When a frail, leathery man covered in grease from burned whale blubber staggered into a whaling station on the coast of Antarctica, the Norwegian workers couldn’t believe their eyes. The men who worked along the rugged coast knew as well as anyone that surviving the interior of the continent — let alone during the dead of winter — was as good as impossible. Almost nobody could endure the cold, hunger, and crushing anguish of that place. Hell, it would be nearly impossible with modern survival gear.
Ernest Shackleton, the man who led two of his counterparts into that camp, was the exception to the rule. More than a century later, we can learn from people like Shackleton about how to prepare for the unexpected, from survival gear to brave the wild as well as urban survival gear to take on the concrete jungle and sprawling suburbs.
The internet has endless lists and opinions about the things you need to survive remote corners of the world, the open sea, or isolation in your home during a societal collapse. The survival gear people recommend may very well keep you alive, but there are no guarantees. The truth is, there’s no magic shopping list, no silver bullet. Survival isn’t about buying the right products. It’s about being the right person, as is evident from the story of Shackleton and the HMS Endurance, which was recently found off the Antarctic coast.
In addition to my first-hand military and camping experience, I gathered information from true survivalists, hunters, special operators, and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) instructors to help form a well-rounded and well-informed understanding of the potential challenges ahead. Good survival gear can stack the deck in your favor, though, so let’s work on both while survival is still a hypothetical situation.
What Is the ‘Best’ Survival Item?
There are a lot of great products out there, but the most important piece of survival gear is something no one can give you: the mental toughness to persevere. Without it, you’re just burning stored calories and relying on involuntary biological processes to keep your heart ticking until someone steps in to save you; that’s not a great place to be.
In a survival situation, the right attitude will give you the strength to overcome the obstacles in front of you. Long before that, it will help you overcome everyday complacency to master skills you may never need.
You can develop a survivor’s mindset like the one that kept Shackleton and his crew alive for nearly a year by setting aside time to read books and watch videos online. You can make friends with people who have real experiences to share and learn from their struggles. Take things a step further and get training from a professional. Most importantly, practice everything you learn because survival skills are perishable. Turn lessons into habits by using land navigation every time you hike, bushcraft skills every time you camp, and situational awareness every time you — well, just every time.
The Four Basic Elements That Are Critical for Survival
You should probably take any definitive numbered lists with a grain of salt, but most people who’ve been around the block agree that the four things you need for survival are shelter, water, food, and fire. Depending on your environment, the order of those priorities might change. Given enough time, though, you will need all of them.
In the wilderness, you’ll have to plan on building a lot of the things you’ll need. Being able to intelligently construct a shelter, make fire, and acquire sustenance are key. Urban survival presents a different set of challenges. Sure, there’s a chance shelter and water will be more readily available in a city or town, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe to access or use.
There’s a lot more that goes into preparedness than checking those four boxes, but this is a good place to start. Most of the survival gear you acquire will serve these four goals. Once you have them taken care of, you can turn your attention to other priorities.
Survival Gear You Should Keep in Your Pack
Regardless of what kind of scenario you’re preparing for, accounting for shelter, water, food, and fire should be a priority.
Shelter: Tents to Tarps
Shelter could mean anything from a rooftop tent on your vehicle to a tarp you can use to waterproof an improvised shelter in the wild. Shelter also includes the clothes on your body. You’ll want base layers to wick sweat away from your skin, insulating layers to retain body heat, and an outer shell that can protect you and the rest of your clothing from wind, rain, and physical damage.
Even if you’re in a warm, arid climate, you’ll still need to keep the sun off your skin to stay cool and fight dehydration. Some of the best survival and urban survival gear is clothing that makes you blend in with your surroundings, so make a plan that suits your environment.
Food and Water
You can store jugs of clean drinking water in your home or attach a water filter to your hydration bladder to create potable water on the go. Dehydrated camping food is great for the short term, and being able to catch fish and snare small game can sustain you for long periods of time.
In addition to keeping you warm, fire can sanitize the food and water you gather and protect you from foodborne illness. You should always have at least three ways to start a fire at your disposal. Packing a fire-starting kit with a lighter, waterproof matches, a Ferro rod, and tinder will make survival a lot easier.
