Emergency Essentials: Tips for Assembling a Survival Kit

A family assembles an emergency kit.

Are you ready for the next earthquake? The next flood? Wildfire? Hurricane? If you need to evacuate quickly, will you and your family have easy access to emergency essentials, including clean water, food, and first-aid supplies?

According to the American Institute of CPAs, only 34 percent of Americans have an emergency supplies kit. Along with developing a communication plan, assembling a kit of essentials is a necessary step to take in preparing for disaster.

Assembling a survival kit does not have to be overwhelming or expensive. Learn what to put in a survival kit, and why putting one together is so important.

Why Assembling a Survival Kit Is Important

Creating and maintaining a survival kit is a key component of every disaster preparedness checklist.

How Prepared Are Americans for Disaster?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducts an annual National Household Survey (NHS) across the U.S. to assess how well prepared Americans are for an emergency.

Basic Preparedness

FEMA tracks six basic “preparedness actions” that every household should take in anticipation of a disaster:

  1. Gather survival supplies (to last at least three days)
  2. Seek information about getting prepared
  3. Discuss preparation strategies with other people
  4. Make an emergency plan
  5. Attend a local disaster preparation training
  6. Participate in an emergency drill

According to 2020’s survey results, 68 percent of Americans took three or more of these six preparedness actions — up from 62 percent in 2019. The most common actions Americans took to prepare for disaster in 2020 were:

  • Gathering supplies (81 percent of respondents)
  • Seeking preparedness information (65 percent of respondents)
  • Creating an emergency plan (48 percent of respondents)

Rainy Day Fund vs. Emergency Fund

FEMA also surveys financial resilience. Of the 5,000 survey participants, 68 percent had set aside some money for emergency purposes, but 1 in 3 Americans had no funds set aside in case of emergency.

An emergency fund is a safety net in the event of a major loss or financial setback. Aim for emergency funds of three to six months or more of living expenses (bills, groceries, transportation costs, and other daily expenses).

The difference between an emergency fund and a rainy day fund is simple: rainy day funds pay for small, unexpected expenditures. For example, a rainy day fund could pay for replacing a broken window, or repairing a car part. Emergency funds should cover a household’s basic needs for several months.

The Need to Improve Preparedness Efforts

The same FEMA survey found that only around half of Americans feel prepared for disaster: Just 51 percent of respondents described themselves as prepared in 2020, up from 49 percent in 2013. This slight increase suggests that the increase in the rate of preparedness has stalled.

FEMA and other groups, including the American Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all call for a critical effort to encourage and guide people and communities in becoming better prepared.

What Is a Survival Kit?

Survival kits contain the emergency essentials you and your household need to endure an emergency situation. While many companies sell prepackaged survival kits (and these kits may be better than nothing in a disaster), the best survival kit for your household is one tailored to your unique needs and environment.

At the most basic, survival kits should include:

  • Water (and/or the means for purifying water)
  • Food (for at least 72 hours, if not longer)
  • First-aid kit
  • Essential medications

But a robust survival kit includes much more than just these basics.

Why Assemble Your Own Kit?

No one wants to be without water, food, and medical care during an emergency. In an emergency, numerous situations could unfold that prevent you from accessing basic goods and services:

Loss of Power, Heat, and Water

In many emergencies, access to basic amenities such as electricity, heat, and running water might not be available. You will need to survive on your own.

Evacuation

Some emergencies will displace you from your residence. These dire situations require swift evacuation. Your household may need to survive for a long period of time away from home, at a shelter or a secure evacuation site.

Unreliable Local Supply Chains

During a crisis, supermarkets, pharmacies, and gas stations may not operate at full capacity. You may not be able to rely on common sources of food and essentials when disaster strikes.

Delays in Outside Support

In some disasters, such as when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, emergency response teams are unable to reach individuals in remote areas for days. A well-stocked survival kit can keep your household fed and healthy while waiting for further aid.

Specific Needs

You should tailor your supply kit to fit your household’s specific needs. For example, you or a family member may take specific medications that should go into your survival kit for emergency purposes.

In sum, assembling a survival kit is a good idea for many reasons. You will be more prepared, more empowered, and more likely to stay safe and healthy during an emergency.

