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Create your own ‘Olivia Bag’ (aka Survival Kit)

Olivia Bag /uh-LIV-ee-uh • ˈbāg/: a flexible container of random items compiled by Olivia for jimmy rigging anything (and just about any body) that breaks while out on an adventure.

The idea behind the Olivia bag (known to some as a ‘survival kit’) is that whether you’re hiking, backpacking, river-rafting, biking, or doing some other outdoor activity, the emergencies will generally fall into three categories:

1) Your equipment breaks.
2) You hurt yourself.
3) Something is inconvenient and annoying and needs an inventive remedy.

In all categories, the point is to fix the problem as best you can on the spot, making something that is ‘good enough’, and will get you back to the real world for a proper fix. I know it seems crazy, but I’ve used darned near every item in these bags at one time or another!

Make your own survival kit

I assure you that all these items fit into a small (5×6 or so) zipper pouch. You can use a make-up bag (found at most stores in the beauty isle, or at thrift stores), or something like a Pack-It Sac available at most outdoor stores.  You can even put all the small items into their own little baggies, purchased in the hobby section of your favorite “mart”.

My Olivia bag is actually divided up into two bags (pictured above). The first (larger bag) has all the non-medical essentials (known as the “Olivia Essentials” below). The second is smaller and fits snugly inside the first. This bag has all the first aid supplies (listed below as the “Olivia Medical”).

Note: I came across Pocket Guide to Emergency First Aid the other day and thumbed through it. Seems like some good BASIC info on first aid, and would fit nicely in the Olivia bag. Think I’ll order a used one for my bag.

Olivia Essentials (download Olivia Bag Essentials PDF)

  1. Matches and tinder or fire starter - Warm yourself up, dry out wet socks, start a fire when the wood is a little wet…relax because even though you forgot your matches, you remembered your Olivia bag, which always has back-up matches!
  2. Two smallish carabiners - Make a quick dog leash, hook stuff to the outside of your pack, etc.
  3. Crazy or super glue - Strengthen a seam you’ve just repaired. Glue the edges of a cut together.  Protect the tips of your fingers on long river trips when your hands are constantly getting wet, then drying again.
  4. Seam grip - Patch seams on old tents, tarps, backpacks, etc.
  5. Potable water tablets - In a pinch I’ve used these to purify water when I ran out.
  6. Nylon strap with a clip - Basically just some nylon webbing (sold by the foot at REI) and clipped together. Use to secure things to your pack. I used it as a make-shift belt on some pants that turned out to be too big (you know how some stretch as you walk…).
  7. Duct tape - Please see our post on duct-tape.
  8. Toilet paper - Noses, butts, cuts, kindling, blister patch…  The uses of tp are almost as endless as duct tape.
  9. Tiny notebook and pen – Again with the kindling. Lost?  Start taking notes. There’s nothing like writing down what’s going on to focus your mind and make you figure out a solution. Or perhaps you will have a Leonardo moment and need to write down your next genius idea. I met some folks at the highest peak in New Mexico whose camera battery had gone dead.  I took their picture, they wrote down their email addresses in my tiny notebook, and I sent them photographic evidence of their ascent the next day!
  10. Emergency blanketVery handy–just used mine last weekend for something dry to sit on in the snow! Also good for making huts and keeping warm.
  11. Fishing line and a couple of hooks - I’ve only used this for fun, and have yet to actually catch a fish with it… I’ve used the fishing line and a stick to snare a lizard though! Easiest way to store the fishing line is to wrap it around the pen and secure it with scotch tape.
  12. Extra buckle - Have you ever done this?  You throw your pack in the back of the car, slam the door, and don’t notice ’til you get to the trailhead that you slammed the buckle in the door and broke it?  Extra buckles can be very handy!
  13. Tiny swiss army knife/gerber multi-use tool - I think I use this more than anything.  Get one that has scissors on it for cutting moleskin.  Pick out splinters, cut cheese for lunch, cut up moleskin, put new batteries in your flashlight with the screwy battery compartment that won’t open by hand, etc. etc.
  14. Parachute cord, shoelace, and/or twine - For drying those socks over the fire, holding the tarp a little higher off the ground, tying your food bag in a tree in bear country, fixing a busted lace. Make-shift dog leash.  Etc. etc. I recently saw a cool way to store your parachute cord as a bracelet.
  15. Nylon patches - Good for tents, packs, rain jackets, and thermarests. Get this small repair kit and it also takes care of #4.
  16. Needle, thread, a couple buttons - My buttons always break off my pants when they’re underneath my waist-belt for a long period of time.  Easy enough to fix while eating lunch, though!  The needle is also great for getting out splinters or repairing a ripped bug collecting net.
  17. Flashlight - Just a small one, for when you hike a little too far out to make it back before sundown, or for when you find that critter den or unexpected cave that needs exploring.
  18. Compass - For when you’re ever so slightly lost, or just want to know what peak that is in the distance and need to orient on your map. I’d recommend one with a mirror, takes care of #19.
  19. Mirror – I know mirrors are supposed to be good for signaling rescuers when you’ve been lost for 4 days, but I use mine to check for boogers hanging out of my nose after I farmer-blow.
  20. Bandana – For when farmer-blowing doesn’t work.  Hide your face/neck from the sun.  Use as a patch on torn clothing with the safety pins.  Fashion a pad for a blistering heel (with duct tape).  Sop up blood from a wound.  Keep your head wet in the heat.  Use to secure a bandage to a body part.  Entertain children.  The uses of a bandana are truly endless.
  21. Safety pins – Useful for when you don’t want to sew on that button. You can also hold together larger rips and tears.  Roll the fabric pieces together, and fasten through the roll, with the pin running parallel to the roll.
  22. Tweezers - If our swiss army knife doesn’t come with these, get some. Use it all the time for both children and dogs.
  23. Plastic vial (small) – This is optional, but I use mine a lot for catching and observing bugs. You can put some of these smaller items inside the vial to save space.
  24. For longer trips I often throw in a couple of clothes pins too… Always handy around camp, and make dry kindling in a pinch!

