For many people, prepping seems like something only people with a good deal of time and/or disposable income can do. Shows like NatGeo’s Doomsday Preppers and, unfortunately, some YouTube channels give the impression that if you don’t have several years of food and enough weapons and ammo to outfit a small militia stored somewhere in a mountain bunker you can’t join the prepper club. Remember that the TV show is, at least partly, scripted, staged, and creatively edited, and some of the more questionable YouTube channels are run by gear/gun snobs. There are, however, ways to prep on a budget. All that matters is that you get the supplies and gear that work, last, and will be there when you need them.
MREs and freeze-dried foods are what are popular right now, and for good reason; they can be stored for years, if they are not in extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, either of those options can be expensive. If you run into low-cost MREs, beware; they may be about 12-18 months from expiring. I haven’t seen any inexpensive freeze-dried anything, but if you find something, be very suspicious. Obviously, fresh meat, cheese, milk, or anything that has to be refrigerated or frozen will not work for long-term storage or in an emergency if the power goes out. Dried foods, like rice and beans, work and will keep for years if stored right, and they can be bought in bulk (20 lb. bags). Also, pasta or noodles of any kind will work as well, and they’re inexpensive. Canned foods will last for years as well, if stored properly, regardless of the “use by” date. If they go past the date, they may degrade in taste and nutritional value a little bit, but they will hold up fine and be safe to eat for years. Also, flour, sugar, salt, corn meal and spices will keep for years as well, provided that the packages are not compromised, and flour, corn meal, salt, and sugar can be bought in bulk. Also, don’t be afraid to buy store brands; they are just as good as name brands and will last just as long. Of course, there is a downside to this, which is that weight will certainly be a problem should you be forced to bug out. Twenty pounds each of rice and beans is, of course, 40 lbs., and canned foods are heavy as well. However, if you’ve been forced to relocate and if you’ve planned well, you should be able to get a few days (depending on how many people you’ll be supporting) worth of rice and noodles. This is where Ramen noodles would come in handy; while not very nutritious, they are light, inexpensive, and don’t take up much room. Dry seasonings, such as beef or chicken bullion (put a few cubes in a Ziploc bag) or Ramen seasoning packets, will make your meals palatable enough to eat for a couple of days; and realistically, most people are not going to last for more than two or three days carrying everything they need to live long term (60 lbs. minimum) on their backs.
During a disaster or emergency, water may not be safe to drink. As a general rule, unless you can be 100% sure that the water you are going to drink is safe, such as bottled water or water that you have stored and/or purified yourself, it is better to assume it is unsafe. Of course, the easiest way to treat water is to boil it, and you should always have plenty of matches on hand, as well as lighters, fire steels, and other ways to light fires in your bug-out-bag/emergency kit, all of which can be bought very inexpensively. However, you may not always be able to have a fire. For example, you may not be in an area where you can safely make a fire, or you may not want a fire so as to go unnoticed. Also, if you boil water, unless you are out in the middle of winter, you will have to let it cool down for a few hours so that you will not raise your core body temperature. If you can not boil water, the best purifier is unscented household chlorine bleach. First, use a paper coffee filter, any kind will work, to filter out any solid particulates from the water, then use one or two drops per liter or two to four drops per gallon; stir and let it sit for 30 minutes to kill anything harmful in the water. Bleach can be bought by the gallon and is relatively inexpensive. One gallon will purify several gallons of water. Water purification tabs are also an option, but the amount of water that they will purify compared to bleach makes the bleach the best option. Again, the weight and size of a gallon of bleach will be a problem if you are forced to move on foot, but enough bleach can be poured in a 20 oz. Coke bottle to purify enough water for a couple days.
