Top Items for Wilderness Survival
Survival comes down to knowledge, thinking ahead, and being prepared -- whether it’s having the tools needed to react to a tough situation, or the skills and training needed to make it work. The only difference between a real survival situation and an environment we are able to thrive in is our level of preparedness. When we are caught off guard, we must adapt as soon as possible to reduce the amount of harm during that transition process. The more ready we are, the less time needed to adjust in order to avoid danger.
With this in mind, there are certain things you should always carry with you if possible or otherwise somewhere readily accessible such as your vehicle. This is especially important any time you go out in the wilderness such as a hunting, fishing or camping trip. But you should also have these things handy whenever possible in case of an emergency such as transportation issues, extreme weather conditions, natural disasters, etc.
1. Large Backpack
If something does happen and you are away from transportation or your vehicle breaks down, you may soon have to travel by foot in order to reach civilization or to get food and water. So obviously the first thing you’ll need is a large backpack or rucksack to carry the rest of your survival gear with you. You’ll want one that distributes the weight of your equipment as evenly as possible to reduce fatigue. Therefore one with padded shoulder straps as well as a chest and waist strap is highly recommended. You’ll also want to be able to carry, sort, and easily access as much gear as possible. So a backpack featuring the MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) system to maximize the carry customization and capacity is also an important factor. Our Rush Elite Assault Pack and Recon Rucksack are both excellent options designed with this type of scenario in mind.
2. Survival Knife
A high quality survival knife is absolutely critical as it can and should cover a wide variety of different uses such as bushcraft, and skinning, slicing, and dressing game. The primary purpose of this knife won't be self-defense, so the main features you’re looking for are something that is thick enough not to break easily even under intense use, but thin enough to make precise cuts, and something that is hard enough to retain an edge but soft enough to sharpen and not be brittle. It should also be full-tang fixed blade for strength because a survival knife needs to be reliable which is why we don’t recommend the popular Morakniv Bushcraft for this purpose. Also a survival knife should ideally be made out of carbon steel rather than stainless steel because it generates sparks more easily for starting fires.
For these reasons we consider a quality survival knife that can fulfill all necessary roles and specifications very important and worth a moderate price tag. So we highly recommend the ESEE-4 (in carbon steel), which starts around $90-100. If this is out of your budget, we suggest the Glock 81 Field Knife for its extreme durability at close to just $30. Although it lacks some precision, it's virtually indestructible, easy to sharpen, and also makes a great self defense weapon. It was originally designed as a bayonet attachment for the Austrian army and is still being used by militaries around the world. It also features a small, hallow compartment inside the handle sealed with a waterproof plug as the pommel that can be used to store items like matches, tinder, etc, or be used to connect the knife to a stick to create a hunting and fishing spear.
Although a well built and designed survival knife can fulfill a variety of bushcraft tasks, it can’t compare to the chopping power of a hatchet. A hatchet is a lightweight axe with a short handle designed to be operated with one hand. This makes it considerably easier to carry than a two-handed axe, thus more practical for survival situations. Hatchets are great at chopping and splitting wood, hacking through bone, and felling trees. They are great for gathering and preparing firewood, and creating and improving shelter. The Husqvarna 19 and Snow & Nealley Hudson Bay are both good compact hatchet options in the $75 range, though the Husqvarna head feels a bit heavy for the handle length. For those who don't feel like spending that much on a survival axe, the Schrade SCAXE2L and SCAXE2 are both decent options costing about $50 and $30 respectively.
You can use a folding saw to cut softer wood and save a lot of energy that way, but it lacks the versatility of the hatchet and should never replace one. Also, don’t replace a hatchet with a tactical shovel or e-tool. As far as chopping is concerned, compared to hatchets, they just don't cut it.
4. Warm Clothing
Seemingly common sense but easily overlooked, you obviously wouldn’t fare that well stranded outdoors without warm clothes. So keep a spare set of warm clothes with you for emergencies. A fleece-lined jacket, set of thermals, insulated overalls, wool or fleece socks, adjustable balaclava, and gloves is recommended. Also on the subject of clothing, a boonie hat is great for keeping both the sun and rain out of your face.
