Photo: Yakow Galashevsky

How To Choose Survival Gear

The most important gear in your pack might just be the stuff you hope you’ll never use: survival gear.

The vast majority of wilderness trips go smoothly, but accidents do happen. Unexpected severe weather, a wrong turn, or an injury miles from civilization can all turn a blissful hike into an emergency—and having the right tools can make all the difference.

Fortunately, survival essentials don’t weigh much or cost much. Here’s how to get outfitted for the unexpected.  

Beyond the 10 Essentials

It’s smart to carry the 10 Essentials on any dayhike or multiday trip. With the 10 Essentials, you already have some of the most important survival gear, like navigation tools, light, food, water, firestarter, extra layers, and a first-aid kit. But a true survival kit might include additional items, like a fixed-blade knife, signaling tools, and emergency fishing equipment. Consider what you already regularly pack when you’re assembling a survival kit. You won’t need to take an emergency bivy sack, for example, if you already plan to bring a tent for a backpacking trip.

Survival Needs

Survival gear is designed to take care of your basic needs in case of a wilderness emergency. Here are your most critical needs in a survival situation and the gear that will get the job done.

Shelter

One of your top priorities in any emergency situation is to find or create a shelter. Hypothermia might be the most immediate threat, so you want to stay dry and warm(ish). 

Key Gear:

  • An emergency blanket is a lightweight, compact sheet made of plastic. Its shiny surface reflects body heat back to you, providing crucial warmth. Many are bright orange, which makes you more visible to rescuers, and will protect you from wind and water. Blankets are the smallest, lightest (just a few ounces), and cheapest options. 
  • One step up is an emergency bivy sack, which is basically an emergency blanket made into a sleeping bag for more warmth. Bivy sacks cost and weigh more than blankets.
Photo: Chanwit Whanset

Fire

In an emergency, a small fire can provide lifesaving warmth as well as a morale boost. Make sure to pack at least two firestarters in case your first choice gets lost or wet or malfunctions.

Key Gear:

  • Waterproof matches are lightweight, compact, and cheap; many come in a watertight container for extra protection from the elements. 
  • A simple lighter is similarly small and affordable. An everyday plastic lighter works fine, but you can also upgrade: Some emergency lighters are made of durable metal, some produce a higher-powered flame, and some are windproof.
  • A striker (also called a spark lighter, mag striker, or flint lighter) is a simple tool with a flint rod and metal striker. Scrape the striker along the rod to create a shower of sparks to ignite your tinder. These firestarters don’t need fuel or a striking surface to work, but they do take practice.
  • Tinder is critical as well—anything flammable to get your fire started. Sometimes natural materials will work, but it’s best to carry your own reliable tinder in case of wet conditions. You can make your own at home (dryer lint or cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly are both great choices) or buy commercial tinder made from materials like wax-covered wood shavings or flammable cord.

Clean Water

You likely pack a water bottle or reservoir on your trips, but what if you’re out there longer than you expected? You’ll need a way to purify water from creeks and lakes. Backpackers should already be carrying a filter or other form of water treatment, but it’s smart to pack a backup method as well.

Key Gear:

  • Chemical water treatment drops or tablets are ultralight and extremely packable, so they’re a great just-in-case option.
  • Filter straws are also light and packable, and are a good alternative to chemical treatments (though not as small). 
  • A large-capacity reservoir (like a 2- or 3-liter) is also helpful in case you need to carry or store extra water.

Rescue

If you can’t get out on your own, you’ll need the help of a search-and-rescue (SAR) team. Help them find you by equipping yourself to communicate or make yourself more visible (or loud).

Key Gear:

  • A personal locator beacon (PLB) is great insurance. PLBs are like a panic button: Press it, and local rescuers will be dispatched to your location. 
  • Satellite messengers go one step farther, allowing you to send more information and, in the case of two-way messengers, text or email back and forth.  
  • If nothing else, you want to help rescuers find you by making yourself obvious. Broadcast your location to passing aircraft with a signal mirror. When rescuers approach on foot, help guide them with a whistle. 

Multipurpose Survival Gear

These versatile items can manage more than one task, making them indispensable in a backcountry survival situation.

Knife

A sturdy knife can’t be underestimated. Use one to chop kindling, fix gear, whittle a snare, cut medical tape, cut branches for a shelter, dig, and countless other tasks. A larger fixed-blade knife is the sturdiest and most durable, but it’s less compact and weighs more. A folding knife will be more compact and lighter, but weaker because of the pivot point. 

Rope/Paracord

A length of lightweight rope or cord can help you fashion an emergency shelter, keep a bandage in place, catch fish, and improvise a litter to evacuate an injured hiker. 

Duct Tape

Is there anything this do-it-all tape can’t fix? Use it to patch tears on clothing or gear, fix a broken tent pole or trekking pole, prevent blisters, and attach tools together. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.