Disaster Preparedness 101: Go Bags & Evacuation Checklists

A little preparedness goes a long way in a disaster. Here are some ways to think about preparing for the possibility of an emergency evacuation.

Disaster Preparedness 101: Go Bags & Evacuation Checklists

As we enter into the west coast’s fire season this year, I figured I’d throw together some basic disaster preparedness info I’ve found helpful before and often share with folks. I do not do this professionally, but I’ve been able to do a variety of non-professional training (CPR/AED, Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) , Red Cross Disaster Training, Wilderness First Aid, and Wilderness Survival) that has been really helpful in making me feel more capable and prepared should the worst happen. If you have the time, money, and interest, I strongly encourage checking out what training is available in your community.

This post will specifically focus on go bags and evacuation packing, but there are a lot of other things to consider as well (such as sheltering in place, water storage, etc.). This is a really great place to start, though.

Above all else, remember that things can (largely) be replaced -- your life and the life of your loved ones cannot be.

A Note on Disability & Chronic Illness

Most of the time, go bags and evacuation checklists are geared towards able bodied folks who can carry a heavy backpack, can walk long distances, and who don’t need refrigeration for medications or power for medical devices (such as a CPAP/BiPAP). Disaster preparedness when you have a disability and/or chronic illness may look very different when you do need to factor in what you truly need to survive for 72 hours.

I am largely able bodied, but do have a chronic illness, so will try to include some general notes about ways to approach disaster preparedness in the way that makes sense for each individual person with disability and chronic illness in mind. I am not an expert but it’s important we all think about these things.

A Note on the Financial Burden of ‘Preparedness’

While it is possible to carefully, over time, build up the supplies needed for a go bag if money is tight, it’s important to acknowledge it is a financial privilege that not everyone can afford. You can’t budget your way out of systemic poverty or being unhoused.

If you can financially afford to buy or build a go bag, consider the ways you can also show up for your unhoused and housed neighbors living in poverty. And not just in a disaster (though that’s important!), but every day.

Go Bags

Go Bags are 72-hour emergency kits that you can grab and leave with in the event of a disaster. It is generally assumed that you can carry a go bag if you do not have access to a vehicle and it should get you through the first 72-hours of a disaster.

There are a lot of great resources out there detailing things to consider putting in your go bag, and in particular two resources I recommend are Ready.gov: Build A Kit and NPS.gov: Ten Essentials. The ten essentials list is geared towards being prepared in the wilderness (hiking, camping, etc.), but it is an excellent way to help frame your thinking about preparedness in general and a really good place to start.

Also, as tempting as it might be to say to yourself, “hey, I have all these things at home, I can just grab them when I need to evacuate,” part of a go bag is that you can literally grab it and go immediately. In many disasters you won’t have time to run through where you live and grab everything you might need. So, I urge you, please don’t fall into that frame of thinking that you don’t need to have an emergency bag and evacuation plan.

Pre-Made Go Bags vs. Homemade Go Bags

If you’re hard pressed for time and just want a bought and done solution, plenty of them exist (Red Cross Store: 72 Hour Emergency Kits). A pre-made bag is better than no bag!

But if you need multiple bags, want to up the comfort and quality of your go bag, or just want more flexibility in tailoring your go bag to your needs, I strongly recommend building your own. Here’s why:

  1. A lot of supplies are sold in bulk, especially for supplies to build your own first aid kits, emergency food rations, and emergency water rations.
  2. You can have a more robust first aid kit if you buy it separately or build your own vs. what a pre-made go bag typically offers.
  3. You can pick a bag that is more durable and more comfortable for you than the standard pre-made kits offer. Consider checking out REI Outlet for solid discounts on quality daypacks and backpacking packs.
  4. Building your own bag also lets you build a bag over time - you can start with a few basic items, and add to it as you’re able, rather than having to invest in everything upfront.

Keep Go Bags Where They Make Sense to You

When my partner and I both worked in offices, especially since we sometimes took public transit to reach those offices, we made the decision to not only have basic go bags at home but to also have go bags at our offices.

Likewise, we decided to put a go bag in each of our vehicles because we might be far away from home and the office when a disaster strikes and didn’t want to be caught without basic essentials or if we had to abandon our vehicles in a disaster.

