Personal Survival Kits - One Man's Journey

In these "intriguing" times, it makes sense to be prepared to deal with any situation you're confronted with. No, I'm not one of those survivalist freaks who advocates buying an automatic weapon, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, 500 pounds of Spam and holing up in a mountain redoubt someplace waiting for "them" to come.

What I have become an advocate of is being prepared, and by that I mean being equipped to keep yourself alive and whole in whatever situation you find yourself in - be it your car going over a mountainside late one night, getting hopelessly lost during a weekend outing in the county park, being trapped in a building during a real or imagined terrorist event - you get the idea. To that end, here are my thoughts on what some call 'Personal Survival Kits' or PSKs:

That said, I resurrected some long-dead Boy Scout experiences, did some research to update my thinking, and put together two kits on a minimal budget and using many things that I already had on hand. Why two kits? Simple. One is my mini-Personal Survival Kit, small enough to fit in a pocket, which goes everywhere I go. The second, larger Personal Survival Kit is kept in my car in case of an incident involving the car, and for outdoor activities like hikes, canoe trips, trail rides, etc. I'm also starting to play around with a micro-PSK.

Links to suppliers and sources of some of the gear are included for both PSKs (but are generally only linked at the first mention).

Mini-Personal Survival Kit (current version - 02/2013)
Quantity Item, Brand Use
1  Altoids-type mint tin [3 5/8 long x 2 5/16 wide x 3/4 inch high] (Bite Beauty)  To hold mini-Personal Survival Kit, mirror inside of lid used for signaling, for cooking
1  Contents list, Survival Tips (fluorescent yellow)  To keep track of expiration dates, as signal panel; Basics of signaling, fire making, water treatment, direction finding, etc.
12  Waterproof matches with striker strip (Coleman)  To start fires, for light
8  Tinder Quick Fire Tabs (Four Seasons Survival  Waterproof tinder to start fires
1  Flint/magnesium spark stick, with metal striker bar and beaded chain (Ranger Rick's)  To start fires, for signaling at night
1  Whistle (Acme Tornado, photo luminescent)  For signaling
1  2-quart plastic oven bag (Reynolds)  For water storage and treatment (cut down from 4-quart size)
1  Nylon locking tie (Reynolds)  For closing water bag
20  Water purification tablets (Potable Aqua)  For water treatment (in small brown glass vial)
1  Knife (1 1/2-inch blade), file, can opener combo tool  For cutting, fire starting with spark stick, prying, improvising other tools, etc.
3  Fish hooks, 2 small (No. 4), 1 very small (No. 12) [Eagle Claw]  For fishing, catching birds
1  Fishing lure, dry fly (Silverlake)  For fishing
4  Split shot lead weights (Eagle Claw)  For fishing
2  Sewing needles, 1 large, 1 medium (Coats & Clark)  For repairs, splinter removal, hunting
25 feet  Thread, heavy duty poly-cotton blend (Coats & Clark)  For fishing, repairs
1  Needle threader (Singer)  For repairs, as fishing lure
50 feet  Light-duty nylon string (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For repairs, fishing, shelter building, etc.
1  White LED flashlight (Princeton Tec Pulsar)  For light, signaling
2  12 x 12-inch sheets heavy duty aluminum foil (Reynolds)  For cooking, signaling
1  Button compass (Coleman, from zipper pull)  To find directions
1  Single-edge razor blade (Lowe's)  For first aid, food procurement and preparation, cutting tool, etc.
1  30-inch wire saw (Coghlan's)  For fire or shelter building, as improvised snare (using pull rings)
5  Safety pins,  1 extra large, 1 large, 3 medium  For repairs, fishing
10.5 inches  Duct tape  (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For repairs
4  Adhesive bandages, medium (Johnson & Johnson)  For first aid
2  1-inch nails (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For spears, shelter building, repairs, etc.
1 3-inch drinking straw To suck water out of small places, to wrap electrical tape around after opening kit
4 feet  Electrical tape (Scotch 3M 88T telephone repair)  To seal and waterproof kit, for repairs
5.7 ounces  Total weight mini-Personal Survival Kit

Is this the 'perfect kit'? Probably not. I'll always be adding some things and removing others as I get ideas or learn some new tip or technique. I don't think there is such a thing as a perfect kit - it is always a work in progress. Everything in this mini-Personal Survival Kit represents a compromise, be it a size, weight, cost or functionality concern. This is what, for now, works best for me for the kit I carry every day.

The tiny LED flashlights are a real boon, since they are not only small, but lightweight, the lithium batteries last for years in storage, and they now come in white in addition to the more common red beam. You never know when you may need a good flashlight. Same with the whistle. For attracting attention, it's hard to beat a really loud whistle. This one glows in the dark as an added aid for searchers looking for you.

