Family Emergency Backpacks for On the Road

More than just a first aid kit, these family emergency backpacks help us feel safe while traveling!

red backpack surrounded by survival items on wood background

I have lived in hurricane country (FL), earthquake country (CA), and tornado country (IL, TN) so it is a habit with me to carry family emergency backpacks filled with the necessities for up to three days of abnormal life happenings. Each of our cars has one and it contains fresh water, simple meal items, and (yet another) basic first aid kit. Yes, we stash first aid kits everywhere! Yes, we use them frequently…

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These family emergency backpacks are not intended for long term needs. They are meant to keep us supplied for three days with enough food, water, and emergency supplies while we figure out what to do next. This means we thoughtfully considered each item we carry in the hopes it can do double or triple duty.

First Pocket:

In one pocket we keep emergency ponchos, emergency blankets, and a small first aid kit. These are the items that need to be a quick grab for a minor emergency like a bleeding cut, insect sting or a headache.

first aid kit, ponchos, and blankets on wood background

Emergency ponchos

Why is that bad weather goes hand in hand with emergencies? I don’t know but I stash these ponchos everywhere. Not only are these perfect for family emergency backpacks, they work in the car, my travel bag, the kid’s backpack, etc.

Emergency blanket

I was in a car accident about 30 years ago and the thing that still stands out the most is how I couldn’t stop shivering. A kind soul stopped by to check on me and had a blanket in her car. She wrapped that around me and stayed with me until my parents got there and her warmth has stayed with me all these years. Keeping an emergency blanket with you can have so many uses.

Small first aid kit

Our larger first aid kit is typically with us while camping, but it doesn’t travel with us in our day-to-day adventures, so it behooves us to have a smaller one in the family emergency backpacks. Ours is no longer available but next time we need to purchase we would like this compact version.

Second Pocket:

In the next pocket we have a utility knife, complete with compass, a Swiss army knife, and some glowsticks.

rambo style knife with compass and swiss army knife on wood background

Utility Knife

The Rambo-type utility knife has its appeal in an emergency kit for all its accessories. It is amazing what can be fitted into the handle of one of these knives. Ours, for example, contains some matches, a striker, some safety pins, and a tiny fishing kit in addition to the sharpening stone and the compass. Once again, our exact knife is no longer available so if we were purchasing one today, we’d buy a FLISSA fixed blade knife and a compass separately. We like the one from TurnOnSport that we have in our gecocaching kit.

Swiss Army Knife or Multi-plier tool

These knives are ubiquitous for a reason and are a right of passage in many families. My husband still has the one his mom gave him as a child and at some point, we too will gift our son one. Of all the different SAK models the one we like the best is the One-Hand Trekker.

Another option is some version of a multi-plier like a Leatherman or a Gerber. My husband has a Gerber that he bought back in 1994 that is still going strong. The current version is probably the Gerber 600.


We have to keep these hidden from our child during the summer because they are fun to play with, but they are also extremely useful! The glowsticks we keep are ultra-bright and can provide illumination for up to 12 hours. Plus, they have a long shelf life and I find them easier to use than traditional road flares in case of roadside emergencies.

Third Pocket:

In the medium pocket we have a flashlight, matches, an oil light, and an emergency radio.

emergency radio, flashlight, oil candle, and matches on wood background


Flashlights are always useful to keep around. We have had cheap ones in the past, but I prefer to spend a little bit more and have one that I can count on to be reliable. We have an entire article on discussing our thoughts on flashlights but for quick reference the one we stash everywhere is the Anker Bolder LC90.

We also have a “favorite kid-friendly” flashlight which is the Lumenshooter. It’s cheaper so if you need to buy a bunch, we might suggest it instead.


You want to purchase waterproof matches for your family emergency backpacks. Enough said.

Candle/Oil Light

Instead of a regular candle made of wax that can attract critters, we recommend these oil candles that have 100-hour flame. Just remember if you use it, to replace it.

Emergency Radio

We always keep a hand crank radio for emergencies, and I was thrilled to find this upgrade that also includes a phone charger and the ability to be charged via USB and solar power. The more options we have to charge our devices the better.

Fourth Pocket:

In the largest pocket we keep backpacking food for the humans, pet food for our #princesspandemicpuppy, water, and a method for heating the water.

assorted backpacking food and water

Backpacking Food

We used to keep MREs in here but unfortunately most of them have soy and I have a life-threatening allergy to soy, so we carefully order from allergen friendly backpacking companies instead. This has probably been the most complicated item to keep available and I would love to find some emergency supply companies make more of an effort to create allergen friendly items.

