In the light of potential disruptions to our everyday lives, we need to think about preparations for emergency situations when we're not at home, where our supplies can be a lot more extensive and ready to hand. There are any number of articles about so-called 'bug-out bags', designed to get you away from trouble and keep you going for a certain amount of time; but they vary widely in their usefulness, and some are so elaborate and complex that they're frankly unusable for the average person.
You'll need to account for your physical environment, of course. Someone in the middle of winter in Minnesota will have very different needs in terms of clothing, nutrition, etc. compared to someone in the middle of summer in Arizona! You also have to take into account factors such as your own capabilities. For example, I'm partly physically disabled. I'm not capable of walking very far, even if I want to! My get-home-safe needs will, of necessity, involve a vehicle of some sort, whether I like it or not. Also, thanks to my disability (caused by spinal injury), I can't carry a heavy load for any distance. A fit, strong person will have a wider range of options.
Nevertheless, we can make a list of headings, and outline a minimum get-home outfit for each. That can then be supplemented according to local and seasonal needs and concerns. I suggest you should provide for at least 24 hours, and preferably 48 to 72 hours. Here's my approach. I invite you to adapt it to your own situation, as you see fit.
We need food and water to survive, and to support our expenditure of energy. At a minimum, I suggest that a day's supply of each must form the basis of our get-home kit. I advise four 16- or 20-ounce bottles of water, rather than a single larger container, because the smaller ones can be stuffed into pockets if need be, or refilled after use, or discarded once they're empty if they're getting in the way of other things. (Buy bottles that are strong enough to be re-used, and have waterproof screw-on caps - cheaper bottles are sometimes not crush-proof or fully watertight.) I also strongly recommend an emergency filter such as a LifeStraw, in case you need water and no fresh supplies are available - only pools of water in a ditch, for example.
As for food, I strongly advise using compact, long-shelf-life supplies such as Mainstay emergency food ration bars (which are my choice, but there are many alternatives). A 3,600-calorie supply (sufficient for one day of high-energy activity, or two days of lower activity) is very cost-effective, and has a shelf life of several years in your emergency kit. If you wish, you can add some hard candy or chocolate for flavor and variety.
A single pack of emergency ration bars (3,600 calories), plus four 20-ounce bottles of water, plus a LifeStraw, will weigh less than 7 pounds in total. Add that weight for each extra day's provisions you pack.
You'll need at least one set of comfortable clothes that are easy to walk or run in. Build your kit around an average summer in your area, then add clothes for colder seasons. I'd suggest a pair of lightweight hiking shoes (already broken-in to your feet), a good pair of socks, underwear, a pair of trousers and a comfortable shirt as a minimum. It's probably a good idea to double up on the socks and underwear: you can wear dirty outer clothes, but clean underwear can be a big boost to your morale! If you expect the nights to be chilly, add a light fleece zip-up jacket or a hoodie. A lightweight emergency rainproof poncho is very desirable, adding little bulk or weight, and is probably more useful than a raincoat, in that it can cover a small backpack or shoulder bag as well.
The weight of such an outfit, including shoes, should probably not be more than 10 pounds. If you need to add or substitute heavier items for colder climates or seasons, obviously, that weight might double; but you'll probably be wearing them, rather than packing them, so the weight will be evenly distributed. Don't forget warm gloves, a scarf, etc. if needed for your area.
A get-home kit isn't a fully-fledged survival outfit. It can't be. You have to be able to carry it with ease. Your vehicle can, of course, contain a much more comprehensive selection of gear, but it may not be available if the roads are blocked and you have to abandon it. This is a minimum selection.
I'd include the following:
- A way to make fire (matches, lighter, etc.). This should be weatherproof if possible. Small items of kindling (which can be as simple as pages from a small notebook, or something better) are probably a good idea, too. I use Esbit cooking tablets, which can both start a larger fire, and prepare food over a pocket stove, if necessary - since you never know when you might have to do that, even if you haven't planned for it.
- A source of light. I strongly recommend an LED flashlight powered by AA or AAA batteries, which are more readily available than specialized cells. (Check the batteries regularly, and replace them every year.) Since light may be critically important, I'd suggest a second flashlight or a battery-powered pocket-size work light, to back up the first unit. Pack at least one set of spare batteries for each light.
- A good utility knife. You don't have to spend an inordinate amount, but I strongly suggest that quality is important. I currently use this pocket knife, and back it up with this Mora knife in my emergency kit. There are many alternatives. Remember to check your local rules, regulations and laws to ensure that your knife won't get you into trouble with the police, if it's seen or found during a search of your possessions. I'd also suggest a multitool of your choice, to take care of minor tasks or maintenance needs during your journey; and a pair of work gloves might be useful, too.
- Eating utensils. You can pack a camping set, or even just a spork and a few paper plates and cups; nothing fancy, but they'll be there if you need them. Believe me, you won't miss them until you don't have them - and by then it's too late! (I like this set, for economy and convenience, but there are many alternatives.) If there's a chance you might have to cook food, the pocket stove mentioned above is very compact and useful, and you can add a set of camping cookware to your kit.
