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Quick References

5 Priorities for Surviving Disaster at Home

Outdoor survivalists make a big deal of prioritizing five major areas of survival: signaling (for rescue), shelter, fire, water and food, and either self defense or first aid depending on who you ask. I think this is a good idea and well worth replicating for at home survival.

Because you are expected to be surviving in your home, which brings with it the expectation of a shelter overhead as well as a relative abundance of space to keep supplies, I would alter the list (in no particular order) as such:

  1. communications (instead of signaling)
  2. lighting (instead of shelter)
  3. warmth (instead of fire)
  4. water and food
  5. first aid

Following is a rather lengthy discussion regarding each of these priorities…

1. Communications

How do you communicate with the outside world when the television and radio don’t work? Tough isn’t it? I’m sure my kids won’t know what to do, but, here are several suggestions for you…

  • NOAA weather radio- although not a communication option after a disaster, a weather radio can be an inexpensive option to alert you to an impending disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, or flood. I have one and recommend you do as well. You can read my review of the Midland NOAA Weather Radio here.
  • battery-powered radio (shortwave or AM/FM) – a good radio is a MUST have when it comes to staying informed after a disaster. A descent, small radio can be a life-saver. It doesn’t have to be large or expensive to be useful. Read my review of the Grundig M300 Shortwave Radio here.
  • hand-crank radio – similar to a battery-powered radio, a hand-crank radio ensures you don’t need to worry about batteries to stay informed. Hand-crank radios can be inexpensive and nearly worry-free. Consider something like the Etón American Red Cross Weather Radio.
  • CB radio – tried and true method; could be handheld for “bug out” bags or a vehicle unit with longer range.
  • walkie-talkies (FRS radios) – very limited range but can be a useful way to stay in touch with other family members when on the go.
  • GMRS radios – have longer range than typical radios but you need an FCC license to use them. Many radios are now a combination FRS/GMRS radio. If you’re going to spend the money on a GMRS radio then get a pair that are waterproof such as the Uniden Waterproof Two-Way Radio (Yellow).
  • scanner- simple handheld scanners can keep you informed by listening in to your local responders. The Bearcat scanners (such as the Uniden Bearcat BCT8 Scanner) are wonderful products. I owned  a BCT7 years ago and just loved it.
  • hand-crank cell phone charger – a simple hand-crank charger (such as the Sidewinder) for your cell phone or other communication devices can prove invaluable, especially if you’re on foot or otherwise away from home. I recommend one.
  • whistles- perhaps the most basic communication device available. Keep one or two in your kits to alert rescue personnel in the event you cannot escape on your own. Also useful to keep in a vehicle and bug-out kit. Be sure to get a pealess design, the AMK Rescue Howler Whistle is a good option.

Remember to keep enough additional batteries for any of the above items that use them. You might also consider keeping a solar powered battery charger and additional rechargeable batteries around the house. Although you will never otherwise use one, a solar-powered battery charger could prove invaluable during an emergency. Stock appropriate batteries for your radio and flashlight and you’re in good shape.

Communications is all about being ready BEFORE you need it. You won’t want to try to buy a radio AFTER an emergency. Get what you need before you need it.

2. Lighting

Electricity… yet another utility we are 100% dependent on and no doubt take for granted. I can’t think of any other invention that has so drastically changed the way we live. I can almost hear you shrieking “Wait!” It doesn’t get any better than indoor plumbing!” I know, I know. I enjoy flushing my toilet as much as the next guy, but, electricity still wins hands-down, and here’s why…

Electricity touches every aspect of our lives, in fact, at home it allows us to:

  • heat and cool our homes (including powering the electric blanket and space heater my wife can’t live without)
  • watch our favorite sitcoms, surf the Internet, listen to music, charge the cell phone and iPod
  • keep our food from spoiling in the fridge
  • wash dishes (in the dishwasher, of course)
  • cook our food (including the can’t-do-without microwave)
  • keep track of time and set the alarm clock to wake us in the morning

…and did I mention… electricity lights up the darkness (I’m writing this post at night but not in the dark, of course).

