One of the problems we face when putting together a good survival kit is that the more scenarios and conditions we prepare for, the larger our kit grows. We start out with a kit that could hang onto a belt, we finish with a Radio Flyer loaded down with “essentials.” So we either have to just embrace the wagon load of gear or accept that there are going to be limitations in each kit we create. Several years ago, I went about building a mini survival kit that would be built to fit into a metal Altoids mint tin since they are cheap, durable, and pocket sized, and as a bonus- filled with mints. The following is the description of a pretty basic kit design. It’s nothing revolutionary and for people well-versed in outdoor survival, familiar territory. However, this is one of the basics and will be one of the first projects my son (3yoa) and I will put together when he gets to that point. Likewise, for anyone who is just dabbling in wilderness survival or is preparing for a first backpack trip, I hope there is some information in the details below that might be of some value along the way!
Starting out, I wanted to be sure I covered the fundamentals. If there was extra room, then I’d add more stuff from there. I wanted it to be cheap enough that I could build several without breaking the bank so that I could throw them in my vehicles, packs, pockets, maybe even a buried cache or two.
My essential needs and thought processes I wanted addressed by the kit were:
- Fire – regardless of season, being able to build a fire is fundamental. As a source of warmth, illumination, cooking, water purification, and rescue visibility, fire was my starting point. I had to have a reliable and durable method for fire starting.
- Water – since our ability to function, both physically and mentally, diminishes as our bodies dehydrate, water can be every bit, and sometimes more, important that fire. My main interest was being able to purify natural water with or without fire.
- Shelter – this is the toughest one to fit in a compact design. The goal is protection from elements, but because of size limits, I knew it probably wasn’t going to look like a traditional shelter exactly.
- Food – the longest I have gone without food is four days during survival training in central Texas, and I know the human body is capable of much more than that, so I consider the other three factors more pressing in a survival situation. I rank this the least important of the survival kit necessities, but your stomach will likely disagree after a day or so. Like water, as your body becomes starved for nutrition, your functioning can become less coordinated and reliable.That said, your window of response in feeding yourself is a lot larger than your window to hydrate yourself.
Like I said, cost was a big consideration as I put this thing together. There have been upgrades along the way, and there are some upgrades that would be great that I haven’t sprung for yet. To address the need for fire, I went with a very basic magnesium fire starter pretty much identical to this one. Lighters are cheap and easy, but they also aren’t reliable enough for my kit. Since they are made of plastic and liquid fuel reliant, it is too easy to break or leak. The magnesium bar is not fancy, nor is it extremely easy. Practice with it a few times before you close up your survival tin. You don’t want to have to learn how to use it for the first time while your fingers are numb and freezing.
Having several options in relation to water is always good. While camping I always bring along a metal cup with which I can boil water to purify. Since the cup won’t fit in my pocket kit, I chose potable aqua tablets. They are simple to use, tiny, and kill just about every contaminant that might be in water. Some people are irritated by the taste of the water, but I don’t find it particularly unpleasant – especially when I am thirsty. In fact, these aren’t just in my survival kit. They are also my default method to purify water when backpacking too. I haven’t been able to justify with myself dropping $100 on a high quality filter just yet when these things are so cheap and functional.
Shelter is tough. There is so much variation geographically, that coming up with a compact, all weather shelter that is efficient and reliable for a variety of climates is very difficult. Since I live in a pretty mild climate, I initially went with a superlight (but also superthin and tearable) poncho. My thought process was that I could either wear the poncho as a substitute for a shelter, or rig the poncho with line and sticks into a very small tent/tarp style setup. In the end, I felt that the poncho took up too much valuable room in my kit so it is gone. The space could be better used with items who value would outweigh that of the poncho. With that said, my efforts went into learning to use foliage and naturally occurring shelter materials instead. It’s a gamble in some folk’s mind to not have any form of shelter or protection from the elements, but I just don’t know of existing shelter method that is compact and light enough to work in a supersmall kit like this. My opinion is that you are better served learning, and then relying on, primitive shelter methods than putting your faith in a compact poncho or space blanket type “shelter.”
The last item of necessity for my kit was food. Since a single Cliff bar pretty much maxes out my kit by itself, I opted for a couple of items that would hopefully let me acquire wild food instead. First, fishing line and small hooks. I put in a good bit of fishing line with the thought that line does break when hooks get stuck, you can put in multiple hooks and lines trot-line style, and it could also be used for snares. In the kit also went a small coil of thin steel wire (much better than fishing line) specifically for snares. A couple of food related additions that I think could be of value would be small, laminated cards detailing snare trigger diagrams, and some edible plant ID cards.
That wrapped up the essentials to my kit. Fortunately, I still had room enough for several other tools, but not much. The remaining room was filled in with two alcohol wipes, pulsar LED light, mini compass, some dryer lint for fire tinder, several waterproof matches, a few split-shot sinkers, and a knife. The knife I used was a Spyderco Dragonfly because I already owned this small knife, but the Turley Model 23 is kind of the ultimate kit knife in my opinion. The Swiss Army Classic is the right size too and comes with a file, tweezers, scissors, and toothpick as well. Don’t skimp on the knife! It’s the most expensive thing in my kit, but is used for three of my most important survival concerns: fire, shelter, and food plus many other secondary survival skills so having a quality one in there is very important.
I’ve seen lots of other cool additions that people have added to their own tins: signal mirrors, pain killers, hand sanitizer, wire saws, etc. All good stuff. Build your own kit with the items and tools you’re comfortable using. If the cheap fire starter I use just works like garbage for you, check out fire pistons or mini ferro rods. My kit is an explanation of just that – my kit. Yours will likely need to vary from mine in some way(s). The exercise is designed to do two things – boil down your necessities to the bare, portable essentials, and work your mind into the direction of a “survival strategy.” Oh, and one more thing. This kit isn’t really your survival kit. It is the backup to your survival kit. So don’t keep it inside your backpack/bag. Keep it somewhere separate like a pants pocket while hiking or whatever. If you lose your backpack and gear, hopefully you at least managed to hang onto your pants. That is an important survival skill for another day!
Does your survival kit differ? Do you carry it in something other than a tin? Leave a comment with contents suggestions, or send me a pic of your kit. It may get posted here!