The 12 Most Common Items in A Survival Kit

As a general rule, most survival kits of any size or conveyance are built around the preferences and skill set of the one presenting them to the public as an example to follow. You must take the time to personalize your survival kit. An Altoids tin, coffee can kit, or some other survival kit advocated by others may not be practical for your particular needs and requirements. For example, Les Stroud’s survival experience allows him to have fewer contents in his survival kit. Someone with fewer skills will need more items in their kit. One who has formal training and accumulated years of experience developing their survival skills will not require a survival kit with a large amount of content. By contrast, those with little or no developed outdoor survival skills will need more options at their disposal to affect a rescue in an outdoor environment. Hikers and backpackers are no different regarding survival kits and their contents. Therefore, build your survival kit around your particular needs and requirements.

It is common to read about a hiker, hunter, or backpacker getting lost or injured while out on an outdoor adventure. The hiking trail can be fun as well as dangerous. Lately, I have been reviewing some of the survival stories featured on Discovery Channel’s “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” and The Weather Channel’s “S.O.S.: How to Survive with Creek Stewart.” The common characteristics of these stories are people going into the wilderness underestimating the danger and overestimating their abilities and understanding of the situation. Consequently, they go into the field unprepared for an emergency. Another common characteristic of these stories is people are lost or stranded in places with no cell phone coverage. The importance of having a survival kit or survival items with you in the field is critical.

I recently reviewed and compared different survival kit loadouts to determine which items are the most common in most survival kits. It was interesting to discover that these kits contain the same survival items, whether it’s the Altoids tin, five-gallon bucket, or 72-Hour Emergency Bag. The only difference between the kits is the size and sophistication of the survival items contained in them. The following list outlines the twelve most common survival items found in any survival kit. Moreover, these items should be the foundation for developing your personalized survival kit.

1. Cutting Tool

The most common item found in any survival kit is a cutting tool of some kind. The pocket-sized Altoids tin kits usually list a razor blade, mini pocketknife, or mini multitool. The larger kits will have a small fixed-blade knife, pocketknife, or multitool. Occasionally, a wire saw, hacksaw blade or folding saw will be listed as a cutting device. Backpacks or carry-bags listed as survival kits or emergency bags sometimes will contain an ax, hatchet, or machete as a cutting tool depending on their size.

2. Cordage

The second most common item listed in any survival kit is cordage, usually paracord (550 cord or parachute cord). However, bank line is becoming more frequently listed in kits. Bank line is tarred twine and was developed for fishing applications. Dave Canterbury’s advocacy of carrying bank line in his wilderness and bushcraft loadouts has made it a popular option with some people over paracord. Cordage items in the small pocket-sized tins are fishing line, Kevlar line, or snare wire. More robust survival kits can list up to 100 feet of paracord or a full spool of bank line.

3. Compass

Compasses are an exciting topic. Most pocket survival tins contain a button compass. An example of a pocket survival tin would be those advocated by John “Lofty” Wiseman in his book, The S.A.S. Survival Handbook. The larger survival kits, such as those in mess kits or coffee cans, have more sophisticated compasses. Many people list one of three compasses in their survival kits: the Suunto Clipper Compass, Suunto MC-2 Compass, or the Cammenga Lensatic Compass. Surplus military aviation survival kits will have the Suunto A-10, Suunto A-30, or the Brunton 8010 Luminescent Compass.

4. Illumination Device

There is a myriad of styles and types of illumination devices that are listed in survival kits. The smallest of these devices are micro flashlights. In more recent survival kit loadouts, one will regularly see a rechargeable headlamp or flashlight as the preference for a lighting device. Non-battery illumination devices are the Cyalume Chemical Lights (Chem Light or Snap Light). The major weakness with chem lights is that they are a one-time use item. Home Emergency Kits stored in deck boxes or job site boxes will have the large handheld spotlights as the illumination device.

