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Desert and Wilderness Survival
and the Contents of Your Survival Kit

Page 1: Desert Explorer Survival Kit
Page 2: Specialised Survival Kit
Knife Review Page

The Desert Explorer Survival Kit

The survival kit can become the most important part of your equipment you carry. Remember though that the goal is for that not to happen. But if it does, as important as the survival kit itself are survival skills and the will to survive. It doesn’t matter what survival gear you carry if you are not technically, physically and mentally prepared to use it. Be sure to read our Primitive Skills pages. There you will find a discussion of survival versus primitive living, and more information of building primitive living skills. Although the internet is not the place to "learn" these skills, we will go over the basics here of building the survival kit, and the basics of learning the skills on our Primitive Skills pages. Going beyond the basics, and the physical and mental preparedness are up to you. Throughout these pages and on our Guidebooks page we recommend books for further reading. We also have links to actual schools where you can learn firsthand the survival and primitive living skills that may keep you alive.

Creating Your Survival Kit

Listed below is my “survival kit”, which I also refer to as “always carry” items. If you have visited our Desert Gear page, you will be familiar with these items and some of the text. Here I will offer more explanation and additional options for your kit. Some people recommend keeping the survival kit completely separate from the rest of your gear. This method demands that the kit be kept on the person at all times, which may or may not happen considering that it may be in a fanny pack or other bag- of course it must be with you if it is ever to be useful. For me, it makes more sense to break the items up, include those pieces of gear that are always with you anyway as part of your kit. Additional items can be put in your pockets or put in a fanny pack to carry with you when you leave your camp. At the very least, the minimal survival kit- a knife, at least one means of starting a fire and a map and compass- are to be carried on your body at all times. I build the kit from this starting point.

Remember that what I suggest are just recommendations. The kit as listed below is what I carry and have been carrying for years and years, at times in different configurations. You will need to create and adapt your own kit for your specific location, your hike, the time of year, and so on. If you are backpacking in the Pacific Northwest you will have different contents, for example a few fishhooks may be useful. If you are in the jungle, you may want to include bug repellent. If it is winter, your kit will be very different. Remember, my focus is the desert southwest during warm weather. But before we get to the kit, a few words are in order about what to do in a survival situation.

The First Steps Toward Survival

If you find yourself lost (a confusing statement) and facing a survival situation, consider the following list adapted from FM 21-76, the U.S. Army Survival Manual. This list may help keep you alive. Please read the list and think about it, think about it in terms of a survival situation. Mentally place yourself out in the desert, alone, lost and without any gear. Then place yourself in the same situation with your survival kit- you will probably feel differently. And pay special attention the the first point on the list- panic. In the current issue (either December 2007 or January 2008) of Backpacker magazine, there is an article on the number one killer of people in the wilderness- not bears, cats, heat stroke, or falls- but panic.

  • Do not panic- remain calm. Panic will get you nowhere.
  • Find shade or shelter and sit down and asses the situation- remember that haste makes waste.
  • Consider where you have come from, where you are heading.
  • Conserve energy and water- but remember that water is best stored in your stomach, not in your water bottles.
  • Inventory your water, food, and equipment. Consider the gear you have and how it will help keep you alive.
  • Stay where you are, do not start walking or wandering aimlessly. Stay put unless you know exactly where you are headed.
  • Make a plan and stick to it, whether you plan to sit and wait for help, or head due west, for example.
  • Use common sense when making decisions. For example, do not start walking during mid-day, do not waste energy building a shelter from the sun when natural shelter is available.
  • Improve your situation- plan how you will spend the night, collect fire wood, build a fire- this will help build your morale.
  • Above all, prepare for such a situation- create your kit, carry it with you and learn the skills to stay alive NOW.

