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Ways You Can Prep for Big Emergencies Without Spending a Dime

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Prepare With No Money

Prepping for big emergencies can easily become expensive, but thankfully there are dozens of ways to prepare without spending a dime.

In fact, I’d say that these are actually the most important things you need to do anyway.

Believe it or not, the most important ways to prepare for large emergencies that don’t cost any money fall into three main categories:

  1. Gaining the knowledge you need to be prepared
  2. Practicing the skills you will need during an emergency
  3. Gathering together your most important documents

Each of these three areas are so important. And as you continue reading I am going to take you through the nitty gritty of each.

These are things that are commonly overlooked. Remember that buying gear is only a small part of true preparedness. I didn’t magically become good at camping just because I bought all the gear I needed; I needed to go out and actually camp!

The same is true for preppers. Truly prepared people are armed with knowledge and skills as well as materials.

Gain the Knowledge You Need To Be Prepared

First and foremost, you can prepare for big emergencies for free by simply taking the time to learn about prepping and organizing your household.

As they say, “Knowledge is power.” There are a million sources out there to learn more about prepping, and most of them can be accessed for free.

Track What You Eat

If you’re not at the stage of prepping where you’re ready to make a giant Costco run, how about first tracking what you eat so you know better what to purchase? There are several free apps that allow you to track your meals and your calories. These include MyFitnessPal and Calorie Counter, just to name two.

Tracking what you eat will also help you identify patterns in the types of things you tend to eat. This is helpful so that you don’t accidentally end up on a “beans only” diet when your emergency strikes.

Plan Your Evacuation Route

Have you given any thought to the best route out of town or out of your house if emergency strikes? Give some thought to, and write out, the quickest way out of your house if, say, a tornado hits. Do all of your windows open easily?

Likewise, give thought to the best ways out of town if an emergency causes you to leave town. Think about back routes that may not be as popular, and therefore as clogged, when emergency strikes. Last year many of my friends in a mountain town in Colorado were evacuated due to a fire and one of the main issues I saw them reporting were the jammed roads.

Print Maps

If you have a printer at home you can print out maps of the area in case you aren’t able to use your phone for navigation. or are great places to print out local maps. I also recommend printing out high quality topographic maps of the area as well. If you need to get off the roads and hit the backcountry a topographic map will be your best friend.

Have a Family Meeting to Discuss Emergency Plans

It doesn’t matter how much gear or canned food you have if the people in your household aren’t on the same page as you are. Sit down and discuss in detail what you will do for several different emergency situations. I’d recommend going through the following:

  • Where to meet up in case the family is separated when disaster hits. Do you have an agreed upon location to leave notes for one another in case communications are bad?
  • What to do in the event of a natural disaster: Plan for disasters that are most likely to hit in your area.
  • What to do in the event of an evacuation: Does everyone in the family have a go-bag or a bug-out-bag prepared? And do you know where everyone’s bag is located in case you need to grab it for them? Does everyone know where you will meet out of town if needed?
  • What to do in the event of a shelter in place order? Many people are now familiar with the experience of sheltering in place—hopefully you used that experience to inform your future choices should it happen again!

Get to Know Your Neighbors

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Do not adopt a “me against the world” mentality in an emergency situation. Getting to know your neighbors will help build a web of support around you, one that could legitimately save your life.

Getting to know your neighbors will also help you know how prepared they are for an emergency. For example, maybe you’ll learn they have a solar generator you’ll end up borrowing, or maybe they have great canning equipment you can borrow before your emergency strikes.

Download Emergency Prep Apps

Finally, I highly recommend downloading apps that will tell you when a disaster is coming. Some of these apps are regional, so you’ll want to ask around to find the right app for your region.

Practice Skills You Will Need During a Big Emergency

While the above items have to do with organizing and learning, the following items are directed at practicing survival skills.

Get in Shape

This is a gargantuan task that is so much easier said than done for some people. But simply put, taking care of your body is the number one way to ensure your own survival. Staying in shape will help you fend of diseases easier, help you move quickly, and help avoid stress-induced cardiac events.

