Irreducible imperfection: the SOL Origin

Manufacturing miniature survival kits must be the closest thing to printing your own money short of selling bottled water. I’ve looked at dozens of them, and rarely found contents worth more than about $2.95—usually some fish hooks and monofilament, a few feet of cheap paracord, matches or friction fire starter, a button compass, and a couple of safety pins. Maybe a tiny mirror for signaling. For a while many of them came with a condom, the stated purpose of which was not to provide safe sex with that drooling grizzly bear loping in your direction, but to carry water. Right.

I’ve recently been evaluating the SOL Origin survival kit, which retails for around $40, and I must say the contents of this kit are a step up from some. In fact, I’d say there’s a good six or seven bucks worth of stuff in here. 

SOL stands for Survive Outdoors Longer (as well as the banal double entendre). SOL is a division of the parent company that owns Adventure Medical Kits, which I’ll say up front produces some of the very finest expedition first-aid kits, one of which is standard equipment on all our African projects. 

The SOL Origin comprises an ABS plastic case enclosing the following: 

  • Three square feet of aluminum foil—sorry, heavy-duty aluminum foil according to SOL 
  • A combination knife, LED flashlight, and whistle
  • A liquid-filled button compass
  • A “Fire Lite” thumb-wheel fire striker
  • Four #10 fish hooks
  • Fishing line
  • Six feet of .020” stainless-steel wire
  • Signal mirror
  • Two snap swivels
  • Two split-shot line weights
  • Four pieces of braided “Tinder Quick”
  • Sewing needle
  • Ten feet of 150-pound-test braided nylon cord

Okay—maybe I was wrong about the six or seven bucks worth of contents. Let’s make it five.

So, what do we have here? I’ll start with the palm-sized case, which for some strange reason comes with a wrist lanyard, as though that’s how you’d carry it around ready for deployment the instant you felt disoriented. The case is constructed in such a way that the knife/flashlight/whistle, the fire striker, and the button compass slide into slots on the outside. This accomplishes several nifty things at once. It increases the chance one or more of those items (the most critical in the kit) will be damaged or come loose and be lost; it severely reduces the internal volume of the case, rendering it unusable for, say, scooping water out of a crevice or digging; and it makes the device look much more tactical, meaning the maker can charge more than if they gave you a simple metal box that could also be used for cooking or boiling water.

You hope they don't come out of their own volition. The LED bulb is visible at the base of the knife blade; whistle on the other end. Battery compartment is under the "SOL" lettering.

The button compass is simple, well-dampened, and seems to work just fine. Since most people who become lost know more or less in which cardinal direction civilization (or at least the road) lies, it could be a useful tool. There’s a little thumbnail slot in it to facilitate removing it from the case; if this had been pushed through all the way you’d have the option of hanging the compass around your neck on a cord. You could easily drill it out.

The knife blade is 1 3/4 inches long, made from actually-not-bad AUS-8 stainless steel, and is quite sharp. It opens with a right-handed thumb stud, and even locks with a simple Walker liner lock—at least, it’s supposed to. I found that light finger pressure easily overpowered the lock. Best to pretend it’s not there rather than count on it to prevent getting cut. The blade flexes back and forth rather alarmingly on its pivot. The knife would be perfectly functional for gutting a trout or making feather sticks to start a fire, but for anything beyond that—building a shelter, for example—it’s worthless (and I think many so-called survival knives are far too large). The tiny LED flashlight casts a decent keychain-light-level glow and is supposed to shine for 15 hours. There is room in the case for a spare pair of button batteries (which you’d have to buy on your own). But the battery compartment is secured with a tiny Phillips-head screw, so unless you have the means to remove that . . .

The flashlight bulb shines along the axis of the knife, which sort of helps you see what you’re cutting, but it’s not nearly as effective—or as bright—as a separate flashlight would be, even one powered by a single AA battery. 

The whistle opposite the knife blade is loud. Just don’t get distracted if you spot a would-be rescuer while whittling a tent peg or something, and stick the wrong end in your mouth.

Lit - finally - but not much of a flame.

Next is the fire striker, to be used in conjunction with the four, inch-long bits of braided tinder inside, which appear to be infused with paraffin or something similar. Since, in many if not most survival scenarios, fire is your single most vital survival and signaling (not to mention psychological) tool, one would expect care to be taken here. The striker is said to produce up to 5,000 sparks, but—and this is assuming the thing hasn’t come out of its slot and disappeared—the sparks it generates are nothing like the shower produced by a proper ferrocerium stick. I tried it on one of the pieces of tinder, and it took me two minutes of repeated striking to finally get the cord lit, after which it burned with the strength of a large candle for a bit over two minutes, showing very little resistance to the light breeze that was blowing at the time. I literally used up a hundred or more of those 5,000 sparks to light a manufactured bit of tinder. I wouldn’t even try it on natural tinder. Could the cord have dried out during the time this kit sat on a shelf? Not good if so.

