One of the most common questions I get (especially from new survivalists) is “What gear do I need to buy.” When I first got started, this was my primary focus. While I didn’t have a great deal of money to spend, I did want to try to get a basic bug out bag put together. I asked a lot of questions, read articles, and watched survival shows and videos. I eventually got my bag together and have continued to build up my gear collection since then. I now have an entire room in my house full of survival gear. Anytime I see a tool I have not seen before, I consider adding it to the collection.
This gear has kept me alive on many of my survival challenges. On my very first survival challenge, I faced several issues. I spent most of my first day building a shelter, and my machete was very helpful. That evening I needed to build a fire, and my ferro rod helped me get it going. Then a nasty storm moved it. I was unprepared. I had designed my shelter incorrectly and did not collect enough fire wood. By the early morning hours, I was soaked and the temperatures dropped drastically. My emergency blanket is all that kept me alive. The next several days my knife was very useful for several tasks. I used my pocket fishing tool to catch a few fish so I had something to eat. I was able to survive four days using the tools I had in my pack. In this article, we will cover the best and most inexpensive gear that you need to purchase first.
A Word to the Wise
Before I start discussing gear, I need to emphasize a point that nobody mentioned when I first got started. Gear is not nearly as important as knowledge. Gear costs money, but for absolutely nothing you can learn skills that would save your life. Gear can break, but you will always have your survival skills with you. Gear might get left behind, but you will never lose the knowledge that you have acquired. My first suggestion is to spend more time on learning survival skills and less time thinking about gear. You can have a pack full of gear, but if you have learned no skills it can be worthless. Look up information online, borrow or buy books, and selectively watch survival shows. When I finally figured out how important my skill set was, I spent every evening learning as much as I could. At this point I can enter the wilderness with only a knife and make it out alive. I have actually done so on a few survival challenges. That does not happen overnight, so get started.
As we move on to gear, try to find items that have multiple uses. For example, I have used my knife for anything from cutting cordage to chopping poles. I have used it for gutting fish and skinning deer. I have used it for starting a fire and building a water filter. In addition, you should first focus on the four pillars of survival. These are food, water, fire, and shelter. Then you can move on to priorities like first aid, self-defense, signaling for help, and land navigation. I will cover these items in the order I suggest you acquire them.
The absolute most important tool you can have in a survival scenario is the right knife. However, you cannot rely upon just any knife. You need to be selective and do your research. My first survival knife worked out fine for small tasks but dulled quickly with big jobs. I tried skinning a deer but found myself sharpening the blade every few minutes. It was ridiculous. I tried to switch to a folding knife I had, but the joint was loose making it unstable.
I went home and started doing research. I found out that my current blade was made of an inferior steel. No wonder it was dulling quickly. I looked around and found a blade that was made of a much better steel. The next time I had to skin and quarter a deer I didn’t have to sharpen it once. In fact, the first three years that I owned the knife I never sharpened it. The right knife can make all the difference.
Tang and Design
There are several different types of knives you can purchase, but only one will be as reliable as you need. First, folding blade knives are out. They have moving parts that can fail when you really need them. Second, partial tang knives are out. The tang of the blade is the piece of metal that extends into the handle. If it does not extend to the end of the handle, it is a partial tang. This can allow the handle to break during use. Not good. A full tang fixed blade knife is the only way to go.
There are several aspects to the design of the blade including the length, the width, the curvature, and the thickness. There are dozens of options to consider, but I will just cover the ones that work the best. The kukuri is one of the most popular survival knives. It has a blade usually 12 to 18 inches long that curves in, curves back out, and curves back to a point. This makes it ideal for chopping and can be used for smaller tasks. The Bowie knife is one of the most famous designs. The blade is typically 10 to 12 inches long with a drop point and a saw blade on the spine. It is a little light for chopping, but excellent for fighting. Finally, my favorite is the camp knife. This is a sturdy straight blade made of thick steel about 10 to 12 inches long. It is thick enough for chopping but short enough for small jobs.
