My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Survival tips and kit


As some one who was more or less raised in the great outdoors, I have always felt at ease there, even when things weren’t going well. It has only been the last few years that I have put together a survival kit of any kind and carry it with me. That’s mostly because of what I have seen and heard has happened to others who weren’t prepared, and from watching the Survivorman show on TV. If you’re not familiar with the show, it is about one man surviving in the wilderness for a week at a time. Survivorman is Les Stroud, some one who taught survival and outdoorsmanship for a living before he began his television career. He would set up a very typical scenario about how some one could be stranded in a wilderness area, and then he would spend the next week there showing the rest of the world how to survive if something like that were to happen to us.

What brought his point home to me was that many times the scenario he used to set up how he could become stranded were similar to things that had almost happened to me. I began to realize that I have been darned lucky my entire life, and that there was the possibility my luck could run out one of these days.

We’ve all read stories of fishermen who have drowned while fishing, or a hunter dying in the woods when they became lost, and like most people I thought it only happened to others. I even pulled a friend out of the water once when he was overcome by the current of the Rogue River and was real close to being swept off his feet and downstream where he could have drowned. But, we were young then and just laughed it off. Maybe age plays a part of my new concern for safety, I would rather think that it is that I have made to the point were wisdom over-rides the bravado of youth. In the last few years a number of things have happened that made me decide to put a survival kit together. One was kayaking with Larri and some of her friends who have a tendency to tip their kayaks over in the winter. Since we were prepared, those times became something to laugh about rather than a tragedy. I was already putting my kit together when I had a close call of my own, stepping in quicksand while fishing on the Boardman River a few years ago. Quicksand isn’t like you see in the movies, not at all, but it can still kill you if you panic. I was wading along and my left leg sunk into the quicksand where a spring apparently fed into the river. My right foot was still on somewhat solid bottom, but my leg was twisted in an awkward position while I was holding myself up with it. This all happened after I had been fishing for several hours in the very cold early spring water, and my right leg started to cramp up.

For a split second there I thought I was going to be one of those news headlines about a decomposed body being found floating in a river, then I used my head. I threw my fly rod up towards shore to free my hands and using all the strength remaining in my right leg, lunged forward as if I were swimming. I reached down to the bottom with my hands to help pull my left leg out of the quicksand. It helped that I lunged across the current, as the water pushing against me helped pull my leg out of the quicksand. I was wet and chilled, but alive. I retrieve my rod, wrung as much water out of my clothes as I could, then took the long walk back to my vehicle. Fortunately it was a nice day, and I was wearing clothes that not only dried quickly, but also kept me fairly warm while they were drying.

This hit close to home, but then to drive that point home, a guy who used to be my boss and was friend of mine, died while kayaking in Canada just a year or two later. If there was any one who went by the book and would have had all the right gear and taken all the right precautions, it was him.

 I don’t intend this to be a full lesson in survival, so I’ll just hit a few of the major points, and list what I now carry with me whenever I am outdoors. I am writing this from the perspective of some one who lives in Michigan, where you are never more than a few miles from a road, or other means of reaching safety. If you are venturing into more remote areas, you should take even more precautions than I am going to list here.

The first one is to let some one know where you are going and when you’ll be back, so if you don’t check in with them, they can alert the authorities that you are missing and may need help. If you don’t know of any one who you trust to do that for you, there is a new online service you can use for free called Trailnote.com. Their system isn’t perfect, but it is rather new, and a lot better than being stranded in the wilderness for days with no one knowing that you are. I use it, as do some of my online friends.

Point two, take some time to look over a map of the area you are venturing into so that you will have an idea of the shortest route out when and where trouble may occur. Let’s say you are kayaking a river and your boat gets damaged on a rock, and you have to walk out. You could follow the river, but that’s usually pretty rough going through wetlands and tangled brush. You’d be much better off if you knew where the closest road was to your location and walked out that way, most of the time. You should know if there is a large swamp or high cliff between you and safety and have a plan in your mind of what you would do if your boat were to be damaged at some point on the river. And, if you are part of a group, don’t leave that all to one person. What if they are the one that is injured and no one else in the group knows where they are? At least a few members of the group, if not every one, should know where they are going, and the quickest routes to safety.

