The personal emergency kit is small enough and light enough so that you always have it with you. It will do you no good to own the best kit in the world if it is at home and you are not when disaster strikes.

This emergency kit is Level 2 in my five-level disaster emergency kit hierarchy. It assumes that you are already have your everyday carry kit on your person. Thus items included in that kit, like a cell phone, are not included in this list.

The goal of this kit is, primarily, to get you home during a disaster where you have a larger emergency kit available. However, this may be all you have if your home is destroyed or you are forced to evacuate without returning home.

You don’t want to carry too much stuff in this kit or you will be tempted to leave it at home. It should fit easily in a backpack, messenger bag, or even a large purse. Limit the kit’s components to compact, lightweight, high quality, and, if possible, multi-use gear.

The list below may look long, but many of the items take up little room and weigh almost nothing. If you end up with a bulging backpack that weighs 30 pounds (15 kg) then you need to cut some stuff out.

Each individual family member (including children) need to have their own personal emergency kit. Obviously, for children, the contents will be different, but the basics of water, food, signaling, and shelter should still be included. Toddlers and infants should be covered by their parent’s kit.

Personal Emergency Kit Bag

I have the majority of my personal emergency kit in a bag designed as a camera case. If I ride my bike to work, I put it in the bottom of my pannier bag. The rest of the time, I put the camera case in my backpack along with a few additional emergency items, which are included in this list.

For most people I recommend a dedicated backpack or messenger bag to carry your personal emergency gear.

Term Definitions

Note that this kit differs from what some call a go-bag or bail-out-bag (BOB). This is by design. The traditional go-bag is too bulky and heavy for every day carry. (See my other kit recommendations for more complete evacuation gear solutions.)

Personal Emergency Kit Contents

(You can skip to the emergency kit checklist at the bottom of page for quick reference.)

Food and Water

Water

I always carry a water bottle with me for normal, everyday, use. As it is often depleted by the end of the day, I sometimes carry an additional 16 oz (500 ml) of water as backup.

A simple solution is to include a bottle of commercially bottled water. Note the expiration date and rotate it as necessary.

I found the reusable rectangular 16 oz. HDPE Nalgene bottle to be convenient to fit in my bag. It is BPA free and supposedly one of the “safe” plastics (as far as leaching chemical concerns go). Treat the water with a single drop of fresh, unscented, chlorine bleach to prevent the growth of bacteria. Replace with fresh water annually.

Water Disinfection

If you are delayed in getting to your destination, you will need more water than you have with you. If you have to obtain water from a questionable source, you need a way to make the water safe to drink. (Water sources that are normally safe may not be safe during a disaster – this includes city water.) The last thing you need during a disaster is to develop a case of diarrhea (a potentially life-threatening situation when medical help is not available) because you drank unsafe water.

I use Portable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide water purification tablets to treat water for drinking. Just drop one tablet in a one-quart (one-liter) container and wait 30 minutes before drinking. If the water is cold or dirty, you may need to wait several hours (up to four) for the tablets to do their job.

If you suspect that the water may contain toxic chemical contaminants (such as gasoline, anti-freeze, industrial waste, oil, etc.), DO NOT drink it. (And be aware that most water treatment methods, including most filters, will not remove all such containments.)

I also carry a couple of coffee filters to help filter out dirt and algae to make the water more palatable and allow the chemical treatment to work more effectively. If you have a wide-mouth container (mentioned below) bring a rubber band so you can attach the filter to the mouth of the container. Simply pour the water through the coffee filter into the container and then treat as mentioned above.

Water Container

To treat water you will need a container to treat it in. I recommend a collapsible 32 oz. (1000 ml) wide mouth water container, such as the Nalgene Wide Mouth Cantene, to store and treat the water you are able to procure.

While more compact and slightly lighter, the collapsible narrow mouth containers are almost impossible to fill by simply dipping in water (I found that out the hard way). So, get a wide mouth version if you have the room. An alternative would be to use an empty (non-collapsible) water bottle or container to pour into your narrow mouth container.

A practicly free, but inferior, option would be a quart freezer bag. They are, however, almost impossible to handle without spilling when full of water and puncture quite easily. Spend the couple extra bucks and get a real container when you can afford it.

