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The New Go Bag: What You Need in Your Emergency Escape Kit

As COVID-19 lingers, add masks and hand sanitizer, along with food, batteries and medications

A large collection of supplies to be used in case of a natural disaster including flashlight, backpack, batteries, water bottles, first aid kit, lantern, radio, can opener, hand sanitizer and mask
LifestyleVisuals/Getty Images

Some reasons you might need to leave home in a hurry? Hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, mudslides, floods.

These events are becoming more common, so people across the country are preparing by keeping a bag — or several — packed with what they’ll need to grab if they must leave home in an emergency.

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JoAnn Rash first realized the need for a “go bag" after a California friend was forced to evacuate quickly during an earthquake. Rash, 56, consulted the American Red Cross for recommendations on a disaster preparedness kit in case she and her family ever have to flee their home in Vancouver, Washington. She then found an oversize backpack with lots of pockets and filled it with essentials, from flashlights and batteries to bottled water.

“I felt like we needed to be ready for whatever comes our way,” Rash explains.

In 2022, wildfires in states including Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico put thousands of people under evacuation orders. More than 300,000 people on the west coast of Florida were under mandatory evacuation orders as Hurricane Ian approached. They included Dick Cooper, 75, who prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Ian from his Sarasota home reassured that he had a generator and was stocked with supplies. His area was not under an evacuation order.

While he did not have a bag packed, the retired journalist said if he did need to leave unexpectedly he could be ready within an hour. All of his 300,000 photos and other important information are backed up on a few external hard drives the size of novels, he noted, so he’d just need to grab those, his computer, medication, clothes and a few other items and he’d be ready to go “It’s like packing three library books and I’m out the door with all my writing and my photography,” Cooper says.

Packing a go bag is essential for disaster preparedness. Here are important items to include.

1. The bag

Your carryall must be large and sturdy enough to hold the essentials and small enough to grab on the run. A backpack is a great option. If you’re not able to carry a heavy bag, Sury recommends a duffel bag on wheels.

2. Food and water

Add lightweight, nutrient-dense foods, such as protein bars, instant oatmeal, nuts and seeds, and at least one gallon of water per person, per day. Don’t forget a manual can opener and utility knife. A go bag should have enough food and water for at least three days; remember to pack enough for your pets too.

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3. Personal essentials

Purchase travel-size toiletries and a first-aid kit. Pack a change of clothing, including a warm, waterproof layer, as well as an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses (and solution). Other items that should be in your go bag are an emergency blanket, scissors, duct tape, work gloves, towels and matches, according to the American Red Cross.

4. COVID-19 needs

The lingering pandemic means that masks are an essential go-bag item, and they can also be used to filter out ash from fires. However, Sury cautions that only N95 masks will filter out fire particulates that could trigger asthma or allergic responses. Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, soap, antibacterial wipes and a thermometer are important too, Sury advises.

5. Medications

If there is a warning that you may be evacuated, call your pharmacy and request an extra medication refill. Pack a list of your medications and the phone numbers for your pharmacy and physicians. You’ll also need portable versions of specialized medical equipment like syringes, CPAP machines and oxygen tanks. If you have to evacuate without notice, the Rx Open website, in partnership with the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs, maps the pharmacies that are open in disaster-stricken areas. If you have to evacuate without notice, the RX Open website, in partnership with the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs, maps the list of pharmacies that are open in disaster-stricken areas.

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6. Electronics

Throw in extra phone chargers, a flashlight and batteries. “We recommend hand-crank portable radios,” Sury says. “When all of our lines of communication go down during a disaster, AM/FM radios have proven to be one of the most reliable sources of … communication, and you don't need to worry about having fresh batteries."

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7. Paperwork

Make photocopies of essential documents, including passports; birth certificates; driver’s licenses; Social Security and Medicare cards; marriage, adoption and naturalization certificates; title or lease documents; insurance paperwork; and credit and debit card information. Make sure to store these in a waterproof, zip-top bag.

8. Cash

If natural disasters cause power outages, you may not be able to use your debit or credit cards to make purchases, so add cash to your go bag. Sury suggests “a couple hundred dollars” for a two-member household, to cover gas, food and other last-minute essentials. A combination of small bills and rolls of quarters is ideal if you need to buy food or water from vending machines.

Keep your go bag in an accessible location, such as a front hall closet or garage, where it’s easy to grab on your way out the door.

“[Packing a go bag] does take an investment of time, energy and a little bit of money,” Sury says, “but the payoff is worth it to have that peace of mind.”

AARP Home & Family Editor Michelle R. Davis contributed to this story.