5. Whistle

An emergency, pealess whistle is a must-have in survival kits. Ranger Rick Tscherne recommends an emergency whistle as part of his neckless survival kit. The most common emergency whistle in most kits is the S.O.L. Slim Rescue Howler or a similar type of whistle. However, military-type survival kits being sold on the market feature the Acme 636 Tornado Rescue Whistle. These whistles are made of A.B.S. plastic, and they are great whistles for any kit. Several companies are producing all-metal pealess rescue whistles. I would recommend one of the all-metal whistles over the plastic ones because of their durability in a field environment.

6. Fire Making Items

One’s ability to start a fire during an emergency in the woods is critical to survival. While there are stories of people surviving without making a fire, these are the exception rather than the rule. Don’t bet your life on getting through a life-threatening emergency on the trail without being able to make a fire. All survival kits contain a fire-making capability. The smaller kits will have a small ferrocerium rod and striker or wooden weatherproof matches. Larger kits tend to list the Bic Lighter, large Ferro Rod with tinder items such as tinder tabs or WetFire cubes.

The best fire-making device for any situation is the magnesium bar and striker. These fire starters are a common item in military aviation survival vests. The magnesium is the fuel, and the small ferro rod on the side provides the spark. The Doan Company makes the magnesium fire-starting bars for the U.S. military. However, you can find smaller ones at Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment. Yet, the smallest and most reliable fire-making device is the mini–Bic Lighter. The mini–Bic is the most reliable because it offers instant flame for any survival kit. The most reliable fire tinder is the WetFire tinder cubes. They will ignite in both wet and dry conditions.

7. Emergency Blanket

An emergency blanket is also a common item in most survival kits. They are also known as space blankets or mylar blankets. Survival experts are divided on the practicality of carrying one in a survival kit. The most significant complaint against them is that they tear easily and do not hold up well for their intended use. They are too big for a pocket-sized tin, like an Altoids tin; however, they are small enough to fit in other kinds of kits. The Best Glide A.S.E. Advanced Survival Kit contains an emergency blanket. However, there are some great reviews on the emergency blankets sold by Titan Survival and S.O.L./Survive Outdoors Longer. Furthermore, backpacks and bags that are identified as emergency survival kits will have a more robust emergency blanket in them. An example of this type of blanket is the Grabber All-Weather Space Blanket.

8. Duct Tape

Duct tape is regularly listed as an item in survival kits. U.S. Army soldiers call duct tape “100 mile-an-hour tape” because an urban legend says that military duct tape can stay stuck in winds up to 100 mph. Nevertheless, how duct tape is stored in a survival kit depends on the one making the presentation. Duct tape can be wrapped around a plastic sewing bobbin, cardboard, or used gift card. It can be wrapped around the outside of a pocket-sized tin. Despite how it is stored or carried, duct tape is listed in almost every survival kit.

9. Water Treatment Tablets

The importance of collecting and purifying water is a critical task in the practice of survival techniques. Every survival kit that I surveyed had some water collection and treatment items. The most common of these water-related items were water purification tablets. The more sophisticated survival kits have a water filter straw, such as a Sawyer Mini or the Aquamira Frontier Filter Straw. Yet, even with the kits containing filtration straws, water treatment tablets are included in the kits also. Their size and reliability for purifying water make them ideal for any size survival kit. Some of the best water treatment tablets on the market are the Micropur MP1 tablets, Potable Aqua Chlorine Dioxide tablets, and the Aquamira Water Purifier Tablets. I recommend the chlorine dioxide tablets because some people have allergies to iodine. 

10. Fishing items

In an emergency, gathering and processing food and plants in the wild are necessary survival tasks. Most survival kits that I examined carry fishing tackle items in them. It can be as simple as a couple of fishhooks and some monofilament line wrapped around a stainless-steel sewing bobbin. The fishing items that one carries become more complex as the survival kit gets more robust.

