By Jeffrey Yago, P.E., CEM

Issue #117 • May/June, 2009

If you saw the movie, “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, you might remember that his character always carried a small pen knife with him. Early in the movie his character is stranded alone on a small island after his company’s cargo jet explodes and crashes into the ocean. The last scene inside the diving plane just before the crash shows his pen knife sliding away along the steeply sloping floor after it fell out of his hand during the explosion.

Most of the remaining movie shows his efforts to survive on the small uninhabited island for years without any tools. A flashback of his missing pocket knife implies how the knife would have made his struggle to survive so much easier if it hadn’t been lost.

Examples of the many low cost key rings that are available
Examples of the many low cost key rings that are available

Over the years I have written many articles on how to prepare for emergencies. I have discussed how to make a survival kit for your car that fits in a six-pack cooler; how to make a survival “bug-out” bag using a book bag to keep near the front door; how to make a long-term emergency food pantry; how to select the best emergency battery-powered radio and flashlight; how to install an emergency generator, and how to keep your cell phones charged during a power outage.

In these uncertain times when America is changing into a country many no longer recognize, it might be a good idea to review my past articles which are available for free on the Backwoods Home web site. However, even if you have made all these emergency preparations for your car and home, what if you are like Tom Hank’s character and disaster strikes when you are not in your home or vehicle?

What if you suddenly found yourself running for your life to escape a fire, flood, or chemical spill? What if you are caught in a building that suddenly goes dark, or are walking down a city street or riding on public transportation when disaster strikes? Every day the news describes people just like you and me who were suddenly caught in life threatening situations with absolutely no warning and no emergency tools. Although it would be nice to have that book bag or travel cooler full of emergency supplies, concentrated foods, and cooking equipment, odds are they are nowhere near.

For a backup plan, let’s see how much emergency equipment and survival gear we can comfortably carry on just a key ring, that easily fits in a pants pocket or purse, and which you can always have with you.

Emergency key ring

Not everyone will have the same emergency needs. An executive could handle most of his emergency needs with just a small flashlight and pen knife on a key ring. Someone who finds themselves in a large city or unknown surroundings might be better served with a small can of pepper spray and a loud whistle on their key ring.

LED light and miniature Leatherman MICRA model utility knife with fold-out scissors
LED light and miniature Leatherman MICRA model utility knife with fold-out scissors

If you travel and are away from home on a regular basis, you might want to consider adding a computer memory stick to your key ring.

Unless you have incredibly large reinforced pockets, you will not be able to attach all of the items I will be discussing to a single key ring, so as I go through the list select only those tools or accessories for your emergency key ring that best meets your day-to-day needs.

Selecting a key ring

We will start with the actual key ring itself. There are hundreds of designs, including multiple joining rings with quick disconnects, key rings that clip onto your belt, and the super-industrial-size key ring on a chain you normally see custodians or security people carrying around with hundreds of keys at the ready. Fortunately, key rings are inexpensive, so you can buy several different sizes and styles to test which is right for the emergency items you plan to carry. It will take some trial and error to find the best combination for you.

Since we still need to carry keys with us, our emergency key ring could also hold a few keys. However, for ease of use, it is usually better to either keep your keys on their own separate key ring, or use the double-ring version having a quick disconnect link. For example, it’s hard to light up the door lock if your flashlight is on the same key ring as your keys.

Fire starter bar, military-surplus can opener, 8 gigabyte memory stick, and pill bottle
Fire starter bar, military-surplus can opener, 8 gigabyte memory stick, and pill bottle

The two must-have items everyone should keep with them at all times are a pocket flashlight and a pocketknife. Here again there are hundreds to select from, but I like to keep everything to a bare minimum, so I prefer the flat quarter-size LED light. These are incredibly bright and can provide hours of continuous operation.

These LED lights are also available in an ultraviolet black-light version that will make scorpions and other creepy-crawlies glow if you live in areas where these are a problem when walking around outside at night. Expect to pay about $10 to $15 on these LEDs, depending on size and model.

