|Survival Kits: Mine, Theirs, Yours|
|Caveat Emptor||Not Everlasting|
|Preserve Precious Energy||The Core|
The list of the contents of my survival kits included on this web site represents over a decade of research, accumulation and assembly. I am constantly updating and upgrading the kits (within the constraints of my limited budget) as new products become available which are better in some respect or another. Every year, in January, I replace life limited items, often taking that opportunity to adjust the kit contents based on new knowledge, new products or changing personal priorities. These are certainly not the ultimate kits, but are much better than what you would get in typical commercially assembled kits.
What follows should give you a basic concept of the sort of items that could be included in a survival kit and how to select them. It can be used as a guide in the procurement of your own kit(s) which can be as minimal or comprehensive as you choose, based upon your personal assessment of the risks, your own capabilities and your budget. Any survival kit is a compromise involving size, weight and cost. With the information here you should be able to make an informed decision regarding what's right for you, given all these constraints.
Many commercially available kits have deficiencies, either in what is included or in the quality or quantity of the equipment and supplies. In most cases, any standard kit you might purchase could stand to be supplemented in some manner or other, at least in part because everyone's needs are a little different. Some of the best smaller commercial kits do not include any water, for example, a vital survival resource you will need to provide yourself. Because of the ridiculous new shipping regulations regarding so called "hazardous materials," many kits do not include matches, lighters, pyrotechnics or similar items. Thus, you may be forced to locate such items locally to add to your kit. Don't let this prevent you from obtaining these vital items.
The best standard commercial kits are quite adequate and also provide a sound foundation to build upon if you want better than adequate. Whether you start from scratch, supplement a purchased kit or have a kit custom assembled to your specifications is simply a matter of personal preference, available time and, likely, budget.
NOTE: If you are interested in a commercially available pocket-size survival kit that has been designed by Equipped To Survive founder and editor Doug Ritter, check out the Pocket Survival Pak by Adventure Medical Kits; an affordable, truly pocket-sized, high quality pocket survival kit that really could save your life. (DISCLAIMER: Ritter and the Equipped To Survive Foundation receive a royalty from the sale of this kit.)
There tends to be a noticeable difference between kits designed by those with a military background and those who come from a civilian background. This is the result of a difference in orientation and expectations. In the military, survival is a skill which is taught to pilots, air crew and others. Military survival kits are meant to be used by those with training and are equipped accordingly.
Unfortunately, in general aviation survival training is generally the exception, rather than the rule. In addition, while there is no denying that most military survival gear is good and is sometimes the very best available, it isn't necessarily the best, nor may it or the skills and techniques taught be up to date or take advantage of the latest developments or knowledge. In many circumstances, it makes no difference. However, there are some areas where it does make a difference and where advances in products, technique or knowledge have not yet worked there way into the military, but are available, perhaps even standard, on the civilian side. It can takes years in some instances for the military to catch up. The bottom line is not to simply assume that a military background transfers directly across to general aviation, nor that because something is designed to a mil-spec, that it is the best choice.
Bear in mind also that where a kit is assembled may be reflected in the contents. A kit assembled by a company in Alaska may not be quite as appropriate for use in the deserts of Arizona, and vice versa. Keep a sharp lookout for such tendencies and make sure the kit's contents are appropriate for where you plan to use it.
When appraising the contents of a commercial pre-assembled kit, it is imperative that you identify fully the quality and exact nature of the items included. Many advertisements, catalogs and sales brochures will have a generic list of the items included, but a generic listing tells you nothing about the quality of the items. There is no shortage of hype and the claims made for some of these kits are often outrageous, with little basis in reality. They could easily be nearly useless junk.
Kits designed to meet, or advertised as meeting, Alaskan or Canadian regulatory requirements, are not necessarily all that good. As a review of these requirements will show, they are no more than a list of basic equipment that a prudent pilot would already carry, a minimum standard. Most pilots would do well to exceed this minimum. More importantly, they do not address the important consideration of quality. You could carry the equipment specified and still not be properly prepared. Unfortunately, this describes some of the kits I've reviewed.
If a photo of the kit is available, this may aid you in determining what, exactly, is in the kit, but some are too small or fuzzy to be much help. One must also be careful -- in some cases the items in the list or photo are not what is delivered in the kit. The company's assurance that the items will be "equal to or better than" those listed or shown doesn't cut it in my book. You must make the extra effort to be sure of what you will receive. The reputable firms will level with you and won't complain about your inquiries.
