A to Z Emergency Prep Guide: The First Three Days - Be Prepared - Emergency Essentials

If you haven’t heard it yet, then let us be the first say, happy National Preparedness Month!

Our focus this “Preptember” (as we like to call it) is simple. We want to help everyone in our community improve the state of their preparedness! And we mean everyone.

  • For folks just getting started with emergency preparedness we’ll lay out a one-of-a-kind road map to help you build an incredible supply.
  • For long-time preppers, we’ll be sharing some amazing tips and tricks from real-life survivors to help fill those holes in your preparedness. (Don’t feel bad—we’ve all got them).

We’re starting today with what’s arguably the foundation of all preparedness—the 72-hour kit (SEE OUR CHECKLIST AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST). We’ll look at first-hand survivor accounts to understand the events you really need to prepare for and offer pro tips on how to get ready for them.

It’s a new take on an old topic—and one that will bring up new ideas you may never have heard!

Disaster Timeline

As you read on, you might notice our approach is a little different than other prep guides.

Instead of just hitting you with a giant checklist, we’re going to take a step back and look at the events and challenges you’ll face during a major emergency. We’ve pulled these from professional emergency managers and our own interviews with disaster survivors to create a “disaster timeline.”

Throughout the month, we’re going to continually use the events in this timeline to guide our preparations.

Keep in mind, our timeline is only meant to be a broad guide. We know it’s not what everyone’s disaster experience will look like. Even in major disasters, you may not have to evacuate, treat severe injuries, deal with shock and panic, etc.

However, we believe in the old adage, “prepare for the worst.” That way you’ll be covered, no matter where a disaster takes you or how bad it gets.

Preparing for the First Three Days: Triage Phase

First up on our timeline—and the topic of this post—are days one through three of a disaster. These are the most important moments of almost any emergency because they can set you up for success or struggle in the weeks ahead.

According to survivors, the first day or two of a major disaster can be summed up in one word: chaos. Normal day-to-day life comes to a screeching halt as everyone rushes to safety and focuses on survival.

This alone is dangerous enough, but it’s not all you’re fighting against. The instant a disaster hits, there are a host of emotional and psychological responses that can impair judgement and lead to dangerous behavior.

How to Prepare

Most of us have learned that you can’t always control what goes on in this world. What you can control, however, is how you respond, and that makes all the difference in a disaster.

The best way to control and optimize your response in times of chaos is create a plan in advance—and then practice, practice, practice.

There’s lots of great advice out there for creating an emergency plan. Here are 10 of the most important.


Where will you shelter? Plan a spot to ride out a disaster in every location you spend a significant amount of time, including your home, work, and even the homes of loved ones.

And what about your food? After suffering damage to her home from a major disaster, one survivor we interviewed decided to get more strategic about “sheltering” her food supply. She started storing food all over the house—under her bed, in closets, in the garage. “I have medical supplies in three different places in my house,” she says, “so there will be easy access.”


You have to be ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice. You need a three-fold evacuation plan that lays out:

  1. How to get out of your home, office, car, etc., safely.
  2. How to get out of town.
  3. Where to meet in your home, neighborhood, outside your neighborhood, and out of town.


    Make sure you have these three bases covered:

    • How to stay in touch with loved ones (in and out of town).
    • How to keep informed on conditions and official instructions.
    • How and where to contact emergency services

    It’s also a good idea to create a group via your preferred SMS or instant message app (Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.) where you can coordinate with the people you love and chime in on your status.

    Hurricane survivor Connie was able to use Facebook after a disaster to not just post updates on her family’s status, but to coordinate relief for families in her area. “We had a ‘blessings table’, she said. “We’d put out posts on Facebook [asking] ‘anybody need anything?’”


    No plan goes perfectly, so you’ll do a lot better if you have backups in place for shelter, evacuation, and communications.

    For example, include contingencies in your communications plan for system outages. If the Internet’s out, have a plan to fall back on cell data. Cell data out? Have a land line in place. If your landline is out, have radios on hand. They’re a great last resort.


