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How the Military Packs for Emergencies


In her monthly column, The Survivalist, Jessie Krebs writes about staying alive in dangerous backcountry scenarios. Krebs is a former Air Force S.E.R.E (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) instructor and owner of O.W.L.S. Skills.

A fair number of folks buy a survival kit, maybe rifle through it a bit, then zip it up and throw it in the wheel well of the car or carry it in their backpack, figuring they’ll break it out if needed. But in a real emergency, this can be a problem.

Often, kits are sold as a “one-size-fits-all,” or marketed for a specific activity like trail running, boating expeditions, and so on. But survival doesn’t fit into a neat package, especially in different environments. Is a particular kit going to be just as effective if I’m stranded in Death Valley in August as it would in northern New Hampshire in February? Off-the-shelf kit contents are usually not the best quality; often the included sewing kits seem designed for a honeymoon emergency, since the needle and thread are so lightweight they’re only useful only for repairing lingerie.

Any kit is better than no kit, right? Absolutely—every bit of manmade material you start with in a survival situation can potentially have multiple uses. Practicing with any kit will help you see where some of its flaws are, and help you learn how it’s meant to be used. For example, most ferro rods come coated in paint to help protect them from damage and from sparking in transit. This means it won’t spark until the paint is scraped or sanded off.

The best survival kit is one you make based on your knowledge, experience, needs, the climate, terrain, and so on. There is no such thing as cheating in survival. If you don’t know how to use a ferro rod, fresnel lens, or matches, why put them in your kit? Put in a lighter instead. In essence, survival is about making yourself as comfortable as possible in an uncomfortable situation.

Kits don’t need to be heavy, either: They can be just a few ounces depending on the environment and your knowledge of basic principles, giving you just enough resources to make the difference between living through a bad situation or not. There are two basic methods of carrying a kit: one container and scatter.

The One Container Method

This is how we refer to carrying all of your survival gear in one compact bundle. With everything in one place, it’s easy to change your kit based on where or how long you’re going and what season or climate you anticipate for your adventure. What you use as the container can also be useful: a metal canteen, cook pot, fanny pack, etc. The drawback is that if you forget, drop, or lose your kit, you’re left with no survival gear. Carrying all of your survival gear in your backpack rather than in your pockets or always on your person counts as the one container method. You can get separated from your pack in a river, avalanche, scouting a route, taking a picture, etc. Think of your survival kit as being a backup for your regular hiking kit.

The Scatter Method

With this method, your survival kit is scattered in different pockets or containers on your person, in your vehicle, etc. The main advantage of this method is if a pocket rips, you forget one item, or you get separated from your pack, you still have the rest. It’s also easier to carry and less bulky and intrusive. On the downside, it can feel less organized and be harder to keep track of what you have in your kit.

Survival Kit Considerations

To keep a kit as manageable as possible, select items that are multi-use or single-use items that serve a very important function and are difficult or impossible to manufacture in the wild. For example, a knife is pretty handy and difficult to make or improvise. A personal locator beacon (maintained and used properly) can get you out of a dangerous situation pretty fast, and it’s nearly impossible to make. Compare these to something like a spoon, which is simple to improvise and not essential to life.

Keeping the items small is important: A razor blade wrapped in tape is fine for most of a survivor’s needs and is about a third of the size of a credit card. Beacons come in many shapes, sizes, and abilities, but maybe a cell phone and backup battery will work in the areas you frequent. Overall, a smaller, lighter kit is less hassle and thus you’re more likely to be carrying it when you run into trouble.

Survival Kit Contents

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a good place to start. I wouldn’t carry all the following items at once—these are suggestions that you can choose from, based on all the factors listed above. They are listed under the five basic needs of a survivor, so I recommend having at least one item from each category. (Not listed, and not optional: a positive attitude.)


Personal Protection

  • Knife (two or more blades is best, and small is fine; pack razor blade at minimum)
  • Headlamp or other light source plus extra batteries
  • Sewing kit (a few heavy duty and lighter needles and a roll of dental floss or upholstery thread)
  • Extra zip-top bags for various uses
  • Handkerchief(s)
  • Closed-cell foam sit pad (particularly if you’re going above treeline or where there will be snow and ice)
  • Space blanket, garbage bag, poncho, or tarp
  • Strong rope or line (minimum 6 feet of paracord)
  • Ignition source: ferro rod, matches with striker, lighter, etc. (know how to use what you carry and may want backup)
  • High quality, waterproof, long-burning tinder (I prefer a thumb-sized piece of fatwood)


  • Water disinfection method sufficient to last at least twice estimated length of trip
  • Canteen (a non-insulated metal one is best for boiling water and cooking in)
  • Snare wire
  • Fish hooks, sinkers, fishing line


  • Physical, waterproof map that covers the entire area plus several miles in every direction
  • Compass


  • Small bar/container of soap
  • First-aid kit (based on needs of you/your group and common injuries for anticipated environment)
  • Essential medications (enough for twice estimated length of trip)
  • Toothbrush and travel size toothpaste
  • Roll of medical tape
  • Wet wipes or some toilet paper in a zip-top bag and any feminine hygiene items you may need (be prepared to pack out)
  • Insect repellent/mosquito netting (check if it will be effective for all nasties in area)
  • Equipment to help ward off potential dangers in the area (bear spray, hats with “eyes,” air horns, snake stick, etc.)
  • Sunscreen and lip balm

Practicing With Your Kit

Most people practice on a nice day, when they are feeling rested, all their limbs are working, they aren’t stressed, lost, or potentially injured or bleeding with a storm about to hit and night falling. Being able to tie knots or snag your neighbor’s attention with a signal mirror when you’re comfy does not mean it will all go smoothly when you really need that knot to keep from getting soaked while you sleep. When you practice with your survival kit, up the challenge. Go out when it’s raining and the wind is howling. Make it a competition: Set a time limit, tie one hand behind your back, or make a boundary of only 20 steps in any direction. Get creative and have fun with it.


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