A note of caution needs to be understood with including fishing items in a survival kit. Fishing items may not be used for fishing in a desert environment, such as the Mojave or Sonoran deserts in the southwestern United States. However, they can be helpful with trapping small game in the desert if you have developed the skills for making and setting traps for small game or birds. For example, one survival expert demonstrated using his fishing tackle to catch crawdads in a pool of water and used fishing hooks to try and trap birds. 

11. Adhesive Bandages

First-aid in an outdoor environment will eventually happen if you spend enough time on the trail. Rendering medical care can be as simple as putting a bandage on a small cut on your finger or as severe as placing a tourniquet on a severely injured person. Almost every list of contents in the survival kits that I studied had adhesive bandage strips as part of their contents. The British call them “plasters.” We call them “Band-Aids” in the United States.

12. Signal Mirror

The ability to signal for help when stranded in the wilderness is a core survival task. Nearly all of the survival kits I reviewed contained a signal mirror or mirror-like device. An example of a signal mirror-like device would be an Altoids tin’s highly polished inner lid. Best Glide A.S.E. sells a metal, micro signaling mirror perfect for a small pocket-sized survival tin. The most innovative signal mirror-like device that I have seen is the military dog tag that is polished to be a signal mirror. These are but a few of the many options regarding signal mirrors. Therefore, consider putting a signal mirror or signal mirror-like device in your survival kit as you prepare for the spring and summer hiking season.

Some Concluding Thoughts

The spring and summer outdoor seasons will soon be upon us. Many people are getting ready for a new year of outdoor adventures. An essential part of your packing list is a survival kit. Furthermore, survival experts encourage wearing survival items on your body or placed in the pockets of your shirt or trousers. I recommend using the layering technique of outfitting yourself with survival gear.

The first layer would be what you can wear, keep in your pockets, or fasten to your trouser belt. Items that would function in this category would be your fixed-blade knife, paracord bracelet, an emergency whistle around your neck, or mylar blanket in your pants cargo pocket. The second layer of survival gear should be a pouch or tin carried on your body, such as a 5.11 6 x 6 pouch, fanny pack, or butt pack. Examples of such items carried in this manner would be an individual first aid kit (IFAK), trauma kit with a tourniquet, Military Survival Tin, extra fire-making items, headlamps, and snack items. The third layer of survival gear would consist of items carried in your backpack. Items such as folding saws, fire kits, cook sets, fishing kits, water treatment kits, 100 feet of paracord, and seasonal outerwear, would fall within the third layer of survival gear considerations.

As you continue to plan and resource your spring and summer outdoors, remember to update or replace your worn-out survival gear. Keep your survival kit as current as possible. I also want to encourage you to enjoy yourself out on the trail. Remember to stay safe, stay prepared, and eventually, I want to see you out on the trail.

Top 5 U.S. Military Fire Starters

The top five U.S. military fire starters for backpackers are some excellent options for backpackers. An emergency survival fire is an essential element in wilderness survival. The assets to make a fire in an emergency should be part of every backpacker’s loadout. Many survival experts recommend creating a fire starting kit with various methods to make a fire in an emergency. These five U.S. military fire starting methods can be considered for those seeking low-cost options to include in their packing list.   

1. The Zippo® Lighter (NSN 9920-01-598-9704)

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Zippo® products are favorites with many people. The famous Zippo lighter was issued to servicemembers for many decades until the dawn of the disposable lighters. Its official military name is Lighter, Windproof. I recently talked with a gentleman who served in Vietnam, and he got a little gleam in his eye when we talked about how these lighters were issued to soldiers. He remembered being issued one while he served in the U.S. Army. My father, who served in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, recalls being issued a Zippo lighter.

Zippo lighters typically are associated with smoking tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. However, they can still be used to start a campfire on the trail or an emergency fire in an emergency survival situation.

One drawback with these lighters is the lighter fluid evaporates more quickly than a disposable lighter. One advantage the Zippo lighter has over the disposable lighter is that one can replace the lighter fluid and the flint for the spark wheel.

