance, and prevent bacterial growth) and pouring. We surveyed the field of large, rigid plastic water jugs and called in five models for testing before concluding that the oversize, rugged, 7-gallon Reliance Aqua-Tainer ($18) is the best overall choice for disaster-preparedness purposes, and car camping trips as well.
The 7-gallon Aqua-Tainer was the biggest of the containers we looked at; the field also included two different 5-gallon Reliance models, the 5-gallon Coleman Water Carrier, and the 3.5-gallon WaterBrick. Its larger-than-most size provides a full week’s worth of water for one person. Unlike the Reliance Water-Pak and the WaterBrick, the Aqua-Tainer has a built-in break-proof handle that is relatively comfortable to use. As with many Reliance products—including all three we tested—the spigot is stored inside the cap when not in use, reducing the risk of cracking or smashing. (The Coleman container’s standard spigot lacks this feature, and the WaterBrick does not have a spigot at all.) The Aqua-Tainer is the only one of the three Reliance jugs we looked at with a tethered, screw-on air-vent valve—meaning no tiny parts to lose and no accidental leakage in transport. Finally, at about $18 on Amazon, the Aqua-Tainer is a better value than 5-gallon models made by the same company.
Some Reliance owners have reported problems with cracking and/or leaking spigots. The company recently introduced a new spigot design: An added plastic “skirt” ring ensures that the threading on the cap lines up perfectly with the threading on the container. Reliance containers have a five-year warranty, so buyers who have encountered subpar spigots can request a free replacement by contacting Reliance customer service at 800-665-0258 or through this contact page. (If you’ve owned your jug for more than five years, you can buy a new cap and spigot for about $5 on Amazon.) The new spigots have a thicker tap with “O” and “I” markings for open and closed, labels absent on the older designs. We’ll be using these regularly over the next year to see if they perform as well as promised, and we also intend to check out a new Reliance product—the stackable Armor-Dillo—when the company releases it in 2016.
A couple of caveats: Unlike some other Reliance models, the Aqua-Tainer is not designed to be stacked. When full, the 7-gallon jug weighs close to 60 pounds. The 5-gallon Reliance Aqua-Pak (about $22 on Amazon) or 4-gallon Aqua-Tainer (about $17 on Amazon) may be a better choice for people who lack muscle, or who envision lugging water long distances. Or you could just buy the bigger, cheaper jug and avoid filling it to the brim.
Reliance officially advises that users replace emergency water stored in its containers every 90 days, a recommendation the company says was inspired by FEMA’s guidelines. But if you wash your hands vigorously before filling the jug to avoid contaminating the water with bacteria, and if you keep it sealed, there’s no reason why you can’t store water in the jug for a year before refreshing it, according to water-quality scientist Max Gyllenskog (PDF). If you do abide by sanitary conditions, you don’t need to treat tap water before storing, but if you’re concerned about contamination you can use regular household bleach or a water purification tablet to treat your water when you’re ready to use it. —KT
While the Reliance Aqua-Tainer’s size is a good fit for a one- or two-person household, a family of four would need eight of those jugs to store a two-week supply of water. A more economical and ultimately more convenient option is to purchase a 55-gallon drum. Whether you choose to treat your water when you put it in the drum or when you take it out, tap water sealed tight in a dedicated water drum like this can last for at least five years, according to water-quality scientist Max Gyllenskog (PDF).
You can find two models online that come with all the accessories you need to store and later use water: the Shelf Reliance Deluxe BPA Free 55-Gallon Barrel Water Storage System, which is sold at Costco as well as on Amazon, and the Augason Farms Emergency Water Storage Kit. After testing both, we think you should just get whichever one you can find for less. The key difference is that the Augason Farms barrel comes with a liquid water purifier (made of chlorine dioxide) and the Shelf Reliance drum comes with a water filter; both systems work fine, as does simply adding ⅛ teaspoon of plain, unscented household bleach per gallon of water.
The drums themselves are nearly identical, but we did like the Shelf Reliance’s accessories a bit better: Its pump seemed slightly more durable to us, and its wrench also proved more comfortable to grip and easier to use than the Augason wrench. Still, these are minor details, and we wouldn’t pay even $10 extra for the “better” accessories.
Ideally you should store your water in a cool, shaded location. If it’s on concrete that gets hot, place it on a wood platform before filling. These drums will weigh 480 pounds when full, so if you’re in an earthquake zone, don’t place them where they might potentially tumble off a ledge or down a hillside and hurt someone. —KT
For around $30, you can get a 64-count box of Datrex Emergency Survival Water Pouches, which are 4.23-ounce packets full of clean drinking water (a total of 2.12 gallons of water). The pouches are tough, flexible, and slim enough that you can easily pack them around your other emergency items in a bag, and they don’t expire for five years.
A number of competitors sell similarly styled emergency water pouches, but we like that Datrex specializes in emergency preparedness and that this product is widely available online and in stores. It also has the approval of the respective coast guards in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and New Zealand for use in their own emergency kits. —Seamus Bellamy
Water purification tablets
You should use water purification tablets to treat stored water or tap water that you suspect has become contaminated, or natural sources of water when you’ve run out of tap or stored supplies. We spent several hours on online research and surveyed hardcore backpackers and prepper sites before concluding that Aquamira water purification tablets are the standout choice.
The two most common chemical methods of purifying water are iodine and chlorine dioxide. Though both have been proven to wipe out bacteria and viruses effectively, the CDC advises that chlorine dioxide has shown to be more effective than iodine against the protozoan cysts Giardia and Cryptosporidium, both of which can wreak gastrointestinal havoc. (Remember, though, that even chlorine dioxide has only “low to moderate effectiveness” in killing Cryptosporidium, according to the CDC, and that the single best way to kill all pathogens is to bring water to a roiling boil for a full minute.) Water treated with chlorine dioxide also tastes better than water treated with iodine and stays safer for long-term use.
Other chlorine dioxide tablets like Potable Aqua, MSR Aquatabs, and Katadyn Micropur should be equally effective. But Aquamira gets an edge in usability because the aspirin-sized tablets are easier to handle than smaller ones, which you can easily drop and lose. Finally, Aquamira is a brand that many survival schools trust and recommend, and two record-setting long-trail hikers, Andrew Skurka and Liz Thomas, both named Aquamira as their chlorine dioxide brand of choice on the trail.
A packet of 10 tablets, available on Amazon for about $6, will treat 10 liters (about 2½ gallons) of water. That’s a good backup for most people, but those with elevated risk factors for a particularly devastating disaster with a long recovery period—such as people in the Cascadia subduction zone in the Pacific Northwest—will want a larger supply like this package of 50.
Treating the water from your heater or toilet tank may not be strictly necessary, but if you feel more comfortable doing so, popping in a tablet is easier than messing around with bleach. It’s also safer. “When faced with the alternative of not drinking water or drinking contaminated water, the use of common household bleach makes total sense,” said water-quality scientist Max Gyllenskog, who has been part of the response to international disasters like the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines and works as a part-time consultant for Aquamira. “Given the choice, however, chlorine dioxide is clearly the healthier choice. Bleach has unhealthy impurities and side effects if used for extended periods of time, especially at uncertain concentrations used in emergencies.”
