Top 10 Everyday Items You Can Repurpose in a Survival Scenario

By: Debra Ronca & Chris Warren
This guy wasn't planning on a day at the beach -- how will he survive? See more beach pictures.
Matt Henry Gunther/Getty Images

Maybe you were caught in a freak snowstorm while driving home from grandma's house. Or perhaps you wandered a little too far from your campground during a weekend in the woods. By a freak of nature, you survived a plane crash in the middle of what feels like nowhere. Here you are, relatively uninjured but with no camping or survival equipment. What do you do?

If you're MacGyver, the famous American television spy from the late '80s, you'd do something dramatic like whip up a defibrillator using two candlesticks and an electrical cord, fight off snakes with nothing but kerosene or use chocolate to stop a sulfuric acid leak. Chances are, though, you're not going to find yourself lost in the woods while battling an international terrorist ring.


However, surviving in the wilderness can still be a matter of life and death. As living beings, we humans have basic needs for survival: warmth, water, sleep and food. If these needs aren't met, disaster can soon follow. Everyone should have a survival preparedness kit stored in his or her car or with them on any camping and hiking trip, but how many of us actually do? When you have no formal supplies, improvisation is key.

In this article, we're going to take a look at the top 10 survival items -- and they're all things you probably carry around with you every day. If not, it wouldn't be hard to start. Click ahead to see why healthy teeth have more benefits than you thought.

10: Dental Floss

Dental floss can be used in a pinch as fishing line or even thread.

If you're like a lot of people, every time your dentist scolds you about not flossing regularly, you promise to be religious about it starting immediately -- that is, until you try it, get a mouth full of blood thanks to your aggravated gums and then remember why you ditched doing it in the first place. While we probably can't convince you to actually use the stuff on your teeth, carrying some dental floss around with you at all times can actually help save your life.

According to Robert Idsinga, a former Outward Bound instructor from British Columbia, Canada, who has done extensive mountaineering and ice and rock climbing, the same sturdiness that makes dental floss so painful on tender gums comes quite in handy in the wilderness. Among other uses, Idsinga says that instead of using floss to get food out of from between your teeth, it can actually be used to put necessary sustenance in your stomach. How? With a little bit of knowledge, floss can be turned into a snare for catching small animals or even as fishing line [source: Idsinga]. Floss can also be used to bind sticks or other items together for shelter from the elements [source: Oprah Winfrey Show]. There are other less obvious ways to utilize floss. "I also know that paraglider pilots carry dental floss so that if they get hung up in a tree they can lower it to someone on the ground and pull up the end of a rope so they can rappel down," Idsinga says. Anything not to floss.


Read on to discover the unlikely uses of a condom.

9: Condom

Believe it or not, you could use a condom to hold up to a gallon of water -- enough to keep you alive for a full day.

Before discounting this idea as a pathetic and salacious attempt to grab attention, hear it out. In any sort of survival situation, drinking water is a must. And the reality is, even if you are fortunate enough to actually find life-saving water, you still might need a way to transport it. That's where a condom comes in. According to Cody Lundin, author of the survival book "98.6 Degrees," a condom can easily hold up to a gallon of water -- enough to keep you alive for a full day -- without getting overstretched [source: Lundin]. It also has the very important benefit of being small and easy to carry around when not filled with life-sustaining liquids. Still, Lundin points out that it can be tricky actually filling a condom with water when you can't hook it straight up to a kitchen nozzle. In order to better your chances when dealing with a standing source of water, like a puddle or a pond, Lundin says that it's best to stretch out the neck of the condom. Ever versatile, condoms can also be used to keep other life saving items dry, like matches.

Think a cell phone has no place in the wilderness? Think again.


8: Cell Phone

Even if you don't have reception, your cell phone still sends signals to any nearby towers, making it more likely rescuers will locate you if you're stranded or lost.

The temptation to unplug completely from technology is particularly strong -- and totally understandable -- while on vacation. After all, few things are more annoying to your friends and family than when you whip out your cell phone on a beach or during a hike to check your work e-mail. While it's understandable to heed that impulse to disconnect, choosing to at least tuck away your cell phone (preferably in a compartment deep in your backpack, so you're not tempted to peek at it) could end up being one of the best decisions you make should an unexpected crisis arise. That's because cell phone towers are so ubiquitous these days, located in even remote areas, that there are only a handful of locations where you would be unable to call for help if lost or in trouble [source: Nester].

Even in cases when there is no cell phone coverage, having a mobile device with you can help rescuers locate you. This was the case in a tragic instance in Oregon in 2006, when an editor from CNet and his family were lost during a snowstorm [source: Reardon]. Sadly, the editor died when he left his car stranded in the snow and attempted to find help on foot. But his wife and two children were saved because rescuers were able to locate the family because -- even though a call wasn't possible -- their cell phone was still sending out signals to a nearby tower, making it possible for rescuers to locate them. Even if communication isn't possible at all, bringing a cell phone along can still be an aid to potential rescuers: The bright glow from the screen can serve as a tiny lighthouse or beacon [source: Nester].


