Climate change has transformed the American West into a tinderbox. Temperatures since the start of the century have averaged 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than any other point in the historical record since 1895. Unprecedented drought conditions and decades of ineffective public land management practices have led to massive blazes.
The same can be said for Pacific Gas and Electric, Northern California’s local power monopoly/serial arsonist. The company has faced multiple civil and criminal charges in recent years after causing some of the largest and most damaging wildfires in California history — like 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 68 people, or 2021’s Dixie Fire which caused $1.5 billion in property damage. In fact, an investigation by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection found that the company’s equipment started at least 17 of the state’s 21 fires in 2017, MSNBC reports.
A significant portion of the state is probably going to be alight for the next few months. Regardless of whether you live in a coastal city, on the urban-wildland interface or out in the middle of rural anywhere, those fires are going to have an immediate impact on your life. It could be the enduring hassle of weeks-long rolling power outages, it could be the health consequences from air pollution, it could be slaloming through walls of flame in a desperate bid to escape an engulfing firestorm — either way, you’re probably going to have a bad time. So here’s some gear and techniques to help with this summer’s fire season. Good luck.
It’s just like camping, but involuntary!
Your individual needs will depend on the emergency, your location and your access to resources. What you’ll need to successfully ride out an extended power outage in the comfort of your own home will be different than if you have to fit your life into an automobile trunk or hiking backpack. Below, we’ll discuss five categories of products that no go-bag should be without.
Packing and preparation can seem daunting and overwhelming but resources are available from the federal government to help. FEMA’s Ready.gov website offers information and advice in 11 languages for any number of emergency situations both in digital and physical formats. The FEMA app for Android and iOS offers the same information directly from your mobile device, as well as real-time emergency broadcasts and directions to nearby Disaster Recovery Centers. In the sections below, we’ll talk about the gear you’ll need to ride out the emergency until you can get to one of those centers, set out across seven broad categories.
In wilderness survival situations, there’s an order of importance in doing things: find shelter, then water, start a fire and finally procure food. This is very good advice that could save your life, but when the emergency alert system goes off at night and you stumble out of bed to find that the power’s already out, you aren’t going to be thinking about water bottles, you’re going to want a flashlight, so let’s start there.
When my family was camping out in the driveway for a week after the Big One in ‘89, we were stuck with old-school Mag-Lites — incandescent bulbs, ran on six D-batteries, heavy enough you could beat a rhinoceros to death with it — you know the ones. Thankfully, technology has advanced in the convening years and today’s LED and Li-ion driven torches are much more luminous and lightweight.
You have a choice between flashlights and headlamps. Headlamps are great if you need your hands free and want light wherever you’re looking, hand torches offer more flexibility in their use and won’t blind whoever you’re looking at.
Fenix, Biolite, Petzl, Thrunite, and Black Diamond all make solid flashlights and headlamps. The $70 Petzl Actik Core headlamp, for example, will run on either AAA or Li-ion batteries, weighs less than 3 ounces and outputs 450 lumens. The $20 Black Diamond Astro 300 Headlamp, on the other hand, outputs 300 lumens but you’ll have to purchase the rechargeable battery separately. Just don’t go overboard with the lumen rating, 500 lumens is bright enough to see nearly 100 feet in complete darkness — you’re trying to illuminate what’s in front of you, not blind aircraft pilots.
Personally, I prefer to not strap LEDs to my face (nothing against headlamps but if I’m going to die in a natural disaster I’m not going do it looking like a huge dork), so I keep Thrunite’s TC15 V2 and Archer 2A V3 in my go-bag. The Archer runs on a pair of AAs while the TC15 is rechargable, giving me the redundancy my survivalist paranoia craves. They’re both waterproof, shock and drop resistant, and way easier to fit in a pocket than a Mag-Lite. You might also check out the waterproof, $66 Coast Polysteel 600R, which outputs 530 lumens, runs a claimed 35 hours on either a Li-ion pack or 4 AAs, and even includes a USB port for charging other electronics.