For clear, relatively clean water, use 10 drops of plain, unscented bleach per gallon of water. Double the dose to 20 drops per gallon for cloudy or very cold water. —KT
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
If you choose to keep your emergency water in a large storage container, you’ll need a vessel to drink it from. For our guide to the best water bottles, we conducted close to 70 hours of research to find the best stainless steel, insulated, and plastic bottles. Because all three of our picks resist impact, have leakproof tops, and fit into a backpack, any one of them would be a great addition to your emergency bag (or, in less crisis-filled times, your gym bag). The 27-ounce Klean Kanteen Classic is our overall favorite because it’s durable, affordable, and topped with a nicely sized opening for easy filling and drinking without spilling. —SB
The best emergency-food strategy is to stock your cupboards full of the shelf-stable canned and dry goods you routinely eat and love—think soups, fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, cereals, pastas, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, and boxed milk (it doesn’t need refrigeration). The items are less likely to expire that way, since you’re eating and replacing them regularly. Popular Mechanics describes a stock-up plan that’ll feed a family of four for a month, all with grocery-store products you’ll eventually eat anyway. If you keep the freezer door closed, that food should stay safe to eat for 72 hours into a blackout. Your grill is a great resource in an emergency, too. —KT
Energy bars are a convenient item to keep in the car or in a to-go bag to eat quickly on the run—say, if you’re evacuating your home in a storm. After comparing 10 popular bars, we like CLIF Bars for their balance of nutrition, taste, and value. Fortified with 23 vitamins and minerals, they can help replace the nutrients you miss when you don’t eat full meals. On average, each bar contains roughly 250 calories, 10 grams of protein, 5 to 7 grams of fat, up to 5 grams of fiber, and around 40 grams of carbs. They’re readily available online and at grocery and outdoor stores across North America, and they typically have an expiration date about a year from the date of purchase (though we’ve eaten three-year-old bars with no ill effects). Cooking Light says CLIF is the best meal-replacement bar, and Health.com chose a CLIF as the best chewy energy bar.
Dedicated emergency ration bars like Datrex or ER Emergency Ration bars do have the impressive advantage of a five-year shelf life, but after testing them, we can’t recommend them. We tasted four brands—Datrex, ER, Mainstay, and Mayday—with consistent results. Eating them feels like chewing on a moist, mildly sweet chunk of compressed sawdust. We didn’t find a standout winner in taste, but we did like the fact that Datrex bars come individually packaged rather than in one large chunk divided into smaller pieces along scores like those you might find on a large chocolate bar. These types of bars can be crumbly and greasy; once you open a large package, it makes a mess. With 200 to 400 calories for a bar smaller in size than a CLIF, they are a viable meal alternative in an emergency, yes. But don’t expect any comfort from these foods. —KT
After going through nine hours of testing, 54 opened cans, and 16 rejected can openers, we can tell you that the $17 OXO Good Grips Locking Can Opener with Lid Catch is the best piece of gear for the task.
Stuck without a can opener? No problem: We’ve tested both of these methods, and they’ll get the job done—albeit with a bit more of a mess. —SB
Portable stoves are a popular emergency-kit item, but if you have a grill out on your deck or balcony, they’re redundant. Just be sure to keep a good supply of charcoal or an extra tank of propane on hand so you’ll be ready to cook if the power or gas goes out. Don’t own a grill? Check out our in-depth recommendations for gas and charcoal models. —SB
Health and hygiene
The loss of a clean water supply has a far greater consequence than mere stink. Staying clean helps you to avoid spreading germs or harboring infection—common problems in extended disasters. (Gastrointestinal illness and wound infections were the most common infectious diseases in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with at least five people dying from otherwise-minor wounds or abrasions.)
“A lot of people don’t think about hygiene,” SOS Survival Products president Jeff Edelstein told us. “If you have no running water, how are you going to use the bathroom?” Wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and super-thick garbage bags are emergency kit must-haves, in our opinion. Many people also wisely pack basic personal hygiene items—toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, tampons, diapers—and a well-stocked first-aid kit in their cars and “bug-out” bags (that is, portable emergency kits). And keeping a couple-week supply of your prescription meds is crucial, since supply chains could be interrupted and pharmacies could be closed after a disaster. —KT
Everyone should take a basic first-aid course. Once you have those skills, you’ll want some supplies to use them with. Based on the advice of two paramedic firefighters (one of whom is a CERT trainer), guidelines from the American Red Cross and FEMA, and over 15 hours of research, we can say that the $40 Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman Whitetail first-aid kit is the best choice for most people to stash with their emergency-preparedness supplies. This portable, well-organized kit comes with easy-to-follow instructions and everything you’ll need to handle basic (and some not-so-basic) injuries for up to four people. Cheaper kits will give you similar supplies and equipment, but the Sportsman Whitetail’s superior organization and documentation make it worth paying extra for.
Our experts told us that the Sportsman Whitetail comes with more critical supplies and better organization than less expensive kits, without unnecessary extras. At a good cost, it provides most of the items that trained and untrained individuals might need to help an injured person during an emergency.
While other kits we found, such as the Red Cross Deluxe Family Kit, come organized in sections based on injury type, none let you see all of the supplies you have to work with—clearly labeled with easy-to-use instructions—the way all Adventure Medical Kits, including the Whitetail, do. We also liked that the instructions are supplemented by a comprehensive guidebook that provides greater details on treatments and when it is important to get someone to medical aid right away.
The Whitetail contains the basic supplies you’d expect any kit to come with—gauze, bandages of varying sizes, antiseptic wipes, and the like—plus more advanced tools such as EMT shears, which have a kink in the blades for cutting bandages and clothing away from an injury area (cheaper kits have only safety scissors), and an irrigation syringe for cleaning out deeper wounds. It also includes aspirin, which you use for treating individuals showing signs of heart attack; aspirin is increasingly uncommon in other kits, which tend to opt for painkillers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) instead. (Check with a doctor before using aspirin for heart attack in nonemergency situations.)
Our paramedics also preferred the Whitetail over the cheaper Adventure Medical Kits Adventure 2.0 First-Aid Kit, which we recommend in our road trip guide. While the supply lists for the two kits seem similar, the Whitetail is better suited for times when professional medical help may be delayed. Only the Whitetail kit includes a guidebook that covers injury treatments in greater depth. The Whitetail also forgoes a number of items that the 2.0 kit has, such as a compass, a small emergency whistle, and insect-repellent wipes, in favor of more useful medical hardware such as a triangular bandage for immobilizing injured limbs or embedded objects, a wound irrigation syringe, and EMT shears.
We previously recommended the $60 Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman Bighorn kit, and if the Whitetail is sold out, the Bighorn is a good buy with the same organization and documentation as the Whitetail. But no item in the Bighorn really justifies the extra $20 in cost. The only item the Bighorn has that we’d want in the Whitetail is the QuikClot sponge (for stopping bleeding quickly), but you can purchase that for about $12 on Amazon. The Bighorn is a good kit, but we think the $40 Whitetail is the better value.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $100.
