Essential Gear: The Basic Carryall

The survivor in a long term survival situation is going to prepare by being able to carry the essentials in a comfortable and efficient fashion.   Given higher threat level scenarios, smart players are going to gravitate toward the same basic loads that military infantrymen and recon scouts will carry.   The balancing act is on the completeness of the load, the load being light weight enough that it is not too much of a burden,  and the utility of it all.   

On the cheap side is military surplus web gear.  It has not changed much in over thirty years and is the mainstay of most survivalists.  I personally don't like the stuff.   Nearly all serious fighters in the world now use combat vests.  I don't know who started using them first, but from what I have seen, they first became popular with mercenaries in the African bush wars of the 1970's.  The Israelis picked up on the idea with improved web gear and mercenaries carried their ideas to law enforcement in the early 1980's.  From there it went to special military units and several small companies began marketing the stuff directly to soldiers, mercenaries and police in the 1980's.  Most vests vary from maker to maker, with many being custom made.  

I do not think that you need to go absolute high end in getting a custom combat vest if it is for emergency or occasional use, but do get something that will carry ammo, spare magazines, a knife, some basic gun cleaning items and a pocket tool like the Leatherman.  Also include some sort of water carrier, whether it is a canteen or something like the new Camelback or Waterduck system.  The name brands of choice for this gear are Eagle and Blackhawk, but that is not to say that other makers make bad vests.  I have seen old Serbian women making perfectly good combat vests for their sons and grandsons that are every bit as good as those issued to the US Navy SEALs.  Again, the price and quality differences on these vests can be as relative as the price and quality differences in leather jackets, with prices being pretty comparable.   Figure that decent vests will start at around $100,  and top out around $350 for the semi-custom high end gear.   Add-on belts and pouches will set you back another $10 to $150 depending on how much you throw into it.   You can get really crazy and have $800 tied up into a vest rig that is not even bulletproof, or go all the way to top ballistic protection in addition to carrying all sorts of stuff with a vest in the $1800 range.  

There is a newer generation of modular vests hitting the market which will allow the user to custom configure the loadout according to what weapons and items the person will carry.  In my opinion, these are more for the professional user than the survivalist, but a survivalist can still get some utility out of these vests.   One reason I still favor the TAC-1 vests and their clones is that they involve less material and therefore less weight.  You can't change the pockets on the vest around but if you are not using some of them, you can just as well leave them empty.   

One of the best modular vests to hit the market is the Specops Brand Battle Rig.  It integrates the best features of PALS/Molle docking systems with their own X system to make a modular vest that wears like a hybrid between the load bearing vest and tactical vest.   For more information about the Specops Brand Battle Rig, CLICK HERE

The vest will have pockets for ammo and gear and usually some external attachment points for other gear like radio or knife pouches.   Most vests have an adjustable fit which can be important as you wear different garments under the vest.  When in doubt, by the next larger size to leave room for clothes and body armor underneath.   This rig is loaded down with a survival/recon load.  Not enough ammo to go and start a gun battle, but enough to last for a while, and with conservation, it would last a long time.   The essentials on this rig include night vision goggles which take up a fairly large pouch when packed with the accessories, a pistol in a holster with a lowered extension, and one canteen.   This rig is very uncomfortable to wear in a vehicle, and an improvement would be to make the buttpack more easily detachable.   A canteen with canteen cup is good for basic water, but anything beyond that and you probably want to upgrade to one of the new hydration packs.  The only thing about that is you don't want to store the hydration pack with the bladder full of water.   Canteens are also a lot easier to clean and maintain, not to mention infinitely more durable.   NEVER depend entirely on a hydration bladder for your water supply.   

A combat vest should be able to hold a decent amount of ammo for whatever guns it will be used with.   Other items should include a compact portable gun cleaning kit, a flashlight,  a first aid kit, some kind of water container, and at least one good knife/ tool set.    The South African vest to the right is an example of a military surplus vest that has some minor modifications for "survivalist" use.    This sort of vest is very good for a survivalist who does not want to get too much into the paramilitary look but still retain the function of a load bearing vest.   Some minor modifications to the magazine pouches are done to bring the total capacity of the vest up to ten magazines plus an assortment of survival gear.   One unique feature of the South African vest is that it does not use or interface with a standard GI Pistol belt   That enables the wearer to use a conventional trouser belt to suspend additional pouches and holsters, although the "drop leg" style will be the most comfortable while the person is wearing the vest.   