What to Include in a Survival Kit

The internet offers hundreds of checklists and resources for developing a survival kit. FEMA, the American Red Cross, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all have their own disaster preparedness checklists.

Although these many guides offer tried-and-true recommendations, the best emergency kit will be the kit that you tailor for your specific requirements.

Tailoring Your Kit

When you start to build your kit, take a moment to assess your current living situation, environment, and needs, along with any challenges you will likely face if confronted with a disaster.

Do you have kids? Do you live in an area prone to tornadoes? Do you dislike canned foods but are willing to eat nutrient-dense bars? Can you reliably replace the perishable goods in your kit before they expire, or do you need to set an alarm to remember?

These sorts of questions — about the people you live with, the environment you live in, and your unique requirements and preferences — all factor into the process of assembling a survival kit that will work for you.

Consider Supplementing a Pre-Made Kit

Often consumers’ disaster preparation starts and ends with buying a ready-made emergency supply kit. A group of dedicated writers at The New York Times’ offshoot Wirecutter had the same idea. They tested kits priced from $70 to $200, each designed to sustain two adults for 72 hours after a disaster. While the group found that a pre-made kit was better than nothing, they also found that many of the items in the kits — specifically the first-aid supplies, flashlights, and radios — tended to be low quality.

The team’s recommendation? Assemble your own survival kit. Collect materials from local grocery stores, online retailers, and army supply stores, and look for products that will last.

Alternatively, supplement a pre-made kit with higher-quality items that will be able to endure an extended emergency.

The Bare Essentials

Survival kits should be portable and ready to go with the following emergency essentials in the case of evacuation.

  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio
  • Cash
  • Copies of important documents, safeguarded in a waterproof container or bag (driver’s license, birth certificate, insurance information with policy numbers)
  • Cellphone with a charger and a backup battery
  • Duct tape
  • Extra batteries
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Food (at least a three-day supply of nonperishable food)
  • Garbage bags
  • Hygiene supplies (toothpaste, sanitary napkins, towel, soap)
  • Local maps
  • Multiuse tool (manual can opener, knife, etc.)
  • Masks (for contaminated air)
  • Plastic sheeting (to shelter in place)
  • Prescription medications (at least seven days’ worth)
  • Sanitation supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Thermal emergency blankets
  • Water (one gallon per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Whistle

Battery-Powered or Hand Crank Radio

In an emergency, do not count on electricity. Opt for a good emergency weather radio with AM/FM capabilities. Tuning into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) channels can keep you informed of extreme weather alerts and keep you entertained without power.

Choosing a battery-powered (plus extra batteries) or hand crank radio is recommended.

Cash

Keep cash handy in your emergency kit to avoid unnecessary trips to ATMs, which may not be working. Store cash in an accessible location, rather than at the bottom of a deep emergency storage bin.

Copies of Important Documents

House fires, floods, and other natural disasters can separate us from important documents. Stash copies of important documents, safeguarded in a waterproof container or bag.

Examples of important documents include, but are not limited to:

  • Driver’s licenses
  • Passports
  • Birth certificates
  • Insurance information/policy numbers/contact information
  • Medical documents

Store your copies of important documents somewhere that is easily reachable.

Cellphone

Having an emergency cellphone with a charger and backup battery in your kit could help you make a phone call in a pinch. Be sure to store all electronics, including cellphones, in a waterproof bag.

Duct Tape

Duct tape can have many uses in an emergency. Keep a roll or two on hand for building shelters, stopping leaks, and so on.

Extra Batteries

Electronic devices do not make it far without power. Take account of important electronics and add extra batteries and chargers to your survival kit.

First-Aid Kit

First-aid kits should include supplies for treating minor discomforts such as scrapes and cuts. At the very least, include:

  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Ointment
  • Painkillers

Kits should also contain some items for treating more serious injuries:

  • Dressing pads
  • Trauma pad
  • EpiPen or other emergency medications

Check the expiration dates on medications and bandages, and replenish your supply as needed.

Flashlight

If you are stuck without power or navigating in the dark at night, you’ll need a flashlight. Lanterns, headlamps, and candles can also provide light during an emergency. Add extra batteries or opt for lights that charge with solar power or run via hand-cranking mechanisms to keep the darkness at bay.

Food

FEMA strongly recommends that emergency kits contain at least 72 hours worth of food per person, including baby food and formula for young children.

