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How to pack an earthquake/disaster kit for college students

570 298 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

What does a college student need for an earthquake/disaster, emergency preparedness backpack? Here’s what I packed for my daughter.

by Leon Pantenburg

In Fall 2014, my daughter was headed to the Los Angeles area for college. In addition to my trepidation about her being so far away from Central Oregon, there is the very real, ever-present danger of earthquakes. Then, on August 20, just before we were about to head south, a 6.0 quake hit the Napa, California area. I expected aftershocks as we drove by.

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Among all the other stuff, an emergency survival kit should be part of your college student’s baggage.

But a prepared dad is always thinking about potential emergencies, so I assembled an emergency backpack to be kept in her dorm room. Everything fit into a small backpack, and there were enough survival items to get her through a couple of days.


I assumed the school would have an emergency evacuation plan, and on my list of things to do was find out what it was. (Parents need to jump on this. If the plan is vague or confusing, complain at the first parents’ meeting.) Every student should know the evacuation routes out of the dorm, where the rally points are, and how to find them in the dark.

Working with a possible survival scenario helps you decide what you actually need, so here’s my earthquake scene.

The big one hits the Los Angeles area and the power grid goes down all along the coast. Everything is in darkness and there is damage to the dorm. The students must get out of the building and to a safe area. There, they will have to get by until help arrives. To make matters worse, all the water is suspect because of water main damage, all buildings may be unsafe to re-enter, and all access to the campus is blocked by downed trees and the streets are impassible. Oh, and the temperature drops and it starts to rain.

At a minimum, someone will need to throw up a quick shelter, possibly start a fire to warm up the cold, wet people and purify water. Help may be a long time coming. There will be frightened students, chaos may reign without clear leadership. The faculty will be scrambling. A few students with good training and calm demeanor will make all the difference. Those students will have grabbed their pack with gear on the way out of the dorm or apartment.camping survival

But colleges are special situations – you can’t just take any ‘bug out’ bag into a residence hall. Here are some considerations before you start assembling a kit with your student:

Here’s the equipment list of what I packed for my daughter:

Shelter: A quilted space blanket with grommets on the corners (NOT one of those worthless mylar sheets), small 6×8 tarp, two heavy duty 55-gallon, contractor-grade plastic bags. Know how to use all these, and how to improvise a tarp shelter. You can also use plastic sheeting or visqueen to catch rainwater for drinking.

Water: LifeStraw water filter and two quart collapsible Platypus water containers. These should be kept filled.

Gallon plastic bags: These can be used to store water, seal something from the wet or any number of useful tasks.

Fire: It doesn’t take much to die from hypothermia, especially if people are lightly-clad in cotton pajamas. Also you may need to purify water by boiling it. A campfire in the middle of a safe parking lot may solve both of these challenges.

This firemaking kit (sealed in a quart plastic bag) includes two BIC butane lighters, waxed firestarter, a ferrocerium rod with cotton balls and Vaseline firestarter, and several packs of storm proof matches. Know how to use all these tools. If you smell gas DON’T BUILD A FIRE!

Food: You can live a long time without food, but who wants to? Included are several Mountain House dinners, crackers, peanut butter etc. Anything will taste good after a day or so.

Tin cup for boiling water and cooking.

Small crowbar: If you have to pry open a door or break a window to get out of the room, you’ll need a tool like this. And, no, officer, this was never intended to be a self defense tool. My dad put it in this backpack for me, and he never said anything about it being a weapon.

Duct tape and paracord: These are in every kit and you use them for everything.

Lights: A small LED flashlight with extra batteries is packed along with several keychain lights with on-off switches. Get the best, and don’t buy lights that are activated by pressing – they might get turned on inadvertently and burn out the battery. You may have the only light to get out of a pitch-black hall, and it better be reliable and there better be multiples!

Knife: A Swiss Army knife is always a good choice – find one you like that is easy to carry. A Leatherman WAVE is another good tool that does everything.

Whistle and mirror: These are for signaling.

Map and compass: An area map, along with a compass would be very useful if evacuating from a danger zone is required.

Lightweight poncho: Protection from the elements.

Chapstick with sunscreen: This can be used on your lips, ears, nose and cheeks to prevent sunburn.

Bandanas: Several. They are useful for a multitude of things, including wiping your nose!

Hat: Get one with a broad brim for rain/sun protection.

Fleece jacket, gloves, stocking cap and wool socks: This is a minimum. If the college is located in colder areas, pack accordingly.

The Topic of Weapons

You probably can’t legally include a firearm in a dorm backpack. Check the rules before you pack anything that could be construed as a potential weapon.

The same thing goes for  knives. I included a Mora-style knife with a  3-1/2 inch blade. Generally, a blade under four inches should be OK. And, should anyone ask, this is a kitchen PARING knife, used for food preparation. “This knife, officer, was used for cutting up fruit and spreading peanut butter, and was stored in a food preparation area.”

The concealed carry laws appear in California to be so vague and confusing that the local police must interpret them. Self defense weapons, if deemed necessary, should be stored off campus. Make sure to check out and abide by all applicable laws.

Survival Mindset

This is where your student needs to get involved. Have him or her talk to the roommates and discuss a potential local survival scenario, and then bring up the idea at a floor meeting. Get others on board, then take it to the hall as a whole. Don’t be surprised if the students have never thought about an emergency evacuation or the aftermath of an earthquake.

Without sounding like a wacko doomsday prepper, present some common sense facts and concerns, and lead a discussion about how everyone can get involved.

There will always be the naysayers and those who don’t want to prepare for anything. But if this worst-case scenario ever does happen, your student will immediately be transformed from ‘weird prepper guy/gal’ to the visionary on campus. But most of all, she or he will stay safe.

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