Continue reading to find out how fashion can keep you safe.

7: Bandana

Something simple like a bandana can be used as a sling, an air or water filter, and even a life-saving tourniquet.

A fashion statement to some, a bright neon bandana can come in handy in a wide variety of ways if you find yourself lost in the woods. According to Cody Lundin's book on survival, "98.6 Degrees," a bandana has some fairly obvious uses in survival situations, including as a signal to catch the attention of possible helpers, as a sling or as a hat to protect against the sun. Lundin points out that a bandana is helpful in both hot and cold conditions: Used to cover the neck, a bandana will hold heat in if there is a chill and reduce heat gain when it's hot.

What makes a bandana such a wise item to carry around at all times is the fact that its uses go well beyond the obvious. It can also be utilized as a filter to aid breathing in dusty or cold conditions, as a tool for straining water and a tourniquet for bandaging a wound [source: Lundin]. Perhaps best of all, this versatile item is cheap, light and easy to carry. And it looks good.


Click ahead to discover why being tidy is always a good idea.

6: Garbage Bags

Garbage bags have myriads of uses -- everything from a rain jacket and wind breaker to pillow, water carrier and of course, a good old trash bag.

Pack in, pack out is one of the credos of wilderness activity; translated, it basically means that whatever you bring with you when you hike and camp should also be taken home as well. Many experienced campers achieve this by bringing along plastic garbage bags, which also can be used for such things as covering a backpack to keep it dry during a shower or storm.

Taking that idea further, garbage bags -- particularly the large, heavy-duty 55-gallon type -- are exceptionally useful in survival situations. Staying warm and dry is at the top of the list of priorities whenever you're exposed to the elements, particularly if you don't know how long it will be until you have access to shelter and heat. Cutting a hole in the top of a large trash bag and slipping your head through it instantly makes it a rain jacket and windbreaker. But that's just the beginning of the uses of a garbage sack. They can also be used as protection from the sun, or, if filled with leaves, as a pillow or mattress or simply as something to sit or lie on that will keep you from getting wet on the damp ground. Garbage bags can also be used to obtain essential drinking water. It can be filled with snow and left to melt, leaving a container full of H2O or deposited in a hole as a way to catch rainwater.


Read on to see why a watch has many more uses than just telling time.

5: Wristwatch

You can use your ordinary wristwatch as a makeshift compass.

In a survival situation, your first concern probably isn't the time of day. But, your wristwatch can still be a big help. An everyday watch can pull double-duty as a compass. Here's how.

First, you'll need a non-digital watch in working condition and a sunny day. Hold your watch with the dial facing up and parallel to the ground. Turn it, while keeping it parallel, until the hour hand is pointing in the direction of the sun. If it's morning, south should be about halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock, clockwise. If it's afternoon, south lies about halfway between the hour hand and 12 o'clock, counterclockwise. North will be on the same line but in the opposite direction [source: Farmers' Almanac]. The technique isn't 100 percent accurate, but it will give you enough of an approximation to make some informed choices about which way to go.


If you prefer to use your watch as a handy, always-with-you survival kit instead of a compass, remove the inside mechanisms from your watch. Take off the face, pull out the gears and fill the empty space with survival tools. Stuff it with items like wire, foil, dental floss and a paper clip (for a fishing line and hook), a magnet, aspirin, match heads, bandages -- anything else of survival value that can fit in a small space [source: Sneaky Uses]. You might not know what time it is, but you'll sure be prepared for anything.

Continue reading to reconsider that idea to get Velcro fastened shoes.

4: Shoelaces

In a survival situation, shoelaces do more than just keep your boots on.
©iStockphoto/Michael Westhoff

Shoelaces can serve a number of purposes -- whenever you might need rope or string, your shoelaces usually can do the job. You can use them to make a splint in case of injury. If you have a sharp object to use as a hook, a shoelace can make a decent fishing line. Tie sticks together to make a quick lean-to shelter or even a raft.

You can quickly build an emergency "poncho shelter" by using your shoelaces along with a tarp or rain poncho. Tie the laces together, stretch them between two tree trunks, tie them around and hang the plastic over, like a tent. You can then use some sharp sticks as tent stakes.


You can even start a fire with nothing but your shoelaces and some sticks and wood. The bow-and-drill method will start a fire by creating friction. Use your shoelace to create the part of the bow that will be tied around the drill, keeping it in place as you saw back and forth to generate the hot shavings that will trigger your fire.

If you're feeling even more creative with your shoelaces, you can follow Bear Grylls' example. On an episode of his show "Man vs. Wild," he used his shoelaces to climb up a tree to get a better view of the surrounding land. By tying his shoelaces together -- while still wearing the shoes -- he was able to shimmy up the trunk using the laces for traction.

In fact, you might notice more people wearing sneakers and hiking boots on flights and boat rides so they'll have access to this everyday survival accessory in case disaster strikes.

