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When Disaster Strikes: Putting Together A Basic Emergency Toolkit

Joel Lee 19-11-2013

Trouble could be waiting just around the corner. We don’t like to think about it, of course, but a wide number of potential disasters could occur at any moment: fire, storm, flood, drought, earthquake, car accident, lost in the woods, etc. Some of these are location-specific, but one thing is true: no matter where you live, an emergency toolkit is crucial.


Would you be able to survive a disaster? Maybe, maybe not. If you’re unprepared, you leave it up to chance, and is that something you really want to do? A little bit of effort now could drastically increase your chance to survive later on. “Now is not a good time,” you might say. “I’m busy.” Well, that’s the thing about emergencies: they strike when you’re least expecting, so now is actually the best time to put a kit together.

It’ll be easy and it won’t cost you much. Here’s what you’ll need. Note that all prices in this article are in USD.

The Essentials

Every kit should include the essentials in order to take care of your most basic human needs: food, water, and shelter.

  • Each person needs a minimum of 1 gallon (~3.8 L) of water per day.
  • Food should be non-perishable, meaning they’ll last about 3 days without refrigeration. Emergency food should not require cooking as fire is not a guarantee in such a situation. Canned food will last a long time, but make sure to include a can opener.
  • Shelter can be difficult to keep in a kit, but raingear and sturdy shoes are important in cases of inclement weather or rough terrain. If possible, keep a sealed plastic bag with a change of clean clothes.
  • Ideally, a first aid kit should be included in case of serious injury.

That may not seem like much, but it’ll keep you alive for at least a few days which should be enough time to find help in most situations. Now that we’ve taken care of the essentials, let’s cover some awesome tools and products that will be sure to come in handy in any life-threatening emergency.

Extreme Weather Sleeping Bag [$50]



A sleeping bag rated for extreme outdoor weather is about as close to a ready-made shelter as you’ll ever get. Most sleeping bags are rated anywhere from 40F to 60F (4.5C to 15.5C) and some will even go down as far as 20F (-6.5C), but ideally you want one that’s rated for 0F (-17.5C) weather.

You never know in which season emergency will hit and sleeping through a winter night in a thin sleeping bag is not something you want to do – especially if you end up being caught out for many days in a row. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Just keep in mind that a sleeping bag is not a true shelter. If it rains or snows, you’re going to be in for a miserable time without a roof over your head.

Strike Fire Starter [$16]



A strike fire starter is one that produces extremely hot sparks when struck, usually with the blunt side of a knife. These are incredibly useful when you’re stuck out in nature after a disaster since they’re light, portable, and pretty much foolproof. They’ll produce sparks even when wet and the sparks will be hot enough to ignite damp material.

Never underestimate the importance of fire in an emergency situation where you are caught without proper shelter. Fire provides warmth in the cold, light when it’s dark out, and psychological comfort.

LED Headlamp [$20]


After the essentials, light is arguably the most important element of a survival toolkit. There’s no way to avoid the darkness of night and most emergency situations will render you without electricity. Surviving is tough without light and it’s made even tougher when you don’t have both hands available, which is why a headlamp is so much more useful than a regular flashlight.


The reason you want an LED headlamp, as opposed to any other headlamp, is that LED lights last a relatively long time. With 3 AAA batteries, the above headlamp will last over 140 hours of total burn time. If you only keep it on a few hours a night, that’s over a month without needing to replace batteries.

Nylon Paracord [$8]


Paracord is a cheap addition to any survival toolkit, yet its bang-for-the-buck factor is phenomenal. For just a few bucks, you can massively improve your survival versatility since paracord is useful for lashing things together, hanging items, keeping organized, and even supporting the weight of a human.

Could you just use regular rope or twine instead? Sure you could, but paracord is specifically made to be tough, rugged, and long lasting. Plus, for as strong as paracord is, it’s surprisingly thin and portable – you’d need a much thicker and heavier rope to accomplish the same.


Mylar Thermal Blankets [$7]


Mylar thermal blankets, which are sometimes referred to as “space blankets,” should be a staple in any emergency toolkit. They’re extremely effective at reflecting heat, so they’ll keep you warm if you can get your skin up against it, and they’re waterproof, which means you can use them for protection. The Mylar material is durable enough to do that.

But the main reason to keep these in your toolkit is that they take up almost no space at all. They can be folded and compacted so tightly that you’ll be able to store them anywhere. There’s no excuse not to have some of these at the ready.

Hand Crank Generator [$60]


This last emergency item is for those of you who just can’t live without your electronics. Not like anyone will be playing video games while surviving and seeking help, but smartphones, radios, flashlights, and other electronic devices will eventually lose their charge. Thankfully, it’s nice to know that it’s possible to charge electronics in an emergency 5 Ways To Charge Your Phone In An Emergency Smartphones can be important tools in an emergency. Besides providing the chance to call for help, a phone can act as a flashlight, compass and GPS. But all of a phone’s functions rely on the... Read More .