The only point I will make on handles is that you should be sure they are comfortable. If a knife handle hurts your hand or rolls on a chop, it will not do the job. It needs to have a good texture in case it gets wet. Keep this in mind.
I could write an entirely separate article on the different steel types available. The best advice I can give is to do some research on steel types before you purchase a blade.
Survival Fire Starters
The survival rule of threes says that you can only make it about three hours in cold weather without a fire or shelter. This makes a fire starter very important. You already have a knife for cutting and splitting firewood. Now you need to get it started. There are bunches of different types of fire starters, but most have serious limitations. The one I primarily suggest you avoid is a bow drill kit. While you can start a fire with a bow drill and I do it all the time, it is the most difficult way to start a fire. You want to make survival as easy as possible. Let’s look at options that make more sense.
This fire starter is normally a small piece of metal and may come with a striker. When struck with high carbon steel, you will get sparks at about 3000F. It is windproof, waterproof, and requires no fuel. I typically keep two to three ferro rods on me when I am on a survival challenge. Even if you lose the striker, you can use the spine of your knife to strike it. This is your number one option.
Lighters are easy to use, but they do require fuel that eventually will run out. There are several types of lighters you can buy, but there are two that I use. A Zippo is your best option. It is sturdy, windproof, and can be refueled with any flammable liquid. I always keep one with me. The second is a Bic lighter. They are cheap and reliable, so you can keep several in your pack as they cannot be refueled.
This is my least favorite of the three. Matches are never windproof, so you may go through several trying to start a fire. You can run out quickly. Most are not waterproof, but you can buy waterproof matches. This is the way to go. I keep them in my pack, but rarely use them.
I cannot tell you how many times an emergency blanket has saved my life on survival challenges. All emergency blankets are multipurpose. They have a reflective coating on one side designed to reflect 90% of your body heat back to you. They are also waterproof to keep your clothes dry. You can wrap up in one and get some sleep even in the rain or snow. You can also tie one up in a few ways to make a shelter. There are two types of emergency blankets.
This is the option that I use, and I normally bring two with me. They are made of thick, tarp style material that will not rip. They are normally big enough to make a comfortable shelter. They also have grommets at the corners making them better for shelters. They cost a bit more but are worth it.
These are made of thin material, but they still get the job done. People buy them because they are so cheap. You can still wrap up or make a shelter, but they are prone to tearing. They also have no grommets, so you must be skilled at attaching cordage to the end.
Cordage is another multipurpose item for you to bring. You can use cordage for fishing, trapping, and building just about anything. The most important use is for helping to build your shelter. There is really only one type of cordage that I use… 550 paracord. It gets its name because it is designed to hold 550 lbs of weight. It is about 1/8 inch thick, so this makes it incredibly strong. In addition, it has an outer sheath with several interior strands. You can split open paracord and get seven or eight pieces of cordage out of one. I have done this on several survival challenges.
You can get creative with how you carry your paracord. There are paracord bracelets with other survival tools, paracord lanyards to attach tools to your belt, and you can use paracord for your boot laces. I do all of these. In fact, you can even buy paracord that has fishing line, trapping wire, and a flammable cord built into the interior strands. I keep these with me too. I like going with a hunter orange color so I can attach it to tools, and they don’t get lost in the leaves.
According to the rule of threes you can only survive three days without water, so water purification is your next priority. Sure you can build your own filter or dig a seep well with the tools you already have. You can also build a fire if you have a container to boil water. However, there are much easier options. Purification is important because tainted water can make you very sick. This can lead to even further dehydration which will still lead to death. When I am in the wilderness, there are two primary purification items I keep with me.
This is a standard water bottle with a filter built into the lid. They are designed to filter out 99.999% of all harmful pathogens in the water. Having the filter built into a bottle is nice because you can fill up and easily bring it with you for later. Many people like straw style filters, but they force you to get down on the ground and drink as much as you can unless you have another container with you. My filter bottle has a paracord lanyard so I can attach it to my belt or pack and go.
