At the request of an old high school friend, I decided to write about saving money on survival gear. Everything I buy is purchased out of my pocket, so I am constantly looking for deals. There are definitely items you can go cheap on and items you cannot. I will cover the items that I use on every survival challenge, and maybe give you some ideas on items you can add to your bug out bag or bug in bag.
First, we can talk about water purification. There are three products I have used for water purification varying in cost, effectiveness, and versatility. The least expensive are iodine tablets. These cost me about $7 and are essential. They are easy to use and very effective. You just drop one in a bottle of water, shake it up five minutes later, and your water is ready in about a half hour. If you cannot get a fire going, these are a life saver. The only downside is having to wait 30 minutes.
The next is a straw style filter that purifies down to .05% microns. I still take it with me, but rarely use it. I find it hard to draw the water through the filter and have actually gotten sores on my mouth from the suction. You also have to bend down to your water source to drink. In wet weather, this is not ideal as your pants can become saturated. It cost me about $30.
Finally, my favorite is my water bottle with a filter built in. This is fast, convenient, and safe. You can drink immediately, it is easy to drink through, and you do not have to get on the ground to use it. It even has a lanyard with a karabiner and 50 feet of cordage, which could definitely come in handy. It filters down to .1% microns and costs about $38. You can always look for a deal with these items, but make sure you do not sacrifice quality. If it does not filter down to at least .1% microns, you are taking a risk with your health. A trip to the hospital over a waterborne illness is just not worth it.
Next, we will discuss shelter building materials. Cordage is important, but can be expensive. On most challenges I just take a 250’ spool of hunter orange paracord. For many shelters, you can split the cord and use the smaller inner strands for construction. It just depends on how much weight you need it to hold. There are no good deals on paracord. It costs me about $25 for a spool and usually I can do two or three shelters per spool depending on the type.
I have also started carrying one or two 100’ bundles of climbing rope. If I know I will not need it, I leave it behind because of how much space it takes up in my pack. Sometimes I will strap it to the outside if I know the brush will not be too thick. I primarily use this for making beds, or of course for climbing if needed. It is easier to hold onto than paracord in a climbing situation, and it is more comfortable to lay on. In addition, it does not stretch and flex like paracord does. I have tried making a hammock with paracord and it would not comfortably hold my weight. Each bundle of climbing rope runs about $14.
I also use my emergency blanket for shelters if there is rain in the forecast, and take it with me on every challenge. It is 5’ by 7’ and has a reflective surface on one side to reflect heat back to me. It is thicker tarp style material which I find a must. There are cheaper blankets out there, but they rip easily and do not work as well in my opinion. There are also much more expensive options. You can find a deal if you do some looking, and I got mine for $15.
You will also use cutting tools for shelter building, and there are a range of products you can buy for this. Your knife is probably your most important tool, and I suggest not going too cheap on this. There are a million choices when it comes to a knife, but there is a general design to shoot for. You want something large enough that you can use it to clean an animal or split firewood, but small enough that you can comfortably put it on your belt. Mine has about a four inch blade and I absolutely love it. It needs to be high carbon steel for fire-starting purposes, and definitely needs to have a full tang. You can bring a folding knife if you want, but your primary knife needs to be a fixed blade. It should be well balanced, comfortable in your hand, and it should hold an edge well. Mine also has a gut hook and a serrated section, but those are not a must. Typically I can sharpen my knife well before a challenge and not sharpen it again until I am done several days later. It should have a strong sheath as well, preferably with a snapping guard to hold it in place. You can spend $3 on a knife or $300. I only spent $20 on mine, but I got a great deal. Shopping around is fine, as long as you do not compromise on quality. Remember that this tool will literally save your life.
I also have a machete and a hatchet with a saw hidden in the handle. Machetes are difficult to choose. You really do not know what you are getting until you try it out. Many of them will twist in your hand when you strike something, and that can wear you out quickly. On a hatchet, go for function instead of appearance. Many of them look cool but do not hold an edge or function well because they are too light or the metal is inferior. Both a machete and hatchet should have a sheath that will fit on your belt. I typically take one or the other with me depending on the vegetation, but not both. My machete cost me about $20 and the hatchet cost me about $30. The more I do this, the more I like the hatchet over the machete. I also like to take a small blade sharpener with me in case I end up with a dull blade. It only cost me about $3 and has a slot for a course edge and a slot for a fine edge along with a sharpening rod for serrated edges and the gut hook on my knife. All of these items can make a survival situation much more workable.
There are a variety of fire related products, and all are a good idea. The easiest way to start a fire is a good lighter or some waterproof matches. However, I do not take these items with me because they are a temporary solution. I am not a fan of anything that needs fuel or any disposable items, so I opt for more primitive means. When camping, I do have an electric rechargeable lighter that does not produce a flame. It is wind and waterproof and works great. It cost $20 and is worth every penny. A zippo is always fine, but has to be refueled from time to time.
I always carry a ferro rod built into a magnesium block. I do not use the magnesium much, but it makes for a good handle and is shiny so it makes it easier to find if I drop it. It costs $4 and has saved my butt on numerous occasions. As for other fire starting products, there are tons of them out there. I tried four out recently. Live fire is tinder in a tin. It is only a few bucks and lights with one spark, but the flame is not very large. I was not all that impressed.
Wetfire and Fire cubes are awesome! You can dowse them in water, trim off a pile of shavings, and in 30 mph winds it will still light with one spark and produce a three inch flame. If you put the rest of the block on top, it will stay lit for five to ten minutes. It is about $10 for a pack and essential for wet weather. It eliminated hours of messing with tinder on my last challenge. You can also use Firesticks once you have a flame. These are also waterproof and will stay lit for more like 20 minutes in any weather conditions. This is long enough to jump past smaller sticks and go straight to big wood for your fire. However, they will not take a spark so you have to get a flame going first. A pack costs only $3.