Biologically, we are not a nighttime species. We are meant to sleep when the sun goes down and arise when the sun does. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, though, I’m sure the first caveman to discover fire also quickly discovered the neatness of staying up way past his bedtime. It’s inevitable: we like staying up and night, have come to expect it, and will continue to do so in the future. In a disaster situation, though, we may NEED to function at night. The only problem, therefore, is keeping the lights on.

I’m sure most of us have experienced a power outage at some point in our lives. I remember several as a child and it was actually exciting most of the time. And, I’m sure I had more fun with it than my parents did. My kids find it fun for at least a few hours, then they figure out the tv and Wii won’t work and the party’s over!

Although I don’t worry about keeping the Wii console working, I do want lights at night. I want it available when I need it and to last long enough that I can light a room or two in my home for days or weeks if need be. To do this, I would want a multi-faceted system. Since I have young kids I’m also interested in my lighting to be safe where possible.

Flashlights

The first items that everybody should have on hand would be a flashlight. It’s just a no-brainer.

There are basically two types of flashlights: ones with incandescent bulbs, and ones with LED bulbs. I’m sure any flashlight enthusiast will tell you there is more to it than that, suffice it to say that if you can do so, purchase the LED-style flashlight. Although more expensive, LED bulbs last longer, are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are less likely to “blow” when subjected to impacts such as falls. Try to get a flashlight that is at least water-resistant if not waterproof. And, be sure to keep additional batteries on-hand.

I’m a big fan of Maglite flashlights myself; I’ve owned one for years and wouldn’t do without it. If you happen to have a trusty old C or D cell Maglite that you just can’t part without, they do sell LED conversion bulbs for around $12 that are worth consideration.

Whatever you do, do not buy the cheap plastic flashlight with a 6-volt battery. They’re practically worthless. I’ve owned a few of these over the years (because they’re cheap and I’m happy to let my kids use them) and I have found them to be somewhat unreliable and more easily broken than my MagLite. There’s a reason why I’ve owned one MagLite and several cheap plastic 6-volt flashlights. Buyer beware: you get what you pay for.

FYI: a style of flashlight that I often find useful is a headlamp flashlight because they allow for hands-free use. I keep one in my “bug out” bag and often take it on camping trips. You should also consider keeping a keychain light on your keychain as well. I review the Photon II LED Micro Light here.

Candles

Although not my next choice for light, candles are next on the list because they are likely to be the only other source of light I can think of that most people have in their homes. It’s likely that somewhere in your home there is either a scented candle, dinner candle or a birthday candle laying around.

When used properly, candles can be a useful source of light. The optimal point being: when used properly. Candles are a major fire hazard simply because most people either do not respect them or fail to take the proper precautions when using them. Precautions should be taken such as using a specially-designed candle holder (it’s like a small plate with a metal spike to place the candle on), candles should be snuffed out before being moved, don’t allow open flames around pets or children, etc.

If you’ll use them properly, then I would suggest keeping several around. They don’t go bad (I don’t think) and store fairly easily. Although most candles will do in a pinch, I would suggest looking specifically for candles that are the survival type of candle (usually has a larger base and multiple wicks). For instance, the NuWick 120 Hour Canned Candle is what I keep in my vehicle kits. You could at least purchase a few of the large-base candles from Walmart and be set for quite a while.

FYI: I recently saw a video that showed how you can use a simple Crayola crayon to product light for about 15 minutes, after all, the crayon is wax and the paper acts like a wick. Something I never thought of. Guess I’ll keep my kids box of crayons around a while longer.

