Basic Prepping Gear
version 1.0, updated August 26, 2021
First of all, a reminder: gear, and resources more generally, represents only one third of the preparedness triangle (alongside skills and relationships). Gear fetishism is a problem in preparedness. It alienates those who are not able to or interested in gathering resources. It also leads to a false sense of security. So do not overstate the importance of gear. Still, it’s one third of the triangle and worth considering.
This article begins with an overview and checklists before diving into details about each item at the bottom.
Oh Shit Gear
The first preppers I ever met were some anarchists out in the middle of the country who thought for some wacky reason the the inherent tensions within settler capitalism would lead to the polarization of the US and potential violent conflict. It seemed farfetched to me at the time, but they were also really cool people so I thought it was cool anyway.
They called their prepping gear their “oh shit gear” (OSG). They called their bugout bags their “oh shit bags.” They called the offgrid land project they maintained some basic structures on their “oh shit land.” (Pronounced “oh-shit-lind.”)
So let me tell you about my oh shit gear, and what I recommend to you.
Of course, gear is only one side of the preparedness triangle (of gear, skills, and relationships), and personal gear for emergencies is only side of the scale triangle within that (of emergency/personal, medium-term/community, and longterm/social). Never confuse “gear” with preparedness. It’s only the smallest facet of it.
Runner up phrasing: “That’s my oh-no bag. I’m just getting ready for the oh-no times.”
Prepping on a budget
Prepping, as we’ve seen it, is a rich person’s game. Or at least a middle class one. So many people I’ve talked to haven’t bothered with preparedness because it seems to be built on one thing: the acquisition and storage of things. Most ways that we acquire things in this world involve money, and most ways we store things involve access to space—which once again involves money.
It doesn’t need to be that way. Prepping is not an all-or-nothing thing. With gear, you can start small and expand as your storage and budget allows. Prepping in general, and gear in particular, has diminishing returns. The first $100 you spend will probably get you the most for your money. The first knife or multitool, the first water storage jug, the first bucket of dried rice, the first garden bed, the first emergency radio, the first of anything you get is going to be a whole lot more likely to do anyone any good than the ones you get later.
Many of the basics are small and cheap. Hell, a lot of them are things you already have, and where the preparation comes in is just changing your attitude about those things. Carrying a water bottle with you wherever you go, that’s prepping. Keeping snacks in your purse, that’s prepping. (Men with all their tools think they’re so prepared, but know nothing about the wonders of a purse. Ibuprofen or a pad comes in handy a lot more often than a handgun. Which can also fit into a purse.)
If you’re prepping on a budget, start small. If you’ve got space, but no money, like those in rural areas often do, you have some advantages. Storing bulk foods will be less of a problem. You might have an easier time growing your own food. You might have a creek or a spring for drinking water (after filtration), plus enough space to keep a broken dryer around to try your hand at DIY hydroelectric.
If you have limited space, though, don’t worry. There’s still so much you can do, and if you’re in an urban environment, access to people is an immediate and incredible asset in times of crisis.
You don’t need to start with fancy gear, either. In fact, you might never wind up wanting fancy gear. Plenty of times, especially for tools you don’t use every day, you just want something that’s good enough.
Judging gear based on price is complicated, and I’ve learned two things about that the hard way. One: never trust rich people when they give you gear suggestions. They’ll always have very rational-seeming reasons why you need a $200 knife or an $80 belt. They’ll have reviews and data to back it up. They might even in the abstract be correct. But you don’t need a $200 knife or an $80 belt in order to have a functional knife and a functional belt. If I needed a $200 knife, I probably wouldn’t own a knife. Two: conversely, sometimes you do actually get what you pay for. Certain things you can’t skimp out on. It’s just really hard to tell what is what. I’ll do my best in this guide to sort out which is which, but it depends a lot on your specific context.
When I can afford it, I try to find the sweet spot just before the diminishing returns on price point. Maybe a $40 headlamp is twice as good as a $20 headlamp, and is worth it. But maybe a $150 headlamp is only half again as good as the $40 headlamp (if it’s better at all!). But also sometimes you just need the $20 headlamp. Sometimes your $40 is better spent on one $20 headlamp for you and one for your kid, or your partner, or your friend.
This is just my own basic philosophy. Yours might be different. That’s great! It should be.
I’ve been using $5-15 folding knives for years and still swear by them. They break eventually, but so do the $40 ones, and I’ve never really imagined what I would want out of a folding knife to consider one much more expensive than that. If I carved as a hobby, or relied on knives for my personal safety on a daily basis, I might reconsider and pay more for a knife that is easier to keep razor sharp.
Counter to all of this, though, when in doubt, I use a maxim my father, with his working class ethics, passed onto me: with a tool you plan on using often, buy the best one you can afford and use it until it’s absolutely destroyed. No buying the newer shinier one if the one you have still meets your needs. That’s less specifically about prepping—which often involves buying things you don’t use on a daily basis—but serves as a good fallback for me.
Finally, keep in mind that many people without access to resources rely on shoplifting or other crime to meet their needs. Of course, I would never attempt to convince—or dissuade—you to or from breaking any law. Ethics are entirely divorced from legality.
The basic categories
- Practical clothing
- Everyday carry
- Emergency Kit
- Camping Bag / Go Bag
- Vehicle Preparedness
- Home Preparedness
I break down preparedness gear into a reasonably specific system. Practical clothing serves as the foundation. Everyday carry adds a few versatile and useful tools. An emergency kit fits into my purse or backpack so I always have some gear on me. That kit fits into a full camping bag (or “go bag” if you must). That camping bag contains plenty that would be useful at home as well if the heat or power failed, but you can expand into specific home preparedness as well, and vehicle preparedness. Then the little outlier from the rest of the system is a dedicated trauma first aid kit, or an IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) in tactical parlance.
This system isn’t wholly distinct from what I’ve seen elsewhere, but I’ve worked it as best as I can to reduce duplication by making it slightly more modular. I prefer this system because I don’t want to haul my whole camping bag with me everywhere I go, but I know I always have access to certain things. The goal of writing this is not to encourage you to systemically acquire each of the items I describe. Completionism is meaningless. There is always more gear you could get—preparedness is an infinite pit because the possibilities of what might go wrong are endless. These are all just suggestions of things you might want to have available.
You also might personally prioritize different items differently on this list. My own personal views on it change constantly.
The first step to this approach to preparedness is to begin to favor the practical, particularly when it comes to everyday clothing.
Look, this breaks my heart. I like heels. I like lace, I like cotton. I like punk spikes. I like patches that clearly identify my political affiliations. All those things still have a place in my life, but I’m learning to embrace the practical. I try to balance it out. Maybe I can wear a lace top with my work pants, or put a fanny pack over my dress.
Most of gear prepping is just having the stuff you use anyway be the kind of thing you can use during crises. Judge clothes, vehicles, tools, and the like by their durability, portability, and all-around practicality.
For me, this meant moving away from steel-toed Doc Martin style boots to lighter weight, more versatile modern tactical boots. It means now more of my dresses, socks, and long underwear are wool or synthetic instead of cotton (cotton loses its insulation value when wet, thus the outdoorsy phrase “cotton kills”). It means cargo/tactical pants, or larger purses. It means purses with better straps, or my current love, the aforementioned fanny pack.
Practical might mean different things to different people. Take vehicles: sedans are low profile and have a lockable trunk, perfect for many situations. A coupe with low-profile tires designed for speed and fast turns could be vital. Station wagons have more storage space and you can sleep in them. Minivans are wonderfully versatile machines. Or where you live you might really want to consider all wheel drive and higher clearance. Motorcycles don’t store much gear but let you weave through stopped cars on the road and are famously good for evading pursuit.
Or with clothes: you might prefer to look incognito rather than antifa supersoldier. Last year I drove across the country as a trans girl wearing black tactical pants and sleeveless t-shirts and let me tell you, it would have been safer to wear blue jeans and a baseball cap. Yet at a demonstration or in a tactical environment, that antifa supersoldier look works quite well to hide my identity and allow me to carry everything I might need. Favoring the practical means more than just stockpiling practical gear. It means wearing it, getting used to it. Practical clothing is the foundation of this plan. I’m not going to get into many details about practical clothes. It depends so much on your personal style, climate, and habits. I’m not even going to make a checklist for it.
After favoring the practical, next is to have certain tools on you at all times. This is your “everyday carry,” or EDC if you accidentally become the kind of prepping asshole who talks about this shit so much you need an acronym for it. You already have an EDC. For most people I know, it includes your keys, wallet, and phone. These are preparedness items, at the core of it. Each is carried to solve certain problems.
