Items to Have In Case of Emergency...Maybe.

by daenerys2 min read3rd Apr 201476 comments


Personal Blog

This post is inspired by a recent comment thread on my Facebook. I asked people to respond with whether or not they kept fire/lock boxes in their homes for their important documents (mainly to prove to a friend that this is a Thing People Do). It was pretty evenly divided, with slightly more people having them, than not. The interesting pattern I noticed was that almost ALL of my non-rationality community friends DID have them, and almost NONE of my rationality community friends did, and some hadn't even considered it.

This could be because getting a lock box is not an optimal use of time or money, OR it could be because rationalists often overlook the mundane household-y things more than the average person. I'm actually not certain which it is, so am writing this post presenting the case of why you should keep certain emergency items in the hope that either I'll get some interesting points for why you shouldn't prep that I haven't thought of yet, OR will get even better ideas in the comments.

General Case

Many LWers are concerned about x-risks that have a small chance of causing massive damage. We may or may not see this occur in our lifetime. However, there are small problems that occur every 2-3 years or so (extended blackout, being snowed in, etc), and there are mid-sized catastrophes that you might see a couple times in your life (blizzards, hurricanes, etc). It is likely that at least once in your life you will be snowed in your house and the pipes will burst or freeze (or whatever the local equivalent is, if you live in a warmer climate). Having the basic preparations ready for these occurrences is low cost (many minor emergencies require a similar set of preparations), and high payoff. 

Medicine and Hospitality

This category is so minor, you probably don't consider it to be "emergency", but it's still A Thing To Prepare For. It really sucks having to go to the store when you're sick because you don't already have the medicine you need at hand. It's better to keep the basics always available, just in case. You, or a guest, are likely to be grateful that you have these on hand. Even if you personally never get sick, I consider a well-stocked medicine cabinet to be a point of hospitality. If you have people over to your place with any frequency, it is nice to have:


  • Pain Reliever (ibuprofen, NSAID)
  • Zyrtec (Especially if you have cats. Guests might be allergic!)
  • Antacids, Chewable Pepto, Gas-X (Especially if you have people over for food)
  • Multipurpose contact solution (getting something in your contact without any solution nearby is both rare and awful)
  • Neosporin/bandaids (esp. if your cats scratch :P)


  • Spare toothbrush (esp. if you might have a multi-day guest)
  • Single use disposable toothbrushes (such as Wisp). These are also good to carry with you in your backpack or purse.)
  • Pads/tampons (Yes, even if you're a guy. They should be somewhere obvious such as under the sink, so that your guest doesn't need to ask)
Of course, you can also go all out with your First Aid kit, and also include less common items like epi pens, bandages, etc.

Vehicle Kits

The stuff you keep at home isn't going to be very helpful if you have a minor emergency while travelling. Some things that are useful to keep in your car include

  • Blanket
  • Water
  • Protein/ granola bar
  • Jumper Cables
  • Spare Tire and jack
  • If you get frequent headaches or the like, you might also want to keep your preferred pain reliever or whatnot in the car

Minor Catastrophe Preparation

These are somewhat geography dependent. Adjust for whatever catastrophes are common in your area. There are places where if you don't have 4 wheel drive, you're just not going to be able to leave your house during a snowstorm. There are places where tornadoes or earthquakes are common. There are places where a bad hurricane rolls through every couple years. If you're new to an area, make sure you know what the local "regular" emergency is.

Some of these are a bit of a harder sell, I think. 

