Flick on the TV these days and there’s a good chance you’ll see some “expert” who has been dropped into some unenviable scenario with nothing but the shirt on his back and maybe a pocketknife, forced to live off the land and improvise his way back to safety. In the real world, though, survival situations aren’t preceded by production meetings and script revisions. They happen when you least expect them, and sometimes where you least expect them, so it’s important to always be prepared. No matter what type of outing you’re planning–from a morning at the local fishing hole to a backcountry hunting excursion–a survival kit is a necessity.
But commercial kits are often overpriced and under-geared, so we’ve assembled the best kits for a range of different emergency scenarios. Whether the situation is a tumble from your treestand or the end of the world as we know it, we’ll show you what you need, what to pack it in, and how to use it.
The Close-to-Home Kit
You’ve been invited to spend Opening Day weekend at your father-in-law’s northwoods deer camp. Shooting light has faded and you’re on your way back to see how the rest of the guys did. You think the bunkhouse is just over the next ridge, but as you crest it, you’re met not with the reassuring glow from the windows and a curlicue of smoke from the woodstove, but more acres of dark timber. You’re lost, but not hopelessly so. The best thing to do is swallow your pride, find a place to make camp for the night, and bust out your close-to-home kit.
What to pack in a…
1. Vaseline-soaked cotton balls and storm-proof matches: To make the firestarters, melt petroleum jelly in a bowl in the microwave and use tweezers to dip the cotton balls in it. Let them dry on a piece of wax paper overnight, then place in an airtight container. Superglue a rough striking surface for the matches to the bottom of your container.
2. Baseplate compass
3. Fixed-blade knife with several feet of 550 paracord wrapped around the sheath
4. Duct tape
5. Zip ties
6. Candy bar: Don’t eat it all at once, chubs. It might need to last you a while.
7. Basic first-aid supplies: Stuff like ibuprofen, aspirin, adhesive bandages, butterfly closures, gauze pads, triple antibiotic ointment, and antiseptic wipes will see you through most minor-injury situations.
8. Signal whistle: Choose a pea-less model. They produce an incredibly loud noise–far louder than a standard pea whistle–and can’t be overblown.
9. Streamlight Nano Light: This little firefly is less than an inch and a half long, produces an impressive 10 lumens of light, and will run for up to 8 hours on four alkaline button cells. $6. (Buy here: Botach Tactical)
If traveling a little further afield, add:
A. Sawyer Extractor Pump Kit: Designed to safely extract venoms and poisons, this is a great addition to your kit in spring and summer, especially for turkey hunts in snake country. $17. (Buy here: Midwest Hunters Outlet)
B. Stainless-steel water bottle: In addition to its obvious and intended use, a stainless steel bottle full of water can be heated in your fire and used to provide warmth under your emergency blanket.
D. Water purification tablets
E. Signal mirror
F. Emergency blanket
The Backcountry Kit
You’re the last one in elk camp needing to fill his tag, and time is short on your annual backcountry hunt. While your buddies snore away in their tents, you devise a plan to hunt a drainage where one of the guys had seen a bull a couple of days before. You’ve hiked several miles from camp when you slip on a wet rock and tumble a hundred feet down a cliff, busting your bow and your leg in the process. Foolishly, you didn’t tell anyone where you were going, and now you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bad wheel and no way to defend yourself against the local bear population. Luckily your backcountry survival kit is strapped to your back.
What to pack in a…
Kifaru KU E&E Pack ($100)
Adventure Medical Kits Outfitter First Aid Kit: A robust first-aid kit to have in a backcountry camp, the Outfitter is designed for trips of up to two weeks with up to 14 people. A detachable field trauma kit includes the essentials for a day–or unexpected night–away from camp. $120. (Buy here: Cabela’s)
LifeStraw: The simplest water filter or purification device we’ve found. Simply dip the wider end in a stream, suck on the mouthpiece, and enjoy clean water that is free of bacteria and protozoa. $20. (Buy here: Green Beetle Gear)
Sunglasses: These are especially handy for preventing snow blindness.
Firesteel: You can never have too many fire-starting devices.
Large trash bag: See no. 12.
Square of foil: As with the trash bag, the number of uses for a square of foil is limited only by your imagination.
Hand sanitizer: The alcohol-based stuff makes a great firestarter. Also useful for sanitizing hands.
Fixed-blade knife and 550 paracord
Drink mixes: Stay hydrated, alert, and energized with Wilderness Athlete powder mixes. A few envelopes will add very little weight to your kit. Bring along a stainless steel water bottle to drink it from. $30 for 20. (Buy here: Winded Bowhunter)
Survival fishing kit: A few feet of monofilament, some hooks, and split shot in an old pill bottle is a good minimalist approach. If you can’t be troubled to round up this stuff on your own, Best Glide sells a more thorough kit for about $8. (Buy here: Best Glide)
Extra pairs of wool socks
Paperback novel: If you’re going to be stuck for a while, you’ll need something to take your mind off your plight.
Add-ons for the paranoid:
A. DeLorme inReach ($250) & Earthmate PN-60w ($330): Send text messages via satellite technology from anywhere in the world. “Broke leg. : -( Send help.” (Buy here: buy.com and here: softwaremedia.com, respectively.)
B. Personal locator beacon.
The Bug-Out Kit
The Mayans were right. The world is ending and society is rapidly and irreversibly crumbling all around you. You can no longer rely on anyone but yourself if you’re going to make it through the Apocalypse. Unlike your now-panic-stricken neighbors who probably won’t live to see the weekend, you’re prepared and have assembled the ultimate bug-out kit. Now’s the time to toss it in the trunk of your car, gather the family, and get as far away from the mayhem and hysteria as you can.
