In March of 2018, we experienced our first emergency situation in our new home: an enormous snow storm rapidly and dramatically took down trees and covered our town in heavy, white fluff. At the end of it all, our house came out unscathed, and we only lost power for about three days. We were also able to evacuate to my parents’ home to keep warm and utilize their generators. But it was a wake-up call: we were not at all prepared for when the next emergency inevitably arrives.
Our initial brainstorming session for our budget-friendly emergency kit.
While I would love to believe we will have plenty of time to gather necessary supplies before the next big event, the fact is we may not. Despite having literally the best weather prediction and communication technology since the dawn of human history, we can’t always predict an emergency. Storms can change course at the last minute, stall over us, or otherwise become much more severe than anticipated. Furthermore, not all emergencies are slow-moving storms we can see on radar; there could be human-caused disasters without warning at any time, such as fires and explosions. Finally, if there is a storm coming, and we all know how bad it is going to be, I don’t want to be the one driving to dozens of grocery stores gathering supplies, only to be met with empty shelves.
With our purpose in mind, and our budget a reality, we knew we just couldn’t settle for a pre-made emergency kit from the store. These emergency preparedness kits are built for a single purpose: to list as many items on the tag as possible. Just like first aid kits from the store, they often contain less-than-practical, low-cost articles just to impress you. I even saw one that included a deck of playing cards! Plus, they are expensive, and usually only contain a few days’ worth of supplies for one or two people. Finally, anything labeled “for emergencies” tends to have a hefty mark-up. We needed something bigger and more specialized to suit our family.
Below are the steps we followed to execute our mission of building our own emergency kit on a budget, along with the items we eventually included!
1. First, we determined what our most likely emergencies would be.
In the last couple of years, our town has been hit with post-hurricane tropical storms, blizzards, near-tornado wind storms, and flash floods. These events resulted in trees breaking and falling, power outages, significant cold, roads being washed out, and us sheltering in the basement. For these scenarios, we decided we needed to prepare something waterproof, portable, and which contains enough supplies for several days. Not an easy task.
2. How are we going to hold this thing?
After browsing list upon list of suggested emergency kit supplies, it started to look like we would need a whole trailer to contain everything they said we needed! But that wasn’t an option, both because we don’t have a trailer, and because our kit needed to be portable. We decided to split our kit into a few pieces. First, we would build our first aid kit. This element would be essential not only for injuries during an emergency but also in the event anyone in the house experienced a significant injury at any time. The first aid supplies simply took up too much space in our emergency kit. Plus, we wanted to store them in different places (more on this later). We chose to use a basic, inexpensive tool box for our first aid kit. We painted a red cross on it as a label, and we were off.
Our first aid kit is not just for big weather events: it could be necessary even on a sunny day with clear streets.
Next, we have the main emergency kit. The vessel for this part had to be inexpensive and portable as well. We wanted to start with a “bare bones” kit, and as our needs and means increased, we figured we could add on with more vessels. What we chose was a 5-gallon “Homer” bucket and lid from Home Depot. With a handle for carrying and a price of less than $5, it was a no-brainer. Backpacks are comfortable for carry, but they are not water proof. Also, a bucket would be extremely useful in a myriad of emergencies, such as to carry water or sand, or even to convert to a makeshift washing bucket or toilet. This bucket also won’t get so full that a single person couldn’t carry it at least a short distance. We wrote on it with a sharpie “EMERGENCY KIT,” and moved on to filling it.
This bucket is not very easy to open and close, but it makes a tight seal and is easily transported.
Finally, we chose to assemble mini emergency kits for our cars, as well. It is highly unlikely we would have an evacuation and not be able to go home for our main kit, but there could be road-side emergencies that call for having a car version of this kit as well. We went with something we already had: small “first aid kit” carriers from Wal-Mart. The contents in these kits are exactly what I was talking about above: a whole lot of fluff, including valuable coupons! But we had them already for each car, and we figured there were compact enough to do the job.
These pre-made kits came in handy for once: we emptied them out and filled them with our own supplies!
3. What am I supposed to put in this thing?
Before we get into the actual list of the contents, let me tell you to keep a few things in mind when building these kits:
- Shop at home first: Many items for your kit you may already have, so there is no point in going out and spending more money for a special “emergency” version. A lot of this process is about realizing your resources, gathering them in one place, and creating a goal of filling in the gaps over time (when an item goes on sale, becomes available for free, or your get the extra money to make a purchase).
- Then shop at the dollar store: LOTS of these elements were purchased at the Dollar Tree. You can pretty much fill your entire first aid kit from the Dollar Tree.
- Finally, set goals for how to build your kit over time. You do NOT need to get a full emergency kit all at once. Maybe you just got a tax refund or bonus, and you want to dedicate it to this project. But this is not an all-or-nothing thing: any amount of emergency preparedness is better than none. So don’t get overwhelmed with the cost and put it off. Start small, and build it up later. Every time you go to the grocery store, buy one more item for the kit.
Now, on to contents. Let’s start with the first aid kit. This kit should just contain the things we would need in an EMERGENCY. This is not for colds and headaches. This is for lacerations and sudden allergic reactions. We wouldn’t take up precious space with items that should be in our medicine cabinet. We also considered items that could play multiple roles. For example, instead of getting braces for each hand, using an ace bandage, combined with a stick, any brace could be assembled. What we ended up with is this:
- latex gloves
- bandaids (numerous sizes/shapes)
- antibiotic ointment
- gauze pads
- alcohol prep pads
- hand sanitizer
- instant ice pack
- ace bandages
- medical tape
- hydrogen peroxide
- spray alcohol
- benadry/allergy medicine
- butterfly bandages
- gauze tape
Most of these items are focused on cuts or broken bones. Keep in mind, even if there were clear roads and no snow, we still live about 30 minutes from a hospital emergency room. Accordingly, some injuries could be life-threatening if we didn’t have supplies such as these on hand.
