Updated on 09.17.14

Frugal and Prepared: Emergency Supplies

Trent Hamm

With the recent earthquake in California and the oncoming winter here in Iowa, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss how to properly prepare yourself so that if an emergency strikes, you’re well-prepared to handle it. Winter storms regularly take out the electricity in rural Iowa, for example, and if you live near a fault line, an earthquake can happen at any time.

While I’m far from a survivalist, I do see the utility in having a small number of items on hand in case of a natural disaster or other unforeseen event. Here are some guidelines to make sure you and your family are prepared for a significant crisis.

7 Items to Consider Having in Your Basement

1. Flashlights

If the electricity is out and it is dark, flashlights can come in handy for verifying that everyone is safe and for finding food, water, blankets, and other equipment. If you can find one that operates via winding, that’s the best option so you don’t have to ever think about batteries.

2. Bottled water

Normally, I’m not much of a fan of bottled water, but if you’re in a situation where the power is out and your tap water is unusable, this can be a life saver.

3. Packaged food

A couple days’ worth of packaged food is also worthwhile. If your home is struck by a tornado or an earthquake and you’re trapped, for example, some packaged food can really come in handy. Most of our food is just canned vegetables and fruits and the like, but a friend of mine keeps a case of MREs on hand at all times – just in case.

4. Blankets

Keep a number of blankets in a known location, even if the weather seems quite warm where you are and especially if you live in a colder climate. Blankets are always useful: emergency bedding, warmth, comfort, and helping with shock, just for starters.

5. Cash

A small amount of cash can also be useful if you’re trying to acquire supplies in the wake of a disaster. The local economy will quickly revert to cash and if you’re unable to get out of the situation, you may need to rely on the cash to acquire food and anything else you might need.

6. A radio

A battery-powered radio can be essential for getting weather information and all-clear information. At the very least, this should be battery powered – the best option is one that has a wind-up handle so that it can be charged and used even without batteries.

7. First aid kit

A simple, prepackaged first aid kit with tips on how to treat common injuries is another useful thing to have in case someone is hurt during a natural disaster. Being able to treat a flesh wound, a burn, or a broken bone can make a huge difference in a serious situation.

How to Acquire Them on the Cheap

Many of these items can be acquired whenever you have an opportunity to get them on sale, as it’s not entirely necessary to run out and immediately purchase all of this stuff. However, there are a few useful tips you can use to make this easier.

1. Stock canned goods for food to start with

A few days’ worth of canned tuna, vegetables, and fruits is a good start and it can be done relatively cheaply. Just put them in a box in an interior room or basement and don’t worry about them. I suggest rotating these once every few months by buying fresh, then using the ones in storage.

2. Watch for sales and coupons on bottled water

Since bottled water can keep for a long time, just wait for an opportunity to get it really cheap with a coupon or with stacked coupons.

3. If you decide to buy MREs, get ones with heaters

Why? If they don’t include heaters, the food will be cold if you don’t have a method of warming them up. Most complete MREs with heaters aren’t too bad, especially in a pinch.

4. Make sure your first aid kit has a guide on how to treat injuries

The basic prepackaged Johnson and Johnson first aid kit has a solid guide inside the box, useful for explaining how to treat many common injuries, and the kit itself is well-supplied for a baseline purchase.

5. Request some of these items as gifts

Quite often, relatives will ask for gift ideas for me for Christmas. This year, several items on my list are along these lines, as they’re gifts I can actually use. A wind-up radio or a shakeable flashlight are good gift ideas. Remember, gifts that have a productive use are much better than gifts that just sit and gather dust, so look for things you might actually have a real-world use for.

In a nutshell, having emergency supplies on hand is always worthwhile, but you don’t need to make an emergency out of getting the stuff. Be patient, pick up the items frugally, and store them away so they can be there for you when you need them.

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  1. Kat says:

    What are MREs?

  2. Anne says:

    I’d like to add that headlamps can be incredibly useful and more convenient than flashlights because they keep your hands free, take up less space, and generally last longer than flashlights. They are more expensive than your average flashlight, but prices vary widely and, in my opinion, they are worth the extra investment.

  3. Sean says:

    MREs = Meals Ready to Eat. They are what soldiers carry with them and have a REALLY long shelf life.

    Along with what Trent already mentioned, I keep candles and some long range walkies-talkies, as well as Sterno and matches in my kit.


