An emergency survival kit is essential for anyone spending time in the outdoors. I'll be sharing specific recommendations for assembling a functional emergency survival kit, though first let’s lay some groundwork:
There’s often a certain romantic appeal to the idea of walking barehanded into the woods and eking out an existence next to the wolves and elk, but the reality is that the skills necessary for that kind of endeavor take many years to master. Even stone age people lived in a community and material context.
There is no time in history when being cut off from your tools and community was something to be dealt with flippantly. Humans migrating out of Africa and across the globe did so with tools in hand. That’s not to say that survival without prepared equipment can’t be done. With practice, many of the tools our ancestors relied upon can be crafted and the toolkit they carried re-created, even within a wilderness setting.
I highly recommend that anyone with an interest in survival, the outdoors, or even human history, become well versed in the replication and use of stone age technologies. However, when considering life or death situations, it’s best to stack the deck in your favor with an emergency survival kit of modern equipment. Primitive people grew up immersed in the technology of their day and could utilize their tools effectively because they were familiar with them.
It’s relatively simple to put together an emergency survival kit that can be easily carried in a pack or car, or left ready near your bedroom door.
With the current popularity of preparedness and survival, there is a great deal of information and recommendations about emergency survival kits available online and in books. The best decisions are often made in the company of diverse opinions and a wealth of information, so I suggest utilizing multiple resources on this subject when putting your first emergency survival kit together.
I’m going to make some recommendations for a day-hike-sized emergency survival kit as well as a larger kit to keep in a vehicle. With additional research you can expand on these kits or make changes to suit your needs. You should be comfortable and experienced using any item you put in your kit. You don’t want to be using your gear for the first time when you’re caught out in an emergency, as theoretical knowledge can never replace experience.
Also consider that the contents of any emergency survival kit are going to be situation dependent to some degree. Think about your environment as well as how long you might need to rely on your kit. If you live and recreate in a desert, you’ll put together a slightly different kit than someone who lives and recreates in a rainforest. The kit you put in your car will likely be different than the one you slip in your pack or stash near your bedroom door.
One thing that can really get you in trouble is buying a generic emergency survival kit. Oftentimes these kits are marketed as universal, but the contents can be next to useless. Assembling your own kit is a much better course of action because you can customize it for your activity and environment. If the situation ever arises that you have to use it, you’ll be more familiar with the contents of your homemade kit, and as such, better versed in their application.
Let’s consider some of our basic physiological needs:
Oxygen: Even in most emergency situations oxygen shouldn’t be a problem in the backcountry. Exceptions could include wildfires or volcanic activity, but these are specific circumstances where you may have bigger things to worry about.
Thermoregulation: We all know our body temperature should stay somewhere around 98.6° F. If we stray too far from that number in either direction we start getting into trouble. Exposure to the elements is the greatest threat to your ability to thermoregulate. When you’re putting together a kit think about what kind of environmental conditions you are most likely to be dealing with. Are you in greater danger of becoming too hot or too cold? How does your kit mitigate that danger?
Hydration: We need to drink water every day. All of our body’s most basic functions require water. In certain conditions we can theoretically go several days without water, but you would be well advised to not try it. Along with difficulty regulating body temperature some of the symptoms of dehydration include headache, loss of motivation, poor judgement, and fatigue. Any time you head in to the backcountry you should carry water with you. I generally carry several liters in my pack and several gallons in my car. Remember that once you run out, not only do you need to find water, you need to purify it. Options include filters, chemical treatments, ultra-violet light, and boiling. Think about how your kit can help you collect and process water.
Sleep: Sleep is still somewhat of a mystery even within the scientific community and there are a number of theories regarding why we need sleep. What is certain is that we do need sleep to function effectively. Many folks have a tendency to think that they can do without sleep in a survival situation. It is true we can miss some sleep if we need to; during our first night out in a survival situation it may be necessary in order to take care of some of our other basic needs, but the effects of sleep deprivation compound over time. Missing just a few nights of sleep can dramatically affect our judgement, awareness, motivation, and emotional fortitude. Don’t expect to be doing any complex tasks if you aren’t able to get any sleep. Being able to sleep well is firmly tied to your ability to thermoregulate, and both of these are linked to your ability to create a comfortable shelter for yourself.
