As a former member of the United States Army with extensive close quarters battle and self defense experience and a very long list of other survival skills acquired before, during and after my service, I feel it is morally correct to dispel as many myths about survival as I possibly can, and hopefully save many lives.
I served honorably and upon completion of my contract, left the military to find a new purpose in life. I am in no way taking any credit away from our military and those who still serve, but all of this tactical chaos everyone is into is complete garbage unless you have been properly trained AND experienced.
Combat experience trumps training and nothing can compare. That being said, unless you know combat, leave it alone. I will be offering 2 lists in this article. List one will discuss 15 items I feel are essential to real world survival, and list two will discuss 15 survival tips that I feel should be priority.
This article is meant to be read with an open mind, and a complete understanding that this is REAL WORLD survival and not some prepping from television filling your head with useless junk. The most likely survival situation will last 72 hours give or take (learn about the best 72 survival kits if you don’t already have one). The doomsday scenarios are (while not impossible) very unlikely and it is much more worth BEING PREPARED for ANY situation rather than constantly PREPPING for ONE situation.
A few other points I would like to make are that this article is the most basic rundown and a lot of extensive training goes in to making this an effective system. Also, the items and tips I am including are my personal preference, from my personal experiences, and I urge everyone to find their own preference, these are only guidelines. And finally, this article is geared toward helping those with little or no experience in the field, I am taking nothing away from others who hold similar knowledge.
Before you hit the wilderness remember to always let at least 2 responsible adults know where you are going and be properly prepared with the appropriate wilderness & bushcraft gear. Another person being around to help in the case of an emergency (e.g an injury or becoming lost) goes a long way towards being able to survive in the wilderness.
15 Essential Survival Items
1. Morakniv Companion (with at least one extra)
Not tactical, draws little or no attention, carbon steel, sturdy, lightweight, and compact. Can also be carried almost anywhere without anyone of authority caring. I carry one as a neck knife and one on my belt by using a small piece of webbing as a belt loop. For more comprehensive knife recommendations, see our list of the best survival knives.
2. Bic lighter (at least two)
A simple Bic lighter is an adequate survival lighter and can be used to create a quick fire, works after days of water submersion, can make fire even without fluid, lightweight, and compact.
NOTE: To make fire with a “broken” Bic lighter, you simply slowly roll the wheel over the flint without causing sparks. Every 10 or so turns, dump the flint dust into a tinder bundle or onto a surface where it can be collected until you have roughly a pea-size pile at least. This dust will then take the spark from the lighter and if done properly will ignite your tinder. I always take my knife, blade down, and create cotton shavings off of any cotton material I have, or you can pick cotton pieces off of your socks if they are cotton. Mix the cotton and flint powder to double the success rate of this method of fire.
Alternatively, you might also want to think about carrying a ferrocerium rod with you. Ferro rods can produce sparks even in wet and windy conditions, which make them a great backup option. See our list of the best ferro rod firestarters here.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: You might also be interested in learning how to make a torch
3. Mylar Blanket (at least two)
Emergency shelter, use to harvest water, use to signal, lightweight, and compact.
4. Any small first aid kit with at least two Combat Application Tourniquets.
It’s obvious why this important. Can be made lightweight and compact to preference. Tourniquets are the most important first aid item. Almost everything else can be improvised and all snake bite kits are useless because even the “suction” device kits cause necrosis and remove such small amounts of venom that it’s just time wasted that could be used seeking help. For snake bites and other venomous animals, have a black Sharpie marker in your first aid kit to circle the swelling as it grows and write the time or estimated elapsed time on each line for emergency personal to reference. Here’s a more in depth list of emergency first aid supplies if you’re interested.
5. Stainless steel cup, Klean Kanteen Kid’s 12 ounce stainless steel water bottle with loop cap (filled with water from home) and a water bag (I prefer Nalgene 96 ounce water bags)
All three items are lightweight and compact and the reason I use all three is the fact that I can avoid cross contamination. It’s all about preference but I suggest carrying your unpurified water in the bag since you can carry more, then using the cup to boil or otherwise purify it, and the bottle for drinking and to transport 12 ounces of purified water once you’ve reached a good level of hydration and are ready to carry on. Use cloth or any filter-like materials when putting water into the bag. Also, I avoid emergency water distillers and other unnecessary survival techniques. Keep it simple. The Klean Kanteen is stainless and allows you to boil water as well, just remember to remove the lid.
6. Headlamp with extra batteries tightly wrapped in three small freezer bags
Hands free light may not be the most essential survival tool in your kit, but you will thank yourself for bringing it. I just buy the cheap Rayovak headlamps at Wal-Mart, they’re lightweight and compact and I have yet to have an issue.
7. 400 grit sandpaper
You can carry a small knife sharpener, but the sand paper is a weight and space saver and gives you a quick touch up, especially with the carbon steel blades like the Morakniv 510. A knife sharpener is very important because a dull knife can cause an injury that can cause an infection that can cause bigger problems than just being lost in Yellowstone.
