This is a post from a friend Firebob, he is an very knowledgeable and experienced individual. He sent this in as a comment, however I though it should be a post.
I agree completely with the advice to beware of premade kits. I have been involved with a variety of preparedness, and lack thereof, for several decades. As background, I am an engineer by training, and also long-time firefighter, medic and outdoors guy. My early backpacking began with a pack similar in quality to, or even slightly better, than those I see in the per-assembled kits. The first time I used it, it got me the five miles INTO where I was going, then fell apart, leaving me to my imagination on repairs and getting back OUT of there with the other equipment.
Over the years, I have put together many kits, from “survival” and “bug-out” bags to kits that stay in the vehicles of family and friends who regularly ply the highways and byways of the West. This can include desert, mountains and snow and ice, long nights, hot days and cold nights in the high desert, metro areas and very lonely stretches through Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Oregon. Therefore, the items carried must be able to meet a variety of potential needs and uses.
Like Matt says, USE your equipment. My own recommendations are slightly different than his, but are as follows. One driving point that I believe should be considered in all “kit” assembly and carry philosophies is: When you really need to use the kit, it is likely to be under stressful conditions. If a poor quality item fails, and almost always they will, there may be absolutely NO way to replace that item. If it is important enough to be in the kit in the first place, is should be of absolutely top quality. Is your life, or that of a loved one, worth more than a four-dollar multi tool that fails the first time you attempt to loosen a nut or screw?
I have had the luxury of being able to purchase duplicates of items I carry – I put new multi-tools in my kits. Find a QUALITY one you like, and either carry it on you, or have it in your kit. I personally prefer the Leatherman Super Tool, but there are several companies that make good products. I had a 7-year old boy break the jaws the first time he used it on a multi-tool sold for use in a “kit” by a well-know retailer. What if an adult was desperately trying to turn off a gas line when this happened?
I also like a fixed-blade knife with about a 4 to 5-inch blade with a full tang handle. The “Rambo” survival knives with hollow handles are gimmicks. Brand names are nice here, but there are some reasonably priced good knives that are not “brand” name. I personally avoid Chinese tools to the extent I can, they tend to have inconsistent quality steel and often mediocre quality.
I also carry a folder with a 3 to 4-inch blade. Right now my choice is a CRKT M16 and it has served me well. These are not the only blades I routinely have available, but are a good start.
There should be several ways to start a fire. This is one case where inexpensive is OK on one item. I have found the magnesium starters work OK, whether the 4 or 8 dollar versions. A good lighter is advisable, matches (strike anywhere, safely stored), magnifying glass, fire tabs, Vaseline-soaked cotton balls, and if you take the time to learn to use it, flint and steel, are good to have. Road flares can also be used to aid fire building, and are advisable for long-distance drivers, but keep them in the trunk, not your kit.
I carry both a 4 and 6-inch Crescent (adjustable) wrenches on me all the time, but this is probably a bit extreme for most folks. (I do use them probably a couple of times a week, along with almost daily Leatherman use, so they are worth it to me.) Most of you would probably be served well with a 10 or 12, or both, set around the house or readily available. I have small tool kits in all the 72-hour kits I set up for family, including various drives, wrenches, and screwdrivers. An eyeglasses screwdriver rounds out this kit, along with a glasses repair kit.
The main thing is that virtually all these tools are ones I am familiar with, such as “Craftsman” or Crescent, or Leatherman, K-bar, Gerber, etc.
Space blankets are good, but do not warm you up, they only help preserve the heat you already have. Get the heavier ones, typically about 11 to 14 dollars. The light weight ones are extremely flimsy. Same with the “tube tents” included in many pre-made kits. They will tear and self destruct with the slightest breeze or abrasion. An experienced person might be able to make them last a while, but for a stressful, emergency use, again, do you really want to trust a three-dollar, oversize Baggie with your life. It may look cute in the survival store, but imagine it in the backyard with the roses rubbing against it in the stormy night.
Lighting is another place where quality units are worth their cost. Headlamps and flashlights with LED’s last, and brand names are often better. I have had excellent service from Black Diamond lights and similar. I cannot say the same for another mid-range brand commonly included in pre-made packs. The off-brands are worse, in my opinion. Batteries are also important. I was discussing them today with a friend and both of us have had leakage and corrosion failures with store-brand batteries from a very well known “membership” bulk store. I will pay the extra for copper tops or the bunny – I have not had leakage failures and consequent equipment damage from them, and they seem to last longer. Consider a solar charger and rechargables, if the “emergency’ lasts longer than 72 hours, the nights may be a bit more comfortable with light available.
Water collection, purification, and transport is also critical, and again, I like redundancy. Warmth, shelter and water are critical, all else is comfort for the first few days. Clean water that is potable is important – getting sick from bad water in times of stress is one of the last things we need.
If there is interest, I will continue with my list and preferences, but overall, consider quality over quantity. Consider packing with a series of bags – a good quality pack, and perhaps a fanny pack within the larger unit that has the “absolute essentials”, with the nice-to-haves in the larger bag. Carry a change of clothes, and maybe a couple of extra pairs of socks.
In closing, I will acknowledge that it is expensive to put together a dedicated kit with quality items. A good pack alone may exceed a hundred dollars, 50 for a knife, 25 for a folder, 25 for fire starting, 35 and up for lights, and so on. Most of my packs are in the $750 to $1000 range, but I could pick any of them up, and know that I am fully prepared with quality shelter, sleeping, fire, light, food, basic medical and first aid needs, and similar for most practical emergencies.
For families, the younger ones can have smaller, kid-size packs with clothes, a favorite type of toy, and maybe even some of the other equipment that would be nice but not necessary. I set up a couple of kid kits with some of the pre-made emergency-type equipment, but that is the only use I can advocate for much of what is commonly included in most of the pre-manufactured kits commonly available today.
I too will now get off the soap box, but remember, the use of the emergency kit may come at a time or condition when you cannot replace cheap, poorly suited equipment with what you really should have had in the first place. In my opinion, you are better off slowly building up with quality, even if it takes a while. Substitute or stock from household or “camping” items until you can obtain dedicated stock, but don’t go cheaply made – you and your dependents lives might be affected by the quality of your decisions and tools in an emergency.