If you’re at risk of long-term displacement, you’ll want to invest in a lantern. Black Diamond makes a slick LED lantern, the $25, 200-lumen Moji, that’s bright enough to illuminate a tabletop, tent or car interior. The $70 Moji Charging Station Lantern combines a 250-lumen LED lantern with a portable power block. It can run on AC (with an optional adapter), a rechargeable lithium ion battery or standard AAs while charging your other devices. The Goal Zero Lighthouse 600 is another good choice, offering 600 lumens of illumination and up to 180 hours of runtime. It can be recharged via USB, hand crank or an optional solar array. And if you would prefer something a bit more analog, it’s never a bad call to have a stash of long-burning emergency candles tucked away somewhere.
Also check out the Coleman Recharge 800. It outputs up to 800 lumens for as long as 45 hours straight thanks to a 4800 mAh lithium battery. I like it because it’s shaped like the old propane Coleman lanterns we used on family camping trips and that I still keep on hand for when the grid goes down for good. It’s half the price as the more modern design, propane is still easy to score and, again, redundancy is your friend. For an even more inexpensive option, take a look at the Texsport Single Mantle, currently $27 on Amazon. Or if you have access to a bulk propane tank (like what’s connected to your grill), Texport’s propane tree can fuel three gas-powered devices simultaneously — think lantern light, camp stove and tent heater — all from one supply, without having to swap connectors between them.
If your domicile is still standing and you’ve just lost power for an indeterminate amount of time, congrats! That is what we call “an inconvenience” — keep living your life, enjoy drinking from your operational indoor plumbing and skip on down to the sections about energy storage and cooking because you’re good here.
Now, just because it’s California in the summertime doesn’t mean there won’t be a chill in the air by the time FEMA comes around. Keep a stock of warm and water resistant clothing in your go-bag, as well as a blanket or poncho that can work as both an insulation layer and ground cover. If you don’t mind the crinkle factor, SOL makes a variety of mylar emergency blankets for either personal or group use. Wool blankets (which don’t lose their insulation capacity when wet like cotton does) are another option. You can find them cheap on Amazon or at your local army surplus shop.
If you do find yourself displaced and in need of short-term accommodation, then it’s time to pitch yourself a little tent. The Litefighter 1X is an excellent three-season personal shelter that works as both a standalone tent with 18.2 sq ft of floor space, or as bug netting when affixed to a cot. It’s plenty spacious for a solo hiker plus their pack, and has lots of room for wet outer gear under the rain fly. An optional windbreaker attachment can provide enough added insulation to use the 1X during cold winter months as well. The Mountainsmith Morrison EVO is a cozy 17.25 square feet and $199 on Amazon, and LiteFighter also makes a larger 2-person tent with 34.5 square feet of floor space. At $400 and $450 respectively, the 1- and 2-person 1X series tents are a bit pricier than average. You can just as easily pick up a REI Co-op Half Dome SL 2+ with 33.75 square feet for $329 or for the same price as the solo-occupancy 1X, you can get a 4-person REI Wonderland.
You can also incorporate your vehicle into this temporary housing solution. Use it to securely store your gear while you sleep outside or as a mounting point for a rooftop tent like the $3,695 Roofnest Condor XL, the $1,750 Thule Tepui Low-Pro 2 or the $1,800 CVT Pioneer Bachelor (it’s small enough to fit atop a Mini Cooper!). If spending four figures to sleep on top of your car seems too risky a proposition, the $185 North East Harbor Universal SUV Camping Tent holds up to eight people and glomps onto the tailgate area.
EV owners whose vehicles have V2L capabilities — that’s “vehicle-to-load” and it’s offered in the Ford F-150 Lightning, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6 — may not even immediately notice an outage thanks to their cars’ ability to power their households for up to a few days at a time. Who needs a rooftop tent when your car is a rolling backup generator?