Fire starting can be either an absolute priority or a nice addition - it depends on how desperate you are. That is why my mini-PSK has two ways to start a fire: the traditional matches and a flint/magnesium bar and metal striker, along with waterproof tinder. Tinder should always be waterproofed, because if you're desperate enough to use this kit to start a fire, conditions for starting the fire probably aren't ideal and you're going to need all the help you can get. Admittedly, wind- and -waterproof matches would be better, but I had the Coleman's waterproof matches on hand.

The duct tape was fixed to the backing sheet that some computer labels came on, enabling it to be folded tightly for storage without sticking to everything. I also put a short length of plastic soda straw inside the kit to wrap the electrical tape around after I open the kit. When you're in a survival situation, never throw anything away.

There is no food in this kit due to its size. It's more important to be able to find water and treat it so it's safe to drink. The plastic oven cooking bag is tough, folds up very small and is an OK water bag; besides, I'm sorry, I'm not going to try to store water in a condom (the usual mini-kit water storage container), let alone drink from it!

Minimal fishing gear is included because you never know where you'll be when misfortune strikes. I substituted heavy-duty poly-cotton 'button' thread for nylon or braided fishing line because it takes up less space. It is wound around a small piece of cardboard so it will lie flat. It fits both sewing needles, of course, so you can also use it for repairs.

The split shot weights are lightly crimped onto a short length of fishing line to keep them from getting lost. A trick I use to keep the fishhooks from stabbing into things in the tightly-packed kit is to put a small piece of cork from a wine bottle on the tip of each hook. Same for the sewing needles, or you can hold them together with a small piece of cellophane tape (I prefer Scotch MagicTM tape because it doesn't leave a sticky residue).

Some people wrap a few feet of 550-pound military specification parachute cord around the outside of their kit as a way to include some of that valuable commodity. I chose not to for the simple reason that I don't want the kit to look like anything other than a rather battered tin. I admit that the nylon string I included is not a lot, but the mini-PSK is intended more as a last resort in case I lose everything else, not as the first thing I reach for in an emergency. Better to have a little bit of something than nothing of anything.

I like the Altoids-type tin for holding a mini-Personal Survival Kit because it's tough, small enough to fit in almost any shirt or pants pocket and inconspicuous in this day of overly-paranoid security people.

Here is a link to photos of the contents of the mini-Personal Survival Kit. (Note: Some of the contents have changed a little as I tinker with things, but the photos are a good general guide.)