As a foundation for this method of preparedness, I recommend you carry at least: wallet, phone, pocket knife, light source (especially a small tactical flashlight), lighter, and multitool. Anything from that list which you don’t carry as everyday carry, add to your emergency kit (the next step) instead. Some people add other things here, such as a concealed handgun, keychain self-defense tools (fixed-blade knife, pepperspray, cute little metal kitty brass knuckles), a tourniquet, first aid, hygiene items, medications, whatever.
Expanded descriptions of every item in this and further lists are included below.
- Cell Phone
- Handgun, holster, and spare magazine
- Self defense tools
If practicality and everyday carry are the foundation of this theory of preparedness, an emergency kit is the core of the rest. An emergency kit is full of lightweight, cheap, small items that dramatically increase your comfort or your odds of survival in a number of situations. It’s a combination hygiene kit, first aid kit, and survival kit. It fits into a pretty small pouch and would sit in the bottom of your backpack or purse.
I personally design them at two levels. The smaller one is very compact, is cheaper, and more convenient. The larger one adds a few more items and upgrades a few items.
I personally don’t keep food or anything else that expires quickly in this kit because I like to just forget about it and I’m pretty good at throwing protein bars into every pocket and pouch I run across in my life.
This isn’t a list of “necessities” but instead a list of what I personally put into kits I distribute to people. The essentials are in here, but many of these items are here because they are cheap, useful, small, and lightweight so there’s no reason not to include them. Many serve more than one purpose. I find myself relying on my own all the time in my day-to-day life, whether to take ibuprofen for a sprain or to give a tampon to someone who forgot one.
Note that I prefer keeping pills in blister packs when possible over loose pills, since they store longer, are clearly labeled, and might minimize complicated interactions with law enforcement.
Some of these items are best purchased in bulk, so consider making extra kits to give to your family and friends.
Emergency kit (basic)
- Folding toothbrush and travel toothpaste
- Dental floss
- Compressed towel
- Tampons (2x regular, 2x super)
- Earplugs (one set)
- Lip balm
- Condoms (2x)
- Lube packets (2x)
- Nail clippers
- Hair ties
- Soap strips
- First aid
- Emergen-C packets (2x)
- Alcohol Wipes
- Antibiotic ointment packets (2x)
- Bandaids (4x assorted)
- Wound closures (steri-strips or butterfly bandages)
- Irrigation syringe
- Gauze roll
- Petroleum jelly packet
- Loperamide (Imodium) 2mg (x3)
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) 25mg (x2)
- Ibuprofen (Advil) 200mg (x4)
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) 500mg (x4)
- Aspirin 325mg (x4)
- Potassium iodide 130mg (x2)
- Personal medications
- Butane lighter
- Solid fuel
- Needles (3x leather, 6x regular)
- Fishhooks (20x assorted sizes)
- Fishing line (30’)
- Water purification tablets
- P38 or P51 can opener
- Emergency blanket
- Credit card multitool
- Replace emergency blanket with emergency sleeping bag
- Magnesium striker
- External phone battery and charging cable
- Hand sanitizer
- Baby powder or anti-chafe stick
- Sunscreen packet
- Wet wipes
- Hot hands
Also in your daily carry bag, outside this kit
- Water bottle
- Protein bars or other snacks
- Lockpicks (depending on laws and threat models)
- Keyring of common shared keys
- Eight-way twin key
- Small screwdriver set
- Upholstery thread
- USB stick with encrypted volume for personal documents
Camping Bag / Go Bag
Call it a bugout bag, an oh-shit bag, a go bag, a camping bag, an oh-no-times-bag, whatever you want. It’s the stuff you need to be comfortable when you’re not at home. This bag might not be necessary to you at all. Most of your basic needs are met already for most situations. (Let’s be honest: most of your basic needs in most situations are met by your cell phone, your wallet, and your keys).
While your emergency kit will help you meet your needs in a crisis, a camping bag makes it substantially easier to meet those needs in more situations. It includes shelter (tent, tarp, or bivy), warmth (spare clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), food and water (stove, more water filtration), and other important stuff.
This bag would be useful in urban or rural situations alike. I spent years “urban camping” as a hitchhiker and what I needed to sleep on a rooftop (or next to a culvert behind a strip mall) is not much different from what I needed to sleep in the forest.
To be low-key, consider a large-ish civilian day pack. To cross long distances on foot, consider a backpacking backpack. For tactical situations, consider a “three-day assault pack.” I currently prefer a somewhat small tactical pack.
Be realistic about the amount of weight you can carry. When I was young and spry I felt like I could pack an infinite amount of weight into my backpack. In my early thirties, I seriously injured my chest swinging on too heavy of a backpack. Practice carrying this bag.
You also just might not need a camping bag, depending on where you live and what you’re worried about. Some of the items herein (especially sleeping bags, tarps, water filtration, and warm clothes) should probably be gathered regardless if possible and kept at home.
The one thing that really makes this bag more than what you’d bring camping is the personal effects (copies of documentation, etc) that you keep in it.
- [Anything you’re missing from the expanded survival kit]
- Single wall steel water bottle
- Collapsable plastic water canteen
- Ceramic water filter
- Ready to eat food
- Bushcraft knife
- Knife sharpener
- Additional fire methods
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad (appropriate to weather and desired comfort)
- Shelter: tent, bivy, or tarp
- Survival literature
- Additional socks
- Warm underlayers
- Emergency radio
- Monocular or Binoculars
- Rain cover or dry bag for pack (can be trash bags)
- Ace bandage
- Camping cook set
- P100 dust masks
- Solar charger
- Hiking poles
- Folding saw, hatchet, or machete
- Collapsable LED solar lantern
- Plastic trowel
- Camp stove and fuel
- Ammunition and/or spare magazines for any firearms you are likely to carry
- Cleaning snake for any firearms
For the most part, a vehicle preparedness kit is the culmination of the previous items. There are some things worth having or considering for your vehicle specifically however.
- [Anything that didn’t fit into your camping bag]
- Escape hammer
- Spare engine oil
- Extra wiper fluid
- Extra coolant
- Tire patch kit
- Tire gauge
- Battery jumpstarter
- Jumper cables
- Tire inflator (DC or a bike pump)
- Extra nonperishable food
- A couple gallons of water
- Gas can
- Basic wrench set
- Jack and tire iron
- Hi-vis vest
- Snow chains
- Ice scraper
- Folding snow shovel
- Gas siphon (less useful on modern cars)
- Escape mats
- Respirator or P100 dust masks
- Extra emergency kit
Here’s where you, probably, have more room and where weight becomes less of an issue. Where you live will factor into your decisions heavily, of course. Do not run generators inside. If you live in an apartment, getting a generator might be a lot lower priority for you (running it on the roof or a courtyard with an extension cord might be possible, but this would be complicated in a crowded environment).
Some propane heaters can be run inside, but not all. No propane tanks can be safely stored inside. According to a medical friend who works with emergency disaster relief, two of the main causes of death in natural disasters in the US are carbon monoxide poisoning from people improperly using propane appliances (stoves, barbecues, and heaters especially) inside and chainsaw accidents. Do not use either of these things without learning proper safety, because improper use is likely to be more dangerous than whatever problem you’re trying to solve.
A “solar generator” however might be appropriate instead. These are large battery banks with outlets and inlets that can be charged usually by AC power, DC power, or solar power (yes I know solar power is technically DC power). These can provide emergency power in a pinch and they can be recharged, albeit slowly and inconsistently, with solar panels if needed. Solar generators are fairly expensive.
Of course, most people tend to focus on the wrong problems when they prepare. Functioning smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are more important than backup generators or deep freezers for most people most of the time. Good anti-mold paint is more likely to save your health than full face respirators. A sign by your door reminding everyone not to talk to police or feds more likely to help you than a stockpile of ammo.
- A month’s worth of canned and dried food
- Water storage containers of appropriate size
- Home-sized water filter
- Battery-powered lights
- Backup power
- Backup heat
- A larger first aid kit
- Cordless power tool set and screws
- Hammer and nails
- Crowbar or demolition tool
- Bolt cutters
- Amateur radio transceiver
- Body armor
- Gas mask
The “individual first aid kit” or IFAK is military slang for a small first aid kit dedicated to dealing with major trauma like gunshot wounds. This sits outside the rest of my preparedness gear structure but I think they are important enough to include regardless. They are small, roughly the size of the survival kit or smaller, but because when you need it you need it in a hurry, I keep it separate. I would recommend keeping it at home (in an accessible place) or in your vehicle (perhaps strapped to the back of your headrest for accessibility) unless you are entering a situation in which it is likely to be necessary such as a protest. One of the best medics I know carries hers in a fanny pack. Other people go for dedicated IFAK pouches that attach to a belt or body armor. What matters is that it’s easily accessible: major bleeds need to be stopped fast, and a tourniquet buried at the bottom of your pack might not do anyone any good.
