Thursday, 29 August 2013

Putting together a realistic survival kit and ‘grab bag’:

It is my firm belief that the forward thinking outdoors person should always strive to develop his or her knowledge and improvisational abilities before relying on a survival kit. However, as any boy scout worth his salt will tell you we should always be prepared when heading off the beaten track. Carrying an ‘off the shelf’ survival kit of some sort will tick that preparedness box and the classic survival tin comes up trumps as a very small, lightweight and unobtrusive option. However, the user must still have specialized training in order to use it effectively to improvise shelter, create warmth by lighting a fire, turn the little hooks and line into a fish supper and so on. As an emergency pocket kit in an environment where shelter building materials, water and fire wood are available the tin comes into it’s own but surrounded by natural resources, the properly prepared survivor should already feel confident that their knowledge, training and experience could compensate for many of the items in the tin (although a good knife and cooking pot would be handy…). For adventurous types planning to head out into the wilderness it makes a lot of sense to spend time contemplating what situation they’re most likely to have to survive in the first place!

I base my survival kit around the conditions found in the wilder, more remote parts of the UK and similar environments, where one or more nights on an exposed hill side, possibly injured, possibly lost with limited available materials for fire lighting and shelter construction are potentially lethal and fairly commonplace. I also base it on some sound advice from Mors Kochanski, that the wise outdoors person should always carry enough equipment and clothing to sit out a storm or potential survival situation in relative comfort until rescued or can rescue themselves. Relative comfort! Those are two words most people wouldn’t expect to hear in conjunction with an article about survival kits! It’s a lot to ask from such a small package but the makings of a good kit should include…

  • Effective and immediate protection from the elements
  • A method of providing external warmth and/or maximizing body-heat retention
  • Equipment to call in rescue or alert potential rescuers
  • Equipment to gather and sterilize water
  • Equipment to repair kit or improvise using locally found materials
  • Direction finding equipment
  • Some basic first aid kit
  • An emergency ration

 Now, this is an article I’ve written before a few years back but circumstances, knowledge and kit are always changing so
the contents of my own survival kit have recently been updated slightly. The superb team at Alpkit sent me a few
goodies, some of which I already use as part of my standard kit and some which I hadn’t had the chance to use yet.
You’ll see many of them listed here.

As stated previously, my kit is based on reality and also ease of use. Rather than being something I squirrel away on the off
chance I’ll fall out of a plane and land in the Amazonian jungle, my survival kit has many items in that are used more
regularly. They are just arranged in a way that will (hopefully) ensure I have the most important bits with me when it
matters. It’s a two stage system; stage one features a small but comprehensive bag of ‘bits and bobs’ easily plucked from
my main rucksack and carried on my person in a situation where I might not want to carry my main pack or might
not be able to (travelling cross country in a vehicle, crossing a river or mucking about in a canoe). It is designed to provide
everything needed for survival in an unexpected situation on it’s own but also form the foundations of any outdoor kit list,
no matter how big or small, providing a sensible bridge between the tiny pocket kit and a full complement of gear.
Stage two is a ‘grab bag’ which is larger but allows for greater scope, even to the extent of it being a ‘grab and go’
lightweight daysack for micro adventures. It covers most emergency eventualities and even holds a few luxuries for day to
day use. Both the ‘bits and bobs’ bag and the ‘grab bag’ can be carried at the top of a main pack (all your essential kit in one
 neat package) or as a standalone emergency/unexpected hike into the hills lightweight kit kept in the car. In the winter, I’ll
often swap the Nalgene bottle for a stainless steel flask of hot chocolate and carry the grab bag as my lightweight running
pack when heading off the beaten track.
So, the stage one ‘bits and bobs’ bag…..
I use an Alpkit ‘airlok xtra’ 3 litre stuff sack. These are tough little roll top dry bags with well thought out fixing points for
lashing them to your pack, mountain bike etc. They come with an handy webbing strap but I like to use 550 paracord,
doubled over instead. This makes a fine ‘baldric’ style across the body carry strap but can also be taken off and used for
spare boot laces, shelter building or any number of strong cordage related tasks (I once witnessed a couple of crazy Para’s
abseiling out of a window on a doubled over length, although I strongly recommend you don’t do this…). The airlock range
also come in red, which makes a first rate first aid kit bag. Being fairly heavy duty means that they float pretty well if
accidentally dropped in the water (sealed obviously) but are also great as an emergency water carrier with just under 3 litres

All the following items fit inside this bag…
1.  Alpkit ‘Mytimug’, a titanium mug complete with lid. A lot of the smaller items fit inside this incredibly lightweight but strong boiling vessel. A metal mug rates highly among my survival items – through personal experimentation I’ve found that it’s one of the few items you’ll struggle to improvise effectively from nature…but so important for sterilizing water and cooking food.