It’s not a bad idea, however, to have a quart freezer bag on hand as it takes up almost no space and weights almost nothing. It has multiple improvised uses, such as a trash bag, an improvised wound irrigation “syringe” (clip the corner off a sealed bag full of water and squeeze), a “puke bag”, food storage, etc.

Food

Clif Energy Bar - Emergency Kits - Disaster Survival Guide

Clif Bar

Carry a couple of energy bars to give you the energy you need to get back home. While the body can live quite a while without food, performance declines rapidly without an intake of calories.  We feel better and perform better when we have something to eat.

As your body’s primary fuel is carbohydrates, go for high-carb energy bars and not protein bars. (Keeping your diet is not really a consideration during a disaster.) My favorite brand of energy bar is the Clif Bar. Make sure you rotate your stock as these do have expiration dates.

Navigation and Communication

Compass

We’re not talking precise navigation here. This is in case you become disoriented and need to figure out which way north is so you can orient your map and get out of there. A mini zipper pull compass will do the job. I attach mine to one of the zippers on my emergency kit bag so it’s always handy.

Maps

The road you normally take home may be blocked. In fact, half the town may impassable. A map will help you navigate those unfamiliar neighborhoods and back roads so you can get back home. I recommend a local street map for detail and a state highway map for wider coverage.

You can get often an official state highway map free from visitor centers on major highways or from your state’s website. For free city maps, check your local chamber of commerce.

Radio

Often the most sought after and most unavailable asset after a disaster is good information. A pocket AM/FM radio is worth its weight in gold for finding out what is going on.

Consider one that gets the NOAA Weather Radio channels in addition to AM/FM. If the disaster is weather related the information provided there will be invaluable. See my NOAA Weather Radio page for details on how to select the best weather radio for this kit.

Make sure you carry two sets of batteries for your radio. Rotate the batteries each year and replace with fresh ones. Get a radio that uses the same type of batteries as your flashlight or headlamp, if possible.

Don’t store the batteries in the radio unless you regularly use it. Leaving batteries unused for long periods often causes them to leak. If they are in your radio when they leak, they may ruin it. Also, some radios draw just a little bit of power when off, which depletes your batteries even though you are not using it!

Shelter and Personal Protection

Garbage Bags

The lowly 33-gallon trash bag has multiple uses when it comes to protecting yourself. Poke a couple of strategically placed holes in one to improvise a rain poncho. Curl up in one stuffed with leaves, pine needles, or other insulating material for a short, but helpful, sleeping bag. Cut one open and you have a small tarp. Carry a couple; they are compact, light, and oh-so-useful.

Poncho

If it rains, you will get wet. If it is cold, being wet will accelerate the onset of hypothermia. And even if it’s hot, it is no fun being wet. A light weight rain poncho works better than a trash bag.

Emergency Blanket or Bivy

If you have to spend an unexpected night out you will want an emergency bivy or blanket. Avoid the classic silver Mylar space blankets, as they are noisy and easily develop catastrophic rips. Better is the Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheet Bivvy or Blanket. I prefer the bivy, as it provides more protection than the blanket, but can be cut open to make a blanket if needed.

Emergency Bivvy Sack

A bivy, or more properly, a bivouac sack, is a large bag that you can fit your entire body into. The reflective lining on the inside of the Heatsheet material reflects 90% of your radiated body heat and the waterproof material keeps you dry and minimizes heat loss due to evaporation.

Clothing and Shoes

Ladies, walking any significant distance in high heels will be next to impossible – especially if you must navigate through debris. If your normal attire is inappropriate for dealing with disasters (such as a suit and tie or dress shoes), you should include a change of clothes and sturdy shoes.

If you live in a cold climate you should carry (if you are not already wearing) appropriate clothing for a sudden walk outside. These would include long thermal underwear, heavy socks, heavy coat or parka, stocking cap or hat, gloves, and appropriate shoes or boots.

As these items take a bit more room that would easily fit in your personal emergency kit bag, store them in your car, office, and where ever else would be appropriate for you situation. (In other words, they are part of your personal emergency kit, but not in the emergency kit bag.)