In protest environments, carrying an IFAK is worthwhile even if you don’t have the skills to use it—your IFAK is as much for the medic who is treating you as it is for you to treat someone else with. However, even those of us who are incredibly squeamish and hate blood ought to seek out the training to treat traumatic injuries.
- CAT 7 tourniquet (genuine only)
- Emergency Trauma Dressing
- Two vented chest seals
- Hemostatic gauze
- Compressed gauze
- Trauma shears
- Permanent markers (black and silver)
- Two pairs of nitrile gloves
- Emergency blanket
- Nasopharyngeal airway with lubricant (seek training)
- Decompression needle (seek training)
Items in detail
Multitool: Multitools are generally a folding set of pliers with a bunch of other doodads stuck to it, like knives and saws and can openers. In general, multipurpose doodads for survival are garbage, but a multitool is great. These can be cheap or expensive and maybe the expensive ones last longer. I like medium-cheap ones like the Gerber brand. Leatherman ones are more expensive and people swear by them. I’ve also used dirt cheap ones and they work in a pinch but they’re uncomfortable enough, and their tools don’t lock open, that I don’t personally recommend the dirt cheap ones. Multitools are great. I use mine mostly as pliers (to grip and tear at things, or pull out ticks without tweezers), but occasionally use the knife, the can opener, the scissors, the saw, or the screwdrivers. It’s funny: when I don’t have one on me, I never seem to need it. When I do have it on me, I use it every day and can’t imagine going without. (The same is true for a knife and a flashlight.) There are also tiny multitools (like the Gerber Dime) that can be attached to your keychain.
Lighter: Just keep a bic lighter on you. There’s almost no reason not to. I live the kind of life where I use it a lot (starting gas or wood stoves or campfires) but even if I didn’t, no reason not to carry it. Butane lighters apparently don’t work below freezing, so people keep them in their pockets at night in the cold to keep them warm.
Pocketknife: A folding knife winds up handy way more often than you’d expect. I mostly use mine to cut open boxes, carve wood, and kill ticks while freaking out (I really hate ticks). Some come with cord (and seatbelt) cutters and window breaking tips, which would presumably be useful in a car accident, although the cord cutters are often subpar on cheap knives. Even cheap knives should lock open — don’t use one that doesn’t or it could close on your hand while you’re cutting. They come in a million different blade shapes, just like fixed blades, and you can geek out about shape all day though to some degree a knife is a knife. You can use a pocketknife for self defense also, though knife fighting is generally ill-advised. I use cheap folding knives and like them just fine. Spring assist is handy, but not legal in all states. Ones without spring assist can be opened just as quickly.
Some people like opinels for cheap reliable pocketknives. I don’t personally favor them because they don’t clip to my pocket and can’t be opened one-handed, but they are very high quality for their price.
Flashlight: I got so used to headlamps when I was Forever Camping that I never really saw the need for a pocket flashlight but I’ve come around on it. I carry a small tactical flashlight that is very bright. It’s for finding your way through the dark, sure (though a headlamp is better for that), but it’s also for shining into recessed corners to find objects, for scanning the woods to figure out what that noise was, and for self-defense. “Tactical” flashlights usually come with metal bodies and ridged tips so you can use them as a weapon. Some come with a strobe mode that is supposed to be used to blind people, but from what I understand the best use of a flashlight for self defense is to just shine it, not strobing, into someone’s face for a second to blind them so you can run away (or attack, I suppose, but in most self-defense situations, running away is better if it’s an option). The strobe mode will disorient you as well as them, whereas a bright light in their face will only disorient them. I like a flashlight that goes on and off with one click, rather than cycling through modes with each click. In fact, I despise when it cycles through modes with each click. Whoever designed flashlights that cycle did not rely on flashlights daily. I would like to aggressively shine my flashlight in the face of whoever is responsible for this design. I’ve used super cheap tactical flashlights, which can be like $10 or so, but I currently use one that’s around $40-50 and like it a lot more than the cheaper ones. Start with a cheap one, and if you like it and then it breaks, get a slightly nicer one. Modern tactical flashlights use weird batteries so you might have to do some research. Rechargeable versions of these batteries exist but are less reliable.
I recommend a tactical flashlight for EDC over a headlamp because it can clip to your pocket or go into a sheath and because it is useful for self defense. There are also tiny LED lights that can attach to your keychain that are often quite handy, if you don’t want to carry a full sized (albeit small) flashlight. Cell Phone: I’m not going to tell you what kind of cell phone to carry. But a cell phone, even without service, can be an invaluable resource. Store photos of personal documents. Download survival guides. Offline maps that work with GPS are available.
Handgun: Firearms will be covered in a separate, dedicated article, as the decision to go armed is complicated tactically, ethically, politically, and legally. Tourniquet: While the tourniquet is covered more under IFAKs, below, it’s worth noting that if you carry a gun, you should probably carry a tourniquet. Personally I carry a tourniquet even if I’m not going armed.
Self-defense tools: Many people, regardless of whether or not they’re “preppers,” carry some kind of self-defense tool or weapon other than a knife or gun with them. These might include pepperspray, metal knuckles (whether the traditional “brass knuckle” style or the cuter “cat” style), kubotans, tasers, batons, or other fancy things. Laws around these things vary wildly and are sometimes hard to get clear information about. My knowledge about most of these weapons comes from research and small amounts of personal experience, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt — I’ve carried batons and pepperspray at various points in my life but never used them during crisis.
While pepperspray is rare in the “prepping” world (presumably because it’s seen as a woman’s weapon, except when it’s huge cans of bear spray), many people carry pepperspray for self defense. Unfortunately, reviews of the individual small cans of pepperspray for self-defense are mixed at best. It might be worth getting a decently high-quality version of this, with slightly more range, better aim, etc.
Brass knuckles are generally illegal, but no one I know seems to have gotten in trouble for the “cat” style knuckles. These usually attach to a keychain and with some basic self-defense training would be effective.
Tasers come in two very different styles. The ranged ones that actually shoot prongs are very effective — they shut down the body and immobilize people. The shock-prod style ones that just move a spark between two points are pain-based and would be unlikely to stop a determined attacker and absolutely do not function like they do on TV. (The ranged ones, though, do.)
Batons are a pretty effective weapon and don’t cut people the way that knives do, making it probably harder to accidentally kill someone—if they were legal to conceal in my state, I’d probably carry a baton before any other self-defense weapon because I don’t want to kill someone who tries to beat me up, but I also don’t want to let them beat me up.
Kubotan are little metal sticks you hold in your fist to attack with and require training.
All else being equal though, the tactical flashlight, for blinding people, seems to be the most effective single self-defense tool besides a handgun.
Bandanna: There’s a reason bandannas have been popular historically amongst people who spend a lot of their time outside. They can be tied around the neck to be worn as an emergency dust mask—or to rob a train. Wet masks filter better and can provide basic, temporary protection from tear gas. They can be worn on the head, soaked in water, to keep cool. They can also be used as a stage 1 water filter—that is, to filter out dirt and other large particles before chemical or ceramic filtration.
Pouch: Some people prefer a fanny pack or something else that looks “civilian.” I personally prefer tactical pouches for versatility. I fit my smaller kits into “small” pouches, roughly 6”x4.5”x2.2” and the larger kits into 8”x6”x3” bags that are generally sold for first aid or IFAK purposes. With larger pouches, look for the ones that open into three parts including a smaller zippered section. Either design comes with straps on the back that allow them to attach to MOLLE — that pattern of webbing that is on most military and tactical gear. They also can go onto a belt or be thrown into the bottom of a backpack or the trunk of a car. I usually keep mine in the backpack I carry my laptop in.
Folding toothbrush and travel toothpaste: Dental hygiene might not be on your mind in a crisis, but if that crisis is gonna last, it’s better not to get cavities when dental care is harder to come by.
Dental floss: In my regular life I use dental floss sticks, but for a survival kit, actual floss is better because it can floss your teeth and sew your backpack back together. Crust punks have been using dental floss to sew their clothes for decades and it is strong, light, and cheap. Waxed floss doesn’t hold knots very well, so you should burn the end.
