Ultimate Survival Kit: 10 Pieces of Gear That Will Save Your Life

OL’s survival expert picks his favorite items for staying alive

Survival gear isn’t just a necessity for adventurers in the deep wilderness. It’s an insurance policy in which every outdoor enthusiast should invest. By carrying the supplies to provide for your own needs, you’re ready in the event that you get caught in an emergency in the wild. And if that emergency never comes—you still have some cool and useful toys to enjoy. Before your next excursion, check out my favorite wilderness survival items—and consider whether they’re a good fit for your own needs.

10. Swedish FireKnife

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The Swedish FireKnifeTim MacWelch

A lot of people expect me carry a huge, Rambo-reminiscent survival knife, but in all truth, I’d rather be carrying a wood carving knife. Mora knives are my favorite wood carvers, since their laminated steel blades are strong, long wearing and razor sharp right out of the package. If you take the legendary Mora blade and add a quality spark rod handle insert from Light My Fire, you have the Swedish FireKnife.

This knife has a 3.5-inch blade crafted from Sandvik 12C27 stainless-steel. The blade sits in a rubberized handle, which contains the hidden fire starter rod. The Swedish FireSteel firestarter is one of the best quality ferrocerium rods on the market. The cascade of 5,400°F sparks is plentiful and easy to strike, making it great for everyday campfire starting and survival purposes alike. Altogether, the knife, spark rod, and sturdy plastic sheath only weigh a little over 4 ounces. They are available in several color choices—I recommend the orange, red or pink color for safety and visibility.

9. Fox 40 Whistle

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Fox 40 survival whistleAmazon

Why buy a muffled whistle to signal for help when you can buy an eardrum-bursting whistle to alert distant people to your distress? The Fox 40 is commonly used as a referee whistle at sporting events, and if it can be heard over the roar of a crown, it can be heard for a long way in the wild. Select bright-colored models for good visibility. This allows for easy retrieval from your pack or if you drop it. The pea-less design works great when wet, dry, and even in subfreezing conditions. If you've got any breath left in your body, blow this whistle until the rescue team arrives.

8. UST Survival Rations

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UST Survival RationsTim MacWelch

Looking for a "no-cook," "no-fuss" survival food with a long life and reasonable taste? The UST 5-Year Emergency Food Ration Bar may be just the thing. I love shortbread cookies, and these remind me of apple cinnamon oatmeal and shortbread combined. Each pack has 2,400 calories in total, which can be broken into six 400-calorie cubes for rationing purposes. These are perfect for a survival kit stashed in your car or at work, and a good fit for the outdoors, too. If you're not a shortbread fan, these crumbly cakes might not be your favorite, but they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Bon appétit!

7. UST StarFlash Signal Mirror

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The UST StarFlash Signal MirrorTim MacWelch

A signal mirror is one of the furthest-reaching non-electronic signal methods. Properly aimed, a signal mirror is capable of shining a beam of daylight up to 10 miles away to create a flash of light that can catch the attention of distant aircraft, watercraft, vehicles, or someone on foot.

The UST StarFlash mirror has a star shaped sighting lens, to make it even more user friendly. Look through the lens at your signal target. Sweep the mirror VERY slowly right to left, and up and down. This will sweep the beam across your target, and the lens will glow when you’ve aimed the beam correctly.

6. UCO Waterproof Matches

UCO Waterproof Matches

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Stormproof matchesAmazon

Besides the wind, water is the next major vulnerability of stick matches. But neither wind nor water are a match (pun intended) for these amazing matches. I routinely display UCO Stormproof matches to my survival students, striking the large matches and then dunking the burning match in a bowl of water. To the surprise of my onlookers, the match bursts into flame again after being lifted from the water. These matches come in a bomb-proof watertight container with replacement striker strips and even a bit of cotton to keep the matches from rattling around, and to serve as emergency tinder.

5. WetFire Cubes

WetFire Cubes

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WetFire fire-starting cubesTim MacWelch

I love these things. This WetFire product is very lightweight, easy to ignite, and it has a long burn time. Each cube weighs just .16 ounces and is capable of burning up to 10 minutes at temperatures around 1,300°F. They work in wet and windy conditions with ease. They even float and keep burning, even while floating in water. I've been bringing these little waxy cubes out for show-and-tell during survival classes for several years, and I've always observed impressive results in the field, regardless of the weather. In my most recent tests, a cube burned for 9.5 minutes on a very damp day—twice the burn time of the homemade alternative (Vaseline-soaked cotton balls). The flame was also much taller than the petroleum jelly on a cotton ball. Several spikes from the WetFire cube were 9 or 10 inches tall, which is twice the height of the flame from a greasy cotton ball.