If you want something that can handle more serious injuries and offers more supplies, we recommend the $100 Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman Grizzly. Spending the extra $60 over the Whitetail is worthwhile if you want to be able to treat severe penetrating injuries, broken bones, and serious bleeding. Such scenarios are typically better left to medical professionals, but if you live in an area where a disaster such as an earthquake or flooding could make accessing medical aid difficult or impossible, this kit is a good buy. Just be sure to take some training classes so that you know how to use it.
Supplies that the Grizzly offers but cheaper kits often omit include a one-way-valve CPR mask, antidiarrheal medications, additional doses of the painkillers and antihistamines found in the Whitetail, and a C-splint for stabilizing broken or sprained limbs. To stop serious bleeding, the Grizzly also comes with an additional trauma pad, a hemostatic QuikClot sponge, and a SWAT tourniquet (according to our paramedic experts, you should use a tourniquet only as an absolute last resort), as well as the instructions on how and when to use them—features that the Whitetail doesn’t have. To accommodate all this gear, the Grizzly is a bit heavier and larger than the Whitetail (it measures 11 by 8 by 3 inches versus 7.7 by 5.5 by 3.5 inches for the Whitetail, and it weighs just over 2 pounds).
Although you could buy all of these items separately, the Grizzly kit includes instructions with every item, and it’s packed so that most anyone, trained or untrained, will be able to use the supplies properly.
Our paramedics noted that while both kits were well stocked, they still failed to supply enough of certain oft-used items. The experts recommended buying extra triangular bandages (for limb immobilization and stabilization, breaks, sprains, or large embedded objects), 5-by-9-inch trauma pads for stemming serious bleeding from large wounds (one paramedic, Ken, told us that he’s used up to 10 at a time on a single wound during a call), extra nitrile gloves (which you need to discard after every use), and an extra-large bottle of betadine solution for disinfecting wounds.
Note: Most first-aid supplies have expiration dates on them, so you should expect to replace them every couple of years. While an expired bandage will still work, there’s no guarantee that the item will still be sterile. —SB
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
In the event of a fire, earthquake, or hurricane, airborne dust and debris could make breathing unsafe. Even the best face masks can’t completely block germs, but they’re at least useful for keeping particulate matter out of your nose and lungs. The FDA says N95-certified respirators can help to reduce the risk of illness in a public health emergency. Enter the 3M 9211 Cool-Flow N95 Particulate Sanding Respirator Mask, which comes in a box of 10 for about $20. Unlike our former N95 mask pick, the 3M 1860 Medical Mask N95, the 3M Cool-Flow mask comes with a valve to allow the moist air you exhale out of the mask. That’s a win for anyone who wears glasses—the feature will help keep your lenses from fogging up. This mask is cheap and effective, but in a pinch you could cut a 2-foot square from a T-shirt, wet it, wring it out, fold it in half like a bandana, and tie it over your nose and mouth.
Due to its exhale valve, the 3M Cool-Flow mask is far from ideal for preventing anyone carrying an illness spread by airborne particulates, such as the flu, from infecting other people. If this is your major concern, we suggest the Alpha Protech PFL N95 Particulate Respirator mask. A box of 35 will set you back about $35. The CDC recommends this mask for preventing exposure to tuberculosis, SARS, swine flu, and similar airborne viral illnesses and diseases. —SB
In an emergency that cuts off the water flowing into your home, you’ll have to ration your water carefully—but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay clean and relatively stink-free. A package of 384 Seventh Generation Thick & Strong Free & Clear Baby Wipes costs about $15. Currently these wipes are Amazon’s best-selling baby-bathing product, but they’re great for cleaning big people, too. Recent user reviewers complain that the latest-version wipes are not as soft as the old ones were. While that’s a valid point of concern for anyone cleanling a baby’s delicate skin, the new formulation’s resiliency actually makes the wipes better suited to general cleaning duties (both of adults and their messes). —SB
Washing your hands can become nearly impossible if water access is limited. Using hand sanitizer will keep them clean so you don’t get sick. In our original review, we recommended Method Sweet Water, which has since become hard to find. Purell was our next favorite. It feels a little more like lotion than Sweet Water, evaporates a touch slower, and leaves a bit more residue, but overall it performs about equally. —Michael Zhao
Heavy-duty garbage bags
Heavy-duty garbage bags belong in your kit for several reasons: You can use them for rain protection, as a duffel for transporting stuff in a pinch, or even as a makeshift toilet (when the water is out, line your dry toilet or a sturdy bucket with a garbage bag, go, and seal). A large-scale disaster might delay municipal garbage pickup for weeks. You’ll want to stow your trash in strong bags that you can keep outside without risk of their leaking or disintegrating, and you should have enough on hand so that you don’t run out.
After sifting through professional and customer reviews and researching more than a dozen brands and variations of each bag, we found that Husky’s 42-Gallon Contractor Clean-Up Bags offer the best combination of toughness, value, and availability. You can read more about them in our party-hosting guide. —Kevin Purdy
Light and heat
One of the lessons we’ve learned as we revisit the topic of emergency gear is that a disaster kit doesn’t have to be something you tuck away in a corner and then drag out only when the worst happens. We’ve found that our recommended headlamp and lantern, for example, are among the most frequently used items on our overall list. You can stow the headlamp in a bedside drawer for emergencies, as well as for late-night reading when your partner is asleep. The lightweight lantern can stay on the front table, handy for when you need to walk a friend home after dark. You can practice your fire-making skills over the grill, or on your next camping trip. In fact, if disaster strikes and you’re staring at a bunch of equipment you’ve never used before, you’re asking for trouble.
Another lesson: Redundancy is your friend. Sure, stow a flashlight and candles securely in your emergency kit. But have a couple more in other spots around the house. As survivalists know, you never want to have just one way to make fire. —KT
Having no light during a power outage can be frustrating, demoralizing, and, under certain conditions, dangerous. After putting in 20 hours of research, we discovered that the $35 UST 30-Day Lantern outperformed LED lanterns that were twice the price and (in some cases) larger. About the size of a 1-liter water bottle, it has a built-in handle for easy carrying or hanging. It gets bright enough to let you see your surroundings up to a distance of 38 feet (on its 300-lumen high setting), gets dim enough to read a book by (29 lumens), and can last up to 720 hours on three D batteries. —SB
Although a lantern, flashlight, or candles can address most of your lighting needs during a power failure, they can be bulky or cumbersome to carry. Keep your hands free with the $40 Black Diamond Spot headlamp—the most capable headlamp we could find after exhaustive research and testing over the past three years. Its spotlight mode lets it cast long-range spot illumination for seeing what’s in front of you in the dark, while its floodlight mode allows it to cast a softer glow for close-up work. It even has a night-vision-preserving red-light mode. It will run for up to 200 hours on three AAA batteries (50 hours at its maximum illumination setting). —SB
A headlamp or lantern will be your best primary form of light in an outage, but you’d be wise to have a few emergency candles on hand as backup, and to help you preserve battery power for when you really need it. A good emergency candle should remain stable and should burn long and steady. We tested five popular brands side by side for more than 25 hours before concluding that Emergency Essentials’s 115 Hour Plus Emergency Candle is the best all-around choice. It burns about three times longer than competing solid candles.
