Getting started with emergency preparedness can feel like an overwhelming task. There are so many possible scenarios that could create a crisis that it’s hard to know what exactly to prepare for. This is why most of the preppers out there take a broad approach to cover as many bases as they can. However, if someone is just starting, that can equate to many different supplies, gear, and equipment. And trying to obtain everything you might need all at once can be very expensive. So, let’s discuss some baseline essentials for each preparedness category to help those who may be just getting started while working with a budget!
Water is an extremely important part of survival for obvious reasons. You can only live for three days without it. And that last day barely counts as you’ll likely become as useless as a vacuum cleaner at the beach. Storing water can also be a difficult task. It takes up a lot of room, and the space-friendly storage containers tend to be decently expensive. Having some water on hand, even a case of bottled water is highly recommended. Unfortunately, no matter how much water you store, you’ll likely need more eventually. And before you can drink that water, you must make sure it’s safe enough. That’s why at the bare minimum, everyone should have a water filter of some kind on hand so any water you can access during an emergency can become potable.
To remain budget-friendly while still offering great capability, I recommend the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System. Is it the best water filter you can buy? Of course not. Is it the best for flow rates when backpacking or drinking on the go? No, it is not. But, if your only concern is having access to potable drinking water during an emergency without breaking the bank, the Sawyer Mini does that quite well. They usually hover around $20 - $25, come with additional accessories for maintenance and efficiency, can be screwed onto a standard threaded water bottle spout, filter up to 100,000 gallons, and you’re able to run it in line with a water bladder hose. It’s hard to beat at its price with all those features. There are a couple of negatives you can avoid if you’re willing to spend more. It doesn’t filter out viruses and suffers from a slow flow rate. Also, once you’ve used it, water will remain trapped inside the membranous filter. If you then expose the filter to sub-freezing temperatures, there is a chance that the membrane will rupture from the formation of ice.
Even with those considerations, the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System is a low-cost way to make sure you can drink just about any water you come across during an emergency. And with how important water is to survival, this is one base you need to have covered. Nothing beats having water stored and on hand, but if you run out or have nothing to begin with, at least the Sawyer Mini lets you safely drink from most other sources after that.
Food is right up there with water as a priority for emergency supplies. Yes, you can survive for quite a while without food. But part of disaster preparation is mitigating suffering for you and your family. Sure, I can go days without eating at the expense of comfort and energy. But do I want to watch my children go through the same tribulation? Or would I rather just give them food when they say they’re hungry? Luckily, food can be stashed away relatively inexpensively and last a long time!
The staples of prepper food storage are rice and beans. Dried pinto beans and white rice can last a very long time, even in their original packages. And they provide one of the best ratios of dollars to calories. One twenty-pound bag of each can last a family of four for a week, with each member eating two thousand calories per day. And that only costs around $30, depending on where you get it. Supplement that with some canned goods, and you can eat well! Now, with these dried foods, you do need to remember that they require water for cooking. So, if your water storage is minimal, canned goods or foods that don’t require cooking water might be a better option.
You can also take the route of pre-packaged long-term food storage options like the Augason Farms 30-Day Emergency Food Storage Supply. Although these tend to have a higher price tag and your dollar-to-calorie ratio offers less value, these food supplies offer other benefits that are worth considering. For starters, they last a long time. Generally, around 25 years or more, which means you can store them away and never worry about an expiration date. They also offer a variety of meals and servings that provide good flavor and nutritional balance. Because these foods are freeze-dried, they maintain a high level of nutrients when they are rehydrated. The Augason Farms 30-Day Emergency Food Storage Supply is around $200 so if your budget is tight, you may want to take the previously discussed route of rice and beans. But, if you can afford it, it does make things very easy in the sense of storage, variety, meal planning, and nutrition.
Having backup power solutions during an emergency can be extremely beneficial, especially when considering the ability to call for help or monitor current conditions. But, when you start to try and power your entire home, things get expensive fast. Luckily, most grid-down situations are temporary endeavors. Instead of trying to acquire a dual-fuel generator or solar system right off the bat, consider a much more budget-friendly alternative that can provide a few extra full charges for your cell phone or flashlight.
