Emergency Wilderness Survival, Part 4

Anna's Hummingbird in Flight (Calypte anna) © Mike Spinak

[Editorial note: This is the fourth part of a series which starts here.  Part 3 is here.]


The Personal Survival Kit

In my discussion of planning and preparation, I say that you should carry a personal survival kit. A personal survival kit (often abbreviated to PSK) is a set of tools and supplies to help aid you to live through a potentially life-threatening emergency. When things have already gone far enough awry as to force an unplanned stay in a harsh environment without what you would normally rely on, your PSK is your assurance to keep things from getting any worse.

A personal survival kit is usually distinct from the flashlight, compass, pocket knife, and other outdoor gear, that you might normally carry in your pack. A PSK is generally carried separately from your other gear, so that it doesn’t get lost with everything else, should you lose your other gear. It is often securely placed on your person or attached to you, in a zippered pocket, or on belt sheath, or attached keychain, etc., instead of in your pack, to make accidental loss a near impossibility. The items in a PSK are generally not used outside of emergency situations (other than testing, to make sure that everything works reliably), to ensure that they are not spent or worn out, when you need them. (However, you do need to learn how to use the items in your PSK, and practice with them until you are proficient. It’s good to have duplicates of your PSK items, for practice.) A PSK is usually intended to be carried at all times during outdoor activities, to make sure you have it when you need it. Consequently, it should be designed small enough and light enough to remain comfortable on you all the time. This requires keeping the kit focused on strictly the most basic survival needs, rather than toward everyday comforts.

A PSK’s Main Purposes



The ideal components of a personal survival kit differ widely, depending upon a variety of factors, especially your location, time of the year, and level of skill at wilderness survival. However, while the particulars may change, the basic themes generally remain the same. Most of a survival kit’s items will fit in as follows:


You need to keep your body temperature close to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In some environments, you will need to prevent hypothermia (becoming too cold to stay alive); in other environments, you will need to prevent hyperthemia (becoming too hot to stay alive); in many, you will need to prevent both. Thermoregulation is often the most critical survival need – you might need to prevent dying from the heat today, or dying from the cold, tonight, before any other dangers imperil you. Survival kit components for thermoregulation include such things as means to start a fire, means to make shelter, and insulated clothing.


You need water and food. Water is the much more pressing of the two needs, since you can llive quite a bit longer without food than without water. However, long before lack of either kill you, dehydration and malnutrition can can cause losses in strength, endurance, and coordination, and they can also be demoralizing – so dealing in a timely manner with both needs is wise. Survival kit components for sustenance include means to gather water, means to sterilize it, and means to carry it, means to fish and hunt, means to identify edible plants and means to harvest them, and means to cook food.


You may need to be rescued. In order get yourself rescued, you need to be able to send distress signals that alert potential rescuers that you need help and that help them find you. Survival kit components for communication include means to create visual signals, audio signals, and electronic signals.


You need to maintain your physical and mental health, keeping existing conditions from worsening, and preventing new ones from developing. Survival kit components for maintenance include prescription medicines, first aid supplies, and items for preventing damage from your environment.


What to Look For: Desirable Characteristics for PSK Gear

Beyond covering your basic needs, there are several characteristics which are especially desirable in personal survival kit components. Not every piece of kit will meet all of these criteria (in fact, some of these criteria will occasionally contradict others), but the more of them that an item meets, the better, so keep them in mind when choosing what to put into your kit. Look for PSK items which are:

Hard to damage

Items in a PSK tend to get knocked around, and exposed to a lot, because they are carried around all the time. Further, an emergency situation which leads to the kit being needed is likely to be hard on gear. Moreover, when you need the gear in a survival situation, you may well need to use it roughly in difficult circumstances. Look for items which are shockproof, waterproof, fireproof, coldproof, and resistant to corrosive chemicals.


The more versatile an item is for survival uses, the better. For example, a large, brightly colored cotton scarf could be worn for insulation, or ignited as first-stage tinder, or used as a sling to immobilize a broken arm, or used as bandages, or used to collect water, or used to pre-filter water, or used to signal for help.


Not all gear is as reliable as it should be. Cheap folding knives which can’t take a sharp edge, with locks that don’t lock securely, are common. The same applies for whistles that aren’t loud enough (or don’t even make any noise at all), inaccurate compasses, and so on. Buy the most reliable gear you can. Research before you buy to make sure you are buying reliable gear, and then test it when you buy it to make sure that it works properly.

Long lasting

Longer lasting items are preferable to those alternatives which are less so. For example, a package of water purification tablets will sterilize a few gallons of water, but a pot for boiling water will allow you to sterilize water practically endlessly.

Redundant, with variation

For certain critical pieces of kit, you should have back-ups, and these back-ups should have variations, to allow for a broader scope of use, overall. For example, to start fires, you might want both a lighter and a firesteel: a lighter can create a flame quickly and easily in mild conditions, while a firesteel works better than a lighter in difficult conditions.

Easy to use when injured

In a dire wilderness emergency, you might be weak from injury, or might have a broken arm and broken fingers, or any of a myriad of possible incapacities. It would be best if your survival tools were as easy as possible to operate one handed, with impaired vision, and/or in a weakened state. For example, if you are suffering from severe injuries, it will most likely be easier to shelter yourself with a tarpaulin than to build a lean-to with a hatchet.

Difficult to improvise

The more difficult it is to meet a survival need with items created from your surroundings, the more necessary it is to carry it. If something can easily be fashioned to serve a need with local natural materials , then it probably doesn’t belong in a PSK. For example, in most areas and situations, a firearm for hunting is merely expedient, as there are many other effective ways to hunt, fish, trap, and procure food. Other things, such as cord, may be much more difficult to make from available resources, depending on your area and your skill.

Minimal size and weight

As discussed above, a personal survival kit should be small enough and light enough to comfortably carry all the time. Thus, it stands to reason that the things that go into a PSK must each be small and light, to a degree that the sum of them all is still small enough and light enough to carry comfortably. Toward this end, smaller and lighter items are preferable to larger and heavier items which perform the same function, if all other factors are equal. For example, Spectra cord offers the strength of nylon cord in a less bulky package.

• Floats

Survival tools that float can be easier to prevent losing than alternatives that sink. For example, a plastic signal mirror will float, while a metal signal mirror will sink.

High visibility

High visibility is preferable when selecting items for a PSK, so that they can be sorted through quickly, kept track of easily, and found easily. When gear is available in several options of colors and/or finishes, choose the brightest and most glaring choice. Bright red, bright orange, bright yellow, glow in the dark, or reflective bare metal are easier to spot than nonreflective black, O.D. green, dirt brown, and woodland camouflage. For example, the brand of razor I carry in my PSK was available in black or blaze orange; I chose blaze orange.

I’ll discuss personal survival kit components in part 5, soon.


Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in Flight, Lake Isabella, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.