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One of the biggest challenges in buying survival gear and tools is deciding what exactly you need. There are a lot of really great tools out there, some of which have been developed specifically for the survival market. But to be honest with you, there’s lots of gear around which has been designed more to impress the buyer than for any practical purpose. It’s easy to get off track as you search out what you need and end up with things that seemed nifty at the time, but aren’t really the kind of tools that will aid you in genuine survival situations.
Of course, the circumstances you’re trying to survive in make a big difference too. Surviving in an urban environment is distinctly different than trying to survive in the wild. I can’t think of too many places where I’d use a pry bar out in the woods, but it would be extraordinarily handy while scrounging for food and other supplies in an urban environment.
For the sake of this article though, we’re going to be talking about tools you’d use in the wild. I have a fairly extensive bug out bag, more than most people do, because it’s intended to help me survive for the long-term in the wild. While not everything I’m going to talk about in this list is in my bag, just about all of it is.
One key thing about any tool is that it won’t do you the least bit of good, if you don’t know how to use it. Make sure that you invest the time needed to learn how to use your tools effectively, preferably to the point where you can use them in the dark.
Top Priority: Absolutely Essential Survival Tools
I don’t care who you are, what your level of survival training is or what survival situation you find yourself in, the most important tool to have is a good knife. Not only is a knife useful for all the things we normally do with knives, but it can also be used as a substitute for many of the tools below. In addition, you can use a knife to make other tools. You can make a fishing spear or bow if you have a knife. There aren’t too many other tools which will help you do that.
We usually recommend the Ka-Bar Marine Corp Knife as a reliable, tried-and-tested survival knife. It was used by the marines in World War 2 and has stood the test of time. It’s also reasonably affordable for a high quality outdoors knife. No bells and whistles on this one, but we don’t really think that a knife should have any additional features anyways.
But we need to be careful about what we’re talking about when we talk about a survival knife. There are a lot of knives out there which are more “survival” than “knife.” I’ve seen compasses, flashlights, glass breakers, belt cutters, Ferro Rod fire starters, waterproof match holders, flashlights and even a slingshot attached to knives and their sheathes. While all of that is useful, we need to remember that every dollar the manufacturer spends on those things, is one less dollar that goes into the quality of the knife itself.
A good survival knife will be made of high-quality steel, so that it can hold an edge. Ideally, it should be a sheathe knife, rather than a folding one, for safety and strength. The blade should be “full tang,” meaning that the metal of the blade goes back through the handle, so it can’t break easily. Other than that, everything else is up to personal preference. Avoid a sharply pointed knife, as the tip of that knife might break off easily. Learn how to choose the best survival knife here.
Other Extremely Important Survival Tools
While a good knife is the most important survival tool you’re going to have, it really shouldn’t be the only one. Yes, it can be used to dig in the dirt and to cut wood in a pinch, but ultimately it isn’t the most efficient tools for those purposes. Not only that, but they can be a bit hard on the knife. Even the best knives wear down over time, and performing heavy duty non-cutting functions with a knife will damage it over time.
That knife isn’t going to stay sharp forever, no matter how good a knife you buy. While it is theoretically possible to sharpen it on a rock, unless you’ve practiced that a lot and happen to find a good rock to use, chances are you’re more likely to dull your blade than sharpen it. To prevent that from happening, make sure you have a good and compact honing stone. I’d go for a water stone over an oil stone, just so you don’t have to carry the oil with you.
Other than your knife, your most important tool is a good fire starter. By good, I mean something that is easy to use and reliable. Chances are, you’re going to have to start a fire in bad weather, which will make many fire starters ineffective. So you want to make sure you have something that will work in rainy, windy stormy weather. Otherwise, you may not get your fire going. Fire is absolutely crucial to surviving in the wild, especially during colder months.
Please keep in mind that many fire starters which people tout for the survival community are hard to work with, especially when trying to start a fire in inclement weather. The infamous disposable butane lighter is a prime example of this. If it’s cold outside, the only way the butane will lighter will work is if you’ve kept the lighter inside your clothing. It can’t handle the wind or rain either. So you’re better off with either stormproof matches, or something like the Zippo emergency fire kit.
One of your body’s biggest survival needs is clean water. But you can’t trust any of the water you find to be clean. All of it is suspect and must be purified before drinking it. That can be done by boiling it if you don’t have a water purifier, but you’re much better off having some means of purification.
There are two main ways to purify water – you can use water purification tablets, which work well but obviously get used up as you use them. Or you can choose to go with a water filter (these also get used up over time but have a much longer usage life than tablets do). With water filters, you can get built in filters with water bottles, hydration packs, and so forth – but our preference is to keep it as lightweight and simple as possible. We recommend the Lifestraw – it’s a reliable brand and they’re lightweight and easy to pack.
The biggest killer in the wild is hypothermia. This most often occurs when people get wet – either from rainfall or from falling in the water. The risk is highest just before sundown. As the temperature falls, their bodies radiate their heat away into the ambient air, dropping their core body temperature and taking them into hypothermia.
