Danger is all around us. We don’t generally like to think about it, but the world is full of life-threatening forces—and one day, we may come face to face with them in the wild, far from the comforts of home. How we fare will depend largely on our level of preparedness. Throughout centuries of experience and technological advancements, humanity has developed survival kits, combining the essentials for making it out of dire predicaments alive. Over time, these bundles have become much smaller and lighter in weight for easier transport, and the individual items have become more sophisticated and efficient—giving us an invaluable edge when we need it most.
A kit is not just a bunch of items thrown together. It’s an assembly of chosen items that all serve a specific purpose in the interest of achieving a collective goal. You have everything you need in one place, contained in a pack that makes it all easily portable.
History and experience taught contemporary people how to put together practical survival kits. The most compact and portable versions have been around for at least half a century, as it is documented that the U.S. military was drafting reports and creating prototype concepts in the 1960s as troops were heading into Vietnam. But the collection and storing of supplies and tools to prepare for hunting, battle, trips, or emergencies was occurring long before that.
Primitive civilizations relied on simple but effective tools for survival, including spears, stone hammers, stone tomahawks, axes, hoko knives (ancient pocket knives), rock slings, bows, and arrows. Lassos were used for hunting and capture by Egyptians, Mongols, and Huns, and bolas were employed by Patagonians and Incas. Fishing hooks in olden times were made from bone, locust spines, cactus, or wood.
For cooking and food prep, ancient civilizations utilized the grain grinder (mill) and the mortar and pestle. Beginning around 5000 B.C.E., people started fires using bowls, wooden spindles, and wooden boards (hearths), in which they carved holes.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus traveled across the Atlantic from Spain to the Americas. He had three ships loaded with supplies—which essentially means the load could be called an early version of the modern-day "vehicle survival kit:" a boat or automobile stocked with one or several months' worth of food and supplies. Columbus and his crew had water, fish, fishing tackle, salted meat, cheese, and figs, in addition to fire pits, firewood, and copper kettles for cooking.
Rope was used by the crew not only for sailing, but also for tying themselves down to the deck while sleeping to avoid being pitched overboard. Bedding was minimal or nonexistent. The crew also had work knives, which could double as self-defense tools.
Navigational instruments included maps, nautical almanacs, charts, compasses, and astrolabes. The last of these were inscribed with maps of celestial bodies, and worked only when skies were clear and the positions of the stars were known. Magnets, hourglasses, and journals were on board, too. To trade with indigenous peoples for critical provisions, Columbus brought along beads, rings, gold, silver, pearls, and spices.
Centuries later, in 1804, Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Purchase territory. Among the survival gear they took was cloth for making tents and sheets, along with needles for sewing. To help prevent disease, they also had mosquito curtains. They carried tools such as pliers, chisels, handsaws, and hatchets, as well as fire steels and an iron corn mill.
With hooks and lines totaling 10.5 pounds, they were well-equipped to fish, and 24 large knives would help them prepare whatever they caught in rivers and lakes—as well as the larger game they killed with firearms on land. As a reserve when such food was unavailable, they brought 193 pounds of hearty “portable soup.” Considering this amount, the length of the journey, the 33 people in the party, and the 50 dozen laxative pills brought along, the 12 pounds of soap they packed seems rather light.
Medical supplies included lancets, forceps, syringes, thermometers, and tourniquets. The instrument arsenal consisted of compasses, a telescope, a microscope, a chronometer, and a tape measure. The team also had maps and a nautical almanac.
In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached Mount Everest’s peak. They carried loads of about 44 pounds apiece, roughly twice as heavy as the weights shouldered by today’s trekkers, in external-frame backpacks. Due to thin air at such elevations, they had to use oxygen tanks and masks. Walking sticks were important tools, as well, and ice axes were critical; Hillary’s was constructed of forged steel with an ash wood handle.
Hillary and Norgay subsisted on tea, tinned fish, lemonade, chicken soup, and apricots. To communicate with others in the expedition, they had “wireless” walkie-talkies; the downside was they weighed 5 lb each and ran on dry-cell batteries that needed to be kept warm.
The present day
Modern survival kits are the culmination of years of experience and progress. Consider all we’ve discussed above, and then see, for example, Gerber's Bear Grylls Ultimate Survival Kit: a 16-piece package with a multi-tool, light, saw, blanket, fire starter, matches, snare wire, emergency cord, waxed thread, fishing kit, sewing kit, and more—all weighing well under a pound.
Tools such as knives and axes are now smaller and lighter, with wooden handles having been largely replaced by carbon-fiber and aluminum. Blades themselves have gotten smaller for easier storage and handling, and are now generally made of stainless instead of carbon steel. As an alternative to separate tools, we now have multi-tools bundling up to 20 implements in one.
Cookware, formerly made of cast iron or other heavy metals, is now often constructed from lightweight titanium or stainless steel. Old staples like dried fruit and soup are still viable, but we also have Clif bars, granola bars, and energy gels packing lots of nutrients into small form factors for easier consumption on the go. Tea is still a great beverage, but now we have recovery drinks that replenish crucial electrolytes and protein.
Backpacks today are lighter, more breathable and comfortable, and more sophisticated for highly efficient packing and easier carrying. Modern tent and tarp materials, including nylon, are lighter than the heavy canvas and leather of the past, and can be folded down to very small sizes. Ropes in past Everest expeditions were made of heavy hemp, while today’s are manufactured from light nylon.
In modern kits, one extremely versatile tool is paracord. Great lengths can be rolled into tiny spaces—even bracelets. Paracord can be used for fastening, tying, building, and trap-setting, and can even be split into threads for stitching wounds.
Present-day flashlights use LEDs, which run on rechargeable batteries and are far longer-lasting and more efficient than old incandescent lights. Flashlights have also evolved into smaller, more lightweight and ergonomic forms.
Today’s two-way radios are smaller, lighter, and more advanced and effective than the bricks Hillary had on Everest. Compasses and watches are now digital, and the emergence of GPS systems in portable units has become a game-changing lifesaver, as well.
The evolution of survival kits is a huge benefit to humanity. Unless we’re on a planned trip into the wilderness, we hope we never have to use them—but it’s probably safe to say we’d prefer to have them.
What items do you pack in your survival kit that we may not have mentioned? Please let us know in the Comments section, below.