First used for parachute suspension in WWII, paracord is a strong, lightweight and compact cord, typically rated to support 550-lbs and used by various military organizations for general light utility harnessing purposes. It was even once used in the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope. Genuine mil-spec 550 paracord has 7 inner cords each made up to 3 nylon strands and is labeled as MIL-C-5040 Type III. The cord is thin and flexible enough to handle a variety of tasks yet still very strong. In fact, paracord has a plethora of survival uses. It can be used to tie a tarp against a tree to create shelter, tie gear to your backpack, replace broken straps, the individual strands can be removed and used as thread or fishing line, or it can be melted to seal small tears in clothing. One of my favorite uses is to make a pulley by hanging it over a tree limb then tying a bag to elevate food and keep bears and raccoons from taking it while you’re sleeping. Some others are tying logs or branches together to create a tarp teepee, creating a bow string for the bow and drill method of starting a fire, or making a bow and arrow, a snare trap, or a bola for hunting. The applications are really innumerable. We recommend storing two seperate 50 ft. bundles, as a single 100 ft. bundle is much more difficult to manage. When cutting paracord, make sure to light the ends with fire until they melt so they don’t fray.
6. Poncho Tarp
A poncho tarp is a poncho that doubles as a traveling rain cover garment and a lightweight, portable, waterproof shelter. Tarps are usually used in conjunction with trekking poles to serve as tent poles to elevate your tarp and also hike with to take some load off your back during the day. A collapsible set such as our Highland Telescopic Trekking Pole Set works best obviously for a survival kit. You can also improvise poles for your tarp with sticks you find in the wild, or simply lay the tarp over you directly if you're not claustrophobic. A tarp is much lighter and easy to carry than a tent. It does require a bit of practice setting up, but is quick and easy once you get the hang of it. It provides essential cover from rain, snow, wind, and sun, though in many environments for warmth you'll also need the next item on this list.
7. Ultralight Bivy Sack
A bivy sack is essentially a lightweight outer shell to protect against the elements and provide an extra layer of insulation for your sleeping bag. Bivys are a minimalist form of shelter that offer less space than tents, but come with many practical advantages. They take up less space, meaning they can be set up virtually anywhere. With tents, you need to find or clear a sufficient flat space to pitch it. If you are used to campgrounds, this may seem trivial or even strange, but in a survival situation without preconditioned camp areas that are flattened and cleared of trees, foliage, roots, rocks, etc, that extra luxury will quickly become a tiring liability. There are a variety of ultralight bivys with various features, at various price points, on the market. At $40, easily a fraction of many competitor costs, the SOL Escape Lite gets the job done just fine.
8. Sleeping Bag
Another essential is of course a sleeping bag. A survival sleeping bag has 4 basic requirements. It should be portable, lightweight, and retain as much heat as possible. Given that most survival situations are unplanned, we stress a bag that is suitable for all seasons and approved for 10°F or lower. We also suggest synthetic bags because not only are they significantly cheaper than down bags , but they also work better when damp. And sleeping bags trap a lot of moisture over extended use. Synthetic bags also dry faster. You’ll want a “mummy” shaped sleeping bag rather than a rectangular one to reduce the weight and compressed size of the bag as much as possible for optimal carry. A more minimalist option that is even more compact and lightweight is an emergency PE sleeping bag.
9. Ferrocerium Rod and Magnesium Bar
Both the ferro rod and mag bar are great fire starter tools. There’s also the softer modern ferro rods called mischmetal or firemetal that are simply lower in iron and higher in magnesium content than normal ferro rods. The advantage of a ferrocerium rod is that it produces sparks easier than a magnesium bar. The advantage of magnesium is that the shavings ignite better and it’s more resilient towards extreme cold. Mischmetal can be thought of as a hybrid between the two, but because it is softer it doesn’t last as long as a normal ferro rod. Because the mag bar and ferro rod both play different roles in starting a fire, it is best to carry both. A ferro rod will often be sufficient to start a fire if you have the right tinder, but if not shaving off some magnesium and mixing it with the tinder before striking the rod can make all the difference in more cold or wet conditions.
Slingshots are very lightweight and portable, making them a great hunting tool for survival situations, where mobility is important. They can’t only shoot pebbles or steel shot but also arrows, so they are capable of taking down larger game such as hogs or deer with enough penetration to track them if using broadheads. They can even be used for shallow water fishing. The Trumark Folding Slingshot is a good choice. It is lightweight, collapsible, extremely accurate, and can typically be found for under $20.
