We all carry a wilderness survival kit whether we realize it or not. The contents of a man’s pockets or those of a woman’s purse are nothing more than survival kits for a populated technological society. You have all the things you’ll likely need to fill your needs throughout your day. Keys, cash, identification, credit cards, membership cards and other items all serve to fill your needs as they arise. Luckily for us, most of our human needs are filled by technology and the remainder can be filled as you go with cash or credit.

So how does a wilderness survival kit differ from the items we carry every day? In a wilderness setting, we don’t have quick access to emergency medical care. We don’t have a roof over our head or a climate controlled environment. We don’t have sinks and water fountains bubbling with potable water or edible food everywhere we look. Therefore, we’ll need to carry most or all of these things with us. The ‘best’ wilderness survival kit is probably a backpack full of quality camping gear. However, most of us aren’t willing to carry that load when day hiking, mountain biking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, riding ATV’s, hunting, horseback riding or any of the myriad other activities that carry us away from civilization.

The goal of a practical wilderness survival kit is therefore to address as many of our needs as possible and to do it in a format that we don’t mind carrying on our person while conducting outdoor activities. For some, this might be a small tin carried in a pocket, but these micro-kits don’t really address a lot of the most critical needs. For me, a belt pouch based kit is unobtrusive enough that I’m likely to carry it during outdoor activities. It is also big enough to really address human needs in the wild. I have several types of kits that I carry. Some are rudimentary, while some are very comprehensive. It really depends on where I’m headed. All of them are simple belt pouch based kits.

Belt pouch based kits

At this point, let’s define what your critical needs really are and why. The easiest way to do this (and to prioritize the order in which you should address them) is by using a simple maxim known as the “rule of threes”.

The rule of threes says:

  •    It takes as little as 3 minutes to die of severe injury.
  •    It takes as little as 3 hours to die of exposure.
  •    It takes as little as 3 days to die of thirst.
  •    It takes at least 3 weeks to die of hunger.

Your very first priority in a survival situation is to address immediate first aid needs. If you or a companion cannot breathe, or are bleeding profusely, death can come in as little as three minutes. You aren’t likely to carry a comprehensive medical kit everywhere you go, but a wilderness survival kit should have at least the basics of first aid such as bandages and the ability to make a tourniquet. If you travel far and wide on a regular basis, it’s a very good idea to learn the basics of first aid (establishing an airway, dealing with profuse bleeding, CPR, etc).

Next, we have to deal with the number one killer in wilderness survival situations: exposure. When people become lost, stuck or injured in wilderness settings, they might have been well dressed for a leisurely day in the woods, but when night falls or unexpected weather blows in, they find themselves in a very dangerous situation.

Television shows about survival like to show people building rudimentary brush shelters and other forms of shelter using materials at hand. However, building a weatherproof shelter from scratch is incredibly time consuming. It takes 18-24 inches of brush overhead to effectively shed rain. This means it might take many hours (and a lot of energy) to build a decent shelter. If you’re lost, night is fast approaching and a freezing rain starts to fall, you don’t have that many hours!

This is why my survival kits include a tarp made of very thin plastic. This can be draped over a line strung between trees to form a small tent or simply draped over a bush in a pinch. That means that you can erect a waterproof, windproof shelter in minutes, not hours!  As mentioned, it’s incredibly thin plastic, so I can fold a 9′ by 6′ tarp into a packet about half the size of a deck of cards.

Beyond simple shelter, you’ll likely need a fire. Those same survival shows often portray various methods of primitive fire starting (bow drills, hand drills, ploughs, etc). However, if the weather has come in hard and things are becoming ‘wet ‘n’ wild’, you’re NOT going to get a fire going using primitive methods. These may be fun skills to practice as an educational exercise in your back yard, but relying on these methods to make fire in an actual emergency is stupid and it’s a great way to wind up dead.

A good survival kit should have multiple means to quickly build a fire. There should be a lighter, not matches. There should be easily-lit tinder that burns for a long time. In essence, if you can’t use a kit’s fire starting materials when it’s cold, wet and windy, it’s a useless kit!

Once you’re settled into a shelter and have a sustainable fire going, you’re going to eventually need water. In a desert environment, death from dehydration can come in a few days. In most environments, it takes nearly a week. Again, you don’t want to rely on a single source or method here. A good kit should have multiple means of gathering water, and multiple means of purifying it for drinking. My kits are packed in metal cook pots which can be used for boiling water. They also contain a water purification kit that can treat many gallons of water even if you can’t boil it. Finally, they have re-sealable water bags to transport water should you need to bring it with you.

We will come to food procurement, but there’s something else that falls outside the rule of threes. It’s not really a survival ‘need’, and doesn’t fit neatly into the rule, but it is at least as important. This is signaling. If you’ve been a responsible adult when it comes to your outdoor activities, you’ve informed responsible people of exactly where you were headed, and exactly when you should return. This means there will be people looking for you!

