Unsurprisingly for a country that’s endured more than its share of natural disasters of the past decade, New Zealand is now host to several companies offering ready-made emergency solutions. Google “emergency-kits” and you’ll find outfits offering everything from huge heavy-duty kits geared towards months of survival, through to custom-made emergency bags for your pet.

When you look at our rates of emergency-preparedness, it’s not hard to see why these companies have emerged. In 2014, Stats NZ found just 22 percent of New Zealanders had food and water for 3 days, and a household emergency plan. An earlier survey taken just after the Christchurch earthquakes found even fewer had an emergency kit including a torch, radio and first-aid gear.

Quakes may be our most high-profile and costly disaster, but floods are the most frequent. And, according to a report last year by the Royal Society of New Zealand on the implications of climate change, events like last month’s Edgecumbe flood are likely to become much more common. The upshot is you need to be prepared to survive for a few days at home when the lights go out and the water stops running. It’s also crucial to have a grab bag for when you need to cut and run quickly.

We spoke to experts to find what you need when disaster strikes. We also tested off-the-shelf survival kits to see if they really will see you through.

Our assessment included grab bags (also known as getaway kits), designed to support 1 person for 72 hours, from most of the major suppliers: After Shake, Grab&Go, LIFEPAC, NZ Survivor, Prepare.co.nz, St John, and Survive-it.

Test results

Our main finding was you’re better off building your own getaway kit. All commercial kits either lacked key items or performed poorly in our tests. The exercise of putting together your own survival gear offers better value for money. It’s also a great spur for you and your family to discuss what to do in an emergency. If you’re set on a pre-made kit, there are a couple worth considering — the Prepare.co.nz Survival Kit and the NZ Survivor 1 Person 3 Day Pack — though we recommend adding more items.

In general, our testing showed radios and torches powered by disposable batteries were a better option than their wind-up counterparts. We also found a minute of winding only gave about 5 to 10 minutes of radio-life, or 30 minutes for the torches. Wind-up torches were significantly less bright, even when fully charged, than those powered by disposable batteries. Modern battery-powered AM/FM radios and LED torches run for several hours off cheap disposable alkaline or lithium AAAs, which hold their charge in storage for more than 5 years. In contrast, many wind-up torches use NiMH batteries, which can lose up to 30 percent of their charge each month in storage. One exception is the wind-up torch/ radio offered by NZ Survivor, which uses batteries that hold their charge better than others, and features USB and solar charging in addition to the crank lever.

The worst emergency grab kit we assessed is from St John, which lacks basics such as a first aid kit, food rations or a rain poncho. Its wind-up torch/ radio performed poorly in testing, with a radio that was difficult to tune and a dim built-in torch. On its website, St John say the kit is “recommended for 1-5 people”, but a group of 5 relying on the bag would find themselves sharing a single roll of toilet paper and a small bottle of hand sanitiser. At $200, the kit represents very poor value for money, while also earning our wooden spoon for comprehensiveness and quality.

What you need

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) recommends having the following basic supplies at home:

  • At least 3 days of water (9L for each person). You can use old fizzy drink and juice bottles, but milk bottles are a no-go as residual bacteria can infect the water. If you're storing tap water from a mains supply treated with chlorine, you don't normally need to add anything to the water. Don’t use household bleach containing fragrances or detergents, for example Janola, to treat the water.
  • Long-lasting food that doesn’t need cooking, at least enough to sustain each member of the household for 72 hours. Also include food for babies and pets.
  • Toilet paper and large plastic buckets to fashion an emergency toilet.
  • Dust masks and work gloves.

It suggests you have the following items in a getaway bag in the event of a quick evacuation:

  • Torch
  • Radio
  • Spare batteries
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Cash
  • Photo ID and other important documents
  • Walking shoes
  • Warm clothes
  • Raincoat and hat
  • First aid kit and any prescription medicine
  • Water and snack food.

MCDEM public education adviser Bridget Cheesman says individual emergency preparedness doesn’t need to be a big undertaking.

“The most important thing is having a conversation and making a basic plan with your family. This just means sitting around the table one night and jotting down a few quick points covering where you’ll meet if you can’t get home, what you’ll need, where you’ll go, who can help you and who might need your help,” she says. “You don’t have to have all your supplies in one place, but you might need to find them in a hurry and/or in the dark.

“Having some supplies in a backpack that anyone in your household can grab on their way out, if you have to leave in a hurry, is a good idea.” Mrs Cheesman says most people will already have some basic survival items at home.

Check out the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management's site for more information.

What we recommend - our DIY kit

We think you're better off making your own kit. Here's what we recommend you put in one.
We think you're better off making your own kit. Here's what we recommend you put in one.

We were able to construct a kit of decent quality for $152, significantly less than many of the commercial kits. It’s likely you can build a comparable kit for even less than this, as many of us already have spare backpacks, torches, radios and drink bottles.

But remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The most important part of emergency preparedness is making a plan for you and your family that covers the following:

  • Where will you meet if you can’t get home, and a backup plan if you can’t pick-up the kids
  • The name and contact details of someone to check in with out of town in case the phones go down, and other emergency contact details
  • Family and friends who may require your assistance
  • Plans for if you’re stuck at home, including 3 days’ worth of food and water
  • Plans for how you’ll stay warm at night and cook food if there’s no power
  • Getaway kits for if you need to leave in a hurry. Note that relying on a getaway bag for 72 hours is an extreme scenario. In most cases, your getaway kit will just need to get you from where you are when disaster strikes to where you need to go.

Our kit contains:

Compare kits

If you're still keen on buying a pre-made kit, here's an analysis of each of the ones we tested. There's a table further down the page that lets you easily compare the kits' contents.