I vividly recall stumbling upon Doug Ritter’s website, www.Equipped.org, in the late 1990s. It was, and is, a great source of information that inspired my own logical pocket preps.
Back in the days of dial-up Internet, I surfed through his site, reading about emergency and survival gear, the tools he carried, his nonprofit organization and, of course, his personal miniature survival kit made from a small tobacco tin. By that point, I had learned about emergency kits through my father and by reading various books, but Doug’s organization and thought process motivated me to think smaller.
Before I knew it, I was looking around pharmacies and craft stores to find small vials and containers to house all my pocket-sized emergency gear. I remember the embarrassment of purchasing non-lubricated condoms to use as water containers—with the pharmacy cashier staring me down as if I were a pervert. And I remember the excitement of having a needle and thread when a button was ripped off my shirt after one New Year’s celebration.
My survival kit has been complemented by the concepts presented by the late Ron Hood, the U. S. Rescue and Special Operations Group (USRSOG) Cadre in Six Ways In and Twelve Ways Out, my former boss and survival mentor, Marty Simon, from the Wilderness Learning Center and others.
Over the years, I’ve developed many kits to meet my needs in the backcountry, as well as in day-to-day operations, and I’ve tested a lot of equipment in the field, teaching courses and traveling to far-off places.
The skill and experience that come from using gear are equally important to the knowledge of building kits and carrying them. As you will read, not all emergency/survival kit concepts are what they are cracked up to be, and there is a clear distinction between an “emergency kit” and a “survival kit.” What works great in theory is not always so in practice.
CARRYING YOUR KIT
The survivor should have concentric layers of preparedness on and around him. For the purpose of this article, the focus is purely on the pocket kit. This will include gear that can be carried in a single cargo pocket in a set of BDU pants. This means the additional gear carried on a belt (for instance, a belt knife, pistol, flashlight, etc.), while important, will not be addressed but should not be dismissed as unimportant.
Given the size of the pocket your kit will ride in, you have many considerations:
Hard or flexible case? Water resistance? Ease of access? These are all questions and considerations you must determine. At some point, my kit morphed from an Altoids tin to a military decontamination kit container for more room. After experiencing a leak, it was moved to a small Pelican case for better water resistance. And after landing hard on my side while scouting around in camp, the hard case was swapped out for a small Sil-Nylon Kifaru Pullout pouch with small zip-lock baggies inside.
Today, I carry that last generation of kit as my basic cargo pouch kit and tend to carry supplemental “frequent-use” pocket gear in other containers such as the SUMA aluminum kit from Solkoa or my KeyDC pouch from Centerline Systems. After all, “one is none,” and there is no such thing as a perfect survival kit. Redundant items aren’t too heavy to be deal-breakers and should be carried.
An absolutely essential item carried at all times behind my pocket kit is a bandanna. A bandanna can serve as a pressure bandage, pot lifter, emergency lashing and a sling, among many other uses. Assuming a mechanical injury causes an emergency, the survivor might be bleeding. This could be an emergency requiring serious attention, and it will become a survival situation if it isn’t dealt with quickly. Because bleeding out can happen in seconds, I want to make sure I have something (other than a proper tourniquet) to address this emergency before it becomes a matter of survival. For minor annoyances, I carry a few bandages inside my kit.
I place a lot of value on fire. I’ve learned it can cook food, illuminate an area, warm the body, boil water, signal for help and aid in tool making, as well as provide emotional support when one is alone in the dark. My fire kit has evolved to include a reliable ferrocerium rod, small BIC lighter, matches and pre-made tinder. I’ve considered which gear I can use with one hand (assuming my other hand is injured) and which gear any member of my party can use, regardless of their skill level. In my emergency kit, my fire starting components are the second to last items packed, making them easy to reach with the fewest deliberate actions.
On its own, a fire can serve to keep a person alive in the worst weather. If necessary, a person can stoke a fire all night and dry out clothes—assuming they have sufficient fuel and energy.
Protection from the elements in the form of a windbreak and moisture barrier will convert that open shelter from a fire to a semi-open shelter with a fire. Sure, it is semi-open, but it is also semi-closed, which will improve your survivability.
