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Any time you hit the trail, there are a few items you should have with you … just in case. Every year, there are numerous news stories of hikers who perished after getting lost; many of them might still be with us if they had had the forethought to carry just a few survival essentials with them. While many instructors, including me, will suggest that putting together your own survival kit from the ground up is the ideal, there are a few companies that have already done the bulk of the legwork.

I recently took the Real Steel Elementary Survival Kit for a test drive to see how it stacks up.

Unboxing the Kit

The kit comes in a nice nylon pouch that is suitable for carrying on a belt or strapped to a pack. It has a clamshell zipper that allows the kit to open flat. Except for the paracord, all the components are kept in pockets or by webbing that holds everything secure until you need them.

The Real Steel Elementary Kit opens fully and lays flat, making it easy to find what you need when you need it. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Being a knife guy, I was immediately drawn to the slim blade that is included with the kit. It is Real Steel’s Marlin knife, designed by Ostap Hel. Out of the package, it is very sharp and actually has a little more heft to it than appearance would suggest. End to end, it runs about 6.25 inches, with a blade length of about 2.5 inches. A Kydex sheath keeps the blade protected when not in use.

Every kit should have cordage, and this one includes 33 feet of paracord in a neatly wrapped bundle. It also has a nice, little sewing kit with six colors of thread and a needle. To go along with the sewing kit, there are 10 safety pins to help with repairing wardrobe malfunctions.

The Real Steel Elementary kit is very well organized, with components stored neatly in the pouch until needed. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Signaling tools are another necessity in any survival kit in order to help rescuers find you. There are two such tools in this kit. The whistle is bright orange, so it is easy to spot if it is dropped. It is plastic, rather than metal—a wise choice if there’s a chance it will be needed in cold weather. (Nobody wants to revisit the lamppost scene from the movie, A Christmas Story!) This kit also has a small heliograph. This piece of reflective material works just like a signal mirror, although it is very thin and flexible.

“Every kit should have cordage, and this one includes 33 feet of paracord in a neatly wrapped bundle.”

For shelter and warmth, there is an emergency blanket, which is a standard item in most survival kits. Real Steel has also included a small ferrocerium rod—a nice touch. Many kits will toss in a handful of strike-anywhere matches, but a ferro rod will work in any weather conditions. To aid with shelter-building, as well as firewood processing, there is a cable saw in the kit.

There isn’t much for food procurement, but that’s okay for a kit this size. There are four fishhooks with fishing line. I love how these have been stored in the kit (with the line wrapped around a piece of dense foam). This keeps the line from getting tangled and also provides a surface for the hooks to dig into and be safe.

“Signaling tools are another necessity in any survival kit in order to help rescuers find you. There are two such tools in this kit.”

Hidden in one of the pockets is a fairly nice compass, complete with neck lanyard. The magnifying lens incorporated into the compass could be used to start a fire in a pinch, too.

The pouch, itself, has room for additional items. Many small store-bought kits are so packed with supplies that there is little room for expansion or customization.

Testing the Kit

I set out to a somewhat secluded county park to play around with the kit components. (A few decades ago, this park was an expansive golf resort. It went bankrupt, closed down and sat vacant for many years. Eventually, the state purchased it and is now in the process of revitalizing it into a natural recreational area.) I like hiking there because the abandoned buildings give the whole place a post-apocalyptic feel. I guess I’m still a kid at heart.

I started with the whistle. I don’t have equipment to measure decibels, but a couple of quick blasts were loud enough to get my ears ringing. I’m sure the guys hunting in the vicinity appreciated it too. However, the heliograph didn’t work quite as well as a true signal mirror would.

The whistle was loud enough to cause ears to ring in the immediate vicinity. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The heliograph isn’t as rigid or sturdy as a true signal mirror, but it will do the job in a pinch. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Hold the heliograph in one hand and tilt it until a reflection is seen on the outstretched hand. Use a V shape with your fingers to sight your target. Then line up the reflection with the V. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The Ostap Hel knife was razor-sharp right out of the kit. Its size prohibits any heavy chores, but it worked quite well cutting cordage and such. Given the bare handle, one would want to use gloves when using the knife in cold weather.

