I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing blog posts and YouTube channels devoted to prepping, and I’ve reached some initial conclusions about the subject. First of all, prepping can get super expensive very fast. It’s easy to go overboard. Somewhere there’s some poor guy, sitting in his $270,000 bunker, hoping the zombie apocalypse actually does happen because he thinks he’s in too deep to quit, and all his relatives are laughing at him.
No one wants to be that guy.
So, my rule is: all the prepping I do has to make my life better now—no collapse of civilization necessary. It has to make sense as a useful thing to ordinary people. And it has to be something I can afford without going into debt. I think of myself as an average person with average financial resources, one of the archetypal middle class. If you’re more strapped, it may take you longer to get this stuff done; if you’ve got more set aside, you might choose a more accelerated pace. But everything I do is within reach for ordinary folks.
And I want to start with the thing I’ve got the most experience with—what I call my emergency bag, aka the bug out bag, the get home bag, etc. You can call it anything you like, but emergency bag is what makes sense to me.
I’ve carried an emergency bag for over thirty years. It started as a natural outgrowth of the diaper bag. Having an extra change of clothes, some extra food and water, and basic first aid just seemed sensible when I had young kids. If they fell into a mud puddle playing at the park, we could still make their music lesson on time. If someone scraped their knee, I was ready for that, too. And if we ever got stranded, it was no huge deal. I had it covered. That’s a good feeling.
I got very methodical about it, however, this past summer when I set up my bag after researching the topic. I took all my stashes from various vehicles and made modifications based on the ideas that I thought worked best. Then I took it camping to test it out.
Most folks seem to agree that emergency bags should cover several bases—food, water, shelter, first aid, and fire. I would add rain protection, spare clothes, and money to those basics, since those are the things I’ve used the most. It doesn’t even have to be an emergency.
Case in point: when the kids were young, we did a home-schooling program every summer, and part of that was a field trip every Friday. We lived in Whittier at the time, a suburb in southern California, and LA has an awesome selection of museums and extra-curricular activities. We drove on this particular day to the LA Zoo at Griffith Park. For those of you who aren’t familiar with southern California geography, this represented about an hour’s investment of time, and given the fact that you need to squeeze trips in between peak traffic times, there’s no real margin for error. Anyway, we got there, got parked, and then I discovered I’d left my wallet at home. But it was no problem. All I had to do was dig into my emergency money stash, and we were good to go. The day was saved. So my top pick is:
- Money. If you only do one thing that I recommend here, have a money stash somewhere in your car. Yes, it can get stolen. But it’s the one thing I’ve consistently used the most. Possible theft is why I carry a child’s backpack—it’s less attractive to thieves than an obvious camping rig. At the very least, have enough money to fill your tank and buy a hot meal. I recommend being able to cover a motel bill, too. Like almost everyone, I carry credit cards. But my wallet has also been stolen before.
In fact, an unexpected motel stay is the number one way I’ve used my bag over the years, due to inclement weather or mechanical difficulties. I’ve never had to push myself over a mountain pass when I’m too tired or the weather’s iffy. I can play it safe instead. Although, since I usually have at least one dog with me, I make sure I can also pull a camping trip out of my car if necessary. Many motels don’t allow dogs. And even if you don’t have a dog, you might break down in a spot without a convenient motel room.
In addition to a cash stash, I’ve found the following to be useful as well, listed roughly in order of importance.
- A first aid kit. Mine is pretty basic, and I got most of it at the Dollar Store. All the normal stuff can go in one of those see-through pouches that you stick in notebooks—band-aids, gauze and tape, ace bandage in case of sprains, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic ointment, pain killer of choice (mine is aspirin), tweezers for splinters, and some kind of first aid pamphlet that has the number of chest compressions and breaths recommended for adults, kids, and babies.
Really don’t skip that last, by the way. I once had to give my five-year-old rescue breaths by the side of the 105 freeway when he stopped breathing. That kept him alive while my older son and daughter ran to a call box and called an ambulance. (This was back in the 90s.) Be ready for this stuff before it happens. It’s hard to think clearly when it’s someone you love, no matter how many CPR classes you’ve taken.
