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The 72-Hour Bag – Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

December 18, 2012

Natural disasters seem to be disconcertingly frequent when I turn on the news, from the earthquake in Haiti to the tsunami in Japan to the hurricane that recently hit the East Coast of the United States. No matter what part of the globe we live in,  most of us today face a very real probability of nature disrupting our typical routines, especially if you add man-made unrest such as the riot in Egypt to the list.

The point is, no matter how comfortable you are right now, it is worth being prepared in case something happens. As a Boy Scout I lived by the motto of “be prepared,” and I believe those words apply equally whether you are camping in the woods, visiting a foreign country, or even relaxing in your home.

So why bring this up in a blog about travel and global citizenship?  Because surviving a disaster and exploring a foreign country both take a very similar mindset: self-sufficiency. By learning how to prepare for one situation you can be better equipped to deal with the other. On a less practical note, I also happen to enjoy preparing, and treat it like a mental exercise. As an adventure traveler I try to pack in such a way that I minimize space and maximize versatility, and I think of it as though I were solving a puzzle. It’s not often we get to blend fun, practical and educational all into one activity, and while packing can often be stressful, I invite you to approach the idea openly, as you might actually enjoy yourself! Plus, while real disasters are certainly a serious issue, I also amuse myself by thinking of how best to survive a zombie apocalypse.

(Actually, the Center for Disease Control released a comic about zombies as a means of raising awareness about the importance of real emergency preparedness, so there may be a little more to it than simple entertainment value.)

(Admittedly, the analogy isn’t completely parallel.) 

This isn’t an episode of Doomsday Preppers. With disasters happening all over the world, I think we can strike a balance between safety and paranoia. Even though your town may never experience a hurricane, tsunami, tornado or guerilla insurrection, you can still achieve a reasonable amount of preparedness without sacrificing your life savings and devoting half of your house to guns and canned food, and you can learn a lot in the process even if it’s only hypothetical.

The most important tool in your arsenal is knowledge. I’m not in a position to teach you that right here and now, but making a plan costs nothing but a little of your time, and thinks like basic fist aid skills can come in handy even in the safest of towns. Aside from that, though, one of the best things to have on you is the 72-Hour Bag (aka the Bug-Out Bag, or BOB), so I will spend most of my time here on its merits, and how to go about making your own. It gets its name from the length of time it should keep you alive before you need to supplement it with outside resources (namely food). You should be able to fit 72 hours worth of supplies in a typical school backpack, making it portable and convenient.

It may seem like a stretch, but I think packing a 72-Hour Bag it a positive step in our ongoing quest toward global citizenship. For one, it is a direct application of two of the skills that all good travelers need to have: planning ahead, and packing efficiently. More importantly, though, I am a proponent of the idea of using personal experiences to drive home deeper ideas, and a hands on project like this may help drive home the reality of the situation entire populations find themselves in after a disaster. And to top it off, this exercise in awareness-raising might just save your life, too., or at least make it easier. Although my home in the pacific northwest has fortunately been spared any major disaster lately, we still face occasional power outages, and I can safely say that I’m glad I have an accessible kit even in these non-life-threatening scenarios.

Most of what I pack comes from previous camping and travel experience, cross-referenced with other BOB guides that are readily available online. Most are not very expensive, and many of them are the sorts of things that are useful to have around anyway as they tend to overlap with the typical camping or travel checklist. I was a regular backpacker before I made my first 72-Hour bag, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I already owned about 80% of the things on the list. Several items here (also posted by Maddy on our Facebook page) are a mix between basic travel and more intensive emergency prep.

There are so many lists out there that I won’t add my own. Instead, I encourage you to make a few quick google searches and adapt each list to your own environment and needs. My only warning is that a lot of the survivalist sites can be a little paranoid or zombie-oriented, and will place a crossbow higher on their list than a solar USB charger. Self defense can be important if you find yourself in the middle of a riot or looting, but use your best judgment. More often than not, a cool head and good judgment are better than a shotgun in those situations.

I have provided a small, non-comprehensive list of some items that I don’t see on every website, or that I think could use a second emphasis:

USB solar panel (A frequent concern of Hurricane Sandy’s victims was their inability to charge their phones enough to make emergency calls to relief teams and family members. A cheap solar panel won’t provide enough power to play Angry Birds, but it can help you tell your loved ones you’re okay. This is an item you won’t see on older lists, but the declining cost of solar technology has finally made simple chargers affordable, and the increased universality of cell phones makes it a primary means of communication.)

Iodine tablets (Much smaller than other water purification methods, and also useful for reducing radiation poisoning in case of a nuclear event like Fukushima.)

Copies of important documents (Like passports. Keep in a Ziploc bag so they stay dry.)

Sunscreen and bug spray (Don’t underestimate the importance of these. Disease is a huge issue in disaster zones and mosquitoes will help spread anything that starts. And sun exposure is a major risk when shelter is not guaranteed, as when families had to retreat to their roof after flooding from Katrina.)

Surgical masks (The cheap, disposable kind commonly worn by doctors or construction workers to protect their longs from germs, or particulates like dust or spray paint. Many of the first responders after the September 11th terrorist attacks suffered from health problems caused by the debris, so they may prove helpful in the unhygienic environment that follows a disaster. When the risk of health issues goes up and access to proper medical care goes down, prevention becomes critical. A bandana can do in a pinch, and can also be used in treating some injuries.)

On that note, talking about being stranded on a roof for days, fending off looters and coping with a nuclear meltdown may be a tad depressing, but ignoring the possibility of a disaster will do you no good, and the items are pretty small and cheap anyway. This isn’t about becoming a doomsday conspiracy theorist living in a bunker; it’s about eliminating that unhealthy mentality of “those things happen to other people, but it will never happen to me.” Even if the likelihood is small, it’s worth the investment.

Finally, be sure to keep this bag in a convenient location. It won’t do you any good if you can’t get to it.

Good luck, and stay safe!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2012 6:33 pm

    I’ve been wanting to make one of these bags for a while, maybe 2013 will be the year I finally do! I like the emphasis you added at the end – I would definitely need to include the sunscreen because I get burned so easily.


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