North London in the mid 80s was a hostile environment. You never knew when you might accidentally go missing for days, reduced to living off your wits and squirrels from the park. Or any of several varieties of apocalypse could strike while your parents were out at work, leaving you homeless and alone to dodge bands of feral yuppies among the twisted ruins. Most kids probably thought they were sorted with their lunch money and a bus pass, but me and my mates knew better. Long before Bear Grylls had even been invented, we were born survivors.
All that surviving has paid off now that I've lived long enough to see a brave new world. No longer must you assemble your own; today's survival kits come purpose-designed. The SOL ('Survive Outdoors Longer') Origin is 173g of minimalist self sufficiency, neatly nested in a palm-sized case with all the whistles and bells (well, a whistle but no bells). There's even a knife, and quite a decent one. Aged 10 I'd have pronounced the SOL Origin survival tool well wicked man. Don't get me wrong. Adventure Medical Kits, the company behind the SOL Origin, also offer some excellent products for wilderness medics and first aiders, a range of comprehensive kits in tough waterproof cases; stuff you could be really glad of if it all went pear shaped. But while the SOL Origin is a small boy's dream, and a nifty piece of design too, I'm not sure it sits well with these more serious kits.
In the spirit of rigorous gear testing for which UKC/UKH are renowned I regressed 25 years and took it into the garden for a bit of survival before lunch.
Stashed in the tough ABS plastic case ('with 30% glass fiber for unbeatable strength to weight ratio') are a few basic essentials:
The lid of the case doubles as a signal mirror made of durable polycarbonate, with a hole in the middle for easy aiming (at passing police helicopters for instance). I've never played with one of these before, and at close range at least it works surprisingly well – you can direct a bright spot of sunlight at will. The cat loved it. This is said to be visible over 20 miles, though I haven't dared test the limits for fear of dazzling pilots on the Edinburgh flight path. My young self would have called that wussy.
The underside of the case is where things get clever, with three key items of equipment that each slide into their own special slot, locking in place with a reassuring click. It's like Transformers. Why are they external at all though? They'd be safer inside and there would be plenty of room for them if the case had a deeper storage area.
Mini compass: This should point north, but my sample was a little off. Either that or several proper compasses need replacing. Of course at the size of a button even if it did work it'd be less than ideal for conventional hillwalking use paired with a map. Then again if you'd thought to bring a map wouldn't you be busy using it to walk out to civilisation or the nearest Travelodge (whichever came first) rather than wasting time faffing around with snares? Let's assume you forgot your map and GPS, but luckily you remembered to pack the Origin. You're not sure exactly where you are but you know that if you can just keep heading east through the wilderness you'll eventually hit the road to Ambleside. Bet you're glad of that compass now. Except of course, it's slightly skewed so you end up in Windermere by mistake. This is survivable but a bit of a blow since the shops aren't as good.
The Fire Lite (™) sparker is actually pretty cool. It's a similar shape to a cigarette lighter, rather small, and recalling my childhood obsession with needlessly elaborate ways to fail to start fires I did briefly wonder why SOL hadn't just included a lighter instead. But this sparker is waterproof and windproof, and it won't run out of gas (I don't know how long the spark will last). Though it's small and fiddly it does work, sending a good shower of sparks over your tinder. Or your fingers.
I like the ultralight knife. It's got a short but razor sharp locking blade made of something called Japanese AUS-8 steel, which is claimed to be harder and stronger than commonly used 'high carbon' steel blades, and to hold an edge longer. It's great for little jobs but with a blade less than 2 inches long and a handle that's a bit small to grip properly I can't see this tool doing much heavy work. Preparing a trout? Sure. Building a shelter out of branches? Well, maybe. Still, if you're in a tight spot it's much better than a sharpened stick.
There's a pea-less 100 dB whistle built into the knife handle, and ear splitting it is too. There's also a pretty bright single LED light at the cutting end, with batteries that have a 15-hour burn time. If there was any way to clip it to your harness I can see this knife proving useful in a crap-hits-the-fan climbing fix. But there isn't. Still, if I had to pick just one item and leave the rest I'd definitely go for the knife. My weapon-obsessed younger self would have approved.
Survival experts need an animal name. Ray and Bear are the prime time favourites, but not to be outdone the Origin includes a leaflet, 62+ Life Saving Tools and Techniques by one Buck Tilton. He looks every inch the rugged American individualist, and clearly knows his stuff. I don't reckon Messrs Mears or Grylls could grow a beard like Buck's either. I didn't bother building any of his recommended shelters or fires though – that's what tents and camping stoves are for.
So is it any use?
Yeah, but no. The major caveat is that this is borderline as a serious survival tool. No one in their right mind would purposely venture into a genuine wilderness armed with only the SOL Origin and Buck's couple of pages of advice. If they did, they'd have an unpleasant holiday. But what if you blundered into a survival situation by mistake, and just happened to have this conveniently compact kit about your person? It would definitely be much better than nothing. Most of the tools do the job for which they're designed after all, though they're a bit fiddly for long term use and abuse in anything other than an emergency. The knife cuts (pretty well as it happens), the torch lights and the whistle deafens. You can readily start a fire with this kit; you might catch and you could certainly prepare a fish; you can establish roughly where north is; in desperation you'd probably be able to signal a passing 747. What's morse code for urgent; send more prosecco?
The problem is, I struggle to invent a scenario in which I find myself far from civilisation with only the Origin between me and probable death. Your Landcruiser breaks down in the middle of the Namib desert; you didn't think to bring any water but as luck will have it there's a SOL kit in the glove box. Phew, that life saving solar still is as good as made. Your plane ditches in the Peruvian Amazon; fellow passengers are resorting to cannibalism but you had the foresight to stick your Origin kit in hand luggage (some lax airport security official let you board with that small yet effective knife). While all about you are losing their heads you stay cool, knowing that with 10 feet of string and a whistle salvation is only a matter of time.
More info on the Adventure Medical Kits website
I think it's fair to say that the Origin has been made with the US in mind, a place with plenty of proper wilderness but generally rather less of a climate issue than we enjoy. Let's put the unlikely adventure travel scenarios aside and think closer to home. Even in the depths of the Scottish Highlands, hostile as they can certainly be, nowhere is more than a (short) day's walk from the nearest road. You would struggle to get lost long enough to genuinely need most of the contents of this kit. In bad weather you'd fail to find dry firewood and die of hypothermia long before you starved for lack of rabbit; you'd be much more likely to survive if you swapped the fishhooks and tinder for a bivi bag. And a mobile phone. In the UK only dedicated outdoorsy folk are likely to put in the effort required to get somewhere remotely wild in the first place, and it would be an odd hillwalker or climber who left their headtorch and compass at home in favour of the Origin's miniaturised versions.
It's neat, it's well designed, and some thought has obviously gone into the contents. All the essentials are there. But for me the SOL Origin is closer to a toy than a serious tool. Within those limitations however it's got plenty of fun potential. One of my nephews is turning nine next week. He's just beginning to show an interest in the outdoors, so I know exactly the thing he needs. His parents might not thank me for that knife though.
Dan Bailey, UKH Editor (News), is the author of several guidebooks including West Highland Way, The Ridges of England, Wales and Ireland - Scrambles and Climbs and Scotland's Mountain Ridges - A Guide to Scrambles and Climbs described as 'a work of considerable authority, I can recommend (it) unreservedly' by Chris Craggs.
Dan lives in Fife and has always had a passion for climbing and the outdoors. His work features widely in print and online media, from outdoor mags to Sunday papers.