Next, our emergency kit. Remember, we have a very small carrier, so we had to keep this list basic as well. We realized we could not keep several days’ worth of water and food in this bucket, so we committed to storing water in the basement beside it and relying on our pantry items for the bulk of our food in a true emergency. We tend to keep our pantry well-stocked with canned and dry goods, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Just in case, we included a few food items in the bucket, as well. Here is what we are keeping in the bucket:
- emergency radio – to receive information and charge devices
- flashlight – to see dangers, signal rescuers, and find supplies
- phone charging chord – to charge our phones from the emergency radio or at a shelter
- two cans of food (pork beans and soup) – protein, filling (pull-tab cans so we don’t need a can opener)
- five-pack ramen noodles – good filler, cooks quickly
- trail mix – high-energy snack
- dried banana chips – high calorie snack, high in potassium
- peanut butter – good for protein, calories, fat, vegetarian
- $60.00 cash – to buy supplies when credit card machines are down
- strike anywhere matches – to start warming/cooking fires
- emergency blankets – to keep warm, use as ground cover, rain protection, etc.
- garbage bags – to wear as rain ponchos, carry supplies, cover items and windows in the event of a leak or structural damage, etc.
- zip-ties – to secure items in the event of heavy rain or the need to construct an emergency structure
- duct tape – to secure items for transport, tie-down objects from flying around in wind, floods, etc., to cover windows in plastic (from garbage bags)
- baby wipes – for cleaning people and cooking utensils
- hand sanitizer – for cleaning people
In addition to these items, we have a few things in our house beside our bucket to use as well. We have a propane camp stove, extra fuel, and 2 camp mess kits. Many things you already have to go camping can be stored as emergency kit stock. Remember: you may already have a lot of these items at home!
The list inside the lid helps you re-check the stock periodically and know what to expect when you open your car kit.
In our two car mini emergency kits, our space is even more precious. So we kept it very basic:
- $20.00 cash
- emergency blanket (if you get the set link above, you can break up the multi-pack and put one in each car)
- road flare (this multi-pack can also be split up between two cars and/or the main emergency kit)
- Gauze pads
- Ace bandage
- medical tape
- antibiotic ointment
- window breaker/seatbelt cutter (not to be stored in kit, to be stored in center console/easy access near driver)
- granola bars
- juice boxes
- pocket knife/Leatherman
We also always have flashlights, because I have one on my keychain and Massimo carries one in his pocket at all times. Mini flashlights are SO GOOD and everyone should have one. This kit is for the basic basics, but certain needs only arise in the car (i.e. seat belt cutter) and should be left there. Also, keep in mind, in most emergency evacuations, you will have your car with you, so I mentally combined my car emergency kits and regular kit when I am considering what supplies I would have. For example, with the cash, if there are two of you, and you each have $20.00 in your cars, plus $60.00 in the house kit, you have a total of $100.00.
4. Okay, but what didn’t you put in there?
All of these kits have been thought-out and the contents carefully chosen for our specific needs. We have no pets, so we don’t need extra food and water for our pet. We do have a child, but he is at the point where he can eat what we eat. When he was a baby, we had to consider formula and bottles for our emergency kit. Diapers are obviously a need, but we didn’t have space to fill up with diapers, and his size changes frequently. Therefore, I always keep extra diapers in my car and we would grab extras if we needed to leave, just like we would grab extra clothes, etc.
We also didn’t include any personal hygiene items or prescription medications. Other than hand sanitizer, we didn’t want to waste the space. In a sudden evacuation, we figured we would not care if our teeth were brushed and if I had contact solution. If we had the time to care about it, we would have the time to grab it.
4. Finally, on to packing and storing our kits!
Save space and weight: When you have gathered all your supplies, take as many out of their packages as possible; it will save a lot of space. Putting them in order from largest/heaviest items on the bottom and lighter/smaller items on top will save space, protect the contents, and make the bucket more balanced and easier to carry.
Prevent moisture damage: In our first aid kit, we took everything out of their boxes and grouped similar objects, securing them with rubber bands. After a few months, we opened the kit and everything was covered in mold and mildew! We got rid of the worst offenders, bleached the rest, and ordered a fifty-pack of silica gel packets. (These are very cheap, but you can also save them from your medications, purses, etc.) Then, we grouped similar items in ziploc baggies, and put silica gel packets in each one.
Decide where it will live: We considered that it was unlikely we would face a total structural collapse, as in an earthquake. At first we kept the main kit high in the attic, figuring that would be dry. Well, it was dry, but it was also high up. When we were subject to a tornado warning and I was huddled in the basement with my son, the kit in the attic was no good to us. We realized it could get wet (it is waterproof!) but we needed it down in the basement to be most accessible.
I believe it is important to be prepared, not only for the sake of you and your household, but also for your neighbors and friends around you. Even if we have the time and means to go buy extra food and shelter in place, the low-income and sick or elderly people around us may not. That is why we need to make sure we check on our neighbors and lend a hand; to be a help, rather than a burden.
Even though I can’t keep every single possible need in my kit, I can bring a few essentials to the table. And if we can each have a few essentials, we can pool our resources and help each other to get through whatever event we are going through.
I hope this helps you and your household feel a little more prepared for an emergency situation, and gives you ideas for how to build your own emergency kit on a budget!
– D. E. Barbi Bee