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.