How to Put Together the Ultimate Survival Kit
Would you be willing to stake your life on your survival kit? I would.
There are so many debates when it comes to the perfect survival kit. In my opinion, the items you choose to be in a survival kit can be very different based on the situation you see yourself in (maritime vs. desert survival) as well as your level of skill. For that reason there are a number of factors that determine what items you ultimately put in it. For this article, I will explain to you how I organize my kit, the elements that make it up, and hopefully provide some inspiration for your own. As always, I’d love to hear your opinions, so feel free to comment!
My entire kit is based off of three tiers — one that I carry with me, one that I keep in my car (and sometimes on me), and one that is in my home ready to go in a moments notice if I had to bug out. Here is the three-tiered survival kit:
The Three-Tiered Survival Kit
This ‘kit’ includes those items that you have with you at all times. This is your fallback kit. If you were stranded somewhere with nothing else except for what you have on you, than this is what you’d be left with. They should be with you at work, while you’re running errands, church, basically everywhere possible. Obviously when you’re showering you can make an exception, just have it close by to grab on your way to wherever you’re going. The following gear (which I call the Essential 3) is recommended for your first tier:
- Folding Knife: If you’ve ever been in a survival situation (planned or not) you know how essential a knife is. This I consider to be your most important survival tool. Purchase a good quality folding knife. My knife of choice is the Doug Ritter RSK MK1 – good quality, good price, and thoroughly field-tested (by me) for my needs.
- Fire Starter: This comes in second in order of importance for first-tier gear. For all you smokers out there thinking, “I’m all set, I’ve got my Bic” you might want to reconsider. A Bic Lighter is ok, but the fuel can run out quickly (especially if you’re not skilled at fire making) and they are a bear to start when they get wet. Instead of a fuel-based fire starter or worse (matches) I would recommend a ‘firesteel’. I recommend the ones from FireSteel.com or any of the Swedish FireSteel versions. These ‘strike-style’ firestarters are far superior to fuel based ones because they last forever and produce a hotter heat output compared to a Bic and an added benefit is I’ve never had issues taking them on a plane. The only downside is if you have no fire-making skills you’ll need to practice with it a bit. In the meantime you can carry with you a simple tinder made by mixing a little vaseline into a cotton ball which will easily light with this firestarter.
- Cordage: Cordage is a fundamental part of survival. It’s used for bowstrings, lashings, fishing line, snares, trap triggers, nets, tying down shelters and more. While making cordage from natural materials is always an option, and is not too difficult to learn, it’s always a good idea to have some with you at all times. I would recommend at least 10 feet of good strong cord – my favorite being 550 Paracord. I carry around 10 feet of it on my wrist at all times in the form of a bracelet I made. The benefit of Paracord is that not only is it strong (it has a 550 lb rating – hence the name), but it is made up of a strong outer sheath and seven inner strands that can be used for multiple purposes. Just carrying 10 feet of Paracord is like carrying 80 feet of cordage!
While I would at the least recommend the Essential 3, there are a few other items you may want to consider carrying as part of your EDC (Every Day Carry) Gear or first Tier. Here are some other items I’ll have on me:
- Coin Sized Compass: These are those small, coin-sized compasses you see in many mini survival kits. Try to get one of the liquid-filled ones since it doesn’t have to be completely horizontal to work.
- Pinch Light: These little ‘pinch lights’ are perfect in a pinch (pun intended :)). They provide enough light for travel, for nightime camp activities (building a fire, setting up camp), and the LED versions last forever.
- Lockpicks: We live in an unpredictable world. Since I’m all about preparedness, there may come a time when you are held captive by terrorists, kidnapped for ransom (visit Mexico), or your simply locked out of your house. Lockpicks – and knowing how to use them – are a great addition to any EDC list.
- Hand-Cuff Keys: It’s not unknown for kidnappers and terrorists to use handcuffs to hold you captive. Since many cuffs use a universal key, carry a spare in a location on your person that is accessible with handcuffs on.
- Personal Protection Device: This could be a concealed carry pistol, mace, tactical flashlight etc. Just be sure you have the proper license if required.
The key to the first-tier kit is to incorporate it as much as possible with what you wear. While the above items could probably all fit on a keychain, keychains sometimes get lost. If your knife has a clip, clip it to the top of your pants. Wear a cordage bracelet, or use strong cordage as lacing for your footwear. Attach a small firestarter to your belt. Find creative ways to ‘wear’ your first tier gear. That way it will always be available.
