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Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue (MiBSAR)
Essential survival gear primer

Michael Neiger
Marquette, Michigan
© Copyright 2008


Page contents
     • Why carry survival gear?
     • Why carry survival gear on your person, not in your ruck?
     • Essential on-person survival gear
     • Stout knife
SERE-type compass
     • Whistle
Windproof, waterproof matches
Fire-starting tinder
     • Magnesium fire-starter
     • Signal mirror
     • LED micro light
     • Survival gear vendors
     • Lost-person protocol

Nature never overlooks a mistake,
or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.
—Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895), A Liberal Education, 1868

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Why carry basic survival gear?

I would encourage anyone participating in a wilderness trip, expedition, or SAR op who is not accustomed to carrying their essential survival items on their person (in their inner pants pockets)—as opposed to in their rucksack or a removable butt pack or garment—to seriously consider doing this.

If you become separated from the group, and we are not able to locate you, it is very likely you will be on your own until help arrives, which could be days in Michigan, perhaps weeks in the wilds of Canada. Why has this happened in the past...how could this happen to you in the future...the reasons are myriad:

  • We often travel through remote, rugged, thickly-forested wilderness. Our route typically includes extended periods of off-the-beaten-path travel, often through remote areas that are seldom traversed by others. Such areas can be very challenging, even confusing, to the best of woodsmen and woodswomen.
  • No trail to catch up to group on. If someone gets separated from the group—which happens from time to time on our trips—they may not be able to simply follow a visible trail to catch up to the group. Likewise, they will most likely not be able to simply walk back to our insertion point, or walk forward to our extraction point.
  • No tread or tracks to follow. There may not be any semblance of a tread, or even faint tracks, to follow. Rocks, water, debris, or thick, tangled ground cover may eliminate any chance of catching up via ground or aerial spoor (footprints, walking stick marks, disturbed vegetation, etc.).
  • GPS units can't always be depended upon to get you out. More often than not, our progress through the bush will be largely dependent on our point-person's land-nav proficiency combined with his or her ability to correctly use quads, satellite photos, a compass, and ranger pacing beads. While very useful, GPS units are fragile, electronic devices that are not always reliable tools deep in the bush, especially under thick single or double canopy, in canyons, during heavy weather, or in severe arctic-grade cold.
  • Limited sight and sound distance. When thick ground cover and a complete canopy are present, we will be working hard to keep the person immediately behind us and the person immediately in front of us in sight. Consequently, it will be very difficult to recognize when someone has dropped out of the group, particularly in limited-sight areas. This is especially true when the number of trippers exceeds three.

Early and provident fear
is the mother of safety.

—Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Speech, 1792

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Why carry survival gear on your person, not in your rucksack?

Good question.

While hopefully you won't get separated from the group, and hopefully you will have your rucksack if you do, it is not uncommon to move about the bush sans rucks, whether it be to scout out a point of interest, recon a potentially difficult route, go for a short walk, replenish water stores, use the restroom after dark, hang food after dark, etc.

On past trips, expeditions, and SAR ops, numerous trippers have left the group for one reason or another and become disoriented. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to relocate the group or our bivouac site on their own.

Fortunately, they had not ranged too far and the faint sound of their distant whistle allowed us to bring them in.

In the school of the woods
there is no graduation day.
—Horace Kephart, 1917

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Essential on-person survival gear

If you are considering assembling an on-person, basic-essentials survival kit, I would strongly recommend you consider including the following items: knife, SERE compass, whistle, matches, firestarters, magnesium firestarter, signal mirror, and LED micro-light.

Each item should be attached to an 18-inch-long loop of fine (1.5mm) cordage to prevent accidental loss.

Having separate loss-prevention lanyards on each item will allow you to disperse the items among your pants pockets, securing each against loss by looping the lanyard loop through a sewn-in loop of 0.5-inch-wide grosgrain ribbon, button hole, zipper pull, belt loop, or safety pin. Hidden, sewn-in-the-pocket lanyard loops are the best option since exterior lanyard attachments expose the lanyards to snagging and the user to entrapment.

