Over the last year or so, I have discussed the need for an emergency plan on more than one occasion. For many people, the great toilet paper crisis of 2020 is the first time they’ve ever had to consider the need for a plan when an emergency strikes. In a world of modern convenience, it’s not necessary to plan very far ahead, but the last year and a half or so have shown us that maybe that’s not the best plan of action. I know that coming up with a plan can be overwhelming, so today I wanted to give you some tips for working your way towards a solid plan.
There are many factors to consider when making an emergency plan, such as what type of emergency scenario you could encounter, how long it could last, and of course, what kind of resources you have access to and what people you know. Below, I’m going to outline some basic items you might find yourself in need of in an emergency situation, and I’ll give you a Walmart-type price point for putting this list together. If you wanted to buy everything all at once, you’ll end up spending a chunk of change. But doing it a little at a time, even just one item at a time, it becomes pretty reasonable. (Keep in mind that I live in rural Wisconsin, so prices may vary depending on where you live and where you are shopping.)
Food and Water
First of all, the basic governmental guidance on emergency preparedness is to have 3 days of food and water on hand per person in your household. That’s a great and easy place to start. For $10 or less, you can buy a 20lb bag of rice. A 40 pack of generic bottled water costs maybe $5. Grab some iodized salt for $1 a canister, and throw in some bullion cubes for about $3 a jar to make things interesting. That right there is under $20 to take care of food and water, and frankly, it should get you through more than three days, though you’ll probably be sick of rice by the time you’re done. But it’s a good place to start.
The next item I would recommend is to get a 5 gal. pail with a lid. It doesn’t have to be food grade, but if you can get one, that’s great. We got a bunch from a local bakery, and they were free. Sometimes stores will sell them used from their deli or bakery for a couple of bucks, but you may need to ask. You could check with a cafeteria at a hospital or at a school, too. If you can’t get food-grade pails, you can buy a 5 gal. pail from Walmart or just about any hardware or home improvement store for about $3-4. And sometimes you can find them for free on craigslist that people are getting rid of. I’d be cautious of what they contained, because my recommendation is to use them for storing dry goods or for collecting water, if needed.
If storing dry goods in a non-food-grade container, keep all food items stored in their original packaging or in a food-safe bag inside the bucket, like zip-lock bags. The buckets will help keep moisture off your food, and also prevent bugs, mice, or other critters from getting into your food, and it will help extend the life of your food. I’d recommend at least 1 bucket per household member, plus whatever you need for food storage, but just get yourself started with one or two so you can put food in them right away.
Next, I’d recommend thinking about a light source. For us, one of our typical “emergencies” throughout the year is power outages. It doesn’t actually happen that often, but they can last for hours at a time, and it’s inconvenient to have to go without light. Personally, I’d recommend getting several light-sources. Candles are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get a light source. I’ve been able to find long-lasting emergency candles at the dollar store, and you can get candle holders for taper candles there, too. For $3, I can have at least a small source of light for days on end.
Flashlights are becoming less and less expensive all the time, and even better, many are much brighter than when I was growing up, plus the batteries last significantly longer. For under $5, you can get a very bright flashlight, WITH batteries.
Alternatively, one of the things I bought several years ago was a small hand-crank flashlight with a built in radio. When the power goes out, I can turn it on until I can get another light-source working, and I don’t have to worry about keeping good batteries on hand. I think mine cost under $8 when I purchased it, and it’s not just a light-source. It’s got the radio, and it also has a solar charger so we could charge a cell phone if we needed to.
But if I’m concerned about a longer power outage, my favorite light source is an oil lamp. We’ve got several kerosene lamps and lanterns now, and I’m very grateful that we have them. For $9, I was able to buy the lamp from the camping section. I spent another $5 on a 1 gal. container of kerosene which will last a long time, about $2 for a decent funnel, and another $3 on some backup wicks. For $19, I have a light source that could last me days or more if we needed it. I’d recommend a lantern over a lamp if you can only get one, because a lantern is meant to be moved around, whereas a lamp should remain stationary for safety reasons.