  • Flashlights (that you can find in the dark)
  • Spare batteries
  • Candles/Lighter
  • Water ( says one gallon per person per day, and have enough for 3 days)
  • Non perishable food (ideally that doesn't need to be cooked, e.g. canned goods)
  • Manual can opener
  • Fire Extinguisher
  • Action: check out for the emergencies that are most common for your area, and read their recommendations

Bigger Preparations

This list goes a bit beyond the basics:
  • A "Go Bag" (something pre-packed that you can grab and go)
  • A fire-safe lock box (not only does this protect your documents, but it helps in organizing that there is an obvious place where these important documents go, and not just "somewhere in that file drawer...or somewhere else")
  • Back up your data in the cloud
  • Moar water, moar food



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An observation I made a couple of years ago: some people gain inordinate amounts of pleasure from being prepared for things and I am one of those people. Examples, in escalating order of craziness, are r/EDC, r/bugout and r/preppers. These subreddits are preparedness-porn. I sometimes look at them and go "ooooh". (I also sometimes look at them and go "but...ugh...why...why would you even want to do that?" so the porn metaphor is surprisingly apt.)

By good fortune, I've discovered I'm somewhere on this axis of crazy in between EDC and bugout. This seems to be a fortuitous amount of crazy. I'm overly-prepared for many of life's pitfalls, but I'm unlikely to ever buy a fire steel, and I don't have a machete in my wardrobe that I sharpen every day in readiness for Armageddon.

6James_Miller7yBecause of the TV show The Walking Dead I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Alas, my wife and son refuse to help me prepare. My wife thinks we would have little chance of survival and my son would rather talk about how we should behave if sucked into the Minecraft world.
3DanielLC7yEmergency preparedness rule 34: Someone has prepared for it, no exceptions. Something about someone being prepared with it sounds more like what you're saying, but that doesn't flow as well.
1Gunnar_Zarncke7yBrowsing thru the latter link led me to a quite balanced article about prepping that falls into the category 'winning at life': [] From an interview with a man who presumably had connections and a 'gang' and who nonetheless gave in to other gangs in an SHTF event::
0RomeoStevens7ybut you can get fresh coconuts and open them and machetes are so cheap!

Hypothesis: your rationalist friends live in cities and your non rationalist friends come from various things you did in life (work school family etc) and are scattered including many people not in cities

A few disorganized thoughts:

  • It's often easy to find water and hard to find safe water, so a water purifier might be a useful supplement or substitute. In the States, you can get one for about $30 at REI or other outdoor stores. Purification tablets also exist but I don't know how well they work.

  • I'm not a big fan of commercial first-aid kits; they seem heavy on stuff that'll make you slightly more comfortable in situations where you don't really need first aid, and light on stuff that'll actually help prevent or manage serious illness or injury. Probably better to skip these and go with a more targeted approach, unless you expect to be dealing with people that insist on treatment for minor trauma.

  • I am a big fan of gel bandages for blisters; they won't save your life but they will save your mobility, especially if you're not used to walking long distances or are stuck in the wrong shoes. I try to keep them anywhere I might find myself doing a lot of unexpected walking from, like my car, and they're an essential piece of backpacking kit.

  • A multitool (Leatherman or competitor) is almost never the right thing to be using, but it's very often good enough if you don't mind a li