The second must-have item is a fold-up knife. As I get older, I am convinced there is a conspiracy to package everything you buy in plastic pouches that are impossible for anyone over 16 years of age to open.

Even if you eventually find the hidden starter zip tab, you will still need the “Jaws of Life” to open the darn things. For this reason, my weapon of choice is the tiny Leatherman “MICRA” model utility knife that includes a really great pair of small foldout scissors. I use them every day to open packages, cut reinforced tape bindings, and constantly hand to my wife.

Other safety items

Miniature nuclear radiation Geiger counter
Miniature nuclear radiation Geiger counter

There are flat-shaped emergency whistles designed to fit on a key ring which are very inexpensive and will wake the dead. You can also buy a half-size can of concentrated pepper spray that is easier to fit on a key ring.

If you like to hike in the woods or find yourself in the middle of nowhere after your vehicle dies, in addition to the emergency whistle, you might want to add a fire starter stick, available at any camping supply outlet. These look like a small bar of very lightweight metal, with a dark round rod embedded along one side. The metal is actually soft magnesium and small shavings can be easily removed with your pocket knife.

These metal shavings are then placed on dry scraps of paper or leaves, and then you rub the edge of your knife along the round rod. This produces lots of hot sparks which will easily ignite the magnesium. Magnesium burns so hot it will ignite almost any fire starting materials. Yes, a Bic lighter would be much easier, and by all means keep one with you if you need it on a regular basis. But a fire stick will not ever leak, need fluid, or stop working, and they are waterproof.

It seems like all of us are now on some kind of medication, but in some cases being without medicine could be life threatening. Manufacturers now make a small, almost indestructible waterproof pill bottle having a rubber gasket and screwtop lid that easily fits on a key ring. This small round case could hold a few tablets of an important medication like nitroglycerine, aspirin, water purification tablets, and even some rolled-up emergency cash. Although you may carry a prescription bottle, this is a great way to have a few extra pills with you at all times.

Survival key ring
Survival key ring

USB drive memory sticks are now available in huge eight or more gigabytes of file storage capacity for under $30. These can hold thousands and thousands of photos and backup files on a device the size of your thumbnail. I’m not sure I would rely on these as my only long-term backup storage for critical computer files, but they are a great way to provide temporary storage and transfer your important computer data when traveling and you need access to the same files in different locations.

In addition to copies of photos, spreadsheets, and databases, you can also store scanned copies of deeds, wills, contracts, medical records, insurance policies, home inventories, and other vital records to add to your memory stick. Most memory stick designs include password protection in case the device is lost or stolen.

Advanced nuclear warning

In this increased age of terrorist threats, news of dirty bombs made from radioactive hospital waste, missing suitcase-size nuclear bombs that disappeared during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the continued nuclear-missile saber rattling coming from North Korea, Iran, and China, there is now a really great must-have life-saving device.

Basic key ring with a memory stick, LED light, and miniature utility knife
Basic key ring with a memory stick, LED light, and miniature utility knife

It is now possible to purchase a real radiation Geiger counter no larger than your thumb for under $175. Don’t let the small size or low cost fool you. The reduced size and cost are the result of large-scale mass production after US government agencies and other countries ordered millions of these tiny Geiger counters to hand out for free to all critical government personnel (and most likely your congressmen and their staff). If you are like me and have not already received yours, I guess we were not deemed worthy to save in the event of a nuclear attack. However, you can buy the same exact device without working for a government agency and without any special authorization.

These miniature Geiger counters cannot be accidently turned off as they operate 24 hours per day. The factory-sealed unit will continue to operate for up to 10 years without service or battery replacement. These will not only warn you if you are approaching a radioactive area, but they will also serve as an early warning system to help guide you to a lower radiation area in the event of a radiation accident or explosion. As the old joke goes, if you can say “What was that?” you most likely were far enough away from a blast zone to survive, as long as you know which way to go to avoid the radioactive dust that will soon start falling in the downwind direction.