Here’s what I carry with me and why. Remember, I live in Michigan where you are never more than a few miles from a road, so my kit is put together to keep me alive for one night, two at the most. If I get lost, I know I’m not going to starve to death before I make it out or I am rescued, and I know I won’t die of thirst. Michigan’s official nickname used to be water wonderland, one is never more than 6 miles from a lake here in Michigan, so water isn’t a problem. What does kill people in Michigan, and all places for that matter is panic, panic and hypothermia.

 If you are prepared, there should be no reason for you to suffer from hypothermia, and if you are prepared, there is a lot less chance that you will panic and do something foolish. As soon as most people realize they missed a turn on a trail or in some other way are lost, they go crashing through the brush because they just know the trail is just “over there”, and end up getting themselves even more lost. Stop and think, and if you are off the trail, backtrack to where you pick it up again unless you are very good with a map and compass.

 If you are kayaking and a thunderstorm delays you long enough so you may not make it to your take out site before dark, or your boat is damaged, don’t paddle on into the darkness in a blind panic unless you know you are very close to the take out.

The first thing to do if something happens and you may think you’ll be stuck out overnight is to sit down, try to relax, and consider your situation. Can you make it to the end before dark? Is there a chance that some one else may come along shortly? If you do have to walk out, do you know which direction to go, and can you make to a road or other place of safety before dark?

If you do have to spend the night, find a sheltered area up from the river so you will be dry. Don’t waste all your time looking for a perfect spot, find a good spot and gather firewood with the remaining sunlight. A fire will keep you warm, and increase the chance of rescuers seeing you, and make you feel a lot better about your situation.

Here is what I always bring with me and why….

•A compass..Every one has a tendency to walk in circles in the woods, even I do, and I am different from most experienced outdoorsmen, I’ll admit it. You don’t have to be an expert with a compass, but know how to use it well enough to travel in a straight line. You may think you can follow the river, but that is tough hiking through swamps, thickets, and more twists and turns than you knew there were. Don’t rely on one of those pin on your clothes types of compasses, or the cheap ones that come in the prepackaged survival kits. Buy one that works and it could save your life! A GPS unit is a great thing to have, but batteries go dead or the unit could fail at the time you need it most.

•Salt..I carry a 35mm film container with plain old table salt in it in case of leeches. Yes, there are leeches in some of the rivers we kayak, and salt is the best way to remove them.

•A first aid kit… it doesn’t have to be fancy, but being able to clean and dress a wound can be a life saver, get one! Since I have been carrying a first aid kit I have used it several times, but never for myself. I have cleaned and dressed a wounded dog that got tangled up in barbed wire, and did the same for a kid that had fallen and scraped his knee up badly.

•A throw rope…one long enough to be able to pull a person to safety or retrieve a boat stuck in a logjam. I have a commercially made one, but a good rope of 25 to 50 feet long will work. Rope is too handy not to carry. You can unravel some of the rope to make string if you need it. I won’t hike or kayak without a good rope with me anymore.

•A multitool…a multitool is like a Swiss Army knife on steroids, buy a quality one that will hold up to use. Mine has a knife, saw, screwdrivers, file, etc. They can be used to make repairs to your equipment or in survival mode.

•A bailing sponge..used to soak up the water in your boat. I have never tried it, but I’ll bet I could use it and other things I carry to make repairs to my kayak to the point I could float my way out by jamming it into a hole or gash. This is for kayakers only.

•Two heavy duty trash bags..in survival mode, there are tons of uses for these. Use them as a ground cover to sleep on, or as covering if it rains, just make sure you don’t suffocate yourself! You may also be able to use these with the bailing sponge to make a temporary patch to your boat if you are kayaking and your boat is damaged.

•An extra water bottle..a lot of my kit is stored in my extra water bottle as added protection to keep it dry. In Michigan, you are never far from water, but an extra bottle to carry it in is a good idea

•Water purification pills…yes, there are filters, but they take up more room, drop a couple of the pills into your bottle of water, and you know you will have safe drinking water.

•An emergency whistle…mine doubles as a holder for waterproof matches, more on those later, but the whistle can be heard at a longer distance than your voice. Remember that three blasts on a whistle is an internationally recognized distress signal. So if you hear some one using a whistle and giving three short blasts at a time, you should investigate why. It will probably turn out to be a kid, but you never know unless you check.