... (read more)
7RomeoStevens7y"Calcium Hypochlorite: Calcium hypochlorite is a cheap and shelf stable chemical available at any pool and spa store and many hardware stores. When mixed with water, calcium hypochlorite becomes chlorine bleach. In fact, when you buy a jug of bleach at the store, you're getting calcium hypochlorite mixed with water in a 5.25% solution. By storing calcium hypochlorite you are basically storing super concentrated bleach without the shelf life problems. To make a bleach solution, mix 1/8 ounce (just under a teaspoon) of high-test granular calcium hypochlorite with one gallon of water. Use this at one part mixture to one hundred parts water to make your water potable. Just let it sit for a half hour before drinking. Liquid bleach is better than iodine because it becomes chemically inactive after it treats the water, breaking down into salt and water, and our bodies handle it quite well (even drinking straight household bleach is rarely fatal)"
0Baughn7yHow can it break down into salt? There's no sodium in there. I would expect the chlorine to gas off instead.
2CellBioGuy7yCalcium chloride. Same stuff that gets dumped on the roads in winter in some places. Salt = general term for ionic compounds especially stable ones. And yes some chlorine does gas off especially when interacting with other ions. In my current research I generate 0.6 litres of growth media full of yeast per hour for weeks on end and I need to get rid of it, and we aren't allowed to dump living organisms down the drain into the municipal sewer system, so I have to bleach it first. Enough chlorine comes from the reaction of the bleach with the media that I have to bleach my buckets in a chemical fume hood whenever I'm dealing with more than a litre or two. Learned that the hard way when I did it in the sink the first time. Quite a burning sensation deep down into the lungs...
0Larks6yCould you provide some concrete suggestions?
2Nornagest6yThat really depends what you plan to be doing, since the kind of care you'd need to provide can be very different across different situations. The first-aid kit in my car doesn't look much like the one I take hiking: I've got the former kitted out for major trauma (and for minor issues I might encounter away from home) but I don't expect to be using it for long- or even medium-term care of any kind, while the latter spends more space on quality-of-life issues but needs to provide support for the time it takes to hike out.
0pinyaka7yYour hot water heater is often a good place to find 20-40 gallons of potable water and most have a valve at the bottom for draining the water out.

Extra emphasis on the importance of backing up your computers' data. It must be automatic, it must be tested, and it must include everything by default (ie, tag things to exclude, don't tag things to include).

Filling an emergency or travel kit is mostly about finding items with high value-to-weight ratio. Some things they should definitely have are:

  • Caffeine pills or canned caffeine drinks, and modafinil. Tired driving is death. Tiredness makes every emergency worse.
  • Spare phone batteries, or batteries that can output over micro-USB. Have a system for keeping them charged and rotating them, and have enough total battery to run your phone for a week of normal use.
  • An A/C splitter: Guarantees you access to power when there are outlets but people are competing for them.
  • Earplugs.
  • A USB key or MicroSD card that's cheap enough to load up and give away.
  • Condoms. Insert Tom Lehrer's "Be Prepared" song here.
  • A notebook and pen.
0Alexei7yBacking up data is extremely painful. I'd recommend having all the data you wanted backed up on Dropbox or Google Drive.
2jimrandomh7yThat strategy ends in deep regret, because it requires you to opt-in specific bits of data. If you ever actually need it, you will discover that something important was missed. (Also, if backing up data is at all painful, it means you are doing it wrong.)
2luminosity7yIt depends how you do it. Some of my data is backed up via Google drive in almost as automatic a way as is possible. Add a new folder to your documents library (Windows 7+), make this folder the default save location for the library, make it the folder where google drive manages backups automatically (there is a program you download to do this). Now you just need to pick the documents folder whenever you initially save something important, and the rest is handled for you. The same would be easily doable with dropbox.
0jimrandomh7yThat strategy ends in deep regret, because it requires you to opt-in specific bits of data. If you ever actually need it, you will discover that something important was missed.

Great post.

For food, I think dehydrated potatoes are a particularly effective emergency food. They're more complete nutritionally than grains and will keep you performing longer in a tough situation.

I also like to store enough fuel to safely get to a friend or family members house in another town, if necessary. My vehicle is diesel, so storing the fuel is somewhat safer than storing gasoline.

Books can be helpful as well- especially easy to read field references for emergency medicine and survival techniques. In my opinion a good book on first aid is more important than an actual first aid kit.

Also, a hot water heater is a giant tank of drinkable water, and is always full. It can be drained from a spigot at the bottom.

3kpreid7yI would be concerned that the atypical water flow might stir up sediment (high concentrations of assorted contaminants that are in low concentrations in the incoming water). Am I right?
2CasioTheSane7yThat's a good point. I think some old hot water heaters might even be so full of small particles that they're hard to drain from the bottom, and you might need to get the water from the top. However, I think most of the sediment would be insoluble in water, and can be avoided by letting the water settle for a few minutes. Any soluble particles would have long since dissolved, sitting in a bath of hot flowing water for years.
2Gunnar_Zarncke7yI'd like to give you an additional +1 for that.

