Imagine everything in and about your house you need to survive, now reduce all of that to its essence, that’s your backpack. Now, reduce everything in your backpack to its essence, that’s your survival kit. Every serious wilderness enthusiast, be they backpacker or sailor (and yes, survivalist) I have ever known has a survival kit. A sailor’s “kit” can be quite extensive, but a backpacker’s survival kit is a study in efficient effectiveness. However, there are a few benchmarks that absolutely, positively, MUST be adhered to!!!
1) First and foremost, a survival kit should NEVER, EVER be kept in a pack!
There are backpacking situations where you can run the risk of being separated from your pack, crossing a river comes to mind! There is also the story of a man who, when his group stopped for a rest, decided to relieve himself. So he walked away from the group and ducked behind some trees. In doing so, he slipped and hit his head. When he woke, he had amnesia and both his group and his pack were gone.
2) A survival kit must be big enough to make a difference, but small enough for convenience.
If it’s small enough to be convenient, you’re more likely to keep it with you. Forget those little paracord bracelet and “sardine can” kits!! They are gag-joke, stocking-stuffer, JUNK! To those who say “something is better than nothing” I say “Put me in your will!” Assembling a proper survival kit takes thought, time, and yes, money (seriously, do you REALLY want to take a chance on a toy when your life is already in the balance? Do it RIGHT!!)
3) A survival kit must address the basic needs and essentials of an emergency given your typical outing.
Any discussion of a survival kit inherently includes the presumption that you are in serious immediate trouble, whether it’s being lost or having an accident, AND without access to your pack. Therefore, a survival kit must address the basics (signaling, sheltering, fire water, food) and include the essentials needed in a likely emergency (first-aid, compass, flashlight, etc.)
4) A survival kit should be assembled with a 3-day wilderness survival ordeal in mind.
Although the vast majority of rescues are accomplished within the first 10-24 hours after being reported, virtually all victims are rescued within 3 days, so a properly assembled survival it should be assembled with that in mind.
CONTAINER AND CARRIER
The logical place to start is with your mess tin, since this will be what you put your items into, and the pouch you plan to carry it in (again, ON YOUR BELT!) I chose the Trangia Aluminum Mess Tin (with removeable handle) and the Maxpedition Janus Extension Pocket (they just happen go together like hand-in-glove!) Also, start with a plastic bag just big enough to carry the contents, because if you should need to use the mess tin to boil water, you’ll need something to keep everything together.
The next thing you need in your survival kit is a KNIFE! Whether to process wood into tinder/kindling or just to dig a hole, you will likely want a sharp, sturdy, folding knife. To have any meaningful size/length, it has to be a folding knife so it fit’s your container (lengthwise, not diagonally, otherwise it will be too hard to pack everything else). Quality construction and durability are of absolute importance! I chose the Gerber Paraframe II Knife (fine edge, stainless steel frame, lock handle, light-open stainless steel handle, sturdy pocket clip. Overall length: 8.27", closed: 4.8"). Now you can address the basics; signaling, sheltering, fire, water and food.
NOTE: As an optional addition, you might consider a hand chain-saw. These have REALLY improved! They have gone from a regular chain saw blade, to a kind of bicycle chain with teeth, to a proper pocket saw, then finally to a pocket chain saw, when rolled-up, takes about as much room as 2 or 3 quarters. When I checked last, these come from China under different brand names, so they can be a little hard to find.
You could consider a small/miniature flare set, I used to have a Xythos miniature 2mm pinfire flare pistol set, but it turns out they are a collectable and has since “disappeared.” You might also consider the Orion Pocket Rocket Flare Signal Kit, this set is typically for divers and kept in a waterproof tube, but for the kit I would just wrap it in a little plastic. Flares can be expensive to ship and it could mean making choices on what you put in your kit, but some absolute MUST items include…
A PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON: Seriously, WHERE ELSE would you want a PLB but on/with your survival kit?! In this instance, I keep an ACR RescueMe permanently attached to the Maxpedition Janus Extension Pocket which carries my survival kit. This is in addition to my Garmin InReach Mini PLB which I keep in my pocket when it’s not attached to my pack.
