Top 10 Critical Survival Items
“Don’t rely on luck for your survival — take robust, reliable and redundant critical items into the wilderness with you.”

The 15 Critical Survival Items is a list of Survival Equipment that can help your survival in the Canadian Wilderness. The more quality Critical Items you Carry the easier time you will have Surviving. Unfortunately the more survival gear you take the less likely you are to actually carry the items with you, so compromises are required.

Not all Items are needed each time you travel into the wilderness. The harsher and more barren environment the More Items You Need. Large amounts of Food & Fuel may be needed to survive for extended periods of time. The 15 Critical Survival Items are ranked in order of priority, they are the most important items you can carry in the wilderness. These priorities may change from time to time depending on the situation, season or weather and a few extra items may be need for a specific environment. The Top 3 Items: Proper Clothing, Means to Light a Fire, and a Survival Knife are the Most Important.

Learn more about the Top 3 Critical Survival Items

Top 8 Critical Survival Items, Always Carried

These items are critical in nearly all cold weather northern survival situations and should be carried on your body at all times with whatever means you need to keep them secure and handy.

Critical Item #1: Proper Clothing

Proper Clothing

Dress for the Worst Conditions you may Encounter. Even just a Toque and Rain Jacket can make the difference. Remember the basic rule of Dressing for the Cold: Dress in Loose, Layered Clothing, wear wool or synthetic underwear as your Wicking Layer, wear fleece/pile or wool as your Insulative Layers and wear a good quality Shell Layer which protects areas of high heat loss. Never Wear Any Cotton Insulated Clothing or use Cotton to keep Warm in Cold or Wet Weather.

Cold Weather Head Gear & Toques — Focus on Survival Gear
Insulated Mitts — Focus on Survival Gear
Parkas and Winter Jackets — Focus on Survival Gear

Critical Item #2: Means to Light a Fire

Means to Make Fire

Do Not Take Chances, Carry 3 Robust Redundant Fire Lighting Tools with you. Matches should be Carried in a Waterproof Container with an "O" Ring Seal. A Striker is an Excellent 2nd Item, Carry it Tied to a String around your Neck. A Lighter is an excellent 3rd item to Carry. Always supplement your 3 Fire Lighting Tools with Tinder and a few Fire Lighting Aids and a candle.

Learn How-to Light Strike Anywhere Matches
Learn How-to Use a Pocket Lighter Properly
Learn How-to Use a Striker Properly

Critical Item #3: Survival Knife

Assortment of Carbon Steel Survival Knife

Carry a High-Quality Carbon Steel Survival Knife. Your choice of a good Survival Knife is vital to your survival. My recommendation survival knife is still an 8cm carbon steel Mora Knife 511. That's the one with the Red Plastic Handle in the picture. This knife has a carbon steel blade that is strong enough to cut down trees and comes razor sharp. It works great when used with a Baton. Attach the Knife’s Sheath to a String and Wear it Around Your Neck, along with a Whistle, Match container and a Striker.

Picking a Proper Survival Knife

Critical Item #4: Whistle

Assortment of Plastic Pea Less Whistle

Always carry a good quality Pea-less Plastic Whistle. It should be carried around your neck on a string along with other Critical Survival Items. Three of anything is the Universal Distress Signal, which takes its root from Morse Code’s SOS (••• — — — •••). Blow your whistle three times three, using 5 second blasts when in distress. Repeat your whistle blasts at regular clockwork intervals using the 3×3 pattern, every 15 minutes or on the hour, etc. and keep this up until you are rescued.

Critical Item #5: Personal First Aid Kit

Personal First Aid Kit

Everyone in the wilderness should carry a Personal First Aid Kit at all times. It is a basic critical item that should not be left at home or in the car. Always carry enough Pressure Dressing to stop the bleeding from a wound caused by the biggest weapon you carry. All kits should be stocked specifically for wilderness travel with idea that you may become stranded in the wilderness for an extended period of time. Pick the equipment you take wisely, take a Wilderness First Aid Course before you leave and consult a physician about any medical problems or concerns before you pack you kit or leaving for any wilderness trips.

Critical Item #6: Compass

Liquid Filled Sighting Compass

A quality, liquid-filled sighting compass is essential as an aid to navigation. I recommend a genuine Silva Expedition 15TDCL 360, produced in Sweden by Silva AG (the real Silva company), makers of the best compasses in the world. These compasses need to be purchased in Europe. I personally have bought two recently in the UK and it was worth the hassle. If you cannot get one, then a close second is a SUUNTO MC-2, which are readily available across the country.

Critical Item #7: Cord

2m of Strong Cord

Carry with you two 3m plus sections of good quality nylon cord or small-diameter climbing accessory cord. Each section can be up to 15m if possible. Lightweight cord is okay, but the quality of the cord makes a big difference. Do not buy cheap, thin or weak cord. Backup your cord with 3m of duct tape and 1.5m of light wire. Remember that duct tape can be rolled onto your knife sheath and waterproof match container for easy storage and quick retrieval.

Critical Item #8: Signal Mirror

Glass amp; Plastic Signal Mirror

Always carry a high quality glass signal mirror or heliograph, with you. Glass mirrors always work better than the easily available plastic alternative. They may look like they work, but practice with both and you will quickly see that glass mirrors are the only choice. I recommend placing it with your personal first aid kit to shelter it from damage

Number 9 & 10, Hard to Replicated in the Wilderness

These items you can technically live without, but that you cannot replicate in the woods. Your survival will be will be much harder without them, especially over the medium or long term in cold weather.