8. A small snack supply that will not melt and does not contain a lot of salt
Although food isn’t an immediate need, a small snack can get your mind back on track, energy levels up, and it’s always nice to know “Hey, I have that snack in my kit if I really need it.” Pick something off our list of the best survival foods if you’re not sure what to carry.
9. Cordage (550 paracord or really any type of strings and ropes are great)
Compact, lightweight, can be used for a million tasks including shelter construction, fishing, setting traps, and the list goes on forever. Don’t go with just your boot laces and expect that to suffice. 550 cord boot laces is cool and all, but why give up foot security when you can just pack an extra few ounces of cordage? The best way to carry around a decent length of paracord is to get one of the best survival bracelets that we recommend. It’s a super lightweight way to carry around a ton of cordage around your wrist any time you’re in the outdoors.
10. Extra socks (2 pairs)
You would be absolutely amazed at what a change of socks can do for your morale. Plus a clean pair of socks can make a decent quick filter if the water isn’t too dirty.
11. Personal keychain alarm (2)
Use these to be heard without using extra energy. I suggest only using them if you can hear people but cannot see them. Or if you are injured, use one by pulling the chain and tossing away from you so you can still hear people or any approaching threats. Think of this concept as the same used by firefighters when they go down inside a building. A pealess whistle is a great supplement to the alarms.
12. Blaze orange hunting vest (2)
The cheap blaze orange vests found at Wal-Mart increase your visibility, especially from the air. I do not suggest a signal mirror because they can break and become useless, also a signal mirror may not help if skies are overcast. Wear one vest and use the other as a flag to wave at aircraft or ships or whoever you may see searching for you.
13. Emergency information
Keep a laminated card containing information listing at least 5 emergency contacts, current prescription medications, allergy information, and any other information you feel may be of any importance to your rescuers. Also, always have your medications with you, even if you don’t take them every day or just once a day.
14. Compass and map
A compass and map is compact and lightweight and could allow you to lead yourself to rescue if you are physically able to do so. These items can also lead you to water and areas of high visibility. You want a compass that is accurate, reliable, and sturdy. See our list of the best survival compasses and pick one of those, they won’t lead you wrong.
15. Firearm (where allowed)
I suggest a 12 gauge PUMP ACTION shotgun (because pump actions are the most reliable) and that anyone sensitive to the recoil practice until they can handle it. In a regular situation, you’re not trying to be stealthy, you’re trying to stay alive until you’re found. It’s unlikely you will have to resort to hunting during your average situation, but if needed, you can carry a lot of different types of ammo and kill anything on the planet with a 12 gauge. I took the time to contact hunting guides in Africa to make sure a 3 inch 12 gauge slug will kill an elephant, and they said yes, so it is definitely extremely effective bear defense. Also, if you do have to hunt, why would you want to shoot an animal 200 yards away and have to walk 200 yards to get it and so on? My specific suggestion (which gun snobs will hate) is as follows:
Mossberg Maverick 88 field model (a 28 inch barrel is long, yes, but it is accurate) — Don’t get all short barrel tactical and miss the charging bear all 6 times. This firearm comes with a plug in the magazine tube, so you remove the barrel and with stock up, shake the weapon lightly to remove the plug if you prefer 6 shots over 3.
Six 2 3/4 inch number 5 lead birdshot for small game.
Six 3 inch slugs for defense against bears, moose, free range cattle, or any other big game type animals.
Six 2 3/4 inch 00 buckshot (3 inch if you prefer) for defense against mountain lions, wolves, and other smaller dangerous animals.
The ammo listed is what I carry. It’s all about preference, but make sure you can kill what you are shooting at.
Make sure your shotgun has a sling. Mine is made with tubular webbing (8,000 lb tensile strength) per my own personal preference.
Remember, the items listed are not a complete list of possible items and all kits are most effective when based on the needs of the individual.
You can add a good Leatherman pocket knife or one of our recommended best survival multi-tools, or a Fresnel lense, or whatever works for you.
A number of items can replace a firearm, I just feel it is important to eliminate the myth that you have to have a $1,000 gun that shoots 2 miles, or requires you to have full combat gear to carry 7 magazines, or that you need 40 guns and ammo that you can’t even take with you and I am a bow fanatic but it’s not exactly my first choice to put down a charging bear. If you prefer non-lethal self defense weapons, that’s fine too. You know what level of force you’re comfortable using, both on other people and on animals.
Next, I will share my personal 15 survival tips. Again, this is a basic list of essential tips to keep in mind. Preference is key.
15 Essential Survival Tips
1. Breathe, relax, and remain calm
I’ve been in a lot of bad situations other than in combat, including flash floods, terrible snow storms, tornadoes, animal encounters like dog attacks, lost in the woods or elsewhere, and that list goes on. The biggest lesson I have learned is that freaking out will kill you faster than ANYTHING. When a bad situation arises, accept it and keep your focus, take a deep breath, and get to work on coming out alive.