AN EMERGENCY WHISTLE: This is a fairly generic item, the only thing I require, besides a reasonable size, this design is fairly flat so it fits with everything else in the kit. Sure, you could yell, but it’s not only stressful on your voice it’s stressful on your nerves.
AN EMERGENCY REFLECTOR/MIRROR: Another fairly generic item, it can NOT be glass, shouldn’t be plastic, or too thick. I use a reflector in the size/shape off a soldier’s ‘dog-tag’. However, don’t forget, if you have bright shirt/jacket, it can easily be turned into a flag.
A MAGLITE SOLITAIRE LED FLASHLIGHT: Another item I keep, both in my pocket and in my kit, not so much for “signaling”, per se, but the NEW Maglite flashlights use L.E.D. technology instead of the old halogen bulbs. WAAAY brighter! However, on both flashlights, I duct-taped an elastic headband (a Scrunchie, used to help girls keep their hair back) so it’s essentially an improvised headlight. In my kit, I also have two extra alkaline batteries.
THE MYLAR SURVIVAL BIVVY: Be sure you get a BIVVY, NOT a blanket! A blanket is just a complete waste of time and money!! A bivvy can actually keep the wind and rain off you and help keep you warm AND if you poke a few holes in it, it can become a decent raincoat or poncho! Besides, if you REALLY need a “blanket” (or small tarp), you could just cut it apart at the seems. There are also 2-person Mylar bivvys, but they would take a lot of room in a survival kit. The same goes for the newer “insulated” bivvys (Be sure to try it so you know whether it fits you!).
One nice thing about this, is you can set it up as a rain catch! Either lay it over an indent the ground (if there isn’t much wind) or set it up so it will funnel the rainwater into your mess tin or a plastic bag. The plastic bag in your kit can be used as a rain catch. But be warned, like all waterproof sheltering materials, it is prone to condensation if used as a bivy, so consider pitching it like an old “tube tent.”
THE NO-SEE-UM HEADNET: While a VERY handy thing to have on its own (I keep another with my pack), if you snuggle into the bivy and breathe into it, the condensation will make you wet fast, then you’ll get cold which defeats the purpose in the first place. So for those who are just trying to get a break from mosquitoes and other flying insects, a headnet is well worth it. Besides, it takes virtually NO space and weighs virtually nothing, so why not?! I suppose you could use it as an improvised fishing net (you’ll most likely only catch bait fish with it) or use it to melt snow for drinking water as well.
Bic makes a smaller version of their ubiquitous lighter, which I use to roll some duct tape (which can be used as firestarter, of course), so I include one of these along with a miniature ferro’ rod. I also keep 6 UCO Titan Stormproof matches, with striking pads, in three heat-sealed straws. To finish this off, I include 3 U.S.T. WetFire cubes of chemical tinder.
WHIRL-PAK 1-LITER STAND-UP WATER COLLECTION BAGS: These are actually used in the scientific field to collect water/liquids and other things for the lab, but they work just great for the kit as improvised water carriers or canteens. I keep two in the kit along with a hank of cordage I can use to sling them over my shoulder, etc. Otherwise, I can use them to collect rainwater or to just keep the water after boiling.
WATER TREATMENT TABLETS: Katadyne and Aquamira both offer iodine tables in nice, thin, flat strips so they're easy to put into the kit! Each tablet will treat 1-liter of water, which is exactly the capacity of the collection bags. Or, you can use the water collection bags to “solarize” the water (though this would require a warm, sunny day) placed on a sheet of aluminum foil.
- FOOD (?)
Yes, some kits include some hard candy, as did I for a while, but I just don’t think it’s that valuable in the context of a survival ordeal. Obviously, a survival kit is too small to even consider adding food (though at another time, I used to keep packets of instant soup) in ANY helpful amount, much less for three days! But I do have a miniature fishing kit of a hook line and sinker on a sewing machine bobbin (one of three bobbins) and a couple of “speed hooks”, but you likely won’t be out long enough to starve (technically, as long as you have water, people have lived for almost two months without food. More important than food is sleep and staying hydrated). Instead, I have three cubes of soup bullion (chicken, beef and vegetable), and I can tell you from first-hand experience, when you’re cold, a HOT tin of broth is AWESOME! In any case, soup bullion is more compact and more likely to last three days.
