Bob's Survival Kit

This survival kit is put together so that a hiker will have greatly improved chances of surviving a few days in the mountains.  It is small and light enough so that a hiker need never hesitate to take it along on even a day hike.  I have been on many mountain rescues where a hiker left for a short day hike in warm fall weather, often wearing shorts and a T shirt, then got disoriented and the weather turned bad, and he ended up spending the night out in bad weather wearing shorts and t shirt.

The kit can't prevent stupidity, but if you always throw this in your day pack or fanny pack, you will have greatly improved chances of surviving one or two nights in the mountains.  But it's like wearing seatbelts or any other kind of insurance, you have to always use it so that on that rare occaision when you need it, it will be there to save your butt.

Contents of the survival kit:

Stainless steel salt shaker with lid

Foil emergency blanket

rain hat

butane lighter

knife and firestarting steel

duct tape


signal mirror


nylon cord


brass wire

fishing equipment

can opener

pins, needles, and safety pins

boullion cubes

screw in hooks

safety pins


fire starter material

Life in general requires just three things: food, water, and warmth (not counting air, which I assume is always available).  To survive in the mountains you don't need food.  You can go for many days without food.  Water is usually available in the mountains, so I won't discuss it.  So what is left is warmth, and that is the main thing which you need to survive for several days in the mountains.  Hypothermia, the loss of body heat, is what people die of when they are lost.  The object of this kit, and the object of the lost person, is to maintain enough body heat to last for several days in the mountains, until you are found by rescuers.  What this kit is aimed at then are things which help you keep warm and things with which to signal your rescuers.

The signaling supplies include a whistle, a mirror, and fire making tools.  Blowing a whistle takes much less energy than yelling, doesn't tire you out, and is heard at a much greater distance than yelling.  Three blasts on a whistle every five minutes is enough to start a rescue.  Mountain rescue has often been activated when a hiker tells the sheriff that he heard three blasts on a whistle every five minutes coming from somewhere on the side of a mountain.

The mirror is for signaling in daylight.  Reflected sunlight carries amazingly well, and is especially useful for signalling airplanes or helicopters.  To aim it, align some sighting device such as a long stick or your finger, with the thing you are aiming at.  Then move the spot of reflected light to hit the stick or your finger held up in a line with the target.  When the spot of light hits your finger or the twig, it is also hitting the target.

Making a fire is good both as a signaling device and a way to keep warm.  At night have a bright fire, during the day have a fire with good coals that you occasionally throw leaves on to make it smokey.  Airplanes will be circling the area where you are lost, and will see the smoke from a great distance.  When the woods are wet or when it is raining you can usually find dry twigs on the trunk of trees, under the rain protection of the upper branches.  The candle is to start a fire using semi wet twigs.  Build a loose criss-crossed stack or a teepee of twigs around the candle, light the candle and move twigs into its flame until they start.  Add bigger and bigger twigs, until you can burn big branches and even logs.  Leave the candle under the twigs to keep them going and dry them out.  You should practice making a fire using natural tinder materials, and when the woods are wet from dew or rain.  There are fire starting materials in the kit, but not a lot, so you should be able to start a fire using only one match, using natural tinder (not paper) and in damp conditions.

There is a square of fire making material which will light and burn when its wet.  It is pressed together wood chips and plastic beads.

The emergency blanket can be used for signaling, but is mainly for warmth.  Staying warm in the mountains means staying dry, since your body heat is expended to dry out the water in your hair, clothes and skin if they are wet.  When water evaporates it absorbs a lot of energy, and results in a cooling of the surface from which it evaporates.  This is called evaporative cooling.   If you are the surface from which water evaporates, you will become very chilled as it evaporates.  If you are wet and in a wind, evaporative cooling takes your body heat even quicker as the water evaporates faster.  If you can keep dry means you will retain a lot of body heat that you will lose if you are wet.  However, if you become wet, you can stay warm as long as the water doesn't evaporate. The way to do this is to wrap your wet parts in plastic, so even though they are wet, they are not evaporating.  This method can be used by putting plastic bags over your wet socks, or putting a plastic garbage bag on as a poncho, over your sweater, but under your coat. I once hiked into a mountain lake wearing running shoes one Fall weekend, and we awoke to six inches of snow on the ground and had 12 miles to hike out.  I put plastic bags over my wool socks, and hiked out with wet, but warm, feet.

