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Surgical Masks for the Survival Kit

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Surgical Masks for the Survival Kit

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Today I want to focus on an item that people rarely think about unless they are surrounded by sickness, disease or a pandemic situation.  I am referring to the common place surgical mask and its big sister, the N95 Respirator Mask.

Not being an expert in this area, a little over a year ago I sent an email off to Joe Alton (aka Dr. Bones on the Doom and Bloom website) to see if he could sort through the dearth of  information on surgical masks for survival purposes.  Shortly after that, he wrote the following article which I am thrilled to share with you today.


Surgical Masks for Survival Situations

Throughout history, infectious diseases have been part and parcel of the human experience.  Ever since the middle ages, we have figured out that some infections have the capacity of passing from person to person.  Medical personnel have made efforts to protect themselves from becoming the next victim to succumb from the disease.

This makes sense from more than a selfish standpoint: In survival situations, there will be few medically trained individuals to serve a group or community.  The medic does a disservice to their people by becoming the next casualty of a epidemic.  Even before we knew there were such things as viruses and bacteria, efforts to protect the heath care provider were made.

In medieval times, doctors who ministered to patients suffering from the Bubonic or Pneumonic plague wore masks.  These masks often had herbs in them which were thought to protect the wearer from contagion.  Protective gloves, gowns, and caps made their appearance as well.


Plague Doctor

Around the year 1900, masks began to be used routinely during surgery to prevent micro-organisms residing in medical personnel’s noses and mouths from contaminating the operative field.  A secondary purpose was to protect the wearer from blood spatter and other fluids from the patient.  These were not always used by all members of the surgical team, as you can see below:


Typical Turn of the Century Operating Theater

Nowadays, the basic surgical mask hasn’t changed much in general appearance. No doubt, you’ve seen photos of people wearing them in areas where there is an epidemic.  In Asia, especially, it is considered good etiquette and socially responsible to wear them if you have a cold or flu and are going out in public.  Face masks have the added advantage of reminding people to keep their hands away from their nose and mouth, a major source of the spread of infection.

If you will be taking care of your family or survival group in situations where modern medical care is unavailable, you will want a good supply of masks (and gloves) in your medical storage.   Without these items, it will be likely that an infectious disease could affect every member, including yourself.

Medical masks are evaluated based, partially, on their ability to serve as a barrier to very small particles (we’re talking fractions of microns) that might contain bacteria or viruses.  These are tested at an air flow rate that approximates human breathing, coughing sneezing.  As well, masks are tested for their ability to tightly fit the average human face.  The most commonly available face masks use ear loops or ties to fix them in place, although adhesive masks are being developed.  Most masks are fabricated of “melt-blown” coated fabric, providing better protection than woven cotton or gauze.

Standard medical masks have a wide range of protection based on fit and barrier quality; 3 ply masks (the most common version) are more “breathable”, as you can imagine; 6 ply masks likely present more of a barrier.

N95 Mask with Exhalation Valve

N95 mask with exhalation valve

The upgrade to the basic mask is the N95 respirator mask.  N95 Medical Masks are a class of disposable respirators that have at least 95% efficiency against particulates > 0.3 microns in size. These N95 masks protect against many contaminants but are not 100% protective, although N99 masks (99%) and N100 masks (99.7%) are also available.  The N stands for non-oil resistant; there are also R95 (oil resistant) and P95 (oil proof) masks, mostly for industrial and agricultural use.  Many of these masks have a square or round “exhalation valve” in the middle, which helps with breathability. None of these masks, which do not cover the eyes, are protective against gases such as chlorine.  For this, you will need a “gas mask”, subject of a future article.

So what would be a reasonable strategy?  You’ll need both standard and N95 Masks as part of your medical supplies.  I would recommend a significant number of each as the masks will be contaminated once worn and must be disposed of.

There are no absolute standards with regards to who wears what in the sick room. I would recommend using the standard surgical masks for those who are ill, to prevent droplets from coughing or sneezing (which can send air droplets several feet) and the N95 masks for the caregivers.  In this fashion, you will give maximum protection to the medical personnel.