This “candle” is actually a sealed liquid-paraffin lamp that burns without odor or smoke for more than four days. We found that a couple of popular tri-wick brands overstated their burn time, though their paraffin-candle base was still three-quarters full after 25-plus burn hours. The tri-wick canisters themselves can also block light once the wicks burn down a bit, making these candles a poor choice for, say, reading, or using the bathroom in a power outage. The only drawback we discovered with the Emergency Essentials lamp was that a slight breeze could easily blow out the flame on the tiny wick, so it isn’t a good choice for outdoor use.
If you’re looking for an emergency candle that performs well outside, consider picking up a $10 Sterno Emergency Candle, which will burn for about 55 hours. Of all the candles we tested, it had the thickest wick and largest flame, and it was the only one that refused to be snuffed out by a stiff breeze. Unfortunately, unlike the 115 Hour Plus Emergency Candle, the Sterno candle is messy: Because it doesn’t come in a protective canister, the melted wax gets everywhere. That said, dripping wax is easy to contain with an old coffee can or plate, so the mess isn’t a dealbreaker. —KT
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
Cook your food, dry your clothes, keep you warm, signal distress—fire does it all, provided you can start one. A lighter or matches are your easiest option, but your best bet is to have a backup plan in case you run out (a favorite topic of discussion among doomsday preppers). A single magnesium firestarter can last for years, and with the better ones, a complete novice can successfully light a fire after just a few tries. After testing five top-rated models by trying to light Vaseline-infused cotton balls, we found that The Friendly Swede’s Magnesium Alloy Emergency Easy Grip Firestarter (two for $17) is the best choice. Several Amazon reviewers who have tried multiple models consistently cite it as being the easiest to use, and our testing confirmed that. The trick to getting strong sparks with these tools is to scrape down the flint firmly and quickly. This was easier to do with the Friendly Swede model’s relatively long flint than with smaller, cheaper tools like Amazon’s best-selling SE FS374 Magnesium Fire Starter or Coghlan’s Flint Striker.
A couple of the other fire starters we tried might be difficult for the uninitiated to figure out if the tools become separated from their instructions. For example, you can use the Ultimate Survival Technologies Sparkie Mini Fire Starter one-handed, but knowing where to place it relative to the tinder isn’t intuitive if you’re a novice.
We found that the Friendly Swede model was intuitive and reliable, but if you’d prefer to rely on something more familiar, the UCO Stormproof Match Kit with Waterproof Case worked well in our testing. While normal waterproof matches can be lit when wet, these UCO matches will also stay lit in windy conditions and will continue burning even when doused with water, thanks to the extra fuel that extends halfway down the length of the stick. —KT
Once you’ve started a flame, you’ll want to keep it going. After testing two leading fire-starter materials, we like Adventure Medical Kits SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer) All-Weather Fire Cubes. Dependably flammable and individually wrapped, they aren’t liable to leave flammable residue on the rest of your kit—unlike the cheaper Weber Fire Starter Lighter Cubes, which aren’t as well protected from moisture and can create a mess in your kit once you’ve opened the package. The SOLs also burned for 10 minutes whereas the Webers lasted only 8½ minutes.
A six-pack of SOL cubes costs about $10, and a single cube burns for 10 to 12 minutes at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit—enough to start a fire under even the most adverse conditions. If that’s overkill for your needs, you can break a cube into six pieces, each of which will burn for two to three minutes, according to the manufacturer.
We’ve used these cubes with great success over the past few years for lighting beach fires on Vancouver Island and while stealth-camping in Spain. They’re also perfect for lighting charcoal in a grill if you don’t have a charcoal chimney (or even if you do). —SB
Communication and power
In an emergency, hearing the latest news and getting in touch with family and friends is paramount. But doing so can be tough when the electricity goes down. By investing in a few reasonably priced pieces of hardware, you’ll be able to contact loved ones and power gadgets until the local utility companies can restore services to your neighborhood. —SB
When your cellular or Internet service goes down, or when your area loses electricity and you can’t charge a cell phone or a cordless phone, a corded landline phone will let you call for help if needed, so long as the phone lines stay up and operating. It will be tied to a physical address, too, so 911 operators will know exactly where to send responders if necessary. If you don’t own a corded phone and you want to include one in your emergency preparedness kit, the $15 AT&T 210M Trimline Corded Phone is a solid choice. Although we haven’t had a chance to test it (yet), it’s the most popular corded landline phone on Amazon, with a four-star average rating across 2,174 reviews as of this writing. It comes with a lighted keypad and a 10-number speed-dial memory function to store your important numbers. If you don’t have a landline of your own, check with your neighbors to see if they have one that you can plug the 210M into. In a bad situation, pooling resources as a community is a good idea anyway. —SB
No one wants to think about being trapped during a natural disaster, but it does happen. Screaming for help might get a rescuer’s attention, but the high-pitched shrill of a whistle is far more likely to cut through the din of a fire, a windstorm, or emergency sirens.
We tested six whistles over water in varying wind conditions and through densely wooded forest. Our conclusion: The Shoreline Marine Emergency Survival Whistle is the best choice for disaster preparedness. It was both the loudest and cheapest whistle we tested, registering a piercing 101.1 decibels, according to the NIOSH-recommended NoiSee app we used. The only tested whistle that registered louder, the $12 Acme Thunderer metal coach’s whistle (101.2 decibels), was not audible at longer distances. In fact, while a couple of the dedicated emergency whistles claimed to be audible from a mile away, none of them even came close to that in our testing. Even at half a mile over calm water, just three—the $3 Shoreline, the $8 Markwort Storm Safety Whistle, and the $9 Fox 40 Sonik Blast CMG Whistle—could be heard clearly. The REI SOL Rescue Howler Whistle and the metal ACME Thunderer coach’s whistle we tested could barely be heard even at a quarter mile, and the Coghlan’s Emergency Survival Horn we tried disintegrated on the first use—the rubber membrane that makes the noise detached from the rest of the horn.
The Shoreline is brightly colored (and thus easy to spot), and because it looks like a normal whistle, anyone can pick it up and know how to use it in an emergency situation. Since it’s just $3 a pop, you can keep one whistle at home and another in the car. If you ever need to use one, call on the international whistle code: One blast means “Where are you?” Two blasts means “Come to me.” Three blasts means “I need help.” (A blast should last three seconds each.) —KT
Emergency weather radio
An emergency radio that can tune in to AM/FM and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration channels (collectively known as a “weather band”) can keep you informed and entertained even if the power goes out. After considering dozens of emergency radios and testing six different pieces of hardware, we found the $55 Midland ER300 to be the best emergency radio for most people. It produces loud, easy-to-understand audio on AM, FM, and NOAA bands, comes with a built-in audio/visual NOAA weather alert, and can run on crank, solar, or USB power. Additionally, it was the only radio to escape our counter-height fall and splash testing unscathed. And its 130-lumen flashlight was four times brighter than the next-closest competitor and will actually light up the path ahead of you. Should anything go wrong with the hardware, Midland covers the ER300 with a three-year limited warranty—the longest of any radio we tested.
