Knowing how to survive in the wilderness with few or no tools is an extremely valuable skill, but it's not one you'll want to test in a life-or-death situation if you can avoid it. A versatile survival kit, full of tools you're comfortable using, is an indispensable part of being prepared to survive in harsh conditions.
An excellent survival kit is one that is well-organized, lightweight, efficiently packed and suitable for a variety of environments and situations. To some extent, the contents of your ideal kit will vary depending on where you live and the sorts of emergencies you think are most likely, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Still, some tools are widely useful and can justify the space they take up in almost any kit.
A High-End Survival Knife
This is arguably the bread and butter of any good survival kit. With an excellent knife, you can dress game, defend yourself, and craft many other helpful tools. Buy the best knife you can — a great one will justify its cost many times over. Shop Tactical Knives
You'll want several different kinds so that you can have warmth, relative safety and cooked food in (almost) any environment. Waterproof matches, a focusing lens and either flint and steel or a magnesium striker comprise a solid trio. These items are small, nearly weightless and enable you to start a fire using several different methods.
Starting a fire with materials you scavenge in the wild can be surprisingly tricky. Put a handful of cotton or dryer lint in a waterproof bag and you'll have enough tinder for about half a dozen fires.
It's a good idea to be very selective when it comes to medical supplies. They can take up a lot of space, and advanced medical equipment isn't helpful unless you're trained in its use. Consider packing your bag with only the bare essentials: a suture kit, a tourniquet, a hemostatic agent, bandages, iodine or alcohol, pain medications and broad-spectrum antibiotics if you can get some. These items are small and lightweight, and they generally don't require much training to use effectively. Shop First Aid
A Versatile Multi-Tool
Many survival situations involve building and fixing things. A space-efficient multitool, like a good knife, easily justifies the space it takes up in your bag. Shop Multi-tools
Water Purification Tablets
Drinking untreated surface water is never ideal; even finding water in a survival situation is a skill in and of itself. Water purification tablets are tiny, and you can purify many gallons of water with a single bottle of them.
It's always good to have some extra water around. A solid canteen is an indispensable tool to have in your survival kit. Consider a collapsible model that takes up minimal space when empty.
A mix of nylon rope, paracord and thread with high tensile strength will help ensure you're ready for a variety of climbing, hauling, sewing and tying needs.
Fishing and Hunting Supplies
At minimum, a fishing kit should contain a few different gauges of line, hooks, a small net, and a few lures and weights. For both fishing and hunting, you'll want a few small knives for dressing, skinning, and deboning if you can spare the space in your bag. If not, your survival knife will do.
Waterproof Paper and Pencil
Being able to sketch maps, draw diagrams and take notes is always helpful, even in the wilderness. If possible, make sure your paper and pencil are waterproof — you never know what the weather is going to be like.
Stock your bag with a hand-crank or battery-powered flashlight, a few road flares, and some glow sticks. The flares can also be used to ward off animals, signal for help or start a fire if other methods fail. Glow sticks are a great alternative to flashlights when you need reliable, low-intensity light that doesn't depend on bulbs or batteries. Store the glow sticks in a hard plastic or metal case so they don't crack in your bag and become useless. If you're not sure which light to use, check out our guide on how to choose a tactical flashlight. Shop Flashlights
A small mirror can be used to signal other people or to start a fire by focusing sunlight. It's a simple yet very effective tool that doesn't take up too much space in your survival kit.
A radio that doesn't rely on batteries is a good way to monitor broadcasts that may contain useful information. However, these devices tend to be bulky and heavy compared to most of the other things in your survival kit, so depending on your forecasted needs, a radio may not be essential.
Hand-Crank or Solar Charger
Assuming your phone or GPS will still be functional in the thick of an emergency, you'll need to keep them charged. Hand-crank universal chargers are labor-intensive and inefficient but are very reliable and don't depend on any other energy sources. Solar-powered chargers can charge more easily and efficiently, but of course, they require sunlight.
Lightweight, Nonperishable, Nutrient-Dense Rations
Once you've packed your survival bag with all the other items you'll need, it's a good idea to fill any remaining space with food. You never know what you'll be able to hunt or forage, so any food you can carry with you is vital. Prioritize calorie-dense, protein and fat-rich foods that don't spoil easily, such as beef jerky, peanut butter, and nuts. Pack your bag with as much food as you can without making it too heavy or unwieldy.
The process of choosing ranged weapons suited to your needs and preferences is exhaustive, but because weapons are an essential part of a survival kit, we'll briefly touch on some broad principles that can help point you in the right direction, or perhaps shed some additional light on your current weapon choices.
In terms of what you can carry on your person, ranged weapons are either large or small. A standard configuration of gear that works well for most people in most situations consists of your primary survival bag, one large weapon and one small weapon. Carrying two different weapons for different purposes increases your ability to respond to different situations without significantly impeding your movement.
