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Survival Kits: Why You Need One and What to Put In It

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Few words intrigue the imagination as much as “survival kit”. It conjures up images of exotic gear that saves the day for its owner and others. Although the gear in a survival kit can be exotic and have a very high “cool” factor, for the most part, it is straightforward and can be very basic. The right items in your survival kit could prove vital.

Why Carry a Survival Kit?

If you are taking the time to come to this website and read this article, you already know the answer to this. The world is an uncertain place, bad things happen to good people and life does not always go as planned.

What should I put in my survival kit?

Your survival kit should be stocked with items to help you survive until rescued and/or assist you with rescue or self-recovery. Items that serve more than one purpose are very handy and will make your kit more compact.

Many focus on exactly what items should be put in a survival kit. Rather than list items that should be put in a kit, you should focus on what environment you will be facing and put items in your kit that cover the following areas of need: shelter, fire, food/water, communication, first aid/trauma, navigation, weapons/tools and miscellaneous. Depending on what conditions you are anticipating facing, a survival kit can be huge or quite compact. For the focus of this article, I am going to focus on general-purpose kits that are more compact in nature and size.

Why do I need a survival kit when I have a whole Rucksack/Go Bag/Bug-out Bag full of supplies?

Heading out into the great unknown well equipped is wise, but what if you lose that rucksack, backpack, or go-bag? Say you’re crossing a river or other body of water and your pack falls into the water and is swept away? What if it is stolen? What if an angry mob chases you and you have to jettison it so you can outdistance your pursuers? This leads to another question: Where should I carry this kit?

Ideally, the kit should be on your body or clothes. There is an old saying from the American army. “Live out of your ruck, fight out of your web gear and survive out of your pockets. (For those that have not served or are unfamiliar with military terms, “web gear” is a general term that consists of a harness, belt and suspenders, carrier or vest where a soldier carries ammunition, canteens, and other essential gear.) This philosophy may have started in Special Forces in the 1950s or perhaps even earlier.

The US Navy refers to this as the line gear concept. 1st line gear is the gear you carry on your body and clothes. 2nd line gear is your web gear and 3rd line gear is your ruck. It is essentially the same thing stated in a different way.

It is not always possible to carry your survival kit on your person. If this is the case, it is a good idea to have it in a place where it can be accessed easily so you can “grab and go” with minimum delay. This can be in an easily accessed flap or pouch in your pack or a glove box of a vehicle.

A good practice is to build essential survival gear into your clothes. Make it a practice to always have a knife (or two) on your person, if practical. This can be a small pocket knife, a knife clipped to your pocket or a small folder in a pouch on your belt. Even if you don’t smoke, make it a practice to carry a cheap, disposable lighter. Many in the military used to replace their boot laces with a 550 cord or parachute suspension line. That same 550 cord can be fashioned into a keychain or a bracelet. In an emergency, that cord can be gutted and the inner cordage used for many things, such as snares, to construct shelters, lash together gear, or make field-expedient tools.

If useful items are already in and on your clothing, fewer things are needed in your survival kit.

Let’s talk about the categories you need to address for your survival kit.


Shelter is important. Protection from the elements can be a matter of life and death. Cordage can be used to lash together a frame for a debris shelter. Leaves, downed limbs, and brush can be piled on this frame to make a crude shelter from wind and precipitation. Cordage can also be used to lash together a heat-reflecting wall near your fire pit. This can reflect life-saving heat toward you and your shelter.

A small mylar sheet or blanket can be used to make this shelter more weatherproof or be placed directly over you to reflect body heat and keep you dry. Mylar blankets are small, light, compact, and cheap.


Fire can be a form of shelter and is extremely important. Everything is harder in cold conditions because you are trying to stay warm. Because of this, it is a good idea to build redundancy into your fire-making capability. Have a disposable lighter in your pocket? Great, but put another one in your survival kit. It may be the best 99 cents you ever spent. Waterproof matches in a waterproof container are a cheap, good idea. A Ferro rod or magnesium bar fire starter are also good ideas. Firestarter or combustible materials have a place in your kit. Hexamine tablets are cheap and will guarantee a flame for a few minutes, certainly long enough to get a fire going. If you’re so inclined, there are all kinds of other fire-starting materials available for sale, but dryer lint placed in a plastic bag is a great low-cost alternative. Another great low-cost alternative is cotton balls saturated with Vaseline placed in a waterproof bag.


Water is essential for life. It is generally accepted you can last three weeks without food, but only three days without water. In some conditions, three days without water is optimistic. Since water is so essential, I suggest redundancy in this as well.

A small bottle of iodine tablets used to make water potable is small, cheap, and compact. Personal water filters or “straws” are easily available, affordable, and lightweight. I recommend both.

If you have a fire and have or procure a suitable container, you can boil water to make it safe to drink.

Food is of a lesser concern, but let’s face it, being hungry sucks. A small length of fishing line, along with a small container of split shot weights and hooks is cheap and compact. Cordage and fishing lines can be used to make snares.


This could be more appropriately titled communications and signaling. How do you signal a rescuer that you need help? This can be accomplished by simply making a fire and putting wet, green leaves on it to produce thick, dark smoke.

A small blaze orange cloth can be visible for miles when waved or “flashed”. One made of silk or similar material is easily compacted and put into a kit or one can be worn in the form of a bandana.

The military issues pen flare kits to special operators, aircrews, and others. Not only are they an excellent signaling device, but in case of a gravest emergency, they can be used to start a fire. Sometimes, they worked too well. Your writer has witnessed on several occasions individuals using them accidentally start a brush fire.

A chem light placed on a length of cordage and swung rapidly in a circle, otherwise known as a “buzzsaw” can be seen for miles at night. Chem lights are also cheap, light, and widely available.

First Aid/Trauma

A few bandages, a small tube of antiseptic cream, and a small container of painkillers or anti-diarrhea medication may go a long way to make someone more comfortable or feel better in a harrowing situation. As with any medical gear or medicine, make sure you have the knowledge and training on how to use it.


A small compass placed in a survival kit may prove invaluable to determining to head and help extract yourself from a precarious situation. GPS technology has advanced rapidly in the past twenty-five years and many models are lightweight and compact. A compass or even a GPS worn on the wrist while in a remote area is a good technique. You simply have that portion of your survival kit on your person. With training, a wristwatch can also be used to determine direction.


A knife or multi-tool is valuable for a multitude of tasks, from dressing fish or small game, making snares, batoning firewood, or as a crude weapon or to make crude weapons. As stated previously, wearing a knife on your belt or putting one in your pocket is a great way of carrying part of your survival kit on your person.


A bandanna is a great example of a multi-use item that could fit in this category. They can be used as a sling, bandage, water filter, cooling device, signaling device, washrag, and well, a bandanna.


No matter what you put in your kit, a good kit is no substitute for skills and knowledge. Know how to use your gear before venturing into the wilderness. That said, having good tools in time of need can make your life easier and may save it.