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How To Make A Survival Kit for Van Life

A survival kit in your campervan may sound like a post-apocalyptic prepper shenanigan, but stop and think about it for a second. You’re in a tiny home on wheels, and no matter where you are in the world, you are essentially off-grid. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a cell signal.

For instance, do you know where the local hospital, police station, or firehouse is at any given time? Life is often a game of randomness and chance. No matter how old or young, healthy or otherwise, things happen. They often happen suddenly and out of left field.

With that being said, the idea of a survival kit begins to take on new meaning. Are you prepared for problems or disasters? A survival kit should be specifically tailored to life on the road, whether you’re in a big city or out in the wilderness.

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If you want to know what a useful survival kit entails, along with the right level of emergency preparedness, you’ve come to the right place.

Understanding the Basics of a Survival Kit

Human beings require four things to survive: oxygen, water, food, and sleep. Unfortunately, that just covers the basics—enough to keep you on your feet and moving forward. These four essentials aren’t enough to react to life’s many escapades. After all, a splash of water and a filet mignon isn’t helpful when your campervan is upside down in a ditch just outside a small town that doesn’t exist on a map.

Since none of us want to be in that situation, at least not for very long, here are the essentials of a basic survival kit:

  • First aid kit
  • A physical map (yes, they make maps that don’t appear on a smartphone screen)
  • A multitool
  • Emergency Blanket
  • Compass with Azimuth (A Garmin GPS-only device is acceptable)
  • Water
  • Flashlight with backup batteries
  • Radio (preferably a hand crank radio)
  • Documentation (licenses, copies of passports, insurance policies, etc.)
  • Any medications you may take
  • Basic personal hygiene items
  • Cold, hard cash
  • Basic necessities for your pets (food, extra water, records, etc.)
  • Survival whistle

That’s just the very basic survival kit. These are the things you will need for immediate survival, communication, and navigation. If you spend a lot of time off-grid, way out in the middle of nowhere, you should consider taking a land navigation course.

It’s shocking how useful a compass with an azimuth is, but you need to know how to use it and have a general understanding of how long your stride is. The American Red Cross also advises having an extra cell phone with chargers, a seven-day supply of medication (if applicable), sanitation and hygiene gear, a three-day supply of food and water, and emergency contact information.

First aid for van life encompasses more than just a physical kit but also your knowledge and understanding of basic van life safety.

Customizing Your Van Life Survival Kit

A well-organized survival kit displayed on a wooden surface. The kit includes essential items such as a can opener, canned food, jars of peanut butter and jam, a flashlight, batteries, candles, matches, green scrubbing pads, soap, a pocket knife, a radio, a whistle, a smartphone, adhesive bandages, tablets in blister packs, a roll of gauze, a dust mask, and a large bottle of water.

Now, with the understanding that all of the above are essential minimum requirements in a survival kit, you’re free to throw in a little customization. As a U.S. Marine, I have a few interesting observations to add as well.

Food and Water Supplies

Unless you just love putting together your own meals, perhaps with the use of a dehydrator, the old faithful MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) is your best bet. There are civilian and military versions of the MRE, with either containing over 1,000 calories, though the military variation usually has a higher fat content. A single MRE will cover your food intake needs for an entire day, and if stored at temperatures below 60°F, it will last up to seven years.

MREs are the perfect survival meal, with 34g of protein per pack and in a small, easy-to-store package. They’re especially useful if you strip them down (for example, you won’t need to eat your napkins, so toss them). Pack enough for three days. The Red Cross suggests a gallon of water per person, which is easy to achieve with hydration bladders, which are useful whether you’re in a survival situation or not.


A knife, a compass with an azimuth, a hatchet, and a fire starter are paramount. Hold on to lighters and matches, but don’t depend on them. A wet lighter won’t work, and matches are finite. A Ferro rod fire starter is invaluable, and they even make little pouches full of lighterd knot shavings for getting a fire going.

