09/15/2014 03:44 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

The Expat 'Go-Bag': Why You Might Want One

"Retiring in Paradise" is the dream of many who move abroad, and in our 13 years overseas, we've lived in quite a few of the most well-known expat havens.

All are beautiful, all are interesting, all are affordable... and all have the potential for sudden disaster.

That's not really saying much... every place on the planet has the potential for sudden disaster. Tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, floods, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruption, toxic spills, nuclear meltdowns -- it doesn't matter where you are in the world. There is always a chance that a natural or man-made disaster could happen without warning. That's life.

So no matter where you live, emergency preparedness is important. And it's doubly important when you live in a foreign country where you may not speak the language or be aware of where to go or what to do. (Do you know where your embassy is or how to contact them? That's a good start.)

One thing you may want to do is outfit a "go-bag." We keep ours by the front door.

A go-bag is simply a bag of stuff that will keep you warm, dry, hydrated and fed in the event of a disaster that forces you out of your home.

There are hundreds of websites about go-bags... also known as bug-out bags, 72-hour bags, bailout bags and many other names. And there is a distinction between the kind of bag we're talking about and some other kits designed for surviving everything from civil wars to the invasion of foreign armies to the End of Civilization As We Know It. (Think zombie invasion.)

Our bag is more along the lines of a 72-hour bag. It's designed to get us through the first three days after a major earthquake, which thankfully is the most likely disaster we'd have to deal with in our part of the world. Help from somewhere usually arrives within a day or two of most natural disasters, so our kit isn't designed to let us live months or years in the wild.

When a truly devastating major disaster hits, it's pretty much back to the Stone Age... you may be forced from your home and be without the water system and electrical grid. A go-bag gives you basics to survive until help arrives, along with some essential items for after help arrives.

The contents of a 72-hour bag differs depending on location... kits for areas where hurricanes are likely will pack differently than bags where blizzards or earthquakes or floods are likely. But all share some basic features. There are some very good packing lists available... the U.S. State Department has one as does the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

But in our opinion, every go-bag should at least include:

• Three days' worth of potable water. The standard is at least a gallon per day per person. This may not go right into the gym bag or backpack you use for your go bag... we keep two three-gallon plastic jugs of water near the door next to our bag, one for each of us.

Three days' worth of non-perishable food. Foods that pack light, won't spoil and provide calories to maintain energy and body heat are ideal... breakfast bars, jerky, etc. Canned food is heavy, but a few cans of soup or canned meat may be worth the weight. Tea bags or instant coffee can make a cold morning or evening bearable.

At least one complete set of warm clothes, including a pair of sturdy shoes. Disaster may strike when you're in the shower or in your pajamas, so a complete set of clothing comes in handy. The outfit should be layered and able to get you through the coldest temperatures you experience in your area. Even places with "ideal" year-around weather can get might chilly at 3 a.m., and hypothermia is one of the main dangers after a disaster that forces you from your home.

A tarp, ground cloth, tent, poncho, or plastic sheeting and some cordage. After a disaster, you may need to shelter in place until help arrives. Something waterproof to wear or get under can prevent hypothermia and save your life. Twenty or 30 feet of paracord or clothesline will also come in handy for stringing up a shelter... and for about a thousand other things.

Fire. Humankind's oldest friend... the ability to start a fire is one of the best survival tricks around. Even if you're not cold, even if you have nothing to cook, the mere act of lighting and maintaining a fire gives hope and cheer. Fire is essential if electrical and gas service goes down. Pack several means to start a fire, from matches to lighters to fire steels... and keep them dry.

Light. When the electrical grid goes out, people suddenly realize how dark nighttime really is. Even in daylight, the interior of buildings without electricity can be pitch black. Several good flashlights and spare batteries allow you to see and are also excellent signaling devices as emergency workers and authorities arrive on the scene.

Swiss Army knife or combination pocket tool. Just too useful not to have. Until help arrives, there will be countless cords to trim, holes to make, cans and bottles to open, fire tinder to make, etc. We especially like Leatherman tools for an all-in-one solution... and like our lighters, we pack two in case one gets lost. They're that useful

A basic cooking/eating kit. A saucepan not only lets you cook anything that becomes available and boil water if needed, it can also carry water from nearby sources for washing and cleaning. A couple of mugs and spoons take up little room and come in handy for much more than just serving soup or tea.

First aid kit. Some basic first aid items will help treat minor injuries and keep them from becoming bigger problems later on due to infection.

Some local currency, plus your ATM or bank card if you have one. Money becomes useless directly after a disaster when food, water and shelter become the only valuable currency. But in a day or two, as things (hopefully) start getting back to normal, you'll need money... and local ATM machines may be offline. The cash will get you through until service is restored, when you'll have your ATM or bank card handy.

Critical medications. If you take regular medication for a health condition, keep two week's worth in your kit in case you lose your home supply and pharmacies aren't open or available.

Spare glasses. If you need glasses and you're forced out of your home without them or they become lost or broken in a disaster, having a pair or two in your go-bag can be a lifesaver.

Copies of your important documents and a contact list in a waterproof and portable container (passport, government ID card and visa, insurance cards, birth certificates, deeds, photo IDs, proof of address, etc.) When help arrives after a disaster, you will immediately want some type of positive I.D. to let relief teams and authorities know exactly who you. You'll also want the phone numbers and email addresses of your most important contacts when communication becomes available again. And if your insurance, property, and other documents are destroyed in a disaster, current clean copies will help immensely in the aftermath.

Personal hygiene items. These help maintain your health and sanity until help arrives and the water and electricity come back. Toilet paper, a small trowel or shovel for burying waste, a bar of soap, a small towel, toothbrush and toothpaste, tampons, etc. These little things mean a lot after a couple of nights spent outside.

You can put many other things in your go-bags depending on your personal needs, preferences, and locations, but if you're at all concerned about natural disasters in your area, you should at least have the things we've listed here.

Chances are high that you'll never actually have to use your go-bag. But you know the old saying: better safe than sorry.

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