(NOTE: Because I designed the Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pak, and both I and ETS Foundation receive a royalty from the sale of the PSP, I asked Terrill Hoffman, a respected author on survival related topics and host of the annual Practice What You Preach survival exercise, to evaluate and write an independent review of the Ultralight Survival Kit by Lifeline First Aid. - Doug Ritter)
"You get what you pay for" is an old adage and most of the time it is reliable. On the other hand, you can be pretty sure that if you don't pay for it, you’re unlikely to get it. And, if an item doesn't work, it doesn't matter how much or how little you paid for it. Unfortunately, this fact is coming to light in an area where there is no room for mistakes. Personal Survival Kits, or PSKs, are designed to be used in dire circumstances and that is not the time to find out you chose a second rate product. Every time you turn around a new PSK is hitting the marketplace. If they were all top rated, this would be a good thing and the average consumer could hope for a better product at a lower price. Unfortunately, this is too often not the case.
Ask anyone knowledgeable on the subject and they will give you two suggestions concerning PSKs. First, get one and make sure you carry it 24/7. Second, if you purchase a kit instead of making your own, take it apart and check every item in the kit. Each item has a purpose and in the middle of a disaster is not the time to learn its use or to discover it doesn't work.
Upon receipt of Lifeline First Aid’s new "Ultralight Survival Kit" (USK), the first thing I noticed after unpacking the kit from the shipping box was its obvious similarity in appearance to the "Pocket Survival Pak" (PSP) by Adventure Medical Kits. While not a total knock-off, the USK was, at best, obviously heavily influenced by the PSP.
I will freely admit that I have known Doug Ritter, the designer of the Pocket Survival Pak, for several years and I hold his kit in high esteem. For a reasonably priced pre-packaged kit, the PSP is hard to beat. I have slightly modified, supplimented really, one of the Pocket Survival Paks for my own use and carry it every time I head outdoors. Since this new kit by Lifeline is very clearly designed to be marketed against the Pocket Survival Pak, I will ask your forgiveness beforehand as I make a direct comparison between the two. If you're going to make a kit that looks like your competitor's, be prepared for a side by side comparison. Taking my own advice, I started by disassembled the kit and thoroughly checking its components and their function.
The USK comes packaged in a see-through waterproof pouch similar to the one used on the PSP. The USK (4 x 5.625 x 1.25 inches) is about 5/8-inch longer and is about 1 1/4 inches thick, making it twice as thick as the PSP (4 x 5 x 0.652 inches). While the PSP really will fit comfortably in a shirt pocket or rear pant pocket, the USK not so much. The PSP also has a lanyard hole which can be used to tie it off for security. As to weight, the USK weighed in at 5.2 ounces on my scale, the PSP at 3.8 ounces (0.1 ounce less than spec).
Using a set of calipers I measured the material thickness of the USK pouch at 0.012 inches compared to 0.020 for the pouch of the PSP. That 0.008 inches may not really matter if you were only going to use the kit once, but for continued carry as I expect many would use such a kit, it will likely make a major difference in durability. My own PSP has withstood the rigors of years on the trail very well.
There are several other commonalities between the two kits and I will take these one at a time before I cover the items particular to each kit.
The most noticeable difference is in the compass in each kit. The USK has a full-size 2-inch base plate dry model while the PSP includes a 20mm liquid-filled button compass. I would give the edge to the USK, if their compass had actually worked. It was non-functional as delivered and took a little beating on it to get the needle to re-seat on the pivot bearing and rotate. It’s hard to have faith in a survival kit when you can't even trust the compass to work. In any case, since the first rule of survival is to stay put, as both kits’ instructions recommend, and travel only in extraordinary circumstances, the compass isn't nearly as important as many presume.
Both kits contained Aluminum Foil for a multiplicity of uses. The USK had 1 1/2 sq. ft. compared to 3 sq. ft. in the PSP. Thickness and durability appeared equal between the two kits.
Fire is about as basic at it gets for survival. Light and warmth goes a long way in turning a situation from a survival scenario into just an unplanned camping trip. The reliability of your firestarter could make a big difference in the outcome, period. Each kit took its own approach to enable you to have a fire.
The USK includes a box of 23 waterproof safety matches. This will give you the possibility of 23 fires under the best conditions. You can't argue with the ease of lighting a match if conditions are not too difficult, but under more arduous conditions, it's not necessarily that simple. Keep in mind that the striking surface on the matchbox isn't waterproof and without that, the safety matches are useless, so you’ll need to make sure it stays dry, not always so easy. There's no tinder included. You'd probably want to add some since you can't always find it quickly or easily when you need it the most.