Your next priority will be securing a supply of potable water for drinking, cooking and hygiene. The CDC recommends “one gallon of water per person per day for drinking and sanitation” and maintaining at least a 2-week supply. Bottled water is “the safest and most reliable” source in an emergency, per the agency, but that can become a pricey and space-consuming option if an outage drags on for an extended period.
You can store tap water in FDA-approved food-grade storage containers — after it’s been treated and sanitized with a mild bleach solution, of course — or you can fill your bathtub ahead of time and store around 100 gallons of water there using a plastic cover liner. Rainwater collection barrels can capture large amounts of water (or at least be used as pre-filled receptacles like a bathtub) but you will need to filter the water before consuming it. Gravity-fed cisterns like the Alexapure Pro Stainless Steel Water Filtration System, and the nearly identical Big Berkey, can hold up to 8.5 liters of fluid while filtering out a wide range of potential contaminants and supplying potable water to as many as 16 people. Regardless of how well these devices claim to clean the water, it’s always a good call to keep a small supply of iodine tablets on hand as backup.
If you’ve got access to a water source with a steady supply of unfiltered but otherwise clean water, take a look at the Portawell, a high-capacity water pump/filtration system that can produce up to 60 gallons of water every hour, using just 35 watts of power. Its 2-stage filtering process removes “100 percent of cysts including giardia, cryptosporidium, and 99.99 percent of pathogenic bacteria (including cholera, typhoid, coliform, chlorine, metals, and volatile organic chemicals),” down to half a micron in size, according to the product’s page. The optional 50W 12V solar panel comes bundled with a charge controller for an extra $170, a 12V battery to put that energy can be either lead-acid (car) battery or a Li-Ion brick and can be purchased at a local automotive or electronics store. All together, you’ll have a high-throughput water distribution device that can hydrate myself and a significant portion of your neighborhood indefinitely — or at least until the filters fail — and do so up to two and a half times faster than hand-pumped filters like the Katadyn Vario, the gravity-fed Platypus GravityWorks, the squeezable Katadyn BeFree or TIME’s “2005 Invention of the Year” winner, the LifeStraw Personal Water Filter can.
Fire, heating and cooking
The stress of displacement is going to take both a mental and physical toll, but you’ve already got light, a place to lay your head and a slake for your thirst. Next you’re going to want to square away your three squares a day.
If just your power is out, keep using your fridge as normal, assuming you have a generator (which we’ll get to below). Otherwise, standard power outage rules apply here: eat in order of perishability — refrigerator, then freezer, then canned — opening the doors as little as possible.
Having a smaller secondary cooler on hand for often-used items like milk, condiments and produce can help preserve the fridge’s contents for longer by reducing the number of door openings. Hydroflask’s $129 20L Day Escape pack cooler is easily portable and can keep items cold for up to 36 hours, while the $76 Coleman Xtreme Portable Cooler can keep ice in form for up to 5 days. If you need something more substantial, the $275 RCIT 65 QT hard cooler is a Wirecutter award winner and the $375 YETI Tundra 65 is sturdy enough to accommodate dry ice, which can keep food cold for up to three times longer.
For important items that will immediately spoil above a specific temperature, like insulin, consider investing in a powered refrigerator like the Dometic CFX3 35 or the 65W Whynter FM-45G. They’re nearly as expensive as regular kitchen fridges and you’ll need to have a beefier generator/solar array to accommodate their additional draw but they do offer added peace of mind knowing that your life saving medication will be viable when you need it.
Eating cold beans out of a can loses its whimsey after the third or fourth spoonful and unless you plan on eating takeaway for the duration, you’re going to need something to cook with — whether that’s with your existing grill, over an open fire, a propane cooktop or electric hotplate. The RoadPro Portable Stove, for example, can heat food up to 300 degrees (like a Bizzaro-world CFX3) and runs through a vehicle’s 12V outlet. The Cuisinart CB-30P1 hot plate is equally at home in dorm rooms, RVs, and campsites but with a 1300-watt draw, you’ll need to use it sparingly.
