Essential Wilderness Survival Equipment

I’ve taken quite a few courses in survival training, starting in my early teens with the Boy Scouts of America.  Then Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape; American Sailing Association offshore survival; and most recently in my training as a wilderness search & rescue technician.

While the purposes of each of those trainings were all different, they all had one thing in common:

the essential wilderness survival gear list was the same (okay, add a life raft & flares for sailing).

As photographers venturing into the backcountry, it’s easy to forget about wilderness survival gear while we’re only focusing on our camera gear.  But being photographers doesn’t make us immune to survival situations (it’s actually probably worse for us since we do stupid shit to get a good shot).  These things should always be in your camera bag.

emergency food

This post will only cover the what, not the how.

survival guideFor more information on how to put wilderness survival skills to use, read Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival.  This highly-reviewed wilderness survival guide was published in 1983 but it does an excellent job covering the essentials – things that haven’t changed in 30 years, or even 3,000 years.  The book starts with the most important aspect of survival skills – a positive attitude and having a mental gameplan for survival.

wilderness survival gear

The ten essentials of wilderness survival

Wilderness Survival Gear List

The items below make up the “ten essentials”.

1) Space Blanket/Shelter

emergency bivvy

The SOL Emergency Bivvy

Other than an attitude that says, “I’m gonna kick ass”, shelter is the most important piece of wilderness survival gear.  Even more so than water.  You can go three days without water, but you can die of exposure in less than three hours.

I’m not talking about a palatial tent, rather just a simple covering that will retain & reflect your body heat.  My kit contains the SOL Emergency Bivvy (cheapest at Amazon for $11.57).  This handheld emergency bivvy is essentially a space blanket sleeping bag; it’s made of water-resistant & bright orange polyethylene on the outside and a heat-reflective material on the inside.

emergency bivvy

2) Extra Clothing

Clothing also falls under shelter.  I pretty much have an entire new wardrobe stuffed into a dry sack.  Wool socks, polyester thermal long underwear, a long-sleeve wool shirt, fleece beanie, and an old down jacket.  No cotton anywhere – when cotton gets wet it stays wet and literally sucks the heat out of you.

survival clothing

Extra wilderness survival clothing – down jacket, long underwear, wool shirt, wool socks, fleece beanie

3) Sunglasses

Protection for your eyes is equally important.  Sunlight reflecting off of snow, water, sand, and granite will eventually lead to cataracts in the long run.  But in the short term it can burn your retina and temporarily blind you.  Sunglasses can be as simple as those tacky roll-up glasses the optometrist would give you after a glaucoma test.  You know the ones – you’d rather go back and sit in the waiting room than be seen in public with them.  Or use expensive Oakley’s.  Just have something to shield your eyes.

4) First Aid Kit

Another essential piece of wilderness survival gear is a simple first aid kit.  You don’t need a giant first aid kit with splints, rolls of gauze, IV bags, surgical equipment, etc.  You just need to treat & protect minor injuries until help arrives or you can get yourself to more advanced care.  Many medical scenarios can use improvised equipment.

Adventure MedicalYou can make your own kit using a quart-size Ziploc freezer bag.  You’ll want some assorted bandaids, one or two 3x3 gauze dressings, a small piece of moleskin, antiseptic & alcohol wipes, cloth medical tape, and small foil packs of ibuprofin, Tylenol, Advil, antihistamine, etc., and any other medication you need.

You can also purchase Adventure Medical Kits.  These small first aid kits are double-bagged in waterproof pouches.  Their Ultralight .5 is a great portable first aid kit with only the essentials.  It has all of the above items and a little more.

5) Extra Food & Water

Most survival situations are over within three days.  In the right conditions you could make it this long without any extra food or water at all.  But it’ll sure help your morale if you have a little something to put in your stomach.

Carry an extra liter of water beyond what you think you’ll need if you’re going into an area without any other supply of water.  If you’re going into an area with any kind of streams or lakes nearby, all you need is a water container and a way to purify it.

The LifeStraw (Amazon, $19.78) is a 9″ long tube that will allow you to drink directly out of a body of water getting on your hands and knees.  I’ve never used it, but this system doesn’t allow you to take the water you’ve filtered with you – it goes straight into your stomach.

Sawyer Mini

Sawyer Mini

The Sawyer MINI (Amazon, $20.90) weighs the same as the LifeStraw and comes with a 16-oz pouch for storing water.  Read Lightweight Backpacking Water Treatment for more information & other options.

