The Personal Survival Kit – Part 1: the “Survival Tin”

I want to show you something I made up a few years back.

My Personal Survival Kit

My Personal Survival Kit

It’s a relatively compact survival kit designed to be worn on a belt or even carried in a pocket. Evoking the romance and adventure of the special forces operative or a downed airman trapped behind enemy lines, the Personal Survival Kit (or PSK) is a staple among experienced outdoorsmen and their chairborne, keyboard-wielding colleagues all over the internet. Kept on your person at all times, it’s the last-ditch after the enemy soldiers have stripped you of your pack and webbing prior to your heroic escape. It contains vital tools to help you dodge the Gestapo and survive unaided until you can rendezvous with the Maquis agents who will smuggle you down the rat line to freedom.  That’s the general idea anyhow.

Let’s take a look at what’s in my kit:

Contents of the belt pouch

Contents of the belt pouch

The pouch itself is made from a very tough and hard-wearing ballistic nylon cloth. Inside the pouch we have a clear plastic 70 litre bag, we have a specialised survival kit knife which doubles as a spear-tip or an arrowhead, and we have a waterproof, shockproof, crushproof and dustproof Otterbox 1000 tough case containing the kit itself and a 1m paracord lanyard attached to the case.

The pouch has loops on the back which allow it to be carried on a belt, or if you’re feeling particularly “tactical” the loops are MOLLE compatible, so you can mount your kit to your plate carrier or tactical vest. If you haven’t guessed yet, this post contains a heapin’ helpin’ of dry sarcasm. In an emergency, you can cut up the pouch and add the cloth to your fire to make black smoke for signalling purposes. The press snaps can be removed and polished with sand to make a shiny lure for fishing, and the… I’ve got nothin’ – there’s probably a bunch of other uses for the nylon pouch aside from simply carrying the kit and mounting it to your belt.

The 70 litre plastic bag is a genuinely useful item. It can be used as is as a transpiration bag (look out for a future post on this particular method of harvesting drinking water), it can be modified for use as a rain coat, opened out it can waterproof a shelter or can be used in a solar still. Torn into strips, it provides light lashing cordage and when burnt, it gives off a black smoke.

The Otterbox case is too heavy, too thick and too bulky. Although it protects the contents of the kit from becoming crushed or sodden, there’s nothing in the kit which is susceptible to either crushing or water. It’s overkill, single-use and heavy. But it looks cool, huh? “Just let me open my MILSPEC ruggedized personal survival kit case…” says the hero in his deep, husky voice. The lanyard is a great idea. I’m a fan of military issue 550 paracord since it’s very strong when used as is, and when stripped, that one metre of paracord will provide 7 white 1 metre inner strands of cordage, a 1m coloured manufacturer ID strand (like a thick cotton thread), and of course the green nylon tubular outer sheath. So that’s a total of 9 metres of useable cordage just from this 1 metre length of 550 paracord.

The knife… read on.

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

This tiny little double-bladed knife was designed to be carried in a military issue personal survival kit (or E&E kit as they called it). I have a couple of issues with this knife – first of course is that it’s double-bladed. Makes it very difficult to handle effectively when cutting. You can’t baton with it and if used as a wedge on the hardwood timbers from around these parts, you’d end up hammering the knife into the wood and would have to burn it out to retrieve it. Plus, it’s really difficult to sharpen. The sheath is great though and it also houses my stainless steel trace wire, which I have exiled from the otterbox because the end seemed to be forever poking holes in my teabag. Being an item which is not susceptible to shock, dust, pressure or water ingress, this knife resides in the pouch next to the otterbox rather than inside it. In fact, I’m going to end up selling this knife – it’s kind of useless for real-world use, but since it’s an Australian SAS-issued item, it’s got some collector value.

Now the otterbox. Let’s look inside –

The box opened.

The box opened.

It’s not very big, but it holds a surprising number of vital survival items.

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

1. 2 metres of US military issue sand-coloured tripwire. Used as snares or as repair / baling wire.

2. 5 metres of braided nylon cord. Used as general cordage, or can be stripped down to individual strands.

3. Physer SGI brass button compass. The classic British military “escape” compass – so tiny it can be swallowed and retrieved later, or can be sewn into clothing or set into a uniform button. Originally designed for use in escape and evasion kits during WWII. I’ll be doing a separate post on the history and use of these compasses. This particular compass has a bright yellow zip tie attached for better visibility and to the zip tie has been tied an inner strand of paracord as a lanyard or necklace. These compasses are so tiny, they are very easy to lose.

4. 10 feet of heavy thread. Used for sewing, as light cordage or as a fishing line.

