Tools for Survival

Before I was a SF geek, I was a survivalist geek. And yes, I mean that just as it sounds. I grew up in the woods, reading books about everything, but for a long time I gravitated towards books like Julie of the Wolves, Call of the Wild, Tom Brown’s semi-fictional survival guides, Wildwoods Wisdom, and many more. I learned how to survive in different climates – from the Boreal Forest of Alaska to the cool infinitely green Pacific Rainforest – and did a lot of camping with family all over.

I grew up, grew more sedentary, and got out of touch with my wild roots. You’re no doubt wondering what this has to do with writing, at this point? As I was sitting at the table pulling together a pocket survival kit for the first time in ten years, from odds and ends around the house, I was reflecting on the stories that start out with Our Hero thrust into a life-or-death situation.

Tin full of basic survival goods: matches and candles for firestarting. Wax thread and fish hooks for food acquisition. Tiny multi-tool. Safety pins which can be back-up fishhooks or help construct shelter.

What tools would she have with her? What could they fashion into useful items? Could he really survive if dropped into the wilderness with only the knife at his side?

These are questions you can build a story on. Man vs Nature. The deadliest, most implacable foe a man can face, because food, water, and shelter… well, at -40F a man can die real quick now if he hasn’t got fire and shelter.

A woman can die even if only a few hundred yards from safety, if she lacks the tools and skills. This sad case caught my eye – we hear about the amazing survivors, or perhaps the massive searches for some person who has gotten lost. But reality is that hiking into the woods carries a risk, one that cannot be fully erased. Of course, commuting to work on the interstate also carries a risk… filling my pockets with basic survival tools is no different than obeying the safety rules of the road, in that sense.

So the first thing to think through is why our character is plunged into wilderness. This will dictate how much or how little they have on them. I’m carrying more than I need for a two-day camping trip in a relatively built-up area. Partly because I want to teach my son. But if they are surviving a crash? Fled some two-leg evil into the woods?

Personally I always carry a pocket knife or multi-tool on me. I’m weird, I hear. But I believe most of my friends practice this… and when hiking I’ll have a belt knife, my multitool (not the tiny one in the box), and a neckknife. Each serves different purposes. None of them are intended as weapons, although they could be – darn near anything could be.

Firestarters that don’t rely on easily dampened chemicals are also good. I snitched one of my husband’s lighters, but the magnesium bar is the best option I’ll be carrying in a survival situation. A compass, and not pictured, a map of the area which is safely enclosed in a ziplock bag for protection. Can also be used the carry water. Also not shown – my son had them when I took the photo – whistles for both of us. Whistles or signal mirrors -mine is long gone it seems- can be used to tell searchers where you are. Or if my son and I separate on the trail. I also have a backpackers tarp, about the size of two decks of cards folded, that could be used for shelter.

Do I expect trouble? Always, and at the same time, not particularly. This is a fun little hike and camp to pass on some lore to my son. And I thought I’d share with my writer friends, too.

So what are your favorite books about survival?

(Header image: Mr Bubbles doesn’t understand why he can’t come, too!)


  1. For survival mindset and entertainment: Tunnel In the Sky by Robert Heinlein.
    For foraging: Any book by Euell Gibbons
    Old-school: Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart
    Contemporary: Hatchet (and sequels) by Gary Paulsen

  2. The Little House books are going to be useful if we have an EMP event.

    Also you reminded me of a guy who got stuck in his truck in the Cascades and died of starvation after weeks. Reading you, I thought he should have used the mirrors on his truck for signaling. He was afraid to try to walk out in deep snow if I recall correctly. Not enough warm clothes or some such.

  3. When I used to go hiking, alone, on BLM and Forest Service land in southeastern Colorado, I always checked in and out with the folks at the Forest Service office. That wasn’t really their job, but they were happy to make note of my coming and going, and to come looking for me if I didn’t check out with them. Never had to use their services, but better safe than deceased.

    There was no easily-accessible, safe water in the area I was hiking, so I made mental notes about where I could find cacti, and which stock ponds and rainwater puddles looked the least “icky.” And I carried two gallons of water with me for a two hour or so hike. Because you never know.

  4. Growing up I always loved “My Side of the Mountain.”

    You mentioned the PNW, I was hunting with two other hunters in the Blue Creek Drainage of the Cascades for elk. We had driven before dawn up near the top of a ridge, with the plan of crossing it and finding the elk coming up the other sides, out of the valleys below, heading for their beds. We were all radioed, and the youngest one of the crew was 40, the oldest was 70, all Very experienced woodsmen.

