If you’re like me, there are times when you have to leave almost all your preparedness stuff behind as you journey by air to strange, far-off places on behalf of your employer. No access to your well-stocked SUV. You are alone, and home is hundreds if not thousands of miles away. But disaster will not be consulting your personal travel itinerary before it strikes. How best should you prepare?
Let’s first discuss the objective, as it determines the approach. For most of us, we leave family, friends, and a (more-or-less) well-stocked homestead behind. This means Your primary objective is to make it home safely and quickly. By any means necessary: your return airline ticket, the rental vehicle, alternative transportation, or if all else fails, on foot. Under no circumstances do you want to be swept into the mainstream of refugees, wandering aimlessly to eventually be herded into government “aid facilities”. (If you’re outside of CONUS however, your objective may likely be via the U.S., Embassy). You are different. You have a specific mission. And you have made preparations to succeed. Here are some ideas I use that are carefully selected to be lightweight, compact, don’t require you to schlep along extra suitcases, but will give you more than a leg up on most locals in an emergency.
Luggage – The very best choice is a soft-framed backpack with waist belt, or carryable duffel. It lets you retain the most stuff on long hauls over mixed terrain. This may be impractical for some folks, so the next best thing is a prime-quality rolling carryon with a locking collapsible handle, combined with a laptop backpack. The rolling carryon keeps the weight off your back, but will be useless off pavement. That’s why you must bring your laptop in a backpack carrying case. That will become your primary backpack (you will most likely be leaving the laptop behind, but you keep all your data on a memory stick, right?). Get it with–or sew on–attachment points on the bottom and sides of the backpack. Bring strapping, bought at a hiking store, this lets you lash up bedding you “borrow” from the hotel room, or other provisions you acquire along the way, and add a waist strap for long-haul walking. Plan on checking the large piece of luggage – otherwise you won’t be able to bring along a number of key items like edged weapons. Granted, you’re less equipped during your flight, but life is full of compromises. Keep your medications, food, flashlight, communications gear, money and a couple of layers of clothing with you on the plane. If you can’t do without a briefcase, forgo the fancy leather banker version in favor of nylon w/ a shoulder carry strap. You must be ready to carry everything you need on your back in the event you have to walk it home, and the right briefcase can become an asset [instead of a hindrance.]
Money and valuables – Assume that your credit, debit, and ATM cards will become useless in an emergency. That leaves cash and tangibles. I bring at least $1,000 in assorted bills with me when I travel domestically, and several thousand when I travel internationally. This will enable you to buy the food, transportation, weapons, and lodging you need to make it back, if it can indeed be bought. As I am not rich, this presents a burden, but I believe it is very worthwhile to ensure success. Hoard your cash when on travel – use credit for every thing so you have the most available when you really need it. If you’re partial to wearing expensive watches or jewelry, consider them barterable (have an inexpensive, sturdy backup watch in that case) – be discrete so you do not attract mutants. Keep your cash/valuables out of sight, in multiple places, and don’t leave it in the hotel room. Under most scenarios short of total meltdown, people will continue to honor paper money long enough for you to make it home, so I don’t see a strong need for gold/silver coins. [JWR Adds: I always wear a discreet money belt when I travel. Keeping in mind cross-border currency movement restrictions, you can easily carry the equivalent of $8,000 US Dollars if you carry it in the form of EU500 Euro notes or $500 Canadian Dollar notes. (Sadly, the largest US bill in circulation is the $100 note, which is five times more bulky.) Both the Canadian and Euro “500” denomination notes are hard to find, but worth the search, and even worth paying a premium, just for the sake of compactness.]
Clothing – Even if the forecast is warm and sunny for your entire planned trip, bring rain and cold weather gear. Forget umbrellas, they are flimsy and occupy a hand. Use the layering approach – a fold-up waterproof hooded shell in a dark color, collapsible down vest and/or a couple of fleece or thin wool sweaters, and an Under-Armour-style inner layer (remember you are fitting all this into a standard piece of luggage). Bring sturdy hiking shoes; wear them on the plane, and keep your dress shoes handy in your checked luggage. Bring at least two pair of hiking socks and liners (one to wear, the other undergoing wash/dry), even if it’s just an overnight trip, comfortable pants, a warm hat with ventilation and a good brim, sunglasses, and thin gloves. By wearing the heavier/bulkier items as you travel, you minimize the space demands on the luggage. Include a bandana or two – they have a thousand uses.
Food – You want compactness, indefinite storage, and high energy density, so you can stay on the go for several days. My favorite is Go Lean energy bars. Generally, look for high fiber brands, as they ward off hunger longer. Unsalted peanuts and M&Ms are also good choices. I bring 6-12 bars, secreted in nooks and crannies. Get a set of lexan resin eating utensils from a hiking store, and a P-38 can opener (put that in checked luggage). If things go longer, use your cash or resort to hobo cooking (canned food heated over fire).
Water – make your canteen from the 24-oz water bottle you bought for your flight, by bringing along a water bottle carry strap like those found at amusement parks. Don’t forget a small bottle of purification tablets – you can use your bandana as a 1st-tier sieve/filter.