Many kits list a knife, for example, but very few include a fixed blade knife, let alone a quality one. Few even include a decent folding knife with a locking blade. Most common are inferior imitations of a Swiss Army Knife or even worse, an appallingly poor quality common pocket knife with a weak and puny clip point blade. When a fixed blade knife is included, all too often it is a cheap and weak hollow handle "survival knife" with a plastic handle and relatively soft carbon steel blade, a poor substitute for the real thing.
A compass may be little more than a marginally effective and unreliable dry compass. Sunglasses in a number of kits are made of cardboard and thin tinted film. The "first aid kit" in many pre-packaged kits examined consisted of nothing more than a few adhesive bandages. "Individual Shelter" in a couple of kits I evaluated was simply a large garbage bag (potentially an effective improvised shelter, but not exactly full disclosure).
A "complete fishing kit" was found to be a short length of weak fishing line and 4 hooks. Another kit included a listing of "80 ft. nylon cord." In fact, there was only 10 ft. of mil-spec parachute cord which can be separated into 7 lengths of nylon twine and the nylon sheath for a total of 80 ft. Not exactly an outright total lie, but very misleading.
Be wary of kits which emphasize the number of items included. As an example, one kit touts "over 125 items." Turns out they count each match and each water purifying tablet as an item. This list could go on and on. The lesson here is "caveat emptor," buyer beware. Make sure you know exactly what you are getting. There are some good pre-assembled and custom kits available with high quality contents, but they are not inexpensive.
Without exception, all of the low cost survival kits I have evaluated are seriously deficient, in my opinion, in some manner or other, at least for typical aviation use. These kits are generally designed to a price point, rather than being designed to perform. They are designed so that the listing of contents looks impressive. Most have a smattering of worthwhile items, but by and large they provide a false sense of security. These kits might be an acceptable basis for a better kit, if supplemented with the proper equipment and supplies. How cost effective that may be is another question entirely.
As they come from the manufacturer, these inexpensive kits may be, arguably, much better than nothing, but is that how you value your life and that of your passengers? Anyone who purchases a survival kit primarily on the basis of low cost is really setting the value of their own life and that of their passengers. If you have occasion to use the kit, quality contents will be worth their weight in gold.
I am constantly asked, "do I really have to spend so much?" "Can't I get away with less?" "Isn't there a cheaper alternative?" As you sit in the wilderness with the snow flakes settling around you or the hot desert sun beating down upon you, dabbing at your bloody forehead and contemplating the crumpled and perhaps burned mass of metal that used to be your plane, it is too late to wish you bought better or brought more. Buy the best you can afford, carry as much as you reasonably can. No survivor ever regretted buying quality equipment. We don't always hear from those who didn't. Life is not a drill, survival is no game.
The survival equipment you carry may be all that stands between you and death. It represents the last best hope you may have of surviving whatever perilous situation in which you may find yourself. Select survival equipment like your life depended upon it, because it might.
Bear in mind that many survival kit contents are perishable or have expiration dates. You cannot just throw a kit in the plane and never take a look at it again unless the need to use it rises. Survival kits require regular maintenance. Food, water, pyrotechnics, batteries and medicines are among the items which always have a limited life, whether noted or not. Even some items you might not consider having a limited life and which are not marked as such will not last indefinitely. Extreme temperatures, often found in aircraft on the ground, even inside a hanger in some areas, can also have a detrimental effect on some survival supplies, significantly shortening their useful storage life.
Very few commercial kits make note of the expiration dates of the supplies and equipment contained in them. Most don't even mention the subject or identify those contents which have expiration dates or limited useful lives. Give Exploration Products extra credit because they keep track of these things and notify their customers when life limited items in their kits need replacement. Everyone else must keep track of expiration dates themselves and replace items as needed. I make a note on my Contents Lists (which are also on my computer) when life limited items are due and review the kits annually every January, replacing any items as necessary.
My kits were assembled on the principle that in the event of an off airport crash landing, possibly accompanied by injuries of some sort, your primary survival kit should be able to provide you with medical care, shelter, the means to summon help and sustenance. Most importantly, IT SHOULD DO THIS WITHOUT A GREAT DEAL OF EFFORT OR IMPROVISATION ON YOUR PART. The last thing you want in this situation is to have to struggle or expend precious energy to survive while you are in a state of shock or injured.
This last, dealing with a survival situation while injured, is a very important premise to reflect upon. It is all too easy to look at survival and survival equipment in terms of what your normal capabilities might be. How well would you do with a broken leg or a broken arm or both? How effective can you be with a serious burn, a severe wound or having lost significant quantities of blood? What would you do if you lost a limb completely or suffered loss of eyesight? You can survive even such devastating injuries, but when injured, the effectiveness and ease of use of the equipment and supplies at hand becomes even more important.
