Zombies will be mentioned. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about a key component of your zombie apocalypse survival strategy. Since you’re probably skipping that whole ‘CARDIO’ part. (Auditions for my personal zombie squad have stringent physical fitness requirements). The majority of preparations we make for zombie attack will coincidentally help us survive other scenarios, and that certainly includes your go bag.
This illustration is a picture of my go bag. It weighs 8.8 pounds, or the same as the food portion of my pack from my four-day backpacking trip last month. There are two important factors here. First, I have recent verification that I can carry this weight for hours without getting tired. (A 9-pound pack is, for me, like wearing a jacket). Second, I am well aware of my daily caloric needs under different activity levels. What I have in my go bag (two protein bars and 16 ounces of water) is only intended to get me through a few hours until we can find a place to buy water and food.
Here are the contents of my go bag. They are relevant to my personal situation. I live in a hot climate; I’m prepared for temperatures from about 50F to about 100F. Given the way I dress in cold weather, if I still lived in the Pacific Northwest, this entire pack would be filled with a parka, hat, scarf, gloves, thermal underwear, and hand warmers. I have old, well-worn clothing for two days, including underwear, bras, socks, shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of jeans, a light jacket, a bandanna, some sneakers, and some hair ties. My main criterion for these clothes is their practicality. They need to fit me today, and they need to accommodate a high activity level outdoors under a range of temperatures. The second criterion is that they help me blend into an urban environment. Under no circumstances do I want to look like a person with any money or awesome stuff. In fact, if I were doing this right, the backpack should be considerably more scuffed and broken in. I can make that happen by taking it out on a few day hikes.
Included in my pack is the shower kit I bring every time I go on a trip. It has shampoo, conditioner, face wash, shower gel, deodorant, toothpaste, dental floss, nail scissors and clippers, tweezers, a razor, a container of cotton swabs, a couple of cotton balls and a nail file, spot remover, moisturizer, a hairbrush, more hair ties and hair clips, some clips that can hold curtains closed, a container of melatonin and ibuprofen, perfume, and even a little vial of massage oil. Silly, but honest. This shower kit stays in the go bag, partly to keep me aware of its presence. I refill the little bottles of supplies after every trip. I usually also keep a backup packet of my prescription (vitamin BC), and I write the day I started the previous pack in Sharpie on the package.
What else is in the go bag? I have a small charging cable for my phone, and a solar charger with a backup plug for a wall outlet. I have some index cards (for durability), a roll of masking tape, a Sharpie, an ink pen, and a red pen. (You’ve got red on you). The cards, pens, and tape are for leaving messages in case my husband and I get separated. I have sun block, a sewing kit, hand sanitizer, and a copy of the Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook. (The most important thing about this book is that I have read it and made sure I have at least a passing familiarity with the contents, BEFORE I ever need any of the information, which hopefully I never will). My husband's pack has a large first aid kit.
One of the most important items in the entire go bag is that folded wad of paper. That represents three pages of various identification. There is a scanned page, in color, including my driver’s license, AAA card, health insurance, advance health care directive, the number for Science Care (where I’m registered for whole body donation), and my passport. There is a page of emergency contacts, including our parents’ and kid’s phone numbers, the veterinarian, poison control, police and fire non-emergency, etc. (I haven’t had a phone number memorized since the early 2000’s). I keep a copy of this page of emergency contacts on our fridge, where emergency responders can find it, and I update it every time we move. There is a copy of our marriage license in case something happens and I need to prove that I have the right to see my husband. I also have a little wallet with an emergency credit card and a small amount of cash. (Best to use crumpled, small bills when possible).
The main impetus behind my emergency preparations is my abiding love for my animals. If anything happens and we can’t stay in our house, I need to get them out and make sure they survive. I need to remember how terrified they will be if there are earthquake tremors, smoke, fire, sirens, or whatever other pandemonium might be going on. They both completely freak out when so much as the smoke detector goes off, and it might. Their go bag, which we call “the pet bag,” goes with us on road trips. It has four days’ worth of kibble for each of them, a water bottle, poop bags, styptic gel (stops bleeding and includes a topical anaesthetic; also works on humans), and both their nail clippers. (This is their version of my shower kit; every time we trim their nails we are reminded about the pet bag). There is also Spike’s old muzzle, in case we are confined somewhere with other dogs, and a couple of toys. Both our pets are crate-trained, meaning they sleep in a cage, so they don’t panic and hide during the few minutes we would have to evacuate them at night. The parrot has an acrylic carrier, which I store next to her sleeping cage. I keep some old sneakers tied near my side of the bed, in case our window or mirrored closet doors shatter during an earthquake, so I’m not stuck in bed barefoot in a sea of glass shards.