You should also always go out with some kind of trail mix or energy bar that you specifically reserve for an “extended stay”.  You’re looking for something high in protein like the good ol’ PowerBar or Clif Bar.

The Field Guide to Wilderness Survival has a wealth of information on other ways to procure food and water.

6) Pocket Knife

No, you don’t need a fancy Leatherman with 100 tools.  They’re too heavy and loaded with things you’ll never use.

gerber knifeThe best survival knife you can carry is something small and light.  You’ll find gimmicky knives with huge handles stuffed with goodies, but that’s overkill.  Many people have survived in extended wilderness survival situations with nothing more than the basic Swiss Army knife.  A simple folding blade can serve thousands of uses.  One that has a partially serrated edge is even better.

At only $12.50, the Gerber Mini Paraframe is a great survival knife that’s so cheap you won’t feel guilty about leaving it in your survival bag.

7) Waterproof Matches in Waterproof Container & Fire Starter

survival matches
Fire is nice for cooking and morale, but more importantly fire is a great tool for signaling rescuers.

I have a basic orange watertight match storage box stuffed with waterproof matches.  I’ve crammed cotton balls soaked in vaseline in the lid as a fire starter.

8) Flashlight or Headlamp with Batteries

Another useful signaling device.  Recent advances have produced some exceptionally small, lightweight, and bright LED flashlights & headlamps that run on simple AA or AAA batteries.  A handheld flashlight works better for signaling than a headlamp.

flashlightYou won’t find a brighter, smaller, cheaper flashlight than the Fenix E12 (Amazon, $26.95).  This small water-resistant LED flashlight uses one AA battery and produces an extraordinary 130 lumens on the highest setting, capable of illuminating objects almost 100 yards away.  You’ll be able to signal rescuers through harsh environmental conditions with that much light.

9) Map & Compass

compassBasic land navigation is a lost art in the Information Age, when people can just ask Siri for directions anywhere.  But believe it or not, there may be times when your phone (or GPS) won’t work because of reception or power issues.

Most recreational areas have accompanying maps depicting trails, terrain, and roads.  Here in the Tahoe area I always carry my Tahoe Basin Trail Map in my pocket.  But you don’t even need that much.

You can download free USGS topographic maps in PDF format to print and bring with you.  Just make sure whatever map you carry is topographic, meaning it shows the terrain around you and not just roads.

A map is just toilet paper if you can’t orient yourself.  A basic plate compass will get you going in the right direction.  If you’d like to know more about wilderness navigation, I recommend reading Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter, & GPS (Amazon, $11.90).

10) Candle

emergency candleCandle?  What’s a candle good for in a wilderness survival kit?

Candles actually have many uses in wilderness survival situations.  Because they burn longer than a cotton ball they can be used to get stubborn kindling burning.  They can also throw off some heat that can be reflected off of your emergency blanket (just don’t burn the blanket!).  And even though they’re dim, they can be used to signal rescue crews who are using thermal imaging.

No need to get fancy here; the cheap packs of Coghlan’s Emergency Candles you can get at the grocery store will be enough to serve these purposes.

Storing your Wilderness Survival Gear

essential survival gearKeeping your equipment clean and dry is extremely important.  It’s also important to stay organized so that you know where things are when you need them.  The system doesn’t need to be complex.

I just keep everything except the first aid kit in one 2L orange dry bag (I seem to need bandaids a lot).  The bag is orange because I can easily identify it as my “survival” bag.  And then there’s also the dry bag with my extra clothes.

The orange bag and first aid kit go with me when I leave base camp for the summit or a day hike.  I’ll leave the sack of extra clothes, but the rest is always on me.  Just grab those two things and put them in your day pack.  Easy-peasy.

This gear should have a dedicated purpose of staying in your survival gear kit, so you know everything is always there.  As such, it’s important to periodically go through and replace any expired food and/or medication.

More Information About Wilderness Survival Skills

The book mentioned in the beginning is a great place to start if you’re interested in wilderness survival training.

Many organizations also provide wilderness survival training open to the public.  National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) specializes in practical survival training.  It’s all hands-on, exciting, outdoor training.

USA Today also has a rundown of the 12 Survival Schools That Could Save Your Life, located throughout the country.

You’ll learn more from an accredited instructor out in actual wilderness conditions than you would from this post or from reading a book.  If you’ve got the money and the time it’s an invaluable experience – take my word for it!

Any questions?  How do the rest of you have your wilderness survival kits set up?

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