One complaint that servicemembers often give about the lighter is that it is labeled as windproof when it is not as windproof as one might expect. With normal usage, the lighter will maintain its flame in windy conditions that are light to moderate.

2. NATO Survival Matches (NSN: 9920-99-966-9432)

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Windproof matches are a common item in most survival kits. UCO® makes some of the best windproof and stormproof matches on the market. However, the concept for these matches reaches back to U.S. military.

American pilots began wearing vests with many pockets. Early survival training for pilots featured starting a fire, as fire is essential for survival. Wooden matches in metal or plastic containers begin to be issued as survival items to pilots. Over the years, technological developments allowed the wooden match to become a unique survival tool for American pilots.

The most current version of these wooden matches is the NATO Survival Matches. They come in a plastic bottle with twenty-five matches or a Ziploc-type bag of ten matches. Best Glide ASE® and BCB International® sell these matches. They are shorter than those sold by UCO®. Best Glide ASE® writes, “NATO Survival Matches are currently used by the U.K. MoD, Red Cross, United States Marine Corps, and Air Force, NATO, GSA, UNICEF, and others.”

If you are looking to add a little militaria to your emergency survival fire starting kit, the NATO Survival Matches are the best consideration for price and reliability.

3. Spark-Lite™ Fire Starting Kit (NSN:1680-01-233-0061)

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Spark-Lite™ fire starting kits are small and compact. They were a standard survival item in a pilot’s aviation life support equipment (ALSE) for many years. The kit comes in a plastic, non-waterproof container that measures 2.5 inches in length, .5 inches in depth, and 1.5 inches in width. Inside the box are eight Tinder-Quik cotton tabs and one sparking wheel on a plastic handle. The more expensive versions have a brass handle on the sparking wheel.

Survive Outdoors Longer (SOL)® produces its version of this kit called The Fire Lite Kit. It comes in a Ziploc-type bag with twenty Tinder Quik tabs, and a plastic handled sparker. The SOL® kit is much bulkier than the Spark-Lite kit.

The Spark-Lite kit is a one-hand fire staring solution for making emergency survival fires. You will not be disappointed if you decide to include this kit in your backpacking fire kit.

4. The Magnesium Bar (NSN: 4240-01-160-5618)

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Survivorman, Les Stroud, demonstrated the magnesium bar’s usefulness for starting fires in the episode, “Canyon Lands” on Survivorman Season One. Many of us have seen those magnesium bars by Coleman® or Coghlan® hanging in the outfitter stores, Walmart®, and other places outdoor gear is sold. However, until a few years ago, I was unaware that the magnesium bar was issued as a survival item in the U.S. military.

The U.S. military version of the magnesium bar is manufactured by the Doan Machinery & Equipment Company, Incorporated® in South Euclid, Ohio. They were issued to pilots as part of their survival kit. However, many soldiers carried and used them in the field.

These magnesium bars represent a fire starting option with both tinder and combustion wedded in a single item. A single bar is three inches long, one inch wide and a half-inch thick. A small ferrocerium rod is embedded on one side of the bar to make the sparks that ignite the magnesium shavings scraped off the bar.

Magnesium bars are a compact capability to have in your pocket should you have to make a fire in an emergency. A magnesium bar is a great item to compliment your fire kit as a backup item if you already have a primary way to start an emergency survival fire.

5. MRE Matches

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The final military fire-starting item to consider is the matches out of the accessory packet of a Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE). These represent the traditional book of paper matches. Most people may not consider these as a survival fire making option. However, if they are all you have in an emergency, you will be grateful for their presence in your loadout.

A couple of soldiers from my unit became lost during a night movement in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield. After thirty-six hours, they were found by a helicopter who spotted them due to a small fire they had started to keep warm and heat their MREs. Afterward, our leaders ordered everyone to carry matches from the MRE.