You can even chip off part of a cube to assist with fire starting, and then save the rest for later. A few shavings or chips of this tinder can greatly assist in the lighting of camp stoves and stubborn grills too. Just make sure you use up the product within a few months of opening the package, as the secret material seem to lose some flammability after being exposed to the air for a few months.

4. Water Disinfecting Tablets

Water Disinfecting Tablets

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Two options for disinfecting water in the woods.Tim MacWelch

One of the top survival priorities in an emergency is to find and disinfect enough drinking water. Two of my favorite water disinfection tablets are Katadyn’s Micropur tablets, and Potable Aqua’s Iodine tablets. While these two products use different chemicals, they are both more than 99 percent effective against waterborne pathogens. So while they both are highly effective, you should still weigh the pros and cons of each.

If you’re stocking a cabin, cave, or bug-out spot with purification tablets, you certainly want to consider the lifespan of the product. The iodine tablets from Potable Aqua have an indefinite shelf life, when kept in their original packaging and stored properly; Katadyn’s Micropur tablets last for two years or more.

Potable Aqua is the clear winner when it comes to speed: Water is ready to drink 35 minutes after treatment. The Micropur tablets take a full 4 hours to reach the maximum disinfecting action.

One final thought to consider are the side effects. The toxicity and flavor of iodine can be a little problematic. The iodine tablets are generally not a good choice for pregnant women, anyone with thyroid issues, or shellfish allergies. Picky children are also notorious for failing to drink iodine-infused water, which could lead to dehydration and other serious repercussions in an already dicey emergency. The Katadyn product is chlorine-based, the flavor of which dissipates over the allotted 4-hour waiting period. That product is widely tolerated and tastes much better.

The bottom line? The Katadyn Micropur tablets cost more and take longer to work, but are widely tolerated in water. Potable Aqua’s iodine tablets are cheaper, last longer, and work faster, but they do taste funny. Take your pick.

3. Jetboil Stove

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A JetBoil camp stoveTim MacWelch

Sure, you could cook up your pot of survival stew over the campfire like a caveman, but come on folks. We've put people into space! Don't you think it's time we use space-age technology to make outdoor cooking easier? Jetboil is the Cadillac of camp stoves. It's super quick to boil, lightweight, and very well engineered. The blended fuel can burn well, even in extreme cold, and the best part is, this stove is very thrifty with fuel use. You may be able to cook dozens of meals on the smallest size of fuel canister. These stoves are very efficient, easy to operate, and clean. The gear even nests for compact storage.

2. Olympia EX550 Headlamp

Olympia EX550 Headlamp

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The Olympia Explorer headlampTim MacWelch

If you're not already on "team headlamp," let's get one thing straight. The headlamp is to an outdoors person as the internet is to shopping. Once you've seen firsthand just how easy and effective it is, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. Headlamps give you light right where your gaze falls, and they leave both hands free to work. Olympia's Explorer (EX) Series of headlamps has been designed with outdoor junkies in mind: This series gives us lamps with great features that don't cost a fortune. This tough aluminum body headlamp casts out a scorching 550 lumens, and it's perfect for chasing down a blood trail after dark, cooking in camp, or working under the hood of your truck. The Cree XM-L LED bulb delivers a beam of light that can reach out 135 meters, and it has five lighting modes, including a distress strobe. It's even waterproof down to one meter.

1. SOL Bivvy

SOL Bivvy

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The SOL bivvyAmazon

Survival is a critical priority in the wild, so make sure you always have a way to get out of the elements. The SOL Emergency Bivvy is a sleeping bag-style of sack made from tear-resistant polyethylene with a high visibility orange color to assist your rescue, if needed. This bivvy reflects back 90 percent of your body heat to keep you warm in extreme cold. The bivvy will even help you stay dry in the rain with sealed seam edges. It even comes with a handy stuff sack for compact storage. All this, and it's only 3.8-ounces. You'd be crazy not to take this with you.