Gloves

Lightweight leather gloves will protect your hands when you have to move downed tree branches or dig through rubble. Gloves help avoid cuts and scrapes that become much more easily infected in the sanitation challenged disaster environment. Get the ones that are all leather, rather than the ones that are simply leather palmed, as these help protect the back of your hands better. Hardware stores seem to be the best place to find this type of glove.

Dusk mask/respirator

The cheap discount dust/face masks are better than nothing, but their filtering capability isn’t very good. Get an NIOSH approved N95 respirator. Several manufactures make fold flat varieties that pack much easier in small kits like this.

If you have ever worn an N95 respirator for any length of time, you know how uncomfortable they can become, especially if you are under any level of physical exertion. Some models have an exhale valve that greatly increases their comfort and thus the likelihood that you will wear it. (The 3M model 9211 respirators are N95 rated, fold flat, and have an exhale valve.) A drawback of the exhale valve is that it is a bit more bulky than the non-valved models.

Sun Block

If you have to travel on foot in sunny conditions, a small tube of sun block will help prevent painful sunburn. Prolonged exposure can develop into serious burns that require medical attention (which may be unavailable or at least very limited during a crisis).

Get the highest SPF rating in the smallest bottle you can find. Sometimes you can find 0.5 oz tubes of SPF 30 or greater sun block at baby specialty stores.Or consider the more convenient sunscreen towletts, such as those made by SunX or Baby Blanket.

Sun glasses

Sunglasses will help protect your eyes from the sun and reduce eye fatigue.  This helps prevent headaches so you have one less thing to worry about in an already stressful situation. They also provide some protection from flying projectiles and dust (some models more than others depending on the design). If you already wear glasses, consider clip-on sunglasses.  (Modern clip-ons are stylish and streamlined, unlike the models of yesteryear.)

Insect repellant

A small bottle of insect repellant will make your life more comfortable during bug season. It may also save you from mosquito borne illnesses such as West Niles Virus or Malaria and serious tick borne illnesses such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Even excessive mosquito or black fly bites can cause serious allergic reactions. What may only be a nuisance under normal circumstances may become a serious health issue due to prolonged exposure.

I personally prefer the active ingredient of Picaridin to DEET, but I’ve found you need the 20% variety for it to work as well. It’s actually a bit hard to find (the 6-7% concentrations are much more common), but can be obtained in a 0.5 oz size bottle marketed under the GoReady brand.

Medical and First-Aid

First-Aid Kit

Start with a quality commercial first-aid kit and supplement it where needed. I find the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight series (the .5 or .7 models in particular) are great for this size of kit.

I supplement my AMK Ultralight .5 as follows:

  • 2 in. self-adhering Ace bandage (for treating sprains)
  • A pair of Nitrile gloves (for protection from other people’s blood and body fluids and the dangerous bacteria and viruses they may carry. Use Nitrile gloves as a many people are allergic to Latex.)

Personal Medication

If you require special medications (such as heart or blood pressure medications) make sure you include a supply of those. Discuss how long of a supply you should include with your doctor. (I would recommend a minimum of a week’s supply.) The more critical they are the more you should include since you don’t know when you will be able to obtain more after a disaster.

Make sure you rotate your supply so you are not carrying expired medications.

Carry a copy of your prescriptions in case you have to evacuate and need to obtain a longer supply of your medications. This will also let a new doctor know what medication you are on in the event that your normal doctor’s office, along with your medical records, is destroyed in the disaster.

Spare Eyeglasses

If you can’t see without your glasses or contacts then you need to carry spare eye glasses. Contacts can become torn or lost and eye glasses can break. If you wear contacts, consider that there may be large amounts of dust in the air (and thus irritating your eyes) that will prevent you from wearing them at all.

Zenni Optical, an online eyeglass shop, is a great place to get a very inexpensive set of spare glasses. At their prices (starting at $8 including lenses!) you can’t afford not to have a spare pair!

Carry a copy of your current eye glasses prescription too.

