The Ultimate Altoids Tin Survival Kit, by J.C.R.

As hunting season begins to kick into high gear here in central North Carolina and I begin to drag out my gear and go over it like a child on Christmas morning, I thought of something.  The thoughts of a basic survival kit came to mind.  As I replayed a situation many years old that could have gone badly, I made up my mind to look seriously into putting together a kit.  Several years ago while deer hunting in eastern North Carolina, me and my hunting buddy wandered off into a marshy swamp and spent all day trying to get out.  I know what you are thinking…shoulda, coulda, woulda.  My first mistake was assuming that since we were hunting his family’s land that he knew where he was going.  Wrong.  The first lesson learned there, never relegate the responsibility of direction finding to someone else…if they insist, then you have a backup.  The second lesson is that out in the true wilderness, it gets so dark that you can slap yourself in the face and can’t see it coming.  Well guess what?  Life began to get in the way and I forget all about my plans.  How many of us have done that?  Then I get a reminder.  On September 30, 2011 the BBC News had an article on their web site that was forwarded to me by a friend.  The article was titled “Great Moments in Human Survival and Endurance”.  As I read the basic sketches of eleven separate instances of miraculous survival including the latest, a 67-year-old man that ran off the road in California and survived six days until he was found, it occurred to me.  In nine out of eleven stories a basic survival kit would have greatly helped and in most cases decreased the time it took them to be rescued.   Based on my own experiences and time spent in the woods alone, I began to put together what I hope is a kit I never need but could supply that basics should the need arise.

Why do you need a survival kit?
Because you never know when you’ll need what it could contain.  When we set off that beautiful morning, the sun was shining and it was warm.  The weather conditions were perfect and we still got lost.  When that 67-year-old man climbed into his car, I can assure you a life-threatening accident never crossed his mind.  No one expects to get in trouble or be put in harm’s way…I would think we would be smarter than to charge into that unless someone else was in danger.  Not all emergencies occur in the wilderness.  So to borrow the motto of the Boy Scouts, let’s “Be Prepared”…for most anything.

What size kit do you need?
As you have probably read over and over as to what particular firearm makes the best personal defense weapon it seems that each article always ends with some statement along the lines of the best weapon is the one you will have with you when you actually need it.  I think it would also be safe to say the same thing about your survival kit.  It should be big enough to carry some basic items but not so big you leave it behind because it is too much trouble, or you don’t want it to be noticed.  I settled on a kit built around the Altoids Mint container.  This is a small tin that measures 3½” long, 2¼” wide and ¾” deep. Seems like a perfect size for a pocket, purse, glove box, coat pocket, or desk drawer.  Add to the fact that it is already camouflaged into something that would look normal if someone saw it in any of those places.  If you are putting together a kit for the car or truck, you might want to go bigger, but for what were are trying to accomplish, this will work nicely.  And being made of metal it will serve other purposes as well as we will see.

Should I just buy one or make my own?
If you are looking for something quick and convenient, then by all means purchase your kit already assembled.  We would much rather have you prepared than not, but what fun would it be to purchased a kit that someone else put together.  I few notes on pre-assembled kits.  There are several good kits out there but I’d like to mention a couple things.  I have noticed that often these kits are slightly larger than the usual Altoids candy tins.  Many of them are also put together with products that may be inferior to what you would put into your own kit.  If you build your own, then you’ll probably either know how to use each item or quickly learn.  If you purchase a kit, I bet you’ll probably never open it and instead just tuck it away feeling good that you have one. Some offer a waterproof seal built in and none of them are disguised as a candy tin.  Expect to pay around $35 or so plus shipping for the convenience. I prefer the build-your-own option.  A plus to building your own is often you’ll have to purchase some things in a quantity that will allow you to build multiple kits.  And I think we can do it for less than $35-40.

What are the contents of this kit?
Before we get into the exact contents of the kit, I’d like to assume that you at least have a pocket knife on your person.  If you have pockets or carry a purse, do yourself a favor and carry a pocket knife…unless it is illegal to do so.  In designing this kit I would also like to add that I have watched countless videos on You-Tube as well as read several articles on numerous web sites.  This, along with years of hunting and spending a little nature time in that swamp, I’ve settled on this as my current kit.  Instead of just going down a list of things to include in this kit, let’s instead break up the items into specific categories.

