A Reader Writes: Disaster Planning On a Budget

Image: “Thrift Store Sign” by pixeljones is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Some personal survival tips from SRC reader, David McComas on how to prepare for all types of disaster when you’re on a very strict budget.

Disasters come in many forms, fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, terrorist attack; the list goes on and on. Most are short term. Others are not. It is difficult and expensive to prepare for everything, so prepare for anything by covering the bare basics and supplementing with items you already have or can quickly access.

What is the average person to do, when they live in a small apartment and have a modest income? Since you can’t prepare for everything, I suggest prepping for the basics. Good luck. You’ll need it. But the good news is you are in your apartment, you already the first essential for survival: Shelter. It gets trickier when you’re forced out on to the road. Here are some basic, and lightweight options for disaster survival when there’s no one around to help.

Food and water

You can live a long time without food. About a month is the norm. After two weeks, you won’t be running any marathons, but after three to five days or so without water, you are about done for. It’s good to stay out of the cold of winter and the intense heat of summer, when you are trying to survive. And rain, anytime.

Water is the most important item. You can spend money on bottled water if you want to. If it feels better to drink designer water, then go ahead and do it. If you want to stay on a budget, after drinking two-liter bottles of soda, wash them out thoroughly and refill them with water. Fill them all the way to the top, so that you see a, “mound” of water at the top. Then, cap it off tight, so there is little or no air gap. At the first sign of disaster, fill up all sealable containers and fill your bath tub with cold water. Block the overflow drain with duct tape to fill it even higher. Remember, your hot water tank holds a lot of water too.

My favorite container for water is ½ gallon juice bottles. You can add drop of chlorine bleach to your water bottles about 1-2 drops a pint. It may taste terrible to you depending on what your normal water source tastes like but it won’t kill you and it’s safe. You can flavor with hard candy, instant tea or other flavored instant drink mixes. It’s a good idea to check your bottled water supply every six months to make sure nothing is growing in there and there are no leaks. If you re-fill them, you can skip the bleach. Milk jugs for example, are biodegradable and will leak after a while. Plan on one gallon of water per person per day minimum. Some sources say two gallons. More is better. It’s not just for drinking and cooking but personal hygiene, laundry, and – when unusable for anything else – flushing the toilet. Those old phone books can be used as toilet paper so long as you are really frugal with them. They’re

If you’re on the road without water, remember the bleach trick. Have a small bottle with you, it’s a great sterilizer and it will clean your drinking water. First, take some charcoal from a bonfire and some sand – as clean as you can get it – and scrunch these items into a soda or water bottle. Fill with dirty water and screw on the cap. Punch the cap with holes and pore out the water through them. As if by magic the water will flow out clear, having been filtered by the sand and charcoal. It is still contaminated, so add a drop or two of bleach, shake and leave for half an hour. The bleach stink goes (mostly) away and your water should be purified. Personally, I couldn’t survive without some coffee and at that point even instant would work, so I would have some in my stash from the dollar store or when I see it on clearance at the supermarket.

Food is next on the list. Peanut butter and crackers have a very long shelf life and can be had cheaply at discount grocers so almost everyone can accumulate a basic emergency pantry. Don’t forget to have your favorite utensil to spread the peanut butter if you have to leave your shelter.

Honey is the one food we know of that simply will not spoil. Ever. They found some in an Egyptian tomb, roughly, 3,000 years old. It had dried into powder, but they warmed it up in a pan over low heat and it went back to being wet, yellow, nutritious and delicious.

Peanut butter, crackers and honey are highly portable, easily prepared without cooking and can be stored without refrigeration. For the price of one military MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) you can buy enough peanut butter and crackers to last for one week or more. Your supply should last for at least two weeks. A month would be better.

(If you’re in survival mode for this long you’re going to need more variety and at the very least some multi-vitamins to carry with you or as you shelter in place. Lightweight proteins like jerky should be considered for a bug-out bag. Cans of cheap meats and/or lentils and beans for sheltering in place can be eaten from the can if necessary and will provide nutrients and comfort.~Kelly)

Force out of your shelter and caught without wet gear?

Whatever the weather, hot or cold, have some large, dark, heavy duty trash bags for rain gear ponchos. Two bags for each person, plus hats, not ball caps. You need a full brim to keep the rain out of your neck hole. Or, use small plastic shopping bags as a hat. Cut the bottom out of one trash bag and attach it your waist with a belt or string. Cut a small hole in the bottom of the middle of another and put your head through it. (Trash bags are also useful as another layer for sleeping rough, for patching holes in tarps and to double-bag sleeping bags in damp areas.)