The ER300 comes with a large, easy-to-read backlit LED display and chunky rubber buttons that you can easily press even while wearing winter gloves. It can operate on standard AA batteries or on a user-replaceable, rechargeable 2,000-mAh lithium-ion battery pack that you can juice up via the built-in hand crank, solar panel, or Mini-USB port. In a pinch, you can also use that rechargeable battery to charge your smartphone via its USB output port. And when the NOAA issues a weather alert, the radio’s loud, audible alarm and flashing display will make sure you notice it, fast.
When that alarm sounds, press any button on the ER300, and it will switch on to your favorite NOAA weather channel to give you the news. If you fail to turn on the radio before a minute goes by, the ER300’s weather memory indicator will flash every five seconds to let you know that an alert has been issued. So even if you were out of the house when the alarm went off, you’ll still know that some ugly conditions are headed your way.
On its highest setting, the ER300’s built-in flashlight/signal light produced 132 lumens of illumination when we tested it at a distance of 1 foot; its built-in light was by far the brightest of any of the radios we tested. The next-brightest lights came in the Etón FR1 and FRX4, which were tied in our tests at 35 lumens. In addition to a signal light, the hardware comes equipped with an ultrasonic dog whistle to help rescue workers find you if things go really wrong.
Although the ER300’s manual claims that one minute of cranking would yield nine minutes of radio play, we had to crank for three minutes before we could turn the radio on. Once we did, we were able to listen to FM radio at a reasonably high volume for close to 50 minutes before the battery died—better results than with any of the other radios.
Our current emergency radio pick, the Midland ER300, is slowly being phased out in favor of a nearly identical piece of hardware: the ER310. The only difference between the two models is that the ER310 will come with a higher capacity 2,600mAh rechargeable battery (compared to the 2,000mAh battery in the ER300.) We consider this to be a minor update. Either model of the radio should serve you well.
The one feature that the Midland models lack is support for SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) alerts, which are much more area-specific than regular NOAA alerts. If the idea of receiving more-personalized weather alerts appeals to you and you’re willing to spend more to get them, check out the $100 Etón FRX5. Keep in mind, however, that it costs significantly more than our top pick but has an otherwise identical feature set, and all modern smartphones come with these alerts enabled by default (here’s how to disable them if you want). We don’t think the FRX5 is a great value, but it is a solid radio if our pick is sold out.
If you’d rather not spend $50 on something you’re not going to use frequently, the Epica Emergency Radio is the best budget product among many mediocre ones. Weather radios costing less than about $30 all have similar problems: a lack of power options, poor sound quality, and—typically—no built-in weather alerts. The Epica has all of those problems too, but at least it offers a durable, water-resistant enclosure and multiple charging options. The similarly priced FRX1 we checked out broke very easily when we dropped it, whereas only the carabiner clip fell off the Epica. We think spending an extra $20 to $30 to get our top pick is a worthy investment because of its superior reception power, audio/visual weather alerts, and larger internal battery, but a cheap radio is preferable to no radio, and this model is still better than anything you’d get in a preassembled kit.
Power inverter (for the car)
A power cut-off can keep you from being able to call for help or to charge tools and devices—unless you own a car, that is, in which case you can harness the vehicle’s 12-volt DC electrical system to run or charge a wide variety of the 110-volt AC hardware you’d normally plug into a wall at home. The $30 Bestek 300W MRI3011J2 Power Inverter is a good, cheap option that will work with less-complicated electronics. Although you can use it with a laptop, you might run into issues with screen flickering or even risk damaging your electronics if you have a cheaper power supply (such as the one that came with our tester’s Dell Chromebook).
If you primarily want to power a laptop, a TV, or other sophisticated electronics, you should spend more on the $150 Go Power! GP-SW150-12 Pure Sine Wave Inverter. For more details, check out our road trip gear guide. —SB
If you don’t have a vehicle to run an inverter, and your home’s electricity is down, you can rely on the power of the sun to charge some of your gear. The $50 RAVPower 15W Solar Charger is our pick for people who are looking to power phones, tablets, and portable batteries when they’re off the grid. It produces enough juice to charge up most tablets in a day’s worth of sun, and it’s smart enough not to be stymied by passing clouds.
Consisting of three panels, each about the size of a sheet of printer paper, stitched into a nylon sleeve, the RAVPower 15W Solar Charger folds up to just 8 by 11 inches and weighs 1½ pounds. That’s the sweet spot in portable solar gear right now—anything smaller doesn’t give you the amount of power or reliability you need off grid, while bigger panels are unwieldy and costly. In our testing, the RAVPower generated a respectable 1.53 amps on average over the course of a sunny day, in line with the fastest models we tested. More important, it resumed charging at full speed after a brief stint in the shade while many of the cheaper competitors did not due to poorly designed charging controllers. Overall, you won’t get faster, more reliable charging at a better price than you will with the RAVPower. —SB
Most of the time we recommend cost-effective, environmentally-friendly rechargeable batteries to power hardware that you can’t recharge or plug into a wall outlet. But during a power outage, rechargeable batteries aren’t all that rechargeable, unless you plug a USB battery charger into a solar panel to juice them up—a time-consuming process. So we say it’s smart to keep a few disposable batteries on hand, particularly Duracell’s Quantum Alkaline AA Batteries.
Available in boxes of 28 for about $20 from Amazon (and also available in AAA and D sizes), the Quantum batteries received a score of 91 out of 100 from Consumer Reports, becoming CR’s highest-rated alkaline battery. Perfect for use with flashlights, headlamps, and portable radios, Quantum batteries have a 10-year shelf life, so they’ll very likely be fully charged and ready to use when the time comes to pull them out of storage. This life span is significantly longer than that of most alkaline batteries, many of which have a shelf life of around two years before their amount of stored power begins to degrade; it’s also equivalent to the shelf life associated with pricier lithium AA batteries.
Duracell Quantum batteries are a little expensive: Based on the price of a pack of 28, a single AA Quantum battery will set you back about 71 cents. But we think that their long shelf life and test-proven staying power when used in low-drain devices are worth the cost. That said, if you’re looking for something more affordable, a 48-pack of AmazonBasics AA Performance Alkaline Batteries costs only about $14. With a score of 62 out of 100 from Consumer Reports, the AmazonBasics batteries provide less power than the Duracell Quantum batteries do, but their price is right and they also have a 10-year shelf life. —Mark Smirniotis
USB battery pack
A high-capacity USB battery pack can keep your gadgets powered for several days at a time. After a total of 310 hours of research and testing so far, we recommend the $30 Anker 2nd Gen Astro E4 13,000-mAh External Battery (the Astro E4 for short) as the best high-capacity USB-charging battery pack. The sleekly designed Astro E4 offers full-speed, high-current charging from both of its two USB ports—each of which optimizes charging speed for whatever device you plug into it—and can nearly fully charge a depleted first-generation iPad Air. It offers a greater charge capacity at a lower price than the competition, charges devices faster (and charges faster itself) than other batteries we tested, and has a small enough design to fit easily in a backpack or purse. —MZ
Having spent a dozen hours earlier this year researching generators to supplement the solar panels on my off-the-grid homestead, I learned a lot about what makes a good generator. If you can afford a Honda, they’re the best around; they’re known for their low noise level, fuel efficiency, and reliability. In an emergency—or at your next tailgate party—the Honda EU2000i ($1,000) can quietly keep lights, communications, and even your refrigerator running. And at about 50 pounds when full, it’s light enough for a single adult to carry it. The next step down in Honda’s line saves you just 20 percent in cost while losing 50 percent of the power, and the next step up doubles the price and weight in return for more power and outlets you won’t need in an emergency. If a generator is in your budget and you really want to be prepared for anything, the Honda EU2000i should give you reliable, efficient service for years to come.
