Five Cheap Things That Can Get You Killed

There is no shortage of inexpensive survival items that can actually get you killed. Counting on your kit is essential when things go dark yet when it really matters, there is also no lack of folks who are fine with trusting their survival to the lowest bidder. And that doesn’t even include the issue of redundancy of cheap things. Of course it’s your call as to where you draw your quality and expense line, however less-but-quality always beats more-but-poor-quality. And that goes double in a survival situation.

Cutting to the chase, let’s take a look at five essential survival items that can get you killed if you err on the side of cheap because there is often a very good reason why quality kit costs more even though the higher price might only add a 10% increase in performance or accuracy. But it is in that narrow 10% where survival is found.

Compass: In reality, a compass only points north. That is its job with the rest of the navigation up to Suunto_compass_wristyou. While usually no problem, a faulty compass can mislead you into a false sense of orientation. Unfortunately a compass will always point somewhere. Unlike a knife that doesn’t cut, or a flashlight that doesn’t turn on, a compass will behave as if all’s well even when it’s not. And worse, a compass may give incorrect information ranging from slightly off to completely backwards, and anywhere in between. This list started with the compass because it is the most likely to be sold in cheap kits.

Compass Rules of Thumb: Stick with the brands of Silva, Suunto, or Brunton in that order. The bigger the compass, the likely more accurate and durable. Keep your compass away from shock, magnets and temperature extremes. If you are comparing compasses, keep them at a foot apart or they will alter each other’s needle’s direction.

Also Read: Ruger Alaskan .44 Mag Review

Knife: Cheap knives are a pet peeve of mine. Not that you need a high-priced custom blade, but since Fallkniven_MB_Modern_Bowie_Knife_Cobalt_posingthe knife is an essential component of any survival kit, cutting corners with your cutting steel is a bad idea from every angle. Like the compass, a knife can be deceiving. Even cheap blades can cut something. Where the cheap knife becomes dangerous is when the knife must perform under pressure. Quality directly affects steel strength, ability to hold an edge, and the obvious need to be resharpened. Cheap folding knives can snap in half, unlock when least expected, and fail in multiple mechanical ways. Cheap fixed blade knives can also snap in half, bend, chip, and dull quickly. And once dull, might not easily take a new edge. The deception with a cheap fixed blade is that until push really comes to shove, the true cheap nature of the blade may remain hidden. Spending more for a quality blade will yield many happy returns. But skimping on your primary blade is giving up before the battle even starts.

Knife Rules of Thumb: Stick to USA made knives or known factories overseas from Finland, Japan, Germany, or England. Learn to sharpen your own knife, and keep it that way. But if your blade dulls easy, chips or rusts, start looking for another blade. Modern super steels are high performance and low maintenance. Leave the antiques for kitchen duty.

Flashlight: As the only electronic item on this list, the flashlight has more points of failure than other Surefire_flashlight_survival_gun_light_mountedmechanical-only devices. Flashlights in the hundreds of lumens are available from a couple bucks found in the grocery store checkout line, to a couple hundred bucks from high-end manufacturers who cut no corners and only use the highest quality parts. With flashlights there are many things to consider, but the two primary concerns are 1) quality of the LEDs, and 2) quality of the circuits. The LEDs or Light Emitting Diodes, are the things that provide the light. They are made by the thousands if not millions, but not all are equal. When produced in mass quantity, there are vast differences between those LEDs that are rock-solid high performers, and those that merely look like LEDs but will fail rapidly. Failure often happens with the LED coming apart, falling off its panel, or burning up. Those companies that produce high end lighting tools test each and every LED ensuring only those with the proper performance pedigree get into the assembly line. And the circuitry connecting the LED to the battery is a solid electron pathway designed for not only the proper voltage, but also intense shock, water intrusion, corrosion, and general durability.

Flashlight Rules of Thumb: Buy name-brands like Surefire, Streamlight, 4Sevens, Pelican, and those lights with a reputable company behind the name. AA batteries are general purpose, but use the CR123 batteries for serious use. Avoid AAA unless you need a tiny light. Triple-A batteries are low power with short life.

Related: The Ultimate Survival Arm

Backpack: The humble backpack is often little more than an afterthought. A bag with straps. If it’s a Backpack_Eberlestock_bug_outbag and got straps, then it’s good to go. The sad fact is that not only are backpacks unequal, but many are downright dangerous. As costs are cut, so are corners. But those cut corners don’t appear right away on the store shelf or online catalog. Instead those missing corners rear their ugly heads when needed the most. Straps tear. Hardware cracks. Seams rip. And zippers fail. Even the best packs can run afoul of Mother Nature, but a quality pack will fight to the end while a cheap pack already gave up the fight before ever leaving the store.

