Storing your emergency supplies

I’ve had a few queries now and then about how best to store and organize one’s emergency supplies.  This is a very good question, because we need to be able to find them when we need them, and also move them in a hurry, if that becomes necessary in a ‘bug-out’ situation.

I’d begin by establishing the level of preparedness you’re talking about.  If you want to supply your family’s needs for a full year, you’re talking about enough goods to take up an entire store-room – and not a small one, either!  That quantity of material requires a lot of storage equipment such as shelves, racks, cupboards, etc., and will be too heavy and bulky to be easily moved.  If you’re like Miss D. and myself, looking to keep our heads above water for a few weeks if necessary, that can be done using two or three shelving units arranged along the wall of your garage (or a store-room in your house).  If you only want a minimal vehicle bug-out kit that will keep you going for a few days, a couple of storage totes or backpacks or duffel bags will probably suffice.

I’ll use our preparations as an example.  They take up three shelving units against the wall of our garage.  One is this heavy-duty metal unit, designed to hold heavier weights such as filled water containers, etc.  (Water is surprisingly heavy;  one US gallon weights 8.34 pounds.  Allocating two to three gallons per person per day for all purposes, including basic hygiene, drinking, cooking and cleaning up, a week’s supply for two people should be at least 40 gallons, which weighs over 330 pounds.  I prefer to keep at least two weeks’ supply on hand.  There’s also gasoline, which should never be stored inside your house, of course – put it in the garden shed, or somewhere that it’s less of a fire hazard.  I try to keep enough on hand to fill the tanks of both our vehicles at least once.)   The other two shelving units are these lighter-duty snap-together plastic ones, rated to hold up to 150 pounds per shelf (although I find it more realistic to limit them to between half and two-thirds that weight limit, otherwise the shelves sag over time).

To store my supplies on the shelves, I use plastic totes or storage crates.  There are any number of them out there, but I’ve learned the hard way which work well, and which are not so good.  In brief, my recommendations are these.

  1. The absolute best, toughest and all-round most suitable totes, in my experience, are the Homz Durabilt Tough Totes.  (Note that the link describes all Homz’ heavy-duty totes, but I’m speaking only of their Tough Tote line with the diamond-pattern lid, like the 15-gallon example shown below – not their latching-lid totes.  The company also makes a useful heavy-duty foot locker.)  I use three sizes of their totes, 12-, 17- and 27-gallon;  there are others (see the link for details).  The 12- and 17-gallon sizes fit into my shelving units, but the 27-gallon size is too tall for that.  They’re more expensive than their competitors, but they’re almost impossible to break in normal use, and they’re designed to stack easily.  Even when heavily loaded, their stronger plastic seldom buckles or gives way, even if piled six high.  For heavier items, I simply won’t use anything else.  (EDITED TO ADD:  The HDX Tough Totes sold by Home Depot are identical, obviously a house brand made for them by Homz.  I regard them as interchangeable.)

  2. My second choice is Rubbermaid’s Roughneck storage boxes.  They range in size from 3 to 31 gallons;  I use mainly the 14-gallon size, as shown below (two of which fit conveniently onto a single shelf of my plastic shelving units), and the 18- and 31-gallon containers for larger items.  These totes hold up well to long-term storage, but they aren’t as strong as the Tough Totes mentioned in (1) above.  If you load them heavily and stack them three or four high, the totes at the bottom of the pile tend to start bulging and losing their shape, and may collapse.  Therefore, I use them for lighter items, usually no more than 25-30 pounds to a tote, and don’t build tall stacks when I move them.  (I recommend the Roughneck series exclusively;  Rubbermaid’s other brands of totes don’t seem as strong or flexible, in my experience.)

  3. I’ve used a number of the Sterilite ‘Basic Clears’ totes, particularly the 16 quart clear storage box.  These also fit two to a shelf in my storage units, and, being clear, one can see at a glance what the contents are.  However, the lids in particular are very brittle.  They crack or chip easily, and bend out of shape if the totes are stacked.  Also, the clear plastic sides discolor as they get older.  I’ve broken most of those I bought some years ago, and discarded them;  I’m down to just four now.  Nevertheless, their transparent sides do serve a purpose for some items.  As for Sterilite’s ‘Basic Totes’, I’ve owned a couple of dozen, but gotten rid of almost all of them by now.  The plastic is brittle, and bends, chips or cracks easily if heavily loaded;  and when stacked heavy and high, the lower totes crumple under the strain.  I’ve replaced them with Rubbermaid or Homz totes, as described above.  Sterilite also makes a foot locker, which is a useful size, but it’s less strong than the Homz product mentioned in (1) above.

