Natural disasters are a rare and terrifying but undeniable fact of life. Sometimes it’s possible to “bug out,” or leave the area before disaster strikes, but fleeing isn’t always an option. In those cases, being prepared to shelter at home, or “bug in,” can help ensure that you and your family through safe and sound.
Large-scale disasters like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even massive winter storms can grind life as we know it to a halt, posing tremendous dangers and sometimes creating enormous damage and devastation. Critical services like water and electricity may be interrupted, leaving you without heat, light, or sanitation facilities. Even short-distance local travel may be impossible, making ordinary amenities like grocery stores, gas stations, and medical facilities inaccessible.
Coping with these conditions for even a brief time requires some advance preparation, but with reasonable foresight and careful choices, sheltering safely at home is feasible for most families. The US and Canadian governments both recommend that families make preparation for at least three days of emergency survival, and many preparedness experts advise considering three days as a starting point, gradually adding to supplies to enable home sheltering for several weeks or even months.
If getting ready to shelter at home for days, weeks, or even longer seems like a big job, you’re right – it’s a very big job, requiring time, thought, foresight, and a certain amount of investment in supplies. But it’s the ultimate security for yourself and your loved ones, and it’s something every family can and should do.
On the flip side, being prepared to evacuate, or bug out, is also highly recommended should you need to leave your home in the face of a disaster at short notice. Make sure that you have your bug out bag packed and ready to go.
The Crucial Preliminaries: Have A Plan, Pack A Kit, And Follow Official Instructions
Preparing for an emergency starts long before one is even predicted. Every household should have an emergency plan detailing the initial steps to follow when a disaster occurs. This doesn’t have to be a written plan, but all adults and older children should be familiar with it.
A basic initial emergency plan should include gathering all family members and pets inside, getting all cell phones and charging devices fully charged as promptly as possible, being aware of the various communication channels by which you can get official information on the unfolding situation, and monitoring the situation on TV, non-battery radio, and the internet as long as the power stays on.
All families should also have a very basic emergency kit, including a flashlight, a battery or crank operated radio, and extra batteries for both; candles and matches or lighter; a multipurpose tool or a knife, a screwdriver, and pliers; some cash; and a three-day supply of all medicines taken by all family members. Store these items together in a bag or box and keep it next to a basic first-aid kit in an easy-to-access area that is reserved specifically for emergency supplies.
As soon as you become aware that a disaster is likely or imminent, the emergency plan goes into action. Get all family members and pets indoors immediately, locate your emergency kit, start charging all cell phones and charging devices, and check your TV, radio, weather radio, social media, and any other communication channels for official information and to determine whether people in your area are being advised to evacuate. If you are in an evacuation area, comply with the order if at all possible; it would not be issued unless authorities had reason to believe that staying in place would put you in danger.
If you don’t get an evacuation order, or if you don’t become aware of the evacuation order until the disaster is already underway and it’s impossible to leave, get ready to bug in. If you’ve taken the advance steps below, you’ll be prepared to weather the storm.
Step 1: Select A Designated Shelter Hub
Obviously, the number one concern for bugging in is shelter; being able to stay at least relatively warm, dry, and protected from the elements is critical to survival. Once you’ve identified an emergency plan and packed a basic emergency kit, you can start your bugging-in preparations in earnest, by designating a room or area of your house as your family’s shelter hub.
Since keeping a whole house running in an emergency is impractical, particularly if utilities and basic services have been temporarily cut off, it makes sense to specify one room or area that will serve as your bug in “headquarters.” This is your designated shelter hub, and it’s the area in which most activities will take place for the duration of your bug in. If the power goes off, the shelter hub is the area that you’ll be heating and lighting, and it’s likely the room in which you’ll be preparing food, eating, and sleeping as well.
In some areas, basements or purpose-built below-ground shelters are commonly used for protection during tornadoes, but experts say an above-ground interior room, windowless if possible, is best for most emergencies. Choosing an above-ground area as your designated shelter hub can be particularly important if flooding is common or even a strong possibility in your area, or if chemical, biological or radiological contaminants are released into the environment.