Self-defense – Limited options due to the TSA restrictions for airline flights. Mailing firearms to yourself at your hotel [for an extended stay] is theoretically possible, but really very impractical in most business trips. In any event do bring your folding knife with combination straight and serrated blade (two is better than one) in you checked baggage, an impact weapon like a nylon kubotan or a carabiner employed as a keychain, and a flashlight (w/ multiple extra batteries) that is blindingly bright and sturdy enough to be used as an impact weapon . Make sure the carabiner is a real one from a hiking store, and is big enough to get all your fingers into so you can use it as “aluminum knuckles”. For carry-on, bring several thick rubber bands, so you can tightly wrap one of those in-flight magazines into a makeshift club. In an emergency after you arrive, if you cannot acquire a firearm or larger edged weapon, then use your folding knife to fashion a sturdy walking staff / club / spear from a mop handle or similar. Hiking stores carry very compact sharpening stones that can clip to your coat’s zipper – if you are in transit for a couple of weeks, you will need to keep an edge on your knives. Note that in some locales such as England and New York City, carrying a knife, or any “weapon” is illegal. Be informed, and use your own judgment. [JWR Adds: A roll of quarters (or British One Pound Coins or One Euro coins) can serve the dual purpose of being an impact weapon (a “Sunday Bar”) and being available to make emergency pay phone calls. I can’t imagine any jurisdiction that would charge you with carrying a “concealed” roll of coins. (Although once I witnessed the TSA goons asking a fellow passenger to take the dimes out of a paper roll and confiscate the coin roll paper. Oh, I felt so much safer after they did that!)]
Communications – Bring power adapters for your cellular phone, both AC and, critically DC vehicle power, and windup (FreePlay). Bring a roll of coins for a payphone (just in case you can still find one – they are still common in Europe). If you have the option of choosing your cell phone model, consider a tri-band GSM-mode smartphone with Internet connectivity, a USB port and USB to Ethernet adapter (don’t forget the cables) – this preserves the most vital functions of a PC in an emergency: news feeds and e-mail, without its bulk. Some smartphones, like the Nokia N95, include GPS and maps, too. GSM is the world standard, so it will work in both US and Europe. Keep phone numbers and addresses of extended family and friends, in case you need to make a pit stop on your way. An earbud-style AM/FM radio, so you can keep up with radio news and weather reports.
Shelter / Light – Keep it simple and lightweight for starters, and pick up stuff as you go. Strike anywhere matches in a waterproof container and a magnesium striker-type fire-starter in checked baggage; buy a disposable lighter or two on arrival and discard on return, a space blanket, and one or two 3-mil thick contractor garbage bags for rain poncho, ground cloth, and/or tarp, and 50 feet of parachute cord. Have an LED microlight on your keychain, in red illumination, with an extra button battery or two. This conserves your tactical flashlight’s life. [If things looks bad,] borrow the bedding from your hotel room and strap it to your backpack or stow in your rental car’s trunk – you can pay them back later.
Transportation – When traveling in a group, always be the one to rent the car, so you have options and maintain control. When you can, try to make it a compact 4×4, like a Ford Escape (companies always want you to get the absolute cheapest, so this is easier said than done). Keep the gas tank filled. Onboard GPS navigation options are becoming commonplace, but at $10+ per day, expensive – it may be worth it to you. (See “navigation” below).
Medications and First Aid – Don’t assume you’ll be home in a day or so. Bring enough prescription meds for at least two weeks. I also bring a very small first aid kit – it fits into a pants pocket and holds band-aids, a disinfectant cream, sun block in stick form, ibuprofen, anti-diarrhea pills, and tweezers. Separately, I include a couple of sanitary napkins and tape as a compress, and a small bottle of insect repellant. Having balance is key here – you will not need a full kit. If you break a leg or are shot, you will need more help than you can self-administer. To stay clean, I take a refill pack of baby wipes, a trial size bottle of hand sanitizer, and a small bar of soap. I also bring a blister kit for my feet – most people don’t hike 30 miles a day with a pack, and blisters can be totally immobilizing, with an attendant risk of infection. Taking good measures with your feet, starting with the right footwear will help you get home in one piece.
Navigation – Be able to figure how to get back home, from several routes. Get a good street map of the city you are visiting, and multi-state AAA highway maps between there and home – don’t bring a book, or piles of topo maps – too big and heavy. I have a small compass that clips to the zipper of my shell. A GPS unit may be a good idea – they are compact and full of map data – but they run on batteries, and will be inoperative if the disaster involves an EMP, or the government turns off GPS in response to a terror attack. Compact binoculars are very important for reconnaissance. If abroad, know how to get to the embassy, and to major rail junctions, seaports, and border crossings.
Utility – Bring a multi-tool (again, in checked baggage) – I prefer the Leatherman Wave with bit assortment, but YMMV. As I said, a flashlight will be essential, with extra batteries.
All this can and does fit in one piece of rollaway luggage along with my regular business accoutrements for one or more weeks of travel – mine is a Victorinox model with an expandable main compartment.
In a disaster, it may take several weeks to make it home from your trip – the preceding advice will get you off to a good start. Good luck and I hope that nobody ever needs any of this!