There are hundreds of differing ideas as to what exactly a survival kit should be. Most that I have seen are what I would call camping kits. They literally have everything thrown in including the kitchen sink. These are usually kits that these people will carry every day. They are in fact prepared for any possible outcome, but this really is not what a survival kit is. In my years of being in the wilderness I have learned that a survival kit is a last ditch kit that contains the bare essentials should a survival situation arise. These contents are for the most part lightweight and will pack into a very small package. These items are intended for use in a wilderness situation and will save your life when properly employed. Don’t get me wrong I do not see anything wrong with carrying everything you need in a bulk form as well as a lot of extra comfort items. This is as I said for the person that is intending to go into the wilderness prepared for an overnighter or to practice their survival skills. In my opinion there is one item I always hear left out of a well stocked survival kit, this is your support system back at home! Most survival situations can be shortened or all out prevented by just following a very basic strategy; let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. Let them know and make it perfectly clear what they need to do if you are not back in a certain time frame.
When a real survival situation rears its ugly head it sucks, Plain and simple. Most survival situations will occur while you are not prepared. Having a few basic items in place will keep your butt protected and provides you with the tools needed to cover your basic human needs while in this situation. Everyone has certain items they will carry with them every single day regardless of the stigma of the EDC. Breaking our basic human needs down we know we need shelter, fire, water, and food as the bare minimum to sustain life. Also while looking at your environment this will also dictate the kit you will construct. Here in the desert I personally like to keep things as lightweight as possible. The reason for this is very simple. Anyone that takes to the desert with a 70 LB rucksack is really asking for trouble. The military does this because they have a large water supply to be able to dispense to the troops, this is not the case in the civilian world. I like to carry a few items in my wallet that will ensure a safe night. Notice I said safe not comfortable. I will also carry a few small items on my key chain, around my neck, and in the rim of my hat depending on which hat I wear. I will get more into this a little later.
One very misunderstood fact about the desert is the sheer lack of water. In my area I know where the water holes are and how to find water. This is a huge factor when in comes to survival in the desert. I can utilize a very light weight kit that will not cause me to expend a lot of energy in turn creating an even larger water deficit. The 10 to 15 miles between water holes in 110 degree and hotter temps is a LONG way. In some cases I have mentioned using your water supply as a fuel tank. When you drink half it is time to turn around and go back. Anyone that has spent time in the desert will tell you this is sound advice especially for the novice hiker. This is where it is direly important to maintain a good supply of fresh drinking water. This also reflects the extreme importance of knowing where to find water. I personally have ignored this on a few occasions while only carrying 2 gallons on me. When it’s hot and you run out of water you can lose up to a pint or more of water an hour depending on your activity level. I am here to tell this sucks! I have noticed the drive of some to keep pushing instead of stopping and resting in the shade just to curve the water deficit and move on in the cooler times of the day. This I only suggest doing if you need water (and you will), do not have significant resources where you are, or you are in severe risk of injury or death. These are really the only times you should move out. Remember what I said earlier about your support system back at home. By staying put you are also helping them and the SAR teams locate you. In most cases I have seen search and rescue fly in and pin point someone and send in searchers on foot, in jeeps, or even horseback to make contact. Don’t try to be a hero and self rescue in these cases. While searchers are looking for you; you could end up in a totally different canyon making their jobs even harder.
A very good example of a very common onset of a survival situation in the desert is a vehicle breakdown. This is actually inevitable however you can be prepared for this eventuality. I see this a lot, someone is out enjoying their 4×4 out on the trails and they blow 2 tires or they come down a little too hard and bust an axle or an oil pan. Whatever the case may be these types of issues will make you plant your butt for a while. On one occasion I came across a guy in a blazer that had literally shredded two tires on the razor sharp rocks. Luckily I also drive a blazer, I loaned him my spare and I followed as he limped his truck out of the desert and back up to a tire shop. Another very common problem in the back country is the dry washes. People will get out there and drive up them and get stuck to their bumpers in the silt. I am here to tell you it takes a lot of work and energy to free yourself from this kind of problem. Case in point stay; with the vehicle, it is a lot easier to see a vehicle from the air.
All of these situations happen while people are enjoying the desert or otherwise involved in recreational activities. I have taught basic desert preparedness on several occasions and have consulted for a few companies that run tours in the desert. I also get hit with the inevitable comment “I have my cell phone I’ll be ok”. One note about your cellphone in the desert; there are places you can easily get into that you will not have service for literally miles. This can make for a bad time especially if you are injured. There are also long stretches of highway that are seemingly never ending. These can be well over 50 miles before the next house or town. One car accident and traffic stops for hours; this in itself can turn ugly. I always keep extra food and water in my vehicle for these reasons. Having an extra 5 to 10 gallons of water is a good idea!
Utilize the items you carry everyday like your wallet. In mine I will have a small ferro rod, water purification tablets, a couple of 1 qt Whirl-Packs, a signal mirror, an extra cutting tool, and a Fresnel lens. I am fortunate that I live in a state that allows me to carry a knife with a 7 inch blade. This is always with me……even if I take my wife on a date. I also always have a stainless steel water bottle on me. I like these because I can use the cargo pocket on my BDUs to hold it or I can put in a separate pouch and carry it over my shoulder. This allows me to boil found water if I need to as well as cook up some wild edibles or whatever else I may scrounge up.
You can see from the photo of my wallet that the items can fit nicely along with my ID, bank card, and any other things I would carry on any other day. I find these can fit in such a way that it does not feel really bulky. They are lightweight and are there is I need them. With my wallet being authentic leather I am able to keep the small cutting tool in side safely without issue. I have had people voice concern but for the last year I have not had any issues.
