If you’re a dedicated prepper, you’ve already got your bug-out bag, coronavirus prepping and pandemic prepping sorted out, with shelves full of rice and beans and bottles of water and gasoline. But for the rest of us, those trying to keep living our fairly normal lives while stuck at home, the stuff that can help us stay happier and more comfortable through the coming fall and winter months looks a little bit different. My focus has been on staying healthy, happy and engaged while shopping less and minimizing contact with others, and I’ve found some great gear that helps do all that in several different ways.
I’ve been writing on gear for more than two decades, from cooking tools to travel necessities to exercise equipment to outdoor sports and wilderness gear, but since March I’ve been trying stuff mainly for use at home – and finding a surprising amount of crossover. For instance, in just about every outdoor pursuit, a good knife is invaluable and frequently comes in very handy, so I’ve always carried a top-quality folding blade, what is known in the industry as “everyday carry” (EDC) model. Well, it turned out that this slim folder stuck near permanently into my front pants pocket has gotten even more use since March, when the spread of COVID kept many of us at home, mainly because of the sheer number of boxes that now arrive. As more people rely on Amazon.com and other delivery services to make the formerly in-person shopping experience contactless and at home, the number of things we have to open and then break down for recycling have grown dramatically, and the same Benchmade knife I’ve been using for hiking now gets used almost every single day (I previously wrote here about the best food delivery options to keep eating well during the pandemic without leaving home).
So to be clear, I am not an expert survivalist, and this is not a bunker stocking tutorial, but rather a handful of somewhat random items I already had or have bought or tried since the coronavirus pandemic began that in different ways can make your stay at home or work from home (WFH) life better. Face masks are another crucial safety item that look like they will be life necessities for at least the coming months, and whether you are getting on a plane or going to the supermarket, you might as well have the best mask you can get, and some are much better than others, even at the same low prices. I recently did a guide to the best, newest and most comfortable filtered mask options I’ve found, and I’ve been trying a lot of masks.
HEPA Air Purifier: Even before the pandemic I had a HEPA air purifier, because indoor pollutants, while unseen, can be appreciably higher than outdoor ones and arise from a variety of causes. But now I have four purifiers throughout my house, and for the same reason why people look for HEPA level filtration (high-efficiency particulate air) in face masks, why not have it for all the air you breathe? While there’s no conclusive proof that they will help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, expert opinion seems to be leaning that way. When Consumer Reports studied the issue and checked in with infectious disease experts, the conclusion was that purifiers likely helped in some specific circumstances, such as having an infected person in your household, and that HEPA air purifiers were recommended by the CDC for hospital use and to reduce viral concentrations during SARS, which has borne many similarities to the current epidemic. Air filtration has already been shown to likely reduce the spread of other diseases including the flu – flu season is coming fast – and has recently been cited as one of the reasons why the COVID infection rate on airplanes has remained so low. In any case, it can’t hurt, and with more people staying home, the average house is getting a heavier indoor load of cooking and cleaning with more people inside. Good purifiers also remove unwanted odors, bacteria, and mold from household air.
I previously had a Dyson unit, but the filters are expensive and needed to be replaced more often than I expected, the units themselves are quite pricy, and they come in a limited range of sizes. After researching available models, I chose to go with Sharp for variety of reasons, including the fact that they have long been a leader in consumer electronics products with a good track record. Sharp makes a range of different volume True HEPA air purifiers for different size rooms, as well as models adding a humidifier option, great for winter use. Because HEPA has been misused in marketing with terms “HEPA-style,” “99% HEPA,” “HEPA-type” or similar, all of which simply mean not HEPA, quality manufacturers like Sharp have started to use “True HEPA” to mean actually meeting the legal standard, which is the ability to remove a minimum of 99.97% of airborne particles 0.3 micrometers in diameter. Sharp also adds a second-stage carbon-based filter to remove common household odors including smoke, cooking and pet odors. But because HEPA is a passive cleaning method that only treats air passing through the filter, Sharp triples up with its trademarked Plasmacluster Ion technology, which actively disperses ions that neutralize and pull apart airborne pollutants, further reducing pollutants in your air. Sharp’s Plasmacluster tech has been used in 80 million products worldwide, from cars to refrigerators, and the company claims studies have proven it effective at reducing viruses including MS2 (Influenza viral stimulant) and bacteria, including E-Coli. Sharp uses an extra-long life filter rated for two years, which I have had no issue with, and all models are Energy Star certified, a nice bonus that is environmentally responsible and saves you money on electric bills. The Sharp True HEPA Air Purifier with Plasmacluster Ion Technology comes in sizes for small to extra large rooms ($221-$335).
