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We Determined (With the Help of a Survivalist) Which New Emergency Preparedness Kits Are Worth It

Photo: Courtesy of retailer

When the CDC told Americans to “prepare” for a serious outbreak of the coronavirus, most wondered: How? Lots of people took it to mean that they should stock up on supplies, like surgical masks and hand sanitizers and canned foods. All of these things (barring masks) are good to get, but they were actually suggesting something more specific: The CDC has stringent guidelines about what should be in an emergency preparedness kit, as does FEMA, the American Red Cross, and, for New Yorkers, the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM). Some items on all four of these lists include shelf-stable food and water, along with a flashlight, a hand-crank or battery-operated radio, a first-aid kit, a whistle, and a can opener. While you will likely not need most of these supplies in the next couple of weeks, there are plenty of other disasters — both natural or manmade (think of the Los Angeles wildfires in 2019 and the burning of Australia this fall) — for which it is good to be prepared with a lot of the recommended basic gear, even after the pandemic is contained. Over the last few months, with the rising anxiety about catastrophes front of mind, a brand-new market of highly stylized, premade emergency preparedness kits (several of which are currently out-of-stock or backordered) has emerged — each of which seems to be competing to find its foothold as the go-to, direct-to-consumer prepper brand. One of the most-talked-about kits at the moment is the almost incongruously stylish Judy, which was created by Simon Huck, friend of the Kardashians and owner of Command Entertainment Group. There’s also Unchartered Supply Co., which was featured on Shark Tank, and the Preppi, which was picked as one of Oprah’s favorite things in 2019. Each of these bags has unique features and design, but the basic claim is the same: These kits will help you and your family prepare for just about any disaster you might encounter, without expending too much extra effort on your end.

Most all of the experts we spoke with worried that premade kits have the potential of creating a sense of complacency among owners — the feeling that, if they have a kit, they’re all set (this, of course, is far from the truth — every family, and area, is different and requires different tools and items for emergency readiness). The benefit to buying one of these ready-to-go kits, however, is that it is an easier way to kick-start your preparedness plan — even if it’s not the thriftiest way of doing it (most of the items can be bought individually, for cheaper). To figure out which of these kits are worth it, we went through the contents of each and judged them against the guidelines from the CDC, FEMA, the American Red Cross, and NYC OEM. We then met with Shane Hobel, founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School in Beacon, New York, and discussed their survival value, based on his training as a wilderness first responder and a licensed guide. Finally, we walked one mile with each of the bags to determine the comfort and convenience of each, since, according to Ajani Takahashi-Lofton, a ReadyNY AmeriCorps service member at New York City Emergency Management, in case of an evacuation, one might have to walk to the nearest shelter — and maybe beyond.

Judy brands itself as “a new line of ‘ready for anything’ digitally connected emergency kits to make safety simple,” and as we mentioned earlier, its founder and CEO is Simon Huck, whose background is in public relations.  What makes Judy a little different from other kits on this list is the included educational component. On their website, there’s a place to enter your Zip Code and see what disasters you’re most at risk for. (I got pandemics, flooding, snow, hurricanes, and “terrorism” at my Brooklyn address.) Customers are also asked to provide a phone number so Judy can text you with updates and tips, like when it’s time to change the battery in your carbon monoxide detector at home. The kit itself, however, is not customizable, though it does come in different sizes — from a fanny-pack for one person to a so-called “vault” in a plastic box for four. I tested the Mover, which is a backpack for two people. It’s made of a waterproof material and has a stuff-sack-style waterproof closure and several handles that make it easy to carry. But Hobel warned that it’s not super-solid material: “I know a locust thorn goes right through this, no big deal.”

Speaking of the contents, inside, there are three cardboard boxes filled with gear, each organized by category. That includes two dust masks (not N95 masks); a whistle; a first-aid kit; hand sanitizer; and a pre-charged, single-use phone charger. However, a lot of the gear didn’t meet Hobel’s standards. The first-aid kit, for instance, had no elastic bandage for sprains, and the Judy-branded work gloves weren’t waterproof. There was no water bottle or water filtration system either, just water packets, which are better suited for situations in which you’re actively moving, according to Hobel, not just staying at home.

There is enough room in the bag for extra gear you might need, like a spare set of clothing, prescriptions, or a water filter — especially if you take everything out of the branded cardboard boxes — so it would be easy to customize to fit your needs.

TL;DR Judy is best for those who know they need a preparedness kit but are coming to it with minimal to no prior knowledge. There’s a lot of gear that could be better, and even more that needs to be added to be a fully stocked go-bag even if you’re just looking at the FEMA recommendations. But there’s enough information provided by Judy to start a robust conversation about what preparedness looks like for your household and which disasters are most likely to upend your life.

