This is why I always travel with certain small pieces of gear that can make all the difference in the world. This is my wilderness survival kit. Some of these things are also multi-use in that I use them in my day-to-day as things other than precautions or safety hedges while I’m out in the bush. This means that I am not sacrificing space in my luggage for items that are solely meant for one specific purpose.
It is already a bad idea to enter an environment you are familiar with unprepared. It is magnitudes worse to do it somewhere you are not, especially in the tropics. I’ve been temporarily lost in the jungle a few times and when you start to panic, it is very comforting to at least know you aren’t completely up a creek.
The gear in my wilderness survival kit is easy and efficient to pack no matter where you’re traveling and most items are quite inexpensive, save for a couple. They are:
- Water Bottle
- Thermal Blanket
- Waterproof First Aid Kit
- Good Quality Flashlight
- Backup Lithium-Ion Batteries
- Water Purification Tablets
- Pocket Survival Guide
- Coloured Electrician’s Tape
A hard plastic or metal water bottle that holds at least 750ml of water, but preferably a litre is always a good idea, no matter where you are traveling.
In addition to helping you be a more sustainable traveler by reducing the number of single-use plastic bottles you consume, they are also far less likely to rupture or break. Think of how devastating it would be to have your only container for keeping water, fall and crack while you are in potentially dire circumstances.
Thermal, or emergency blankets, are cheap and come in VERY handy if you have to spend even just a night in the bush. Even in warm climates, if you are drenched in sweat, or got wet crossing a creek or river, and it dips down to 22, 23 degrees at night, you aren’t going to die of hypothermia, but the fact that you will be able to maintain a comfortable body temperature does wonders for your morale if you’re lost.
A thermal blanket packs up small and takes up little space in a pack or designated wilderness survival kit.
Waterproof First Aid Kit
If you are going on a long, arduous trek deep into the wilderness anywhere in the world, it’s a good idea to take a much better stocked, but obviously much larger first-aid kit with you.
If you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, this is something for which you are just going to have to budget the space. If you are looking for a kit to put in a day pack that isn’t going to weigh you down and take up a lot of room, go with something smaller.
One thing to include in your first aid kit that any traveller should have with them just because of how handy they are, are several safety pins. You can use safety pins to remove a splinter, create a makeshift fish hook, and even as an emergency needle (sterilized with fire, ideally) to suture a wound. They are also really good at resetting modems and opening your phone to insert new SIM cards.
I was a cub scout nerd when I was a kid, and I have very fond memories of the various survival seminars and exercises we would do in the woods behind the rec centre where we met. One of the things that most stuck with me is how invaluable a whistle is in a survival scenario. In fact, a whistle is usually included among the “10 essentials” that any wilderness survival kit should have.
In addition to being an important signalling device, a whistle can also be a potential self-defence weapon if you were to encounter an aggressive or overly-curious wild animal like a bear or cat.
Good Quality Flashlight
This might just be the most important one on the list. What I mean by “good quality” here is something that is high-intensity. It will use 18650 or higher lithium-ion batteries and be made by a reputable manufacturer. I’ve been using Olight and Fenix for years and they are wonderful high-quality flashlights/headlamps.
You want these three qualities for a few reasons. A disposable battery flashlight that you got at the local hardware store for under 20 bucks is fine to keep in your car, but not really appropriate for a wilderness survival kit. Disposable alkaline batteries will last you maybe 5 hours tops.
In a survival situation, you want something that is going to last you potentially days, in addition to spare batteries. Most good high-intensity flashlights that use lithium-ion batteries will stay on at the low setting for around 20 hours, sometimes more. They are also typically engineered for a certain degree of water resistance.
Some manufacturers even contend that you can temporarily fully submerge their flashlights up to a metre or so without damaging them. I’ve tried and ruined an Olight doing this, so not advised.
What’s more, some of these flashlights are so powerful that, when on their most extreme settings (which typically only last for a couple of minutes), the light they produce generates enough heat to start a fire:
I made the mistake once of going out into a jungle in Panama with not much daylight left, without a flashlight, because I told myself I wasn’t going that far in. I got turned around in a labyrinth of small cow trails, went in circles for nearly two hours, and only just made it back out to the small farm I was working on as the sun was setting.
While I wasn’t far enough from human habitation for it to have been a life-or-death situation–I would have found my way back the next morning), and the trails were transited enough that if I had just sat and waited, I would have seen or heard someone within 24 hours–the prospect of spending a night in a pitch-black jungle with no light was and still is quite terrifying. Now, tossing a flashlight and some backup batteries into my day pack is second nature.
