As I was sitting here in my office, preparing to write on another subject, my eyes fell on a new lighter I have sitting on my desk. At $28.95, this is probably one of the ultimate survival lighters on the market. It's built into a waterproof bright orange waterproof, o-ring sealed container. The lid has a double catch on it, ensuring that it won't open and if I do accidentally dump it in the drink, it'll float. Being refillable, it will last forever and full it will light 1,000 times. With this in my kit, I don't need another lighter.

The company is right about it being storm proof too. I tried blowing it out, I even tried holding it in front of a powerful fan. The piezo-electric starter relights the flame as fast as I can blow it out. So, it will never really go out, except maybe in a hurricane.

But, as impressed as I am with this little lighter, I had to ask myself the question, "How many people can actually afford to buy such a tool for their survival kit or bug out bag?" We're talking almost thirty dollars here, and that's at a discounted price. And that's not the most expensive one that the company makes. They've got a big brother for the one I've got.

The point is, most preppers are trying to get by on a tight budget, not sitting on a pile of money they can afford to use to buy the latest and greatest survival toy out there. While those great survival toys might be nice to have, they just don't fit into most people's budgets. We might all have those champagne budgets where survival is concerned, but we do so knowing that our reality is a beer budget, and not that imported premium beer either.

So here's what I propose to do. I'm going to put together an emergency survival kit, call it a bug out kit or a bug in kit, it doesn't matter, based on the dollar store. Everything I'm going to talk about is going to be things that I can find in one of my local dollar stores. I want to see how far I can go in putting together everything I need to survive a short-term disaster, without having to buy anything, anywhere else.

I'm going to try to cover all the basic survival needs; meaning:

  • Shelter
  • Warmth
  • Water
  • Food
  • Tools
  • Protection
  • First-aid

If nothing else, this should serve as a good test to see how cheap we can actually make survival. Keep in mind, that you're probably going to find that you have some of the items I'm going to talk about already in your home. That doesn't mean you can't use them for survival. There's no rule that says that everyday items can't be survival items.


The first thing we're going to need is something to pack this stuff in. I always start building any survival kit, EDC bag or bug out bag with the bag itself. That way, I know how much space I've got to work with. If it doesn't fit, I may have to rethink my priorities a bit.

As I looked around the dollar store, I found three possibilities for something to pack my kit into:

  • A plastic bin - They actually had one with casters on one end, so that it could be rolled off and put in the closet. While those would probably break going down the street, it still looked like an advantage over one that I would have to carry. I thought I could put a rope harness on it, to go over my shoulder, rather than pulling on the flimsy handle.
  • A kids school backpack - While this really isn't big enough for a real bug out bag, it wouldn't be too bad for an everyday bag or other survival kit.
  • A duffel - Duffels come in all sizes and some are quite cheap. They pretty much always have a shoulder strap for carrying them to the gym, so carrying it on a bug out wouldn't be all that bad.


This one was easy, I use a blue plastic tarp as my bug out shelter anyway, rather than a more expensive backpacker's tent. With a little imagination, you can do a lot with these, making a number of different types of shelters. If you buy two, then one can serve as the shelter and the other as a ground sheet. I like the 7'x 9' size for the shelter and the 5'x 7' for the ground sheet.

Rather than paracord, which is wonderful, I use clothesline for a lot of my survival needs. It's about the same size and a whole lot cheaper. Granted, paracord is much stronger, but you don't really need all that strength most of the time. Duct tape is available at the dollar store, and that's always useful for making shelters, wherever you are.

A poncho is great for shelter, especially if you have to walk. I actually found one at the dollar store, although I didn't expect to. It was a bit flimsy, but good enough for emergencies. I also found a small package of lawn and leaf bags, which make great emergency ponchos, once you cut holes for your head and arms.

The dollar store didn't have anything that could be used as a sleeping bag, but something can be done with those same large plastic lawn and leaf bags. Nesting one inside another and filling the space in between with dry leaves would make a fairly descent sleeping bag, or if you need more insulation, just make a huge pile of leaves, with a bag inside. Once you crawl in the bag, the leaves will keep you well insulated.


Shelter is only part of keeping warm. Clothing is a second part. While you probably already have plenty of clothing at home, I thought it would be a good idea to have at least a hat and gloves in the pack. Sure enough, the dollar store had those, and cheap too. I went for work gloves, as working in the wilderness can be rough on your hands.

One of my local dollar stores has quite a selection of warm clothing, especially hoodies. While not a normal requirement for a survival kit, this is the type of thing that might be nice to add in, if you've got the space. You might also want some extra socks and underwear, on the premise that they need to be changed more often than your blue jeans do. Keeping your feet dry is important to prevent blisters.

The other big thing here is fire starting. There was actually a wealth of possibilities for fire starting in the dollar store, starting with the humble disposable lighter. Actually, with one or two of these in your kit, you really don't need anything else. The only time a butane lighter won't work is when it's cold out; but you can solve that problem by putting it inside your body to keep warm. With a lighter and a spare, you really don't need any other fire starter.