The Adventure Medical Kits Heatsheet is quite simply the best emergency blanket on the market. It is made from polyethylene with an aluminized finish that will shed rain and reflect heat. Even though this item won’t fit inside a pocket kit made from a rigid tin, it can serve as a padded barrier between your skin and the tin in a pocket. If you have room to spare, use a military-grade heat sheet, because the material is significantly stronger and can be reused over and over.
Signaling for help and having the ability to indicate location are important to the survivor. Ever since my days as a lifeguard, I have carried a whistle on my keychain; alternatively, it has resided in my pocket emergency kit.
Living in New England, if I need to signal an emergency search-and-rescue team to my location, chances are they will be on foot, searching by ground through the dense woods. This is why I prioritize a whistle over a signal mirror. I carry both, but the likelihood is that I will use sound, rather than a flash, to alert others to my position. The Fox 40 was my original whistle; then, the Victorinox SOS whistle, UST JetScream, the Fox 40 Micro and now, the Acme Tornado.
As previously mentioned, a mirror is subjugated to the whistle in my kit. This doesn’t mean I disregard its value. The same kit I carry in the Northeast comes with me on all my travels. Therefore, I make sure to include a mirror for flashing rescue crews and to self-examine for injuries. With two mirrors, one in my kit and the other in my frequent-use gear, I can get a look at the back of my head, which is otherwise impossible to see with a single mirror. By the way, at least one of the mirrors carried is real glass, because it is hard to beat for light reflection.
Rounding out my signaling gear is a squeeze LED light for night signaling, along with surveyor’s tape to mark my emergency bivouac location. Both of these items will prevent me from getting lost at night and losing track of my surroundings.
In addition to the small squeeze light carried inside my kit, I also carry one on the outside of each pocket emergency kit. The light is there to help me find gear inside my kit in the dark. The little Pico light clipped to the outside of the emergency kit will also work well as a hands-free light if I pinch it between my lips. There have been plenty of occasions when a small LED light has helped find key holes or dropped gear; took the place of a larger light with a dead battery; or when two lights and two people made better sense for searching than one and one. As survivors, we must pack to our weaknesses, and no human has the ability to see clearly in the darkness.
The confines of a pocket make carrying a rigid water container difficult. Various manuals suggest carrying an unlubricated condom—which my high school health teacher demonstrated can expand enough to hold a gallon of water.
The condom’s weaknesses outweigh its value, though. That same health teacher would recommend not carrying a condom in a wallet, because it is too hot and the condom will degrade. The condom demonstration also relied on water being forcefully pushed into the reservoir tip. Condoms won’t expand if they are filled with a drop of water running off a paracord lead, one at a time. That said, they will expand if there is a large body of water one can forcefully push a condom through, opening first, to get it to fill up. But there are better options.
Reynolds oven bags, MRE beverage bags, baby bottle bags and even Ziploc bags will fold up relatively small and should be included in an emergency kit. Any of these will help collect water and, using that bandana mentioned earlier, carry it, as well.
MP1 tablets work well to treat water, but the survivor should be aware that they take time to activate. In an emergency, the survivor might also want to pack a small filter straw to drink water immediately, because waiting can crush morale.
The gold standard of cordage in the survival community is authentic 550 paracord. It is all it is cracked up to be—but it is also bulky. As a result, you’ll be limited to how much you can carry in your pocket kit. Kevlar braided cordage is very strong (with an approximately 300-pound breaking strength) and packs down to a much smaller size. Paracord can still be braided as a lanyard for your kit so you will always have some, but other cordage might work well as a substitute.
Part of my cordage preparation is 50-pound braided Spiderwire fishing line. This line takes the “sport” out of fishing and is stronger, pound for pound, than most other cords out there. It can be carried on thread bobbins or carefully coiled in a small baggie. However, it knots easily, and the knots are difficult to untie.
How many emergencies are set into motion when a person becomes lost or disoriented? As humans, we value understanding our relative location and the direction we’re headed. Even though the compasses carried in my pocket kits are not the variety I would use for map and compass reading, I can still use them to determine direction, orient myself to my surroundings and travel with confidence in a given direction.
As my kit has evolved, the compasses carried have all shared one key attribute: All have been very reliable and compact. I have carried Suunto, Tru Nord and Sun Brand compasses in my kit. In my KeyDC pouch, I splurged on a NATO FB1605 compass from Best Glide that reads true and is smaller in diameter than a penny.