Indoor Garden: This spring, as people sought to minimize trips to the supermarkets, there was a huge surge in purchases of small indoor hydroponic growers like Aero Garden, and I bought one. But while these are handy for having fresh herbs on hand, they cannot adequately supply the amount of lettuce and greens you would need to significantly reduce shopping for fresh salad ingredients, which is sort of the whole point. So, this summer I upgraded to a vertical indoor growing system from Rise Gardens, which best straddles the niche between turnkey home gardens for those of us with no experience and serious indoor growing. The Rise Garden takes up more space, but it is designed in bookcase freestanding style, sharp enough to fit home décor, with one, two and three tier models that pack a lot growing power per square foot. Some people do two units side by side for a neat linear room divider look, and you can even grow some flowers to brighten up your indoor living. But most importantly, it is extremely well engineered, including supporting technology like the app, and works great. I had a salad entirely harvested from my Rise Garden last night, the night before, and will again tonight, without really making a dent in the plants I have going – planted about a month ago. If you get a Rise tomorrow, you can be eating fresh lettuce in early December. With Rise you have even grow cherry tomatoes, baby cucumbers and eggplant indoors, something the small tabletop models can’t really rival. Each level holds about 16 plants, and units are cleverly asymmetrically designed so on multi-tier ones there is one level with more clearance for growing taller items like tomatoes.
Rise is much more sophisticated home system, a take on the suddenly popular urban vertical farming. It uses a pump to continuously circulate nutrient rich water and comes with a special waterproof handheld sensor probe that can measure Ph levels, temperature and more. Once a week you insert this probe into the water, and along with the app on your smartphone – which know exactly what plants you have chosen and where they are in the garden – it computes the amount of nutrients you need to add (from easily measured squeeze bottles). It has Wi-Fi, monitors the water level continuously for replenishment from plant absorption and evaporation, automates the lighting based on your plants, and even tells you when they are ideal for harvesting. More than just a garden, Rise is a complete high-tech indoor growing system, and it works great. Of course, the added capacity and complexity means it takes up more room, takes longer to assemble, and because you can hear the water circulating and the (bright) grow lights stay on up to 18 hours a day, it is ideally located out of sight, like the basement or garage. But I have mine in my home office and have gotten used to the zen garden-like water background noise, like having an aquarium. If you want any semblance of vegetable self-sufficiency this coming winter, you cannot beat Rise. You get more bang for your buck and floor space with a two or three level system than a single shelf, and models run $549-$949.
To offer a more manageable version, Rise just introduced its first smaller countertop unit, which I haven’t tried (not available until late November). It can hold from 4 large (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) to 12 small (chives, radishes, etc.) plants using a flexible modular system. Setup claims to be less than 5 minutes, plantings can be completely turned over every three weeks, and the smaller Rise still can do more than most competing countertop models I’ve tried and incorporates the same cutting edge technology and app ($299).