On my key chain I like to carry a few extra items that will be at the ready anytime I may need them. They are held on my side with a cheap carabineer that I can pick up at any sporting goods store in a six pack. There is also a para cord fob or kubaton as I refer to it, it that consists of roughly 10 feet of para cord. I have carried this thing everywhere for years. There is also a whistle, a light, a mini Bic lighter that has cotton sealed in with wax, and a compass. I find that this works really well for a quick release at the ready set up. I began doing this with my survival kits a couple of years ago specifically for reducing weight. I needed something that could easily sustain me for a couple of days if need be until I could make it home. I started to turn away from all the bulk and unneeded equipment and focus on my skills. I have found that by going in this direction I can utilize the most important tool in my survival arsenal, which is knowledge. Yeah, I do still play with the gear…lets face it, its fun!
Personally the only thing I can see adding to this kit would be an extra compass. So far with the kit items I have talked about you can put one of these together relatively cheap. Some of the items like the mini Bic lighter can be made at home. These are very effective for lighting tinder like wax and Vaseline cotton balls. I have gotten it to light some natural materials as well. Fluff from the thistle and cattail are two that work very well with this little item. If I need a hotter spark I still have the small ferro rod in my wallet. That is a pretty good way to go; add a couple of each item for a backup in case one breaks or otherwise fouls out on you.
There are a few more items I made part of my desert survival kit I can easily put in one of my cargo pockets. These items will cover a huge area in your kit in terms of shelter, first aid, and electrolyte replacement. These are key factors when it comes to constructing a survival kit. I prefer to carry a space blanket as part of my shelter. The other parts of my shelter are the clothes I am wearing. This includes the Boonie hat and the sun glasses. In colder weather I will have my lined Gore-Tex jacket, wool gloves, and beanie for added warmth. On several occasions I have slept under a juniper tree with a fire and covered up with my Gor-Tex and space blanket. This kept my core protected all night. Keep in mind this is not all I do to stay warm. I will do one of two things, either I will bury some hot rocks and pile some debris over the top, or I will construct a small shelter with a fire reflector outside to keep the shelter warm with the rocks as well. The space blanket will also allow me to melt snow in the high country for drinkable water. In addition to this I will carry a couple pieces of tubing to help get water out of cracks, crevices, or holes where I had to dig for water. A word of caution on this, you still need to disinfect your water even if found in this manner. I drink the water without disinfecting it first. I have done this for a very long time. I can not however suggest that you do the same.
The Gatorade Powder will aid in replacing electrolytes, mask the taste of treated water, and will relieve the feeling of being thirsty. This is also something that I have battled that has a tendency to be slightly annoying while in the desert. Drinking nothing but water all day will still leave you feeling thirsty. The Gatorade powder mixed with water will help stop this. In addition you can also suck on a couple of pieces of hard candy. Personally I am a sucker for Jolly Ranchers.
Carry two bandannas! These are indispensable as many people can attest to. The only thing that irritates me about them is how I am constantly told they will filter out water. Large debris sure, but the common misconception is that they will not filter out turbidity. If I have to dig up my water I will simply sit in the shade for a few and let it settle naturally then use the bandanna to absorb the water and wring it into my container then disinfect. I will on occasion make a really good drink from the skunk bush (Rhus trilobata) which makes nice refreshing lemonade in the field. I will place the bandanna over the opening on the bottle and allow it to filter out the large pieces as I drink. I will do the same with pine needle tea and chia. The bandanna is also very noteworthy as a first aid item. They can be used as a sling and even a pressure bandage for large wounds. The list of uses is endless.
The Boonie hat and sunglasses are there for sun protection. This is very important! Sunburn can debilitate you in the field. The Boonie will protect my face, neck, and ears from the suns rays. The sunglasses will protect from not only the sun but from dust, and those annoying tiny cactus stickers that will carry in the dust at times. Any time you are in the desert remember to keep your skin covered and wear lightweight clothing that is light in color. This will keep you from having to smear prickly pear all over you to sooth a burn and hold in your sweat to allow the natural evaporative cooler effect. This will help maintain your core temp in high temperatures.
You will also notice that there is extra para cord around my Boonie hat. This is there in case I need it for shelter construction, spear making (for gathering edibles not throwing), and any other task that may require a little extra cord. Adding the cord to my Boonie was not my idea, a good friend of mine introduced me to this and it stuck. I find it a very good way to have extra cord on hand should you need it.
Clothing is your first line of shelter anywhere in the world. The desert has a tendency to throw you a curve ball at times especially in the winter. It has been known to be 60 to 70 degrees during the day and plummet to 17 and lower at night. These types of temperature extremes are one of the things you must keep in mind. A drastic drop in ambient temperature like this can and will kill. I could easily carry a heavy sleeping bag and a lot of extra clothing but like I said this kit is meant to reduce the weight. The reflective surface of the space blanket along with a good jacket that can be carried separately will go a long way when added to a natural shelter. You can even add an 8×8 sheet of plastic to your kit. I have slept very comfortably in temperatures of 10 degrees using a plastic sheet, a space blanket, and a fire outside. If sealed off properly and with hot rocks buried inside it will hold in that heat keeping you warm all night.
My intentions here were to give a few very basic ideas on kit construction that can be made to light weight and good enough for everyday carry. Having any kind of small item on you should an emergency take place can mean the difference between life and death. Taking the amount of weight a kit can weigh can also give you an understanding about the amount of calories and body fluid it can take just move the thing around. This kit is not intended to be the be all end all of survival kits. I am merely demonstrating the bare bones basics of a desert survival kit and an explanation of why it should be made light weight. I will use different items and carry different setups depending on what I am doing in the field. The one thing I never do is weigh myself down.