2.  A good headtorch (this one’s an Alpkit ‘manta’) with spare batteries. Carry another in your main pack and treat this one as back up. When you’re out in the hills and your main torch batteries die, you’ll want to be able to do a straight swap for another good quality lighting system rather than fiddle about changing batteries in the cold darkness!

3.  Heliograph signal mirror

4.  ‘Mylar’ reflective survival blanket. Extremely small and lightweight but will offer protection from the elements while maximizing retention of your radiated body heat too.

5.  Lightweight orange plastic survival bag by BCB. Provides additional protection as a bivi bag, can be slit open and made into a shelter sheet or even weighted down with rocks as a highly visible marker panel for rescue aircraft

6.  Mesh, insect proof headnet. Additionally useful as a ‘shopping bag’ for foraged food, catching fish, melting snow, bank robbers disguise

7.  Small tin of highly effective insect repellent (this one is by Nordic Summer). This is one of those items that can’t really be classed as a survival item but you’ll be glad of it once you’re out in the woods

8.  A good quality multi tool. Several cutting options with a mini tool kit attached and the pliers are a real bonus too. Not meant to be a work horse but handy for light use or in an emergency

9.  Pocket sharpening system. Again, not essential for survival but it’s tiny, weighs virtually nothing and handy to have if you use sharp cutting tools a lot. This one is a Fallkniven DC4

10.  Fire lighting kit:  Swedish ‘scout’ fire steel, lifeboat matches, some fat wood (highly resinous pine) and waxed tinder card. Fire steels give a huge shower of hot sparks, are virtually ever lasting, work even when wet and can be used in a gloved fist if dexterity is beginning to go in cold conditions. Can also be used to signal for a long way on a dark hill side. I also pack a candle - will make a snow cave feel like ‘home’ and raise the temperature a couple of degrees too

11.  A small but proper Silva compass plus a good quality whistle for alerting rescuers. The internationally recognized distress signal is six whistle blasts in quick succession followed by a minutes silence to listen for a response. Even after a response keep whistling until found!

12.  Power bars as a high energy emergency ration

13.  Water purification tablets and a large transparent plastic bag. The bag can be used to collect rain water and as a transpiration bag for collecting evaporating water from non-poisonous foliage. I also include several paper coffee filters as a lightweight filtering system

14.  Trapping and fishing kit:  Several brass wire rabbit snares (pre-dulled) and some strong line, small hooks and lead weights. It’s unlikely you’ll need to use these items but you never know…and they’re incredibly useful for making running repairs on your gear

15.  Repair kit:  More 550 paracord, some incredibly thin but strong ‘comms’ cord and a small roll of gaffa tape. Gaffa tape mends waterproof clothing, holds kit together, straps up a twisted ankle. Nuff said! Assorted needles and strong thread are also included but more for clothing repairs than ‘Rambo’ style surgery…hopefully.

16.  Very basic pocket first aid kit – purple Nitrile gloves (for dealing with other group members), a wound irrigation wash, tweezers and tick remover, assorted plasters, antiseptic wipes, steri strips, safety pins, asprin and a small field dressing for larger wounds. I’ve also included a small packet of ‘Celox' a haemostatic clotting agent for serious bleeding

A small but perfectly formed first aid kit

(above) The kit packed up ready to be stowed away. Key items that are most likely to be needed first are kept separate and near the top, easy to locate. The black cordura belt pouch holds the multi tool and sharpening stone. The unpacked kit as it is shown here could all be either worn as separate items on a belt or carried in the pockets of a jacket leaving the airlock bag to be used as a 3 litre water carrier

(above) The kit packed and ready for business, shown next to a mobile phone for scale. Love them or loathe them, you would have to be barmy in this day and age to head off into the wilderness without a fully charged mobile phone!

Stage two, the grab bag:

Many bushcraft or military style rucksacks feature removable side pouches with straps that can be used as a grab bag but I like to carry something made for the job. The excellent Alpkit ‘Gourdon’ dry bag day sacks are ideal. Lightweight, waterproof and fitted with comfy straps, mesh pockets and a shockcord stowage system – this is a LOT of daysack for the cash! I like to carry it in the main compartment of my rucksack, near the top as I find this better for weight distribution, especially if my main pack isn’t loaded up for a long trip. Strapping it to the side or slotting it into a side pocket can unbalance things a bit.

The grab bag has my ‘bits and bobs, survival kit forming the foundations of the pack, which has most eventualities covered. With the addition of some very lightweight but completely useable items of kit, an unplanned night on the hill would only cause minor embarrassment rather than hypothermia.


