If you’re new to the survival and preparedness scene, it’s easy to find yourself caught up in a whirlwind of new information being thrown at you by survival shows, magazines, and a plethora of websites, all trying to sell you a one-size-fits-all survival solution for your newly acquired lifestyle choice. Many of these one-size-fits-all solutions come in the form of survival kits, and unfortunately, many of these kits, when push comes to shove, are not really as helpful as you might expect them to be. Throughout the years, I’ve tried a slew of these survival kit collections myself. I’ve honestly rarely ever found them satisfactory, let alone found myself impressed with their contents.
Cody Lundin, the co-host of Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival and a full-time desert survival instructor, hits the nail on the head when it comes to survival kits in his book 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. Cody mentions briefly in this book that it’s always a better idea to build your own survival kit, primarily for one very important reason: your survival needs will change based on your environment, and so no survival kit will be as uniquely tailored to your location and to your needs as one that you’ve taken the time to make yourself.
If you buy a ready made survival kit and simply use it out of box, it’s probably going to have a heck of a lot you’re never going to need, and not enough of what you really do need. Think about it. Most survival kits come with wire saws: how helpful is that going to be out in the desert? And if you live in Canada, won’t it be a bit useless to be carrying water purification tabs instead of the space blanket you’ll really need to help keep you warm? Survival kits, by definition of being made for general survival purposes, aren’t good for any particular survival purpose, and that’s the largest issue with them.
Survival kits often also just have miscellaneous items added to them to jack up the perceived value of the survival kit. If one company’s kit has got the same items as another but throws in an additional knife, for example, you’re going to think the one with the extra knife is better. The problem with this is, there’s always a catch. Those who made the survival kit have got to cut costs somewhere, and if they’re throwing in a crappy knife, they’re probably also giving you worse quality elsewhere as well, to make up for the added expense. Although there may be a lot of items in that kit, you never really know what kind of quality you’re going to get when you buy these things without, say, reading reviews on the particular kit first.
In order to demonstrate this concept aptly, I’m going to use a survival kit I purchased way back in 2008 on a whim. This kit is assembled and sold by B.C.B International, a well-established company in the survival industry with ties to military procurement and supplies. If anyone’s likely to get a survival kit right, it should be someone like them.
Let’s go through the list of what’s in here. We’ve got:
- 10 water purification tabs: These are certainly useful depending on your environment, but they come with no instructions whatsoever. How many gallons/litres of water can it treat? You’ll never know. So what’s the point of having purification tablets if you have no idea how much of them you’ll need to use to even purify your water. I personally would have preferred a vial of bleach or iodine for water purification purposes. That’s much more helpful than these.
Interestingly, the outside of the survival box says: “EXPIRY: 08/2012,” but the packaging on the water purification tabs say they expire in “08/2011.” Quite frankly, that’s damn shameful.
- Small button compass: The reliability of this compass right off the bat is questionable. Not impressed. A compass is a little useless if it ends up taking you in the wrong direction.
These days, I everyday carry a neodymium magnet compass on my keychain that’s much smaller than this. That also makes their “wonder if it even works” compass completely useless to me – I’ve already got a way to tell North. All going back to the point that it’s better to make your own survival kit so you can customize it to your own needs.
- Snare wire: Presumably this is made of brass. It’s maybe 5 feet in length. This item is fully acceptable.
- Wire saw: Honestly, this saw serves absolutely no purpose. I’ve lived on 3 continents and spent a good deal of time on 4 of them. Never have I been in an environment where a wire saw would have been more helpful than a knife. Even your run of the mill small Opinel pocket knife would be much more handy than this old thing.
- Fire steel: Once again, this item is of questionable quality. The brand of the firesteel is “web-tex.” It produces sparks, but they’re pretty tiny. Again, not impressed.
- Book of matches: These are cardboard-based matches. They may work, but it all depends on how lucky you are. You’ll need to pray for no moisture and steady hands.
- Sewing kit: Free sewing kits from any hotel are honestly better than these by a long shot. Complete waste of an item.
- Fishing kit: There are quite a few lead weights, but there’s quite a small amount of line by comparison. I’m really displeased with this item.
- 6 safety pins: These are more flimsy than some of the ones you can buy at a dollar store. Seriously not worth much.
- Razor blade “cutter:” This item was so bad, I threw it away years ago, so it’s not in the pictures. I can’t even describe how bad it was.
- Tea light: Okay, so they did fine on that item, but it’s hard to mess up a candle. I used the tea light, which is why it’s not shown in the pictures.
- Whistle: This item was also fine, but I took it out to use it and have no idea where it is now, so it’s also not in the pictures.
Alright, so out of a good 12 items, we’ve got 1-2 that work fine, 2-3 that are definitely not ideal, but I guess could be useful if you’re stuck without anything else, and the rest, complete rubbish. This is pretty discouraging, but don’t think it’s just this particular survival kit. As I said before, this is a reputable company who’s been in the survival game for a long time and is really quite trusted. This is just the state of survival kits in general.
When it comes to ready-made survival kits, you have no idea who put them together, why they made the choices they did, if the items are of good quality, etc. When you buy your own gear, a new knife, a new flashlight, or even a new compass, you have the ability to check for reviews before you commit to the item. You can customize what you carry based on what you find works, or what you think you’ll need. Sure, these survival kits aren’t all that expensive, but when you could buy an excellent knife, a great fire starter, and a good compass for the price of one crummy survival kit, why would you waste your time on the kit?
For the inexperienced, a pre-assembled survival kit may seem like a great idea. Yes, technically, it is better than nothing at all (just about…), but it really wouldn’t take you very long to put together a much better kit yourself. The companies behind survival kits are profit driven, which makes sense, they are businesses. They’ll do what it takes to sell their kit over the others – and in the process, go for items that are inexpensive and not quite useful, just so they can say the item is included. Why would they bother to put a sturdy, trustworthy folding knife when they could put a practically free razor blade and say that the kit has a cutting tool? It just makes no feasible sense in terms of a business model. These companies hoax buyers into believing that their item bundles are enough. But these survival kits are supposed to help you survive in the wilderness. Really think their cheap-quality items are going to cut it?
I will be doing an extended series on assembling your own survival kit, for different budgets and different environments, over the next few months. These articles will hopefully help you understand what’s truly needed to survive in the wilderness, what to invest your money in, and what you can actually skimp on.
In the meantime, don’t waste your money on these gimmicky products. If you want a great all-round survival tool that’s something like a jacked up survival kit, take a look at the Bear Grylls Ultimate Survival Knife (it’s a knife that’s got a hammer, whistle, fire steel, knife sharpener, and pocket guide, all of good quality, built right into it; we’ve got a review of it here). It lasts a hell of a lot longer, is way higher quality, and is indubitably more useful than a regular survival kit.
Don’t let those big corporations dupe you into buying a useless product, even if you’re new to the game.