Olivia Medical (download Olivia Bag Medical PDF)

  1. Tampons - Useful for when mother nature surprises you or your female hiking buddies on the trail… and, therefore, also wonderful for absorbing blood on major cuts.
  2. Ace wrap - Good for twisted ankles, makeshift shoulder slings, and can be used to help create a splint if necessary. Here’s a video on how to properly wrap an ace bandage around an ankle.
  3. Gauze bandages - For when you slice a little more than cheese at lunch, etc. etc.  Not quite as absorbent as tampons, but also less bulky.
  4. Tums, gas-x, chewable Pepto-Bismol - Nothing is more uncomfortable than hiking with indigestion…  or sharing a tent with someone who had too many beans for dinner.  Pepto is good for nausea, gas, and all sorts of other tummy ailments.  Don’t be surprised if your tongue turns black though!  Its normal–especially with the chewables.  Tums can also be used to help restore electrolyte imbalances if you’ve been vomiting or have hiked too hard.
  5. Aspirin -Good for altitude sickness.  Excellent for bee-stings… get the aspirin wet, put it right on the sting with a bandaid over it.  need extra-strength migraine medicine?  If you read the back of the migraine medicine bottle, you will see that it is acetaminophen, caffeine, and aspirin.  Make your own!  Dog limping?  They can take aspirin (but not acetaminophen or ibuprofen).
  6. Acetaminophen - Pain-killer, fever-reducer, muscle-ache-minifier, migraine-medicine-maker.
  7. Ibuprofen – Good for swelling, great pain-killer.  I take some before I start down any hill.
  8. Caffeine - (something like no-doz or alert).  Good for making migraine-medicine.  Also good for a little pick me up if you’ve got a long way still to go and not much energy left.  Can help you forget you have a cold, too.
  9. Mole-skin - Get as much as you think you’ll need for blisters.  Keep it on with duct tape.
  10. Benadryl(diphenhydramine) - For insomnia while trying to sleep in the woods.  For allergies, colds (runny noses), swelling from stings, etc.  Dogs can also take diphenydramine for stings, bites, or other allergic reactions, and for hyper-activity.
  11. Glucose and electrolyte tabs - If you sweat too much, hike too much, or otherwise over exert yourself, glucose tabs can help restore your blood sugar levels and electrolyte tabs can help restore the balance of electrolytes in your body, giving you back some energy, and helping to alleviate cramping in muscles.
  12. Cough drop - (just a couple):  Nothing worse than getting sick or having a sore throat while out in the woods.
  13. Bandaids/steri-strips - For different size cuts.
  14. Visine - For sand in the eye, or too much smoke around the campfire.  The little one-time use ones are my favorite.
  15. Alcohol wipes - Clean the needle before you use it to pry out a splinter.  Keep blisters or other wounds clean.  Clean your knife after using it to slice up lunch.  Help a small fire that won’t start–let the alcohol wipe dry out just a titch, then throw it in with the other tiny kindling.
  16. Neosporin with topical anesthetic in it – Soothes stings after you’ve treated them with aspirin.  Good for blisters, and other cuts and scrapes.

Olivia gave me my bag as a gift when she moved to the midwest; hence the name ‘Olivia bag’. She knew I’d spent the previous 10 years relying on her for emergency adventuring essentials.

I love my bag and take it EVERYWHERE! I’ve since  added a few items of my own: dog poop bags, a diaper, small thing of sunscreen. And have taken out other items to make room for kid stuff (since most of our weekday adventures take place no farther than a mile or two from our car or house). Pack what you think is going to work for you. Better yet, pack what you think would work for a friend…

Speaking of… I (along with several other bloggers) have a whole list of outdoor related Christmas gift ideas coming up in a post extravaganza on Monday. Stay tuned!

