Sea of Troubles


My family’s preparations for an emergency are inadequate. I’ll bet yours are too.

My concern here is not the zombie apocalypse or airborne haemorragic fever pandemic, but the mundane emergencies of once or twice a decade. In 1991, severe storms caused flash flooding in the suburb where we now live. Last month, a fire caused an evacuation of a Brisbane apartment building, excluding some residents from returning to their homes. Extended power outages, house fire, fallen trees, serious storms: any of these things could cause us to be without our usual utilities (power, water) or need to leave urgently.

As context, my concern is preparing for the kinds of situations we’re likely to experience in Sydney, Australia. We live in a outer suburb, near a hospital, our property is on a slight slope, and our boundary is about ten metres from a natural watercourse. In collecting together equipment and supplies, I’m therefore prejudicing things that are available from Australian suppliers wherever practical, given the shipping costs.

It turns out, there’s lots of official advice on how to prepare. The Federal Government, NSW State Government, NSW SES and the Red Cross (PDF link) all recommend that you have emergency plans and equipment in place. In general, they recommend three categories of preparation: have an emergency plan, a household emergency kit (for staying at home during an emergency), and an evacuation bag (in case you are evacuated from your home).

An Emergency Plan

In a crisis, the predictability of the people you’re working with is important. Imagine that you’re at work and the rest of your family is at home; there’s a flash flood and they’re evacuated, and you can’t reach them by mobile phone. That’s clearly a stressful situation, but your planning will affect how stressful — if you know where they plan to go and how they’ll make contact, you’re in a much better place.

The SES has a good site that can help you start to build a plan. Start with an evacuation plan for your own home (ours: leave via the nearest safe door, regroup on the verge). Trickier, then, is to consider some of the other routine configurations (e.g. middle of a weekday) and sketch out ideas for how to establish contact and regroup.

A Household Emergency Kit

We’ve all experienced power outages for a couple of hours, which is quite a nuisance. It’s possible, though, that you might need to be without power, or without water for a couple of days at a time in a routine emergency. In more extreme cases, it’s possible that shops could be closed for a couple of days (ask Greece). Worst case, you might not be able to leave home for a period.

In that event, you’re going to want a few key things.

Emergency lighting is typically one of the early essentials, particularly for short power outages. Whether the classic candle, flashlight, or chemical light stick is right for you is a matter of personal preference. Regardless, put it somewhere easily found in the dark (which sounds obvious, but can be tricky). As usual, this is over-engineered in our house; there’s two AA flashlights in the office, a Petzl headlamp in the living room, and a cache of glow sticks. I like Cyalume’s Light Station: a classic red metal box which holds a number of large glow sticks, which activates them when the box is pulled open. (I just need to find somewhere to attach it to the wall that’s easily accessible, but not unforgivably ugly.)

If you’re sheltering in place for a while longer without utilities, food and water become important. The authorities above and the national grocery sector (!) recommend that you keep two weeks of food and water on hand in your house. There’s a couple of options for this. If you have the pantry space, it’s quite plausible to stock up on longer-life goods like cans; remember, though, to rotate through all your inventory by eating and replacing it, to ensure that it’s not out of date. This also has the useful property that if you see too much of one thing stacking up, you’re probably not eating it because you don’t like it: start buying something else! Alternatively, there are long-life emergency food supplies available, like Wise Foods’ buckets of freeze dried foods, which Survival Supplies Australia sells. Ostensibly, these are good for 25 years if stored properly.

Water is a bit trickier. The same sources recommend you keep at least three litres per person for two weeks (family of four: 4 x 3 x 14 = 168L). I haven’t yet found a really good option for storing it. The standard emergency supplies model is foil packets of water, each about half a cup. They’re very expensive, taste a bit funny, and are very bulky to store, so I don’t think they’re right for us. Alternatively, you could buy a big barrel (make sure it’s food safe) and fill it with tap water, and store it somewhere. I’m worried, though, about the risk of microbial contamination and the need to keep the water fresh. I think we’ll end up buying a few (well, 17) of the 10L boxes of water you can get at the supermarket, and storing them somewhere cool and dry.

Remember too to think about how you’re going to heat water if you’re without utilities. For example, if we’re out of power, our stove doesn’t work. In most cases, if we’re home without power, we should be able to use the BBQ to heat water and warm food. It’s important, therefore, to ensure that we’ve always got a full, spare gas cylinder on hand (which isn’t currently true: the spare is empty). There’s also an Esbit pocket stove with a few tablets, as a backup; if you go down that route, make sure you’ve got lightweight cooking utensils (you don’t want to try to heat a whole saucepan), and matches or a lighter to light the tablets. If it’s too windy for normal matches or a BIC lighter, the UCO Stormproof matches are astonishingly difficult to put out.

