Home Preparedness Natural Disasters: How To Survive The First 72 Hours

Natural Disasters: How To Survive The First 72 Hours

Start an Emergency & Disaster Management Degree at American Military University.

By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D. 
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

Natural disasters seem to be increasing in frequency and severity. We see record snowfalls, major hurricanes, many deadly tornadoes, flooding and massive wildfires. There is much debate as to why these natural disasters are occurring.

There is no debate, however, when it comes to the importance of preparation for a natural disaster. There are two critical components of the first 72 hours after a natural disaster: a survivor mindset and essential life support items.

The Survivor Mindset Provides Strength for Disaster-Related Stress

The survivor mindset is the same spirit that imbued our ancestors with the drive to survive and thrive in a perilous world. Survivor mindset is the rejection of adopting a victim mentality and the acceptance that we can, and will, survive a natural disaster, based on a variety of factors.

We are a nation of instant gratification and convenience. Immediately after a natural disaster occurs, all of the norms we take for granted – safety, security, food and shelter – are often stripped away.

As a retired Army officer and law enforcement official, I can attest to the fact that when a natural catastrophe occurs, the veneer of civilization on human behavior is much thinner than many would suspect. As we saw in Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, looting and other property crimes tend to spike. This uncivilized behavior can be quite frightening and that is entirely natural.

The best way to mitigate the effects of panic is to prepare beforehand. There should be a pre-determined and well-drilled plan to initiate after a disaster occurs.

Preparing a ‘Go Bag’ for a Natural Disaster

When you’re planning for a natural disaster, a “ready bag,” “go bag” or “bug-out bag” is a great starting point. Your go bag should be sturdy and capable of being carried comfortably. It should contain items you will need to sustain you for 72 hours. Each member of the family should have one of these bags.

Many people select high-quality backpacks as go bags. There should also be a go bag in each of your vehicles because a family member could be away from home when a disaster occurs. Depending on the circumstances, he or she might have to shelter in place.

The essentials in a 72-hour go bag are universally familiar: food, water, the means to start a fire, light, communication, shelter, medical supplies, and tools with edges or blades. Other items can be added to suit individual needs and budgets.

Time of year and location are also critical factors to consider when you pack your go bag. Also, keep in mind that the weight of the go bag is also a critical factor; the amount of weight you’ll be able to transport will vary, depending on your age and fitness.


Emergency situations are not the time to be calorie-conscious. Not only can circumstances be physically demanding, they can also be rife with anxiety and stress. Having a healthy and high-calorie diet helps you remain strong, calm and focused. Packing emergency food bars such as the ER 3600 calorie bar is a good idea.

The bar provides four and a half days of caloric intake plus essential vitamins. The manufacturer states it is also formulated to minimize thirst. There are many other options available to suit individual tastes, but food bars have a great size-to-energy advantage over other foods.


Finding potable water in an emergency can be problematic; pumps might not be working and available water could be contaminated. There are three possible ways to meet the requirement for drinkable water:

  • Carry sufficient bottled water for 72 hours.
  • Use one of the many portable water purification systems complete with water bottles. Water purification tablets are an alternate option.
  • Carry a micro-stove and boil your water from available sources.

I recommend a combination of the first two options. In your go bag, take a few store-bought bottles of water and a simple but effective water bottle that can quickly purify and filter water.

The Grayl system is a good example. One Grayl bottle and filter replaces approximately 300 single-use water bottles.

Fire Starters

Fire is essential for cooking and warmth. While there are many fire-starting tools on the market, a pack of Bic lighters will do the trick. I prefer a traditional Zippo lighter, because it does the job and is more environmentally friendly. This lighter is not disposable and can be used many times – perhaps over an entire lifetime.

You will not need a stove for the 72-hour period if you have 3600 Calorie food bars or something similar. However, you might require a backpacker stove for heat under certain adverse weather conditions.

In the military, we used Esbit stoves, which are light, portable and provide sufficient heat to cook for 72 hours. These stoves use solid fuel tablets, which are smokeless.


High-quality tactical lights are the best light source on the market today. You do not have to break the bank to purchase a quality tactical light.

Select a small one that fits easily in your go bag. The Streamlight is an example of a good tactical light. Carry spare batteries and an extra bulb, and rotate the batteries on a regular basis.


During or just after a catastrophe, it is unlikely that cellphones, tablets or laptops are going to work. This could be daunting.

However, a crank-generated radio can keep you in touch with emergency updates. The radios operate on a simple yet reliable system: Every turn of the crank charges the radio for a certain amount of time. The more cranking you do, the longer the radio will operate.

Some newer, crank-generated radios also include a solar option so they can operate using solar energy. Do your research and select a durable radio that best fits your budget.


While it is possible to shelter in a home or some other structure after a catastrophe, it is also wise to carry a temporary shelter. Most tents will not fit in a go bag.

But there are strong, lightweight options for shelter, including high-quality tarpaulins. Arcadia Gear makes a good survival tarp that is thermal, reflective and waterproof.

Buy the best tarp you can afford. Be sure to also invest in a sufficient length of nylon paracord to secure the tarp to trees, posts or other substantial objects.

Medical Supplies

Medical kits abound and can be found in camping gear stores, Walmart and other all-purpose department stores. A high-quality, individual first-aid kit will suffice and not break the bank. Do not forget to include any essential personal medications you need.

Edged Tools

Edged tools are an absolute necessity in any survival or post-catastrophe scenario. There are many different kinds of knives and other tools that can perform a variety of tasks.

For your first 72 hours after natural disasters, Leatherman© provides knives and other tools in a compact, high-quality package that is small and easy to carry. Victorinox is a high-quality manufacturer of Swiss Army knives that also fit the bill.

No one wants to contemplate experiencing a disaster. Unfortunately, disasters occur almost every day.

Being prepared, having a plan and testing that plan will give you a sense of preparedness. When a natural disaster does occur, the planning lessens your panic.

An axiom of military life is “We do in an actual event what we have done many times in training.” This applies to emergency preparedness as well.

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.