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What to Put in a Family Bug Out Bag for Disaster Preparedness

Having a packed backpack ready to go in times of disaster can mean survival for your family.

Having a packed backpack ready to go in times of disaster can mean survival for your family.

How to Prepare Your Family for any Disaster

As Hurricane Irene battered the Bahamas and aimed toward the East Coast, panicked people flocked to grocery and hardware stores in search of supplies. They filled carts with batteries, water, and cans of spam. Droves of people empty the shelves of food and search lumberyards for sheets of plywood. They spin tales how they survived the last great storm without realizing how this current procrastination denotes a lack of overall preparedness.

Though people prepare their houses against the onslaught of the storm by covering windows and securing lawn furniture, little attention is given to portable survival kits. Though many families have emergency supplies, few can gather those supplies quickly when the evacuation order comes. A portable survival kit is something that can be taken from the house and provide for one’s family for a minimum of four days. The kit moves easily into a vehicle and can be carried for long distances if the need arises.

Building a portable survival kit is much like packing for a camping trip. In fact, most backpackers and campers will have little difficulty in quickly assembling a kit from their personal gear storage. Though emergency shelters and relatives can offer assistance, what happens when the shelters are full or when travel is too hazardous? If the debacle of Hurricane Katrina taught the nation anything, it is that you cannot always depend on the government. Therefore, the portable survival kit must account not only for food and water but for shelter and communications as well.

This article gives suggestions on how to build a portable family survival kit, but ultimately the decision what goes in the pack rests with you. It is nearly impossible to account for every situation in building a kit, so evaluate the local dangers, the time of year, and individual needs. A kit built for Buffalo in winter will be different than a kit built in Florida during hurricane season. Modify the kit as conditions change and take a monthly inventory to ensure everything is present and serviceable.

Three of my packs: Gregory Baltoro, The North Face Terra 35, Camelbak Cloud Walker.

Three of my packs: Gregory Baltoro, The North Face Terra 35, Camelbak Cloud Walker.

Bug Out Bags

You will need something to carry survival supplies. Backpacks are better than duffel bags or plastic totes, because they can be carried long distances over rough terrain with little effort. In addition, backpacks leave a person’s hands free to carry objects, take care of children, or carry more supplies.

Backpacks come in a variety of styles and sizes; however, the survival backpack should be large enough to carry the main supplies and sturdy enough to take the potential abuse of escaping a disaster. When shopping for a backpack, look for something with an internal frame (as they pack easier in vehicles) and something with at least a 4,500 cubic inch capacity. Also, look for a pack with extra lashing points for attaching things like sleeping pads and tents. My personal choice is the Gregory Baltoro 75, which I also use as a mountaineering pack.

Besides the large main backpack, you may want to get small day packs for everyone else in the family. Often the school book bag is fine for these purposes. Use these smaller packs to carry personal clothing and a few essential supplies in case that person is separated from the family. Suggested items in the day pack: emergency plan information with phone numbers, change of clothing, whistle, flashlight, garbage bag, and water bottle. Families with children may want to include a game or toy to pass the time.

For families with infants and toddlers, you should have a backpack-style kid carrier. Your little one will have a much better ride over rough uneven terrain and you will keep them out of dangerous contaminated water.

Shelters like the hex tarp from Ultimate Survival Technologies are must have components in your emergency kit.

Shelters like the hex tarp from Ultimate Survival Technologies are must have components in your emergency kit.

Survival Shelter

Shelter can be as simple as a hardware store tarp or as complex as 4-season mountaineering tent. Ideally the ultimate survival shelter is a well-made 3-season lightweight backpacking tent. These types of tents offer protection from rain, wind, sun, and insects. Though backpacking tents can be tight on space, do you really want to carry the 40-pound campground model with attached screen porch? If a large family is a concern, it may be necessary to include a couple of tents. As with all equipment, make sure to set the tent up in the backyard before disaster strikes.

In addition to tents, tarps are lightweight and offer fantastic protection while cooking or relaxing. Tarp pitching is a bit of an art, so this is something you want to practice too. Make sure to have at least 100-feet of parachute cord to string the tarp up. Plus, people on a budget can pick up a "blue tarp" at the hardware store for under ten dollars.