Carrying your life-sustaining gear is not a job for a second-rate pack. If you have to run flat out with your kit bouncing like a kangaroo on your back, any weaknesses will quickly start launching gear in all directions, And that’s assuming your shoulder straps don’t rip off leaving you with a little more than a laundry basket.

Backpack Rules of Thumb: Quality, of course. But also avoid major zippers without stress relieving straps. It’s best to underload a larger pack than to overload a smaller pack. Carrying a pack over 20 pounds should have a padded waist belt that is used to hold a majority of the pack’s weight. Load up your pack and take it for a jog. You will learn more in those five minutes than hours of thinking about it

Ammo: I know it’s tempting to pick up a box or two of shells when on sale or even stockpile a case of Glock_19_Katrina_Pistol_Trijicon_Streamlight_TLR2_Surefire_ammo_pilesome obscure brand of obscenely low priced cartridges, but you might just be making the biggest mistake of your life. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but cheap ammo can be dangerous to both you and your firearm. Inexpensive ammo can only be made by cutting some serious corners. The powder may be impure or corrosive, the bullets asymmetrical and scratched, and the cases out of tolerance. And even if the gun cycles and goes bang, the cases may be non reloadable, the primers bulged, the velocity a variable, and the accuracy involves luck. Some would argue that cheap ammo is fine for practice, but you wouldn’t use cheap gas in your Bug Out Vehicle when times are good, or run dime-store batteries in your valuable electronics just because you are safe at home.

Ammo Rules of Thumb: Stick with new, name brand ammo. Keep it dry and cool. Practice with the same ammo you will count on when you really need it. Watch for sales, but always lean towards quality over quantity.  Always

This list of five cheap things that can get you killed is far from comprehensive, but many of the same lessons can be applied to the rest of your gear.



Written by Doc Montana

Doc honed his survival skills through professional courses, training, and plenty of real-world situations, both intentional and not. Doc lives to mountaineer, rock climb, trail run, hunt, race mountain bikes, ski, hunt, and fish. Doc Montana holds PhD’s in both Science Education and Computer Science and currently teaches at a University in the northern United States. Read his full interview here. Read more of Doc's articles.

15 thoughts on “Five Cheap Things That Can Get You Killed”

  1. After reading your article, and being a very experienced survivalist myself, I find that I agree with you. Sure you might find all that cheap stuff out there. But do you trust your life to it ? When you need something you get you back to the world is that &19.00 walmart knife going to do it ? Take you time now, RESEARCH EVERYTHING !!! Don't take my word on an item, or some 18 year old kid who works in a sporting goods store who has never been in the wilds. Use you computer, take your time, find what works for you. DON"T SKIMP ! Your life may depend on it!

  2. Interesting that there is no mention of Mora knives. Maybe you think of them as cheap. I have yet to read disparaging comments about their ability to hold an edge, or poor quality materials that don't hold up.

  3. I like this site ! I enjoy seading about hunting, camping, & SHTF type equip. There is a good mix of all of those on this site. Keep up the good work !! !!—————-> GOD BLESS <——————!!

  4. Good topic well done Doc Montana, I would add that there are declination maps that show deviation of magnetic north also certain areas that have a large amount of iron in the earth or near buildings that are metal although minor in most cases and rectifies once you pass your always readjusting your track.

    Different seasons the sun is not on the same track of course this is not likely but a major catastrophe could make objects not visible lower visibility forcing a person to bet their lives on their compass as time distance and mistakes expend resources and endanger you and your party. recent storm Harvey is proof that counting on landmarks from the day before is not a guaranteed method of finding your way. Look up Damascus Syria drone footage and that should prove landmarks mean little even TOPO maps of the MT. St Helen region were out of date after the volcanic eruption, if you plan for the worst it does not matter if your not mentally flexible.