Backup Lithium-Ion Batteries
If you have a good quality flashlight in your wilderness survival kit, you are also going to want some spare lithium-ion batteries. I use my flashlights and headlamps mostly for looking for nocturnal animals like reptiles and amphibians, and I have the power settings fairly high so that I can illuminate the ground and foliage.
Don’t want to accidentally step on one of these landmines:
That means I can burn through a couple of batteries in a night. Having backup batteries is always a good idea whether you are in a bind or not, but especially if not having them means the difference between physical/psychological comfort and well-being.
A lot of the time the good flashlight manufacturers mentioned above will include an extra battery as part of the deal (although you pay more), or give you the option to buy them as stand-alone items.
A branded stand-alone battery from a company like Olight or Fenix is almost always more expensive than buying a generic one. As is buying one in an outdoor store like MEC or Cabelas.
You can actually order generic batteries on places like Amazon and eBay that will meet the voltage and amp requirements of your flashlight or headlamp. They work just as well and are usually much cheaper. Just make sure that they are compatible with your specific flashlight or headlamp.
**Keep in mind that a lot of the new-gen flashlights from the aforementioned manufacturers are constantly trying to engineer their products so that you HAVE to use their batteries.
Water Purification Tablets
Water purification tablets are another great wilderness survival kit item for travellers because they are portable, lightweight, cheap, easy to use and come in pre-measured doses.
I like Aquatab tablets because they are very cheap, come in bulk, and can be stored in a bunch of different places. I put some in my toiletry bag, there are some in my waterproof backpack-size first aid kit, and there are probably some lying around the bottom of my main pack.
Aquatabs are used by militaries and peacekeeping forces around the world to make water potable. Make sure you read the instructions and know how to use them. Also, be prepared for your water to taste more like chlorine than you may be used to.
Being able to use a compass is one of those lifeskills they should teach children in elementary school. While it is not as straightforward as it seems, it is still very easy and something that you can pick up watching a couple of videos on YouTube.
Of course, it is far easier if you already have your compass in hand, and I recommend a compass as part of any traveller’s wilderness survival kit. I like a compass attached to a necklace that you can take out and keep handy when you need it.
Pocket Survival Guide
I’ve watched a lot of guys like Les Stroud, Ray Mears and Rob Bredl over the years, and while I am by no means an expert, I have picked up some genuine survival knowledge because of it. Whether you are a pro or know next to nothing, it is always helpful to have something you can consult if and when you find yourself in a tight spot.
I got the SAS Survival Guide: How to Survive in the Wild, on Land or Sea many years ago as a present and it is something that I take with me wherever I go. Some of the information pertains to combat and disaster situations which, while interesting, I have mostly skipped over, but there are many universally applicable survival gems in there too.
In the event that you believe you are lost, you might find yourself in a state of panic, which means it could be difficult to recall things you have learned or read that might help you. In that case, it is nice to have verifiable, tried-and-true advice and information in your bag.
A knife is a tough one for a traveller because it is often too difficult to travel with, even in a checked bag. I had a dive knife with me once and it caused so many issues at airports that I finally decided it was no longer worth the hassle and eventually gifted it to a local.
What you can do, however, is pick up a knife in a hardware store wherever it is in the world you happen to be and include it as a temporary piece in your wilderness survival kit. You likely aren’t going to find expert craftsmanship at a small-town shop in Colombia or Indonesia, but knowing you have something to cut with is peace of mind at the very least.
Coloured Electrician’s Tape
I’ve been packing electrician’s tape for years and it is quite literally the most useful thing I have ever accidentally included in my luggage. I really don’t like lights from small electronics when I sleep, so I use electrician’s tape to cover TV, alarm and airconditioner lights in hotels.
I have used it to tape pieces of paper over my webcam, secure north American cords in flimsy universal adapters, temporarily fix reading glasses and a lot more. It is also a very useful inclusion in a wilderness survival kit.
A great use for coloured electrician’s tape is as a trail marker. While I am vehemently against leaving inorganic things in nature, in a life or death situation, it can help to mark off places you have been so that a) it is easier to know if you have gone in a circle and b) you can use it to signal to anyone who might be looking for you that you are in a particular area.
You Build a Wilderness Survival Kit To Plan For The Worst
No one plans on getting lost, but everyone should plan for getting lost. I’ve yet to get myself into any true life or death situation in the wilderness (touch wood), where a wilderness survival kit might make the difference, but I am aware of how easy it is to get yourself into trouble.
This is why I have a handful of things on me any time I go somewhere I know getting lost is a possibility. Whether it’s a national park covering hundreds or thousands of square kilometres or a local hike I’ve done 50 times, I try to hedge my bets as best as possible.
Keep the above items in mind and go exploring, hiking, herping, birdwatching or whatever else it is that you like to do with the peace of mind that, should things go wrong, you aren’t helpless.