Lanterns & Lamps

Lanterns are a very useful way to light your home in an emergency. Lanterns can be fuel or battery-powered. I recommend a battery-powered lantern for ease of use and safety, especially if you have children. They’re not a fire hazard and do not give off potentially deadly carbon monoxide fumes. They’re great. The only drawback is that they usually require a lot of batteries (usually D-cell but sometimes AA). So, I would recommend LED-style lanterns since they will be more efficient and/or require fewer/smaller-sized batteries. Whatever you do, be sure to keep additional batteries around. Perhaps an even better idea is the hand-crank lantern. It doesn’t need additional batteries, doesn’t emit harmful fumes, and requires no fuel source… just a little muscle power.

The other general type of lantern is the liquid fuel/gas lantern. I group these together because they must burn something to work. Anyway, the good news is that they typically burn brighter than battery-powered lanterns and the fuel they burn is usually cheaper than batteries. The disadvantages of these types of lanterns are that they burn hot, can be fragile since it is made of glass, and can product toxic fumes so they’re not recommended for any indoor use.

Regardless, I keep a small propane lanternaround for emergencies and usually take it camping. I keep additional bottles of propane (usually one pound size) and several additional mantles (like a wick) as well. In the case of gas lanterns (such as the propane lantern mentioned above), they are usually easy enough to use in that you simply screw the bottle into the base of the lantern and follow the instructions to light it. You can even get connections that would allow you to connect both a propane lantern and grill to the same bottle.

Butane lanterns are also available. The difference is that butane burns cleaner than propane, therefore, it is usually safe to be used indoors with proper ventilation. Note: be sure to get a butane lantern that is approved for indoor use if you plan on doing this. Fuel-powered lanterns can prove to be a useful backup, although, they do require fuel storage, additional care, as well as some caution.

Lanterns that burn Coleman gas or kerosene are also a possibility but are a bit more work and not recommended when there are easier and somewhat safer alternatives.

Oil lamps are another possibility. Most burn lamp oil, although some burn kerosene. I’m not a big fan of oil lamps and I must admit I have little experience with them. Similar to fuel lanterns, they can be a burn hazard for small children, require some maintenance such as trimming wicks after use, can be fragile since they’re made of glass, and require a fuel source and extra wicks be kept on hand. Overall, they’re just too much work when there are easier solutions available.

Light Sticks

Cyalume light sticks (also known as snap lights) are yet another way to produce light. They are probably best used for a 72 hour “bug out” bag or vehicle kit, but, can be used in a home kit as well. Keep in mind that there are different styles. Some burn bright and only last several minutes while most products will last for several hours. I recommend light sticks that last for 10 hours or more since you can’t turn them off anyway.  Also understand that they do eventually expire, so, they will need to be replaced every few years. Other major drawbacks would include very low levels of light produced and can be susceptible to extreme temperatures. On the other hand they are very lightweight, not a fire hazard, and are safe for children to use.

Recommendations

That’s the basics of lighting. The important thing to remember is to get what you need now. I would suggest having a very durable LED flashlight by your bed. I would then also add a small flashlight such as a mini MagLite to your bug out bags and vehicle kits if you have them. I would then consider some form of lantern for backup home use as well as light sticks as a backup source for your bug out bag and vehicle kits. If you can afford it then some of the additional recommendations (such as the headlamp light or keychain light) would prove useful as well. The point is to always have at least two sources of light available at any one time.

3. Warmth

Winter is a great time to think about staying warm when it’s cold outside. Sometimes I sit and think about what I would do if the power went out this very moment. For a few hours everything would be just fine. But what if those few hours turned into days or weeks and the mercury never got above freezing? What would I do? What would you do?

My wife often complains that I keep the thermostat way too cold in the winter. Honestly, I don’t like paying to heat my house beyond what I feel I need to. In fact, if I didn’t have a family I would probably keep the temperature a bit lower. After all, that’s why clothes were invented, right?

Regardless, it’s hard to stay alive let alone get anything done if you’re literally freezing. Here’s what to know…

Dangers of Extreme Cold

You should understand that extreme cold can cause some serious, even life-threatening, problems. In fact, you don’t have to be freezing to suffer, hypothermia can set in at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind and rain WILL cause hypothermia to occur MUCH faster. So, stay in doors whenever possible.