With all the basics addressed, it's time to be sure you have a few key items AND all the other little extras you come across (provided it fits, of course!). This is the most diverse part of your kit.
= COMPASS: THE SUUNTO CLIPPER: Presuming you’re lost, you should ALREADY have a topo map of your area, and THAT should be enough. However, there may be times when a map is not enough, or (for whatever reason) you may not have a map, and you need to orient yourself (I remember once being in a forest when a fog rolled in!) Normally, this goes on a watchband, but this is better than one of those tiny little button compasses you may get in a “sardine can” kit!
= SUNGLASSES: Whether you’re on sand, snow or water, squinting all day can be stressful and wearisome! “Survival i-Shield” sunglasses, by Survival Metrics, is a GREAT addition to your kit! Eye protection not only helps, it may be necessary, these make having a pair in your kit possible!!
= FIRST-AID (not pictured): As always, forget the typical Band-Aids, just have mommy kiss it and make it all better when you get home. The only exception is when it comes to finger tips and knuckles. In the meantime, presuming you have a more serious injury, I start with 3-days’ worth of Ibuprofen and 3-days’ worth of Acetaminophen, in 6 heat-sealed clear jumbo straws, to deal with pain (READ about them!). I also have a few tiny packets of hydrochloride (an anti-diarrheal), a few packets of sting relief (ethyl alcohol and lidocaine), a topical treatment, a few packets of antibiotics and a tiny packet of lip balm. I also have a few packets of WoundSeal, LiquidSkin, a few packets of benzocaine (I have dental work), and a minimalist suturing kit.
= REPAIR: In case I need to mend a few things, I include a few safety pins, needle, thread AND a small strip of cloth. I use a sewing machine bobbin (second of three) to hold the Kevlar thread (surprisingly strong). If you go packrafting, bikepacking, etc., often, you may also want to include a few patches and some glue, etc.
WIRE: On the third bobbin, like the fishing line and thread above, I like to have a small spool of wire which I can use to bind fish to a stick for cooking, create a few squirrel snares, etc.
TIN FOIL: This is one of those classic “survival” items like duct tape and wire. Tin foil can be used as a reflector, placed under a clear water container (on a warm, sunny day) can help solar-treat water, shaped it can become a plate, a cup, a pot, a windscreen for cooking, etc.
PEN AND PAPER: U.S.T. (and probably a few others) has a waterproof notebook, I just take a few pages out and put them in the bottom of my kit along with a metal ballpoint pen refill. Not that I’d need them for some sort of “Last Will And Testament”, but to be able to make notes and leave notes behind, etc.
A FEW 3- INCH NAILS: I keep a few of these in my ditty-bag and my survival kit to be used as spikes, scrapers, or to nail to a tree as a [temporary] attachment point if I need to hang a tarp/tent, etc.
LUCKY “CHARMS”: Whatever your “belief system”, be it religion, folklore, or chance, the truth is they actually don’t have any REAL effect here in the REAL world… except in your mind… nonetheless, some like to think it helps. And since survival is largely a matter of psychology, having a crutch like this can help calm your nerves. I’m not particularly religious, but I do keep a miniature silver St. Christopher (patron saint of travelers) and St. Anthony (patron saint if the lost) medals in my kit (and small gold St. Christopher and Saint Anthony medals with a whistle and a Maglight Solitaire in my pocket). And since I’m often on the ocean, I also keep a single black pearl earring in my kit (in sealore, it was believed a sailor at risk of dying on the ocean could offer Poseidon a black pearl to bargain for his life). I also keep a picture of a loved one.
A FEW END NOTES: Obviously, everyone’s kit will be different, not just because everyone thinks differently, but because people have different types of outings. Remember to replace consumables regularly (i.e. the bullion cubes, medications, batteries, etc.), and remember a survival kit, while intended for use during survival ordeals, that does NOT mean it is untouchable. Once on a paddling trip, I lost my cooking pot, so I used my survival kit’s mess tin. On another occasions, I had a toothache, so I used my pain pills. Just be sure to restock your kit! And as always, the more you know, the less you carry, learn how to improvise what you have and adapt items for multiple uses.