How Wilderness Survival Kits Work

Realizing you're lost in the wilderness can be a scary moment, but you're in much better shape if you have a well-stocked wilderness survival kit.
Realizing you're lost in the wilderness can be a scary moment, but you're in much better shape if you have a well-stocked wilderness survival kit.

You're hiking through a gorgeous and serene state park when your gaze falls on an elusive species of wildlife off in the distance. Eager to get great photographic evidence of how incredible your vacation was, you judge that it shouldn't be much trouble to cross over to the next ridge for a closer shot. Unfortunately, you were a little too quick checking the weather report that morning and cut off the radio after you heard "sunny and warm" and missed the crucial part about "huge storm fronts moving in later in the afternoon."

Choose your own adventure: Do gusts of violent rain send you tumbling down the ravine? Does a fierce blizzard leave you freezing and disoriented? Do you seek shelter in a cave only to find that an enraged mother bear already called dibs? Whatever calamity suddenly befalls you, having a wilderness survival kit in addition to your regular gear can help tip the scales between amazing campfire tale of survival and grim obituary in the local newspaper.


While there are many standard items that'll pop up in any wilderness survival kit, some of the preparations for a wilderness adventure should be tailored to the specific environment you'll be journeying through. The most important thing you can do before entering the wilderness is to plan accordingly and think through everything you probably will or will not need should the worst occur. For example, if you plan on trekking across Minnesota, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," you'll definitely want lots of ways to collect and purify water, but you probably won't need to lug around as much actual H2O as if, say, you're taking a hiking tour through Death Valley.

Different outdoor adventures call for different loads, but the vital point to keep in mind is that this survival kit needs to be with you at all times, so make it as compact and pertinent as possible. Important things should be kept closest to your person, and it's good to choose items that can serve more than one purpose. For example, a blanket with a silver reflective coating not only keeps you warm, it can also help you be spotted by helicopters, radar and searchlights. Plastic trash bags can wind-proof a shelter as well as serve as rain gear or water collectors. On the other hand, some items you'll typically want to double up on include fire starters and compasses, which should be kept in separate places on your body.

Trek over to the next page to discover a wide range of essentials that are important to pop in your pack before you head out into the great unknown.


Wilderness Survival Kit Contents

A campfire can provide warmth and light, as well as help bolster a lost hiker's spirits.
A campfire can provide warmth and light, as well as help bolster a lost hiker's spirits.

Two of the things that can kill you the quickest if you become hopelessly lost in the wilderness are dehydration and injury. Right off the bat you'll want to consider contents such as water purifying tablets, a water filter and a metal bowl, so you have a strategy for collecting any water you come across and making sure it's safe for drinking. (Adding a pinch of salt per liter of water can help maintain electrolyte levels if food is scarce.) A first aid kit is also a must, and it shouldn't be some cheap affair with just gauze, a couple of adhesive bandages and a little bottle of antiseptic. If someone is injured out in the middle of nowhere, there's no quick ride to the ER in the cards, so be prepared to treat more serious wounds should they arise.

Next on the list is a knife. It's immensely important to have a decent survival knife along for the ride. They're incredibly useful tools that are able to serve a wide variety of uses; everything from helping to create a shelter and start a fire to catching and preparing food. Having a sharpening stone already on hand is smart, and a multipurpose utility tool can add even more versatility. For more on survival knife selection, use and safety, read How to Use a Survival Knife.


Another major item that should be included in your survival kit is a set of waterproof matches. Better yet? A lighter and a set of matches, all in watertight containers since even waterproof matches can wither given enough water exposure. Lighters help provide more efficient, reliable and longer-lasting lighting power, but stuff can still go wrong with them. Better to double up on something as important as this. A flashlight is also useful; not only can it help you see at night, it can help rescuers see you, too.

So now your thirst is slaked, you cuts are tended and your fire is blazing. It's time to start giving some serious thought as to how you're going to shelter and feed yourself, and more importantly, how you're going to get out of the wilderness and back home to your family on the double.

More Wilderness Survival Gear

First, we'll start with shelter since exposure is often an immediate and grave concern in survival situations. There are many different means to shelter yourself -- some involving last-minute ingenuity, likely with less than ideal results, others the result of careful planning. Reliable shelters and sheltering material are available on the market, so just do a little snooping around to find the one that'll work best for you.

Now you'll need maps, compasses and extra food. As we discussed earlier, when it comes to compasses and maps, these are good items to duplicate since they're practically weightless but overwhelmingly practical. When it comes to food, you don't need to lug around a spare picnic lunch, just include some compact high-energy fare that can sustain you in an emergency. You can also stick some hunting and fishing supplies -- like a few fish hooks and some fishing line -- into your kit if you feel you're competent enough to catch your own food.


As fun as this little foray into the wilderness has been, now let's talk about how we're going to get you back to civilization -- especially if you don't think you can manage it with just compass and map alone. Having a flashlight, silver reflective blanket or mini LED torch on hand is a good way to boost your chances of being spotted by a rescue effort, but there are other options. For example, the sound of a piercing whistle can really carry over terrain to potential rescuers' ears, so be sure to throw one in your kit, along with a signaling mirror.

Hopefully that's pretty much all you'll need to get home sweet home, but if you're going into a really treacherous patch of wildness, better check with some experts on the area. Who knows -- you could find yourself desperately needing something out of the ordinary, like a specific snake antivenin or some other local necessity for survival.

For lots more information that might just save your life someday, wind your way through the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Davenport, Gregory. "Wilderness Survival." Stackpole Books. 2006. (11/3/2009)
  • Knight, Jason. "Wilderness Survival: Top Ten Items." Alderleaf Wilderness College. (11/3/2009)
  • Mandeville, James. Web site. (11/3/2009)
  • McCann, John. "Build the Perfect Survival Kit." Krause publications. 2005. (11/3/2009)
  • Rowe, Aaron. "Top 10 Outdoor Survival Tools." Wired Blog. March 17, 2008. (11/3/2009)
  • Wilderness Survival Web site. (11/3/2009)