Critical Item #9: Cooking Pot

2L plus Cooking Pot

A Decent 2 Liter Pot with a Bail and Lid will make all the difference in a survival situation. This is especially true in winter. Taking along a single-walled wide-mouthed Metal Water Bottle instead of Plastic can be a Lifesaver. I always Tie a Wire or Hose Clamp around the top and then feed in 2 Small Rings so a Wire or String can easily be attached as a bail. If you cannot find a good pot in an outdoor store, what I do is simply buy a stainless steel stewing pot and drill two holes in the rim and attach a wire. This works very well and is a great inexensive alternative to an inexpensive pot with no proper bail.

Learn why the Cooking Pot is a Critical Survival Item

Critical Item #10: Bow Saw

Bow Saw

A metal-framed bowsaw is lighter, easier to use and requires one-quarter the KCal to cut through 10cm+ log than using an axe does. When collecting firewood, a saw is much safer and will allow you to cut bigger trees. A Bow Saw will make any survival situation easier and in a very cold situation may make the difference between life and death. I recommend using a 50cm Bow Saw instead on an axe of hatchet.

Why a Bow Saw is a Critical Item

Number 11 to 14, Preparing for Complications

These Items will Save your Life in Critical Situations or Unforeseen Complications come along with a Survival Situation. What happens when you or a companion is sick, injured or you are unable to light a fire. These items are always useful whenever you travel to make a Survival Situation Easier and More Comfortable.

Critical Item #11: Shelter


Take along a Shelter appropriate to the Weather and Conditions. Remember that Winter Shelters require wood or snow to build, along with tools. In summer a Poncho is an excellent Improvised Shelter because it is multipurpose and versatile. In winter carry the materials for a single-person super shelter, see Chapter 6 of my Book, Canadian Wilderness Survival for more information on how to build this excellent shelter.

Critical Item #12: Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Bag and Protective Cover

A Quality Synthetic-Filled Mummy Bag will allow you to live without a fire or in a snow shelter in harsh conditions. A sleeping bag is a lifesaver if you are injured or unable to light a fire. It is also an excellent item over the Medium or Long-Term because it will allow you to get more uninterrupted sleep at night.

Sleeping Bags — Focus on Survival Gear

Critical Item #13: Mattress

Insulative Mattress

A self-inflating mattress or Ensolite foam pad will insulate you from heat loss due to conduction, add insulation to or replace an evergreen bough bed, and is available quickly in an emergency. A half-sized or quarter-sized Ensolite pad can be taken instead of a full-sized pad to save room. Don’t forget to use the foam pad on the back of your internal framed backpack if you need more insulation from the ground

Critical Item #14: Daypack or Waterproof Container

Backpack or Waterproof Container

Take along a pack or waterproof container big enough and sturdy enough to carry the 15 Critical Items in it. A backpack or daypack works well as you can always use it to move the items around with you or to walk out if it becomes necessary. If using a watercraft carry as much as you can in your Lifejacket and secure the rest into your watercraft so it does not float away. Gear that is not secured to something will be missing when you need it. Make sure that you waterproof everything inside your pack using strong plastic bags or waterproof stuff sacks. Gear that is not properly waterproofed will fail you when you need it the most.

Number 15, Living is Easy

Critical Item #15: Extra Items

Extra Items: Head Lamp & Hand Warmers

Extra Items will come in handy during a survival situation to make you more comfortable or simply make it easier to survive. These include a Headlamp, Hand Warmers, 500 KCal of High Energy Food, Water Purification Gear, an extra layer of Warm Clothing, a Candle, and Leather Gloves. Don't underestimate your need for these extra items in harsh, barren or in environments with limited biomass.

Extra Items: Energy Foood & Water Purification Gear

These items will make you life easier, especially if you are stranded and have one or more complication. These items are often season and environment specific. The only thing that stop you from taking more of these items to the overall amount of weight you can carry.

Headlamps — Focus on Survival Gear

Why Carry the 15 Critical Items?

It is Essential that Every Items you Take into the Wilderness is Actually Useful to your Survival. Most people think only of taking a small wilderness survival kit when they should instead consider taking proper critical wilderness survival items. Fishing or sewing kit may help you survive in a few limited scenarios, but will not save your life. They will only allow you to fish or sew. It will be proper clothing, matches, a survival knife, a whistle and a First Aid Kit that will save your life not the contents of a fishing kit!

Decide what critical survival items you need and always carry them, not a small PLACEBO KIT filled with trinkets and toys. What you take into the wilderness is critical to your survival, although your most precious possession is the mitigative learning and experience in your brain.

Carry the Critical Survival Items You Need to Help Ensure Your Survival and Leave the Toy Survival Kits on the Shelves of the Stores that Sell Them. This does not mean that you cannot Carry or Build a Good Survival Kit, it means that that Kit should contain Critical Items and any extra items that would be useful in your environment that you can cram into it.

Additional Survival Equipment Resources

Article by (, Updated 12th March 2021)
Chief Instructor of the Boreal Wilderness Institute