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How to Build a Wilderness Survival Kit

Jessica is a camping and survival enthusiast. She spends her summer vacations tenting, and reads about apocalypse and disaster scenarios.

When building your survival kit, you should use a large enough backpack with numerous pockets.

When building your survival kit, you should use a large enough backpack with numerous pockets.

Why You Need a Wilderness Survival Kit

A wilderness survival kit is good to own whether you’re a seasoned outdoorsman or a beginner. Hiking into the unknown with just the shirt on your back can result in unnecessary emergency situations and unexpected setbacks. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness⁠—one wrong turn or hour of foul weather can leave you stranded, lost, and malnourished. Don’t be the uninformed outdoor enthusiast⁠—read on to find out what your kit should contain to ensure your survival out in the wild.

Fire and Light

Starting a fire is imperative when spending the night in the wilderness; fire keeps you warm, boils your water, cooks your food, and provides light. Also, having access to fire can help you use smoke to signal a search party or passing helicopter. Most of all, having a fire at night gives us a sense of comfort and ease, especially important in an unfamiliar environment.

There are many materials used to start a fire that should be included in your kit, such as:

  • Waterproof matches
  • Waterproof match case
  • Disposable lighters
  • Flint with a striker
  • Fire sticks or tinder

Having waterproof matches and a waterproof match container is important when traveling in the wilderness; wet matches are no use to anyone. If you can’t find waterproof matches, you can waterproof ordinary matches yourself with a product called Thompson’s Water Seal. In either case, matches should be kept in a watertight bag or container; being soaked in water for a long period of time can still ruin waterproof matches.

Disposable lighters are another option to matches and are cheap and easy to acquire. Lighters come in multiple sizes and can be used as a flint sparker when the fuel runs out. Flint is used by scraping a steel striker against the flint, creating sparks to light your tinder. Tinder can be pre-packaged, such as fire sticks, or can be homemade; cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly make excellent tinder and are highly flammable. Be sure to store the cotton balls in a sealed container, such as a film canister, for safe keeping.

From left to right: crank flashlight, waterproof matches, lighter, flint with striker, fire sticks, whistle, tealights and signal mirror.

From left to right: crank flashlight, waterproof matches, lighter, flint with striker, fire sticks, whistle, tealights and signal mirror.

A campfire provides enough light but it’s difficult to carry it with you; portable sources of light are important for when you are on the move in the dark. This situation can arise if you haven’t found proper shelter yet, need to collect more fuel for the fire or have the opportunity to signal for help at night.

Sources of light that belong in your wilderness survival kit include:

  • Flashlight
  • Backup batteries
  • Battery-less flashlight
  • Candles
  • Light sticks
  • Headlamp

Flashlights are an integral part of a survival kit due to their portability and waterproof casing. You can pack a flashlight with fresh batteries, or opt for a battery-less flashlight. You charge a battery-less flashlight by cranking, squeezing or shaking it. Having a battery-less flashlight ensures you will never lose a portable light source. Light sticks are a temporary alternative if your batteries run out; snapping the light stick releases the chemicals inside, making the stick light up. However, wearing a headlamp will leave you with both hands free to hold other objects. When all of your batteries run out, though, don’t forget to pack candles!


You should always be prepared for the possibility of getting lost in the wilderness and having to signal for help. In this situation, your main goal aside from survival is finding rescue. No one gets lost on purpose, and no one is immune to losing their way in the wilderness.

Essential tools to have in your survival bag concerning navigation and signaling include:

  • Compass
  • Maps
  • GPS
  • Whistle
  • Signal flares
  • Signal mirror
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A compass helps point you in the right direction (no pun intended) and is a staple of the survival kit. Following a compass keeps you walking in a straight line and (combined with a map) can guide you toward roads or landmarks. A button compass is the smallest type you will find and the most basic. Some wristwatches have button compasses conveniently attached to the wristbands for easy access.

If you can, do your research beforehand and obtain a map of the area you plan on exploring. Topographical maps describe the terrain of the land and show manmade features and roads that you might recognize. A GPS device will track your position in latitude and longitude as you travel, but runs on batteries; these electronic devices tend to consume a large amount of battery life.

When you are signaling for help, a whistle can alert a rescue party to your location if they are close enough. The noise is loud, and the whistle can be blown in a pattern to distinguish you from the sounds of wildlife. Signal flares, on the other hand, are good visual cues to rescuers; they are disposable, fly hundreds of feet into the air and burn for a few seconds before going out. If you have an aircraft searching for you, these can alert them to your position.

A signal mirror is reliable and reusable; reflecting the sun’s light off of the mirror toward an aircraft can attract their attention. However, a signal mirror is only effective during the day, while signal flares are visible at any time.