  • Fire and Light
  • Water and Food
  • Signaling and Navigation
  • Medical
  • Miscellaneous and Multipurpose

No matter which survival kit you choose, make sure that it can cover the basics in each of these areas and you’ll be better prepared than most.

  • Fire and Light
    • Waterproof Storm Matches – I wrapped up three of these with two strikers in a plastic baggie.  Purchased a couple of boxes of 25 each for $5.50 from REI.  Three matches would cost about $.66.
    • Photon II Micro-Light– These are sold everywhere as a light for your keychain.  I removed the ring for added space but if you have to go to the kit as a resource, be sure to put this on the same lanyard as the whistle.  You want to make sure you don’t lose it.  Also make sure that you purchase one that has the button that will lock the light in the “on” position.  It’s really hard to light a fire in the dark while trying to hold down the button on the light in your teeth or with the extra hand you don’t have.  These lights practically lasts forever.  This cost $8.39 from REI but I believe I could have gotten it cheaper at the local home improvement stores.
    • Fresnel magnifier – This works great when the sun is shining bright and it will also double as a magnifying glass for removing splinters and reading fine print.  What fine print?  We’ll get to that.  It was part of a packet of magnifying glasses from the local drugstore.  Purchased separately it would run about $4.
    • Fire-steel – You’d be surprised at the sparks something so small can create.  Notice I didn’t say fire-steel with striker.  We have other things in the kit for that.  And you also should have your pocket knife.  Now you have three ways to make fire without using string and rubbing blisters.  Granted, you should be familiar with that method as well…as a last ditch effort.  I purchased this from for about $2.  You can spend more and you can spend less.
    • Tinder-Quik fire tabs– Any brand will actually work as long it is of the soft fiber type.  We’ll place these in different areas of the tin to make sure things don’t rattle.  I little fire tinder never hurt anyone and will be a huge help if trying to start a fire in wet weather.  I have wrapped them in these little plastic baggies that I purchased at the hobby store.  A couple of bucks will give you far more than you need for this kit.  Purchased this from Dick’s Sporting Goods.  The pack had 12 pieces in it for $5.95 making it about $.50 each or $1.00 for our kit.
  • Water and Food
    • Water Purification Tablets – Remember that there are four quarts in a gallon and that the Red Cross recommends a gallon per day per person.  Twelve tablets here will provide a 3-day supply.  This should be the minimum, pack twelve and then if space allows add more.  If you choose a brand that stores them in a glass bottle, you’ll need to wrap what you need in a plastic baggie.  Then I would wrap it in a second baggie.  Water ties with fire in a survival situation.  Sometimes it is more valuable than fire and sometimes less, but always needed, so let’s take care of those tablets.  Shop around; these can be purchased for about $6 for 20 tablets at most outdoor sporting good stores costing us $3.60.
    • Quart Zip-Loc© Bag – I chose a major brand name as the quality is a little better than discount brands.  I chose a Zip-Loc© type so that you might be able to store water in a sealed bag.  If possible, try to get the freezer type bag as the plastic slightly thicker.  I “borrowed” one from the kitchen cabinets.  Several web sites have suggested using a non-lubricated condom.  Let’s think about this for a couple of seconds.  First the thought of drinking from a condom doesn’t appeal to me and secondly, it will not be too sturdy if you have to travel back to your camp site.  You could in fact use your sock as an outer case for it but what if it is really cold and you need your sock…I’ll stick with the baggie.
    • Piece of drinking straw with flexible section – I have seen this included in another kit from You-Tube and questioned it until I saw an episode of Dual Survivor where Cody talked about using a straw to drink water from improvised containers or if really desperate, a puddle.  I have cut the top piece to fit the width of the tin and the part below the flex joint to fit the length of the tin.  I noticed that a local fast food restaurant was putting these in their kid’s meals…talked the kids out of a couple of them.
    • Packets of Salt and Pepper – The salt and pepper are to make anything you catch taste different.  If space permits, throw in a packet of rehydration solution that is prepackaged.  These can be purchased at many outdoor/sports stores for next to nothing.  Better to be safe than sorry with this one.  The packets came from same restaurants as the straws.
    • Bouillon Cubes – I have wrapped one of these into those little plastic baggies mentioned earlier that I purchased from the hobby store. This is better than nothing at soothing hunger pains until you can find or catch something else.  If nothing else, it will buy you some time.  Taken from the cabinet that the spices are in.