How you organize your storage is entirely up to you.  I use totes (and 5-gallon buckets, about which I’ve written a separate article) to separate supplies by type and use.  It’s important not to put strong-smelling items (e.g. cleaning/hygiene supplies) in the same container as food, which might absorb the odor and become less palatable as a result.  However, using shelving units, buckets and storage totes makes it relatively straightforward to keep things together, where you can lay your hands on them easily if and when the need arises.  That’s also very useful if you should have to leave home in a crisis, because most of your critical emergency supplies will be in one place.  You can grab some or all of the totes and buckets, load them into your vehicle or onto a trailer, and get out of Dodge with minimal delay.

It’s useful to color-code your storage containers.  They may be the same color, but you can apply different colors of duct tape to their sides and lids, making it easy to distinguish groups of containers.  (For example, red totes, or those marked with red duct tape, might contain food;  green might hold kitchen and eating utensils;  yellow might hold personal hygiene items;  and so on.)  Within the color codes, label each tote with its contents, so you can easily locate what you’re looking for.  A quick and easy label can be made using wide masking tape;  just tear or cut it to the right length, and write on it with a fine point marker pen.  The tape stays firmly attached in normal use, but peels off easily if desired, without leaving glue residue or torn scraps of paper, making it easy to re-label the container.

For storing water, there are any number of options out there.  I find these 20-liter (approx. 5 US gallon) plastic jerry-cans to be very versatile;  if lifting heavy weights is a problem, there are also half-size and quarter-size versions.  Water weight will be 44, 22 and 11 pounds respectively.  I also use some of these 7-gallon and 6-gallon containers, but they aren’t as strong as the 5-gallon jerry-cans, and need to be handled more carefully to prevent damage and resultant leaks.  (You can get larger water containers, such as this 55-gallon barrel kit or this 260-gallon tank;  but neither is easily portable when filled, due to their weight and bulk.  I prefer the convenience of portable containers, in case I need to take them with me in a ‘bug-out’ situation, or take them to a water source to refill them.  YMMV, of course.)

Remember to add water purification materials such as filters, chemicals, etc. to your supplies, for use when refilling your containers with water of unknown purity (or lack thereof).  For larger-volume filtration and purification, Berkey filters and cartridges are still pretty much the standard against which others are measured, but there are many more options.  Some require the use of chemicals after filtration, to be sure all bacteria and viruses have been killed or removed.  Also, when replenishing your stocks with water of unknown purity (e.g. from a stream or pond), do not use your clean water containers for the purpose.  Rather, reserve some containers for refilling, then filter and/or purify the water as it passes from them to your ready-use containers.

For fuel, I prefer NATO-standard metal (not plastic) jerry cans.  Current environmental regulations make it difficult to find the ‘real deal’, but they can be had from time to time.  Again, for the weight-challenged, half-size and quarter-size versions are available, as are pouring spouts to make transferring fuel easier.  Remember to add a stabilizer to your gasoline for long-term storage.  If you have different types of fuel, it will be helpful to color-code the cans;  either spray-paint them the appropriate color, or mark them with different colors of duct tape.  The standard, legally-prescribed (in the USA) colors for fuel containers are red for gasoline, yellow for diesel, and blue for kerosene (paraffin) – but don’t confuse the latter with a blue water container such as the plastic jerry-can mentioned above!  The taste would leave something to be desired . . .



  1. i use the rubbermaid clear totes, with color coded duck tape. then number the tape, like red number 1 is first on the truck, then red 2 and so on. these are the priority items like water filters, basic food, ammo. then the nice-to-haves are yellow with numbers, then green if i have time on my hands. the wife can load up without me even being there to tell her which goes on the truck next. its good to have a checklist as well.

