How to Outfit a Bare Ass Minimum Survival Kit

Survival kits are not the usual subject when talking about kayaking. Most of the conversation is around what clothing you should wear and essential gear you should carry. That said, it is a discussion worth having. Things can and do go wrong. Aside from a good first aid kit, and a boat repair kit, I carry a small survival kit. While highly improbable it would ever be used (a conversation I had on the a leg of our H2O Project), I’d rather be prepared. Kayaking to remote areas or in areas a bit inaccessible means being self sufficient if something goes wrong.

As I hike, camp, and explore, having a BAM kit is essential. Anyone who ventures outdoors to explore should be prepared. At the very least, they should have some basic knowledge.

There is a second reason for this list. Living in Tacoma, WA with have the ever-present threat of Mt Rainier, floods, mudslides, and that long overdue earthquake that the emergency preparedness people promise is coming. I have been listening to what they recommend you should have in a BAM (bare ass minimum kit). I disagree with most of what they think should be included. My kit is easy and cheap to put together and have them stashed in places you could find yourself when needing them.

The purpose of the survival kit

In a survival situation, there are only 4 priorities. The purpose of a bare ass minimum kit is to have those covered…with the barest of minimums. I’ll add that they need to be

  • Easy to assemble. Human behavior means we tend to put off things we’d rather not do, and more so when the task takes too much time or is difficult.
  • Suitable for a variety of environments. If you have one in your car, it needs to cover the priorities if you get caught in a snowstorm or the desert. If you move, you shouldn’t need to create a new one.

The 4 basic needs your BAM kit must cover:

  • Shelter – You must be able to protect yourself from the elements. This could be keeping warm, staying dry, avoiding sun exposure….it doesn’t matter.
  • Water – Dehydration, even in its early stages, negatively impacts critical thinking and affect your your mood. The key to survival is staying positive and focused.
  • Food – While the human body doesn’t require food daily, a lack of food reduces energy levels. Survival requires all of your efforts. And it burns calories.
  • Fire – Fire provides heat (think shelter), the ability to cook food, the ability to boil water, and nothing does more for morale than a fire.

The order is immaterial within 24 hours, all 4 will be needed.

My BAM kit

These are my essentials:

  • 2 large black trash bags (shelter)
  • 1-2 Space blankets (shelter)
  • 2 metal 1-liter water bottles (water)
  • A water filtration system (water)
  • Emergency food rations (food)
  • A fire starter (fire)
  • 0000 steel wool (fire)
  • Vaseline, cotton swabs, and chapstick. (fire)
  • A knife and cordage*

That is it! A true bare ass minimum kit.

Why each item?


The large black trash bags are primarily for shelter. They can be used to keep the elements off you, filled with leaves to create an insulating layer between you and the ground or laid on the ground as a moisture barrier, and they can be used as a windbreak.

I recommend those 39 gal lawn and leaf bags. They are strong and a great size.

My peference is trash bags over tarps as they can also be worn as a poncho, are far less expensive (you’ll likely have a few if you are a homeowner), take up less space, and easier to repack.

Space blankets are small and inexpensive. They are invaluable as part of creating survival shelter. They make a perfect ground cover or can be wrapped around yourself. They can be used to reflect heat from a fire back toward you.


Metal water bottles are a must. While 2 is less than the recommended volume (a normally active person needs about three-quarters of a gallon of fluid daily… ~, it’s easier to carry 2 than 3 and smaller is more practical. Metal bottles are more expensive than plastic, though you’ll likely have more than a few lying around since reusable bottles seem to be the go-to swag at conferences.

Beyond the environmental reasons for not recommending single use plastic bottles, metal ones have a few key advantages. They are less likely damaged beyond use if dropped, water will last longer and taste better (plastic won’t keep out air molecules), and you can boil water in metal easier than in plastic bottles!

This is a key mistake I see in almost all commercial kits. They recommend you carry a certain amount of water (which is rarely feasible) and provide no means of replenishment if you run out. And running out is a very likely scenario even if you carry the recommended volume, especially in the earthquake scenario in my neck of the woods where help might be days, weeks or longer, away.

I have another issue with carrying that much water – it is heavy! You’ll work harder and move slower.