You’ll commonly see generators divided into a handful of categories, but the EU2000i is one of the best in the class of “portable generators” or “inverter generators.” Briggs & Stratton, Generac, Yamaha, and other companies all make competitive units with their own pros and cons. But users have been extolling the reliability and sound levels of the Honda in just about every corner of the Internet since the line’s introduction over a decade ago.
At the higher end of the generator market are “standby” or “residential” generators that will set you back a few thousand dollars plus the labor cost of a professional to permanently install it at your house. One of these models can be worth the investment if you live in an area with frequent blackouts, but they’re beyond the scope of this guide. On the lower end, you’ll see inexpensive “jobsite generators” advertised at most hardware stores. For under $400, you can get a brand-name unit that will produce over 3 kilowatts of power, or enough to power a squadron of our favorite window air conditioners. But that generator will be heavy (more than 100 pounds), loud (95 decibels, potentially enough to cause hearing damage), and, most important, liable to subject sensitive devices to damaging electrical variations that they aren’t designed to handle.
At the very low end, you’ll also see generators based on simpler two-stroke engines. The WEN PowerPro 56101 2-Stroke Generator, 1000-watt ($135), the best-reviewed model in its class on Amazon, seems like a great value, but the bad reviews describe some major lapses in quality. —MS
The key tools to have on hand for an emergency—everything from an atlas to good duct tape—are also key tools to have on hand for life in general. A common theme that we noticed in this category is that while a great tool can be a genuine joy to use and serve you well for years (if not decades), cheap imitators will waste both your money and your time. Go for the good stuff. —KT
Gas shut-off tool
If you smell, hear, or see evidence of a gas leak in the aftermath of an earthquake or some other disaster, your first priority is to turn your gas off. To accomplish that, you need to do two simple things: Learn where your gas valve is, and find a wrench that will do the job.
A quarter turn of the metal gas valve from the vertical to the horizontal position typically shuts off your supply. In almost all cases, a 12-inch or larger adjustable crescent wrench will work. If you already have a crescent wrench, consider keeping it in a waterproof Ziploc bag duct-taped to the house or to a pipe next to the valve. That’ll ensure you won’t have to spend even a couple of minutes looking for it in an emergency (be sure to show the location and instructions for shut-off to everyone in the family). Preadjust the wrench to fit your valve before sealing it into the bag.
If you don’t have a crescent wrench, or if you prefer to keep it secure in your toolbox, you could purchase a dedicated shut-off tool. After a couple of hours of online research and discussions with a handful of experts, we feel comfortable recommending the On Duty 4 in 1 Emergency Tool. It was designed by firefighters in the aftermath of the San Francisco Bay Area’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and is often recommended to graduates of CERT emergency-preparedness classes.
The 11-inch aluminum tool is sturdy and rustproof, and it won’t risk causing a spark as a steel tool hitting steel might (important when gas is leaking). You can also use it to shut off your water valve, pry open doors, and dig through debris.
Don’t be too quick to use it, though. Smell a leak? Yes, turn off the gas. But note that in most cities, the gas company has to come to your home to turn your gas back on. In a citywide disaster, scheduling that visit could take days or even weeks. So avoid turning the gas off preemptively if you’ll need it to cook, boil water, or heat your home during a blackout or some other power outage. —KT
If you’re planning to store gasoline, know that you probably shouldn’t. Motor fuel is volatile, and even small quantities can flame up. That’s especially true for keeping extra gas in a vehicle. That said, storing a couple of gallons in a safe place—away from your house, far from electrical equipment or other potential sources of flame—is something you might consider if you’re pairing the gas with a backup generator. (As for your car, better to simply keep the tank at least half full, which is probably good for your vehicle’s engine to boot.) Another drawback to fuel-can storage: Gas loses potency over time, so long-term supplies need to be preserved with an additive product, but even then, you should rotate it out at least once a year—if not every season.
Despite all that, having an empty gas can around is a good idea in case you ever need to obtain or transfer gas without a car—they were among the most coveted items during Hurricane Sandy. Full or empty, the container you choose should be leak-proof and easy to pour with. After performing eight hours of research and testing four different cans, we chose the 2½-gallon plastic container from No-Spill ($24) as our pick for most people. Federal antipollution standards have led most gas-can makers to use unwieldy spring-loaded trigger valves in order to keep gas fumes from escaping. Unfortunately, these cans are a pain to pour with, and neither of the two cheap cans we picked up at local auto stores could dispense liquid without spilling. The No-Spill stands out because it has a patented, proven nozzle design that predates the standards; you just push a button and pour. We also like its unique fuel-level window, which lets you see how much gas is in the can. (Note that our chosen size weighs over 20 pounds. If your particular disaster leaves you on foot, you might opt for No-Spill’s 1¼-gallon version; a 5-gallon version is also available. Both have the same great nozzle.)
Though the No-Spill is the best choice, some emergency-prep types who insist on storing fuel might go for our runner-up, the NATO Gas Can (about $80) by Wavian (the product is commonly known as a “Jerry Can” because the original design was used by the German army during World War II). The rugged NATO can, as the name suggests, meets a military specification for storage and is better suited to moving fuel around frequently, if that’s a concern. It’s a favorite with off-road vehicle enthusiasts for this reason, but it’s probably overkill for home usage. Versions sold in the US include a rather obtrusive but well-thought-out nozzle: Spring-loaded so it won’t leak, it also includes adapters to fit multiple-size filler necks. In our tests, though, the NATO can wasn’t quite as easy to operate as the No-Spill. If you decide to go this route, make sure to get a real, Lithuanian-built Wavian, since knockoffs with inferior nozzles abound. —Dan Koeppel
Ideal for binding, mending, gaffing cable, or even handling certain first-aid duties when the right materials are unavailable, duct tape is (as any MacGyver fan will tell you) an indispensible tool. Duck Brand MAX Strength Duct Tape is the best all-around duct tape we could find, and it should serve you well in a pinch, even if the task includes sticking the tape to masonry, wood, plastic, or glass. —SB
Small enough for you to wear on your belt or to toss into a bag in its included nylon sheath, the $85 Leatherman New Wave is a multifunction tool that everyone should consider as a component of their emergency-preparedness kit, if not as a part of their everyday gear. When Sweethome senior editor Harry Sawyers tested it for us, he discovered that it offered better construction and more functionality than any other multitool we could find.
