This post is part of a series. Read my introduction that covers realistic survival situations that just about everyone endures in their lifetime and why you should prepare for them: Survival, Part I: Are You Prepared? Part II specifically covers dealing with temporary situations that last from hours to 3 days: Survival Part II: Temporary Emergencies.
Temporary survival situations are typically about surviving while away from home; it’s all about being on the move. Short-term scenarios, however, typically find you at home (which means you don’t have to worry about carrying a lot of stuff around and you have all of your supplies at home at your disposal). The two most common situations are bad weather that traps you at home and being short on money.
Short-term survival scenarios may last up to a month, but a week or less is much more common. So when you’re building up your supplies, aim for having a week’s worth of supplies to start with and a month’s worth if you can afford it and can store it.
What You Need to Stockpile
- Source of Light
- Source of Heat/Cooling/Cooking
Everyone ought to have at least 1 week’s worth of food in their pantry at all times. If you have a tendency to let your store run low, then make a separate stash that you only use in emergencies.
Because you have to assume that in a survival situation you will have no utilities–and thus no refrigeration–and you don’t want to be constantly restocking your stash with things that expire relatively quickly, like chips and cereal, everything you put back needs to either be in a can, or have a shelf-life of a year or more, such as flour and whole grains, dried fruit, jerky, pasta, instant dishes like potatoes or pudding, “helpers” or meals-in-a box, and dehydrated milk (or shelf-stable, ultra-pasteurized milk which tastes better than dehydrated, but only lasts about 6 months). In short, anything that you could donate to a food pantry is what you can put back for your own emergency pantry.
Speaking of having no utilities, what do you do if you have no refrigeration? If it’s cold outside, you can move your food to a cooler or other secure container outside and let nature keep it refrigerated for you. If it’s not cold, however, you need to make eating everything in the fridge a priority. (If you only have a small amount of stuff in the fridge, you will probably be better off moving it to a cooler; if the food is close together and in a small space, it will keep itself cold longer. And if you have a basement or other part of your house that’s cooler than your kitchen, store the cooler in it to buy yourself a little more time.) After eating through the fridge, switch to the freezer, where you will probably find most stuff thawed enough to eat. Only once you’ve eaten everything that will spoil do you switch to eating out of your dry goods supply.
What does one week’s worth of food look like for your family? Keep a record of every can and package that you use while preparing a week’s worth of meals and you will have a shopping list for your emergency stash. (Don’t forget to compensate for any meals that are eaten away from home, such as fast food or school cafeteria.) Alternatively, plan on having one serving of protein, one starch or grain, and two vegetables or fruits at every meal for every person. You should know if one can of corn is enough for your whole family for a meal or not. If it is, add another canned vegetable, a pot of rice, and some meat and you will have one meal for the family. Multiple by three to have a day’s worth of meals, then multiply by 7 to have a week’s worth.
And speaking of meat: most people think of fresh meat that goes in the fridge or freezer. This will disappear quickly, either because you consume it first, or you can’t get to all of it and it spoils. There is a lot of canned meat now available and you should stock up on it for when your fresh supply runs out. Most of them are pre-cooked as well (or can be eaten raw, in the case of the fish), so you can eat it cold right out of the can, if necessary. Tuna, salmon, chicken, roast beef, spam, vienna sausages, plus canned soups that have meat in them–they’re all available to you for long-term storage.
And don’t forget your pets! Have a week’s worth of canned food and/or a small bag of their usual dry kibble put aside for emergencies. If you normally make their food fresh, you will still want canned/dry food stored because their fresh food will go bad just as quickly as yours does and you don’t want to try cooking pet food from scratch on an improvised cookstove.
A serious power outage may stop the municipal water supply because the pumps don’t have power. Freezing temps can cause your pipes or even entire water mains to burst. Flooding or government malfeasance can cause local water to become contaminated. And anyone who has a well knows that there will be periodic outages when the pump fails or a drought dries up the aquifer.
Ideally, you should have seven gallons of water stored for each person in your house (1 gallon per person, per day), plus some for pets. This doesn’t cover using water for things like bathing, doing dishes, or flushing the toilet, so you should set side some spare water just for that. How much extra? That depends on your toilet. The newest toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush, but old ones need 5-7 gallons. You will want to figure flushing the toilet at least once per day per person. To avoid clogging the toilet between flushes, toilet paper should be thrown away instead of put into the toilet.
You don’t actually have to have additional water for washing up if you have water set aside for your toilet. Just use the water for bathing or cleaning first, then bail it out of your sink or tub and use it to flush the toilet. Also, save any water leftover from cooking (like pasta water) and add it to what you have for toilet flushing or use it to water houseplants.
To further cut down on the amount of water that you need, stockpile disposable dishes and cutlery that you can throw away instead of washing, and substitute hand sanitizer for soap at your sinks. Some dry shampoo and a pack of baby wipes can help extend your personal hygiene a day or two, too.
