Wearable Gear: Military-Proven Vest Can Save Your Life

Wearable Gear: Military-Proven Vest Can Save Your Life

If an aircraft goes down the vest the pilot is wearing might be the only ticket to survival. In use throughout the 20th century, the aviator’s survival vest can also be adopted by civilians for use as an effective bug-out option for the vehicle, around camp or prepared and stored in the house for grab and go scenarios.

It allows carrying extra equipment within reach while wearing a pack and can be part of a modular system. Since the needs of the military and civilian vary, what contents should be carried and how? What are the likely scenarios where a vest would be a viable option as a survival kit carrier and how can the vest be incorporated in the greater goal of survivability?

Read on for our answers.

Blending in

The trained eye can pick up military surplus and military-style gear easily. The color scheme, layout of webbing and general shape and form all scream military. To reduce visibility, the modern survival vest can be made out of any number of civilian vests intended for hunting, photography or fishing. The individual’s scenario and environment will dictate which vest can blend in best. A fishing vest will look more out of place in the city than a vest for photography. Desirable features include pockets of varying size, orientation and quantity, internal D ring attachment points, breathable construction and attention to detail in double or triple stitched seams and quality fabric. Vest choice will also vary by the user and some designs, like an open front fishing vest, will be better suited for different body types where zippered fronts won’t work. As with any clothing, the vest must be comfortable or it will not be worn.

Once the vest is chosen, the gear that will fill the pockets comes next. Scenario-based planning comes into play. Logical needs rather than fantasy wants should determine what is carried. Fire starting equipment makes less sense in a strictly urban environment than personal protective gear like gloves, face mask and goggles because dealing with structural collapse is a more likely scenario than one where there is a need to start a fire. That doesn’t mean a lighter should be left out of the everyday pocket carry kit. For this article, the survival vest for the suburban commuting car will be examined. It can be carried in the back seat or at arm’s reach and used in conjunction with other items carried in the car that supplement it (see sidebar). Consider the elements of a scenario, leave out no details and the kit will essentially build itself.


The benefit of having a vest to wear is mobility. It allows easier distribution of weight and access over a standard backpack or duffle. Assuming the scenario requires movement from a vehicle, the shelter provided by a vehicle will be abandoned. Therefore, it is important to carry quality shelter components. A good compact tarp along with tie down cords and stakes is one option as is a sil-nylon bivy bag and poncho duo. Add in hand warmers for psychological comfort and the makings of a complete shelter system take shape.


Emergency drinking water packets are part of some commercial marine survival kits. These pouches provide four ounces of water each. Since the vest will be stored more than carried, having emergency water on hand in pouches that can freeze in a trunk without popping is logical. Bottled water is fine if pouches are unavailable. Add to this a small water filtering straw and the vest allows the wearer the ability to drink water without waiting to treat it. This allows better mobility and easier use on the move. Additional collapsible bladders and treatment tablets allow the wearer to store treated water if it is found.

The author carries a collapsible water bladder along with a filtration straw. This pairs with the vest-carried supplemental emergency water pockets and metal container for boiling, which are stored separately.


Just like the military pilot survival vest, a good strobe with lithium batteries can be carried. This electronic device can be seen for miles. Pair it with a strong pea-less whistle and signal mirror (impact-resistant glass is preferred) and the basics for signaling are covered. Add in surveyor’s tape and an old phone still capable of dialing 911 and signaling ability is enhanced.

In an age where most emergency situations are called in by cell phone, reliable means of signaling should still be carried. Whistle, mirror, AA battery strobe and surveyor’s tape make up part of the author’s survival vest kit.


Food is relatively low on the survival hierarchy of needs in most situations. That being said, food can absolutely boost morale. Many types of pre-made emergency food bars can be packed in a vest to provide the wearer something to consume. MRE components can be broken down to fit in pockets and even candy can be packed to boost morale. Depending on the scenario, fishing kit components and trapping items can also be packed to provide an activity to clear the mind in an emergency.

Food Options

The average number of calories consumed per day is between 2,000 and 2,500. This is only an average and dietary needs will vary. The more calories burned, the more calories must be replaced or else weight loss is inevitable. Even if half the normal calories are replaced, the food intake will mitigate the effects of long-term survival on body weight and health. Both neighborhood grocery stores and specialty survival stores sell options appropriate for a vehicle kit and room should always be made for these options.

Condensed food rations offer upward of 1600 calories in a relatively compact package. These are often foil wrapped and stored for long periods of time. If space permits, larger blocks can be purchased and if space is limited, individual serving sizes are available as well. This condensed food is meant to be consumed with water and a little goes a long way. A single matchbox-sized food bar may hold between 200 to 400 calories.

Aside from commercially available rations, there is no problem purchasing squeeze packets of peanut butter, foil packages of nuts, granola bars and canned food. It is also ok to use a vacuum sealer to create air-tight packages of high-calorie foods that are temperature-resistant. Just pay attention to the expiration dates on packages and use common sense for how long food is stored. The longer food sits, the more nutritional value it loses.

When packaging food for the vehicle, consider the nutritional value for what is carried. Simple sugars provide short term energy and fats are very calorie dense. Remember too, survival foods need not taste good to keep you alive. Sometimes overcoming the palate is the hardest part to eating these foods and other times the food itself is harder.


For a suburban commuting vehicle, it absolutely is logical to carry a fire kit as the distance between home and work may be filled with remote fields, ditches or other natural features where making a fire for safety is practical. The components should be easy to use, lightweight and packaged in a water-resistant manner. In general, the more imperative fire making is, the larger the fire kit. Ferro rod starters are the industry standby with lighters and matches as backups. Make sure to carry ample pre-made tinder and consider an emergency candle.