The hand crack generator allows you to manually turn a crank to generate a charge. You’ll need to crank for a while to get a lot of energy out of it, but it’s better than nothing. At the very least it should be enough to restore a dead smartphone long enough to make contact and locate others How to Use Google Person Finder to Locate Loved Ones After a Disaster Living barely an hour and a half from Boston, it was a bit surreal to watch the aftermath of the recent Boston Marathon bombings. I know there are lots of readers from different countries that... Read More .


When you’re facing the aftermath of a disastrous situation, will you be ready with an emergency toolkit? It’s much too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “it’ll never happen to me,” so please prepare while you still can. We rarely have the fortune of knowing about an impending disaster before it hits 3 Apps To Alert You Of Natural Disasters [Android] Volcano eruptions, earthquakes, floods - it seems like mother nature is striking back. Yet natural disasters are exactly that - natural - and they have been happening for millions of years. In fact, we owe... Read More .

What other items would you include in a basic emergency toolkit? Do you have any stories of an emergency toolkit that came to the rescue? Please share with us in the comments!

Image Credits: DVIDSHUB Via Flickr

Related topics: Buying Tips, Survival Technology.

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  1. ccws
    December 7, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Any HEALTH-SUSTAINING MEDICATIONS you may need - or at the very least, a great honkin' tag on the outside of your bug-out bag reminding you to grab them!

  2. Doug
    December 4, 2013 at 9:00 am

    About food storage. Store what you would normally eat when there isn't an emergency. Practice first in first out, to keep it rotated. I use a sharpie to write the purchase date on food items. For great water tight storage containers search for Gamma Seal. These are screw on lids that can be used with 5 gallon buckets.

  3. doug
    November 30, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Each year at the end of hurricane season I eat the canned food in my kit, then replace it before the next season begins. Also, I get lots of really small cans instead of fewer larger ones, because, in a hot whether disaster, I'll need to toss what I don't eat at one sitting.

  4. Stephanie S
    November 22, 2013 at 4:35 am

    A very good list of items to have on hand. Some of these I hadn't even thought about. We have canned goods already and "strike anywhere" matches (the kind that come in a box) and a ton of tea light candles as well as regular votives and pillars. We occasionally have power outages so have learned what we need in that regard. What do you think about having a camp stove for cooking? I don't think you can use them in the house but if push came to shove, you could at least have a hot something (soup, etc.). Thank you for this article.

  5. ngenius
    November 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    A knife is arguably the most important survival tool, as it can be used as a tool to make other tools and weapons, (like shaping a bow and arrows, sharpening a spear, etc.), as well as last-ditch, close quarters defensive use. It can also be used for building shelter, digging a hole, (really much better to have a folding shovel aka entrenching tool), as well as preparing food. A good quality knife is worth its weight in gold. Nothing fancy, just good durability). A "Leatherman" type multi-tool is an excellent thing to have with you at all times.

    Shelter is not that difficult. A small 2 person tent takes up very little space and provides shelter from the wind, rain and snow, helping you keep dry. I keep one in my car along with other emergency supplies. (About $30 at Walmart)

    Very important to NEVER drink water you are not sure is safe. Water purification tablets are essential, and can be purchased at Walmart, in the camping section for about $4.00. Chlorine bleach is also very useful, but much less convenient to take with you. Getting diarrhea from microorganisms is always unpleasant, but in a survival situation could rapidly prove fatal, due to dehydration. If you don't have the purification tablets, bleach or iodine to kill the bugs, boil water for at least 10 minutes before drinking it or using it in food prep. There are also activated charcoal filters that filter out most non-organic contaminants, and make the chemically treated water taste better.(LifeStraw is a good example, about $20)

    A 14 day supply of any essential prescription meds (if you have any chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid condition, etc.) is also mandatory in your emergency kit. These meds should be rotated regularly with your newest ones to make sure you always have fresh meds in your kit.

    Non-prescription meds that you should have include aspirin, acetominophen (Tylenol), Benadryl liquid for allergic reactions, loperamide (Immodium) for diarrhea, meclizine or similar anti-nausea medications, triple antibiotic ointment, hydrogen peroxide for wound cleaning.

    Prescription eyeglasses can be had very inexpensively from http://www.eyebuydirect.com. You order online, using your prescription from your eye doctor. They have several styles for about $6.95 which includes frames and basic lenses. I have several pair in my emergency kits. (if they block the url, just google "$6.95 glasses")

    "Bic" type lighters can still be used when out of fuel. The flint makes sparks which can be used to light tinder (very important: learn to BUILD a fire, starting with very small tinder, and building up to larger and larger pieces of wood. Trying to light a log with a Bic lighter is a fool's errand.