It’s important to select a room that’s large enough to accommodate all family members and pets, along with a non-electrical heat source and sleeping bags and blankets. The designated shelter space should also provide easy access to essential daily supplies of food and water. A family room or den with a wood burning fireplace might be a good choice because it could potentially simplify heating, though that’s not always the case; a fireplace can’t be used if officials say the room must be sealed to keep contaminated air out, and some wood burners can’t be used when the power is off because they require electric blowers for safe operation.
If possible, clear out a closet or other storage space in the designated shelter room and dedicate it to storing emergency supplies like water, food, fuel canisters, etc. If no space is available in the room itself, choose a storage area in an adjoining room or at least nearby, and make sure the whole family understands that it is to contain only emergency supplies which must not be used under any other circumstances.
Step 2: Decide How You Will Create Heat And Light
If you have a wood stove or wood burning fireplace in your designated shelter hub and have not been instructed by officials to seal the room, you might be able to use the fireplace or stove as a heat source as long as you have wood on hand. However, it’s important to be aware that some wood burners and fireplace inserts cannot be safely operated without having electrically-powered blowers operating, so be sure to read up on your device and determine whether it can be safely operated without electricity.
If a wood burner or fireplace isn’t a possible heat source, non-electric heaters that use either kerosene or propane are safe, reliable, and affordable. Either can keep an enclosed space tolerably warm with a relatively small amount of fuel, and both kerosene and propane heaters are readily available in shops and online. Both types of fuel are sold everywhere, and both can be safely stored for several years.
Whatever heating device you choose, be sure to get one that doesn’t require any electricity and can heat a space the size of your designated shelter hub. When you purchase the heater, also buy the recommended amount of fuel to keep it working at least ten hours a day for three days. Though you’ll be storing your heater and fuel with your other emergency supplies, set it up and give it a thorough test run well before it’s needed in order to make sure it’s powerful enough to keep your space warm and see if you’ll need additional fuel on hand for a minimum three-day bug in.
Getting a good non-electric heating device is important, but it’s just one step toward staying warm while sheltering at home in a cold weather no-power situation. Close off the shelter hub room by closing all doors or covering doorways with heavy blankets. Make sure all windows are completely covered, and add heavy blankets over existing draperies to increase insulation. A prolonged power outage during the winter will quickly make you aware of every draft and cold-air ingress point; plastic sheeting or even heavy fabric tacked or stapled over windows and towels wedged under doors can go a long way toward limiting heat loss.
Keep as much activity in the shelter hub as possible during the bug in; not only will it decrease the area to be heated, having people and pets in the room will automatically raise the temperature. Combat cold by wearing multiple layers of clothing, along with hats, gloves, and at least two pairs of socks whenever practical during the day and definitely when sleeping. Make sure there are blankets, quilts, comforters, and sleeping bags for everyone, and be certain that you know exactly where everything is before disaster strikes. There’s nothing more frustrating than shivering through a long night under a blanket, knowing your down-filled sleeping bag is probably crammed into an unmarked box with the tent and badminton net somewhere in the basement.
If the power goes out you’re going to need a light source in your shelter hub, along with portable lighting for moving around the house. A wide range of rechargeable emergency lighting solutions, some of which hold a charge for well over 100 hours, are available at surprisingly affordable prices both online and in stores. If you live in an area where even brief blackouts are common, having a couple of these on hand could go a long way toward making everyday life easier, and they’re a great addition to your bug in preparations.
Flashlights are invaluable during an emergency, so make sure you have several on hand and plenty of spare batteries. Candles are also cheap, portable, readily available, and can actually contribute to warmth during a power outage, but could potentially pose a fire hazard, so take care to keep them well out of reach of children and pets when in use. Camping lanterns, both battery and propane operated, are affordable, reliable, and portable.
Optional, but recommended: In the event of widespread power failure, one of the first items that people rush out to buy are gas-powered generators. They sell out quick in the event of an emergency and having one in advance as a precautionary measure can go a long way in helping you stay comfortable. They are options that are stationary and need to be installed by a professional that are capable of powering an entire house or you can opt for a portable generator, such as the WEN 56200i, that is less powerful but can still come in handy for charging cell phones or running a small space heater.
