Assembling a Photographer’s Survival Kit

— on November 26, 2018 by in travel

As a photographer, I spend a lot of time hiking alone. Self rescue is important. 

Photographers Emergency Survival Kit - Help from Behind Rocks

I normally keep some waterproof matches and water purification tablets in my camera backpack. I bring a head-light, and some general use tools for my cameras on most hikes. Assuming I remember to grab them, some other emergency tools come along.

That “assuming” is a problem. I want to be more systematic about it. I’m going to assemble a photographer’s survival kit that can live in my camera bag full time. This kit is a general day hiking kit.

Regardless of what I include in the kit, it needs to be small and light so I can leave it in my bag full time. It needs to be “always there” or it isn’t of any use.

Commercial Off-the-Shelf Options

There are a lot of commercial “emergency kits” available. Many hiking first aid kits cover some of the same needs. I could buy a commercial kit, but I’m not really interested in doing that. Many of them have stuff I don’t want and are lacking other items. The stuff they do include is often of dubious quality.

I could also augment an off-the-shelf hiking first aid kit. They also have a lot more medical stuff than I feel I strictly need, much of it convenience not necessity. While they could make a good starting point, I’m not going to go that route. My emergency kit is going to have very minimal first aid items, all geared towards self-rescue in an emergency.

Designing My Emergency Kit

Step 1 is to do a little research and some brainstorming. Like anything on the web (this article included) take what you find through a google search very lightly. Most of the articles on the first page of results were selling kits or components and can’t be trusted. A couple of the rest had some good advice, but not necessarily compatible with my style of hiking. There is clearly a wide range of what people think of as “required” and “bare-bones”.

Imagine Emergencies

Photographers Survival Kit - Brainstorming Ideas

Brainstorming items to go in my kit…

Thinking through all the things that might go wrong can seem a little morbid, but it is a key step in emergency planning (which is what this really is). Here are some of the problems I might face:

  • Being lost or stuck
  • Delayed and out over night
  • Extreme cold
  • Major injury (e.g. broken leg, major bleeding, etc)
  • Non-life threatening injuries (e.g. scrapes, small cuts, etc)
  • Running out of water
  • Other unforeseen difficulties

That last “other unforeseen difficulties” is a big one. The kit has to address a whole lot of problems in a tiny amount of weight and volume. Every item needs to be pull multiple duty while being as light and small as possible.

Assembling My Emergency Kit

Here is what I ended up putting inside it:

Photographer's Hiking Emergency Kit Contents Laid Out: bandages, water purification, multi-tool, whistle, signal mirror, Mylar blanket, medicine, parachute cord, moleskin.

  • (1x) Leatherman Squirt PS4 – 56g
  • (1x) Mylar Blanket – 48g
  • (2x) 2×2 inch gauze – 3g
  • (1x) Moleskin – 2g
  • (4x) Band-aid – 2g
  • (2x) Fire Starter Cotton Balls Soaked in Petroleum Jelly – 23g
  • (1x) 2″ x 4 yard Stretch Gauze
  • (6x) Water Purification Tablets (1 liter water each) – 4g
  • (1x) Micro LED Light – 5g
  • (6x) Water Proof Matches + Striker  – 7g
  • (1x) Micro Signaling Mirror – 7g
  • (1x) Whistle – 9g
  • (6ft) Gaffer’s Tape – 6g
  • (1x) Misc Meds in Sealed Packs: Benadryl, Ibuprofen, etc with Sterilizing Wipes, and Ointment – 10g
  • (12ft) Parachute Cord – 42g

With a little work it all fits in the box snugly. Nothing can move around but nothing is being crushed. Most items here are off the shelf.

Total weight for the kit is 286 grams or 10.125 oz. It is just over a half pound which isn’t bad.

Waterproof Matches

Being able to start a fire is probably one of the most important emergency capabilities this kit includes. A fire can signal for help and keep you warm. I see people with flint and steals (and a lot of emergency kits have them too).

As someone that has started fires with flint and steal, they are worse than useless unless you are practiced using them, and have dry tender available. Rather than go that route, I opted for reliable, long burning, water proof matches.

Waterproof matches are self oxidizing. They are like rocket engines. Once you start them, you can’t smoother them because the chemical reaction releases oxygen that sustains it. They will burn when completely submerged.

Remember: You can not fly with waterproof matches at all… If you are flying, take them out before you leave and buy new on location.