Know that the elderly, infants, and children can be especially at risk. Warning signs include: shivering, confusion, slurred speech, or drowsiness. For infants: bright red skin or very low energy can be signs.

Frostbite is also a VERY serious problem. Frostbite can cause a loss of feeling or color–especially in the extremities–in particular, toes, fingers, ears, nose. Signs include skin that is a white or grayish-yellow color, skin that feels waxy, or numbness in the affected area. Usually others will point out a problem before the affected individual ever knows anything is wrong.

Basic Methods of Staying Warm

Without a doubt the easiest way to stay warm is to layer your clothing. It’s simple and effective. The idea is to add a few to several layers of clothing in order to trap air around your body. It is this trapped air that actually keeps your body warm. In fact, it’s the method recommended by most people to keep warm whenever you’re outside in cold weather. The reason is that layered clothing can easily be removed in order to avoid sweating. Sweating in cold weather can be very bad (even deadly) because the sweat won’t evaporate under all that clothing and eventually re-freeze causing a severe drop in core body temperature. So, keep warm with layers and remove them as necessary and BEFORE you begin to sweat.

Other obvious ideas to keep warm should include jackets, blankets, sleeping bags, and bedding. Anything you typically use to keep warm can certainly be used if the heater goes out.

In particular, you should pay attention to keeping your head warm. Some studies suggest that you lose a significant amount of body heat through you head. A basic stocking cap can go a long way to keeping warm in dire situations. If you don’t have a stocking cap then you can easily make-shift one out of a t-shirt, towel, or nearly anything you like.

Burning Stuff to Stay Warm

Any fireplace that burns wood, corn pellets, charcoal, or whatever (as long as approved for indoor use) will certainly help to keep you warm. Whatever you have, be sure to keep enough fuel on hand for at least a few weeks if not more.

Although I don’t necessary recommend it, you can burn nearly anything if you had to (fireplace logs, cardboard, paper, newspaper, clothing and so on) but just be very careful about open flames in particular. Consider sealing off one room in your home to conserve heat. Be ABSOLUTE SURE that you have enough air supply in the form of air movement so that whatever you’re burning DOESN’T KILL YOU due to carbon monixide poisoning; this is especially true if you seal off a room.

Other useful ideas to stay warm include a:

  • generator to run your heater/furnace although this is expensive
  • electric space heater (if you have electricity but no gas service)
  • gas space heater (butane or kerosene) – if you want to keep the fuel on-hand

Manufacturers to the Rescue

There are a multitude of man-made methods to stay warm, including: body warmers, emergency blankets, and heat tablets or canned heat. While these are better than nothing, they should not be considered primary sources of warmth. If anything, they will stave off the chills if already warmed or maybe keep frostbite at bay. They are useful enough to consider keeping in a “bug out” bag.

“Unconventional” Thoughts

I’m sure I am missing many potential “unconventional” ways to stay warm. Understand that the idea is to think outside of the box a bit. Do what you must.

  • heated water bottle – if you can heat a bottle of water (such as on your BBQ grill while you’re already cooking), place it next to your core body on top of a layer of clothing (not next to your skin) then you can usually conserve that heat for a long period of time. You can do this with any sturdy water bottle.
  • throw rugs & shower curtains- people often have several throw rugs, floor mats or shower curtains that can be used as extra insulation. You can even take the floor mats out of your car if you must. These are probably best used as insulation to be placed underneath you.
  • stuffing from couch cushions (or car seats) – use cushions to sleep atop or remove the stuffing from the inside and use for additional personal insulation by stuffing inside layers of clothing if absolutely need be.
  • heated rocks – if you think far enough ahead, you can choose to heat larger rocks in your BBQ grill (similar to the hot water bottle idea above) and use them to keep warm while you sleep. But, be careful since heating rocks that have retained too much moisture could explode. So, only consider this if you know what you’re doing.
  • home insulation – if you’re desperate enough, I would even consider taking any house insulation that is NOT a part of the room you’re insulating and add it to the room you’re staying in. Any additional insulation is  better than nothing. This would be particularly useful by insulating any windows or doors in the room you’re using.