The long, looped lanyards are also handy when you need to use one of these items in time of need: you can use them or keep them handy without the risk of loosing them by hanging them around your neck.


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Stout knife

If possible, your knife should be a sturdy, high-quality, fixed-blade, bowie-type sheath knife. If you don't want to carry such a knife, consider a beefy folder with a lock-blade. Whatever type of knife you opt to carry, secure it against loss with a lanyard or snap-closure sheath.

LandNavMan's favorite bowie knife for long-range travel through remote areas: The Ontario Knife Company's Spec Plus® SP10 - Marine Raider Bowie. This 15-inch military bowie chops and splits wet or ice-encrusted wood better than most tradition blades, due in large part to its big-bellied, tip-weighted, 0.25-inch-thick blade.

Training advisory: Of all of its uses, the most critical one will be getting at the dry heartwood of waterlogged or ice-encrusted, wrist- to arm-sized wood when you have difficulty getting a fire going during, or immediately after, extended periods of foul weather. This is a skill you should hone—especially during foul weather, not just on sunny days when everything is dry and ready to combust—until it becomes second nature.

A stout knife is also eminently useful in quickly fashioning a windproof and waterproof shelter from limbs, bark, evergreen boughs, lush vegetation, and other forest debris.



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SERE-type compass

Your backup compass should be a small compass, not your primary baseplate compass used for hour-after-hour land nav. As such it can be a very small compass, possibly one that is built into some whistles. Secure against loss with a looped lanyard.


The small, lightweight Finish compass pictured is a Suunto brand Clipper Luminous Micro Compass. It has a luminous, 10-degree-ratcheting, rotating bezel with a directional pointer. The four, cardinal compass points on the compass card are also luminous. This liquid-filled, jeweled-bearing compass, which comes with a Velcro wrist strap, can be clipped directly onto regular-width watchbands. However, it is not large enough for technical navigation, and you must check to make sure magnetic parts in your watch do not become a hidden source of compass deviation.

While hard to find, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)-type NATO compasses are another very lightweight option. Most of these micro-size compasses are intended to be sewn into one's clothing for the maximum in concealment and loss prevention.


One of the best SERE, last-resort compasses is the world-renowned Francis Barker Model 1605 Nato Survival Compass. This very hard-to-find unit is standard issue in British SAS survival kits.

Smaller than a dime—it measures only 0.2 inches in thickness and 0.6 inches in diameter—this glass-faced, brass-bodied, NATO survival compass employs a dry sapphire jeweled needle bearing and weighs a scant 0.1 ounces. For daytime use, the compass card, whose octagram shape marks the four cardinal points as well as the four intercardinal points, denotes north with a red dot.

For those who like to move under the cover of darkness—like NightBlazer—two, glow-in-the-dark, mil-spec tritium dots mark north while one tritium dot marks south. Unlike some button-style compasses, this unit is designed to be sewn into your clothing, the ultimate in loss-prevention. It can also be attached to a lanyard.

Manufactured by Pyser-SGI Limited, the Francis Barker Model 1605 Nato Survival Compass is available from Triple Aught Design Gear, Inc., 1-888-432-7227; Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment, 1-888-834-9971; and Silverman's Ltd., the London, England-based vendor of military equipment that has supplied the British squaddie for more than six decades.


Another SERE compass option is the Silva 40 Escape & Evasion Compass. This Silva-brand compass is liquid filled compass and has a luminous compass card marked with the four cardinal compass points as well as the four primary intercardinal points.

It measures 0.08 inches in thickness and 0.35 inches in diameter. A hole in a protruding tab allows it to be sewn into your clothing or attached to a lanyard.

Two British sources for the Silva 40 Escape & Evasion Compass are The Patrol Store and The Outdoorsman Limited.




The BCB Explorer Button Compass is another SERE compass option. This BCB International-brand compass is a small, oil filled, pressurized unit that is popular among the U.S. Armed Forces as well as British Special Forces and UK SAS.

At 0.14 ounces in weight and 0.75 inches in diameter, this button compass is also well-suited for mounting on walking sticks.

The BCB Explorer Button Compass is available from Best Glide Aviation Survival Equipment at 1-888-834-9971.


