A DIY Pocket Survival Kit That’s Always With You

Almost all backcountry trips go smoothly, but every now and then something goes wrong — and on really bad days trekkers can find themselves alone with only the clothes on their backs and the contents of their pockets to help them make it through the night. Which is why every prudent explorer needs a “Pocket Protector,” the survival kit that always stays with you.

by Tamia Nelson | October 15, 2018

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The Ten Essentials should be along with anyone venturing away from the beaten path. But what happens if you’re separated from your pack when trouble strikes? Maybe you think that can’t happen. Well, take it from me: It can. Sooner or later, every dayhiker gets turned around and every boater goes for an unplanned swim. If you can’t get out of trouble before sunset, you’re in for a hard time unless you’re equipped with…

A Few Important Things

But these things have to be with you at all times. Of course, the sort of worst-case scenarios I’ve described are very rare, but that’s no comfort if you’re the unfortunate exception to the rule. The bottom line? Baden-Powell was right. If you don’t want to rely on the kindness of strangers — who may not be around when you need them, after all — it pays to be prepared.

To see what this entails, travel with me back to the water’s edge after capsizing your canoe. You’re wet. You’re alone. Your boat and baggage are somewhere downriver. And night is falling. This is when you’ll be very glad you left a float plan with a trusted friend. (You did, didn’t you?) But it can still take many hours for the cavalry to arrive. So Job One is to make it through the night. Shelter and warmth are your priorities. That’s where the Ten Essentials come into the picture. But they’re in your pack, aren’t they? And your pack is in your boat. And your boat is … Well, it’s not where you are. So you’re dependent on whatever you have in your pockets, which won’t be a lot. Luckily, a little bit can go a long way if it includes the right stuff, and here’s my idea of what this “right stuff” is:

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I’ve left foul-weather gear and “rubber underwear” (i.e., shorty wetsuit) out of the picture for clarity’s sake. What remains is my typical kit: hat, lightweight long-sleeved shirt, convertible zip-leg trousers, and PFD when I’m paddling my canoe. (When I’m hiking, these items go into other pockets). There are a few after-market touches, of course. I added a chin strap to the hat, and fitted a retaining band to my sunglasses. But it’s what I’m carrying in my pockets and on my belt that matters most …

Stainless Steel Knife An old-style Gerber River Runner (the kind with a sharp point and partially serrated edge) clips securely to my belt, the blade guarded by a locking plastic sheath. Since dull knives are dangerous, I keep it razor-sharp.

Multi-Tool A low-end model, this one is about as small as these handy gadgets get — about half as big as a Kit Kat bar — but it still boasts a saw, pliers, and scissors, along with an assortment of screwdrivers. It sees most use on amphibious jaunts, but it would also be a great help if I had to repair a damaged thwart or seat. (Sometimes, even when you’re reunited with your boat after a swim, it needs a little first aid before you can get it back on the water.)

Waterproof Strobe Clipped to the shoulder of my PFD, this emergency signal doubles as a flashlight. On hikes, I’ll have a Mini Maglight in my pants’ pocket.

Silva Ranger Compass My constant companion. The sighting mirror can also be used to attract the attention of would-be rescuers. When hiking, the compass is on a lanyard around my neck and tucked into a breast pocket.

Map A compass isn’t much use without a map, which is why I always have the quad of the day tucked under the outer flap of my PFD where it’s held snugly, protected by doubled ziplock freezer bags. On hikes, the bag-enclosed map is in a pants’ pocket.

Feed Bag This is nothing more than a doubled ziplock containing one or more store-bought energy bars or Hundred-Mile bars, along with chocolate morsels, nuts, jerky, and other compact, high-energy foods. I don’t often nibble from my feed bag during the day, but when I do, I make sure to top it up at the first opportunity.

Parachute Cord Milspec seven-strand-core “550” chute cord, to be exact. Several hanks, ranging in length from six feet to 20 feet, go into a front pants pocket. Chute cord has many uses, from lashing an improvised shelter together to replacing a frayed shoelace.

Lanyards These stop anything that’s likely to go adrift — my compass, GPS, matchsafe, and keys — from straying too far. To minimize the risk of entanglement, I keep the lanyards as short as possible. The compass lanyard, which goes around my neck, has a breakaway link.

