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Outdoor Survival: M1 Garand cartridge belts and Altoids tins

M1 Garand cartridge belts and Altoids tins are a match made in prepper’s heaven. You may already have some of these vintage items gathering dust. If not, they are easy to find. Together they can be a literal lifesaver, more capable than smaller survival kits and far less bulky than the typical bugout bag.

The M1 cartridge belt is an adjustable canvas belt with 10 snap-closure pockets, each measuring approximately 3 ¾” x 2 ¾” x 1”. It was standard issue from about 1910 until the full adoption of the M14 rifle in the late 1950s. The belt was originally designed to carry 100 .30-06 cartridges in 5-round stripper clips.   When the Garand came along, GIs instead used these to carry ten 8-round en bloc clips instead. Coincidentally, Altoids tins, at about 3 ½” x 2 ½” x ¾”, also fit just fine…but you probably don’t need ten tins of breath mints. The good news is that lots of other things fit in them when the candy is gone.

Things Came In Tins

When I was young, lots of great things came in tins. Empty, they could be used in any number of ways. Prince Albert tobacco tins, for example, made perfect back-pocket fishing kits. A few worms, a hook, some line wrapped around the outside, and you were set for the day. Band-Aid tins were thicker and didn’t fit my Levi’s as well, but held more marbles or baseball cards. Even Premium saltines came in tins: big ones, maybe five inches square and a foot long. I now wish that I had a hundred of them.

Altoids tins are about the only ones left. I doubt there’s a prepper of my generation who didn’t turn an Altoids tin into a shirt-pocket survival kit, or perhaps a first-aid kit. These are still viable projects. In recent years, recycling Altoids tins has become virtually a cottage industry. There is seemingly no limit to the ways they have been reused. They are particularly popular for small electronic devices. At the end of this article I have included links to some of the most popular and ingenious uses. Many of these projects tend to be just-for-fun, but the solar iPhone charger could have a practical application. The tins are so useful that they can even be bought empty, and in any quantity you might require. Twelve cost about $12 at Amazon. Unless you really hate the Altoids label, you might as well buy them filled and eat the candy.

Where It All Began

I began with a shirt-pocket survival kit – I don’t recall what brand of tin I used. The concept is simple: a container small enough to have with you all the time, packed with tools to make fire, purify water, catch food, treat minor injuries and find your way back to civilization. These took a little ingenuity. At the time a lot of handy items were not readily available for purchase. I had to waterproof matches with nail polish. The best fire starters we had were charcloth and extra-fine steel wool. Cotton balls saturated with Vaseline worked, but were rather messy. Nobody made neat little towelettes and sterile swabs in mylar pouches. Superglue hadn’t been invented. We didn’t even have duct tape!   My early kits were built around a button compass, fishline, hooks and sinkers, a single-edged razor blade or X-Acto knife, waterproof matches, a few band-aids and a small container of antiseptic, and a carefully-folded sheet of aluminum foil. I ‘tested’ my kits on day hikes in the woods, caught and cooked a few fish, and went home convinced I could conquer the world.

Maybe I could have. Confidence is probably the most important survival tool. I had spent many hours studying my dad’s copy of How to Survive on Land and Sea, the US Navy WW II survival handbook. I could make primitive shelters and get water from vines. But rural Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s was hardly ‘wilderness’.

The pocket Altoid survival kit has come a long way in 60 years. One of the best updates I have seen was published in Field & Stream magazine, in 2006. It features a tiny magnesium ‘mini-match’, commercial tinder bundles, and a tiny LED flashlight, none of which were on the market “back in the day.” It’s not much, but better than nothing. A smart person who keeps calm and makes good use of the contents will do okay.

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First Aid

Altoid Tin First Aid KitTwo kits – one for fire, food and direction-finding, and the other for first aid – were my next step. Hey: my hunting shirts had two pockets, so two kits seemed like a better way to go. Having a whole Altoids tin for treating simple injuries and illnesses allows one to add a lot of great stuff. A typical kit might contain assorted bandages, tape and gauze, moist towelettes and sterile swabs, Q-tips, antiseptic, razor blades, super glue, dental floss, a few OTC medications like aspirin, antacid and Immodium, tweezers for splinters, maybe even a sterile suture or a packet of hemostatic blood-clotting granules for serious cuts.

Count to Ten

If two kits are good, ten are five times better. Buy yourself a Garand clip belt. They adjust to fit waists to 48”. Originals can sometimes still be found for reasonable prices, but collectors are now bidding them up. A decent reproduction runs about $40. Set the survival kit aside and pop the first aid kit in the second pocket of your M1 cartridge belt. The third pocket gets a combination tool (Leatherman or equivalent) and a match safe with compass. If you can find one with a whistle, so much the better. If not, add one. Slide a signal mirror in the back. Metal mirrors are more durable than plastic. Very few people know Morse Code these days, but the flash of a mirror will attract attention when you need it most.