    • Braided Fishing Line – I have chosen the braided line over all others as it doesn’t lose its strength at fast as other types of fishing line.  Have you every picked up a fishing reel that has been setting for a while and been able to break the line with your hand?  Braided just holds up better.  It is harder to cut as well and can double as heavy duty sewing thread as well.  30 lb. test will be all you need and I can get 30 feet or so wrapped on a sewing machine bobbin that picked up at Wal-Mart.   Pull off what I needed from one of the reels I have.  There was plenty, sure hope I don’t need it later.
    • Fishing tackle – Small hooks and split-shot weights are what you need here.  You can catch larger fish with lighter tackle but will struggle to catch small fish with big hooks, etc.  I raided my own tackle box for these items.
    • 24 gauge wire – I have included 10 feet in this kit.  It can be used for all kinds of tasks, not just making snares.  I purchased mine from a home improvement center and it cost about $3 for 50 yards or just 20 cents for our kit.  I wrapped this on the same bobbin as the fishing line on the outside.  I’ll take a stick and transfer the wire to this if I need the fishing line first.
  • Signaling and Navigation
    • Signal Mirror – I went out and purchased a nice one from a camping supply store only to discover that it was much too thick and thus took up too much room.  That was okay, it can go in my Bug-Out Bag.  So I decided to make my own.  Look around for an old gift card or save the card from the credit card offer you received in the mail.  Back to the hobby store and buy some mirrored Mylar film with adhesive on the back.  Just make sure when you wrap the card not to leave any wrinkles.  Next drill a ½” hole in the center and for $3.49 you have a very thin signal mirror and a ton of left over Mylar.  It is not the best but thin and it will work with some practice.
    • Thin Whistle – For this piece of equipment, I looked at several whistles, finally settling on the ACR 3 Res-Q Whistle.  It is very loud and very thin.  Leave the lanyard attached.  As soon as you see yourself relying on this kit, hang the whistle around your neck.  You want it to be handy if someone has a chance of hearing you.  The cost was $4.49
    • Button Compass – A button compass is not extremely accurate but we are not land surveyors.  We are looking to establish basic directions.  You can pick up a 20mm button compass that is not liquid filled for $0.99 each at
  • Medical Supplies
    •  Band-Aids – Two will do nicely.  The kids will never miss them.  It will be two less that they can use on their ‘boo-boos”
    • Medical Tape – Pack the waterproof kind.  Wrap it around the pencil.  The medicine cabinet gave up a couple of feet for the kit.  I used two 12” pieces wrapped in separate sections to keep the pencil from getting to fat.
    • 2 Pre-1982 US Pennies – These work great for soothing stings and bits.  Don’t ask me how but with four kids, I can attest that this works.  Just tape one over the bite or sting and leave it…
    • Anti-diarrheal tablets – Nothing makes surviving harder that a bad case of diarrhea.  Pack enough for a couple of cycles.  I placed all tablets in the same baggie and then label the baggie as to what color pill is what.  Remember, this is your personal survival kit so you will not have to worry about someone else trusting you when it is time to pass out medicine.  The medicine cabinet donated these tablets as well.
    • Ibuprofen Tablets – Drop six or eight of these into your baggie.  It may mean the difference in being able to think straight or enduring a headache or body pain.  Always start in the medicine cabinet…lots of goodies there.
  • Miscellaneous and Multipurpose
    • Altoids Tin – Not only will this serve as the container for all of this stuff, but remove the lid and now you have a small container to boil water in (the bottom) and a small pan to heat up whatever food you can scrounge up.  Break up some of the bouillon cubes in hot water and you’d be surprised how much better you feel.  If you have to use it like this, take the small nail or use the tip of your pocket knife and put some small holes in the sides of both the top and bottom and take some of the snare wire and make handles.  This will make it much easier to get it in and out of the fire.  I picked up the first one in the check-out line at the grocery store for $1.99.  The bonus was the mints.