The New Wave contains needle-nose pliers, regular pliers, wire cutters, hard-wire cutters, a 2.9-inch 420HC knife (HC stands for “high carbon,” which means the knife will hold an edge better), a serrated knife, a saw, spring-action scissors, a wood and metal file, a diamond-coated file, a large bit driver that flips between a flat head and a Phillips head, a small bit driver with an eyeglass screwdriver, a medium fixed-blade flat screwdriver, an 8-inch/19-centimeter ruler, a bottle opener, a can opener, and a wire stripper. Short of a hammer, that’s just about everything you could possibly need to make an emergency repair in the field or around the house. —SB
Map and compass
Most people have a smartphone, and most smartphones have built-in GPS receivers and navigation software to get you where you’re going. But when your cellular connectivity goes down, Google Maps and many other popular apps won’t be able to give you directions to emergency aid or shelter. Granted, a number of navigation apps will let you download mapping information to use, so a cellular connection isn’t required, but you’ll be lost once your smartphone runs out of power. To get around that, we recommend keeping physical maps of the area you’re living in, or visiting, in your emergency kit or car.
For navigating urban areas and highways, we like Rand McNally’s EasyFinder Maps. Typically available for well under $10 from Amazon or Rand McNally’s website, EasyFinder maps are available for all US states and Canadian provinces, as well as for major cities across North America. Each map displays thorough street, rural road, highway, and interstate information as well as the locations of hospitals, police stations, schools, public buildings, and religious institutions—all of which can be vital rally points during a disaster. Because EasyFinder maps are resistant to UV light and laminated with tear-resistant folds, you can use them in wet conditions or write on them with a dry-erase marker or grease pencil.
Unfortunately, Rand McNally’s maps don’t provide detailed coverage of a vast number of the smaller cities and towns that dot our continent. If you live in such an area, we recommend taking a look at OpenStreetMap. Unlike Google Maps, this site provides free-to-use street maps that you can print or save as a full-page PDF. You can also view the site’s maps with a “humanitarian layer” that highlights emergency buildings and evacuation routes—an incredibly useful tool when you need to get away from danger or find help.
In cases of flooding, fires, and other natural or manmade obstacles, taking to the streets might not be safe. If your predicament requires you to head through the wilderness to reach safety, you’ll want a detailed topographical map to learn about the terrain you’ll be traversing. In that case, check out MyTopo, which specializes in custom maps that you can print to suit your needs and laminate for use in any weather.
Of course, even if you’re lucky enough to have a good old-fashioned paper map with you, determining which direction you’re headed in can be difficult. That’s where a compass comes in handy.
The Suunto A-10 is an inexpensive, high-quality baseplate compass that provides everything a novice orienteer needs to stay on course on marked trails, around city streets, and in areas where landmarks abound. For about $20, you get a compass made of scratch-resistant acrylic with a fixed declination correction scale, a jewel bearing, and dual scales (centimeters or inches) so you can use it with maps that employ either unit of measurement. The A-10 even comes with a brief basic guide on how to use a compass and map, though you’re likely better off learning as much about orienteering as possible before you need to put the skill to use. —SB
This winter’s “monster” El Niño weather system is predicted to deliver wetter-than-normal conditions across the southern half of the country. The storms could provide some relief for drought-stricken states, though with sudden downpours come a heightened risk for flooding and mudslides in long-parched areas. Communities including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara are now handing out free sandbags, which are suitable for stacking in front of doorways or garages to block seepage or for piling up to form makeshift mini dams to help control floodwaters. The preferable approach is to fill the bags with sand—local emergency agencies that distribute sandbags sometimes supply the sand as well (dirt works too, if you have no sand). The best tactic is to fill them about half full, two-thirds full at most, and then seal the top with some empty space inside so that the sand has room to shift and settle within. (Here’s a good tutorial on sandbag placement from Los Angeles County officials.)
Though sandbag shoppers will find many different types of bags, including biodegradable burlap and long-lasting nylon, woven polypropylene sandbags offer the right balance of affordability and durability for the typical homeowner who is planning to use them to block or redirect storm waters. Amazon’s top-rated 16-by-10-by-6-inch polypropylene bags currently run for just under 40 cents a bag.
But if you don’t have a ready source of sand, those cheap bags will end up costing you much more in time and effort. City folk and others with modest sandbag needs may instead want to buy compact, lightweight “sandless” bags, which absorb and block water using sodium polyacrylate, a hyper-absorbent polymer that also serves as the miracle pee-sucker in disposable diapers. Six large, 12-by-24-by-3-inch Quick Dam Sandless Sandbags are about $30 on Amazon. Quick Dam also makes a product ideal for blocking the gap at the bottom of garage doors, the 6-inch wide, 10-foot-long QuickDam QD610-1 Flood Barrier, which is currently $17 on Amazon. As of this writing, the barrier has an average rating of 4½ out of five stars across 90 reviews, and users report that it performs well over many months of use; you can leave it in place through a rainy season or dry it out and restore it. Note that, like regular sandbags, these products are essentially disposable and designed to last months rather than years (storing them out of direct sun will prolong their life). Also keep in mind that their polymer filling is ineffective against saltwater.
If the upcoming El Niño lives up to its hype and delivers repeated downpours to Southern California, we will be able to compare the effectiveness of the with-sand and without-sand sandbags in real-world conditions for next year’s update to this disaster-gear guide. But after three hours of online research and a couple of interviews with sandbag-company presidents, we feel comfortable recommending these products for this year’s storms.
Where you store your cache of disaster supplies will depend on your region and your risk factors. Are forecasted hurricanes and winter storms your main concern? You’ll have no problem storing supplies in the garage or deep in a closet. Is flooding a probable hazard? Don’t keep your emergency gear in the basement. For those in earthquake territory, storing supplies outside may make the most sense, especially if you live in a mild climate and don’t have to worry about freezing temperatures, which can damage your items. In the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake, garage doors were knocked off-kilter and jammed, trapping supplies inside. If you are storing your gear outside in a warm climate, try to choose a cool, shaded spot to avoid sun damage. —KT
We like water-resistant bins because you can store them outside, unlike a duffel or most other bags. After considering close to two dozen containers and testing 10 models by dropping them, soaking them with a garden hose, and hauling them around stuffed to the brim, we concluded that the Iris Clear Watertight Tote (a little over $20 for the largest size, 74 quarts) is the best water- and impact-resistant storage bin we can find. (It’s the same design as the $16 Ziploc 60-Quart Large Deep Weathertight Storage Box, which is the upgrade pick in our full storage-container guide, but it’s available in larger sizes.)
Chunky hand grips make the Watertight Tote comfortable to carry, and the stiff sides refuse to flex whether the bin is empty or stuffed. Although our drop tests showed that the plastic may crack a little if you hit it hard enough, this container won’t pop open, thanks to its six-latch locking lid. That’s important when you’re storing foodstuffs and electronics for months—even years—at a stretch. And the clear plastic allows you to easily see what’s inside while it’s closed.
The Iris also comes in 46.6- and 63-quart sizes, but only the largest size, 74 quarts (that’s 18½ gallons) was big enough to store all our key emergency gear—minus water and extra food—with room to spare. You could add a second bin to store emergency meals. —KT
If you want a larger, burlier box, we recommend the Rubbermaid 1191 ActionPacker ($60). At 35 gallons (140 quarts), it’s almost twice as big as the largest Iris; it’s also heavy-duty enough to serve as a bench or stool, and designed to be locked with a cable lock or padlock if you’re concerned about theft. Drawbacks: It’s heavy at 16.3 pounds, you can’t see what’s inside at a glance, and it’s difficult for an average-size woman or a small man to carry alone when it’s packed full. But if your location leaves you vulnerable to disasters that might cause you to flee your home—wildfire or hurricanes, say—and you envision throwing all your gear into the back of a pickup and possibly camping out until the danger passes, this badass bin could be your best bet. —KT
Additional disaster-specific considerations
For everyone: In addition to assembling all your supplies, form an emergency plan with your family. Designate an out-of-state contact that you can rely on to relay information (making long-distance calls is often easier than calling locally during a disaster). Ideally, carry that person’s phone number in your wallet, not just in your phone. Collect copies of important documents and keep them either in your emergency kit or in another secure place where they remain easy to grab.