My fourth pocket holds a mylar space blanket and a wire ‘commando’ saw. You can wrap yourself in the blanket, or use it to make a lean-to that will reflect heat from an open fire. Fold the plastic around a pebble and tie it with string to create an anchor point in each corner. Then you can suspend the blanket from a low-hanging branch or a frame lashed together from sticks. The next section of my belt contains a small stove (another Altoids tin, see the link below) with a few heat tabs. I have a crank-operated flashlight in pocket six; a battery-powered LED light would be even more compact, leaving room for a small packet of tissues in a ziplock waterproof bag. Tissues are so much better than leaves for personal hygiene!

So far we have taken care of minor injuries, direction-finding, and signaling. We can stay warm and see what we are doing. Water storage  and treatment is pocket seven: a heavy-duty quart ziplock bag and water purification tablets will do the trick. Add a coffee filter to remove sediment. An oven bag will allow you to boil water (carefully!) without a pot. A few packets of salt might be a good idea in hot climates.

Pocket number eight could hold another tin with a couple of teabags, sugar, and some bouillon cubes. Not exactly a hearty diet, but something to warm and cheer you.   The sugar provides a little caloric boost, and caffeine will help keep you alert. A good-sized sheet of aluminum foil, folded and creased, takes up very little space and is very nice to have. It can make a cup for the tea or wrap a fish for cooking in the embers. You could even put it in your hat – not to protect you from cosmic rays, but to help maintain body temperature. The old rule of thumb that we lose nearly half of our body heat through our heads has been discredited, but 10% gain or loss is still significant. Use a plastic vacuum-sealer bag instead of a tin for food items, and you could probably squeeze in a packet of cocoa mix or dehydrated soup. In the next compartment I have a fishing kit, with hooks, line, sinkers, synthetic ‘bait’, flies and jigs and a length of snare wire.

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The ninth pocket contains rubber tubing and a leather patch for making a slingshot, with large ball bearings or lead balls for ammunition. Find and cut a good forked branch, and you are ready to hunt small game. The rubber tubing will also serve as a tourniquet in the event of a major injury.

Pocket ten is up to you: a hank of paracord has many uses. Some folks braid it into a bracelet so they always have some on hand. Since not all emergencies occur in a howling wilderness, a prepaid charge card with a $25 balance might be handy. Speaking of charge cards, there are credit-card sized survival tools for sale. They typically offer a small saw, fish hooks, spear points, needles, tweezers and other handy gadgets. I haven’t tried any, but online reviews seem positive. Do your own research, or better yet, test one thoroughly before trusting it in a life-or death scenario. If the SHTF, a roll of silver dimes would provide purchasing power in a small package. Fifty rounds of .22 rimfire ammunition would be a good accompaniment to the takedown Ruger 10/.22 in your car. YMMV. Some things I consider essential may not be useful where you live. There’s not much fishing in the Mojave.

I sometimes add a GI canteen and cup to my cartridge belt. The wire hanger bracket fits into the grommets on the bottom edge of real army surplus belts. It may not fit aftermarket belts like the Indian import in the photos. But a canteen adds bulk, and it adds weight – water weighs about a pound per pint. Another option is the old Sierra Club cup. It is made of stainless steel. The handle hooks around your belt, so that the cup rides comfortably and almost unnoticed. It’s also a good match for the little Altoids-tin stove.

Stored Between Your Ears

Knowledge and experience take up no space. Study your environment. Know the geography, and bring a map of the area even if you carry a GPS. Batteries die, and electronics fail. Understand local weather patterns, and make it a habit to check the forecast before heading out. Practice building a shelter and starting a fire with the materials you’d have in the wild. Learn to recognize a few of the most common edible plants. Think about how you would deal with an emergency situation, so that you have a plan to follow. The more you know, the less you’ll worry. Always let someone know where you are going and how long you anticipate being gone.

If you kept count, you probably noticed that I skipped the first pocket. Mine holds a very small edition of the New Testament, stowed in a waterproof bag. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

Panic kills more people than thirst, freezing cold, or grizzly bears. It makes you forget what you know so that you end up making a bad situation worse. If you find yourself giving in to fear, get out of the weather as best you can, sit down, and read a chapter or two. The familiar words will be a comfort in themselves. Think about what you have read, and there will be that much less room in your mind for fear. If you can, gather wood and tinder and make a fire. As soon as you are missed, people will be looking for you. Nine times out of ten, someone will find you before very long. Running around aimlessly makes you harder to find and increases your chance of injury.

Your M1 Garand belt survival kit will give you the tools you need. Practice provides the skills. A calm demeanor allows you to use the tools and skills to best advantage.

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