Dedicated emergency ration bars, and other technically edible products, may keep you alive during a crisis.

Alternatively, or in addition, many people find that the best emergency food supplies are shelf-stable canned and dry goods. These may include:

  • Beans
  • Canned fish
  • Cereal
  • Dried fruit
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Pastas
  • Soups
  • Vegetables

The key to keeping food for a disaster is to monitor your emergency supply and replace any goods before they expire.

Garbage Bags

Never underestimate the value of a large plastic bag during an emergency. Garbage bags can hold solid and liquid trash, of course, but they can also be used as a rain poncho (cut a hole into one side for your neck, and cut two holes on the adjacent sides for your arms), a makeshift rain cover, and a flotation device for lightweight objects.

Hygiene Supplies

Lacking access to clean water and air can have serious health consequences. Staying clean prevents infection and limits the spread of germs.

During a crisis, otherwise minor wounds can become serious or even fatal sites of infection. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, some of the most common health issues were wound infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.

In addition to a first-aid kit, hand sanitizer, garbage bags, and face masks, packing basic personal hygiene supplies can keep you clean and healthy. Hygiene emergency essentials for your survival kit include:

  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Soap
  • Tampons or menstrual pads
  • Diapers

Local Maps

In case your phone GPS becomes unusable, storing a map of the surrounding area in your survival kit can help you navigate during a crisis. Note any evacuation locations for earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, or other natural disasters on your map.

Multiuse Tool

Keep a tool or two that can help you cut through things. Many pocket knives have features that can open canned food, screw bolts, and slice as needed.

Masks

Dust and debris can make air unsafe during wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the dangers of airborne disease. Protect yourself with an N95 mask.

You might choose masks with exhalation valves to prevent glass lenses from fogging up and to allow moist air out of the mask when you breathe.

Prescription Medications

People should keep at least a seven-day supply of prescription medication in a survival kit in case of emergency, according to the CDC, since supply chains could be interrupted and pharmacies may not be able to fill prescriptions during a crisis. Also include a backup pair of prescription glasses if you wear them.

Sanitation Supplies

Store hand sanitizer and other sanitation supplies in your survival kit to stay healthy and clean.

Thermal Emergency Blankets

Staying warm and dry during an emergency can mean the difference between life and death. Lightweight thermal energy blankets can help you store body heat, and their reflective sides can also be used to catch the attention of others from far away.

Water

Water is absolutely essential. FEMA recommends that your survival kit include a gallon of water per person per day for a minimum of three full days. (So, a gallon per day times the number of people in your household, times three).

The folks at Wirecutter call FEMA’s estimate only the bare minimum. “We’ve seen that floods and hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy can cause massive utility disruptions and contamination of municipal water supplies,” they write. Their recommendation? Stockpiling at least a 10-day supply of water in dedicated emergency containers.

In addition to fresh water, emergency kits should contain water purification supplies. Water boiled for one minute (or three minutes at altitudes above 5,000 feet) is safe. See the CDC’s guide to water purification for more details.

Whistle

You may need to grab the attention of a group or rescue vehicle far away. A whistle can alert others to your location.

Explore What It Takes to Become a Leader in Disaster Preparation

Many disasters are not preventable, but you can prepare for them. Disaster preparation starts with assessing your situation.

The best survival kit is one that fits your household’s needs and environment. In addition to assembling a survival kit, develop a communication plan so you know how to proceed during an emergency. Mark your calendar and check your emergency kit at least once a year to maintain your protective supplies.

Are you interested in exploring more disaster management strategies? Learn about how Tulane University’s Master of Public Health in Disaster Management prepares graduates to become disaster management experts.

How to Become a Medical and Health Services Manager

Protecting Public Health in Extraordinary Times: A Conversation with Dr. Stephen Murphy

Environmental Toxins: Health Impacts and the Role of Public Health Professionals

Sources:

American Red Cross, Survival Kit Supplies

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Family Emergency Kit Checklist

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Making Water Safe in an Emergency

FEMA, Emergency Supply List

FEMA, How to Build a Kit for Emergencies

LifeSecure, Why You Need a Preparedness Kit

The New York Times, Wirecutter, “The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies”

Ready.Gov, Build a Kit