    This should include emergency responder info, the cell phone numbers of every member of your household, and out of town contacts. Store these in your phone for quick access.

    Don't forget to keep important documents like your driver’s license, social security card, will, birth certificates, bank information, and insurance forms in a secure place like a locked filing cabinet or safe. You may need to grab these quickly during an evacuation.


    A shelter, evacuation, and communications plan that doesn’t include the members of your household is no plan at all. Take steps to make sure everyone in your home is protected.


    Break your plan into actionable tasks and then assign them out.


    It’s funny how pieces of paper and even digital documents have a way of disappearing. Make multiple copies of your plan in multiple formats. Have one for each member to carry in a purse, wallet, or backpack.

    9. REVISIT

    People move. Phone numbers change. Revise your plan as needed, but revisit it at least once a year.


    This is easily the most neglected part of emergency planning, but there’s nothing more powerful for combating chaos. Muscle memory is real! Studies of the human body are still surprising scientists with how incredible we are at performing practiced tasks while our conscious minds are distracted by other things.

    One survivor we interviewed started doing emergency drills with her children after living through a major earthquake.

    “At night, [we’d] turn off all the lights and run downstairs,” she explained. “Teach your children the layout of the house with their eyes closed. How many stairs do you have to go down? It helps your children. They won't be so afraid if they feel prepared, because being prepared is being powerful.

    If you’re looking for more help with your emergency plan, click below for some great templates we recommend for families.

    • Family Emergency Plan. A concise, easy-to-use family emergency plan from the Red Cross [template]
    • Evacuation Plan. Emergency Essentials' step-by-step evacuation plan [template]
    • Communications Plan. One of the most extensive emergency communication plans out there. From FEMA. [template]

    Once the shaking, wind, or floodwaters (etc.) pass, it’s perfectly fine to breathe a sigh of relief. Take note of your victories. Is your house still standing? Is your family safe and accounted for?

    If the answer is yes, then there are reasons to thank the heavens, but don’t get too comfortable. With the immediate disaster passed, new problems can emerge.

    The first thing you’ll notice is that the power is gone. Next, water may not be coming out of the tap, and if it is, it may be contaminated. (Check out our post about surviving for 30 days and beyond for tips on how to deal with long-term water and power outages.)

    And then there’s food. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself going through that mental checklist that survivors know so well:

    • Is there anything left in my refrigerator? (An earthquake can shake your refrigerator open, spreading the contents all over the floor).
    • What’s in my cupboards?
    • What’s the condition of my emergency food?
    • Can I get to it?
    • How long will it all last?

    Planning and practice helped get you through the initial shock and chaos of disaster, and they’ll continue to pay you back tenfold. But at this point, it’s your carefully selected supplies that are going to come to the rescue. 

    How to Prepare

    Food and water may be the first priority when you’re packing supplies, but it’s hard to overstate how disruptive and far-reaching a long blackout can be. You lose light and temperature control. Your ability to store food (short of a cooler) is gone. You may even lose water.

    The good news is that if you design your three-day supply around the actual conditions you'll be facing, you won’t need much power at all to get by.


    That’s because the first three days after a disaster are all about surviving lean.

    Even with a great plan, you’re still at the mercy of disaster conditions. You can never be quite sure where events will take you—whether at home or evacuating. If you can’t fit everything you need in a large pack that can be picked up and carried out at a moment's notice, you may find yourself in some trouble.   

    We recommend designing your three-day supply to fit the dimensions of a backpack. That way, regardless where you end up, you’ll be covered.

    This is going to change the way you plan for power loss in days one through three.

    Power – You can’t travel with a generator, but if you’re on the road you won’t need one anyway. Make sure you have at least one device that can charge a phone or a radio. That should cover you for power. (Since you might have to shelter in place, we still recommend picking up a generator).

    Light – With power gone, a flashlight is a no-brainer. You’ll want at least one water-resistant LED flashlight with multiple options for power: like solar, battery, or hand crank. If you can also fit an additional lantern-style hanging light in your pack,.all the better. Look for lights that have an optional strobe function for signaling.

