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The art of staying alive: McNab's survival kit

9 min read
Andy McNab’s survival kit, c1990

Andy McNab’s survival kit, c1990

Surviving behind enemy lines

Special Forces soldiers are required to operate behind enemy lines. They need to be able to survive and fight in the most hostile environments. Often isolated and far from friendly forces, patrols are expected to carry equipment that will enable them to survive for several days or weeks.


Combat Survival is the last major phase of Special Forces continuation training. Recruits are instructed in escape and evasion techniques, and how to resist interrogation if captured. They are taught how to stay alive in the wild, navigate with the sun, light a fire, build shelters, collect water and forage for food.

The purpose of this training is to prepare candidates mentally and physically to the point where anything they encounter on actual operations will be something they have already dealt with. Their lives - as well as their team’s - may depend on this mental resilience, adaptability and survival knowledge.

Malayan Scouts in the jungle, c1955

A jungle shelter in Borneo, c1964

A makeshift shelter in the Borneo jungle, c1964

'Survival is the art of staying alive. Any equipment you have must be considered a bonus. You must know how to take everything possible from nature and use it to the full...'

Sergeant Major John 'Lofty' Wiseman, 'SAS Survival Handbook' - 1986


In contrast to other military personnel, Special Forces soldiers have a wide range of specialist equipment available to them. However, they usually have to carry everything necessary for their mission on their person.

As a result, choosing what to take with them requires a degree of creative thinking. State-of-the-art technology is sometimes overlooked in favour of basic equipment that can be adapted for different uses.

Escape belt used by Major Hugh Gilpin, 21st SAS, c1970

As well as carrying a bergen (or backpack), Special Forces troops wear an escape belt. This contains items that will enable them to survive for about two days if they have to operate without their bergen. These essentials would always include water, rations, extra ammunition and a survival knife. Separately, they also carry an escape map, compass, and a personal survival kit.

A multi-launch system firing anti-tank rockets, 1991

View of the desert in Iraq, c1991

Andy McNab's personal survival kit

A survival kit needs to be small enough to fit in a tobacco tin, but still contain enough equipment to preserve life in an emergency situation.

This kit was put together by Sergeant Steven Mitchell - better known by his pen-name, Andy McNab - who commanded the now-famous Bravo Two Zero patrol into Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991. 

His eight-man Special Air Service (SAS) patrol was dropped by helicopter behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, but their mission went wrong from the outset. Having left their bergens behind, they went on the run in the hostile desert environment without rations and equipment.

Andy McNab’s survival kit

Andy McNab’s survival kit, c1990

Cutting tools

A cutting tool is essential. The one in McNab’s escape kit has both a straight and a serrated blade, so that it can be used for different purposes. It can also be used as a striker with the flint to start a fire.

His tin also includes a wire saw. The wire is fitted with one or two key rings at the ends as handles. This saw takes up minimal space, but it can be used to cut branches or trees and will even cut through metal.

Wire saw, c1990

Making fire

McNab’s kit contains a flint and a striker as well as regular and waterproof matches. Ordinary matches can be made waterproof by dipping their heads in melted candle fat.

Two other items in his kit can be used to help light a fire: alcohol wipes and a tampon. When opened out, the tampon’s flammable material can be used as tinder. 

Flint, c1990

Navigation and communication

To aid navigation the kit has a secondary escape compass. Button-size compasses, such as this one, can be sewn into clothing or easily hidden for potential escape situations.

Special Forces personnel usually have small heliograph mirrors as part of their escape kits. These are used to send morse code signals by reflecting sunlight. Although there is no heliograph in this kit, the highly polished inside of the tobacco tin can be used in the same way.

Button escape compass, c1990

Food and drink

When rations can't be sourced, a Special Forces operator needs to be able to live off the land. The fishing lines and hooks in McNab's kit can be used to catch fish and also birds. The snare wires can be used to set traps for small animals or booby traps for enemy soldiers.

Condoms serve as excellent makeshift water containers. The ones in this kit have a capacity of about one litre and can be used to collect water from streams or rivers when on the run.

Fishing lines, c1990

Medical supplies

Stranded in enemy territory, Special Forces personnel often have to be their own doctors. McNab's kit features basic medical supplies to provide first aid to both himself and other team members.

It includes sterile medical sutures, a sterile surgical blade, disposable blood lancet, elastoplast and alcohol swabs. The tampon can also be used to plug wounds.

Sterile surgical blade, c1990


When operating in extreme environments behind enemy lines, clothes start to deteriorate rapidly.

McNab's survival tin contains a small sewing kit - comprising three safety pins, needle with thread and pins - which can be used for quick clothing repairs. It can also be used for emergency medical treatment.

Sewing kit, c1990

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