Large Personal Survival Kit (current version - 7/2021)
Quantity Item, Brand Use
1  Nylon zippered pouch [8 long x 6 wide x 3 1/2 inches high] (Cheaper Than Dirt)   To hold large Personal Survival Kit, weight 7.8 ounces 
1  Survival Tips sheet, laminated  Basics of signaling, fire making, water treatment, etc.
1  rescueME Personal Locator Beacon (Ocean Signal)  To alert search and rescue organizations, weight 5.1 ounces
1  Whistle, JetScream Micro (UST Brands)  For signaling
1  Plastic laminate signal mirror (small) (CountyComm)  For signaling
1  Mara-Flect reflective ruminous rape, 2x3 inches (CountyComm No. D08)  For signaling, marking positions and/or important gear
18  Waterproof matches, with striker strip (Coleman)  To start fires
10  Stormproof matches, with striker strip (Industrial Revolution)  To start fires
1  Brass flint wheel sparker w/ extra flints (CountyComm)  To start fires, for signaling at night
10  Tinder Quick Fire Tabs (Four Seasons Survival)   Waterproof tinder to start fires
2  Packets Fire Paste (PyroPutty)  Waterproof paste to start fires in cold weather
1  HeatsheetsTM emergency blanket (Adventure Medical Kits)  For shelter, use as signal panel, rain/dew collection
1  Survive Outdoors LongerTM emergency bivvy sack, 2-person (Adventure Medical Kits)  For shelter, use as signal panel, rain/dew collection
8  Extra-strength Tylenol [acetaminophen] caplets (McNeil Pharmaceuticals)  For pain relief
2  Generic anti-diarrheal caplets (CVS)  For diarrhea relief
2  Generic Benadryl capsules (CVS)  For allergy and insect sting relief
7  Adhesive bandages, 2 extra large, 4 large w/ antibiotic (Johnson & Johnson)  For first aid
1  Neosporin triple-antibiotic ointment packet (Pfizer Consumer Healthcare)  For first aid
2  Tick and insect repellent wipes (Ben's)  For biting insect protection
4  Salt/Pepper packets (IHOP)  For seasoning, food preservation, first aid (dehydration, heat stroke)
2  Coffee single-serving packet (Kenco)  For a hot drink, morale, foil envelope to store water
2  1-liter Whirl-Pak water bags (  For water treatment and storage
20  Water purification tablets (Potable Aqua)  For water treatment
1  Compressed washcloth (Heininger Holdings)  To mop dew from plants, etc., for drinking
1  Compass, dry (CountyComm SERE No. B36)  For directions
1  Folding lockback knife, 2-inch blade (Gerber)  For food gathering, shelter building, fire starting with flint, repairs,  etc.
1  Single-edge razorblade  For repairs, first aid, cutting tool, food preparation
1  30-inch wire saw w/ paracord pull rings (Coghlan's)  For fires, shelter building
1  Norton's Universal Cleaning Stick (CountyComm)  For repairs
6 feet  Orange plastic flagging ribbon (Lowe's Home Improvement)  To mark snares and trails, for signaling
50 feet  Braided nylon mason's twine, fluorescent yellow, 40-pound test (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For shelters, repairs, traps
1  Maratac Rev. 5 AAA flashlight (CountyComm) w/ 2 batteries (Duracell)  For light (3 levels), signaling
1  Plasma arc lighter/flashlight/whistle combo (Survival Frog)  Fire fire starting, light, signaling
4  Safety pins, medium  For repairs, fishing
2  1-inch nails (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For food gathering as spear points, shelter building, etc.
3  12-inch steel fishing leaders (Eagle Claw)  For fishing, small animal snares
50 feet  16-pound test monofilament fishing line (Berkley Trilene XT) on plastic spool (Singer)  For food gathering, repairs, shelter building
7  Fishing hooks, 1 very large (No. 3/0), 3 medium (No. 4), 3 small (No. 8) [Eagle Claw]  For fishing, catching birds (small hooks), large hook to use as gaff
4  Split shot lead weights (Eagle Claw)  For fishing
2  Fluorescent yellow foam earplugs (Howard Leight Industries)  For fishing bobbers, tinder
3  Small screw eyelets  For improvised fishing pole
3  Sewing needles, 1 large straight, 1 large curved, 1 sailmaker (Coats, Singer)  For repairs, first aid, food gathering
1  Needle threader (Singer)  For repairs, as fishing lure
4  14-inch nylon cable ties (Radio Shack)  For shelter building, lashing, repairs, emergency tourniquet
2  Plastic-coated twist ties  For repairs, lashing
33 inches  Duct tape (Lowe's Home Improvement)  For repairs, shelter building, first aid, etc.
4  12 x 12-inch sheets heavy duty aluminum foil (Reynolds)  For cooking, signaling
1  Mini-carabiner (Wal-Mart)  For securing critical gear to person, repairs
1  Plastic Fresnel lens, 3 x 2-inch (CVS)  For fire starting, finding splinters, reading survival instructions
5  Sheets 3 x 5-inch water resistant paper (Rite in the Rain)  For notes, messages, event diary, fire starting
1  Pencil stub  For emergency messages
1  Rosary card  For spiritual support
38 ounces  Total weight large Personal Survival Kit (a bit over 2.3 pounds)

Again, this kit represents a series of compromises regarding weight, functionality, cost or size. It is enough to keep myself, or myself and a companion, relatively safe and healthy if I/we get lost or trapped  overnight.

The nylon pouch start its life as a military-type first aid kit. The gear inside is also segregated into various freezer-grade zip-top plastic bags to further protect it, keep it dry and double as more water bags.

You've probably noticed that there are a lot of different ways to do each thing, primarily start a fire, signal for help, see at night and treat water, because those are the major needs I envision. An orange/silver Heatsheets emergency blanket is included instead of the more common metalized 'Space Blanket' because a space blanket is simply not tough enough to depend on; the Heatsheet weighs just a tad more than a space blanket and takes up less room. It's also bright orange, enabling it to double as a signal panel.

The knife is another compromise. With only a 2-inch blade, it can't be used to fight off a grizzly bear, but its size makes it easy to stow, and the blade is partially serrated to make cutting rope and string easier. I may not always remember to bring along a big knife; this way I will always have some cutting and tool capabilities.

Note the amount of duct tape included, again by putting it on an 8 1/2 x 11-inch backing sheet from some adhesive computer labels (I prefer the Gorilla Tape brand). I am a firm believer that you can never have enough duct tape in an emergency. If it can't be fixed with duct tape, it can't be fixed.

The fishing line is wound onto one of the small plastic bobbins used for home sewing machines, which adds a little weight but also keeps the line from coming unraveled inside the kit.

Discount store braided nylon mason's twine is included instead of the highly-touted 550# mil. spec. parachute cord a lot of Personal Survival Kits use because, 1) I had it on hand, 2) Do you know how expensive genuine paracord is?, and 3) Because parachute cord is a lot bulkier and heavier (one reason there is none in my mini-PSK).

