A Budget-Conscious Californian’s Guide to a First Earthquake Kit

Okay, okay, the ground is moving again. And that’s putting it mildly—the 7.1 earthquake on July 5th was more powerful than the Northridge Earthquake (1994) and Loma Prieta (1989). Thankfully, injuries remain minor across the state, but I’ve realized a lot of folks in my social circles aren’t native Californians and/or didn’t grow up around this stuff, and as such, some of y’all are kind of freaking out.

First: being afraid of earthquakes is totally understandable, and even kind of (read: quite) sensible. I, and most of my childhood friends, grew up with parents who survived Loma Prieta and the knowledge that California is overdue for a major earthquake on basically every fault line. (Looking at you, Hayward and San Andreas.) We are perhaps a little too desensitized to the dangers of living here, but we also grew up doing earthquake drills at school and learning about earthquake kits, so we’re (theoretically) somewhat prepared. For the rest of y’all, though, I know this is new, and that’s okay.

Still, if you’re going to live in California, I highly recommend making an earthquake kit. This is basically a collection of necessities you might need if a Big One hits and you can’t stay in your house with comforts in easy reach. Beyond that, though, it’s an array of supplies to get you through a few days with no access to electricity, water, or a functioning grocery store.

When I started building a kit for myself and my partner, I realized it was a fairly large expense for someone with basically no budget for it! After a little research and a lot of price comparisons, I realized that using Dollar Tree as a starting point for our shopping was the best plan. You won’t be able to find everything there, but particularly for food, it’s a great way to save money while still getting what you need.

If you’re like me, your first earthquake kit won’t have everything you need. But if you’re trying to put one together, here’s a list of things I’d recommend starting with. Please note that anything that comes prepackaged (think lighters and socks, not cans of food) should be opened before it goes in your kit, because if your knife is shrink-wrapped and there’s an earthquake, you’re not getting to it:

  • WATER. One gallon per person per day. Stock enough for at least three days, but remember that if water lines get cut, you could be going without for a week or more. Get the ones with handles for easy carry. Dollar stores have these, but Wal-Mart or your grocery store may have them for less.
  • CASH IN SMALL BILLS. This will probably take some time to stock up on if you’re really tight on money, and that’s okay. The point is to be able to make exact change wherever possible, because no one’s going to have access to cash registers and ATMs. If you’ve got a $20 bill, great! You can spend it on one thing. If you’ve got $20 in ones, that’ll go a lot further. Right now my partner and I are saving toward $100 in ones and fives, but ideally, we might want to have $100 per person or more. (Do store this in something opaque. You don’t want the whole neighborhood to know exactly where your money is.)
  • Non-perishable food. Enough to sustain your household for several days! Canned fruits and veggies are ideal. Just make sure you go for expiration dates two or more years away, so you don’t have to restock every year. Prioritize things you can eat straight out of the can (or just heat up). Start your hunt at your local dollar store.
  • A can opener, so you can access your nonperishables. You can go cheap on this, just make sure it works. I’d recommend using it in your kitchen for awhile before putting it in your kit so you know it’s dependable.
  • A first aid kit! Yours can be as comprehensive as you’d like, but I’d recommend at least various sizes of Band-Aids (on-brand or off-, dollar stores can have some good ones), some gauze, and appropriate tape for the gauze. Super glue can apparently also be used for first aid, and you can usually get tiny tubes of that at your dollar store, but make sure you know how to use that.
  • Any and all medications you might need. I realize this can be dicey because prescriptions don’t usually let you just have extra doses lying around, but do put in any over-the-counter drugs your household uses. Allergy pills become more crucial when you’re sleeping outside. Ibuprofen might do a lot for you if you’re injured. I also keep a couple dollar-store heat wraps (think off-brand ThermaCare) in our kit. Pack what makes sense to you.
  • Cutlery! And plates. I’d recommend going disposable—it’s lighter and easier to store and carry. Dollar store this, too.
  • Paper towels, because Millennials are killing the napkin industry, and you’ll want something multipurpose. Get these wherever you prefer—we took out a roll from our Costco multipack last time we restocked.
  • Toilet paper. Need I explain?
  • A good (or at least decent) knife of your choice. Dollar store will do (it’s what we have), but you’re going to need it for a bunch of reasons. It’s a multitool.
  • Scissors. Sometimes they’re easier to use than a knife. You should have both. (Don’t spend a lot of money on these. As long as they cut cardboard, you’re probably good.)
  • SPARE SOCKS. A spare outfit for each person in your household is probably ideal, but if you don’t have space/funds, at least make sure your feet are warm and cozy at night. Dollar store this, or put in some you already have.
  • Gardening gloves or equivalent, because it’s good to be able to protect your hands if you need to. One pair per person. Dollar store these.
  • Aim ‘n’ Flame (again, on-brand or off-). FIRE! (obviously helpful, but do be careful.)
  • Matches, for when your Aim ‘n’ Flame isn’t right (or functional). KEEP THESE IN A WATERTIGHT CONTAINER.
  • Candles. Big ones. These will help some with warmth (especially if you’re in a tent, though there’s obviously risk there) and light. Dollar Tree has some tall skinny ones if you look down on the lower shelves (below the fun scented candles).
  • A crowbar—I’d recommend making sure this is accessible as you’re trying to get out of your house/apartment/residence, because doors can get really stuck in an earthquake. It’s also a great weapon should you need one. I’d recommend saving and investing in a good one (it’s still on our To-Buy List).
  • Mylar blankets—they’re small, you can keep them in the pockets of your car (but do have some in your kit as well), and they’ll keep you warm. You can bring your own regular blankets too, but in the event you need to get out super quickly, you want everything you absolutely need in your kit.
  • A crank radio. These can cost more as well (again, still on our To-Buy List), but you’ll want to stay informed about damage and if/when help is on the way, and it’s easier not to have to rely on batteries. (Please note that you should have extra batteries for anything in your kit that requires them, though.)
  • Flashlights. This probably should’ve been higher up on the list, but you want at least a couple. They can be small. John and I both have big Mag-Lites in our cars, which are great (and also good weapons in a pinch); that might be a good addition to yours, but if space is a concern, go smaller (but get a few).
  • Trash bags. For, y’know, trash. You can get a box of five or so at most dollar stores. You might want up to ten, but you probably (hopefully?) wouldn’t need more than that.
  • Ponchos! Get them at your dollar store. They don’t need to be amazing; they just need to work.
  • Pads, if you are someone who menstruates. The fault lines don’t care if you’re on your period or not, but you probably will.
  • Duct tape, just in case.
  • Kleenex—get the little pocket packs at your local dollar store. I think ours has them seasonally, so keep an eye out. (Or go to the grocery store and get them today, just pay a little more for them.) The little guys are much easier to store than a whole box.
  • Sleeping masks will make your life better if you’re sleeping outside and don’t want to get up with the dawn. Get the ones from the dollar store—no need to spend a lot on this.
  • A tent, if you have access to one (or are willing to put some money down on one). We use the one we have for camping—it lives in the closet nearest our front door, so we can grab it on our way out if we’re in a hurry. A little privacy will probably make your life a little better in situations like these; helping keep heat contained is an added bonus if it’s particularly wintery out. If you’re using a tent, do make sure you have a tarp to put under it. I think Costco’s selling them right now at 2 for $20ish, so you and a buddy could go in on it together and split them up.
  • This is more of a storage recommendation than anything else, but if you are someone like me whose life’s work lives on a laptop or computer, keep your backup drive in your earthquake kit. You might not remember to get your computer in your mad dash out the door, so remember to back up your data regularly and keep the drive where it’ll come with you no matter what.

There are always a few more things that could drastically improve your life—pillows, if you can figure out where to store them that’s accessible; pet food, if you have a pet; sleeping bags, if you can store them with your pillows. Feel free to tweak this list to suit your own needs. But where do you put it all?

The answer we’ve found, friends, is one of those handy storage tubs from Target or your equivalent buy-too-many-things-in-one-place store. Our supplies (minus the water) fit comfortably in the tub with a little room left over for the few things we still need, and it sits just to the side of our couch with our six gallons of water. Between my partner and I, we can comfortably carry everything we’ll need—plus our most critical instruments and anything else we might think to grab, like warm clothes—in one trip. (Thank goodness for backpack straps on cases.) Are we perfectly prepared for a killer earthquake? No, probably not. But for early-twentysomethings without a lot of spare budget, we’ve at least ensured we’ll be able to cope for a few days should that terror of terrors arrive.

What other essentials have to make their way into your earthquake kit? Where do you keep your list of miscellaneous other stuff you need to bring with you when disaster strikes? Which close-toed shoes do you keep by your bed in case you need to bolt in the middle of the night? Let me know! (And, to really atrociously bastardize a Hunger Games quote, may the walls fall ever in your favor.) ♦

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