The fourth big priority for staying in place is first aid. In a big storm or power outage, the responsiveness of emergency teams is likely to be slowed by weather conditions and possibly demand. If the phone networks (copper PSTN and/or mobile) are damaged or full, it will take longer to raise the alarm. To that end, you probably want more than just a couple of Band-Aids on hand. Having a decent first aid kit is an everyday necessity anyway, particularly if you have small children who like to climb on top of things. I like the Equip PRO 2 first aid kit: it’s a good balance between having enough to deal with most small emergencies while still being portable. Equip recommend it for groups of 4-7 people travelling into remote areas (see their useful chart here). If you’re living in the US, I really like the look of AMP-3’s Outfitter, but haven’t been able to justify the shipping yet.

The rest of the emergency kit is a collection of things you probably have on hand, just buy another next time you’re at the store. Each of the lists in the sources above is slightly different, so build a list which makes sense to you. The common items seem to be things like a battery powered radio, sunscreen, insect repellent, hand santiser, garbage bags, old clothes, hats, gardening gloves.

On batteries, I’m trying to standardise everything we use on AAs and buying enough Eneloops to supply our household. That means only having to stock up on one kind of battery (plus a couple of CR2032s for watches, etc), and allows us to cannibalise batteries out of less important things (clocks, remote controls) if needed.

An Evacuation Bag

Sometimes, hopefully rarely, an emergency will require you to evacuate. Under those conditions, life is much easier if you have a ready-packed back containing the essentials, which you can grab and go.

About a year ago, my parents were evacuated from their house by police, because one of their neighbours’ asbestos-rich houses had caught fire. While the fire was contained quickly and they were able to return home shortly after, they could conceivably have been prevented from returning for longer. The neighbour’s house, however, was damaged probably beyond repair.

Most sources generally recommend you pack such a bag with what you need to sustain you for about three days, meaning food and water, clothing, and equipment. The key challenge here is balancing capability, weight and cost. Stories abound of “bug out bags” which weigh in excess of 15kg (see Forge Survival Supply’s “Ultimate Bug Out Bag” at a cool $3k and 35lb). This isn’t practical for us, given that each of us is probably also going to be carrying a small child, and we’re not used to carrying very heavy loads long distances.

While freeze dried food is fine, three days’ worth is a little bulky to throw in a backpack. Alternatively, both Mayday and Mainstay make “Emergency ration bars”, high density cookie cubes with vitamins sprayed in. They generally size them for 1200 calories per day, and sell them in 1200, 2400, and 3600 calorie packages. SSA sells them in convenient “variety packs”: one of each brand at a given size. I bought the 1200 calorie variety pack and tried both of them. The Mayday bar is crumblier and drier, with an apple-cinnamon flavour. The Mainstay is more moist, with a lemon flavour akin to the inside of a lemon meringue pie. Both are palatable, but I wouldn’t want to eat either for more than a couple of days; both gave me slight indigestion. The fat content of the Mainstay bar is much higher which counted against it, but I slightly preferred its flavour. Most adults apparently consume about 2000 calories a day, so 1200 calories is a bit of a step down. Certainly, I was peckish in the late afternoon both days I was only eating the rations. If you go down this path, therefore, you might want to buy the 3600 bars and treat each one as two days worth (1800/day) rather than three. Note too that the lifetime of these bars is only about five years from manufacture (possibly three or four years by the time you receive them), so remember to check the expiry when you receive them, and replace them before they expire.

As far as water goes, weight is the biggest factor. If you were to follow the rule for household emergencies, a family of four is looking to carry up to 27 litres of water! With the weight of the backpacks, that’s 15kgs each before you start adding anything else. To that end, we’re intending to cut this corner a little in our own bags: each of our bags has a 3l Camelbak reservoir, and a 1L Nalgene bottle. If we assume that the kids drink less than a litre a day (they’re only little), that’s one or two days of water. To compensate, we’ll need to add some way to purify found water; that could turn out to be the classic Katadyn water purification tablets or newer approaches like LifeStraw, but I don’t understand enough about it to say yet.