Signaling means making your profile in the woods into something bigger, louder, brighter, and the more obnoxious the better! A good survival kit contains whistles, flashlights, strobe markers, bright and/or reflective items, mirrors, etc. If you were smart and told people where you were going, your survival situation will likely last a matter of hours, or maybe an uncomfortable overnight stay before you are found.

Forget about the survival shows on television where they portray wilderness survival as some kind of bug-eating contest. As I’ve pointed out, food is really your last priority. You’d have had to really screw up to be in any real danger of starvation. For most of us, skipping a few meals might not be a bad thing when all is said and done! I make this the last priority when constructing a wilderness kit. I have some fish hooks and line, some snare wire and some slingshot bands that can be used to quickly construct a variety of small game hunting tools (you can make a slingshot, a propelled fishing spear, or use as the ‘spring’ for a trap/snare). Some kits even contain a spearhead that can be quickly and securely mounted on a shaft and used for fishing and/or small to mid sized game.

One of my more comprehensive kits showing all contents. Note that everything nests into the cook pot, which slides into the belt pouch.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve imparted some common sense into this subject. That means informing folks of your intentions. It means having at least a basic fundamental understanding of wilderness survival kits and how to prioritize and fulfill your needs should you find yourself in trouble. Finally, it means maintaining at least a basic level of preparedness when heading into untamed regions. When buying or building your own kit, make sure it fills your needs and that it’s something you’ll actually carry. As with other essential day to day ‘carry’ items… it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it!

Written by Mike Forti . Mike is the owner and webmaster at www.m4040.com which is one of the top ranked wilderness survival websites. His practical approach to wilderness survival demystifies the subject and imparts common sense into a topic that is often filled with misleading or sensationalized information.

Images copyright Michael Forti

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  • nbuelow23

    Two words: dryer lint. Weighs practically nothing but will catch fire nearly instantly. I have it on me whether I am mountain biking single-track or going into the backcountry on a week long excursion. Keep it in a ziplock bag and it will never let you down.

    • I’ve used it in the past, however my kits all contain a packet with 10 petro-jelly fire starters. These will start with as little as a spark, and each one burns with a rather big flame for about 4-5 minutes… plenty of time to get a fire going, even in substandard weather conditions. The kits also contain an o-ring sealed micro lighter as well as a large ferrocerium rod, magnifying glass and other fire making tools.

      • HollowForm222

        Two more words Wax Paper. perfect for a survival kit.

    • To expand on your excellent point: Magnesium Fire Starter tool. Almost small enough to go on a keychain. This think puts off a little bit of a fireworks show when struck with steel. Also you can use flint with iron to strike it if you live in an area that has this kind of rock (which is also called “chert”). It is the same material you will find most Native American arrow heads and other tools where made out of, and can be used to conjure fire! 🙂

  • Thanks for the great post.

  • While I completely agree that we should all carry a backpack full of quality camping gear, or at least a well stocked belt kit, when we venture away from “civilization”, I cannot help but think that the tone of your article is too quick to dismiss primitive skills and techniques. As I’m sure you’re aware, there will ALWAYS be a few people who either will not bother to carry a backpack or belt kit with them, or will put down that pack and walk away from it then not be able to find it again, or will lose their supplies when they fall in the river or whatever. At that point knowing how to build a rudimentary brush shelter, no matter how much time and effort it takes, or knowing how to start a fire without matches or a lighter using primitive methods, or knowing which menu entries are best in the bug-eating contest may well be crucial. These skills could mean the difference between life and death because, no matter how much better it would be to have lighters and plastic sheeting, these items are of no use to you if you DON’T have them. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree that having these things with you in an emergency will always be better than NOT having them, given the option, but sometime we AREN’T given the option and knowing how to survive without such materials could save lives.

    • My website does show various brush shelters and discusses the fact that knowledge is in fact the most important bit of survival gear you’re packing. HOWEVER… relying on “primitive skills” in lieu of packing modern gear is a great way to wind up dead.

      Forget the silly stunts you’ve seen on TV… most of it is fiction anyways. Carry and/or wear decent gear, and it just might save your ass someday.

      • LuvtoHike

        Ya know I have read and or spoken to people of the “Old Days” about people all over the world, using or relying on “Primitive Skills”..
        In the majority of instances, they were “Miserable”..wet cold and hungry…survived perhaps…but I have tried both, and, try it it for yourself sometime…using the things available in today’s kits make life in the woods, incredibly more comfortable, even if it is a short time, but more so if the time goes beyond a few days…assuming no injuries..
        Rough it if you want to …I’m taking my kit…Nuff Said.

  • Bill and Missy

    Michael
    I’ve been reading and following http://www.m4040.com/ for years now. You might remember me asking if we could build and sell your kits ( to your standards) well before you decided to offer them.
    My wife and I have spent many days out in the woods in Oregon, California, Idaho and Washington. Every time we are out we practice what we’ve learned from your site. We feel fairly certain we could survive most situations that could come our way.
    Having gotten our starting knowledge from http://www.m4040.com/ we would like to thank you for taking the time to put it out there. We’ve read hundreds of other so called survival sites and found most to be lacking to the point of if you follow their advice you’ll make things worst.
    Great article Michael, Keep up the great work. As soon as we can we’ll be ordering from your site. There are some cool things there we would like to add to our kits.