A knife and hatchet are good for wood gathering or self-defense, while the compass/azimuth combination will get you out of the deepest woods. It’s easy to forget that 97% of America’s land mass is rural. There are places where you can walk into the woods and never find your way back out. A good set of compact survival tools will get you through a night or two in the boonies.

First Aid, Personal Hygiene, and Emergency Shelter

First and foremost, don’t just settle for a school backpack. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, an ALICE pack with a frame, or anything with military specs is best.

School backpacks just aren’t sufficient for carrying heavy weight in the long term. All of your above gear, as well as a basic first aid kit, hygiene gear, and your emergency mobile shelter, will go in here.

An ALICE pack has a ton of room, so feel free to customize your gear. Stripping your MREs of non-essentials will help maintain space, and the frame on an ALICE pack will allow you to combine it with a hydration bladder pack. Consider trash bags, extra tools, a water filtration system, 100 yards (minimum) of paracord, a single or two-person tent, and an ISO sleeping mat.

Skills and Knowledge Enhancement

There is so much to cover here that it boggles the mind. It’s not just about survival in hostile environments, either. It’s also about basic mechanic skills and sound decision-making in high-stress scenarios. You should have a basic repair kit in your van, along with a hydraulic lift and tire-changing tools.

Knowing the best tools for specific situations is a must as well, especially where available space and weight restrictions are concerned. For instance, packing paracord is better than packing rope. Paracord is much thinner and lighter, though a single strand can hold up to 550 lbs.

Another thing that is rarely considered is boots. A salty Marine has a keen understanding of the need for good socks and boots. If you have to hike out of a hellscape, you need the footwear to get there. After all, without your feet, where are you going?

In case you’re wondering about #3, you never know what you might run into out there, and self-defense skills are useful whether you’re defending yourself from a human being or an animal.

YouTube is the immediate go-to online option for courses in basic mechanics. However, check with your friends and family. The odds are good that there is a mechanic or two in there somewhere, and you will do yourself a huge favor by learning from them. Plus, the more DIY mechanic work you can do on your van, the more money you will save.

An average mechanic costs an hourly labor charge north of $70. Solera Vehicle Solutions offers courses in auto technician and mechanic training as well.

HAM radio is a fascinating subject to delve into. With enough juice, you can communicate with HAM operators for miles around.

The benefit of HAM radio is that the many licensed operators around the country are also preppers. They will know survival skills, local weather, emergency services, and tips and tricks to get you out of a sticky situation. You will need to take courses to get your license to operate a HAM, but once you do, you can carry a handheld around with you.

At the end of the day, the best tool for your survival kit is yourself.

Maintenance and Regular Updates For Your Survival Kit

The worst thing you can do is put together your van life essentials and let it all languish in an obscure corner of the campervan for years. Don’t think for a second that metal sitting in a backpack is immune to oxidation. Water stagnates, and food spoils. Even MREs have expiration dates.

Plus, you’ll constantly come across new ideas and technologies that may be worth adding to the pack. Just don’t go full-hoarder. There are things you need and things that are best left on the store shelf.

Something like the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a phenomenal GPS survival device. But it’s not something you absolutely need when a compass and a good map will get you out of just about anywhere.

It’s a good idea to run little drills, especially if you have a significant other, a friend, or kids along for the ride. Your survival kit should always have the basics, but it is malleable to a degree. Use your best judgment as you learn new tips and tricks. Feel free to field test your equipment from time to time and make sure everything is in good working order.


When it comes to a solid survival kit, nobody thinks it will ever be them who will desperately need it one day. We watch movies, such as 127 Hours, and think, “Nah, that’ll never be me.” Well, Aron Ralston probably didn’t think it would be him either, and it cost him an arm and nearly his life.

Nature is a blast, but it’s also dangerous and must be respected. Its raw power can be our undoing in a blink. Be prepared, learn the necessary skills, and ensure that those who are with you are on the same page.

With a good survival kit ready in your van and the wherewithal to use it, nothing will ever catch you off guard. At most, it will be a mere inconvenience and an excuse for a little adventure. Stay safe!

What essential items, first aid supplies, and other items do you carry in your van survival kit? Let us know in the comments.

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