  4. nina says:

    MREs=meals ready to eat. I am 10 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake in San Jose, ca last night. Thank goodness it wasn’t that serious because I wouldn’t like to eat another MRE if I could help it :)

  5. Kat says:


    I am glad you are safe up there.
    Our state has been through a lot these past few weeks.

  6. vh says:

    A camp stove and a couple of small propane canisters to run it. Actually, you can get a two-burner stove that will run on propane. Then, m’dear, you don’t have to eat MREs: you can cook whatever’s in the pantry.

    It probably would be good to have a duplicate kit in your car, so you don’t have to rummage in the basement to find the stuff if you need to move out fast. Camp food–things like rice, packaged soups and pastas, bought on sale at the grocery store–takes up little space and can sustain you for quite a while.

    During the Cold War, my father kept a week’s worth of canned water that he’d somehow nabbed from the military (he was a merchant marine deck officer) and a first-aid kit in the back of the car. Dunno how far that would have taken us through the clouds of fallout…but what the heck. At least we wouldn’t have died thirsty.

  7. Rebecca says:

    If you have a hot-water heater you have a huge tank of water available. If the water was drinkable before the emergency then you have water covered. Just disconnect from the source so that your tank of water doesn’t get contaminated.

  8. sunny says:

    We live in Florida and after going through 11 days of no power in 2005 due to hurricanes (we got off easy) the biggest lesson learned is there is nothing better than a hot meal. We now have 3 months of freeze dried food to serve 1 meal for 2 people a day. We also have canned goods,five cases of drinking water, extra pet food, a camp stove, crank radio, camp stove, coffee pot (also nothing like a hot cup of coffee) and a generator. The freeze dried food we bought is canned and supposed to stay good for up to 30 years. We rotate all other stock to keep it fresh.

  9. Bellen says:

    I, like Sunny, endured a hurricane in 2005. We were prepared. We went to the Emergency or maybe Hurricane Preparedness site, sponsored by the state of Florida. Should be one for your own state.

    Besides the food, water, blankets, etc. be sure you have your essential financial papers – insurance, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, etc. We were without electricity for almost 8 weeks, water for 4 weeks, etc. Many neighbors did not return for 6 weeks, and that was just to look, and had many problems because they did not have their account numbers – especially insurance for both home and vehicle.

  10. Susy says:

    If you’re into backpacking or camping you already have many of these things around (cold weather sleeping bags come in really handy in the cold weather). We keep them all in our camping totes and we keep a flashlight in the kitchen and one in each nightstand just in case.

    We live in rural Northeastern OH and our electric occasionally goes out in the winter. We installed a small gas heater in the basement that requires no electric to heat our house in case of emergency. Best part is (we got it at 75% at Lowes after the season).

  11. E.C. says:

    In addition to all of the supplies you’ve suggested, a little training can be extremely valuable. A basic first aid and cpr class can be completed in an afternoon. If you decide you want to know more, a semester long first responder course at a community college will teach you a tremendous number of things you hope you’ll never need to know.

  12. David Wilson says:

    Great list especially for here in New England where we are guaranteed to lose power a couple of times this winter.

  13. Shevy says:

    At a minimum everyone should have supplies to take them through at least 72 hours of disruption (whether from forest fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or whatever). This is the length of time in which most local governments seem to feel they could start to restore basic services. (Whether this is accurate or not, I’ll let folks who’ve lived through events like Katrina judge.)

    Trent, I have (and would recommend everyone else have) a lot more than the items you mentioned. Water is the most important. You didn’t specify a quantity. You need 1 gallon of potable water per person per day. If you use freeze-dried foods or are relying on things like dried pasta you may even need more water to rehydrate them. If I knew ahead of time that a disruption was likely I would also fill every bathtub and sink in the house and hope to be able to use that water for washing, not drinking.

    If you have canned food make sure you have a hand operated can opener!

    In addition to regular blankets I would suggest an emergency blanket per person (the ones that look like thin foil).

    Make sure you always have an adequate supply of any medications you take on a regular basis on hand (i.e. don’t get down to the last day or two before you refill). If you normally wear contacts you should have a pair of glasses.

    If there are women of childbearing age in your home, make sure you have an extra pack of tampons &/or pads. If you have children in diapers, keep an extra box of Pampers or even a dozen cloth diapers. (You can wash & reuse the cloth ones if the emergency stretches on.) If you have an infant and aren’t nursing, have an extra can of powdered formula (another item that will run through your water at a faster rate).

