Probably the hardest part of putting together any bug out bag or survival kit is picking the tools you need. Today's survival market is filled with awesome tools which can make any serious survivalist drool. It seems that new tools and gadgets are coming out every week, with each one touted to outdo the last. The background noise from all this stuff can make it hard to think, let alone make a good decision.
Hey, I like gadgets as much as the next guy... maybe more. I was an engineer for many years, so I guess you could say that gadgets are in my blood. I get just as tempted to buy the latest and greatest as anyone. Sometimes, I even fail in my resolve and buy them. But you know something? Those new gadgets rarely make it into my bug out bag, EDC bag or any survival kit I own.
The thing is, there's a lot of stuff out there that you don't really need. I won't make a sweeping statement and say that you don't need any of it; because some of it is good. But most of it seems to be designed to catch your eye and spark a desire for a new gadget, rather than to serve any real purpose.
Let's Talk Quality
If you're going to depend on something for your very survival, then it needs to be something that you can depend on. Maybe that seems to be a bit obvious, but it's not always obvious to the manufacturers of survival gear. While there is a lot of truly excellent survival gear out there, there's also a lot of gear that isn't going to last. The last thing that you or I need when we're caught in a survival situation is something that's not going to hold up.
Generally speaking, it's worth paying extra for high quality gear. This is especially true for your main survival equipment, the stuff you use all the time. In fact, we can make a general rule out of that; the more you use a piece of gear, the better quality it has to be.
Now, here's the kicker. There are pieces of equipment that don't need to be super high quality. Spending more on them merely means you've spent more money. You really don't get anything that is going to help you survive any better. Sometimes the difference in price is nothing more than cosmetic things that really don't affect the tool's functionality and other times, the tool is overbuilt for the need.
So in order to make the best choices in your equipment, you need to understand how that piece of equipment is going to be used, the stresses it's going to be put under and what could cause it to fail. Then, look at the tool and see if it's properly built in those areas, to prevent failure. Let me give you a few hints for what to look at:
- Fasteners - If a tool or piece of equipment has any fasteners in it, that's the single most common point of failure. Either the fasteners will come out or the material around the fastener will break. Take a folding shovel for example. There's usually a rivet that forms the pivot point. But how wide is the flange that the rivet goes through? If it's too narrow, it's weak and will break.
- Materials - The number one indicator of quality in most tools is the quality of the materials used. Substituting cheaper materials is one of the first cost-cutting measures that most manufactures use. If cheap materials are used for things like handles, then you can be sure that cheap materials have been used for important parts, such as blades. That tool won't last you.
- Size - Generally speaking, smaller is lighter and that's better... at least in the backpacking world. But, and again I say but, when you're talking about survival, that smaller piece of equipment may not be strong enough to accomplish the task. Think this one through and make sure that what you're buying is what you need.
- Weight - When it comes to pure backpacking equipment, weight sets the price. Generally speaking, the lighter something is, the more it costs. But then, they make the lighter equipment out of more expensive materials, such as titanium and goose down. So, you're actually paying for that weight reduction.
- MILSPEC - The military goes through extensive testing and spends huge amounts of time writing specifications for everything they use. What this means for you and I is that if a piece of equipment is actually made for the military, it's going to be made well. It may not be the lightest thing around, but it will hold up.
- Fit & Finish - Well made products will fit together well and have a good finish. You've got to be a bit careful here though, because some manufacturers try to hide poor quality with fancy finishes; however, those are usually overdone. You really don't want to be paying for a fancy finish, but rather a quality tool.
For budgetary reasons, you want to avoid overkill, while getting good quality at the same time. That's a tricky balance to strike, especially when you're new to survival. But after a while, you'll begin to get a better handle on what you need. Go back then, and take another look at your equipment, to make sure that what you have is what you need.
I've noticed a lot of survival "tools" out there which are nothing more than gimmicks. These are advertised as "the 10 in 1 survival tool that you can't live without" or some such rubbish. There are two problems with these. The first is that they don't really have a good quality anything. Yeah, they may have a compass, but it's a dinky one with only the cardinal directions and secondary directions marked on it. Or they may have a magnifying glass, but it's so small that you need a magnifying glass to find it.
The thing is, these tools really aren't going to help you. I've got a box full of them that people have sent me through the years. In most cases, they're nothing more than cute gimmicks. I wouldn't want to trust my life to them. And while there might be a situation where they are handy, it's not likely.
This also goes for add-in type items, where someone takes a mediocre quality knife and builds a whole survival kit into the sheath. The survival kit grabs your eye and you go "Wow, that's neat!" But to give you that survival kit, they're using poor quality steel in the knife. So, you really haven't gained anything. The only way I'd trust one of those is if I knew the knife was a high quality knife to start with.
Bugging In or Bugging Out
As you're selecting equipment, don't confuse bugging in with bugging out. The tools and equipment you use for each will be different. While you may buy those tools from the same manufacturer and they may even be part of the same series, they will be different. The tools you buy for bugging out will have to be lighter weight and easier to carry, than those you buy for bugging in.
