Minimalist Preparedness: The Essential Kit

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.

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 is the best material for go-bags, because it’s naturally tough and water-resistant. 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. While still a canvas bag, you may want to consider paying a little more for a more durable product. This bag is roughly the same size as the one to the left, and maintains an unobtrusive look (the last thing you want is a bag that says, “Look at me! I have cool stuff inside!”, but is made of higher quality materials. A bag like this one still looks unobtrusive, but will provide its contents with a measure of protection from rain and snow.

Flashlight & Batteries

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. The Eneloop Pro batteries are the top of the Eneloop line, holding more power (2550 mAh, compared to the usual 1400 mAh), and discharging more slowly (maintaining 85% of their charge after a year of storage), than other rechargeables. This means that the batteries last longer both in use, and waiting to be used.

Headlamp & Power Pack

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. With phones and headlamps using USB chargers, a portable power pack is a necessity. This 16,100 mAh power bank has dual USB ports to charge two devices at the same time, and estimates that it will fully charge an Apple iPhone 6S nine times before being depleted! Be aware though: it is a hefty 12 oz, so if you’re trying to pack as light as possible, you may want to pick a less powerful version.

Solar Charger & Water Bottle

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. After having a brand-new, expensive Camelbank water bladder rupture in my backpack a few years ago, I swore off using plastic bags to carry water. Not only are they puncture-prone, they give the water an unpleasant taste and offer zero insulation. There’s a reason soldiers around the world have used metal canteens for generations: they just work! An uninsulated bottle like this can double as a sleeping-bag warmer too; fill it up with water heated over a campfire, slip it into a sock (so that you don’t burn yourself on the hot metal), and drop it to the bottom of your sleeping bag to keep your feet warm on cold nights!

Mess Kit & Camp Cutlery

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. While you’re at it, don’t waste money on flimsy cutlery either. Get one of these “Hobo Tools,” and you’ll never find yourself without a sturdy knife, fork, or spoon. Properly cared for, this will last a lifetime.

First Aid

Medical supplies deserve a whole list to themselves, but this is definitely a category in which something is better than nothing! This 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

The humble Sterno stove has been around for generations, and still works as well today as it did decades ago. It’s not fancy, but if you need to heat up a can of soup, it’s simple, quick, and convenient. Order the stove online, but don’t order the fuel; it’s cheaper and easier to get fuel cans locally somewhere like Wal-Mart. 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 also available at Wal-Mart.


My first real knife was a Swiss Army knife that I got on my twelfth birthday. I still have it! The new generation of Swiss Army knives are cooler-looking and safer than the old ones, and they make a great gift for a (responsible!) young person or adult. 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!

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