Any adventure in the outdoors could potentially turn into a survival situation. Lose a paddle, get lost, encounter bad weather or sustain an injury and you might be stranded outside for a night or longer. When Murphy’s Law kicks your ass, a survival kit with a few basic tools will help you roll with the punches.

To remember the items you’ll need to survive an unplanned overnighter, use your ultimate goal as an acronym: B.A.C.K. H.O.M.E.

8 Essential Survival Tools to Carry on Your Kayak

1 Blaze and Burn

Fire separates man from the wild, producing heat that can provide warmth, cook food, disinfect water and boost morale. Store a lighter and a pack of matches as well as effective tinder, such as cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly or tufts of lint from your dryer, in a waterproof container. For extra insurance, add a sparking device, such as a ferrocerium rod or magnesium fire starter, which can spark even after submersion.

man wearing PFD lights a fire using survival tools
Fire separates man from the wild, producing heat that can provide warmth, cook food, disinfect water and boost morale. | Feature photo: Jack Richland

2 All-Weather Blanket

Shelter is most important for fighting off hypothermia, a serious threat for a castaway. An all-weather blanket can be used as a roof, a floor or a sleeping bag and it folds up to fit in a pocket. Shiny Mylar reflects heat to keep a victim warm and the brightly colored material makes a highly visible signalling device.

3 Cordage

Carry at least 30 feet of 550 parachute cord. This versatile material can be used in a number of ways, including lashing together a shelter, setting a snare or even making a tourniquet. The seven inner strands can be removed to use as fishing line or sewing thread.

4 Knife

A high-quality knife is an invaluable tool. I use a four-inch, fixed blade knife with a full tang, which means the metal in the blade runs all the way through the handle. Look for a glass-reinforced nylon handle with a stainless steel bar that will cut through anything and double as a wedge or pry bar.

5 Headlamp

A waterproof headlamp will provide hands-free light through the night and its strobe function can be used to signal for help. Look for a lamp with a red lens cover to protect night vision and a low-power setting to preserve the battery.

6 Orienteering Tools

GPS is great until the battery dies or the signal is lost. A topographical map of the area, mirrored sighting compass and the knowledge to use the two should ensure you always know where you are. If you do become lost, remain in place until help arrives. The acrylic mirror on the compass can be used to signal rescuers during the day.

a collection of survival tools making up a backcountry kayak survival kit
A good survival kit carries all the comforts of home–or enough comforts to get home. | Photo: Jack Richland

7 Metal Canteen

Most people cannot survive more than three days without water. A durable, stainless steel water bottle will store and carry fresh water. It can even be used to boil water.

8 Emergency Signal

Anything a victim can do to draw attention to his location will aid rescuers. Tether a pealess marine whistle to your PFD and carry flagging tape, signal flares and a battery-operated strobe light. After all, the first priority in any survival situation is rescue.

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of Kayak Angler. Subscribe to Kayak Angler Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

Fire separates man from the wild, producing heat that can provide warmth, cook food, disinfect water and boost morale. | Feature photo: Jack Richland



  1. A note of caution about attaching your whistle to your PFD….do not attach it to the zipper pull as the whistle can catch on cockpit or other protrusions on your gunwales or cockpit, causing your jacket to become loosened or pull off if you capsize. You can also lose it in the turbulence of a waterfall as the tumbling motion of the water tugs at the whistle and works it down the zipper channel.

    Better to use a lanyard and attach to loop on PFD and keep whistle in side/chest pocket.

  2. I bring ice blocks in 2 liter soda bottles and some food with me. When the bottles are empty, stash them in the hatch for extra flotation in the event of a crack or hole in your hull. Consider carrying some flex tape. A bilge pump.
    A paddle float can assist you in keeping your kayak stable as you reenter it when you capsize your vessel. A first aid kit and a knife. A class H DSC GPS transceiver can be a blessing in an unforseen and unfortunate event on the water. Don’t go cheap on a vhf radio, it could save you life. Put your cellphone in a waterproof case. A safety flag on your kayak may aid powerboat captains see you on the water so you hopefully don’t get run over. And you just might be able to hail that captain on your handheld vhf radio if you have one. I believe in having redundant systems onboard in case an electronic unit dies.
    I have a fishfinder/GPS unit, a handheld GPS unit in addition to my class H DSC GPS transceiver. An EPIRB or a personal locator beacon. A compass. In addition to a whistle, I have a small klaxon marine horn that fits in a pocket of my pfd. Glowsticks can have multiple applications on a kayak and they fit nicely into your pfd pockets. If you go out at night, you need a white light viewable for 360° above your head that is visible for 2 nautical miles. 3 daytime/nighttime flares. Bring your kayak and your gear to a US Coast Guard station and ask for an inspection. They will inspect your vessel and tell you what you need, and what you have right.

    The most important thing that you can do is to wear your pfd. It does you no good laying on the deck if you capsize your vessel. Remember, safety, safety, safety. You can’t be replaced. Your family loves you.


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