You’ll need a way to cook your food, and if you don’t have a gas stove or a wood stove, you will need another way if you are out of power for some reason. Camp stoves are one of the more expensive items on my list of things to buy. You’ll probably end up spending about $30-40 to get a burner and a little butane tank, but if you’re without power for an extended period of time, at least you’ll be able to cook. There are stoves that use tea lights to cook, and if you have sunshine, you might be able to build a makeshift solar oven, too, but for something more reliable, a small cookstove is probably a good bet.
Fire and Fire Safety
If you decide to keep a lamp, candles, or a cook stove of some kind on hand, be sure to have matches or a lighter on hand, and make sure you also have a fire extinguisher, and that you have the right kind of fire extinguisher for the type of fire you would have going. Nobody wants an emergency on top of an emergency. A fire extinguisher can run from $20-60, depending on the type and size of the extinguisher. Matches are inexpensive, and you can buy several hundred for under $5.
It’s a good idea to keep extra blankets on hand, too. If your power goes out in the dead of winter, and you don’t have enough supplies to keep yourself warm, you could find yourself with frostbite or other complications, and yes, there have been instances of people freezing to death. Fleece blankets give a lot of added warmth quickly, and you can get them for $5-10 each.
Being the modern people we are who love convenience, I know people who do not own the right clothing for the climate we live in. With heat always at the ready in winter, they don’t think twice about their lack of sweaters or warm socks. A pair of long underwear can be picked up for under $20 per person, and if you don’t rely on keeping your home hot all winter long, it’s something you’ll probably learn to use regularly anyway, so it’s a good investment.
If you are looking for clothing or blankets, and need to keep costs down, check out thrift stores. If you know somebody who works at the thrift store, even better. They all have different standards of what they deem acceptable, and sometimes, if you know somebody who works at one, they might be able to get you a free blanket that has a little moth hole in it, or some long underwear that have a hot cocoa stain on the shirt, or a hem on the ankle that’s coming undone. For items that don’t match up to their quality standards, they will often times dispose of those items.
Hot beverages are another way to help a person heat up when the cold settles in, and having something to mix into hot water makes ingesting hot liquid a lot more enjoyable. Coffee, tea, or hot cocoa… All are relatively inexpensive. $5 would provide the average person with a means of flavoring beverages for days on end.
Conversely, if heat is the problem, what can you do? Keeping a spray bottle for misting yourself or others is a quick way to cool off. Neck coolers are an inexpensive way to keep your body cool. However, you’ll need access to cold water or a way to cool off the water to make them effective. A large brimmed hat is another helpful tool if you have to be outdoors. Minty beverages help the body to feel cool when the temperature starts climbing high. I don’t have a lot of advice here other than to make sure you’re not too accustomed to air conditioning, and avoid being in the sun when you can. Cover south-facing windows if you need to keep heat out of your home, as the sun acts like a heater through those windows. For $1-10, you can have a little relief from the heat.
Health and Safety
Medicine and first aid supplies are really important to keep on hand, but they can be costly. It’s a good idea to keep a book or two on hand for first aid emergencies and other home remedies for illness, just in case you can’t get to the doctor. In fact, this is probably a good idea in any scenario. Emergencies often happen quickly and without warning. With 6 kids and living on a farm, we always keep plenty of bandages and wound cleaners like peroxide and rubbing alcohol on hand. I also try to keep an extra bottle of our allergy medicine on hand as well as some pain reliever and fever reducer.
It’s always incredibly frustrating to have a sick or injured family member, only to realize we don’t have the supplies needed to care for them right away. We keep a salt sock on hand for ear aches (as well as tea tree oil), and we keep rice packs and ice packs around, too. I have a salve for rashes and stings, and I keep some bentonite clay on hand, too. We also have some other essential oils and a diffuser that can help with breathing issues when somebody gets congested, in addition to a humidifier and a vaporizer for varying scenarios. I also like to try to make sure I have chicken broth canned before winter settles in, and I do my best to keep us stocked up on teas that will help with congestion, nausea, or sore throats, as well as tissues.
