The philosophy “you get what you pay for” is quite a double-edged sword. On one hand, an item doesn’t need to be expensive to be high-quality, while on the other hand, the quality of an expensive item can be low. Are you buying the name brand? Are you paying for expensive marketing, gimmicks, high overhead, a famous spokesperson, and the fancy packaging? A Kia works just as well as a Mercedes, right? They both have four wheels, an engine, and a seat. Isn’t a Mercedes just a Kia in a fancy package with an expensive spokesperson?
Can this same philosophy apply itself to emergency survival bags and gear? We took $50 bills and headed off to two different dollar stores to see how much survival gear we could find, if any, to decently outfit an emergency bag. Essentially, we wanted to see if we could make a Mercedes out of Kia parts. At first, we were skeptical, but once we started wandering the aisles of our local dollar stores, it became pretty clear there were dozens of things that could easily be included in our DIY cheap kit.
The parameters for most survival kits can be summed up in a few categories: food/water, shelter, fire, first aid, signaling, and safety/light. Under those categories sits an enormous array of gear. Some cross over from one category to another, as a knife can be used for both protection and for food prep, for example. Basically, if all of these categories are satisfied, you have the makings of a good kit. The problem is every single thing at the dollar store costs exactly a dollar (plus tax) and while that might be good for matches and small rolls of duct tape, that’s bad when it comes to knives and heavy-use gear that would see hard use in a survival situation.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
We decided that an emergency kit of this caliber should be kept simple. We could have purchased an entirely new outfit — shoes, pants, shirts, and hat — for a dollar each and we could have included a plethora of foodstuffs. But we decided not to. The point of our emergency pack was to have a kit that could solve a variety of situations in a short amount of time. It’s not a get-home bag or a bug-out bag, but instead a one-time-use bag, a collection of very cheap products (99 percent made in China) that will serve specific purposes in an emergency situation, such as an earthquake or tornado.
WHAT TO EXPECT
With the above in mind, don’t expect much. Though there are a host of gems on the shelves of your local dollar store, don’t go in with the idea that you’re going to climb Mount Everest with the gear you’ll find. At best, this is an illustration of gear you could use to supplement your off-the-shelf pack. That being said, about half of what be bought came in multi-packs — there were three packs of tissue, three rolls of twine, 25 feet of aluminum foil — so our purchases could have easily been spread over a couple of different packs. Keeping our six parameters in mind, we scoured the shelves for items that could be used in an emergency situation.
Food/water: The shelves of the dollar stores are littered with a wide variety of foodstuffs, from bags of chips, sodas, boxes of pasta to spices, nuts, and canned soup. Look for small cans of high-protein meats like tuna. It is helpful if the cans have pop tops so you don’t have to worry about opening them. There isn’t much in the way of water but instead lots of choices for water bottles. Find the sturdiest one with a tight seal. If it has a ring, it can be clipped to your pack as you are walking.
Shelter: Nope, no tents at the dollar store, but they do have painter’s tarps, those low-end extremely thin plastic covers you use when painting your walls. They rip easily and probably won’t make for a good emergency tent, but will keep the rain off of you and your gear in a pinch. Plus, they can be used for capturing rainwater or to make a water distiller.
Fire: There was a wide variety of fire making items available. From a box of wooden matches and lighters (two pack) to candles and a can of chafing fuel. We even found a magnifying glass.
First Aid: One thing the dollar store has in spades is first aid gear, so we put together a mini first aid kit for only a few dollars. Is it high-quality stuff? Of course not, but a cheap bandage that you have to replace every couple of hours because it won’t stick to sweaty skin is better than no bandage, right?
Safety/Light: There is no gun aisle or rack of hunting knives available at the dollar store, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a host of things that can be used as protection (including the utility knife). A large cooking knife can be used around the campfire and to fend off attackers, and a large two-tined roasting fork can be lashed to a stick and made into a fishing spear. We found several methods of light, including one powered by a ratchet mechanism.
Misc.: Canvas gloves, bungee cords, twine and nylon rope are staples of the dollar store. The pretty pink sewing kit for girls contained a dozen needles and thread. Anti-bacterial wipes, a bag of hard candy, two small boxes to seal in small gear, and essential items to keep you clean, organized and sane. Speaking of sane, a deck of cards goes a long way in keeping you mentally awake.
GO QUALITY OR GO CHEAP?
Handing over $50 at the check-out stand, we wondered if going cheap (and getting a ton of stuff) is better or worse than paying two or three times more and getting higher quality gear. How many squeezes will this ratchet flashlight take before it breaks? Can this very thin aluminum foil wrap a fish without tearing? How long before the bungee cords snap or the gloves wear through or the twine unravels? Is paying $1 for 50 bandages better than paying $50 for a fully packed first aid kit? It depends on what you can afford, as money is an object to a lot of people. Again, I’d rather have cheap bandages than no bandages.
Hazard4 Plan B Modular Sling Pack
Sometimes having a large bulky pack is more of a hindrance than help. The larger your pack, the more stuff you will put in it, logically, but the more stuff, the heavier the pack. With a smaller pack, such as the Plan B, you become more conscious about what goes in it, thereby saving weight and conserving energy.
This sling pack is designed for front or rear wear and is slim to fit the profile of the wearer and not be a bulky or obvious addition to his back. The padded sling fits perfectly over your chest and is comfortable to wear over long periods of time, and one of the main benefits of using a sling-style pack is that it can be easily switched to and from either shoulder as well as to the front with little trouble.
The Plan B has three compartments, including an additional hydration area to hold up to a 2.5 liter capacity. The small stuff pocket on the top of the pack can be used for small items one might need to access often and quickly, while the larger pocket has several sub-pockets for a variety of storage options. The main compartment runs the full height of the pack and is capable of holding more than 1,000 square inches of gear.
Made from Invista 1000D Cordura, it is PU X2 water repellent and scratch/tear resistant. It comes in black, coyote (shown), OD green, Multicam and A-Tacs.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.