DO NOT Use These to Stay Warm

  • oven/stove – authorities often warn against using your stove to heat the house. You could potentially cause a house fire or even carbon monoxide poisoning. Don’t do it.
  • gas burning stove – unless approved for indoor use, any stove that burns fuel (i.e., gasoline, propane, etc.) do not burn completely and, hence, can be a carbon monoxide hazard; this includes your BBQ grill!

Whatever you do, BE SMART about it. Have multiple ways to keep warm. Think outside the box a bit if need be. Don’t get lazy and burn things indoors. It may not be pleasant, but you can do it right.

Does Keeping Your Head Warm Really Matter?

A question I recently asked myself was how important is it to keep you head warm when in very cold weather because it is often believed that keeping your head warm in the cold may literally mean the difference between life and death. I certainly subscribed to this philosophy whenever outside in the winter. While it makes sense to keep as warm as possible and to cover exposed skin in cold weather, I do wonder how important it truly is to keep you head warm?

First, as you likely know, body heat is lost through the skin. Your body uses sweat to cool you down and hair and clothing to keep you warm. Often the one exposed part of the body is your head and face. It would naturally follow that you’re going to lose more heat through your head more so than other parts of the body simply because your head is exposed to the elements and the rest of your body is not.

Second, you should understand that the body loses heat much faster when exposed to windy conditions (at several times the normal rate) and astonishingly fast when wet (at dozens of times the normal rate). Thus, when cold and in either windy or wet conditions, your body—specifically your head because it is exposed—will lose heat VERY fast. That’s why it is critical to avoid getting wet or being in the wind when it’s cold out.

Now, if you do a bit of surfing on the Net or read a few books on the subject, you’ll see varying statements that say you can lose between 7 and 80 percent or more of your body heat through the head. Not only is that a huge discrepancy in range, let’s also be realistic for a moment. Considering that body heat is lost through the skin and that the skin on your head represents less than 10 percent of your total skin area, I would find it hard to believe that 80% of body heat could be lost through the head. That makes little sense.

On the other hand, it is far more probable that you could lose around 7% of your body heat through your head since that is roughly the amount of exposed skin on the head.

Most claims I can find indicate that the number should be more like 20 to 30 percent of body heat is lost through the head. While significantly less than 80 percent, these numbers would still represent a large amount of heat lost relative to exposed skin.

Could this 20 to 30 percent claim be more accurate?

Perhaps.

As I mentioned earlier, when the body is subjected to windy or wet conditions, the body will lose heat much faster than it otherwise would. This could act to support the 20 to 30 percent claims assuming your head and face are the only exposed parts of your body.

Also, it is likely that you’ll be working more strenuously in cold weather conditions simply to survive and, as such, you will lose more body heat through the head in these conditions because more blood will be flowing to the head. The reason for this is because the forehead is filled with many blood vessels that help to regulate our body temperature. When this area is exposes to cold, windy, or wet conditions (especially under strenuous conditions) it follows that more heat would then be lost. Precisely how much would depend on the individual, weather conditions, and so on. Again, this could also support the 20 to 30 percent range claims.

I think it would be safe to say that the head loses little more heat than the rest of the body under normal conditions, but could lose significantly more heat under extreme conditions.

Therefore, it would make sense to keep your head warm—especially your forehead—in order to retain as much heat as possible in cold weather conditions. It would also make sense that whatever you use to keep your head warm should be breathable as you wouldn’t want to work up a sweat only to have a wet and cold condition after you later cool down.

So, the obvious advice would be to limit your exposed skin as much as possible including your head and face with something relatively breathable and to do so BEFORE you’re already freezing and sweaty!