Fire Starters

The fire starters I included are the only DIY item in my kit. I would have bought them but REI only had paraffin and wood chip versions that were a lot heavier and rigid. I bought a bag of cotton balls in the cosmetic isle, a small travel size vasoline and let them party together in the microwave.

The result is a cotton ball that burns for a LONG time. The vasoline can also be used as lip or hand balm in a pinch.

Whistle and Signaling Mirror

The goal of this kit isn’t to allow me to establish civilization on my own. It is to help me survive an emergency until I reach help. A loud whistle and signaling mirror will allow me to summon help even far off the beaten path.

These are the only single use items in the kit, but they are important.

The Leatherman Multi-tool

A multi-tool is an all around problem solver. The leatherman I included (the Squirt PS4) includes pliers, scissors, a regular cutting blade, a can opener and several screw drivers.

The only catch with including a knife (which is really a must have) is that I can’t fly with the kit carry-on. If I go to the airport and forget to pull the knife out, it will get taken.

First-aid Supplies

This kit is not a first-aid kit. However, it includes a couple of basic emergency items including basic bandages and medications. The stretch gauze is the Swiss-army knife of first-aid tools. It can be used to stop bleeding, to hold on other dressings or even as just a string or rope. Other bandaging items in the kit include some band-aids, gauze, triple antibiotic ointment and sterilizing wipes.

My kit includes 3 tablets of Benadryl and some Ibuprofin (over the counter stuff). Benadryl is a good “cure all” for sings, allergies and the like and Ibuprofin is a muscle relaxer that helps with things like swelling. NOTE: I’m not a doctor… This isn’t medical advice.

I added a small sheet of moleskin here too. It takes up almost no space or weight. If getting to help quickly is required, being able to alleviate the pain of a blister (or anything else that slows me down) could be life-saving. If nothing else, moleskin can be used as tape…

Mylar Blanket

Cold can kill you. This helps solve that problem. Beyond that, in the event of a major injury, shock can set in. Keeping myself warm is one way to cope with that. A Mylar blanket can also be used as a signaling device (it’s hard to ignore a big flashing chrome colored flag) or for emergency shade or shelter.

A Mylar blanket is a general purpose problem solvers that everyone should have with them all the time.

Water Purification Tablets

I can go without food for a while, but lack of water can kill quickly, especially in the heat. Not ever location has ground or rain water available, but if I find water, I want to know that I’m not going to poison myself by drinking it.

My kit includes 6 Micropur MP1 purification tablets in individual foil envelopes. Each will purify 1 liter of water.

Gaffer’s Tape

Gaffer’s tape is basically classier duct tape and you could use duct tape (many do). Tape is one of those magical inventions that solves 100s or 1000s of problems. Every emergency kit should have good strong tape in it. I re-rolled about 6′ of tape in a tight roll to save space.

Less obvious uses of tape include improvised bandages. One of the reasons I like gaffer’s tape over duct tape is the adhesive. They are nearly equally strong, but gaffer’s tape won’t remove your skin when it comes off…

Parachute Cord

Like tape, a little bit of strong line or cord can solve a lot of problems. In a worst case scenario it can be used to do things lake make a tourniquet, or to split a badly broken limb. On the less dramatic side of the list, it is useful for improvising shelter, fixing gear that is slowing me down and numerous other things.

I included a double arm span (about 12 or 15 feet) of cord wrapped around my box.

The Box

There is no reason the box should be just a box. I’ve seen people create these kits in all sort of things, including things as small as pill bottles or Altoids cans. I went with a little bigger container.

I have an old chemical warfare treatment kit box from assembling a kit like this as a scout. It’s high impact plastic, about the right size for what I want to put inside it and mostly water and dust proof. It is rigid so it can work as a water vessel in a pinch.

I chose a rigid box because I don’t want to discovered (in the midst of an emergency) that some of my emergency kit has been physically crushed or otherwise damaged.

The Finished Kit

My finished kit measures 4.25 by 3 by 2.25 inches and weighs just over 10 ounces, or slightly over a half pound. It can sit in a normal size lens slot inside my bag, or can get crammed in one of the unprotected outside pockets thanks to the rigid container.

Completed Emergency Hiking Kit

Photographers Emergency Survival Kit in my f-stop gear tilopa bag

As far as cost, I had many of the items lying around so it is hard to say exactly. I bought the Leatherman new today since the one I had available was bigger and heavier than I wanted. It costs around $30. The water purification tablets cost $15 for 30, or about $.50 each. Most of the other items are trivially inexpensive, although it adds up. If I had to guess, this kit would cost about $50 or $75 to assemble from scratch.