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Pea-less whistles are the best. Avoid metal and ball-type whistles as the metal ones can stick to your lips in deep cold and ball-type ones can jam with sand or snow. Secure against loss with a looped lanyard.

The whistle pictured is a Fox 40 Rescue Howler (imprinted as the Fox 40 Micro) from Adventure Medical Kits. This ultra-light, slim, pea-less, triple-frequency whistle puts out 122 decibels, exceeding U.S. Coast Guard specs.








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Windproof, waterproof matches

Most windproof and waterproof matches are safety matches—not strike-anywhere matches—so you must keep them in their original box, which is equipped with a special striker strip. To prevent wear and tear on the matchbox (no. 1 in photo), store the matchbox in a small plastic bag (use a baby bottle liner and tape it shut with duct tape) in an empty dental floss container (no 2 in photo ). To prevent accidental opening and loss, use duct tape to seal the container as well as attach a looped lanyard. Carry a butane lighter and other matches in your rucksack for lighting your stove and candles in the bush.

Notice: Add additional matches to the matchbox, staggering the heads, and then add the necessary bits of packing material (use some of the fire tinder listed below) to the box so the matches cannot shift or move about in the box. If you fail to do this, you may find nothing but several wood sticks and some fine powder (ground up match heads) in the box when you need them most after months or years of carrying them around in the bush.

Also, these matches are more water-repellent than waterproof: If you get them wet and fail to dry them out, the match heads will turn to mush. If the box and striker stay wet, the striker, and the matches, may become useless since the "safety" matches are impossible to light without the special striker on the box. This is one more reason to carry the combination flint striker and magnesium fire starter—"metal match"—listed below. Keep this in mind when you ford your next river or swim a lake narrows.


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Fire-starting tinder

Carry several waterproof, spark-ignitable—not just flame ignitable—fire starters (no. 2 in photo) in a small plastic bag (use a baby bottle liner and tape it shut with duct tape) in an empty dental floss container (no. 1 in photo). To prevent accidental opening and loss, use duct tape to seal the container as well as attach a looped lanyard. Carry additional fire starting tinder in your rucksack for use in the bush.

One of the best fire starters to carry (no. 2 in photo) are Coghlan's-brand Emergency Tinder (item no. 8649). Why? These waterproof, nearly-indestructible, flexible bits of tinder do not require a flame (read: match) to ignite. All you have to do is generate a spark from a flint and steel, like the flint and steel unit on the magnesium fire starter below. They will ignite even when wet by simply pulling them apart with your fingers to expose the dry inner portion. They burn from 5 to 7 minutes. Check these out, or something similar, as matches and lighters have there limits, and most fire starters will not ignite with a spark, only a strong flame.


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Magnesium fire-starter

Magnesium fire starters—or metal matches as they are sometimes called—usually consist of a flint striker (a ferrocerium rod) embedded in the block of magnesium. These are standard issue in military survival kits, and for good reason. Secure against loss with a looped lanyard.

Item no. 1 in the photo is a short section of a hacksaw blade. Since neither the flint nor the magnesium fire starter can be used very effectively without a knife, or at least a metal object with a somewhat sharp edge, I recommend you attach a 3-inch-long piece of a hacksaw blade, or a GI P38 can opener, to the lanyard on your magnesium fire starter in case you ever loose your knife. Field-expedient magnesium scrapers and flint strikers include sharp shards of glass or fractured pieces of hard rock, like granite.

Item no. 2 in the photo is an ultralight magnesium fire starter designed and sold by Rick F. Tscherne, a US Army Ranger who developed the "The Spec-Ops Survival Necklace."

Item no. 3 in the photo is a widely-available mil-spec magnesium fire starter that I cut in half lengthwise to save weight. Warning: the risk of an accidental fire from cutting magnesium is real, according to my discussions about same with Ranger Tscherne. One errant spark and you have an instant, 5400-degree-F fire! If you are going to attempt this, do not do this indoors under any circumstances. I took mine outside, clamped it to a board, and all went well.