One fire starting product that you probably already have in your home is simply made by rubbing petroleum jelly on cotton balls. This will typically light with a few sparks in any weather conditions, but will only stay lit for about 30 seconds. One of the scariest and most frustrating situations one can face is trying to get a fire going only to fail. This can eliminate your ability to cook food, purify water, and keep yourself warm. Thankfully, most of these products are inexpensive.
Next, we come to food gathering and preparation. Now we can talk weapons. I never go too cheap on guns or bows. These items are expensive no matter how you slice it, but a good one will last several lifetimes. A good 12 gauge shotgun or a .22 caliber rifle would both be excellent choices for survival. I spent $800 on my semi-automatic shotgun. I could have gone much cheaper or much more expensive, but feel I got a great value. You can load it with slugs for larger game, bird shot for small game, or buckshot for self-defense. It does not require perfect aim, and can take out larger game at 100 yards. I inherited my .22, but added a scope recently. It is super accurate, holds dozens of rounds, and is also a semi-automatic. I can shoot a rabbit in the head at 100 yards. Now that is accurate. One round will not take down most large game, but if you put several rounds in the right spot just about anything will drop.
I have a compound bow, but am not a huge fan of this in survival situations. It is not super accurate and is cumbersome to carry. I do however love my crossbow. It is accurate up to about 60 yards, it is lightweight, it has a scope, and it is small and easy to carry in hand or over my shoulder. I went relatively inexpensive on this being my first one and dropped about $130, but I feel like it works fine for what I need.
I also like to have trap building materials with me. I can always make snares with my paracord, but my preference is wire. I have a small spool that I take with me that only cost a few bucks. I also like to have a way to fish. I opted for a product called the Pocket Fisherman instead of a fishing kit, and I am glad I did. This gadget is about 9 inches long and has a rod that extends out another 9 inches. It actually has a double rod to handle more weight, and it does a great job. It also has a compartment for lures and a fully functional reel including a drag adjustment. On my last challenge, I reeled in two bass each of which was over four pounds. It cost $15, and I feel like it was a better value than a telescoping rod or a fishing kit. All of these items can make gathering protein in the wild a much more successful venture.
Finally, there are a few miscellaneous items that I always carry with me. One item is a survival bracelet. It has 50 feet of cordage, a small ferro rod, a compass, and most importantly a survival whistle. If you are trying to signal for help, your voice can get lost in the wind. A whistle typically will not. I normally navigate using the sun or stars, but having a compass for cloudy days is very important. There are varying features on these bracelets with varying price points. I got two for $10, and feel like they have everything I need.
I also like to carry a quick read thermometer with me. The one I bought reads in 10 seconds and has a light up screen. Survival puts a lot of strain on the human body, and you can detect early signs of hypothermia, hyperthermia, and other illnesses if I you know your body temperature. The glass ones are a bad idea for obvious reasons, and many take so long to give results that you may not be inclined to use it. This one cost me just $9. I have never used it on a challenge, but a good tactical flashlight is very important. You want an LED light that is aluminum, waterproof, and as bright as possible, preferably with an adjustable beam. Mine is 600 lumens, and I can see 100 yards like it was daytime if I focus the beam to its most narrow setting.
I could write a whole article on survival clothing, but there are a few basics to cover here. It is best to dress in loose fitting layers so you can remove some as needed. Hypothermia can set in at air temperatures as high as 60 degrees if you are wet, so staying warm and dry is essential. I have a down jacket that is waterproof and a set of thermal overalls that I wear any time temps will be below freezing. I spent about $40 on each. The guys that climb Everest wear down jackets, so that is good enough for me!
Wools socks are a must to help keep your feet dry. They are water resistant and are the only material that will keep you warm even when wet. They are expensive, but a pair will last a lifetime if you take care of them. I spent $18. A good water resistant stocking cap is important even in mild weather. At night, I always put mine on to keep my whole body warmer. Mine has 150 grams of Thinsulate in the lining and works great. I only spent $14. An inexpensive rain suit is a good item to throw in your pack. I do not like ponchos because they can let your legs get wet, so I opt for the jacket and pants. It only cost a few bucks and does not take up much space.
Finally, we get to footwear. I find that warmer is better. They may make your feet sweat in the summer, but that is better than getting frostbite in the winter. My suggestion is to go expensive on boots. You need them to last, to be waterproof, to offer ankle support, give protection from snake bites, provide traction, and keep your feet warm in sub-zero temperatures. My boots have 1600 grams of Thinsulate insulation. This is the latest design in insulation and is the biggest factor in boot selection in my opinion. I have been out on windy days in 20 degree weather for four to five hours and never worried about cold toes. The only situation in which my toes have been cold is when I was in zero degree temperatures for multiple days, and I still did not worry about frostbite. I spent $130 on my boots and they are the best pair I have ever owned. If there is any item other than firearms to spend a bunch of money on, let it be good boots.
It is important to factor in the weight and size of your pack along with the cost. In many cases you would have to lug this thing over several miles, so it needs to be small and light. I try to keep mine around 25 pounds, but lighter is always better. As I get more experienced, I take less and less gear with me. I would love to get to the point where I can just take my knife and do fine, but I am not quite there yet. Until then, I will continue buying survival gear on a budget and trying different options to see what works and what does not.
By my math I spent about $400 on all my gear for my challenges (no guns or bows), but $250 of that was clothing. This covers everything I have needed for all four seasons in the forest and on the water including temps over 100 degrees and temps below zero. So for $150 you can deck out your bug out or bug in bag just like I do and have all the gear you should need. Now it is time to go get prepared.