Step 3: Secure Your Water Supplies
Next to having a secure shelter, access to sufficient drinkable water tops the list of bug in necessities. Water is absolutely crucial to survival, and going without it can be fatal in as little as three days. While water can be easily and affordably stockpiled and securely stored for emergency use, there are decisions to make about how you want to proceed.
Though not all emergencies have a negative impact on the availability of drinkable water, it’s by far safest to assume that you’ll need to have stored water on hand during a bug in. There are basically three approaches to stockpiling water supplies: you can buy bottled water, you can bottle tap water from your own well or municipal water service, or you can collect rain water in a large barrel, then purify and bottle it.
Buying commercial bottled water is the simplest and most convenient method of stockpiling water, but it’s also the most expensive. Collecting rain water in a barrel is probably the cheapest method, but it’s time-consuming and labor intensive. The most feasible and affordable method for most people is simply filling sanitized plastic soda bottles with tap water.
It’s important to note that not all plastic bottles or containers are safe for long-term water storage; for example, milk containers aren’t a good choice because they’re biodegradable and will eventually start to break down, plus it’s difficult to be certain that every trace of the original contents have been completely removed. Soda bottles meet the safe-storage criteria of being made of UV-resistant food-grade plastic so start the stockpiling process by saving your empties (or ask friends and relatives to save empties for you, if you don’t drink soda). For maximum efficiency, larger is better, and two liter bottles are ideal.
When you’ve accumulated a few empties, wash each bottle and cap well with hot water and dish detergent, then sanitize both bottles and caps inside and out with a bleach and water solution (one teaspoon unscented household bleach to one quart of water). Rinse the sanitized bottles well, then immediately fill them with tap water. If your water comes from a municipal service and is chlorinated, you don’t need to add anything, but if your water comes from a well and is unchlorinated, add one or two drops of unscented household bleach. Cap tightly, write the date on the outside of the container, and store in a cool, dark place.
If you have the space and budget for special water storage containers, many shapes and sizes are available. Commercial water containers run the gamut from drums and tanks capable of holding 55 to 100 gallons to small, super-portable rectangular containers, such as the WaterBrick, are designed for maximum stackability.
How much water will you need to store? The US Federal Emergency Management Agency says you should have at least one gallon of drinkable water per person per day, so a family of four would need an absolute minimum of 12 gallons of water for a three-day bug in. Nursing mothers or people with medical conditions may require more daily water, and if you have pets, you’ll need to add stored water for them, too.
How long can you store water? Technically, water in sanitized, sealed containers can be stored indefinitely. Water doesn’t expire or go bad, and though it can develop a stale taste after long storage, it’s still safe to drink. However, FEMA recommends that all non-commercially bottled water should be emptied and replaced every six months.
Even if you have ample water stored for an emergency, it’s a good idea to fill your bathtubs with water as soon as it appears that a disaster scenario is imminent. This water could come in very handy as a supplemental supply if your water service is interrupted for a long period of time, if sewage service is unavailable, or if your well becomes contaminated.
Step 4: Stock Your Emergency Food Pantry
Stockpiling storable, low-prep food is not only a must for emergency scenarios, it’s also a smart move for anyone who lives in an area prone to ice storms, heavy snowfall, torrential rains and flooding, or any other weather-related situations that can interrupt electric service and curtail travel even temporarily. Making home-cooked meals from scratch using only fresh ingredients is a great idea most of the time, but an alternative dinner source will come in very handy on those nights when the family is famished, the power is off, and the roads are impassable.
The trick to successfully stockpiling food is making the right choices. You need items that have a very long shelf life, don’t require special storage conditions like freezing or refrigeration, and can be eaten as-is or with an absolute minimum of preparation. That eliminates a lot of the standard dietary staples like bread, meat, dairy products, and fresh produce, all of which spoil relatively quickly. But just because something has a long shelf life, that doesn’t mean it’s a good candidate for short-term emergency food; both rice and dried beans are all but eternal, but they require a lot of preparation.
