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According to experts, humans are able to survive for roughly three days without water and three weeks without food. However, if you were to try to do so, you would be on the brink of death after the three days or three weeks of water or food deprivation. I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’d rather not let it get to that point for yourself or your family members. Fortunately, it’s easy to include provisions in your emergency bag that will address your food and water needs for at least a few days.
In the previous post, titled “How to Make an Emergency Bag Part 1: Getting Started” , I gave an overview of the different types of emergency bags and the various categories of supplies that should be included in each bag. In this post, I’ll discuss the food and water related supplies to include in your emergency bag. As I discuss these items, I use the term “72 Hour Bag”, abbreviated “72HB”, to describe a 72 hour bag or Bug Out Bag, and I use the term “Get Home Bag”, abbreviated “GHB”, to describe a bag that has the more focused purpose of getting you home after a disaster from places like work, school, or any other place where you may spend a significant amount of time.
When I describe the food and water supplies, I also label each item as essential, recommended, or optional. The items labeled essential are those that I consider the bare minimum of what should be carried in an emergency bag. The other items labeled recommended or optional are for your further consideration to include but aren’t necessarily essentials.
Hydration is one of the most important things to include in your 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag. While the rule of thumb is that you can survive for three days without water, you’re not going to want to take that chance in a survival situation. Experts recommend one half-gallon of drinking water per day to stay properly hydrated. For three days, that’s one-and-a-half gallons of water, which, at 8 pounds per gallon, weighs 12 pounds. That’s quite a bit of weight to be carrying around on your back in addition to all of the other gear in your emergency bag.
You most likely won’t want to carry 12 pounds of water with you if you don’t have to. If there are fresh water sources like lakes, streams, or rivers in your area and along your get-home or evacuation routes, you may elect to include less than the one-half gallon of ready-to-go drinking water per day and plan to filter or purify the additional water you may need in a disaster situation.
The picture below shows ready to drink water, purification tablets, a water bottle, and two kinds of water filters that you might include in your emergency bag.
Even if you plan to carry the full one-half gallons of drinking water per day in ready to drink form, you’ll want to include items for generating additional safe drinking water. The two methods for getting drinking water from a fresh water source are filtering and purification. Filtering is the process of physically removing contaminants. Purification typically involves using chemicals to remove or neutralize contaminants. For more information on filtering and purification, REI has a great page on the topic
In some instances, you may want or need to combine the two methods. Whether you will need to filter or purify will depend on the fresh water sources in your area and the organisms in them. Typically, filters aren’t able to remove viruses from water so if there are known viruses in the water in your area, you’ll need to purify your water.
Store-Bought Bottles of Drinking Water (essential 72HB/GHB)
For a 72 Hour Bag, you’ll want to include at least 3 liters (about 0.8 gallons) of drinking water in commercially packaged bottles if you don’t want to include the full 1.5 gallons of drinking water for a 3-day scenario. For a Get Home Bag, you should include 2 liters for a 2-day bag or 3 liters for a 3-day bag. Store-bought drinking water is inexpensive and already comes in a convenient package. Drinking water does have a shelf life so be sure to check the dates on the water bottles and swap out the old bottles for new ones on a regular basis—typically every 6 months, to keep your water fresh.
Water Purification Tablets (essential 72HB/GHB)
Regardless of whether you carry the full 1.5 gallons or not, you should always have at least one backup method of generating safe drinking water. Your first backup should be water purification tablets. One of the drawbacks is that it takes between 30 minutes and 4 hours to purify water, depending on the type of tablets you choose. In addition, if you just fill a water bottle with fresh water from a lake, stream, or river, it may have particulates floating around in it so purifying the water with tablets won’t take care of the particulates. And in some cases, the particulates may interfere with the purification process, leaving the water unsafe to drink. Another thing to keep in mind regarding purification tablets is that some of them, like iodine, leave a strong taste in the water, which may make it hard to drink for some. Fortunately, there are two-step purification tablet systems like the one that Potable Aqua offers that neutralizes the iodine taste.
My Picks – water purification tablets:
- Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Tablets – These tablets take longer than iodine tablets, four hours to purify water, but don’t have the same iodine taste.
- Potable Aqua Water Purification Tablets with PA Plus – This is a two-step purification system. The first step is the iodine tablet that purifies the water and the second step is the tablet that removes the iodine taste. This system only takes 35 minutes to purify water.
Water Filter (essential 72HB/GHB)
Your second backup method for generating safe drinking water should be either a personal water filter or a backpacking style pump water filter. You should have at least a personal water filter like the Aquamira Personal Water Filter or the LifeStraw. These are small, lightweight and can filter between 20 (Frontier Straw) and 264 (LifeStraw) gallons of water. Backpacking hand-pump style filters are more robust and can be used to pump clean water directly into a container like a Nalgene bottle. Other than the amount of water that can be cleaned without replacing the filter, the key characteristic is the size of the pores in the filter. Pore sizes are usually measured in microns and the key thing to remember is that smaller pores filter out more organisms. There are also filter bottles that some people might prefer over the straw and hand pump models.