Detail of one slightly modified magazine pouch here show how the flaps were sewn together and a divider removed to make two smaller pouches into one larger pouch.   Remove most, if not all, of the dividers in the magazine pouches to enhance capacity.   

A layered approach is getting popular with some military units and the theory can translate over to survivalist use when you look at how it is laid out.   The tactical pack, chest harness, and belt load system breaks this whole deal up into three component sets.   First is the set of items that you would normally keep in your pockets and hanging on your belt.   For the survivalist, that is likely going to be a pistol, some pistol mags, a knife, flashlight, and folding pliers tool of some sort.   This can be done with either belt level or thigh level pouches that mount from the belt.   This stuff never really leaves your body.   Second comes the chest rig which is a fairly simple harness assembly that hangs like a reverse backpack of sorts, but has multiple pouches and or pockets primarily for rifle magazines and some essential gear that you do not always need to be using.    The chest rig may only be carried when you are carrying a rifle or moving some distance away from your vehicle where you keep other resources.   It would also be something you .leave reasonably accessible while working at the retreat.   Last is a small to medium backpack, sometimes called the "assault pack" that you keep a lot of your basic load stuff in.   The idea behind this kind of loadout is that you are NOT integrating it with a large rucksack that you would be living out of, but rather the long term overnight type stuff is either left at home, the retreat, or in the vehicle.   A lot of urban survivors, military and police operators are going to this type of setup because they find certain aspects of survival are usually taken care of in their environments.   Shelter is usually easy to find, so there is little reason to carry a shelter.   Given the ready availability of climate controlled shelter and the fact that bedding down is unlikely until they get back to the vehicle or home base, no sleeping bag is carried, also little or no complete change of clothes, although a change of socks and underwear might be in order.   Food and water loads also tend to be fairly light with this setup, with the bulk of food and water either kept at home base or in the vehicle.    Most commonly, water is provided with a single canteen or hydration pack.  

In many lower threat level and general readiness scenarios, a paramilitary outfit is socially unacceptable.  In these situations, you will need an alternative to the combat vest that is light enough for convenient carry but still holds the items you need.  I have found the soft briefcases that are commonly available from yuppie camping stores to be very well suited for this.  They are rugged enough for the wilderness but made for everyday practical use.  I see them most often carried by people who commute by bus and need to be able to carry a days worth of personal items on foot.  These bags come in varying sizes, but usually follow the same overall shape.  Even one of the smaller ones will carry what you would normally carry on a combat vest or webgear.  The advantage is that if you are carrying one of these bags along the road, nobody is going to call the police and say there is a militia nutcase running around.  Better versions of these bags are engineered to carry a lot of weight and items with pronounced corners (college textbooks) so they will heavy duty fasteners and buckles.  Look for one with a wide, heavy duty shoulder strap with re-enforced ends.   The bag in the picture is typical of what is available from REI.   Bags of this type are probably your better choice when traveling as a "civilian" and there is a functional government to contend with in urban areas.   

A traveler's vest is another alternative, but these are usually not built as rugged as a combat vest.  You have to obtain one in your size compared to combat vests which are usually very adjustable.  The traveler's vest will probably not have perfectly sized magazine pockets, but some vests will have pockets that can work or be modified to work.  If your survival rifle does not take a detachable magazine, then one of the zippered pockets in this type of vest will work fine.  The vest is not too paramilitary looking and you can get them sized so that they can easily help to conceal a handgun in either a shoulder holster or belt holster.   Some of these vests are custom made with internal holsters and you can add ballistic panels.  The vest in the picture is from REI, but several makes and models are available from most major clothing retailers.   The main effective difference between these traveler's/journalist vests and a combat vest is that the traveler's vest is not set up to hold the weight of loaded magazines and ammunition in the amounts you might normally see carried in a combat vest.   Thus, the traveler's vest is most appropriate when you are going about unarmed or lightly armed.   Many of these types of vests are set up long enough to conceal a handgun that is worn on a fast draw belt holster.  

Survivors might also see the wisdom in adapting popular civilian 'extreme sports' gear to serve as survival gear.   One piece of sports equipment that has found its way into military use is the Camelback Hydration system.  It is very similar to an improvised drinking system invented by Special Forces troops in the 1980s.   Modern versions and copies of the Camelback come with a small built in backpack that can serve as the basis for a non-military looking web gear.   In addition to not looking like military equipment, civilian hydration packs are usually lighter weight and more comfortable.   As rule, civilian field equipment is usually more advanced than military field gear because civilian suppliers do not have a captive market with limited choices.   Civilian field gear producers know that they need to make newer and better stuff at better prices in order to stay on top of the market.  The package pictured here is for light traveling, but it will get the job done.   Note that this survivor uses a full flap type holster to protect the gun, rather than a fast draw or concealment type holsters.   Paramilitary holsters of this design allow for good retention and protection of the gun while not impeding movement for physical work or other activities.   Many people who habitually carry pistols in concealment type holsters find that concealment often has a price paid for in mobility and comfort.   

