11 essential items for four specialized survival kits

Build these kits and you'll be ready for any disaster.
A knife and a water bottle on a survival backpack.
A proper survival kit includes essentials like a compass, matches, knife, and food. Tim MacWelch

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This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Ask 100 outdoor enthusiasts to write up a shopping list for a wilderness survival kit and you’ll get 100 different lists. The same is true for preppers building disaster preparedness kits or picking which everyday carry gear to bring with them. We all like different products and worry about different scenarios (and there are specialized survival kits for a variety of perilous situations). Individually, we all have different skill sets and budgets. What we do have in common are the same needs. We all need shelter, water, and food every day. In an emergency, first aid, lighting, signaling, and navigation equipment are often a necessity as well.

The simplest “survival priorities” list (shelter, water, fire, and food) can help us build a kit for many situations (especially in the backcountry), but the more refined “10 essentials” list will give us the tools for all types of scenarios. The original list of the “10 essentials” was created by Seattle-based group called the Mountaineers in the 1930s. This simple list of supplies would help a mountain climber during an accident or emergency, and it provided a support system if someone had to spend an unexpected night in the outdoors (or stay out there even longer). In recent years, the group has revamped the list to focus on systems, rather than specific pieces of gear.

The original list had some indispensable items on it, like a compass, matches, knife, and food. Today’s system-based list, however, doesn’t limit you to 10 separate items. As I detail these different builds, I will look at some popular items for wilderness survival kits, disaster preparedness kits, budget kits, and kits for the little ones to carry. Whatever you pack, just make sure it contains the most critical elements for survival: hydration, emergency shelter, first aid, navigation, fire, and signaling.

1. Navigation

A simple compass and a map can make “getting turned around” into a minor inconvenience and prevent a major emergency.

Disaster kit: A paper map can be a vital tool when you need to bug out, especially if your smartphone is down. With so many people trusting their pathfinding to a functional mobile device, few people carry a map in their vehicle anymore or think to include one in their disaster supplies. But there’s no better way to find alternate routes than to look at an old-fashioned (but up-to-date) street map.

Wilderness kit: Spring for a GPS unit if it’s within your budget. These remarkable gadgets can help you get back to the trailhead or parking lot, and find spots that are hard to locate.

Budget kit: Treating yourself to an inexpensive baseplate compass and a local topographical map won’t break the bank, and they’ll give you the basic tools to avoid getting lost in the wild. Don’t be a cheapskate. Buy a map that’s waterproof. I’ve heard horror stories of people printing their own maps at home then watching them melt into mush after a few rain drops fall.

Kid’s kit: A simple compass (and knowing how to use it) can allow a kid to travel in a straight line and retrace their path. They’re also fun to play with. If your kiddo is old enough to understand some basic math, you can even teach them to shoot azimuths and back azimuths on the off chance they get separated from you and lost.

2. Protection

Threats come in many different forms, and so do the supplies that protect you and your family.

Disaster kit: Dust masks, safety glasses, gloves, and other protective equipment can help with your personal protective equipment needs in a disaster survival kit. Your favorite “everyday carry” weapons can also be lumped into this category.

Wilderness kit: Your environment will dictate the necessary protection you’ll need. Ultraviolet-light-blocking sunglasses can mean the difference between seeing clearly and suffering from a painful case of “snow blindness” when sun and snow are both present. You may also want sunscreen, bug repellent, bug netting, and many other items, including a proper backcountry firearm.

Budget kit: Hit the dollar store if you’re short on funds and treat yourself to sunscreen, a rain poncho, and any other protective gear they might have. You will get what you pay for, so keep that in mind. As for weapons, a cheap knife is better than none at all.

Kid’s kit: Chapstick? Yes. Weapons? Probably not. Protective supplies and equipment in a kid’s survival kit should be pretty tame. Keep it simple, and don’t allow them to carry anything that might be harmful, like DEET bug spray.

3. Insulation

Cold weather is a deadly foe, and protecting ourselves from it is as simple as adding insulation around our bodies.

Disaster kit: When stocking a “car kit” or 72-hour kit for winter travel, sleeping bags and blankets offer vital insulation.

Wilderness kit: Mom always told us to take a jacket or bring a coat. If you wouldn’t listen to her then, listen to me now. Bring a jacket or a coat—always. The weather can change unexpectedly in wild places and you’ll need to be ready with insulating warmth.

Budget kit: Space blankets aren’t exactly warm and snug, and they can’t match the warmth of a down parka. Still, they do offer insulation against the cold and are affordable.

Kid’s kit: You didn’t want to carry a coat when you were a kid. Don’t count on your kids carrying one either. Tuck a space blanket into their kit. Hand and foot warmers are also ideal for kids, just make sure they are in a waterproof container.