Last on the exterior list is the polycarbonate signal mirror, which hinges off the lid and thus at least can’t be lost easily. The aiming hole in the center of the mirror incorporates retro-reflective mesh, a material that allows extremely accurate aiming. The fold-out “survival pamphlet” in the case includes clear instructions on how to use it—which is lucky, because the graphic under the mirror is utterly incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the mirror is adequately sized and bright, protected from scratching, and undoubtedly the best implement in the kit.

The signal mirror is a good one, but don't try to figure out how to use it from the graphic.

On to the inside contents. First, the “three square feet” of “heavy-duty” aluminum foil. At 5.5 by 11.5 inches, their math is a bit off, at least for the piece in my kit. My arithmetic comes up with slightly less than half a square foot. Second, I’ve encountered heavier foil wrapped around a stick of Juicy Fruit—this piece came pre-holed on one of the folds. Finally, even the makers seem unsure what to do with the stuff. The pamphlet says, under “Improvisation,” that it “can be used as a reflective device for signaling.” Isn’t the mirror better for that? Another suggested use is as “ . . . a head covering when the night comes on cold.” Okaaaay. So I tried it. I felt like a stick of Juicy Fruit.

The author, contemplating actually facing the wilderness with this stuff.

Onward. Ten feet of braided nylon is perhaps enough to string between two trees to support a poncho or Space Blanket for a shelter. Or you could lash your 1 3/4-inch SOL knife to a stick and go hunting for . . . well . . . chipmunks, perhaps. Or meadowlarks. Twenty feet would have been better, and 20 feet of 550 paracord even better.


A sewing needle. So you can keep your survival duds neatly mended, or suture the gashes you sustained when that grizzly bear tried to . . . never mind.

Four #10 fish hooks, snap swivels, split shot, and monofilament line. A fine addition to the kit, given the right circumstances of course. In fact, I would have preferred more hooks in different sizes, and more line. The company’s site doesn’t specify the test of the included line, but it appears to be more than adequate for the hook size. It’s up to you to figure out out to crimp the split shot on the line. It’s also up to you to know the proper fisherman’s knot that will secure the slippery monofilament line to the snap swivels; the pamphlet includes none.

 Six feet of snare wire (okay, they call it “safety wire,” but the pamphlet suggests using it for snaring). Another fine idea in theory. With a bit of training—and as with the fish hooks, the right habitat—snaring small mammals is a viable survival technique that requires minimal materials and minimal energy expenditure. However, the wire in the SOL Origin was so completely useless for this purpose as to be laughable if the company weren’t touting it as a life-saving device. It was so springy that even after concerted effort I could not straighten it enough to form a stable loop, yet it also kinked horribly. Finally, while holding one end down with a boot and pulling on the other end to try to straighten it, the wire simply snapped at one of the kinks. Not good. Even if the wire were suitable, you need multiple snares to ensure success, and six feet is not enough. 

The worthless- and broken - "safety wire" from the SOL Origin in the middle, with a professionally made wire snare capable of taking small game.

Thankfully, that was the last item in the kit, because by this point I was shaking my head in disbelief that the SOL Origin had ever reached the market in this form.

Let’s stop to postulate here. You’re lost in the wilderness. You have no vehicle, no means of communication. Depending on environmental conditions, the next 48 hours will determine whether you live or die. Do you really want to pin your future on a two-inch knife, a plastic spark generator, and some Reynolds Wrap?

Oddly, the kit’s pamphlet (written by Buck Tilton, who should know what he’s talking about, and who calls this “the best little survival kit in the world”) properly identifies survival priorities: positive attitude, medical care, shelter/fire, signaling, water, and food. The SOL Origin fails to address medical care and water at all (not even a few iodine tablets included), is marginal at best on food (worthless snare wire and adequate fishing supplies), and is poor on fire/shelter (build a lean-to with that knife?). Daytime signaling is the only facet that achieves good marks. 

I’d even give it a fail on engendering a positive attitude. Given that up to half or more of your time spent lost is going to be at night, with all the attendant practical and psychological implications, the failure to include a proper flashlight is a strong hint that this kit was designed by a designer, not anyone with experience in survival situations.

I could go on to rant about the pamphlet too, but I won’t. Okay, just one: Water. Buck tells us, among other gems, that “ants” mean water is not too far away. I can show Buck lots of ants that don’t live within 50 miles of water. Also, “Birds, especially grain-eating birds, fly to water at dawn and dusk.” Buck, the operative word there is “fly.” And finally he repeats the old saw about “digging at the bends of dry washes.” The only thing you’ll wind up with eleven months of the year if you try that where I live is a pre-excavated grave. 

The concept of a palm-sized survival kit is interesting, and I suppose one could argue that the SOL kit is better than nothing at all. But it would be absurdly easy to put together a kit taking up little if any more space, which would be infinitely more useful for saving your life. Yes, it would cost more—if you don’t think your life is worth more than a nice lunch out, I have an SOL Origin I’ll part with for a pittance. As it is, if I somehow found myself caught out with this thing in a survival situation, my first thought would be:

Man, I am SOL.

Unfortunately, Buck won't be there when you need him.