•Waterproof matches..I carry them, not sure if I trust them, but hypothermia is the most important thing to worry about, so I carry these and several other ways to start a fire to stay warm. Make sure you carry the strikers too, since you can no longer purchase strike anywhere matches. You can make your own by dipping the heavy kitchen type matches in wax to within a quarter of an inch or so from the head, leaving the head unwaxed.

•Magnesium flint stick..another way to start a fire, shave some of the magnesium off the stick with your multi-tool, and strike the flint into the pile of shavings with the knife blade and you’ll get a good fire going in no time. Magnesium burns easily and with a very hot flame and will dry out damp tinder.

•A Bic lighter.. another way to start a fire.

•A rain poncho.. I always carry rain gear when I kayak or hike, but the more waterproof gear you have, the better, and it can be used in ways other than a poncho, such as a tarp over your head by tying it to some bushes, or to catch rain water to refill your water bottle.

•A Space blanket..Note, these are intended to be used next to your skin, I am not sure if they work, I hope to never find out, but better safe than sorry. I am sure I’ll find a use for them if the need ever arises.

•Insect repellent…nuff said, unless you like spending a night in the woods as food for mosquitoes.

•Toilet paper…nuff said there too, well, maybe not, I carry the end of a roll so it doesn’t take up much space, can also be used as tinder for a fire.

•A survival Candle..can be used for light, but also puts off more heat than you would think. If you have a pop or beer can, a little work on it with your multi-tool and add in the candle, and it will turn it into a nice lantern/handwarmer.

•Chemical handwarmers..I have a couple of these, I have never used them, but they don’t take up much space and if they put out any heat at all, they are worth it to carry.

One more thing, for trips to more remote ares, like the UP or Canada, add an axe. I know people who never leave home without them, and if you are in a true wilderness area, neither should you..

So that’s it, a few notes, you can add and subtract from this list, but I think it is a good one, based on my experience and also too much time spent watching Les Stroud, Survivorman, on TV. Stay away from the cheap survival stuff most places sell, except as the base for your kit. Remember that fire is probably the most important thing you will need if stranded. Make use of anything you have and can find, and don’t be afraid to make use of things in ways they were never intended to be used for.

I carry almost the exact same things in my daypack, and in my fishing vest, that way I always have it with me. None of these things are going to help you if you forget them at home.

One last thing, none of this is any good unless you check your kit at least once a year, especially if you include battery-powered devices in your kit. I have a tradition, the first weekend after New Years Day, I go through all my outdoor stuff, fishing gear, backpacks, kayaking gear, etc. I clean and inspect everything, lubricate what needs it, check any expiration dates, like on the water purification pills, and REPLACE any batteries! You should too, maybe not the same day, but pick a day and do it!

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10 responses

  1. Pingback: We both lost our heads « Quietsolopursuits's Blog

  2. Great advice! You never know what can happen.

    July 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

  3. wonderful tips. Even though I don’t do solo outdoors much, but I found your above write-up very informative and interesting to read

    January 30, 2013 at 5:19 am

    • Thank you, Ausaf.

      January 30, 2013 at 9:38 am

  4. OMG, your quicksand story! I’ve been wary of the stuff since I watched “Lawrence of Arabia” as a kid! So it’s not just in the desert, huh?

    February 21, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    • I didn’t know that they had quicksand in the desert, as it requires water. What I stepped into was probably a place where a spring fed into the river, water flowing up through the sand. It was scary, for a moment or two, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out.

      February 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  5. nice post, always interesting to see what other people put up and how they think about gear

    October 25, 2013 at 2:48 am

    • Thanks, it’s always good to exchange ideas.

      October 25, 2013 at 9:06 am

  6. Great advice for anyone who fly fishes. I ended up sliding down a river bank last year and into the water while looking for the perfect place to cast my line. I was glad it wasn’t any worst than just getting muddy. I always have a kit with me. Rope! A must have!

    November 18, 2017 at 5:16 am

    • Thank you very much. You can be too safe, only too sorry, and a good, well thought out emergency kit doesn’t take up much room or weigh that much, there’s no reason not to carry one.

      November 18, 2017 at 7:39 am

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