My Picks – water filter:
- Aquamira Frontier Straw Filter Tactical – Filters up to 20 gallons. I prefer carrying one of these in my Get Home Bag because of its light weight and compact size. The Frontier Straw also comes with a plastic pouch that can be used to scoop up water so you can drink through the straw out of the bag instead of directly form the water source.
- LifeStraw Personal Water Filter – Filters up to 264 gallons. This has the benefit of being able to filter much more water than some of the other personal water filters available.
- Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter – Cleans up to 300 gallons of water and has a replaceable filter. I’ve been using one of these for backpacking for years and have found that it works great. At around $65 it will be more than what most people will want to spend to include in an emergency bag, but if you already have a filter, just store it in your emergency bag.
As a final method for making water drinkable, you can boil it if you choose to carry an emergency stove and a small metal pot to boil it in.
Water Bottle (recommended 72HB, optional GHB)
While you can refill leftover bottles from your store-bought water, it’s not recommended to do it long-term. Reusable water bottles are more durable and many water filters come with fittings that connect to the mouths of some of the more popular water bottles (e.g. the standard Nalgene brand).
My Pick – water bottle:
Nalgene Oasis water bottle – Combine this with a stainless-steel canteen cup which the canteen will fit inside of, and you’ll have a lightweight vessel that you can boil water and make coffee or tea in.
Savvy Tips – Water
- Research online or check with your local sporting goods store like REI to find out what kinds of organisms are found in fresh water in your area and get a filter with a pore size that’s adequate for filtering out all of those organisms. If not, you could end up drinking filtered water that can still make you sick.
- If you work or go to school, store extra bottles of water in a desk or locker so that you have extra water in case of an emergency. Keep extra water in each vehicle along with your other emergency supplies. You’ll have access to more water than what can reasonably fit into and be carried in a backpack.
- Use a bandana over the mouth of a water bottle when filling it to filter out the larger particulates as a pre-filter to the purification tablets.
While filtering water is pretty simple, it’s recommended to practice doing it before you might have to rely on it in a real emergency situation. The plethora of options of filters and purification tablets all have their differences so you should get used to how to use the models and methods you choose to include in your emergency bags. And one of the key safety steps in making safe drinking water is keeping raw water from contaminating your filtered or purified water so you should get used to keeping unsafe water away from safe water.
Most of us know that the recommended daily intake of calories for an adult is between 2,000 and 2,500 calories. In reality, most of us eat more than 2,000 calories per day. This means that for a 2-day Get Home Bag you’ll want to include between 4,000 and 5,000 calories and for a 3-day Bug Out Bag you’ll want to include between 6,000 and 7,500 calories. The picture below shows about 5,000 calories of food, an eating utensil, and both a pot and stove for boiling water. The pot and stove are a must if you plan on including freeze-dried meals that require hot water. If you plan on just including food like energy bars and MREs that don’t require hot water, you can go ahead and skip the pot and stove.
When choosing food to include in your emergency bags, you’ll want to consider the following factors:
- Shelf life. Certain foods come in forms that allow for longer shelf life than the foods available at the typically grocery store. There are many items available at your local grocery store that have long enough shelf lives to make for good choices for your emergency bags. So you can either include a selection of foods that are purely made for long-term storage, 5 years or longer, like freeze dried meals and MREs or you can have a mix of long- and medium-term foods. For medium shelf life foods I like to include items that have at least a year before they expire. If you include a mix of long and medium shelf life foods, be sure to rotate the medium shelf life food out every six months or so. The last consideration for shelf life is that warmer temperatures decrease shelf life so take into account the temperatures of the places you’ll be storing your emergency bags and adjust the rotation of your foods accordingly.
- Weight. Since you’ll be hauling this food around on your back, choose foods that are lightweight when including their packaging. For this reason, while many canned foods have long shelf lives, the added wait from the tin can and preserving liquid make canned food less than ideal for emergency bags.
- To cook or not to cook. Foods like freeze-dried meals require you to boil water in their preparation. For this reason, it essential that you carry a stove, fuel, and a pot to boil water in. For a Get Home Bag I prefer to include only food that does not require cooking to avoid having to include the added gear to boil water. Since a hot meal is a welcomed luxury, I like to include freeze-dried meals so I also include the cooking equipment. Another great option is MREs that each come with a flameless ration heater (FRH) to “cook” the entrée.
- Taste. There are foods available that are designed specifically for emergency situations. Unfortunately, some of these are barely palatable. If you include foods that you’ve never had before, do yourself a favor and try them out before putting them in your emergency bag.