Putting it all together

Perfect for city streets, this key ring includes LED flashlight, inexpensive flat alarm whistle, and reduced-size pepper spray.
Perfect for city streets, this key ring includes LED flashlight, inexpensive flat alarm whistle, and reduced-size pepper spray.

The basic everyday starter key ring I suggest for most men and women contains an LED flashlight, an 8 gigabyte memory stick, and a Leatherman MICRA utility knife which includes a pair of foldout scissors.

Since I travel to many other states on a regular basis, I have created my “survival” version of a emergency key ring. My key ring includes a radiation detector, miniature pepper spray, utility knife with foldout scissors, computer memory stick, and LED flashlight. I can tell you from experience that you don’t want to try to board an airplane with one of these in your pocket, but when traveling away from home I take great comfort in knowing if disaster strikes, I am better prepared than 98% of the people around me.

My suggested “city streets” version of an emergency key ring contains the half-size concentrated pepper spray, LED flashlight, and a flat alarm whistle. This combination of devices still easily fits in your coat pocket or purse, and can be concealed in your hand if things just don’t feel right.


Most of these “must have” key ring tools are fairly inexpensive. However, if budget is a major concern, start out like you are making a charm bracelet and purchase what you can now, and add the more expensive items later. A starter key ring with LED flashlight and Leatherman-type utility knife should cost under $30, and you will actually use these tools every day.

I am sure there are more gadgets and tools that you can find to fit on a key ring that I haven’t reviewed, so check around to see what works best for you.

To expand your emergency preparations, there are other great pocket-size emergency gadgets that may not fit on the key ring, but will still easily fit in a pocket or purse. These could include a miniature high-quality AM/FM/weather-band radio, miniature test equipment for your business, and don’t forget that indispensible cell phone which hopefully includes a built-in camera and GPS mapping feature.

Other useful pocket-sized equipment could include test equipment, miniature AM/FM/weather band radio, or fold-up screwdriver set.
Other useful pocket-sized equipment could include test equipment, miniature AM/FM/weather band radio, or fold-up screwdriver set.

A final word of warning

I carry an LED flashlight on my key ring everywhere I go and have for many years. However, while traveling with my wife one summer we stopped in a small town that had numerous antique shops. My keys were in the car’s ignition when she dropped me off in an area I wanted to shop, and then she headed down the block to the stores she wanted to visit. I entered a large antique store and eventually headed down a long set of stairs to a huge bargain basement. The basement was divided into many smaller partitioned areas using half-walls and stacked displays to separate the different independent sellers.

Unfortunately, unknown to me, it was near closing time when I first headed down and I was the only person left in this city-block-sized basement. To make matters worse, I was as far away from the only stairs out of the place when, you guessed it, they turned off the lights! After yelling and banging my head on just about every antique from the 1820s to the 1940s, I finally had to crawl on my hands and knees to find my way to the stairs while moving through the endless maze of vendor partitions. Finally someone heard me and turned on the lights just as I was crawling up the stairs. If I had parked the car, my key ring with LED light would have been in my pocket and I would have walked out of the dark basement in seconds, and with my dignity still intact!

As Tom Hank’s character found out, you can own all kinds of emergency tools and gadgets, but if you do not have them with you at all times, you will be no better off than the rest of the crowd. Emergency situations never give advance notice. If they did, they would not be called emergencies!


  1. I have a few things I always keep in my pocket. A flashlight is always on my keychain. Folks used to give me a hard time about that but when there was a power outage and the emergency lights did not come on they finally saw my reasoning. I also keep a knife and pen in my pocket but not on my keychain.

  2. One thing to remember, adding items of weight to your key ring also being used for your cars ign switch is not recommended by any auto manufacture as it put stress on the switch and can/could cause electrical issues.


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