Survival Kit- Always Carry Items

  • USAF survival knife with cordlock compass, flint, and 550 cord Fixed blade knife - A fixed blade is safer and easier to use than a folder. The Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT) Stiff Kiss model (now discontinued- there are comparable models out there) comes with a plastic sheath and doesn’t have a handle per se- it is a solid piece of metal without additional material on the handle end. This allows you to wrap the handle with parachute cord, and based on this design, if necessary it could be hafted to a pole and used as a spear. I keep an additional few feet of parachute cord wrapped around the sheath of the knife, enough to use for hafting or as the bow string for a bow and drill fire kit. Another option for the survival knife- my personal choice as the ultimate survival knife, although heavier and bulkier, is the USAF survival knife, seen in the photo to the right, available at most military surplus stores. Make sure you get the real thing, and not a cheap imitation. It should cost around $40. The sheath has a pocket with a small sharpening stone, the handle end of the knife can be used as a hammer, and there are sawteeth on the back of the blade. I keep a cordlock compass, a Hot Spark metal match and a piece of 550 cord tied on mine. The 550 cord acts like a sling to carry the knife over the shoulder and is long enough for use on a bow for a bow and drill fire kit. Also wrapped around the sheath and covered with a length of bike inner tube is 30 feet of 63 pound test nylon fishing line. The best price I have found recently for the Ontario Air Force Survival Knife is about 40 dollars on Amazon. The latest, updated version is known as the SP2 Air Force Survival Knife and has a polymer handle and mostly cordura sheath. The overall knife design seems to be unchanged. It will cost about 40 dollars. See our Knife Review page for more information on survival knives.
  • Parachute Cord - A.K.A. paracord or 550 cord is an indispensable survival item. Some say you should carry 50 feet, I carry 30 feet. Make sure you get the genuine article which has smaller strands of cord inside of a sheath. The smaller strands can be removed from the sheath and have countless applications.
  • Metal Match or "Flint" - I recommend keeping it tied on your knife sheath since the two go together- you need the steel of the knife blade to spark the flint. I discard the small piece of steel that comes with the flint since I keep it with my knife. The simple, two dollar Boy Scout Hot Spark Fire Starter works great, although the number of times you can use it is very limited compared to larger models. The Swedish FireSteel 12,000 Strike Fire Starter is larger and easier to use, and has a much longer use life. Finally there is the UST Magnesium Bar Firestarter. It is another fire starting method the allows you to scrape off shavings of magnesium which are then ignited by the piece of fire steel embedded in the block. it is a great all-in-one device.
  • Matches and lighter - Waterproof matches or matches in a waterproof container and a small Bic butane lighter are survival backups that should be with you always.
  • Map and compass - You should have a set of 1:24,000 maps of your area and most importantly know how to read and use them. If you know how to read a map you should not get lost. I carry a Silva Ranger compass around the neck at all times. As a backup there is a wrist compass strapped to the pack, or at times on the arm. One of these should be on your body at all times. The Silva Ranger has a mirror used when sighting that doubles as a signal mirror.
  • Water/ water container- Even if you are just walking away from your pack and gear for a quick look up a side canyon, carry a water bottle with you. In the desert you do not want to be too far away from water. Even if it is only a quart, it is better than nothing and it gives you a storage vessel. There are many water storage options available such as Nalgene bottles, a Camelback, Platypus (a 1 or 2 liter bladder-type bottle rolls up very small and weighs just ounces), or Dromedary bag. As part of a survival kit you may want to include condoms (they are strong and can hold a lot of water) and/or quart and gallon sized ziplock bags. The ziplocks can be used to collect, treat and carry water. When it comes down to it, if you have to move, you will need some way to carry water along with you. For more on this topic see Water Storage on our Recommended Gear pages.
  • Water filter/ purification- In the desert we often drink water that seems questionable at first glance, even after filtering or purifying. If you find yourself in a survival situation, you do not want to end up with stomach problems from drinking bad water. Dehydration accompanies such problems. Keeping a purification source with you can alleviate this problem. I carry individually wrapped AquaMira Water Purifier Tablets in all my packs and different kits, Aquamira Chlorine Dioxide Water Purification Drops on some trips, Potable Aqua tabs, or even the MSR Miox Water Purifier in a pocket without even noticing the bulk or weight.
  • Food- For me this is two meals or the equivalent in snacks. This could be Clif bars, Power bars, Cornuts- whatever you like that doesn’t require cooking or water. If you always have a meal or two in your fanny pack or "always carry bag" or even a snack in your pocket, it can do tremendous things for your morale in a survival situation.
  • Space blanket/ silcloth tarp or poncho - Again, this is your preference. I carry a silcloth poncho by Integral Designs. It may not be available any longer, but they still sell a siltarp. These are not much larger or heavier than a good space blanket. They can be used as raingear, a shelter, or a blanket. Adventure Medical makes an Emergency Bivvy of space blanket material. It is a lightweight and inexpensive option in a kit.
  • Polypro shirt- This is one of those items that will probably go in a separate survival kit bag, being a little too big for a pocket. But a dry, warm shirt can be more than worth its weight when it comes down to it. Carry it in a ziplock bag to keep it dry.
  • Rain gear- These items are up to you. Raingear, depending on style and brand, can get heavy and bulky. But if you spend the money on a quality ultralight set, you likley won't notice the extra 10 of 15 ounces and may be grateful for having them some day.
  • Flashlight- This is not an indispensable survival item, but it is useful and can provide a psychological boost. A keychain-type light such as the Photon LED Micro-Light or Princeton Tec Pulsar are highly recommended. They weigh only ounces, put out huge amounts of light and have long battery and bulb lives.
  • Toilet paper- Again, not indispensable but certainly nice to have.
  • Aid kit- A basic first aid kit can be helpful. It is easy enough to create your own, and store it in a two ziplock bags for added protection from water. Put items in it you personally might need- include Advil or aspirin, butterfly bandages, a small roll of medical tape, a couple of packets of antibacterial ointment and so on.
  • Duct tape- Not much needs to be said about this item. We keep a few wraps around a Nalgene water bottle. Be sure to change it out periodically. Alternatively, wrap four or five inches back on itself, flat, continue wrapping and make your own "roll" of tape without the rigid center.

