Essentials for Outdoor Survival

Survival should not be the first thing to come to mind while thinking about the great outdoors – it should be fun, adventure, mesmerizing views, a star-filled night, the sound of a waterfall, encountering wildlife, and making memories with your loved ones. However, as soon as you step outside the comforts and protection of your house, you are subjected to the elements and unforeseen difficult situations. Therefore, heading out with some basic preparedness is always helpful, especially with a family, including small children. This post is inspired by the famous 5Cs of survivability and the ten essentials by the National Park Services. And I hope these essential principles serve as your compass, guiding you through the rugged terrain and helping you emerge victorious in the face of nature’s trials.

IMPORTANT: No matter how many survival tools you have in your pack, if you can call emergency services, for example, 911 in the US or 100 in India, do that first. Nothing is better than letting trained professionals take care of the situation. However, while waiting for help and rescue to arrive, you can take some measures to ease the situation, for example, administering first aid, making a shelter to protect from the weather, making fire to keep the victim and yourself warm, etc.

Calmness: the anchor in the storm

First, if you are met with an unpleasant event, such as getting lost on the hiking trail or injured, do not panic. I know it’s harder done than said, and freaking out in the face of a disaster is natural – especially when your kids are involved. However, maintaining a sense of calmness is your greatest asset. Panic clouds judgment and impedes decision-making. Instead, take a deep breath and embrace the stillness within. Calmness allows you to assess your situation, consider your options, and formulate a rational plan. A calm mind can save your life even in the face of danger.

First aid kit: treat while you wait

A well-equipped first aid kit can be a lifesaver in any outdoor adventure. Accidents and injuries can happen unexpectedly, and being prepared with a first aid kit can make a significant difference in managing medical situations effectively. What a first aid kit should include depends on the nature of the activity and the people involved. Carrying a well-stocked first aid kit is a proactive step towards ensuring safety during outdoor expeditions. However, at a minimum, a good kit should include essential items like adhesive bandages, gauze pads, antiseptic wipes/creams, pain relievers, and any personal medications. Additionally, items such as a CAT tourniquet, splint materials, blister treatment, and compact emergency blankets are invaluable for addressing a variety of potential injuries. 

Cutting: tools for crafting and survival

A cutting tool, such as fixed blade knives, multitools, axes, and saws (all fall under this category), can make a significant difference in your attempt at survival. These tools can be used for opening a first aid kit, crafting shelter, procuring food, and processing wood for fire, amongst numerous other things. I always keep a small Swiss Army Knife in my car that goes to my day back or waist pack when I hit the trail or a park with kids. If needed, I also carry a bigger multitool with a plier and a small saw that adds more functionality without adding much weight to my pack. Besides multitools, a fixed blade full tang knife is essential while camping overnight. If you are car camping, you can carry all three. However, a fixed-blade knife would be more reliable while backpacking camping, especially for processing firewood.

While car camping, I carry an 11-inch foldable saw, a multitool, and a fixed-blade knife. When writing this post, I have not gone backpacking camping, so I am still determining what I will take. But it most likely is my Morakniv full-tang fixed blade knife.

Combustion and light: harnessing the power of fire

Fire is a primal force that has been humanity’s ally for millennia. It provides warmth, light, a means to cook food, and a psychological boost in challenging times. In your survival kit, carry fire-starting tools like a box of matches (waterproof if possible), lighter, ferro rod, etc. Setting things up on fire is relatively easy. However, building a good fire for keeping warm for an extended period or cooking food can take some skills. Therefore, learning and practicing the fire building – from gathering tinder to kindler to fule and creating a sustainable blaze is helpful and fun. In the wilderness, fire is more than survival; it symbolizes resilience and adaptability.

On day hikes, I usually carry a small Bic lighter; they hardly weigh and always work. I carry waterproof matches, Bic lighters (small and big), a Ferro rod, and some fire-starting cubes for car camping. Fire-starting cubes are excellent while camping. They are effortless and can reduce the burden of finding the right tinder and kindling material. I like to use them, especially on a cold morning when I want to get the fire going quickly, mostly on its own, while cooking my breakfast.

A campfire can keep you warm and cook your food, but it’s not luminous or portable enough to let you navigate the campsite, set up a shelter, or go to the bathroom. Therefore, you need a dedicated battery-operated light source, which could be as simple as your phone’s camera flash or a cheap flashlight from the Dollar Store or Walmart. However, having a headlamp is most versatile in its utility.

Cover: sheltering yourself from the elements

Proper clothing is your first line of defense against the harsh realities of the wilderness. Dressing appropriately for the environment is crucial to regulate body temperature and prevent hypothermia or heatstroke. Layering is critical, as it allows you to adjust to changing conditions. Sturdy, comfortable footwear is a must to navigate rugged terrain and prevent blisters. Remember, in the wild, your clothing is not just an outfit; it’s your shield against nature’s challenges.

Besides clothing, tarps (rain fly), ponchos (rain gear), and tents form the second line of defense against the elements. These cover options shield you from rain, wind, and sun, providing a safe haven to rest and regroup. Whether you are setting up a makeshift shelter or using a compact tent, having the means to create a protective barrier against the wild is essential.

