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In this series about how to make an emergency bag, I’ve discussed the gear and supplies in all of the important categories for emergency bag items except for one. In this last post, I’ll cover the important documents and information to include as well as some key tips for selecting a bag and then packing the bag efficiently.
Documents & Information
Certain documents and information are important to include in an emergency bag. Consider a disaster situation in which you or a family member needs emergency medical attention. Having a copy of identification, medical insurance details, and important medical history information can help one to get the best treatment possible. This is only one scenario in which having the right information with you can be important.
Important documents are some of the most overlooked items that should be included in a 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag. Personally, they are my least favorite items to collect when putting together an emergency bag, but I realize they can be just as important as any of the other items. While you should always carry government issued identification, doing so might be even more important in a disaster situation if the National Guard is called in to help with humanitarian efforts or if you’re incapacitated and need medical assistance. Along those lines, having your medical history and medical insurance information with you is important if you need professional medical treatment. Identification and medical insurance are two of the three essential document/information items to include in your emergency bag. The third essential item is a family emergency plan.
Developing an emergency plan is the first step you should take when preparing your family for emergencies and disasters. A family emergency plan can help get your family on the same page on what to do, how to communicate, where to go, and where to meet during an emergency.
A family emergency plan should, at a minimum, include the following information:
- Identification of disasters and emergencies your family may encounter
- Important information for each family member:
- Phone numbers
- Email addresses
- Medical insurance information
- Important medical information (if any)
- Addresses and phone numbers of frequent locations like work, school, day-care
- Communication plan including an out-of-state contact (see “How to Make an Emergency Bag Part 6”)
- Meeting locations in your neighborhood if separated during an emergency
- Meeting locations outside your neighborhood if forced to evacuate
- Instructions on what to do and where supplies are located for a shelter-in-place at home
- Instructions for riding-it-out at home
These details may sound daunting to figure out and write down into a coherent plan. To make it easier and to give you some ideas on what to include and how to organize the information, you can download an emergency plan template from the American Red Cross here.
Once you’ve made your emergency plan, go over it with your family and print out multiple copies. Keep a copy in an emergency binder at home and include copies in each 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag, as well as in any other location that might be accessible in an emergency. For example, I keep a copy locked in one of my desk drawers at work.
The following list of items includes all of the documents and information to consider including in your emergency bag. The items are labeled as either essential, recommended, or optional for either a 72 Hour Bag (72HB) or Get Home Bag (GHB). The essential items are what I consider the bare minimum for a given type of emergency bag.
- Copy of Identification (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Copy of Passport or Birth Certificate (essential 72HB, recommended GHB)
- Medical Insurance Information (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Medical History (as required 72HB/GHB)
- Emergency Plan (essential 72HB/GHB)
- Pocket Survival Guide (recommended 72HB/GHB)
- Other Important Documents (recommended 72HB)
- USB Drive Containing Important Documents and Personal Information (optional 72HB)
Survival Guide – There are many survival guides that describe common bush craft skills like starting fires, making improvised shelters, collecting water, first aid, and tying knots. Even if you are an expert at survival skills, there are many other expert insights and tips covered in these guides that could prove valuable if you’ve exhausted your knowledge and skills in a real survival situation.
Other Important Documents & USB Drives
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, important records and documents were lost for many families because the storage of these documents was not robust enough for them to survive the devastation that covered a large geographical area. Robust data backup entails having multiple copies in multiple geographical locations so that if one copy is lost, there’s at least one other redundant copy far enough away to not be destroyed during a disaster that covers a large area. Unfortunately, many of our records that are kept by state and local governments don’t have robust backup capabilities.
It’s a really good idea to locate originals or make copies of important documents like financial information, insurance information, passports, social security cards, deeds to real estate, titles to cars, birth certificates, adoptions papers, naturalization/immigration records, and legal documents such as wills, living trusts, and medical powers of attorney. Since you won’t want most of this information falling into the wrong hands, you should consider putting it all in a binder that you put inside a small waterproof and fire-resistant safe and storing in a safe place in your house.