Perfect Folding Knife: As mentioned above, I find a use for the knife clipped to my pocket just about every day, from opening boxes to cutting off tags to the occasional lazy substitute for bothering to go get a screwdriver. Yesterday I unclogged the holes on the upper cleaning arm of my dishwasher with it. My choice for the past few years has been Benchmade, known as America’s premier field, sporting and tactical blade manufacturer. Benchmade is the Swiss watch version of made in the USA knives, and uses only the most premium materials, from blades to handles to locking and opening mechanisms, and every knife comes with a lifetime service called “LifeSharp.” You send your knife in, it is completely disassembled, cleaned, sharpened and optimized like new, then shipped back to you – for free, forever. But you won’t need to do this often, as I’ve been using my knife daily now for more 6-months and it remains razor sharp. Benchmade does lots of semi-custom options, so once you pick a model you can choose the grip, handle material and color, you can change the blade shape, you can get it engraved, or you can just buy off the shelf. Either way, these are best in class knives that hold an edge extremely well, are very sharp to begin with, and in the case of the everyday carry folder I recommend for all-purpose utility, open smoothly and easily with one hand, lock securely and close equally well. Benchmade won Popular Mechanics Best Pocket Knife 2020 and has racked up many other best knife awards from experts like Field & Stream.
My personal choice is the Bugout with drop point serrated blade (serrated section is better for breaking down thicker cardboard for recycling) and the textured glass filled nylon handle is super slim, lightweight and non-slip, with a pocket clip ($170). This is a thin, light, sharp, smooth knife built for a lifetime, seriously. It’s just one member of the bestselling Bugout family, with a wide range of options, as well as smaller Mini-Bugout, but any of Benchmade’s EDC models, including the folding Osborne, Bailout, and Vector series are superb choices.
Better First Aid Kit – and Flashlight: VSSL is one of the cooler gear companies I’ve come across in the last few years, making precisely engineered, space efficient and nearly indestructible products inspired by the heavy duty aluminum flashlights typically used by police officers and other who need reliable lighting. Only instead of a flashlight tube filled with D-batteries, VSSL makes heavy duty but lightweight tubes filled with other things that still have bulbs and flashlight functions built in.
One of the things they put inside is a great rolled up first aid kit. The metal tube itself is super strong, completely waterproof, and the stuff in it says fresh and ready for as long as it sits on your shelf or in your glove compartment or boat – even if you get flooded. The 4-mode light pumps out 200 lumens, as well as an SOS strobe function that makes it easier for help to find you. The replaceable battery is designed to not start usage until you active it and can run for up to 40 hours straight. It has a precision oil-filled compass built into the screw off cap like the handle of John Rambo’s survival knife, and every bit of space is used efficiently – the inside of the cap fits a roll of multi-use adventure tape. They’ve thought of everything, even a long press start-up required on the power button so it doesn’t accidently go on when it gets bumped in your bag. The included first aid kit has 46 items in a plastic pouch that when unrolled has transparent pockets so you can see everything, and first aid instruction printed right on it. In addition to the usual bandages, first aid cream antibiotic, etc., it has tweezers, safety pins and an emergency whistle that can all serve multiple uses. You can replace, modify, or customize anything in it, the flashlight case will last forever, and the whole thing is sleek and compact and smaller than a water bottle – 2-inches in diameter, less than 9.5 inches long, and it weighs a pound.
The VSSL First Aid Kit is prepacked and totally ready to go anywhere you do or wait at home until needed ($125). VSSL just added a new even smaller model, the VSSL First Aid Mini. Instead of a roll, the more than 40 first aid elements are grouped by category and fit into cylindrical metal canisters, similar to those magnetic spice jars people put on their fridges, which stack in the tube. The First Aid Mini is just 2 inches in diameter and less than 7 inches long, available either with ($100) or without ($70) the slightly longer flashlight end cap. All the first aid tubes are red, but you can also build your own semi-custom VSSL setup on the website with any color and varied inclusions and add-ons.