Thankfully, there is no end to the number of strategies you can use to stay in shape for free, all at home.

You can type in “workout apps for free” in the App Store and find dozens of free apps, many of them with 25+ thousand reviews. Some of the top reviewed apps include: Workout for Women: Fitness App and Workout: Gym workout planner.

Other ways to workout at home for free include:

  • Jogging
  • Pushups
  • Crunches
  • Yoga

Remember that buying gear is only a small part of true preparedness. Truly prepared people are armed with knowledge and skills as well as materials.

Do a Practice Run of Your Emergency Route

Whatever types of emergency routes you’ve identified in your organization stage above, go ahead and drive, hike, walk or bike whatever route you’ve chosen. Make a day trip out of it!

Go Hiking

You can hike your emergency route, as mentioned above, but I include this as a separate category for a few reasons. Hiking is a great way to get in shape. Walking on uneven surfaces and up hills is great for muscle building and cardio health.

Hiking is also a great way to get familiar with being outdoors, and if you have to be outdoors in your emergency, you’ll want to be familiar with it!

As someone who has spent many years hiking outside I often encounter people who are afraid of being outside. They imagine bears and mountain lions everywhere or have a panic attack if a light shower sets in. Hiking outside allows you get gain a familiarity with normal sights outside as well as test your outdoor gear; like your boots and rain jacket.

Hiking is also a great way to test your navigational skills. Using a compass and map is not as intuitive as you might hope. I strongly recommend practicing these skills in the low-stress environment of a day hike.

If you’re not familiar with hiking you can download free apps to help you get details on trails near you.

Learn to Forage

Foraging for wild edible plants is not only a great, free way to prep, but it can be fun and a good source of exercise. Foraging for wild plants can, however, be dangerous, so I recommend the following steps for foraging.

  • Learn from someone with lots of experience. The best thing you can do if you want to forage is find a friend who already knows a lot about it. They can teach you their ways and show you good places to look in your area.
  • Find a good guide book. A good guide book is also an essential tool for foraging. Remember to check your local library for free resources here.
  • If you only learn one thing, learn what the deadly plants in your area are. If nothing else, just learn the plants that are harmful first. That way you’ll have a good idea of what to avoid, and you can avoid planting them as ornamentals in your garden. For example, the plant known as Oleander is highly toxic to almost all wildlife and yet is a regular yard and highway median plant in California and other warm areas.
  • Learn the scientific names. If you’re not familiar with learning scientific names it can be intimidating at first. Scientific names are in Latin and to new learners they don’t make any sense at all. However, relying on “common” names, for example “Cottonwood,” rather than “Populus deltoides,” can result in confusion because common names change regionally and the same name may be used for different plants or vice vs.

Check out this video for a few easy to recognize plants that can be foraged.

YouTube video

Learn Basic Car Repairs

Learning how to do basic car repair (or advanced repairs if you’re ambitious) will be a great idea for when an emergency strikes. The mechanic can be hard enough to get into in a non-emergency time, so don’t count on him holding extra work hours during an emergency.

Some basic tasks everyone should know include:

  • Changing oil
  • Changing a flat tire
  • Changing spark plugs
  • Changing a car battery
  • Replacing exterior lights
  • Replacing wipers
  • Replacing air filters
  • Jumpstarting a car

While the replacement parts for these items certainly won’t be free, learning how to do them from YouTube or a friend who is already doing those repairs certainly will be.

Learn Basic Home Repairs

There are a few basic home repairs that everyone should know how to do. Even if you don’t wind up needing to do them in an emergency, it saves money to do them yourself, so why not brush up?

  • Shut off the main water and gas supply: Natural disasters often cause pipes to break so shutting off the water and gas can be vital for preventing your home from water damage or dangerous levels of gas.
  • Unclog a drain: This can include toilets as well as sinks.
  • Replace air filters: In the event of a wildfire, which are becoming more and more common, you’ll want to have extra air filters on deck and know how to install them.

Go Camping

There are lots of free places to pitch a tent in the forest, especially if you look in Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management property. Or, if you want to stick closer to home, camp in your backyard!