The MRE matches are an item to consider when looking for a last-ditch method to make an emergency survival fire. These traditional matches will work in dry environments, as long as they do not get wet. To ensure they stay dry, you could add them into your fire starting kit if you use a waterproof container, such as a dry sack or a 4 x 6 Pelican® case. 

Final Thoughts

There is much to be said in favor of the military surplus gear of the United States. People who love the outdoors always are on the lookout for quality gear at a reasonable price. Military surplus meets that criteria. By contrast, I am not interested in looking like someone on patrol in a combat zone on the trail. Thankfully, the fire starting items in the list above are small enough that nobody will know you have them until you use them. You can experiment to see what fits your needs and then decide if you want to carry it on the trail. So, enjoy the journey of discovery with these and other surplus items in your loadout.  

Six Features Of Quality Backpacks

(Note: I previously published this article as “Six Essential Features of Quality Backpacks” on February 3, 2019)

There are six features of quality backpacks. A great backpack is an invaluable piece of gear. An outdoor adventure will not be enjoyable if one’s pack breaks down in the field. It is essential to be able to assess if a backpack will hold up to the rigors of outdoor use. The market is flooded with varying styles and types of packs in a multitude of price ranges. Therefore, it is essential to know what to look for when seeking to purchase a great backpack.  

1. The Fabric Material

The first feature to look for when considering a quality backpack is the quality of the fabric material. There are two primary areas of the backpack of which the fabric will identify it as worthy of purchase: the main compartment and the strapping. Most packs that are manufactured for the outdoors will have straps that function as lashing points (daisy chains), grab handles, gear security, adjustment or compression. The material that comprises the strapping is as important as that which makes up the pack compartments. The denier rating of the fabric is a key to understanding the durability of the material.

There are two favorite fabrics that manufacturers use for backpacks: nylon and Cordura® fabric.  Technically, Cordura® also is nylon. The difference is that Cordura® fabric is a patented and trademarked type of nylon fabric from the Invista Company in Wichita, Kansas. By contrast, denier is not a type of nylon fabric. Instead, the word, denier, is a measurement of fabric density. For example, the Osprey Xenith 88 backpack uses nylon while the current military rucksacks use the Cordura® fabric. Sometimes the nylon fabric is treated so that it is water resistant. The type and density rating of the material that makes up the backpack is what one needs to look for when looking for a quality backpack.

A. Pack-Grade Nylon Fabric

Nylon fabric that is characteristic of backpacks from Osprey® or Kelty® is sometimes advertised as “pack nylon” or “bag nylon.” It is the same type of fabric common in luggage, gym bags, and ultra-light backpacks, gear bags, and stuff sacks. This kind of material has a more smooth texture than Cordura®. Pack-grade nylon fabric can be treated to be water resistant. Some of the nylon that has a higher denier rating has a feel more like furniture upholstery. Pack-grade nylon can be milled to feature a diamond, hexagon, or checkered rip-stop texture. The one weakness with pack-grade nylon is that is less tear and wear resistant. 

B. Cordura® Fabric

Cordura® fabric is a popular material that is characteristic of quality backpacks. Backpacks that are for tactical or rugged outdoor use tend to use this material. The primary indicator that a backpack is using Cordura® fabric is that the manufacturer will stitch a small tag somewhere in an inconspicuous place on the pack that says, “Cordura® fabric” on it. Cordura fabric has the texture of the legacy cotton canvas. It has a more rough feel to it than regular nylon and requires stronger industrial stitching to make products out of it.

Cordura® manufactures several types of their fabric. The most common material in use with military and tactical backpacks is fabric from their Ballistic Fabric line. The company describes Ballistic fabric as, “Based on the original ballistic woven nylon developed for military body armor, dense, rugged Cordura® Ballistic fabrics are made with high tenacity nylon 6,6 filament yarns and offer enhanced tear and abrasion resistance.” Ballistic fabric has high abrasion resistance and a high toughness for tearing. It can be treated to be water repellant.

