Starting out as a novice prepper or making the lifestyle change to one of self-reliance can be stressful, even overwhelming. Seasoned preppers can all too easily forget that for all the info out here on the internet it takes a certain amount of experience to sift the good and relevant from the bad and irrelevant.
Of course to get the experience you need to start somewhere, so what is a newbie to do? It looks an awful lot like a catch-22.
The good news is that buried amidst all the arcana, minutiae and in-depth detailed guides on raising your very own sustainable farm on only 1 acre of land, there is a hierarchy of needs.
At the base of this hierarchy you have the most fundamental preps, things that are essential everywhere and in any conceivable disaster and mishap. Like so many other things, the place to begin is at the beginning.
In this article, I’ll give you some guidance on the first 12 essential preps that you should procure before you do anything else as a newbie prepper.
By starting out with these 12 items, you’ll be covering yourself against the most likely threats that could befall you, and gain momentum to help springboard you into a new personal culture of preparation.
Getting Back to Basics
While it can be tempting and even exciting as a beginning prepper to pick out and focus on some exotic threat to prepare against like a nuclear strike, zombie uprising or nanobot swarm, this is often counterproductive.
Plainly, the above scenarios are so unlikely to happen as to range anywhere from extremely improbable to fantasy.
Sure, we all enjoy reading fiction and watching movies about those subjects, but the things that are most likely to kill us and our families are far more mundane, if no less deadly.
What you should be doing instead is focusing your efforts down on prepping against the most common, most realistic threats to safety, life and limb.
It is not as sexy, and is not as cool to learn about these plain-vanilla occurrences, but I can promise you it will turn exciting enough should they ever happen to you.
What kind of events am I referring to? I am talking about the everyday disasters that reap untold carnage in both lives lost and property damage each year, the kind of disasters that never make the ‘Top 5 Apocalypses’ lists.
Things like tornadoes, hurricanes and especially flooding. Things like major blackouts, blizzards and severe civil disturbance. Common viruses mutating into superbugs and scouring a continent in an epidemic.
Earthquakes, mudslides, industrial accidents and more. Those are the disasters you should be worried about because they are all too common, all around the world.
If you start to imagine what those disasters would all entail for you and yours, you’ll start to see some trends as to what you would be facing during and in the aftermath.
The supplies and items you need to deal with those problems are the very same ones you’ll find on this list.
No matter who you are, where you live, and what kind of climate you enjoy (or despise) all people have the same fundamental requirements for life. Air is certainly the most pressing and constant. Food is one, to fuel our bodies.
Water is another, also vital for life, and completely non-negotiable. Shelter is essential to prevent exposure, both too hot and too cold. Security, the ability to ward off or deflect danger from predators of all kinds is another.
You can make a case for others, but doing without often brings doom far more slowly than lacking any of the above.
You can see that humans since time immemorial have all been burdened with these same needs, no ifs, ands, or buts. Chances are all of our future descendants will still be saddled with them.
It is these essential needs that we must see to in order to give ourselves the best chance for survival during and after a disaster.
Not all of these needs are created equal. Humans can last a few minutes without air, a few hours without shelter (in a rough enough climate), a few days without water and a few weeks without food. The calculation is simple.
How you provide for each of these requirements is up to you, and there is both the beauty and the puzzle of preparation: one can certainly stock stable, ready to eat food in enough quantity to carry you quite a long time, but what would you do if forced to evacuate?
You cannot carry hundreds of pounds of food with you. The same problem is present with water, which is easy to store but very heavy and costly to carry.
How about air? Air is without question the most plentiful and available resource we require, but if the very air you breathe should turn into a hazard you will need a Plan B and with extreme haste.
Shelter may seem like the least of your worries snugged up inside your house, even with the power off. But what should happen if hurricane winds blow your house down, or rising flood waters drive you from its protection?
Do you know how to make a shelter with the things you have at hand if you cannot find suitable habitation?
High Gain and Low Effort
There are answers and countermeasures for every threat, and these can be layered and interlaced with one another to create a truly comprehensive, holistic level of readiness.
But, save all that for another time. Just starting out, with few if any material preps and few hard skills to put to use, we will focus on acquiring the things that will pay off the most in any emergency.
Most of these preps are what I call “plug and play,” meaning they require no special skills to make use of. This is not to say you don’t need any skill to survive!