When it comes to large weapons, most people prefer a rifle, a shotgun, or a bow. The most popular small weapons are revolvers and semi-automatic handguns. Whatever weapon you choose, be sure to keep the four rules of gun safety in mind.
Rifles are excellent mid to long-range weapons equally suited to hunting and self-defense, but they're less practical in close-range engagements. Magazine-fed variants are particularly easy to use.
Shotguns excel at close and mid-range combat and for hunting certain kinds of game, although their lower rates of fire, low ammunition capacities, and generally slow reload times require regular training to mitigate.
Bows have big advantages and major drawbacks compared to firearms. They're nearly silent and arrows can often be recovered and reused, but skilled bowmanship requires significant practice and bows are impractical in many combat scenarios.
Revolvers are, broadly speaking, more mechanically reliable than semi-automatic handguns, although that gap is much narrower now than it was twenty years ago. A revolver's heavier frame with fewer moving parts makes it capable of firing much larger calibers.
Semi-automatic handguns have higher ammunition capacities and can be reloaded more quickly and easily than revolvers, but they are more difficult to master and generally can't fire rounds capable of reliably bringing down large animals such as grizzly bears.
Experiment with different weapons to figure out which ones feel most comfortable to you and try to cover as many needs as possible with your two choices. For instance, if you have a small or medium-caliber rifle for self-defense, you may want to pair it with a large-caliber revolver with high stopping power for large game hunting. If you choose to carry a bow, consider a high-capacity, semi-automatic sidearm capable of firing rapidly.
Whatever weapons you choose, be sure to put some thought into where you'll carry them on your person, especially relative to your chosen survival bag.
The ideal survival bag is one that's durable and roomy without being bulky. It should also fit your body comfortably and have many compartments for organizing your supplies. The amount of weight you can carry without sacrificing a lot of mobility matters, too. If you're 5'6" and skinny, you'll likely choose a different bag than you would if you were 6'4" and built like a tank. The general principle here is to choose a bag that holds as much stuff as you can haul around without injuring yourself or tiring prematurely. If you need help finding the right bag, read our guide on how to choose a tactical backpack.
Regardless of the size of bag you choose, look for one made of thick, heavy-duty fabric such as canvas, cordura, or rip-stop nylon. Pay special attention to the stitching and seams — do they look thick, tight, evenly spaced, and capable of holding up under rugged conditions? Also check the buckles — are they made of cheap plastic or something heavier like aluminum?
It's best to choose a bag with rugged, heavy-duty zippers, or no zippers at all. Zippers tend to be prone to failure, especially when wet, dirty, and left outdoors. If the zippers on your survival bag fail, you may be left with something closer to a square of fabric than a bag. Choosing a bag with only straps and buckles largely eliminates this concern.
Hip and chest straps on a survival bag are optional. If it's a large bag that you intend to pack with heavy supplies, extra support may help reduce back pain. Smaller, lighter bags generally don't need such straps.
Finally, ensure that your survival bag has enough separate compartments and pockets to organize everything inside.
There's more than one right way to pack your survival bag. As long as you make efficient use of the available space, know where everything is, and can access critical supplies quickly, the rest is all subject to your preferences.
That being said, there are some general tips that can help you pack your bag like a pro:
Put heavier items on the bottom of your bag with lighter items on top.
When possible, place small items and containers that you don't need immediate access to inside other containers that would be taking up space anyway (for instance, put your fishing supplies, fire-starting tools, and signaling mirror inside your first aid kit).
Group supplies into different compartments by category, such as food, ammunition and medical supplies, unless space efficiency demands otherwise.
Reserve easily accessible outer compartments for items you might need quick access to, such as tourniquets, flares and extra ammunition. Ideally, choose a bag with a few pockets that you can reach without having to remove or adjust the bag.
Use straps, tape, zip ties, or bungee cords to bundle loose items and to secure them inside your pack so they don't scatter or migrate to other pockets as you're walking.
Roll loose items into blankets or extra items of clothing to keep them together and to carry more stuff in the same amount of space.
Strap bulky, lightweight items such as bedrolls and rope to the outside of your bag to save precious interior space.
Save even more bag space by adding a vest or bandolier to your loadout.
Regularly pack and unpack your bag, and practice quickly finding certain items so that you'll have speed on your side when you need it. Also be sure to periodically inspect your bag and its contents for wear or damage. Set a schedule for replacing medications and other perishable goods as they expire. Finally, make time to regularly practice using the tools and devices you carry.
Hopefully, this guide has been helpful in highlighting the most important aspects of putting together and maintaining an essential survival kit. For more in-depth guides on using some of the gear in your kit, check out our guides on basic survival medicine and how to find or build basic shelter.
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