    • Joel L
      December 2, 2013 at 4:59 pm

      Wow, that was quite the read. Lots of good stuff in there. I wish I could give you multiple thumbs ups. :)

  6. It.helpdesk100
    November 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Great article, different topic from those we are used to read around here, fresh.

  7. Godel
    November 21, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Alcohol based sanitizing hand gel. As well as hygiene uses, it doubles as fire starter. Just smear a wad of it onto any damp kindling and light it with your Bic.

    • Joel L
      December 2, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      Good tip on doubling as a firestarter!

  8. Kent Haase
    November 21, 2013 at 3:00 am

    Hatchets are good for accidentally removing digits and limbs. A fold-up saw is safer, but then if you need to "whack" something, you're out of luck.

    Cell phones are OK if the disaster is neither widespread nor long term.

    Oh, and leave the can opener behind. You can always open canned food this way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH2NahLjx-Y

    • CoolPenguin
      November 21, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      awesome video - thanks for that.

  9. John Bartley K7AAY
    November 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Visqueen (10 mil poly sheeting) and Duct Tape; the camper's friend. If you have to sleep rough, the visqueen strung between trees is an instant tent to keep the sleeping bag dry. Another layer becomes the ground cloth beneath you.

  10. David Staszak
    November 20, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    About that Mylar Blanket. Ever try using one? Unfolding isn't easy and a tin foil cape is not the warmest. Better get the mummy kind and unfold it and re fold it. More bulk but a lot easier to use when needed and warmer since it really does cover your whole bod.

  11. Andrew
    November 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    I have multiple pictures of each person in my family to be able to post on "lost person" boards.

  12. John
    November 20, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I was a boyscout, took survival lessons and for a time sold camping and surplus gear from those experiences I can tell you that the prices you quoted were a litte high. staying out of fancy out door stores wilo bring that down. Your sleeping bag rating is not warm enough for the northern tier of states, bring one of those foil blankets that marathon runners are wrapped in to line the bag in cooler weather. very portable and essental as well as inexpensive are water purification tablets be sure to include those. nice to have: fishing line and hooks, a block of canning wax ( a bit of that helps start the fire) a small hatchet and a waterproof ground tarp. My survival usb generator is a crank/solar radio with usb port. add a small windup flashlight not a shake because they have to be huge to get much of a charge.

    • Joel L
      November 21, 2013 at 1:45 am

      Thanks for the tips! Lots of good stuff there.

  13. KRS
    November 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    Forget about the fancy fire starters. Throw a couple of BIC butane lighters in the kit. Don't buy them on-line. They're shipped half full to prevent leaks during air freight.

    If you want a sleeping bag, you'll also want a water purification device like the LifeStraw http://www.amazon.com/Vestergaard-Frandsen-527950-LifeStraw-Personal-Filter/dp/B006QF3TW4/

  14. John Coates
    November 20, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Don't know why this forum doesn't allow paragraph formatting, but I did use it in typing my comment. :(

    • Joel L
      November 21, 2013 at 1:44 am

      The actual comment is split into paragraphs. The preview isn't. I'm not sure why it does that but rest assured that your comments are just fine! :)

  15. John Coates
    November 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Water purification tablets are OK for small quantities of water. But at 3.8litres per day per person you'd be better to use a teaspoon of bleach instead. It'll keep over a year without deteriorating.

    From experience, one needs three different packs to better prepare for emergencies. 1. If stuck at home. 2. For one's car. 3. What to take with you on evacuation. - think about what MUST be carried on one's back.

    To suggestions above, add important papers, birth, marriage certificates, passport, drivers license - for adults AND children. Make several photocopies for the various packs, and keep them safe in waterproof bags.

    Also any medication one takes daily. First aid kit has been mentioned - think of what could happen and how long before emergency services could get to you, or you could get to them then make your kit accordingly.

    Bic lighters are good, spark generators good too. Matches in waterproof bags - preferably use the long matches.

    And again, water - as much as you can store at home - try to store it in a dark area in a place that may not be washed away.

    Some good comments here. Like the one about ready-to-eat food as can't always light a fire. Remember too, diets go out the window during an emergency - dark high-cocoa level chocolate is good for energy. Forget coffee, use tea instead - less dehydration.

  16. Barry Rosenbloom
    November 20, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Prescription medicine - if it's for a life and death illness, a months worth.
    Duplicate eyeglasess - don't need to have a remake of that Twilight Zone episode.

  17. Barry Rosenbloom
    November 20, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Prescription medicine - if it's for a life and death illness, a months worth.
    Duplicate eyeglasess - don't need to have a remake of that Twilight Zone episode.

  18. Stuart Whiteside
    November 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I second the Duct Tape suggestion and add, a little extra cash is a good way to acquire something you forgot!