  2. I've found the Sterilite clear boxes to crack really easily.
    My tub of chose is the Rubbermaid 10 gallon, when I fill it up it's not "too" heavy, I can have that problem with the 18g tubs. For somethings the 18g tub is the way to go…

  3. The Homz brand totes are very tough, but the 15 and 27 gallon have a downside: the slots in the lid. The slots make it easy to secure the lid with wire ties (I use them for blankets, and only indoors), but unfortunately render it impossible to leave the tote in the rain without water getting inside. The Rubbermaid totes aren't as sturdy, but more water resistant because no lid slots. Please note "water resistant" is a long distance from "water proof." Light rain is one thing, heavy rain or getting frequently splashed in a boat is something else entirely.

    Plano Plastics (the fishing tackle box people) make latch-lid totes in 56, 68 and 108 quart sizes; those sizes are also available (at a substantial price premium) in a "marine" version with a gasket in the lid. I've tried both, and found no significant performance difference between the non-gasketed and the gasketed versions (otherwise, except for color, the boxes are identical). I'd say they're slightly more water resistant as the Rubbermaid totes, and a little sturdier.

    You're right, organization is the key, and I've found "Bug-In" and "Bug-Out" requirements are sufficiently different as to require different methodologies, and almost always different containers. Huge difference between "labeled and sitting on the shelf" and "getting thrown into the truck and stuff piled on it."

    Pro tip: consider having to put a sheet(s) of plywood on top of your stuff to make a sleeping platform and what kind of boxes/totes that may require.

  4. Something to consider about plastic containers is their durability in hot or cold temperatures. I've had totes which were fine at normal household temperatures but basically shattered and fell apart in freezing weather. Likewise hot weather makes others lose their shape and degrade enough that handles pull off and they're holed with even careful handling. You're not always safe at room temps either as time and contents can be an issue. I had a seemingly normal plastic container holding a blanket and fleece which due to reaction with the contents (i assume) disintegrated. It became as brittle as potato chips or crackers. The thing literally crumbled in your hands to dust. Craziest thing I've seen happen to plastic. Grabbed it off the shelf and it shattered in my hands.

  5. I live in earthquake country and am curious how your recommendations, particularly tote/locker, and water storage, would stand up to lots of stuff falling on them (including walls and such).

    I store my stuff on the floor level and have a lot of in Husky Job Boxes. The are tough and somewhat mobile (but expensive):

    How crush resistant are your water storage options? I'm currently keeping bottled water in one of the Huskys.

    If I had a yard I'd invest in a shed and keep supplies there, but I live in a condo so the best I can find is to keep the Huskys just inside the door connecting the garage to the main entry way/front door. If the structure was compromised I could probably at least access the stuff stored there.

    I realize that in Texas you dont worry about quakes, but still probably face at least the prospect of being forced out of your house/shelter. You might also want to give a thought in preparations to shelter in such a situation. If you are forced outside, the sun can become a deadly danger very quickly. A tent or easy up, sunscreen, and clothing with SPF 50 are items to consider.

  6. @Anonymous at 3:33 PM: Thanks for mentioning those Husky Job Boxes. They look very interesting. I'll follow up on them, and may add a couple to my inventory. For their size, and considering what they offer, I don't think they're too expensive.

  7. Second the Plano totes. Tough, decent storage. Inexpensive too. (pick your size)

    And I use the Scepter water cans for fuel storage (labelled appropriately)…

    They have decent spouts and VENTS which makes pouring easier (and faster) than the EPA approved non vented Jerry cans. They are pretty much as durable as metal Jerry cans too. I use stencils and appropriate colors of spray paint to properly label them according to their intended contents.

  8. I used to have tons of stuff stored in those Roughneck boxes, and I found the best thing to do when stacking them high is putting sheets of plywood between the layers in the stack. It spreads the load, and also puts the load on the edges of the box lids/walls instead of in toward the middle which makes the bottom boxes bulge. I had them stacked four high in storage with plywood sheets between them for very extended periods including huge yearly temperature swings and they survived just fine.

    I found they're quite good in extreme cold too, since I was using them in Fairbanks, Alaska for years. I had some stored outside and had to get into them in deep winter a few times, and they were just stiff. They didn't break or tear.

    At least, the above is true of boxes that I bought 3-7 years ago. I can't guess if they're the exact same quality or construction today.