    Refrigeration – Again, especially if you’re on the road, you might just want to write refrigeration off. Sure, you could haul around a cooler, but finding room for it and keeping it stocked with ice is going to suck precious energy and time.

    Instead, pack foods that don’t need refrigeration. Datrex bars, MREs, and freeze-dried and dehydrated emergency food pouches should be your go-to. They also fit perfectly in a backpack.

    Temperature regulation – For the first three days, at least, plan on keeping warm or cool the old-fashioned way—by planning out your wardrobe and focusing on shelter. For cooler temperatures, layered clothing is a must. You’ll also want emergency thermal blankets (that can double as shelter) and an easy-to-carry sleeping bag. Take plenty of water and pack at least one battery-operated fan.

    Because space is so tight, you may want to consider devices that are multi-functional and take up less room in your pack. For example, look for a flashlight/phone charger combo. Some devices can perform up to nine or ten functions. These are amazing space savers.


    And remember—don’t rely on batteries alone if you can help it. They take up precious space and have a limited shelf life. You don’t want to pop them into your flashlight down the road only to find they’ve died and you’re stuck in the dark without other options

    Where you can, supplement or even replace your battery-powered gear with solar equipment. There’s no shelf life on the sun and you don’t have to lug it around with you. Many solar devices will charge (albeit more slowly) on a cloudy day, and you can even use incandescent indoor lights.

    If you can find hand-cranked devices, these are a great alternative to batteries as well.


    Most of us have at least three days of food hanging around our fridge and cupboards—but don’t let that give you a false sense of security. Fridge and pantry fare is great for everyday eating, but make pretty poor emergency food.

    Cupboards are bare – To begin with, disaster may strike when your cupboards are a little bare, which in many households can happen regularly.

    Not optimized for emergencies – The stuff lying around the kitchen is not optimized for emergency conditions, especially for conditions during the first three days.

    • Half of it needs refrigeration
    • It can require ingredients and resources to prepare
    • It’s heavy and bulky (especially canned foods)
    • Most of it is not protected by weather resistant packaging

    And then there’s water.

    It’s startling how few of us have this covered, even for the first three days.

    Rebecca, who survived Hurricane Michael, recalled a neighbor stopping by to ask for water. Rebecca gave her what little she could, and then asked how much was needed.

    “We’re out of water,” the neighbor replied in a panic. “This is all we have, what you’re giving me.”

    “And that really blew me away,” said Rebecca, “because it hadn’t even been 24 hours. There were so many that just were not prepared to last without water.”

    Another survivor saw much of the same thing when power in her town was knocked out for weeks. “There were people without water for up to ten days,” she said. “I heard [them] talking about going and standing in line for hours, [just to get] a case of water.

    How to Prepare

    Putting together a three-day supply of food and water is easy once you know what to look for.


    Portability – At the risk of sounding like a broken record, when it comes to your three-day food supply, you’ve got to be able to fit it in a pack you can pick up and carry.

    There are plenty of nutrient-rich foods that will keep you running strong over the short term and take up very little space.

    • Datrex bars are certified for use by the US Coast Guard. One small pack can contain thousands of calories.
    • MREs pack a whole meal in a pouch—there’s a reason our military relies on them.
    • Small pouches of freeze-dried food are also a great option. They only require water to prepare, though pre-packed meals will taste a lot better heated. Some can also be eaten dry, right out of the package.

    Shelf life – Once you’re out the door, the food in your pack is all you have and there’s no going back. The last thing you want is to find out it’s spoiled. The items above all have respectable shelf lives. Whatever you pack away should last at least a few years on your shelf.