The ability to make fire is essential. The author complements the ferro rod attached to the belt knife in the kit with these backup starters.


Items in this category include paracord and accessory cords of smaller diameter. Zip-ties and wire also fit into this as do smaller multiple use items like duct tape and glue sticks. Extra batteries for lights and a small sewing kit are also good additions.


Knife selection is very personal and there are countless options. Find a good stout fixed blade you can carry and hold comfortably and one that will stand up to the rigor an unforeseen emergency situation will throw at it. Weight will be an issue as well as discreet carry. Pair it with a good multi-tool with a set of wire cutters. In the vehicle and around the suburbs, there may be wires to cut and screws to tighten or loosen to access or escape.

First Aid

During an emergency, there is a very good possibility injuries will occur. Therefore, having first-aid components is essential to the modern survival vest kit. One must differentiate between the items for trauma and the items that are more “ouchy boo boo”. Military survival vests are sometimes equipped with tourniquets. This is one piece of kit that should always be carried. Since the vest will be stored in a vehicle, the tourniquet should be immediately accessible and situated within reach and with the fewest deliberate steps necessary to put it to use. Smaller first-aid items can be carried to address cuts, burns and bumps and bruises. These do not require as urgent placement in the vest but should be easily identified when the pouch is closed. Use a different color paracord or zipper pull to identify your med kit.

There is a distinction between a trauma kit and first-aid kit. Depending on your scenario, you may wish to include a tourniquet, pressure bandage and compressed gauze to your kit.
The Supplemental Kit

The survival contents of military aviator vests were not meant to be standalone gear. Ejector seats housed a larger kit with items too bulky for personal wear. Similarly, the modern survival vest can be complemented with a secondary kit that increases survivability. Ideally, this is done without increasing visibility to the outside world. After all, the gear carried in a vehicle offers no advantage in an emergency if stolen.

If a survival vest is made out of a photographer’s vest, a supplemental kit can be made from an oversized camera bag. These bags look non-threatening and come in backpack and shoulder bag form. If your kit is to be used as an urban “get home bag” in an emergency, the combined gear carried in a vest and pack will last for days, maybe weeks. Reporters and photographers are common sights in the city and someone carrying a kit in this manner should blend in. Whatever you do, do not leave a camera bag out in the open in a back seat. Put it in your trunk where peering eyes can’t see.

The modern survival vest carries all of these contents, plus more, comfortably. The weight is distributed over the garment and carries easier than a duffle bag over the shoulder.

The logical supplemental kit for a PFD survival vest is one offering protection from the elements. This can be a dry box if space is not an issue or a dry bag that can be squished into tight nooks. Lightweight breakaway cord can be used to attach items to the vest that could be dropped and lost. The weight of the contents should allow the bag or box to float when fully loaded.

Perhaps the best option for a supplemental kit is a civilian backpack stored in a laundry bag. Military-looking bags stand out, but a bag with smart camouflage won’t get a second look. Risk versus reward is how most people live and criminals are not an exception, unless of course, they are under the influence. Breaking a window to steal a laundry bag is a disproportionate risk to reward. Add in some ratty looking clothes and the appeal is even less.

The items carried in this supplemental kit can include a firearm, folding saw, hatchet, extra food, extra water, insulated clothing and an intermediate shelter. These items make life much easier than the smaller compact gear found in the modern survival vest. Having them is a luxury, packing them is your responsibility.


Typically, military vests are equipped with a lensatic compass and possibly charts of the area. For the civilian, the base plate compass is a lighter and a better option to carry. The mirrored hood can be used for signaling and self-examination above its regular use in taking bearings. Road maps should be carried in the car that cover the entire distance commuted even if that requires multiple maps. These are often free or relatively inexpensive from auto clubs and online map generators. Have points of interest marked off including alternative routes home. Leave room in a pocket for your vehicle’s GPS unit should you have to leave your car.

A quality compass like this Suunto MC-2G and compact fixed blade like this Bark River Gunny should be considered essential survival equipment and carried securely in the modern survival vest.


A minimum of two lights with spare batteries should be carried in the modern survival vest. One light should be a strong handheld light allowing for illumination of objects at a distance. The other should be a headlamp for hands-free operation. These lights should take the same batteries. Since the vest will be stored for long periods of time, these lights should be checked to ensure the batteries are still charged. Chemical light sticks are long lasting and should also be included because, in the presence of spilled fuel, they can be safely lit and carried.

A minimum of two light sources should be included in the modern survival vest. One should be a high output handheld light and the other a compact headlamp.

Comfort Items

A small portable emergency radio can be carried for radio updates and entertainment. Pictures of family members can also be tucked inside a vest pocket to remind the wearer of who and what is at stake. Instant coffee packets can be carried near emergency water to provide a familiar flavor and energy boost. These items fall into the miscellaneous category of equipment but their psychological value cannot be measured.

Adapted for the Vehicle and Beyond

Depending on the scenario, better communication devices for remote areas, more water for high temperatures, firearms for defense and other scenario-based gear can be carried. Always start with the reality of a scenario and build the appropriate kit around it. The limitations of the modern survival vest begin where your vision ends. It has been a proven method of carry for years and is certain to be for many years to come.

The author carries a last ditch shelter kit in his vest. This includes a disposable poncho, emergency blanket, small roll of duct tape, lightweight cordage, small candles and cable ties. Even if the larger kit carried in the car can’t be grabbed, this shelter kit will provide some protection.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.