Compressed towel: These are tiny so I like to throw them into my kits, though they come in large bulk and might not be worth prioritizing if you’re just making a kit or two. These are tablet-sized until you add water, when they become washcloth sized. Hygiene is essential for any medium- or long-term off-grid life, as skin infections can range from unpleasant to debilitating. After almost 20 years of off-grid life, ask me how I know.
Tampons: I include tampons because an awful lot of people menstruate, and even if you don’t, having them handy might be useful for someone else. Tampons without applicators are much smaller and work in a pinch. Tampons are not good emergency bandages, despite the pervasive myth. Tampons are designed to absorb blood, not stop bleeding. They have no hemostatic properties, have a very small surface area, and do not apply pressure. Even dirty clothes are recommended more highly to pack wounds in an emergency: the shirt off your back is a better idea than a tampon. Tampons can be used as tinder, especially when impregnated with petroleum jelly.
Earplugs: Tiny and useful. Use them when you’re around gunfire (or flashbangs!). Use them to sleep in the crowded refugee center or mutual aid camp. If you want to listen to live music, you can get the slightly more expensive ones that dampen noise evenly across the spectrum. I keep a pair or two in a tiny ziploc bag.
Lip balm: Lip balm is good in the wind and cold and can be important for overland hiking as sunscreen. It can also function similarly to petroleum jelly to prolong the burning time of cotton tinder.
Condoms and lube: For sex, mostly. It’s best to avoid getting pregnant when you don’t want to be pregnant, and lube makes for better sex in a lot of situations. Lubricated condoms are generally preferred by most people for sex, while un-lubricated condoms are sometimes packed in survival kits for other uses: water storage (inside a sock to protect it from popping), to protect the muzzle of a gun from the elements, to keep tinder dry, as an emergency glove, etc etc. But I put these in the kits because the apocalypse makes for strange bedfellows.
Nail clippers: For personal hygiene.
Hair ties: I’m sure these have a million hidden survival uses or something, but I use them to keep my hair in a braid, which is one of the most practical ways to put up long hair when doing physical work.
Soap strips: The most portable kind of soap I can find are tiny dispensers of soap-impregnated strips. Soap is important for cleaning wounds, fighting skin infections, and general hygiene.
Emergen-C: Little packets of electrolytes you can mix in with your water and get some energy and vitamins. Good for hangovers too.
Alcohol wipes: These are for sanitizing objects (tweezers, needles, knives) or unbroken skin. They can also be used to clean wounds, but this is controversial: alcohol (like iodine or god forbid hydrogen peroxide) damages tissue and slows down healing. Washing with soap and water is better practice. Some medics use alcohol anyway because there isn’t time to wash a wound well and they see infection as more dangerous than slowed-down healing.
Superglue: For repairs of objects and for emergency wound closure. Note that regular superglue is not the same stuff that hospitals use for wound closure. Your mileage may vary. Some people like using superglue on their cuts, especially clean, shallow cuts on the hand, when they want to continue to be able to use that hand.
Antibiotic ointment: For preventing or fighting bacterial infection in minor wounds. Signs a wound is infected: skin around it turning red, swollen, warm or hot, increasingly painful.
Bandaids: These can be used to keep small wounds clean. Don’t let anything get infected in crisis situations if you can help it. Make sure to clean all wounds, including small ones!
Wound closures: Either “butterfly bandages” or “steri-strips.” The idea is the same: these are like temporary stitches, helping hold a wound together. You still gotta clean the wound first.
Irrigation syringe: Used to irrigate wounds by spraying water into them. Use no more pressure than is necessary to clean out debris.
Tweezers: For cleaning out wounds, removing ticks and splinters, and keeping your eyebrows on point. When cleaning wounds, sterilize the tweezers with alcohol wipes first. When removing ticks, grasp the tick by the head.
Gauze roll: For rolling up packing into traumatic wounds to stop bleeding (start by wrapping it tightly around your thumb so you can apply pressure for several minutes inside the wound) or for wrapping around a wound to keep pressure on it.
Petroleum jelly: For first aid, cracked skin, and fire starting. It is controversial for first aid use: some people use petroleum jelly instead of antibiotic ointment on non-infected wounds (under the bandaid) while others disagree. Applied to cotton (including for example, sock lint or tampons) it extends the life of the flame substantially.
Loperamide: 2mg. An anti-diarrheal can be the difference between life and death in some situations in the wild, especially when food is scarce. The most famous brand name is Imodium. Adult dosage: At first, 4mg (2 pills) after the first loose bowel movement, then 2mg (1 pill) after each loose bowel movement after the first dose has been taken, to max of 4 pills in a day.
Diphenhydramine: 25mg. Antihistamine. For acute allergic reactions. Can also be used as a sleep aid or anti-anxiety. Usually called Benadryl. Adult dosage: 25-50mg (1-2 pills). Avoid alcohol or operating a vehicle.
Ibuprofen: 200mg. Pain relief, anti-inflammatory, fever reduction. Potential allergen, and is an NSAID and can therefore cause stomach bleeding. Sometimes called Advil. Adult dosage: usually 1, sometimes 2 tablets every 4-6 hours (no more than 6 tablets in a day).
Acetaminophen: 500mg. Pain relief and fever reduction. Is not an NSAID. Combine with Ibuprofen for more pain reduction. Sometimes called Tylenol. Adult dose: 2 tablets every 4-6 hours as needed. No more than 8 tablets in a day.
Aspirin: 325mg. Similar to Ibuprofen but also used for heart attack prevention. Is an NSAID and can cause stomach bleeding. Adult dose: 1-2 tablets with water every 4 hours as needed. No more than 12 tablets in a day.
Potassium Iodide: 130mg. For nuclear disaster, to protect your thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine. Literally that’s the only purpose. Basically your thyroid can only hold so much iodine, so if you jam a whole bunch in there, it won’t absorb any of the radioactive iodine. If you’re in a situation where you need to take this, you only have a few moments, so it’s best to have it available. Use if directed to by emergency broadcast. One pill every 24 hours as needed.
Caffeine: Important to keep you awake during crisis. I carry caffeine gum personally because it’s packaged more conveniently than any pills I’ve found.
Personal Medications: Whatever you rely on, carry some with you if you can.
Mask: I wrote most of this while still in the midst of the Covid pandemic, when a mask was an obvious necessity. Even when that passes, a simple mask is useful to breathe better in dusty and smoky environments as well as for disguising your features from surveillance.
Butane lighter: The humble Bic lighter is one of the most reliable firestarters in the world. While it doesn’t excel in wind, and doesn’t function if the gas within is below freezing, it’s still the best bang for your buck in the firestarting world.
Solid fuel: A 14-gram hexamine fuel tablet burns at 1300 degrees for about 15 minutes. These can be used to start fires in adverse conditions or even used directly to heat food or water.
Tinder: Small amounts of dry tinder can go a long way to starting a campfire. There are dozens of products available that help in bad conditions. Other people just store dryer lint in a ziploc bag.
Sewing needles: I keep needles in small plastic vials designed for the purpose. Leather needles have blades on them and allow you to sew leather and rubber and other things without threads. They can also be used for thick canvas and webbing, though they will slightly weaken the fabric by cutting their way through. I sew with dental floss in a pinch, but pack upholstery thread if I expect to be repairing my clothes a lot. Regular needles can be used to lance (pop) blisters. Leaving blisters alone is best, but sometimes you can’t. Sterilize the needle and puncture the very edge of the blister (rather than the top) to drain out the fluid. Watch for infection.
Fishhooks and line: I don’t even eat fish, but if it was between that or starvation I would eat fish. My emergency fishing kit (fishhooks of various sizes and some fishing line in a tiny ziploc bag) weighs nothing, takes up no room, and the fishing line could come in handy as emergency cordage.
Water filtration pills: Full disclosure, I’ve been packing these around for years and I’ve never used them. I’ve always either had clean water or a ceramic survival water filter available. My camping guide friend prefers these to ceramic filters, though. Basically, these are pills that kill most bad shit you find in water. You can get a second bottle of pills that fixes the taste after you’ve disinfected the water. Make sure that you have the instructions on hand for your specific brand of chemical filtration. Do not drink untreated “natural” water, because if you get giardiasis you will shit and vomit at the same time, dramatically reducing your survival chances. I’ve had it once and it was terrible. Filter the water through a shirt or bandanna to remove large material, then apply chemical filtration.