Keeping warm also means keeping out of the wind.  The wind takes your heat away both by evaporative cooling and also by conducting heat away from your skin and clothes.  The foil blanket is included to keep you warm, dry, and out of the wind. It is waterproof, windproof, and reflects body heat.  Be careful not to tear it when you sit down or lay on it.

The part of the body which radiates heat away the fastest is the head.  If you are cold, covering your head with a wool cap, a baseball cap, or anything will reduce the radiation from your head, and your whole body will get warmer.  That is where the old saying comes from that if you have cold feet, put on a hat.  If your head is wet and you are in cold weather, your head loses heat both by radiation from its surface, which is richly supplied with blood, but also by evaporative cooling, in which your body heat is used in the evaporation of water.  To prevent this heat loss from your head, wear a wool hat.  Included in the kit is a plastic rain hat, which will keep your head dry, and keep the wind from removing the layer of warm air that forms near your skin. If you don't have a wool cap, this is better than nothing, and could be a lifesaver.

The compass can help if you know how to use it.  It is not meant to replace your main compass on a backpack, but is there just in case.  Its a good idea to check your compass when you leave for your hike, and to know your route on the map, so you know which general direction you will be coming and going.  If you have done this, and then get lost in thick woods or fog, the compass will save your bacon and keep you going in the right direction.  If you don't know which way is the right direction, the compass isn't much good to you.  When using a compass, be sure to hold it some distance away from metal objects, such as the steel cup of the survival kit, or the metal will attract the needle of the compass and give you a wrong direction.

The cup which holds the survival gear can be used to scoop a shelter in the snow, which is about the only way to stay alive overnight in the winter.  It can also be heated over a fire to warm water, which will warm a cold person by directly putting heat into their body in the warm liquid.  Melting snow or ice over a fire is much better than melting snow in your mouth, since the latter drains your body of the heat used to melt the ice or snow.  For that reason, always use liquid water in the winter rather than melt it in your mouth, in order to conserve body heat.  The cup can also be available as a spare cup on a backpack, where a forgotten cup can be a disaster.  The hook handle of the cup can be hooked under a belt if you go hiking without even a daypack or fanny pack, which would be an idiotic thing to do.

The nylon cord can serve many purposes.  It is braided fishing line, with about a 180 lb test.  That makes it strong enough to hang a bear bag, or to string a tube tent or replace a shoelace or tent line.  It can be used to fix gear, tie up the blanket as a tarp, or to make a bow for starting a fire using sticks.  It can be a spare shoe lace, a fish stringer, tourniquet material, used with branches to make a splint for broken bones. It can be an emergency sleeping bag strap, food hanger, clothesline, or tent line.

The bouillon cubes are there because even though you can survive for quite a while without food, your body needs salt if it has been sweating a lot.  If you lack salt, you get muscle cramps, weakness, and painful spasms.  A couple of bouillon cubes each day prevents these symptoms and can keep you functioning. You can just chew them up and swallow them, or use the metal cup to heat up water and make a warming broth.  I had a guy swallow one without chewing it, and it just about killed him.  Chew it first.

Some of the other equipment is in the kit not because it is needed for survival, but because it isn't heavy or big, and can save the day on a backpack, hike, or climb.  The can opener, safety pins and needles and thread are in that category.  One one winter trip, a guy had a busted zipper on his sleeping bag.  We connected it up with safety pins, and improved his comfort a good deal.  As I mentioned, food is not a survival need, but the fishing gear is included for fun and because it doesn't weigh much.  One fly is an Adams, which looks like a mayfly to trout.  It is a dry fly and will float down a stream with the current.  The line included is about 20 feet of very fine fly fishing leader.  This leader is about as thick as spider web, and not very strong.  However, it floats on water and will help make the Adams look like a bug to a feeding trout.  The other fly is a wooly bugger, which will sink and pull the leader under with it.  This looks like a leech or a dislodged insect larvae to the trout, and should be allowed to drift into holes and pockets behind boulders.  The leader is not strong, so you will have to tire a big fish out before dragging him in, or he will break the line.  Tie the line to a willow branch to give it some spring so it won't break when a big fish hits it.  Try an insect on the hook if the flies don't work, such as grasshoppers, wasp, worms, or larvae.

