My Emergency Kit

(chuq: this page will be updated soon with some changes I’ve made to my kit)

Like most intelligent people, I keep an emergency kit in the car. Since we live in Silicon Valley, we also have to worry about that next significant earthquake, and the authorities recommend everyone set up an emergency kit in case bad things happen.

I’ve kept that emergency kit in the car for a number of years, on the assumption that any emergency serious enough to destroy both the house and the car means we’re going to have all sorts of challenges, and keeping it in the car means that if I’m away from the house when it happens I still have enough supply to carry on until I can get back.

The problem, of course, is entropy. Over time, the kit gets sloppy, stuff gets old and needs to be replaced, stuff gets borrowed and you don’t quite get it put back, and unless you have a really anal view of these things (I don’t), it tends to spread out. And it takes up a fair amount of space, which means there are times when I need to re-arrange things inside the car and all the loose stuff makes that a pain in the butt.


Buy on Amazon

So this weekend was “get your act together again. For now” time. The idea was to put together a kit that could handle basic “on the road” emergencies and act as an emergency kit for that first day or two if something bad happens and access to the house becomes impossible. It is a go bag, not the full home-stored emergency kit that they recommend you build — which I haven’t. But how many people do you know that have? Well, it’s next…

A primary requirement for this update of the kit was to limit the number of pieces, and to maximize portability. I decided to build it around a wheeled backpack, and chose this one from Eagle Creek. It’s about $100. It has backpack straps you can pull out of a compartment and carry it on your back, it has wheels so you can schlep it around behind you, and you can grab the handle and go if you need to.

It’s got three separate compartments, and the compartments that stick out unzip and turn into their own daypack if you need to, so you can re-arrange stuff and use it as a pack if you need to. And it’s built like a rock, unlike some of the less expensive versions I saw. I don’t expect to have a zipper separate on this one any time soon…

This is replacing a soft-sided toolbox I used to carry gear and a duffel I used to carry clothes, and a half dozen things that just rattled around the inside of the car getting lost when I needed them.

Here’s what I’ve put in it:


The main compartment has the clothes. In here is a wool blanket, underwear, two pairs of socks a shirt, a pair of pants, a spare set of shores, and my recently retired glasses. That fills up main suitcase part. A significant part of this is the blanket, which I may decide to stop carrying at some point, or replace with something more compact. But it’s a useful thing to have to spread out on grass and if you’re finding yourself spending the night in the car, having a wrap is a good idea.

Packing Cubes

Packing Cubes

Buy on Amazon

A quick word about packing cubes. I love them. I use them extensively. I use them to pack camera gear, I use them to pack random stuff around the house, I use them to pack stuff in the car. I even use them to pack stuff when I pack to travel.

There are two reasons for this. First, they really help you keep stuff from randomizing in your suitcase or messenger bag or whatever you’re carrying. Second, it allows you to organize your stuff and keep better track of it. Ever looked at a suitcase full of stuff and thought to yourself “is everything in here? What have I forgotten?”

Yup. If you set up your cases as a set of organized objects, it gets a lot easier. A suitcase full of stuff is hard to inventory. If that suitcase is instead full of cubes of stuff, it becomes a lot easier to look at the contents of a cube and realize that it’s missing the charger for the camera (not that I’d ever leave a charger at home, or in a hotel room. Nope. not me). So instead of trying to keep track of a long list of things that should be in the bag, I now have a much shorter list, and some of those items have their own list of things that need to be in their cube. This may sound strange, but there’s some interesting science behind it — it’s a lot easier to remember a set of smaller lists than one long one. I do recommend using paper or electronic lists (evernote is great here), especially if you’re just getting started — but having seven lists, each with seven things in them, is easier to manage than having 49 things in one list.

So I use cubes for that.

The Gadget Kit

Two-way Radio

Buy on Amazon

This kit stores my gadgets. In it I keep a set of 12V capable battery chargers, one for each of my bodies (thank you, Canon, for encouraging diversity in accessories). These are third party branded chargers, probably from China, that you can plug in to a wall, or you can plug into the 12V outlet in the car. This way, if I need a battery recharge on the road I can do it, and if I forget to pack a stupid charger again for a trip, I have a spare in the car. Not that I’d ever do that, you understand. Never.

Also in this bag are a pair of Motorola FRS two-way radios. This particular set has rechargable batteries, and I have both the AC and 12V in-car chargers for them.

These are useful in a number of ways. They’re the standard radio used by birders to communicate among each other when in a group, so if I’m out with other folks in multiple cars, we can keep each other in sync. When Laurie and I go out, if we wander away on our own we can keep in touch with each other. I have also seen photographers and hikers who go out on their own carry one and leave the other in the car at the trailhead with the scheduled route and itinerary. It gives the authorities an option for trying to communicate with you if something happens and you miss your deadlines, and a way to try to communicate out if you’re not in cell phone range. In an emergency, I expect to set a frequency and have both Laurie and I carry one until things settle down.

