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A major disaster has just happened, and you and your family had to evacuate from your home in order to get to a safer place that wasn’t affected as severely by the disaster. You drove as far as you could with the gas you had in your vehicle, but you ran out of gas before reaching your out-of-the area evacuation location, which is your in-laws’ place. You’re now traveling on foot because you’re a good two days’ walk from their home. You feel a bit exposed and vulnerable leaving your car, but you have the peace of mind that comes with having a map of the area and a compass to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.
It’s starting to get dark, so you look for a good place to setup camp a couple hundred feet from the road. When the fullness of night arrives, it will get extremely dark and temperatures will drop down into the forties. You’re glad, though, that you have fire-starting supplies and flashlights to help counteract the cold and dark.
In the previous post in this series, titled “How to Make an Emergency Bag,” I described the shelter and clothing supplies that you need to keep in your 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag.
In this post, I will describe the navigation, fire, and illumination supplies that I strongly believe you should keep in your emergency bags.
For a complete list of supplies to keep in a 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag, simply subscribe to my mailing list below and I’ll send two free checklists to help you get started!
With the advent of GPS, most of us have become dependent on the navigation systems built into our vehicles or our cell phones to get from one place to another. While GPS may still be available in many disaster situations, the ability to recharge and power the handheld devices most of us use will likely be limited if the power is out and you’re traveling on foot.
For disaster preparedness, GPS should be viewed as a backup method for navigation. If it’s not available or your handheld unit or cell phone dies, it is important that you have a map and compass, as neither of these are dependent upon electricity.
You should have a family disaster plan that lists all of the locations where each person in your household spends a significant amount of time, such as work, school, or day-care. It’s a good idea to map out routes from each of those locations to your home and put them in your emergency plan so that they’re available if you must walk home in a disaster situation. You should also identify a meeting place in your neighborhood in case you’re not able to return. And in case you must get farther away from home, you should also identify a meeting place just outside of your neighborhood and an evacuation location that is much farther outside of your neighborhood.
If you need to travel to any of these locations in a real emergency, I highly recommend that you have the directions printed out ahead of time because you might not be able to print them out after a disaster. I like to go to a website like Google Maps, print out directions to each of these locations, and put them directly into my emergency plan. Routes that you normally travel by car may be gridlocked or damaged, and otherwise impassible in a disaster situation, so you may have to take alternate routes which Google Maps typically lays out for you automatically when you get directions between two locations.
The following list contains the essential, recommended, and optional items to include in your 72 Hour Bag (72HB) or Get Home Bag (GHB):
Maps – Basic maps that include directions for pre-determined routes between work, school, daycare, home, and meeting locations can be printed out for free from websites like Google Maps. A road atlas or map (e.g. a Rand McNally Easyfinder State Map) should also be included in your emergency bag because you may have to improvise unanticipated routes or navigate around impassible roads. If you live in rural areas (or might have to evacuate to one) you should keep topographic maps of the areas that your evacuation routes take you through. Topographic maps use contour lines to show variation in elevation so that the user can get a sense of the geography of the land.
Compass – A basic handheld compass, combined with maps and navigations skills, are essentials for successful navigation. True North and magnetic North aren’t the same in most parts of the world. As a result, the compass you choose should have provisions for adjusting the magnetic declination, which allows you to accurately find true North.
Watch – While watches have many uses and are not specifically navigation devices, they are highly recommended to use when navigating. A watch can be used to keep track of your pace/progress, to time a rendezvous with a family member, or to keep track of when the sun will rise or set. Simply knowing what time it is can also provide a powerful psychological advantage in a high-stress disaster scenario by keeping your mind tethered to something normal and constant like the time of day.