    • Hey Bill,
      A LOT of folks were building my recommended kits over the years. That’s part of what prompted me to open the store. There were a lot of questions, and folks were spending a lot of money buying gear from a dozen or more different sources. I figured I could buy all the items in bulk and then sell my kits cheaper than folks could build them on their own.

      The first kit I built for myself worked out to nearly $150 in parts and all the various shipping charges. Now I can sell a much better kit than that one for about half the price (and make a few bucks on the side). This started out as a hobby, and has blossomed into a home business (all thanks to my wonderfully loyal customer base!).

      -Mike Forti (aka ‘M40’)

  • hi! Sir
    Love see on the web page hope can hear from you ?

  • LuvtoHike

    Gday Mike, I have several kits of yours , and have used them all, or parts combined for different length hikes…Great quality. simple to use, and twice in the last year, I have been damn glad I had them.
    Keep up the good work.
    Semper Fi!
    Robert–Grand Canyon, Az,

    • Robert, I’m so glad when I hear things like that. I’ve been carrying my own home-made kits for many years before I ever considered selling them. Having to use them on various occasions was how I realized just how essential certain bits of gear are and how useless others can be. It’s why my kits have things like micro-tarps and fail-proof means to start a fire. I know what it means to be miles from anywhere and to have a freezing rain blow in.

      In any case, I’m always glad to hear when one of my kits saves someone’s butt… or even if it just saves someone from getting their parade rained on.

  • The Frenchman

    Mike-It’s great to see and read a Survival site that makes Common Sense. As a Former Green Beret Desert
    Survival Instructor, I agree in part your approach on wilderness survival. Keep in mind that when shit hit’s the fan and one finds himself or herself LOST-the 1st thing people do is to say to themselves that this is not happening to me-and they keep going. Mostly in circles. Instead of sitting down and take inventory of what they have with them, and get ready to spend 24 to 48 hours in the wild. That’s IF they told someone where they were going and when they should be back. The four important items for staying put and wait for rescue is a Tarp (waterproof shealter),
    Fire starter or kit, water purification kit, Signal Mirror, and a Whistle. If Lost and with a Car-stay with the Car, if lost in the Desert-Hug a Cactus-stay put. The idea thay it can’t happen to me is bullshit. It happens to the best of us who love the outdoors.

  • Marcus Demetrius

    Don’t forget that clothing is the first level of shelter. Always have clothing with you or on you that is appropriate for whatever weather you’re going into. It may seem stylish and trendy to have shorts and a tank top, but if you don’t have a jacket, you’ll suffer a very chilly night, even in the summer in most places. Put some things in the trunk of your car. Have a raincoat or poncho. An extra pair of socks. A cap or hat.

    Suppose you’re somewhere between your town and wherever you are, on a back road and your car decides it’s had enough, and is giving up the ghost. You may find a driver who will help you, and you may not.

  • G2ctual

    I agree with everyone’s suggestions, and I have bought a lot of M40’s great gear. I would also recommend stuffing a large fold of aluminum foil into your kit. It has many uses, including making a “pan” to cook in or wrapping food to be baked in the ground beneath your campfire (your wilderness oven). Folds small and is reusable, weighs nothing and bends into shape for any corner of your kit. Also, a heavy-duty HEFTY contractor-duty garbage bag has a lot of practical uses when you’re in trouble. Heavy enough to collect and tote water, can be used as a 1/2 sleeping bag or a quick shelter or ground cloth, or even pulled over your head as an emergency defense against bees. Weighs little, scrunches up small and is reusable many times. A hot rock in the bottom of a HEFTY contractor bag will warm your feet/legs all night. Better than nothing.

    • Guest

      I purchased several loose items and prepared kits from m4040, for myself and my children as we like to go hike about in the Georgia mountains and parts of north florida. We do basically day hikes of a few hours duration (4-8 hrs at most) and stick to trails. However, in the event of merely getting lost or misjudging the time we are out, it’s is most comforting to have the items on hand.
      Have also taken a few ‘ wilderness survival ‘ classes…. just in case as well !

  • Tony

    I was so fascinated by these kits!!! I just bought one for the Jeep!!!

  • LuvtoHike

    Totally agree! Lint ( Dryer) or your pocket, or you sock, wherever …maybe even your film can…mixed with Petro Jelly (lots of sources) I keep mine separate until use..just my preference…fire steel (or a Bic) and you have fire…I have done , when wet cold tired, and it always works..Nuff Said.
    Great Kits M40…keep up the good work…
    Semper Fi.
    Robert S

    • Rms

      Agreed! Lint..Cotton balls…a lil Petrol Jelly, and i have started a fire in cold windy rainy weather…with little fuel supply…a gratifying day!!!
      I have an m40 kit, and just think it is very functional..