For anything that requires batteries, either a hand-crank or solar panels to charge it during a long-lasting blackout.

In many minor emergencies, cash can be useful as a backup to any given backup. (And debit or credit cards as a backup to the cash.)

A deck of cards. Keeping up morale (and/or keeping the kids from driving you buggy) can make many near-horrible situations moderately tolerable, and as long as you've got light, cards don't use up any further batteries or other resources.

Would be interesting to do a cost/benefit analysis for these items. E.g. Cost of item / (Probability of emergency * cost f emergency)

My feeling is a lot of this is an interesting intellectual exercise but not actually a net benefit

A "Kelly Kettle" lets you use easily-available twigs, leaves, and similar burnable debris to boil water.

There are lots of ways to start a fire. The most common is a Bic-type lighter for a reason. A low-skill, reusable, portable option is a Fresnel lens the size and shape of a credit card.

2kalium7yThe Fresnel lens depends on sunlight, which is a problem in storm-related disasters. A block of magnesium and a sparker make a very durable fire-starting kit that will work under most conditions. Shave off very thin bits of magnesium, pile them up on some tinder, and give it a few sparks. Though for the coolness factor I'd really like my own fire piston.

(This is not intended as medical advice. It is a summary from my personal experience and research I've read.)

Various things can cause dehydration — overexertion, exposure, diarrhea, vomiting, blood loss. Drinking plain water for dehydration is a lousy idea; it can send you right into hyponatremia (low sodium, which in my personal experience is a huge big bunch of no fun) or hypokalemia (low potassium, which is reportedly worse).

The standard "everyone knows about it" fix for this is Gatorade — but Gatorade is full of way too much sugar. The somewh... (read more)

0ThisSpaceAvailable7yWouldn't KI be more useful, as it could also be used for iodine uptake blockade?
1fubarobfusco7yPretty sure that's for nuclear fallout, not dehydration.
  • Neosporin/bandaids (esp. if your cats scratch :P)

I use surgical spirit instead of antibiotic ointment. The basic idea of having something to put on little wounds is a good one, but over-the-counter antibiotic ointment might be contributing to antibiotic resistance.

Here's what I keep in my car kit:

  1. Small gas can
  2. Spare tire/jack/lug wrench
  3. Jump starter/air pump. Like this one This has come in handy many times, mainly to help other people.
  4. First aid kit.
  5. Some spare clothes.


Those suture-replacement bandages.


Memorize some songs, especially ones that work well in groups, such as rounds. They're good distraction when you get sick of playing cards, and unlike cards they work just as well in the dark. A small, tough musical instrument like a recorder or harmonica is also good to have around.

Caffeine pills come in handy if soda is unavailable or you can't boil water to make coffee or tea.

Single use disposable toothbrushes (such as Wisp).

I'm a bit confused by the pricing. It's listed at $15.99, but lower down the FAQ gives the price as $4.99. I've seen six-packs of toothbrushes at a dollar store, so I don't see what Wisp's selling point is. Individualized packaging?

3jefftk7yThe 24-pack version of the Wisp is $0.21/brush []. It looks like a better choice would be this 144-pack at $0.07/brush []. This Wisp doesn't require toothpaste, which is nice if you're going to carry it with you, but if you're giving a toothbrush to a guest they can just use your toothpaste.

Flashlights (that you can find in the dark)

Being able to find your flashlight in the dark used to be good advice, but if you carry a cell phone you can use that to find your flashlight.

If you are often travelling over bridge by car, having a car-knife could be handy in case you go over. The device generally comes equipped with a seat belt cutter, pressurized hammer, and flashlight.

