Emergency Preparedness Kits: The Hot New Holiday Gift Item?

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About the Author: Victoria Clayton, a freelance writer in Southern California, covers health, fitness, beauty, parenting and, now, natural disaster preparedness.

The BioLite CampStove provides warmth, cooking heat and electricity for charging phones and other gadgets.

After Hurricane Sandy, I’m sure I’m not the only person who found lunch conversation turning to natural disasters. We live in California, but my co-worker had recently seen the aftermath in New York City and had been in Houston during 2008’s Hurricane Ike. I grew up in tornado country and was accustomed to bolting to the basement when a tornado siren sounded. But soon after moving to Los Angeles I found myself alone in a rented condo near the epicenter of 1994’s 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake.

Honest to goodness, that day I pulled on head-to-toe black clothes (complete with combat boots), threw Diet Pepsi and Frosted Mini-Wheats into a shopping bag and raced out of my building to retrieve my car from the underground parking garage — the worst place to be during an aftershock. I cite youth as my defense for that foolish response.

Fast forward to today: I have two young sons and — just maybe — a little more sense. At least now, after a quake, I wouldn’t run into an underground structure, with calorie-free soda and cereal as my emergency provisions. But the truth is, until recently, I was not any more prepared for an emergency. For example, I’m iPhone dependent. I didn’t even own a battery-operated radio.

Determined to up my preparedness, though, I contacted Seattle-based emergency expert Eric Holdeman, a blogger and columnist for Emergency Management Magazine. Holdeman says you don’t have to be a doomsday prepper to make sure you’re ready; you just have to think about basic physical and mental health, which means you need water, essential medications, food and a way to get information. (The New York City Office of Emergency Management, for example, has a helpful emergency supply checklist.)

The golden rule of emergency planning has always been to have at least three days’ worth of necessities. “Honestly, though, as we’ve seen a number of times over the past few years, help is not coming for many people in three days,” warns Holdeman. “It’s optimal to have a week’s worth of supplies on hand if you can.”

Food is not as important as water, though. You can get by on very little to eat for quite some time, but you can’t get by without water for long. The rule is one gallon of potable water per person per day. (That means in my house we should have a stockpile of 28 gallons of water!) Emergency water and food with 5-year shelf lives (along with just about every other imaginable emergency product) can be purchased at sites such as disasterrecoverystore.com and survivalfood.com. Holdeman says if you live near a stream or lake, water purification tablets or filters used for camping may also be an option. The SteriPEN Sidewinder ($99.95), for example, uses UV light to purify a liter of water in 90 seconds and is hand-powered, so you don’t have to rely on batteries.

The BioLite CampStove ($129), a hiking tool that’s fueled on gathered twigs, made headlines after Hurricane Sandy because of the heat from the stove not only provides warmth and cooks food — it also generates electricity to recharge phones and other gadgets. Other camping equipment that might come in handy: lamps and headlamps, such as Black Diamond’s lightweight Cosmo headlamp ($29.95)

What about a first-aid kit? “It’s great to have a first-aid kit, but first-aid training is really what makes it most useful,” Holdeman says. Beyond bandaging scraped knees and blisters, I’m not much of a medic. Though it takes only a minute to learn hands-only CPR, I plan check into first-aid training.

Until then, though, Holdeman has assured me that emergency planning is a journey, not a destination. “Really, it’s a lifestyle. People who are preparedness-oriented are always thinking about it. They don’t do things like let their cars get below a half-tank, have zero cash in their wallets or wait to get prescriptions refilled until they have one pill left.”

I’ve just started my journey. I’ve purchased some stored water (not 28 gallons, though), a battery-operated radio, a solar-powered cell-phone charger and a rechargeable flashlight. I’ve thrown this all into a backpack and I’m keeping it near the door.

In fact, I’m making kits as holiday presents for relatives I know haven’t — or won’t — do it themselves.

Do you have an emergency preparedness kit?