Much of what we own we don’t need. Some of us nearing curmudgeonhood rail against electronic conveniences that remind us of this: robot telephone calls, car windows married to the ignition switch, automated replies to questions we want to ask a living person. At the same time, basic tools lie neglected by people skilled only in the use of a keypad. A computer and a cell phone can help you earn money, keep you in touch and entertain you. But they cannot by themselves keep you alive. Go where the electronic ether hasn’t penetrated, or where rescuers can’t reach you easily, and you must tap your own resources. You need physical tools and the skills to use them.

With felling axes, pioneers built homes and cleared land to farm. With rope and hatchet, hunters fashioned lean-tos long before polymer tents with alloy frames existed. Victims of air crashes have lived because they could improvise tools and glean food from Spartan landscapes, and signal with mirror shards.

The greatest hazards are those for which you’re unprepared. While you can’t, by definition, avoid emergencies altogether, you can mitigate their effect and hike your odds of survival by equipping yourself now. Conditions determine which tools are most useful; five come to mind as survival essentials in just about every crisis outdoors. You’ll want these in your automobile and/or your backpack whenever you travel beyond the glow of electric lights. To this list add 50 feet of parachute cord and region-specific items like a collapsible snow shovel or a gallon jug of potable water. Before you venture afield, test each item so you can deploy it in the dark and when your hands are clumsy with cold. Run a compass course in unfamiliar country, start a fire in the rain or spend a frosty night in your emergency shelter. You don’t want an introduction to your tools to be the last time you see them.

Buck Spitfire
This high-quality Buck SpitFire knife can handle many tasks, and its brightly colored handle will be easy to see if you drop it in the woods.

Do-It-All Knives

The Boy Scout knife seemed a good tool when I wore that uniform decades ago. But knives these days are sturdier, with thicker blades of more practical shape. Folders have locking mechanisms so you won’t have to carry a severed digit home in your pocket. A useful knife is small, with a blade of 3 to 4 inches in length. I prefer one or two slim blades in a folder. A fixed-blade knife can be sturdier, but it’s harder to pack. Few knife chores demand a fixed (or a big) blade. I see no call for a custom knife; why pay for art when you need a tool?

I have wonderful knives from DiamondBlade, Buck, Gerber and Columbia River Knife & Tool (CRKT). You’ll find other worthy brands. Consider a Leatherman multi-tool in addition to a knife. Once, in Africa, a long thorn penetrated my shoe and my instep and broke off flush. My foot was pinned to my shoe. Since then I’ve carried a Leatherman. Its needle-nose pliers solve such problems; its scissors trim sutures and cloth. While dried foods have made can-openers less useful than in decades past, other clever devices tuck neatly into a Leatherman grip. Both knives and multi-tools merit stout sheaths.

Related Stories: 10 Must-Have Tools For Outdoor Survival

Find Your Way

Not many years back, every boy knew how to use a compass. Now GPS (Global Positioning System) units for hand and automobile are shoving compasses into the cobweb class, along with caulked boots and cream separators. But a compass doesn’t need batteries or orbiting satellites to function. With a map (of laminated paper so rain won’t turn it to mush), a compass can bring you out of the wilderness or to a rendezvous point you’ve never seen. You’ll want one with a base plate for setting declination (the angular difference between true north and magnetic north) and following a map course. Declination won’t matter to you in Illinois, but it exceeds 20 degrees on the West Coast, where I live. A set of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey maps, with state road maps, should be in your kit wherever you travel, so the compass can do more than point north. Avoid the nickel-size compasses once inletted into the buttstocks of rifles that, unaltered, would now put children through a year of college. Also avoid compasses that weigh as much as a small revolver. I carry two compasses, because when I am truly confused, it can be easy to dismiss one compass as faulty. Two become a majority.