4. Lighting

A yellow glowstick on the ground at night.
For nighttime travel, signaling, working after dark, security, and comfort, a light source is a necessity after the sun goes down. Tim MacWelch

The definitive advantage of a light is it can signal your location and show that you are in need of help.

Disaster kit: Candles offer a little heat and cast a warm glow across a room. They also have a long track record, being used for household lighting for at least 5,000 years. Here’s the problem. They can also burn your house down. In a crisis, you’ll be better off with flame-free light sources. LED lights don’t suck as much battery life as others and newer models are brighter than ever. Don’t forget to stock up on extra batteries as well. Lithium batteries are the most expensive, but also last the longest and will perform in extreme cold or heat. The same cannot be said for alkalines and rechargeables.

Wilderness kit: I prefer headlamps for many tasks, since the light is directed right where you are looking and you still have both hands free.

Budget kit: Cheap flashlights and chemical light sticks can do the job on a budget.

Kid’s kit: A dependable little flashlight is a good choice for a responsible kid. Then again, you may just have to give them a “glow stick” (chem light) and hope they don’t crack it as soon as your back is turned. Make sure they are no longer obsessed with putting everything in their mouths. You don’t want them biting into a glow stick.

5. First-aid supplies

If you’re having a bad day and need to break out a survival kit, chances are good that someone has been hurt and is in need of medical attention. Even though some first-aid supplies can be improvised in the field, it’s better to have a dedicated kit.

Disaster kit: Expect the worst when building or enhancing your disaster medicine kit. Since you’re probably not carrying it on your back, a few heavier (yet valuable) items can be included. A great book on disaster medicine, like “The Survival Medicine Handbook” by Dr. Joseph Alton should be included.

Wilderness kit: You might be on your own for a while in a wilderness emergency, so carrying a well-stocked first-aid kit is a necessity. One popular pick on Amazon right now is the Swiss Safe 2-in-1 first aid kit. This 120-piece medical kit has a pocket-sized bonus kit that is modular. Don’t be shy about purchasing a ready-made kit from your favorite outdoor store and then modifying it. Add a tourniquet and other supplies to deal with major bleeds and traumatic injuries. Include some common over-the-counter medicines as well.

Budget kit: You can buy an affordable first-aid kit for as little as $10 at big box stores, but remember that you get what you pay for in most cases. Add more supplies to this basic kit as finances allow.

Kid’s kit: Depending on the age, maturity, and the first-aid training your child has received, you should custom-build their medical module. For the very young (or the overly experimental child), limit the supplies they can use to get into trouble. A few band-aids, some gauze, and tape will work. For more responsible kids, beef up their kit accordingly.

6. Fire-building

A fire-starting kit on a rock.
The author’s favorite resource is fire-making equipment, and for good reason. Fire is your energy source for light, warmth, cooking, signaling, and many other survival tasks. Tim MacWelch

Fire is your friend in a wide range of circumstances. I recommend carrying three ignition sources and some reliable fuel in all types of survival kits.

Disaster kit: There’s some irony when including fire-starting supplies in a disaster preparedness kit, especially if the disaster you are facing is a wildfire. Regardless, you’ll still want matches or lighters in your kit to light candles, stoves, etc.

Wilderness kit: The colder and wetter the environment, the better your fire-building module should be. Start with lighters, waterproof matches and spark rods. Add in commercially available fuel products, like UST’s WetFire Cubes or some cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly and you’ve got the beginnings of a solid kit. Add in other materials that are familiar favorites, for example, magnifying or Fresnel lenses for sunny locations.

Budget kit: While a few fire-making gadgets are expensive, most are not. A good butane lighter can be had for $1 or less. Free matches from the convenience store and free lint from your clothes dryer are also great budget kit items for your fire-building module—and they don’t cost a dime.

Kid’s kit: Responsible kids can have the same fire-starting supplies that the grownups carry.

7. Repair kit and tools

Did the sole come off your boot or your hydration bladder burst? Repairs that might be simple at home are not so simple in the backcountry, unless you brought along specialized tools and materials. Duct tape and dental floss are standard, but there are many more fine products that can help you with repairs and camp chores.

Disaster kit: This could be your everyday tool kit you carry in the truck, packed up and ready to go. It could also be some special kit you’ve built for disasters. In addition to the repair items you’d take into the wilderness, add some things that would make a difference in a disaster. Hammers, nails, and a pry bar will all come in handy. Hand saws, wrenches, and screwdrivers are equally valuable.

Wilderness kit: If you can’t fix your broken gear in the middle of nowhere, who will? Mending your gear can save the day, but you’ll need the right tools and materials to do the job. Super glue, duct tape, various threads and cords, needles, safety pins, wire, and other mending supplies are great, as are sharp knives, razor blades, and multi-purpose tools.

Budget kit: Cheap duct tape isn’t usually very good, but it’s better than none. The same can be said for affordably priced multi-tools and Swiss Army knife knockoffs.

