10 Wilderness Survival Kit Essentials

Last Updated: July 2020

As you start to increase your time spent in the backcountry wilderness areas of the world, the more you understand the importance of a decent wilderness survival kit.

You may also notice that many wilderness survival items are things that you’d be bringing along on a backcountry trek anyway.

While our list of 10 essentials for wilderness survival is hardly exhaustive. These 10 things will significantly increase your chances of survival if you find yourself stranded in the wilderness. 

Even with the right gear, the knowledge of how to use it will make all the difference.

Remember, before you head into the backcountry for any adventure, be prepared for the terrain, climate, and any other surprises that could arise along the way.

While many backpacking skills come with time, we always recommend doing your research and having a mentor to guide you along the way. 

The 10 Wilderness Survival Kit Essentials

  1. Survival Knife or Multi-Tool
  2. First Aid Kit
  3. Navigation Tools
  4. Fire Starter
  5. Water Filtration/Purification
  6. Water Bottle or Hydration Bladder
  7. Headlamp or Flashlight
  8. Cordage or Paracord
  9. Tarp
  10. Rescue/Signal Mirror
letterman multi tool

1. Survival Knife or Multi-Tool

A high-quality knife or multi-tool is convenient, and you will use it often when you’re camping.

There is some debate over which one is better, but really, it will be up to you and your needs. Honestly, a knife will do the trick in MOST survival situations, but a multi-tool will give you more options.

The main downside to a multi-tool is that the knife on it tends to be lower-quality, smaller, and harder to maneuver. While that may be true, a good multi-tool will include scissors, files, tweezers, and screwdriver. 

We recommend the Leatherman Free P4 Multi-tool for durability and ease of use.  The name Leatherman is synonymous with multi-tools. Check out our guide to the Best Letterman Multi-Tools to find out more.

Whether you get a knife or a multi-tool for your backcountry survival kit, you will want to do your research. It is tempting to go out and buy the cheapest option, but that usually leads to replacing it after only a few uses. You want this tool to last.

If you are on a budget, one of the most trustworthy and affordable knives you can get is the Morakiv Companion Fixed Blade Knife

first aid kit

2. First Aid Kit

A well-stocked and ready to use first aid kit should be on every adventure list.

Even better, you should always have one in your car in case of a spontaneous adventure or unforeseen injury while traveling. While you don’t want a first aid kit to weigh you down, packing the essentials will give you peace of mind that you’ll at least be able to stabilize someone in an emergency. 

Then, you’ll want to decide if you should make your first aid kit or buy a premade one.

Both options have their pros and cons, but if you are just beginning to get into backpacking or hiking, buying a prepacked first aid kit will give you a good idea of what items are best. Plus, they often include a small guide on first aid. Read more about how to build your kit and see recommendations on prepacked kits.

map and compass

3. Navigation Tools

Choosing which navigation tool is right is a very personal choice.

While a Garmin in Reach Explorer handheld GPS may be out of your price range, the good news is that there are plenty of other, more affordable options. 

The tried and true tools for navigation will continue to be a topographical map and a compass. If you’re good at celestial navigation, that’s even better.

Still, having a hard copy of a map that is laminated or kept in a waterproof bag is ideal. This way, if your phone or electronic GPS device breaks, loses battery, or doesn’t have service, you’ll always have a way to navigate. 

If you want to keep a map as a backup and use your phone, there are plenty of great map apps that allow you to download topographic maps right onto your phone. That way, you can use them with or without phone service.

Just remember to pack a battery charger like an Anker PowerCore to prevent your phone from dying and potentially losing your map.

Some of the best phone apps for navigation and downloadable maps include: Gaia GPSAllTrailsonX, and Maps 3D Pro

If you don’t have a Spot Locator, some phone apps will function similarly. You will usually have to use their monthly subscription to get this feature, though. 

You’ll also need to know how to read a map, though. So take some time to talk to rangers, take classes, and practice map reading skills at home. 

fire starter

4. Fire Starter

If you ever get stuck out in the wilderness, being able to build a fire could honestly save your life. It gives you the ability to cook food, but it can keep you warm, dry your clothes, and signal for help. 

Merely having some waterproof matches will do the trick, but if you have flint and steel, even better.

