Emergency Kit Essentials That Aren’t Food and Water

Struck by disaster? Without power? These must-haves can sustain you for up to three days.

Medically reviewed in July 2020

Not everyone is as vulnerable to wildfires as residents of California, Washington and Oregon. Earthquakes don't occur nearly as often in North Dakota and Florida as they do in Alaska and Nevada. Natural disasters like these, along with tornadoes, landslides, floods and hurricanes can happen unexpectedly and having an emergency kit prepared could save a life.

Putting together an emergency kit is an easy and inexpensive way to help ensure your family remains safe and healthy in the event of a tragedy. If you don’t know how to begin building your "go bag," you're not alone. About 65 percent of Americans are unprepared for a disaster, according to a 2015 survey.

To help you get and stay equipped, we enlisted the help of Buck Parker, MD, a trauma surgeon and emergency medicine specialist with St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah to teach us how to pack disaster kits to store at home, plus helpful items to stow in your vehicle.

Build your bag—the basics
The bulk of your bag should be made up of enough necessities—think food and water—to last your family at least 72 hours. One gallon of water should last an individual for one day, so stock at least three jugs for each member of your household, and more if you have pets. You should also pack a three-day supply of non-perishable food that doesn't require heating or cooking. Nuts and granola bars are good options, as are canned foods like tuna, beans and vegetables—just remember to pack a manual can opener. In addition to keeping a three-day supply in your emergency kit, the American Red Cross recommends keeping enough food and water to last for two weeks in your home at all times.

Flashlights, wireless phone chargers and battery-operated weather radios are also essential during and just after a disaster, but don't get stuck without enough batteries; keep the appropriate type stocked at all times to ensure your devices will work. A first aid kit, typically equipped with gauze, adhesive tape, bandages, antibiotic ointment and antiseptic wipes, can't replace medical attention for major injuries, but it can be useful in caring for minor bumps, cuts and abrasions. "With gauze, tape and scissors, you can take care of almost any minor wound," Dr. Parker says.

Other basic—but important—go bag items include:

  • A whistle to signal for help
  • Dust masks to filter the air
  • Garbage bags and moist towelettes for personal sanitation needs
  • A wrench or pliers—Parker recommends a multi-tool with a knife, pliers, screwdriver and the like
  • Blankets
  • Duct tape

Pack your emergency items first in clear plastic bags before organizing in one or two portable bins or bags with handles.

Stow specialty supplies
Customize your kit to fit the needs of your family, including any pets. You can also tailor what you choose to pack towards the natural disasters that may occur in your area. Towels, rain gear and a change of clothes for each family member may be necessities in areas typically hit with wet weather disasters. Keep a supply of baby formula, diapers, wipes and rash cream if you have young ones. Extra water, canned or dry food, leashes and carriers are important for any household pets.

Prescription medications and non-prescription drugs like pain relievers and antacids should be packed in a waterproof container, along with a written list of doses and known allergies. "If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, that can be a real issue," according to Parker. A seven-day supply will likely suffice. Going a few days without hypertension medicine can increase your stroke risk. Blood sugar may spiral out of control if diabetics do not have proper treatment, he adds.

Pack important documents including insurance policies, extra cash and bank records. You may also want to store birth certificates, social security cards and passports in an easily accessible place, ready to grab in the event of an evacuation. Leave room for glasses, contact lenses, contact solution and feminine products and non-medical items, like paper, pencils, games, toys and puzzles to occupy young children.

Maintain your kit
Building your emergency preparedness kit is just the first step. To ensure its ready when you need it, give the contents a look every so often. Canned goods should be stored in a cool, dark place and any boxed items stowed in plastic or metal containers away from water, bugs and rodents. Check expiration dates on food, water, medications and batteries and replace as needed—Parker recommends doing this once a year. This is a good time also to assess your family's needs, get rid of unnecessary items and add current essentials.

Get your car ready, too    
At-home go bags help make evacuating during a disaster a bit easier, without sending you scrambling for the necessities. Keeping your car packed and ready to roll at a moment's notice is also a safe move. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends keeping a smaller emergency bag, stocked with survival-essentials like food, water and a first aid kit, in your vehicle at all times. The vehicle should also contain jumper cables, an ice scraper, flares and a cellphone charger compatible with your car. Parker recommends a few other items: warm clothes, a fire extinguisher, toolbox and kit to repair a flat tire.

A well-tuned automobile is also safest for travel. Keep your gas tank full and ensure oil and washer fluid levels meet standard criteria. Invest in good winter tires and get them on your vehicle in accordance with your region's weather patterns. Many of the car's functions can deteriorate overtime, and fail without warning, so periodic inspections of the brakes, battery, exhaust system and lights are encouraged.

Preparing your home and your car for an emergency is not a difficult task, but it's an important one—even if no natural disaster is on the horizon.

More On

Toilet Seat Covers: Do They Work?


Toilet Seat Covers: Do They Work?
My husband runs every day with a jogging group. Often in the course of their runs they have a need for a Porta Potty. One day the guys in the group we...
4 Ways to Prepare Your Pets for Hawaii’s Next Emergency


4 Ways to Prepare Your Pets for Hawaii’s Next Emergency
With hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, Hawaii residents need to keep furry friends ready for anything.
Tornado Preparedness: Your Guide to Staying Safe During a Tornado


Tornado Preparedness: Your Guide to Staying Safe During a Tornado
While images of tornadoes may be beautiful in photographs, they can be deadly and wreak havoc on residential homes, businesses and natural habitats. T...
8 Tips to Bike Ride Safely


8 Tips to Bike Ride Safely
Bike safety Taking a bike ride is a great way to exercise. This low-impact cardio activity is a fun way to reach your aerobic activity goals. Get read...
Child Safety: How to Avoid Injuries From Toppling TVs


Child Safety: How to Avoid Injuries From Toppling TVs
Unintentional injuries are far and away the leading cause of death among kids in the United States. And every year, emergency room doctors like me see...