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Stuff happens. Whether you simply forgot some necessary items for your hiking or camping trip, or mother nature has decided to turn your world upside down, you can survive and thrive with a little ingenuity and creativity from some of the most mundane items you can imagine.

“Anything has potential to help in a pinch— even a piece of gum and its wrapper,” says Tim MacWelch, owner and operator of Advanced Survival Training, a wilderness survival school. “It’s beneficial to know alternative uses for a few items you might already have in your gear, as they can help you escape a sticky situation.”


Whether plastic or metal, water bottles are common supplies for any outdoor activity. These seemingly simple items can help ensure you make it through a tough ordeal in the wild.

1. Store Water – When faced with a survival emergency, identifying a water source should be a first priority, as should determining the best way to transport and store it in camp. “Many people immediately think of what they’ll do for food, but water is much more important for longterm survival,” MacWelch says.

2. Water Sanitation – Not only are metal water bottles better for the environment, they provide a more effective means of disinfecting water. MacWelch recommends boiling water in a metal bottle for about 10 minutes before consuming rather than relying on solar disinfection, which uses the sun’s UV rays to kill germs.

3. Dry Storage – Wide-mouth bottles can be used to store smaller items such as matches or fish hooks, provided the inside is dry.

4. Funnel – The top half of a plastic water bottle makes an ideal funnel. Just cut off the top of the bottle.

5. Fish Trap – Remove the top of a plastic bottle, and invert it in the lower half to make a trap for smaller fish such as minnows that can be used as bait for larger fish.

6. Flotation Device – Large empty plastic bottles are highly buoyant.

7. Shovel – When cut at an angle, the top of a plastic water bottle, 2-liter or gallon jug can serve as an improvised shovel.

8. Bug Trap – If your campsite has bug problems, you can cut the top off of a 2-liter or gallon bottle, turn it inside out and place it back onto the bottom. Put an attractant (such as a cut apple or jelly) in the bottom of the bottle. The bugs will fly in through the spout, but they can’t get back out.

9. Planter – Interested in growing plants as part of your survival strategy? You can remove the bottom of a 2-liter soda bottle and plant flowers in it. Replace the top of the bottle to provide humidity for your seedlings.

10. Twine – Using sharp scissors, cut a plastic jug in a spiral motion to create a long string of plastic. You can use it to make a strong twine material.


2. Plastic Bags

1. Water Transport – You can collect water from a nearby lake or stream, as well as precipitation, to use as drinking water.

2. Dry Storage – Bags offer protection from the elements for key items such as cell phones, matches and changes of clothing.

3. Sleeping Bag – Larger trash bags can be stuffed with leaves or pine needles to offer insulation. Make sure not to put your head inside the bag.

4. Solar Panel – If you’re in a snowy environment, use a black trash bag to accelerate the snow-melting process for drinking water. “Eating snow for hydration can lead to hypothermia,” says MacWelch. “The amount of snow you would need to eat to stay properly hydrated dramatically lowers body temperature, so you should always be sure to melt snow before consuming it.”

5. Wound Protection – Plastic offers a great barrier for preventing dirt and other debris from entering an open wound.

6. Poncho – Staying dry in the wild is a priority, and with minimal alterations, a large trash bag can easily be turned into a poncho.

7. Boots/Shoe Covering – Smaller items such as grocery bags or zip-top bags can slip over shoes to provide protection from mud, water, and snow.

8. Lashing Material – Bags ripped into strips can be used to lash shelter elements or other materials together.

9. Signaling Panel – Orange or other brightly colored bags make ideal signaling panels for potential rescuers.

10. Shelter – Place several trash bags over a branch to create a makeshift shelter or a rain fly for your tent.


3. Rope

Most survivalists know that rope is a valuable tool to have on hand in the great outdoors. Depending on the materials and thickness of the rope, it has multiple uses that can help increase your odds of survival.

1. Rappelling Gear – If you get stuck at the top of a steep cliff, rope is necessary to rappel to lower ground.

2. Lashing Material – If you have rope in your bag, it’s most likely intended use is to help with setting up shelter. Rope can also be used to tie materials together for a flotation device or  makeshift raft if you’re on a waterway.

3. Game Snares – Rig a simple snare using rope to trap small animals for food.

4. Archery Bow – With a small flexible tree branch and some rope, you can make an archery bow to hunt game.

5. Fire Creation – Use a piece of twine or other fine-gauge rope to create a bow and drill to start a fire using the friction method. Plus, you can use fibers from the rope as tinder.

6. Splint – Create a splint to immobilize an injured limb using rope and sturdy twigs.

7. Bola – Bolas are weapons consisting of stones tied together with rope and are great tools for catching large animals and birds.

8. Trip Wire – Use a rope to set up a warning system to alert you when large animals such as bears enter your camp.

9. Fishing Line – Attach hooks or even an unbent paper clip to an unraveled length of rope used as fishing line.

10. Clothing – A length of rope can double as a belt, suspenders or even shoelaces.

4. Tarp

You’ll find numerous emergency and non-emergency uses for tarps in any survival situation, including the following:

1. Shelter – Securing protection from the sun, wind and rain should be the top priority whenever you’re in the wilderness, says MacWelch. A tarp can be draped over a tree branch to provide you with a quick tent.

2. Ground Covering – Protect yourself from ground moisture and even out the terrain by spreading a tarp on the ground.

3 Sleeping Bag – Much like a large plastic bag, tarps can be used as a sleeping bag. Stuff a rolled-up tarp with leaves
and pine needles to create insulation in colder temperatures.

4 Pouch – Tarps provide a great deal of flexibility when creating pouches or other means to carry materials such as water, tinder or foraged food.

5 Precipitation Collection – Set up a tarp to collect rain or snow that can be used as drinking or cooking water.

6 Rope – If you don’t have a rope in your gear, cutting up and tying together strips of a tarp make for an effective alternative.

7 Rain Cover – Protect fire wood and tinder from rain or snow, or in a pinch, use a tarp as a personal poncho.

8 Stretcher – Tarps can handle a much heavier load than plastic bags, making them great improvised stretchers for injured or weak members of your party.

9 Table Cloth – You may not have access to a picnic table in your survival situation, but if you have a tarp, you can make any area safe for dining. Stretch out
your tarp on a tree stump or the ground so you can place your food on top of it.

10 Cool Air Fan – You won’t have an electric fan at your campsite, but you can angle a tarp in the right way to direct cool breezes toward you, keeping your body temperature lower in the summer.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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