In this article I’ll show you how to make a small, low cost survival kit with useful bare necessities tools that fit in your pocket. Since a survival situation may fall upon us at any time, small gear makes it easy for us to always be prepared. I’m continually amazed to see people underestimate Mother Nature and assume that bad things only happen to other people. But that’s not the only reason folks get in trouble. Sometimes even professionals get nailed by life.
A survival instructor I know, a good man who served in the US Army Special Forces, brought this lesson home during a recent training session. A few years ago, he went on a Search and Rescue mission to look for a missing person. The mission started in the afternoon and proceeded through the night in very difficult terrain. Just before first light, the searchers found the missing person and everyone made their way back to the trailhead.
The sun was rising as this survival instructor drove home. Elated at the success of the mission, he didn’t realized how severely tired his body was. What happened next is unclear. When he woke up, he realized that he was stuck in the cab of his truck, which lay on its side. He looked through the cracked windshield of his pickup, sensing severe pain in his legs, and to his horror he smelled smoke. He tried to unbuckle the seat belt but the crash jammed it and he was stuck. He instinctively reached of his knife, only to realize he took it off at the end of the search and placed it in the back of the truck. The spare knife, which he always kept in the glove compartment, was inaccessible since that side of the truck was hit the hardest. He said that in a moment of surreal calmness, he realized that he was going to die and there was nothing he could do about it. Fortunately for him, a vehicle drove past despite the early hour, and two people stopped and rescued him. It happened quite a long time ago, but to him it still feels as if it happened yesterday.
To build a good survival kit, we need to understand what will help us survive in the wild. To some degree, it’s true that survival gear depends on our geographical location and time of year. However, the base of our survival kit will be generic and work year-round. For example, we will always need water, shelter and a way to signal for help. A knife and fire starter or matches will always be worth their weight in gold and so on. FEMA put together a nice site that talks about these basics, and it’s a good site to visit and share with family members who may not be as attune to survival as you are.
Let’s start with the basics and then expand from there. A good place to start is the rule of threes—three hours (shelter), three days (water) and three weeks (food). In harsh conditions, you’ll die in three hours without a shelter, and you’ll die after three days without water. As to food, well that’s the least critical element as it will take you three weeks to die of starvation. If we go by the rule of three, then our first priority is to build a shelter in as safe as possible place. Next we need water and a way to carry it to our shelter, as well as a way to purify it. Finally we need food and the ability to attract the attention of rescuers. In my mind signaling for help is more critical, but we’ll cover both.
As we look at what it takes for us to survive, we can see the beginning of a survival kit list: a knife, survival blanket, fire starting kit, a signal mirror, whistle and collapsible plastic water jug and purification tablets. As we start to build the kit, keep in mind that it needs to comfortably fit into a pocket. If it’s too big or bulky, you will not want take it with you, so make hard calls at each and every step. For example, if you can carry a high quality knife at all times—great—that’s ideal, but chances are that between work and forgetfulness, you superb knife will stay at home; so focus on small, bare minimum and always-present gear.
Building a scenario driven kit
Our first priority is a shelter. A shelter is simply a barrier between our body and the environment. It gives us protection and helps us maintain our body temperature within acceptable (not necessarily comfortable) limits. You need to be able to build a basic shelter, keep warm or cool as the case may be, and build a fire. Therefore, items needed for this scenario are: knife, emergency blanket, a small flashlight and fire starting kit.
- A small knife: This can be a sturdy pocket knife or a small fixed blade. You don’t need to get ceramic or high carbon blades. It’s not a knife for life—just enough knife to keep you alive. A cheap $2.99 small knife or small multi blade tool is a good start. I suggest you get something nice, like a Gerber Mini Paraframe, for about $4.99. Invest time searching for a cheap but functional knife. Item price range for this item is $2.99 to $4.99
- Emergency blanket: This can be critical because you may lack the skills or the ability to build a sufficiently usable shelter. There are a slew of options here, and I suggest you focus on small and functional. The one I recommend is Adventure Medical’s SOL Emergency Blanket. It’s bulkier and more expensive than most cheap blankets ($3.99 vs. $0.99) but it’s sturdy and efficient. Item price range is $0.99 to $3.99
- A small flashlight: You don’t know when disaster will strike. If it strikes at night or in a dark place, or if you are running out of daylight and still need to build your shelter—you need a light. Today, LED lights are cheap and plentiful and you can pick a 3-pack at Home Depot for less than $2.99. At that price and size, you can take two lights with you. Item price range is $1.88 to $2.99.
- Fire starting tool. A good fire is critical since it provides heat, protection and a boost to morale. Lots of people like fire starters but if you don’t know how to use one, it won’t help you much. A box of stormproof matches and a disposable lighter may work better. You can always get all three and practice the art of starting a fire. Item price range is $2.99 to $3.99.
- Fire starting fuel: To build a fire you need fuel. You can collect tinder in nature, but in rainy areas it may be difficult. Buying ready-made fuel isn’t cheap, but fortunately you can make your own. Buy a bag of cotton balls and a small jar of petroleum jelly. Take a cotton ball and a dime size of petroleum jelly and work it in. You now have fuel for about 90 to 120 seconds! Take about 5 to 7 cotton balls and put them in an old medicine bottle and you get cheap, effective fuel in a waterproof container. Item price for this kit is less than $0.25.
Our next priority is communication. We need to be able to attract rescuers to our location. This can include Search and Rescue helicopters or planes and ground searchers. It’s crucial that we be prepared for both: a signal mirror for alerting search aircrafts, a whistle for ground searchers. There are other things you can do, such as adding green leaves to a fire to generate thick smoke, but that’s something you use the environment and your knife for.