2. Seek shelter
Exposure will kill you almost as fast as losing your mind in a bad situation. Shelter takes priority over all the other basic survival needs – water, food, and even fire. Shelter in a survival situation can be as simple as a downed tree laying across a dip in the ground. This where your Mylar blanket comes in to play.
3. Create fire
If you have a proper kit and haven’t lost it somehow, here’s where your Bic lighter saves your life. Make a tinder bundle with dry materials that can easily take a flame. One way to make this easier is to use your knife, blade down, and scrape shavings off of any cotton materials you have. I know cotton kills and wool is where it’s at but let’s be honest here. Wool is uncomfortable and most people will be wearing cotton. Put the scrapings in your bundle and light it up. Make sure to fuel the fire. Learn more about starting fires in wet conditions or starting primitive fires if you’re interested.
4. Increase visibility
Put on your blaze orange vest and put the other up like a flag on a pole by using a tree branch stuck in the ground in a clearing. Smoke from your fire also increases visibility.
NOTE: Shelter and fire come before increasing visibility because of the rule of three’s. You can survive 3 minutes once you lose your mind, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. These are general rules — obviously they are not precise timeframes.
Your Klean Kanteen should already have 12 ounces of water in it. Remember this is your emergency kit so you should have been carrying a bottle of water or water bladder or just be hydrated before leaving home. If your Klean Kanteen is empty, find water and follow the proper purification steps. Finding water in the wilderness may not be as easy as it sounds. And filtering isn’t a requirement, but I highly suggest doing so because the more modern our world becomes, the more human related particles we find in water that can’t be boiled out like pathogens.
Once you have secured shelter, fire, visibility, and water, take a break. A nap can help energy levels and slow dehydration, and the rest time allows you to soak in your surroundings and listen for possible rescuers or random hikers.
7. Consider a food plan
If you know how to forage for wild edibles then get to it. Otherwise start making traps and snares for small game with your cordage from your paracord survival bracelet. You could also try making a small bow or club. More ways to obtain food means more chances for success. Food isn’t an immediate concern but it doesn’t hurt to get a head start and be prepared for the long haul. You might also consider one of these survival fishing methods if you have the right gear.
8. Consider the possibility of moderate to long term survival
At least create a mental plan of how you will handle a long term survival situation. Is a water source close enough to walk to regularly? How is the food situation in your immediate area? Is your shelter and fire sustainable even in high winds and heavy rain?
At least once a day during your situation, it is wise to check your inventory. Do your knives need touched up? Is anything missing or broken? How are your firewood and food supplies? How much water can you purify per day?
10. Make random noise
Every once in awhile, take a few minutes to bang rocks together, yell out “HELP!”, blow a whistle, or anything to make noise in case someone is close enough to hear you. Just remember to conserve your energy.
Daily hygiene is important to your physical, emotional, and mental health. Use twigs to clean your teeth, bathe if there is enough water in your area, pine cones can make a decent deodorant. If bathing is not an option, just removing all of your clothing and taking an “air bath” for 20 minutes can really make a difference. Hang your clothes any time they’re off so they can air out if you cannot rinse them in a river or pond. Be aware of potential survival herbal remedies in case you start feeling ill.
Creating art and music in any way will keep your mind off of the situation and can boost your morale. The noise may draw the attention of others in the area.
Depending on the severity and duration of your situation and the specific dictating factors, and if your level of confidence and experience is high enough, going outside of the immediate area from time to time can allow you to find new resources, people, roads, or a number of other helpful situations may arise. Start small with a 100 yard circle and work your way out as you feel comfortable doing so. If you’re traveling in a party, the most stealthy of you can go scouting while the rest of you stay in camp, with agreed upon rendezvous times (where you send a rescue party if the scouts don’t make it back on time). One way to stay in sync is by using watches (incidentally, check out our article about the top survival watches here) – alternatively, you can estimate the time based on where the sun is in the sky.
14. Escape plan
Eventually, unless you decide to live in the wild, you may have to commit to full self-rescue. After you’ve properly explored beyond your immediate area and have found possible ways out, it is time to decide whether or not you should stay or go. In this situation you have to be smart and do what you believe is best. If you do go, take as much food and ESPECIALLY water as you can.
15. Use your brain
I highly suggest anyone who may end up in a survival situation in the wild or anywhere else get proper training and experience first. Spend a week or so in the field with an experienced woodsman or other outdoorsman. Remember the training and experience and use it. Don’t make stupid mistakes. Remember the rule you were taught as a child, stay where you are unless it is not safe or you absolutely must move. And NEVER risk mechanical injury by doing the ridiculous Hollywood stunts like rappelling down a cliff. Falls are one of the top ways that people die in the wild.
It’s always… Always better to take the long way down via trails and switchbacks than to end up at the bottom of a valley with a broken spine and a bobcat gnawing at your intestines as you lie and watch in terror and can do nothing because you’re paralyzed.
Stay smart, stay alive.