In this article we are going to discuss the purpose of knives in both a wilderness environment and in a survival situation. Before we go any further, I would like to make it clear, it doesn’t matter what brand of knife you get, or how much you spent on it. What matters is that you understand the logic behind what a knife is / isn’t and what it can do for you.
Whether it is camping or a survival scenerio, the knife is the tool that is always on you, and will perform any of the jobs you need adequately. That is to say, that the knife is not the best tool, just the most useful tool you will end up carrying.
With a good quality knife, you can chop down sizable trees, split lumber, carve feathersticks, skin game, build trap parts, carve bow drill sets, gather wild edibles… the list goes on and on. You can do these things, but there are better tools out there. Saws and axes are better at chopping down trees. Sickles are better at harvesting grasses and plants. And a match or lighter is better at lighting a fire.
Your knife is your safety net. If you break the handle off your axe while in the bush, you can use your knife to carve you up a new handle and create a functioning mallet to re-seat the handle. If your fire kit takes a plunge in the lake and comes out soaking, your knife will still get the job done.
The reason that the knife can do all these tasks is that is it a jack-of-all-trades tool. Adequate for most tasks, but not as efficient as a purpose built tool. A knife will never really replace the axe for splitting lumber, regardless of how long it gets, or how heavy the blade will be. The axe has a different geometry designed for busting apart wood.
To be blunt, size matters. There is a sweet spot where the knife is big enough to take on the abuse of batoning wood or prying apart wood, but at the same time still be able to complete finer tasks. Just because you can afford to buy / lug around a 8” knife, doesn’t mean that you should. Knives should be convenient. Convenient to carry around, convenient to pull out and complete a task and then be put away. Many experts will agree that a knife with a blade of around 4”-5” (around the width of your palm) is the most useful size to carry, if you are only carrying one knife. If you have room for two or three knives, than by all means carry different knives for different purposes. What we are talking about it is the first knife you buy for survival / preparedness and your last line of defense when you are without.
The handle of the knife should be comfortable to use for an extended period of time. It shouldn’t slide around in the hand, or dig into your palm. If you use a knife for an hour, yes you will get blisters. But it shouldn’t hurt after 2 minutes. If you live in a temperate or colder climate, a bigger handle is generally better. A bigger handle means that you don’t have to take off your gloves, or mitts while working on tasks in the cold – especially if it is 20 below and you are building a bow drill spindle out in the cold.
How A Knife Works
Before we go further, we need to discuss how a knife works. The knife designed to cut. Period. Not chop or hack.
A knife should be designed and used so that you use the whole length of the blade to make each cut or carve. It took a knife cooking class for me to learn this, but it is so important. Every time you bear down on the material you are cutting, the knife should sweep from the back of the blade to the front of the blade, so that the material feels all parts of the knife edge. It will make your life so much easier and economical, and when you cut onions it is unlikely that you will cry so much.
Knife Blade Style
The shape of the blade on your knife is critical for tasks. It seems as though there are a million different blade shapes, but at the most basic level, a straight backed or drop point knife blade is probably the best overall design for general purpose.
While a straight blade design is probably the best middle ground, a drop point that tapers at the point will aid in tasks such as skinning and create a finer point at the tip of the knife. Clip points, skinners and spear point knives have their place, but are more specialists. We want a generalist.
Serrations vs. non serrations. Unless you are cutting seat belt webbing or sawing through a can of beans, avoid serrations / partial-serrations. They are a pain to sharpen and cut down on your knife blade real estate. Save serrations for dive knives and cutting bread.
Avoid daggers and double bladed knives. They are useless for bushcraft.
It is going to get technical here. There are three basic grinds that knives come in. Hollow / concave, flat and convex. Concave and hollow blade knives are like razors. Really sharp, but easily broken. Convex edges are more like axes. They will take a punishing amount of abuse and are good for splitting, but they lack the cutting power of a concave. And the flat grind is right in the middle. Pick a flat grind. If the knife is great other than the grind, you could always grind down the blade and change it from a convex to a flat.
There are also secondary grinds on blades. A primary grind, closest to the edge, and then a secondary grind / bevel further back. This is designed to create a sharper profile at the tip while retaining the blade thickness towards the back.
The Knife Tang
How the knife meets the handle is the most important thing you need to know when picking a knife out. You can make due with every other thing wrong with the knife, but if the knife has a poor blade-handle connection, it is going to fail right there. And when it does, watch out – someone is loosing an eye.