There is one exception to what I just said. If you're planning on bugging out to the wild and building a log cabin once you get there, you're going to need some pretty good tools. But those won't fit in your bug out bag. You'll either need a cache with those tools pre-positioned or a secondary bag, just for the tools, with some way of carrying it, like a cart.
Since bugging out is the bigger concern, as far as tools and especially their weight is concerned, I'm going to concentrate on that. The same tools would work for a survival kit or EDC bag; as they are focused on survival.
The most important single survival tool is the knife. You can actually do without any of the other tools on this list, if you have a good knife and know how to use it. Your knife can be used to cut wood, dig holes and pry things open (if you're very careful and don't use the point). You can build a shelter with a knife, even if you don't have anything else. So, how do you tell a good knife.
To start with, I look at the price. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Now, if you're buying a hand-made knife, you're going to pay more; someone has to pay for all that hand labor. So, while you'll get an excellent knife, you will pay more for it.
I avoid paying too much by sticking to the major brands, like Gerber and K-Bar. I'm a big Gerber fan and have several of their knives. I've found them to be excellent quality at a reasonable price.
There are two major things you want to look at in a knife. The first is to ensure that it is a full-tang design. This means that the steel of the blade goes all the way through the handle. Some cheaper knives only have the tang going half-way or even just a little bit into the handle. But these will break much easier. Once broken, the knife is very hard to use.
The second major thing is the type of steel used in the knife. Not all manufacturers tell you this, so you may not be able to check on it. But steel types vary greatly. There are about 20 different types of steel used in the manufacture of knives, with a wide range of hardnesses and alloy mixture. This affects how sharp you can hone the blade and how long it will stay sharp. If you can, look up the steel type, to see what it says about using it for knives.
Serrated blades have become very common for knives, but I don't particularly like them. The problem is that adding a serrated section reduces the usable portion of the blade for cutting. Then the serration itself isn't long enough to really use it as a saw, like it is intended. About the only way I've seen this be effective is when the serration is on the back side of the blade.
Don't get carried away with blade length. I've got a 5-1/2" knife and it's actually on the verge of being too big. It would be easier to work with if it was an inch shorter. Blade style isn't as important either. Pick something you like and you're bound to be able to figure out how to work with it. Just avoid sharp points, like dagger points and clipped points, as they break easier.
Whether or not you need a saw basically depends on what you're going to do for shelter. If you are going to use a tent, you don't absolutely need a saw. However, if you're going to make a shelter out of what nature provides, you'd better have a saw. As far as I'm concerned, a saw is an essential; but then, I don't carry a backpacking tent with me.
Lots of camping and survival tools have "built-in saws" which are a joke. I've even got a rather expensive machete with the back of the blade ground to be a saw blade, and it's not all that great. It will cut, but not all that fast. If you've got to cut several logs or branches, you need something better.
Many people carry a wire saw with them, and I did for years. Mostly I did because I hadn't found anything better. But a wire saw is a very inefficient tool that breaks easily. About the only redeeming quality to it is that it is compact and lightweight, making it easy to carry along.
Someone came up with the idea of a handheld chain saw, which is basically a piece of chainsaw blade with leather strap handles. This is far superior to a wire saw and works rather well. But I wouldn't want to have to cut through more than a branch or two with it. While it cuts fairly quickly for what it is, it takes a lot of strength to pull that blade through the wood.
There are two options I've found that work extremely well. The first and best is a bow saw, such as you might use to cut a dead limb off a tree in your yard. The problem is carrying the saw, as it is rather large; although not all that heavy. An option would be to carry just the bow saw blade and then make a bow for it out of wood when you get where you are going. Of course, this means that you won't have it to use along the way.
The second really good option is to buy a folding pruning saw. These look more or less like a big pocket knife, except with a rather aggressive saw blade. There are even a few that are sold as survival knives, even though they are the same thing. I've found them to be excellent for cutting tree branches for making shelters. If you buy one, look for the longest blade possible, as that will allow you to cut a larger limb off the tree.
Shovels are another very common tool to find recommended for survival and one that I would say is almost an absolute necessity. While you can survive without it, there are some things that a shovel makes easier; things that you really should do.
What sorts of things? Digging a latrine, rather than just using the ground. Human waste can carry disease, so you really should bury it. Another is to dig a trench around your shelter so that the rain can carry water away from you, rather than forcing you to sleep in a swimming pool.
From what I've seen, any of the folding shovel designs will work. Don't try one that combines the shovel with a saw, hammer and kitchen sink. About the only extra you really need on the shovel is a pick. That will help you break up hard ground, so that you can remove it with the shovel. Watch out for weight, as some of these can be heavier than they look.
Hatchet or Tomahawk
You can get by without a hatchet, especially if you have a good machete; but it's easier to get by with it. Basically, you would use the hatchet in place of the saw, for cutting tree limbs, cutting small branches off of larger ones and splitting firewood. Actually, you can't split firewood with a saw, so that's one plus for the hatchet.
Many people are replacing the hatchet with a tomahawk; but I wouldn't. Although similar, they really aren't designed for the same thing. The tomahawk is a weapon first and tool second. The hatchet is a tool. As such, the head is heavier and can also be used as a hammer. That's nice for tent stakes and other building projects.