My family disaster pack includes a four-person tent and the hex tarp from Ultimate Survival Technologies. That multipurpose tarp is great in inclement weather and is reflective so it can be used as a signaling device or an emergency blanket.

Even in the summer, our bodies require protection from the cold. Therefore an adequate sleeping system is required inside the shelter. This system includes a synthetic sleeping bag, a waterproof storage bag, and an insulating/comforting ground pad. Choose sleeping bags according to the climate, but remember that mummy bags are usually more compact, lighter in weight, and thermally efficient than rectangular bags. Generally a good all around sleeping bag rating is 30-degrees. Though synthetic sleeping bags retain many of their thermal properties when wet, carry the sleeping bag in a waterproof bag. The ultra sil bags from Sea to Summit are outstanding; however, garbage bags work too. No sleep system is complete without a pad to insulate you from the ground and provide a level of comfort in extreme circumstances. Avoid large inflatable air mattresses, and opt instead for self-inflating (thermarest), backpacking inflatables (big agnes), or closed-cell foam pads. A sleeping pad works great on hard emergency center cots too.

Water filters like the Katadyn Hiker remove particulates and make most water safe to drink.

Water filters like the Katadyn Hiker remove particulates and make most water safe to drink.

Purifying Water

The portable survival kit requires water to be carried as well as a method to purify water. For water, plan on one-gallon per person per day; the consumption rate increases however as activity and temperatures increase. Though bottled water has great convenience, it is needlessly expensive and hard to carry. Use five-gallon water containers (remember to change water every few months) and fill up personal canteens. Each member of the family should have their own one-quart water bottles.

Purify water through boiling, chemicals, filters, or UV light. Each method has pros and cons, as described here. It is also possible to use a combination of techniques, like pumping water through a filter and then treating with UV light.

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  • Method: Bring water up to a rolling boil for five-minutes, let cool, and drink.
  • Pro: No special Equipment is needed besides a pot and a stove.
  • Con: Boiling water is very time consuming and uses lots of fuel.


  • Types: Iodine, chlorine dioxide, Polar Pur, Aqua Mira, Potable Aqua, MIOX, and others.
  • Method: Follow manufacturer instructions and add chemical to water, let sit, clean threads, and drink.
  • Pro: Inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to use.
  • Con: Must wait to drink water; can have a bad taste; does not remove particulates from water.


  • Method: Pump water from a potentially contaminated source through filter and into water bottle. Most pumps filter a quart of water per minute.
  • Pro: No taste, removes particulates, and can drink water instantly. Often, depending on the model, these filters remove bacteria, cysts, and parasites.
  • Con: Most filters do not "purify" the water, so things like viruses may still be lurking. Some filters can be complicated to use and require practice. Filters must be maintained to work properly.

UV light:

  • The Science: Exposure to UV light, interrupts the DNA of hazardous microbes and makes water safe to drink.
  • Method: Turn on UV light, submerge in water and stir. Many models, the Steripen adventurer for example, will shut off automatically when the water has been treated properly.
  • Pro: No taste; easy to use; can drink water immediately.
  • Con: Does not remove particulates, and battery life diminishes quickly.


  • Purinize is a unique water purifier that uses mineral salts to neutralize viruses and bacteria as well as agricultural and industrial contamination.
  • For best uses, add drops to water and let it sit for an hour. Then filter it through a filter or even a bandanna for chunk and contaminant free water.
  • Best of all Purinize has zero taste.

Check out my article "How to Purify Water While Camping and Backpacking" for more information on purifying water.

Camp cooking skills come in handy during an emergency.

Camp cooking skills come in handy during an emergency.

Survival Food

Food is generally the least of your worries as the human body can survive without food for weeks; however that starvation period is unpleasant to say the least. For food, think about carrying dehydrated foods, pasta dishes, granola bars, and other foods that don't require refrigeration. Backpacking-type freeze dried meals are tasty, nutritious, and very easy to prepare: just add boiling water to the pouch and wait about ten minutes. Use a lightweight multifuel camp stove like an MSR whisperlite international to cook your meals. Stoves like the whisperlite are durable, lightweight, easy to use, and use multiple fuel sources.