  1. ‘Bits and bobs, survival kit
  2. Alpkit ‘Gourdon’ 20 litre waterproof day sack (they also do a 25 litre version and several other, brighter colours for outdoor folk who want to be seen). The back system is simple but even so, features a removable pad for using as insulation between your bum and the cold ground
  3. The fantastic ‘Blizzard Bag’ a vacuum packed survival bag with a warmth rating of a medium weight sleeping bag!
  4. Fully charged mobile phone in a waterproof pouch – I normally carry mine in one of the mesh pockets, tethered to the pack
  5. Extremely warm, hooded jacket. This one is the Alpkit Filo jacket with supreme goose down fill. It squashes down incredibly small and weighs next to nothing. I keep a thin merino wool hat and windproof fleece gloves in the pockets
  6. Nalgene bottle with additional Mytimug fitting snugly on the outside giving additional cookability or just a more readily accessible mug for brews
  7. A lightweight, breathable bivi bag for total weather protection out in the open. This one is (you guessed it..) the Alpkit ‘Hunka' which squashes down into it’s own mesh pocket (as shown). An alternative for forest environments might be a lightweight tarp such as the rig 7, or even a lightweight waterproof poncho with attached guy lines for more versatility
Alpkit 'Hunka' and 'Filo' jacket

  1. Brew kit, high energy snacks, food for the day, spoon. I also carry a small pack of solid fuel tablets in here with a folding burner and flexible foil windshield for environments where lighting a fire might not be possible
  2. Belt knife and folding saw, for bushcraftin’
  3. Warm hat made from an old wool jumper! It doesn’t all have to be hi-tech…

The above list is assuming that a waterproof jacket is already being worn and a waterproofed map and user compass, carried. Both the waterproof jacket and map case could easily be lashed to the outside of the lightweight pack if needs be, by using the attached shockcord system and mesh pockets.

The grab bag packed and ready to go

Hopefully this article will be of use to you – I’m sure anyone who heads out into the wilds regularly will already have most, if not all of this kit. All I offer here are some tried and tested items of lightweight kit that I use and a packing system that ensures you have key, essential items with you when you need them.

Happy wandering!


  1. That is a very interesting post. I moved away from carrying survival kits a few years back, but I understand why people like them. I still carry items that I regularly use in my pockets, giving me easy access, and something to rely on when on day trips.

    I never however understood the intermediate type of survival kits-the ones that are too small to replace your regular backpacking gear, but too large to be carried on one's person. For me, if I have to carry my survival kit inside my backpack, then it can not help me much more than the contents of my backpack itself, which technically should contain enough gear for the whole trip. On top of that, it seems to necessitate the carrying of unnecessary items, unless the kit is revamped for each situation. For example, do you remove the emergency sleeping bag, when you are carrying your regular sleeping bag?

    It seems useful for a day trip, but I am not sure how well it works as a part of a backpacking gear list. If I have my pack with me, then I already have all of the gear I need to stay in the woods comfortably. If I lose my pack, a survival kit that is stored inside the pack, seems to be of little help.

    Anyway, thank you for the detailed article.

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  2. Hi Ross,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm with you on the pocket survival kit idea (although I do have a small pen knife, fire steel, torch and whistle on my keys). In a completely random, million to one situation you're better off preparing by developing skills and a mind set that will help you get through as it's unlikely you'll have the right kit with you, even if it does fit in a pocket. This article should really be viewed as a suggested packing list, rounding up all your essential items in one neat little package. Whatever trip I'm packing for, this little kit stays the same and everything else builds around that. It's kept near the top of the main pack and could almost be viewed as a tiny version of my whole back pack, providing everything that my main pack can in an emergency or even day to day.

    There are many likely scenarios that might result in you becoming separated from your main pack (heading away from camp to explore, capsized canoe with all your kit strapped into it, crossing a river etc)all of which are the result of a decision made by you at some point. This little kit means that during that decision making process, you have the chance to remove the mini kit from your main pack and keep it on your person. If you feel that you might not have time or the foresight to do that then it's still small enough to become a belt pouch, worn all the time. I wouldn't remove any of the items from the survival kit even if I had gear in my main pack that could do the job more efficiently - they're all extremely lightweight and unobtrusive enough to be left there for a rainy day.

    The 20 litre grab bag is a different kettle of fish. I may not have explained it well enough but this should be viewed as a standard daysack packing list with the 3 litre survival kit as it's core item. The items in it are all useable kit items rather than being kept purely for emergencies. The beauty of the 20 litre lightweight dry bag daysack is that, for longer trips, your essential items can again be packed in an easy to grab package and kept near the top of your pack (where they would probably be anyway - warm top and hat, water bottle and brew kit etc) meaning that you can happily leave your bulky gear (sleeping bag, tent, spare clothing, food) back at camp, in the car or whatever while you head off on a mini adventure. To that end, I wouldn't re-arrange anything as almost all of the grab bag items are valid components of my standard packing list. The only real duplication is the blizzard bag and as a leader, it's a good idea to have an additional warm layer to donate to less equipped group members if they really need it. I've given my blizzard bag away before now to a total stranger in need. Better than handing over my expensive down jacket or sleeping bag with the possibility of never seeing it again!

    Anyways, I hope that explains the concept slightly better for you.


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