How To Make A Survival Key Chain

My first edition of Backwoods Home magazine arrived this week, and I was looking forward to carving out some reading time.  One of the articles that immediately caught my eye was A Survival Key Ring – Your Everyday Tool for Emergency Preparedness by Jeffrey R. Yago, P.E., CEM.

In the article, Yago shares his ideas for putting together a survival key chain.  Think of survival key chains as a miniature, portable survival kit with pocket-size bare necessities.  I thought it sounded like a great idea, so I set out to find a few of the suggested implements.  I added a few more of my own.  First, a few examples when these survival key chains could come in handy.

Ever been stranded on the side of the road in a cold climate?  Ever gone camping and realized you forgot to pack matches or a torch lighter for your campfire?  Ever been in a building you are not familiar with during a complete power blackout?  I have been in all three of these situations, and unfortunately I was ill-prepared.  The survival key chain would have definitely come in handy in each of these scenarios.

The Key Ring

Key ring styles.  Plenty to choose from here, from the basic design to pull-apart dual rings to caribiner styles that look more like rock-climbing tools that key rings. You may decide some combination works best for you, or perhaps you have a weekday key ring and a weekend key ring – one for the office, one for camping expeditions.

pullapartkeyrings springhookcaribiner

Lights and Multi-Tools

Knife or multi-tool.  Lights and a cutting tool are two items I would consider “required components” of any good survival keychain.  Again, you can spend as much or as little as you wish on the various styles.  Utility knifes such as a Swiss Army knife with fold-out instruments may be sufficient for most every-day survival key chains.  However, a heavier-duty mini Leatherman might make more sense for backpacking or camping.  I’ve ordered a Leatherman MICRA model myself because I like the idea of having things like scissors, tweezers, a flat Phillips screwdriver, a mini screwdriver, a bottle opener, and a variety of small cutting tools on me at all times.  Just remember, you can’t fly with something like this, so leave these types of things at home when traveling by air.


Mini LED flashlight.  As for flashlights, we’ve come a long way.  They now make super-bright LED flashlights the size of a quarter that last for hours.  No shortage of these around, and it is definitely something to add to your survival key ring.  From unlocking doors in the dark to navigating, these little lights will come in handy.


Navigation and Fire-Making

Fire starter bar.  Survival television shows often show a guy making a fire by turning a stick 10,000 times into a small piece of wood with tiny kindling eventually smoldering from the friction.  The fact is, this is as hard as it looks, and it take a lot of time and energy – two things you may not have depending on your survival situation.  I’m sure any survival expert would tell you dry matches or a fire starter bar would be preferable, so why not keep one with you.  You never know when you’ll need to make camp somewhere, and a fire is great for keeping warm.  It might be the difference is surviving or suffering hypothermia.

This little fire starter bar fits on your key chain, and generates a hot fire in under a minute.  Using the backside of a pocketknife, or any other metal edge, you simply scrape magnesium shavings onto a sheet of paper, or scrap cloth, or whatever dry kindling you can find.  Then a scrape down the striker rod produces a spark that ignites the magnesium shavings (and your kindling).  Warning:  this produces an extremely hot, extremely bright little fire.  Be sure to take precautions by preparing the area around the fire (dig a little fire pit, clear the ground, etc.).


Compass.  For navigation, basically you just need to find general directions from a key ring compass.  Anything that reliably points North will do. From there you can extrapolate other directions, but for basic navigation something like the model below should work fine.  If you find yourself lost, and you know a little about the surrounding terrain, you may be able to make it to a road, a river, or a town, just by knowing which direction to move.


Self Defense/Rescue

Pepper spray.  Whether you are defending yourself from an attacker, or an aggressive animal, a quick burst of pepper spray may provide a valuable few seconds to make an escape.  I recommend considering something more powerful if you are headed into the woods where you are likely to encounter larger, more threatening animals, but for most urban and rural settings this should do the trick.


Safety whistle.  Few people think of whistles when putting together a survival kit, but it is one of the more valuable rescue tools available.  When I was a kid, I remember a story near my home town of a woman who skidded off the road at night, went down a small ravine, and was pinned in her car, injured.  She did not have the strength to scream, and joggers and bicyclists went by for hours not knowing she was trapped just a couple hundred yards away.  Fortunately, her car was finally spotted a couple days after the accident and she was rescued, barely clinging to life.  Imagine how much better the story could have turned out had she had a safety whistle on her key chain to alert a passerby or rescuer in the hours immediately following the accident.


The frugal side of me recognizes that putting together such a survival keychain from scratch could be costly.  I’d recommend starting off with the basic implements such as the multi-tool and flashlight.  Those will handle the majority of small emergencies you will encounter in your day-to-day lives.  Slowly add to your survival key ring over time to spread out the costs.  Eventually, you’ll have just about everything you need for survival right on your keychain, and with you at all times.