- Water. My bag has two liters, plus a jug that I keep in my car.
- Food. Most of mine doesn’t need cooking (tuna pouches, granola bars, and nuts), although I do carry a small stainless steel Stanley cup that I’ve used to boil water over a fire. Mine is stuffed with an instant soup packet and green tea.
- A grooming kit. Again, this mostly comes from the dollar store and goes in a see-through pouch. Deodorant, liquid soap or shampoo, any feminine products, toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers, comb—all that stuff.
- A spare set of clothes, for everyone who’s likely to be there. Since I have a husband, that’s a t-shirt, drawers, and socks for both of us. When we took my bag camping, I discovered that I HATE sleeping in my jeans, so I also carry a pair of leggings. They don’t take up that much room.
- An inflatable pillow. Seriously, this can be the difference between a decent night’s sleep and misery. Once I had to spend the night in a rest area because I just didn’t have it in me to make it to the Motel 6 in Grant’s Pass. I was driving my husband’s truck, and I had forgotten how much a truck’s bench seat slopes down at the ends. The pillow made it possible to grab about five hour’s sleep, which was enough to get me home the next day.
- Some kind of blanket. My pack only has one of those mylar emergency sleeping bags, also called a bivy sack, plus a camping sheet to line it with (another Walmart item), because that’s all that fits. It needs to be reasonably compact because I don’t have very much room in my little Saturn coupe. The back seats spend all their time folded down so the dogs can ride back there, which wipes out my trunk, too. If I had an actual usable trunk space, I would also carry a sleeping bag or wool blanket. I do have a summer-weight sleeping bag in my backup bag, which I’ll describe at the end of this post.
- A way to make fire. Unfortunately, this is sometimes prohibited in California, although most campgrounds here do allow fires even in the summer if you keep them in the fire pits. I carry two lighters and a box of wooden matches—again, all dollar store items. I keep lighters and matches in my glovebox as well, so a variety of random smokers have been grateful to me over the years.
- Flashlights. I keep two, just in case. These things get used a lot. One in the bag, one in the glovebox. Walmart has a nice one for only a buck in the camping department.
- At least four large black trash bags. You can stuff them with leaves and use them as ground mats. And if it’s cold and you need to close off the ends of your emergency tent or tarp, they really come in handy. Carry clothespins or clips as well for attaching them. In the picture below, I closed off one end of my tarp with a rain poncho. But if it was raining or I was cold, I’d have used a trash bag instead.
- A rain poncho for everyone likely to be in the car. I carry two.
- Wipes, because no one likes feeling grimy.
- A knife and/or sewing scissors—Walmart sells a decent pair of the latter that comes with a sheath, so you won’t poke holes in your backpack. Make sure you stick it in a front pouch so you can get to it easily; the scissors are one of the things I consistently use. They also sell a two-dollar pocket knife, so really, I figure I might as well, even though my husband is the only one to ever use it. I’ll always reach for the scissors first.
- A camping tarp and ground mat. I got a nice ten-foot-square camping tarp on Amazon, but Walmart sells a small mylar tent you can use for about nine dollars. If you’re really on a budget, I’ve gotten tarps at the Dollar Store that you can use for a ground mat, although they’re only four foot by six, so you’ll probably need two.
- Some kind of paracord and stakes so you can rig the camping tent/tarp. I highly recommend the lightweight orange aluminum stakes, which you can get at Walmart, although I paid more for the smaller version (called peanuts for some reason) at REI. The cheap silver ones bend. Also, I suck at tying knots, so I got a couple of Cam Jams (available at REI and Home Depot), which make fancy knot tying unnecessary. Once you’ve got your system figured out, practice setting it up in your backyard. Make a night of it–roast marshmallows over a fire and try out your emergency food or something. Remember, this stuff is supposed to make your life better. It’s good to have fun with it.
- A small folding shovel, (I got mine at Walmart in the camping section) and make sure there’s a travel pack of tissues in your grooming bag. Enough said.