Food and Water

Did you know that you can survive about three weeks without food, but only three days without water? Food and water are important resources when stranded in the wilderness, and not as easily found as you might think. Water in the outdoors is rarely clean and can give you dysentery, which will dehydrate your body even more. You can boil water to clear it of parasites, but this uses materials, time and energy that not all travelers may have.

Items needed to clean water are:

  • Water purification tablets
  • Water filter
  • Water container or water bladder

Water purification tablets are the easiest and most effective way to filter and purify your water. These tablets have directions on the label about proper usage and measurements for user safety. A water filter is another option, but it isn’t always reliable; most only filter the water, and don’t purify it. Large bacteria might be filtered out, but smaller bacteria can still slip through the filter, leaving the possibility of still getting sick.

Whatever your method, It is important to have a container in your pack to collect outside water. Be sure to fill this container with fresh water before you start your journey.

From left to right: steel pot and pan, water purification tablets, container, rations, multi tool and flip knife.

From left to right: steel pot and pan, water purification tablets, container, rations, multi tool and flip knife.

While water is more essential, food gives your body energy and will fuel your search and escape from the wilderness. Even if you don’t plan on being gone for long, be sure to pack enough food to hold you over for a couple of days. When it comes to traveling the wilderness, your motto should always be “Be Prepared.” When packing food, include the following:

  • Fishing kit
  • Small steel pot
  • Food or rations
  • Knife
  • Multi-tool

A fishing kit is a small item that should be part of every survival kit. If you are located near a water source, fish may be your source of food until you are found. Pocket fishing kits are sold in stores and on the internet, but you can make your own out of an empty Altoids tin. Your fishing kit will need hooks, a roll of line and a lure or two, if they will fit. Another essential to your survival pack is a small metal pot (no plastic - that melts under extreme heat); you can collect water with a pot, boil water and cook with it.

When it comes to food, you should always pack emergency rations or a good amount of energy bars; these will give you needed energy and calories. A bit of salt can also help with salt loss due to dehydration. As for knives and multi-tools, their need is self-explanatory; knives serve many purposes, and multi-tools have numerous functions, such as can openers, saws, pliers and more.


Shelter is among the most significant things that humans need to survive, alongside food and water. The elements can be harsh, and spending the night in the rain and cold can result in illness and hypothermia. On the other hand, too much heat and sunlight can leave you with sunburn and dehydration. T

o be best prepared to face the elements in the wilderness, your survival kit needs:

  • Rescue blanket
  • Poncho
  • Tarp
  • Emergency tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Parachute cord
  • Hat and pair of sunglasses
  • Lip balm
From left to right: rescue blanket, emergency tarp, emergency tent, poncho, emergency bivvy, and parachute cord.

From left to right: rescue blanket, emergency tarp, emergency tent, poncho, emergency bivvy, and parachute cord.

Emergency blankets should never be omitted from a wilderness survival kit. The aluminum side of the blanket reflects warmth, such as your body heat or the heat from a fire. A rescue blanket also doubles as a signaling device; the shiny side of the blanket can reflect light, the same as your signal mirror. The blanket can also shelter you from rain, but tears easily; a simple poncho is small, easy to store and is better for this purpose.

Wearing your poncho while covering your shelter with an emergency tarp can ensure you stay as dry as possible. An emergency tent is even better; the tent unfolds into a triangle capable of housing two people and held up by two ends of rope. Also, parachute cord is strong and should be packed as emergency rope.

First Aid

The wilderness is dangerous and unpredictable. Drinking contaminated water can make you ill and dehydrated, which could make you more likely to hurt yourself. One wound can result in a severe loss of blood or infection. Because of these situations, a first aid kit is vital to wilderness survival.

A thorough first aid kit should include:

  • Hand sanitizer
  • Sanitary wipes
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Bandages
  • Gauze
  • Trauma pads
  • Pain relievers
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-diarrheal
  • Duct tape
  • Tweezers
  • Dental hygiene
From left to right: first aid kit, surgical scissors, tongue depressor, sterile gauze, gloves, CPR mouth mask, itch and insect ointment, aspirin, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.

From left to right: first aid kit, surgical scissors, tongue depressor, sterile gauze, gloves, CPR mouth mask, itch and insect ointment, aspirin, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.

Keeping your hands clean is important, especially when preparing and eating food. Hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes are both good options. Antibacterial ointment is a godsend when used on wounds; the last thing you need in the wilderness is an infection. Bandages and gauze are essential in covering and protecting wounds. Trauma pads are for more intense bleeding; a viable substitute for medical trauma pads are female sanitary pads.