4. Water and Food

Water is so important to life that it should be one of your first priorities when considering emergency preparations. In fact, water storage at home is relatively easy if you only take the time to do so. Consider the following possibilities and come up with your own. Be sure to heed the warnings for what not to store water in as well.

Note: Any containers used for home water storage should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water prior to use.
Caution: Do not store water near any fuel such as gasoline or kerosene, or near pesticides as vapors from these chemicals can permeate water storage containers and contaminate your supply.

Good Long Term Water Storage at Home Ideas

  • Any FDA approved water container – one to five gallon containers or even large 30 or 55 gallon drums
  • Disposable plastic water bottles (the kind you buy in cases at the grocery store) - are ok to use but can leech chemicals and would need replacing periodically
  • 2 litre soda bottles – a very dependable method to store water as they are almost unbreakable
  • Bleach bottles – only if they are unscented and contained no chemicals other than 5.25% sodium hypochlorite
  • Containers that are HDPE and stamped with a “2″ on the bottom can be used for water storage (be careful of long term storage in “homer” buckets that have been dyed)
  • Stainless steel containers that will not be used to hold chlorine-treated water (chlorine is corrosive to metals)

Bad Long Term Water Storage at Home Ideas

  • Glass containers – they break easily
  • Milk jugs – difficult to clean completely which can result in unwanted bacterial growth
  • Any bottles that previously held any chemicals – harmful residues can linger for a long time and persist even after thorough cleanings
  • Paint cans – even if thoroughly cleaned (same warning as the previous bullet item)
  • Barrels/drums not approved for water storage

Water Storage In a Pinch

  • The bathtub
  • All sinks
  • Any plastic tupperware
  • Bowls
  • Trash cans lined with unused large trash bags (preferably double-lined)
  • Large plastic bins (i.e., kids toy bins) – can be used for other things such as washing but probably not drinking or cooking
  • Anything you have handy

The point is to keep an open mind and use a little common sense. Do so now and your home water storage efforts will pay huge dividends should the need ever arise.

Food Safety Guidelines After a Power Outage

Perhaps one of the most annoying issues you’re likely to face regardless of a disaster situation is a simple power outage. Besides not being able to watch your favorite sitcom or Monday night football you’re going to begin to wonder how long your freezer full of goodies will last without power, especially if it’s been several hours or more and it’s hot outside.

Rest assured, if you leave the doors closed your refrigerated food should be good for at least a few to several hours. Freezer food should be good for up to a day or two. The key point is to keep the doors closed. Even opening the door for a brief moment WILL allow precious cold air to escape. So, if you have children, be sure they understand the refrigerator is off limits!

If local grocery stores still have power you can obtain a large block of ice (not dry ice) which will extend cooling times. Coolers can also be used if you can obtain copious amounts of ice to fill them.

A neat trick I learned if you’re away from the house and have no idea how long your power was out is to fill a plastic freezer bag with several ice cubes and stash it in your freezer. If the power went out and the ice cubes are still in tact then everything was fine. If, on the other hand, the ice cubes are now a puddle then it’s safe to say the freezer got too warm and everything should be suspect including your fridge foods.

Besides these few suggestions, there isn’t much the average person can about it expect to have a bit of common sense as far as what to keep and what to toss…

The obvious culprits that MUST be kept cold:

  • all meats including fish, poultry, lunch meats, etc
  • dairy foods including all milks, sour cream, etc
  • eggs
  • soft cheeses (such as shredded cheese, mozzarella, brie, etc)
  • infant formula (if previously refrigerated)
  • any leftovers
  • almost everything in your freezer if temperature is above 40 degrees for more than two hours

Other foods can be considered safe include:

  • hard/processed cheese (cheddar, provolone, Parmesan, etc)
  • butter
  • most fruits and vegetables that are NOT cooked or freshly cut
  • most jellies and sauces including ketchup, mustard, pickles, etc

Visit the following link for a more complete list of emergency food safety preparation guidelines during a power outage including what to do when flood water contacts your foods as well as several other Q&A such as whether you can store foods outside in the snow… something I did not know.