There are several options for emergency food supplies, including special dehydrated food packets typically used by backpackers and campers, and even military-style MREs, or Meals Ready To Eat, which come with water-activated heating packets. Both are designed to supply plenty of calories and nutrition. They’re also compact, portable, and very easy to store. However, all that convenience doesn’t come cheap, and dehydrated food isn’t always available locally, though it can certainly be ordered online from many reputable vendors.
The simplest and most affordable option for most people is to stock the emergency rations right from the shelves of the local grocery store. Canned or vacuum-sealed goods can be an excellent choice; canned or vacuum sealed tuna and chicken are long lasting and pack a lot of protein, and canned mini-franks, chili, stews, soups, pasta, fruits and vegetables all have a relatively long shelf-life and can all be eaten with minimal preparation (or even no preparation whatsoever). Buy an extra manual can opener and keep it in your emergency storage area.
You may also want to stock a few cans of fruit and vegetable juices, which have a long shelf life. Having them on hand can keep the kids happy and help make your water supplies last longer. And speaking of canned liquids, store a few cans of evaporated milk; you can add it to other foods to improve flavor and texture, and it makes a good creamer for coffee or tea.
Dried foods like oatmeal, macaroni specialties, Ramen noodles, soup packets, quinoa, and grits can be prepared by just adding hot water. Powdered milk, which has a long shelf-life and is very versatile, is also a good choice for your emergency stores. Nuts and nut products, including peanut butter, have a shelf life of about a year and can provide a lot of flavor along with some necessary protein. Be sure to stockpile standard peanut butter rather than the new “natural” types, which have a much shorter shelf life.
Don’t forget to store instant coffee and teabags, both of which can provide a welcome lift during an emergency situation. If you have a baby, be sure to store several days worth of canned or powdered formula, and lay in plenty of both canned and dry food for your pets.
Important: start your bug in by using up whatever “everyday” food you have on hand that can be eaten with little or no preparation, and use up the most perishable items like milk, bread, lunchmeat, cheese, yogurt, and fruit first. You don’t want to break into your emergency supplies until you have to; if you’re lucky your power will be restored before you’ve emptied the fridge, and if you’re not, at least your food hasn’t spoiled and gone to waste.
Emergency Kitchen Supplies: If your bug in lasts for more than a day, you’ll need some means of heating water and perhaps warming canned foods like soups and stews. Propane camp stoves are a great choice; they’re affordable, reliable, efficient, and come in several sizes. But even if you have a great camp stove, don’t count on doing a lot of cooking during a bug in – remember, the idea is to store foods that require little or no preparation. You don’t want to use any more fuel than absolutely necessary, and remember that cooking requires clean up that will drain your water supplies.
And speaking of cleanup… since you’re sheltering at home, you definitely have access to plenty of plates, cups, silverware, etc. But even if your water supply is uninterrupted, do you want to cope with heating water to do the washing up in a no-power situation? If you’re using your regular kitchenware, it’s either that or dealing with a growing mountain of dirty dishes where your sink used to be. The solution is simple: buy a few packs of heavy-duty disposable plates, cups, and bowls, and a package of disposable spoons to store along with your emergency food supplies. Add a couple of multi-packs of paper towels and use them to clean utensils, wipe out pans and bowls, etc.
Miscellaneous extras: These items aren’t necessarily kitchen-related, but they’re all important, and it’s a good idea to store them with your emergency food supplies, so you know exactly where to find them when you need them. Stockpile several multipacks of toilet paper and boxes of tissues; several boxes or rolls of large heavy-duty garbage bags; an extra bottle of whatever non-prescription headache and pain relievers your family uses; some additional dental care supplies (toothpaste, dental floss, denture adhesive, etc.); a couple bottles of hand sanitizer; a can of dry shampoo; extra deodorant; and at least a week’s worth of disposable diapers if there’s a baby in the family.