Again, there is no food in this kit except a couple of instant coffee packets, primarily to keep the weight down. I usually have something in another pocket anyway. You can go for weeks without food, but only a few days without water.

My original goal was to get this kits weight down to 1 pound (16 ounces). As initially equipped, the large PSK weighed 28 ounces. Further ruthless culling got the weight down to about 20 ounces - and then I started rethinking things.

Where I live it can rain a lot, and hypothermia is a possibility year-round. I had the Heatsheets emergency blanket (2.6 ounces), thinking that would double as my shelter, but decided that was totally inadequate.

First I tried a plastic tube tent, but at 13.4 ounces it added too much weight. So, again, I compromised, and bought a two-person bivvy sack made out of something more robust than the cheapie Mylar space blankets, that weights only 5.9 ounces. I also decided to use a different, larger container for the entire kit so everything wouldn't be quite so crammed together, and I could keep the PLB in the same kit. For paying the price of 6 ounces of weight, I will be able to stay warm and/or dry under almost any conditions. In some sense, the small multi-pocket pouch I'd originally chosen for the kit was forcing me to make dangerous compromises on what I should be carrying, simply because everything wouldn't fit.

A note on the Personal Locator Beacon: It is only for use when things get really, Really, REALLY bad. Again - Really, REALLY bad. Let me emphasize that - this is not a toy. You only pull this out and activate it when all other hope is lost.

Here are links to photos of the large Personal Survival Kit and its contents grouped under the following areas: Complete Kit; Signaling; Emergency Devices; Shelter/Personal Protection; Medical; Water/Food; and Multi-Purpose/Miscellaneous. (Note: As with the mini-PSK, some of the contents have changed a little as I tinker with things (in this case a LOT), but the photos are a good general guide.)

Micro-Personal Survival Kit (coming sometime soon)

I'm going to see how much I can cram into a mini-Altoids tin. Should be fun!

The Rest of the Stuff

I keep the large Personal Survival Kit in a nylon fanny pack in the trunk of my car. Also in the fanny pack are:

The fanny pack keeps everything together and safe from abrasion or puncture damage, acts as an additional bag around the large Personal Survival Kit and provides a larger carrying sack in case I become stranded and have to abandon the vehicle (which should almost always be your last resort). Everything together (except the water) weighs a shade over five pounds.

If you do store drinking water in your car, and you live in a cold climate, make sure it's in leak-proof containers like the foil pouches I use, so when it freezes, it doesn't make a mess of things. Plastic water bottles won't cut it. And don't ask me how I know that.

Final Thoughts

To start the search for what should be in your own Personal Survival Kit, here is an excellent link - Equipped To SurviveTM. If it has to do with survival in any kind of disaster or situation, survival kit contents for a myriad of situations, gear, techniques, etc., it's probably here. The 'Survival Forum'TM is especially informative and highly recommended.

This link, My PSK Cheat Sheet, takes you to my version of something to keep you thinking clearly in an emergency and highlights important information you need to remember:

  • STOP - Stop, Think, Observe, Plan, and the 6 Priorities
  • Signaling - Mirror, Whistle, Fire, Smoke, Ground-to-Air
  • Water Treatment - Boil, Bleach, Iodine, Tablets
  • Finding Water
  • Water Collection - Transpiration Bag, Solar Still
  • Fire Starting - Tinder, Types, Location
  • Fishing Knots
  • Finding North
  • Kit Contents - what is in this particular kit
Double click to view and right click to download this Adobe Acrobat .pdf file, which has two cheat sheets on each page. It fits in an Altoids tin. I have it in my mini- and large PSKs and my wallet. Portions of the material were used with the permission of Equipped to SurviveTM. You'll have to experiment with your printer to get it centered correctly on both sides. I recommend using a laser printer for durability and printing it on brightly colored or fluorescent paper so you won't lose it and so it can double as a small signal panel.

For a much more comprehensive (i.e., way better than my effort) cheat sheet that is a little bigger, go to this link on Equipped to SurviveTM to download the .pdf file of instructions included in the Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak designed by Doug Ritter of Equipped to SurviveTM. Again, I recommend using a laser printer for durability, printing it on brightly colored paper and waterproofing the instructions in some way (I use clear, 2-inch-wide packing or shipping tape).

More comprehensive guidance on making your own kit can be found here, Montem Hiking Blog, which includes a video of a guy who makes Altoids tin survival kits.

And lastly, to those of you who have read this and are still thinking, 'Why bother? That'll never happen to me anyway,' ponder this: How much is your  life worth?

DISCLAIMER: These are not survival techniques/methods pages. These are my thoughts on personal survival kits and what works for me. Any information about survival techniques is based on my personal knowledge or something I have read or tried on my own, and should be treated with a large grain of salt by anyone planning to bet their life on same

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This page was last updated July 18, 2021

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