Preparation and planning go a long way toward strengthening your psychological state and arming you with the tools you need to make it through a crisis alive and well. And for all the planning and preparation you will do in advance of your wilderness adventure, nothing seems so necessary in those dire moments as having a well-equipped survival kit.
Most outdoorspeople take the time to have the basic equipment when they head into the backcountry, such as a tent, a stove, and proper clothing. Survival is no different. Your survival kit may be the single most important thing you carry with you on any expedition.
I’ve ventured into the world’s remote areas with a huge variety of survival gear: fully stocked survival kits, basic whatever-I-can-carry survival kits, and quite often with no kit at all. Survival items have dangled from my belt or hung around my neck. They’ve been in fanny packs I barely noticed and fanny packs so heavy I preferred not to carry them (but did anyway).
How you set up your survival kit is only limited by your imagination. Why not fill the hollow end of your fishing rod with a lighter and some kind of ignitable tinder, like cotton balls? Or if you’re a mountain biker, you can easily pop off your handlebar grips and fill your handle bars with a few choice items. I’ve even had a kit that was drilled into the stock of a rifle.
It is so very tempting, when faced with the concept of surviving in the wilderness, to want to carry with you the ultimate survival item. However, nailing it down to just one or two things to throw in your pockets is tricky, given the variables involved in outdoor adventure and especially in British Columbia. Yet all I really want to do is head out in the great outdoors and carry with me a few items that, just in case I need them, will better my chances for survival. So what do I grab? Well it all depends. Are you going to be in the mountains, walking fields, in a bucolic forest setting, at the side of a river? What’s the activity and what time of year is it?
Suffice it to say, there is no one item that will ensure you make it back with great photos, all your limbs intact and the movie rights to your story up for grabs.
If you are sending me off on a winter trek in Canada and you are giving me three choices, I will likely take a sharp axe, a waterproof butane lighter and, as long as I am dressed properly, a small pot to boil water in. So you see, assuming I’m not injured, I have a way to split wood, make a huge fire and boil up some spruce tea. In the summer, I will trade in the axe for a good tarp or possibly mosquito netting. This is the minimalist approach, however. The ideal is as follows:
First, let’s get these items in your pockets. You can’t leave your pockets at the last campsite. If you really must, a fanny pack can carry the larger items, but remember: if it is too big and heavy, you will just not want to carry it around with you. Oh, and couples – one other thing: do not have a joint survival kit. Keep it personal. If your partner has the kit, and you lose him or her somehow, you lose the kit.
Leaving out first aid, because we’ll keep that separate, here’s my minimum kit for survival only. Keep this separate from your camping supplies.
In pockets or hanging from your belt:
High-quality, sharp belt knife and a Swiss Army-style knife with a saw blade
Solid matches with striker in a waterproof container
Magnesium flint striker (hey, I like fires!)
One or two large, orange garbage bags
Metal cup (for boiling)
Rope (parachute cord is great)
In a small kit or fanny pack (try a coffee tin with a lid – you can use it for boiling):
Insect screen (seasonal)
Small flashlight with batteries
Fishing lures (three), hooks, sinkers and line
Small folding saw
Survivorman’s top five:
Something to start a fire with
Something to boil water in
A form of shelter
A hunting or fishing device
Something to split wood with
You must know how to use everything in your kit.
Actual victims of survival have been asked time and again what they felt was the number one thing you need to survive in the wilderness. The answer: (and you can’t buy it at the outdoor store) the will to live.
There are documented cases of lost victims found dead beside a backpack of supplies. They lost their will to live. There are also fantastic stories of people suffering horrendous ordeals with nothing and they survived. Their will to live was strong.
No single item is as important as some real survival training. Kits can be lost and give a false sense of security. Survival should depend on your ability to adapt and your will to live, not on a single item you left back on the portage trail.
Take Responsibility For Your Own Survival
While teaching survival courses, early in the week I would announce to my students that we were going for a wilderness hike the next morning. When they asked me what they should take along, I would casually tell them, “Whatever you think you need for a hike in the bush.”
Then, about midway through the hike, I would stop and ask everyone to show me what they had brought with them. There was always one person armed to the teeth with survival gear. A few more would have a few basic survival items, and a few who had basically nothing.
I was always struck by how many people would go out not expecting the unexpected. Here we are, hiking into the middle of the bush, and they had carried absolutely nothing to help them if disaster struck. Sure, chances are nothing bad would happen; but when you’re in the wilderness, you don’t have the luxury of knowing when and where you’re going to be separated from your partners. Remember: You can trust your guide and your partner, but don’t rely on them.
You could become separated from your partner in a heartbeat. The creation (and possession) of a survival kit is a personal undertaking, and one that should never be left to another person, no matter how close you are to them. Disaster often strikes in mysterious ways in the wilderness, and to be left alone without these few simple items is to court death.
Make It Yourself
When it comes to survival kits, most of us are faced with two possible options: buy a pre-fab kit at your local outdoors store or make it yourself. As far as I’m concerned, there is no question which route you should choose. Make your own survival kits.
There are a few reasons for this. First and foremost, you have to remember that the primary motivation for the company that makes the pre-fab kit is profit, not necessarily your survival. Therefore, they’re going to try to cut costs whenever possible.
This means you are not going to have the best of everything in the kit. Something in there is going to be cheap, unnecessary, and take up precious room and weight. It might be the flimsy plastic whistle that cracks the first time you drop it, or the matches that snap when you try to strike them, but ultimately something will let you down when you need it most.
The second reason for not buying a pre-fab kit is that most people never become truly acquainted with the proper use of its individual items. Why? Because they trust it and never even open the kit after they buy it. They just throw it into their day-pack and forget about it, feeling assured they have done the right thing by just bringing a survival kit.
Finally, I have yet to see a pre-fab kit that contains all the right items from top to bottom. Your personal survival kit should be based on the suggestions I make in this chapter, but ultimately it should be your own creation, and one that takes into account the region you’ll be travelling in, the season, weather risks, and the activity you’ll be doing; and if you are leading others, are you prepared to help the group survive.
My strong recommendation is that you purchase these items individually, so you know you’ve bought something that will stand up to the rigors of a survival situation. In addition, the mere fact that you take the time to buy it increases the chances that you’re going to check it out, make sure it works and make sure you know how to use it.