The other part of fire starting is an accelerant. Technically, you don't need this, but everyone I know always makes sure they have some. They're especially handy when you're trying to start a fire in wet weather.

My favorite fire accelerant is cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly and I was able to find the supplies to make those there. But I was also able to find a number of other things which could be used as fire accelerants, including candles and chemicals that would burn. Soaking cotton balls, dryer lint or cardboard in any number of chemicals can make a very effective fire accelerant. You just need an airtight container to keep them in, so that the flammable liquids don't evaporate.

Of course, you're going to need fuel for your fire, and I didn't find anything but corrugated cardboard boxes in the dumpster that could be used for that. While corrugated cardboard burns well, it's not going to burn for very long; so you're not going to get much heat out of it.

However, I'm a great believer in scavenging wood. If you're bugging out, you should be able to find wood in the wild to burn. You should at home as well. There is always scrap wood around, from neighbors' trees that need cutting down, to limbs that were blown down in a storm, to scrap pallets, which can be cut up for firewood. You should never have to buy firewood for survival, unless you have a wood-burning stove in your home and burn it all up.


Every dollar store I know has bottled water, but I didn't see any water purifiers at any of them. That had me in a quandary for a moment, as water is a critical survival need. It's also heavy, so you can't really carry all that much. However, if you bring bottled water with you, you can always use the water bottles as solar purifiers.

All you need for a solar purifier is some empty water bottles. Fill them with water and put them in the sun. It helps to have a black or reflective surface to set the bottles on, so that the water inside will heat as much as possible. I found aluminum foil and black plastic garbage bags which could be used for this. I also found a cooking thermometer, which can be used to test the temperature of the water. It's got to get to at least 160 degrees and stay there for at least 20 minutes to purify the water.

The other thing that's needed is some sort of canteen. While the water bottles can be used, I found nalgene water bottles in the store. These are popular enough that both of the dollar stores I checked had them. They're tougher than the ones you buy purified water in, will still work for solar purification and they don't release dangerous chemicals into the water, like the disposable bottles can.

The other way that water can be purified is by boiling it. Most dollar stores have some sorts of saucepans, so as long as you can start a fire and you've got a pot, you've got a means of purifying water.


If there's anything a dollar store can be counted on for, it's cheap food. I found a plethora of food items that can be used for survival situations. Since I was packing this into a portable survival kit or bug out bag, I decided to forego canned foods and stick to lighter weight foods.

Basically, the idea here is to make your own equivalent of military MREs. That's not really all that hard. You'll need a main course, a side dish of some sort and a desert. You'll also want to include something for a drink and a snack to put in your pocket for later. Let's see what we can do.

  • Main Course - The easiest thing to do for main courses is start out with Ramen or Rice-a-Roni and modify it. These are high carbohydrate foods, which are perfect to give you energy. If we add meat to them, for protein, they make a fairly good main course. You can also find some pre-packaged main course in the dollar store, which aren't refrigerated or frozen. While they don't have the best of taste, they will keep you nourished.
  • Meat - There aren't too many meat choices in the dollar store. I couldn't find one single steak. But I did find SPAM, canned tuna and chicken in pouches, rather than in cans. The pouches are lighter and aren't a disposal problem, like cans are. While some people make cans into stoves, I've never had a need to. The other meat product readily available at the dollar store is jerky. This can be cut up and added to soups, Ramen or rice dishes.
  • Side Dishes - There were some pasta salads and mashed potato dishes, which will make great side dishes for your meals. Like the Ramen and rice, these are high in carbohydrates, giving your body energy. There were also a few dried fruits, like raisins and apricots, which make great side dishes for a survival pack.
  • Desert - Desert isn't a requirement, but it's often the most enjoyable part of the meal. A little bit of non-melting candy goes well here. You also might try cookies, which come conveniently packed in single-serving packs. My dollar store didn't have it, but sometimes you can get pudding cups from them. Those will keep for a while, without refrigeration.
  • Drinks - The dollar store had several choices here, such as Crystal Light and Gatorade powder. You also might want to consider some instant coffee or tea.
  • Snacks - The best thing I could find for on the trail type snacks were granola bars. These are a favorite of mine anyway, packing a nice burst of energy into something tasty and healthy.

Of course, we're going to need some way of cooking all this stuff, more than just a fire. Fortunately, dollar stores have cookware in them. I was able to find some nice cheap saucepans, as well as aluminum baking pans. The aluminum pans will work as saucepans and are extremely light. The problem though is that they can get holes in them fairly easily.

This may sound a bit backwards, but the cheap saucepans in a dollar store are actually great for camp cookware. The big advantage they have over something more expensive, is that they are made of thin, stamped metal. This makes them light, so they aren't going to overburden your pack. Removing the handles makes them harder to use, but easier to pack. As long as you've got something to use as a pot holder, like your gloves, that's not a problem.

I actually bought my eating utensils, plates, cups and bowls in my main bug out bag from a dollar store, because they were the easiest place to find something lightweight. Some people eat right out of their cookware, which works, but my bug-out-bag is intended to work for my wife and I, so I needed enough plates, etc, for two.