Step 5: Prepare To Set Up Sanitation
In an absolutely worst-case scenario, it’s possible that sewage systems could fail. A prolonged power outage could shut down the electrically-powered pumps that keep water flowing to tanks and toilets, and when that happens the results can be devastating. If you think that’s some kind of alarmist nightmare scenario that couldn’t really happen in first-world modern life, think again: in 1998 the city of Aukland, New Zealand suffered a five-week power outage that cut off water and sewage facilities to tens of thousands of apartments and offices. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina left New Orleans’ sewer disposal system, pumps, and water treatment center submerged under 20 feet of water and parts of the system were inoperable for weeks.
If a disaster causes the grid to go down, the immediate concern is how to dispose of human waste. A non-electric self-composting toilet could be the answer if you have the budget and space for it, but in most cases, you’ll need to find other ways to deal with the situation.
If you have an individual septic system with your own septic tank, you can flush even when the pumps are down by removing the lid from the back of the tank, filling the tank with water till it reaches the level of the float, and then pressing the flush lever. Remember the tip to fill your bathtub when you know that a disaster is imminent? This is a very good use for that water.
Alternatively, if you live in a rural area, going outdoors is an option (albeit one that few people will consider as a first recourse, particularly during a severe weather emergency). If you do decide to try this option, dig a roughly 6″ by 6″ hole at least 200 feet from any water source and well away from any rain water runoff. When you’re done, use the dirt you removed to refill the hole and cover the waste.
If you don’t have your own septic system and going outside isn’t feasible, it’s important to determine whether the municipal sewage main is working. If you’re sure the sewage main is operable, you can flush by adding water to the tank, the same way you would if you had an individual septic system. However, if you know (or even strongly suspect) that the sewer main is down, don’t flush your toilet. Doing so could potentially make it possible for sewage to back up into your plumbing. When the sewer main is down, you’ll have to collect and dispose of the waste you and your family generate.
Start by removing as much water as possible from the toilet, then put one heavy plastic garbage bag inside another and open them, creating a single double-layer bag. Raise the toilet seat and position the open doubled bag so that it fills most of the cavity of the toilet bowl, then tape the top securely to the underside of the toilet seat. Keep a large bag of cat litter in easy reach of the toilet.
After use, cover the waste in the bag with a liberal amount of litter to reduce the smell. After a few uses, or when the bag-covered bowl is about 2/3 full, add more litter and a bit of disinfectant (like a mild chlorine solution) if available. Tie the bag securely and move it to a sealable temporary container like a garbage can, placed well away from the shelter hub.
If this sounds like more than you can handle, you may want to look into online outlets and specialty stores that cater to campers, which offer small self-contained portable waterless toilets along with odor-controlling bags and deodorants. But even with these amenities, disposal is going to be a must and failing to do so could result in unbearable living conditions at best and potentially deadly illness at worse. Dealing with human waste in a no-water-no-power situation is a serious business that can’t be taken lightly.
Step 6: Know The Steps To Establish Security
This article deals primarily with sheltering at home during a natural disaster or weather emergency, so arming oneself, determining vantage points for defense, and other extreme security measures really aren’t applicable. However, it always pays to be reasonable about security, and there are some steps you should take to make sure you and your family are safe during your bug in.
Get an extra set of car keys made and keep them with your emergency supplies. If you have an electric garage door, be sure you know how to open it if the power is off. Lock your doors and windows as soon as you’re sure an emergency is imminent. If possible, contact friends or relatives who are in a location that won’t be affected by the emergency and let them know what’s happening in your area and what your plans are.
Get your cell phones and charging devices plugged in and charging as soon as possible. This is actually a very important security measure; a phone can be can be your lifeline in a desperate situation.
If your area is under an evacuation order but leaving is impossible, do everything in your power to get in contact with authorities and let them know that you’ll be sheltering in pace. If someone comes to your door claiming to be a city or municipal representative, ask for identification before you grant entry.
Once you’re sure you’re heading for emergency conditions, do as much as possible to get your shelter hub prepared (covering doors and windows, locating sleeping bags, setting up your heat and lighting devices, etc.) while you still have power – don’t wait for a blackout to get started. Everything is twice as difficult and takes much longer to accomplish when it’s cold and dark. If the power does go off, you’ll be ready. If it doesn’t, you can consider it an excellent practice session and have a good laugh about it.