Remember, your highest priority is to protect yourself and the healthy members of your group.  Isolate those that might be contagious, have plenty of masks, as well as gloves, aprons, eyewear, and antiseptics, and pay careful attention to every aspect of hygiene.

Your survival may depend on it.

Joe and Amy Alton aka Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy, are the authors of the #1 Amazon Bestseller The Survival Medicine Handbook: A guide for when help is NOT on the way. You will find their articles in Backwoods Home, Survivalist, Self Reliance Illustrated, and Survival Quarterly magazines, and at their website at

The Final Word

Both the standard surgical mask and the N95 respirator masks are inexpensive.  For less than five dollars you can purchase a package of 50 standard masks and for less than ten dollars, you can purchase a package of 20 N95 masks.

Keep in mind that difference between the N95 and standard surgical masks is that the N95 has a built-in filter that will stop particles from entering the body.  This makes them a good choice for the caregiver in the sick room since it will help minimize contamination from microorganisms exhaled by other individuals. It can also be used to reduce the potential exposure to blood and bodily fluids.

One last thing:  no mask is a substitute from proper hygiene and sanitation.  For tips on keeping the cooties at bay, visit Survival Basics: Hand Sanitation For Good Hygiene.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!


If you have not done so already, please be sure to like Backdoor Survival on Facebook to be updated every time there is an awesome new article, news byte, or free survival, prepping or homesteading book on Amazon.  In addition, when you sign up to receive email updates you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-book The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

Spotlight Item:  THE SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK is a guide for those who want to be medically prepared for any disaster where help is NOT on the way.  It is written from the non-medical professional and assumes that no hospital or doctor is available in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.

This book will give you the tools to handle injuries and illness for when YOU might be the end of the line with regards to your family’s medical well-being. In circumstances where medical personnel are overwhelmed and access to modern technology is limited or non-existent, The Survival Medicine Handbook(tm) is the essential reference book for every library. Written in plain English, you’ll find step-by-step instructions on how to identify and treat over 100 different medical issues.

From the Bargain Bin: Survival is all about learning to fend for yourself. Here are some of the emergency medical reference books and supplies that belong in every household first aid kit.

Earloop Procedure Face Masks 50/Box: Blue pleated ear loop procedure masks with glass-free filter. These 3-ply fluid resistant face masks are fiberglass free and designed to eliminate fogging. They offer bacteria filtration, with efficiency at 3.0 microns. Aluminum nose guard for extra comfort. Latex-free.

3M N95 Particulate & Respirator Mask: This is an inexpensive mask that can be used in a variety of emergency situations. They come in a box of 20 and are NIOSH-certified. The molded cone design is fluid and splash resistant and will greatly reduces your exposure to airborne particles.

Quikclot Sport Brand Advanced Clotting Sponge: A must for any first aid or emergency kit, Quikclot Sport stops moderate to severe bleeding until further medical help is available.

Israeli Battle Dressing, 6-inch Compression Bandage: This is another inexpensive, yet critical item. Combat medics, trauma doctors, and emergency responders all recommend this Israeli Battle Dressing (IBD) for the treatment of gunshot wounds, puncture wounds, deep cuts, and other traumatic hemorrhagic injuries.

Where There Is No Doctor: Hesperian’s classic manual, Where There Is No Doctor, is perhaps the most widely-used health care manual in the world.  Also available as a free download at the Hesperian website

Adventure Medical Kits Pocket Survival Pack: Adventure Medical Kit products are well priced and with an excellent reputation among outdoor types such as fishermen and hunters. This is a good place to start if you are looking for a pre-packaged kit.

The Pill Book (15th Edition): New and Revised: For nine bucks, there is no reason not to have this book in your emergency medical kit.

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Although I have plenty of flashlights and batteries (you might even say I have a flashlight fetish) I also stay stocked up with a dozen of these Clear Mist 100 Hour Plus Emergency Candles as well.  For the best deal, purchase a dozen at a time to get a discounted price.

Speaking of which, Emergency Essentials is having some great sales this month on case lots of many of your favorites.