Food: In a short term emergency situation, eating food may not be your top priority. Most of us could probably go for several weeks without eating if we had to. That being said, there is no reason to go hungry. Even if we can fast for long periods of time, it’s not likely that we would want to. Larger kits can easily accommodate several days’ worth of food and smaller personal kits should have at least a few energy bars. The kit you keep in your car could potentially have several weeks’ worth of food. Over time, food becomes a priority as starvation looms. Not only should you have food for the short term, but a way to obtain it in the long term.
Any worthwhile emergency survival kit will have a way to provide for all of these basic needs.
Likewise, an emergency survival kit can also help you deal with psychological stresses such as fear or panic, leading to better decision making and motivation.
Consider that the things you will need to keep your body and mind functioning properly are: shelter, water, and food.
It’s also important to be able to create and maintain fire. Although in many situations you may be able to keep up with your physiological needs in other ways, fire will usually be an important element of your survival strategy, particularly in cold or wet environments. Fire is a key component of many shelter set ups, can be used to cook food and purify water, stave off hypothermia in an emergency, signal for help, or create tools. Fire is also a good companion. The warmth and light seem to have a calming effect which greatly increases your sense of security and ability to get a good night’s rest.
Additionally, you will want at least basic first aid supplies, some kind of illumination, some way to navigate and, in remote settings especially, some way to signal for help.
Your emergency survival kit should either contain these things or the means to reliably produce them in whatever conditions you are most likely to experience. The items in your kit should be well thought out and versatile, and you should be well practiced in their use. If an item can be used for multiple purposes, all the better.
A small, but functional, emergency survival kit that you could throw in your pack for a hike or keep in your desk at work could look something like this:
Knife: A small fixed blade.
Firesteel: (aka ferro rod) These fire-starters are great because they are lightweight and work when wet.
Tinder: Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.
Water filter: The Sawyer mini-filter is a great choice. These are compact and come with a small bladder.
Titanium cup: Lightweight. A smaller kit can be packed inside this. Great for heating water or cooking.
Mylar emergency blanket: To keep the rain off of you.
Cordage: 25 feet of paracord would suffice.
Flashlight: Make sure you have batteries. Headlamps are great for a compact kit.
Compass: Anything is better than nothing, but ideally you want an orienteering compass with a rotating bezel.
Energy bars: Whatever your favorite is.
Fishing tackle: Line, hooks, maybe some lures or flies. Make sure you practice using them.
Wire: For traps or binding. 26-gauge is good for trapping small animals.
Signal mirror: Glass mirrors work better than plastic mirrors.
Basic first aid: Bandages and medications to suit your needs.
Multi-tool: Not necessarily a replacement for a good knife, but the pliers and saw are useful.
Bear in mind that if you are heading out for an extended trip in the backcountry, you should already be aware of and carrying the "10 Essentials". Also remember that many of these items will be used every day in a wilderness setting and don’t necessarily need to be squirrelled away all in the same container. They will likely be dispersed throughout your backpack according to frequency of use and desired accessibility.
Let’s take a look at an example of a more expanded kit that I might pack in my car or on the back of a snowmobile for traveling in remote areas:
Clothing: I like to have a few extra pairs of warm clothes packed away. If nothing else a wool sweater or blanket is very handy.
Water: Especially when travelling in remote or arid areas, I like to carry several gallons of water in my car. You can pick up a nice 5-7 gallon water jug for about $20. I like to have clean water for several days for several people. I typically also have a couple extra 1 or 2 liter water bottles. I like to have multiple ways to treat water, such as a filter and Aquamira tablets.
Knife: I prefer a stout fixed blade knife with a cutting edge about 4.5 inches long. Your knife should first and foremost excel at carving wood. This is one of your most important tools for making other tools, starting fires, and processing food.
Axe: Axes are indispensable for expedient shelter construction and processing firewood. If I could only have one tool in a cold or wet weather survival situation, this would be it. My general preference is an axe roughly 26 inches long, which I can easily stow behind the seat in my truck.