Kid’s kit: Being a big fan of the original “MacGyver” television show, I was beyond thrilled when I received a beautiful Wenger Swiss Army knife as a birthday gift in my teens. If your kids are well-taught in knife and tool safety, treat them to a multi-tool and the same repair supplies you would carry. If not, a little duct tape and cordage will give them some repair options without giving them too many opportunities to hurt themselves.

8. Nutrition

Packaged survival food on a rock.
Extra food may be a little heavy in your pack, but when your stomach is empty, you’ll be glad to have this extra weight in your kit. Tim MacWelch

Since most of us eat several times a day and our bodies tend to run best when fed, food should be a high priority for every kit.

Disaster kit: No-cook foods with a long shelf life are great choices. Think MREs and canned goods you can buy at the grocery store. You can also start canning at home.

Wilderness kit: In some places, the only food you are guaranteed is the food you bring with you. Carrying emergency rations is a great idea, but don’t forget to bring the gear that can help you acquire more calories in the wild. A Jetboil and freeze-dried food pouches are a fine idea. A lightweight survival fishing kit is also smart to bring along and can help you catch fish in the right environment.

Budget kit: Some hooks and line don’t cost very much, but having food ready to eat is a better strategy. Trail mix and jerky are age-old camp foods that taste great. Canned goods are also an affordable option. In environments where they won’t freeze and burst, a few cans of higher-calorie food won’t break the bank.

Kid’s kit: To keep them from eating through the food at the first opportunity, pack something that they would eat, but make it something they would pick last if given the choice.

9. Hydration

A water filtration tube system on a rock.
Without a proper water supply, you’re doomed. Tim MacWelch

Supplying your own water can be a daunting task, particularly in a dry climate. Be ready by bringing extra water and the supplies to disinfect and carry water that you find in your travels.

Disaster kit: The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends you have three gallons of water per person in a disaster readiness kits. This a great start, but it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of water we are accustomed to wasting every day. Consider stocking more water than that for your household, and purchasing water filters to supply you with more water when the jugs run dry.

Wilderness kit: In addition to carrying plenty of water, small water filters are a great option for hydration in the wild. Disinfection tablets are always an option, but these take time to do their work. The new MSR Trailshot water filter is a pocket-sized device that is feather-light and offers safe water immediately. All you have to do is squeeze the pump bulb.

Budget kit: Boiling has always been a great strategy for disinfecting water, and that doesn’t have to change. An inexpensive metal pot can be your boiling vessel for both the backyard and the backcountry.

Kid’s kit: This can be a tough one. Improper use of disinfection tablets and other water procurement supplies can be just as bad as having no supplies. Water bottles with built-in filters may be the best choice for many kids. Children can simply scoop up available water in the bottle and drink through the filter.

10. Emergency shelter

Shelter can serve many needs, blocking the harsh sun, stiff winds, and driving rain.

Disaster kit: Since you’re probably spending your time in a vehicle or building in a disaster, your shelter needs are lesser than someone stuck in the wild. Rain ponchos, plastic sheeting, and duct tape can serve you well in several tough disaster situations.

Wilderness kit: Bivy sacks and even tiny tents work well in wild places.

Budget kit: When funds are low, don’t skimp in this department. Plastic tube tents are affordable enough. Inexpensive tarps can also serve as shelters. These may only cost a few dollars when you catch them on sale.

Kid’s kit: Since most kids are smaller than their parents, and smaller frames cool down quicker than large bodies, emergency shelter is an area where we can’t afford to cut corners in a kid’s survival kit. Give them several space blankets or an emergency bivy sack, along with a small poncho. The blanket can help keep them warm and the poncho can block wind and rain. These items should all be brightly colored to assist search-and-rescue crews and make the kids easier to spot. Don’t take chances by giving the little folks camouflage space blankets or ponchos. Kids are hard enough to spot without camo.

11. The missing piece

A collection of survival supplies resting on a rock.
A whistle and/or lighter are smart items to bring along in case you need to be rescued. Tim MacWelch

With the majority of your needs met, it’s time to fill one last empty spot. The “10 Essential Systems” list doesn’t talk about signaling or communication, which is paramount in a rescue situation.

Signaling and communication are the areas in which we can assist with our own rescue. Sure, the flashlight could signal your position at night, but you’ll need more. Audible signaling can be achieved with a whistle, which will work day or night to summon a rescue party. Signal mirrors can also help us get noticed by rescuers. All of these items are cheap, kid-friendly and suitable for all survival kits. For those with a little extra cash, a personal locator beacon may be a smart investment. This product is essentially a panic button that sends a signal to a satellite, summoning local help through emergency services in the region and providing your coordinates. You could also spring for some two-way radios or a satellite phone to call for help more effectively. Your fully-charged mobile phone could also save the day.