Allow me to spend a moment to dwell on a subject that no one wants to think much about, and that few people will ever find themselves in a situation of needing to act on.
Specifically: that of having to evacuate, and being prepared for the possibility.
There are two major types of evacuations that one might end up facing. One is when you absolutely have to leave right now and can bring, at most, what is in your easy immediate reach on your way out; the other is when you have some time to get out, but still have to leave promptly. Being an evacuation, in both cases you likely don’t know for exactly how long you will be unable to return.
There is also the case where you can see a situation developing which may prompt a later evacuation, but which does not present an immediate threat. I’m not covering that here, but many of the points might still apply.
The “must leave right now” scenario can perhaps be exemplified by a typical fire drill at one’s workplace, where you are working along normally and, with no previous warning, the fire alarm starts blaring and you are expected to leave immediately and go to some known location outside to meet up with colleagues and bosses, hopefully to be told “this was just an exercise, go back to your workplace”.
For that, it may be beneficial to have a pre-packed, easy-to-reach way of grabbing some useful items as you are leaving, whether at home or at work. Depending on your situation, this might be for example a backpack with such things as:
- A phone charger (possibly a power bank)
- A paper notebook and pens
- Some area maps or a road atlas
- Spare car keys
- An extra credit card, some small-denominations cash
- An extra ID card or a passport
- Some of any medications you need (make sure to rotate them so that they remain current)
- A spare pair of glasses
- Some high-energy snacks
- A change of clothes
If you use a laptop and doing so does not slow you down on the way out, then this might also include something like closing the laptop lid, grabbing it and its charger and dropping both into the backpack on the way out, relying on either automatic hibernation or simply turning it off later. The focus in this situation, though, is to immediately get out of danger. A computer is just a computer; you will survive without it, and it can be replaced.
Your personal circumstances will heavily influence and ultimately dictate what items should go into such a “bug out bag”. Also take a moment to consider the possibility of an emergency coinciding with bad weather; it might be a good idea to put some or even all of the items in individual resealable, transparent or clearly marked plastic bags (ziplock or similar). Doing so also keeps cables from becoming entangled.
Keep in mind that in an actual emergency, cellular networks are likely to be heavily congested, so you cannot necessarily count on being able to do anything that requires external connectivity, whether calling, text messaging or large-scale data traffic. You can simulate this by placing your phone in airplane mode and see what works; can you still view maps, get directions, look up phone numbers, or do other things that you may reasonably need to do during an evacuation?
The other case is that of needing to leave promptly, but not necessarily immediately. This is a situation which allows you to take steps and gather items which will be helpful, but you still need to get away from where you are, you don’t have a lot of time to do it, and you can’t predict when it will happen.
Examples of this could be a large fire nearby either threatening to spread to your location or producing obnoxious, possibly toxic, smoke; a large-scale traffic accident whether road or rail, possibly including toxic spills; or even the aftermath of some deliberate criminal actions.
In such a scenario, what items to do you want to bring with you? What do you need to do before you leave? (For example, do you need to turn off a gas supply, or a water pump? How do you do that?)
Since I am a stickler for checklists, and particularly so for potentially stressful situations, I suggest to go around your home with a notebook and write down the really important things that you would need or want to bring or do as you are leaving in such a situation. Don’t worry at first about prioritizing the list; just write down what would be important to remember in such a situation. This will probably start with something like the bug out bag contents list I mentioned above (which if you have that bug out bag you will already have in a single place), and might continue with things like:
- If you have kids, one or two of the kids’ favorite toys, stuffed animals, or the likes. Maybe dedicated kids’ tablets or phones. (You will probably survive without it, but having it can make an already stressful situation more bearable.)
- If you have pets, things like a bag of pet food, carriers/crates, leashes/collars/harnesses, coats, favorite toys, vaccination records, identification documents (EU pet passport, kennel club registration certificate, …), insurance details. Also to actually bring your pets (don’t laugh; people have been known to prepare to go to dog shows to actually show their dog and realize some time after leaving home that they forgot to bring the dog).
- Cash, bank cards.
- Keys (mechanical or electronic), including spare keys, neighbors’ keys, work keys, and keys to any property you own or rent elsewhere. If you have a safe deposit box, keys to it.
- Cell phone, including a headset if you have one. Tablet or ebook reader, if you have either.
- Laptop, if you use one. Also its charger, especially if it does not charge over USB-C PD. (If you’re not sure, just bring its dedicated charger.)
- Computer external backup drive (you do make regular backups, don’t you?), and any dedicated power supply it might have.
- Important papers and personal documents: ID, driver’s license, passport, deeds, land titles, car registration papers, insurance documents, bank account details, … (repeat for everyone in the household)
- Some more clothes, including weather- and season-appropriate items; for example, a simple baseball cap can be a lifesaver if you find yourself outside in rain, and it stuffs into a pocket when not needed.
- Bank physical authentication tokens, such as authentication code generators and corresponding smartcards.
- Power bank to provide extra battery life for your cell phone.
- Physical 2FA tokens, such as physical FIDO2/U2F/WebAuthn/Passkey tokens.
- Flashlight or headlamp, batteries (especially if it uses less common batteries such as 18650 LiIon cells), any dedicated charge cable or charger. Pack these carefully so that they cannot short-circuit.
- A power strip (lets you charge multiple devices from a single electrical outlet), possibly one with both USB and AC outlets.
- Any necessary steps to take before you leave, and how and where to do that. For example, if you have gas heating, then maybe you will need to turn off the gas supply before you leave; if so, where do you do that and how do you do it?
Keep in mind that the above is not intended to be an exhaustive list, nor does necessarily every item I list apply to your situation. These are merely examples; adjust as appropriate for your situation!
Next up, once you have the raw list it’s time to prioritize it. Consider the possibility that you can do only one thing, or bring only one item, on that list, and ask yourself what is truly most important. That goes on top. Then look at the rest of the list and ask the same question about the remainder; that becomes number two. And so on until you have prioritized the whole list. Also consider that some items on the list might benefit from consolidation, either on the list or physically. If you list three items to grab that are physically located together, then it makes sense to group them together on the list even though objectively they might not be of similar importance; or if you can put all of the documents you list in one binder ahead of time so that you can simply grab the binder, then it might very well make sense to do so and put something like “in the bookcase just inside the living room door, bring the blue binder marked ‘important documents’ (placed at eye level)” on the list.
When prioritizing, it helps to consider what you can more easily replace or recover from the loss of. For example, if your phone charges over plain USB (it has a mini-USB, micro-USB or USB-C charge port), you can probably pick up a workable charger at a reasonable price from just about any electronics store if you simply have a means to pay for it; but if you lose your phone, that might put you in a worse situation. Similarly, if you have good ID, then you can probably talk to your bank and get a new authentication token (though they might charge you for it), but if you don’t have ID, a lot of things become more complicated.
Once you have a prioritized evacuation checklist, date it, then print it out (whatever causes you to need to evacuate may very well coincide with a power outage) and place the printed version in some location where you will know, even under stress, where it is. Also set up a calendar reminder, perhaps yearly, to go through it regularly and update it as necessary.
Chances are quite good that you won’t need to refer to that evacuation checklist in a real emergency, because in all honesty, most people probably never find themselves in a situation where evacuating is the correct answer. But in the highly unlikely situation that you do at some point need to evacuate, at least you will have a step-by-step checklist of what to do and what to bring which you can trust that you have thought through in advance.