American Outdoor Guide|September 2021
Joe Alton, M.D.

Everyone has their favorite items they wouldn’t want to be without in a long-term survival scenario.

When an interviewer asks what pieces of equipment are must-haves, I immediately start asking questions: What’s the scenario—an economic collapse, a high-death-rate pandemic, a thermonuclear war? Are they staying in place or getting out of Dodge? Are they alone, with their family or in a survival group? Are there kids? Are there old folks? Sometimes, the questioner regrets having asked, but the answers to my questions factor into what you’ll need.

I don’t claim to be a bushcraft expert (my mission is medical), so my personal requirements might be different from others who wouldn’t be responsible for the health of a survival community.

In this article, though, I’ll discuss the items and skills that I’ve worked to obtain and hone in order to succeed when everything else fails. I’ll sometimes mention a brand name, but everyone is different, and their gear preferences should be the result of their own research and conclusions.

To begin, it’s worthwhile to review the famous “Rule of Threes”: You can survive three minutes without air before losing consciousness, three hours without shelter in harsh environments, three days without water and three weeks without food. Note that there are many exceptions to these rules. (For example, the record for going without air was set by a freediver in 2009: 11 minutes, 35 seconds. But you get the picture.)


Let’s say you’re not bugging out to the bottom of the ocean, so air is in abundance. However, you’ll need shelter.

A sturdy, defensible structure such as a house is the best option. The safest retreats are away from normal traffic patterns and have a clear zone surrounding them that would make the approach of others easy to notice.

On the road, you’ll need the skills to build a shelter or assemble a solid tent. Tents should be placed in the shade to avoid the deterioration that comes from exposure to the sun and bad weather. For me, the size would depend on the amount of time I’m spending in any one place and the amount of time I’m spending inside the tent. For comfort, consider allotting 20 square feet per person (although you can survive with a lot less).

A 10x12-foot tent will fit six sleeping bags (but fewer cots, because you need more space to get in and out). Most tents that size will have enough headroom, lack of which can be an issue for those required to spend a lot of time inside. (Speaking of sleeping bags, I have the standard rectangular design, because it allows for more movement and comfort. “Mummy” bags are better in colder weather than is experienced here, in south Florida.)

For sleep only, single-person tents might be preferable on the road. In any case, they should have a floor and screening that’ll keep out the creepy crawlies.

I currently have a 14x10 Coleman Instant Cabin, a 13x16 canvas Elk Mountain (These will do double duty as hospital tents for a group) and a couple of 10x10 canopies. I also have large tarps, rope and paracord that can serve to improvise shelters. These are easier for travel purposes but require skill to incorporate into solid protection against the elements.


Needless to say, you need a water source. Down here, in Florida, that isn’t a big problem, but disinfection of water is.

You’ll need reliable ways to filter water and get rid of the disease-causing organisms that live in it. The Civil War taught us that more deaths will occur from contaminated water and food off the grid than bullets and shrapnel. Learning how to disinfect and filter water properly can save your life.

Some quality water filters are very lightweight, such as the Sawyer Mini and the LifeStraw. Others are less portable but are of high quality, such as the Big Berkey. Our family has all these.

Low-tech disinfection options include boiling the water, liquid household bleach and solid calcium hypochlorite pool products that can be converted into a chlorine solution. Even so, a filter is still needed to remove particulates.

For those without ready water sources, water storage containers are very important. These come in sizes that range from 3 to more than 160 gallons. For portability, the 3-gallon containers from WaterBrick and AquaBrick stack easily. The larger containers can be found at Water Prepared (many are also stackable and come with spigots).


A sign of the times is that there are now ads for emergency food supplies on major television channels. But nothing beats having a working garden; and for those who haven’t started one, be aware that there’s a learning curve.

Once you’ve got a productive vegetable garden, there might be more food at harvest than you can consume. Our family has a pressure canner and an Excalibur dehydrator that’ll help keep surpluses edible through a long, hard winter.

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