The following items we consider options. These are not items we carry, but you may want to consider them based on your level of comfort at being able to keep yourself alive.

  • Signaling device - You can add various items here such as a signal mirror, headlamp with strobe feature, whistle, pen flares, and by choosing a red or orange poncho or space blanket over an olive drab or black one. These choices are up to you- some say you should have all of these with you as part of your kit. At some point weight and bulk start to become an issue, especially if you are trying to go light in weight.

Survival Tip- You don't need a signal mirror to signal- the inside of a Power Bar wrapper for example, if opened carefully in one piece, can be used to direct the sun enough to signal someone off in the distance. Thanks to Spike for this tip, and for blinding me on the river.

  • Black plastic trash bags - Two is the usual recommendation. This is another optional item. We do not carry it. We feel the poncho is adequate. But they do have the advantage of being light, cheap and versatile- they can be used as raingear, a tube tent, as water collection during a rainstorm and so on.
  • Fire starter- This could be a military trioxane tablet, any one of the fire starting tablets form REI, cotton balls dipped in Vaseline (my personal favorite- they can burn up to 12 minutes), saw dust with paraffin wax, or any number of other options.
  • Heavy line or cord/ fishing line- The options here are numerous as are the uses. The simplest, although maybe not cheapest option is heavy test fishing line. Stren has a huge line of products. Avoid monofilament line and get something heavier, perhaps 40 to 60 pound test. Some recommend dental floss, but its strength is questionable.
  • Plastic drinking tube- A three foot long piece of tubing can be used to drink water collected in a solar still.
  • Clear, lightweight plastic- A piece or two, about 4 foot square, can be used to make a solar still.
  • Fish hooks, sinkers- Four or five hooks and a few swivel sinkers tucked into the kit can be handy if you are in an area where you can fish.

Buying a Commercial Survival Kit

If you do not have the time or inclination to build your own kit, there are thousands of survival kits available these days. Many of them contain at least most of the essential items, but some are specialised, for cold weather for example. So pay attention to the contents. Buying any commercial survival kit will likely require adding a few more items to round it out, and possibly the removal of a few things from it. Make sure your kit contains a butane lighter, AquaMira Water Purifier Tablets , a couple of condoms for carrying water, and maybe a Photon LED Micro-Light. Also note that a scalpel blade is not a substitute for a real knife. See this commercial kit at for an example. This kit contains a number of mil-spec (military grade) items that you cannot go wrong with.

Back to Top

Page 1: Desert Explorer Survival Kit
Page 2: Specialised Survival Kit
Knife Review Page

Related Pages
Page 1: Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Page 2: Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Page 3: Primitive Skills- Shelter
Page 4: Primitive Skills- Fire
Page 5: Primitive Skills- Food
Page 6: Primitive Skills- Navigation
Page 7: Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Page 8: Primitive Skills- Fishing
Page 9: Primitive Skills- Flintknapping


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