While a rain poncho won’t help you if you fall into the river, it will help you a great deal if it’s raining. You’re best off buying one that is water resistant, rather than waterproof. If it is waterproof, it can’t breathe, which means it won’t allow the moisture from your perspiration to pass through or out under the poncho. You can end up as wet from your own sweat as you would have been from the rain. A water resistant one breathes better, allowing your perspiration to evaporate.
Have At Least One or Two of these High Utility Survival Tools
The following are some utility survival tools that you can mix and match as you like. They each have pros and cons to them, but keep in mind the end goal of all of these tools – to saw or cut wood for shelter, to shape wood where necessary, to split wood for fire, and to dig trenches and so forth. You definitely don’t want all of these with you – that adds far too much weight – but it’s a good idea to have at least one, and in my experience you’ll want to choose two of the four based on your personal preference and likely usage.
Folding Pruning Saw
There are a number of different ways that people cut tree branches for shelters and firewood in survival situations. Some try to use a survival hatchet, some a wire saw and some a hand chain saw; but there’s something that’s better than all of those. That’s the folding pruning saw. Although not intended to be a survival tool, the folding pruning saw cuts faster and better than any of those other options, as well as being designed to be portable.
The real key here, besides cutting quickly, is that this saw won’t break as easily as a wire saw or chain saw. It also gives you the capability of doing more than just cutting branches off. You can also use the saw to notch them, putting them together for building the framework of a shelter.
While few people bother to talk about it, hygiene is an important part of survival. Amongst other things, that means being able to dig a latrine and bury your waste, rather than leaving it sitting on the ground. Human waste, left sitting on the ground, can spread disease and make food sources inedible. Obviously this isn’t that important if you’re on-the-move, but if you’re hunkering down in the same spot in the wild for any decent length of time, you’ll want to have some kind of method of dealing with human waste.
The camp shovel is also useful for trenching, which is important when it is raining. You may need to dig a trench around your tent or fire pit to keep water out of them.
The best camp shovels are the ones which have a lot of other features built into them. While lightweight is normally the rule for backpacking gear, I’ve found this to be untrue of camp shovels. A slightly larger, heavier shovel will work better, allowing you to dig faster, and will stand up to heavy use and abuse better. Having a sharp edge for using it as a hatchet and a blunt area to use it as a hammer potentially eliminates the need for those tools as well.
Many people see the hatchet as a high priority tool, although I’m not one of them. The main reason for needing a hatchet is for splitting wood for the fire. But that’s a lot of weight to carry around just for that purpose. Wood can be split with a knife or machete as well, using either of them as a wedge and pounding on the back of the blade with a piece of tree branch.
If you’re going to buy a hatchet, buy one which has a hammer back, so that you can use it to drive in tent stakes as well. You could do that with a rock or with a shovel, if your shovel is heavy enough; but the hatchet works best. We recommend the SOG Outdoor Survival Hatchet.
If you do decide to go with a survival hatchet, make sure you also check out our buying guide for the best survival hatchets.
Please note that a tomahawk is not a hatchet. While it can be used as one, it’s really not heavy enough. The tomahawk is intended to be a handheld melee or thrown weapon, not a tool. Using it as a tool means that you’re expending more energy than necessary.
A good alternative tool, which few people bother with, is a machete. While machetes come in many shapes and sizes, the best are fairly long, like a sword, with a sawtooth back edge. This allows them to be used as a saw, eliminating the need for a saw as well. Machetes can be used to replace both the saw and the hatchet, and in a pinch, is a pretty good digging tool as well.
If you’ve never used a machete, you’d be surprised how fast you can cut off small tree branches or cut down saplings with them. They are actually faster for both of these jobs than either the folding saw or the hatchet. In addition, they’re great for cutting shrub or branches to cover a shelter or clearing out bush on the trail (here are some additional recommendations for bushcraft gear specifically).
Useful, But Not Essential
The survival blanket is also known as a “space blanket” because the material used was originally developed by NASA to coat the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). It is an aluminized Mylar, which will reflect 90 percent of the heat that hits it. This makes it ideal for survival situations, where you can’t carry a lot of gear. But you will need insulation between you and the blanket; either your clothing or something else.
The best survival blankets aren’t the thin ones which fold up smaller than a package of cigarettes; but rather the slightly thicker ones which are made to be ripstop, as well as being edged so the edges don’t tear. One of these will outlast 10 of the cheaper ones.
Hopefully you won’t get injured, but you can’t count on that. Therefore, it’s important to be ready for it. That means carrying along a good trauma type first-aid kit; something capable of handing bigger wounds than just a skinned knee. Think in terms of what you would need to handle a gunshot wound and plan for that.
Rescue & Self-Rescue Survival Tools
These tools aren’t so much to help you survive as to help you get out of whatever situation you find yourself in. They’re about rescuing you from being lost in the wild, whether that is a self-rescue or a rescue performed by others.