Depending on the weather forecast, I carry a lightweight poncho on a day hike, which can also be spread on the ground to sit or lie down. If I am not carrying my multipurpose poncho, I carry a lightweight waterproof ground sheet/blanket for lying down. I do not carry tarps or tents on a day hike. However, while car camping with family, I carry several tarps for extra rain cover over our tent and cooking area and one emergency poncho for each family member.

Container: securing vital resources

A container – such as a water bottle – is handy for securing and transporting water. Water is paramount to survival, and having the means to collect and store it is non-negotiable. Containers can also be used to store edible plants, insects, or small game you might come across. Choose containers that are durable, leak-proof, and lightweight for easy portability.

For a short day hike, I usually carry two Smart (plastic) water bottles as they are lightweight, and I am not in danger of getting stranded for an extended period where I have to source water from my surroundings and purify it by boiling. However, if I am camping, I keep plastic water bottles/jugs as primary storage and a metal container, be it a water bottle (single-walled) or a kettle to boil the water. Of course, if you are backpacking, you will carry a kettle to boil the water for your ready-to-eat meals and coffee.

If you go to the beach, carry a double-walled insulated water bottle. It will add to the overall weight but keep your water cool even if you put it on the warm sand.

Cordage: your versatile lifeline

Any type of heavy-duty or multi-purpose string falls under the category of cordage. From setting up shelter to crafting tools and traps, cordage is the lifeline that enables you to secure, tie, and create. Whether paracord, natural fibers, or improvised materials, having a good supply of cordage opens up a world of possibilities in the wild.

I am a big fan of paracords from Dollar Tree (25 ft) and (100 ft) for setting up tarps over my tent and cooking area. I use the 100 ft cord for the tarp’s ridgeline and 25 ft cords for the guylines, and so far, they have reached even the most distant spread of trees around my campsites.

NOTE: Paracords from Dollar Tree and Temu are cheap, but I would not trust them for critical load-bearing tasks. Even though they are sold as paracords, they do not have any load-bearing capacity rating. The rated 550 paracords should have a load-bearing capacity of 550 lbs.

Besides paracords, I also use tarred nylon twine #18 from Walmart’s fishing equipment section. They are also called banklines, and the famous one is #36. Bank lines are much cheaper than paracords and useful for crafts where you want to cut the cord and probably leave it in the wild. I use bank lines to make prusik knots to tension my tarp on the ridgeline.

Communications and navigation: your way to call for help and find your way around

I cannot move around in the USA without GPS on my phone, and probably it’s the same for you unless you have lived in the region for a very long time. Also, phone is the only quick way to call for help. Therefore, it goes without saying to keep the phone charged all the time with an active and sufficient calling and data plan. I also tend to download offline maps of the region I will be traveling to in case there is poor internet connectivity, which usually is many National Parks.

Besides Google Maps, I also install alternative navigation software that does not depend on the internet, such as OsmAnd+ or Organic Maps. I also recommend paper maps and a compass. However, I realize that only a few people can navigate using a paper map and a compass. It’s a skill worth taking up, and several outdoorsy organizations teach it, including your local REI store.

TIP: Since our mobile phones are such an integral part of our lives, in addition to keeping my phone in a sturdy phone case, I also carry a waterproof case with floatation that I can hang around my neck with lanyards while I am on the water either kayaking or stand up paddle boarding. Just keeping your phone in a waterproof casing is enough for the rain, but it will sink if it is dropped in the water. Therefore, a case with flotation capabilities is a must.

While camping (with family), we also carry cheap walkie-talkie radios that kids can use while going to the bathroom or playing near the campsite. Unlike cell phones, radios within range do not need internet or communication towers to work.

Sanitizers, bug spray, and sunscreens: keep the germs away and protect your skin

People say there is nothing called hygiene and counting calories while outdoors. However, getting sick while camping or returning home is not fun. Therefore, keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer. They are not heavy, and some hygiene won’t hurt.

Bugs are everywhere. You are invading their home, so they will not like it and might want to hurt you. So, insect repellents are a must. They protect you from the discomfort of insect bites and insect-borne diseases. Please check the recommended dosage and type of insect repellent for kids before heading out.

For bears, while camping or going on long hikes like in the Shenandoah National Parks, I always carry a bear spray can with me. However, before carrying a bear spray, check the park rules if they are allowed and learn how to use them before they are needed in action. Other nonchemical methods to deter a black bear, like a pressure horn or a jingle bell attached to your pack, let the bear know there are people around.

Beaches are not the only place you might need a splash of sunscreen. Depending upon where you are hiking, you might encounter long stretches of unshaded regions where you may need sun protection. Therefore, keep a small tube of sunscreen.

Final thoughts

Surviving in the outdoors demands respect for nature’s power and a deep understanding of your capabilities. In this article, I aimed to list the categories of tools and skills that will empower you to navigate challenges, make sound decisions, and harness the resources around you to ensure you are ready to take care of any unpleasant events for yourself and your family while enjoying the great outdoors. You can choose one tool per category or multiple, depending on the activity and the people involved. I try to be extra prepared with family and keep backup tools per category.

The purpose of this article was to prepare and make you think about what you might need in an outdoor survival situation. It is not to scare you or get paranoid about every little detail. For most outdoor activities, we are not far from help; therefore, don’t get too carried away thinking about survival and miss the beauty and enjoyment of the great outdoors. Otherwise, that would be self-defeating.

Now get on, and I might meet you on the trail!

Follow us on:

Rohit Farmer Avatar


Leave a Reply