Stay calm. This is important in any case, but it’s absolutely vital if you have children in your household. Youngsters pick up adults’ vibes with amazing speed, and if you’re tense and terrified, they will be too, and the whole experience will be worse than it has to be. Staying calm also makes you far more resourceful and responsible, improves your memory and dexterity, and generally helps you take care of everything that has to be managed during a bug in.
Keeping Spirits Up – An Achievable Challenge
If you’ve ever spent more than a day or so living through an emergency that trapped you and your family in a cold, dark, powerless house listening to the elements rage outside, you know that it’s an extremely challenging emotional situation. Having a way to stay warm and a good stock of emergency supplies on hand can make it a lot easier, but every day that goes by without a return to normalcy will erode your courage and your spirits unless you really make a sincere and sustained effort to stay positive and hopeful.
The bad news is that there’s no way to predict how long an emergency situation will last. Depending on the nature of the emergency, power outages can range from a few minutes to a few weeks; getting a municipal sewage system back into operation after a major flood can take well over a month. The good news is that you can be certain that the authorities are doing their utmost to solve problems, often starting even before the disaster actually strikes, and situations that require a full bug in of more than three days are relatively rare.
The trick to getting through a bug in is to tread the line between a fun indoor camping vacation and life as usual; you’re going to need elements of both to survive with your sanity intact. Do whatever you can to keep some kind of routine in your life. Try to eat meals at the same time as you normally eat, put children to bed at the usual hour, and resist the temptation to either utterly relax discipline or become exceptionally strict and demanding. Sticking to the usual schedule and tenor of life as much as possible will help everyone stay calm and cooperative.
At the same time, you have to be realistic about the constraints of the situation. Adults won’t be able to go off to their jobs, so the whole family will be together 24-7. Going outside to play will probably be out of the question for both children and pets, so you might have to find ways to deal with excess energy. Ordinary daily hygiene routines will have to be abridged to accommodate the inability to shower or shampoo, which might be fine as far as the kids are concerned, but can make adults exceedingly cranky.
One of the major challenges for modern people in a bug in situation is dealing with the absence of the entertainment sources we take so much for granted, like TV and the internet. The alternatives – books, games, puzzles, etc. – may initially be greeted with strong protest, but try to stay patient and positive about the options. Even if you have battery-operated games, DVD players, etc., it’s probably a good idea to put them out of reach or at least limit their use; while they will help pass the time, they’ll gobble up your emergency battery supply and as long as you’re in a bug in situation, there’s no way to get replacements.
Don’t be surprised if everyone (including you) has periods of moodiness, irritability, restlessness, or depression; bugging-in during an emergency is a strange and uncomfortable situation involving chores and challenges that no one is emotionally ready for. Be prepared to spend some extra time reassuring children that the situation is temporary and everything will eventually return to normal. If you happen to have chronically ill or elderly people in your bug in family group, be prepared to be reassuring with them as well. Emergency situations create feelings of helplessness and fear in everyone, and people who are very old or who have physical problems can feel particularly vulnerable.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself while bugging-in. Sheltering at home has many benefits, but it’s also an extremely demanding way to ride out an emergency, particularly if the power goes off and your regular water service is unavailable. In many ways, bugging-in is a kind of return to pioneer living, but it can be pretty hard to feel exhilarated by overcoming the challenges when the kids are fussy, the dogs are whining to get out, a can of cold chili is the only thing on the dinner menu, and you haven’t had a shower for days. But you’re at home and you’re together; focus on that when the going gets rough.
Rest whenever you can. Stay as warm as possible, and eat enough to stay healthy. Take a multivitamin every day. Hunt up a book of crossword puzzles or a couple of those novels you’ve been meaning to read, and treat yourself to your own personal flashlight for at least a few minutes of quiet distraction each night.
And above all else, keep reminding yourself that everything is eventually going to be fine, and rest assured that you’re doing everything you can.