I’m not going to give advice on what you should keep on hand, as each family is unique. There’s a good chance you already keep certain items on hand, so only you know what you need to stock up on. You don’t need to keep massive amounts of stuff on hand, but if you can double what you would normally keep in stock, that’s probably enough, unless you’re already more than prepared. If this is a more difficult area for you to work on because of cost, places like dollar stores can often be a way to stock up at a low cost. You don’t get as much bang for your buck, but if you need to pinch pennies, it’s a good way to pick up a little here and a little there without drastically changing your budget.
While I’m not recommending anything, we try to keep a bottle of super glue on hand, butterfly bandages, and I keep an unused set of sewing needles and some thread in a special location. Just in case. Like I said before, with six kids in the house… We’re going to the doctor if we can get there, but if there was something preventing us from getting there and we absolutely needed to take care of an injury, I could.
Know Your Community
This brings me to the next point to make. Your community (be it neighbors, church, family, friends, or coworkers) is your lifeline. I know we aren’t always well-connected within our communities. When we move to a new neighborhood, we feel like we’ve just lost our lifeline, new coworkers and neighbors that we don’t know well, we have to start from square one for local friends, and our family may be hours and hours away. But it’s important that you make connections. People may not always appreciate your friendliness, but somebody out there will!
There are people who work in professions you may need in an emergency. Do you live near any nurses, doctors, EMTs, police officers, or fire fighters? Most would be able to help you through certain medical situations if an ambulance won’t be fast enough, or if you can’t travel far. We almost needed to deliver our 6th at home, and in retrospect, very probably should have just because we took such a risk in driving to the hospital during a terrible snowstorm. At least at home, we knew there were people nearby to help if needed, whereas I may have had to deliver the baby without help in a vehicle in a ditch in subzero temperatures. Because the weather had been so bad leading up to his birth, we contacted some neighbors that are nurses or retired nurses prior to his birth, just to ask if they’d be “on call” for us if we absolutely needed it.
You may be surprised what hobbies and interests your church members or coworkers have. If you’re talking about church members or neighbors, you’re probably surrounded by people who work in nursing, as fire fighters, police officers, or EMTs. You probably know somebody that either gardens or hunts or cans some food. It’s likely you know somebody who crochets or knits or sews, who fixes cars, knows plumbing,… knows survival skills, even if you don’t know it. You’d be surprised at what the cashier you see regularly does in their spare time, or what your elderly neighbor lived through and the advice they have to offer.
I know, when money is tight, it feels counter-intuitive to buy an extra bag of rice that you’re not going to use. It feels wrong to spend money to build up some kind of supply when you need to make every single dollar count. But is there a way you can cut something out for a month so you can stock up on a few items? Cancel Netflix, don’t buy that candy bar, decide to cook something from scratch that will save you money instead of buying the convenience version, stop at one extra store to cut your budget further, even though it means driving to another store?
I get that it’s still not always possible to stock up. Sometimes, you HAVE made all the cuts to your budget and there’s nothing left at the end of day. This is where diligence pays off, and we have to get creative. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’ve got a birthday or holiday coming up and somebody wants to get you a gift, you could suggest some of the items off this list. You can work up the courage to ask the local bakery if they have any free 5 gal. pails, make connections at grocery and thrift stores to see what useful things you might be able to get for free because they are slightly damaged. Buying deeply discounted items because they are slightly damaged can save you a ton of money and make something that was out of budget, out of mind something you can afford.
Growing Your Supply
Once you have the basics together, you can continue to grow your emergency supplies. Try to make a habit of buying at least one thing each time you make a shopping trip until you have a supply you feel comfortable with, or set a budget per month or paycheck to put towards your preparedness plan. If you started with rice and water, next time pick up a 5 gal. pail and a canister of salt, then work on light,…
There are a lot of ways to expand your supply with time. Not everybody will chose to go the homesteading route like we did, nor will everyone be able to, but maybe you can start a garden, or grow a container garden. You could learn how to can food, get a dehydrator to make some of your food go further (dehydrated that apple you won’t eat before it starts to shrivel, or that banana before it gets totally brown). You don’t even have to get an actual dehydrator if you have access to an oven.