Whistle: Whistles are great. Tiny, cheap, loud as shit. Use them to get rescued, or to practice weird tactical communications I don’t know. Don’t go hiking without a whistle. There’s no reason not to have one.
P38 or P51 can opener: the P38 is a tiny little military can opener. The P51 is the slightly larger version. They’re both tiny, light, and dirt cheap. I usually have one on a keyring attached to my spork. Now you’re ready to eat anything.
Emergency blanket: These mylar blankets are light and cheap and one saved my life when I got hypothermia as a kid. They ain’t cozy and you won’t sleep well and they’re cheap and fragile, but they might keep you from dying. Plus they can be used as tiny tarps for rain catchment, or used to line the inside of your shelter to reflect heat back in. Or used to line the top of an umbrella to reflect heat away from you in hot weather. Emergency sleeping bags are like the same thing but fancier and stronger, but are sliiiiightly bigger and more expensive so they only go into the expanded survival kit.
Credit card multitool: For doing lots of things badly. A tiny blade, a terrible can opener, a little saw, some wrenches that let’s be honest you’ll never use… this multitool is light and easy to carry and can be lots of things in a pinch.
Spork: One utensil to rule them all. I like a non-folding titanium spork, especially the Snowpeak brand one, but they’re all basically the same. Lightweight, sturdy, lets you eat anything. Some people like the long-handled ones (that let you eat out of cans more safely), but they wouldn’t fit into my survival kit, so I keep one of those in my camping bag instead. I actually eat with a metal spork almost every day, because of longstanding habit.
Compass: Especially useful in rural areas where there might be fewer landmarks. Cheap little compass keychains are pretty inaccurate. Decent orienteering ones are cheap and sturdy. True map-and-compass work takes a lot of learning, but with a compass and two minutes of learning how to use it, you can at least keep yourself from walking in circles.
P-cord: Survival bros are obsessed with paracord and it kinda annoys me but they aren’t wrong. I can’t bring myself to want a paracord handle for my backpack or a paracord strap for my watch, but I keep some around. In my daily life, I mostly use it as a clothes line or to hang tarps, but cordage is a surprisingly important survival tool for building shelter, trapping animals, splinting a bone, hanging food where animals can’t get to it, or making a bow drill to start a fire (which won’t do you any good unless you go through the reasonably elaborate effort of learning to start a bow drill fire).
Headlamp: Headlamps are more useful than flashlights for any longer term task such as walking around a night, reading, cooking, crafting, etc. I personally prefer ones that have one-click on and off, and I prefer those have one band around the head instead of another across the top of the head, as I sometimes like wearing it around my neck. I’m currently enamored of ones with internal rechargeable batteries. While the ability to replace AAA batteries is convenient, I dislike the disposable nature of that since I use my headlamp every day. Ones with a second red light help you maintain your night vision. Ones where the buttons can lock can be important if you keep the headlamp in your pocket so it doesn’t get jostled on and drain the batteries.
Magnesium striker: While I use my butane lighter daily, a backup fire system is useful and magnesium strikers seem to be the best. You shave off small amounts of the magnesium into a pile, then strike the magnesium with the back of your knife or with an included striker. Burns fast and hot and in bad weather. Takes a bit of practice and sometimes seems impossible.
External phone battery and charging cable: It’s hard to overstate how important a phone is in crisis situations. Keeping it charged matters. Also useful for any other devices such as flashlights or radios that can be USB powered.
Hand sanitizer: Sanitation and not spreading disease is important. Tiny travel bottles of hand sanitizer might have a place in your kit. It is not nearly as efficient as washing your hands with soap and water. As a quick rule of thumb, illnesses that pass along the fecal-oral route are not solved by hand sanitizer, so sanitizing your hands after using the bathroom is not a sufficient standard of cleanliness.
Baby powder: wetness and friction are both terrible things on long hikes, and baby powder helps address both of those problems. Putting some anywhere you chafe, such as your butt or thighs, can make all the difference in the world for mobility or comfort. There are also specialized anti-chafing sticks (packaged like deodorant) that people swear by, though I haven’t tested personally.
Sunscreen: Sunburn sucks. Don’t get sunburn. Sunscreen is common than you’d expect when hiking, especially in snow. I get single use packets of sunscreen for these kits, or else a larger bottle would go in my camping bag.
Wet wipes: Where there is no shower, clean yourself with wet wipes.
Hot hands: Disposable hand warmers are great.
Glowstick: It’s never a bad idea to have a backup source of light, and glowsticks, since they don’t shine in a specific direction, are especially good for marking things or for signalling.
Water Bottle: Some people like indestructable plastic ones like Nalgenes. I like single-wall metal canteens (not the vacuum insulated ones) because in an emergency you can heat or boil water in them. You can also just reuse disposable water bottles though. If you have a disposable one, you can tie or tape p-cord to it to attach a carabiner to attach it to your backpack.
Protein bars or other snacks: These are both for sustenance and to correct blood sugar problems. I don’t keep them in the kit itself because I don’t want to let them expire. Personally I prefer a combination of bars I enjoy (such as builder bars) and bars I find really gross (clif bars) because if I keep gross ones around I don’t eat them right away, so they last longer. A box of clif bars in my car is gonna last way longer than a box of something that actually tastes good.
Lockpicks: Lockpicking is a reasonably easy skill to learn and can be used to pick most pin-and-tumbler locks, which would get you into doors, padlocks, RVs, and a number of other locks. Carrying lockpicks is a legal gray area in most places. If you have lockpicks on you when you’re caught hopping a freight train, for example, you can get charged for possessing burglary tools. If you are the sort of person the police are less likely to hassle, you are more likely to get away with having lockpicks.
Keyring of common shared keys: an amazing number of locks are all keyed the same, and many of these keys are commercially available, while others are available only to various certified individuals and purchasing the might be complicated or sketchy. Entire “pentesting” keyrings can be purchased on ebay. In moments of crisis, having access to equipment could be very useful. Firefighters often have emergency override keys for elevators and escalators, such as the FEO-K1, or NYC’s 1620 key (that is illegal for civilians to possess in NYC). Many, many cabinets, RVs, gas pumps, and even some ATMs are keyed with the CH751 key (sometimes called “America’s favorite key.”) Most security systems, including callboxes outside apartments, are keyed with universal keys such as the DoorKing 16120 key. Of course, handcuff keys are universal (though zipties seem to be more common these days). The 1284X key will access a lot of Ford cars include police cruisers. Caterpillar heavy machinery often uses the 5P8500 key. Etc. Etc. Looking for the “Deviant” keyring is a good place to start, named after the hacker Deviant Ollam who has done the most work publicizing shared keying systems.
This might not belong in your emergency kit, but perhaps in your home preparedness or some place where it would only be brought out for a larger emergency, depending on your risk assessment. If you live in an apartment, having keys to access the elevator overrides might be nice. In a developing suburb, having access to heavy equipment to clear the road of abandoned vehicles could be good.
Eight-way twin key: many different utilities such as water and gas, as well as subway doors and windows, heating and plumbing, etc. can be opened with a “twinkey” (as the Knipex brand version is called). These are eight-way tools that open all sorts of things that use squares and triangles and other strange shapes. Most, including the good brands, are made of cast zinc and reviews are mixed: some people use them daily and swear by them, others say they break easily. But the chance to turn on a water spigot outside a gas station makes these worth the cost. Small screwdriver set: You’ve probably caught on by now that I think being able to open different things is cool. A small screwdriver with many different bits including various hex/star bits: can get you into a lot of containers and devices. Also good for eyeglass repair.
Upholstery thread: Useful if you’re going to be sewing a lot.
USB stick: A small USB stick can be packed full of books, movies, tv shows, podcasts (like Live Like the World is Dying), anything you want. You can also set up an encrypted folder (try using VeraCrypt) to store personal documents like your ID, vaccination card, passport, concealed carry permit, vehicle title, etc.
Backpack: I used to use a huge military pack and now I use a smaller military pack. Some people swear that a civilian backpack is essential so that you fit in, but I don’t fit in no matter what so I don’t personally care. Your mileage may vary. A bit of MOLLE (the webbing loops attached to military-style gear) never hurt anyone, and would allow you to attach some items, like a first aid kit, to the outside of the pack. Padded straps and an internal frame make it harder to throw into the back seat of a car and get caught up on stuff more easily, but they also make long distance hiking substantially more doable, so it depends on your likely purpose.