C. Straps, and PALS Webbing

An additional consideration concerning materials integrated on a quality backpack is the strap material. There are three basic kinds of straps or strapping used on a backpack: shoulder straps, compression straps, and PALS webbing. Grab handles and daisy chain straps are also part of non-military backpack construction.

There are two kinds of material manufacturers use for strappings on quality backpacks: MIL-W-43668 Type III nylon webbing (1” wide) and MIL-W-4088 nylon webbing (1-2.25” wide). The knock-off U.S. military backpacks manufactured overseas tend to use lower quality strapping. An example of this type of backpack is the Outdoor Products Quest Backpack sold at Walmart. The U. S. Army MOLLE 3-Day Assault and Medium Rucksack are examples of packs that use higher quality materials. 

2. Stitching

Another important characteristic to look for in a quality backpack is the stitching used to construct the backpack. The best thread material for sewing is Kevlar thread or heavy-duty industrial strength nylon thread such as that which is in parachute harnesses. It is essential to look for the use of double stitching of the seams. The stitching that connects shoulder straps to the main body of the pack is critical to the pack’s durability in the field. Most backpacks utilize either a reinforced zig-zag stitching pattern or double-stitched boxed-X pattern as is common in parachute harnesses.

3. Closures

A third critical feature to look for in a quality backpack is the closures such as zippers, buckles, and snaps. The most common zipper used on tactical and military packs is YKK VISLON® Fin-Type. The most common fasteners used on tactical and military backpacks are Duraflex® squeeze-type quick-release buckles by the National Molding Company®. These buckles are made of high-impact plastic.  Closure manufacturers also make buckles, snaps, and zippers of stainless steel, aircraft grade aluminum, or titanium. However, these materials are less common due to the need to reduce the cost of manufacturing which keeps quality backpacks within fair retail pricing.

4. Access

A fourth consideration when looking to purchase a quality backpack is the ease of access it allows to your gear. There are many opinions about accessing the contents within a pack. Some prefer top access. Others prefer a clamshell or draw-bridge type access. Still, other people desire multiple ways to access the contents of their backpack. There does not seem to be a consensus about preference on accessing the contents of a pack.

Thus, a quality backpack gives the user easy access to their gear as the outdoorsman perceives it. Gear accessibility is important. Preppers, survivalists, outdoorsman, and bushcrafters will not continue to use a backpack that is more frustrating to use in the field than it is worth. There is nothing more aggravating when you are in the outdoors and getting to your gear becomes problematic. Therefore, how you pack your backpack also determines ease of access and not just the construction characteristics of the pack itself.

5. Modularity

The next critical feature that characterizes quality backpacks is the capability called, modularity. Modularity in a pack allows the user to configure their pack for specific situations. For example, the Alps Outdoor Z Commander X backpack is a pack that features modularity which addresses the needs of big game hunters. Another backpack that offers modularity features is the 5.11 Rush™ series of tactical backpacks that offer the PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System) webbing that allows the pack to be configured for military or law enforcement missions.

6. Wear

A final consideration for purchasing a quality backpack is wear. Is the backpack comfortable to wear for long periods? Some backpacks offer the user the ability to adjust the torso length. Other packs have load adjustment straps that connect the shoulder strap with the main compartment or frame. These allow the user to pull the pack closer to their body to shift pack weight off of the hips and onto the frame, whether the frame is internal or external to the pack.

Final Thoughts

It is essential to purchase a quality backpack if you are heading out for an outdoor adventure. These six characteristics of quality backpacks are a starting point for assessing a backpack that meets your outdoor considerations. No pack features all of these characteristics at once. Thus, it is critical that you shop around. The best way to determine if a backpack is a quality pack is to physically examine some packs at your local Cabela’s®, Bass Pro Shop®, REI®, Academy Sports®, or a military surplus store. Take your time and make an informed purchase to ensure years of great use out of your next backpack.