- A water filter. I’ve never used this, but it only costs twenty dollars for a Sawyer Mini system at either Walmart or Amazon, and I don’t want to really wish I had one someday.
- Two terrycloth rags and a bandanna in a baggie. If necessary, I can dry off with the rags and make a pressure bandage from the bandanna. The latter also comes in handy for tying back your hair.
- Something to read. You can pick up a New Testament at the Dollar Store, and if I’m really stuck somewhere, I’ll feel better knowing that I have a good book. LOTR wouldn’t fit, but I stuffed The Hobbit into a front pouch.
- Dog food if you have dogs with you. I also carry a folding cup for their water.
- And keep an umbrella in your car. I regretted it the one time I told myself I wouldn’t need it. (Hey, it was the end of May. It never rains in southern California at the end of May, right? Ugh—wrong.)
Bonus: the backup bag.
Since I live in an area prone to wildfires (these pics were shot in my yard), where having to pack up and go is a distinct possibility, and since I have dogs and a cat, camping is something I need to be prepared for. I may not be able to get a motel room. So, I fixed up another bag with all the stuff I wished I had room for in the one I carry around with me all the time. If I’m home when the call comes and I only have a few minutes to pack up, this is very sanity enhancing. This actually happened to me this past summer. I was able to round up the dogs, my cat, his carrier, and still get the camping gear in my car in under ten minutes. I also keep a bag packed for both my husband and myself that has three day’s worth of clothes. Once I had all that stuff in the car, I didn’t feel panicky anymore. I knew the most important bases were covered.
I would seriously consider a backup bag if you live in an area at risk from wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, or tornadoes.
My backup pack, which is bigger than my everyday bag, has:
- A small tent. Mine is a compact three-man job, which will fit me and two dogs. I’ve not yet tested it with a cat, but I’m sure we could make it work if we had to. If my husband’s along, the dogs will have to kip under the camping tarp.
- A summer-weight sleeping bag. I wanted mine small to fit inside the pack, and I can slip my mylar bivy sack inside the sleeping bag if necessary.
- A couple of Mountain House dehydrated camping food pouches. Mine has chili mac and spaghetti. You’ll need spoons or sporks to eat the food with as well.
- Two inflatable ground mats (aka air mattresses).
- A larger camping cup with more soup and tea.
Next to the backup bag in the garage, I also have a plastic bucket with a week’s worth of Mountain House freeze-dried food in it. I figure that should be enough, at least to start. The entire state can’t go up in flames at once. No matter how badly the politicians seem bent on mismanaging California, I still have faith in the brave firefighters who live here.
And there you go. That’s my system for being prepared away from home. My emergency bag weighs 21½ pounds (much of it food and water), which is the upper limit of what I can carry, but I could haul it about four miles if I really needed to. I’ve never had to, but I’m doing my best to cover all possible events. I can bug out and camp, I can car camp, I can stay in a motel, stay in my car, or just decide I would rather spend the night at a beautiful waterfall and go home in the morning. (Did that once at McArthur-Burney Falls, just this past September.) Remember the bit where I said my rule was that my preps had to make my life better now?
Everyone’s bag ends up being tailored for their individual needs, but I hope mine is at least a starting place for yours.
Also, a quick note on the timing of this post. Christmas is coming, and what do you buy for the person who has everything? Perhaps a bag to keep them safe in an emergency. My particular bag costs over two hundred dollars, but there are places where I splurged. The cheapest I’ve gotten a similar bag, using a ten-dollar backpack from Walmart, the cheap mylar tent mentioned earlier, (basically everything as cheap as possible at Walmart and the Dollar Store, and also skipping a few items like the shovel and those further down the list), is around $85, and that didn’t include a money stash. Add $170 per bag if you’re going to give it as a complete set up (motel room plus a tank of gas plus a couple of hot meals).
But you don’t have to do it all at once. If they’re bags for you and your immediate family, you can start small, and then add to it. Or for others, it can be a series of gifts.
No matter what version you choose, it’s not cheap. But when I gave one to my dear friend for her birthday last summer, her eyes misted up and she said, “This is the nicest gift anyone has ever given me.”
Totally worth every penny. : )