- A signal mirror: You can buy a dedicated mirror, for example, Coghlan Survival Signal Mirror or Survival Technologies StarFlash Signal Mirror. But you can also just use a regular audio CD. A DVD you don’t need will do the trick too and cost nothing. Item price range is from $0 to $10.00.
- Whistle: A strong whistle can be heard from a long distance. Certainly longer than your voice could reach, and, while it depends on terrain and geographic location, a whistle can be heard from over half a mile. A good whistle is your friend since it can attract rescuers and scare off wildlife such as black bears. Take a look at some basic Red Cross kits that have a whistle and other useful items for very little money. Item price for this will be $0.99 to $2.00.
Next you need water and that entails getting it to your camp and making sure you can drink it without getting sick. We won’t get into ways of finding or collecting water in this article, since it’s a dedicated topic. Instead, we’ll focus on storage and purification:
- Collapsible water jug: This foldable container can carry a gallon of water. It’s easy to store and simple to reuse. Item price range is $5.99 to $8.99.
- Water purification tablets: There are many options to select from here. What most have in common is some aftertaste, but in an emergency it will work just fine. The key is to find something that addresses the most amount of risk and works relatively quickly. All of these will take some time to work. Be sure to understand the timeline and limitations of what you get. A good starting point is Coghlan’s Drinking Water Germicidal Tablets (50 Tablets). Item price range is about $4.50.
Next we have your well-being in mind with items that will help with orientation and first-aid.
- Compass: Most people don’t know how to navigate or use a compass properly. Even so, when lost without a map, a compass can help you determine your direction, which can be crucial. For example, if you know a key highway runs east to west, you can walk toward its general direction. Here’s a small selection of different compasses and you should pick something within your skill set. Having said that, in most cases, it will be easier to find you if you stay put. You are already lost and there’s no point getting even further from the point where you were last seen. Item price range is $2.99 to expensive, for a professional compass.
- First-aid: You need a basic first-aid kit, and, while on the topic, a Red Cross class on first-aid is probably something you ought to take before you need to administer first-aid. Use items that are within your skill set and make sure you double bag them in a Ziploc bag. You can get different first-aid kits directly from the Red Cross, with basic pocket kits running as low as $2.95. Item price starts at $2.95.
Finally, a few items that can help with food, gear and clothing maintenance and a bit of comfort:
- Duct tape: This single item can perform many tasks. From stopping severe bleeding from cuts, gunshot wounds or injuries that break skin and blood vessels, to fixing torn cloths, coats or a backpack, to shelter building and shoe repair. I prefer metallic, reflective tape, which you can get at most hardware stores. Fold the tape around two fingers and keep going, until you have a small roll of duct tape. If you prefer to buy readymade kits, this basic one will do the trick for $2.30. Item price range $0.20 to $2.30.
- Folded Aluminum foil: This can be used to actively signal a rescue helicopter, or to passively cover the top of your shelter, in a way that it could reflect light toward the sky at all times. It can be used to cook food or provide an additional layer for protecting a wound. The cost here is less than $0.25. Item price range is a few cents.
- Sewing kit with safety pins: This is self-explanatory. In a survival situation, you only have the gear that’s on you and keeping it intact is important. Look for mini travel sewing kits. They have everything you need for minimal cost. Item price is $0.99 to $6.99.
- Fishing kit (fishing line, fishing hook, led weight). I’m not much of a fisherman and I don’t like fish. Regardless, my kit has a basic fishing line and hooks. If you live in areas where fishing is possible, then this is good to have. Even if there isn’t, some of this kit can be used for other things, for example strong fishing line can help with shelter building, clothing repair and even hunting (by making a snare). Look for emergency fishing kits or look at sties catering to fisherman for better deals. Item price is $3.99 to $7.99.
You probably already have some of the items you’ll need. If you don’t, or if you want better items, you may find that it’s more cost effective to buy a kit that has most of what you want, and then to supplement it. I recommend the Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak or the Gerber Bear Grylls Survival Series Basic Kit. If you spend a lot of times outdoors, consider investing in making these kits more robust and comprehensive. There are more expensive options, such as the Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak Plus, but look at the cost to benefit factor and see if you can make some of the more expensive items yourself (e.g. cotton ball fuel). You can also research the Coghlan’s Survival Kit-In-A-Can and the Coleman Survival Kit, and supplement each of these with what you want. Think of it as creating your own personalized Frankenstein survival kit.
Place all your survival gear in a small Ziploc bag, and it will easily fit in your pocket. I have several kits that I built or bought for testing. The only ones that matter are the ones in my car, office, SAR gear and yes, in my pocket—whenever– I leave home. Between the kit, my ever present pocket knife and experience, I know I’m prepared and that’s a comforting feeling.
This leads us to skill and experience. You can now make or buy a good basic survival kit. That’s a great start; however, it’s insufficient by itself because gear without skill isn’t worth much. You need to know what to do and how to do it. Owning a piano doesn’t turn you into a concert pianist, just as owning a high power rifle and scope doesn’t turn you into a proficient sniper. You should practice building a fire, take a first-aid course, and learn how to build a decent shelter. You should never find yourself in a situation where you are using your emergency survival kit for the first time during an emergency! That’s a bad time to start learning, and your chance of survival won’t be as good as it ought to be.
Let’s not hope that life will always be great, and let’s not count on luck to survive. Hope doesn’t buy much and luck is inferior in every way to being prepared. Back in my Army days, my CO used to tell us to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It was sound advice back then, and it’s sound advice now.
Until next time, stay safe by staying alert!
Dan S. Defense