The Trouble Kit


This is my pack of small things I have for when bad things happen. In it are the following:

Hand Warmers

Buy on Amazon

Buy on Amazon
  • A small package of wire ties, which are incredibly useful for emergency repairs and lots of random things. They’re wrapped with about 5 feet of gaffers tape, because carrying the whole role is overkill.
  • Stormproof matches to try to light a fire. Also, just in case, a fire steel.
  • A compass, because believe it or not, sometimes the GPS might fail or run out of power. And so will your phone if things are bad enough.
  • Batteries, not-rechargeable, because if you’re in that emergency situation, you probably are without power to recharge batteries, and even if you have the car handy, I’d suggest saving your gas and its battery for other things, like moving out of the way of the tsunami…
  • hand warmers. I have found through hard experience that hand warmers can be a godsend. At 5AM when the sun is coming up, Starbucks is still closed and the fog has just rolled in and screwed over your sunrise shot, having a pair of hand warmers in your pockets makes that 4AM alarm clock a little less painful. Seriously — I keep a set of these in my photo bag now, also, and when it’s cold and damp, they make a huge difference.
  • The Rest of the Gear

    Here’s everything else:

    • A baseball cap (with my former employer’s logo on it)
    • 100 feet of rope.
    • Gloves.
    • My trouble kit. On top of it is an emergency blanket, DEET, and an ice scraper for the windshield.
    • My gadget bag.
    • A first aid kit
    • A winter cap (aka ‘touque’) with some random hockey team logo on it. Because at 5AM, baseball caps do nothing to keep your ears warm.
    • A rescue knife. This one’s by Smith and Wesson, it’s heavy, it’s well-built, it’ll take abuse, and it’s sharp.
    • A Leatherman
    • Emergency Radio. This is a hand-crank model.
    • Bungie Cords
    • A screwdriver with a set of different tips
    • A camping towel
    Survival Blanket

    Buy on Amazon
    Deet Wipes

    Buy on Amazon
    First Aid

    Buy on Amazon
    Rescue Knife

    Buy on Amazon

    Buy on Amazon
    Emergency Radio

    Buy on Amazon
    Camping Towel

    Buy on Amazon
    LED Flashlight

    Buy on Amazon
    Kleen Kanteen

    Buy on Amazon
    Petzl Lamp

    Buy on Amazon
    Chinook 32Oz

    Buy on Amazon

    Buy on Amazon

    There are a few other things I carry not listed above, because they are stored in the car elsewhere for easy access:

    • iPad/iPhone charger that plugs in to the 12V system.
    • Flashlights: of which you can never have too many, in too many places, in easy reach, so you don’t have to fumble to find one — because when you need to find one, you don’t want to need a flashlight to find it. (think about it). I like the Streamlight 7LED model. It uses AA batteries (and this is the time to NOT use re-chargeables, not even Eneloops), it has 7 LEDs with a bright white light, it’s small, it’s waterproof, and it has a very bright light within reasonable walking distances. And as far as I can tell, it lasts forever, and doesn’t drain the batteries while being stored unused.
    • I also keep and use head-mounted lights like this Petzl. I keep one in my workshop, another in my camera bag and I’m usually trying to figure out where I last left it, but it’s quite useful to have a hands-free light for a lot of activities. When out hiking before sunrise or after sunset with a pack of camera gear, these things are critical; I don’t want to waste a hand on a light.
    • water bottles. I use both Kleen Kanteen and a set of 4 4 Chinook Wide Mouth 32Oz to replace my old habit of buying bottled water at the store before a road trip, only to water the tree with them a few months later unused. Now I can carry a fair amount of water in the car at all times and drain and refill them every few months to stay fresh. All of these bottles are stainless and easily kept clean and almost impossible to damage. Inside the Kleen Kanteen is a bottle of water purification pills, and I’ve decided to also add a Lifestraw to the kit, and it’ll be here in a couple of days.
    • A hoodie sweat jacket
    • My birding hat, binoculars and spotting scope/tripod

    The Final Result


    And here’s the kit packed. It even fits in the car. The pile of stuff I normally carry in the car looks like this:

    • My new emergency bag
    • My Canon SX50 in its bag
    • My hiking stick.
    • An umbrella
    • My folding camp chair
    • An industrial quality, large, kneeling pad. Unlike the $2.99 things you can buy at the garden store, this is thick, comfy, large enough for me to use, and will stand up to some serious abuse. It nicely minimizes the “what do you think you were doing this time?” grime that your clothes can get rooting around trying to get a low angle shot, and you can strap it to your camera backpack and carry it in with you…
    • A fire extinguisher
    • My spare CPAP
    • When I’m on the road, a pill-carrier; I should keep a week’s worth of my prescription in the emergency kit at all times, but it’s hard to keep them rotated with fresh pills, so I keep letting it slide.
    • Personal Hygiene: When you’re out on the road and spending time out in the wildlife refuges, or even “just” driving between here and there, you find yourself in areas that have no running water or sewer for extended periods of time. When nature calls, sometimes the answer is a pit toilet or a porta-potty or a convenient tree. In the areas I’m frequenting these days, some of these facilities are making Purell dispensers available, but you’ll rarely find one attached to random trees. Because of this, I’m now carrying both Purell Sanitizing Wipes and Wet Ones Singles, because sometimes you want the sanitizing aspect of Purell and sometimes you don’t. They’re small, inexpensive and convenient, and if you need one and don’t have one handy, you’ll regret not packing them.
    • Jumper Cables.

    There’s a lot going on here, but I hope it reminds (and convinces) you that if you’re going out and roadtripping in any significant way in areas outside of normal cell phone traffic that you need to carry things that’ll help you if and when things go wrong.

    As you can see, it takes up a fair bit of the trunk of the SUV, which is why ease of moving stuff around with fewer moving parts is a nice feature. But I’m a lot happier knowing I have the basics for taking care of things if something goes wrong while out on a photo trip, or if/when that nasty earthquake happens and we need 72 hours before we can depend on getting help, power, or have potable water.

    More importantly, many of us live in areas where natural disasters happen, and here in silicon valley, that disaster is an earthquake, which can happen with no notice so you have no time to prepare. You need to be prepared before it happens. Hopefully my detailing out my preparations will help you as you think through what you need and how you plan to make it accessible in an emergency. Because sooner or later, you’re going to need it.