The brass wire can be used to suspend the steel cup over a fire, to repair a pack, or other repair tasks.

The screw in hooks can be used to screw into tree trunks to support a line and hold up a shelter.  I taped one onto a tent pole once and retrieved a fishing reel from deep water.

When you realize that you are lost, it is best to just stop right there, or at least well before dark, get comfortable, get a stock of wood, start a fire, and wait.  The forest service tells children to "hug a tree" when you are lost, meaning to adopt a big tree to sit under and wait for help.  The old wive's tale is that if you always go downhill, you will eventually run across a road or trail.  But that isn't always the case.  I was on a mountain rescue where a hiker in t-shirt and shorts (the official attire for lost idiot hikers) climbed up to a ridge in the mountains.  As he came down the ridge back toward camp, he got going down a twisting ravine which went down the wrong side of the mountain.  That side of the mountain led into the Yakima Indian reservation, where there were no roads for 80 miles.  He hiked down the mountain and spent the night out in the cold fall air.  The next day we were tracking him from where he was last seen, but he could go much faster than we could since he didn't have a pack and we had to look for his tracks in sandy areas.  He would have outrun us and been deep into the reservation for another cold night out, except that we sent searchers on horses ahead after him.  On another rescue skiiers who lost their way on a ski tour went downhill when their trail traversed a valley.  The stream they followed led into a steep narrow gully, and they finally reached a point where it was too steep and scary for them to go on.  It would have been much easier to rescue them from higher up the canyon.

Something else that happens on rescues, especially rescues for lost kids, is that they try to avoid the rescuers.  For some reason kids will hide from the rescuers, avoid them, and not answer their calls.  The rescuers will not be mad at you for being lost. They will be greatly relieved that they can bring back a live person instead of a body, so don't hide from them.  When you are lost, finding any person, even a stranger, is what you should be trying to do.

Always let someone else know you are leaving on a mountain trip, where you are going, and when you plan to get back.  And when you get back, always give them a call to let them know you are back.  Be sure the person who knows where you are going also knows to call the sheriff if you aren't back in a reasonable time.

A hiker should always carry certain gear, even if out for a short walk in good weather.  They call this list of equipment the "Ten essentials", which I think has now grown to the 13 essentials.  They are: extra clothing, extra food, sunglasses, knife, firestarter, First Aid kit, matches, flashlight, map and compass.  You should have all of these, and in addition, throw in the survival kit.  Don't rely on the compass or fire starter tools in the survival kit to meet the 10 essentials, unless you're just out on a short day hike.  For longer hikes or overnight packpacks, make the kit your backup to the 10 essentials you carry in your pack.

Besides the 10 essentials and the survival kit, a person can greatly improve their chances of surviving in the woods, and also of being comfortable, by wearing the right kind of clothes.  You should always wear synthetic (pile, fleece, polypro, nylon, polyester) or wool.  The least preferred is cotton, such as in jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts.  Unfortunately, these are the clothes most often worn by people as casual wear.   A nylon windbreaker, or better yet a goretex lined windbreaker, adds a great margin of safety and comfort to a wardrobe, and can be compactly stored in a fanny pack.  A wool hat is an important item to add, for reasons discussed below.  Wool or wool blend socks are a must, and an inner pair of light polypro socks are nice, and again cotton is to be avoided at all cost.  A fleece or pile pullover is great.  Light polypro or polyester gloves are great to add, and are light and small enough to leave in the pockets of the windbreaker at all times.