If you have to evacuate, you can grab the entire safe and its contents and take it with you when you go.
If you would prefer to have electronic copies of some or all of these documents, you can scan and store them all on an encrypted USB drive that you keep in a safe place in your house or in your 72-Hour Bag.
Selecting a Bag for Your Emergency Supplies
Now that you’ve hopefully gathered or at least identified all of the supplies that will go into your emergency bag, it’s time to put it all into a bag that can not only hold all of your gear, but also allow you to be mobile if needed. Backpacks are the most comfortable and efficient bags for carrying large quantities of gear so I recommend backpacks for 72 Hour Bags. Because I like backpacks so much, I also recommend them for Get Home Bags but something like a sling pack can also work if the contents of the Get Home Bag are on the lighter side.
You may have an unused backpack that you have laying around that would work great for your 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag. If you’re looking to get a new backpack to put your emergency supplies into, you might want to consider the following key features when evaluating your choices:
- Capacity. The capacity or volume of a backpack is usually measured in liters but sometimes measured in cubic inches. I’ve found that a minimum of 40-liters (approximately 2500 cubic inches) is usually enough capacity for a basic 72 Hour Bag. For a Get Home Bag, a 25 to 35-liter (approximately 1500 to 2100 cubic inches) pack is usually sufficient. This is all dependent on the size of the gear that you intend to pack in it so assess how big your gear is and choose the size of backpack accordingly. If your collection of supplies is much more extensive than the essentials, you’ll probably need to go with a larger bag.
- Hip Belt. The heavier the contents of your backpack, the less you’ll want the weight to rest on your shoulders and the more you’ll want it to be supported by your hips. A backpack with a hip belt will allow you to support more of the weight on your hips. With a built-in sternum strap, you’ll have three ways (shoulder straps, waist belt, sternum strap) to adjust the load distribution and fit of your backpack.
- No Frame or Internal Frame. A backpack with an internal frame is able to carry more weight and is more rigid than a backpack that has no frame. An internal frame also allows you to keep the contents arranged better within the pack. While not critical for many 72 Hour Bags or Get Home Bags, an internal frame is something to consider when selecting a backpack. A good compromise is a backpack that has a stiffener in the back plate which provides some increased rigidity and support while not significantly increasing the cost of the pack like a full internal frame often does.
Additional features that are nice to have in a backpack but aren’t quite as important as the ones in the previous list are:
- External stretch pockets for storing water bottles and other items
- Internal sleeve for hydration reservoir
- Rain cover
- Small and medium sized exterior pockets for storing items for quicker access
- Compression straps for tightening down loads
The figure below highlights some of the features on the Mountaintop 40 Liter Unisex Backpack that I used for the 72 Hour Bag that I put together in this series of posts on emergency bags.
Since choosing and buying the emergency supplies that will go into your emergency bag is a highly personal and a highly variable process, it’s a good idea to purchase the bag after you’ve purchased all of the items that will go inside.
My Pick – Backpacks:
Mountaintop 40 Liter Unisex Backpack. I spent considerable time over a few months deciding which backpack to get for the 72 Hour Bag that I assembled for this post. This model from Mountaintop had enough of the features that I desired at a reasonably low price. The padded hip belt, shoulder straps, and back panel make this backpack more comfortable to wear than similarly priced packs with less padding in these areas. The difference in padding will be felt most when trekking many miles with a heavily loaded pack. The 40-liter capacity is just large enough to pack all of the contents that I wanted to into my 72 Hour Bag (see pictures below for the contents and the packed bag) and the generously sized side stretch pockets are big enough to carry one-liter water bottles on each side.
Packing Your Bag
As with most endeavors in life, having a little bit of knowledge can go a long ways towards achieving a better outcome. Packing a backpack with emergency supplies is no different. My years on the trails and climbing routes of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest have taught me a few things about packing a backpack. Here is a compilation of the key bits of knowledge and wisdom that apply to packing an emergency bag:
- Place more frequently used items in external pockets. Items like flashlights, compasses, maps, food, and water should be easily accessible..
