We pack our fears.
That’s a quote that I’ve heard ultralight backpackers say time and time again, and it sure was my experience when I started backpacking in early 2012.
On my first overnight backpacking trip, I carried a pack that weighed more than 55 lbs, including a 10 lb survival kit that probably could have sustained an ultralight backpacker comfortably for 3 full days.
Gear is nothing without knowledge. Knowledge is nothing without experience.
Fortunately for my back, I have a little more knowledge and experience now, which has helped me strip out many of the non-essentials (still a work in progress) that were weighing me down on my first few trips.
My wilderness survival kit now has a max weight of about 9oz. It has everything I need to stay warm, dry and hydrated until I can either self-rescue or get rescued.
So what’s in my wilderness survival kit?
Fire is arguably the most important thing you can have in most survival situations. It will lift your spirits, warm your body, boil your water, cook your food and help to fend off curious animals and other creepy crawlies. Fire is such an important factor in wilderness survival that you can never have too many backup plans for getting one started.
Assuming I’m not stuck in the Saharan Desert without a tree or shrub in sight, I’ve packed everything I need to get a fire started.
Primary: Lighter (not shown)
I always have a lighter with me when I’m backpacking. But lighters can run out of gas, get wet or simply quit working, so I always carry a fallback.
Fallback 1: Stormproof Matches
As far as backup plans go, you can’t do better than stormproof matches. Unlike waterproof matches, stormproof matches are made of magnesium and will not only light when wet, they will continue burning even when completely submerged.
Their only weakness is that they need a specific type of striker to ignite (not shown, but included in my kit), so using your zipper or a rock to light a stormproof match just won’t cut it. Aside from that fact, these little bad boys are an essential piece of my wilderness survival kit.
Fallback 2: Ferro Rod
My current kit has a supremely easy to use 0.8oz UST Sparkie Fire Starter. It sparks and it lights, but if I’m relying on this to start my fire, then I’m in a really bad spot.
I have a few different ferro rods. This particular rod is the least reliable, but it’s also the lightest one I have.
There are plenty of different types of ferro rods available. Pick the one that fits your needs and add it to your kit.
No? Hmm… maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, if you didn’t already know, a Fresnel magnifying lens works like magic when you’re in direct sunlight. If you’ve already run through fire fallback #1 & #2, and you don’t have any direct sunlight, then you’re in a world of hurt. Otherwise, a magnifying lens will burn its way straight through to China if you can hold it there long enough.
I picked up a dozen wallet size magnifying lenses for less than $8. One for my kit, one for my car, another for my wallet and nine that I have yet to decide where they might go. None-the-less, they’re cheap, they’re light, and they’re irreplaceable when the SHTF.
If you’re in a survival situation, getting a fire started could mean the difference between life and death. I don’t know about you, but I rarely bring the Sunday paper with me on a backpacking trip. If you want to give yourself the best shot of getting a fire started with minimal materials, you need to have some reliable tinder.
There are some very good natural sources of tinder if you know how to find them and they are dry and available. But if you want a surefire tinder (no pun intended), you should add it to your kit.
Some people use wax or petroleum dipped cotton balls. They’re cheap and they are fantastic fire starters that will burn long enough to get most fires going, even in extreme circumstances.
They are also a little heavy in comparison to the SOL Tinder-Quik fire starters I keep in my kit.
For less than 1 gram of weight, I have four fire starters that are both windproof and waterproof. A small price to pay for a little peace of mind.
Shelter & Water
Fire provides essential benefits that are irreplaceable in a wilderness survival situation, but sheltering yourself from the environment cannot be overrated.
By now you’re used to seeing survivalists like Cody Lundin, Dave Canterbury and Les Stroud whipping up improvised shelters using sticks, branches, leaves and other materials they’ve gathered off the land. It looks easy enough, and they usually look pretty comfortable laying in their lean-tos and huts.
Unfortunately, the reality is that emergencies happen without warning.
The items I’ve included with my survival kit will give you basic protection in the worst circumstance, and offer waterproofing and extra warmth if you have the time, energy and resources needed to go all Survivorman with your shelter.