A good compass is a small investment and will help you find your way from wherever you are to where you need to be. Of course, that means knowing where you are going, so you’ll need some topographic maps of the area to go with your compass. While it is theoretically possible to perform a self-rescue without a compass, it is extremely difficult to do. We do have an article about how to navigate without a compass, but you’re better off just having a reliable compass with you anytime you venture into the wilderness.
I would recommend going with the military style compass, as that has the advantage of having passed the test of time. While there are other good compasses out there, the military style one is less expensive and easy to use. They’re also extremely durable, which is a big plus for a piece of equipment that could end up saving your life.
A signal mirror allows you to reflect the sun’s rays, sending them to someone who might be looking for you. This can even include pilots flying planes, as a good signal mirror will reflect the sun’s light as much as 10 miles.
So, what makes a good signal mirror? The best ones are glass, with wires through them to keep them intact if the glass breaks. They have a sight hole in the middle, allowing you to aim the mirror towards the rescuers you are trying to contact. Finally, they usually have the Morse Code imprinted on the back, making it possible to compose messages and send them.
The whistle, like the mirror, is for making contact with those who might be trying to rescue you. Shouting all day is hard on the vocal chords. Blowing a whistle is much easier and the sound tends to carry farther. Make sure you buy a loud one though. The international signal for distress is three blasts on the whistle.
Good to Have These Too, but Not Essential
You don’t actually have to have any of these, in order to survive. There are ways around it in each and every case. However, these tools will make survival easier and may even increase your chances of survival in some situations.
Many people have added a multi-tool (Leatherman style) to their survival tool collection. This provides you with a variety of different tools, such as screwdrivers, an awl, another knife, and pliers. While I have never found a need for one in a survival situation, I have multi-tools in both my EDC bag and my bug out bag. More than anything, they have been useful for repairing equipment on the fly when something breaks.
If you’re going to buy a multi-tool, invest in a good one. I’ve used the cheap ones and they don’t last. Generally speaking, the first time you really grab hold of something with the pliers, you find out just how weak they are.
Learn more about choosing the best survival multi-tools with this article.
You may not need a flashlight for survival, but having one will prove extremely useful – especially at night. If you manage to find shelter in an abandoned building, mineshaft or cave, a flashlight will help you make sure that it is safe. While you could use fire for this, a flashlight is easier to use and safer. Just because you know how to make a torch in the wild doesn’t mean that it’s a good use of your time, especially in a dangerous or critical situation.
Today’s tactical flashlights are machined from aluminum, with LEDs to provide the illumination. If you get a really bright one, make sure it has a lower setting too. The high setting tends to go through battery life fairly quickly. Speaking of which, make sure you take extra batteries along.
Solar Phone Charger
The smart phone has become such an integral part of our lives that it has even become a survival tool. There are many things you can do with a smart phone over and above calling for help. It can also help you find your way back to civilization through the use of GPS.
Solar phone chargers provide you with a means of recharging your phone while out in the wild. Most won’t produce enough power to keep your phone running 24/7, but they will produce enough to use your phone intermittently, calling for help, using the GPS and using any references you have stored in them. There are larger solar chargers that will produce enough power to run your phone all the time, but they are considerably more expensive.
Don’t buy the kind that requires propane, as that means it is only useful as long as you have propane. That tank probably isn’t going to last you long enough. They’re great for backpacking, but not for survival. You want a small wood stove that you can put a bunch of small wood debris into and reliably start a cooking fire with.
Canteen Cup or Small Pot
You have to have something to cook food in. Granted, you can catch squirrels and roast them on a stick if the situation calls for it, but if you’re going to be cooking food from your bug out bag, you’re probably not going to be able to cook it on a stick. Many people talk about using aluminum foil, but that only works for a meal or two.
The old military canteen cup was ideal as a one-person pot for cooking soup and other small meals or making coffee. If you’re carrying military style canteens, that might be a good option for you. But if you don’t have that, then some of the aluminum or titanium backpacking cookware is the way to go.
Don’t forget to carry some utensils along with that – they add minimal weight and take up very little space, so there’s no real tradeoff to bringing them.
This is kind of an oddball, which I’ve added to my own kit, based upon my own experiences. It isn’t a good add-in for everyone; only for those who find themselves in places where they won’t have any firewood available to them. That’s when you need an Esbit.
The Esbit stove is a small, folding metal stove that uses hexaine fuel tablets. These were invented for use by the Army in heating C-Rations. Currently made in Germany, the stove and tablets are lightweight, providing a good option for those times when you don’t have any other fuel available to cook with. That’s important in some of the places I go. Your mileage may vary here, but if you’re likely to go on an excursion where there’s minimal access to fuel (and in particular, wood) then it’s probably worth picking one of these up. Think caves, or rocky mountains and hills, or dessert and so forth.