Handheld GPS – A portable GPS unit is a luxury that many will choose to include in their 72-Hour Bags right away or add later. Basic models can be purchased for less than $100. Some more advanced models have additional features like built in two-way radios, text messaging capabilities, position reporting to other compatible units, as well as the option of loading maps. These will cost you more but are much more flexible than the basic models. I have the Garmin Rhino 650 that I use when hiking, backpacking, and hunting, which I keep in my 72 Hour Bag when I’m not using it. My favorite feature of the Rhino 650 is that it has a two-way radio that I can use to not only talk to other people with radios, but also to exchange positions with other compatible devices.
The following picture shows the navigation supplies that I keep in my 72-Hour Bag. The map (1) is the Rand McNally Easyfinder map of Washington State. The watch (2) is a Casio men’s digital watch that I’ve had for a few years. The GPS unit (3) is a Garmin Rhino 650 that I’ve used for years while hunting and backpacking. Finally, the compass (4) is a Professional Boy Scout Compass that I recently purchased from Amazon.com.
My Picks – Navigation:
- Rand McNally Easyfinder State Maps – these maps are laminated which protects them in wet conditions.
- Coghlan’s Map Compass
- BRUNTON TruArc 3 Compass
- Suunto A-10 Field Compass
- Casio Men’s AE1000W-1B Sport Watch – I’ve used inexpensive (less than $20) Casio watches for years while hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, hunting, and snowboarding and they’ve been extremely reliable.
Navigating with a map and compass is one of the skills that you don’t want to try to figure out on-the-fly in circumstances where you really need it. Incorrect navigation can get you lost and drastically prolong the time it takes you to reach your destination. There are many resources like books, online tutorials, and classes that that will enable you to build your navigation skills. The key is that you actually get out and practice.
Fire & Illumination
When confronted with the idea of including fire and illumination supplies in your emergency bag, it may sound more applicable to a camping trip than an emergency or survival situation. However, many disasters can leave people in situations that resemble camping. For this reason, it’s essential to have the means to start a fire and provide light in the darkness.
Fire & Illumination List
The items in the table below are the essential, recommended, and optional fire and illumination supplies for your 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag:
In extreme cold and wet conditions, an emergency fire can mean the difference between life and death, while in less severe conditions, fire can mean the difference between relative comfort and misery. If you’re cold and wet, a fire might be the only way to get warm and to dry yourself out. The following are descriptions and insights for each one of the fire-starting supplies listed in the table above:
Stormproof Matches in Waterproof Container (essential 72HB/GHB) – Stormproof matches are made to provide a flame in the harshest weather. In my experience, it’s harder to keep your tinder and kindling dry than it is to keep these matches lit. They’re relatively inexpensive and when stored in a waterproof match container, they will provide the flame you need to get a fire started—even in a storm.
Tinder in Waterproof Container (essential 72HB/GHB) – No this is not the dating app. Tinder is essential to starting a fire because, unlike kindling, it’s fast and easy to light (if kept dry) but only burns for a short time. You’ll need flame, tinder and kindling to get a fire going and fuel (typically larger dry wood) to keep it going. Tinder is often the hardest element to find out in nature so that’s why it is essential to include it in your 72-Hour Bag.
Savvy Tips – Tinder
- Dryer lint stored in a waterproof container – That’s right, dryer lint lights super easy and it’s free. You just need to keep it dry. Use a second waterproof match container like the one you store your matches in to store your tinder.
- Cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly. This is another inexpensive option for tinder. Cotton balls coated with petroleum jelly have the advantage of burning longer because of the petroleum jelly.
Fire Starter / Ferro-rod (essential 72HB, recommended GHB) – The key components of these fire starters are an easy-to-ignite metal, a scraper for making shavings of the metal, and a striker/flint for creating a spark. The metal is a type like magnesium or ferrocerium that lights easily with a spark and burns super-hot. Many of these also come with a built-in whistle, compass, and compartment for your tinder. There are many good options out there and I’ve listed a couple of them below.
Candle (recommended 72HB, optional GHB) – A small candle can be lit easily and can then burn for a long period of time, which makes it easier to start a fire in difficult conditions, as it doesn’t burn out in a few seconds like a match does.
