Emergency Preparedness "ready to go" kit
A prototype "go bag" that you should have at the ready for manmade or natural disasters. Medication is the item most overlooked in these bags, experts say. Photo by Red Cross/Via Public Domain Media

‘Go bag’: Why you need one and what to pack

| September 15, 2023

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A natural or manmade disaster is at your doorstep (fill in the blank: a flood, wildfire, hurricane, chemical plant explosion, etc.) and you are ordered to evacuate your home.

To quote Karl Malden from the old American Express traveler’s checks commercials: “What do you do? What will you do?”

Part of the answer to those questions lies with a “go bag.”

What is a “go bag”?

As the name implies, it’s a bag that you have prepacked with essentials to get you through an emergency that might displace you from your home. So-called “stay bins” operate on the same theory, except they are for those times when you are forced to shelter in place at home for an extended period.

The idea is that the bag or bin is at the ready and assembled while you are clear-headed. You don’t want to try to collect what you need during an actual emergency, when you’ll be in a time-constrained, adrenaline- and confusion-fueled haze of duress.

The bag can be stashed in a closet at home as well as kept in your car, particularly for long road trips, your daily commute or during periods of extreme weather, such as snowstorms.

What should you pack? Here’s what you’ll overlook 

Before we dive into some of the more obvious building blocks of a go bag, such as water and flashlights, let’s highlight those that go mostly unconsidered. Truthfully, some of these came as a surprise to us:

  • Electronic or hard copies of important documents, such as marriage and birth certificates, Social Security cards, homeowner’s and auto insurance, health insurance, house deeds and banking and credit card records.
  • Paper maps 
  • Hard copies of contact phone numbers and addresses
  • Cash
  • Eyeglasses 
  • Perhaps the No. 1 thing that people overlook is their prescriptions and medications, said Tim Knapp, director of the emergency management office in Pike County, Pa.

“I could get you a lot stuff,” he said. “I can get you a flashlight. I can you water. I can get you food. What I can’t get you is your medication.”

An important reminder: Pre-packing any medications in a go kit means rotating the stock as the drugs approach the end of their shelf live or if the dosage or prescriptions change. 

What are the other essentials?

  • Water: one gallon per person, per day, (a three-day supply for evacuation and a two-week supply for home)
  • Clothing appropriate for the climate and event
  • Non-perishable food 
  • First aid kit
  • Phone and computer chargers
  • Flashlights with spare batteries
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Multi-purpose tool

Other items to include: an emergency whistle to signal your location if other forms of communications are lost; a dust mask; a water purification device; a hand-cranked portable weather/emergency radio; towels, gloves, duct tape and scissors.

If you’re on the road in the winter, pack road salt, warm clothes, water, non-perishable food, a shovel and blankets so you can survive if you get stuck on the highway for hours. (It happens more often than you’d think.) 

Other considerations

If you have pets and/or children, you will want to be sure to pack necessities in advance for them.

Experts recommend having enough supplies to support your entire family for three days or more, so pack appropriately. Yes, you read that correctly. That is not an arbitrary number.

“If people can sustain themselves for multiple days, that places less burden on the system as a whole,” said Duane Hagelgans, an associate professor at the Center for Disaster Research & Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “There are many people who cannot sustain themselves, so by having those who can, it allows the ‘system’ to help those who can’t.”

He added: “Think about hurricanes, tornadoes and severe winter weather. Depending on where you are located, responders may take a while to get to you.”

Your needs will vary depending on your location and the types of conditions you might face. The go-bag of someone in hurricane-prone Florida will differ from someone in the Northeast. 

Start slow or buy a kit

You can buy ready-made kits online. Knapp described them as a “good starting point” that you can customize to suit your needs.

Wirecutter has an exhaustive review of kits and recommendations and a search of Amazon brings up a wide variety that can meet needs ranging from simple to complex.

Alternatively, get a bag or a container, write up a checklist and fill it up over time. You can get extensive lists at Ready.gov, the American Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yes, you should have one

Hagelgans points out that the necessity of having a go kit at the ready is not limited to severe weather. 

“It can be a hazmat event, or a manmade event, or a technological event,” he said. “Think, for instance about the East Palestine train derailment and people needing to leave their homes on short notice.”

He added: “A go kit is important for everyone, everywhere.”

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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