Those who go into the outdoors prepared rarely need rescuing, but when they do it’s usually not a disaster story. Most people lost or stranded in the backcountry of the lower U.S. states are found within the first 72 hours. Fortunately, they are usually found even sooner today thanks to cell phones. Taking a survival kit with you can dramatically improve your odds in such a survival scenario.
The Benefits of a Survival Kit
Several years ago, I was on a search team for a lost hunter who had been missing for two days. We found him the third day. It was pouring rain when the smoke from his fire was spotted. Arriving at his survival camp, we found him to be very comfortable. Although he was totally lost, we found him in good spirits and in good condition. He used his survival kit to build a comfortable camp and wait for rescue.
The survival kit is important for its life-saving merits. However, it also provides comfort during an unexpected overnight stay in the woods or streamside. On many occasions I have found myself spending an unexpected night or two in the woods. The reasons vary from an outfitter being late to pick me up, to a swollen creek bed blocking my path. Not to mention that climbing down a mountain in the dark is too dangerous. Each time, my 2-pound survival kit provided me with a comfortable camp. Without it, the wait could have been cold and dangerous.
Regardless of the type of survival kit you choose, it must provide basic life-saving functions for at least 72 hours. This is true whether you purchase one or build one yourself. If you are short any of the items to meet these needs, then you don’t have an adequate survival kit. The items in your survival kit should address the following factors.
The first item necessary for a survival camp is quick shelter from bad weather. You can read all you want about lean-tos, brush shelters, etc. But few shelters are quicker to erect and give as much protection as a plastic tube tent. This is especially true in wind and rain. You simply tie a length of paracord between two trees, stretch the tube to its full 8-foot length and crawl in out of the weather. I use the Coghlan’s Tube Tent. The compact, 18-ounce, tent is bright orange and serves as a signal, since it can be seen from the air.
Not only have I used a tube tent in a survival situation, I have also used one on several occasions for protection from a sudden rain or hail storm when I didn’t have a rain suit or other protection. A 50-foot length of paracord is a great kit addition, for shelter building and many other survival camp chores.
To stay warm in your tube tent, you will want one of the 36×84-inch MCR Medical emergency sleeping bags. This bag will reflect and retain up to 90 percent of radiated body heat. It folds up to 1.5 inches by 3 inches and weighs only 4 ounces.
You will need to be careful using one of these bags, as boots with aggressive soles can tear them. But, with a little caution when getting into the bag it will keep you warm all night. When on guided trips I carry an extra bag, as I want my guide to rest in order to get me out safely the next day. Also, an extra bag, while weighing little and taking up little space in my survival kit, gives me a backup if I should tear the first one.
Fire serves many important purposes in the survival camp—signaling, warmth, food preparation, comfort, etc. I consider it so important that I keep three fire sources in my survival kit.
- Quality ferro rod, with striker attached. A ferro rod is useful to start a fire quickly and easily in most types of weather, if you have good tinder. Be cautious when shopping for ferro rods as there are a lot of cheap brands on the market that do not work well.
- Fresh strike-anywhere kitchen matches in a waterproof match box safe. I use the full-size wooden matches because they are easy to ignite and burn longer than small matches. I keep them in a weather-tight blaze orange plastic match safe. Be sure to keep them fresh as matches have a short storage life.
- Pocket-size butane lighter. For backup, a pocket-size butane lighter works well in most situations. If packing a butane lighter, be sure that it rides in your survival kit where the gas control button is not depressed. I have seen butane lighters in survival kits that have lost all the gas, to the surprise of the owner.
Practice starting a fire with all three fire sources at home before taking them into the wilderness. A survival situation is the wrong time to learn how to start a fire.
In a survival situation, starting a fire can be difficult, especially in windy or damp conditions. Consequently, a package of man-made tinder is a must. While there are several brands of man-made tinder available in outdoor shops and catalogs, I make my own by rubbing petroleum jelly into 100 percent cotton balls and storing them in waterproof medicine bottles. To not carry proven tinder is to ask for trouble when a fire is a must and warmth is critical in a driving rainstorm.
