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 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 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 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 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 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.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

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Headphones and speakers

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- Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II; $79 (save $50)

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Video Games

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TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

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home and Kitchen

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A Hair-Raising History of the Flowbee

The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
I Love Fun, YouTube

Like many great ideas, there is some confusion surrounding how California-based carpenter Rick Hunts was struck by inspiration for the Flowbee. The infomercial sensation of the late 1980s is a vacuum cleaner attachment that straightens hair, munches on it with clippers, and then sucks the trimmings into the canister.

In one version, Hunts is beguiled by a television show he saw in 1979 that demonstrated a person getting their hair cut while hanging upside-down, freeing their locks for clipping. Another has Hunts using a vacuum to get sawdust from his workshop out of his hair and having an epiphany.

The latter sounds more like the kind of mythologizing that accompanies inventors—one questions the wisdom of using a vacuum to remove sawdust from their hair rather than simply showering—but it doesn’t matter much. However he came upon the notion, Hunts’s vision of an at-home substitution for a barber was the Soloflex of hairstyling. It promised convenience, affordability, and the novelty of boasting your hair had been trimmed by a Hoover upright.

Hunts’s device, which he initially dubbed the Vacucut, took six to seven years to develop. By one estimate, he went through four prototypes—the last one involving 50 modifications—before he perfected the vacuum attachment. (Hunts’s children—or, more specifically, their hair—were used for testing.) The Vacucut took hair anywhere from a half-inch to six inches in length and, thanks to the suction of the vacuum, pulled it straight in the same way a stylist holds hair between their fingers. Once extended, clippers inside the attachment trimmed the excess, which wound up in the vacuum.

It required no skill and no additional pairs of hands; the length was adjustable using the included spacers. Owing to the air flow and the fact the device made a buzzing noise similar to a bee, Hunts decided to rename it the Flowbee, with a bumblebee-esque black and yellow color scheme.

Hunts, who raised more than $100,000 from investors and even sold his cabinet shop to obtain additional funds to mass market his creation, clearly felt the Flowbee would be a slam-dunk. He approached major personal grooming companies like Conair, Norelco, and Remington to see if they’d be interested in the Flowbee. He also approached beauty salons to see if they’d consider selling them to customers. He later recalled that all of them said the idea was nuts. In the case of the salons, they were afraid the Flowbee might actually work as advertised and see a reduction in foot traffic from people content to cut their own hair. 

Dismayed, Hunts took to trying to move product out of his garage. He also went to county fairs, where he would have a volunteer come up on stage. One side of the person’s head would be trimmed with scissors, the other side with the Flowbee. The results were comparable, and Hunts began selling a modest amount of inventory at $150 each.

The reaction of the county fair crowd may have been on Hunts’s mind when he saw an infomercial one evening for a food-sealing product. The program-length paid advertisements were really just barker shows broadcast to a mass audience. The Flowbee, Hunts knew, needed to be demonstrated. So Hunts spent $30,000 to produce and buy airtime for a 30-minute spot that began airing in 1988. Soon, the entire country was watching people aim a vacuum nozzle at their heads and clip their own hair.

The Flowbee entered popular culture, getting mentions in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World, where Garth (Dana Carvey) is menaced by a Suck Kut, and on shows like Party of Five. Imitators like the RoboCut and the Hairdini appeared to bite into market share, but the Flowbee enjoyed brand recognition. A Flowbee Pet Groomer was introduced, and Flowbee barbershops were considered. By 1992, the Flowbee was being sold in major retail chains. By 1993, Hunts’s San Diego-based company, Flowbee International, had sold 200,000 units. By 2000, the number was 2 million. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this was a vacuum cleaner attachment selling for $69.95 to $150 retail that was intended for use on one’s head.

While millions of people enjoyed the Flowbee’s kitsch appeal, some people thought it sucked. Stylists believed it lacked the artistry of a professional, while others complained it wasn’t effective on hair longer than six inches or on curly locks. It was also difficult for the Flowbee to trim the sides or around the ears. George Clooney, however, swears by it; in December 2020, he admitted that he's been using one to cut his own hair for decades.

While they no longer air infomercials, Flowbee International is still in business—and has seen increased interest in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as people avoid salons and look for alternatives to becoming Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, health concerns have prompted a cessation of activity at the Flowbee factory in Kerrville, Texas. They don’t intend to ship new product (which now sells for $99) until things settle down. The RoboCut, however, is still shipping.