On occasion my filter bottle has clogged with debris to the point that I could not use it. For these times I carry chemical purification in the form of iodine tablets. They accomplish the same thing as a filter without removing debris. I always keep about 50 of these with me in a vial that fits in the palm of my hand.
We already have a knife to make a spear and cordage to make snares for trapping. However, your odds of success with primitive hunting and trapping are small. Fishing is a better option. You can use cordage to fashion a fishing line or use your knife to build a fish trap out of a bottle. However, you are better off to have the gear with you. There are two fishing items that I like to take with me in the wilderness. Keep in mind that I leave these out if I need to keep my pack light.
Pocket Fishing Pole
Having an easy way to cast a baited line is always nice. I have a pocket fishing pole (small but doesn’t fit in your pocket) that extends out to about 18 inches. I have 10 lb test line on it, and the handle has a place for a few lures and hooks. I keep rubber worms that are already hooked in there. I can cast 20 to 30 feet and have been able to reel in several bass between four and five lbs. If you do not want to carry something this big, you can carry a pocket fishing kit and hand line, but it is not as easy as it looks. I had luck with almost zero practice on my setup.
Net Fish Trap
I have a net style fish trap with several opening. It has sleeves so the fish can get it but not back out. It works on fish up to about two inches in diameter and collects crawdads as well. It does require some bait, but just a few crumbs of bread or pieces of dog food will do the trick. You just tie it onto a line, put a rock with your bait in the bottom, and throw it where you want to sink it. There have been times that I have come back an hour and had a pretty good haul.
Other Good Items
There are several other items that I sometimes take with me and sometimes do not. If you have the room in your pack, I would take them all. They can all save your life, and all relate to the survival priorities I mentioned above.
I use a folding saw that is about six inches long when folded. If you need to cut poles, this is a better option than a knife or hatchet. However, you will expend a great deal of energy using it.
While you can use hand to hand combat or a knife in many scenarios, having a firearm is helpful. It can help with hunting as well. From a size standpoint a .22 or 9 mm handgun are both good depending if you want to keep quiet or have more stopping power. I have a .22 survival rifle that breaks down small enough to fit in my pack. I do take it with me on some survival challenges for hunting. If I am going to be forced to carry a weapon in my hand, it will be a crossbow. I can accurately take out a target at 50 yards and be completely silent. Vertical bows are not as accurate, and rifles make a great deal of noise.
Signaling for help is often your best option for survival. I rarely carry them as I know other ways to signal for help. Your best option is signal mirror. This small and usually flexible mirror has a hole in the center. It will allow you to aim your reflected beam of light at a specific target. This I what I carry when I carry one.
Map and Compass
These items are vital if you do not know your area like the back of your hand. I do carry these any time I am headed somewhere I do not know. You can use a map without a compass and a compass without a map, but it takes some skill. When I carry a compass, I carry at least two in case one isn’t working.
First Aid Kit
Cleaning and bandaging wounds, dealing with allergic reactions, stitching cuts, and wrapping twisted ankles can all be important. A small but thorough first aid kit would have the supplies for all of these concerns.
As mentioned above, your blade is very important. If it gets dull, you need to have a way to get it sharp again. I know a few ways to do this with found materials, but why make it tough. I often carry a small knife sharpener in case I have the need for it.
Flashlight or Headlamp
I typically take my cell phone with me to post updates when I’m in the wilderness, and it has a flashlight app. However, if I leave behind my cell I typically take a waterproof, shatterproof LED flashlight or headlamp. A headlamp allows you to keep your hands free to do work in the dark. You can survive with a torch from your fire or just stay in your camp after dark, but these tools are nice.
You can use cordage for trapping, but wire works better. You can manipulate the loop, and it cuts into the neck or leg of the animal.
This is a 3 ft by 3 ft piece of cloth that can be used for several different tasks.
Metal Cup or Pot
Having a container for cooking or boiling water can be a nice luxury.
As a final thought, the more skill you gain the less gear you need. The less gear you need, the lighter your pack will be. Often, I can carry in my pockets everything I need. It has taken years to get to this point. Learn as much as you can, and it will reduce the gear you need.