  5. Do I detect a touch of snobbery? I have several LED flashlights (and regular MagLites) that I've had for many, many years, all inexpensive ($10-$30 range), and they are still working well! I believe that Kershaw blades are made in China and Ontario knives are made in Canada and I'm absolutely sold on both brands! Concerning backpacks I would add that water-resistant is a must and a chest strap makes a big difference in how comfortable it carries, especially on the long haul. Even an expensive compass can be thrown off by several things, better to have a cheap compass (or two) than no compass at all. The Plains Indians are said to have chosen their desired travel direction, then shot an arrow in the correct direction, traveled about halfway to that arrow, then shot another arrow in their chosen travel direction, continued onto the first arrow and continued this pattern until reaching their destination. Point being that there are many way to get from point A to B even without a compass and map! As to ammo, this is one of the reasons I prefer revolvers as they are much less likely to stutter with less expensive ammo, and sometimes you have to take what you can get! GLAHP!

  6. Excellent article, from a very knowledgeable source. I believe it will be of immense value to, and be highly appreciated by serious students of survival. Well done!

  7. 90% crock!! Expensive knives are MY pet peeve!!
    It is easy to sell ones "expertise" to folks that have no experience in the wilderness.
    The facts bear out my claim:
    Even expensive equipment can, and frequently does, fail due to inappropriate use.
    I have used antique knives my whole life..along side fancy new knives I have the same fail rate from either. How can this be? Because I am aware of the limitations of my equipment and utilize them accordingly. I take what I need, no more no less. It is imperative to check your equipment before heading out and frequently while in the field. Do not use your tools for tasks they were not designed to do, for example: knives are not axes. If you expect to need to chop, then take an ax.
    A Knife that is large enough to chop is no real weight savings over a small ax anyway,
    and doing smaller work with a honking chunk of steel is just an unnecessary compromise.
    Folks my main point is if you're going to be a "prepper", (and you should),
    then do the research and practical experimenting yourself.
    Reading these articles alone does no good without practice.
    Skill will ALWAYS trump equipment.
    These articles are designed to sell stuff regardless of anything anyone else would tell you..either directly, by making arguments against inexpensive tools or simply by providing a space for advertisements. Nothing wrong with either set up, but buyer beware.

  8. You are illustrating the knifesection with a Swedish Fällkniven knife.
    Maybe including Sweden to the list of countries?
    Yes, I´m Swedish…

  9. great article!! i do disagree with some of your article. just the last part. i have never had much money and have use price as to what i buy. even when i was a teenager in the last 50's and early to late 60's i shopped my 12 ga. shells for hunting on price. i am not sure but i do not think i had any bad ammo, it worked fine. same with 22lr. in fact while older never had a problem with any rifle and pistol ammo i bought. i have bought my share of surplus ammo and even got some that was terribly corroded. i shoot the worst ones first and never had a problem with them either. of course while shooting them i did watch for pressure signs.

    i bought some AP ammo for a great price just to shoot. it was very inexpensive at that time. i bought a lot. that ammo was not allowed to be brought in and i sold it for a great profit and it help me start my ar collection. it was corrosive but it worked great. still shop for cheap ammo. that ammo was 7.62 X 39. now i stay away from corrosive.

    i do buy ammo that is top of the line for my pistol but i do have cheap stuff to shoot. of course you should shoot what you are going to carry to make sure it functions correctly. i reload and if the court system would not look at it like you are some type of killer i would reload my ammo for protection. of course i save all my brass for reloading and i have bought some steel case for practice and would carry it in rifles for protection. that way i would not worry about getting the casing after the fight. i could not afford to shoot if i used my pistol ammo i carry at a $! or more a round.

    like i said i have never had bad luck with ammo 50 years or more old and corroded. i have personally stored bought ammo for many many years without a problem. if i could reload ammo for defense i have no problem, but i might stick to new cases if i could. i have great bullets to do so with and if the democrap hit the fan i would do so. if i ever get a chance to get out and reload i would work up a load (hopefully in the future) and have no problems carrying it. i would trust it completely. truly combat accuracy is not the same as 1000 yard shooting, at least very seldom if ever. especially in a city and even in the mountains. at a 1000 yards it might be best to not let them see you to start with.

    as far as batteries go i buy cheap ones again. they might not last as long but in the end the hours of use is cheaper then the good ones. they also have a shelf life although they do last a long time. the good batteries don't last twice as long and the cheap ones are twice or more less expensive. GREAT ARTICLE, that is my opinion just as what i have stated.

    that cheap corrosive ammo was all steel bullets and out of an AK is suppose to go through 1/2" plate steel it does go through 1/4 easily so i can see it going threw 1/2" plate. i did hack saw a bullet not quite in half and it was tough to cut, the steel was very hard.. i will and or would carry it as an addition for those special occasion that need it. just my 2 cents worth and the value on that is going down every day thanks to our feds.