It is critical not to fall into the trap of believing that you will be whole after the crash landing. Murphy put you there. How sure can you be that he'll not hang around a bit longer to make things even more difficult? It pays to be a bit of a pessimist when contemplating what contents to include in your survival kit.
The better equipped you are, the less improvisation required and the better your chances. No doubt about it, improvisation is one of the cornerstones of survival skills and techniques. However, the more you must improvise, the greater the risk. Having to improvise always takes time, effort and energy that you may be ill equipped to suffer, especially so if you are injured. This is the reason that minimally equipped primary survival kits should be avoided, in my opinion. Even more so, if you have limited or no wilderness experience.
Those with little or no experience in dealing with a wilderness or survival situation may want to consider more equipment and that equipment should probably be more sophisticated than someone with considerable experience. As an example, a person with survival training might find a tarp a luxury while a neophyte tenderfoot might be hard pressed to make proper use of one, even with a good survival manual. For this sort of person, perhaps an easily erected, lightweight tent is in order. The kit ought to be tailored to your level of experience and, perhaps, that of your passengers. They may have to use the kit's contents without your guidance, a very important point to keep in mind. You cannot guarantee you will be there for them.
My kits contain extra items than I might not necessarily require, if I only had to worry about myself or someone else with similar training. However, my wife, who might end up fending for herself, is much less capable in the wilderness. Her idea of roughing it is a room at the Holiday Inn with no room service. Thus, I have added extra supplies which will make it easier for her, and possibly other passengers, and I accept the slight weight penalty that involves.
Any complete survival kit should contain a basic core of survival supplies. Around this core you assemble the additional items that are appropriate to the terrain and weather you would have to deal with in an emergency. A little forethought coupled with a bit of common sense will help you adjust the contents to your needs. As pilots, weight is almost always a significant concern for most of us. Balancing the need to leave as much useful load as possible, while still carrying adequate survival supplies, is the most difficult compromise. This is a decision your life and that of your passengers may depend upon, so perhaps you should err on the side of prudence.
You will note that I have two separate survival kits, plus a couple different personal size survival kits, plus my overwater survival equipment and kit. Since the vast majority of my flying is solo or with a single passenger, my "Two Person Primary Survival Kit" is quite adequate most of the time and there is no need to lug around any extra supplies, except for extra water in the summer and any of the other optional items that might be appropriate.
When I am flying with more passengers, I grab the second kit, what I call my "`Plus 2' - Two Person Add-on Survival Kit", to supplement the first. Since there is always the possibility that I might only get one kit out of the plane, I decided to equip the second kit with some of the basic, core survival equipment as well, not just the extra supplies needed for the extra people. The extra weight penalty is relatively small and worthwhile, in my opinion. Others might consider it overkill.
The point is that you can adjust the size and contents of the kit(s) to suit your particular needs. One way to deal with variable needs is to create modules or supplemental kits for extra people, cold weather, etc. to supplement the primary kit.
The contents of survival kits can be divided into seven broad groups:
If there is one word which you will see again and again as you read through this file, it is "versatile." While I have, perhaps, overused and abused this adjective, it is a fundamental attribute for survival equipment. With limited resources, every item of survival gear must "have many uses or applications" (Webster's New International, Third Edition). All other things being equal, choose the most versatile gear you can find.
The fundamental components of a survival kit haven't changed much over the years. Technology has provided lighter, more compact, more effective and more versatile equipment and supplies in many instances, but since man still needs the same basic necessities to survive, the differences are primarily in those areas. If you examine the survival equipment used during the early years of aviation, the similarities are remarkable and more noticeable than any differences. The equipment Charles Lindbergh carried when he flew the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis looks very familiar. (Some of the items from his survival kit used on this and other flights are on display in the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Additional survival items used by Lindbergh and other early pioneers of flight and related records are held in the archives and storage.)
Always familiarize yourself with how to operate the equipment in your kit and make sure it is working properly before packing it away. Never assume any device will work, right out of the box. Ensure that flashlights light, tents erect, stoves flame, etc. Remember to follow any directions for preparing devices for long term storage before packing them away for good in the kit. There are few things more upsetting than unpacking something and discovering, when you need it the most, when your life depends upon it, that some pieces are missing or it doesn't work.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
Revision: 10 June 10, 2004
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