Shelter can be a bit more tricky when on a budget. Obviously, if you are able to stay in your home, shelter will be a non-issue, and if you have to evacuate in your car you will be able to survive, but if you are forced to evacuate on foot, portable shelter will be an issue. If you are by yourself, a small tent can be found fairly inexpensively, but if you have someone with you who is depending on you, larger tents can run into high dollar territory. You will need enough room in the tent for everyone and their gear to fit inside, which means that a four-person tent will realistically fit two people or maybe three, if one of them is a small child. Some people talk about making shelters out of what they can find in nature, and that is a good skill to have if you are ever stranded on a mountain road, but natural shelters are incredibly hard, and labor intensive, to make. While that may be better than nothing in some cases, they are not ideal in inclement weather because, unless you have an incredible amount of practice, they will not shed water and will not hold heat in. Note that I am not saying not to build one if you have to, nor am I saying that it is a skill you should not learn. If, however, there is another option, take it. Obviously a good tent is preferable, but if that is out of your price range, tarps can be bought for less than $10. A tarp and 50 ft. of paracord will make a suitable shelter to spend a night in and move on the next morning. An added advantage is that a tarp and paracord are very light and easy to carry in a backpack. Unfortunately, sleeping bags are going to be one of the things where “you get what you pay for”, and there isn’t really going to be any exception to this rule with regard to sleeping bags. You can buy an Ozark Trail sleeping bag for less than $20 at Walmart, but it’s not going to be very high quality. The zippers aren’t going to last very long, and those are rated for 40-60 degrees. Obviously, the sleeping bag you will need will depend on the part of the country you live in. You will need a lot more insulation in Montana than you will in Florida, no matter what time of the year it is. However, being warm is an absolutely necessary part of your survival. Of course, you can always roll up a bunch of blankets and carry them with you, but blankets are usually not waterproof. You can use a tarp and some blankets to make a bed roll, like the ones popular in the 1800s, but those become heavy and unwieldy in short order. Things like space blankets and bivy bags are okay, in an extreme emergency, like the mountain road example above, but for long-term survival, your health is going to depend upon having the right sleeping bag for your environment.
Gear, like backpacks, paracord, something to cook and eat with, and other things, can be bought inexpensively at any Walmart or Academy. The Game Winner bags from Academy, which I use, are high quality and affordable. I have seen some packs at Walmart from time to time that seem to be reasonably well made and not too expensive, though I think the Game Winners are better for the money. Mess kits and camping utensils are reasonably priced, if you stay away from name brands (like Coleman, etc.). A one-person mess kit (I can not stress enough that this will work for only one person), which can be used for cooking, and a camping utensil set– knife, fork, and spoon– can be bought for less than $20. For cooking, fires will always work, but if you must have a stove for some reason, obviously a two-burner Coleman stove will be too big to carry around with you, though it would work in an emergency at home, as will a grill, propane, or charcoal, if you have one (and yes, you can use it to cook in skillets and pans), but there are many different options for single-burner stoves that are inexpensive and can be easily carried with you, or you can make your own. To make your own, all it takes is a couple of coke cans, a nail, some high-temp sealant, and denatured alcohol. Things like a hatchet, saw, and portable shovel can be found at Home Depot for a few dollars. First aid is another “you get what you pay for” thing. Of course you can buy low-cost bandages, gauze, et cetera, but some things, like QuikClot, should be name brand and will be expensive. However, if you need QuikClot, it will save your life. Knives are the subject of great debate, but if you have a good, fixed blade survival knife and a good folding knife, you should be fine. There are some inexpensive yet good quality folding knives out there. The SOG Trident, which I carry, is $50 now at Walmart. That’s a vast improvement over the $100+ that they used to cost. Winchester (the gun company) has a line of knives you can buy at Walmart for $20 or less. They are made by Gerber and are nice knives. Some of Buck’s knives are around $20-$30. By far the best survival fixed blade, and my personal preference, is the Gerber Bear Grylls survival knife. When you look at survival knives, forget the old hollow handled knives with the “survival kit” in the handle and a compass on top. Those will break, if you try to use them very hard at all. You want a full tang knife, where there is one piece of steel from the tip of the blade through the handle. It’s not necessary, or even advisable, to buy a bowie knife or a full size Ka Bar. A good quality Bowie will set you back a few hundred dollars, and a Ka Bar, while it’s a great knife, may be too big and unwieldy; it can also give the wrong impression if someone sees you with it. Flashlights are another thing that you will see people pay mind boggling amounts of money for, which is not necessary at all. A good mini mag-lite LED is bright, tough, reliable, and they use standard AA batteries. Yes, a Surefire tac-light is smaller, brighter, and it’s cool looking, but it’s also going to run over $100, and they take Lithium CR 123 batteries, which are hard to find and can cost $15 for two. Coleman also makes some nice flashlights that are very bright and compact, and they’re well under $100. A giant 3D cell mag-lite, or one larger (yes, they make them all the way up to 6D cell batteries) is not necessary and, if you’ve ever tried to carry one in a flashlight ring on your belt, they’re big, heavy and quite inconvenient and uncomfortable to carry with you.