(CNN) When wildfires rage, hurricanes bear down, flood waters rise and that big earthquake finally strikes, it's critical that you and your family members are ready to evacuate.
Perhaps the most important thing to bring with you: A "go bag" full of emergency supplies. Go bags exist to save you from having to run around and gather items when a threatening situation is imminent.
These bags are designed to provide everything a family of four needs to survive for several days after a disaster, especially if tried-and-trusted services aren't available.
The bags don't have to be bags at all -- they can be boxes, cartons, or crates, so long as they contain all of the important supplies.
The contents of a family's go bag could mean the difference between life or death, depending on how bad a situation becomes, according to Jonathan Sury, project director for field operations and communications at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute.
"Having yourself and your family be prepared will ease the burden on our response system but also make you more mentally ready for what lies ahead," Sury said. "Preparation is the difference between being panicked and being calm, collected, and cool."
Disaster preparedness certainly is an important topic; a 2015 NCDP survey indicated that only 35% of respondents had an adequate disaster plan and supplies.
And September is National Preparedness Month, which means now is a great time to put a plan together.
Most of the items disaster preparedness experts suggest you include in a go bag are things you can find around your house. You also can purchase items separately, or as part of package kits designed to offer one-stop shopping.
Whichever strategy you choose, the FEMA website says a basic emergency supply kit should include:
• One gallon of water per person, per day
• Three-day supply of non-perishable food per person and per pet
• Your family's prescription medications
• Battery-powered or hand crank radio
• First-aid kit
• Wrench to turn off utilities
Some of the items on extended lists include emergency blankets, extra cash, solar cell-phone chargers and a multipurpose tool such as a Leatherman or Swiss Army knife.
People also should include digital copies of all their important documents such as birth certificates, insurance policies, and passports, said Sury, as well as ample supplies of over-the-counter and prescription medications for every person in the family.
Another key component: Good maps.
Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Boston, said it is critical to have printed maps of the area with two exit routes marked clearly.
"Have plans on how you would evacuate your home including what type of transportation you would use, how you would afford it, and where you would stay," Montano wrote in a recent email.
"This is particularly important to think about early on because the pandemic may have made your existing evacuation plans obsolete."
Experts said that the pandemic has necessitated other precautions and changes to the emergency items you should bring if you evacuate your home.
Perhaps the most important pandemic-specific rule: Be sure to have an N95 mask without a valve. Sury said it's important to make sure you've got the right masks, since those with valves on them don't filter outflow and therefore could expose other people around you to Covid-19.
"People don't realize how dangerous the wrong respirator can be," he said.
There are other ways to make a go bag Covid-proof. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines last spring to include the following items with all emergency bags:
• Cloth face coverings (at least two per person per day)
• Mess kits
• Hand sanitizer
• Personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, goggles, gowns)
• Prescription eyeglasses
• Infant formula
The American Red Cross also published a checklist that echoes these sentiments.
During the pandemic, families may rethink their "go plan" and consider leaving before an official warning, if for no other reason than to get out of harm's way and stay physically distanced, suggested Eric Alberts, corporate director of emergency preparedness for Orlando Health, a health care system in Florida.
"Due to COVID-19 a lot of authorities will not be asking people to leave their homes unless their homes are not safe or they are in a mandatory evacuation zone," Alberts wrote in an email.
"If people are in a location that requires them to evacuate, they should be proactive and leave before it is too late. When people rush, they make errors leading to exposures, injuries, and other illnesses."
If you have time to prepare, do a walk-through of your home and take video of the contents. If the structure is destroyed, your insurance company will want to see what your home was like.
Sury, the expert from Columbia, said that while this isn't a must, it's always a good idea to have.
"Anything that can be required for your identification or compensation after disaster," he said. "If you've got a way to make formal record of everything with value, it will help you in the long run with recovering from a disaster."
Sury's organization has put together an app to help people determine how ready they are to respond to a disaster. The tool, dubbed the Preparedness Wizard, is fun and educational, but also offers important practical information and input about how to maximize readiness and minimize risk.
In addition to whatever medicine and other basic supplies your children will need, remember their teddy bears, blankie, favorite books, tablets (and chargers) or other things that will help calm their fears as you leave your home.
Sonoma County, California, resident Rosie Monson learned this firsthand. In 2019, as the Kincade fire was bearing down on her Alexander Valley home and she and her husband were evacuating, Monson made a pass through the house for her kids' most cherished possessions.
"In our case it was My Little Pony dolls, a Nintendo Switch, jewelry and stuffies," said Monson, who now has three children, ages 7, 5 and 9 months old. "I didn't have time to pack everything and couldn't fit everything in our car with the pets and kids, but I didn't want my kids to feel sad or stressed or different from other kids because something in their normal routine was gone."
Monson and her husband lost their home in that fire, and she said her kids still cherish everything that was saved. Her advice on packing for evacuations: "If your kids don't have their favorite stuff, the tears start every time they think of something and it's so sad."
The bottom line: Always be ready, even beyond the bag. Just because someone puts together a "go bag" does not mean that person is prepared, Montano warned.
"We know from the research that it's much more complicated than that," she said. "Your social network, your economic situation, the preparedness of your local government (and) other factors all influence how ready you are to go through a disaster."