The second-tier survival kit includes items that you can fit in a small carry bag (like a fanny pack) or if you’re in the military or field, this would be what you attach to your H-Harness. If it’s in a pack, have it somewhere close by like in your car or in some cases feel free to carry it with you (in a purse or “man purse”). And for insurance purposes, duplicate and upgrade the items you have in the first tier. Here’s a list of what I have:
- Fixed Knife: In other words, non-folding. You’ll want a heavy duty, full-tanged knife that can take a beating and hold an edge. My favorite is the Bark River Bravo-1. If you want more details into what makes up a good knife checkout my article on how to choose a survival knife.
- Full-Size Compass: Even if you already have a small one in your first tier, then this should be upgraded to a full-size compass for ease of reading an azimuth. I prefer a lensatic compass due to the accuracy I can get in the reading.
- Water Container: Any collapsible, light, and easily carried container will do.
- Firestarter: Again, for insurance purposes you’ll want to duplicate what is in the first tier. I just include another firesteel that is a bit bigger than the one I carry on me. I also have a film canister filled with cotton balls mixed with vaseline.
- Water Purification Kit: In a small kit like this, iodine crystals are a perfect fit. They come in a small bottle (you’ll want to buy the Polar Pure brand) and it can purify up to 500 gallons!
- Flashlight: The ‘tactical’ flashlights out there are an excellent choice. Check out the SureFire brand. You won’t be dissatisfied.
- First-Aid Kit: This would be smaller than what you carry in your third-tier survival kit, but should include at least tweezers, a hemostatic agent (like QuickClot dressings), antihistamine, aspirin, antiseptic wipes, bandages, butterfly closures, moleskin, tape, and gauze.
- Simple Shelter: This could be a shelter half, bivy, tarp etc. This simple shelter should fit in your small kit and is mostly used to protect against the elements. I have a simple bivy and space blanket combo — both small and extremely light.
- Cordage: Again, I would recommend 550 paracord. Try to have around 50 feet.
- Energy Bars: Any high-calorie, nutrient dense bar will do.
- Signal Mirror: While any mirror will do, it’s best to buy the signal mirrors that have the hole in the center to accurately aim the reflected light.
- Lock Picks & Cuff Key: I have a more extensive kit in this tier.
- Multi-Tool: My Leatherman Wave has been a lifesaver for many tasks out on the road. This tool is so handy, it fluctuates between the first tier and second tier.
Your third-tier survival kit is equivalent to what others commonly refer to as a go-bag, bug-out bag (BOB), or 72-hour kit. This kit should include all those items that could fit into a good-sized backpack that will sustain you for at least 72-hours. It should be easily accessible and ready to go at a moments notice. I keep mine at my house. The most important thing is that you pack your bag for scenarios that you may encounter. Individuals living in the city will have many needs different than those in the boonies, so be sure to prioritize around your needs.
I also like to separate my bug-out bag into multiple tiers — each tier enclosed within its own bag — with the most important items being on top. This allows for easy access at night when visibility is low. They are based on the following priorities (in order of importance):
- Personal Safety: This tier is in two separate bags: one is for personal security items and the second is for first aid. The first-aid kit is a bit beefier than what is in the second tier above.
- Shelter: Personal shelter and sleeping bag. I keep these on the outside of the pack. I love the Henessy Hammock. It’s lightweight and super comfortable. If you are with a family and personal hammocks aren’t an option, you’ll want to consider a tent.
- Water: My pack has an integrated water bladder that I combine with the Katadyn Hiker Pro Water Microfilter. I also include another bottle of Polar Pure (duplicated from the second tier kit).
Since I live in an area where water abounds, finding water to filter is less of a worry. If you live in a more arid environment you may want to consider packing as much as you can carry.
- Fire: This tier includes the same items listed above, as well as an efficient camp stove and fuel.
- Food: I have some canned goods, but mostly freeze dried foods and MREs. Have enough for three days.
Besides what’s listed in the priorities above, I also include several tools and miscellaneous items such as an entrenching tool, 100-ft length of paracord, fish hooks and line, headlamp, small hatchet, playing cards, and something to read.
In summary, while the list above is what I use, it may not be suitable for you. It’s important that you organize and supply your kits with items specific to your environment, needs, and skill level.
The best advice I can give you is to put your three tiers together and put them to use. Practice using the various items in darkness and light, different types of weather and different seasons. Take your go-pack on a hike with you to see if you can even carry it for an extensive time period. Drop those things that aren’t working for you and add others you think you’ll need.
With time you’ll find a kit that is highly customized to you (and your families) needs. Best of luck!
I owe the multi-tiered survival kit idea to Kevin Reeve, owner of OnPointTactical. I’ve known him for a number of years now and he’s a good friend and an incredible teacher. I highly recommend his school.