Of all of the backpacks that I tested, the one from Unchartered Supply Co. was the most comfortable (and most like my actually technical Gregory backpacking pack), even though the contents were the heaviest. That’s because it has a proper lumbar strap and an adjustable chest strap. And though the contents themselves were good, they were all stored in a nylon insert, which meant that to get to any one single piece of gear, you need to empty out the entire bag. And in an emergency situation, where you might need to grab and go, that becomes extremely burdensome. The other issue is that it doesn’t allow much room in the rest of the bag, so items like an extra pair of clothing or prescription medications would be tough to squeeze into the already super-packed insert.

But the gear inside the nylon insert was pretty good. The first-aid kit, for instance, came with an elastic wrap for sprains, and Hobel was excited about all of the tools, like tweezers and surgical-style scissors. It was also the only kit we bought that came with a water filtration system, rather than packets of water, and a knife (though Hobel noted that it’s not exactly the right blade if you wanted to go hunting in the woods). There’s an Eton hand-crank radio, which is the brand that’s recommended by the American Red Cross. It’s also the only kit that really addressed warmth — it contained two acrylic hats. The trouble is that all the gear is very heavy and requires a good amount of knowledge to use correctly — once you get it out of that cumbersome insert.

TL;DR In many ways, the bag from Unchartered Supply Co. is the most technical, but that also means it requires the most knowledge to make the best use of it. I would throw away the insert and keep the gear to make more room for my personal items.

The Ready America backpack looks like something a third-grader might take to school, and it wasn’t the most comfortable to carry around. But when you look inside, the Ready American kit begins to look like a really good deal: It’s very similar to what you’d find from Judy, for a third of the cost, with the addition of some more outdoorsy products that weren’t in the Judy, like iodine tablets to help clean water (though not filter it) and a tube tent and cord to provide shelter if necessary.

That’s not to say everything in the kit is great quality. I broke the multitool the first time I opened it, and, as Hobel pointed out, though the kit has two masks, there’s no information about how they’re graded, so it’s not clear if they’re N95, which can help filter out a lot of different airborne viruses and bacteria, or just plain, old dust masks that wouldn’t help in a pandemic situation. The flashlight-slash-radio was also somewhat flimsy in my hands, and Hobel also pointed out, “I can’t put any additional clothing in here. I really can’t put much else. I can’t put another pair of shoes in there.”

TL;DR This is an excellent starter kit, especially given the price, but to make it your own, start by throwing out the bag and moving all the gear into a larger — and, ideally, more technical — backpack. That’s why this Ready America kit is most helpful for those who have some basic outdoors gear already and a basic understanding of how to hike, camp, and be outdoors.

Preppi The Prepster Backpack
$293
$293

Though the Preppi has Oprah’s seal of approval — and she said she liked this backpack “because it’s already good to go with essentials like a pop-up tube tent, bandages, a USB charger, rope, duct tape, water, and even freeze-dried ice cream” — from a survivalist perspective, it’s perhaps the weakest of the four I checked out, starting with the bag itself. The canvas backpack isn’t waterproof, which means all your gear could get wet in an emergency situation, and the only thing keeping it closed is a leather strap, which would be easy to cut if someone really wanted to. “It’s a nice, fashionable back. It’s cute, and I can see why, and I understand what they’re going for. But I think they could have done a better job, and they certainly could have done a way better job when it comes to the straps,” Hobel told me. And he was dead-on. Even though it was the smallest bag, it was the most dense on my back, in no small part because of the internal metal frame and the flimsy leather straps that dug into my shoulders. I only walked a mile with this on, but I was annoyed with it by the end — so I shudder to think how irritated I’d be if I actually had to haul any distance.

The other disappointing part of the Preppi pack is that the “high-end” quality doesn’t extend to the survival gear itself. Sure, there was a six-pack of Malin and Goetz toiletries (which retails at $32, making it the most expensive item in the bag), a single-origin chocolate bar, and a single Kusumi tea bag — but none of that stuff, according to Hobel, is really going to help in an emergency situation. “Oh, yes, some tea, why don’t we? We’ve got time,” he joked. The rest of the gear, meanwhile, felt fairly cheap. I actually broke the multitool (again) as soon as I opened it; a spring snapped out, and I couldn’t put it back in. The headlamp, though bright, didn’t have a way to adjust the angle, which means you can really only use it while walking forward or looking straight ahead. Where it outperforms the Judy is the addition of a tube tent and paracord, but otherwise, there’s a lot of extra weight.

TL;DR With a deck of cards and fancy chocolate, this emergency preparedness kit is better suited for a glamper than a survivalist. But its got the right intention.

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We Determined Which of the New Emergency Kits Are Worth It