My Picks – Food and Food Preparation
Energy Bars – energy bars like CLIF bars have been a go-to for hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and many others who regularly participate in outdoor activities. They are a great food that require no preparation besides tearing off the wrapper. With a multitude of brands and flavors, you should be able to find some that you like. Each one has typically between 200 and 300 calories so including 4 or 5 of these will give you at least 1000 calories.
Freeze Dried meals – just add boiling water, re-seal the pouch and let sit for about 10 minutes and you’ll have a hot meal. All you’ll need is an eating utensil. In addition to dinner entrees like chicken teriyaki, beef stew, and lasagna, you can also get breakfast foods like oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and bacon. Some meals are tastier than others so try a few and find what you like. I’ve also found that even the best freeze dried meals taste much better after a day of hiking than they would if I were to just have one for dinner at home. Mountain House has been around for what seems like forever but there are numerous other brands to choose from so branch out to other brands and figure out what you most enjoy. Freeze dried meals also have shelf lives of up to 25 years but as with all food, shelf life depends on the conditions they’re stored in. Just beware that most freeze-dried meals are packed with sodium so that should be taken into consideration when selecting food to include in your bag.
One of my favorites is Mountain House Beef Stew. Each pouch comes with 2.5 servings but to get full, I typically eat the whole pouch. At 190 calories per serving, a single pouch contains 475 calories. Add at least three dinner entrée pouches to your Bug out Bag for about 1500 calories.
MREs – One of the benefits of MREs is that the ones that require cooking come with flameless ration heaters so you don’t have to worry about needing a stove to heat them up. Make sure to check the packing/expiration dates because many surplus MREs can come already expired or with only a few months of shelf life left.
Fruit & Vegetable Pouches – Single serving fruit and vegetable pouches are a great way to get vitamins, minerals, and some fiber and can have reasonably long shelf lives.
16 oz. Jar of Peanut Butter – A single 16 oz. jar typically has about 2600 calories worth of peanut butter. This is almost a day and a half’s worth of calories. Peanut butter is my favorite emergency food because it’s high in calories, fat, and protein and is also inexpensive. However, I realize that it may not be a great option for those who are allergic and/or simply don’t like the taste. If you decide to include peanut butter, choose a brand that comes in a plastic jar instead of glass in order to save weight.
Eating utensil – You can just grab a spoon and/or fork out of your kitchen and toss it in you emergency bag but there are multi-function eating utensils designed for the backpacking market that have the advantage of being lightweight and combining the functions of a fork, spoon, and knife into one item.
Instant Coffee Packets – If you drink coffee on a regular basis, you won’t want to go through coffee withdrawals in an emergency situation. Adding a caffeine headache to a stressful situation like a natural disaster will only dull the mental sharpness you’ll need. In addition, just having the familiar joy of a hot cup of coffee can help boost your spirits. You’ll just need to include a stove in your pack to boil water for the coffee.
Pot or Canteen Cup – If you include freeze-dried meals, you’ll need a metallic container for boiling water in. I prefer an aluminum or stainless-steel canteen cup that allows a canteen or canteen-style bottle to fit inside, which saves room in my emergency bag. Other metal backpacking pots will do just fine as well.
My Pick: Rothco GI Style Aluminum Canteen Cup
Stove – A stove is another must-have item if you carry freeze-dried meals. There are many good backpacking style stoves like the MSR Pocket Rocket that take fuel canisters, but they tend to be more expensive than some of the other options. Fortunately, there are stoves that take solid-fuel tablets that are great options if you don’t want to carry fuel canisters. What also makes them attractive for emergency bags is that they typically cost less than $10 (and that’s including some fuel tablets). In the world of backpacking stoves, there are also models that take liquid fuel, which many people prefer, but due to the typical storage situations for emergency bags, aren’t as good of an option compared to canister or solid-fuel models.
Coghlan’s Emergency Camp Stove – This little solid fuel stove, pictured at the beginning of the food section, is a compact stove that can easily be included in your emergency bag.
Etekcity Ultralight Portable Outdoor Backpacking Camping Stove – At less than a third of the cost of many of the other canister style backpacking stoves, this is a great option. You will, however, have to carry fuel canisters.
Food List Example
The following list is an example of food selections for a Get Home Bag or Bug Out Bag:
|Food Item||Quantity||Calories Each||Sub-Total Calories|
|Freeze Dried Dinner||3||500||1500|
|Freeze Dried Breakfast||3||350||1050|
|Jar of Peanut Butter||1||2600||2600|
|Instant Coffee Packet||3||Negligible||Negligible|
Skills for Food
Boiling water – using a small stove to boil water sounds easy but from experience, sometimes stoves can be hard to figure out if you’re unfamiliar with them. In addition, boiling water in wind can be a challenge if you can’t get out of the wind.
In the next post in this series, I describe the forms of shelter and clothing that are needed for an emergency bag.
The content provided in this post is intended for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes only. I am not a professional and the information provided does not constitute professional advice. If you choose to use any of the information or recommended products, you do so at your own risk. For more information, read the full disclaimer here.
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