If you're a lifelong Utahn, you've heard the oft-repeated advice to be prepared for a natural disaster. (If you're a Mormon, like I am, you've heard it even more.) Living along the Wasatch Front, we've been told by experts that "The Big One" — a devastating earthquake that could decimate everything in the Salt Lake Valley and beyond — is long overdue.
Enter the emergency kit.
You know you should have at least some food and water and a few basic necessities to tide you over should disaster strike. Still, it's intimidating to get started. Just looking at a list of recommended items for a 72-hour emergency kit can send you into a cold sweat as you try to calculate what it will cost.
While you could spend hundreds of dollars getting every high-quality item on your long wish list, you don't have to. Most of the items you will already have on hand. What you don't have you can get for dirt cheap, and even for free.
Here's how I put together five emergency kits for my family— two adults, one child, and two babies — quickly and on the cheap.
Keep in mind that I am not an expert, and this is by no means a comprehensive or authoritative list. I am just a mom trying to make sure all will be safely gathered in should disaster strike. So take this for what it is: a little inspiration to help you get your own kits together, and keep a little cash in your pocket while you're at it.
There are a lot of ways to think about 72-hour kits and the emergencies that might necessitate them. I just think of this: If my house were reduced to a pile of rubble and all utilities were down and stores closed, what would I need to get by? With this in mind, there are three main categories I focused on when assembling my kits: Food/water, hygiene, and comfort. Each family member gets one backpack or bag with their own items. Setting aside food for a moment, let's talk about the rest.
Here's what's packed for Mom and Dad (details to follow):
- First aid kit
- Hygiene and toiletry bags
- Extra outfit
First, a little comfort mixed with necessity: I included one outfit (a T-shirt, one pair of jeans, and one pair of underwear) as well as a pair of socks and running shoes. I used stuff gathering dust in my closet, but bonus points if you have hiking boots and camping clothes to use, which will be even more useful in a disaster. If you need to purchase any of these items, check your local thrift store. There's no sense spending more than a few dollars on something you probably will never wear, anyway — and if you do need it one day, I guarantee you won't care how you look in it. While I can probably keep wearing the clothes I am in when disaster strikes, you never know what that outfit may entail. I could be coming home from church or lounging around shoeless. You'll want something utilitarian to get you through the first few days post-disaster.
I spent more effort on the hygiene part of the adult kits, but not very much money. I provided an estimated cost of each component. It's a rough estimate, because many of these items you will already have around the home or you can get them for free or dirt cheap. I just wanted to show that although this looks like a lot of stuff, it didn't cost a lot of money.
One other note: I put all the small items in plastic bags. This is not only to keep them organized, but to protect them from the elements as well as any spills or leaks.
First, a mini first aid kit. I have a larger, more complete one with the rest of my emergency stuff, but this is made to go in a personal bag.
- Antibiotic ointment
- Alcohol swabs
- Contact solution
- Eye drops
- Safety pins
- Bug repellant
- Prescription medications (we don't have any, but if you need them, be sure to add enough pills for at least 3-7 days)
I had enough items laying around the house to fill this bag because I'm a bit of a hoarder when it comes to toiletry samples. If you don't have them handy, try the dollar store or the travel aisle at the pharmacy. For contact solution, ask your optometrist for a few samples. You can also sometimes get samples of your prescription medications from your doctor. If there are over-the-counter medications that you use frequently, like allergy medication, cough drops, etc., include those as well.
Estimated cost: $0 - $7
Next, a toiletry bag for Dad.
- Hand sanitizer
- Contact case
Again, most of these I had on hand with the exception of deodorant and hand sanitizer, which I bought at the dollar store. To stock up on mini shampoo and the like, take the complementary bottles from your hotel each night the next time you travel or ask your frequent traveler friends to pick you up a few. (They'll give you a new one each day, it's expected, you're not stealing, and you paid for them with the room, for Pete's sake.)
Estimated cost: $0 - $4
Now a toiletry bag for Mom:
The goodies in this bag:
- Hand sanitizer
- Contact case
- Bobby pins
- Hair clips
- Mini hair brush
I also packed a plastic bag full of feminine hygiene products, which I didn't feel the need to photograph. Also, while we're on the delicate subject, pack a supply of birth control pills if you need them (you can usually get a sample from your OB so you don't have to fill an extra prescription). I can think of few things worse than dealing with a major disaster during that special time of the month, so the least we can do is be prepared.
Estimated cost: $0 - $10
Separate from the toiletries are hygiene bags. A note about these: They are probably not absolutely necessary in a 72-hour kit, as we would survive just fine with unbrushed teeth. But cleanliness can help prevent infection in case anyone is injured, and being able to wash and feel clean can go a long way toward better mental health in the midst of an intense situation.
- 1 washrag
- 1 bar of soap
- Cotton balls
- Lip balm
My local Dollar Tree had these travel dental kits, which came with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and the plastic case. I bought the soap there, too, but everything else I already had. I used old washrags that were headed for the rag pile, but you could also cut up an old towel. I also packed but did not photograph a towel and one roll of toilet paper per person, also in plastic bags.
Estimated cost: $3 - $6
Small children don't need as much as you think. While you might pack an entire backpack for a trip to the zoo, when it comes down to it, their needs are really quite simple. In an emergency, you need very little to get by.
