Minimalist Preparedness: The Essential Kit

Essential Gear That Won't Weigh You Down Or Break The Bank

Minimalism and preparedness may seem to be mutually exclusive. Being prepared means having lots of stuff "just in case," right? Not necessarily. Among the many lessons that can be learned from natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, and other emergencies is this: you can't always get to your stuff, and if you can, you can't always take it with you. Very often, survivors find themselves limited to what they happened to have in their pockets and/or backpacks/purses.

In emergency management, a frequent refrain is that one should be highly prepared for high-probability events, and moderately prepared for low-probability events. In other words, you're more likely to need a band-aid than a tourniquet, so pack accordingly. There's also an oft-repeated axiom that states (with numerous variations), "the best tool is the one you have with you." If you need a camera, a knife, a flashlight, or a handgun, actually having one, even if it is less than ideal, is infinitely preferable to not having one at all. This is just one reason why I use and recommend a $15 Coast flashlight rather than a $200 Streamlight.

Many households have a handful of emergency supplies stuffed into kitchen drawers and boxes in the garage: candles, flashlights, batteries, a few cans of Sterno, a half-empty first-aid kit ... All not particularly accessible, and perhaps not even useful (how often do you check your batteries to see if they're leaking?). This is why, prior to any evacuation (or even busy travel weekends), the grocery and hardware stores are jammed with people buying everything they don't have or can't find.

Surprisingly, that trend is actually getting WORSE, not better. According to research by FEMA:

In 2012, 52 percent of individuals reported having supplies set aside in their home for use during a disaster a decrease from 57 percent in 2009. In all survey years, only a subset of those individuals who reported having supplies in their home were able to name three or more supplies in their home and report that they update them at least once a year.

This means that, statistically speaking, if something unexpected happens, you are probably not nearly as likely to have useful items on hand as you think you are. That probability is magnified exponentially if you factor in the likelihood that you won't even be at home. Ask yourself this: if an earthquake had happened at noon last Thursday, what would you have had with you?

Sometimes the idea of emergency preparedness makes people nervous. They don't want to think about unpleasant things. However, the idea of camping and/or general travel is usually pretty appealing. After all, the same things you'd need for a trip to your local National Park are largely what you'd need in the aftermath of a major emergency. So, when it comes to minimalist preparedness, it makes sense to think of the essential kit as a fun AND useful package: a "go bag" pre-stocked with gear that can be used either for leisure OR emergency preparedness. Then, when it's time to go camping OR "get out of Dodge," all you have to do is stuff some clothes and food in the bag that you've thoughtfully prepared ahead of time, fill up the water bottle, and be on your way! Depending on the security measures in place where you go to work or school, you can keep most of these items in the bag and add whatever other items you need.

The Short List

Ideally, you could build a separate kit for each person on your "important people" list; kids love having their own gear, and if you label each person's items with a different color of nail polish or electrical tape, it avoids confusion, and helps teach the kids to be responsible for their own things.

Canvas Backpack

Canvas is the best material for go-bags, because it's naturally tough and water-resistant. It also maintains a low-profile, unobtrusive look (the last thing you want is a bag that says, “Look at me! I have cool stuff inside!”

A basic version like this one will do the job without breaking the bank. Don't expect it to last forever, but there's no reason it can't stand up to normal wear and tear.

Small Flashlight

Ever notice that most “tactical” flashlights use either AAA batteries or those super-expensive coin-shaped batteries? It's annoying for several reasons, mainly because nothing else uses those batteries, and who wants to deal with multiple types of batteries in an emergency, especially burning through three at a time? Thanks to LED technology, it's now possible to get nice light output for a reasonable length of time from conventional AA batteries.

If you're looking for a solid, every day carry light, this one from Coast is a good option. It is affordable, durable, and provides an impressive amount of light from only one AA battery. It's truly pocket-size, and once I started carrying it, I was surprised by how often I used it.

Rechargeable Batteries

I've tried many brands of rechargeable batteries, and the Panasonic-manufactured Eneloop brand is by far the best. Many rechargeable batteries quickly lose their charge while they're not being used, but Eneloop actually maintains a charge as long as an Alkaline battery! Not only is this good for the environment, but Ni-Mh rechargeable batteries don't leak battery acid the way Alkaline batteries do, and in an emergency where batteries might be hard to find, you can easily recharge yours.