A portable power bank is a baseline I would set if I was just starting my preparedness journey. They can recharge your phone multiple times as well as keep any other USB-compatible devices going. That can include flashlights, radios, laptops, plasma lighters, and more. These power banks range in price from $40 - $200 depending on battery capacity and features. The BioLite Charge 20 PD USB-C Power Bank is $40 but may only charge your phone 1.5 times whereas the Charge 80 model is $80 and can fully charge a laptop. You get what you pay for, but these are still much cheaper than a full-blown generator and can keep some of the most essential electronics up and running. Not to mention, these tend to be relatively small making them portable in case you must evacuate. Having your phone or radio during an emergency can be a lifeline. And if we’re not talking a full-blown, long-term grid-down scenario, then a power bank can provide a lot of functionality that you might not have otherwise.
The ability to communicate is critical when it comes to survival in the modern world. After a natural disaster, people are often displaced, trapped, or even hurt and in need of assistance. Being able to reach out to emergency services or your local mutual assistance group can be the difference between life and death. We all have cell phones at this point but what if the towers have been affected by the event that created the emergency? What if the lines are clogged by thousands or millions of people calling for help? This is why every emergency kit should have a radio in it. Because of the complexity and rules surrounding the radio world, there is a false barrier to entry that keeps a lot of folks from getting their hands on a radio. However, a lot can be accomplished with a simple set of walkie-talkies.
I would suggest that everyone have a basic set of walkie-talkies on hand as a bare minimum requirement for preparedness. Something like the Midland EX37VP E+Ready Two-Way Radio Combo covers the communications category quite well. At $50, you suddenly have access to the ability to communicate between two people within your immediate household or community depending on your plan of action. You can also listen to the NOAA weather alert station for updates and emergency messages. Not to mention the ability to scan and communicate with anyone else locally who may be using similar emergency-style radios. These walkie-talkies are water-resistant and USB rechargeable which I find to be ideal. Especially since they can also take AAA batteries in case you can’t wait for a recharge. Don’t underestimate the capability of a good set of emergency two-way radios!
Do you know what happens regularly during an emergency? Especially a natural disaster? The power goes out. Or as many refer to it, lights out. And of course, mother nature doesn’t care what time of day it is when unleashing her wrath. So, plan on it being very dark. You will need a light source of some kind to safely navigate your way through the darkness. Or perhaps you’ll need to make a repair or even investigate a questionable intrusion. Having a way to accomplish these tasks will be paramount. And the best way to do that while on a budget without placing lanterns all over the place is with a headlamp. A headlamp is my bare minimum lighting option for any nighttime situation. Even a flat tire! It provides hands-free operation which allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than sacrificing one of your hands to hold a light or doing that weird mouth thing we all try to make work. A good example of an affordable, user-friendly headlamp is the Streamlight Bandit USB Headlamp with Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Polycarbonate. It runs around $30 and is lightweight, USB rechargeable, and from a reputable company. Is it the best headlamp ever made? Definitely not. But is it affordable while still being of decent quality? Yes. And for that reason, it is a good representation of what one should at least have on hand for lighting in an emergency.
First aid is an obvious necessity during any cataclysmic event. You’re probably going to hurt yourself if nothing else. And you will need a way to address that when it happens. A lot of accidental injuries occur during disasters just because of people being put in uncomfortable, hostile environments. Broken glass, hidden obstacles, and even fire all threaten bodily injury even in minor disasters. My first piece of advice is to get basic first-aid training. A stop-the-bleed course can teach you a lot in a short amount of time that might actually help you save a life one day. My second piece of advice is to buy a high-quality, well-made IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit) from a reputable American company. However, we’re talking baseline essentials while keeping a budget in mind. So, here are some basic first aid essentials I would recommend for actual, life-threatening injuries during an emergency.
- Tourniquet: A tourniquet is one of the first pieces of a first aid kit I would pick up. If an arterial bleed in an arm or leg is left unattended, you may only survive for two minutes or less without a tourniquet. These are life-saving pieces of gear that everyone should not only have but know how to use. A TacMed Solutions SOF Tourniquet is a proven tourniquet design that works and runs about $33. Another good option would be the North American Rescue C-A-T Gen 7 which runs around $30. Do not cheap out and buy a random, unknown tourniquet from Amazon. You’d be surprised just how untrustworthy these grab bag TQs can be.