Read on to discover how a can of soda could be a life saver.

3: Soda Can

Soda is sweet, but using the can and tab to collect water to help you survive is sweeter.
©iStockphoto/Lori Martin

An empty soda can is another multipurpose tool. Even if you're not drinking a root beer at the exact moment you become stranded, you'll probably be able to find a can while lost in the woods (thanks to the litterbugs).

Humans can survive for quite a while without food but only a few days without water. Dehydration can lead to weakness, mental fatigue and eventually death. Finding water should be a priority during a survival situation. Use a soda can to collect and store rainwater. You can also find safe drinking water by collecting the morning dew from plants. Try soaking a cloth or sock in long, wet grasses or plants and then wringing that water into the can.


Soda can tabs can be fashioned into crude fishhooks. After pulling the tab off, bend the top to weaken the corner. If you have a knife or rock, take out a small chunk to leave a sharp angle. Then, use your knife or rock to further sharpen the tab's point. Attach it to a shoelace or a string, and you've got a fishing line.

It's even possible to start a fire with a soda can and some chocolate. Rub the chocolate on the bottom of the can, and then use the wrapper to polish the bottom until it looks like a mirror. (Note: Don't eat the chocolate after -- it can be toxic.) Now you have a reflective surface with which you can heat up tinder.

Click ahead to find out the connection between socks and hydration.

2: Socks

Sure, socks keep our feet warm and dry, but what else can they do? Socks can help collect and filter water, which, as we've learned, is crucial to survival. Socks won't purify water, but filtering it through fabric can help remove the more visible sediment and creepy-crawlers. And if you've managed to build a fire, you can now boil the water, making it safer to drink.

Pour water through the sock and into a container. (Ladies, you can also use your bra for this step.) Allow the water to settle so any remaining sediment can fall to the bottom of the container. If you happen to have any iodine (perhaps you have access to a first aid kit), use a few drops to purify the water. Add the iodine, and let the solution sit for 30 minutes before drinking it.


Cotton socks can also provide you with a source of fire-starting tinder. Rub or pick off as much lint as you can. The resulting pile of fuzz will quickly catch a spark when you're trying to light a fire.

Read on to see why glasses can be so much better than contacts.

1: Glasses

Glasses can be used to start a fire by concentrating the sun's rays and sparking tinder.
Tom Schierlitz/Getty Images

If you've been called "four eyes" in the past, consider yourself lucky. In a survival situation, glasses can help you accomplish two very important things: getting rescued and building a fire.

Use your glasses to reflect the sun's rays to create a distress signal. Rescue personnel or a passerby will see the flashing, allowing them to locate you more easily. You can also dismantle your glasses if necessary and bend the wire frames to make hooks or small tools.

Starting a fire with glasses is much like starting a fire with a mirror (or a polished soda can). You must have a convex lens, usually found in prescriptions for farsighted­ness. Also, the lens should be made of glass (some lenses today are made of plastic).

To start a fire with a lens, first collect some tinder -- lint from your socks, Spanish moss or anything that's lightweight and will ignite quickly. Hold your lens about 1 foot (30 centimeters) from the tinder, angle it until the sun begins concentrating on a small spot and wait for the tinder to start smoldering. Then, gently blow on the tinder to ignite it completely and start adding kindling until the fire is stable.

To find out more about which items in your pocket or purse could help you in a survival situation, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • The Daily Press. "Canada's 'Survivorman' Humbled to Hear Manitoba Man Used His Tips to Survive." The Canadian Press. April 4, 2008. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • "Emergency Disinfection of Drinking Water." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nov. 28, 2006. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • "Free Projects and More." Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things. 2008. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • "How to Use Your Watch as a Compass." Farmers' Almanac. 2007. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • Idsinga, Robert. Former Outward Bound instructor. Personal correspondence. Jan. 13, 2012.
  • Lundin, Cody. "98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive." Gibbs Smith Publisher. 2003.
  • "MacGyver FAQ." Live and Learn: A MacGyver Fansite. Feb. 8, 1995. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • Nester, Tony. "Can I Use A Cell Phone To Call For Help In The Wilderness?" Outside Magazine. Aug. 3, 2011. (Jan. 18, 2012).
  • The Oprah Winfrey Show. "6 Everyday Objects That Could Save Your Life." Aug. 20, 2009. (Jan. 17, 2012).
  • Reardon, Marguerite. "Turning Cell Phones Into Lifelines." CNet. Dec. 6, 2006. (Jan. 17, 2012).
  • Rowe, Aaron. "Top 10 Outdoor Survival Items." Wired Magazine. March 17, 2008. (Jan. 18, 2012).
  • Soelberg, Joel. "Fire-Bow and Drill Method." SurvivalNut. Aug. 11, 2008. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • "Survival Tip: Soda Tab Fish Hook." Sept. 27, 2007. (Nov. 5, 2008)
  • "Using Shoelaces for a Poncho Shelter." Expert Village. 2008. (Nov. 5, 2008)