5. Folded 30cm length of cloth duct tape, useful for field repairs of transpiration bags and such. Between the layers are four safety pins – used as general fastenings or as improvised fish hooks, and two magnetised large sewing needles – used for sewing or as an improvised compass needle.

6. Leatherman Micra multitool. Contains a multitude of useful tools including good scissors and a razor-sharp cutting blade.

7. Generic mini multitool. A lower-quality version of the Leatherman Micra, but also includes pliers for working with wire or for moving hot objects from a fire.

8. Doan Magnesium Bar military firestarter – a rectangular piece of magnesium alloy with a ferrocium rod (“flint”) set into one side. Despite requiring two hands to use, the Doan mag bar is one of the most reliable sure-fire fire starters available anywhere. To use, you shave a coin-sized amount of magnesium from the bar into a pile and then light it with the ferro rod. The resulting flame is white-hot and will ignite almost any tinder you throw at it.

9. Very basic fishing kit. 4 or 5 hooks of various sizes, 3 x split shot sinkers and a couple of swivels. Used with the heavy thread or with inner strands of 550 paracord.

10. Fox 40 rescue whistle. Works wet or dry. Very loud and shrill.

11. Glass signal mirror. This is a US Air Force small-sized signal mirror. About the same size as a credit card, it works via a retroreflective grid for precise aiming. It’s too heavy, but it’s the only signal mirror in its class that I trust. I’ve had starflash and rescueflash acrylic mirrors delaminate and become useless just from sitting inside the Otterbox in high temperatures I’ve encountered on various trips.

12. A metre of heavy-duty aluminium foil. Can be fashioned into a vessel to boil water or cook food, pieces can be used as a fishing lure, pieces can be used to leave a trail for search and rescue, it can be used as an improvised reflective ground to air signal panel, it can be used as a “veldt blanket” by placing half over each kidney under clothing before sleeping. The reflective material will work like a space blanket, reflecting your body heat back at your kidneys, thereby keeping your circulatory system warm and spreading that warmth throughout your body – that’s the theory anyway.

13. A large scalpel blade. Used in conjunction with an improvised wooden handle sourced locally. Best option for clean and accurate skinning and cleaning of smaller game and fish.


14. 1 Quart (just under 1 litre) Nasco Whirl-Pak resealable laboratory sample bag. Food-grade, it can be used to both carry water and sterilize it (using UV from the sun). Very useful item.

15. A tea bag. A tea bag is the one comfort item in the kit. Even if you’re not a tea drinker, it’s a morale-booster, can flavour water or food, and the bag can be used, squeezed dry and used again a few times. When completely bone dry, the bag makes good tinder for a fire.

16. Fresnel lens. Credit card sized magnifying lens great as a fire starter on a sunny day. Can be rigged to allow an improvised candle or slush lamp to throw more light, or can be used with the signal mirror to extend the range (to a certain degree).

That’s a typical military/survival-style personal survival kit. Seems relatively squared away? A pretty good attempt? I think it’s a train wreck. In fact I think the whole “survival tin” idea is a bad philosophy for the serious outdoors type. let alone the professional soldier or pilot.

Many consider John “Lofty” Wiseman to be the spiritual father of the cult of the survival tin, pointing to the kit he describes in his “SAS Survival Guide”. Using Lofty’s special forces pedigree as their social proof, companies such as BCB in the UK jumped on the survival tin bandwagon and if you wanted to be cool out in the bush, you’d better have a decent combat survival tin.

Diagram from Wiseman's "SAS Survival Guide" showing "Lofty" Wiseman's idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

A diagram from Wiseman’s famous “SAS Survival Guide” showing his idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

The current incarnation of BCB's Combat Survival Kit.

The current incarnation of BCB’s Combat Survival Kit. A book of MRE matches AND a ferro rod for lighting fires? Oh stop it BCB, you’re spoiling us.

Bushcraft, survival, professional military, backpacking and even zombie hunting forums all over the internet have proven just how popular the idea of the survival tin remains. One small tin containing all the vital equipment to help a lost hiker/injured bushcrafter/downed aircrewman survive in the wilds until they are rescued – it’s admittedly an attractive concept, but it’s not one that Lofty or his SAS colleagues ever embraced or promoted, and in this writer’s opinion, neither should you. There are far better, more workable options for carrying an emergency survival kit which go far beyond some trinkets in a tobacco tin.

In the next post in this series we’ll look at Lofty Wiseman’s holistic approach to survival kits, examine a couple of historical WWII examples of survival kits, and then take a look at my solution.