It wasn't even a proper day hunt, just an hour between dinner and dark, when I traded the sledge and the tenpenny nails I was pounding to build trout habitat for the Michigan DNR for my 97 Winchester pump. I never considered carrying anything in the way of survival gear. After all, the woodcock swamp was defined by two dirt roads and the Manistee River―a backforty of birch and cedar in which no man who called himself a jack-pinesavage could possibly get lost. That is, until he had hiked three circles―the last two in the dark―and sat down with his back to a stump as the coyotes howled in the night.
How long I shivered there I can'trecall, but at some small hour the sound of the river rose, and stumbling toward it, I reached my tent pitched above the sheen of the water. The distance to camp from where I was couldn't have been 200 yards. I've since moved from Michigan to Montana. In Montana, a hunter wouldn't think of elk hunting without a survival kit, but are conditions in Eastern woodlots that different? If my experience proves anything, it's that lost is lost and cold is cold. And if you break your leg tumbling from a tree stand, it's little comfort to know that Tiger Woods could tee up and clear the distance that stands between you and help.
So what should you carry in a back-forty survival kit? Let's start with what you shouldn't: anything that causes you to leave it behind. A folding saw might be useful for improvising shelter, but not if it causes you to walk away from your truck without your kit. What you need is a personal survival kit (PSK) that's small enough to fit in a pocket and forget about. You can buy a PSK―Adventure Medical Kits' Pocket Survival Pak ($33; adventuremedicalkits.com) is one of the best―but most contain unnecessary items, such as fishhooks and snare wire. But putting together your own custom PSK is easy. Here's how:
Choose the contents with respect to the emergencies you're likely to face. If you have gray in your beard, pack an aspirin to thin your blood in the event of a heart attack. And include personal medications, like epinephrine if you're allergic to bee stings. Also prepare for a night of exposure. Fire-building tools are a must. Spark-Lite fire starter and Tinder-Quik ($8; backcountry.com) allow you to get a flame burning with just one hand. The only downside is that the starter needs specific tinder to catch the spark: run out and you'll shiver all night. So you'll need a flame-based backup, such as wind- and waterproof matches and a striking strip. Any empty nook inside your PSK should be stuffed with tinder. Cotton balls or swabs smeared with petroleum jelly will burn for several minutes. Wrap six in wax paper, which itself can serve as tinder. Your kit should also have some folded tinfoil to use as a reflective base for starting fires on wet ground.
Other Odds and Ends
Most PSKs include asignal mirror, but you don't need one if you house your kit inside a tin box with a reflective interior surface like an Altoids case. Use the extra space to pack a "pealess" safety whistle. Its sound carries much farther than a primal scream―and it never gets hoarse. Round out the kit with a button compass, an unlubricated condom to collect water, a few chlorine or iodine tablets to purify water, and a micro photon light. The light isn't for hiking at night―which you shouldn't attempt―but rather for building and fueling a fire in the dark. One very important item I haven't mentioned is a knife. But you're a hunter, after all, and you should never hit the woods without one.
The Mini Kit
1. Aspirin and other personal medications
2. Spark-Lite fire starter and Tinder-Quik
3. Wind- and waterproof matches and striking strip
4. Cotton balls or swabs smeared with petroleum jelly and wrapped in wax paper
5. Folded tinfoil square
6. Emergency whistle
7. Button compass
8. Unlubricated condom
9. Chlorine or iodine tablets
10. Photo of a loved one for spiritual strength
11. Micro photon light
12. Altoids tin to hold contents