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Experience January/February 2024

Why You Need A Go Bag

David Z Kaufman


  • Have I ever actually needed a go bag to deal with emergencies or disasters? Yes, more than once. Actually you need more than one, and here’s why.
Why You Need A Go Bag

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Do you live in California? Arizona? Texas? Iowa? Oklahoma? Florida? Maine? Near a railroad? Anywhere in the United States?

Then you’re vulnerable to earthquakes, tornados, fire, flood, and other natural disasters, along with human-created emergencies like chlorine leaks and failed dams. You may think you’re safe from these problems, but statistically you’re not. At some point, sometime, somewhere you’ll need to consider emergency evacuations.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think again.

  • Here in Florida, Hurricane Ian changed direction at the last minute (actually the last hour or so), and friends of mine who thought they were safe were suddenly confronted with 12 feet of storm surge. They needed to get out and get out right then. They had about 15 minute’s notice.
  • And what about the people in Ohio near where the train carrying chlorine derailed? The entire town had to evacuate right then, not the next day. They had less than an hour’s notice.
  • Or, tragically, consider the plight of the people on Maui when their fire struck. Reports indicate they had less than 30 minutes to try (and in many cases fail) to get out.

All these events had one thing in common: People didn’t have time to plan, they didn’t have time to think, they didn’t have time to try to figure out what to do. If you haven’t already done your thinking, planning, and preparing, tragedy will strike. And you’ll be the one I’ll be reading about who failed.

My real-life go-bag situations

Have I ever actually needed a go bag? Yes, more than once. Here are just two times:

  • On September 11, 2001, I was in Washington, D.C. But I wasn’t at home, my wife wasn’t at home, and my children were in school. The city shut down. But I had what was in my pockets, I had my car with its box, my wife had her purse with its contents, and my girls had their own little bags in their school backpacks. (Yes, I was silly for making sure they always had something but...) So we all could get home, safely, securely, and without major issues even though the city was shut down tight.
  • In a more mundane incident, a very close friend was getting married. But I didn’t get the invitation (thank you, USPS) until the day before the wedding. I was in northern Utah, and the wedding was in San Francisco. I grabbed my sudden-emergency bag, my one-hour bag, and a suit. Out the door and on a plane within two hours. I got there just in time for the wedding. But I got there.

When I was a child living in Honduras, my family once had to evacuate quickly. I’m not sure of all the details, but we had to pack up and be gone to safety in less than a day. We had no go bags then, so it was more than a little frantic. Pick up and run! Bogie leaving Paris in the rain when the Germans are coming may sound romantic, but it’s not. Just ask the Ukrainians.

My daughters are both married with children, and their families all have go bags, too. One lives in Israel, and the other is a U.S. Air Force wife. They hadn’t needed them until October 7, 2023, when my Israeli daughter and two grandchildren (ages one and three) evacuated on two hours’ notice. She tells me that having the go bags was invaluable. She and her children were able to return one week later but still have their go bags packed.

So what’s a go bag?

The purpose of a go bag is to provide you with the minimum necessities to survive in an emergency. But since emergencies differ, so do go bags. In fact, you will probably need more than one. Personally, I think you should have five different (but complimentary) go bags. They are:

  • What I call the Boy Scout be-prepared bag, or what you always carry on your person or in your pocket.
  • The sudden-emergency bag for when you have 60 seconds to (maybe) 2 minutes to react and get to safety. This bag should be pre-packed so you can grab it, throw your medications into it, and run out the door. It’s the fast food of go bags.
  • The one-hour bag is for when you can see the emergency coming, such as a flood or forest fire, and you have five minutes to an hour notice to get to safety. This bag is either prepacked, or you know exactly what you’ll need, and everything is in generally the same place so you don’t have to search for the contents.
  • The car bag is for when you have a day or more to get to safety. Good examples of this type of event would be a blizzard or hurricane. Usually you can evacuate in your car. This bag doesn’t need to be pre-packed, but you should be sure you know what you need and where everything is so it can be quickly packed and loaded into your car.
  • The pet bag contains what you need for your cat, dog, or other pet. This bag will require some planning so you can be sure you have the necessary documents and medications.

What to include

I’m providing checklists for each of these bags, but you should, of course, modify these lists to meet your own needs.