Ultimately, the best compass you carry should obviously be the most accurate. Test its accuracy against known directions, and ensure it is polarized correctly. I’ve seen some high-end compasses accidentally “charged” so that the magnetic needle pointed south instead of 180 degrees in the other direction.
In my younger years, I carefully slit a pocket in my leather belt to hold a hard-back razor. I figured I would always have a blade on me, even if I lost my Swiss Army Knife. That was the first emergency edge I carried in my pocket emergency kit.
To a survivor, a hardback razor is a godsend, but its shortcoming is the lack of a good handle. The cardboard cover will soon fall off and become less than protective.
If left with only my pocket emergency kit, I wanted a way to carry my blade at the ready with an emphasis on safely. This led me to a folding knife—the Spyderco Ladybug. I could keep this small folder tied around my neck on a lanyard without risk of it accidentally cutting me. Nevertheless, I did not discard my razors and still have them in my kit as backup blades.
Given that the majority of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, I have always carried fishing equipment in my pocket emergency kit. Food is low on my priority list, but fishing could provide a means to occupy my mind and help improve my morale. (Also, if nine out of 10 emergencies are resolved within 72 hours, Murphy’s Law will dictate mine is going to last longer.)
Fishing kit choices are highly subjective, but they should be realistic. I tend to carry smaller hooks (even size 20 dry fly hooks), because they can catch both small and large fish, while a large hook won’t work with smaller fish. I also pack a few split shot and barrel swivels to make a trotline and get more hooks in the water. The Spiderwire line I carry will work in and out of the water and, combined with a small length of braided picture-hanging wire, I have the means to fashion some snares as a last-ditch food procurement effort.
MISCELLANEOUS UTILITY AND EVOLUTION
My practical pocket emergency kits were inspired by some of the premier minds in the survival industry, and the addition of miscellaneous gear is reflective of my own training and experiences. For instance, I include Sliver Gripper tweezers to remove embedded ticks, triangular sail needles to stitch heavyweight material, a Fresnel lens for map reading and a glue stick for patching holes in rain gear.
My pocket emergency kit continues to evolve as I use it more and more in the field. In the same way I was inspired years ago, perhaps this article will motivate you to create your own kit.
If you start with a commercially available kit, modify it to meet your unique needs. Learn what gear you are comfortable using, and have a logical explanation for carrying each item, rather than one grounded in fantasy. Consider your realistic needs, and make sure you carry what will get you out of an emergency situation before it becomes a matter of survival.
Many emergency/survival kits are assembled around the common Altoids tin or similarly sized container. The limitations of the inside dimensions dictate what kind of blade can be carried. One option has been a small folding knife or multi-tool; another option is the hard-backed razor.
Both of these options have their merits, but many practical preppers want a true fixed blade to fit inside. For these folks, Wenger Blades of Hudsonville, Michigan, has created the Aphid. Made from stainless steel, it will hold up to damp conditions with minimal rusting.
Inspired by the “Final Option” blade concept from the USRSOG, the Aphid is a compact fixed blade that can be tucked away and forgotten about until it is needed. With a small paracord or Type III cord lanyard, the user can create an extended “handle” to help with acquiring a secure purchase. The Aphid is skeletonized to decrease weight and provide attachment points for paracord wrapping. It comes with a minimalist Kydex blade cover, but the user can create a cardboard-and-duct tape cover for even deeper concealment.
In testing and reviewing the Aphid, I used it primarily in the foil grip. This is the grip with which the flat of the blade is pressed with the thumb, and the knife is essentially pinched. It worked well cutting through various cords, both natural and synthetic, and I used it for fire starting. The sharp, 90-degree spine of the knife worked well as a magnesium and ferrocerium rod scraper. I also carried it in the Centerline Systems KeyDC pouch and in my wallet on separate occasions without issue.
With a supplemental cord wrap, the knife felt significantly different in hand, picked up very little additional weight and occupied slightly more space. Overall, the knife accomplished all reasonable tasks it was assigned.
One could easily fashion the Aphid into a neck knife that could be worn with a BSA Hot Spark, whistle and squeeze LED light for an ultralight emergency kit.