Large Trash Bag
Trash bags are like the ultimate multi-tool in a survival situation. They’re windproof, waterproof, watertight and durable.
Raining? Wear it as a poncho or use it as a small tarp to shelter yourself.
Cold? Stuff it with dry leaves and grasses to insulate you from the ground while you sleep.
Thirsty? Use it to collect rain or water from a lake, river, creek or stream. You can even use a trash bag to make a solar still to get clean, pure water from salt water, plants or even your own urine.
These are just a few of the ways a trash bag might be used should you find yourself in a bad situation unexpectedly. Don’t underestimate the power of the trash bag. They’re cheap, light and an irreplaceable survival tool.
Mylar, the material that these blankets are made of, was originally used by NASA to protect the Skylab space station by reflecting the solar radiation that was causing it to overheat. That same principle can help keep you warm when all else fails.
I’ve included a super basic mylar space blanket as an optional piece of gear in my kit. They’re lightweight and are effective at reducing the loss of body heat through convection, evaporation and radiation.
Much like trash bags, emergency blankets have a variety of uses in a survival situation.
- Use like a tarp to create a waterproof shelter. Also useful when it’s hot to reflect the Sun’s heat and offer a shady spot to rest until nightfall.
- Stake it around the edge of a fire to use as a heat reflector or wind break
- Use as a reflector, like a giant mirror, to signal rescuers and alert them to your location
Trash bags aren’t the only household item I’ve included in my wilderness survival kit. I keep a small square (approx. 12″ x 12″) of aluminum foil in my survival kit. It adds almost no weight to my kit, yet it can be used to boil water, cook food and signal for rescue. In a pinch, you might even be able to lay it on the ground to provide a small dry spot to start a fire on when it’s been raining for the last week and there’s no dry ground available.
Should my filter fail, break or get lost entirely, I’m carrying enough tablets to purify up to 12 liters of water without boiling.
These tablets will kill 99.99% of waterborne pathogens, including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, making even stagnant pond water safe to drink.
According to Backpacker magazine, there are at least 10 ways you can use a condom in a wilderness survival situation, which is why I’ve included 2 non-lubricated condoms in my survival kit.
To use a condom as a water container for treatment and/or transportation, open up the pack, unroll the condom, and fill it with water, toss in an Aquamira tablet, twist the end to close the container, and go on trying to find your way to safety. You can give your new water container a bit of extra strength by placing it inside a sock before filling it with water to make sure your vital cargo can make the trip.
Signalling for Rescue
In most wilderness survival situations, survivors either self-rescue or are found by rescuers within 72 hours of the emergency causing event. If a rescue effort is underway, this kit has several tools that can be used to signal for help and alert rescuers, near or far, to my location.
Mylar Space Blanket and Aluminum Foil
Mylar and aluminum foil are both extremely reflective. Hang it out, lay it down on the ground, or wave it around to attract attention.
Fires are easily seen at night, and during the day the smoke from a signal fire is an extremely effective way to attract attention. Throw green brush, leaves and sticks on your fire to create a plume of white smoke. Alternatively, you can create black smoke by throwing synthetic materials like rubber or plastic on a fire.
Sort of like a signal mirror can be used during the day to attract rescuers’ attention, so too can a flashlight be used at night. It won’t have the range of a signal mirror, but it will attract the attention of anyone who happens to be within view.
Whistle (not shown)
My emergency whistle attaches to the sternum strap on my backpack, which is why it doesn’t appear in any of my survival kit pictures. It’s extremely loud and will attract anyone’s attention who is within earshot.
The StarFlash Micro Signal Mirror in my kit is small (2″ x 1.5″), lightweight, durable, and is designed specifically to aim at rescuers overhead or on the ground with remarkable accuracy. Unlike a standard mirror, or otherwise reflective object, this mirror has a sighting hole located dead center that works a lot like the sights on a gun.
Don’t underestimate the value of a signal mirror. Here’s a video of a signal mirror flashing from 44 miles away, which is why I’ve chosen to add this one to my kit.