Try to build up a library of books that deal with different aspects of survival or self-sufficiency, if you are concerned about a longer-term situation where you’d be struggling. We have a few books on foraging, some on herbal remedies, and another called “Where There are No Doctors.” I’ve got Pinterest boards with different information just in case of emergency. What I really should do is print off or write up some of the things that I think are useful that I wouldn’t need everyday, but that could be incredibly helpful if I found myself in such a situation.
For me, the next big hurdle to overcome is really learning how to save seed. I’m capable of saving and reusing seed, but if I want to be able to stop buying seeds altogether, I’ve got a ways to go.
There are other things you can do to take your emergency plans to the next level. For example, you may want to keep some form of protection on hand in the event somebody attempts to steal your supplies. Pepper spray is one of many options that could buy you some time to get yourself to safety.
The government does recommend having a “go bag,” where you throw all of the essentials before fleeing your home in the event of an impending tornado, hurricane, fire… While you don’t want to be carrying all kinds of extras with you in such a scenario, if you find yourself riding out an emergency away from home, you may want to have a book, a puzzle, a game, or some other distraction to lift morale.
Maybe you want to have some kind of special treat or ingredients tucked away for occasions like when a child has a birthday, but you’re snowed in and can’t get to the store to pick up a cake or even a boxed mix.
Rotation and Other Considerations
Depending on what you are adding to your emergency plan, always keep rotation in mind. If you chose a flashlight with regular AA batteries, you’ll need to know their expiration date and check to make sure they are still viable and replace them as needed. Some dried goods will store a very long time, but not everything will last indefinitely.
Make note of expiration dates on the outside of containers, and have a plan to use up those supplies and replace them as needed. Maybe you decide to buy enough cake mix for all the birthdays in your home at the beginning of the year, and you replace them one at a time as those birthdays approach. That’s an easy enough rotation plan. Or you buy a bag of rice, and as the time draws close to use it up, you make a bunch of freezer meals using it, and purchase a new bag for your store.
If you have children in diapers, do you have a viable option for diapering your baby without going to the store? We have some cloth diapers, diaper pins, and diaper covers on hand that have helped us out in a pinch. You can make reusable wipes or use dampened paper towel or napkins or even tissues. Speaking of… having a few handkerchiefs on hand may not be a bad idea instead of relying on tissues. And hopefully, we’ve all learned to keep a little extra toilet paper on hand, just in case.
Your plan needs to include all members of the household, but don’t forget about animals. We’ve currently got pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, ducks, and a dog. Any of my plans need to include how we’ll take care of our animals in the event things would go wrong. Do you have enough food and water for them? What would you do in the event of a fire? What will you do with them if you need to flee for some reason, like if a hurricane would be threatening?
Consider how you could help others, too. Do you have enough of the basics to share with others if the need arose? Could you welcome the neighbor to share a meal with you? If the power goes out in the dead of winter, and you’re the only one with a generator or wood stove in the area, are you able to help those who may need to seek warmth in your home?
If you have yet to start forming a plan, I’d like to encourage you to do so today. Don’t feel discouraged or “behind” or like you don’t have enough time. Any step you take can make a big difference, so just do what you can, as you can. This is a good time to trust that God will help you through. The Bible teaches us to be watchful and prepared, but to trust God. He asks of active participation from us.
This isn’t a circumstance of “storing up treasures,” but rather taking the approach of Joseph in the 7 years of plenty in preparation of the 7 years of famine. (No, I’m not suggesting a coming of 7 years of famine… just reminding us all that hardships arise, and it’s wise to take steps to make them a little more bearable.) If you didn’t read my post on when disaster strikes, the importance of having a plan, or the great toilet paper crisis, you may find those helpful for filling in some of the blanks on why you’d want to do any of this!
I hope this helps make it feel more reasonable to start actively working on your plans for disaster or emergency. There are steps you can take today that will cost you nothing, like making a list of neighbors and their hobbies, skills, or professions, or making connections with the bakery, grocery store, or thrift store. And if you have a few extra dollars, maybe you can go buy your first 5 gal. pail and a bag of beans!
If you have further questions or suggestions, please, leave them in the comments below!
Love and Blessings~Danielle