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I’ve updated my disaster bag. Look inside.

After a lifetime of over-preparedness, I’m helping my friends cope — and stock up.

By Alix Strauss

My chic daily handbag usually contains items I consider essential for the life of a freelance reporter in New York: a curated makeup bag, a notebook, a black Sharpie, a yellow highlighter. I carry gum, reading glasses, a phone and charger, headphones, and a handful of Tootsie Rolls. (I have a sweet tooth.)

Today, my essential bag has changed its composition. My new staples are masks, plastic and workman’s gloves, a “spray sock” that can fit over my head, face, and neck. A flashlight. A whistle. And, of course, Purell and Clorox wipes.

When I think about survivalists, my mind goes to movies: Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (truly spot on); John Carpenter’s They Live; most anything from Stephen King or M. Night Shyamalan; the Pod-fighters from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m no movie hero; just a left-of-center, slightly-neurotic Jewish girl, born and raised on the Upper East Side. But I already know what I will do in most worst-case situations. So as I live out these strange days in my New York apartment, in the current epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, my disaster bag has gone from a curiosity to a blueprint for disaster living. It’s also an extension of my identity: Part of me feels like I’m been preparing, quietly, for the apocalypse for most of my life.

It helps that I’m a planner by nature. At overnight camp one summer, I won the “most prepared camper” award. (I think I still have the ribbon.) Today, I’m most of my friends’ emergency 4 a.m. call. I can stitch a deep wound together using thread, hold your hair back while you throw up, and build a fort out of almost anything as long as I have gaffer’s tape and an assortment of durable black binder clips.

So it made sense that, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, I started a “go bag:” items one might need if forced to go somewhere — anywhere — with only a few moments to prepare. It was seeded with swag I got from a job covering a 24-hour adventure race in New Zealand, produced by reality-show guru Mark Burnett. I was outfitted with gear that was rugged and multi-functional — clothing with hidden pockets and legs that zipped off to reveal shorts, all of it foldable into itself so tightly it could almost disappear. I also got gadgets: a souped-up Swiss Army knife, a pillow that doubles as a floating device, an emergency survival blanket that reflects back 90 percent of your body heat.

I added a rechargeable solar radio with a hand crank (a gift from my mother) and headgear lights — two, because you never know when you may start dating.

To my New Zealand stash, I added swag from other press events focused on camping and outdoor activities: waterproof matches, water purification tablets, emergency flare sticks, a metal reflector, a solar-powered inflatable light. I added a rechargeable solar radio with a hand crank (a gift 10 years ago from my mother) and headgear lights — two, because you never know when you may start dating.

A pandemic creates a different set of needs. So as concerns about COVID-19 rose from a rumble to a roar last month, I converted my “go bag” to a hybrid “go-or-stay bag,” full of hygiene products that beauty companies had sent me to review: travel-sized face and body wipes, liquid soap sealed in a malleable container. I bought minimalistic food and drink: Vitamin Water, vegetable tablets, whey protein powder, chewable vitamin C, granola bars and nuts and Almond Breeze milk that can stay fresh without refrigeration until November if not opened.

I’ve also assembled what I consider common-sense survival items: cash, reading glasses, batteries, candles that will stay lit for two days, flashlights (pre-tech old-school), and anything needed to prolong the life of my iPhone. I have a medical first aid kit, a cold pack, insect repellent, portable battery-operated lights you tap on and off, a lock and key, a 14-day supply of amoxicillin.

And then there are necessities pertaining to a New Yorker, or really, in my mind, anyone human: two 5 mg Valium pills, a small bottle of tequila (technically also an antiseptic, if one has an open wound) and Nespresso capsules.

My collection has metastasized, outgrowing my stretchable bag; now, it fits into a large cardboard box kept in a spare closet. (Yes, a spare closet. I’m not only a really good packer, I’m also a high-end minimalist.) It’s also decidedly low-tech. Almost 20 years ago, the most technical item I considered taking with me was a first-generation iPod. Which I still own, and should probably add to my collection.

At this moment, the box’s contents remain untouched. I’m only allowing myself to add to them. (Though last night at 2 a.m., I was craving a granola bar.) I’m half-proud; half-horrified. Proud I’m this organized, that I have thought ahead. That I’ve saved some of these items for 15 years. Horrified that this no longer feels excessive. For years, when I told friends about my disaster prep, they thought I was neurotic, dramatic, ridiculous. Now they call asking for advice and suggestions.

So I send them off on their own gear hunts through Amazon and outdoor-retail websites — technology might be under-represented in my box, but it has made preparedness infinitely easier. These days, I feel vindicated but not superior. This is not the bag I want to carry. It’s not the bag I want to turn to if things get worse: if stores were to run out of food, if water or electricity were rationed or cut off as utility-plant workers get sick — events that haven’t happened, but suddenly don’t feel so far-fetched in New York.

Still, the box is also hopeful — as were the movies I watched, many of which helped prepare me for this moment. They taught me that the world always survives. That whether our nemesis is malevolent space aliens or a crown-covered virus, we humans are resourceful, adaptable, and smart. And that our acts of preparation — by collecting whistles, Almond Breeze, headgear lights, and even tequila — are proof.

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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