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How to Organize a 72-Hour Emergency Kit for Your Family

Every year, thousands of people have to evacuate their homes with only a few minutes’ notice due to natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and tornadoes, and other emergencies.

If this happened to you and your family, would you have the time and the presence of mind to quickly pack everything you needed to get by for a few days? Chances are, probably not. Panic and fear can quickly override our ability to think clearly and logically, which is why putting together a 72-hour emergency kit is so important.

A 72-hour kit is a supplement to your family’s preparedness planning, in addition to long-term food storage and an evacuation plan. But what needs to go into this kit, and how can you save money putting it all together?

What Is a 72-Hour Emergency Kit?

Ready.gov states clearly that in the event of an emergency, you may have to survive on your own for several days. This is why they recommend that every family have a basic disaster kit with enough food, water, medicine, and other supplies to last at least three days.

You can purchase prepackaged emergency kits online, and prices range from $75 to $200 or more. However, it’s much more affordable to organize an emergency kit yourself. Assembling your own emergency kit allows you to purchase supplies that are tailored to your family’s unique situation and needs. It also enables you to take advantage of sales or bulk buying promotions.

Essential Items for Your Emergency Kit

Ready.gov recommends that a basic 72-hour emergency kit contain the following supplies:

  • Water (at least one gallon per person, per day)
  • Food (more on this below)
  • Battery-powered or hand-powered radio and extra batteries
  • High-powered flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Baby wipes, garbage bags, and twist ties (for sanitation)
  • Local maps
  • Solar cell phone charger
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape, or emergency tents

Of course, this is only a basic list. You can expand your 72-hour emergency kit to be more prepared and comfortable during a disaster or evacuation. Consider adding the following supplies:

  • Multi-tool (such as a Leatherman)
  • Copies of essential documents, such as birth certificates, IDs, wills, health insurance cards, immunization records, all stored in a sealed Ziploc bag
  • A list of emergency numbers, including family contacts (keep in mind your cell phone might run out of batteries or be damaged during an emergency)
  • A roll of coins to use a pay phone
  • Cash (in small bills)
  • A complete change of seasonally appropriate clothing for every member of your family
  • Compass
  • Heavy work gloves
  • Duct tape
  • Personal care items for each member of your family (toothbrushes, toothpaste, wipes, deodorant, diapers, feminine hygiene items)
  • Pain medication, such as ibuprofen, Children’s Tylenol, or Aleve
  • An emergency medical book if medical help is unavailable or delayed. One good option is “The Survival Medicine Handbook.”
  • Pet food and supplies
  • Sleeping bags for each family member
  • Household bleach and dropper for water disinfection (use 16 drops of bleach to one gallon of water; do not use color-safe or scented bleach)
  • Empty water bottles or bladders for water storage
  • Blood-clotting agents (like QuikClot) for severe wounds

Your emergency kit should be stored in a backpack (or several) and kept in an easily accessible closet in your home.

emergency preparation checklist displayed on a clipboard

Best Foods for Your Emergency Kit

When it comes to organizing food for your 72-hour emergency kit, choose foods that are nonperishable, easy to pack, and require little, if any, time to cook. You want to avoid salty foods whenever possible, as they can contribute to dehydration, especially if you’re trying to conserve water.

  • Peanut butter and crackers
  • Beef jerky
  • Powdered soup mixes
  • Powdered drink mixes (like Gatorade)
  • Instant coffee or tea
  • Whole grain cereal
  • Granola bars or protein bars
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Canned meats (like tuna, chicken, or SPAM)
  • Canned or bottled juices
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts
  • Comfort foods (like cookies or chocolate)
  • Baby food or formula (if necessary)
  • Shelf-stable milk

Keep in mind that it’s likely your power and water will be out, so include a manual can opener and disposable eating utensils. You might also want to consider purchasing a small camping stove to heat water and drinks for your family.

How to Organize an Emergency Kit at Work

Imagine you’re at work, 35 miles from your home. There’s been torrential rainfall throughout the day, and many of the roads you take to get home are now underwater. Local officials are advising people to stay off the roads and take shelter until the flooding goes down.

Or, imagine you’re a teacher and your school is put on lockdown for several hours as police handle an emergency situation nearby. Many students quickly get hungry and thirsty, and eventually they will need to go to the bathroom. If you have students with special needs, such as diabetics, eating something will be essential.

Both of these situations highlight why having a separate 72-hour emergency kit at work is so important. Most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work, which means it’s likely that if they have to take shelter for an emergency, they might be too far from their home emergency kit for it to be of much use.

Consider these items for your work emergency kit:

  • Emergency blankets
  • Nonperishable foods
  • A complete change of clothes
  • Sturdy walking shoes (if you typically wear dress shoes to work)
  • Rain poncho or jacket
  • Hand-powered NOAA Weather radio
  • Extra drinking water
  • Water purification tablets or water filtration straw
  • Personal care kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, dry shampoo, moist wipes, deodorant, and other personal hygiene items)
  • Light sticks
  • Playing cards, games, or books
  • First aid kit with vinyl gloves
  • Dust-filtering mask
  • Multi-tool and Swiss Army knife
  • Solar cell phone charger
  • Headlamp
  • Extra medications
  • Camp toilet and toilet paper

If there’s room, you can keep your work emergency kit in your office. You can also keep it in the trunk of your car. If you do store the kit in your car, you might want to add a few more items, especially if you want to be prepared for winter storms:

  • Wool or fleece blanket
  • Emergency candle in a can
  • Jumper cables
  • Individually packaged hand and foot warmers
  • A small shovel
  • Extra cold-weather clothing, such as a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves

How to Organize an Emergency Kit for Children

Children add a whole other layer of complexity when it comes to building an emergency kit. What you put in your child’s 72-hour emergency kit is going to depend largely on their age. For example, a two- or three-year-old can’t carry a lot of food in their tiny backpack. However, they would be able to handle a package of extra wipes, a small water bottle, some granola bars, and a coloring book and crayons.