What to pack in a…
1. Kaito Voyage Pro KA600 Disaster Radio: Stay attuned to the sorry state of affairs with this tricked-out emergency radio. It’s powered six different ways (crank, solar, AA batteries, rechargeable power pack, AC adaptor, USB) and receives AM, FM, shortwave, and NOAA signals. $80. (Buy here: Weather Connection)
2. AMK Expedition Kit: Designed to accommodate up to 15 people for a duration of up to 30 days, this kit is loaded with a wide array of bandages, dressings, and medications, plus many hospital-quality tools. $320. (Buy here: Botach Tactical)
3. Collapsible saw
4. GPS: The Garmin Rino 655t combines high-sensitivity GPS capabilities with a FRS/GMRS radio to allow you to communicate with other well-prepared folks who might offer, or be in need of, help. $600. (Buy here: TigerGPS)
6. Ka-Bar Becker TacTool: This rugged, hand-held machete-like took will smash, pry, or cut its way through just about anything. $85. (Buy here: Amazon)
7. Solar Charger: Unless the sun has been blotted out by nuclear fallout, you’ll be able to keep your electronics up and running. The Solio Bolt is a compact yet powerful option. $70. (Buy here: Point of View Cameras)
8. Flashlight: You’re going to need a flashlight that can serve a range of purposes, from scavenging abandoned buildings in the dark to temporarily blinding those who intend to do you harm. The SureFire UB3T Invictus flashlight fits the bill. It offers eight levels of light, from 2 to 800 lumens (84 to 1.7 hours of runtime), and strobe and SOS modes. $695. (Buy here: Gun Safari)
9. Headlamp: When hands-free lighting is necessary, the Petzl Tikka^2 is a great choice. It has three settings, including strobe, and provides up to 40 lumens of light out to 95 feet. $28. (Buy here: Amazon)
10. PowerFlare: A great tool for when you actually want to get someone’s attention, the PowerFlare is a waterproof, nearly indestructible, hockey puck-shaped LED device that features 10 flash patterns (including SOS). It runs for 100 hours on one battery charge. $50. (Buy here: GigaParts)
11. Stormproof lighter
12. Gerber George folding shovel, $21. (Buy here: REI)
13. HALO Recon 3 MilSpec sleeping bag: The choice of military forces worldwide, the Recon 3 bag is rated to 20 degrees F, weighs about 3 pounds, and compresses to the size of a small cantaloupe. $170. (Buy here: ImagineGear)
14. Klymit Intertia CL sleeping pad: You’re bound to have a lot on your mind, what with the world ending and all, but you have to sleep sometime, so you might as well be comfortable. This skeletonized pad requires just 4 to 6 breaths to inflate, weighs a hair over a pound, and measures 78 inches long by 26 inches wide when inflated. $130. (Buy here: Hermit’s Hut)
16. Insect repellent
17. Wilderness maps and compass
18. Pocket road atlas
22. USB flash drive: Just in case order is ever restored, makes PDFs of all of your identification and insurance documents and store them on a flash drive, along with any other important files and photos of loved ones.
23. Meals ready to eat (MREs)
24. 550 paracord
Add-ons for the paranoid:
A. FNH SCAR 17S ($2,800) with EOTech MPOIII Holographic Weapons System ($1,002), Dueck Defense RTS Backup Sights ($238), and SureFire X400 WeaponLight with Laser ($595): Bertrand Russell once said, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” Failing that, pack a versatile rifle for self-defense. The sighting systems and light/laser combo complete the package. (Buy here: Gun For All, Optics Planet, Top Notch Tactical, and Gun Safari, respectively.)
The On-The-Water Kit
You launch your boat on the local reservoir before dawn and hammer the smallmouths for the first couple of hours of the day. The bite finally slows, and for the first time all morning it occurs to you that there is a distinct lack of other fishermen on the water with you. As you take your last sip of coffee, you realize that everyone else must have checked the forecast. The sky darkens and a hellacious storm rolls in, bringing heavy winds and torrential rains. Strike one. You go to start the motor on your 15-footer, but the engine just sputters. Strike two. Luckily, there is no strike three as the waves push you to an island in the middle of the lake and you have your on-the-water survival kit along.
What to pack in a…
West Marine Coast First Aid Kit: The waterproof case contains your standard first-aid materials, plus marine-applicable stuff like motion-sickness tablets and burn cream. $11.
3. Signal mirror: There are a number of good ones on the market, including the Ultimate Survival Technologies StarFlash mirror. The underside of that old Wilson Phillips CD under the backseat of your truck will work in a pinch, but isn’t as good as the real thing. $9. (Buy here: HR Knives)
5. Emergency bivvy
7. Compass and waterway maps
8. Vaseline-soaked cotton balls; stormproof matches: See the Close-to-Home Kit, p. TK)
9. Duct tape: Can be used to temporarily patch minor leaks in your craft.
10. 550 paracord
11. Insect repellent: Every try getting a fire started on wet ground as mosquitoes buzz in and out of your ears and drill for blood in your ankles? Go heavy on the DEET.
14. Sunscreen: Use enough so that when you’re finally rescued, those first hugs with loved ones aren’t too painful.
Add-ons for the paranoid:
A. EPIRB: Or emergency position-indicating radio beacon. Activate one anywhere in the world and help will be on the way almost instantly. Security like that comes at a price, though. The least-expensive models run about $400. They go way up from there. (Buy here: Hodges Marine)
B. Orion 12-Gauge Alerter Basic Signal Flare Kit: The four red aerial flares are approved by the U.S. Coast Guard for both day and nighttime use. $60. Buy here: BoatFix)
–Photographs by Vincent Soyez