More water storage: Some people like water bladders for hiking because you don’t have to stop in order to drink. They can be hard to use below freezing and are a bit harder to clean. But keeping a full bottle or bladder of water in your camping bag is a good idea. If you expect to be very active (hiking, or in tactical situations), a water bladder is especially valuable. There are also collapsable water canteens which take up very little space when empty that are worth having.
Ceramic water filter: It’s okay to rely on sterilization pills, but personally I like the taste of filtered water and feel more confident drinking it. If you want something quick and easy, or you see yourself moving in quite a hurry, you can use the Lifestraw style water filter, which you just use like a straw. These are apparently kind of annoying to drink a lot of water through, but they’re something you can just pack and forget. There are also more traditional ceramic water filters, such as the Sawyer brand gravity/squeeze filters. You fill one pouch with dirty water, then either set it to hang and drip or you squeeze the water pouch and force the water through the filter into your water bottle. At the beginning of Covid before I plumbed my cabin and installed permanent filters, I relied on a Sawyer gravity filter for all my water needs and was pleased, so now I keep one in my bag. They can also be jury-rigged to a 5 gallon bucket or inline in a water bladder. Ceramic filters cannot be let to freeze once water has gone through them, because they will crack and become less effective. You can keep it in your pocket, hanging around your neck, or inside your sleeping bag with you to make sure it doesn’t freeze. Ready to eat food: Carry a wider variety of ready-to-eat food. Personally I like stuff that can be eaten cold or hot, like bagged Indian food, as well as a wide variety of bars. Cans are generally not worth the weight. I am excited to try out backpacking food, which is particularly light, but it’s also particularly expensive.
Bushcraft knife: A fixed-blade knife is a vital camping tool, used to process wood for a fire, carve stakes, prepare food, and I guess process the animals you kill if you hunt or whatever. It also communicates to people the idea that they should fuck off. Brandishing is generally illegal, but carrying a sheathed knife openly, where it is legal to do so, often works to imply that it’s not worth messing with you. I wear one on my belt more days than not, especially when I’m in a dress, because people fuck with me less because I have a big fuck-off knife on my belt. Laws will differ wherever you are. I like my knife with a kydex (plastic) sheath because it holds it very well but can be drawn easily. There are a million different sizes and styles of fixed blade knives, some of which are better for skinning, some of which are better for fighting, some of which are better for processing wood, but really unless you decide to get into knives, the shape of the blade is not really important.
Knife Sharpener: If you plan on using your knife much, learn how to keep it reasonably sharp. There are simple-to-use “pull through” sharpeners that do an adequate job for most purposes, or you can put in the work to learn how to use a ceramic rod, whetstone, or some other more involved sharpening method. Personally I test the sharpness of a blade by seeing if it shaves the hair on my forearm but maybe that’s weird I don’t know.
Additional fire methods: In addition to your trusty bic lighters, you might want to carry other fire sources. A magnesium striker works when wet and cold and lasts longer than a bic lighter, it just takes more effort. This is what I use as my backup method. A lens can be used indefinitely but takes sunlight and even more skill still. Waterproof matches are fine, but I can’t personally see any advantage of them over anything else. When I was a kid I made my own by dipping regular strike anywhere matches into wax, then stored them in a film canister, but really that just makes me sound old. You can also carry “charred cloth” to use with flint and steel (or a rock and your knife), which is cotton that has been burned in an environment without oxygen. As a kid I made this by wrapping squares of cotton cloth in tin foil and putting them in a fire. This catches sparks and when added to tinder (especially birds nests made from twine) can start fires.
Sleeping bag: I love sleeping bags. When I stopped living in a backpack it took me years to get used to using blankets, and when it’s cold out I bust out my sleeping bag anyway. Sleeping bags are perfect inventions. No matter how warm you think it is out, it’s really, really easy to get cold at night. If I think there’s a good chance I’ll be sleeping outside, I’ll bring my sleeping bag. While down (feather) sleeping bags are generally warmer by their weight than synthetic fill sleeping bags, they aren’t designed to be kept in their stuff sack and are therefore less good for grab-and-go emergency gear. Sleeping bags are rated by temperature, but their comfort level is usually about 20 degrees above their rating. So a zero degree bag will keep you alive in 0 degrees but comfy in 20 degrees. Assuming you keep yourself off the ground enough that the ground doesn’t suck up all your heat. In most climates and most environments, a 20 degree bag is adequate. In colder environments, consider a 0 degree bag. You can also get a sleeping bag liner to up the rating.
Sleeping pad: If you’re in an urban environment, you can make makeshit sleeping pads out of cardboard from cardboard dumpsters. In the woods, you can build a bed out of boughs. But it’s often easier to just carry a sleeping pad or two with you. Foam pads are better for insulation in general, while inflatable pads pack smaller and are more comfortable to sleep on. My wilderness instructor friend suggests a folding foam pad with an inflatable pad on top of it for winter camping, so that’s what I carry and it has worked well for me. One reason pads are important is that when it’s cold, you naturally want to sleep on your side curled up for warmth, but if you sleep on the hard ground on your side you’ll be tossing and turning all night.
Shelter: Bivy or tent or at least a dang tarp. You often want a shelter with you when you’re camping, to trap heat, keep out the rain, give you a sense of security, and generally make life better. You can build your own shelter, but that takes practice and a huge expenditure of energy. Tents are wonderful, but are larger and heavier to carry and also are not good for stealth camping or for situations where you might have to get up and go quickly. A bivy sack is sort of a cross between a waterproof sleeping bag cover and a one-person tent. It doesn’t have anywhere to keep your bag out of the rain, however. Pyramid tents are simple tents without a ground that pack small and usually use a hiking pole as their pole. Finally, you can just bring a tarp. If you’ve got time and cordage, you can build a little pavilion with the tarp and get out of the rain. If you’re in a hurry and everything in the world is awful and rainy, you can make a little human taco out of yourself by folding the tarp in half. Just make sure that the top part covers the bottom part completely (with some overhang) or you’ll just trap water inside. Sleeping in a tarp this way sucks, but I’ve done it plenty of times in emergencies.
Survival literature: In a full pack you might carry zines and small books about first aid, survival, weather prediction, etc. There are several tiny waterproof editions that exist for exactly this purpose.
Poncho: If you’re going to have one thing to keep rain off, that you don’t plan on wearing too often, you can’t go wrong with a poncho. In a pinch you can throw it over your backpack, or use it as a makeshift tarp. Cheap disposable ones pack up small but rip easily. A slightly nicer one is worth it, if you can afford it and think you’ll use it.
Additional socks: Carry extra socks. They should be wool or synthetic so that they don’t freeze you in the rain.
Warm underlayers: Extra long underwear (again, non-cotton) is super important, especially to change into before bed (change your socks too!). Sleeping in wet clothes is a recipe for disaster.
Emergency radio: There are a couple kinds of emergency radios you might want. A small handcrank/solar radio that picks up weather channels and a bunch of other frequencies is super useful. We often forget about radios in the modern era, but in times of crisis radio can be vital. This is one of the few times that a gizmo with too many survival functions can be useful: a handcrank/solar radio that can charge your phone and has a flashlight on it is cool. There are also tiny ones that are smaller than a cell phone that pick up a lot of bands. Personally I use a tiny rechargeable one for my camping bag and a slightly larger handcrank/solar one at home.
Monocular or binoculars: I like looking at pretty stuff like birds and shit. I also like being able to see people before they see me. Monoculars are tiny and might be important enough to go into your emergency kit. Binoculars come in all different sizes and qualities. I like a pair I can carry on my belt in a pouch if I have to, but I guess if I was serious about birding or tactical shit I’d want something burlier (and anti-glare, to avoid giving away my position to the uh… birds).
Rain cover or dry bag for pack: If you’ve got a backpack, and it might rain, you want a to keep it from getting wet. You can do this with a rain cover that elastics around your bag, or by throwing it under your poncho if your poncho is large enough. You can also let the bag itself get wet but keep everything inside of it in some sort of dry bag, whether custom for that purpose or a series of trash bags.
Ace bandages: Great for sprains, a common problem when hiking.
Camping cook set: even if you don’t want to carry a stove, a cook pot lets you warm up or cook food over a fire. Warm food is important for morale, and morale is important for survival. And of course, if you have to hunt or gather your own food, cooking is important for food safety.
P100 dust masks: P100 is a higher rating of particulate protection than the more common N95 masks. When you don’t have space for a full gas mask, these will help in many situations such as earthquake, dust storm, or pandemic.
