The gear you need to survive

Most campers make sure to pack all of their basic equipment when they head into the backcountry, such as a tent, stove and proper clothing. But don’t forget your survival kit. It might be the single most important thing you carry on any expedition.

When faced with the concept of surviving in the wilderness, it is very tempting to want to carry the “ultimate” survival kit. However, knowing what to take with you is tricky, given the variables involved in outdoor adventure. I’ve ventured into the world’s most remote areas with tiny kits tucked into a fanny pack, as well as bulky bags so heavy I would have rather not carried them (but did anyway).

The ideal kit

So what do you grab? Well, it all depends. Ask yourself: Where am I going? What will I be doing? What time of year is it?

If I’m going on a winter trek in Canada with only three choices, I will likely take a sharp ax, a waterproof butane lighter and a small pot in which to boil water. In the summer, I will trade the ax for a good tarp. This is the minimalist approach, however.

Keep Survivorman’s top five in mind when building your kit:

  1. Something with which to start a fire
  2. Something in which to boil water
  3. A form of shelter
  4. A hunting or fishing device
  5. Something with which to split wood

Ideally, you will be able to fill your pockets and carry a pack with your survival items, along with your Scout outdoor essentials.

In pockets (or off your belt):

  • High-quality sharp knife and a multitool pocketknife with a saw blade
  • Compass
  • Solid matches with striker in a waterproof container
  • Butane lighter
  • Magnesium flint striker
  • One or two large orange-colored garbage bags (for signaling, shelter and/or rain protection)
  • Metal cup (for boiling water)
  • Rope (or parachute cord)
  • Whistle

In a small kit or fanny pack (you can also try a coffee tin with a lid, which you can also use for boiling water):

  • Dried foods
  • Insect spray (seasonal)
  • Signal mirror
  • Small flashlight with batteries
  • Snare wire
  • Fishing lures, hooks, sinkers and line
  • Small folding saw
  • Candle
  • Flares

Be creative with how you carry your survival items: Why not squeeze a lighter and some kind of ignitable tinder into the hollow end of your fishing rod? Or if you’re a mountain biker, perhaps you can easily pop off your handlebar grips and fill your handlebars with a few items.

Be Prepared

While I was teaching survival courses, I would announce to my students that we were going for a wilderness hike the next morning. When they asked me what they should bring, I would casually tell them, “Whatever you think you need for a hike in the bush.”

Then, about midway through the hike, I would stop and ask everyone to show me what they had brought with them. There was always one person armed to the teeth with survival gear. A few more would have a few basic survival items, and there would be a few who basically had nothing.

I was always struck by how many people would go out not expecting the unexpected. Sure, chances are that nothing bad would happen, but when you’re in the wilderness, you don’t have the luxury of knowing when and where something will happen.

You could become separated from your group in a heartbeat, so a survival kit is a personal undertaking. It should never be left to someone else, no matter how close you are to them. Disaster often strikes in mysterious ways in the wilderness, and to be left alone with nothing is to court death.

Know what you’re doing

To Be Prepared, you must also know how to use everything in your kit! This is another good reason for you to make your own kit rather than depend on someone else to do it. Check out each item, make sure it works and learn how to use it.

Don’t just buy a prefabricated kit and think you’re good to go. Survival gear can give a false sense of security. Your survival should depend on your ability to adapt — not on an item in your pack — and your kit should be personalized to best help you adapt by taking into account where you’ll be, the weather risks and what activity you’ll be doing.

Most important thing

Many who have survived in the wilderness have been asked what they felt was the No. 1 thing needed to make it. The answer (and you can’t buy it at the outdoor store): the will to live.

So along with this all-important attitude, be sure to head out into the great outdoors with a few items that, just in case you need them, will better your chances for survival.

Les Stroud, aka Survivorman, is an award-winning TV producer, director, host and author of Survive!, a best-selling manual on survival. Learn more about Survivorman by visiting or, a subscription-based web portal for all things survival and adventure.


  1. Scouts & leaders, use the ‘Rule of Threes’, the basis for the survival priorities in the Wilderness Survival Merit Badge, to establish what is important to include in your ‘Ten Essentials’, your ‘pocket items’ or your ‘surival kit’. As Les said in his article, the mental parts are the highest priority; your attitude, your will to live, your bushcraft knowledge, your kit knowledge. Our Scouts favorite campout is 48 hours in the woods with only the appropriate layers of clothing for the season and our list of pocket items. Using the Rule of Threes, our Ten Essentials/pocket items include: ferro rod, Swiss army knife or multi-tool, at least two bandanas, two orange colored 4 mil plastic garbage bags or barrel liners, Storm whistle, old CD or signal mirror, steel canteen cup, one gallon ziploc bag with GORP or jerkey, head lamp, a pocket first aid kit with bandaids, antibacterial ointment and your required meds. So then, just as Les said, Practice, practice, practice!

  2. Useful article.

    As “Suvivorman” would fail as a program if the star was promptly rescued, his “Top Five” neglects signaling, beyond the “fire” category.

    Fire is, however, an issue with Les as he insists on starting fires INSIDE expedicent “brush” shlelters, although he has admittedly burned himself out a couple of times. 0___0

    As for “adapt,” that appropirately cited characteristc primarily relates to behavior, as opposed to “improvise” – using a piece of glass to scrape sparks of a BSA Hotspark.

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