Item no. 4 in the photo is a widely-available, unaltered, mil-spec magnesium fire starter. One of the best brands of these fire starters is manufactured by Doan Machinery & Equipment Co., Inc., which supplies the U.S. military as well as armed forces across the globe. While I have not had any problems with Coghlan-brand magnesium fire starters to date, they have been known to loose their flint striker rod due to an adhesive failure. Doan-brand units are imprinted with the Doan name and part number, and sold by a number of companies, including Brigade Quartermasters.

Training advisory: These units require a high degree of proficiency to use effectively, so work on mastering this skill before you need it. If you are unable to start a fire with one, please ask someone on the trip, expedition, or SAR op for assistance.


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Signal mirror

A small, 2- by 3-inch plate glass (very durable and highly reflective) or high-quality plastic mirror should do the job. If your mirror does not come with a protective cover for both sides, fabricate one so both the clear glass side and the coated side are not heavily scratched by sand, etc., after dozens of trips. Secure against loss with a looped lanyard.

Mirror no. 1 in the photo is a mil-spec (Type 1/MA23), 2-by-3-inch, Lexan-polycarbonate StarFlash Mirror manufactured by Ultimate Survival Technologies, which was founded by Rick Stewart, a longtime Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) instructor with the U.S. Air Force. This floating mirror is standard issue in Air Force survival kits.

Mirror no. 2 in the photo is a mil-spec (Type 1), 2-by-3-inch, plate glass, Mark 3 signal mirror manufactured by S.I. Howard Glass. Extremely durable, it has been standard issue for the U.S. military.

Training advisory: These units require a high degree of proficiency to use effectively, so work on mastering this skill 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 before you need it. Properly used in combination with the sun's rays, signal mirrors are extremely effective signaling devices. Under normal atmospheric conditions, the reflection from a signal mirror is visible from over 70 miles. If you are unsure how to use a signal mirror, please ask someone on the trip, expedition, or SAR op for assistance.


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LED micro light

For a rudimentary, close-in, survival light, carry a small LED light. Secure against loss with a looped lanyard. The LED light shown is a Princeton Tec-brand Pulsar Light.











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Survival gear vendors


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Lost-person protocol

If, on the off chance, you become separated from the group on a trip, expedition, or SAR op—either while underway or near the bivouac site—and you can not determine with a very high degree of certainty where the group is, just sit down and wait for someone to come back and pick you up.

While you are waiting, get out your whistle and blow it with very long blasts every 30 seconds. You should also get out your cook pot and beat on it, or pound on a hollow log. This will help searchers find you.

If you stray very far off the group's back trail, you will likely be on your own as you will be out of sight of the group's back trail, and very quickly out of hearing distance. Whistles are only good for very short distances, especially in rugged, mountainous terrain; areas with heavy, sound-muffling canopy; and windy, rainy, snowy, or other heavy weather.

If you are awaiting professional rescuers, move to an area visible from the air and do the following:

     • Set out some type of signal panel
     • Build and maintain a very smoky fire during daylight hours
     • Build and maintain a brightly-burning fire during nighttime hours

No matter what your predicament, always protect yourself from hypothermia—the number one killer of wilderness trippers—by improvising a wind- and waterproof shelter, maintaining a fire, staying warm and dry, and drinking hot liquids.

The man [woman] who goes afoot,
prepared to camp anywhere
and in any weather,
is the most independent fellow on earth.
—Horace Kephart, Camping & Woodcraft, 1917

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In God's wilderness
lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted,
unredeemed wilderness.

 — John Muir, 1838-1914
Alaska Wilderness, 1890

If you've been able to read this Web page...
thank a Teacher;
If you've been able to read this Web page in English...
thank a Veteran.
—Author unknown

• Copyright notice •
Content Copyright © 1984 -- 2011-07-09
by Michael A. Neiger

• All rights reserved •
No part of this Web page or this Web site protected by copyright law may be reproduced, transmitted, or used in any form--including graphic, electronic, Web, mechanical or other form--or by any means--including photocopying, recording, taping, Internet distribution, information storage retrieval system, or by other means--for any purpose, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages, without the prior, express, written permission of the author.

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