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“If you could have only one single piece of equipment in a survival situation, what would you want to have with you?”
It’s a tricky question, if for no other reason than the answer depends on the circumstances and environment. For example, most people would imagine a knife would be the ultimate piece of survival equipment, but if one were in an arctic or alpine environment, I’d argue for a good heavy coat. In a desert, a wide brimmed hat and loose, blousy clothing.
This follows the Rule of Threes, of course: a person can survive approximately three weeks without food, three days without water, but exposure to the elements can take a person down in three hours or less. However, if we accept that the right kind of clothing is already a given, we can go back to concentrating on equipment.
As important as a knife is, a means to sharpen it is also necessary, because there’s nothing more useless than a dull knife. My personal bush knife is a Gurkha kukri – I find it is the most versatile implement for all environments AND a fearsome weapon – and a diamond steel to keep it razor sharp.
Beyond that, for survival kit planning, I focus on five basic needs: shelter, food & water, medical, navigation and signaling. Items should be multi-purpose if possible.
For example, plastic sheeting used for shelter can also serve as a water catchment device. Furthermore, one should have three survival kits; items carried on the body (knife, lighter, compass, signal mirror etcetera), larger items like sleeping bags and shelters in the rucksack, and one’s vehicle should be considered a survival kit, complete with food, water, shelter, extra fuel, spare tire(s) and tools.
I once spent a memorable afternoon in the Sahara changing five flat tires – including prying the tire off the wheel rim and replacing the tube. It takes two hundred and fifty strokes of a hand pump to inflate a tire to where it pops the bead, then another hundred and fifty strokes of the pump to bring it up to pressure.
Shelter includes everything from a hat, sunscreen and insect repellent, to a coat and anything else to protect oneself from the elements – including cord or line to construct your shelter (I recommend 550lb-test paracord).
Food items include the means to acquire (traps & snares), prepare, cook and store it. Water includes the means to acquire, filter and purify, and store or transport it. Medical should include such items found in a trauma kit – tourniquets, pressure bandages, etcetera – as well as anti-malarial, anti-diarrhea, and antibiotic medications. Consider a large bag of salt, as well – salt kills everything and was the original antiseptic. Navigation includes a watch and compass, maps of the area you’re in, and a GPS (plus an ample supply of batteries). Signaling includes everything from signal mirrors and flashlights up to flares, ground-to-air signals, and the means to prepare and ignite large signal fires. Then of course there is electronic signaling equipment.
Your electronic communications plan involves PACE: Primary / Alternate / Contingency / Emergency.
Your Primary could be your smartphone, (which can include a compass app which has already been used in a self-recovery event). Alternate could be a satellite phone, which are becoming more affordable nowadays and worth the price depending on where you are going – cell coverage is not everywhere. A contingency or emergency means of communication could be a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that operates on the 406 MHz frequencies. These devices are incredibly useful – when you need them – and cost between $150 to $250, which is cheap insurance if you ask me.
Of course, any and all of the above items are almost useless if you don’t know how to use them to accomplish survival and recovery tasks. Seek guidance from outdoors journals and participate in training where and when possible. Learn basic skills, and practice them as often as possible – my team goes to our training site at least once a week and puts to practice field skills. Not everybody has training facilities available, but imagine how many skills can be practiced in and around your home, or in your backyard? Fire making, for example, or knot tying and constructing basic shelters. Purifying and storing water is a good skill if you live in a hurricane area.
First aid and trauma medical skills are important and there are numerous courses available, often free of charge. And the sun and the stars – the original navigational aids, going right back to the Stone Age – are up in the sky every day and night of the year. Learn how to read them, just like our ancestors did to cross continents – and often they were illiterate.
Sean Linnane is the pseudonym of a retired Special Forces career NCO (1st SFG, 3d SFG, 10th SFG). He continues to serve as a security professional on six continents.