The Solo Stove Ranger outdoor fire pit, conversely, will run for as long as you have fuel to feed it. The double-walled design maximizes combustion while minimizing smoke production, and can be converted into a woodfire grill with an optional cast iron griddle. At 16 pounds and 16 inches in diameter, it’s easily portable. It’s also $250, which seems expensive for what can be replicated with bare ground and a ring of stones. The INNO STAGE 15-inch portable fire pit is more affordable at $80 and can also run on wood pellets in addition to logs. Or if you want something more streamlined and durable, the Wolf and Grizzly Campfire Trio offers 120 square inches of cookspace and can hold up to 30 pounds — ideal for cast iron skillets and dutch ovens.
The Biolite line of firepits and camp stoves are unique in that they can convert thermal energy into electrical charge thanks to their incorporated heat converters. The Campstove 2 generates 3W of power which is stored in a 2600 mAh while still being able to boil a liter of water in under four and a half minutes. The larger FirePit+ offers a 12,800 mAh battery and can burn both logs and charcoal. If you want to stick with propane as your primary fuel source, check out the 7,000 BTU Coleman Gas Camping Stove which pulls double duty as both a wok and a grill. Of course, having a cook station is no good if you don’t know how to use it. Download a recipe app like BBC Good Food (iOS, Android), Epicurious (iOS, Android) or SideChef Recipes (iOS).
Whether the smoke is coming from your cooking fire or the wildfire, you’re going to want to keep a supply of filtration masks at the ready for when the air quality dips into dangerous particulate levels. Standard Covid rules apply: cloth works in a pinch but n-95 is the superior choice if you can get your hands on them.
First aid and hygiene
Roughing it means just that. With many of the conveniences of modern life inaccessible as long as the lights are out, you’re going to be doing a lot more manual labor which means a litany of bumps, bruises, aches and pains along the way. And while you likely won’t have to concern yourself with performing surgery in the field — the power’s out, you aren’t marooned on a desert isle, just drive to the damn ER — a well-stocked first aid kit is essential to any bug out bag.
In the case of the My Medic 20L Survival Kit, the first aid kit is the bug out bag. This all-in-one healthcare suite offers more than 110 products spread across the National Park Service 10 essential first aid categories, but is both bulky and expensive. If you’ve already got your hands full, maybe consider a less wide-ranging kit. Something like the AMK Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit, which can accomodate the normal injuries a pair of hikers might see over two days, or the Red Cross’ Family First Aid kit that contains more than 115 items. And if you have pets, you can bet there’s a Medpack for them too. You might consider keeping duplicates of important medical documents — immunization records, allergy information and such — tucked into the kit with the originals locked safely away somewhere secure.
In the event that you do need to be admitted to the hospital, or are interacting with FEMA or other government agencies, you’ll need to have your ID and other critical documents close by — and very preferably not on fire. The Thomas & Bond fireproof safe protects up to two pounds of documents from both fire and water damage thanks to its silicone-coated fiberglass construction. Maintaining a safe deposit box in the next town over is another, more extreme option.
Much like cold beans from a can, the musky scent of an unwashed human — especially mixed with sweat, wood smoke and despair — can get real old, real quick. But when the power goes out, your water heater might stop working as well, which means you could be in for a whole bunch of cold showers. Solar camping showers like those from Advanced Elements or Coghlan's can help bridge the gap.
Assuming you live somewhere that gets bright sunlight throughout the day (ie, not San Francisco), these devices can heat up to 5 gallons of water to a yelp-inducing 110 degrees F in about 3 hours. They’re less great at retaining that heat so you’re going to need to (ahem) “get ‘em while they’re hot.” Nothing says that just because they’re heated outdoors they have to be used there as well — simply hang the heated bundle from your shower curtain. Be careful though, as 5 gallons of water is quite heavy, weighing 41.6 pounds. It could snap the curtain rod and leave you recreating that Flashdance scene with a bag of scalding hot water — and again, you’re probably going to have a bad time.