  19. CoolPenguin
    November 20, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Seriously? This many comments and no mention of duct tape?

  20. Ray M
    November 20, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    I'll third the Bic lighter. The can opener should be a P-38. I've had mine on my keyring for the past 20+ years. I've even heard of people using them for fish hooks.

  21. Hovsep A
    November 20, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    First Aid Kit:)

  22. Kimchi R
    November 20, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Can you write a survival guide for a zombie apocalypse...I want to make sure I don't miss anything. :)

    • olamoree
      November 20, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      One of my "over time" preparations is to wash out plastic soda bottles, put in 4 drops per quart of 4% bleach and fill with water. Then store these all over the house (and car) out of the way as in an emergency, your city water will go off and trying to purify swimming pool or other waste water is a problem. You can put a few under the bed, the back of the closet, under anywhere that they will fit and if a tornado or earthquake knocks down your house, you know that under some of that rubble is ready to drink water. I have at least 150 around my house, the half gallon sizes and they last for many years out of the light. Too many is better than not enough.

  23. Rick M.
    November 20, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    My wife that I was the master of the emergency kit ... that was until reading your article. Also, some great comments!

  24. Steve Tanner
    November 20, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Oh yeah, I nearly forgot -- a whistle

    • Joel L
      November 21, 2013 at 1:43 am

      Never thought to include a whistle but I can see how it would be extremely useful. Nice suggestion!

    • Kent Haase
      November 21, 2013 at 3:18 am

      A PEALESS whistle. In below freezing temperatures, the moisture in your breath will soon render a normal whistle useless.

      Fox 40 or equivalent.

  25. Steve Tanner
    November 20, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    A few more:
    Water purification tablets (easier to store than bleach or iodine)
    Mild bleach solution for hand cleaning etc.
    Dioralyte Sachets
    If you have tinned foods (and on opener) keep the tins for re-use
    Pack stuff in STRING plastic bags (resealable) and re-use them
    Matches (red ones) in a tin/plastic box with candle wax dripped over the heads
    The candles for the car need to be the tubby 8hour ones
    Keep warm / dry / clean and drink plenty, (you can last without food)

  26. Eric J
    November 20, 2013 at 8:39 am

    wow, great article and helpful too especially with the recent calamities here in Philippines.

  27. Kannon Y
    November 19, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Great article! I'm pretty excited about putting together my own emergency go-bag now. I'm thinking of including solar power charging panels, too. I can't imagine a more useful item than a cellphone in an emergency. But a hand crank is probably a more elegant and inexpensive solution. I wonder how long it takes to charge a cell phone using it?

  28. Saturday S
    November 19, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Is that hand crank enough to run my laptop?

    • CoolPenguin
      November 20, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Not likely, hence the "Not like anyone will be playing video games while surviving and seeking help" comment.

  29. james richards
    November 19, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Takes up more room but easier to use than a fire striker is a 9 volt battery and steel wool. It lights even when wet burns extremely hot by just touching the battery to it. Also a tin with char cloth in it this makes the use of the fire striker easier. If you have room keep both
    A water purification method such as a filter, iodine, or chlorine bleach. Candles are good to have in a car kit as they will help heat the car and can be used to melt snow if you have a metal cup.
    Kitty litter in car kit for traction.

    • Harkirat
      November 19, 2013 at 5:39 pm

      Better use lighter.

    • Dominic C
      November 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      There are water purification tablets available turning almost all water into drinking water. Wouldn't that help a lot more?

    • Scott
      November 20, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      As Harkirat said, a cheapo Bic lighter is the best option. I did all that survival stuff in Scouts when I was young - waterproof matches, strikers, etc., but ye ol' Bic lighter is more waterproof, reasonably windproof, and lasts for hundreds of lights with just a flick of your thumb. No need to revert to 'old school' here.

    • jim richards
      November 21, 2013 at 2:40 am

      Iodine tablets are the tablets normally used for water purification. Lighters are great but other methods work better if you have damp kindling.

  30. Jon Green
    November 19, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    You missed the most valuable tool of all - a knife! Ideally, you want two: a machete-sized blade, and a folding pocket knife. Don't skimp on quality here: the sharpness of the blade, its ability to hold an edge, and its invulnerability to damage will be life-savers - literally. Learn how to use them: backwoods skills will make the difference between life and death. For example, you'll massively improve your chances of starting a fire if you know how to make a "feather stick" - and if you lose your striker, you can use the knife to fashion the components for a fire-bow, using the paracord as the string. Talking of paracord, don't forget that it's made of two parts: the woven casing and the long-cord filler. Both have their uses; you don't have to use the paracord in one piece, and by disassembling it you can maximise its utility.

    • Joel L
      November 21, 2013 at 1:42 am

      A knife is so crucial, you are absolutely correct. It's so basic that I forgot to include it on the list! Thanks for mentioning it. :)