If you don’t have hats, put a hole near the bottom on the side and use it to stick your face through it for a poncho. To a certain extent, this arrangement will provide camouflage as well. Looking goofy doesn’t count, only surviving does.

A large tarp or two comes in handy for shelter. Or a shower curtain or two which will surely to be had in some abandoned houses. Get the kind with grommets in them, and carry a lot of twine or para cord. Waterproof matches are great. However, in the same amount of space, you can have a butane (BIC) lighter, which will light a lot more fires, even when wet. (Personally I use a magnesium block and striker, but these are a bit more expensive ~ Kelly)Have two BIC lighters, in case one malfunctions. I like the long ones for BBQ grills, however, they are more expensive. Get some cheap, non scented candles and a way to burn them safely. You can use candles to cook with, too, if you’re really pressed. Once you’ve emptied a can of food that container is a potential piece of cookware.

A good, all purpose knife, a hatchet that doubles as a hammer, pliers and a small folding saw or buck saw will go a long way toward building shelters and providing weapons for defense. Multi-tools come in handy for so many things. Pry bars may also come in handy if the SHTF.  All can be bought at your local dollar store, but remember, it’s always better to get old Sears Craftsman or Stanley tools from a thrift store than something flimsy and unreliable from China. If you have access to an old Leatherman multi-tool, keep it with you always.


After the stores have been ransacked, there will still be fish to be had, in just about any body of water over five feet deep. Have some basic fishing gear. Line and hooks don’t take up much space. Line rots, so that’s something you should be careful about buying from a thrift store unless you know what you’re doing. But hooks, even rusty ones, probably only need a bit of TLC with a piece of sandpaper.

You can cut a tree limb for a pole, or unscrew the handle from a household mop or brush. Small sticks or any bottle that will float can be a bobber, and with a sharp, long knife you can fillet any fish, so you won’t have to deal with a bone caught in your throat later on!

Turn over rocks for bait. Use fish guts for crayfish bait. Some twine and a window screen can be your crayfish trap. Bait the trap with fish guts or road kill or whatever you can find that stinks and wait for an hour, then yank it out quickly. Pliers come in handy for dealing with pincers. You will need a pot to boil them in. I like the old, large, pressure cookers, because they have a handle on them. It will come in handy when you purify drinking water, too. Get something to sharpen your tools with like a steel from one of those knife-sets, or a block like carpenters use for sharpening chisels.

“Bug Out Bag” from the Thrift Store

You need at least one change of clothes in a“Bug Out Bag” backpack. Two changes would be better. Layers are better, yet. Thrift stores come in handy for a cheap outfit or two. Fashion will not be a factor. A change in footwear will come in handy too, in case one pair gets wet. Get lots of socks or keep the older ones as spares when you buy new ones and keep them in a separate plastic bag so they will stay dry. Back packs can be had cheaply there as well. Look for a used sleeping bag while you are there. And a towel or two and a blanket.

When I was a Boy Scout, I went on a camp out where we had to camp with what we could carry in a pack. After about one mile, I thought my back was going to break in half. So, if you think you need to go any great distance, you might want to use a bicycle to haul your pack. Strap it on and use an old broom handle taped to the handle bars to make it easier to push. A full size bike should be able to haul 200-300 lbs. You can tie two packs together and drape them over the middle bar and the back wheel like saddlebags. 

First Aid Kit

The dollar shops are great for this kind of stuff. You may not recognize the brands but the you can put together a good basic first aid kit. Be sure to include scissors, nail clippers and tweezers. Knives are great, but sometimes scissors are better and vice versa. Include some alcohol or alcohol wipes to sterilize your instruments. The U.S. Army has issued every combat soldier a tourniquet. You should probably have one too, or something that will get the same job done.

Have some personal hygiene stuff, like soap, razor, toothbrush, towel and a bandanna. I have found that even if I don’t have toothpaste, it helps to brush my teeth. It actually makes me feel better. A small camping mirror comes in very handy for many things, like hygiene, signaling, or the tactical movement of looking around corners. I like the pocket-sized ones made of metal. Generic, “baby wipes” can used on those smelly areas to stay fresher longer.  

You can get this stuff a little at a time, five bucks per week or so, developing your own priorities as to what you get, first to last. David