Last Friday, Southern California experienced its largest earthquake in over 20 years, felt in places as far away as Phoenix, Ariz. and northern Mexico.
As a West Coast resident for over 15 years, I know the constant, underlying anxiety that’s part of day-to-day living in earthquake country. Every time we hang a mirror or put a glass vase on a shelf, we’re reminded that it’s not a matter of if, but when the ground will start shaking.
And yet so many people are still unprepared, because the long list of must-dos can be so daunting. If you feel overwhelmed by emergency prep, don’t shut down. Instead, start small, and gather these seven basic items for your emergency kit.
At Wirecutter, the New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, we’ve concluded that assembling relevant tools piecemeal is a better bet than buying a premade kit. “Many contain products we know are no good, like cheap collapsible water containers, junky radios and multi-tools, and flimsy flashlights,” said Kalee Thompson, a senior editor at Wirecutter. “Meanwhile, we found that the gritty, block-like food bars weren’t anything you’d want to eat unless you were actually on the verge of starving to death.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of water. After an earthquake, you could be without it for days or weeks, depending on how bad the damage is. Experts recommend one gallon per person, per day. The bare minimum to store is three days’ worth, but after a major disaster, planning for two weeks’ worth of water is more appropriate.
We recommend the Reliance Aqua-Tainer. In our tests, rigid water containers made of blue polyethylene consistently performed better than opaque collapsible ones for both storage and pouring. They offer more durability and leak resistance, and they prevent bacterial growth.
A gas shut-off tool
A ruptured natural gas or other utility line is a common hazard following an earthquake. If you smell gas, turn off your line and try to contact your local gas supplier. But keep in mind that you can’t use a tool to turn the gas back on by yourself, so if you don’t smell anything, don’t turn it off — you could be without gas for days while waiting for technicians to service your home.
A simple crescent wrench should do the job. If you want a dedicated tool, Wirecutter recommends this gas valve shut-off tool, which was created by San Francisco firefighters in the wake of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake specifically for this purpose.
Once you have the wrench, learn how to use it. Find your gas shut-off valve, preadjust the tool (if you’re using a crescent wrench), and store it right there so you don’t have to look for it when you need it.
An emergency radio
An emergency radio is worth the investment. It can get reception not only from AM and FM bands, but also from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commonly referred to as the weather bands. NOAA is a reliable source of emergency information after a major catastrophe, but your radio must be able to receive VHF frequencies for you to hear it.
We recommend the Midland ER210, which receives both AM/FM signals and the weather stations. You can charge it in multiple ways, including solar, by hand crank, and rechargeable USB battery. It can also charge your phone.
A portable headlamp
Although any light source you have on hand will do in case of a power outage — a lantern, a flashlight, a candle — a headlamp is the most useful lighting tool in an emergency. Consider the Black Diamond Spot, along with extra batteries. Unlike a flashlight or your phone’s camera flash, it keeps your hands free, and after an earthquake specifically it’s wise to avoid candles or matches in case of undetected gas leaks, according to the Earthquake Country Alliance.
A first aid kit
After a big disaster, there is always potential for small wounds and fractures. But a good first aid kit should also be able to treat other minor maladies, such as allergies, nausea, or blisters. Besides, every home should have a good first aid kit handy, and before you need one is the best time to buy one. After testing several, we recommend the Adventure Medical Kits Sportsman Whitetail first aid kit, which can handle basic injuries (and less common issues) for up to four people.
Phone chargers or battery packs
People rely on their phones and social media to communicate during and after a natural disaster, so it’s important to have a power source for your phone that won’t die quickly. Our favorite is the Anker PowerCore 20100 battery pack. It can charge a smartphone once a day for about a week, and it’s about the size of two decks of cards stacked end to end. When you stash it in your emergency kit, include an extra power cable for your device as well.
Emergency contact numbers
Finally, one of the most important things you can do to prepare is to designate an emergency contact for you and your family. Tammy Franks, program manager for Home and Community Injury Prevention at the National Safety Council, said, “I think a family communication plan is essential so that number one, you know how you’re going to contact each other after an emergency.”
Pick a contact who lives out of town. Then, write the number down and put it in your wallet. “So often we don’t know each other’s phone numbers any more, because everything is on speed dial,” Ms. Franks said.
Also, be sure to coach young children who don’t carry a wallet to memorize important phone numbers, in case they get separated.
And finally, know that sending a text is better than calling: Texts have a higher likelihood of getting through when signal coverage is compromised, and it frees what little bandwidth there is for emergency responders.
Sign up for the Wirecutter Weekly Newsletter and get our latest recommendations every Sunday.
A version of this article appears at Wirecutter.com.