The Ultimate in Emergency Prep: How to Put Your Life in a Backpack

updated Sep 26, 2020
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If you had to leave home—right now—because of an emergency, what would you grab? Once people and pets were out of harm’s way, what else would you want and need to gather and take with you? If your mind bounced around from the file cabinet to the vintage photo album, you might want to consider consolidating your emergency prep in one easy-to-get-to place. Grab everything—literally, all of it that will fit—and place it into a “bug out” backpack or duffel.

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Here are some tips on what you need to pack and what you may want to bring. When an emergency strikes, all you’ll need to do is grab the backpack and go.

Emergency Events Can Happen to You

You watch the stories on the news or read them on your news feed. And as the climate crisis grows more dire, it’s likely that rare or impossible disasters are now inching closer to your home — if they’re not already making local headlines and disrupting your way of life. Last year in the US, there were over 50,000 wildfires, over 1,500 tornadoes, and significant flooding that threatened millions of people’s homes and lives. All told, at least 14 natural disasters that year caused over $1 billion in damages each—and this year is already pacing to be just as devastating, if not worse. 

Now, add in those things that can happen closer to home. Explosions from gas leaks, flooding caused by broken water mains and home fires are just some of the events that can happen without warning.

And it’s natural to panic in these situations. Your natural fight-or-flight response can confuse you when you’re under pressure. Even wasting a couple minutes of precious time can lead to either a tragic or happy outcome for you and yours.

Pack the Things You Need

Don’t wait until you smell smoke or you hear the Emergency Alert System blaring from your TV. Gather the things you’ll need and have them packed and ready.

The first thing you’ll need to do is choose the right backpack. You’ll want something that’s waterproof and has a lot of pockets, like what lifeguards use. In the market? Try this rucksack, by The Friendly Swede, for a budget-conscious pick. Try to keep your total number of belongings low, but if you have a large family, this waterproof backpack by Bill’s Bag is made to last.  

Here’s a list of things you’ll need to pack to make life a lot easier for you and yours:

  • Cash. Keep a small range of denominations—whatever you can spare—in case you need to make a purchase somewhere that doesn’t use credit cards or can’t make change. A roll of quarters might be helpful, too.
  • Bottled water and snacks. Emergency responders generally first spend time taking care of the disaster and any related injuries. There may be a lapse in time before your food and drink needs can be taken care of. Pack your own to get you through until meals are available.
  • First aid kit. If you get an injury that doesn’t need immediate attention, you can still treat it to keep away infection. And if medical attention isn’t readily available, your kit could be a life saver. (Just be sure to rid it of any hydrogen peroxide, which can do more harm to deep cuts than good.)
  • Spare house and car keys. It’s always good to have spares in case you don’t have time to retrieve your keys from where you usually keep them.
  • A designated emergency cell phone. Have an extra emergency phone with the numbers of important people and places programmed into it. Remember some cell phones don’t need a service plan to call 911—just make sure occasionally that it’s charged.
  • Copies of your important papers. These will include identification papers like birth certificates, Social Security cards, and passports. You should also include marriage certificates and work badges or identification. Also: copies of identification or summaries of your insurance coverage including health, car, home and life. A copy of the signature page of your deed and rental agreement is good too, plus info on your bank and investment accounts, safety deposit boxes and any other financial holdings.

Don’t Forget the Irreplaceable Things

Now, here’s a list of things you may want to pack that have sentimental value and cannot be replaced.

  • Family photos and videos. Whether you have actual photographs and DVDs or you keep everything on a flash drive, you’ll want to pack these. As a matter of fact, you may want to digitize any actual hard copies you have and keep the flash drive in your emergency pack just in case.
  • Family heirlooms. Your baby’s first shoes, your grandmother’s wedding ring, your great-grandfather’s pocket watch — these are things that mean a lot and can’t be replaced. Just be sure to wrap them so they’re protected and place them in a compartment where the rest of the backpack’s contents can’t harm them. You can invest in waterproof bags like these nylon sacks from Sea to Summit to pack your belongings within your bag if you’d like to double up on security.
  • Things that make you feel at home. If you have to leave your home in an emergency, you may have no idea how long it will take you to get back there. Include things that make you feel at home, if there’s room for them. Maybe something as simple as a little paperweight you’re fond of, or a banner from your favorite team. If you have little ones, include multiples of their favorite toys.

Of course, you’ll only want to pack things that can fit inside and are lightweight—and it’s always a good idea to back up your important documents digitally. Stash a password-protected USB flash drive filled with digital copies of your most prized mementos in your bug-out bag, in case you can’t reach your laptop or server in time. 

Once you’ve packed everything you want, try wearing the backpack to see if it’s comfortable or if you have to remove or edit some things. Then, leave the backpack where you can get it quickly. Under your side of the bed is a great spot. Whatever you’re able to do, having an emergency backpack ready will go a long way in helping you confidently handle any type of crisis.