Replace Items Before Expiration

Many items you don’t have to worry about expiring - but some, like certain first aid kit supplies and food and water, should be tracked and replaced before expiring. This is where having a checklist and adding expiration dates to it can be helpful. Maybe even consider adding a calendar reminder for replacing important items before they expire.

The Essentials

Food & Water: Having basic emergency rations and water for 72 hours is really important. Safe drinking water is most critical (and for this reason I recommend a water bottle and a way to make water safe to drink as well), but especially if you have to leave a disaster area under your own power, nutrition is also important. This could mean throwing a pile of your favorite protein bars in a ziplock bag and refreshing a couple of water bottles every month, or you could buy Coast Guard certified emergency water and food rations. It’s all about preference, effort, and cost. And if you do buy ration bars or food you haven’t tried before, I strongly recommend you sample it to make sure you’ll actually eat it in an emergency.

First Aid: If cost is an issue and/or if you want to build multiple kits, your best bet is to probably assemble your own first aid kits. That being said, if you can afford it, I do recommend buying a kit like Adventure Medical Kits. You may want to add some supplemental items to it still (better safety shears, tampons, etc.), but it is very handy to have it all laid out for you and easier to buy their replacement supplies when needed. I also strongly encourage you to take a basic first aid class so that you have familiarity with how and when to use items in the kit. It’s not very useful if you don’t know what to do with it.

Protective Equipment: Sturdy work gloves, protective goggles, a helmet/hard hat, and sturdy shoes are incredibly valuable when it comes to protecting yourself in a disaster. The last thing you want to be facing in a disaster is an otherwise preventable injury. If you wear sandals or heels or dress shoes often enough, I strongly recommend including a pair of sneakers (even just an old pair) with your go bag.

Keeping Warm & Dry: You don’t think about this till you aren’t warm and dry, by which point it is much more difficult to get warm and dry, but it’s really critical. At a minimum, I recommend a poncho (sturdy is desirable, but any poncho is better than none), a space blanket (can keep you warm and help keep you dry), and a change of socks. Why socks? Because if you are attempting to walk or hike out of a disaster area, you want to protect your mode of transportation and your own health as much as possible. Wet feet are not only uncomfortable, but also dangerous -- they increase your chance of blisters and immersion foot syndrome (aka trench foot).

Your Personal Essentials: This is important, because it’s very different for everyone. These are not nice to have items, but critical ones. Such as glasses, hearing aids, mobility devices, prescriptions, and specialized medication. These can be much more expensive and difficult to have extras of, so you may not be able to add them directly to the go bag, but it’s important to have a list of these items handy and know where they are located in the event you need to grab them quickly.

Sample List

OK, so you’re probably like, “Reid, why can’t you just TELL ME what to buy and pack?” And OK, sure, here’s a copy of the basic list of items packed in my go-bags, but also now is a good time to remind you that you can and should personalize this. If you don’t know how to use a thing and can’t prioritize learning how to use that thing before you need it, it may not do you much good in an emergency.

It’s also really important to be very aware of what you have in your go bag so you know what tools you have at your disposal in an emergency and don’t have to dig through everything in the bag. For this reason, I also recommend printing out a list of every item in your go bag, putting it into a zip lock plastic bag to protect it from water, and sticking that in an easy to reach place in the bag. You might not remember, but an inventory list will quickly remind you of what you have.

  • Disposable nitrile gloves (pair)
  • N95 masks
  • Leather gloves (pair)
  • Emergency blankets
  • Chemlights
  • Cliff bars
  • Wipes
  • Duct tape
  • Multitool
  • Screwdriver (multi head)
  • Emergency tool for home
  • Emergency tool for car
  • Trash bag
  • Fire extinguisher
  • 3-day emergency rations
  • 3-day supply of water
  • Poncho
  • Rechargeable flashlight
  • Safety goggles
  • Sharpie marker
  • Flashlight (AAA batteries)
  • Flashlight (AA batteries)
  • Flashlight (D batteries)
  • AA batteries
  • AAA batteries
  • D batteries
  • Headlamp (AAA batteries)
  • Emergency radio (FM / AM / NOAA)
  • Emergency vest
  • Whistle
  • Compass
  • Helmet
  • Cord/rope
  • Spare glasses
  • Life straw
  • Water bottle
  • Warm hat
  • Hoody
  • Underwear
  • Socks
  • Toilet paper
  • Bar soap
  • Water purification tablets
  • Waterproof matches
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste + floss
  • 160mg acetaminophen tablets
  • Anti-diarrheal tablets
  • Antihistamine tablets
  • Packets of neosporin
  • Ace bandage
  • Handkerchief
  • Tough strip band-aids
  • Cloth band-aids
  • Large band-aids
  • Regular band-aids
  • Blister packs / moleskin
  • All purpose sponge 2-packs
  • Tampons
  • Tweezers
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Q-tips
  • Safety pins
  • Rehydration solution
  • Wound seal
  • Chapstick
  • Nail clippers
  • Superglue
  • Activated charcoal
  • Safety shears