Solar charger: A hiking solar charger is a wonderful thing. These are light and somewhat small. Usually they fold up into two or more sections. They don’t provide a ton of power and will generally provide way less than they’re rated to (usually about 1/8 or 1/4 as much), but can keep your phone or your headlamp charged in an emergency.
Hiking poles: if you’re moving over rough or uneven terrain, or deal with physical limitations, or are just serious about backpacking, get some hiking poles. I’ve only started using them recently, and frankly it was my ego that was keeping me from using them before. I am an instant convert. Icy paths and steep hills are much more navigable. They’re hard to use when you’ve got dogs with you on leash. Aluminum poles are slightly heavier but much sturdier and much cheaper than carbon fiber poles, and aluminum poles are recommended by my trail guide friend, so that’s what I use. They can also double as tent poles or tarp poles in some setups, or for makeshit splints.
Folding saw, hatchet, or machete: You probably want to be able to cut wood larger than your knife would allow. A folding saw is great for cutting trees to make poles or firewood and is more calorie efficient than an axe (for crosscutting, not for splitting). I like my folding saw a lot better than my “hand chainsaw” which is a chainsaw chain on two loops, but if you’re cramped for space in your bag the hand chainsaw does work fine. Wire saws, though, which are the same idea but just wire with sharp teeth, seem like a trashy survival gimmick to me. I don’t carry a hatchet or a machete, but most people recommend one or the other and if I was really looking to be backwoods surviving I’d bring one. Probably a machete since I have a folding saw and a fixed blade knife. If I didn’t have a knife or a saw I’d probably pick hatchet. If you ever want to lose a couple of hours for no good reason, go read survival forums where people argue about axes and machetes. The secret is that there isn’t a right answer, and you should try things out if you want. In the abstract, axes are more popular in northern climates where there are more hardwoods and machetes are more popular where there’s more dense non-woody vegetation.
Collapsible solar LED lantern: Little touches make all the difference when it comes to morale, and I like my collapsable solar LED lantern. It weighs almost nothing, and having a light source that projects like softly and evenly instead of in some single direction makes camp feel cozier.
Plastic trowel: I’ve never needed an entrenchment tool (those small military-style folding shovels that you’re supposedly able to like kill people with or whatever), and the few times I’ve bothered to bring one somewhere it’s just sat in my pack or my car. If you’re going to do serious digging you’ll want a full-length shovel if at all possible. But for small purposes, like burying the base of a pole for shelter building or digging a hole to take a shit in, a small plastic trowel is a lightweight cheap option.
Camp stove and fuel: Backpackers swear by portable stoves for convenient ways to cook or at least heat up food, and in a lot of situations you might not have an opportunity to have a whole campfire so these are worth considering. Most backpacking ones run on small disposable canisters that are a mixture of propane and butane. There are also tiny survival ones that use solid fuel cubes that burn for about 10 minutes. I haven’t tried one of those. And of course there are slightly larger two-burner ones like the classic green Coleman style, which would be more appropriate for car camping than backpacking.
Escape hammer: These are small plastic hammers with a windowbreaking tip and a seatbelt cutter, for use if you’re trapped inside your car. Generally kept in the driver and passenger doors.
Spare engine oil: To keep your engine running correctly.
Extra wiper fluid: In a snow or dust storm, wiper fluid is used extensively and can run out fast.
Extra coolant: Look just keep extra fluids around for your car okay?
Tire patch kit: Many small holes in tires can be repaired fairly quickly by yourself by the side of the road. Supposedly after patching a tire you should eventually replace it, but I’ve driven thousands of miles on patched tires without a problem and so have my friends.
Tire gauge: To keep your tires inflated properly.
Tire inflator: DC-powered ones make the most sense, but a bike pump can be used in a pinch.
Battery jumpstarter: These are battery packs designed to give enough power to revive a dead car battery. They also are good-sized backup batteries for your phone and other devices if need be.
Jumper cables: To restart one car using another car.
Extra nonperishable food: Here’s where you can keep cans and other food that is too heavy for a backpack.
A couple gallons of water: If you’re worried about your radiator, then store distilled water since you can drink it or use it for your engine. Either way, if you break down in the heat somewhere, having water on hand for you and for your car is good.
Gas can: This may or may not be necessary for you, because gas cans are usually sold wherever gasoline is sold. Still, holding a gas can while hitchhiking to get gas greatly increases your chances of success and are also necessary if you wind up siphoning gas from a friendly stranger—or an unknowing stranger. In any kind of gas shortage, gas cans might be harder to come by than gas.
Basic wrench set: Sometimes you gotta fix stuff.
Jack and tire iron: These hopefully came with your car, but if they didn’t, get them so you can change a tire if you need.
Hi-vis vest: Standing by the side of the road is dangerous. Be seen.
Snow chains: if you live anywhere with snow, or think you might need to drive somewhere with snow (such as to get to a different region to avoid conflict), keep snow chains. They come in different ratings depending on the types of conditions you’re likely to encounter, but any snow chains that fit your tires are better than nothing. Practice putting them on when you don’t have to, outside your apartment or in your driveway or wherever.
Ice scraper: Get one with a brush on it, to get snow and ice off your car.
Folding snow shovel: In case your vehicle gets trapped in the snow. I’ve only ever had to use one once in my life, but I don’t usually live in the northern climes.
Gas siphon: A regular length of hose can be used to siphon gas from another gas tank but you have to use your mouth to get the gas started. There are also siphons that come with bulbs or shake systems that prime the line where you don’t have to wind up with gasoline in your mouth, and since you’re buying something for this purpose anyway, you might as well get one of those. I’ve never used the fancy ones, but I keep a shake one in my trunk in case I need it. Most cars made from the mid-00s onward have an anti-siphoning system in their gas tank, however, and cannot be siphoned from, making carrying a siphon less and less useful.
Escape mats: Escape mats are designed to get your car out of snow, mud, or sand. I’ve never used them. Offroaders seem to swear by them. I’ve laid down cardboard on snow a few times and that’s worked for me, but escape mats probably work better.
Recovery strap: A recovery strap is like a tow strap but slightly elastic and are used to pull vehicles out of ditches or mud or whatever with the help of another vehicle. Extra useful if you have a vehicle large enough to help recover other vehicles, but even if you have a sedan keeping one around might help if a truck drives by and is willing to give it a shot.
Respirator or p100 dust mask: Since there’s storage room in my car, I find it useful to have this worst-case-scenario item available that wouldn’t normally fit in a to go bag.
Extra emergency kit: In case you forget to have yours on you, you always have more.
Canned and dried food: There are two distinct ways to stockpile food and both are worth considering. The first and most important is to simply begin to purchase extras of any nonperishable item that you eat anyway, and do this until you have enough stored. Let’s say you eat two cans of chili every week like I do. If you go to the store once every two weeks, buy six cans instead of four. Do this until you have a year or so’s worth stockpiled, then just buy four cans every two weeks instead, so your stockpile stays the same size. Make sure you eat the older cans first so they don’t expire. Then there’s deep storage food, like giant cans of freeze dried fruit with a shelf life of twenty years. Those are worth getting if/when you have the spare storage space and money. Personally, I live off-grid with a number of other people and my goal is to store six month’s worth of food for ten people. Most people wouldn’t need nearly so much.
The goal is rarely “to have enough food to live alone for ten years,” but instead to have enough food to not worry about temporary interruptions in the food supply. Or, worst case scenario, to tide you over until you’re able to develop a new source of food like a first harvest.
Water storage: Depending on where you live, different sized water storage containers would make sense. I live off-grid in a cabin and rely on multiple 50 gallon barrels for all my water. Larger off grid spaces make use of things called IBC totes, which hold 275 gallons. Repurposed ones are chaper and have previously held detergents or other things, so might only be appropriate for rainwater catchment for gardening or showering, not for drinking. In a smaller space, you might just be looking for 5 gallon jerry cans, or even just one gallon jugs. The CDC recommends storing one gallon per person per day for drinking and sanitation and this seems like a reasonable amount to me.
Water filter: You can use the ceramic filter from your camping bag as a water filter in your home no problem, but it might also be worth having a larger dedicated filter. Many of my cabin-dwelling friends swear by the Berkey-style water filters that are themselves dispensers: you just pour the water in at the top and drink it from a tap at the bottom. You can also attach a ceramic filter to a line and attach it to a 5-gallon plastic bucket and gravity filter water into a jerry can or a second bucket. I installed one in-line between my water barrels and my sink. I’m paranoid, so I also use a small filter pitcher in addition.