Zeus Auto Starter & Power Supply: There are portable power supplies and then there is the Zeus. This smaller than a brick sized unit is an easy to use, highly portable, highly effective jump starter for your car – and much more. My auto repair guys uses a “portable” starter the size of a carry-on rollaboard suitcase, while my Zeus is more like a thick paperback. Because I live where it is very cold, and we have older cars, and especially since the pandemic they have been driven less and sitting more, I am always surprised how many times I’ve gotten to use this in the three-plus years I’ve had it. When I had mystery electrical problems with my Audi that led me to finally get rid of the car, I had to use this every time I wanted to start it. It holds a charge for months, comes with idiot proof directions printed on the unit itself, has an indicator to make sure you are properly connected before starting, and doubles as a flashlight and charger for any portable electronic gear. It can fully recharge a smartphone more than ten times or jump your car after sitting on the shelf for months. This is truly the piece of gear I didn’t know I needed, and for $105, it’s a must have, and also a road trip essential. I just can’t say enough good things about how well it works. The Zeus comes from Uncharted Supply, a company specializing in smart emergency and disaster preparation products like the…
Seventy2 Survival System: Uncharted Supply, the makers of the Zeus above, have developed these all-in-one specialty packs equipped with gear you need to survive 72 hours (three days) off the grid. This is definitely not something everyone needs, but it’s the kind of thing that is easy to keep on hand and if you do need it, you will be glad, whether it’s because of natural disaster, terrorism, civil unrest or simply your car breaking down on a back road (you might want one in your car, especially with the pandemic explosion of car camping and accessing remote wilderness). The sleekly and brilliantly designed original Seventy2 was put together with critical input from military and outdoor experts and has been widely praised by reviewers from Time, Outside, Field & Stream and more. The basic Seventy2 Survival System is a waterproof backpack so tightly sealed it can double as an emergency floatation device (think hurricanes) or haul a large quantity of drinking water.
The removable fitted insert within has its own handles so you can carry it separately and double carrying capacity, and it contains over 30 items, from chemical light sticks to disposable heat packs, gloves, rope, complete first aid kit, survival tent, hand or USB chargeable emergency raid/flashlight, air filtration masks, and much more to handle all sorts of crazy situations – it even has a folding shovel and multi-tool ($272). The newer Seventy2 Pro Survival System is the same concept with more and better stuff, designed to protect two people and made with front line pros in mind who will use it repeatedly, so it features heavier duty tools, improved waist and shoulder straps for longer term backpack comfort, and additional waterproof storage capacity ($395).
Better Fire Pit: Staying home has given a lot of people cabin fever, spurring an explosion in all things backyard barbecue, with grills, patio heaters and related outdoor dining and living items flying off shelves. I recently did a piece on the best live fire cooking devices for grilling further into the fall and winter here at Forbes, as well as a recent story on the hottest new backyard or patio personal wood burning pizza oven. One easy way to extend the outside season in cooler climates and bring some fun and romance to patios and backyards all winter long is with a firepit. But while most are just essentially a metal bucket you burn wood in, the high-tech, high-efficiency folks at Solo Stove have built a different kind of mousetrap.
These firepits are portable, can be used on the ground, decks, rooftops, tailgating, at the beach, car camping, even in your driveway, are super easy to get lit (the bane of many less experienced “outdoors people”), and can burn just about anything, from twigs and branches to split wood. The fire pits come in three sizes ($195-$475) and all feature the company’s signature high-tech cylindrical design, a round canister of double-walled high quality 304 stainless steel with air intake holes on the bottom that pull air in towards the fuel source, allows the air to be heated up and fed through the top vents. This provides an extra boost of pre-heated oxygen, creating secondary combustion that eliminates smoke and minimizes ash – in layman’s terms, a hotter fire with less smoke! The optional stand for each model is a ring less than three inches high that lets you use the pit on less heatproof surfaces like wooden or composite decks ($38-$68).
Indoor BBQ Grill: It’s not a complete substitute for backyard cooking, but if you live where it is cold and snowy all winter, this can add a touch of warmth and flair to your pandemic dining – especially if you couple it with one of my “Best Bring the Steakhouse Experience Home” fine meat purveyors listed here. As an added bonus, you can also use it outside if there is a mild day – or in any weather. The Kenyon City Grill is different from its electric peers because it is a smokeless portable indoor/outdoor grill fully suited for all weather conditions, with a patented concealed electric element that eliminates flare-ups from dripping fat, and because it is in contact with the grate, it eliminates the random hot and cold spots typical of gas grills, giving you more consistent temperature control. It also heats up very quickly, reaching 500° in less than 5 minutes and 600° in less than ten. The grate itself is non-stick and ideal for delicate fish or veggies, but still gives the colorful grill marks many cooks covet, and is dishwasher safe, as is the removable lid, while a disposable drip tray completes the easy clean up. You won’t get the flame char or added flavor of smoke, but this is about as good a substitute for outdoor grilling as you’ll find, and because it meets city fire codes even where open flame cooking is prohibited, and is UL approved for Indoor and Outdoor use, you can grill in apartments or on urban terraces. Built of marine grade 304 stainless steel for durability ($475).