The PSP includes a mil-spec Spark-Lite fire starter and four waterproof Tinder-Quik tabs. The Spark-Lite will give you a thousand sparkings the manufacturer claims. The waterpoof Tinder-Quik is great tinder and can be the difference between getting a fire going and not in the real world. In less than horrendous conditions you can cut a tab in half and still have plenty to start most fires. You can be the judge on how the two kits compare in regards to firestarts, but I have bought several extra Spark-Lite kits and have put then in every pack I own just to make sure I am never without the means for a fire.
A #22 pattern scalpel blade is common to both kits.
One item that could not be considered even close to equal was the whistle packaged with the kits. The un-marked whistle included in the USK seemed reasonably loud at first blast, or at least it did until I blew the “Rescue Howler” by Fox 40 included in the PSP. My dog, my neighbors, and everyone else in the area around the studio will give the edge to the Howler. I was going to be very scientific and arrange to borrow a decibel meter for a comparison, but it was too obvious to even bother. The Howler wins hands down.
Stainless steel utility or “snare” wire can have many uses and the USK has an advantage over the PSP by including eight feet compared to six feet, though my measurements showed the USK was 1.5 inches short and the PSP included 1.5 inches extra. Both appear to be similar and measured 0.020 inches diameter, though the PSP's is listed as being mil-spec aircraft grade wire. To compliment the wire, both kits include 10 feet of similar braided Nylon cord, though the actual length was 1.5 inches short for the USK and there were 3-inches extra in the PSP. Seems like there's a pattern developing.
Another difference comes when you compare the 2-inch duct tape from each kit. The USK claims to have 36 inches, but my roll was 34 inches. The PSP lists it as 26 inches, but my roll had 28 inches. So, the actual difference was only 6 inches. The USK tape was much easier to unroll because it was about half as tacky as the PSP tape, which really stuck to things much better as a result. I'd give the PSP tape the edge, being more useful and reliable in a pinch versus a few more inches of less capable tape.
Both kits have a small kit containing fish hooks, split shot, and 50 ft. of line and a comparison puts the quality factor in the corner of the Pocket Survival Pak, which also includes a snap swivel. The split shot in the USK are too large for practical use in many cases. The PSP packages the fishing kit inside a plastic tube for safety and security. These may seem to be simple items, but quality counts even in the smallest gear.
Both kits contain a sheet of Survival Instructions, which I would suggest reading before you need to use the kit. While the USK's Survival Instructions are adequate, the PSP's are better written, easier to follow, and better illustrated in my opinion and are totally waterproof and virtually tear-proof. The USK's instructions didn't last very long once thoroughly wetted, making reading them ahead of time even more critical.
At this point the two kits go their own way. The Ultralight Survival Kit includes five butterfly wound closure strips, which I consider a good addition, though easily improvised from the duct tape, a 1-quart zipper-lock lightweight plastic bag for water collection or general storage, and a 50" x 80" metalized mylar Emergency Blanket, that was actually an even skimpier 45 1/2 x 71 inches. The emergency blanket was rather thin, even compared to the usual thinness you see for these, but may do for limited use.
I'm not a fan of the mylar blankets, as even the slightest puncture, which is almost unavoidable in the wilds, will cause it to shred. And, this one was skimpy even by normal minimal standards. I carry a larger and much tougher polyethylene Survival Blanket separately (Heatsheets (60 x 96 inches and bright orange on one side), also by Adventure Medical Kits as it turns out). For the extra ounce or so of weight, it is clearly superior and I prefer being able to store the two individually less bulky items separately.
The Pocket Survival Pak includes a "Rescue Flash" Signal Mirror which is one of the best signal mirrors on the market in my testing. A signal mirror is a key component of any good PSK. There's a 2" x 3" Fresnel Lens Magnifier which can serve as an additional fire starter if the sun is out or assist if you should lose your glasses and need to do a little close up work. It makes reading the small print on the Survival Instructions easier as well. A Pencil and two sheets of Waterproof Paper are also included and come in handy should you head out and need to leave a note for rescue personnel that may start looking for you or to just write down a reminder to yourself.
The PSP also includes a good sized Sewing Needle with a large, easy-to-thread eye so you might use the line provided to make repairs to clothing or equipment, as well as four large Safety Pins, useful for many purposes.
The USK is made in China. The PSP is "assembled in the USA from U.S. and imported components." MSRP for the USK is $20; MSRP for the PSP is $33. Both are available at significantly lower street and online prices if you shop around, with the ratio of the price difference narrowing somewhat.
My conclusion to this comparison is simple. You can purchase the USK at a lower price than the PSP, but the difference is only about the price of a meal at McDonalds. The quality of the items included mainly fall in favor of the Pocket Survival Pak. Save your body and skip the meal at McDonalds. Having thoroughly evaluated both kits, I’ll stick with the Pocket Survival Pak by Adventure Medical Kits. The Pocket Survival Pak is clearly superior to the Ultralight Survival Kit overall. My life is worth the modest additional investment. What's your life worth?
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Contributor: Terrill Hoffman
Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: October 15, 2009