Monday, December 21, 2020

ALTOIDS TIN SURVIVAL KIT (A guest post by The Realist)

      Disclaimer: All products mentioned in this article were purchased by myself. I did not receive samples, evaluation models, or other compensation from any manufacturer or retailer. I have no formal relationship with any manufacturer or retailer mentioned in this review - I have only been an arms-length customer. All brand names and product names used in this review are the trade names, service marks, trademarks, or registered trademarks of their respective owners. Further, this article reflects my unique circumstances and subjective opinions with regard to performance and other characteristics of the products being discussed. Your mileage may vary.

    For several years, I have been seeing articles and videos about people putting together Altoids tin survival kits. There have even been a few commercial kits sold. Most of the kits I have seen have been wilderness survival oriented, while a few have been every-day-carry kits.

    Why build an Altoids tin survival kit? First it is fun and challenging. Second, it can serve as a layer of redundancy in your emergency preparations. Third, it is small enough that one can be left in various places like your work desk, the glove box in your vehicle, or dropped in a pocket when carrying a larger emergency kit might not be practical.

    Several months ago, I decided to start putting my own kit together. Since I'm rarely in a wilderness environment, I wanted to make a survival kit oriented more toward urban/suburban survival.

    I ended putting together several different kits as my thoughts on the subject evolved. These kits share a lot of common elements, but also have differences. The first kit was assembled with no consideration for cost, while the subsequent kits were more cost conscious.

    When you actually start putting together a survival kit, you quickly realize how small an Altoids tin really is, which is why some people and manufacturers have opted to go with slightly larger tins. But, a larger tin is not an Altoids tin. Also, some people wrap their Altoids tin with cordage or tape, which I will not do - only rubber bands to hold it closed.

    One of the biggest omissions I've seen in virtually all of these survival kits is some way of carrying and purifying water. (I saw the first exception to this omission after I'd already started assembling my first kit.) Some makers of their kits have suggested that the tin itself should be used to boil water to make it safe to drink.

Kit Components

    What follows is a discussion of what items went into my kits, and why I thought they were important.

    WATER: I decided my kit must include a one liter or one quart plastic water bag to carry and purify water. I selected that size because it is compatible with water purification tablets which are sized to purify one quart or one liter of water. This means I also needed water purification tablets. The Aquatabs are very small and come packaged individually in very thin pouches.

    The first challenge was figuring out the best way to fit the water bag in the tin. Simply folding the bag took up way too much volume in the tin, so I ended up tightly rolling the bag and then bending the rolled bag to fit in the tin.

    The one liter plastic water bag ( survived being tightly rolled and bent. I found no perforations in the bag when it was unrolled after several months of storage and filled with water.

Leatherman Style PS (left), Leatherman Squirt PS4 (center), Gerber Dime (right)

    MULTITOOL/TOOLS: The next challenge was finding a multitool that had the features I wanted, and yet fit in the tin. I wanted a multitool with pliers and screwdrivers. In an urban environment, I believe those tools could be very useful. There are three readily available small multitools that have pliers: the Leatherman Squirt PS4, the Leatherman Style PS (no knife), and the Gerber Dime.

    I should also note that I chose multitools that are not black in color, so they will be more visible if accidentally dropped. However, black colored multitools are cheaper, so painting the scales would be another way to achieve visibility.

    The Leatherman Squirt PS4 has pliers, wire cutters, flat and Philips screwdrivers, knife blade, file, scissors, and bottle opener. (MSRP $39.95)

    The Gerber Dime has pliers, wire cutter, straight and Phillips screwdrivers, scissors, tweezers, knife blade, retail package opener blade, file, and bottle opener. The file is so short as to have very limited utility. (MSRP $23.00, but at this writing some colors are available new from Amazon for less than $17.00.)

    Gerber makes or has made several slightly larger multitools: the Mini Suspension-P, Clutch, and Vise. But, they are all slightly larger than the Dime, and take up too much space in the tin.

    The Leatherman Style PS, lacking a knife blade, is considered TSA compliant. I have flown with a Style PS without any trouble. It has pliers, wire cutters, small flat/Phillips screwdriver, scissors, tweezers, nail file, and a carabiner/bottle opener. (MSRP $34.95)

    In all kits, I included the P-38 military can opener. Sure, there are other ways to open a can of food, such as by rubbing the top of the can against a flat concrete surface. The P-38 folds up to be very compact. By the way, you should have a P-38 in all of your emergency kits.

    FIRE: After the multitool, I wanted to have multiple means of making fire. The primary means would be a lighter of some sort, either a "peanut" lighter or a small Bic lighter. A secondary fire starting method could be something that produced sparks or a magnifying lens.

    I evaluated three different "peanut" lighters. Peanut lighters were appealing because of their very compact size. They were all reasonably well made with good fit and finish. All incorporated an O-ring to prevent the lighter fluid from evaporating. However, one of the peanut lighters lost all its fluid over the course of several months of storage, and there was no obvious defect to account for that loss. You can buy several Bic "mini" lighters for the cost of one peanut lighter.

    I experimented with several sparking fire starters, including the Exotac nanoSTRIKER XL and UST Micro Spark Wheel Fire Starter, but found them inappropriate for an Altoids tin survival kit.

    A credit-card sized magnifying lens (Fresnel lens) is flat and thin, cheaper than any of the sparking fire starters, and fits nicely in the Altoids tin.

    To facilitate starting fires, there are several compact tinder options. One option is waxed hemp wick. The wick can be quickly lit with a lighter, preserving the fuel of the lighter, and then used to start tinder. I learned about this product from a YouTuber who wrapped it around the Bic lighter in his kit. However, I did not have room to wrap this wick around the lighter, so I created a flat coil of a one-foot piece and then wrapped it in cling wrap so it wouldn't stick to everything else in the kit.

    Another tinder option is the Coghlan's tinders. They are waterproof, unlike the SOL Tinder-Quick tinders. I wrapped the tinders in cling wrap so they don't stick to anything else in the kit. (I looked at SOL Tinder-Quick tinders, Their packaging claims they are waterproof, but they absorb water. Maybe they are waterproof if they remain in the small zip-lock bags in which they are packaged.)

    A secondary expedient tinder option is to use some of the duct tape, discussed below, included in the kit.

    LIGHT: I also consider a small flashlight important. There are a variety of small keychain LED lights. I eventually settled the Photon style keychain flashlight. There were smaller options, but they used very tiny button cells that would offer very little operating life and many of the flashlights themselves were of dubious construction quality.

    From an battery life perspective, I would go with a monochrome Photon brand keychain light - I like yellow - which operates off a single CR2032 lithium cell. The white-light Photon keychain light uses two stacked CR2016 cells.

    There are knockoffs of the Photon keychain light. The ones I have seen are acceptable quality, but may be supplied with inferior lithium cells that have a relatively short shelf life of a couple years. Some Photon-style keychain lights, recently purchased from Amazon, are exceptionally bright, which will result in a shorter battery life.

Luminous capsule compass (left), non-luminous dry capsule compass (center), and SERE Mini Compass (right).

    COMPASS: A compass is useful in helping orient yourself. Yes, there are other methods of determining direction, even in an urban/suburban environment, but a compass is quick and easy.

    There are a variety of small capsule compasses that will fulfill this need. In my experience, most liquid filled capsule compasses eventually develop bubbles. So, I have a preference for "dry" compasses. Most capsule compasses are liquid filed, but dry capsule compasses can be found with careful shopping. (If you buy a capsule compass, buy several in a lot, expecting one or more to not work properly.) Be aware that there are some toy capsule compasses that lack a magnet - don't get those. And, you cannot really trust the description saying that a capsule compass has luminous markings or a luminous dial - if the cardinal direction letters are green or red on a dark background, the capsule compass is not luminous.

    I purchased a couple different styles of 20 millimeter capsule compasses - one luminous and one regular. I also purchased a 20 millimeter "SERE Mini Compass" which has luminous markings, is dry, and has a small lanyard, which cost almost as much as a package of 25 non-luminous dry capsule compasses on Amazon.

    CORDAGE: I chose to go with SpiderWire braided fishing line that has a stated tensile strength of 65 pounds. I decided 25 feet of SpiderWire was sufficient for an Altoids tin survival kit. To go with the fishing line, I included a two-inch long sewing needle with an eye big enough to easily accept the line.

    SpiderWire is a braided ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fishing line. It is very flexible, like cloth thread.

    REPAIR: Most kits put together by others include duct tape, zip ties and small safety pins, and I agree with the inclusion of these items to facilitate a wide variety of repairs.

    I chose to go with four 3.5-inch (the length of the Altoids tin) by one-inch wide strips of common duct tape. I used some discarded one inch wide peel-away strips (basically wax paper) that Amazon was kind enough to leave behind in some padded envelopes in which purchases came. I laid two strips next to each other, held in place with painter's tape on a flat surface. Then I carefully stacked four pieces of two inch wide duct tape on the strips, trimmed the stack to length, then cut the stack in half lengthwise, carefully following the seam between the two peel-away strips.

    One-inch wide Gorilla brand tape is also available, but it is slightly wider than one inch (1.06 inches), so it wouldn't work conveniently with the salvaged peel-away strips.

    I included two 5-inch nylon zip ties and two safety pins in each kit.

    MEDICAL: I decided to limit medical supplies to several antidiarrheal Loperamide (Imodium AD) tablets and a couple small adhesive bandages.

    The Loperamide tablets were individually packaged. I trimmed off excess packaging material, while preserving the expiration date, so they would fit easier in the kit.

    The adhesive bandages are the plastic variety instead of cloth bandages. The plastic bandages are slightly thinner than cloth bandages.

Altoids survival kit contents: (1) zip ties, (2) water bag, (3) Fresnel lens in case, (4) adhesive bandages, (5) Bic mini lighter, (6) Coghlan's tinders, (7) Loperamide tablets, (8) P-38 can opener, (9) safety pins, (10) compass, (11) Leatherman squirt PS4 multitool, (12) coil of waxed hemp wick, (13) flashlight, (14) Aquatabs water purification tablets, (15) Spiderwire and needle, (16) duct tape.


    The first kit I put together was the most expensive kit, having around $130 in components. The second kit had around $50 in components. The later lower-cost versions of the kits have around $25 to $35 in components.

    Keep in mind that many of the components cannot be purchased for reasonable prices in single quantities. For example, you cannot buy 25 feet of SpiderWire - it comes in 150 yard rolls for fifteen dollars. You cannot buy 7 inches of duct tape - it comes in rolls of 10 to 60 yards. A single capsule compass costs almost as much as a lot of several capsule compasses.

    If you use Amazon, ebay, and local stores to buy components for a kit, you would spend $100 just to buy minimum quantities of the components that would go into the cheapest kit.

    So, there are two ways to approach building an Altoids survival kit to keep the cost reasonable. Either be extraordinarily resourceful, or plan on building several kits at once to spread the multi-item-lot cost across all your kits.

    From the resourcefulness perspective, what items do you already have around your home? I already had a roll of quality duct tape, so I didn't need to buy any. Similarly, I already had the zip-ties and bandages. I already had a Photon LED light I'd purchased for less than a dollar a year ago as new-old-stock, then installed a new CR2032 lithium cell in it. The knockoff white LED light (pictured) came from a flea market several years ago. Knockoff Photon-style keychain lights are available from Amazon for less than a dollar each when bought in quantities of ten or more. I purchased the Leatherman Squirt PS4 and Gerber Dime used in very good condition on ebay for significantly less than their new prices. And, I regularly consume Altoids mints, so I had "free" Altoids tins available.

    The multitool is probably going to be the single most expensive component in the kit. For the multitool, you can buy new, or buy used. Used, the Leatherman Squirt PS4 and Gerber Dime in good condition go for half to two-thirds the price of new. (Pay careful attention to pictures, shipping prices, and compare to the Amazon price. I noticed that frequently the scissor spring and/or file was broken on used Leatherman Squirt PS4s.)

    If you do not insist on having pliers in the multitool, several more options become available, including the Leatherman Micra and the tiny Victronix Classic SD knife.

    Also, keep in mind that I spent several months from when I started collecting the components for these kits until I finished the latest version. This is not a weekend project.


    Packing all these items into an Altoids tin is a challenge - it is a three dimensional puzzle.

    In general, the objective is to get things be as flat as possible so they can be stacked inside the Altoids tin.

    I made flat spools from old plastic credit/gift cards to hold the SpiderWire. I settled on a spool that was 2.75 inches long (the length of the flat portion of the side of the Altoids tin). I cut flat notches, not V-notches, so the wrapped SpiderWire would lay as flat as practical. The needle is taped to one side of the spool.

    Finding the best way to get the water bag into the kit was a challenge. As mentioned above, simply folding it took up took too much volume. I ended up tightly rolling the bag, then using a couple small rubber bands to keep it rolled up. For the one liter bag, I found bending the roll into an "L" so it laid flat against two sides of the tin was most efficient. For a one quart freezer bag (not pictured), I found that bending it into a "U" shape was most efficient. The constraint for deciding whether to bend the bag into an "L" or "U" shape was the necessity of being able to lay the multitool and lighter flat next to each other.

    The credit card sized magnifying lens is flat and fits in the Altoids tin if the corners of its vinyl slip case are trimmed slightly. I want to protect the lens, so I consider the vinyl slip case necessary. I added a tape tab to the top of the slip case to facilitate removing it from the tin. The lens could instead be wrapped in tissue paper for protection.


    As mentioned above, the Leatherman Style PS is TSA compliant as of this writing because it lacks a knife blade. A Bic lighter is allowed in carry-on baggage, but not allowed in checked baggage unless enclosed in a DOT approved container. (See, Safety pins are allowed in carry-on baggage. (See Sewing needles, such as the needle accompanying the Spider Wire, is allowed in carry-on baggage. (See

    If you put a Leatherman Style PS in you altoids tin, you may have to show it to the TSA agent for inspection. Either remove the multitool before approaching the screening station, or be prepared to open the kit and then deal with reassembling the kit afterward. I once had the TSA agent open up and inspect every tool in my Leatherman Style PS.

    Of course, everything is subject to the ever changing carry-on rules of the TSA and the subjective interpretation of the carry-on rules of the TSA agent you encounter at the airport.


    While the most expensive kit had a lot of cool gadgets in it, it was not practical as an Altoids tin survival kit because of its cost.

    The first prototype kit included a peanut lighter. The peanut lighters are cute, but I don't think there was any way to guarantee any of them might not have their lighter fluid evaporate. For that reason, they had to be excluded from the kits.

    I explored several sparking device options as a secondary method for starting a fire. But, a secondary sparking device for starting a fire was just too bulky, and for what is realistically a very short term use survival kit, it was excessive. I eventually settled on a Fresnel lens as a secondary method for starting a fire, and it can otherwise be used as a magnifying lens to see tiny things better.

    For tinder material, I was originally only going to rely on the waxed hemp wick, but removing the sparking device from the kit freed up room to add more tinder, such as the Coghlan's tinders. With a Leatherman Squirt PS4 in the kit, I can fit two tinders into the kit. With a Gerber Dime, I can only fit one tinder into the kit.

    After building up a couple prototype kits with the Gerber Dime, I am starting to lean toward using the Leatherman Squirt PS4 because it is slightly thinner (1.85 mm) and shorter (13 mm because of the bottle-opener) than the Gerber Dime, even though the Gerber Dime is roughly half the cost of the Leatherman Squirt PS4.

    Most of the other components remained largely unchanged as the kits evolved.


    My thoughts on an Altoids tin survival kit evolved significantly as I started prototyping my own kits. The foundation requirements for my kit - a bag for water, water purification tablets, anti-diarrhea tablets, a small multitool with pliers, and Spiderwire for cordage - remained unchanged, while just about everything else evolved.

    While I have expressed my preferences for various kit components, I am not specifically recommending any particular component or brand. I have tried to document my thought processes as I weighed the pros and cons in choosing specific components to put in my kit.

    Emergency preparations should always be tailored to your specific needs and circumstances. Altoids tin survival kits are no different, as you will quickly discover if you start watching videos about Altoids tin survival kits.

    Go buy some Altoids mints and start planning your own kit!

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