    Keep antibacterial hand soap around and wash your hands often. Be aware that the toilet may not work. There may be problems with the sewers in addition to the fact that you can’t flush if you don’t have water!

    I like the flashlights you shake (just make sure you keep it/them somewhere easy to locate in the dark!) and I have a radio that runs either on solar power or by cranking. I also have a 2 burner propane camp stove so can prepare any food as an earlier poster mentioned.

    As for food, I buy extra of the foods we like and eat on a regular basis when items are on sale. Then I use and constantly rebuy as if I didn’t have the extras, rotating the food. Canned food should probably be used within 6 months, I feel comfortable going somewhat longer on pasta, oatmeal, tea, instant coffee, etc.

    While a lot of folks store freeze-dried or MREs an emergency is a stressful time and not always the best one to make big changes in what you’re eating (especially if you have little kids).

    If you have pets, have extra of whatever they eat, plus more water.

    That covers off the most important points, I think. How to prepare for an evacuation is another topic.

  14. jm says:

    You can get a 25 lb bag of rice at an asian grocery store for like $12. As long as you keep it dry, it should last quite a long time. 25 lbs of rice is enough to keep you going for a couple months at least. of course you will need other foods to supplement your nutrition, but you won’t need much if you use rice as your staple.

    I hear honey doesn’t go bad too quickly either.

    Also, if your power goes out, and you need to cook some salmon before it goes bad, I saw survivorman ‘cook’ some by immersing it in lemon juice for 24 hours.

  15. DJ says:

    How long do you keep these things before using them if there is no emergency?

  16. KoryO says:

    Regarding the infant formula….you might want to consider getting the premade stuff in the little cans instead of powder for your emergency kit. Sure, it’s a bit spendy, but you won’t have to worry about the quality of water you are mixing it with, or refrigeration issues. I got a six pack of 8 oz Similac cans for around $20 for my hurricane kit here in Florida. My little guy isn’t on formula any more since he just turned one, but I will hang on to it until hurricane season is over. I can always donate it to a charity afterwards.

    You also might want to add a decent cooler to your emergency kit, since things can go fubar in the summer, too. I have the Igloo MaxCold, and it is phenomenal. I’ve kept cold soda in it for five days, and still had ice cubes floating around inside. If nothing else, it’s a great place to store some of your other emergency supplies.

    And I’m surprised no one included them, but candles have been great for me at night when the power went out and I didn’t want to drain some batteries. You can stock up pretty well at a dollar store….just remember to avoid any really stinky ones.

  17. Marsha says:

    I was going to recommend an old-fashioned can opener, but Shevy beat me to it!

    We might also consider having some cash on hand, too. If the power is out for a long time, you won’t be able to get $$ from the ATM.

    We probably also ought to consider a solar-powered cell phone charger.

  18. Sunshine says:

    Jm, that’s called ceviche. The method of using citrus to ‘cook’ food is the traditional form of ceviche. Just learned that recently.

  19. Matt says:

    Bottled water will go bad, ever hear of standing water contamination or sickness? things will start to grow in it after awhile, if you are serious about emergency preparedness keep waterpouches and food bars that are us coast guard apporved around. similar to water here http://www.earthquakestore.com/water.php
    and food bars here

    i dont endorse this site, i was just using it as an example of what i’m talking about, you can order these types of things many places on the web. As a ham radio operator involved in emergency communications, i keep a 2 week supply of these in my car, “just in case” i have other more tasty things such as mre’s and such in a 3 day supply, but if your talking true emergency this is what i would fall back on.

  20. paul says:

    I can’t believe more people haven’t expounded on the financial papers. I’m a newer reader, but Trent have you done a post about which important financial papers you should keep together?

    I remind people that these should be stored in a waterproof container.

  21. Brandon says:

    I would consider getting those large jugs of ‘drinking water’ that are often available in grocery stores rather than bottled water. First off, it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly (less containers), but I think it might be a bit more versatile for uses such as washing up.

  22. Schizohedron says:

    A complementary article to this fine list: Jim Macdonald’s go-bag lists on Making Light, for when you have to evacuate to shelter. (Macdonald is their medical subject matter expert).

  23. vh says:

    Waterproof and, certainly if you live in Southern California, fireproof container for your financial papers! In these times, too, you should have ID papers ready to grab and go for every family member, preferably stored in a safe container.