Part of our household routine is keeping the go bags stocked. I have a reminder set in my phone to refill all our water bottles with fresh water every two weeks. That’s probably a little gross, and it wouldn’t be that much more work to do it every week, but we are in a drought and I’ve been doing this for years without needing to use them. Every now and then, we eat the protein bars and put in fresh ones. Every time a bag of pet kibble gets emptied, we feed them what was in their pet bag, and refill the baggies with food from the fresh kibble bag. That way all their food is the same age. In another region with more seasonal temperature variation, someone might set up quarterly reminders to swap out the clothes, too.
It is really important to make sure that your go bag makes sense for you and your situation. Other people might need to include more medications and copies of their prescriptions. If you need glasses, your go bag is a good place to keep an old pair, or a set of contacts and contact solution. If you have kids, obviously you’re going to want to consider their ages and what they would need on the road or in an emergency shelter. You really want to sit back and visualize, in meticulous detail, what you would need if you had to flee your home at 3 AM and couldn’t go back for a week. We’re talking about wildfire, flood, landslides, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, earthquakes, or several days off-grid with no phone signal, electricity, water, gas, or sanitation. Or, of course, zombies.
Plan A: Stay home, lie low, keep an eye on our neighbors, and help with emergency response wherever possible. My husband is an emergency medical responder (EMR), which is a layperson version of an EMT. We have a fire extinguisher; three days of drinking water in a closet; 1-2 weeks of full meals and pet chow; first aid kits and reference manuals; tools; a UV water sanitizer; and of course a roof, walls, and all our household goods. The pets’ water dishes hold enough for a few days, in case anything happens to us while they are home alone. They deserve a chance to make it until our neighbors wonder why the dog is howling.
Plan B: Evacuate. We have a chosen location roughly four hours away, in a different region, which should put us well out of the range of any natural disaster in our neighborhood. (We live within walking distance of the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which you can tell from our seriously mutilated sidewalks). This assumes we’ll be able to get through the roads in our car.
B1: Throw everything/everyone into the car and drive. If he’s at work and has the car, I get stuff ready to load up as soon as he gets here. If we’re lucky, there will be enough time to make a few sandwiches.
B2: I grab the animals and our go bags and speed-walk down the street to our chosen “in case of fire” location. In your neighborhood, this might be a park or very large parking lot; in mine, it’s a sod growing business surrounded by pavement on all sides. Our biggest risks here are wildfire, or fire caused by earthquake damage, downed power lines, gas leaks, etc. In this scenario, I’m alone, with my pack on my back, the pet bag and my husband’s pack slung over my shoulder, the dog leash in one hand, and the parrot carrier in the other. I can do it, but would be ungainly at best, and that’s why the plans stop at a quarter-mile.
Plan C: Go to a designated emergency shelter.
We are both accomplished backpackers. We have the gear and the experience to head to the woods and camp; we’ve camped together for three straight weeks, so this is not hypothetical. However, we live in the center of the San Fernando Valley. At best, on clear roads, it would take us three hours to drive to a viable campsite. We can be in a number of more appealing, well-supplied urban areas in that amount of time. We also have to assume that any public or private land will probably already be inhabited by people who live closer. In my opinion, urban areas are safer because there are more supplies, more services, more hiding places, and more witnesses. What we’re looking for is distance from any disaster area, plus availability of water, food, phone reception, working ATMs, and functional businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. In 1994, my husband simply drove his wife and kid several hours north to stay with relatives for a few days, until the water and power were back on. The kind of event that would wipe out our entire civilization is going to be bigger than my little go bag can handle. That’s when training, physical and mental stamina, communication, strong relationships, leadership, and problem-solving ability come into play.
Emergency preparedness is a civic duty. First, we want to avoid being someone else’s problem. When we can take care of ourselves, emergency responders are free to take care of someone in greater need, such as a frail, elderly, or ill person. Second, we want to contribute as much as possible. At least three of our near neighbors are elderly, and next door is a stay-at-home mom with tiny kids. We know who has how many of which pets, and we’d try to get them out, too. We are strong and physically active, and we have built useful skill sets. You would definitely want us on your zombie squad.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.