Bandanna My wardrobe’s maid of all work. Doubles as a (coarse) water filter and triangular bandage.

Headnet Only needed during the fly season, but when you need it, you really need it. It rolls up around the brim of my hat when not in use.

Pocket Poncho One of a pack of three, bought from a local dollar store. Not exactly bombproof, but good enough for a one-night stand. It takes up no more space than a folded handkerchief, and it slips easily into a rear pants pocket. (An aluminized space blanket would be a better choice, but it would also cost more.)

Heavy-Duty Ziplock Bags I always keep a few spares in my pocket to replace any that tear. They’re cheap insurance.

GPS I’m seldom without my Garmin eTrex Legend HCx these days, but while it’s invaluable in fog or featureless terrain, it’s not really part of my “abandon-ship” gear. Batteries go dead, after all — and recent developments raise questions about the future reliability of GPS in the States.

So far, so good. All in all, I have the Ten Essentials pretty well covered, even if my pack and I part company, though I don’t often carry a water bottle on my person. But I haven’t exhausted the contents of my pockets yet. Two items remain to be accounted for. One is a small first-aid kit, itself an Essential. The other? A self-contained supplemental survival kit. Together, they make up …

My Final Lines of Defense

The first-aid kit resides in a shirt pocket, where it’s protected by — you guessed it — doubled ziplock bags. And though it’s about as small as a useful kit can be, it also contains a modest selection of non-prescription medications, along with a small tube of Labiosan sunscreen. The contents, which I’ve described in some detail elsewhere, are divided between two Altoids tins:

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My survival kit also travels in an Altoids tin, in the bellows pocket on my pants leg. Here it is:

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And here are the contents laid out for inspection:

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Need some help telling what’s what? Maybe this will do the trick:

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There aren’t many surprises, are there? The kit’s contents are pretty standard fare, intended to supplement the other gear in my pockets. They include …

Rudimentary Fishing Tackle When I was a girl, I caught quite a few fish with just a line, a hook, and a reluctant worm or grasshopper. (These worked pretty well for Isaak Walton, too.) I haven’t fished with live bait in quite a while, but I figure it would be worth a try again, especially if an unplanned stay in the woods lasted longer than the contents of my food pouch. This hasn’t happened yet, but …

Sewing Kit I’m not much of a seamstress — though I used to tie fairly presentable classic salmon flies, so I can rise to the occasion when needed — but there are times when there’s no substitute for a needle and thread. Particularly if you’re down to one set of clothes.

Fire Starter A candle and a few homemade “fire balls” for those times when dry kindling is impossible to find, you’re soaked to the skin, and the sky holds the promise of snow.

Heavy-Duty One-Gallon Plastic Bag This can be pressed into service as a canteen for treating or carrying water, though it’s a good idea to wrap the filled bag in your bandanna for extra support. Water is heavy. (I recently bought a 1-liter Platypus folding bottle. It’s a little too large to fit in an Altoids tin, but it will slip into a pocket when empty. Now I can have proper canteen with me at all times.)

Duct Tape Another maid of all work. Good for patching torn ponchos, repairing broken eyeglass frames, and curing warts, among many other things. (All right. I can’t vouch for the “curing warts” bit, but some folks swear it’s true.) Now where was I? Oh, yes … Duct tape. Don’t leave the put-in without it.

OK. If you’re still paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that there are two glaring omissions in the foregoing summary — water-disinfection tablets and matches. Here’s the explanation: The disinfection tablets travel in the MEDS tin in my vade mecum first-aid kit. And both waterproof matchsafe and a patent fire-steel are always in my pants pocket. So that’s that.

Or is it? I’ve left the most important Essential till last. And what is this sine qua non of survival? Easy: A cool head. If you lose your head, you’ve lost the plot, even if you’ve somehow managed to squeeze a SAR-team’s ready bag and a month’s worth of food into your back pocket. Panic kills a few unfortunate folks every year, folks who could have survived — if only they’d kept their cool. ‘Nuff said? I hope so.

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Almost all backcountry trips go smoothly, but every now and then something goes wrong — and on really bad days trekkers can find themselves alone on shore with only the clothes on their backs and the contents of their pockets to help them make it through the night. Which is why every prudent trekker needs a survival kit that always stays with him or her, and now you know how to make one for yourself.

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