The knife tang is the part of the blade that passes into the handle. In the best case scenario, the blade of the knife will continue through the handle as one flat piece of steel all the way to the butt. Often you will see this when you can see metal along the sides of the handle.
As the construction cheapens, the blade will be narrowed to a thinner rod of metal that will only pass through the middle of the knife. This is known as a rat tail. If it is even more garbage, the rat tail will be a separate piece of metal than the blade, and of poorer quality… and welded to the blade. Avoid this at all costs.
Finally, maybe there may be no tang at all. The knife blade could literally be welded to the handle or in the case of the Rambo: First Blood knife, be welded to the finger guard. This is also a crap option designed to allow for a cool hollow handle (plot device) – but drastically weakening the overall knife. In real life, John J. Rambo would carry a full tang knife.
Folding knives could also be under the section of knife tangs, but their structure is designed around portability. Folding knives are fine, just not for anything having to do with splitting and batonning. If you have something with you to split and baton wood like a hatchet or axe, then a folder could work for you.
Stainless steel is usually harder to sharpen but will take more abuse. Carbon steel is easier to sharpen but needs to be maintained / kept free of rust. Carbon steel wins… unless it is a dive knife, or from a good knife manufacturer like Mora. Then it is more of a preference.
Since your knife is your security net in a survival scenario, your knife should either be in your hand or in your sheath. Not sitting on a rock, or driven into a stump – it needs to be on you as it is your last line of defense.
Sheaths come in all flavours; kydex, leather, nylon, wood, plastic. As long as the knife is really secure, in the end it doesn’t really matter. A deep seated leather sheath or a nylon “jumpable” sheath with snaps and Velcro work fine to secure your knife.
Kydex is the newest and most tacticool knife sheath option. Personally I am torn on it. Kydex is loud, it stretches and needs to be re-tightened and you have to be extra careful how the mounting hardware attached to the sheath. Even though I went out of my way to buy a kydex sheath for my Ontario RAT-5, I have reverted to the nylon sheath that came with it. I trust it more. On the other hand, I have a Rubber handled Buck Vanguard knife with a nice grippy handle that came with a piss-poor nylon sheath so I bought a leather sheath from the wood handled version, just because it is more secure. I never want to loose my knife – especially in the woods.
You are going to have problems if you walk around with a fixed bladed knife strapped to your leg in downtown Manhattan. People are afraid of knives. With this in mind, out of sight – out of mind.
Keep them in your car or home. If you take public transit, etc., then a folding Victorianox Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman Wave might be a better option – plus it is unlikely that you will be cutting down trees. Or maybe you could keep your fixed bladed knife in the original box with receipt, in your back pack. Your call.
A sharp knife is a safe knife. If it is dull, you will push harder and be more likely to miss the target end up slicing you hand or leg.
Always cut away from you. Never cut things when people are close to you – also known as the blood circle. If you can reach out with your knife and touch anyone with your knife, then they are too close. There are instances when you will cut towards yourself using techniques where you are using your chest or have a specific form, but for the beginniner, don’t do this. Imagine in a survival scenario, if no one is around to save you / administer first-aid, what if you cut yourself badly. Think: No one is coming to get you.
Avoid cutting anything close to your leg arteries. If at all possible, cut with the blade past your knees when sitting.
Beautiful Knives Vs. Workhorses
I made this mistake. I bought a $150.00+ beautiful knife covered in a powered black coating that shows everything when I cut with it. It sits in a drawer. I bought a $70.00 RAT-5 and it looks like it was beaten by a hammer. But it works and I know how it performs. I know that at 40 below zero Celsius (-40 Fahrenheit), it will take repeated blows to the back of the blade with an axe poll / butt. It will split lumber that is frozen and while it is a beast of a knife, can still drill the sockets of a bow drill set… to a point. I understand the limitations of that knife and that makes it a useful tool.
If it is too pretty, you will never use it and you will never understand it’s quirks. Buy a knife with the intention of it looking like crap after a weekend and it will serve you for a lifetime. If you buy beautiful knives, expect them to sit in drawers. A survival knife is a tool and should be used.
A knife isn’t an axe. It isn’t a machete. It is a knife. It cuts using the entirety of the blade. The best knife characteristics are a drop pointed, full tang fixed bladed carbon steel knife with a 4”-5” blade, sans serrations. In a secure sheath.
When you use the knife, assume no one will save you if you badly injure yourself or others around you. Use your knife with caution. Abuse your knife. If it survives, it is a good knife. If it fails, it is better that you learned that before a survival scenario.
What do you carry for a knife? Do you trust it with your life?