Some knife sets come with a fire starter, so you have a two for one with your knife. Other options include a striker setpull start fire blocks, or a lighter with something like cotton and vaseline to help the fire start. 

Just remember that a fire starter is only useful if you know how to use it!

water purification while camping

5. Water Filtration/Purification

When you are strictly looking for something to pack into a wilderness survival kit, the only thing you need is a few water purification tablets.

You will likely be bringing this along regardless, but having some extra water tablets is always a good idea if you get into a tight spot and end up having to spend the night somewhere.

If you are backpacking, and unsure if the water source is safe to drink, we recommend a filtration/purification system. A light weight purification straw like RapidPure Water Straw is great for emergencies. Learn more about the straw and other alternatives in our Best Hiking & Backpacking Water Purifiers article. 

water bottle collecting water

6. Water Bottle or Hydration Bladder

Even if you are going for a short day hike, bringing a water bottle with is essential. Not only will it keep you hydrated as you go, but it will also be a vessel to fill up if you do need more water for some reason.

After all, if you don’t have a water container, how would you use the water purification tablets in your kit anyway?

If you are going on a longer hike in hot weather, we recommend a hydration bladder like the Platypus Big Zip Evo 2L or Camelbak Crux. This ensures you will have amble amount of water all day. Check out our Best Hydration Bladders Buying Guide to learn more about how to choose the right one for you.


7. Headlamp or Flashlight

Having something to light your path is often overlooked, especially if you only go on day hikes and adventures. However, unforeseen circumstances, a wrong turn, or even an injury can make a short hike into an overnight one. 

Our phone lights can sometimes help, but that often drains the battery quickly and will not be as bright as a headlamp or even a small LED flashlight.

Although small flashlights can be handy to keep in your survival kit, a headlamp will often be lighter, save you some space, and free up your hands while moving around in the dark. 

Do you hike with your dog a lot? Consider an LED dog collar or LED light collar attachment for them as well. The LED collar can be a lifesaver if they get off-leash at night, or you can easily spot them at night around camp.

paracord bracelet

8. Cordage or Paracord

Cordage or paracord can mostly be anything that acts as a string. Some survivalists use their shoelaces in a real pinch, but that takes a bit more knowledge and adaptability.

Cordage can also be made out of natural materials if necessary.

You may be wondering: why would I need a string to survive? Well, there are many uses for cordage in real survival circumstances. You can use cordage or paracord to set traps, tie up tarp shelters, make a bow drill fire, repair gear, and more. Some paracord also comes integrated with a fishing line for survival purposes.

They make paracord that packs into your survival kit, or you can bring smaller amounts on a survival bracelet

tarp for camping

9. Tarp

In the last section, we mentioned building a tarp shelter as one of the uses of paracord. So, to do that, you’ll need a light weight tarp!

You could also use a survival shelter. Survival tents are usually quite compact and light, but they are not as durable as a tarp. 

A tarp is a versatile survival tool. Plus, if you are backpacking already, it can double as a footprint for a tent or bivouac bag. Beyond using it for sheltering purposes, you can use a tarp to cover gear from rain or snow, collect water, and as a clean surface to sort and pack equipment. 

You can opt to buy either a standard blue tarp or a specially designed camping tarp.

mirror hanging on a tree

10. Rescue/Signal Mirror

The final item in our wilderness survival kit is a mirror.

Now, this may seem strange to some readers, but hear us out, you can use a mirror for more than making sure your face is clean. A mirror reflects light and sends a signal for help in a survival scenario. 

Depending on weather conditions and the severity of the sun, a mirror signal can reflect up to seven miles.

A common use for a signal mirror is to alert pilots or rescue ships. However, if a search and rescue helicopter is already on the lookout for you, a mirror can help them find you much faster.

Final Thoughts

A wilderness survival kit is something you should always have but hope to never need.

While many items are things that you’d be bringing along on a backcountry trek anyway, there are 10 wilderness survival essentials you should always make sure you have.

These 10 essentials will significantly increase your chances of survival if you find yourself stranded in the wilderness. 

Once again, remember, before you head into the backcountry for any adventure, be prepared for the terrain, climate, and any other surprises that could arise along the way.

Happy (and safe) Hiking!

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