You certainly do, and you should be building and practicing your skills even as you gather your supplies, but what those skills should be upon starting out is a subject for another article.
Below you will find a list of the 12 most essential preps you should procure as a newbie. These items are valuable in nearly every disaster or emergency situation you can think of.
Now, it is of course entirely possible that you may not have need or be able to make use of some of these items in your very specific circumstances, but this will be the exception, not the rule.
And if that is indeed the case, you need to think of the thing you do need for that situation instead of what I had listed!
The items are shown complete with the “why” you need them and their expected use. Any other special storage or maintenance info will be listed with each. Happy prepping!
#1. Water, 1 gallon per person, per day (minimum 3 day supply, one week is better)
Next to air, water is the one consumable resource you’ll miss the most and the fastest in an emergency, and not just for drinking!
Water is vital for personal hygiene, cooking and sanitation tasks, and that is why you are advised to stock so much of it.
Also consider that if you live in an arid region or are engaged in much labor and exertion you will be drinking far more to replace lost fluids in your body than if you were just lounging around in the shade.
There are all kinds of ways to store water, but you can make your life a little easier right now by purchasing large jugs of water off the grocery shelf with perhaps a couple of cases of smaller bottles for convenience and carry.
#2. Food, shelf-stable, min. 2,000 calories per adult per day
While most of us do not have a true need for food in the short term to survive, as most Americans have plenty of ready-to-burn fuel around their midsections already, food is still vital for maintaining energy levels and mental sharpness during periods of exertion.
Food is also a big morale booster, and some people go downright haywire when they start missing meals. Keep in mind that you can maintain “survival” levels of food intake and make your supply go longer in a real pinch. Every meal need not be a banquet.
There are lots of options for your survival food supply, but you can do just fine with any combination of canned meals, MREs, dehydrated camping and survival meals and others that require minimal or no prep.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on your expiration dates, and be sure to have a can opener and disposable plates, utensils and cups!
#3. Headlamp, with extra batteries
In most disasters that live up to the name, you can expect a loss of power. No power means no lights coming on when the switch is flipped. Since humans are so very reliant on our sight darkness will be hold even more dangers during a disaster.
A flashlight can banish the darkness and signal help at night with a button click and rides handily in your pocket, but you will probably have much to do and deal with during and after a disaster and so a headlamp is the superior choice here.
The ability to have hands-free light aimed wherever you are looking is priceless and besides; holding a flashlight with your teeth sucks.
Get a quality headlamp with a dimmer switch so you can adjust the light output to the task at hand. Make sure you have a good supply of batteries for it, and rotate your batteries as you would your food supply.
#4. First Aid Kit
As you go farther along your path to realizing your vision of self-sufficiency you will come to understand that you are you own first-responder.
Part of that understanding means you know how to deal with the injuries that often result from a close encounter with a disaster or violent event.
A good first aid kit should be able to deal with all kinds of minor injuries and the most common kinds of trauma.
Things like band-aids, gauze, ace wraps, antiseptics, burn cream, medicines for pain, nausea and similar ailments as well as hemostatics, pressure dressings, tourniquets and more for trauma.
Also include in this kit anything like needed prescription medicines.
More than anything else on this list, the medical supplies require the most know-how and skill to make effective use of. Make sure you learn CPR, basic first aid and essential trauma care.
You can count on EMS and other emergency services being swamped, overextended or immobilized during many types of large-scale disaster. You must be ready!
#5. Hygiene Kit
Hygiene is no simple nicety in an emergency. Staying clean helps you maintain your mindset and a good attitude, and also helps prevent the spread of diseases, infection and other ailments that can turn into real show-stoppers, even life threatening ailments.
Besides bathing, you will still need to pee and poop, and knowing how to deal with that certain eventuality is a must for your health and your sanity.
Your hygiene kit should include things like clean rags, soap, body powder, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste and any feminine care items required.
Also include at the minimum a heavy-duty five gallon bucket, heavy mil contractor bags, TP, baby wipes and some absorbent media like sawdust for waste control.
#6. Work Clothes, seasonally appropriate
You must assume that you will get wet, dirty, muddy and bloody in the course of surviving a disaster. Even if you don’t, when things get dangerous you don’t want to be traipsing around in shorts and boat shoes.