Most dollar stores have a small (very small) tool section. It doesn't have much that's usable, but I was able to find a hammer, saw and a cheap multi-tool. While those aren't perfect, it was something useful.

What I couldn't find was anything to use for a hatchet. However, the dollar store did have some cooking knifes. While I am sure that they are not of the highest quality, a knife can be used to cut or split wood, when it is hit on the back edge with something. I'd recommend using a stout stick for this, something like a club. Again, it's not a perfect solution, but it is workable.

This is probably the one are that the dollar store is the weakest on, along with self-defense. You'd be better off trying somewhere else for these things, even if it does mean that you'll have to spend a few extra dollars.

The tools you have to have in a bug out bag are:

  • A good knife
  • A camp hatchet
  • A saw
  • A shovel

Looking at it that way, I was able to find a camp hatchet/pry bar online at for $9.95. That's a pretty good price. Actually, I found it on sale for less than that, but that introductory price is no longer in existence.

You can also find folding camp shovels online cheap fairly cheap. Or, if you have an army surplus store in your area, you might take a look there. For a saw, I'd recommend finding a folding pruning saw. You can get those for less than ten bucks at your local home improvement center.

 The one tool you're not going to be able to get cheap is a good knife. That's also the single most important piece of survival gear you can buy. While there are cheap knives around, and I actually found some at the dollar store, I wouldn't recommend cutting corners here. There are too many ways you need a knife in a survival situation to take chances on a cheap one.


You wouldn't think of a dollar store as your local self-defense headquarters and to be honest with you, I didn't have much hope in this regard. However, I did look around the store with this in mind.

The best self-defense weapon I found in the store was a can of wasp spray. Many people have talked about this as a replacement for pepper spray, while it isn't perfect, it does provide the advantage of distance. You can hit an assailant at about 20 feet with wasp spray, which is much better than most pepper sprays will do.

There was little else that would work directly as a weapon, however there were a number of things that could be used to make some sort of weapon. For example, a knife 's handle could be removed, a slot cut into a broom handle and the knife taped into the slot with duct tape to make a pretty good spear. Another thing that I found which would work was that there were a bunch of cheap picture frames. The glass from these could be broken to make arrowheads, either knapping the edges like the American Indians did or simply breaking the glass. You'd have to find something to make a bow and the arrow shafts out of though.


As far as first aid was concerned, I think you could do just about anything you'd need from the dollar sore. While they didn't necessarily have the best quality first aid supplies, they certainly had plenty of them. There were a wide range of adhesive bandages, as well as over-the-counter drugs.

The one thing I didn't see was large bandages, but they did have sanitary napkins. These work admirably for large bandages, as they are sterile and designed to absorb blood. They are also much cheaper than bandages are.

Another quick fix for something missing in the first-aid department is duct tape. While they had medical tape, most medical tape isn't strong enough to use it for closing an open wound, like a butterfly suture can do. But duct tape works well for this, so that's covered. We had talked about finding duct tape earlier.

They also had a goodly assortment of personal hygiene supplies, which are essential for maintaining your health in a survival situation. Poor personal hygiene can cause infections and leads to the spreading of disease. Antibacterial hand cleaner, a staple at most dollar stores, is an important survival supply, especially when you don't have enough water for proper bathing.


There are lots of miscellaneous things you can add to your bag, which can help you survive. I'd just like to mention a few; all of which can be found at the dollar store:

  • Pad and pencil for taking notes
  • Maps of your area
  • Plastic bags - useful for a lot of things
  • Flashlight and spare batteries
  • Phone charger
  • Hair bands - useful instead of rubber bands, they're much stronger
  • Safety pins - very useful
  • Emergency sewing kit
  • Kleenex - small packs can be great for emergency toilet paper
  • Whistle - for signaling
  • Bungee cords - for attaching things to the outside of your pack

Wrapping it Up

To tell you the truth, I was quite surprised with how much survival gear I could find in my local dollar store. While the pack I could put together with the things I found there wasn't perfect, it was pretty darn good. The only areas where I felt the dollar store was seriously lacking were in tools and self-defense. But that's probably expecting a bit too much for them.

In a pinch, you can do without the tools I mentioned above, all except the knife. I wouldn't want to try to survive without a knife, as there is so much that you can do with it. At the same time, as I mentioned above, I really wouldn't want to trust my life to a cheap knife. If that's all I had, I'd use it, but I'd want a backup or three to use when the first one broke. I'd also want a honing stone, which I couldn't find in the dollar store.

But overall the experiment was a huge success. I found that you can buy pretty much everything you need at a dollar store, saving money.

Of course, some of those items may be even cheaper elsewhere, such as in one of the big box stores. Dollar stores aren't always the cheapest place to buy. If you're really wanting to save money, you need to shop around, seeing who has the best prices.

The most important lesson from this is that you don't have to spend a fortune on buying the latest and greatest survival gear out there. While my $28.05 stormproof lighter may work some times when the 99 cent disposable won't, for most purposes, the cheaper one will do just as good. Buy what you need, not what someone's advertising tells you that you need. Ultimately, you'll be able to afford more to help you survive.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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