While we wait, we use backpacking food as our substitutes. Some of our favorites come from the Mary Jane Farms line. Not only is their food delicious, but their customer service is also phenomenal!

How do we know this? Aaron sent them a quick email asking “Other than the disclaimer on your website that states- For those with any allergy concerns, please note that all of our food products are processed in a facility that handles dairy products, nuts, peanuts, soy and wheat.- do you have a list of products that are soy free or limited amounts?”

Within two days he received a thorough reply.  They stated “There are only a few foods we sell that have soy ingredients.  We have soy milk powder in the Outrageous Outback Oatmeal.  There is soy miso powder in the Ginger Sesame Pasta, NW Garden Couscous and Wild Forest Mushroom Couscous.  Finally the Bac’uns in Nick’s Couch Potatoes and Cheesy B.N.T. Pasta are made from soy.  Everything else is soy free.  I hope that helps answer your questions.  If you have any more please feel free to call or email.” That was a pretty good bit of customer service that goes a long way. 

two pouches of backpacking food sitting on camping stove

We ended up purchasing the Adventure Sampler and I just avoided the oatmeal. We have gone on to purchase from them on numerous occasions and have never been disappointed.

Pet Food

Not only do we need food for ourselves, we also have our dog to consider. Luckily there are companies out there who package emergency kits for pets. We don’t buy the full kits but we do purchase the meal packs of dog food.


Safe drinking water is always a good idea to keep around, even if you also have water purification tables and/or filters available. We have used pouches and boxes and I prefer the pouches as they take up less space in the family emergency backpacks.

Additionally, having a water bottle like a simple Nalgene or inexpensive Gatorade sports bottle in the emergency kit is not a bad idea. They can double as a storage container for water purification tablets and other loose items.

FAQs about Family Emergency Backpacks

Q. What if you don’t want to make your own family emergency backpacks?

A. We understand completely! There are ready-made ones that can be purchased if you don’t have specialized needs such as ours. You can do a quick internet search to find these. Look under terms such as survival kits and/or emergency preparedness kits.

Q. What should you put in your family emergency backpacks?

A. We update our kits regularly based on the government recommendations available on the Ready website. We don’t keep everything on this list in our family emergency backpacks though. Some of these items are stored at home in a grab-and-go bag.

Q. What’s a grab-and-go bag?

A. A grab-and-go bag is a small emergency kit that’s easy to take with you. They are intended to make it easy to take the essentials in case you need to leave right away. This is a great idea, but I don’t want to always carry all of this in the car with me. So, we have the family emergency backpacks that travel with us and the other stuff in a bag that can be grabbed if we need to leave home quickly. Things we don’t carry every day would include copies of our important documents, seasonal clothing and shoes, and age-appropriate activities to help keep our child entertained.

Q. What kind of bag do you use for an emergency kit?

red backpack sitting on floor in front of white door

A. We used backpacks for our family emergency backpacks, hence the name. However, the rest of our supplies are in weatherproof totes. While sometimes hard to find, our favorites are the Ziplock WeatherShield Totes.

Q. What is the MOST important item to have in your family emergency backpacks?

A. WATER! Remember the Rule of Threes: humans can survive three weeks with no food, three days with no water, three hours with no shelter, and three minutes with no oxygen. If oxygen and shelter aren’t available, there isn’t much we can suggest. But keeping clean, drinkable water is doable and is the most important item we pack.

Q. What should I include for my kids in the family emergency backpacks?

A. Much of their needs will be covered by the items you already have. Make sure to consider their likes and dislikes while choosing your food supply and if possible, include some non-perishable treats they will enjoy. Also include documentation that has recently updated photos of the kids with full names and address, contact information in case you get separated, and a map of where to meet.

We then keep a separate set of non-electronic activities in our larger kits kept at home. We are lucky to be readers and game players in our family so new books, a deck of cards, and a set of dice can entertain us for hours.

Bottom line is a family emergency backpack should keep you going for 72 hours!

This means you want enough food and supplies to last three days in case you must shelter elsewhere. I hope that I will never actually have to use these family emergency backpacks in my life, but I feel so much better knowing I have it with me “just in case.” Tag us on Instagram @campinganswer if you can think of anything we’ve missed.

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