    • Hi Art,

      Thanks for the read.

      I share your understanding about older ammo and have plenty of it myself. However, I think there is a difference between old and/or cheap ammo and the stuff that surfaced during our ammo crunch over the past few years. Some of the overseas stuff and ex-military was dangerously corrosive to both gun and human. I like ti think of it as shooting saltwater out of my gun. Sure it goes bang and all, but over a short amount of time things will go very bad. I also think it mostly pertains to high volume rounds so shotgun shells are usually not included.

      There is a further distinction between inexpensive and cheap. Great ammo can be on sale, sold in bulk, or even just competitively priced. But there is another whole class of ammo that is pennies per shot where the materials from primer to bullet are highly questionable, the powder loads vary (luckily from correct to lacking so overpressure is rarely a problem), and no precautions were taken during the many years of warehousing and thousands of miles of shipping of the ammo. Might look fine, but like I said in the article, it's a mistake to count on it.

      The new lithium batteries have a minimum 10 year shelf life with Energizers advertising that a high percentage of the charge will still be available after two decades! And it's not that the lithiums last much longer than the cheap one, its that they have other valuable traits including long shelf life, high output in temperature extremes especially cold, longer maximum voltage (the carbon and alkaline batteries have more of a linear discharge while the lithiums fall off a cliff at the end of they duty cycle), lithiums are lighter and rarely ever corrode (but they do off gas), and they have built-in protection circuits to prevent overheating and unsafe discharge (but not necessarily avoid fires). I've used lots of batteries and will not go with cheap ones under any circumstance in anything that matters.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading and even more for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Thanks to the internet you can investigate headstamps of ammo and know what your getting.
    I have fired tons of ammo made before 1952 some foreign ammo made corrosive ammo until late 1950's so for american made after 1954 you should have non-corrosive for foreign 1960.

    Waterproof well most well made brass cased ammo will withstand being wet without problem in a shallow amount of water for a few days military ammo can stand much more as it is sealed both bullet and primer in an ammo can that is water tight no problem.

    Cheap is not applicable to ammo I have seen low cost ammo shoot OK, generally the difference is that quality ammo has more precise bullet weights powder charge and case dimensions / weight and match and target ammo is more precise as mechanically and humanly possible, mean velocity deviation is negligible in match / target ammo. I have bought bullets in bulk weight each one and kept thos in the range I decided and sold off the rest same with cases and by headstamp and — found that for the most part it was not worth the effort within hunting range or 300 yards.

    Corrosive ammo will eat itself and if it is not kept properly and you will have case head separations hang fires and because the powder is also degraded chamber ringing up and to detonation damaging the weapon maybe even yourself it's not common but possible if your not knowledgeable.

    batteries I go rechargeables research on the net lifespan amperage charge times I find after 20 charges basically your running on free batteries newer tech in rechargers and battery components make them last longer and as Doc Montana stated more linear output and that is kinder to smart electronics as erratic output is just bad.

  11. On he topic of ammo. I have several thousand rounds of military surplus 30 caliber carbine ammo bought in the 80's. I shoot it occasionally in my M1 carbine. Never had a FTF or FTE. Just keep it in 50 Cal. ammo cans in a walk in closet/gun storage area. So age plays very little in my estimation. I also have other ammo that's been stored for years with no ill effects 9mm,22.308and 20 gauge. Many brands. Some cheap. Some not so. I think where/how it's stored plays a larger roll than cost or age.

    • Thanks for the read Darkman,

      As noted, I think the dangerously cheap ammo situation is strictly 21st Century. Bad ammo can be by design and by limited capabilities. The former is what to avoid, while the latter is just a function of technology's aimless advance.

      I have boxes of ammo I got from my dad when he was a kid in the 40s and 50s. Every once and a while I pop one off for fun and nostalgia. But that is a far cry from corrosive primers and weak powder of budget military surplus rounds.

      But hey, if cheap works, the more power to it. But I've seen my share of cheap fails. So when it comes to line-in-the-sand survival, only the good stuff goes in my magazines.

  12. I think you have the 3 brands of compasses correct, but I personally prefer the Suunto over the Silva. I have used both in GSAR field training. The reason for this is the Silva is white markings on a black background, and the Suunto is black markings on a white background. In lower light conditions, I found it much easier to read when taking a bearing when looking in the sighting mirror.


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