    • Datrex Bars – 5-year shelf life
    • MREs – 3 to 5 year shelf life
    • Freeze-Dried Foods – 25 to 30-year shelf life

    Nutrition – Short-term survival depends on energy-dense meals that keep you satiated and energized. These aren’t diet foods! For the first three days, find foods that fit the following criteria:

    • High in Calories – Most of us are trying to cut calories from our diet, but when it comes to emergency food, you need to pack as many as you can. The average adult requires somewhere between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day.
    • High in macronutrients – A helpful, easy way to plan your emergency food supply is to think in terms of macronutrients (big nutrients required in large amounts) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals required in smaller amounts). For the first three days, pay close attention to your macronutrients: carbs, proteins, and fats. These are vital to energy and organ function.


    If you’re running from a natural disaster and can only carry one thing, water has to be it. Just one day without it and you’re in trouble. In fact, you might be surprised at how much water you need everyday.

    The good news is, covering three days of water is relatively simple. Make sure you’ve got:

    Packaged water – This is water you can open and drink instantly. Lots of people rely on bottled water, but this isn’t the best option. Plastic bottles crack and decompose with age. They also let in chemicals and sun that contaminates your supply.

    A better option is canned water. These stand up to a heck of a lot more abuse, and barring a puncture, are almost impermeable. They can last for up to 30 years. Make sure you’ve got two or more of these in each pack.

    Water filter – Water filters are fantastic. Quality filters can clean up to 99% of viruses, bacteria, and other contaminants. Their only real weakness is that they require an outside water source, and in the first three days these aren’t always easy to come by.

    Purifier – As a backup, we also suggest water purification tablets. They primarily kill microbes like bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

    By now the disaster’s passed and you’ve had a day or two to get your bearings and get to safety. Your emergency plan is put together and you’ve got backup food, water, and power all stowed away in a portable pack.

    But don’t let your guard down yet. There are plenty of dangers ahead.

    In fact, the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be more dangerous than the disaster itself. For the 10 deadliest hurricanes since 2000, indirect deaths (resulting from unsafe or unhealthy conditions created by a disaster) outnumbered direct deaths for 7 out of of 10 storms.

    With all the chaos and the overwhelming forces at play, injuries and medical emergencies are inevitable. Here are our best tips to prepare for them.

    How to Prepare


    It might go without saying, but the best way to stay safe from health concerns in an emergency is to avoid them (as much as you can). There are two easy steps that will help solve half of your medical problems before they begin:

    Keep back-up meds – Many of us rely on daily medications to remain healthy. If that’s the case for you, keeping a backup supply at the ready should be your number-one prepping priority. For your three-day kit, put together a little more than you need. Five or so days should do you.

    Follow emergency instructions – This is so important. If you are able, please, evacuate when instructed. Those who choose to stick it out at home may have their reasons, but they’re putting their lives and the lives of emergency responders at risk. In almost every circumstance, getting away from disaster is by far the best way to avoid injury.


    Let’s start with the fact that phone and Internet lines are likely to be out of commission and roads may be impassible in the first three days after a disaster. This means that calling an ambulance might be an option in some situations, but isn't always a reliable emergency plan.

    Getting to a hospital, though, could be feasible—it really depends on the conditions in your immediate neighborhood.

    The best thing to do is map out the routes to the nearest hospital and include them in your emergency plan.

    Major roads – Map a primary route over major roads.

    Back-up routes – Map out one or two back-up routes on less-traveled roads (in case larger thoroughfares are shut down).

    Practice – Drive these routes on a regular basis and get to know them well.

    You may also want to map out routes to a backup hospital in case your go-to facility is heavily damaged or blocked by impassible roads.


    Another consideration to make is that hospitals might be understaffed and running on backup power. All hospitals have generators, but they might not be enough to keep every system up and functioning.

    One storm survivor described hospitals struggling with power. “At the hospital they have a big generator,” she said. “But everything doesn’t just pick up and run on it. They couldn’t function…things were really tough for them for the first few days.”

    Let us be clear, you should seek out professional medical assistance in case of a serious injury or health issue. But knowing the conditions you might face can help you make even better decisions.


    Waiting for help to arrive is weak emergency plan, but if all else fails, it can give some hope to know that rescuers will likely attempt to get through as soon as possible.