11. Emergency First Aid Kit
A lot of survival situations will start from disasters that come with serious injury. Likewise injury can easily occur in the wild during hiking or routine survival tasks. If you end up severely hurt without the ability to treat yourself, other forms of survival preparation are then much less likely to do you any good. Your first aid kit should vary based on your individual medical needs, environment, and what types of medical issues you are more likely to encounter, the number of people you may travel with, etc. That said, for immediate life threatening conditions such as hemorrhages and pneumothorax that account for most preventable deaths from injuries, you will want a CoTCCC approved tourniquet such as a TMT or CAT, 2 chest seals (for both entry and exit wound), hemostatic gauze such as Z-Fold Combat Gauze, an Israeli pressure bandage, as well as an emergency space blanket to prevent hypothermia, and everyday treatment equipment like small bandages, saline wound wash, triple antibiotic ointment, tweezers, painkillers, and any medications you may need. With all that said, all these items should be accompanied with proper training in order for them to be effective. Don’t let a comprehensive kit lull you into a false sense of security if you don’t know how to use it. Lastly, we don‘t recommend snake bite kits. Pump extractors are only effective if the fangs don’t penetrate muscle tissue, in which case the threat level is already very low. And very few toxic snake bites in North America lead to death.
12. Hand Crank Flashlight
In an emergency situation you need a light source that will last, and a battery, USB, or solar powered flashlight or headlamp while useful is no replacement to a hand crank dynamo light that can be recharged anywhere and at night (when you need it). You want a light with a sturdy and large enough hand crank to use efficiently. and sufficient lumination to actually help see around you. Our Aegis Solar/Hand Crank Radio-Flashlight is made of lightweight polymer, shines 2000 lumens, and also features solar charging, USB powerbank, and AM/FM radio and NOAA Weather Radio. For so much utility in one small package, it’s a great deal at just $44.99.
13. Needle and Thread
Whenever you’re hiking through dense forest or exposed to the elements for an extended period of time, eventually you’ll wind up with torn clothing. If not stitched immediately, even a tiny rip can quickly expand, soon ruining the clothing, especially with lots of physical activity which puts more stress on the fabric. Other gear like backpacks, pouches, and sleeping bags are also susceptible to tearing again making them useless over time if you can’t repair them in a timely fashion. A needle and thread can also be used to stitch serious cuts to skin. You should carry a regular straight sewing needle for repairing your gear as well as a curved needle for stitching up wounds.
14. Hydration Bladder
The higher the temperature, the more physically active you are, and the more stress you are under, the quicker your body will sweat and dehydrate. Hydration bladders are a great option for carrying water because the weight is naturally balanced like a backpack, they are lightweight with very large capacity compared to water bottles, and they are hands free. Collapsible water bags are also useful to carry to store extra water since they take up very little space until filled, but they can be awkward and easily dropped, and are susceptible to puncture or wear. Hydration bladders, given their reliability, capacity and weight advantage are by far the best water option in a survival kit. Peritian offers a durable Oxford cloth reinforced 3 liter version for only $29.99 which can be found here.
15. Water Filter
Drinking unsterilized water is extremely dangerous. It can contain microbial toxins and protozoan parasites that can cause a variety of serious diseases as well as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, fever, and death. A water filter is absolutely critical to emergency survival. A good water filter should be lightweight and compact. There are a variety that filter 99.99% of bacteria and protozoa on the market. Our favorite is the Sawyer Mini because it weights only 2 ounces and is compatible with Sawyer’s Fast Fill Adapter which makes refilling filtered water into a hydration pack much less of a hassle. It also comes with a 16 oz collapsible pouch.
16. Topographical Map and Compass
Topographical maps though they require a bit of study in order to understand provide a number of benefits. They can show you where to find water, trails, roads and railways, buildings, peaks to survey the land around you, flat land, especially plateaus or “benches.” to set up camp, how to avoid thick vegetation or steep uphill or downhill land when navigating to a certain destination, which direction a waterway flows, as well as infer animal migration paths based on topography for big game hunting or avoiding predators. Obviously, having a compass makes navigating with a map much easier. When choosing a compass, it’s recommended you look for one that’s waterproof, features an aluminum frame to protect the lens, as well as a magnifying glass for starting fires.