USB Headlamp

Flashlights are quick and intuitive, but if you actually need to work on something in the dark – whether it's changing a tire on the roadside, or finding your way through the woods – nothing is more convenient than a headlamp. In the past, headlamps have been notorious for being difficult to load with batteries (there were spring-loaded clips with flimsy plastic tabs that never seemed to twist into place properly), but the new generation of headlamps have solved that problem by using the same micro-USB charger as many other electronic products. This also makes them a great gift for kids: if they want to play flashlight tag and forget to turn the light off, it'll only be a quick recharge instead of a battery-swapping hassle.

USB Power Pack

With phones and headlamps using USB chargers, a portable power pack is a necessity. This 25,000 mAh power bank has triple USB ports to charge three devices at the same time. The LED readout means you never have to wonder how much juice it has left.

Solar Charger

Want to take your self-sufficiency up a notch? Get a solar USB charger for your power bank. It won't be as fast as charging from an electrical outlet, but if you're stranded somewhere, on an extended hiking excursion, using a solar charger to top-up your power bank during the day, and then using the power bank to recharge your devices over night, can be a totally sustainable way to keep your electronic devices viable without AC power.

Sagan Journey Water Filter

There are a lot of portable water filters on the market. A LOT. This filter-in-a-bottle from Sagan is far and away the best I've found. Unlike hollow-fiber filter products (like LifeStraw) that produce water that still requires purification, the Sagan uses 400 layers of proprietary filtration element that remove an astounding 99.9999% of contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, lead and other heavy metals. This means you can drink directly from ponds, puddles, and any other source of water!

The Journey is a terrific value, because each filter is good for 250 gallons of clean water (substantially more than competitive products). This is THE water filter to get for your emergency kit.

Note: if you want just the filter without the bottle, an inline version is available as well.

Mess Kit

Don't waste money on ultra-flimsy aluminum mess kits, or on anything made of plastic. This copper-bottomed steel set is not expensive, and it's all you need for food prep on a camping trip or emergency situation of any duration.

Ka-Bar Tactical Spork

While you're at it, don't waste money on flimsy cutlery either. For less than $10, you can get one of these polymer Ka-Bar Tactical Spork sets, and you'll never find yourself without sturdy eating utensils.

First Aid Kit

Medical supplies deserve a whole list to themselves, but this is definitely a category in which something is better than nothing! This inexpensive kit is designed to be water-resistant and compact, which makes it a good fit for a personal go-bag.


Uncontrolled bleeding is one of the most dangerous situations a person can find themselves in. Adding a tourniquet to your first aid kit is a way to ensure that you'll be able to provide meaningful help to somebody with serious bleeding from an arm or leg. It's a popular misconception that attaching a tourniquet will cause gangrene/loss of the limb. In fact, EMTs have found that no serious damage occurs until about six hours after tourniquet application. If you're dealing with a life-threatening loss of blood, a six hour window to get help is far preferable to the alternative.

Camp Stove

Sterno is okay, but if you're ready to upgrade your camp-cooking game, go for a self-igniting ultralight stove like this one. It folds up into a tiny little package, and will boil a liter of water in under 4 minutes. This product is compatible with any 7/16 thread butane or butane-propane mixed fuel canisters (EN 417). That means Jetboil or Primus Power Gas, both of which are available at Wal-Mart.

Leatherman Sidekick

You just can't beat a Leatherman for utility and durability. In day-to-day use, you'll reach for it to tighten screws, unbend wire, and accomplish a thousand other little chores, and in an emergency situation, it could literally be a lifesaver.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive kit, but it's a great start! And, since you're keeping the items in a backpack, there's no excuse for not putting things away when you're finished with them.

In addition to the products listed above, there are a few inexpensive things you might want to pick up at your local Wal-Mart or Target.

  • Bic lighter
  • Dust mask
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, etc.)

This kit makes a great gift for birthdays, holidays, or just because. Happy shopping!