  1. WOW FD! What a great idea. These survival key rings would make excellent gifts. How much do you think you’ll spend on yours? I love the idea of having all you need for an emergency in one transportable apparatus!

  2. I have researched survival techniques some in the past, so I wanted to add a couple of thoughts. First, this is a great start. Second, it is only a start. You need to make a survival pack. Third, build it, do not buy it. Most store-bought “survival kits” are low-quality. Build your own.


  3. Avdi: Your advice is solid. We can never be prepared for every scenario, but I think pepper spray is a viable option in the event you are accosted by a single attacker trying to you overpower you AND you have an escape route. Otherwise, you are correct, it will just make someone mad. The spray could provide valuable seconds to get away, call attention to yourself, lock yourself in your car, etc.

    One thing to check is the strength of the spray. Some commercial grade options are no more offensive than spraying watered down Tabasco sauce. Check with a local gun shop or law enforcement official for brand recommendations.

  4. My own survival key chain is made for city use and includes a small neoprene key chain CF Card holder (mine says SanDisc) used for emergency money. I also has a small flashlight and a Leatherman Micra. The compass hangs on my backpack and the backpack has a whistle built in in the chest buckle. I have never had to use the whistle, but the rest are used.

  5. This has actually inspired me to think about getting a survival kit for the house, too.
    In Vancouver, we’re expecting a big earthquake at some point.

  6. I guess I’m not really clear about this… I mean, I understand it is for emergencies… but how would this even fit in your pocket?

    Is this something that would just be part of an emergency kit? Or would you carry it with you every day?

    A comment for Laryssa, who suggested keeping important documents on a flash drive: I would only do that if it were part of a big emergency/evacuation kit. I wouldn’t make it a point to carry it with me everywhere. My husband has lost/damaged enough flash drives to teach us that you should never put anything super vital on a flash drive.

  7. Thanks for clarifying… the photos do make them look big! 🙂

    Thanks, too, for reminding me that I need to do a better job of preparing for emergencies… I have all of the stuff, it’s just in 37 locations in my house and garage!

  8. @Christina: Everything shown in the post fits on a key ring. They look large in the photos with no reference, but most are pretty small. For instance, the LED flashlight is about the size of a quarter.

    These are the types of things you need to have on your person (mini LED flashlight, mini Leatherman tool, firestarter bar, etc.). The larger items could go in a survival kit and be kept at home, or in your car (or both). I keep what I call a “grab bag” with things like this in larger sizes for emergencies at home.

  9. Skip the magnesium bar and get a Blast Match. the magnesium bar is useless with out a hardened steel striker that is not provided. You can use a quality knfe as a striker, but if you lose your knife you also lose you ability to make fire. Also check out the Jetscream whistle on the same site below. Looks nice and small and loud. I used to put a storm whistle and a cyalume light stick on the kids when we went camping. They knew to blow the whislte and light the light as soon as it got dark. They usually broke the light every night and ran around having a good time, cheap fun and I knew where they were all the time.

  10. Like Memyselfandi I would add a way to carry money. Mine is a tube which hangs on my keyring and holds one folded and rolled bill. It has been a godsend in the urban area where I work for emergency transit fares and gas money. Mirrors are also excellent for camping emergencies. There are heavy-duty ones available that are unlikely to break easily and can provide a great signaling device if lost.

  11. For Christmas I received a new multi-tool pocketknife. One of the tools is a small led flashlight – about 1 inch long by 1/4 inch wide, circular. Has come in handy on many a dark night, and is always in my pocket, along with the keychain. Key chain also has one of thos screwdriver disks on it – that is better than using a dime for a screwdriver by a long shot!

  12. This is great! We do a lot of camping and hiking in the summer and putting something like this together would be fairly easy I would think and it also seems like it would be light weight enough to carry around over longer distances. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I’d add that if you require any daily medications that you should not skip, then you’d be wise to add a small pill capsule. I’ve had one on my keychain for about a decade that’s only about 3/4″ long but fits 6-7 flat tablets or 2-3 caplet-shaped pills. It’s a stainless steel capsule that’s rounded on both ends and has a rubber O-ring to seal it from moisture. It’s very exactly like this set, but I got 2 on eBay for about $10 and mine are both silver-colored:

    (I pitched the little inner glass vial in a drawer and have never used it.)

    I’m almost never without my Leatherman Squirt P4 which is a multitool with very small but usable pliers, knife blade, file, etc. Works great!

  14. thank you for reminding me that I need to put together a kit for my car. I have an entire room for tornado emergencies in my house—flashlights are everywhere!
    I probably wouldn’t carry one full time- can’t carry a knife at school at all:>)