17. Billy Pot
The billy can or pot is a simple but versatile utensil that can be used for a wide variety of jobs. It can be used for collecting water and boiling it for disinfecting and/or cooking. It can be used to store anything you don’t want to dirty cloth with such as meat, fish, plants, or bugs. It can also be used as a trap by placing it against a rodent, lizard or insect hole, or be used to catch crustaceans by tying cord around it, setting bait in, then placing it in the water and waiting, then pulling it up. It can even be used for digging, transporting fire, or as a mirror. The great thing about the billy can is that because it can be used to boil water, it’s the only thing you can dirty and always disinfect without soap, alcohol, etc. Also a tip for cleaning grease out of your billy can without wasting water is to pack it with dry dirt to absorb the grease then dump it out until the grease is gone before rinsing it out with a small amounts of water, until the water is clear. This will not disinfect the pot, but it will clean it until you are ready to boil water the next time you plan on using it to cook.
An e-tool or entrenchment tool is a multipurpose compact, fold up device that can function as a shovel, spade, hoe, axe, pickaxe, rake, and saw. It can also be used as a frying pan, grappling hook, oar, boat anchor, snow tent anchor, machete, or self defense weapon. It’s useful for digging holes for campfires, clearing rocks and vegetation for campsites and improving insulation, burying human waste to avoid attracting animals at night, or using as an anchor to hang food from a tree to prevent animals from stealing it. My favorite e-tool on the market is the Glock Entrenching Tool. It’s design is unique compared to others because it has a single adjustable folding joint and then a telescopic handle which makes it much more compact as well as providing more handle length. The handle is made of polymer just like Glock pistols, making it much lighter than many similar e-tools. Rather than serrations on one side of the head, the Glock e-tool has a nice sawblade built into the handle you can access by unscrewing the butt and then reattaching it inverted to make a very sturdy full size saw. The tip of the saw also functions as a flat-head screwdriver and can adjust the tension of the e-tool itself. The Glock e-tool only costs about $45.
19. Emergency Food and Water
I try to keep jerky, trail mix and water in my car at all times so I'm always able to refuel my body when needed. But these all expire quickly and therefore require careful maintenance and aren't reliable enough for a dedicated emergency kit. So it's important to carry some sealed emergency water pouches and dried food with a long shelf life that is high in calories and protein yet compact and light. With 651 calories and 23g of protein per cup, 354 calories and 12g of protein per 100 grams, as well as an 18 to 24 month shelf life, hulled barley is a great choice. It also has lots of selenium (a strong antioxidant) and fiber, particularly beta-glucan soluble fiber that slows glucose absorption for steady energy throughout the day. And it can be mixed with meat or vegetables to make delicious pilaf. Other good options are oatmeal, peanut powder, and sunflower seeds.
Here are some honorable mentions or small items that are also highly useful in a survival kit. A mini pencil sharpener is great for turning small twigs and branches into very fine tinder easily. A Bic lighter and waterproof matches are good for making fire in a hurry. A lighter will last longer, whereas the matches are of course waterproof as well as more reliable in extreme cold. Safety pins are useful for temporarily fixing torn clothing in a hurry and are reusable. Grimloc locking D-rings are lightweight and excellent for quickly attaching and detaching light gear to MOLLE webbing and other D-rings built onto gear. They are strong but still made of plastic, so you may want to carry a few steel carabiners as well. Web dominators are straps useful for quickly tying things, such as a tarp when setting up camp, or securing straps or hydration pack tubing from moving around and getting in the way when traveling. A fishing hook and line can be used to trap fish, birds, rodents and other small creatures.
Not everyone will need everything on this list, but my goal was to be fairly comprehensive. Adjust this advice to your own needs based on your environment. Also, keep in mind that not all this gear needs to fit in your backpack. Some can be attached to the outside, carried on your hip, etc.
About the Author
Joshua Thompson is an avid shooter, hunter, and outdoorsman with years of practical experience and knowledge. He is the founder, owner, and lead developer of Peritian. He is also the chief of Front-Line Protective Services, a Texas-based security company specializing in high risk armed accounts. In his spare time Joshua enjoys honing his self-reliance skills and researching practical information to expand his area of expertise.