    • Laminated family picture with a SURVIVAL acronym on the back with a couple verses of scripture. – I have moved this into the second slot of items mentioned here for a very specific reason.  The will to survive will play much more of a factor than anything else in this kit.  A family picture to generate happy thoughts will inspire you to reach deep down within yourself to find that little extra effort you’ll need. Be sure to print your name, address, and phones numbers that family members could be reached should you be found but disoriented.  Also on the back of this picture I have included the survival acronym so that when you need to clear your head you can read and re-read over them.  It will help you to focus your thoughts.  I have also included a couple of my favorite Bible verses.  This will help me to keep my attitude and heart in check.  With these three in hand, I should be able to muster the mental, spiritual, and emotional horsepower needed to get me through almost any ordeal.  The wife had some laminating paper left over from one of the kid’s school projects.  The survival acronym is as follows:
      • S – “Size up the situation”
      • U – “Undue haste makes waste”
      • R – “Remember where you are”
      • V – “Vanquish fear and panic”
      • I – “Improvise”
      • V – “Value Living”
      • A – “Act like the natives”
      • L – “Learn basic skills”
    • Magnetized sewing needles with thread – A magnetized needle floating in water will let you know which way is north.  This provides a backup to the button compass described earlier.  I also made sure that the eye of the needle will also work with the braided fishing line for some serious repairs.  As I watch some of the survival show on television, I wonder what would happen if the button that holds their pants together were to come off.  It would be bad trying to stay alive while also holding your pants up.  All of the sewing stuff came from my wife’s sewing basket.  I sure hope she doesn’t notice everything she is missing.
    • Buttons (1 large and 1 small) – This would complete the emergency sewing kit.
    • Safety Pins – I have included two…okay this actually completes the emergency sewing kit.
    • Duct tape – You’ll find a thousand uses for this, from a makeshift band-aid to repairing a hole in the Zip-Loc© baggie.  Wrap this around the pencil.  I purchased a roll of the Gorilla brand duct tape a couple months back for use around the house, so I already had this as well.  I split it down the middle of the tape and used two 12” pieces wrapped around the pencil. 
    • String – We don’t have a lot but enough to assist with shelter building, signal construction, traps or snares, etc.  Took a couple of feet out of one of the junk drawers in the kitchen.
    • Paper clips – This little piece of metal seems to show up in all kinds of list for 10 essentials with regards to equipment and repair.  They take up no space and so I have included two.  I once saw a You-tube video of a guy picking a lock with paper-clips.  Not advocating this, but the possibilities are almost limitless. “Borrowed” these from the office.  Next time you are at the bank, ask the teller if they have some…no kidding, they’ll give you a hand full of them.
    • 2 Razor blades – I have included two of these.  Purchase the type that is the replacement blades for utility knives.  This will be a back up for our pocket knife.  I put a little piece of duct tape on the edges so as to not get cut going through the contents of the kit.  In the most extreme case they could be what you’d use in an emergency first-aid situation.  I don’t even like to think about that.  I scrounged up a couple of new ones from the tool box.
    • Aluminum Foil – A 2 foot square will provide a way to cook with or heat water, or signal with, but not all of the above.  Use sparingly as once you start to work with it, it becomes more fragile.  If you can, include the heavy duty type. Back to the kitchen when the wife isn’t looking.
    • Flexible Wire Saw – You never know when you’ll need to cut something that is bigger than what a pocketknife or a couple of razor blades can handle.  This could also double as a secondary snare.  I purchased my first one from Wal-Mart for about $3. 
    • 2 Small Nails – I have dropped in a couple of medium-sized finishing nails.  I decided that a wire handle would be great if I have to use the container as a cooking utensil and a nail would be a great way to put the hole in the tin.  The nails could also be used as a “trigger” for some traps.  They may come in handy for something else too.
    • Cash – I have folded up $30 for my kit.  I figure if I actually wonder out of a situation and back into civilization…a little cash might make getting fed or home a little easier.  Could also double as fire tinder in extremis.  What is it worth or what did it cost?  That is a different discussion.
    • Pencil and Paper – I know you are thinking I’d burn this paper before burning the cash.  Hold that thought.  If after you have done all that is within your power, knowledge, skills and luck and the inevitable seems certain, this piece of paper and pencil might bring closure and peace to your loved ones.  No one likes to think about this but in your final minutes, write your family a quick note.  It will bring you a small level of peace but they will cling to that note forever.  It could be your very last gift to them.  The paper was a piece of 3”x5” card and the pencil came from the golf bag.  Don’t play golf?  Just ask around, I’ll bet you know someone that plays the game.  Those short pencils are perfect and already the right size.