    Well, long story short, the 70-year-old got turned around as he was crossing a cuniform ridge with nearly identical valleys to the NE, NW, SE, and SW. He thought he was coming off the NE, and was actually coming off the SE. (the fact that each of these valleys wonders, and you have to turn around, find ways to cross scree slopes, etc, all in very dense dark timber makes this a fairly easy thing to do. Remember, we’re hunting, so we aren’t staring at a map constantly, we’re looking out for elk, and it’s amazing how those animals blend into the dark timber)

    When he realized he was turned around, he did the smart thing. Sat on his butt, waited until the adrenal dump mellowed out, and got on the radio. He was out of range. So he waited. He didn’t try to walk out (good thing, the nearest civilization was 30 miles in the way he was headed, and it’s winter in the cascades. he would not have made it.)

    When he missed his check-in, We started a search. That consisted of an anchorman, back at the truck, and a rover doing widening arcs (we knew he hadn’t crossed the road) until he got a signal. He then fired a round, to give me (the anchorman) his direction and see if our other hunter could hear the round (NO) I then walked along the road until I got radio contact with the lost hunter, and fired a round (still no, he couldn’t hear us, and we’re firing big game rifles) this worked as a primitive RDF (radio direction finder) and gave us an axis of search.

    An hour later, we found him, and about an hour and a half later we had him back to the road.

    Now I know there are folks out there asking “why not a cell phone, why not GPS, etc…” Friend, we’re in the back of beyond, there is NO cell coverage, and the evergreen forest is too think for a GPS signal to get through. We had them, they didn’t work. Our 10-mile GRMS radios were only reaching about 3 miles. Hell, he was only about four and a half miles from us when the search started, and couldn’t hear a 300 WSM going off. At 2.5 miles (roughly) he could not hear that same rifle. That should give some idea of the terrain.

    This is also why I laugh at the gun grabbers that say “you are not able to defend against our government or any other, so the second amendment is worthless”. The terrain we have out here is ambush heaven and tanker hell. It’s worse than the Hindu Kush, because not only is it high, steep and rugged, it’s thick with trees, to thick for modern electronics to work unless you’re using the real high powered stuff (which brings problems and opportunities of its own). I could hide a division in those mountains, and you would never find them until they wanted to be found. It’s a partisan’s wet dream. And it’s within striking distance of major metro areas and has to be crossed to supply the west coast. It has abundant water and food sources. Of course, it also has temperature swings in a single day from 65 to -30, storms that come up out of nowhere, deadfall areas that will break your leg, and scree slopes that will flat out kill you.

  5. We encounter a lot of unprepared people or families in an eastern national park. Flip-flops, no water, no contour map, no protective gear, or combinations. We always have a spare map and water bottle, for when we find them. Not an ‘if’. The usual answers are they missed a trail sign; didn’t realize it was steep; went slower than expected; GPS said they’re on the correct trail. Walked a few of them back to their junction, or gave directions, map, and bottle, then notified rangers ASAP.

    Same problems back east: poor cell coverage in the park; heavy tree canopy; and deep gorges; no concept that downhill gets you to a road, everywhere on island.

    Always have a FA kit, fire starter and tool, and emergency food in my pack. Last year I really needed the kit, in an awkward place for a rescue, and taught some newbies how to apply a sling properly in the field – on me.

    1. Have their little children stand under the bear cub in the tree so they can take a picture. . . .

  6. Wild Trek (or anything else) by Jim Kjelgaard. Or Jack London, or James Oliver Curwood.

    They’re fun to write, too! Got my guy back safe . . . and now I’ve bogged down on the part about finding out who dumped him there and why.

  7. So Cedar, did you encounter anyone who emulated several women I did not know who took a steep gravel slope, or a sand beach. in high heels? Stiletto heels.

  8. “Alas Babylon” is one of the classics of post EOTWAWKI survival fiction (I’m partial to it because it takes place in my home county).
    “Lucifer’s Hammer” is another.

  9. I always carry a Swiss Army pocketknife, and there’s usually a multitool in my camera bag too. Also a simple first-aid kit: bandages, gauze, antibiotic cream, aspirin or Tylenol… the basics. I really should replace that little pocket kit with a first-class kit, with the basics for taking care of anything up to lesser trauma cases.

    For serous hiking I would add a rain poncho, water purification tablets, collapsible water bottle (yes, they do exist). A large knife – hunting knife, Ka-bar, something like that – is also important to have.