The “I Have 30 Minutes to Evacuate” List

This list is honestly helpful in any situation where you don’t have to leave immediately and have 10, 30, or even 60 minutes to grab things before you evacuate.

But even though you might have more time on your side, having a list so you remember the most important things can help take the stress off, ensure you are able to pack quickly, and get out sooner. The name of the game is organization, stress reduction, and safety.

This list is something my partner and I both have access to in Google Docs, and we both have printed out copies of the list as well. I strongly recommend printing out a copy of this list so you can have it physically in hand and not worry about power, internet access, etc. when trying to pack for an emergency evacuation.

Make it a single sheet of paper so it’s easier to keep track of. If it’s two pages, print on both sides. If it’s more than two pages, you probably need to remove items from the list because it will not be realistic.

Categorize Items in the Most Logical Way for YOU

When considering the most important things to pack, with varying degrees of time to grab the essentials, our cats and additional COVID safety supplies were our most important categories, so we listed them first.

Here’s the list of categories on the list my partner and I have:

  • Cats
  • COVID Safety + Toiletries
  • Personal
  • Important Documents
  • Electronics
  • Clothes
  • Food & Water
  • Cooking
  • Camping Gear
  • Optional, Based on Time/Space

These groupings may not make sense for you, so I strongly recommend brainstorming what does work for you. Not sure where to start? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is essential that might be difficult to get in a disaster?
  • Do you have pets or animals that you need to care for? What are the basics they need? What are “nice to haves” for them?
  • Do you have kids or other folks you are a caregiver for? What do they need? What would make their lives easier and more comfortable in a stressful situation?
  • How will you evacuate with what’s on your list? Keep it to things that you can actually realistically evacuate with. Your list will be a lot more limited if you have to ride your bicycle or be evacuated on a bus vs. if you have a car. Plan accordingly.
  • What are items that would be very difficult to replace, such as important paperwork? (I also strongly encourage you to store copies of this paperwork in safe places outside of your home, such as with trusted family or friends, in a digital password manager like 1Password, etc.)

Bold the Most Important Items on the List

I use this technique to help manage the most important items vs. nice to have items. My phone and car keys are important. My laptop is nice to have. My CPAP is important (can’t sleep without it). My headphones are nice to have.

It’s important to be ruthless on this assessment. And it might also help reveal some areas where you could take other steps in advance to help push something from important to nice to have (such as ensuring your laptop is backed-up online, for example).

Sample List

Here’s a sample of some of the categories on my checklist so you can see it in action:

Cats

  • Cat carriers
  • Harness & leash
  • Collapsible bowls
  • Litter liners
  • Litter
  • Wet food
  • Dry food
  • Treats
  • Medication
  • [list out medications]
  • Photos of cats

COVID Safety + Toiletries

  • P100 masks (for smoke)
  • Cloth masks (for COVID)
  • Gloves
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet paper
  • Medication
  • [list out medications]
  • First aid kit
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Floss
  • Soap
  • Shampoo
  • Lotion
  • Sunscreen
  • Deodorant
  • Razor
  • Lip balm
  • Travel towel

Important Documents

  • Birth certificate
  • Social security card
  • Passport
  • Prescriptions
  • Insurance (house)
  • Insurance (cars)
  • Deed for house
  • Trust / Will
  • Medical directives

I hope this helps enable folks to feel more prepared in case they have to evacuate in an emergency. It will never be easy to face an emergency or disaster, but feeling a little more confident can go a long way to helping you get through it to the other side.