Battery-powered lights: Relying on battery powered lights is a pain in the ass–I’ve done if for years and I’m completely over it. But it can work for short periods of time easily. I like cheap USB-rechargeable puck lights and collapsable solar lanterns. It’s better for your soul to be somewhere that is lit rather than walking around inside with a flashlight or a headlamp. Note that people always recommend candles for emergencies and I don’t think candles are bad, necessarily, just overrated. They provide a tiny amount of heat, which is nice, but trying to warm up even a tiny room with a candle is very demoralizing. Also, a lot of what we do to winterize a space in an emergency involves hanging flammable blankets and such over doors, and many squatters have died when a candle fell over or was left burning after someone went to sleep.
Backup power: If you live in a place where this is possible, a backup generator is a great thing to have. Never run a generator inside or you’ll die. It will kill you. Do not do it. The generator has to go outside. Probably not even in a garage with the door open. Maybe under a pavilion or a makeshift shelter to keep the rain off of it. Generators are fussy and annoying but it’s worth having one, learning to use it, and keeping it maintained. I like that mine can run off of both gasoline and propane. Propane burns cleaner, so less maintenance (but will still murder you), and propane stores in its bottles indefinitely. Gasoline, however, has a fairly short shelf life that makes it impractical to stockpile, even with the additives you can buy to make it last longer. On the other hand, gasoline is more plentiful and is substantially cheaper per watt of power. I use a propane generator to supplement my solar power when the sun isn’t cooperating.
Solar power is an option but it’s substantially more work to figure out, especially at scale. A simple solar generator that just accepts a few hundred watts of solar panels is a very handy thing to have around. It will not run your refrigerator or god forbid your space heater or AC. It probably won’t even run your laptop very well. It’ll keep your LED lights on and it’ll keep your phones charged.
Backup heat: After saying again and again to be careful about using propane devices indoors, I’m going to recommend you get a propane heater as a backup heat source. With caveats. Electric space heaters use substantially more electricity than almost any electrical device (even more than air conditioners). A woodburning stove might be the best option, but installing a woodburning stove is a serious undertaking. Likely worth doing, depending on your location and your threat model. But it requires installing a chimney as well as tile work and other heat shields in order to use safely. A propane heater heats a ceramic element and can put off a lot of heat for a long time. I’ve relied on propane heat for the past several years.
Only some propane heaters are rated for inside use. I use a “big buddy” which is more than adequate to heat my 100ish sqft cabin in the 20 degree nights we get here, even at medium heat. I haven’t had to turn it onto high since I moved out of the 400sqft barn I was in with it before.
Most propane heaters run off of either 1lbs tanks, which can be used safely inside, or 20lbs tanks, which really shouldn’t be used inside. I used to use 1lbs tanks but now I have a hose I run through my floor to a 20lbs tank outside. Personally I’d recommend using 20lbs tanks and running the hose out a window for emergency use, because 20lbs tanks are ironically easier to refill than 1lbs tanks, which are usually treated as disposable.
If you run a propane heater, make sure your room is not completely air tight, as it needs oxygen to burn cleanly and safely. I keep a carbon monoxide detector especially when I’m burning a heater.
Kerosene heaters work as well. They don’t burn as cleanly and are toxic, which causes neurological problems. Kerosene is also more expensive. If there are no other options, kerosene heat is better than freezing to death.
A larger first aid kit: At some point we will have more first aid articles, but for now I would just recommend that in your house you have a larger supply of medicine and supplies.
Cordless power tool set: A drill, an impact driver, and either a circular saw or a reciprocating saw can be useful for quick construction, to hang sheets and blankets, to cut holes in walls to run propane hoses, etc. You don’t need these to be fancy if you aren’t using them often. If you’ve got an impact driver, get some screws too. If you stick with one brand you can use the batteries between all the tools. I used to use Ryobi until I destroyed my circular saw trying to cut the rafters of my house, and now I use Dewalt.
Hammer and nails: You can also just hammer nails into shit to hang blankets or blockade a door, if you’re in a hurry.
Crowbar or demolition tool: Escaping a situation might involve dismantling some things.
Chainsaw: Chainsaws are incredibly valuable in disaster scenarios, particularly for clearing downed trees away from roadways or buildings. But they’re also incredibly dangerous. If you are not a trained chainsaw operator, it will likely be more dangerous to use a chainsaw in a stressful situation than to figure out another solution to your problem. There is the safety of operating the saw itself but there are also stresses within trees that are invisible to an untrained operator that can cause the tree or branches to flex or snap dangerously. Chainsaws belong in the same classification as firearms: they are not worth having if you are not able to put in the time and energy to learn to operate them safely, because they will cause more danger than they alleviate. That said, I currently use a 60v electric chainsaw I like quite a bit and it only took a few hours to learn the basics of how to use it safely. If you have a chainsaw, you need chainsaw protective gear including pants/chaps and a helmet with a face guard.
Bolt cutters: Breaking into and out of things is useful. Bolt cutters are too heavy to be stored anywhere but home or in a vehicle, but are worth having to cut fences, barbed wire, locks, and, I suppose, bolts.
Amateur radio transceiver: Radio communications is its own specialized field, but there’s nothing wrong with having a cheap radio transceiver around. Baofengs are the classic cheap ones. Be careful, as most of what you can do with a transceiver is illegal without a license outside of emergency use. Regular walkie-talkies could be useful as well and are easier to use, legal, and substantially less powerful.
Rifle: Firearms should never be owned by anyone not willing to commit to learning to operate them safely and to keeping them out of the hands of others. A rifle, however, particularly a semi-automatic carbine such as an AR-15 or an AK-47, is the single most useful tool for community self-defense. That style of rifle is also effective for hunting deer and other not-small game. A 22lr or 22wmr rifle is more effective for hunting small game but is less effective for self-defense. Shotguns can also be used for hunting or home defense. A .22 pellet gun is a good option for survival hunting small game like squirrels and birds: it is not a firearm and is therefore not particularly regulated, it is substantially quieter and cheaper to operate.
Tourniquet: A tourniquet is used to stop major bleeding on limbs. The CAT style tourniquets are preferred for most purposes by most people, because they are well-designed so that they can be applied one-handed to yourself. A protestor in Kenosha, Wisconsin was able to save his own life applying a tourniquet after being shot in 2020. The general consensus is that you need a genuine CAT-7 tourniquet because the quality control on the knockoffs is too poor to be trusted in an emergency. As of this writing, if the tourniquet is less than around $27-30 retail it should not be trusted. You can get a cheap knockoff as a trainer, but it should be labeled clearly and never brought into a situation where it could be confused for a real one. If you grew up before the War On Terror, you likely heard that tourniquets are only for absolute worst case scenarios, but thanks to the US’s endless imperialist war, we’ve learned that tourniquets can safely be applied and left on for a long period of time.
Emergency Trauma Dressing: (ie Pressure Bandage or Israeli bandage) This is a large bandage used to stop massive bleeding. Two vented chest seals: These are used to keep your lungs from collapsing if your chest is punctured. You need two because most bullets go all the way through. They can be folded.
Hemostatic gauze: (brand names include Celox, QuikClot, ChitoGauze, HemCon) This is gauze that contains a clotting agent to stop bleeding faster. Some combat medics say this isn’t necessary and just recommend carrying even more non-hemostatic gauze.
Compressed gauze: A lot of the work of stopping bleeding is “packing wounds” with gauze, so having more is good.
Trauma shears: These are crucial, and if you don’t carry an IFAK, make sure you have trauma shears elsewhere in your kit. These are for cutting away clothes safely and quickly to diagnose and treat wounds.
Permanent markers: These are used to write the time of application on the tourniquet and to take notes on the patient’s body for the hospital to use. Keep one black and one silver to be able to write on more skin colors.
Two pairs of nitrile exam gloves: Some people have latex allergies and since your hands might be inside somebody’s body, you shouldn’t fuck around with latex. These are to keep you and your patient safe from each other’s germs and blood.
Emergency blanket: Keeping someone warm helps reduce shock, and emergency blankets are the lightest and most compact way to help someone stay warm.
Nasopharyngeal airway with lubricant: This is used to keep an airway open in a patient, but requires more training to use than the more general “stop the bleed” equipment in the IFAK.
Decompression needles: Soldiers carry decompression needles in their IFAKs but these also require training to use. Still, since your IFAK is for a medic to use on you as much as it is for you to use on others, it might be worth keeping them around. These are used to keep the lungs inflated by venting the chest cavity.