    Favorite books on the subject… hmm. I loved Jim Kjelgaard’s dog/adventure books when I was a kid. (Actually, I still do.) Man (and Dog) against Nature was one of his favorite plots. Two or three of them featured a man and dog stranded in the back of beyond with little equipment, but the man always seemed to have the essentials: knife, firestarter of some kind, fishing line, compass, first aid kit, and a knowledge of local plants and how to use them.

    Nonfiction… did you know that the Peterson Field Guide Series includes a “Guide to Medicinal Plants of Eastern and Central North America”? I also have a couple of books around here about wilderness medicine, which I haven’t read nearly enough, because about all I remember from them is how to avoid or treat hypothermia.

    1. Oh yes. Many years ago i was on a college camping trip, in June, and I had the sleeping bag and two closed-foam pads to go under me. On Friday afternoon, the others thought I was way over-prepared. On Saturday morning, they didn’t.

  10. My daily kit bag has a big fat Leatherman, a Klein 10-fold screw driver, jack knife, my other glasses and a tablet computer. Because I’m constantly needing to install, remove, adjust or otherwise fiddle with all kinds of fasteners, machines and cables. The computer is for writing and those other kinds of power tools I need when the network is misbehaving, the printer crashed, etc.

    Like it or not, our environment is not the natural one anymore, for the most part. Survival can be having the tool kit to get your jalopy going, or keep the printer wheezing along until the end of the day so the money comes in. Money buys the stuff that keeps you alive.

    1. “So what are your favorite books about survival?”

      Its not my favorite subject, to be honest. The lost in nature or post-apocalypse just-trying-to-survive books push all my buttons. Really don’t want to read about it. I want to read about how they FIX IT and then enjoy the fruits of their labors.

        1. I got it just now. I’m dealing with Baby Dog right now, which is less exhausting than Baby Human, but I’m frickin’ old these days. ~:D

  11. Read Louis L’Amour’s “Last of the Breed” for how one American/Sioux Indian survives in the wilds of Siberia.

    Also, my favorite apocalyptic novel is “Earth Abides” by George Stewart (written in the late 1940s). Although most of earth’s population dies off, some pockets of survivors carry on. What is interesting is that the survivors don’t revert to “cave man” ways, but instead they go back to using late 1800s technology like animal-drawn vehicles, bows & arrows, etc.

  12. Your China made Coleman magnesium fire starter probably won’t work I tested two I had could not get them to burn not enough magnesium in the bar.

  13. I’m not very survivaly. One thing I do do differently than most folks I know: I never get in a car in the winter without wearing (or bringing) outside weather appropriate clothing. I know people – with attached garages – who drive around in short-sleeved shirts in the winter.

    I saw a Jeep the other day with all this stuff strapped to the sides and roof (shovel, jerry can, jack, fire extinguisher, etc…). All I could think was, “where do you park that theft is not a problem?” (downtown Denver, btw.)

    1. I totally do that. Coat, wind pants, big gloves, hat, boots. All in the back seat, every time. Because cars break, and sometimes they get stuck, and you never know when that’s going to happen.

  14. Where does one get planet-side appropriate clothing? Spaceships and space stations will be climate controlled. I can see appropriate clothing for that environment being hauled up from the surface to be sold on a station. But would it make economic sense to haul planet-side clothing up to orbit just for folks who will be coming down from orbit?

    It would seem to make more sense to sell it at the debarkation point on the ground – but we don’t have clothing stores in airports (that I’ve ever noticed).

    1. Circumstances change things. Though I’ve heard of more than one passenger who really wished we had clothes stores in airports.

    2. Actually, most of the majors do these days, sometimes more than one: Atlanta, DFW, OHare, Dulles and Reagan, just to name a few.

      1. Phoenix Sky Harbor has quite a few nice stores in it. Very -expensive- nice stores.

    3. Small ones tend not to, though Townsville had the requisite little tourist shop that sold all the odds and sods, koala shirts and stuffed toys and airport bookstore books, so that might be changing. International ones that I’ve been in that do: Schipol (spelling? The one in Netherlands) Dubai (I’m told there’s more than one now, and there’s a mall and more attached to each one) Melbourne, Manila, Sydney (I really hated Sydney for the way they had long hallways to ‘encourage walking’ and lots of shops, but little in the way of food or drink near the terminal waiting areas.) and I think Guam’s little airport had a shopping area.

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