If you have a heads-up that you might be without water (if you expect a power outage and you have a well pump or there’s a hurricane predicted or flooding is getting worse), fill everything you can with water. Fill bathtubs, sinks, stock pots, unused aquariums, kiddie pools, 5 gallon buckets, etc. These now contain your water for bathing and flushing the toilet. (If you want to drink, cook, or wash dishes with it, though, you’ll need to boil it first; water stored in open containers gets contaminated by airborne bacteria fairly quickly.)
Some time ago, I came across a blogger who tested which candles burned the longest, put out the most light, made the least amount of mess, and cost the least. The hands-down winner were tea lights. They’re the least bright candle, but you can use two of them together and still come out a lot cheaper than the next-cheapest candle.
So, if you’re going to stock up on candles, stock up on tea lights. (Just make sure you place them in a holder or on a heat-resistant plate; when they burn down, the bottoms get very hot and can scorch whatever they’re sitting on–ask me how I know.)
Other source of light include old-fashioned lamps (which were typically used with kerosene, but they will run on less volatile, shelf-stable lamp oil) and propane camp lanterns. For children’s rooms or around pets, though, use something flameless, like a battery-powered or hand-cranked flashlight or lamp. Get one with an LED light to get maximum use out of your battery life.
Also consider having one or two of those stick anywhere touch lights on hand. They run on AA batteries, and while most of them are not very bright, they are great as a nightlight in a child’s room, bathroom, or hallway. And unlike candles or oil lamps, there is no danger of fire.
And if you are caught completely unprepared? You can make an oil lamp from a glass jar with a metal lid, cooking oil, and a cotton wick made from braided cotton twine or strips of T-shirt or even a strand from a cotton mop head.
Heat/Cooling (& Cooking)
Most power outages are due to bad weather, and those mostly occur during the winter. That means you’re more likely to be cold than hot during an emergency. And, unfortunately, more people die of being too cold than too hot.
So the first thing to plan for is staying warm. If you heat with oil or have gas logs, being prepared for winter is as simple as getting your tank filled. If you have a fireplace or wood stove in your home, you need to make sure it’s functional and have a decent pile of firewood to burn in it. Even if you keep it closed off most of the time because you don’t use it, you need to have it in a state where you can open it up and get it operational in half an hour or less.
That leaves everyone else. What can you do for heat if you have no fireplace or gas/oil furnace? A kerosene heater is the most commonly-used emergency heat source. There are also propane heaters that run on small tanks of camping propane or even on grill gas tanks, but those are not rated for indoor use and can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. (You should have a carbon monoxide detector if you have a kerosene heater too, because if they malfunction–and I’ve seen that happen twice–they can produce carbon monoxide as well.) A propane heater may work better in, say, your garage if you need to keep it warm for the benefit of pets, plant seedlings, or water pipes. (Just makes sure that, if your garage is not already drafty, you crack a door or window for ventilation, and keep a carbon monoxide alarm out there just in case.)
Kerosene, unlike gasoline, does not quickly go bad. Depending on who you ask (and how it’s stored), it can be good for 1-3 months or up to a few years. You should be perfectly safe buying some kerosene at the beginning of winter and storing it until spring. At that time, it would be best to get rid of it, since age and summer’s heat will likely make it go bad. Depending on how hot your run your heater and whether you run it constantly, a 2.5 gallon tank should last 2-3 days, so estimate 5-7 gallons of kerosene getting you through a week.
But even if you have no source of heat at all, there are ways to stay warm inside. You can wear all of your winter clothes and make a pillow fort or blanket tent over a bed in the floor and sleep reasonably warm. But if you have no source of fire, you will not have any hot food. And cold food doesn’t taste nearly as good and it doesn’t help warm you up like some hot soup and tea.
If you have a grill that you can use outdoors or on a balcony, then all you need to do is store some charcoal or a full tank of propane. You can use it as a grill or oven or stovetop. Another alternative is a Coleman camp stove, which can be found pretty easily at flea markets and yard sales, or you can buy them new at Wal-Mart or any sporting goods place. They run on small propane tanks, or you can get an adapter kit that will allow it to be hooked up to a full-size grill tank. You need to set it up on a heat resistant surface, like a metal table or concrete stoop. In a pinch, you can set it up on your stove cooktop, but make sure you turn on your vent (if it vents outside) and/or open a window. Like the propane heaters, the propane stoves put off carbon monoxide, so it’s really best to use them outside.
If you have a kerosene heater or wood-burning stove, you can cook right on top of that. If you have a fireplace with a stone or brick hearth, you can cook on that, too, but you do need to watch some videos on open-fire cooking before you do so. It’s not as simple as putting a pot on top of a burning log.