A few companies make decent 'range bags' that can fit this purpose, but I have found them to be just a little bit on the small side and are not built to be carried long distances for a long time.  Thus, you can load them heavy with ammo for a short walk from the vehicle to the range, but for a patrol or bugout situation, forget it.   The shoulder straps will likely blow out in just a few hours.   One feature of most range bags is that they have a padded compartment for a handgun.   This adds bulk to the bag and takes up space, but it does protect the contents from damage.  My other problem with most range bags is that most really do not have a good heavy duty shoulder strap.   A good alternative would be a padded carry case that is made for a laptop computer.   They are usually made in the size and shape of a large soft briefcase and come with a good heavy duty shoulder strap.  In addition, many have some form of security like a locking latch and even security cables that can be attached to a desk or other fixed object.  These usually have a fair number of internal compartments and can be customized fairly easily.  Not to mention that it is perfectly normal to see someone carrying one of these cases around and it will not arouse much suspicion.   The issue is that you will not be able to carry quite as much stuff in a shoulder bag as you would on a combat vest.  

On the issue of knives, I want to keep this as simple as possible.   Huge books have been written on survival knives.   I have read many and even used the advice found in some.   A survivor's knife tool set should include three basic  items.    First is a pocket tool like the Leatherman or SOG or Gerber tool.  Second is a decent folding lock blade knife like a Spyderco, Gerber or Buck.  Try to get one with at least a partially serrated blade.    Last is a fixed blade knife like a USMC Ka-Bar.   I recommend against a stiletto style fighting knife like the  Sykes Fairbairn or the Gerber MK1 since they have limited utility.   My opinion on the total hands down winners for pocket cutlery and tools are the Applegate combat folder and the Leatherman Wave. 

Knives are generally carried on the combat vest or webgear, with the exception of your multi-tool and a folding knife, both of which will probably find their way to your pants pockets.   Your choice of knife is a very individual issue that will be affected mostly by what you are comfortable with, can afford, and what you are likely to be doing with the knife. The knives to the right are general utility knives.  In most cases, you should favor the utility knife since dedicated fighting knives are often too delicate for day to day chores like cutting wood, opening boxes and skinning animals.   While these can be formidable weapons, they are not specifically designed as such and the blade steel is usually made to retain a working edge for mundane chores.   I personally test all of my field knives first by using them in the kitchen.   This has led to my conclusion that the most versatile and cost effective models all follow the same basic bowie blade design, with one of the best being the traditional Ka-Bar USMC knife and copies of it.   In my own foray into knife design, I have come up with a unique large knife design, but without mass production to lower cost, the $400 price tag is impractical, and even my prototype has found its way to the display mantle instead of my loadout gear.   

These knives are designed strictly as fighting knives.  The feature long slender double edged blades and very sharp points.  The are well balanced for throwing but the tips are often brittle or easily bent.  The Gerber MKII was introduced in the Vietnam war as a commercial improvement on the Sykes Fairbairn commando knife of WWII fame (middle).  The lower knife is a "sleeve dagger" of limited fighting value and almost no utility value, but it is easily concealed and lightweight.   It is mainly for use in conditions where the carrying of other weapons is impossible or impractical.   While these knives are among the best fighting knives ever made, especially the Gerber (top), they have limited utility for the survivor.   These are from my knife collection, but would be very unlikely to be included with a survival kit.   

Bayonets can be a decent compromise between a fighting knife and a utility knife.   There are hundreds of designs and patterns available, but these are two common examples.  The upper is an M16 bayonet and the lower is a fairly standard AK47 bayonet.  The AK47 bayonet is more practical, but the blade steel is of questionable quality and the sheath is not very well made.  One good feature it has is that the knife and the sheath snap together for use as a wire cutter that is even insulated for use on electrified wire fence.   The newer US military M9 bayonets and knockoffs are actually pretty good survival knives, and quite versatile with the strong wire cutter and saw features. 