- String and/or twine and/or paracord. There are many alternatives out there. Choose something that can serve as emergency shoelaces, tie up parcels or packages, substitute for a belt if necessary, and so on. I'd suggest you carry at least 50 feet of it, and double that if possible; or, carry 50 feet of lighter string or twine, and 50 feet of paracord. A roll of fishing line might be handy, too - it's low-bulk, but very versatile.
- An emergency space blanket, for warmth and/or shelter at night. I prefer this heavier-duty one, which resists tearing and has pre-punched grommets to allow it to be hung from any convenient support for use as a shelter. They make it more versatile.
- A few ziploc bags in quart and gallon size. These are amazingly useful. They can contain wet and/or dirty clothes, to keep them segregated from the rest of your gear; they can hold food or even water (make sure to buy quality bags that seal properly!); they can even serve as makeshift first aid bandages, if you tape them over or around a wound after cleaning it. They can also compartmentalize your gear; for example, you could keep your fire-lighting equipment together in one bag, your food in another, your flashlight(s) and spare batteries in another, etc., making them all easier to find and keeping like items with like.
- A roll of duct tape. This has innumerable uses; repairing shoes and clothes, rigging up a shelter, a makeshift bandage, even twisting it into rope if nothing else is available. Don't be without it.
- A small first aid kit. Pre-packaged ones are widely available, but you can build a better one yourself by buying individual components. It's a specialized subject, so I won't go into detail here. An Internet search will provide much food for thought. You should add any prescription medications or specialized hygiene items that you require - I'd suggest at least three days' supply of your needs in those areas. More might be advisable. I also strongly suggest a bottle of eyedrops, preferably the anti-allergy type, so that you can wash out your eyes if any contaminants (smoke, dust, pollution, etc.) get into them.
- For hygiene, I suggest a package of personal cleansing wipes. You'll be amazed at how much better you feel if you can clean yourself, even if no bath or shower is available. Add deodorant, feminine hygiene items, etc. to suit your own needs. Toilet paper is an essential item, and can double as facial tissue. A small hand towel and/or a facecloth might be useful, if you have space for them, or a few shop towels might suffice. I add some anti-chafing powder as well.
- Eyeglasses. If you have prescription spectacles or contact lenses, include a backup set in your get-home kit. A pair of sunglasses is probably a good idea, too; I suggest protective safety glasses with shaded lenses, for toughness. If you use reading glasses, have a set of those as well. Hard protective cases for your glasses are probably a good idea, too, since they'll be bounced around in your get-home kit and may be crushed by other items.
- Personal defense items. I'm not going to go into detail here, because jurisdictions vary in what they'll permit, and individuals have different ideas about what's important. Suffice it to say that at a minimum, I'd carry a stout cane or walking stick, which can double as a defensive instrument if necessary. Get training in how to use it! I'll almost always have a firearm available as well, and I strongly suggest you do the same if it's feasible (and, of course, legal). (Don't leave one in your vehicle or an unsecured place - it's an invitation to thieves, and you'll have to live with the moral responsibility if a thief later uses your weapon against another innocent person.) If you can't carry a firearm, consider something that can appear innocuous, but double as a weapon, such as a pry bar, a large wrench, a camping axe or hatchet, or a machete. They add a lot of weight, but may be useful enough to offset that. (Again, watch out for local laws and regulations!)
Almost everything mentioned above can fit into a cheap, simple day pack. (Pack it carefully; for example, socks can be folded inside shoes, underwear can be tucked into your mug, etc.) You can leave the day pack in the trunk of your car, or lock it in a cupboard or drawer at work. It's easy to grab in an emergency, and it'll give you everything you're likely to need to get from wherever you are, to your home, even if you have to walk for a day or two to get there. The whole thing, fully packed, should weigh no more than 20-25 pounds. (If you're carrying more than one day's food and water, that'll be extra, of course, and you may need a larger pack.) Add extra equipment and/or clothing as needed for the season of the year and your local climate, as well as local threats and difficulties you're likely to face. (No, I don't suggest walking through a high-crime area carrying all that stuff. Why make yourself a target? It may take longer to walk around, rather than through, a danger zone, but that's preferable to becoming just another crime statistic! Simply pack extra supplies to allow for the detour.)
If your journey home might be longer than average, there's another very useful item you can add if you have secure storage for it at or near your place of work; a folding bicycle. This can provide extra mobility and speed to get home in an emergency, particularly if you have children or others depending on you to look after them. On the other hand, others may find it equally desirable, and try to steal it or take it away from you, which brings up additional defensive considerations. Nevertheless, it's a useful option.
There's also the question of money. I always have at least $100 in cash on my person, in $20 bills or smaller; and I try to have double that. I recommend that to you, too. Credit cards are all very well, but they only work in businesses. If you want to buy some food from a house you're passing, or some bottles of water from an itinerant street vendor, your credit card won't cut it. Cash is king, particularly in an emergency.
These are my ideas. Yours may vary, and your needs will almost certainly be different from mine, depending on your age, physical condition, location, season of the year, etc. There's no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to a get-home kit. I suggest you take my ideas as no more than suggestions, and build your own kit based on them and your own needs.