The image below shows my fire-starting supplies. The cotton balls and petroleum jelly (1) are used to make tinder by coating the cotton in the jelly. To keep the tinder dry, the cotton balls are placed in the orange waterproof match container (2-right). The green match container (2-left) is a UCO stormproof container that came filled with stormproof matches (3). Item 4 is a Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter (ferrocerium rod and metal striker) that also has an emergency whistle in the lanyard.
My Picks – Fire:
- UCO Stormproof Match Kit with Waterproof Case
- Coghlan’s Plastic Match Box – to store your tinder in and keep it dry
- Survival Spark Magnesium Fire Starter with Compass and Whistle
- Gerber Bear Grylls Fire Starter
- UCO Candles
Starting a fire – If you’ve never started a fire, even with dry elements in ideal weather conditions, start here. Use some of the tinder in your pack, find some kindling and fuel (typically larger dry wood), and start a fire in a safe place outside by using your matches to get it lit. Once you’ve started a fire in ideal conditions with matches, use your fire starter rod to start a small fire. After you’ve mastered that, try starting a fire in windy and wet conditions. This will give you a good idea of what you might be up against if forced to start a fire out of need as opposed to playing around in the back yard.
Most of us are accustomed to having light on demand wherever we go. This is not likely to be the case in a disaster, so it is essential to carry both a primary light source and a backup. The following descriptions provide a few pointers on selecting primary and backup illumination sources for your emergency bag:
Flashlight & Spare Batteries (essential 72HB/GHB)– Headlamps have the advantage over traditional hand-held flashlights because they allow your hands to be free. If you’ve ever tried doing something in the dark while holding a flashlight between your teeth or between your chin and shoulder, you know what I mean. In a disaster situation you may find yourself having to work on something in the dark.
A guy wire comes untied from your tube tent and you need to go out and re-tie it in the pitch black. You’ll want both of your hands available to be able to work on getting your tent set back up.
Whether you choose a headlamp or hand-held flashlight for your primary, LED models are preferred over incandescent bulbs because of the longer battery life you get with the LEDs. In addition to long battery life, look for a light that has the level of brightness you desire (which is typically rated in lumens).
Backup Flashlight & Spare Batteries (essential 72HB/GHB) – A backup light source is a must in case your primary light is lost, damaged, or malfunctions. Small handheld flashlights are inexpensive and there are a multitude of options. There are also hand-cranked flashlight and emergency radio combination units that can be used as a backup and can last for a very long time since they can be re-charged by hand cranking. Some of these, like a typical flashlight, are easier to use than others so if you choose to use a hand-cranked radio and flashlight combo, be sure to choose a model that actually makes a practical flashlight.
There are many different flashlights and fire starters to choose from. The image below shows the models that I’ve included in my 72 Hour Bag. Petzl has a reputation of making top quality headlamps and flashlights so I have included one of their headlamps (1) as my primary light source in my emergency bag. I purchased a small and inexpensive flashlight (2) for a few dollars for my backup. And both of the lights use AAA batteries (3); therefore, if one of the lights malfunctions, I can use the batteries in the one that still works.
My picks – Illumination:
Savvy Tips – Illumination
- Try to get primary and backup flashlights that use the same type of batteries so that they can be used interchangeably in both light sources and other electronic devices. Many small flashlights use button style batteries that are often used in watches but won’t be compatible with most of the other devices you choose to carry. It’s also a good practice to minimize the different types of batteries you use with the various devices in your pack so that batteries can be used interchangeably and so that you don’t have to pack three or four different types. I typically end up having devices that use either AA or AAA batteries and try to avoid getting items that use anything different.
Navigation, fire, and illumination supplies are three easy things to overlook when putting together an emergency bag. I hope this post has highlighted the importance of including these supplies as well as given you some guidance on how to choose them.
In the next post of this series, I’ll describe the first aid, hygiene and personal items to consider including in your emergency bag.
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