2niceguyanon7y []

Lets have a poll:

Do you have a first aid kit at home: [pollid:644]

Do you have a fire/water safe lock box at home: [pollid:645]

Do you have some emergency equipment at home (lights+batteries, stove, medicine): [pollid:646]

For how many days do you have food, water and medicine at home: [pollid:647]

3MichaelAnissimov7yEveryone should have 100 lbs of red hard winter wheat at home, it's $100 and will feed you for 100 person-days.
0Baughn7yI feel like I'm cheating. I have lots of water because I have aquariums, which should be drinkable in an emergency if I boil it first - though I'd prefer not to. I should go fill up the water butt. No reason not to.
[-][anonymous]7y 1


Are there cultural differences between Europe and the US? Where I live, it's usually the guests who bring their own contact solution/toothbrushs/pads/tampons if needed; the idea of asking a host for a spare toothbrush (I don't need the other things because I neither wear contact lenses nor am female) wouldn't even occur to me.

2jefftk7yIn the US the guest is still expected to bring them, but as a host it's really nice to be able to provide for your guest if they need it.
2daenerys7yThis. Plus, there are many emergencies where a guest wouldn't be prepared. For example, maybe someone who was coming for a couple hours to hang out/play games had their contact fall out. Or maybe a date went really well, and somebody stays the night who wasn't specifically packed for such. Maybe a friend needs last-minute emergency crash space, etc.
0kalium7ySometimes the TSA decides that today the size limit for toothpaste is 2.8 oz instead of 3 oz and then your guest's plans of having his own toothpaste fall through entirely.
0[anonymous]7yI said toothbrush. It's considered normal to use the host's toothpaste over here too. (And anyway, I usually put my toothpaste (and shampoo, and soap, etc.) in my checked baggage, because I can't be arsed to learn the rules to carry it in my cabin baggage.)
0kalium7ySorry, misread you. I'm too cheap to check bags unless I'm moving house or someone else is paying my travel expenses.
[-][anonymous]7y 1

*Back up your data in the cloud

I would also suggest a portable hard copy of your most important files. If you need access to a file and have no connection, odds are good you can still use a flash drive. Just make sure it's somewhere you won't lose it (on a key ring, in your glove compartment, etc.)

For potable water, a Brita filter or similar brand (the kind you fill up and store in the fridge) may do you for the short term, but remember that their filters need to be replaced. So either keep a stash of spare filters on hand or have an alternative.

1ThisSpaceAvailable7yYou mean, portable soft copy? If you're already carrying around a phone, you could store files there.
1[anonymous]7yI meant in terms of a portable, accessible copy. A copy you can access on (most) any computer with relative ease. But, your point is actually not a bad one either. I didn't think of a soft copy on your phone.

fish antibiotics


0atorm7yWhy for fish?

A Google gave me this page the argument appears to be that fish antibiotics are the same as human ones, but cheaper and you don't need a medical license. Obliviously don't assume this true unless you have better evidence.

Edit: Ninja'd

7RomeoStevens7yHad to resort to fish penicillin when I had no medical insurance and got scarlet fever a few years back. Worked great.
8Nornagest7yFive minutes of Google suggests that it's because you can get them without a prescription and possibly in bulk. This seems a little more on the hardcore survivalist side of things than I try to stay, but it's a clever workaround.

I have almost everything on this list, except canned food, which we stock up on when there's any reason to expect an emergency. We are our social circle's manifestation of Crazy Prepared. I've actually been trying to reduce the amount of emergency-preparedness we do when traveling, because carrying a backpack full of food, water, meds, and miscellaneous necessities everywhere starts to suck. I do have a fire safe and I'm not sure why anyone wouldn't, except perhaps if one's parents still hold the documents normally kept in such. Perhaps a good chunk of LW ... (read more)

