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Survival Kits: What to Carry for Backcountry Peace of Mind

by Shawn O'Neal
Filip Zrnzevic- Unsplash

The choices for what to include in your wilderness survival kits can be overwhelming. To cover every conceivable emergency and environment would require a tractor trailer load of gear- and a similar-sized budget. The purpose of these items is to give you a few critical resources in a typical, short-term survival scenario. In the United States, most search and rescue incidents are resolved within 72 hours. So, consider the priorities of survival, from medical emergencies to water and food, when planning what to include.  

Survival Kits: Containers

What you carry your survival tools in is a matter of practicality. From taped-up Altoids tins to waterproof, high-impact, plastic boxes, the options are limitless. While a larger container might be tempting, the increased capacity might work against you. Having the ability to include more stuff will do little good if your kit becomes too cumbersome to carry comfortably. A container that can easily slide into a cargo pocket is more likely to be with you all the time, meaning when you actually need it. Try to choose something durable, ideally waterproof, and not overly bulky. 


The knife you carry is personal preference, but carry one. A robust sheath knife might be more desirable for hunting and camp chores, but the size of your kit will likely limit your options. A folding knife is more practical for this situation and can still be extremely valuable. Also, include some form of illumination. Everything gets more difficult once the sun goes down so a light is essential. A small keychain-type LED light could fit nicely in small kits. If space allows, a compact headlamp will allow hands-free activity and is more practical.  

Once mostly found through military surplus, 550 parachute cord (paracord) is now widely available. Though it has many imitators, real paracord is worth any extra effort in finding it. Strong and versatile, this cordage has seven inner, braided strands that can be cut from the outer sheath and used independently. Another vital consideration in this category is duct tape. From patching tents to covering blisters, it belongs on every outing. Ditch the roll and wrap some around a pencil or the shaft of a trekking pole. 

Survival Kits: Fire

One of the primary threats to survival in the outdoors is exposure, when conditions compromise the body’s ability to maintain its core temperature. A survival kit should address this threat to thermoregulation in multiple ways. Cold, wet weather is particularly dangerous. Being able to start a fire in these conditions is a skill that takes practice and the right supplies for the best chance of success. Often referred to as “flints,” ferrocerium rods work in frigid and wet conditions, throwing showers of hot sparks onto your dry tinder.

Improve the odds even more by carrying cotton balls and antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin) in your kit. These first-aid items are multi-purpose. When worked thoroughly into the cotton, the petroleum jelly in the ointment will create a cheap and long-burning fire-starter. Fire making is one of the most important survival skills there is, so consider including a disposable lighter and strike anywhere matches as well. 


Another way to manage thermoregulation is through shelter. The options for addressing this that can fit into a pocket might not be luxurious, but could make a critical difference. Small and affordable, the reflective foil “space blanket” is an easy addition to any kit. It can provide a water and windproof barrier and will reflect and trap some body heat when wrapped around you on a chilly night. The cheap, folded ponchos often used at ball games are also a worthy addition to your survival gear. While not very durable, they can help you endure some rough weather if caught out and away from camp. Heavy-duty garbage bags are another possibility and can even be used to make an improvised shelter


Assuming you want your emergency survival experience to resolve as quickly and pleasantly as possible, it’s important to be able to help any rescue party to find you. Fires can be an efficient signal when placed in an open, visible location. Make them bright throughout the night and add green brush to make the fire smokey during daytime. A signal mirror, reflecting sunlight, can be seen by searching aircraft for miles. A loud whistle carries over a greater distance than the human voice. Remember to sound the alert in groups of three, a universally recognized distress signal.  

A compass, water-treatment tablets, and basic fishing tackle are other items to consider. Think about your environment and experience when planning and building your survival kit. Whatever you choose, test it out and become comfortable with using it. Check your gear before every adventure and replace anything that is missing or expired. Most importantly, keep it on you! The best kit can’t help you if you leave it at camp.  

[H/T Outdoor Life]