But hey, maybe showering outdoors turns out to be your jam. First off, good on you finding that bright side in the midst of a climate emergency. Second off, it just so happens that Amazon sells a 5.5-gallon heated outdoor shower system that runs off a solar panel and a garden hose, not for nothing.
Your body isn’t the only thing that’s going to get soiled and stinky while roughing it. If you don’t have access to a laundry or coin-op, the Wonder Wash can at least keep your socks, undies and other small items fresh — and up to bath towel-sized items, if you do them one at a time. Tie off a length of braided cotton rope between two uprights and you’ve got yourself a functional clothesline.
To reiterate, this is a power outage, not The Revenant. You are not a bear, so please do not dump in the woods without at least bringing a trowel — maybe a pop-up poop tent and travel bidet for good measure.
With the power out and no word from PG&E on when it might be coming back on, you’ll simply have to make some of your own. But before you go jury rigging your Peloton to a daisy-chain of lead-acid batteries and trying to stationary ride your way to electrical self-sufficiency, step outside. The sun in your eyes and wind in your face can just as easily be harnessed to put electrons in a battery pack.
Thanks to steady advancements in materials and engineering technologies today’s solar panels and home wind turbines are smaller, more efficient, and more affordable than ever — as are the battery systems that hold the excess charge for use when the sun isn't shining and wind isn’t blowing. The 15W, 12V Survival Wind Turbine Generator from Pacific Sky Power is fully portable and only weighs 3 pounds. Larger turbines like the 400W Primus Air 40 and Pikasola wind turbines will produce more power but at the cost of mobility — they’ll need to be statically installed somewhere windy to be most effective and then wired into the property’s grid.
The same holds true for renewable solar. But unless you need to keep your crypto mining operation running nonstop through the outage, plenty of battery backup systems can provide the power your family needs without having to affix permanent panels in your yard or on your roof. The $3,600 Jackery Solar Generator 2000 Pro, is essentially a ruggedized 2.1kWh power cell with six, 200W solar panels feeding it electricity.
“I feel like I could keep my refrigerator running in an emergency for quite a while,” Engadget Managing Editor Terrence O’Brien, who was sent a review unit for a separate post, said of the model. “I laid out four panels in my yard and charged it to 100 percent in a few hours and it’s been going for two months without a recharge.”
“It’s basically a giant battery,” he continued. “It’s quiet, so it’s not like running a regular generator.” The 2000 Pro is the biggest and baddest that Jackery makes and, “probably overkill for most people who aren’t using it for emergency purposes,” O’Brien noted.
Similarly, Geneverse and Bluetti Power both make solar generators parallel to Jackery’s offerings, and at roughly the same price point. But if you’re looking for something even more robust than that, Goal Zero offers a range of solar backup systems that can keep your house running up to 3 days without interruption. But be warned, anything beyond the starter kit is going to need installation by a professional electrician.
On the other hand if you’re under evacuation, a 23-pound power brick might not be the best traveling companion. In that case, scavenge the power you need off of nearby outlets using a USB adapter like the 20W Anker Nano, the 40W Anker PowerPort 4, or the RavPower Pioneer offering both USB-A and -C ports. And to save some of that power for later, the INIU Portable Charger holds 10,000 mAh for just over $20, as does the Anker Portable Charger. Be sure to keep a small pouch of common adapter types in your pack as well, just in case you need to share your supply.
Phone charges shouldn’t be the only thing you’re sharing during the event — accurate information will be a vital resource as well. At the very least, you’ll want a solar or hand-crank emergency radio like the Midland ER310 — it’s got a rechargeable 2600 mAh battery, solar panel, integrated flashlight, and an ultrasonic dog whistle for search and rescue canines. DaringSnail’s 4000 mAh emergency radio doesn't have nearly as many bells and whistles, but it also costs half as much as the 310. The Eton FRX3+ can be powered through a variety of means — USB, Li-Ion battery, solar, and hand crank — and will automatically broadcast NOAA weather alerts for your area.