You need rugged clothes and footwear that will offer both protection and allow you to do the things you need to. Plus a dedicated extra set of clothes will give you something to wear assuming all your others are lost and this can allow you to get clean.
Any set of clothes should include seasonally appropriate pants, shirt, boots, socks, underwear, gloves and hat.
#7. Emergency Radio
An NOAA crank-powered radio will allow you to receive updates on severe weather and other emergency conditions even when most other forms of communication go down.
The more modern examples of this classic piece of contingency equipment include a dynamo-powered flashlight and even USB chargers to help keep your phones powered up. So long as your muscles hold out, you will be able to rely on this piece of kit.
#8. Large Tarps and Cordage
A humble tarp with grommets is about as multi-purpose as a humble piece of gear gets. A good tarp with strong cordage allows you to create a shelter from sun, wind and water or use it as a ground cover to help keep you a little cleaner and drier.
A tarp can even help you stay warm inside a cold house by making a simple microclimate that is far easier to keep warm with body heat.
A tarp comes in handy for shoring up a leaky dwelling or camping out, and if you choose one in a bright or dual-sided colorway than they make great signaling devices. Tarps can even be used to help collect water from rain.
Spend a little more and get one made from quality synthetic material with heavy-duty grommets. You won’t regret it.
#9. Tool Kit
If disasters did not cause damage, they wouldn’t be disasters, would they? Having a basic tool kit is a great idea for coping with the aftermath, and will allow you to fix, build and improvise in order to attain a good outcome.
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. See my full disclosure for more.
A basic tool kit should include a selection of manual, muscle-powered tools like a framing hammer, sturdy pry bar, saw, duct tape, drivers of all kinds, vise grips, wrenches, pliers, utility knives, screws, nails, super glue, wire cutters and more.
If you are a “tool guy/tool gal” you’ll likely be all set in this department, but if you aren’t you don’t need to go overboard. All you need are basic things to help you fix what is leaky or broken, shut off utilities, or nail up boards and things for shelter or security.
#10. Backup Documents
Count on a disaster displacing both you and all of your pertinent information in files and electronic databases.
It is the height of shrewdness to have all of your vital IDs, title, deeds, birth certificates, passports, registrations, bank info and more in either or both hardcopy and electronic format.
You can hardly imagine how much easier this will make your life in the wake of a major catastrophe.
In hardcopy form, make sure all are legible and sealed in heavy, weatherproof protectors.
For an electronic solution, save all in common formats on a flash drive, but make sure you encrypt it so you don’t give an identity thief a straight flush on ripping off your life should you lose it.
A forced evacuation, or bug-out in prepper parlance, is no time for wrong turns, guessing games and “I’ll figure it out.” You need to know where you are going, what your options are and how to get there.
Also, don’t think you can count on whipping out our perennial pal Google Maps, either.
You will most probably be able to count on internet and other serviced being down or completely clogged, so we’ll go old fashioned here and use a plain, ol’ paper map.
Together, these will let you figure out where you need to go and how to get there when all other methods are a no-go.
As sad as it is to say so, disasters often bring out the worst elements of society right along with the best.
Criminals will use the confusion and chaos to ply their trade with less chances of arrest while the unprepared, scared and desperate will act erratically in an effort to save themselves and their families.
No matter what their motivation, you must accept the possibility and be prepared and able to fend off human predators to stay safe.
Depending on the scenario and where you live, this will be a greater or smaller likelihood, but wherever you have people you have the potential for violence.
You have plenty of choices here to suit your desires and local laws. A trusty firearm is always an excellent choice if you have the skill to use it. Knives of all kinds make excellent tools and also do double duty as defensive weapons.
Less lethal options could be pepper spray or even a taser. You can rely on close range weapons like a club or even a purpose-made or improvised spear.
The ideal here is to have some ranged capability with a close range backup of some kind. The farther you can keep yourself away from a bad guy while defending the better, as you are harder to hurt the farther you are.
Second only to medical supplies is skill and training a necessary ingredient for successful use of a weapon, so make sure you get some and practice regularly.
There is so much to get and learn about prepping it can be a paralyzing undertaking for a beginner.
Fear not, because everyone started somewhere, and if you start with the most essential preps you can be assured you will have a solid core of survival gear and provisions that will serve you well in any disaster great or small.
From this basic beginning you will build out while you grow as a prepper until you have a comprehensive stash to handle any eventuality.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.