First, always follow the motto first enunciated by Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. Thus, even when you’re just shopping at the local market or walking your dog, always have certain items on you or accessible at all times in a small waist pack, purse, or your pockets. They are:

  • Pocket knife or Leatherman multi-purpose tool
  • Butane cigarette lighter
  • Wallet with your required identification, credit card, and cash
  • A large handkerchief or bandana
  • Glasses, as needed (be sure to have at least one spare pair packed in another bag)
  • Wedding ring or necklace
  • Sunglasses, preferably high density and polarized
  • If you use hearing aids, be sure you’re wearing them
  • Cell phone, and I can’t emphasize enough how useful a cell phone is. In addition to facilitating communications, including emergency information, a charged phone can replace many other things such as a notepad, a penlight, and a camera
  • Lip balm
  • An N95 or KN95 mask or two, always in your pocket with a spare in the bag
  • Optional items include a weapon, holster, a spare magazine, and holsters for cell phones.

Your sudden-emergency bag should be prepacked into a small backpack, a large waist pack, a duffel bag, or a stuff sack and have these basic items:

  • Spare glasses as needed
  • A spare battery to keep your phone charged, along with the charging and other accessories for your battery
  • A tablet
  • Hearing aid chargers and accessories
  • Your passport, identification, and a money carrier you can wear around your neck or waist under clothing
  • A thumb drive with your critical documents, such as your estate planning documents and powers of attorney; these shouldn’t be encrypted
  • A hand-cranked flashlight
  • Spare sunglasses, preferably high-density and polarized, along with sunscreen
  • A water bottle wound with duct tape (the duct tape is very important because you can use it for so many different things)
  • Bug repellant
  • Baby wipe towelettes
  • Contact lens solution as needed
  • OTC medications for pain and common ailments, such as diarrhea and constipation, along with antibiotic cream or ointment and a small first-aid kit
  • Optional: a weapon, with a spare magazine and holsters

You can pack your one-hour bag in advance or have everything at the ready, as long as you can get it packed in an hour. To do that, take your sudden-emergency bag, then add in a backpack or duffel:

  • Clothing, using layers as needed, including two sets of spare underwear (preferably microfiber), two sets of socks, a shirt, a pair of pants, a jacket, a hat with a brim or visor
  • Comfortable footgear suitable for walking long distances
  • A regular wall plug and USB ports
  • A laptop and all accessories
  • Personal hygiene items, including a microfiber towel, nail clippers, toothpaste, a toothbrush, dental floss (which you can use for sewing or stitching cuts), a comb or brush, shaving equipment, and shampoo
  • A mini sewing kit with a needle, various color threads, and a few assorted buttons
  • Two small nails
  • Safety pins
  • Plastic bags of all sizes
  • A sleeping bag and sleeping pad
  • A water purifier
  • Zip ties
  • Bug spray to kill bugs, lice, etc.

When it comes to your car bag, you can always chuck your one-hour bag in the trunk, but you may also want to have an emergency kit for your family’s use. You should keep some of these items in your vehicle at all times or at least keep them packed into a bag you can toss into the car:

  • A small collapsible shovel
  • A flashlight and spare batteries
  • Car chargers and jumper cables (I like the Weego system)
  • Fix-a-flat system or tire pump, along with a tire pressure gauge (I like the Motoair system)
  • A tow rope
  • A quart of oil, one gallon of coolant, along with extra gas and a siphon
  • A gallon of water per day per person or pet
  • Food for a week; leftover meals-ready-to-eat are fine for this
  • Wool blankets or sleeping bags
  • Copies of important family documents in a waterproof container, also loaded onto your cell and laptop
  • 100 feet of 3/8” nylon rope
  • Maps, if your GPS won’t work
  • Extra socks, windbreakers, hats, and gloves, whatever your weather may require
  • Books or games for entertainment
  • Plastic tarp or tent
  • Detergent, along with a laundry medical bag, a travel iron, or wrinkle steam
  • Rubber sink stopper
  • Clear plastic trash bags
  • Candles and lighters or matches
  • A padlock, with a combination you can set yourself

Your pet bag should include:

  • A crate or carrier
  • A harness or collar, plus a leash
  • Proof of ownership and vaccination
  • Food for two weeks, along with a bowl
  • Water for a minimum of a week, along with a bowl
  • Medications
  • A litter box and litter
  • Waste bags
  • Medications, including tranquilizers if your pet needs them