Better Pandemic Wine Storage: It’s no secret that Americans have been drinking more since the onset of the coronavirus, and sales figures show we’ve been stocking up on wine. But if you enjoy high quality wines, stocking up is not enough, you also have to store them properly, especially once you turn the heat on and start to dry out the air inside your home. You can go cheap with a big box home improvement store model, basically a dorm fridge dressed up with a glass door, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, a very expensive commercial brand. I recommend the perfect middle ground, occupied by Zephyr, a high-tech design-oriented San Francisco company specializing in state-of-the-art ventilation, range hoods and wine storage. I have a built-in under cabinet model and love it, but Zephyr also makes several sizes of standalone units that can go anywhere, from the basement rec room to your master bedroom closet. I previously wrote an in-depth piece on the technology, features and value proposition that makes these the best professional quality wine storage units for the money, which you can read here.
Clean Water: I’m not preparing for a total societal breakdown, but winter is coming, and at least where I live that could mean power outages, and if you want to avoid last minute store runs for bottled water, this is a great alternative. It’s also perfect for camping, the great outdoors, or sketchy hotels and roadside food stands in less developed nations when recreational travel resumes. There are a lot of products on the market for cleaning water on the go, and I’ve tried a bunch, but I’ve never used one as easy and appealing as the Grayl Geopress Purifier – no more pumping, no more waiting, no more chemical taste, no batteries. The Grayl looks like a regular plastic water bottle you’d take to the gym, but has a full size fitted insert with filter. You pull it out, fill the shell (from a faucet or dunk in a stream), put the insert back in and push down. That’s it, eight seconds and one push, and the ion exchange (binds pathogens including viruses, protozoa and bacteria) and activated carbon filter (chemicals, heavy metals, odors, flavors) leave you with instantly pure and drinkable water, anywhere in the world. The results exceed the Environmental Protections Agency’s standards for drinking water, and the filters are NSF 42 + 43 certified, removing 99.99% of rotavirus, norovirus, hepatitis A, E. coli, salmonella, dysentery, giardia, cryptosporidium and amoebae while also filtering microplastics, salt, chlorine, benzene, chloroform, lead, arsenic, and chromium. Bam! Each replaceable filter lasts 350 plunges or 250 one-liter bottles. ($70-$90 for Geopress with filter, $25-$30 replacement filters).
Sterilize Anything: We’ve all become a little too familiar with anti-bacterial wipes and sprays these days, and while the current evidence suggests that you no longer have to fret over wiping down every quart of milk in your grocery bag or stacking Amazon boxes for days before touching them, there are still a lot of things I feel better knowing are cleaned, as well as frequent high touch items like keys and cell phones that should be cleaned more but not ideally with wipes. The turnkey solution to all this is the Optec iWand, a personal and extremely portable UV-C LED disinfection device that kills 99.99% of bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants on any surface in less than minute. UV-C technology is a non-chemical approach to disinfection, with no harmful chemicals. The iWand is smaller than most flashlights, very light and durable, made of military-grade hardened aviation aluminum, has a micro USB rechargeable lithium battery, and finishes a cleaning in 50 seconds.
I love it for cleaning my phone and other items, but Optec suggests taking it to restaurants and sterilizing your utensils, glassware and napkins. In hotels you can easily treat all touch surfaces, from doorknobs to remote controls. Seatbelts, armrests and trays on planes, ATM keypads, gas station nozzles, shopping cart handles, you name it, iWand can clean it – for just $130.