    On another note, I was just looking on Home Depot's site and I saw they're selling HDX brand boxes that look exactly like the Homz tough totes you mentioned. Maybe they're the same deal, maybe they're crappy knockoffs. Buyer beware.

  9. @roughcoat: Yes, Home Depot's HDX boxes are made for them by Homz. Same boxes as the Homz Durabilt line. I have a lot of them.

  10. What I've had great luck with has been this stuff from Iris USA, which you can find at The Container Store as well as at Office Depot (as Ziploc-branded containers):

    Iris USA weathertight boxes:

    The 41 L, 62 L, and 74 L storage containers stack together and the 19 L storage containers stack two on top of those. The 30 L and 46 L containers stack together. There are now smaller sized containers that will also stack two per 19 L container as well. (Someone at Iris USA apparently understands what the square root of two means.)

    What isn't immediately obvious is a foam seal that maintains a reasonably tight weather seal. It's not perfect, and the seals will compress over time in a heavy stack, but it's a better solution for stuff that absolutely should not become dusty.

    The seals are good enough to keep ants from being interested in the Tate & Lyle's rock sugar I'd stored in one of these for several years, at least if you keep the sugar sealed in reasonably good freezer bags.

    I've kept 25 to 30 kg in the 74 L size without long-term difficulties other than the seals becoming compressed. I've kept 20 to 25 kg in the 46 L size with the same caveat. I've moved house with stacks of these containers five to six high, and aside from loading and unloading crew incompetence, I've had no significant damage to these. They're reasonably impervious to most household chemicals — they've contained leaky jugs of laundry detergent without further mess, and my giant stash of Dettol bar soap seems not to bother them at all.

    The major drawback is cost: the 74 L storage containers tend to cost more than 20 USD each, and the 49 L storage containers are roughly 15 USD each, both without sales taxes.

    When only something storage chest-sized will do, this stuff also works:

    Iris USA 82 L weathertight container:

    So does this from The Container Store, which is not quite as big:

    Clear weathertight trunk:

    As you can already expect, this stuff isn't cheap as well. I've had four of these clear weathertight trunks sitting in a 120 kg stack for a long time with no obvious signs of excessive wear.

    Why I'm mentioning all of this: I have a fairly large number of Sterilite and Rubbermaid storage containers with broken lids and busted sides that haven't lasted nearly as well, some of which I've bought after buying a few of these other ones to start. The big dark blue Rubbermaid Roughneck storage totes that have been mentioned have lids that have given way in my stacks, which is not surprising because the lids aren't structurally reinforced.

    After five years of storage in stacks, I'm essentially giving up on all of my Rubbermaid storage containers and culling the Sterilite containers made with thinner plastic. This includes one Sterilite storage trunk with a cracked lid — again, the structural reinforcement isn't very good for these.

    Thicker-walled Sterilite containers work if you don't need the seals — I've had 50 kg stacks of these survive for five years without busted containers.

    The thicker-walled Sterilite containers I'm talking about are the smaller sizes of these:

    Sterilite black totes:

    Anyway, if you have the money to invest, these work very well.

  11. Some items that you will be storing will last longer and/or degrade slower when stored inside the house, due to less temperature swings. That includes problems caused by freezing and high temps.

    Under beds, and the bottom of closets can work. Avoid storage at high reaches, as that still runs into higher temps, even inside the home.

    Bed frames can be made that fit the containers that you typically use. This usually ends up raising the level of your bed, which may be a problem for those people who are very short, and those who have a history of falling out of bed. Otherwise, a raised bed can sometimes be easier on the knees, and step boxes can help you get on the bed, if needed. Access can be by sliding the containers, or by raising the mattress/boxspring/plywood base. In most cases, this under-bed space is wasted collecting dustbunnies, so put it to good use!

  12. BTW, if using masking tape for labeling purposes, use the BLUE type. This stuff lasts for years without drying out and falling off or becoming permanent. Costs a bit more, but well worth it. Remember, regular masking tape is intended for very short-term use. That means days, at most!

  13. Don't forget to inspect the shelf material in your racks. We have similar units and they came with chipboard shelving, cheap and strong if it stays dry. But, when they get wet they just dissolve..

    Replacing the shelves with good plywood sheeting will make the whole unit last a lot longer

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