    For example, just hours after Hurricane Michael passed, Rebecca and her neighbors got a visit from two emergency responders.

    “They were strictly coming to see if anyone needed emergency medical help,” she remembered. “They said that because of the damage, they had already walked a mile [to reach us].”


    If you can’t get to a hospital and responders can’t get to you, there is one way you can still save a life: train in emergency first aid. You’ll be a God-send to your family and neighbors.

    We recommend the Red Cross training courses—they’re vetted and excellent. They offer online and in-person learning options with courses in first aid, CPR, AED use, and basic and advanced life support.

    There's also CERT training, which gives you a wider array of emergency response skills. Check out our post on community preparedness to learn more.


    When it comes to medical care after emergencies, you can’t make too many hard and fast rules. Every situation will be different. Use your best judgement based on your injury and local conditions.


    You don’t hear much about mental health during disasters, but it can have a major impact on your safety.

    Simply put: when our emotions get the best of us, we tend to make bad decisions. Stress jacks up your heart rate, and if it gets above 175 beats per minute it actually becomes physically difficult to think clearly and act quickly.

    Another major barrier to swift, decisive action is denial. The brain’s first response to extreme danger is to tell itself that things aren’t as bad as they seem. This a biological coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing, chaotic situations, but can be disastrous when you have split seconds to make a decision in an emergency.

    There’s no silver bullet for getting rid of stress in emergencies—especially the shock of the first few days. In fact, fear and stress are appropriate responses to life threatening situations. They flood our bodies with energy so we can respond to danger.

    The best way to keep our emotions in check is to prepare in advance. When we’ve thought a situation through, when we’ve studied and know the best way to handle it, when we have plans and supplies in place to tackle it head on, we’ll find ourselves in a far stronger emotional state.

    Triage Phase (Days 1-3): Checklist

    There’s a lot to get prepared for in the first three days of an emergency, but with some work and study anyone can do it! Once you’ve read carefully through this post, use the checklist below to start preparing.

    Click here to download our comprehensive 72-Hour (Days 1-3) Kit Checklist

    Bug out bagEmergency foodEmergency lightEmergency planEmergency waterEvacuation planGrab and go bagPower outagePractice your prepSurvival & emergency kits: emergency & survival kits




    For emotional well being one of the best tips I have used is when the (———) is happening, do something like slap the floor with your hand and tell it to stop over and over until it does. With earthquakes, it seems to leave you feeling like you had power over it and beat it. Leaves you better able to deal with the immediate aftermath. (With wildfire evacuation, not so much as I learmed recently, and you pack the most bizarre assortment of items when you have a whole day to pack. Stay safe!

    Tina B.

    Tina B.

    I live in SE Alabama so see my share of hurricanes and tornados. I grew up in NW Ohio and went through several blizzards, that for us out in the country, knocked out power for several days. My grandparents had a “latrine” solution that could be considered when sheltering in place. They kept a sturdy 5 gallon bucket stocked with heavy duty trash bags, a bag of lime, and toilet paper. The bucket was lined with trash bag, a toilet seat was placed on top and the latrine was available. Lime was scattered over each person’s contribution to help with odor. In their later years, they obtain an adult potty chair for ease of use but the bucket idea is still used by several of the family member including me.

    David Bradford

    David Bradford

    I too went through Hurricane Michael, however I live 45 miles North of the coast. Prepare for power to be out 10 day. It’s challenging knowing it takes 2-5 gal to flush a toilet. Cooked food taste grt after 3 days of MRE’s. Have propane stove and tank to be able to cook and heat water for spunge bath. Cell towers were all down. I had landlines for 12 hours after storm but you need an old style phone (not cordless). Have several 5-gal buckets to collect rain water, use to flush toilets Thanks for this column to remind us to be prepared.

    Elbert Jones

    Elbert Jones

    YOu should not consider mentioning MRE’s. Amer. soldiers who’ve ate them have said that MRE should stand for MEALS REFUSING to EXIT. If a 25 year old soldier does not like them; can you imagine how an eight year old will react to eating them?

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