Repairs & First-aid
Bones break, ankles twist, backpacks tear. In a survival situation, the unexpected happens, and though it’s difficult to prepare for every possible scenario, it is pretty easy to prepare for some of the more common problems we may encounter.
I have a small role of duct tape in my kit. On an ordinary day, there’s nothing special about this 2″ x 10′ role of tape. But when the SHTF, duct tape is a life saver.
Among its many potential uses, duct tape can bandage an open would, sure up an improvised splint, patch a torn tent or tarp, and even fix up your fragile mylar space blanket when you need it most.
Duct tape is strong, relatively lightweight and waterproof, which makes it the perfect all-around survival tool.
Another survival tool that should not be underestimated is 550 paracord. Paracord is a strong, relatively lightweight nylon rope that’s composed of 7 inner strands and an outer sheath.
I carry about 10′ of the stuff either on my pack, on me, or in my survival kit. 10′ of rope may not sound like a lot, but in a survival situation 10′ of paracord can be turned into 50′ or 60′ of very strong twine in a hurry.
Here are just a few simple examples of how paracord can be used:
- Tie up/down your improvised shelter
- Splint a broken leg or sprained ankle
- Create an arm sling
- Use as a belt to hold up your pants
- Replace broken shoe laces
- Use the inner strands to sew torn clothing
- Use the inner strands to create fishing line
The list goes on and on, so if you haven’t added paracord to your survival kit yet, go get some right away! Just one note, be sure to look for paracord that is Made in the U.S.A. and has 7 inner strands to make sure you are getting the highest quality cord.
I have 2 safety pins in my survival kit. They can be used to do all sorts of things, from fashioning an arm sling out of a t-shirt or bandana to pulling out cactus thorns to catching fish to closing together a nasty wound. Safety pins are so light and useful that leaving them behind to save space or weight simply doesn’t make any sense. Throw a couple in your kit, you won’t regret it.
Although I wouldn’t consider any survival situation ideal, if I had to choose one scenario over any other while hiking, it would be getting lost. Hopefully, I’ve done my homework ahead of time, my route is well-planned and I’m appropriately equipped to handle the weather I might run into. But even experienced hikers can and do get lost.
Since I can’t control everything, I have included a few simple items to help me find my way back to the trail or to safety.
When I’m backpacking, I always carry a map & compass. Many people also recommend using a GPS, and I won’t argue their usefulness, but you can’t rely on them alone to keep you safe or get you out of trouble. Batteries die and GPS units can break.
My kit includes a spare button compass, which also happens to have a thermometer attached, and a windchill chart on the back. The last two are nice to have, but not necessary to help me survive. The compass, on the other hand, is an important addition to my kit, because it could be the last tool I have to get myself oriented and on a bearing toward safety if I lose my primary compass.
Button compasses come in a variety of styles and can be picked up very inexpensively. Just be sure to check yours for accuracy before adding it to your kit.
I recently learned how to use Ranger beads for pace counting. If you’re lost and trying to find your way out, keeping track of your pace will help to decrease the likelihood that you continue digging a deeper hole. I don’t recommend adding Ranger beads to your kit unless you know how to use them correctly.
Fortunately for those of us who haven’t been in the military, pace counting with Ranger beads is easy to learn. They’re also really easy to make yourself, just do a quick search on YouTube and you will have all the tutorials your heart desires.
When I’m backpacking I always carry two forms of illumination, a headlamp as my primary source and a small flashlight in my survival kit for backup. I also carry spare batteries, because you never know when they will go bad.
In my opinion, neither of these tools is optional. I carry both, and the extra weight added by carrying a spare flashlight is a non-issue as far as I’m concerned.
So there you have it. My Lightweight DIY Wilderness Survival Kit for When the SHTF. Out of all the items I’ve discussed in this article, the only two I consider to be optional are the mylar space blanket and Ranger beads. Everything else is essential and I have chosen it for a very specific reason.
Of course, this is my kit, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, “We pack our fears.”
What do you think of my kit? Is there room for improvement? What does your kit have that I haven’t included here? Let me know in the comments below.
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Now, Getgo Outdoors!
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