The Ostap Hel knife is a great addition to the Real Steel Elementary Kit and helps rank the kit much higher than the competition at this price point. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The paracord included in the kit is true, seven-strand cordage. This means there are seven thinner cords inside the nylon sheath or outer covering. This makes the cordage very strong. Plus, it gives you options. If a thin string were needed, such as for a snare, it could be removed from a length of paracord, leaving the remaining strands intact.

When I unfolded the 51×82-inch emergency blanket, it was readily apparent it is a single-time use item. While it certainly works well at reflecting and retaining body heat to keep you warm, it is very thin and will not stand up to any abuse. For a night out in the cold, it will be fine. For a week straight, perhaps not so much.

An emergency blanket is a necessary and expected component in any survival kit. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The saw worked very well on some brush. It was easy to unravel, and there were no snarls or snags when doing so. It dug in deep with the first pass and cut through the branches quickly. Best of all, it coiled back up easily and fit nicely back into the small plastic bag it came in.

The cable saw dug into a branch quickly and cut completely through with very little effort. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The safety pins and sewing kit are all standard; nothing fancy or unusual. The fish hooks are small—size 8 or thereabouts. This is a good thing, because it is easier to catch a big fish with a small hook than it is to catch a small fish with a big hook. In other words, a smaller hook gives you more opportunities to land dinner.

The Real Steel Elementary Kit comes with a very serviceable compass that also has a magnifying lens suitable for most outdoor pursuits. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The compass pointed north every time I checked it, both out on my hike, as well as around home. The bezel also rotates (for those who know how to incorporate that feature into their navigation endeavors). This is a much better compass than the little button-style ones often included in kits this size.

The stiff foam carrier is perfect for storing the fish hooks and line so nothing gets snagged or tangled. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

All in all, it is a good little kit. The knife is far better than the thin razor-blade knives one usually finds in kits at this price point. I like the inclusion of a ferrocerium rod rather than matches, although I would still add a couple of disposable lighters to the kit. The compass is better than those you generally find in most kits. I’d swap out the emergency blanket for something a little more robust and also include a signal mirror instead of the heliograph included in this kit.

A small sewing kit takes up almost no space but could prove to be very valuable if there is a wardrobe malfunction or if a minor tent or pack repair is needed. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Nevertheless, no kit is ever perfect for everyone, but this one comes pretty close for a starter model.

  • Pouch height: 8 inches
  • Pouch width: 5.5 inches
  • Pouch thickness: 2.5 inches
  • Weight: 13.49 ounces
  • MSRP: $49.50

Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife

In addition to the Elementary Kit, I was also provided with Real Steel’s Bushcraft Plus fixed-blade knife. This is a heavy-duty knife with a drop-point blade profile. The Scandi grind is perfectly suited for many bushcraft chores, including wood carving. The knife runs 9.44 inches from end to end, with a 4.56-inch blade that is 0.18 inch thick at the spine and through the handle.

The Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife is robust, sturdy and razor-sharp out of the box. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The Bushcraft Plus is a full-tang knife constructed of 14C25N steel with G10 scales. There is jimping along the first 0.75 inch of the spine ahead of the handle. The jimping isn’t so aggressive as to be uncomfortable under the thumb; it is just enough to provide some traction.

While the Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife is a classically designed bushcraft knife, it would be equally at home in an urban environment. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The handle is nicely contoured with slight palm swells. The scales are lightly textured to help maintain a positive grip. There is a lanyard attachment point at the butt end of the handle.

The hidden compartment in the handle is large enough for a bit of tinder, giving you an extra advantage should you get in trouble on the trail. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Weighing in at 6.56 ounces, the Bushcraft Plus is a robust knife. It comes with a nylon sheath that has a Kydex insert for the knife. The knife locks into place with a “click,” and there is also a hook-and-loop retention strap to further secure it. The sheath has numerous methods of attachment, allowing the user a wide range of potential carry options —from belt to pack. There is a small pouch on the front of the sheath in which one could store a few items, such as a sharpening stone or a small ferrocerium rod. The pouch is secured by a buckle.

Along the base of the spine is a section of jimping for helping maintain control of the Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Almost hidden at the end of the handle is a lanyard attachment point. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

“The Ostap Hel knife was razor-sharp right out of the kit.”

The Kydex insert is removable if the user wishes to go that route. With numerous lashing points, the Kydex insert could be easily strapped to a pack.