- Use smaller bags or pouches to organize gear. Seal-able gallon, quart, and sandwich-sized plastic bags are useful in grouping items together. Unfortunately, they aren’t as durable as some other options, will show signs of wear, and may get punctured over time. Dry-bags and compression sacks are more durable and can be used to keep items together. Plastic zipper bags are another good option to organize your contents. One of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced while backpacking is finding my tinder and not being able to find my stormproof matches without digging through my pack for another 10 minutes. So it might make sense to group items together by function when organizing your gear into bags or pouches.
- Pack heavier items as close to your center of gravity as possible. Keeping the heaviest items in your pack as close as possible to your center of gravity will help to minimize fatigue while trekking with your emergency bag. For most men, their center of gravity is about an inch or two below the belly button and about two inches back towards the spine. For women, it is typically a couple inches lower. This means that your heaviest contents should be in the vicinity of the small of your back. This means that when packing most backpacks, lighter items like clothes that you don’t need quick access to should go on the bottom and then your heaviest items get placed just on top of the light items. These are just rules of thumb so experiment with different arrangements of the contents of your emergency bag and walk around and see what feels most comfortable.
- Protect your gear from moisture. Waterproof backpacks can be purchased but cost more money than most of us will want to spend on an emergency bag. Some affordable backpacks come with waterproof rain covers and add-on rain covers can be purchased for $10-$20 if you have a backpack that didn’t come with one. My favorite trick for protecting my gear from water is to line the inside of the main compartment of my pack with a white garbage bag before packing it. Take a drawstring style garbage bag and place in your empty pack with the open end up towards the top of the pack. Place all of the contents inside like you would normally pack your bag and cinch the bag closed with the drawstrings. A white garbage bag is preferred because it will make the inside of your bag brighter and easier to see the contents.
- Beware of scented items. Certain items will pick up the smell of other items if given the chance. I learned this lesson the hard way when I stuck a bar of scented soap in my first 72 Hour Bag and it made the other items in my bag smell like soap. To prevent odor migration you can put scented items in Mylar bags and seal them up to prevent the odor causing elements from escaping and making the other items in your pack smell.
The picture below shows the items that I included in the 72 Hour Bag that I put together for this post. The contents belong to all of the emergency bag gear categories that I outlined in the first post in this series which are repeated again here for convenience:
- First Aid
- Hygiene and Personal Items
- Tools and Other Supplies
- Documents and Information
After consolidating some of the supplies by category into smaller pouches (I used some Juslin Zipper File Bags) I strategically loaded the 40-liter Mountaintop backpack with the finished product shown in the picture below. I packed or attached some water bottles and my GPS to the exterior for quick access, and left my shoes out as I don’t like putting potentially dirty items inside the pack. Plus, with all of the supplies crammed into a 40-liter pack, there wasn’t room for them anyway.
Once you’ve assembled your emergency bag, it’s a good idea to check the contents periodically. I like to check mine out about every six months and I usually do so around Christmas and the Fourth of July because it’s relatively easy for me to remember to do so during those holidays. Some key things to look for when you’re doing your checks are food and water that is expired (or within six months of expiring), old batteries, any leaking containers or packaging, or any items that are visibly warn to the point that they may no longer serve their purpose.
This seven-part series has provided the foundational knowledge needed to put together your very own 72 Hour Bag or Get Home Bag. While it may be scary to think that you may actually have to use an emergency bag some day, being sufficiently prepared can help give you some peace of mind and confidence as a result of knowing that you and your family will be able to handle a potential disaster.
If you’ve read this far, then you probably already have the motivation to either purchase a pre-assembled emergency bag, start putting one together from scratch, or add to an existing bag. So, I’d like to encourage you to take the next step in your emergency preparedness and obtain the necessary supplies and knowledge for potential disasters that you and your family may encounter. And if you need help keeping track of your emergency bag contents, you can sign up for my mailing list below and I’ll send you links to where you can download my free 72 Hour Bag and Get Home Bag checklists.
For further reading, the other 6 parts of this series titled “How to Make an Emergency Bag” can be found at the links below:
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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