You should always carry two means of signaling. I suggest a signal mirror, such as Star Flash Floating mirror, and a high quality whistle like a Fox 40 or WindStorm whistle. With practice, the signal mirror is easy to use and can be seen up to 60 miles or more. High-quality whistles require very little energy to use, can be heard much further than the human voice and last much longer. Avoid cheap whistles as they are not loud enough and some require a lot of breath to blow.
For protection against warm-weather pests such as mosquitoes and black flies, I carry small packets of BugX or Off insect repellent towelettes. They take up very little space in the survival kit, and during warm weather they are worth their weight in gold.
I include a small flashlight in my kit. I like the small flashlights that use LED bulbs and lithium batteries due to their reported10-year shelf life. A small, high-quality LED flashlight can be used for signaling and is a must for doing camp chores in the dark. Some flashlights come pre-programed to flash SOS in Morse code. Remember that the flashlight batteries in your survival kit flashlight need to be checked for freshness before you go on any outing.
While food need not be a concern for the 72-hour ordeal, water will be necessary. Since safe drinking water has become scarce even in the most remote wilderness areas, it is a good idea to take along a small bottle of Potable Aqua tablets to treat drinking water. One of the most versatile items I carry in my survival kit is a 24-by-24-inch piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. It folds down to about 3 inches by 3 inches. You can use it to make a vessel for boiling water, cook food, make a reflector for a fire and as a signal mirror. Pack your survival kit in a heavy-duty 1-gallon resealable bag, which is also useful to hold water while treating.
You can use duct tape for many purposes in a survival situation. I have used it for patching a hole in my canoe, taping a tear in my emergency sleeping bag, holding a splint in place, etc. Wrap a 3-foot length of duct tape to your flashlight to have on hand when you need it. I find that with it wrapped on my flashlight I can hold it in my teeth better when I need both hands free at night.
I consider a knife one of the most valuable survival tools to have on hand. I like to carry a fixed-blade knife on my belt where it is fast and easy to get to in an emergency. Also I carry a good multi-tool knife in my survival kit as it can handle many camp chores.
Note that it is not sufficient to purchase all these items, package them in a plastic bag and put it in your day pack, fishing vest or hunting coat pocket to be there when you need them. Like any other specialized outdoor gear, you need to give them a field test—actually use them overnight—so you are familiar with them when you need them. You might find you want to include more or fewer items.
Also, if you take medication or wear glasses, you might want to take extras in your kit. A fully charged cell phone, while not a part of the kit, is also good to carry.
It is also a good idea to check your survival kit often to make sure your items are all there and in good shape. It is important to replace some items, such as matches, periodically.
Be sure to keep your survival kit compact and easy to pack or carry. Often, people don’t take large or bulky survival kits with them. A small, compact kit is more likely to go with you every time.
GUIDEBOOK FOR ALL AGES
AF contributor J. Wayne Fears is the author of The Scouting Guide To Survival, a 155-page book published by Skyhorse Publishing and available online. Color illustrated, the book covers more than 200 essential skills for surviving most outdoor emergencies. This book is direct, to the point, easy to read and filled with solid information. Anyone who spends time outdoors should read this book so they are ready for the unexpected.
This is Fears’ third book on survival. While this is an officially licensed book of the Boy Scouts of America and is a perfect resource for any boy or girl starting to participate in outdoor activities, it is also an ideal refresher for the experienced outdoor enthusiast of any age.
Two-Pound Wilderness Survival Kit Essentials
- Coghlan’s Tube tent
- Strike-anywhere kitchen matches in an orange waterproof match safe
- FireSteel ferro rod
- Bic Butane lighter
- Surefire LED flashlight
- Fire tinder: petroleum jelly cotton balls in waterproof container
- StarFlash floating signal mirror
- Fox 40 or WindStorm whistle
- MRC Medical emergency sleeping bag
- Paracord: 50-feet
- Aluminum foil: 36-by-36 inches
- BugX or Off insect repellent towelettes
- Duct tape: 3 feet wrapped around flashlight
- Potable Aqua water purification tablets
- Ziploc Slider Bag, heavy duty plastic bag – 1-gallon size
- Leatherman Wave multi-tool knife
This article was originally published in the American Frontiersman Summer 2021 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.