What if it’s really hot and the power or A/C is going to be out for days or someone in your family is very heat intolerant? A battery-powered or solar fan can help keep a person from overheating. Past that, your options for cooling down are more primitive. Wetting your head (especially if you then sit in the breeze of the fan) will cool your body down considerably. Open windows at night and close them at dawn and cover them with heavy curtains or blankets. The inside of your house will heat up much slower than outside, so you want to trap that cooler air inside. In the afternoon, when it seems that the inside is as hot as the outside, then open your windows on the north and east sides of your house. (Never open the west side windows, unless that side of your house is shaded; it’s the hottest.) At dusk, open the remaining windows and leave them open all night.
Dampen a thin sheet and hang it over an open bedroom window; this will cool any air blowing in. You can also look at building an evaporative (aka swamp) cooler (although they have little effect if it’s humid).
Putting aside money for savings when you’re on a tight budget can be really hard to do; you already feel like you need every penny. But in reality, you can usually spare a penny here or there. Whatever you can spare, save it. Even a small amount saved back can help in a pinch.
When I was in college, my car needed transmission work and it took everything my parents and I could come up with to get it repaired. I was left without a car for a week and no money to speak of in my checking account. But I did have a small amount of cash secreted away in my apartment. I had saved it up by always emptying the spare change out of my purse and the occasional dollar bill. It was enough to buy me taxi rides to school.
So save all of your change; a 32 oz cup full of loose change yields a surprising amount of money ($60-$100, depending on how many quarters you tend to save). Or, if you use very little cash, round up all of your purchases in your checkbook. At the end of the pay period, you should have a little spare money leftover which you can then withdraw and stash.
There are some bank programs that will automatically round up your purchases and stick the difference in a savings account. These aren’t a bad idea, but for a survival situation, you need some cash at home, not just in a bank. One of the survival situations you might find yourself in is a problem with your bank account; you need cash in hand to buy groceries and put gas in your car until your bank situation is straightened out. So always have at least a little cash stashed somewhere in your house.
(BTW, I also like to keep a $20 in my glovebox. This comes in handy if you need gas but pull up to the only station around and find their card reader is down.)
You can usually get your prescription refilled every 27 days, meaning you can get a refill while still have a few days’ worth of medicine on hand. Use that monthly surplus to create an emergency stash that will last you at least a week. (Like food you will need to use it and replace it with new every year or two.) That way, if you are stuck at home or short on cash when your prescription runs out, you will have enough to by until you can get to the pharmacy again.
Most people keep basic medicines on hand all the time to treat things like cold, cough, allergies, and pain/fever, and probably some basic first aid supplies like hydrogen peroxide and bandaids. But consider buying a full first aid kit. In an emergency situation, more people are likely to be injured and have worse injuries than usual, so you may end up very glad you have an adequate amount of things like gauze and burn ointment on hand. (Also, in cases where you can’t wash up regularly or you’re in contact with things like contaminated water, you will need to be careful to clean and bandage even small cuts that you normally wouldn’t bother treating.)
The portability of first aid kits also makes them good if you find yourself trying to help out a wounded neighbor or outdoor animal, and they’re easy to toss in a car along with your survival bag if you decide you need to get the hell out of Dodge. (Or just if you’re going on vacation.) The supplies in them do expire/dry out over time, so plan on culling the bandages out and tossing and replacing the rest every few years.
Where to Store It
You may be saying: storing food and gallons of water is all well and good if you live in a big house, but there’s no room for that in my tiny apartment!
Well, actually, if you take a good look around, you can probably find empty places that you don’t currently use because they’re too inaccessible. But that’s okay for our purposes, because you’re only going to want to access this stuff in emergencies (or to rotate it out once a year).
Unusual places to stash food and water:
- Shelving put in beside (or under) stairs.
- Under a bed. If you want easier access, put the food into short plastic tubs and slide them under the bed.
- Under the kitchen sink or in the back of a corner cabinet.
- In the bottom or very top of a pantry.
- In the very back corner or top shelf of the bedroom closet.
- On the plate rack above the kitchen cabinets.
- In the cabinet above the fridge or on top of the fridge.
- In the back of a linen, bathroom, or utility closet.
- On shelves in your laundry room.
- If you don’t mind some remodeling, you can take out paneling or cut out sheetrock to reveal your wall studs. Then you can put up shelves between the studs to contain your pantry. (You can even put the paneling back up to make it a secret stash.)
- In the attic.
- In a waterproof tub in a crawlspace. (Don’t store flour or grains or pasta in there, because the humidity will probably ruin them and they’ll be attractive to rats; store sealed water and canned goods only.)
- In the rafters in a garage.
- Behind books on a bookcase.
- Under or behind a couch or chairs.
- In a storage bench or box on your balcony or outside porch.
- On bookcases in a wide hallway.
- Replace your simple coffee or side tables with either tables made to double as storage, or create some cheap, DIY tables by putting together some storage boxes, throwing a wooden board across the top, and then covered the entire thing neatly with pretty fabric.
- Lightweight items, like oatmeal, flour, and pasta can be stored in unused luggage. (Or you can store out-of-season clothes or linens in your luggage and store the food in their place.)
- Shelves installed above doors and windows and around the top of a room.