Hand sanitizer

Personal hygiene during a disaster can become quite a challenge. Carry a bottle of alcohol based hand sanitizer (such as Purell or Germ-X) and use it liberally before eating and after going to the bathroom. You may find the smaller 0.5 oz bottles where you find the travel-sized bottles of shampoo at discount stores.

Tools and Essentials

Fire Starter

Since the beginning of time, fire has been one of the primary necessities of civilization. It provides light and heat. Both are requirements for survival. It can also be useful for cooking, boiling water to sanitize it, fending off wild animals, and simply for comfort.

As fire is of prime importance in wilderness or civilization-turned-wilderness-by-a-disaster settings, you should to carry three methods of starting a fire. There are dozens of ways to start fires, but I will highlight the three I recommend for this size of kit.

Matches are the classic fire starter. They are easy to use and produce a good, but short lived, flame. At least they do when the matches are dry and there is no wind. Everybody knows how to strike a match, so having this option available has great value if you are not the one starting the fire. Make sure you include the striker with the matches and store them in a waterproof match case.

Next is the classic Bic lighter. It has a familiar operation, burns for a long time, and is reliable in the best of times. In the worst of times however, don’t plan on it working after it is dunked in water (at least until it completely dries out). Also, the lighter fluid can leak out if the unit is crushed or the lever accidently gets depressed against other gear in your bag. Avoid refillable lighters, as they are notorious for leaking their fluid for no apparent reason. Get one in a color where you can see the lighter fluid level so you know how much fuel remains.

This third option for your emergency kit is much more reliable than the first two, but is just different enough that someone unfamiliar with it may not know what to do with it. (Which is why you carry the other options too.) The Spark-Lite and its associated Tinder-Quik tabs are small, light, and very dependable. They work when wet (just shake off the water) and can be operated with one hand if needed.

The Spark-Lite operates very much like a traditional Bic lighter, but produces a much hotter and larger shower of sparks. First, fluff one end of the waterproof Tinder-Quik.  Then flick the wheel to shower sparks from the Spark-Lite onto the tinder. It normally lights after only one or two sparks.

If conditions are ideal I find you can often get away with only half a Tinder-Quik. (Simply cut it in half with your knife.) Only do this if you are confident in your fire building skills and conditions are right (i.e., dry kindling, no wind, low stress situation, warm temperatures, etc.).

Getting an initial flame won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to turn it into a larger fire. I recommend practicing in your back yard (on a fireproof surface in a safe location) to get familiar with the process. If you have never built a fire or have only built one using an entire bottle of lighter fluid, then the process may take a bit more skill than you realize. The key to developing that skill is practice.

Fire is extremely dangerous and should only be used in safe locations and then only with great care. Never build a fire indoors (risk of carbon monoxide poisoning) or when there is risk of a forest fire.

Survival Knife

The knife is considered by some experts to be the most essential component of a wilderness survival kit. In the disaster emergency kit, it still holds a place of prime importance. Its usefulness is simply too important to ignore this critical tool.

Its uses include cutting, prying, whittling sticks (for skewers, shelters, or simply to pass the time), and, well you get the idea…

For this kit, you don’t want to haul around a huge fixed blade survival knife (save that for another kit). Instead, I recommend a high-quality folding knife with a non-serrated (plain-edge) blade. Serrated blades are more popular (and thus easier to find) and will work just as well as a plain edge blade, but they are harder to sharpen without special equipment that you can’t count on having with you.

Get the best knife you can afford. The better the steel and the way it is constructed make a huge difference in its ability to service you well. Cheep steel dulls easily. And dull knifes are dangerous as they require you to use greater force to accomplish your task, which in turn increases the risk of the knife slipping and cutting you.

Get a knife with a blade made from 440C, D2, 154-CM, or better steel.

Benchmade Mini-Griptillian Folding Knife (plain edge)- Emergency Kit - Disaster Survival Guide

Benchmade Mini-Griptillian Folding Knife (plain edge)

The Benchmade Griptillian series of knives are beautifully constructed and made of good quality steel. They are very reasonably priced for the quality of the product. I especially like their AXIS blade lock, which is one of the most reliable and safest locking mechanisms I have seen.