Again, you’ll want a first aid kit. If you can, grabbing your full size one is a good way to save money and ensure you’ve got lots of capability; part of the reason why I like the Equip PRO 2 is that it’s small enough to grab on the way out the door, while still having a lot of capability. That said, it’s valuable to have a first aid kit in each of those bags too, so that if you’re really stretched for time you just need that one bag. To that end, I have and like AMP-3’s iFAK; it’s a very thorough kit, packed in a waterproof bag, with an optional, perfectly-sized nylon pouch. It’s designed for American contexts, though, so doesn’t contain the heavy bandages and triangular bandage you need to treat a snake bite (which is much more common here than there) or a funnel web bite. You can pick these up pretty cheaply online (e.g. at Shop First Aid) or prepackaged from Equip as the Snake Bite Kit for a premium. If the shipping from the US for AMP-3’s kit is impractical, Equip’s REC 2 and REC 3 are good alternatives (I have the REC 2, but would probably buy the REC 3 if I didn’t). Alternatively, I’ve heard good things about the St. John’s First Aid Kits, but they’re a bit large and loosely packed for my preferences (we have their Small Leisure Kit in the car).

I like to have both a multitool and a knife with me when camping, and this emergency bag has the same for the same reasons. At the moment, my bag contains a black Leatherman Rebar and Light My Fire’s Swedish FireKnife.

The Rebar is part of Leatherman’s classic series, and looks a lot like the original PST, but with locking tools and replaceable wire cutters. I like it okay, but prefer the Wingman and Wave for their ability to open some of their tools without opening the whole tool.

The Fire Knife is a collaboration between Light My Fire (famous for their firesteels) and Mora. It’s a good knife, consistent with Mora’s heritage, sharp and with a well-formed plastic sheath. Wonderfully, though, it has a small firesteel in the handle. While I’m not using it as my primary firesteel (it’s quite small), it’s reassuring to have a spare always with the knife.

As far as light goes, you’ll want a torch (or two) with spare batteries, and a backup method (e.g. candle, glow stick). It’s also useful to have a change of clothes, and some decent gardening gloves. We’re also packing nappies, wipes, etc for the kids. If you need routine medication and it’s safe to pack (i.e. doesn’t need to be kept in a fridge), it would be useful to pack them too.

Most of the sources recommend you keep copies of your important documents (drivers licences, passports, credit cards, insurance, etc). I’m a bit twitchy about creating an “identity theft kit” and keeping it anywhere but in a safe, but will probably do this too.

The Red Cross REDIplan pamphlet also suggests you pack:

  • battery operated radio with spare batteries
  • valuables, including […] mementoes and keepsakes
  • toiletries
  • sunscreen, hats and blankets
  • money
  • cards, colouring books, pens and pencils.

To this, I’m thinking of adding a couple of things.

A handheld UHF CB would be good to throw in each bag, if you already have them, in order to allow you to stay in contact if the mobile phone network is overloaded or unavailable. If you do, agree channels and CTCSS codes (if relevant) in advance; ours are preset, and the keypads kept locked to prevent accidental changes.

For emergency shelter, we have an Adventure Medical Kit brand Two-person Emergency Thermal Bivvy in each bag. This is an ultra-lightweight sleeping bag, made out of space blanket material rather than traditional synthetic/down stuffing. Each is slightly smaller than two tennis balls. I’d like to add a small tarp (like the GearPods Shelter module) to provide some rain cover.

Each of the bags has 50–100 ft of 550 lb rope called “paracord”. This has a series of uses, from stringing that tarp, tying things to packs, or makeshift clothes lines. I’ve also used paracord as lanyards on torches and multi-tools to make them easier to grab out of pockets and holsters. One bag has bright safety orange paracord; the other has a darker colour.

I also have a compass and a local map in each bag, which I borrow for my hiking kit when we go for a walk, and put it back when we get home. It’s overkill in emergencies, but I feel more comfortable knowing that we can still make our way around if my other navigational options are unavailable. In NSW, the government sells 1:25k maps for about $10 each; I bought some from Mapworld, and others in person in the shop near Hyde Park Barracks. They’re not laminated, so I keep them in Loksak 12”x12” waterproof bags. The primary compass is a Silva Ranger, but I’m pondering an upgrade to a Silva Expedition S sighting compass, because of the permanent declination adjustment and sighting mirror.


This is a very long post compared to my usual, thanks for bearing with me. I’m intending to review most of the things I’ve mentioned here in separate posts, but wanted to lay this out as an overview and (eventually) index.