Those trash bags also come in handy as a way to collect and carry water. With metal bottles, you can boil water to purify it or use your filtration system. (I like the mini system from Sawyer since it can be used to drink right from the source when there isn’t time to boil water). This provides several options and allows you to be safer by boiling AND filtering.


Emergency food rations are easy, While you can easily stock up on backpacker meal kits, many of those require water. I found the best solution to be the S.O.S. Rations Emergency 3600 Calorie Food bar. A 3 day supply has a shelf life of 5 years. I could care less about how they taste in survival mode. There are plenty of other foods that will pack small and keep for years. My advice is to make sure they will cover your minimum caloric intake need.


Starting a fire when under pressure, especially if you are cold, wet, tired, or stressed, is not easy. Matches are OK until they get wet, Waterproof ones I have had issues with breaking or striking with cold fingers. Lighters, while less prone to failing in wet conditions, are still hard enough for me to use as it is. Cold fingers? There is no way I will get one to work. Both can be a pain in the ass in the wind and both are finite. At some point you will run out of matches or butane.

My BAM kit contains a Ferrocerium rod and metal striker. They work in almost every environment and don’t wear out. There are dozens on the market at a variety of price points. The one in my kit is from Gerber. I liked the fact that it adds a way to carry some tinder – perfect for starting a fire in wet conditions.

Vaseline, cotton swabs, and chapstick. Even with a Ferrocerium rod and metal striker, you need tinder. That is not always available, especially in the damp Pacific Northwest. Carrying cotton balls is a great solution but they can get damp too. Original Chapstick is 46% petroleum based. You can shave a bit off or rub it on something for a non-messy fire starter, and it will keep your lips from drying out!! (Another great fire starter – dryer lint!)

Vaseline (I like the mini travel jars – I picked one up for $1.99 at Walgreens) is a petroleum product. Use wood or paper-based cotton swabs (avoid the ones with plastic sticks) to dip in the Vaseline for a highly flammable ‘match’. (Bonus – Vaseline applied to your skin will help keep moisture in and the cold out.)

Commercial fire starter cubes. I have since added a couple to my kit as I purchased them for my camping gear – too many wet nights and mornings. These make life in a survival situation much easier. While they eliminate the need for the chapstick and Vaseline, those items last longer (more uses) and have secondary benefits.

What’s missing. I don’t carry matches or lighters in my BAM kit. I do not want my main source for creating a fire/spark to require replacement or run out. Tinder I can find or make. Not so easy with your fire source. Lighters present a second issue. They can fail when getting wet and I have found them to be difficult to use in wind, rain, and when my fingers are cold. I can still strike the Ferrocerium rod wearing gloves or with very cold fingers. 

A bit above and beyond

A knife and cordage, whether it be paracord or bankline (what I prefer), aren’t essential, but they are invaluable for helping build a shelter, gather food (if it goes that far), collect water, or starting a fire. 

Pack everything into a small bag and you have a compact and inexpensive BAM kit – one that can save your life. 

A few clarifications and disclaimers

This is a true bare ass minimum kit. It the absolute minimum you should have with you when out and know how to use in case of a survival situation. There is far more I recommend to make survival easier and rescue possible. The point here was to show you how little it takes.

The disclaimer is that I am not a wilderness survival expert. I have been fortunate not to have needed my kit, though I can use everything in it, testing them. That includes being able to desalinate water and collect it in the desert. I highly recommend a survival class if you have concerns.

Your Turn

I am always learning from the experiences of others. If you have a kit, drop a comment below and let me know what’s in it. I’m also curious as to how you use your items in unique ways or if you’ve had a real need to use them.

3 replies
  1. Russ
    Russ says:

    Makes sense! I came out with a similar list recently, but various other examples to serve as shelters, etc ☮️ I called mine WOLF :warm (waterproof and fire resources ) orientation (compass and flashlight) liquids (water and purification tabs) food (bars to eat, modicum hunting/fishing skills) 🍺

    • Robert Nissenbaum
      Robert Nissenbaum says:

      Russ, that is a great acronym! There are so many shelter items including emergency bivy tents. I tend to have my Kokatat storm cag on the kayak with me so it’s my primary way to keep dry and sheltered. I love the idea of reducing survival kits to what most have on hand. Even a lighter or matches in bags will do.


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