Survival Basics

We have been asked by many people to touch on the basics of survival kits and survival skills.  We are aware that some of our readership is extremely interested in these topics, but have little to no experience, and have no idea where to start.  The Gunslinger Research team decided to look at this as an introduction, and a starting point, to our readers.  Each segment of this article really warrants it’s own article, (and they are in the works), but this covers the essentials to get anyone started.

Shelter making is probably one of the most chest-thumping areas of survival discussion. From snow caves to lean-tos, to tarp shelters, they seem to be the ultimate test of manliness and grit. I am going to urge you to go against the grain and opt to simply be prepared. Shelter and structure building (such as fire reflectors) are a fun exercise and a valuable skill if you are not prepared. Shelter making is also expensive in terms of time and energy invested. Should you find yourself in a serious survival situation every moment and every calorie will matter.

In terms of light packable options: military style tarps, poncho liners/ranger blankets, survival tube tents, and bivvy bags are all excellent options. For most 24-hour bags I would recommend a ranger blanket/poncho liner.  Combined with your other tools it will give you energy efficient options in any survival situation.

Signaling is a basic skill for backpacking, hunting and any activity where you could find yourself lost or injured far from civilization. The most basic signaling items are the whistle (we have all been wired to respond to a whistle blast from a young age,) and the signaling mirror. Other options can include large sections of orange or yellow tarp (tube tents provide double duty for this in many cases,) flares and flare pens, and of course there is always fire. More modern options can include HAM radios, cellular phones, and spot messengers (such as the Garmin™ In-Reach™.) the golden rule is you should always have at least three signaling methods in your pack, and you should be able to use them competently. Above all, DO NOT under any circumstances use your signaling devices if you are not in distress, you may divert emergency services (like helicopters) to your location and cost someone else their life.


Having the right equipment, and clothing can make even the harshest conditions not only bearable but in many cases enjoyable.

Navigation and orienteering are not something you can learn from YouTube. It takes practice, and proper instruction, to truly master. The basics of map and compass do not fail and are tried tested and true methods. You should add a GPS to your kit. They provide a very easy way to navigate in the backcountry or guide rescuers to your location in the event of an emergency, moreover, they can be had at very reasonable prices if you take the time to shop around.

Tools are the one section of a survival bag that people truly get excited talking about. Survival knives, multitool, axes, folding tools (such as the Glock Spade™) and more. There are some key factors that must be considered when addressing tools for a survival or go-bag. First, is it a permissive environment (e.g. urban bug out bag) or is it a more austere environment (e.g. wilderness survival, or an escape and evasion type scenario for those deployed overseas.) The environment, scope of the mission and the weight constraints of the said mission are going to be the biggest deciding factors in what you choose to take.


Folding backcountry saws such as the Gerber Freescape™ (pictured above) provide safe, reliable and lightweight alternatives to axes and hatchets. More importantly, saws require far fewer calories to operate.

A Multitool can be a good choice such as the Leatherman Wave/Charge, Leatherman Juice, and other models provide many tools in a compact package. The consequence of a multitool is that they can be heavy. Your chances of needing something like the precision screwdrivers found in the Leatherman Wave may be wasted in most wilderness applications, while conversely, the tools found in many multitools may keep your rifle, optic etc running longer in a combat environment. An instructor once said to me “if you don’t have a multi-tool you are wrong.” This is sound advice within the combat/security/law enforcement environment but may not be sound advice for a backpacker or hunter when weight is an issue.

In our article Tomahawk Talk, we discussed the applicability, adaptability, and pitfalls of axes, hatchets, and tomahawks as a survival or combat tool. My advice on packing a standard wilderness saw something like the excellent Boreal 21™ by Agawa Canyon or Gerber Freescape™, or even more traditional folding saw such as those offered by Silky and Bahco, paired with a survival knife with a blade length of no less than 5 inches is a solid shelter and firecraft system for the wilderness. For more military oriented applications, I would advocate only the survival knife, as firecraft and shelter building will likely not be a requirement. In addition, I would suggest some sort of camp/food knife such as the Morakniv™ Companion, or alternatively a 4-inch folder such as the Spyderco™ Endura4 to round off your tool selection.  We have a few options for this blade in our review section of the site as well as on our social media pages @Gunslinger Research on Facebook and Instagram.

Finally, we come to survival rifles and other projectile based weapons. Compact survival slingshots and bows may be good choices if you are a venturing far from civilization. For most applications, a 22LR rifle with quality iron sights and 50-100 rounds of ammunition is a good starting point. The ubiquitous Ruger 10/22, Remington 597, and Marlin Papoose are all excellent choices. I wish I could recommend, the more survival type rifles such as the AR7, but they are not as reliable as the 10/22 Takedown or Marlin Papoose, and in a survival situation, reliability is key.

First Aid warrants its own article, but generally speaking, there are three types of kits you may wish to bring you with into the backcountry.

The Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) or “BooBoo kit” is designed to deal with cuts, scrapes, splinters, ticks, headaches etc. This kit will generally consist of: band-aids, moleskin, small gauze (2x2s) tape, NSAID medication, antiseptic wipes (benzoin and alcohol), tweezers/tick puller etc.


A well stocked AFAK like the one pictured above contains all of the necessary supplies to deal with massive hemorrhage and limb loss and should not take up significant space or weight.

