5 Surprising Items that Would Help You on a Desert Island, According to a Survival Expert

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.

"If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you want to have with you?"

We've all heard the question in some form. Maybe it was asked to reveal deeper character traits at a job interview, or as an icebreaker at a party. Typical answers range from the practical (a canteen of water) to the creative but slightly ridiculous (an endless supply of Buffalo wings). So, what would actually be handy to have at your disposal, should you find yourself marooned on a remote isle? The answers might surprise you.

Survival instructor Tony Nester has been studying survival skills for decades. Before founding Ancient Pathways survival school in Arizona in 1989, Nester spent his childhood hunting and fishing and a four-year period in young adulthood living off the land in caves and teepees across the country. A desert island, Nester says, similar to the wooded wilderness or frigid tundra which his courses for military troops, government agencies, and youth groups have covered over the years, presents a unique set of challenges survival-wise. But as he does for any survival situation, Nester emphasizes the importance of focusing on what he calls The Big Five: shelter, water, fire, signaling, and first aid. And if you heed his advice on these five somewhat unexpected essentials he recommended to Mental Floss, you'll fare better while stranded on a tropical island than your coworker who chose shampoo and their collection of Harry Potter books for entertainment.

1. A MACHETE

Photo illustration of a machete.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.

Forget the Swiss Army knife—it won't do you much good on a desert island. Because tropical environments are crowded with thick vegetation and tough surfaces, if you wind up deserted in one, you're going to need some serious hacking power. "You're not going to get by well with just a pocket knife, given the nature of what you're going to be harvesting—coconuts, and cutting down palm trees or saplings to make your shelter," Nester tells Mental Floss. The broad-bladed knives are cheap and easy to find if you're already in a coastal region, he says, and the size can depend on your preference, though something in the 14- to 18-inch range would be big enough for heavy chopping and small enough for MacGyvering utensils like bowls or spoons. Good luck bringing it in your carry-on pre-plane-crash, though.

2. A HAMMOCK

Photo illustration of a hammock.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.

We usually associate lounging in a hammock in a tropical environment with a carefree vacation, but Nester says if you're stranded on an island it can be a multipurpose lifesaver. A hammock's most important function in this case would be providing a place for you to sleep that's off the ground. You could use the machete to gather material to construct an elevated platform, but with a hammock you're protected from the spiders, critters, and snakes that are probably slithering around. Plus, you save yourself the time and precious energy all that elevated platform-building would drain. (Side note regarding those slithering snakes: Nester says snake bite kits are no good for your survival arsenal. Research suggests they can do more harm than good.) The hammock could also double as a heavy sheet of fabric when you need it: It could be used as a filtration system (it likely won't purify anything or desalt ocean water, but it could rid stream water of bugs and debris), and could work as a food-catching net, as shade, as a blanket, or as a raincoat.

3. A CELL PHONE (EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE SERVICE)

Photo illustration of a cell phone.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.

There'd be nowhere to plug it in and you probably wouldn't have service, but a cell phone could still be an important component of your survival. Nester recommends trying to get a text out, putting the phone's strobe feature on at night, or just turning it on for a couple hours each day you're stranded. "You may not be able to get cell reception," Nester says, "and you may not be able to get a message out, but you don't know if your phone's going to be pinging off the nearest tower on the next island, or on the coast, or somewhere else, and that can help searchers on the other end triangulate your location."

4. A SIGNAL MIRROR

Photo illustration of a signal mirror.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Image, Courtesy of the Manufacturer.

No, this isn't what you'd use to start a fire—though having a spark rod to do just that is another top priority item for Nester, right up there with the machete. You'd need to specially order one online, but a signal mirror is a 2-inch by 3-inch glass mirror that is designed to alert nearby planes, boats, or other rescuers that you're there. There's a sighting device in the middle of the mirror that, when held at the right angle toward the sun, sends flashes that can be seen for miles (Nester says he's had flashes seen up to 26 miles away). "It's not taking up any sweat or calories on my end, but that can carry a long way," Nester says. When you're not using the mirror to actively signal, you can hang it from your makeshift shelter or tree so that even if you're sleeping, its glint may be able to draw some attention.

5. A FAMILY PHOTO

Photo illustration of a family photo.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Images, iStock.

Out of all the things that Nester says can help you survive in a dire situation—fishing gear, heavy-duty bug repellant, and storm-proof matches would also make his must-have list—the one item that could really keep you alive is a laminated photo of your loved ones. A fire can keep you warm and a machete can keep you fed, but that picture might just keep you sane. In Cast Away (a movie, Nester says, that still holds up and used his fellow experts in the survival skills community as consultants for accuracy), Tom Hanks's character uses the picture he has of his girlfriend to keep himself going. Wilson the volleyball, though maybe not the first thing you'd think to include on your survival checklist, serves a similar purpose.

"You think, 'OK, this is going to be an ugly night, it's going to be rough,'" Nester says. "'I hurt myself, my ribs are broken, I've got to make fire and do all these things, but you know what? I'm going to be here in the morning when the sun comes up because I'm going to make it back to my kids or my family or my golden retriever.'" The will to survive and your psychological health, the U.S. Air Force Pocket Survival Handbook repeatedly notes, is often a more important factor in survival than physical preparedness. And for Nester, a visual reminder of who it is you need to get back to—"whatever it is that's going to get you through that situation"—is a definite Big Five item.

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How to Brew Your Own Fluorescent Beer at Home

The Odin
The Odin

If you're one of the many people who made their own sourdough starter in quarantine, you already know yeast is a living thing. That means its biological makeup can be tweaked using genetic engineering. As Gizmodo reports, that's exactly what a former NASA biologist has done to create his new fluorescent yeast kits.

A few years ago, Josiah Zayner left his job as a synthetic biologist for NASA to found The Odin, a company that lets anyone experiment with genetic science at home. His recently launched yeast kit accomplishes this in an eye-catching way. Thanks to a fluorescent protein from jellyfish, yeast that's been genetically modified with the kit glows green under a black or blue light.

Despite looking like a prop from a sci-fi film, the yeast is still yeast. That means it can be used in home-brewing projects if you want to take the science experiment a step further. According to Eater, yeast made with the kit ferments and fluoresces when added to honey and water. If you brew a batch of beer with the right amount of yeast, the final product will emit an otherworldly glow when viewed under a blacklight. The kit hasn't been FDA approved, but the company states the materials are nontoxic and nonallergenic, and beer made with it will still taste like beer.

You can purchase a fluorescent yeast kit from The Odin's online shop for $169. If you're looking for more ways to experiment with genetic technology at home, the company also sells kits that let you play with frog and bacteria DNA.

[h/t Gizmodo]