Alternatives and Upgrades for the kit?
As with anything in life there are always upgrade or alternatives.  If I look at each category and picked a couple of items to upgrade it might look something like this.  In the water and food category, I might simply add a couple of small fishing flies.  It would save time looking for bait.  For the signaling and navigation category, I’d add a liquid-filled compass in place of the one I have included.  It would add about $1.25 to the cost.  In the medical category, I would buy the best in the band-aids and make them waterproof.  You might add a single 3/0 or 4/0 suture packet that will run you about $6 each from Amazon.  For the Miscellaneous category, I would upgrade the cable saw from the $3 one from Wal-Mart to an $8 version that is rated for more serious use.  Some have included a Jig-Saw blade in place of the cable saw.  It would certainly pack easier and give you more room but you would lose a secondly source of snare wire.   Another item to consider if you are in the urban environment more than the great outdoors is a P-38 can opener.  I bought several for 30 cents each from the local surplus store.  I might also up the cash from $30 to $40.

Where did you get the contents of the kit?
The first thing I did was to purchase the Altoids Mints.  This gave me some time to assemble the contents as we consumed the mints.  I wasn’t about to waste the mints for the container.  I made a quick list of these items.  The next thing I did was to grab a gallon Zip-Loc© bag and as I found or “borrowed” those items from around the house and bought them, I just dumped them into the bag and marked them off the list until I had everything I needed.  Every time I wandered into a store, I would make a pass around the hardware and/or sporting goods department, picking up items here and there.  Look around the house and office real good for as many of these items as you can find before spending any hard-earned money. You can shop around the internet for these items as well but be careful.  You could actually purchase almost every single item on the list from Amazon but the shipping would end up costing you more than the products.  For instance, I purchased a dozen of the compasses from when I bought the pieces of fire-steel.  Then I gave the extra compasses to the boys in my son’s Cub Scout den.  I didn’t feel so bad about the shipping then.  For the harder to find items, look for a web site that sells several of the products and compare that purchase as a whole.  Someone might have a better price on water purification tablets, but with everything else factored in, not be such a good deal.  Check out  They will have a lot of these things as well as other preparedness items. 

How do you get all of the stuff in such a small package?
This was the toughest part of all.  I have to cut some corners to get it all in there.  For instance in my original plans, I had six waterproof matches and a packet of antibiotic ointment, but it just wouldn’t fit.  I also tried to find a way to include an eye glass repair kit and that didn’t happen either.  With a bigger tin, these are options.