This small wrench is needed to remove the screws and access the hidden compartment in the handle. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Among the unique features of the Bushcraft Plus is that it comes with a small wrench. This is used to unscrew the pins on the handle. One of the scales can then be removed, revealing a small storage compartment. This hollow area is about 2.625 inches long, 0.625 inch wide and 0.25 inch deep. It isn’t large by any stretch, but a user could easily stash a little tinder or something similar inside. This compartment isn’t waterproof, however, so wrapping the tinder in plastic might be wise.

The Kydex blade insert can be removed from the nylon sheath if desired and used separately. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

“Overall, the Bushcraft Plus is a good-quality knife at a very affordable price. It is perfectly suited for typical camp and outdoor chores.”

The pouch on the Bushcraft Plus’s sheath is large enough for a disposable lighter or a small sharpening stone. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Stress Tests

Throughout testing, I found the Bushcraft Plus Knife to be comfortable in the hand. I experienced no hot spots at all, despite using it in a variety of grips. To gauge the reliability of the knife, I subjected it to three basic tests.

Batoning. This is always a divisive issue: to baton or not to baton? Whether or not you use this technique for processing wood, it is a good test of a knife’s ruggedness.

A Scandi grind on the Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife makes batoning an easy chore. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

I drove the blade through a few pieces of wood without any issues at all. The Scandi grind helped the blade sink deep with every strike on the spine. I checked the blade after batoning; it remained extremely sharp, with no chips or rolls the entire length. I’ll call it 10 out of 10.

Carving. I hesitate to call it “feather sticking,” simply because the shavings invariably get cut off before I get to the beautiful bloom you’ll see on some websites. Realistically, it is a question of whether the knife can easily shave tinder from a branch. The Bushcraft Plus performed very well in this test, despite having just been pounded through firewood. The blade continued to keep its edge throughout. Another 10 out of 10.

Shaving and carving a branch were no trouble at all for the Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Prying. This was a slight issue with this knife. The test consists of driving the point into a stump by hand and then prying it to the side. After about a dozen times, I noticed the tip had deformed ever so slightly. While this is nowhere near a catastrophic failure, it is something worth noting. I’d score this a 7 out of 10.

Using the knife point to pry into wood resulted in minor damage to the point. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

The damage to the point is miniscule—but definitely noticeable. (Photo: Jim Cobb)

Overall, the Bushcraft Plus is a good-quality knife at a very affordable price. It is perfectly suited for typical camp and outdoor chores. The hidden storage in the handle is an interesting feature that gives the knife a leg up against other knives at this price point.

“Among the unique features of the Bushcraft Plus is that it comes with a small wrench. This is used to unscrew the pins on the handle. One of the scales can then be removed, revealing a small storage compartment.”

Real Steel Bushcraft Plus Knife Specifications

  • Overall length: 9.44 inches
  • Blade length: 4.56 inches
  • Steel: 14C28N
  • Handle scales: G10
  • Sheath: Two-part belt/pack mountable
  • Weight: 6.56 ounces
  • MSRP: $119

Kit Customization Ideas

No store-bought kit will ever be perfect for every user right out of the box. Expect to add your own personal additions to make the kit unique and suited for your needs.

Here are some suggestions:

Disposable lighter: Keep at least two of these in every kit. Stick to the brand names for better quality. While ferrocerium rods, flint and steel, and strike-anywhere matches are all great options, a simple lighter will get the fire going quickly most of the time. Save the ferro rod for when the weather turns foul and your lighter isn’t working properly.

Tinder: Use scrounged resources such as plant fluff when you can, but be sure to have a supply of tinder in your kit in case those sources aren’t available. Simple dryer lint or cotton balls smeared with petroleum jelly will work just fine.

Flashlight: A portable light source will be quite handy if you end up spending the night in the field. A small flashlight with a set of spare batteries won’t take up much space or contribute more than a few ounces of weight. A Cyalume SnapLight or two might also be beneficial, both as a light source as well as an emergency signal.

Duct tape: This item is always good to have on hand for making fast repairs to clothing, tents and other items. Roll it onto a pencil or something similar for storing in the kit.

Empty zipper-type sandwich bags: These are great for storing tinder, wild edibles and other resources you scavenge along your way.

Water filter: A small water filter is a necessity in all but the tiniest of kits. Dehydration can be a very serious threat. A Sawyer MINI or similar-sized filter would fit just fine in a kit this size.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.