Prepared to Survive

Packing a kit that can save your life

April 1, 1996

While much effort is spent teaching successful forced landings, almost none is spent preparing for what comes next. Put down in a farmer's field or on a road and there's not much to worry about. Put down in the woods, in the middle of a desert, or any other isolated location and it may be another story. How well prepared are you for what might follow?

A well-stocked survival kit can turn this unexpected completion of your flight into little more than an impromptu camping experience. On the other hand, without some basic outdoors equipment, survival could become a grueling test of your will to live, your resourcefulness, and — to a great extent — your luck.

A survival kit can vary in size and contents, depending upon the pilot's assessment of the risks and what sort of terrain and climate must be accommodated. Someone flying in the Alaskan bush during winter is probably going to carry much more than someone flying between major cities on the Eastern flying between major cities on the Eastern Seaboard.

Even the best-equipped kit can be lost through no fault of the pilot. A prudent pilot will carry on his person a few basic pieces of survival equipment that can help to get him rescued and keep him alive until then. Foremost among these is a knife, the most fundamental and indispensable survival tool. While a fixed-blade knife is ideal, few in the Lower 48 are likely to fly with a large sheathed knife on his belt. A folding knife that can fit in a pocket or small belt pouch is more likely.

For survival purposes, the best folding knife has a robust locking blade at least three inches long, with a plain — not serrated- -edge. Non-locking blades are dangerous, and any pilot who finds himself in a survival situation doesn't need to risk the injury such a blade can cause. The most versatile blade shape is a drop point or short clip point. Given the abuse to which a survival blade may be subjected, avoid a narrow tip which could easily break.

Fire is a key survival necessity for the heat and light it offers, for signaling search and rescue (SAR), and for maintaining morale. A reliable means of starting a fire is almost as essential as a knife. A lighter would work fine but doesn't pass the reliability test. All but the most specialized survival matches fail the test as well. In either case, a reliable backup should be carried. A flint-and-steel fire starter that creates a hot spark is surefire reliable; smaller designs easily fit into a pocket.

Besides a reliable fire starter, tinder is crucial to fire starting. This is a highly flammable substance, preferably waterproof, that will help to get a fire lit — even in bad weather or with wet materials. When you need a fire the most, you will have the most difficult time lighting one; suitable tinder can save the day and your life. Some pocket fire starters include tinder (Four Seasons Survival Spark-Lite and Done Right Manufacturing Sparky are good choices).

While a few pilots have used cellular telephones for emergencies, in the wilderness one generally can't call 911 for assistance, so signaling equipment is vital. The emergency locator transmitter, if it works, gets SAR into the general area only. Even if the crash occurs in an inhabited area, injuries or other considerations may make seeking help impossible. Survivors must participate in their own rescue by helping SAR to locate them.

Simple to operate and compact, a signal mirror has been used successfully for many rescues. While any shiny object can be and has been used as an improvised mirror, a purpose-made signal mirror is usually brighter and is much easier to aim. While older mirrors were glass and both heavy and fragile, the modern polycarbonate signal mirror is practically indestructible and weighs less than an ounce in pocket size (2 2 3 inches), so there's no excuse not to carry one.

These four pieces of equipment — a sturdy knife, a dependable fire starter, tinder, and a signal mirror — form the foundation for any survival kit. To these are added more equipment and supplies to facilitate survival and rescue.

Despite many pilots' opinions of themselves, the human body is relatively frail, and survival depends upon maintaining normal body temperature. Shelter from extremes of cold, heat, wind, rain, snow, and the sun is critical. In some situations the aircraft will suffice, but even that assumes that it is still in usable condition. Include a lightweight tarp or tube tent for shelter or improvement of that provided by the airplane. Lightweight ponchos, even heavy-duty garbage bags, will afford protection while you move about. In colder weather, additional clothing and gear will be necessary to keep warm. It's also a sound survival principle and good common sense to dress appropriately for the climate and terrain over which you will be flying.

Water is essential to life. Even minimal dehydration can impair reasoning, and survivors need their wits about them. One quart per person is the minimum that should be carried if natural sources are likely. In the desert, where water is critical, the only sure supply is the water one carries — a gallon per person, minimum; more is better.

Since the safety of most natural water sources cannot be assured, some means of purifying water should be included. Iodine, either as tablets (Potable Aqua) or crystals (Polar Pure), is the lightest and most compact means of dependable purification.

Food is more of a luxury for shortterm survival, but it is nice to have and can be much more important in colder climates. Simple sugars, hard candy, and the like should not be relied upon as your primary survival food. Pack complex carbohydrates and fats. Purpose-made survival rations contain the most nourishment for the weight.

Many pilots carry a first aid kit. Unfortunately, most don't include enough of the compresses and bandages desired in a survival medical kit, or many of the other medical supplies recommended. A well-equipped wilderness medical kit supplemented with additional supplies offers more comprehensive medical options when the only medical resources you have are those you supply. At least a one- week supply of any prescription medications should be carried on your person.

A multitool, such as the Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool or even a Swiss army knife, will make it easier to improvise items from the aircraft and its parts. Since a dull knife is of little use, always include a sharpener. A lightweight saw can make some survival chores easier. Long-lasting chemical light sticks can ease fears of the wilderness at night, and a flashlight is almost indispensable. A compass can be useful, but in most circumstances the survivors should stay with the aircraft.

Pyrotechnic signaling equipment, such as flares or smoke signals, are most useful where a signal fire is difficult or impossible to build or there is limited light with which to use a mirror. A strobe will serve for unattended nighttime signaling, but a flashlight makes a much better active signal in the dark. The whistle is vastly underrated. Certainly, SAR pilots flying overhead aren't going to hear it, but it may be heard by passersby or by ground search teams. Shouting is virtually a wasted effort. A whistle carries much farther and can be sounded long after your vocal cords give out.