I carry a Mini-Griptillian Mini with a plain-edge (non-serrated) blade made of quality D2 steel. The specific model I have appears to be replaced with a newer Mini-Griptillian with a slightly better (for our purposes) 154-CM stainless steel.

If you can’t afford a quality knife, I recommend you save up until you can. In the mean time, at least carry the keychain knife I recommend for your Everyday Carry Emergency Kit.

Multi-Tool

A multi-tool, such as one of the popular Leatherman tools, is a great addition to your kit. The various tools (pliers, wire cutters, screwdrivers, file, saw, can opener, awl, etc.) are very useful for repairs and other tasks. For example, use the can opener to open your survival rations or use the pliers as a potholder or to pull a needle and thread through tough material.

Since this is a small kit, consider getting a mini multi-tool, like the Gerber Clutch or the Leatherman Squirt P series (the Squirt S series have scissors rather than pliers). While the min multi-tools won’t do everything a larger one will, they are considerably lighter and smaller. (I carry a full sized Leatherman Wave in my kit for its superior strength and thus usefulness.)

The knives on these tools are backup blades rather than primary blades. Carry a multi-tool in addition to the folding knife mentioned above.

Because it’s such a great value (and so small) I recommend the Gerber Clutch. If you want to carry a full size tool I recommend the Leatherman Wave.

Light

Some form of light is both necessary and comforting during and after a disaster. You may need to find you way across debris and through unfamiliar areas when the power is out. If you have kids, the comforting part really becomes a necessity.

A headlamp is generally more useful than a traditional flashlight as it leave both hands free to work.

I am partial to the Princeton Tec EOS Headlamp. It is very bright, has good battery life, and is well constructed.

As I mention on my everyday carry kit page, I also carry a micro keychain light on my key ring. I use it constantly and it is more convenient to pull out than a full sized light. The Photon Freedom Micro Light is slightly more expensive than others in its class, but is made out of nearly indestructible glass filled polyurethane. It is also water resistant. Well worth the few extra dollars.

Get the “covert” model Photon Light in the white beam color. The covert model adds a shield around the bulb so it doesn’t blind you with the side-scatter light. It in no way affects the usable light output from the unit. It also comes with a handy clip attachment so you can use it as an improvised “headlamp” by clipping it to your hat brim or shirt collar.

Make sure you carry spare batteries for your light. As I mentioned above, it is a good idea, if you can, to get a light that uses the same batteries that your radio does.

Also, make sure you get a quality flashlight or headlamp for your emergency kit. The cheap ones will leave you without light when you really need them.

Rope

Genuine mil spec 550 parachute cord (generally referred to as paracord) is great stuff. It has a breaking strength of 550 pounds (250 kg), but is sufficiently small that you can pack a decent length in a small space.
It has seven inner strands that can be pulled from the outer sheath and used where the full diameter rope is not appropriate.

The cheap, imitation rope you find in the discount store camping section is inferior in strength and usability to the mil spec version.

Use it as a ridgeline or guy line for a tarp shelter, as an emergency belt, to tie a homemade splint, repair gear, make a lanyard for your flashlight so you don’t drop it in the water, etc.

Aluminum foil

Heavy-duty aluminum foil has several interesting uses. You can make a cup to boil, and thus sanitize, water over a campfire (make a lid to keep out the soot). You can cook food hobo style by simply wrapping the food up in foil and placing in hot coals to cook. You can also use it to create a windbreak for your fire or camp stove.

Miscellaneous

Bandana

Like the garbage bag, the bandana is a multi-use wonder. Use it as a head covering, a sweatband, a washcloth, a potholder, a tourniquet, a bandage, a signaling device (if it is brightly colored), a dust mask, and the list goes on. Carry at least one.

Cash

Although most of our financial transactions are now electronic (credit and debit cards), cash is king in emergencies. Merchants need power and telecommunication connectivity to accept credit cards. Both are typically down in disasters.

It is best to have small denominations on hand. Carry at least one hundred dollars split between, $20s, $10s, $5s, and $1s (or whatever is appropriate in your local currency). I would include a stack of quarters for change and payphone calls. Skip smaller coins as they weight a lot for their value. Also, avoid large bills, like $50s and $100s, as it is hard to buy a $2 item with a $100 bill. Most people don’t have $98 of change on them! (You however, will now be an exception to that, right?)