    Another indispensable, speaking of fires, is something to light a fire with, such as a box of kitchen matches. Actually, a butane fireplace lighter is probably better–you can get them in packages of two at Costco. Neither damp weather nor time seems to affect them, and they’re very handy around the house. In times of emergency: perfect for lighting the camp stove and candles, for a fireplace if you can use it, or for campfires if you’re forced to it.

    About how long stuff will last: Our Mormon friends keep a year’s worth of food on hand. Dad built a set of slightly slanted shelves in the pantry, so that cans can be laid on their sides to roll toward the front. They buy (and put up themselves) a lot of canned food, but they don’t just leave it sitting there–they use it. As one can is removed from the front of the row of cans, the others roll forward. Then they replace the foodstuff with a new can placed at the back of the row. So, the food is always circulating and nothing is extremely old. They also buy dried beans in 50-pound bags. Combined, beans & rice make a complete protein, and they keep almost indefinitely. You could live for quite a while on a stash of beans, rice, and canned goods. Frugal, too.

  24. Dana says:

    If storing water is too difficult or space-consuming, you can buy purification tablets to kill hazardous pathogens in the water. They aren’t for long-term use, but they will keep you from getting sick in a dire situation.

  25. Michelle says:

    We keep 72 hours worth of food and other emergency supplies in a large frame backpack. We also have our tent and sleeping bags strapped on there as well. When we got evacuated last week, we had about five minutes notice, and I was really grateful that I had all that packed up and ready to go. If you’re worried about evacing, then canned food is not the way to go, it’s really heavy and hard to carry around. MRE’s are better, and they have like 4,000 calories each, and will keep you have having to poop for a couple days at least (being that they are for military use, not having to poop for a while is a good thing in a combat situation). Children, especcially toddlers, probably won’t eat them. We packed things like instant oatmeal, beef jerky, and dried fruits and nuts. We were lucky, we didn’t have to use any of our supplies at the shelter we were in, but had we been in a New Orleans type situation, it could have been different.

  26. Matthew Sage says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a few months, so I thought I would drop a quick note that might help someone trying to get prepared for emergencies. As a previous commenter mentioned a few comments up, Mormons generally keep 1 year of food and supply storage on hand.

    Because the Mormon church asks its members to always be ready for at least 1 year of self-sufficiency, it has created some incredible resources for those looking at getting prepared.

    http://www.providentliving.org is the website, and you can go to the “Family Home Storage” section. The entire Provident Living website is dedicated to the same topic of this blog. Disclaimer – I’m a Mormon, but it’s not a proselytizing website.

    Keep up the great work, Trent! I love the blog.

  27. Stephan F- says:

    A typical fire safe isn’t going to work if you are keeping vital information on CD-R or DVD-R they will melt, you need a media rated safe.
    I put together a document list and there are a lot of them to get together.

  28. James says:

    I would like to echo one very important point that was made before. Everyone should plan to survive at least 72hours before expecting help from the government or anyone else. I make my living as an emergency manager for a state government. Most government emergency operations plans are also crafted to state that each individual (and each level of government) shall be self contained for 72 hours. These are the guidelines that are also layed within the National Response Plan. If you are interested in free publications on the subject of being prepared the Department of Homeland Security has many resources available at http://www.ready.gov

  29. Hannah says:

    For those who live in earthquake territory, it is a good idea to keep your emergency supplies stored somewhere OUTSIDE your house if possible. If a big one hits and your house comes down, you won’t be able to get to your supplies. A single story garage or a shed are better options for storage. My mother keeps a large plastic trash can with a tight fitting lid out in her backyard. The contents are tightly wrapped in plastic bags. It’s also a good idea to keep a list of emergency contacts in there. Lastly, in the Oakland CA firestorm in the early 90’s, the temperatures got so hot that the contents of safes incinerated.

  30. Bill says:

    If there’s any warning (e.g. approaching storm), these bags let you store up to 100 gallons using your bathtub (but aren’t for long-term storage):


    We all use a LOT of water daily – please consider the above as well as small containers for water.

  31. Great list, I’d add some sort of fire-arm to the list (I’m from South Dakota)…depending on how bad the next big emergency is, you’ll probably want a way to defend your family.

  32. MREs=meals ready to eat. I would not use them. Some of them are irradiated to last longer. Like the soldiers meals. The ones they use in IRAQ now, are made in 1990’s or even 1980’s . I am more of naturist guy and to have in basement foods that each year and re-newed. Old ones eated of course.

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