When you start organizing a 72-hour emergency kit for your children, get them involved in the process. Explain what you’re doing, and give them the opportunity to make their own choices. For example, allow them to choose an appropriately sized backpack and the extra change of clothes that will go in there. Let them pick out a book to carry.

Their involvement in the process will give them a sense of empowerment and responsibility over their own emergency kit. And, they’ll be better prepared to handle these items if the time ever comes to use them.

Consider the following items for your children:

  • Extra diapers or pull-ups, and wipes
  • Teething medication and fever reducer
  • Extra formula and bottles
  • A small card with family names and contact numbers in the event your child is separated from you (a family photo can also help with identification)
  • An energy bar or granola bar
  • One juice box or pouch
  • Colorful Band-Aids
  • One comfort item (like a backup blankie or stuffed animal)
  • A coloring book and crayons
  • A child-sized flashlight or headlamp

It’s also important to talk to your kids about evacuation plans, and what they should do if they were separated from the rest of the family:

  • As a family, decide where you’ll meet within the neighborhood – and outside it – if your home is unsafe. How will you all get there if you’re separated and a car isn’t available?
  • Make sure you know the evacuation plans and emergency contact information for your child’s school and any after-school activity they’re involved in. Make sure you know several alternate routes to the school in the event that major highways or other roads are closed.
  • Decide how your family will get in touch during a disaster. Remember, cell service may be unavailable. Consider using social media, or pick a family member outside your area to be a “contact person” for everyone else.
  • Make sure your children know what first responders look like. Children, especially small children, can be frightened of fire fighters, police officers, or health-care workers in hazmat suits. Teach your children how each of these responders can help in an emergency. It might also help to visit a fire or police station on open-house days so they feel more confident talking to the men and women who can help them in an emergency.

a fire fighter explains his job to a young child

How to Get Information During an Emergency

During an emergency, it’s incredibly important that you have access to reliable information from first responders. One of the best ways to stay in the loop is to sign up for the Federal Emergency Management’s (FEMA) text messages.

FEMA sends out bimonthly preparedness tips for each of the specific natural disasters listed below. You can also sign up to get information on open shelters and disaster recovery centers in your zip code:

  • Hurricanes: text HURRICANE to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Home fires: text FIRE to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Wildfires: text WILDFIRE to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Tornadoes: text TORNADO to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Earthquakes: text EARTHQUAKE to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Winter storms and extreme cold: text WINTER to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Power outages: text BLACKOUT to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • Floods: text FLOOD to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • General monthly safety tips: text PREPARE to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • To search for open shelters: text SHELTER and a Zip Code to 43362 (4FEMA)
  • To search for open Disaster Recovery Centers, text: DRC and a Zip Code to 43362 (4FEMA)

Keep in mind that standard text messaging rates apply.

You can also download the FEMA mobile app, which was designed specifically for people experiencing a disaster. With the app (which will work even if you don’t have cell service), you can get weather information, store your family’s emergency kit list, get a list of open shelters, upload pictures to help with disaster recovery, and store your family’s emergency meetup locations.

How to Test Your Kit

Putting together an emergency kit is only the first step. It’s also important that you use the items in your kit before your life depends on them.

For example, if you purchase Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) for your family, do you know how to prepare them? Do they taste good? Will your children eat them? If you need to start a fire, do you know how to use your magnesium fire starter and set up your emergency tent? Will everyone in your family be able to fit inside?

These are just some of the problems that you could run into in an emergency situation, which is why testing your equipment is imperative.

You don’t have to practice a full-on emergency drill (although experts recommend it). You could stage a “camp out” one weekend night in your backyard, where you depend entirely on your 72-hour kit to get by. If you get your kids involved, it could turn an educational training exercise into a memorable and fun experience.

How to Save Money on Your Emergency Kit

As you can see, the list of possible items for your 72-hour emergency kit can get pretty long. And stocking up on all this stuff at once can get expensive.

To save money, start slowly. First, assemble a basic kit for everyone in your family so that you’re at least somewhat prepared for an emergency. Next, make a list of all the items you’d like to have in your kit, and keep this list on your phone, in your car, or in your purse. Periodically review these items, and stock up when they go on sale.

Another way to save is to put the emergency kit items on your Amazon Wish List. This allows you to see price fluctuations so you can stock up when the price goes down.

Final Word

No one likes to think about their family in the middle of an emergency situation. However, the reality is that emergencies do happen, and being prepared for them can take a lot of stress and worry out of an already tense situation.

Do you have an emergency kit for everyone in your family? If so, what do you think are the most essential items? Do you have any supplies I haven’t included here?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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