How to Read Canned Food Expiration Dates

Ever wonder how to decipher some of the codes on the bottom of canned foods? Although not expiration dates, you can use these codes to figure out when the food was canned and thereby understand how long it should be good for. Here’s a link to a site that lists a dozen major canned food manufacturers and explains their coding systems with examples.

Additionally, if you’re storing a lot of canned foods (and you should be) then there is no substitute for a proper First-In-First-Out (FIFO) method of canned food rotation. Using the FIFO method will ensure you don’t have to wonder when the food was canned because you will be using your oldest stock first.

5. First Aid

There are any number of places you can go to get recommendations on what to include in your first aid kit (including here), so, we won’t go into that now. Rather, I would like to focus on what I consider the top 5 first aid kit mistakes you can easily avoid…

Medical first aid should not be taken lightly, especially if the intended use is during a time of crisis. You should not expect normal medical services to be available (fire, ambulance, hospitals, etc) so you’re really preparing now to help yourself later. This post will provide you the information to do just that… making it happen is up to you. Also understand that this information is generally geared toward a home first aid kit where weight and volume restrictions are less of a factor as compared to a “bug out” kit.

Mistake # 1 – Not Knowing Your Kit Contents

While it is a good idea to have a first aid kit handy (everyone recommends it), it will do you little good in an emergency situation if you don’t actually know what’s inside; this is obviously a concern in the pre-packaged kits. Sure, you can assume that it probably has bandages and some way to clean a wound, fumbling for these items and reading labels does not do anybody any good. Fortunately, this is easily remedied by opening your first aid kit, taking the items out, and examining them. If you don’t know what something is or when it would be useful to use, then do a quick Google search.

Mistake # 2- Purchasing a Typical Pre-Packaged Kit

If you’ve had the foresight to purchase a first aid kit, chances are you bought one from the local drug store or Walmart. Although better than nothing, you can and should do a lot better for yourself. Why? Well, most store-bought kits tend to be fairly useless in most situations and suffer from 3 distinct problems:

1) pre-packaged first aid kits tend to overdose on bandages. They’ll say something like “150 piece kit” which may accurate, though, 125 of these pieces are bandages. I’m not kidding. I swear I still have many bandages from a kit I purchased years ago (before I had a clue), some of which I haven’t yet found a need to use. The only bandages you really need are a few dozen of the typical rectangular bandages for everyday use. You could also include a half dozen specialized bandages for the fingertips and knuckles if you like. Beyond that, it would be beneficial to have some assorted gauze pads and tape and even a few waterproof bandages (the kind that have sticky stuff all along the outside of the bandage) in the event you shouldn’t get a wound wet.

2) store-bought first aid kits often include individual packages of alcohol wipes to clean wounds. While they will serve this purpose fairly well, the problem is that they will dry out in about a year or two, thus becoming no better than a dry paper towel. An inexpensive alternative would be to purchase a small bottle of either 70% isopropyl alcohol (that’s what the first aid kit wipes are saturated with) or a bottle of betadine. Both will eventually expire (after a few years) but will keep significantly longer in a tightly sealed bottle than the wipes will in a package and you will get a lot more sanitizing product at very little cost.

3) rarely do store-bought first aid kits include all of the other essentials such as medications for fever, pain relief, decongestant, antihistamine, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea… you get the picture. A well prepared kit should include these medications.

You can easily spend $20 or more on a store-bought kit and basically have only purchased a lot of bandages and soon-to-expire wipes in a nice (likely cheap) plastic carrying case. Spend that money a bit more wisely and get more of what you really need. If you insist on buying a pre-packaged kit then go for an outdoor/camping/hiking kit. While they will still stock individual wipes and medicine packages, they will also typically include many more of the useful items listed above.

Mistake # 3 – Purchasing the “Everything and Then Some” Kit

The opposite mistake from the store-bought approach some people make is to go online and purchase a first aid kit that could have paid for my last car payment. From bandages, to drugs, to thermometers and tongue depressors, to CPR and triage supplies. You may even have a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and catheter. You’ve got it all. You’re set. Right? Sure, but only if you know how to use it!