Anyone who has spent any time in the wilderness will attest to the importance of toilet paper. The alternatives are only just tolerable. No kit is complete without duct tape; heavy-duty aluminum foil; plenty of military-spec parachute cord; thin wire for snares and repairs; safety pins, needles or a sewing kit; and zipper- lock plastic freezer bags. A quart or larger metal container for use over a fire is very useful; even an old coffee can will suffice. A survival manual is no substitute for training but will have to do for most pilots.

A sturdy container will protect the contents. Be sure your survival kit is readily accessible. It would be ironic if it were buried under the luggage in the tail and could not be easily retrieved as you egress the aircraft.

No survival kit can cover every possible situation, but one that contains these few essentials can better your odds if you ever should be unfortunate enough to need it. Together with a positive mental attitude, a survival kit will give you the tools you need to survive the experience and fly again.

Survival Training

Learning survival before it's too late

When the day you've had nightmares about comes — the day you have to make a forced landing in hostile territory — will you know what to do? Your flight training has succeeded in allowing you to survive the forced landing, but what now? After the expert job of flying your craft safely to the ground, you don't want to succumb to the environment. How will you survive during the days that it may take rescuers to find you?

Colorado's Enviro-Tech International (ETI), which teaches survival and wilderness medical programs to beginners through experienced emergency medical technicians, has a specialized program designed for pilots and flight crews. The course covers survival techniques in all varieties of weather and terrain. The courses are taught by instructors who are actively involved in search and rescue missions.

Some of the subjects taught in the three-day course are: skills required for survival in hot and cold environments, locating water, primitive and modern fire-building techniques, emergency medicine, hypothermia/frostbite, building shelters, and using the aircraft and its equipment as tools for survival. Some of the program is taught in a classroom, while most of the training takes place in the field. A simulated emergency (with an optional overnight stay in the elements) finishes out the course. Enviro-Tech can also arrange survival programs specializing in water ditching.

The course costs $250 and includes special equipment and transportation during the program. The courses are regularly taught near ETI's Montrose, Colorado, home base, but programs are often held in other parts of the country where there is a demand. Currently, ETI has scheduled three-day courses in Staunton, Virginia, May 9 to 11, and in Montrose May 16 to 18. If enough interest can be drummed up among pilots in your area, ETI will come to your location. For more information, contact Enviro-Tech International, Post Office Box 2135, Montrose, Colorado 81402; telephone 800/994-2434 or 970/249-7590. — Peter A. Bedell

Two-Person Basic Aviation Survival Kit

Pack to survive

This is the recommended minimum that should be included in a two- person survival kit.

Quantities of some items will need to be increased for additional passengers, and items added or adjusted for specific climates. Insist on quality gear that won't let you down.


  • 1 signal mirror, 3 2 5 inches
  • 1 strobe light with batteries
  • 2 whistles

Emergency devices

  • 1 knife — fixed blade, full tang, 4- to 6-inch, drop point, plain edge, with sheath
  • 1 multi-tool
  • 1 knife sharpener
  • 1 survival saw
  • 1 compass
  • 25 windproof/waterproof Lifeboat matches
  • 1 flint-style fire starter and enough tinder to start at least six fires
  • 1 survival candle
  • 1 fishing kit
  • 50 feet snare wire
  • 1 lithium or alkaline battery-powered flashlight with batteries
  • 4 chemical lightsticks, 12-hour

Shelter and personal protection

  • 1 ripstop nylon tarp, 10 feet 2 10 feet or 1 2-person tube tent
  • 2 thermal protective aids, space emergency blankets or bags
  • 2 lightweight ponchos
  • 1 pair leather work gloves
  • 2 bandannas
  • 1 insect repellent
  • 1 sunscreen, SPF30+
  • 1 lip balm, SPF30+

Optional (for cold climates): 8 chemical handwarmers; 12-hour cold- weather gear, including knit caps, socks, gloves, thermal underwear, sleeping bags, etc.

Medical group

  • 1 wilderness first aid kit supplemented with extra supplies; also bandages
  • 4 trauma dressings
  • 4 gauze compresses
  • 1 elastic bandage, 3 inches
  • 2 triangular bandages

Water and food

  • 2 quarts water in sealed container(s) (2 gallons, or more, in arid climates)
  • 1 bottle iodine water disinfectant tablets or crystals
  • Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, flavored drink mix, bouillon cubes, etc.,
  • as desired
  • Hard candy, gum, etc., as desired (not a substitute for real survival rations)

Optional (for cold climates):

  • 2 3,000- to 4,000-calorie (minimum) survival rations


  • Toilet paper
  • 50 feet 550-pound-test military-spec parachute cord
  • 10 square feet heavy-duty aluminum foil
  • 4 zipper-lock plastic freezer bags, gallon
  • 8 zipper-lock plastic freezer bags, quart
  • 4 heavy-duty garbage bags, 30-plus-gallon size
  • 1 1-quart or larger metal container suitable for use over a fire
  • Duct tape, small roll
  • 2 needles, medium and large, or sewing kit (best if expedition style)
  • 10 safety pins, medium and large
  • 2 single-edge razor blades
  • 1 sponge (dehydrated, if space is a consideration)
  • 1 notebook, 3 2 5 inch (best if waterproof paper)
  • 1 pencil or waterproof pen
  • 1 survival manual
  • 1 contents list
  • 1 container or pack to hold kit contents (except extra water)

Remember that batteries, medications, and many medical supplies have a limited useful life. Keep track of expiration dates and replace as required. — DSR