Spare Keys

Carry spare house and car keys in case you forget or lose your primary set in a hasty evacuation. Disaster or not, my spare set of keys has saved me great heartache on many an occasion!

Sewing kit

Not exactly a survival item, but being able to sew up torn clothing or gear could be helpful and help make you more comfortable. Include a miniature sewing kit like those they use to give away free at hotels. Supplement with a large needle that is able to accommodate dental floss for heaver gear repairs.

Dental Floss

Standard dental floss has multiple used beyond the obvious (flossing teeth) and makes a great heavy-duty thread, lanyard material (so you don’t lose critical gear), or lightweight rope. The waxed variety is almost impossible to untie and works great for gear repairs. A slightly weaker alternative to dental floss would be to include a length of heavy-duty thread.

Safety Pins

Safety pins are also helpful for temporary gear and clothing repairs. They are useful for rigging makeshift shelters and hanging partitions. They are small and light, so carry half-a-dozen of them.

Notepad

A small (shirt-pocket sized) notepad has several uses. The most obvious is, of course, as something to write on. Use to make lists, write down instructions, leave information with people, or keep a journal.

Not as obvious uses would include tinder for fire starting and, if it has a spiral binding, wire for repairs. The plastic cover on some notepads could be used as a patch for gear (use your sewing kit with dental floss to attach it and your multi tool to poke the needle through the tough material).

It would be wise to consider a pad with waterproof paper, such as those produced by Rite-in-the-Rain, as many disasters involve large amounts of water or at least the potential for rain. You can find Rite-in-the-Rain products at camping or outdoor specialty stores.

If you don’t carry the whole note pad at least carry a few sheets.

Writing Instrument

You will need something to write with on your note pad. For that, nothing beats the reliability of a good, old fashioned, #2 pencil.

Pens tend to leak, dry out, and fail at the most inopportune time. Leaving a pen unused in your kit for years is a good way to ensure it won’t work when you need it. If you still want a pen, get a Fisher Space Pen, which contains a special pressurized ink cartridge and waterproof ink. They tend to be more reliable than normal pens.

Your knife will be useful for sharpening your pencil when it gets dull.

Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak

It is worth noting that a number of the items on this list (plus a few more) are all contained in the excellent Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak. (Components which are included are noted on the checklist below.) Unless you already own many of the items, it would be very hard to assemble the same quality components for less than the price of the Pak.

Personal Emergency Kit Checklist

Food and Water

  • Water bottle (with water)
  • Water disinfection tablets
  • Coffee filters and rubber band
  • Collapsible water container (1 quart / 1 liter)
  • Quart freezer bag
  • Energy bars

Navigation and Communication

  • Button compass *
  • Local and state maps
  • Pocket AM/FM radio
  • Extra batteries for radio
  • Emergency cell phone charger
  • Prepaid phone card
  • Important phone numbers

Shelter and Personal Protection

  • Large trash bags
  • Light weight rain poncho
  • Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheet Bivvy or Blanket
  • Change of clothes
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Lightweight leather gloves
  • N95 respirator
  • Sun block
  • Sunglasses
  • Insect repellant

Medical and First-Aid

  • Supplemented first-aid kit
  • Personal medications
  • Copy of all medication and eyeglass prescriptions
  • Spare eye glasses
  • Alcohol based hand sanitizer

Tools and Essentials

  • Matches
  • Bic lighter
  • Spark-Lite *
  • Tinder-Quik tabs **
  • Folding knife
  • Multi-tool
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Keychain light
  • 550 parachute cord
  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil *

Miscellaneous

  • Bandana
  • Cash and quarters
  • Miniature sewing kit
  • Large needle *
  • Dental floss or heavy-duty thread *
  • Safety pins **
  • Notepaper or pad **
  • #2 pencil or Fisher Space Pen **
  • Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak

* Contained in the Pocket Survival Pak
** Partial quantity in Pocket Survival Pak.  May need additional quantity or different type/style