Pain relievers, be it Tylenol or Aspirin, are essential in the wilderness; pains from muscle cramps to headaches to injury pain can be distracting when on the move. Antihistamines are good to have on hand for allergies and other sinus symptoms. Anti-diarrhea medication, however, is highly important; drinking contaminated water can cause diarrhea, as well as bad or disagreeable food; this medication can prevent it, and thus prevent dehydration. Other tools, such as duct tape and tweezers, have their uses in medical situations. And while it isn’t a necessity, dental hygiene products can keep up your overall morale.

A Quick Review

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Waterproof matches will never acquire water damage.
    • True
    • False
  2. Emergency blankets can act as a signal mirror in the daytime.
    • True
    • False
  3. Water purification tablets and water filters do the same thing.
    • True
    • False
  4. My survival kit is too small to pack a rescue blanket.
    • True
    • False
  5. All I need in my first aid kit are wipes and bandages.
    • True
    • False

Answer Key

  1. False
  2. True
  3. False
  4. False
  5. False

Extra Materials

From this point on, your wilderness survival kit should be filled with all of the basic essentials. What you decide to add depends on your preferences and the size of your backpack. There may be other tools or objects you would like to include for ease of use or simply for comfort. Some survivalists might include a handgun with their supplies, or another form of weapon.

If you have the space, some extras to consider might include:

  • Sewing needle and thread
  • Pocket survival manual
  • Extra pair of prescription glasses
  • Toilet paper
  • Knife sharpener
  • Machete or hatchet
From left to right: hatchet, survival manual, dental hygiene kit, duct tape, carabiners, and toilet paper.

From left to right: hatchet, survival manual, dental hygiene kit, duct tape, carabiners, and toilet paper.

Needle and thread are useful for patching holes in your clothing or, if necessary, stitching up a wound by hand. If you wear glasses, it’s good to have a spare in case you break one. After all, you need to be able to see your way out of the wilderness to survive. If your wilderness knowledge isn’t up to par, a pocket-sized survival manual would be a good investment; information about edible plants and more are often included. The extras that you decide to include in your survival kit are entirely up to you.

Having a detailed wilderness survival kit could be the deciding factor that gets you rescued (or keeps you alive). Often times, inexperienced hikers and travelers find themselves lost in the woods without enough food, water or a means of shelter. Being prepared for the worst is vital when traveling in unfamiliar environments. Getting caught off-guard is dangerous. Pack your bag for an extended stay, and always be informed. Happy travels!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Jessica Peri


Michael on June 11, 2020:

Better to be SAFE than SORRY

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on May 13, 2015:

@Lupe Thank you so much!

Lupe on May 13, 2015:

Great survival information. Always a plus to be prepared.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 06, 2015:

You're very welcome. You're right. You never know if you're going to need it in an emergency on the road.

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on May 06, 2015:

@Kristen Howe Thank you! I really do feel safer having the kit ready and within reach, especially during long car travel.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 04, 2015:

This was a great hub Jennifer on how to build a survival kit to fit all of your outdoor needs with handy tips from first aid to building a shelter. Voted up and useful!

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on April 21, 2015:

@SusanDeppner Thank you! I am glad that you found it so useful!

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on April 21, 2015:

Great advice! Pinning this to my Safety & Survival board and sharing on my Emergency Prep page on Facebook. Thanks!

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on September 04, 2014:

Thanks, and nice knives! I (accidentally) started collecting knives, it's becoming a thing.

Jason Smith from Bastrop, Texas on August 31, 2014:

Great article.

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on July 25, 2014:

@thebrownbear: Thanks! It's good to prepared. Even with just the basics - I am going camping soon, and will probably just bring the whole bag with me, even though we are "car" camping.

thebrownbear on July 25, 2014:

Thank you for sharing. If I ever go on a hiking trip I will be sure to print your page and make sure I have everything on your list.

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on January 05, 2014:

Aww, thank you! I don't have everything, but I think I'm pretty prepared.

Rickrideshorses from England on January 05, 2014:

Bookmarked! If I ever have to go into the wilderness I'm following the advice from Jessica!

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on December 21, 2012:

Awesome! My pack could use some smaller tools in the future, it's full to the brim at the moment. Thanks so much for reading!

Joseph Renne from Milton on December 20, 2012:

Nice hub, full of valid info. I just added a credit card size multi-tool to my pack,.

Jessica Peri (author) from United States on December 15, 2012:

Thank you very much! I took three sets of pictures before I figured out the right layout. I appreciate the comment!

landocheese on December 15, 2012:

This is a well done article on how to build a wilderness survival kit. The clean layout of the pictures make it really easy to understand what should be include. Well done.

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