Medkit Including Tourniquet
Every survival pack needs a medical kit. Tourniquets are small, easy to use, and can mean the difference between life and quick death. Buy one and learn how to use it. Prepare to clean and care for small injuries. A minor cut can become a serious issue if you don’t have the ability to clean it and protect it from germs.
Knives and Other Blades
Your survival gear should include blades for different purposes. That obviously starts with a knife, but you may want a hatchet or saw if you’re planning on extended wilderness survival. Urban survival gear can also include an ax and bolt cutters; look no further than your local fire department for proof of concept.
When choosing your blades, think about their combined effect. If you have a hatchet, you can afford to rely on a smaller knife or multitool. If not, you should seriously consider a beefy, full-tang bushcraft knife that can handle a wide range of tasks.
Even the legendary Shackleton needed help eventually, so prepare by having multiple ways to send and receive messages. A satellite communicator is an excellent choice because you’ll have nearly limitless coverage (assuming you pay for the service).
Handheld and stationary radios aren’t as sophisticated, but they’re relatively inexpensive and can be quite effective. At the very least, think about primitive means like signal mirrors and smoke.
A Good Pack
The way you organize gear in your pack makes a difference. Keep the most critical gear in places that are easily accessible. Stay consistent with your packing strategy, and remain familiar with where everything is. Repack your survival kit from time to time, charge your batteries, and update its contents when necessary. A go-bag packed in July might not be particularly useful in January.
Solid Wilderness Survival Gear:
- A fixed-blade knife like the Morakniv Bushcraft Survival
- A waterproof fire-starting kit
- A water filtration system (preferably one that’s compatible with your reservoir or bottle)
- A durable GPS watch with a long-lasting battery
- More survival paracord than you think you’ll ever use
What Should Be in an Urban Survival Kit?
Urban survival sounds easy, but a developed area can be just as deadly as the wilderness. You don’t need to get carried away with The Walking Dead comparisons; just read the daily news to see examples of people around the world who are suddenly facing unrest and scarcity. Something as simple as a power outage or supply-chain disruption can wreak havoc on urban infrastructure. Let the 2020 toilet paper shortage be your reminder of how quickly things can and do go to shit.
If you can continue to use your home for shelter, that’s probably a better option than bugging out and realizing that the front door is where your plan ends. Depending on the specific genre of shenanigans in your area, you may need to prepare for everything from empty grocery stores to urban conflict.
Sillcock Key: Accessing Water From Commercial Buildings
A lot of the camping survival gear you’d find in a traditional emergency kit is just as useful in an urban environment, but there are some unique pieces of gear to consider. One is a four-way sillcock key. The water spigots on commercial buildings use this small, inexpensive tool instead of a handle.
Putting a sillcock key in your urban survival kit or get-home bag can give you access to water when natural sources aren’t available. Remember that just because water comes from a tap doesn’t mean it’s safe to drink. Always use a filter.
Having a somewhat secure home base also increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to continue using electronics like offline maps, GPS units, and handheld radios even without access to the power grid. Plan to generate your own power, either with a fuel-burning or solar-powered generator.
Store power in batteries ranging from the ones that can power large appliances to pocket-sized power banks. If you do pack a power bank in a go-bag or get-home bag, remember to include all the cords necessary to charge your various devices.
Solid Gear for Urban Survival:
- A power generator that’s the right size for you, your home, or your vehicle
- A quality multitool
- Fuel stabilizer so your vehicle is ready when you need it, even if it stays parked for a long time
- Preserved food or emergency food for times when you can’t grow or find anything to eat
- Good relationships with your neighbors; there’s strength in numbers
So, What’s the Best Survival Gear Overall?
Survival can take on different meanings, but there are some attributes that are always relevant when choosing wilderness survival gear or urban survival gear. First, it needs to be durable. Products that are flimsy or unreliable have no place in your emergency kit. It’s also helpful to pack gear that can serve more than one purpose.
A multitool can take the place of a whole toolbox, a bushcraft knife can prepare food or split firewood, and a survivor cord can build a shelter or catch fish. Finally, the best survival gear needs to be something you can use proficiently in all kinds of conditions. Practice while you still have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes.