There is something of a simmering debate among those who move in survival-centric circles on the topic of smartphones and how they fit into one’s preps. You’ll hear plenty from both camps, from those who are pro-phone and those who are decidedly no-phone.
Some folks, often the Old Guard, decry these modern miracle machines as crutches, at best, or dangerously fallible and fragile baubles no one should trust their life to, at worst.
Folks on the opposite side of the aisle will tout the capability-packed little buggers as excellent life-saving resources so long as they are functional and powered, both of which become more and more certain all the time as portable off-grid power generation tech permeates the market and the phones themselves grow ever more efficient and rugged.
Whatever your misgivings about electronic devices, you would be a fool to not take advantage of their wondrous capability to improve your survival chances by storing a literal survival library’s worth of knowledge in their spacious memory.
In this article, we’ll discuss what info, apps, and more you should load onto your phone to turn it into your one-stop stash of survival wisdom when the SHTF.
Table of Contents
Weight, Wisdom, and Taking it With You
Every ounce you carry must be justified against your own capability, plan, and energy budget. Failure to take the tally of ounces and pounds can have severe consequences in a life-or-death situation.
There is one old piece sage prepper advice that goes something like “Wisdom weighs nothing,” the moral being that what you know does not weigh anything, and so therefore the more you know the more you should be able to do afield or at home, and it does not cost you a gram to tote that knowledge around with you.
It’s true, certainly, and many preppers would do well to aspire for increasing their own knowledge firsthand instead of relentlessly buying the latest piece of kit or doodad in a never-ending task of getting “ready.”
That being said, no one has all the answers, and those among us who were a little late to the party regarding living a lifestyle of self-sufficiency are likely deficient in their survival knowledge compared to preppers who have been at it for a decade or even for most of their time on earth.
There are good reasons for keeping a variety of survival literature in your kit: from how-to instructions and almanacs to maps and “vis-recs” (visual recognition guides) you can definitely shore up your weaknesses and any holes in your knowledge base by packing a handy book or five.
There is just one problem with that stratagem: books are heavy! No matter how compact or how trim the writing, carrying a book around is always something of a commitment in space and weight, both commodities are sure to be a premium in any pack or bag.
This is not to say you shouldn’t, as the market is flush with smaller, lighter editions of many time-honored survival texts, but there is a better way, for most.
Digital to the Rescue
It seems like heresy to lovers of ink and bound paper like me, but this is one arena where smartphones and ebooks blow analog texts out of the water. Today, your average phone can holds dozens and dozens of books. Larger tablets or phones with expanded memory can hold, literally, hundreds.
We are talking about the equivalent of hundreds and hundreds of pounds worth of knowledge in a slim, featherweight, self-contained package! Talk about doing more with less.
While the network infrastructure our phones tap into that allows us to make phone calls, send texts and use the integrated GPS is vulnerable to overload, collapse, or disruption.
Doing this with your phone makes good sense for most: this is one thing that most people from any walk of life will have with them always, no matter what.
We treat our devices, right or wrong, as extensions of ourselves, and since we have already made that commitment we should take steps to wring as much positive potential from them as we are able.
Loading even a rudimentary selection of survival tomes on your phone will take up very little of the device’s memory and add a whopping zero grams to your loaded weight when the time comes to hit the road.
You will not have to choose between the generic survival handbook and the guide to edible plants of the northeastern U.S. You will not need to forsake the complete road atlas for a shelter construction book. You can have it all at precious little cost, a great insurance policy against the unknown and unlearned.
A proper cache of survival info on your phone or other device should be made up of more than just ebooks. You would be wise to take advantage of their ability to read PDF files and run useful apps as well.
For instance, you could create your own maps marked up with all kinds of bug-out and survival-centric info, scan them as PDFs or as images, and then upload them onto your phone for easy use day or night.
You can also create lists and copies of all kinds of pertinent data, things like the appropriate specific steps for metering out medications for yourself or others, animal car info, useful phone numbers, and addresses, trajectory tables for your rifle and ammo, and much more.
You might choose to upload your vital info and scans of issued IDs, titles, accounts, and so forth. Make sure you tightly protect those particular files (encrypted, if possible) and if you do not feel comfortable doing so then keep them on a secured and encrypted flash drive instead.
Apps can provide useful functionality as well, expanding on the concept of smartphone as survival tool. Most of us are already well acquainted with the flashlight function and also the compass apps (that have varying degrees of accuracy and efficiency) but there is more than that in store for the tech-savvy prepper.
Survival apps exist for everything from animated knot-tying instruction to interactive guides to wild edibles. Still images are fine, but observing something in 3D often removes the frustration and guessing from tricky situations.
We’ll definitely be taking a look at several survival apps later on in this article, so stay tuned!
Drawbacks and Solutions
It isn’t all rainbows when you depend on your phone for storage of survival literature. As many old-timers and plenty of new blood preppers are quick to point out, smartphones have their flaws as survival implements.
Namely, they depend on electricity for power and are comparatively fragile in addition to being very vulnerable to immersion in water.
While there are some who would have you believe that either vulnerability is reason enough to dump an entire concept, this is a hysterical reaction to perceived show-stoppers rather than a nuanced assessment. Simply, both of these problems are just not that big of a deal with a little pre-planning. Just like everything else we do. Hmm…
The power issue (unless it’s an EMP) is readily solved by any of the excellent and inexpensive solar charging systems now common on the market. These light, handy devices will allow you independence from installed power grids so long as you have a clear view of open sky while the sun is out.
A viable option in most places and these further allow you to charge phones but also other USB-compatible gear like flashlights, lanterns and headlamps.
Another power supply solution would be to use a thermoelectric stove for cooking when bugging out.
These impressive units generate plenty of electricity off even a small fire made with twigs, and can allow you to recharge multiple devices or gas up your backup battery for charging on the go.
If either of these solutions sounds like deal breakers to you, then reconsider using your phone for storing hundreds and hundreds of megabytes of invaluable survival literature. You can carry paper books, laminated paper, or some other analog solution.
Every technique has its own perks and flaws, and if you surmise that preparing ahead of time to keep electricity going into any electronics is too great a cross to bear then that’s fine.
The other common complaint against using a phone or tablet for this purpose is their fragility, rather their claimed fragility. In actuality the majority of these devices from good makers are certainly durable, and a few are downright rugged.
Now, some phones though are inherently more fragile than others (I don’t want to name any names and embarrass the iPhone) but most are more than capable of holding up to casual impact and short falls.
Short of total immersion, most smartphones are fairly watertight, and incidental contact from rainfall or splashes is not much of a concern for short durations.
What is most important is that most major makes of phone can be made highly rugged and waterproof with the addition of a specialty case designed for outdoor adventure (or misadventure).
Water, bumps, drops, shocks and slams, with the right case your phone and its precious cargo of survival know-how will be safe and sound.
The Best Survival eBooks, Apps, Info, and More for Your Phone
Considering just how many books have been written on the topic of survival and bushcraft, it is even more surprising to learn how many of them, new and classic, have been made available in electronic formats.
As you peruse the following section you’ll find survival books covering all kinds of situations and techniques, from highly niche and environment-specific to generalist guides covering the basics and beyond.
All of them have value, even if you are an old pro at the subject matter. That is the real beauty of the ebook format: you can gorge and take more than you dream of needing because it weighs so precious little!
The only weight and space penalty is your phone or tablet: carrying one book or crammed with 100 the weight remains the same. This is a strong incentive for carrying books on subject you know you are weak on.
U.S. Army Survival Manual (FM-21-76)
This is the grandpappy of survival tomes for so many of us. Whether we picked it up off a rack at an Army/Navy surplus store or fished it out of the drawer of treasure belonging to an uncle or grandfather, this no-bull and no-flash manual covers all of the basics of survival in most conceivable situations.
It is very dry reading but an invaluable reference and makes it easy to look up what you need to know in a hurry. Can be found for free all over the internet. Help yourself- your tax dollars paid for it!
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. Survival Sullivan is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. See my full disclosure for more.
Cody Lundin is famously known from the hit Discovery Channel show Dual Survival. While a neat show and they were lucky to have him, it is a shame that Mr. Lundin is not better known for his contributions as a survival and primitive skills teacher.
His depth and breadth of knowledge is on display in his book When All Hell Breaks Loose, an entertaining and refreshingly comprehensive manual on survival that does not take itself too seriously, even though the subject matter is literally that of life and death.
This book will provide you with both mindset and emotional solutions in equal measure to material ones, with everything from austere environment survival covered all the way to post-disaster urban and suburban sanitation. Highly comprehensive, a must-have.
Managing what would be trivial ailments in austere environments can be challenging and take on serious consequences in an SHTF situation, to say nothing of proper medical emergencies.
This straightforward book covers nearly any possible issue, injury, and illness that could take place in the wild, with advice and instruction tailored for dealing with it in such a setting.
While this book is very easy and even entertaining to read, it is very dense, and you should not expect to remember all possible injuries and ailments that you could encounter.
The best way to make use of this tome is as a study reference for learning treatment on the most likely injuries you could encounter based on your plan and situation.
Learning to shoot, wield a knife, or just fight with fists and feet is a necessary step toward protecting yourself, but not the end-all of serious preparation for prevailing in a violent encounter.
Author Varg Freeborn has written a book of shocking import on the subject from first-hand experience that can scarcely be replicated.
His personal experiences are both illuminating and chilling, and he pulls no punches about them while at the same time keeping his tale and prose free of any macho-posturing or emotional incontinence that so often accompanies such writing. Varg is an excellent instructor and a fine writer.
This book is quickly becoming mandatory reading for armed professionals and serious civilians alike. Don’t miss it.
How to Eat in the Woods, by Bradford Angier and Jon Young
One of the best books around for getting your calories the old-fashioned way while out in the world. From trapping, tracking, and dispatching to selecting bait for game and foraging for edible plants, berries, and fungi, this book is highly complete and an indispensable resource for preppers who will rely on primitive skills for supplying dinner.
It even covers edible insects (hey, good source of protein!) and building a cook fire and preparing dishes without utensils. Don’t be left with a grumbly tummy when you run out of MREs and Clif bars!
A practical and sobering guide for long-term survival/collapse of society-type events, Survival Theory is a crash course and follow-on graduate class in survival for the long haul.
With an emphasis on bugging-out, staying safe in mass panic situations, and austere sustainability, these book offers as much useful advice and guidance as you could want on the subject.
It also makes a great acid test for your own bug-out plans. I know I sure came away from my reading of it with a new point of view on several elements of my plan.
This is one to read before the SHTF, but it has easy references in it that will be helpful for steering your next move in the event you are displaced by an indefinite-duration disaster scenario.
Knots 3D, iOS and Android
Knot tying is an essential skill for survival crafting and just plain useful the rest of the time. While knot-tying books are a dime a dozen, actually pulling off the right know properly without previous practice can be tricky.
Knot 3D comes to your rescue with interactive three-dimensional guides and tutoring as well as intricate guidelines for knot choice, employment, and tips. If you are building a shelter, rigging a trap, tying down a load, or just hanging a pack from a convenient branch, this app will take you from knot novice to knot-master in a cinch. Ahem, sorry.
MotionX GPS, iOS
A big step up from Google Maps and other pack-in mapping systems, MotionX earned recognition for its ability to save detailed maps of nearly anywhere in the world and then make them available for offline use with tracking without a mobile network connection.
A good map needs no explanation of how valuable it can be when the chips are down. If you need a way out of town or just the closest water source, a good map is a literal lifesaver. Don’t depend on an internet connection for something so important. Get MotionX, get the maps you need ahead of time.
To find more survival apps for both iOS and Android, check out our comprehensive list.
Let’s Stockpile Some Info!
A smartphone is a useful and powerful survival tool used properly, not a crutch, liability or accident waiting to happen. By stuffing your phone will survival knowledge and the right apps to expand its, and your, capability you will be even better prepared to face the unknown when the SHTF.
A small investment in power generation and environmental protection can let you reap huge benefits for virtually no increase in weight or bulk for your survival kit.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.