- Compressed Gauze: This is especially important if treating a wound where a tourniquet wouldn’t work like on your abdomen. By taking the aforementioned stop-the-bleed course, you’ll learn when and where to use these different dressings. QuikClot Gauze Dressing is a hemostatic gauze that induces clotting and helps to stop blood loss faster. You can get a 3” x 24” pack of this life-saving gauze for $19.
- Pressure Bandage: Mostly used for larger wounds, these bandages apply the pressure needed to help slow the blood flow without the need of someone physically applying it through their hands. The TacMed Solutions Blast Bandage can be used like a traditional pressure dressing but can even treat major catastrophes including amputations, burns, or even wounds to the abdomen or back thanks to the large treatment area. These run around $9 which makes them an affordable piece of kit to keep on hand.
This should all be in addition to a traditional household first aid kit. Band-Aids, antibacterial ointment, ACE wrap bandages, aspirin, anti-diarrheal medicine, hydrogen peroxide, and all the other usual suspects in that weird basket you keep in the cabinet. If you don’t have any of that stuff, please add that to the list. But none of these boo-boo-related items have the capacity to treat life-threatening wounds like the three previous items.
Fire has a lot of survival applications. There are so many reasons you might need to make a fire during a survival situation I can’t even begin to list them. But one thing is for sure, you need the ability to make fire. The easiest way to cover this base? Don’t think too hard. It’s Bic Lighters. They just work. They’re cheap, they do what they’re supposed to, and they are much easier to use than something like a ferro rod or magnesium striker. For $12 you can get a 5-pack of Bic Lighters. The only downside to Bic Lighters is that they are not refillable. Not that that really matters. They are designed to be disposable. However, if you want that forever lighter than you can maintain and refill throughout the apocalypse, there are good options. One lighter I’ve been using for a while that has done well for me is the Exotac titanLIGHT Lighter. It’s similar in use to a Zippo but gets rid of some of the downsides of going that route. It doesn’t leak fuel over time, it's waterproof and yes, you can refill it. So, if you want that “keep with me forever” lighter, the Exotac titanLIGHT is a good option. They are $60, so definitely pricey, but they are made in the USA and of high quality. Otherwise, Bic Lighters will serve you well!
Anyone who is serious about preparedness should understand two things. The first is that shelter is paramount to survival. In fact, it’s the first thing you should seek out or create in a survival situation. Exposure kills and shelter is often the one thing that protects you from it. The second thing is that you don’t always get to stay where you are. You often hear, “I’m not going anywhere” stated in the preparedness community. I have a feeling a wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or nuclear blast might change your mind. If you are forced to leave your shelter, you need to be ready to set another one up quickly wherever you end up next. The cheapest and relatively effective way to set up a temporary shelter is by using a tarp and some bank line or paracord. You can get a decent-sized tarp for around $15 and 100 feet of 5ive Star Gear Seven Strand Paracord for $7. So, for $22 you have something that can be turned into a shelter, a rudimentary one it may be, but a shelter, nonetheless. If you have it in your budget to spend a little more, you can get a purpose-built tarp package like the Pathfinder Nylon Tarp Earth Brown for $64. It costs more but it’s made with higher quality materials and has the cordage as well as ground stakes to make it sturdier and more secure. Of course, you can always move up to a bivy or even a tent, but the costs go up with those shelters as well.
Remember, these are the bare minimum essentials for each preparedness category that I would prioritize if you either have nothing at all or do not have your bases covered in one of these categories. Of course, the sky's the limit when it comes to how far you can take your preparedness. Would you rather have a Garmin Rino 755t Handheld GPS and 2-Way Radio for your communications option? Well, who wouldn’t? But it costs $650. So, for someone just starting out, the $50 Midland EX37VP E+Ready Two-Way Radio Combo still offers a lot of utility while not requiring you to get a second job. By getting your baseline prepping essentials, you get some peace of mind while working towards your more elaborate preparedness goals!