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Leon's Blog

Start with these basics for your wilderness survival gear

Start with these basics for your wilderness survival gear

You don’t have any wilderness experience, but you want some.  So what do you take along to make sure you get back? 

by Leon Pantenburg

One of the most common questions from wilderness newcomers  is: “What gear will I need?”

And that’s a really good question! Walk through any sporting goods store and you’ll notice a bewildering array of gear, stuff, doo-dads, knick-nacks and junk. The buyer must decide which is which.

Depending on what store it is, and the salesperson, you could end up buying some very expensive – and unnecessary – items. In some stores, the salespeople work on commission and push high-priced gear. Or you might end up with a clerk who is covering the counter for somebody at lunch.

So, here’s where to start. The Boy Scouts of America have been preaching the gospel of survival common sense for 100 years. Who actually coined the term “Ten Essentials” is probably unknown. But there is no question that a facsimile of  this basic list is the basis of all emergency preparedness kits. Get your Ten Essentials first.

Here is a list of the Boy Scout Outdoor Essentials, and product suggestions. Check out the links for more info on any of the topics. Look at these ideas, and then decide what will work best for you.

Strong family resemblence; from top: Next Gen, Genesis, GNS and the Rouge river

Any of these bushcraft knives would work very well as part of your Ten Essentials.

  • Knife:  The best knife is up to your personal preference, but you must have some sort of cutting edge along. The only survival knife you have is the one you have along!
      • First Aid kit:  (A first aid kit should go along on every outing, even if you never use it.)
      • Extra clothing: (This will depend, of course, on the climate, time of year and where you are. Clothing needs for my high desert area are much different than for those people in the tropics.)
      • Rain gear: You have two choices for protection from the rain: rainsuit or poncho. I use both, depending on the circumstances.  I hiked the John Muir Trail with a poncho for rain protection. It rained nine days straight! The poncho kept me dry, even though I was expending a lot of energy to hike. I prefer a rainsuit while hunting or fishing, because it won’t flap in the wind, and a rainsuit offers better protection while sitting or standing for long periods of time. Decide what’s best for your needs.
      • Water bottle:  Water is an absolute necessity. I generally carry a Nalgene or other rigid water bottle to drink out of. In my pack, I’ll carry several soft bottles to replenish my Nalgene. The soft bottle are protected in the pack, and

        This combination works well. The rigid Nalgene in the middle is used for drinking and the Paltypus soft bottles store extra water.

        when empty, can be rolled up. The softies  weight virtually nothing, and  take up hardly any space. And if you find a water source, and need to re-supply, you’ll have ample containers along.

        Make sure to include some system of chemical purification or a water filter.

        I’m not a big fan of the water bladder systems, for no really good reason, but they are great for kids because the drinking tube encourages drinking. (And the novelty of  using a bladder water system will keep them well-hydrated until the newness wears off!)

      • Flashlight or headlamp: (I field-dressed a deer shortly after darkness fell  one evening, holding my mini-maglite in my teeth. It was pretty gross – talk about drooling on your gear…) Anyway, ever since that experience I carry a good headlamp. A headlamp leaves your hands free if you are spelunking, end up walking out to the car in the dark, scrambling over rocks etc. Besides, if the lamp is on your head, chances are less that it might be dropped and broken.)
      • Trail food: This is another personal preference. I like to make most of my own, because of my inherent cheapness and a Depression-era mentality inherited from my Dad. But in all my packs, I have several Clif bars, some jerky, sardines, and hardtack.  The gourmet food comes from the Dutch oven. The emergency food is fuel.
      • Matches and firestarter or other methods of ignition – you should have several different types.
      • Sun protection Sunscreen is an item that needs to be in every survival kit, regardless if you’re in the arctic or the tropics. I carry the tube type, because it is less messy to apply.

These are basic navigation tools: compass, emergency whistle, map and GPS. 

    • Map and compass A GPS is also useful, but not without a map and compass! Always include spare batteries for your GPS!

This is the bare bones list, and you should expand and add categories to fit your individual needs. For example, my Ten Essentials includes some method of shelter, such as a tarp, trash bag, bivey sack etc., and I always carry at least 50 feet of parachute cord or light rope, and four aluminum tent stakes.

Neither the scouts, nor I, recommend including fishing gear as a survival tool! Many of the items, such as  the knife, first aid kit and Clif  bars, have multiple memberships in my different  specialized survival kits. Another necessity is the proper size spare batteries for any device that is battery-powered.  It’s a good idea to get battery-operated items that all use the same size.

Your outdoor essentials list can also vary seasonally. I always include a snow shovel and  insulite pad on my winter showshoe treks.

My summer and winter extra clothing choices would also be different. An extra stocking cap is always a good thing to have along, but in the summer, a broad-brimmed hat for sun protection is a necessity.

Some items you shouldn’t cut costs on are boots or hiking shoes; a sleeping bag, and a reliable shelter.

Use this Outdoor Essentials list to form the basis for your own survival kit, then read and research to get new ideas. Your survival kit, if it’s anything like mine,  will probably end up being an evolving project. After every outing, think about what you used, what you didn’t need, and what you wished you had. Then adjust accordingly.

The best survival kit or gear in the world is worthless  if you don’t know how to use it, and just having a survival kit won’t save you. In fact, it might give you a false sense of confidence that could be deadly!

Start your wilderness preparation by reading a credible survival book, or taking a class from a competent instructor. Be wary of any survival-related internet blog or website. Just because someone has a website, doesn’t mean they know anything! Don’t get your survival training off a prime-time survival “reality” show.

Then practice with your equipment. Learn how to make a fire, or pitch your shelter in your backyard. Try out your sleeping bag on a chilly night on the deck to make sure it’s going to be warm enough. Make your mistakes at home, so you won’t in the backcountry, where a screw-up can kill you.

And let this be your mantra: “My survival kit won’t save me. My equipment or gear can’t save me. I will save me.” And  include common sense with every outing!

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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