3Lumifer7yIs it, now? I am at the moment setting up to backup a bit over 2Tb (yes, it's a "T") to the cloud, specifically Amazon Glacier.
2Error7yNow, that's interesting. Prices must have dropped considerably, and limits risen considerably, since the last time I looked in to this. I run from 500GB-3TB depending on how much I decide is important enough to back up. The last time I checked into cloud backups, even just 500GB was only available at prices that weren't worth it. I'm still not entirely comfortable with having copies of my files in the hands of a party I don't personally trust, but I think maybe I should revisit the idea. I would worry about bandwidth, but I assume you're on the same class of consumer internet that I am or you would have mentioned it, so it must be manageable.
3ThisSpaceAvailable7yI find it odd that you would need 500 GB before it would be worth it. I mean, 1 GB is enough to store thousands of pages of documents. I would think that even 100 GB should be enough to store at least half of a normal person's data, weighted by how bad it would to lose it.
0Lumifer7yYes, the reason I got interested in cloud backup is that prices finally became somewhat reasonable. With respect to security, for most of the stuff I'm backing up I don't care, but otherwise you can just locally encrypt and backup the encrypted files. As to bandwidth, it's just the initial upload that's the problem, in my case the later incremental backups are going to be comparatively small.

I keep a first aid kit and a toolkit in the car.

Weapons and cash.

4JTHM7yShould civilization collapse to the point of law enforcement and electronic banking no longer functioning, I suspect gold in small denominations would be more useful than cash. You should also have acid handy to prove the authenticity of your gold and to test the authenticity of others'.
3MichaelAnissimov7yNo one is going to use gold because it's too valuable by weight and too difficult to measure tiny quantities. Instead, buy pre-1965 silver dimes. Silver is a much more reasonable price by weight.
3JTHM7yToo valuable in the current economy to measure in small quantities, sure. But in a postapocalyptic wasteland, the economy will have shrunk drastically while the available quantity of gold stays the same. Hence, gold is the new silver and silver is the new tin.
1MichaelAnissimov7yAn "apocalypse" like nuclear war is not particularly likely to kill off more than half the population, at most.
1JTHM7yIf a first-world country suffers a calamity in which half its population dies, it'll lose nine-tenths of its economic output at least.
1MichaelAnissimov7yGood point. I find it pretty hard to believe that people would start using gold instead of silver for casual transactions, but I suppose it's possible.
0RichardKennaway7yIn a world where... Someone offers me a silver coin. Why should I give them something for it? In a world where there are generally accepted forms of money, I can rely on that general acceptance to safeguard the value that I store as money. If civilisation falls, how do "pre-1965 silver dimes", or anything else of little practical value, acquire that role?
2jaime20007yIt's simple; gold and silver are schelling points. They have been used as mediums of monetary exchange for literally thousands of years. Maybe if you're in a malthusian scenario where people are starving in droves and the survivors are spending every available minute working to stay alive just a little longer, gold and silver won't do you much good. But as long as any kind of economic surplus exists, it's a pretty good bet that people will be willing to trade for gold and silver, if for no other reason than because they think that other people will also be willing to trade for gold and silver.
1Lumifer7yThe "general acceptance" provides you with liquidity but it offers no guarantees at all about the value of your banknotes.
3Error7yThe tools to grow, hunt, or otherwise produce your own food might be more important than either gold or weapons. Collapse to that degree would likely also halt the infrastructure that gets food to grocery stores, etc. Said stores would empty quickly and there would be no more coming -- and your canned emergency food won't last that long unless it's measured in tons and stored in a bunker.
2RomeoStevens7yFirearms are practically free. They retain the vast majority of their purchase value and generally increase in value at the rate of inflation.
-2bramflakes7yDepending on the catastrophe the cash might become worthless. As for weapons, you may be restricted by carrying or transportation laws depending on your jurisdiction.

Shouldn't this post be marked [Human] so that uploads and AIs don't need to spend cycles reading it?

...I'd like to think that this joke bears the more subtle point that a possible explanation for the preparedness gap in your rationalist friends is that they're trying to think like ideal rational agents, who wouldn't need to take such human considerations.