If you wear glasses or contacts or take prescription medication, consider keeping backup supplies with your other emergency supplies and adding hard copies of your prescriptions in case you need to get them filled in a new location.
In an extended disaster, ATMs and credit card machines may go down. Save up a couple hundred dollars in small bills to keep with your kit or documents.
For parents (of children and pets): If you have small children, diapers and formula and/or baby food may be important items in your emergency kit. Prepare on behalf of your pets by stocking up on extra food and prescription meds, and keeping a leash or crate at hand. “There was a huge increase in awareness and demand for pet kits after the wildfires that we had in southern California in 2007,” Jeff Primes, president of disaster-preparedness company ReadyAmerica, told us. “Over a million people had to evacuate their homes. All of a sudden there was a realization: Not only do I need supplies for me, I have to take care of the pets.”—KT
In the car: Keeping emergency drinking water, some long-lasting but appetizing snack bars, a basic first-aid kit, an emergency blanket or two, and some old running shoes in your vehicle is a good idea for everyday breakdowns as well as for times of greater crisis. We also have a number of other car-specific emergency supplies in our road trip guide. Keeping your gas tank full, too, is one of the smartest things you can do.
Under the bed: Foot injuries have been common in previous earthquakes such as the Northridge quake, which struck at 4:30 a.m. and caused about 8,700 injuries and 57 deaths. Shocked people stagger out of bed and end up cutting their hands and feet on broken glass. Experts recommend that people in earthquake territory keep a pair of sturdy shoes, protective gloves, and a flashlight under the bed.
For people in earthquake territory: You can take several steps to help your home—and your valuables—ride out a big earthquake. First, make sure your water heater is secured to the wall with dedicated straps if it is not already. This guide will help DIYers; metal straps are available at Home Depot and Amazon. Use TV straps to protect your flat screen, too. Specialized hooks with closed loops can easily replace regular ones to prevent framed artwork from falling off the walls (avoid hanging heavy objects over beds). Earthquake putty can secure knickknacks and other valuables to shelves. Cabinet latches, like those used for childproofing, can keep kitchen cabinets closed and prevent dishes and glasses from shattering. We haven’t methodically tested these products, but Kalee Thompson has personally installed the ones we’ve linked to in her own Los Angeles home and found them to be reasonably priced and easy to use. We plan to do more extensive research and testing of these items for a future update.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to protect your assets from earthquake fallout is to bolt your wood-framed home to its foundation. This job will typically cost between $3,000 and $8,000, but local incentive programs are sometimes available, and a permitted job should increase the value of your home. Then there’s the complicated question of earthquake insurance. In California, where just 17 percent of homeowners are covered, such insurance is regulated through the California Earthquake Authority. (Regular homeowner’s policies typically do not cover earthquake damage.) Deductibles can be high, and earthquake insurance generally makes more sense the more equity you have in your home.
Finally, remember that when you feel a tremor, you should “drop, cover, and hold on.” If you are inside, do not run outside. Do not stand in a doorway. Move away from windows and mirrors. Wait for the shaking to pass before getting up.
For people in hurricane territory: Unlike earthquakes, hurricanes can be forecast, giving you extra time in the preceding days to prepare. A good raincoat and boots will of course be essential for staying dry. Coastal residents who are in likely evacuation zones should be sure to keep copies of critical documents and prescriptions ready to go, and to stash them in a weatherproof bag. In addition to general emergency-kit supplies, those in the path of a hurricane may want to stockpile sandbags, a couple of tarps for leaks, and plastic sheeting or plywood to protect windows (here’s a nice list of preparations from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management). During Hurricane Sandy, many people found themselves desperate for a portable gas can. After Katrina, when floodwaters trapped residents in attics and on roofs, some people began keeping an ax on the upper floor of their homes. The National Hurricane Center provides links to assessing your home’s risk for storm surges, flooding, and wind damage. Popular Mechanics provides some more tips for prepping your home for hurricanes, including a plan for installing reusable storm shutters.
For people in tornado territory: Even the worst tornadoes—like the one that killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, in 2011—affect a small geographic area compared with hurricanes and earthquakes. If tornadoes are your primary hazard, you should be more concerned about knowing how to shelter in place than about surviving without help for an extended period after a storm. Though many communities have tornado sirens, a good NOAA-equipped weather radio is crucial for people in Tornado Alley. Identify the best “safe room” in your home—a storm cellar, a basement, or an interior room with no windows on the lowest floor—and gather there before the storm hits (bring your pets, too!). FEMA has recommendations for where to go depending on where you are when a storm is approaching.
Flying debris is a major tornado hazard. If your safe room contains windows or unattached objects, covering yourself with a heavy blanket could help. When you emerge, wear sturdy shoes and heavy gloves to protect yourself from broken glass. Though the CDC has reservations about recommending helmets for tornado protection—spending time looking for a helmet could delay the more crucial goal of getting to a safe space, the agency says—studies suggest they can be lifesavers, especially for kids. Bigger is better; motorcyle and football helmets are more protective than bicycle helmets, according to scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
For people in wildfire territory: Since 2000, close to 2,700 American homes have been lost to wildfires in an average year (1,050 structures alone were destroyed in California’s Valley Fire in September, and with almost 9 million acres burned, 2015 is currently on track to be the biggest wildfire year in US history). There are a number of reasons why: A century of aggressive fire suppression has led to an unprecedented fuel buildup that feeds larger, more violent blazes. The western US has been hotter and drier, and climate trends are likely to make matters worse. Meanwhile, far more people are building homes in what firefighters refer to as the WUI (pronounced woo-ey), or Wildland Urban Interface, where suburban communities nudge up against the edge of wilderness.
Despite convincing studies proving that people can effectively protect their houses from wildfire by creating fuel-free “defensible space” zones around the home, the rate of compliance is low. Two of the best programs to get you and your community prepared are Firewise and Ready, Set, Go. WUI residents should be prepared to flee when authorities order an evacuation (know at least two routes). Keep key documents and supplies in a to-go bag. And know that an N95 face mask provides only limited protection from tiny smoke particles; learn how to protect yourself and those at high risk.
For people in tsunami territory: Are you in a tsunami risk zone such as the Pacific Northwest coast? Did you just feel a big earthquake? Do not pause to grab anything. Just run or drive to high ground. (Oregon and Washington coast-dwellers, enter your address here to assess your risk.) Put important documents on a thumb drive today and give them to a relative (or another trusted keeper who lives in a different area). If you aren’t familiar with the quickest route to higher ground from your home and work, learn it.
Originally published: October 9, 2015