Starting Fire

Heat can save your life. Outdoors, fire is heat. Besides keeping you comfortable, a fire can dry your wet clothes so they don’t drain heat as quickly from your body. But when the weather is wet, starting a fire can be a challenge. In my youth, hunters carried waterproof matches in metal canisters. But I’ve used a fistful of these trying to coax flame from soggy kindling, and wind snuffs matches and cigarette lighters. You’re much better equipped with a device like that from Ultimate Survival Technologies. The BlastMatch Firestarter was conceived by a Special Forces veteran for downed pilots. It’s designed for one-hand use, a lifesaving advantage if your other hand is injured or numb. Shavings of UST’s individually-wrapped WetFire Tinder ignite even floating on water!

Equally useful is the Lightning Strike Firestarter from Darrell Holland, an Oregon rifle-maker and hunting-supply source. The striker (on an elastic cord) blasts sparks onto tinder or the cotton-like wads provided. The wads burst into flame that tenaciously battles wind long enough to ignite a teepee of sticks. Besides heating and drying you and providing light for camp chores, a fire cheers you. Without fire you are truly alone.

LED coleman lights
Consider portable, durable, LED-powered lights, like those from Coleman.

Own The Night

You can buy flashlights for a couple of bucks, or spend a hundred. Because with flashlights you get pretty much what you pay for, you’d better spend what you think your life is worth. A flashlight not only shows you a path; it can signal searchers. It’s a firearm accessory that can blind an aggressor or help put your sights on him. It’s even a weapon when you have nothing else. But not every flashlight performs all functions or endures abuse. SureFire’s flashlights serve law officers and soldiers. A range of shapes, sizes and lighting options includes the palm-size versions I prefer. Small lights are easiest to pack, and are thus more likely to be with you when you need one. Efficiently directed beams give SureFires great reach. The battery life is short compared to weaker lights. (You’ll pack fresh batteries.) But LED illumination beats incandescent lights for durability and longevity, and alloy bodies trump polymer when you must smack something hard. As with compasses, two lights in your kit are better than one. Keep a spare; you may also want it to signal. Insist on a brightly colored housing, or add fluorescent tape. (Ditto for knives). A camouflage finish begs the question: How long do you want to search for a tool in leaves after dark?

Related Stories: Top 10 Rugged, High-Powered Survival Lights

Makeshift Shelters

Proper clothing stops wind and limits the rate of heat lost from your body in cold weather. It can also insulate you from a hot, dehydrating sun. But whatever the temperature or wind conditions, shelter adds a crucial layer of protection. Peter Kummerfeldt, who carved out a career as an Air Force survival expert and now conducts schools and seminars on the topic (, advocates a heavy-duty plastic bag like the oversize bags some states use to gather highway trash. 

“Cut a hole in the bottom for your head so you can rest fully cocooned,” he says. An eye-catching color like fluorescent orange will help searchers. Certainly, a tent is more comfortable, but it weighs more and takes time to set up. And a tent won’t help if you don’t purposefully pack it. “The only useful things are those you have with you,” Peter points out. A big plastic bag merits a permanent home in your pack.

What about space blankets? “They’re not as durable, and they don’t envelope you.” Of course, you’ll carry a cap that retains your heat when wet. Your exposed noggin is a radiator. In northern climes, my daypack always has a wool watch cap, dry wool gloves and socks.

Reliable emergency gear helps you only when it’s within reach when you need it, and then only if you’re practiced in its use. If a backpack tent appeals to you more than a garbage bag, set it up right away. Then take it down and set it up in the dark. Follow an orienteering course, or establish one, with a map and compass. Change flashlight batteries in the dark. Start a couple of fires with wet wood in wind. Keep your kit in a mobile pack you can carry hands-free, just as you do your smartphone.

For More Information:

Buck Knives;800-326-2825

Columbia River Knife & Tool;800-891-3100

DiamondBlade Knives;800-221-6873

Gerber; 800-950-6161

Leatherman; 800-847-8665


Ultimate Survival Technologies; 877-738-3738

This article was originally published in SURVIVOR’S EDGE ™ Winter 2015 magazine. Print and Digital Subscriptions available here

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