My 3-year-old son gets his own kid hygiene and toiletry kit:
- Bar of soap
- Cotton balls
- Hand sanitizer
- Wet wipes
Again, most of the items we had on hand and the rest were purchased at the dollar store. If you have older daughters, you may want to think about including feminine hygiene items even if they have not yet reached that stage. Better to be over-prepared than under.
Estimated cost: $2 - $5
My son also gets a clothing bag.
It has one of each the following:
I pulled these items straight from his closet, but again, the thrift store is a great place to look if you need something else. You can also ask around for hand-me-downs in your child's size or the next size up. Also, be sure to pack for the correct season. This is a summer kit, but in the fall I will switch the clothes for warmer items in a bigger size. Next spring, I'll switch again for cooler items.
Estimated cost: $0 - $4
I also added a few "comfort items" for my son. I figured that if we ever have to use our emergency kits, he will have just gone through a pretty traumatic experience. I packed a small box full of little toys and candies as well as a book of nursery rhymes. This is a good place for a few fast food toys that may be cluttering up the toy box.
Estimated cost: $0
Baby KitsPacking kits for my 5-month-old twins was most important to me, as they need the most to get by. I started with a feeding kit, since they are bottle fed.
- Burp rags
Even if you are breastfeeding, I recommend packing a feeding kit since you can't guarantee that your milk supply will hold up under the stress of disaster conditions. The bottles were from Walmart and only cost a few bucks, but you could also pull one or two from your cupboard. The formula pictured here is a collection of all the to-go samples we got from the hospital and in the mail, but I did put a few regular-sized cans of formula with the rest of our emergency items (not pictured). To get a few cans for free, call your pediatrician. Many offices have samples available.
Estimated cost: $5 - $20
Each baby gets a baby clothing bag with the following:
- 2 pairs of pajamas
- 2 onesies
- 1 bib
Again, pay attention to size and season. These kits have summer-weight clothes for size 6 months. In the fall I will replace these with long-sleeved shirts and warm pajamas for size 12 months. You can of course take items from your baby's closet, or you can hit up thrift stores or ask for hand-me-downs, which is where many of these items came from.
Estimated cost: $0 - $5
My girls also get baby hygiene kits:
- Cotton balls
- Baby shampoo
Included here are also the comfort items:
- Fleece swaddle blanket
- Small toy
Estimated cost: $2 - $7
Last but certainly not least, diapers and wipes. It's a good idea to use diapers that are one size larger than those your baby is currently in, not only because they will be "current" longer and because they will be more absorbent.
I also made a crude attempt at cloth diapers, in case we need to survive for longer than this case of diapers holds out.
- Cloth diaper inserts
- Safety pins
Estimated cost: $5 - $15
Emergency Food Items
I did not include food items in each bag because we keep our food together in a separate place. While many people like the ease of individual 72-hour kits, I personally like the flexibility of a communal supply. There are lots of different food items you could use for emergency kits, but since I have the storage space, I like to go with mostly canned foods because they have a long shelf life and require no prep — they can be eaten right out of the can. Just be sure to keep a can opener or two with your supply.
Here are some of my favorite canned food items:
- Fruit (peaches, pears, pineapple)
- Vegetables (green beans, corn)
- Beans (pinto, black, kidney)
- Soup (not condensed)
For lightweight, easily packed travel foods:
- Trail mix
- Granola bars
- Protein bars
- MRE's (meals ready to eat, available at army-navy supply stores and emergency stores)
And a few others to round out the food groups:
- Instant oatmeal
- Peanut butter
- Ramen noodles
Also, be sure to store lots of water — much more than you think you'll need. Most experts advise one gallon of water per person per day, enough for a minimum of three days (though FEMA recommends enough for a week). You can buy large barrels and water jugs or even used, clean milk gallons or soda bottles and fill with your own tap water, but that water needs to be replaced every few months. I like buying the gallon jugs from the dollar store or grocery store, because they will keep for a bit longer.
Other Emergency Items
As I said before, this is far from a comprehensive emergency preparedness list. But to get your own wheels turning, here are a few other items we have stored:
- Battery-powered radio
- Garbage bags
- Sleeping bags
- Water purifier bottle
- Camp stove
Just think of an emergency as a three-day camping trip in the elements. Whatever you might need, pack it or have it accessible. If you have babies and small children, don't forget baby carriers/slings and strollers. You don't have to keep them in your emergency kits, but having them easily accessible could be a life saver in case you need to travel by foot.
Storing Your Emergency Essentials
Your emergency kit should be in a place that's easily accessible and ready to go, like on a hook or shelf in the garage or in the trunk of your car. We like keeping ours in the garage or in our camping trailer, which we try to keep fully stocked. If you have camping gear not in a trailer, keep it in one central spot, like a large Rubbermaid container or two. Add your emergency items as needed and you'll have everything together, ready to go.
Keeping Your Supply Up to Date
For us, the biggest challenge is keeping our items up to date because it's hard enough to gather everything in the first place. But food and water need to be rotated, and if you have growing children, their clothes will need to be updated. A good rule of thumb is to update the clothing twice a year (once in the spring and once in the fall) and the food annually. Try to schedule it around a recurring date, such as a holiday or, for your prepared Mormons out there, every general conference in April and October.
What did I leave out? What are your must-have items, and how do you keep them ready to go?