The first thing to place in the tin was the two razor blades, next in went the Fresnel magnifier.  Next I added the home-made signal mirror to keep it from getting scratched.  Then I added the folded up square of aluminum foil.  I tried to fold it to the same size as the tin and I’m not sure I was able to get the entire two foot included.  Next I put the piece of 3”x5” card that was cut to fit the tin.  This will protect the foil.    Now fold up the Zip-Loc bag in place it in there.  I placed the straw into one of the corner.  Inside the straw on the short end I stuffed the magnetized needle and the two nails.  On the longer section of straw, I stuffed the fire-steel.  On the other side I laid the pencil with the tape on it.  In one corner I put the button compass and in another I placed the sewing machine bobbin that has 30 feet of fishing line with a little more than 10 feet of 24-guage wire on it.  In the last corner I placed the bouillon cube that is wrapped in plastic.  That fills up all four corners.  On top of the pencil, I placed the waterproof matches that have been wrapped in plastic.  In the middle of the tin, I placed the flexible wire saw.  In the middle of that, I placed the salt and pepper packets and then the water purification tablets other medicine.  One the other side of the tin, over the straw, I placed the flat ACR whistle.  That Photon II Micro-Light was a bear to get in there…it ended up hogging the space on one of the ends.  I was able to fold up the fishing tackle for the other end of the tin.  So what is left?  We have a couple of Tinder-Quik fire tabs, we’ll use these for packing to keep the contents quiet.  We also have the Band-aids, cash and picture.  We’ll tuck these into the lid.  We have two pennies, the buttons, safety pins, paper clips, and a piece of string.  I have tried a dozen different combinations for this before I was able to get them tucked here and crammed there.  The lid will shut but it is a very tight fit.  I am sure that it will pop open at some time or die trying, so I taped all four sides with clear tape to hold it shut.  Where I work, we have a machine that will shrink-wrap goods.  I was thinking I might get it shrink wrapped to help make it waterproof.  You could also just put it into another Zip-Loc bag.  I admit that this was the hardest step.

Where do you carry it?
While this may seem like a silly question it may not be.  If you are hunting, then by all means carry it in your coat pocket.  It is less likely to make noise there.  If you are hiking with cargo pants, put it in one of your cargo pockets or front pocket, not in your backpack.  You make become separated from your pack.  I wouldn’t recommend carrying it in your back pocket.  If you sit down wrong or fall, it will not only bend up the case but will leave a nice bruise as a reminder.  It is best if you can keep it with you at all times but that is merely fantasy land thinking.  If in the car, keep it where you can reach it from the driver seat while buckled up.  You never know if you’ll be pinned in and need those items.  If at your desk, keep it where you can quickly grab it if you have to vacate the premises’ or an earthquake leaves you stuck.  Keep it as close as you can without cramping your lifestyle.   I plan on making several kits to leave in the automobiles, the desk, the hunting coat, the Bug-Out Bag, etc.  Just don’t forget where you put them.  

How often do you update your kit?
You need to check the contents of your kit once a year.  You need to replace all of the first aid items yearly.  I work the band-aids back into the current box and throw away the old medicine, replacing it with new tablets.  Check your water purification tablets as well.  Their shelf-life is much longer than the medicine but it is not indefinite.  I replace the Zip-Loc bag as well.  You want to make sure you have a fresh one in there.  The idea is to go back through the entire kit once a year.  This is good for two reasons.  The first is to replace anything that is not outdated or unusable.  For instance if you keep the kit in your car, chances are the tape will have “melted” the sticky stuff out.  The second reason for going completely through the kit is to remind you of what you have placed in it.  It is not a time capsule, it is a survival kit.  The time to discover that the needle has lost its magnetic properties is not when you need to see which way is North.  You get the picture.  I have placed a label on the bottom of my kit that has the month and year that I last updated it.  I will cross out the previous date and write in the new one.

So what is the final cost of this kit?
The final cost of the kit turned out to be a little more that I would have originally guessed.  Without the upgrades, it came in at around $36 dollars.  While it is true that I ended up with enough stuff to practically finish out a couple of other kits, it was more than I expected.  I still had fun putting it together and involved my son in the process as well.  I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have if I had just whipped out the credit card and purchased a pre-made kit, and I know exactly what is in the kit.

In Conclusion
Whether you build or buy your kit, look back over this article and size up the pre-made kit.  I would also recommend that if you buy a kit; fill it in with some of these items.  There isn’t a survival kit in the world the will be delivered to your door with a laminated picture of your family with encouraging words written on the back.  This kit does at least have seven out of the “10 essentials” represented.  This kit combined with the Everyday Carry Items that I wrote about and was posted on on September 20, 2011, you’ll have a great start if the trip goes bad.  The overall message here is to have some type of kit that will give you an added advantage if you are ever unfortunate enough to have to need a survival kit. I hope we have given you something to think about no matter what size kit you put together.