The one thing I don't like about a good hatchet is the weight. So, I carry a cheap one. Unlike a knife, you really don't need high quality steel in a hatchet, because it doesn't have to hold a razor sharp edge. While you want it sharp, it doesn't have to be that sharp.
My cheap hatchet is a combination tool, which also includes a pry bar and a hammer head. That makes it a multi-purpose tool, which saves me from carrying extras. While a pry bar is not top on my list of priorities, having it as a freebee is a nice addition.
If you have a hatchet you don't need a machete and vice-versa. The one thing a machete is good for, that a hatchet isn't is cutting your way through thick underbrush. If you happen to be going through jungle, that's nice. Otherwise, it's not necessary.
This is actually a matter of preference. Some people prefer working with a machete. I have both and actually use both. But in a bug out situation, I'd probably only carry my el-cheapo hatchet and leave the machete at home, even though it has a saw blade on the back edge.
Whether or not you need a pry bar depends on where you're going to bug out to. If you're planning on bugging out to the wilderness, you probably wouldn't use it. But if you're planning on doing an urban bug out, then a pry bar will be very useful. You'll need it for breaking into buildings and storage as you scavenge for supplies.
With that in mind, you'll want the biggest pry bar you can carry, so that it provides you with a lot of leverage. Don't bother with a small one, even though the big ones are heavy. Gerber makes a tool called the "Downrange Tomahawk" which they sell as a breaching tool. It combines an axe head, walking stick and nice long pry bar. This tool is so good that the Marines carry it. Warning... it's expensive.
It seems that everyone is including a multi-tool in their survival kit or bug out bag these days. But to be honest with you, there's really no need for one. Like the pry bar, this is something that is going to be more useful in an urban environment, than it is in the wild.
However, a multi-tool isn't very heavy or bulky; so you may decide you want to carry one along. There's really nothing wrong with that, as you will undoubtedly find several uses for it. But if you're going to carry one, I'd recommend buying a good one. I've had the el-cheapo ones before and they never last. The first time I used the pliers for something hard, the metal tabs supporting them bent, ruining the tool.
There are some good brands of multi-tools around. Personally, I trust Leatherman (the inventor of the multi-tool) and Gerber in this. I haven't used any others that I am sure of, although I'm sure that they are out there. Just remember that if it's too good a deal to believe, don't believe it. It's probably worth about half of what you're paying.
Camp stoves are not necessary in most cases. If you know how to build a fire pit out of rocks and know how to start a fire, then a camp stove really isn't going to do you much good... at least in most cases. But there are some exceptions.
I've found myself in situations where there either wasn't any fuel available or the fuel that was available was more like kindling than fuel. In those cases, a camp stove is invaluable. For this reason, I actually carry two. One of them is a folding metal stove, which is designed along the lines of a rocket stove and will burn twigs and sticks quite effectively; producing enough heat to cook with.
My other stove is a very lightweight Esbit stove, which uses hexamine fuel tablets. These are made in Germany and are very unique. The fuel tablets burn very efficiently, eliminating the need for any other source of fuel. I used this last year, when I was stranded in a massive traffic jam (caused by a two-semi accident) on the long causeway in Louisiana, to cook myself some food. The only fuel available at that time was in the swamp, 30 feet below me. Without that stove, I couldn't have had a meal or a nice cup of coffee.
Cookware may not seem like a tool, but it's a very important one. Without it, cooking your food becomes challenging. I'm going to go against most people's wisdom here and say that in this case, more is better. I carry a backpacking cookware kit that consists of two nesting saucepans and a frying pan. It has lids for all three pieces.
For eating, I have some amazingly durable and lightweight dishes and cups that I bought at the dollar store. If they break after I get to my bug out shelter, I'll have to carve some trenchers out of wood. For utensils, I have a titanium spork, as well as my knife. I also carry a long-handled wood spoon and a long-handled fork for cooking with. A few containers of spices rounds it out. All told, my cookware is less than two pounds in my pack.
While that much equipment may seem excessive, I'm trying to think ahead. I plan on eating, even after the food in my bug out bag runs out. But I really don't know what I'll be eating. That will depend on what I can find. So, I want to make sure I have what I need, in order to be able to cook it. Hence the seemingly large cooking set.
Tools can easily become the heaviest part of your bug out back, other than food and water. But that doesn't mean that you should ignore them. Of everything in your kit, these tools will last you the longest and ultimately be the things you use the most. So, make your selections carefully and don't be afraid to change something if you're not satisfied with it.
Combined tools are great, if you can find them without sacrificing quality. That's the key. Accepting a poor-quality saw, just because it's part of your folding shovel isn't a great bargain. Better to have a separate saw, if that's what it's going to take to get the job done. Remember, you have to spend calories to use those tools. In the wild, you want to keep a close eye on your calorie account, because you've got to find food to replace those calories you burn.Watch the weight of these tools. You're going to have to compromise somewhere; either going with lighter weight tools or carrying more weight. Decide what works for you, based on your strength, stamina and physical conditioning. Nobody else will know exactly what works for you.