Sure, we all intend to have our emergency kits packed and ready to go, but how many of us really get around to making it happen? Let’s change that.

We asked Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner, with the Caribbean Center for Disaster Medicine at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine on St. Maarten, to give us some tips for preparing an emergency kit or grab-and-go bag.

Top of his list is something that’s actually free: A conversation with your loved ones about your emergency plans. Specifically, what’s the plan for everyone to get out of your house? Where will you all meet once you’re safely out, and how can you contact each other if you’re not at home when disaster strikes? Know that text messages often go through when regular phone calls won’t work, so don’t give up if you can’t make a call and try texting instead.

What do you grab in an emergency situation, when you’re panicked, you have to leave in a hurry and you’re facing the possibility that your home and everything you own will be lost or destroyed? Gavin says, “Not the things you really need – I can say from experience responding to many disasters.”

An emergency grab-and-go bag is a bag you have already packed with things before the disaster and that you use when you may be on your own with no organized assistance and what’s in your bag helps you get by during this time.

Ideally, Gavin said, we should all have three emergency kits – one next to the bed, one in our car and one at our workplace. That may not be possible in all cases, but many survival items are inexpensive and sometimes “extras” are already lying around our homes, so you might start by shopping your drawers and cupboards at home. To make this easier on the hip pocket, start slowly building up items week by week for your emergency grab-and-go bag.

For instance, paper, pencils, a hefty roll of duct tape and some strong cord are on almost everyone’s emergency kit list, along with a well-stocked first-aid kit, which you can build yourself or purchase already built, that includes pain relievers, Band-Aids, antibacterial ointment, and insect repellent. Gavin recommends using basic backpacks for emergency kits because they’re easy to grab and go. “They don’t have to be anything special,” he said. “Just simple backpacks like you use for school; you can even use a pillowcase.”

Start now, check a few things off your list each week – enough food and water per person for three days; a grab-and-go supply of necessities such as daily medications and pet food, a stack of cash in small denominations, an envelope containing important paperwork you don’t want to leave behind – and soon you’ll be ready for an emergency that we all hope never happens.

Each person in the household (who is old enough) should have their own grab-and-go bag. Some items will be more appropriately carried in a parent’s bag than in a child’s. Gavin suggests including a folding umbrella as it will be handy for rain and provides shade from the sun.

Here are Gavin’s top picks for must-have items for an emergency kit.

Essential items

Water

Three days of water (1 gallon or 4 litres per person per day). That adds up to a lot of water (especially if you’re carrying for your kids too) so consider instead a portable water filter or water purification tablets as well as a litre or two of water in a bottle for each person.

Food

Three days of non-perishable food. Think things like protein bars, instant oatmeal, tuna sachets, packet or tinned soup, crackers, noodles, comfort food, dried or canned fruit. It’s a good idea to package your food up in separate bags in three-day lots. So, each bag would include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Include food you would actually eat. (Don’t forget to pack a spoon and a bowl or plate as well as a can opener if you’re packing tinned foods.)

A change of clothes

Pack one full set of clean clothes in a separate bag that goes into your grab-and-go bag. Think layers: a cheap T-shirt and tracksuit, old jeans, underwear and socks. Also include a hat to protect you from the sun. [To save money, pack old (but still wearable) clothes you have on hand or buy second-hand clothes. Check every six months or so that the clothes still fit, especially for children.]

An ID card

Include your name (or child’s name), parent’s name (in the case of children), address, mobile phone number, emergency contact numbers, family meeting location and important medical information.

A current family photograph

This will come in handy to use for identification in case of separation.

Let there be light

When disaster strikes, our power sources are one of the first things to go, and they can often stay gone for weeks at a time. Gavin recommends a pack of glow sticks and simple flashlights, which are easy to carry and store. Be sure to include a supply of batteries for the flashlight! Or better still; include flashlights that are built into hand cranked and solar-powered radios.

Just whistle

Before, during, and after a disaster, it’s vital to make yourself heard, to locate loved ones or call for help. “You can lose your voice from shouting in a matter of minutes,” Gavin said. Whistles are cheap noisemakers, small and easy to carry and you can find them at most hardware stores. Three blasts of the whistle is an international distress call, which is loosely translated to "Help me!" Two blasts of the whistle is a call-back signal which means "Come here." One blast can mean "Where are you?" or it can be a call-back signal to reply and let someone know that you are ok.

AM-FM radios

Once the power goes out, radio waves may be your only connection with the outside world. Any battery-powered AM-FM radio is crucial during an emergency, but many models now include solar panels and hand cranks to power their rechargeable batteries. Gavin doesn’t have specific recommendations, but you could buy a hand crank and solar-powered AM-FM radio with an LED Flashlight, which also includes a power bank for cell phones for about US $20.

Today’s task is to start preparing a grab-and-go bag for each family member. Make sure you add something that makes you feel happy, like a book or a pack of cards or your favourite thing. Also don’t forget your toothbrush and toothpaste and toilet paper!

Author: Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner BVSC MSC MPH MRCVS College of Medicine Penn State University; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Fellowship in Disaster Medicine