One important item for a survivor or militia member to have with the combat carryall is a compact two way radio.  These can vary in price from a $15 Radio Shack walkie-talkie to a high tech digitally synthesized HAM radio that can be used to communicate around the world.  An example of this is pictured to the left.  Many commercially available 'amateur' radios can  be modified to transmit on a much wider range of channels than intended by the FCC.  Others are available in Europe and Asia with the expanded frequency performance off the shelf.  It is vitally important for militia type organizations to have a commo plan that involves as many individuals as possible.  This may even include the use of the excellent Nextel cell phones by survival team members.  The Nextel phones can be configured to operate in a fairly secure radio mode with a respectable level of data scrambling.   

This brings to mind the fairly recent riots/demonstrations in Seattle and Washington DC where police were ordered to search all backpacks in the contained area.   The police were not able to frisk everybody and business people with briefcases (and computer bags) were mostly left alone.   A person wearing a combat vest in the open would no doubt be a target, but a combat vest under a light nylon windbreaker would probably not gain much attention from a distance.  The vest is almost unnoticeable when worn under a heavy coat in cold weather.   The game of course, is to keep the extra bulk to a minimum and ditch items that you will likely not need in an urban environment.  

Some thoughts come to mind when putting together a basic load that would be in a go-bag or survival vest.  If you are not assuming a combat role, then it is wise to lighten the magazine and ammunition load you will carry.  Many survivalists take lessons from experienced combat troops in past wars to determine what would be carried on a survival loadout.  Reality is that even most infantry skirmishes are settled in one to three magazines.  The great majority of gunfights that involve civilians or police are settled in one magazine.  Assuming you would have a rifle that takes some high capacity magazines, you might want to consider some of these comparisons of one example.   In these pictures, we see magazines and a small cache set up for the AK-74/SAR-2/Krinkov 5.45 mm system.   

On the left we see a loadout of nine magazines.  Given a tenth loaded magazine in the rifle, that is 300 rounds on tap.  Plenty for your average workday in Beirut, but way too cumbersome for running fast and light on daily errands or work details around a survival retreat.   On the right, is a loadout of three magazines and three packs of stripper clips each with enough ammo to load a magazine twice.  Assuming that your magazines will be loaded and you have one loaded magazine in the rifle, you still have 300 rounds available which is plenty, but you reduce the bulk of the load by around half.   Note, this sort of compacting of your load is good for survival, but if you are really heading into a war zone, you probably do want all of the extra magazines that you can get a hold of.  I guess that brings the real question about how you would plan on realistically dealing with hostile situations.   Longevity as an individual has the smart money betting on short violent encounters, then breaking contact.   If you are on a mission to take and hold an objective, then you will likely need more and better supplies.  

Here is another example of how the ammo loaded on stripper clips saves bulk.  Enough ammo to load two magazines can be carried in the space that just one magazine takes up.  That can cut your load by a third or increase your ammo by a third, depending on how you look at it.  A sealed cache of ammo and mags like the one on the right can be placed in a backpack in case you need to bring up more supply later on, but it would not be necessary to carry that much on the vest for normal peaceable activities or even most security operations.  

Given a basic ready load of guns and ammo to be carried in the vest, or basic gun bag, the survivor should be able to carry the following apart form a bugout bag or regular camping gear.   There should be space left over for other items the user deems important like commo gear and special equipment.  

3 to 6 rifle magazines, at least half loaded, or 20 to 50 assorted shotgun shells for the primary long gun.  

The ammo load is largely going to be determined by your likelihood of encountering hostility.  

2 Pistol magazines or 2 speed loaders for the primary handgun for a survival load.   A military fighting load will be as many as seven magazines.  Trigger lock for any gun that will be temporarily left alone or stored with the set unattended in a relatively public place.   This includes in vehicles or a temporary cache. Folding knife and Multi-tool.  These are extremely useful, but lots of people now have a personal preference.  Just make sure it has a usable pair of pliers and set of screwdrivers
Water and minimal food ration like a couple of protein barsFood Bars Navigation aid like a compass and or handheld GPS   Compact two way radio. Obviously it is important to have radios compatible with your group, but lacking that, a 40 channel CB, FRS and or Cell phone are the options.    Full size, fixed blade knife. 
Enough ammo to load all rifle magazines and handgun magazines, plus a little spare. Basic gun cleaning kit, especially a takedown cleaning rod and gun oil. Ear plugs or earphone hearing protection device.   It also can be useful to have some sort of eye protection. Powerful compact flashlight.  

In more serious threat level scenarios, a person would include grenades in this carry package.

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