Advanced First Aid (AFAK) or Trauma Kit/Blow Out Kit contains tools and supplies designed to treat massive hemorrhage. This will generally include: A Combat Application Tourniquet, Hemostatic Granules, Chest Seals, Nasal Pharyngeal Airway (size 24), Decompression needle (14 gauge), gauze (Kerlex, or compressed is the most efficient), an Israeli Combat Dressing, and in my opinion either a Coflex Wrap (preferred) or an Ace Bandage (useful for dealing with wounds in the armpits, or groin). In addition, for hikers and hunters, I would include a SAM splint, and triangular bandages to help deal with broken bones or sprains

Level 3 First Aid Kit (L3FAK) this is the term I use to describe a large first aid kit that covers all the basics of the AFAK and IFAK and more. Contents will include SAM Splints, CPR tools, emergency blankets, eye kit, dental kit, large quantities of gloves, gauze, triangular bandages etc.  The L3FAK is designed to live in your home, vehicle, or bug out kit and give you capabilities should advance medical care not be available. To this end, an L3FAK should contain a fairly comprehensive OTC pharmacy including NSAIDs, anti-histamine, anti-diarrheal etc.


Some examples of basic backcountry first aid supplies.

Food is a tricky thing. The truth is you can live for much longer than you think without food.  However, there should be some food (plan for 12-2400 calories per person per day) in your survival bag. Recommendations range from peanut butter to trail mix, to MREs to Canadian IMPs (way better than American MREs by the way.) Just remember some core considerations when it comes to survival rations.

First, they must have long shelf lives (as non-perishable as possible.) Trail mix, protein bars, military type solutions or the ultimate choice would be freeze-dried. Second, survival food must be calorically dense. Items like chocolate bars, protein bars, peanut butter etc are all very calorically dense relative to their size and weight and are thus excellent choices.  Finally, survival rations should have as low a scent profile as possible, whether it’s predators of the four-legged or two-legged variety if they can smell your meal easily you are likely going to have a bad time.

I would be remiss to talk about survival food without mentioning survival fishing kits and survival rifles. In the area where I undertake most of my trips both fish and small game are plentiful. However, you need to consider a key factor. These animals are extremely lean. Your body needs dietary fat and protein to survive (carbohydrates are actually optional.) At certain times of, many small (and even big game) do not have a great nutrient profile and can lead to something called “rabbit starvation.” The short version here is: you can be eating game every night and still die. So, bring some calorically dense, high fat and high protein foods to supplement if you are planning for an extended stay (or not planning for an extended stay if you kept my drift.)

Without water, you will die. Loss of fluid and electrolytes is extremely dangerous. You should be drinking way more than you think you should while backpacking, hiking etc. In terms of water sources, you can choose to either pack it in or filter.

If you are packing your water in on a day hike, you should still have some sort of emergency filter such as the Life Straw (my personal preference.) In addition, you should have iodine tablets (common brand AquaTabs™) as a cold camp back up. If your system will permit you to carry a stove (like the BRS Ultralight or the MSR Pocket Rocket and a titanium cook pot) you can also boil water.  Remember when it comes to the essentials we want as much redundancy as possible while considering size and weight!

Redundancy Is the name of the game here. A fire kit should contain multiple options. A classic Bic lighter wrapped in duct tape, storm proof matches ideally in a match case.  Said match case should not have the “sandpaper” inside the match case itself (otherwise your match case is a grenade!) Finally, you should have some sort of fire steel (Swedish fire steels would be my preference), I know that some newer designs like those by Exotac are gaining popularity but I have not had the chance to thoroughly test them, and can’t in good conscience recommend them until I do.

In terms of fire making itself, the basics are simple. Sharp edges burn better so split your fuel as best you can (axe or baton etc.) You want dry fuel. If it is very wet the driest wood will be at the center of the log, which makes splitting it to create sharp edges a necessity. Remember, that fire is like a living thing. It needs oxygen and food (fuel) to thrive, so burn small and gradually increase the fuel size.

Finally, a note on tinder. No, not the dating app. There are lots of options like fatwood (heavy,) dryer lint (terrible but cheap,) cotton balls and Vaseline (good and cheap), petroleum-based fire starters like Trioxane and Light My Fire Cubes.  The bottom line here is: do not count on fuzzy sticks and rainbows. Bring some sort of guaranteed tinder.

A final note on predators of the two and four-legged variety. We can’t talk about survival without touching on this topic.  If you are venturing into bear country take the necessary precautions: bear spray/bear bangers, a short-barreled shotgun, and the necessary equipment to keep food scents to a minimum. Always keep your food well out of reach when you camp. Finally, do not hike into areas where mother Grizzlies have been sighted if you can help it, choose a different route if at all possible. Above all remember: don’t be a ninja in the bush unless you are hunting or in an escape and evasion scenario, bear attacks usually occur when we happen upon a bear purely by accident.

If you are attacked by a Grizzly, fight like hell. Do not play dead. You must make eating you too costly for the bear to bother, you must also try and buy the people you are with time to access a tool to take care of the bear.  This is also an example of a situation where an AFAK would be important.

Two-legged predators are harder. Be vigilant, and choose smart campsites. If you are in a heavily traveled area it may be in your best interest to choose tents or shelter options that are in low visibility colours or camouflage. Obey all local laws and regulations when taking personal defense items with you into the backcountry.




Categories: Camping & Survival

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