Camping is an excellent prepper skill because it’s a fun, stress-free way to test your gear. It also gives you practice being outside and sleeping outside, which can take some getting used to.

Practice Building a Fire

For food cooking purposes I strongly recommend using a backpacking or camping stove to heat water. I also think that it is useful to know how to build a rocket stove as it is so much more efficient and safer than getting a pot boiling over an open fire.

However, if you need warmth or a signal fire, you should know how to build one.

  1. Start by gathering dry, flammable materials. You’ll need materials that are different sizes; small pieces of wood, newspaper, dryer lint or specially made flammable logs will act as kindling to get the fire started and larger pieces of wood will burn hot for a long period of time.
  2. Place a few small pieces of wood on the ground, ideally elevated just off the ground by a few rocks. Elevating the material just a little bit allows for air circulation, which helps stoke the fire. Stuff the smallest, thinnest pieces of kindling under the wood pieces.
  3. Then lay larger pieces of wood over this configuration. Some people use a “log cabin” design, where you basically make a “hash tag” out of wood. Two pieces lay side by side in the same direction with a little space between them, and two pieces lay on top of those, but in a perpendicular direction.
YouTube video

Other people are “tee pee” people. They arrange their wood upright like a tee pee.

Whichever way is fine as long as you get a fire out of it.

As an additional advanced technique you should also try starting a fire without matches.

Practice with Your Emergency Preparedness Kit

If you already have an emergency preparedness kit put together, or partially put together, go ahead and practice will all the items you have in there. Make sure the radio works and the flashlight has batteries. My all-purpose tool has gotten gunky over the years and I need to take some cleaning solution to it to make sure the blade comes out again. I need to put this on my to-do list soon!

I also have a small solar charger in with my kit, and sometimes I misplace a needed cord to go with it. Make sure everything in your kit is in good working order.

Practice Building a Shelter

In addition to knowing how to set up your tent, you can also practice making shelters out of scavenged materials or materials you have laying around the house, like tarps.

There are several different types of shelters, and each has features that suit it to different situations. So learn a few different types and you’ll be ready to create shelter in almost any environment.

Key features every emergency shelter should have/be:

  • Dry: Having your shelter in a dry place is critical so that you can stay warm easier.
  • On a flat surface: Picking a flat surface helps ensure that water doesn’t run through your site if it rains. If you can’t find a perfectly flat spot for your shelter, dig some shallow trenches around the outside like a moat. This will help divert water away from you.
  • Able to have a fire near the doorway: Having the fire near the doorway (but not in your shelter) will provide warmth to you as well as keep critters out.
  • Not near any hazards like under cliffs or dry, dead trees: Finally, not matter what you build your shelter out of, it probably won’t withstand a tree or rockfall. So don’t forget to look up when you’re choosing a location.

Check out this video to learn a few simple shelter types. These shelters all involve a tarp but there are plenty of videos that will show you how to build a shelter using natural materials.

YouTube video

Gather Together Your Most Important Documents

Finally, there are a few free things you should gather together while you’re preparing for an emergency.

Gather Important Documents

A key part of emergency preparedness if having all your important documentation in one place and easy to find. I would make copies of these documents as well as have the originals in an easy to find spot. Important documents can include:

  • Birth certificate
  • Driver’s license
  • Medical records or alerts
  • Wills
  • Property deeds
  • Important names, phone numbers, and addresses

Find Free Supplies

There are two great ways to obtain free items: recycle and repurpose your own stuff, and get stuff others are giving away.

Repurposing your own materials is thrifty and practical. I re-use old glass jars to store food in all the time and shipping boxes can become fire-building material. You get the idea!

Another great way to find survival goods is to specifically seek out free stuff. Websites like and Craigslist have free sections where you may be able to score lumber, bricks, machine parts, and who knows what else.

Photo of author


Hi! I’m David. For most of my life I have been interested in emergency preparedness. Over the many years things have changed a great deal. From freeze dried food, to LED lanterns, preparing for an emergency has never been easier. The continual research I have done over the years has become the basis for this website. Now it is one of the most trusted sources to learn about emergency preparedness.