Survival Gear – Five Items That Could Save Your Life

If you’re a minimalist day-hiker there’s a few pieces of gear you should take with you that will help assure your survival if you get lost.  These items are something you should carry with you all the time whether you’re four-wheeling, snowmobiling (I keep mine in my saddlebag on my snowmobile), or just out for a quick walk in the woods.  You never know when something is going to happen and if you have at least a minimal amount of gear your chances of surviving for a few days just got a lot better.

This concept is not new and is discussed on various sites, but Dave Canterbury has list of five items that I think boils it down pretty well.  He calls this the “Five C’s of Survival” and it’s a list of gear you can make using the following guideline:

Five C’s of Survival
  1.  Cutting tool
  2. Combustion
  3. Cover
  4. Container
  5. Cordage

There are actually Ten C’s and we’ll cover the other five in a later post.


Cutting Tool

The cutting tool refers to your knife and is arguably the most important piece of gear in your kit.  I won’t go into lots of detail here, but make sure you choose a sturdy survival knife with solid tang and good blade.

A survival knife is not like a kitchen knife that’s only used to cut meat and vegetables.  A survival knife is used for everything when you’re in the field and if it’s not rugged as hell it won’t last.  I had a knife break when I was batoning wood once and I was not a happy camper.

Any knife is better than none, but try to avoid folding knives and knives that have thin or no tangs.

A huge knife may not be the best option either.  Although it worked well for Crocodile Dundee a smaller knife might be a better option for most people.  I do have a large knife and it’s very useful for chopping and splitting wood, but a smaller knife with a three to six inch blade is plenty.

Start with a small or medium sized knife and as you gain experience you’ll develop a personal preference.

I’ve used dozens of knives over the years and three of my favorites are the Tops BOB (Bug Out Bag) knife, the Cold Steel SRK, and the Ontario SPEC-PLUS Raider Bowie.

The Tops knife is an excellent example of a smaller but high quality knife.  The Cold Steel SRK is a medium sized knife where the Bowie knife is an excellent large sized knife.

Your survival knife needs to be sturdy, sharp, and capable of doing a lot of different tasks without breaking such as carving, splitting wood, chopping to some extent, cutting meat, harvesting food, and many other bushcraft tasks.  It should fit your hand well and have a handle that isn’t slippery.


People use matches, lighters, firesteels, and even friction to light fires.

A fire provides many things in the wilderness:  heat, light, the ability to cook and boil water, comfort and security.  You need to know how to light a fire if you’re going to spend time in the wilderness and having the right tools with you can literally be the difference between life and death.

I’m not a big fan of matches because if they get wet you’re screwed.  If the wind blows out your match you have to use another one out of your finite supply.  True, you can cover them in wax, but this takes time and planning and if you’re short on time this might not be possible.

Lighters are better, but depending on the kind you use they might not work well in cold weather.  Butane lighters don’t work well when they’re cold (temps in the twenties and lower.)  The good thing is if it gets wet let it dry out and it will still work.

Firesteels are awesome if you know how to use them.  You can literally chip them out of the ice and get a spark.  (I’ve actually done this.)  They will produce thousands of sparks and if you know what you’re doing will start many fires.  The trick is knowing how to light a fire using one.  This takes considerably more knowledge and skill than using a lighter, but in my opinion if I’m going on a backwoods camping trip I always have a firesteel with me as a backup – if not a primary – way of lighting a fire.  It’s good to keep your skills sharp so practice with it often.  The downside is that it’s much harder to light a fire when your materials are wet.

Friction fires are hardest of all.  You need to have a deep understanding of how to light a fire, materials to use, and techniques and skill when making a fire this way.  The upside is you can go into the forest with just a knife and create a bowdrill kit with relative ease if you know what you’re doing and what materials to use.

You can also do it without a knife, but it’s a lot harder.


Cover refers to something you can cover up with like a poncho or blanket.  Depending on the time of year I use both in my kit.  In summer a military grade poncho works best for me.  They have lots of different uses:  shelter, collecting water or other materials, and keeping the rain off.

Remember that you get what you pay for, so if you buy one of the cheap $7 ponchos at Walmart you’ll get $7 worth of utility in the field.  It’s true that a good military poncho costs more (usually around $40 or so), but it won’t rip easily and its durability is well worth the money.

Fire Steel

I like a wool blanket in winter because it can keep you warm and you can actually wear it like a cloak.  When it’s time to sleep use it (in addition to your fire and shelter) to stay warm.  Another good feature about wool is that it retains its ability to keep you warm even when its wet, making it a good thing to carry with you year round if you decide to go that route.

The only downside of either of these is that they are relatively heavy, but if you’re only carrying the first Five C’s your kit will weigh under ten pounds.  Not bad if you think of it as a life insurance policy!


A steel container will make survival in the forest much easier since you can gather water with it, purify the water over an open fire, make pine needle tea, or even use it as a way to gather and hold berries or other small fruit while you’re on the move.


Like most outdoors folk I like paracord for its versatility in the woods.  It can help you make shelter with your poncho or wool blanket, it can be stripped down and the individual strands used for fishing line or whatever you need.

It’s possible to make your own cordage using materials found in the woods, but it’s time and labor intensive and if you already have some cordage you’ll be able to direct your activities to other more important survival tasks.


If we go back to the Survival Rules of 3’s:

You can survive:

  • 3 minutes without air
  • 3 hours without shelter
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

    Tops BOB Knife

We can see that this minimal kit provides shelter and a means to collect and purify water giving us three weeks to find food and collect wood for a fire.  Add in a little freeze dried food and a potentially life threatening survival situation becomes an unexpected over night camping experience.

A Quick Note On Technology

I’ve talked with a lot of people and asked what they’d take for gear if they were going for a hike and what they thought they’d need for emergency gear and quite often they say, “I’d take a cell phone so I could call for help.”

My experience with technology is that it will fail you when just when you need it the most.  Take it, but act as if it’s not going to save you and you won’t be disappointed when it’s not picking up a signal or you accidentally drop it in a stream or river.

I broke my ankle on the Appalachain Trail here in Maine years back and there was no cell phone coverage on that section of trail.  It happens more than you think, so plan wisely!


We’ve talked about the 5 C’s of Survival and what you should carry for a minimalist light pack:  knife, firesteel, poncho or blanket, steel container, and some kind of cordage.  If you go over the Survival Rule of 3’s we see that this gear covers shelter and water thus giving you more time for other survival activities in case you get lost.

That’s if for today?

If you already have a survival kit what do you carry in it?

Questions?  Comments?

Sound off below!

-Jarhead Survivor


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