NOTE: One concerned reader pointed out that we should be cautious when suggesting that you can give your dog benadryl or aspirin.  We therefore provide this caveat: For any medicines listed here, you should of course know the proper amount to give either your child or your dog.  Some medications contain more than just the wanted ingredient (i.e. some antihistamines containing diphenhydramine also contain alcohol), and kids or dogs on other medications, or with other physical ailments, might not respond as you expect them to.  If you’re unsure, check with your vet or your physician before heading out!  Thanks Chastity!

21 Comments so far

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  1. I’ve got one of those bags! I’ve used almost everything, too. I think you’ve covered about everything. One thing I did was take out the batteries from my headlamp, because it was often turning on inside the pack. I think I carry more in my emergency kit now than I did before kids. I guess I feel the responsibility more. And we have used it almost every trip. I often use it for my friends who come with, too. It’s totally worth the weight and helps me feel more secure being out there.

    One thing that was really helpful to me was taking a wilderness first aid course. You learn how to take care of issues when you can’t just call 911. Taking that course just solidified my resolve to be prepared. Those bandanas really can be used for so many things! I need to take the class again, it’s been a few years and I’ve forgotten a lot.

    • Hiker Mama – I hear ya, I took a wilderness first aid short course a few years ago and can’t remember a thing! I need to take a refresher every year, it would sure make me feel a lot better than winging it!

  2. Trieste

    What great lists! I was thinking I would put a survive kit like this together for my eight year old! He would live it.

    • Trieste – I like that idea! It would also be fun to take him out and see how he uses the supplies, I have a feeling kids could come up with all sorts of things we would never think of. I might need to make a little kid version of this bag… Thanks for the idea!

  3. Trieste

    Or love it. Whatever.

  4. Bonnie

    Olivia and Susanna’s Dad made them take a kids’ version of this kit as a fanny pack to school every day from 3rd grade on. One of them may remember exactly what was in them–my memory is too unreliable.

    • Bonnie – No way! I’ve never heard about this, but I’m very intrigued… I WILL be looking into this.

  5. Chastity

    Great post overall.

    But you should probably NOT recommend giving Aspirin to dogs. It kills them very easily, and most people don’t have the training to know how much is “safe” to give their dog per weight. Also, even if it doesn’t kill them, it can cause gastrointestinal upset, ulcers, etc. Puppies especially do not tolerate it at all. PLEASE do not give your dog Aspirin unless you are a vet, vet tech, etc! If you are worried that your dog might sometime need a painkiller, please get your vet to prescribe Rimadyl instead, and stick that in your pack.

    *Side note on animal pain: While we hate to see an animal in pain, sometimes it’s better not to give them a painkiller, as it might cause them to aggravate their injury. The pain keeps them cautious of behaving normally, while a painkiller makes them feel fine, which can lead to further complications, as they will also use their limb, body, etc. in the normal way.

    • Chastity

      Also, be careful with the Benadryl/Diphenhydramine. It is often combined with other medications that can quickly kill your pet. Only use pure Diphenhydramine, and please write down the amount you are supposed to give your pet and stick that in your pack as well, so that you don’t forget and accidentally overdose your pet! ( By the way, don’t use this on your puppy either.)

      And for anyone who thinks that these guidelines apply to another breed of animal–they do not! What works for dogs often kills cats, and vice versa. Don’t experiment, talk to a vet.

  6. Your timing couldn’t be more perfect – my 3.5-year-old split his forehead open last week in Yosemite National Park, 40 minutes from the nearest care center. I’m happy to report I had us covered, but the experience has me rethinking my very minimal adventure survival kit. I’m earmarking this one!

    • Debi – I read that on your blog the day I posted it, I too thought it was timely. Glad things turned out ok, I keep trying to prepare myself for the day that happens to one of my boys. Sure hope I can follow in your footsteps and not pass out!

  7. [...] activity, you will always be prepared with your ‘olivia bag’. Here’s how to assemble your own kit. My bag was a gift… one of my favorite in [...]

  8. [...] I just got kind-of excited; I had a puzzle to solve. Besides, I had no reason to panic, I had my Olivia bag (with extra emergency blankets). So IF the worst-case scenario happened and we had to stay the [...]

  9. [...] While there are certain measures you should take to be physically prepared (food, water, essentials), you don’t necessarily have to do a whole lot of ‘planning’ just to get an [...]

  10. [...] Mini Survival kit:  a go-everywhere kit with random survival and medical supplies (although we still also bring a larger first aid kit). [...]

  11. [...] car-camping, there are ‘kits’ that I like to prepare when I go backpacking…  The Olivia Bag covers most things, but I also have a little kitchen bag for backpacking.  In it (along with [...]

  12. [...] day before you leave, pack the things you will need. Food, water, first aid kit, extra shoes/clothes, and all the gear you will need for your outing (lake supplies, picnic, hike, [...]

  13. [...] Make a safety kit and keep it in a waterproof bag. [...]

  14. [...] actually working on my Christmas stuff and had a quick question on your Olivia bag post. I’m making two of these for my sister and brother in law who live in Peru. They have four [...]

  15. [...] your kids are older you can make them this more extensive survival kit. But for young kids you really can only pack what they know how and are developmentally able to [...]

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