Deconstructing the Emergency Bag: Packing a Kit Is Tougher Than It Looks

emergency backpack photo
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How to pack an effective emergency kit, or improve the one you have.

I grew up in California, so my family is familiar with earthquakes. However, I grew up in a coastal area that, while we felt the rattle when quakes hit north and south of us, we rarely experienced disastrous results. Even with that familiarity -- or perhaps because of it -- after I moved to San Francisco my family gave me a very large, very full backpack of emergency supplies. And after Haiti, I've also started questioning my disaster preparedness and wondered about the contents of this bag. I pulled it out of the closet today to take a closer look. There are some additions that completely surprised me, and some items that are sorely missing, including anything having to do with an eco-conscious way of dealing with disaster.

What Was Included In My Emergency Backpack:
First of all, I put this thing on my bathroom scale. It weighs 29.6 lbs. While that's something I can technically carry, it'd be really cumbersome while trying to navigate around fallen buildings or broken roads. Plus, as I put it on the scale, the small strap I was holding it by started to rip. Switching the contents to something more like an REI day-hike pack might be in order.

However, as I pulled out the contents, I was amazed at how much fit in there. I was also surprised at some of the things included that I would have completely overlooked....and wondered about some of the things that should be included but are lacking.

5x7 foot plastic tarp
Crow bar
2 pairs heavy working gloves
Waterproof matches
2 whistles
Generic Swiss Army-type knife
Plastic trash bags with zip ties
4 emergency survival blankets
4 ponchos
8 multifunction warmers, lasting 20 hours
8 tissue packs
4 toothbrushes and 2 tubes toothpaste
4 lightsticks
50' of 1/4 inch utility rope -- made of twine, not plastic.
Emergency ration bars
Drinking water - 4 bags filled 10 packs of 4 fl oz each
2 PVC water bags - 2 gallon capacity.
2 plastic flashlights (needing D batteries)
Waterproof radio (needing AA batteries)
D and AA batteries
Coloring book, 4 crayons, playing cards
First aid kit
Paper face masks

Many of the items are packed in Ziplok bags that can be reused.

emergency entertainment photo

A crow bar? I never would have thought to include that and yet it makes perfect sense. You just never know how many uses (many of which I'd prefer not to think about right now) you'll have for something like this. And a coloring book and crayons? But, of course that makes sense. It allows for a tiny bit of normalcy and distraction during what could be long hours of waiting for resources or to be allowed to go back to your home. And -- perhaps this is naive of me -- but I would have completely forgotten about whistles. Food, water, flashlight, sure, but a whistle is a smart piece of equipment to have included in there that I would have entirely overlooked.

A Few Problem Pieces:

I am a fit person and am used to the San Francisco hills, but this 30-pound bag makes me question my ability to haul it around when I'd need it, and that includes climbing in and around rubble. I'm considering investing in a high quality eco-friendly backpack or hiking pack that can better distribute the weight of necessary supplies.

emergency food water photo

Nutrition Content of Ration Bars
"Rations" is a word that just conjures up disgusting food, and when you're hungry, anything that's edible is fair game without complaints. However, emergency food should be extra nutritious, and these ration bars are lacking. There are 4 packs of 12 bars, and each bar is supposed to be good enough for 6 hours of energy. However, the nutrition contents are only 200 calories, 3 grams of protein, 27 grams of carbohydrates, and 9 grams of fat. When this is all you may have to consume, that just doesn't cut it. I'm heading to a backpacking supply shop like REI and stocking up on long-lasting highly nutritious dehydrated foods and protein bars.

The Problem of Pure Water
Little bags of water. Okay, that makes sense because I may not have access to any water -- even dirty water -- for days. And there's two two-gallon bags for carrying water. But the kit lacks anything for purifying water. I added in my extra TapGuard (which fits Camelback bottles but I'm sure I'd be able to hack it to fit others) and my Clear2Go water bottle that also has a carbon filter; even if the carbon filter no longer works, at least it gives me something to drink out of - another piece of equipment this pack is lacking.

emergency flashlight option photo

Emergency Gear That Needs Batteries
I'm bothered by the fact that the flashlights and radio require batteries. What if the batteries expire before you need them, or don't work, or what do you do when they run out? While there's a set of batteries for each of the flashlights and the radio, I don't want to be completely dependent on them. Wind-up and/or solar powered equipment is a must-include option here to supplement battery power. Also, what about charging gadgets like cell phones or other handhelds you might have with you that need energy. I do have some Medis fuel-cell chargers...but they expired in 2008. Woops. I guess I need to send those in for recycling, and consider the best option for charging a cell phone. It may possibly be a fuel-cell charger, or a YoGen.

Changes I Am Making:
Beyond the water bottles and filters, figuring out better food options, and adding some sort of practical charger to the pack, I'm also thinking about buying a second Solar Lite. I use this thing constantly and it charges up quickly with sunlight. It is also very compact, so while I won't stash away the one I use all the time, a second one might be in order. Also, I am packing my wind-up flashlight and radio so that if the batteries for the waterproof radio run out, I can wind-up a second one and hear what's going on.

I'm a girl, so feminine products are part of the equation. I added in a few iPads (har har), and a favorite buddy while I'm hiking -- the P-Mate. You just never know what frightening condition sanitation services will be in... More things to add in are a few important clothing items -- a pair of socks, mittens, a beenie, and underwear.

Another important item is copies of driver's license and passport; the addresses and phone numbers of loved ones; photos and information about friends and family who live in the same area as you; and medical information like blood type, allergies and medications. This can all go in a ziplock bag.

And finally, one last must-have: a How-To book for emergency situations. I found this one: The Pocket Disaster Survival Guide: What to Do When the Lights Go Out. It seems comprehensive and good for important quick references. But I have yet to find one I really like, and this one isn't out on the market yet anyway. That'll go on my to-do list.

All in all, I think I succeeded in making my pack even heavier.

Eco-Friendly? Does Anyone Care In An Emergency?
It might seem frivolous to be worried about green during an emergency, but that's exactly the time we should be worried about it. But what better time to be green in an emergency than before it happens? It's harder than it looks to find a good emergency kit made up of all green items. So, it's up to you.

Plastic bags of water are great..until you run out of them. And what do you do with the plastic bags once they're opened and used? Sanitation services are sure to be down, and why create more unnecessary trash? That's when being green now pays off by having your reusable water bottles, your filtration and purification systems that you can take hiking with you, and so on. And devices that need batteries? Renewable energy is the way to go in an emergency situation, so the greener charging gadgets we talk about on here are great alternatives.

The time you spend packing your bag can be the best way to make it have the lowest impact, now and during a disaster. Search out products and supplies that are organic, made of natural materials where appropriate and practical, and other steps to make it as low-footprint as possible. After all, in a disaster there are already enough eco-problems to deal with -- why let our emergency kits be part of the problem?