Saw: Another valuable tool for building shelters and processing firewood. A good saw can make your life much easier in a forested environment. I prefer a full-sized bow saw with a 20-26 inch blade if possible. Large saws can be cumbersome, but if you can carry one they are incredibly convenient and save you a lot of energy. Compact folding saws, while less useful for processing bulk firewood, are excellent tools in their own right. Paired with a knife, small saws can accomplish a surprising amount of work and may be all you need in summer.
Fire: I like to have several ignition sources. I usually have a lighter in my pocket and a firesteel with my knife. I like to pack stormproof matches and an additional lighter in my kit. I also like to pack some tinder to help expedite ignition. This is really important in the wet or cold when you need to get a fire going quickly. I prefer cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly. Having some extra fuel to help establish a fire is also helpful, and if I have room I’ll throw a small amount of dry firewood in my vehicle. Likewise, you could also carry a few canisters of isobutane/propane blend fuel and a stove. If you are cooking with this fuel, a couple 450 gram cans could easily last you 10 days.
Metal pot: Useful for processing water and cooking food. You could also potentially use this as a shovel in conjunction with a digging stick.
Tarp: Great for making a quick shelter or work space. There are a lot of options available from the classic blue tarps to more expensive ultralight tarps. The important thing is to get one that is large enough. A lot of folks pack a tarp that is barely big enough for them to huddle under. This gets old fast. Make sure you get something big enough to stretch out under. 10’ x 10’ is a good starting point.
Sleeping bag: It should be rated for the temperatures you expect to experience. Remember, sleeping bags have comfort and survival ratings. You want to be within the range of the comfort rating. Sleeping bags are bulky, but even a lightweight sleeping bag will be warmer than a wool blanket. Sleeping bags come in down or synthetic varieties. Down is warmer for its size and packs down neatly, but loses its insulative qualities if you get it wet. Synthetic is bulkier, but will keep you warmer if it gets wet. Some synthetics are also flammable, or can melt if exposed to excess heat sleeping next to a fire. In cold weather a sleeping bag could save your life, and even in mild weather, will greatly improve the quality of your life.
Cordage: It seems we never appreciate how useful cordage is until we need some and don’t have it. I usually carry about 100 feet of paracord in my expanded survival kit. The most important application for paracord is in shelter building. Whether that means flying a tarp or lashing up a lean-to, a strong durable cordage is indispensable. Another kind of cordage I like to use is called mule tape. ¾-inch mule tape is 2,500 lb test and excellent for hard use applications as well as pack straps and the like.
First aid: I like to keep a fairly robust first aid kit in my car. First aid kits are similar to emergency survival kits in that they work better if you put them together yourself. The most common injuries you’ll likely encounter are minor lacerations and burns. There is no replacement for first aid training.
Food: I usually keep a few days to a weeks’ worth of food in my car. Dry goods like oats, instant soups, energy bars, as well as canned foods and things of that nature are my preference. Freeze dried meals are a great option as well.
Hunting, trapping, fishing: This can be more or less important based on the amount of food you pack in your kit. Regardless, you’re not going to regret being able to augment your food supply in a long-term survival emergency. I usually have a complete set of fishing tackle in my car, as well as a spool of fine wire for trapping. I also pack a takedown recurve bow and a few extra arrows.
Although it may seem silly, there is a lot to be said for also having a couple comfort items in your kit. A couple chocolate bars, a book, or a deck of cards can go a long way to stave off panic or depression.
Either of these two example kits could expand or contract based on your needs. The key is to think about your environment, how long you may be out, your physiological needs, and how much weight you can carry. There are many other potentially useful items not mentioned here; an exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this article. This is a fun subject to research and I recommend checking out what others have to say on the subject. I hope your next backcountry adventure is safe and enjoyable!
About the Author: Jedidiah Forsyth is an experienced outdoor educator and wildlife tracker. He is a guest instructor at Alderleaf Wilderness College. Learn more about Jedidiah Forsyth.