Wilderness Survival Kit

[Note – this is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Backwoods Survival Guide magazine.]

Never be so arrogant to think it can’t happen to you. Even that great and eminent sage Bugs Bunny got lost now and again, saying, “I knew I should’ve taken that left turn at Albuquerque.” Suddenly, you realize you’re not where you thought you were and nothing looks familiar. The sun is beginning to set and it looks like your best option will be to hunker down for the night.

Survival under these conditions is made much easier with the addition of just a few bits of gear, things that will fit into your pockets or even a small belt pouch. The idea here is simple. These are things that should be on your person from the moment you hit the trail until you return to your vehicle. They are separate from anything you’ll carry in your backpack. Yes, this means there is some amount of duplication. That’s okay. As the saying goes, two is one and one is none.


Hypothermia is when your body core temperature gets too low and it can happen in even relatively mild weather. A cool spring or fall day combined with a sudden shower and you could be in serious trouble. Hot weather can bring with it its own set of risks, too. Suffice it to say that you should have some way to get out of the elements.

One of the simplest things to carry is an emergency blanket. You get what you pay for with these, though, so spring for the higher quality ones. The cheap ones are simply sheets of Mylar or a similar material. While they work well to retain body heat once you’ve wrapped it around yourself, they can tear easily. You’re better off paying a little more for a more durable product.

In cold weather, it will keep you warm. In hot weather, you can use it to create a spot of shade from the sun by making a lean-to sort of structure with it as the roof.

Folded up into their package, these blankets slip easily into a pocket, making it easy to keep it with you until it is needed. However, once you unfold it, don’t plan to ever see it that small again.

Signal Tools

Cell phones are omnipresent, of course, and many people use them in place of digital cameras when they go on outdoor adventures. It might prove beneficial to keep a small USB charger with you, along with the appropriate cord. However, we cannot count on always being able to reach a cell tower, so plan ahead.

Anything you can do to call attention to yourself and your location will help searchers find you. A whistle is small, weighing virtually nothing, but will be priceless in an emergency. Opt for one that is plastic rather than metal and one that is one-piece construction, without a pea inside. In extreme cold weather, a metal whistle could stick to your lips or the pea inside could freeze to the side due to the moisture from your breath freezing inside. Keep the whistle around your neck on a breakaway lanyard and you’ll never notice it’s there until you need it.

The universally recognized signal for help is three whistle blasts in succession. The sound will carry much further than your voice can, especially in dense wooded areas.


Most of us already have a full water bottle with us when we head out, which is recommended. But, if we end up spending a night or more in the field, we’ll need a way to render found or wild sources of water potable when that bottle runs dry. A small filter like the Sawyer Mini works well for this. Alternatively, you could pack water purification tablets, but you’ll need to watch expiration dates as well as keep them stored properly (follow package guidelines).

If your bottle is stainless steel and single-walled, you can boil water in it. Bring to a rolling boil and you’re good to go. All protozoa, bacteria, and viruses that might be in the water will be killed or rendered inert when the water stays at or above 158°F for less than one minute. Since water boils at 212°F (at sea level), safe to say it will have been above 158°F for a bit by the time it starts bubbling in earnest.

Here’s a fun fact for the trivia-minded. Middle school chemistry class taught us that the boiling point of water decreases with elevation. At the peak of Mt. Everest, the tallest point on planet Earth, water boils at about 154°-158°F. So, as long as you’re not following in the tracks of Sir Edmund Hillary, bringing the water to a rolling boil should be sufficient.


A sharp blade might well be your most valuable tool in the field. While you could try to improvise a cutting edge with a chipped rock or a piece of scavenged glass, it is far easier to slip a good folding knife into your pocket. Or even better would be a fixed blade knife secured to your belt.

You’ll use your knife to process wood for your fire, cut branches to construct an emergency shelter, and more. Remember that a dull edge is far more dangerous to the user than a sharp one. The more effort you have to exert to make a cut, the greater the chance you’ll slip and end up injuring yourself. Always sharpen your knife before you head out on your trip and touch up the edge by stropping it on a leather belt as needed.

Fire Making

Being able to reliably make fire in all weather conditions covers several needs. It will keep you warm when the temperature dips. It will provide light on a dark night. It will boil water to make it potable. It will even help make you feel better about your situation. Making and tending fire will keep you active and occupied, so you aren’t just sitting and dwelling on your current state of affairs. Plus, it is awfully hard to stay in a bad mood when you have a crackling fire in front of you.

While it is great to know how to use primitive methods of fire making, such as a bow drill, just about every survival instructor will still carry a Bic lighter in their pocket. It is instant flame in almost all conditions. Consider keep it in a zip closure plastic bag so it stays dry. In very cold weather, sometimes the fuel won’t aerosol properly to light. This can usually be solved by holding the lighter in a tight fist for several seconds. Carrying it in a pocket close your skin will help as well.

As a backup, a ferrocerium rod is a great option. It won’t matter how cold or wet it is, it will still rain sparks down on your tinder when scraped. Speaking of tinder, it is a good idea to keep a small bit of it with your fire starter. Try to scavenge natural materials, such as plant fluff or birch bark, but if you can’t locate a good source, you’ll have the tinder you brought with you.


You’re not likely to perish of starvation overnight, but having a little something to eat will probably improve your mood and morale. Keep it simple and don’t muck about with anything that needs to be cooked or prepared in any way beyond opening a package or wrapper. Good choices would be granola bars, protein bars, trail mix, or dried fruit. These aren’t things you’ll want to just toss into a bag and forget about in between hikes, of course. Just grab a couple of them on your way out the door. If you don’t eat them on your trip, put them back on the pantry shelf so you can have them later.

All of these items can fit into pockets, on your belt, or in a small fanny pack of some sort. And any of them might prove to be lifesaving when the chips are down.

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