Food / Cooking List:

  • Multifuel stove, lighter, and repair kit
  • Filled fuel bottle(s)
  • Cook kit - must have at least one 2 quart pot per family
  • Can opener
  • Spoons
  • At least seven days of food for family - Package each day in a separate gallon freezer bag.

Check out my article Types of Backpacking Stoves: Choosing the Best Stove for your Camping Adventure.



In a disaster, communications are greatly compromised. It can be very difficult to communicate with friends and family as well as receive information about the current status of events. In your written family emergency plan, designate an out of state family member or contact. This person acts as the hub for information as people call them for status updates.

In the age of mobile phones, many pay phones have disappeared; however throw a few quarters in the survival kit in case you find one. Mobile phones are excellent, however they do not work in all areas and often times the network becomes jammed during a disaster. If voice calls are unable to transmit, try sending a text message. Carry a solar charger or additional batteries. It also works to have a power inverter in your vehicle and bring the phone charger along with you.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing in a disaster is not having enough information. Always keep a battery or crank-powered radio in your kit. Local radio stations do their best to keep people informed. Don't forget to pack extra batteries.

If you are in need of assistance, you also need a way to communicate with emergency crews. Every family member needs to have a whistle. Train everyone in the family that three whistle blast mean HELP! You may also want to carry an orange signaling panel, a signaling mirror, or aerial flares. Please be careful of aircraft while using aerial flares though.

Personal radios likewise have a place in communication during disasters, many even have built in weather radios. Please keep chatter to a minimum, and stay off of channels used by emergency responders.

A first aid kit is an essential piece of disaster preparedness gear.

A first aid kit is an essential piece of disaster preparedness gear.

Other Essentials

  • Written emergency plan with phone numbers of a family member living out of state.
  • Medication
  • Personal hygiene supplies / toilet paper / diapers / wipes
  • First aid kit - It helps to have taken a first aid course too.
  • Fires starters, lighter, and matches in waterproof case.
  • Quality multitool - A good multitool can fix most things that need to be fixed.
  • Duct tape - If you can't repair something with the multitool above, try duct tape.
  • Fixed blade knife
  • Folding saw
  • Whistle - The international distress sign is three whistle blasts.
  • Compass and map of area - Even a road map would work.
  • LED headlamp for each family member. Headlamps allow you to be hands free while working at night. LED headlamps do not require extra bulbs and possess long battery life.
  • Extra batteries
  • Dust Masks for each family member
  • Garbage Bags - From a trash containment device to an improvised shelter, garbage bags are handy to have.
  • Cash - When the power goes out, credit cards do not work.
  • Important family documents
  • Clothing - Pack one complete set of synthetic or wool clothing for each family member. Synthetic and wool clothing dry more quickly than cotton and are more thermally efficient at regulating body temperature.
  • Rain gear
  • Hiking Boots - Leave the flip flops and sneakers at home; opt for some light-mid weight hiking boots instead.
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Parachute cord / 550 cord -At least 100-feet
  • Solar charger to recharge cell phones

© 2011 Dan Human


Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on April 15, 2012:

Exactly, if the first time you use your water purifier or stove is during a disaster, you are adding an extra level of stress during an already stressful time.

Great link!

Thanks for stopping by survivaljustin!

survivaljustin from Australia on April 15, 2012:

This is an excellent hub! Lots of good stuff in there. One thing i'd add would be to play with all the stuff in your survival kit so you know how it all works. Go camping and give everything a good shakeout!

I've got some more thoughts on survival backpacks (on my site) if anyone is interested @



swordpoint9 on January 12, 2012:

Very nice basic Article !

readexds20 from Tahlequah, Oklahoma on September 26, 2011:

This is a good, well written, and concise article, that gives basic information we all could use in an emergency.

Good job! It may just save a lot of peoples lives.

Tracy Lynn Conway from Virginia, USA on September 05, 2011:

After surviving Hurricane Irene your hub is a 'must read.' Nice thorough list!

relucas on August 30, 2011:

Great site! Very useful!

Manon (Mia) on August 27, 2011:

Great information Dan! I have most of those things as a backpacker except for the multitool!

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