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13 Responses to “Surgical Masks for the Survival Kit”

  1. My biggest challenge is how to store my food as an apartment prepper. How to prepare my food if the power goes out .

    • Apartment prepper, buy sealed pails of food and make your own buddy burners to boil water and rehydrate food….store all in a closet. Easy

  2. My biggest challenge is how ro store my food as a aprtment prepper. How to ptrparr mt food if the power goes out .

  3. Gaye, there is a lot of false information regarding N95 masks. These masks need to be sized to the person wearing them by someone trained to do so. A secure fit is essential and facial hair or contours can affect fit. Also these masks don’t protect againt viruses which can fit through them. Hospitals have mostly quit using them if favor of a type of mask that has positive air flow out from wearers face and have a shield that covers the face completely. Also these masks cannot be worn by children or really small adults.
    These would be useful in the event of a environmental event like a volcano, or dust-debris like when buildings collapsed in NY after 9-11. And maybe smoke from a forest fire.
    I feel bad that people think this is the “one size fits all” of masks, it isn’t.
    These masks are intended for use around bacterial expose when in “droplet” range, 3 feet from the victim.
    Also they are intended for short term use. And ineffective if moist inside or out. So I’d do more research to figure out, how, when, who, why you would wear a mask before buying any kind of mask.

    • @Kelly – Thank you so much for weighing in on the matter of masks. I agree – the N95 does have limitations in both size and usage. That said, the masks I have include a little strip of metal that can be used to fit the nose section more closely than those masks without such an adjustment.

      In a survival sickroom, they are still appropriate for the caregiver and can eliminate exposure to droplets expelled during coughs and sneezing. And as you say, they work well during an environmental event such as the recent fire in my neighborhood.

      I sure wish could find a definitive and credible resource that, in plain English, has laid out the differences in usage between the N95 and N100 masks and also those with and without respirators. I just don’t feel qualified to make that comparison on my own.

      — Gaye

    • Kelly, right point ! the size and the fitting.
      As for the viruses, no, the viruses are always transmitted (in infection control situation) by particulates, as blood, spitting, exhaling, skin etc. So this is why a N95 or 100 are efficient (often associated to a fluid extra protective shell for the respirator, as the 3M1860/1860S.
      As for the positive airflow – 1) teh cost is high (even for the hospital)- 2 it takes a longer time to don the hood, and 3 … batteries required !
      Regards Anita

  4. Something else you can use if you cant afford a gas mask are swimming goggles, they are water-tight

  5. Your heads-up article regarding the masks was above and beyond what everyone should know about them. Very informative. While they are important for potential medical-sanitation reasons… another far more likely potential is protection from volcanic ash air-borne particles. As a resident of Yakima, Washington during the May 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens… I can tell you how fast ANY such masks disappeared from the store shelves after Mt. St. Helens paid a visit to Yakima. It is amazing how fast folks come to realize what is most important when a certain survival situation presents itself. Hopefully, your readers will share with others they know… the value of your website for preparedness. As a follow-up suggestion… folks across our country as well as the world… should place the potential for world-wide volcanic ash particulate dispersal as a very real and probable threat in our not-so-distant future. Thank you for all that you do in your truly worthy website…

    • A world-wide dispersal of volcanic ash at a level of significative respiratory hazard is a very rare event (think of millions of years – events as Yellowstone eruptions or worse). BUT local very noxious ash clouds are a common event on earth, and one can be caught in it (with airplane traffic cancelled etc.)
      Cheers Anita

  6. I was at the flea market this past weekend (first weekend of the month). I found ear loop mask for $1 for a box of 50. I bought 2 boxes just to use as a muddy water filter, to hopefully clean the water somewhat to be able to use a SODIS water system. If you think I need them to keep away germs, I guess I will go back next month for more.

  7. I keep seeing masks pop up more and more on people’s lists of “items that your BOB must have”. I have to agree. Even if you put a few less expensive ones in the bag for now, it’s better than nothing right?

    • Absolutely. The N100 masks provide even more protection but are quite a bit more expensive. And then there are the full blown “gas” masks that you see on so many of the doomsday type sites. I think a good supply of N95s and a few of the N100s should suffice for more circumstances.

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