The mistake here is having equipment and supplies that might be useful but are not simply because you don’t know what to do with it if and when the time comes. Unfortunately, this describes the average individual, including me. For instance, I happen to have a blood pressure cuff in my kit AND I don’t know how to use it. “Foul!” you cry. “You just said I shouldn’t make this mistake and now you are. What gives? I” have a trick up my sleeve, namely my wife. She does know how to use the equipment I don’t. As such, I choose to justify its presence with the expectation that she will be around to use it. Sure it is better that I know how to use this equipment—as should you—and perhaps someday I will choose to learn. For now, I count on my wife.

My recommendation to you is that if nobody in your household has any idea how to use a particular piece of equipment then it has no business being in your kit. It is just a waste of your hard-earned money and valuable kit space.

Mistake # 4- Not Watching Expiration Dates

Although I’m not a doctor I tend to believe that expiration dates are not 100% set in stone. If the label says it expires next month does that mean you cannot, under any circumstances use it the following month? I imagine the type of product makes a difference; that is, expiration dates may be more critical to oral medications than they are to alcohol wipes. My guess is you probably can use most anything very shortly after the stated expiration date. (I’ve even heard of studies that suggest most drugs would still be effective many years after their expiration date but I have no direct evidence.) What about six months or a year from the expiration date? Where do you draw the line? Since I cannot answer that question I do the next best thing: I pay attention to the expiration dates as best as I can. If my tube of antibiotic ointment says it expires this month, then I will replace it this month and not take the chance.

You should resolve to do one of two things: either set a specific time (or times) of the year where you go through every item in your kit and replace those items that will expire before the next time your scheduled check will occur or make a list of everything that expires as well as when it will expire and monitor that list. Personally, I do the latter by keeping a list on my computer that I monitor every few months. When something is about to go bad, I place it on the shopping list and gets replaced in relatively short order. Note, however, that this method is a bit more time consuming than a simple yearly check.

To get started simply resolve to monitor your first aid kit each time you replace your smoke alarm batteries, which should be at least yearly if not twice per year. This way you won’t have to worry about setting a new schedule as it piggy-backs on one you (hopefully) already perform.

Mistake # 5 – Not Stockpiling Special Needs Supplies and Medications

Many people have many special needs that must be cared for and may be very difficult to acquire in emergency situations. This would include such items as diabetic medications, asthma inhalers, prescription medications, and so on. You might even include non-perishable items such as glasses or contacts. You know what your needs are. Be sure to stock any necessary supplies for others in the household as well. In this case, definitely adhere to expiration dates. In fact, these items should take a higher priority over other medications in your kit in that you KNOW you will need them, which means you MUST always have them on hand. A good supply of at least a week or two should be kept on hand.

I know that sometimes doctors and pharmacists will give you a hard time if you try to get additional bottles or doses of special medications beyond your regularly scheduled amounts. If you suspect this to be a problem then I suggest you simply tell them the truth. Tell them you’re trying to stockpile a first aid kit and need to include this medication as well. Honesty will usually get you what you want. If they’re still unwilling to work with you then maybe it’s time to find a new doctor or pharmacist.

Cost is obviously another concern. The only real options you have are to ask your doctor or pharmacist about generic alternatives and/or save money and rotate your supplies.

Building a well-rounded and useful first aid kit is not rocket science. Keep those items on hand that you need and can use, know how to use them, and be sure they won’t expire any time soon.

What to store it all in? I’m sure there are many ideas. One of the more simpler, economical, and sturdy solutions would be a small fishing tackle box–it’s what I use. But, whatever you choose to use will probably work just fine so long as it is sturdy and generally water-resistant.

What should you keep in your first aid kit and where do I get it? Any drugstore will suffice. A large chain like Wal-Mart will probably have most items you need.

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